Friday, 29 January 2010

Modern Art is rubbish

'Artist' Michael Landy, who is famous for once destroying everything he owned - which is now apparently a foolproof fast-track to international recognition - has launched his latest artistic malapropism: a 600 cubic metre perspex box, known as the 'Art Bin', into which he is encouraging members of the public and better known artists to toss their 'failed' art. At the end of the exhibition, the contents of the bin will be sent to landfill.

Landy has described it as 'a monument to creative failure', presumably unaware of its imminent status as a monument of creative failure. A friend of mine kindly described it as 'a waste', although did concede that 'the first instance of waste occurred some time ago' in the production of the original 'artworks'. I personally have no qualms with the notion of gathering together a vast collection of modern art, from a selection of the world's most renowned artists, and then throwing them all into a landfill, where they will be crushed and buried, never to assault the senses again. If pushed on the matter, I would prefer for them to be recycled, and turned into something more aesthetically pleasing, like a bottle, or a drawing pin. But if you're going to launch a ceremonial destruction of modern art, I don't want to hear about it; it should be a personal, cathartic act of righteousness, in which no man should share. In the act of publicising his destruction, and by granting it the label, 'installation', Landy has surpassed himself, and the rest of the modern art world, in it's desperate race to out-cunt itself. Never, in the long, rich history of shit modern art, has an artist plumbed such unfathomable depths.

If there's anything good to come of this, it's that such an act may herald the dawn of a new post-avant-garde-new-wave-futurist era in which the modern art world will slowly begin to eat itself. Perhaps ten years from now it will have wiped itself out, as in a final flurry of genius, artists will burn all existing works and fling themselves from the nearest high point as part of a global installation 'exploring the limits of human experience while reflecting the transient nature of our times, and the merging of man and nature...yadda yadda'.

Here's hoping.

I want to pay

I'm getting pretty sick of the steady stream of 'Abolish Tuition Fee' groups that seem to be proliferating on facebook...examples here, here, and here.

I think that as a student, especially as one who was in the first intake to be hit by 'top up fees', it is tempting to bemoan the system, and complain about being up to my eyeballs in a debt which is going to take me half my life to pay off. But I feel that would be a little short-sighted. And anyway, I've got the NUS to do all that moaning for me. The National Union of Students and all that. That is their job after all - to moan on student's behalf, put students first, and fight for the best possible outcome for those students - which is all very well, but it renders them virtually useless if you want to quote them as an independent and justified source for backing up an anti-fees argument. It's hardly surprising that the NUS was against the introduction of top up fees, and is now against the lifting of the cap; it has students interests at heart, and solely student's interests. You might as well ask David Cameron why you should vote for David Cameron at the next election, and then use that to form a cohesive argument about why you should vote for David Cameron at the next election. Just because the NUS says it, doesn't make it right or logical.

In 1998, when it became apparent that the rising number of people studying at university was becoming economically unsustainable, the government introduced the first round of tuition fees; a contribution of between £0 and £1,250 per year, dependent on a student's parent's income. It is important to note that these fees were to be paid upfront by students or their families. The government continued to subsidize the remainder of the fees, and students were also entitled to a means-tested loan of up to £4,000 to help them cope with the cost of living at university. This loan was paid back at 9% of a graduate's gross income over a £15,000 threshold, and the rate of interest was tied to the rate of inflation.

When, in 2004, it became clear that the government budget could still not cope with the burgeoning student population, it was decided that the £1,250 yearly cap on tuition fees should be raised to £3,225, with the government continuing to subsidize the remainder. However, rather than pay the fees up front (as was the case previously), they would now be paid by the government-owned 'Student Loans Company', and once graduated, individuals would repay this loan in an identical way to that in which the original maintenance loan was paid back (at 9% of a graduate's gross income over a £15,000 threshold, and with the rate of interest tied to inflation). In real terms this means a graduate earning a starting salary of £18,000 would pay back £5.19 per week. It's also worth noting that the maintenance loan arrangement continued unchanged, with students still eligible for up to £4,000.

In the past year, due to a continued funding crisis, there has been much talk about ending government subsidy (or 'removing the cap') altogether. This would mean that students would foot the whole bill for their education, using a system almost identical to the current one.

Now, there are some really important points to make. Firstly, when the government introduced top up fees, they also introduced a system of means-tested, non-repayable grants of up to £2,700 per student. In addition to this, universities were instructed to recycle more than a quarter of the money they received from fees back into bursaries; in 2006/07, the typical bursary for a student receiving the full maintenance grant, on a course charging the full £3,070 tuition fee, was expected to be around £1,000 ("Are top-up fees good or bad?" - Independent). Do the math, and you'll find that there's a fair chance the poorest students could actually be GIVEN money as a result of the 'top up fees' system. The second important point is that any outstanding loans after 25 years will be cancelled, and that if at any time a graduate dips below the £15,000 income threshold, their loan repayments will temporarily cease. It is also vital to note, that student loans are NOT taken into consideration when graduates apply for a mortgage. The third and final point is that, as has already been stated, the student loans are linked to the 'Retail Price Index of Inflation', meaning that in real terms, they are interest free - the interest charged on them simply keeps the loan at an equivalent value in line with inflation. They are not commercial, nor are they profitable for the government.

With that in mind, I find it hard to understand how anybody can object to either top up fees, or the removal of the cap altogether. The alternative to students eventually paying for their own higher education, is that 'the taxpayer' forks out. This would require a rise of roughly 3% in income tax - ( I don't think it right that someone who has made a conscious decision not to go to university, or someone who has been, for whatever reason, unable to go to university, should pay for me to do a degree.

One of the central objections to increased tuition fees is that it will discourage students from poorer families from continuing with their studies. Indeed, UCAS reported a fall of 12,000 applicants for the year 2006-2007 - the year in which top up fees were enforced. While this number may have been affected by a variety of factors, there is no doubt the increase in top up fees was largely to blame. However, the problem lies not in the system, but in the way it has been represented. It is a failing of the media, schools, universities, and the government, that certain young people should perceive this system in a negative light, and be put off attending university because of it.

In the latest NUS report on Higher Education funding, the following are cited as two central complaints regarding fees; "Students have to take a huge financial risk, with no guarantee of success", and "Students have to work far more to support themselves than ever before". Both of these statements are fantasy. Students are taking no financial risk; as has been pointed out, if they fail to earn over £15,000 they will not be under any obligation to repay their loan. And this notion about students having to work harder to support themselves, which keeps cropping up in the debate, is complete garbage. Why would the introduction of a fee which you pay back AFTER you've graduated have any effect on the need for students to support themselves throughout their degree? I'm yet to hear a response which makes any coherent sense. The NUS are clutching at straws in a desperate attempt to get the best deal for students; and good for them, that's what they're supposed to do.

It's been suggested that rather than asking students to pay back a fixed amount, a scheme could be introduced whereby graduates pay, for example, 5% of any income over £25,000 to their universities - a form of 'graduate tax'. This would mean that those who have done 'best', would pay back more into the system than those who were struggling. This has two flaws. The first is that it could discourage people from going to university, as they will then be aware that an unlimited amount of their future earnings could be stripped from them. Second, there is no way of measuring how much somebody's success is down to their degree or university experiences; thus it would seem unfair to take 5% of a highly successful entrepreneur's earnings, when he had a rotten time at university and has never used his or her degree. This scheme may work better with a cap in place, although I feel that this would fail to resolve the second problem.

For those who are anti-fee and failing miserably in a debate, a final, desperate cry is often, 'well the government should pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan and spend the money they're wasting there on funding higher education'. This is a different argument for a different day, but suffice to say, even if pulling out was a viable or morally just action, we could just as easily say that that money should be assigned to policing, the NHS, care for the elderly, primary or secondary schooling, developing renewable energy, transport, or whatever our particular area of interest is. It still seems incredibly strange to me that some of those who go to university expect those who did not, to pay for them.

I chose to go university, and I'm happy to pay for the privilege...eventually.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Shame on you England

If I needed a reason to be reminded why a large percentage of the human race are half-wits (I didn't), then this is it, doing the rounds on facebook statuses today...

"Shame on you ENGLAND !!!!!! the only country where we have homeless without shelter ,our troops without the proper equipment, children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds, and mentally ill without treatment - yet we donate £50 million to the people of Haiti ... 99% of people won't have the guts to copy and repost."


"Shame on you America: the only country where we have homeless without shelter, children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds, and mentally ill without treatment - yet we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 TV stations AND THEY RAISED MILLIONS! . 99% of people won't have the guts to copy and repost this---."

or very occasionally

"Shame on you BRITAIN !!!!!! the only country where we have homeless without shelter, children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds, mentally ill without treatment, troops without proper equipment, - yet we donate £50 million to the people of Haiti ... 99% of people won't have the guts to copy ..."

Oh dear.

Delingpole fail

James Delingpole, perhaps the most annoying person ever (after Glenn Beck), ran a pretty vicious article yesterday, which has since been removed (presumably on legal grounds), which, in its vitriol, published the full name and address of a man who wrote the following letter to his local MP:

"Dear Edwin Northover

I was concerned to note the results of a survey of 140 Conservative candidates for parliament that suggested that climate change came right at the bottom of their priorities for government action.
I hope you can reassure me that you recognise the importance and success of climate change action by the UK government at home and internationally.
Can you clarify that:
You accept that climate change is caused by human activity?
Do you support the target to achieve 15% renewable energy by 2020?
Do you support the EU imposing tougher regulation to combat climate change?

Kind Regards, *** ***"

As a result, the gentleman concerned received a large amount of abuse at his home.

George Monbiot covers the story here.

I then emailed James Delingpole, which can be done here, and wrote the following:

"Dear James,

I was just writing to ask for your telephone number and home address, so that I can post them on the internet. That way, all the people who think you're a complete moron can let you know. I thought this only fair.

Yours in expectation,

David Grocott"

I would encourage anyone else to do the same.

UPDATE: Delingpole has now posted an apology here.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Things the Daily Mail says give you cancer

Continuing with the cancer theme...


Thanks to the Daily Mail for always keeping me entertained, and to Hugh Davies - here - for compiling this.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

What's she got to have cancer about?

Does that sound like a pertinent question? Perhaps, 'why does she have cancer' would be slightly more appropriate, after all if a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer then we might look at the risk factors: age, family history, reproductive history, oral pill use etc. Still, it would seem strange for the question of 'why?' to be our most immediate reaction. And would that be a question we'd actually ask to the lady with the cancer, rather than simply confining to the scrutiny of our own minds? Surely the most common reaction is to say, 'how awful, let me know if I can do anything to help'. No inquiry into the reasons why, no questions of choice. No one chooses to have cancer, they can't think their way out of it, and they haven't 'got anything to have cancer about'. I'm not quite sure why the same doesn't apply to depression.

After the author, Marian Keyes, announced to the world last week that she was too depressed to write, the Daily Mail ran an article entitled - "Author Marian Keyes has fans across the world and a husband who adores her. So why is she so depressed she can't eat, sleep or write a word?"

Just replace the word depressed with cancer, and see how much sense it makes.

In fairness to the Mail, in true tabloid fashion, the article itself gives only a casual nod of recognition to the headline it follows; it does acknowledge that Marian's material success, happy marriage, and general life achievements 'offer no protection from this 'crippling' disease she says is making her life 'hell'. However, it then goes on to explore her childhood, previous alcohol addiction, weight, looks, societal pressures, and lack of children.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all these things don't have an effect. Any competent psychologist will explain that depression is caused by a complex mixture of genetics, diet, lifestyle, childhood experiences, the stress of our jobs, and so on. The combination of one, two, or more of these factors can conspire to change the chemistry in our brains which leads to depression. Sometimes lifestyle factors need to be addressed, sometimes people get depressed for no explicable reason and simply need medication to restore their chemical balance. The point is that it seems strange to be asking all these questions about someone's illness. We would not ask the same questions of a celebrity with breast cancer. 'What's their diet like?' 'Did they breast feed?' 'Did their grandmother have cancer?' We would accept that they are ill with something not of their making, and that would be that.

We all wade through the same coloured shit and it doesn't bring everyone down; there are always a hundred possibilities why someone could be depressed, but never a reason. Depression is an irrational and illogical state, and to attempt to approach it from a logical angle is ill-judged. The best thing to do is accept that it happens, and treat it like it should be treated, as an illness.

Bye Bye Cadbury

Leaving aside the obvious puns about flaky directors, fudged deals, wispa'd rumours, credit crunchie, and assets being milked (although I will of course list them here in a potentially ill-judged attempt to demonstrate literary flair), today's take-over of Cadbury, by the American plastic cheese manufacturer, 'Kraft', is an unmitigated prolapse in the fabric of human, environmental, and economic well-being.

There was no justifiable reason for Cadbury to be bought out. It wasn't teetering on the brink of extinction; it was a high-growth successful company, with an iconic brand name and a firm fan-base. So why was it bought out, and why is that bad for us all?

When Kraft - a flat-lining, low growth, conglomerate mess - first approached Cadbury with an offer some 5 months ago, they were soundly turned down. But when the hedge funds got wind of the approach, they bet on Kraft's tenacity and started buying up large swathes of shares in Cadbury, hoping that any takeover would push up Cadbury's share price. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy - by owning a large percentage of Cadbury shares, the hedge funds had significant sway over what the board of directors chose to do (as the board simply has to reflect the wishes of the share holders). So with the hedge funds putting pressure on, Cadbury was sold, and the share price shot up, making a few already very rich people a lot more money. In addition to that, investment bankers, lawyers, accountants and PR advisers have racked up fees at a rate of more than £2m a day for the last 5 months in the battle for control of Cadbury - "£2m a day cost of Cadbury deal – plus £12m for the boss"

The deal-makers and the fixers rake in the cash, while everyone else picks up the pieces. Kraft took on £7bn of debt in order to buy Cadbury, which means there's going to be a large amount of 'rationalisation' - code for job losses and asset stripping. Cadbury's fair trade certification is a prime contender for the axe when the cost-cutting begins. Think the Glazer's, but with chocolate.

Gordon Brown's promises to insure that 'levels of investment' remain the same and that 'jobs' are made 'secure', is completely redundant. Decisions from now on will be made in Illinois, once removed from the soon-to-be jobless humans in Bournville, and anything Brown says about 'pressure' on Kraft is a load of hot air.

A stable economy, like pretty much a stable anything else, relies on diversity to flourish. If Kraft ever comes tumbling down, it'll now bring Cadbury with it. And economy's not the only thing to suffer from the destruction of diversity. We all lose out. A couple of days ago George Monbiot wrote the following: 'All industries strive not only towards monopoly but also towards mono­culture: domination of the natural or cultural landscape. This is what George Orwell meant when he remarked that "the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle". Industry, if left unchecked, tolerates no deviance. It seeks to shrink both the range of human experience and the wonders of the natural world until they fit into the container it has made for them.'

And he's right. That's what unchecked industry does; merges everything into an indistinguishable grey gloop, in which everything is owned by everything else and men spend their days slapping each other on the back and giving motivational speeches. It is diversity which is the cultural fabric of our lives. Charles de Gaulle once moaned that it was tricky managing a country that produces four hundred types of cheese, but I don't think anyone seriously wants to live in a dairylea world.

Plenty of City boys and girls will be popping corks next week over a job well done. Before long there will be brutal cuts to public spending in order to pay for a recession caused by the short-term, purely profit-driven thinking of financiers. In the post-recession world, nothing has changed.

So, who to turn the impotent wrath of my blame on? Well apart from the soulless individuals who somehow manage to justify spending their life doing a job which essentially consists of buying things and then selling things to make money for other people, with no view to the consequences of their actions, I think the buck really has to stop with the government. Business is business, industry is what industry does, to expect any form of ethical self-regulation is deluded. Unfortunately, the Labour government removed the last vestiges of a public interest clause in competition law back in 1998, leaving them ludicrously impotent when it comes to intervening in business. Mandelson's recent warning to the Cadbury's bidders that they could not 'come here and make a fast buck' was laughable. It's time the government took a real stance against the shameless, money-driven, anti-human mob that is the financial sector, because while we wait, diversity is melting, and congealing into a pool of celebrity biography and processed cheese. Obama stood up and started, and now we have to join him.

UPDATE: 09/02/10 - Surprise surprise, Kraft have announced they will be closing the Cadbury factory in Somerdale after all. The factory was due to be closed by Cadbury anyway, but Kraft had promised that if their takeover was successful then they would keep it open.

In exasperation at a miserable Question Time - written 27/11/09

What an absolutely dismal night of general ignorance and stupidity. One might hope that Question Time, being the flagship political programme that it is, would be stocked with reasonably intelligent, well read, and capable individuals, instead we got Melanie Phillips.

This is the woman who still harbours suspicions that Obama might be a Muslim (God forbid!), called Civil Partnerships for homosexuals 'toxic', argued that while 'individual Palestinians may deserve compassion, their cause amounts to Holocaust denial as a national project', advocates the teaching of creationism alongside evolution, and compared environmentalists to Nazis. Nice. Thanks BBC. And she hasn't even got the excuse of receiving a million votes in a European election...

So after the show had stumbled through a prolonged period of naive contributions concerning the war in Iraq, during which the only point anyone (with the exception of Melanie Phillips - something good at last!) managed to make, involved the sentence 'but he didn't have any WMD' - as if that was the crux of the matter - it moved onto a section concerning climate change, prompted I think (memory lapse) by the 'news' that some emails between climate scientists at UEA had been hacked into and distributed, and they appeared to cast doubt on climate change research (more on this later). So off Mel went, 'climate change is a fallacy'; 'the amount of ice is actually increasing rather than decreasing'. The mind can only boggle at which particular item of junk science or dodgy report she had gleaned her worthless information from, but just to demonstrate how easy it is for a statistic drawn from thin air, run through a couple of typos, and spat out by the likes of a Daily Mail columnist can become a solid piece of evidence against the extent of climate change, this is well worth having a look at -

All I can say is thank fuck for Marcus Brigstocke, who made a robust defence for the devastating impacts of climate change, only to receive a smug shake of the head from Mel. The debate, sadly, only continued to go downhill. The next contribution came from a well-meaning but woolly-between-the-ears lady, who was aghast at Mel's denial of climate change, when so many had suffered in recent days in 'the Cocklemouth floods'. Here's an article explaining why the floods happened - As you can see, they were caused by a number of intertwining and complex factors, and 'the only aspect of the downpour which climate change may have contributed to...[was that] sea temperatures in [the] source region were some 2°C to 3°C above the November average, enhancing the potential absorption of moisture by the airstream.' While the article clearly doesn't dismiss the role of climate change in these abject weather conditions, it is quite clear in its explanations that this was a freak event, caused by a number of highly unusual factors. Bringing up such a negligible event (in the sense of climate change only having a minimal impact) during a serious discussion on climate change is pretty unhelpful, leaving the 'climate change camp' open to legitimate criticism, and potentially undermining the argument. Of course it was further dwelled on by Nicola Sturgeon MP (from whom as an MP you might have expected a little more knowledge), who described it as an excellent reason to do something about climate change.

Then it was David Davis' turn to say something stupid. He said he was '80%' sure global warming was man-made. Fair enough. Then he said that it was important not to be wrong though. Fair enough. We need to be certain. Yeh. Because if we're wrong we will slow down growth. Ye...what? I mean yes, we will slow down growth, and sorry why is that a negative? Davis did that horribly condescending thing (which always seems to go unnoticed), of sweeping away the cultural importance of entire continents in one swift phrase. He declared that by slowing down growth it will be the poorest people in the world who suffer, as if somehow they all definitely want, nay need, to be like us, all suited and booted, driving around in their flash cars, chained to the joys of capitalism. 'The Way' is the West. This is what it's all about, he seemed to say. Growth. Yeh. We all seem really contented.

There was then an inane comment from a woman quite clearly employed by the airline industry, bemoaning the recent tax hikes on aviation fuels. Her argument went something like this: 'yeh, them boats use loads of fuel and that, they're not getting no tax, why don't you give us a break, and tax them instead'. I think this point speaks for itself.

So after a brief rummage around the issue of Scottish independence, which as ever managed to blather on about how hard done by Scotland is, tied as it is to its low-lying, trouser-wearing neighbours, while simultaneously (and rather miraculously) managing to avoid the West Lothian Question, it was all over.

Bed time I thought, oh but here's 'This Week', i'll just have a quick watch...and up came the issue of climate change. Diana Abbot brought up the Cumbrian floods again - for fuck sake. And then Michael Portillo proved himself to be an absolute tosser. He started yacking on about how climate change is all a bit over-hyped and doubtful. Said he'd read an article by Nigel Lawson which made him doubt it all (it wasn't by Nigel Lawson, but it did feature him heavily and it's here - How Portillo managed to garner anything positive from the article, i'm not quite sure, but there you go. This is Nigel Lawson, who called his daughter Nigella Lawson. I mean really. Perhaps worse than that (perhaps), he was the man responsible for deregulating the banks when he was Margaret Thatcher's chancellor, so you can blame him for the mess we're in. Anyway read the article for yourself. It's most amusing.

Portillo then went on to not only prove himself an idiot, but to actually commit libel. He declared his doubt had been shown to be justified by the recent evidence that scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit had been 'doctoring the data' (quote unquote) on climate change. This was the 'story' we touched on earlier. Some hackers broke into a UEA server and stole a large amount of data and private emails from the Climate Research Unit - here's the story The emails were then circulated on the internet, and cherry picked for incriminating statements to show that climate change is a hoax. Nigel has of course called for an inquiry into these claims of manipulation! Anyway, here is an explanation of what actually happened and what the emails were about - And I hope Portillo gets his fucking arse sued off by those scientists for his ill-informed accusation of bad practice.

What hope is there for man's progress towards sustainability when the politicians in charge and the journalists giving us our news are so hideously miss-informed? For me it's not really about climate change or global warming, it's about sustainability and 'treading lightly'. I don't believe we should leach off the world's resources. We should make as little impact as possible, and if global warming slows down as a result of that then jolly good. Perhaps it won't, perhaps it's just a natural and unavoidable cycle. The Earth will certainly cool down or warm up one day, whether man were here or not. But all the evidence points towards this particular warming being down to man's actions. The sooner we lose our arrogance and realise that it is not 'our' world, it is 'the' world and we must try and be as one with it as much as possible, the better. And the sooner people like Mel, Nigel, and Portillo shut their fucking pie-holes, then also the better.

Why the BNP should be allowed on Question Time - written 22/10/09

Seeing as everyone's talking about it and it's going to be on T.V in a couple of hours, I thought I might as well put my two pennies in.

I suppose the first thing to say is that, despite the attempted proliferation of Unite Against Fascism et al's views, the majority opinion seems to be that the BNP should be allowed to appear on Question Time. Racism bad, free speech good, and all that. Even the government appears to be generally supportive (Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw said that most of the cabinet did not share Mr Hain's view), although Gordon Brown has remained characteristically spineless and said he doesn't want to comment. So I don't feel like I'm bucking any particular trend here, just reiterating the sensible masses' viewpoints.

Why should they be allowed? I think freedom of speech is the obvious answer. Thankfully Orwell's vision is yet to fully materialise and thus we are entitled to hear the opinions of those who we may well disagree with. There are legal limits to what can be said, as Nick Griffin well knows, having previously been prosecuted and found guilty of inciting racial hatred, so don't expect Question Time to be an hour of racial slurring. But outside of these legal bounds, people are free to say what they wish, and thank goodness they are. The government could choose to have the BNP catagorised as a proscribed organisation which would leave them unable to publicly voice their opinions, but clearly it has not chosen to do so, and as the BNP will be standing in the next general election it seems an obvious step to allow it to tell us what it is all about.

There appears to be a general fear from the far left, that by enabling the BNP to voice its viewpoints we pave the way for its acceptance, legitimacy, and more worringly, increase its share of the vote. I think this argument falls apart for two very different but very important reasons. The first is that if the BNP's policies, viewpoints, and personnel are as bad as the the left say they are then presumably this will quickly be shown up by, if not Griffin himself, then the other hopefully capable panel members (more on this later). The way to expose an idiot is surely to let him speak for himself. The second, perhaps more controversial reason why the idea of a legitimate BNP should not be a worry is because if the BNP do receive more votes as a result of appearing on Question Time then it is a clear indication that something somewhere is very wrong, and that the sooner something is done about it the better.

The political mainstream appears to be very good at pretending there isn't an issue, but the BNP's two seats in the European Parliament, and now its appearance on Question Time, may perhaps finally force it into a degree of realisation. Here is the crux of the matter: whether problems are real or imagined, they are still problems if someone believes in them. If Betty from Marple believes that immigration is causing a housing shortage, a job shortage, and a rise in violent crime, then it is a problem. Why is it a problem? It is a problem because that is one vote for the BNP, a party which wants to eject anyone who isn't white from this country.

The main political parties need to wake up and realise that certain sections of society are feeling disenchanted, and that this is manifesting itself in support of the BNP. It doesn't matter that BNP voters are more often than not ignorant, ill-educated, and above all wrong; they have their opinions and they are voting. It does not mean that there is necessarily a problem with immigration, but it means that their most certainly is a problem with people's perceptions of immigration, and more importantly their perceptions of what the current political mainstream are doing (or not doing) about it. I'm not suggesting the big political parties adopt BNP policy in an attempt to draw its vote, but there is quite clearly plenty of education that needs to be done amongst certain sections of society, and a more concerted effort from the mainstream to address their concerns, whether they are legitimate concerns or not.

The current Home Secretary Alan Johnson appeared on last weeks Question Time claiming that he would refuse to engage in any form of public debate with the BNP. What a frankly ridiculous decision. Almost a million people voted for the BNP in the European elections. It is too late to pretend they don't exist. Edmund Burke said that 'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing', which I think very neatly sums up the notion of no-platform. Thankfully there are those willing to share a stage with the BNP in order to denounce their views.

And what of those who are sharing the stage with Griffin? I have to say i'm a little dissapointed. No Galloway, no Benn. Griffin is clever and manipulative and I hope that the panellists are up to the job of nailing his views.

If I'm honest I think it's going to be a dissapointing show, in which Griffin wriggles his way out of difficult questions between irritating shouting from some idiot in the studio audience. At least the British are vaguely being stirred from their political apathy.

I think the Deputy Director-General of the BBC, Mark Byford, summed up my feelings when he said: 'they should have the right to be heard, be challenged, and for the public who take part in Question Time and the viewers to make up their own minds about the views of the BNP'.

If those who are exposed to the views of the BNP are seduced by them, then there has either been an alarming failure by those who will be appearing alongside Griffin tonight, or there is a problem in society which needs addressing (even if that is simply a re-education), rather than simply sweeping under the rug.

A literary and philosophical review of 'The God Delusion' - written 30/11/08

We agree on something...

Let me first say I am no fan of religious fundamentalism ; I find the idea of a desert religion , which supposes the earth and everything on it was made in seven days approximately 4000 years ago, and was then transposed wholesale around the world, frankly ridiculous.

As Einstein said (and Dawkins quotes at the beginning of his chapter regarding morality):

‘Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why...however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men – above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends’.

I find this belief (which I share) incompatible with the notion of organised religion, which condemns to damnation any individual who fails to support a particular belief system. If there is a personal God, then I’m hedging my bets that he’s going to be benevolent enough to understand scepticism concerning an unproven (and unprovable) theory, and respect a life lived with respect for other humans and the planet on which I live. If he turns out to not be that benevolent, then I’m not sure ‘heaven’ is really going to be all it’s cracked up to be, and maybe I’d be better of toasting my marshmallows over the fires of hell.

Widespread belief in Abrahamic religions is, I believe, a waste of human time. There is evidence to support Darwin’s theory of evolution; there is evidence to prove the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old; there is evidence to demonstrate that the universe is not static. The ridiculous notion that creationism should be toasted as an alternative to evolution in schools, is just that, ridiculous. The time that is spent on attempting to prove the absurd would be better spent helping to improve the conditions within which humanity lives, or furthering our scientific understanding of the world around us.

So that’s the bit I agree with Dawkins on. Well done for saying it Sir, but you could have saved yourself 420 pages and an awful lot of time.

An Atheist Fundamentalism

Before I get on to the deeper problems with Dawkins’ philosophy I’d like to address some of the things he says about religion which I don’t agree with. Even as a non-believer in organised religion I find him insulting and ignorant, as I shall demonstrate.

A typically authoritative and unsubstantiated Dawkins quote:

‘To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of...Osama Bin Laden or the Ayatolloah Khomeini’.

Perhaps Dawkins lives in a particularly fervent village, but last time I went to the Christingle service I don’t recall the Vicar having an AK47.

With regards to the Montreal police strike in 1969, when all hell (excuse the pun) broke loose, Dawkins declares it is his 'uninformed prediction' that religious believers looted and destroyed more than unbelievers. Such unfounded scare-mongering is both unhelpful and prejudice. I might suggest that if he is so 'uninformed', he should refrain from predicting.

More seriously Dawkins appears to solely blame religion for the ills of this world. He asks us to imagine a world without religion, with no Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ (a situation which is fuelled by the desire of one half of N. Ireland to join the Republic, and other half to remain with the UK – it is undeniably linked to tensions between (loyalist) protestants and (republican) catholics, but religion cannot shoulder the sole blame), and with no 9/11 (once again Dawkins dismisses the important political issues surrounding the build up to 9/11, which were arguably far more important than the role of religion). It is worth remembering that both Stalin and Hitler were Atheists, and they arguably committed the worst atrocities in the history of mankind (oh sorry, that should be ‘humankind’ or ‘peoplekind’ – as Dawkins pedantically points out throughout his book, use of the male pronoun actually, and I quote, ‘makes half the human race feel excluded’). The Holocaust demonstrates the dangers of fundamentalism of any kind, religious, atheist, or otherwise. Of course, it would be ludicrous to say that because Hitler and Stalin were bad people, then all atheists are bad people, or even that most atheists are bad people, just as it is ignorant to lump all religious people together in one havoc-wreaking, blood-letting collective.

The ills of the world are numerous, some are caused by religion, others are not. All are caused by a lack of understanding and empathy - characteristics which Dawkins appears to be woefully short of.

Disregarding Deism?

Early in his book, Dawkins (quite rightly) is eager to point out the difference between theistic and deistic religious beliefs. Theistic being a belief in a personal God, who answers prayers, enacts miracles, etc. and deistic being a belief in an entity who set the laws in place for the universe to exist – essentially something which exists outside of the universe and which we cannot understand.

He then (for reasons which I don’t quite understand) decides to attempt to convince the reader that Einstein was an atheist - on Dawkins ‘side’. I’m not sure why it matters what Einstein’s religious beliefs were, I thought this book was all about Dawkins’ opinionated attitudes, but maybe I’m wrong. And so begins a battle of the quotations – ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind’ on the side of the theists, ‘I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this’ on the side of Dawkins. Once again we must ask ourselves, who cares and what relevance does it have? But at the risk of lowering myself to the childish level of Dawkins and the theists, I will wade in with my own Einstein quote:

‘I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.’

I don’t know about you, but that seems to be fairly clear to me. Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, recognised the lunacy of belief in a personal God, but also respected the limits of science. He was an agnostic. Dawkins (quoting his old school chaplain) describes agnostics as ‘namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, pallid fence sitters’. Lovely. How open minded. How respectful. Of course if you don’t share Dawkins belief in radical atheism then you are clearly lacking in character. Religious people are naturally stupid, I quote: ‘I suspect that for many people the main reason they cling to religion is not that it is consoling, but that they have been let down by our educational system’. Is no-one else reminded of statements like ‘those that don’t believe in God just haven’t been shown the way yet’, or, more controversially ‘the Jews (substitute blacks, gays, Muslims, infidels, Christians) are evil, and should be destroyed. If you don’t believe me then you have not been educated’? Surely the way to tackle discrimination, close mindedness, and fundamentalism is not to replicate it in a different form?

I do feel bad about doing this, because this is supposed to be about my opinionated attitudes, but I am going to quote Einstein once more, in an attempt to sum up my personal beliefs.

‘To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious’

This quote, I believe, speaks of an acceptance that science can never have all of the answers. In the next section I will explain why this is. It does not have the assumptive arrogance of Dawkins atheism which says humans are capable of understanding everything.

Ironically Dawkins uses this quote in his book (and I’m sure you can guess that I have unashamedly stolen it from there, which I suppose is even more ironic...). Dawkins says that in this sense he too is religious, except that, hold on here comes that arrogant atheism, he says that ‘cannot grasp’ should not mean ‘forever ungraspable’. As I will explain, he is lacking in understanding if he believes the human mind is capable of understanding everything. Dawkins then somehow attempts to link Einstein’s quote with a quote by Carl Sagan, which says:

‘If by ‘God’ one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity’

How Dawkins managed to mangle Einstein’s view of a 'something beautiful and sublime which cannot be grasped', into Sagan’s view of God as the law of gravity, I’m not quite sure. Gravity is painfully graspable (especially when falling from a great height). We understand it, it can be explained. Einstein’s God cannot, that is the point.

Dawkins writes that his title, ‘The God Delusion’, does not refer to the God of Einstein (which Dawkins handily defines for us – a definition which I do not agree with). He writes: ‘in the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods’. I had vainly hoped that this meant he would stick to discrediting Abrahamic religions for the rest of the book, which would have made for a slightly boring, but at least rational read. However he doesn’t. He chooses to stick his scientific size 9’s where they really don’t belong...

An Arrogant Ideology

Dawkins concedes that ‘the deist certainly an improvement over the monster of the Bible’ but insists that ‘unfortunately it is scarcely more likely that he exists, or ever did’. It is important to remember that a deist God is not a personal God, he(???) does not cast miracles, listen to prayers, or send sons down to die for our sins. A deist God is something which exists outside our universe, and plays no part in the working of it.

Dawkins central argument against the existence of God (and it’s a good one) is that if there is a God who created the universe then there must have been something which created God. This raises the problem of infinite regress; the idea that there must always be an increasingly intelligent and complex creator. His answer to this is a form of cosmological Darwinism (proposed by Lee Smolin)...a sort of evolution of the universe. It is, I think, an interesting theory.

Biological evolution is, in my eyes, a fact. It works within the laws of our universe. It can be proven. Cosmological evolution, on the other hand, does not have to work within the laws of our universe, and it cannot be proven, and as a result I am very sceptical (Dawkins would be proud!). There is also the problem that evolution must come from something. The biological evolution with which we are familiar began in a primordial soup, when heavy elements combined to form amino acids, which became proteins, and eventually formed the building blocks for basic life. The starting point of this evolution was the heavy elements. Equally, cosmological evolution must start somewhere, there must be something basic from which something can evolve. We then encounter the same problems with infinite regress as we would if we believed in a God who operated according to the laws of our universe (it would just infinitely regress the other way - rather than looking for something increasingly complex, we would be looking for something increasingly simple). However, as I will show, to consider something purely from the perspective of the laws of our universe, is to miss a trick.

Dawkins assumes that because humanity experiences things a certain way then that is how they have to be. For example according to the laws of our universe for a watch to exist it must have been made by a watchmaker, it cannot just be. Or for humans to exist they must have evolved from something, they cannot just be. Because this is how we experience the formation of a watch or a human we apply this logic outside of the universe, but this is a fallacy. I am of course not suggesting that humans didn’t evolve from something else, I am simply saying that this logic is useless outside of the universe.

The ‘Big Bang’ is a singularity. Scientifically this means that at the big bang the laws of science break down, the laws of our universe are no longer applicable. The big bang is the start of space and time. People may say, ‘well if time only began at the big bang, then nothing could have happened before because time didn’t exist’, but time is only a dimension of our universe. If there is any form of ‘God’ operating outside of the universe he would not be subject to time, who knows what he would be subject to.

It is a hard idea to imagine, so I’m going to offer some examples to demonstrate the limits of human understanding...

What exists outside of the universe? Nothing? What is the nothing like? Imagine it. Are you imagining a white space? A white space is something, it is white, and oddly enough, it is a space. You, nor I, can imagine nothing, because we exist in a universe of somethings. White is something, air is something, everything is something, so you can’t comprehend nothing.

Another example...string theory postulates that there are either 10 or 24 dimensions. It is not a concrete fact but it is a well supported scientific theory. It says that in our universe, or at least in our section of the universe, the four dimensions we experience (width, height, depth, and time) are flattened out, and the other 6 (or 20 depending on what particular part of string theory you support) are curled up tightly into balls, so small that they can never be experienced. In other parts of the universe or in other universes, some of these dimensions might be flattened out, or the dimensions we experience might be curled up. Try and imagine another dimension...can’t do it? No me neither, because I exist within four dimensions, therefore I can only imagine four dimensions; just like I exist within the laws of this universe therefore I am incapable of imagining anything outside of it. It is like asking a blind person to describe the colour red. It is useless, and more than that it is pointless.

Every time we think of ‘God’ we think within the constraints of our own universe and experience: we assume that the universe must have evolved from something simpler than itself, or that it was created by a greater being who must in turn have been created. We disregard the notion that 'God' could just exist, without anything to create him(?), and by the same token (and at the risk of unpicking my own arguement about the probable existence of something outside the universe) we rarely consider the fact that the universe could just exist, from nothing. Existence from nothing is an alien concept to us, but that does not mean that it does not exist. There may well be (read probably are) other possibilites to explain the existence of our universe which we (and our language) are unable to comprehend. The very notion of 'God' is relative to our universe, I consider myself an ignostic (note the 'i' not the 'a') in that I believe you must have a meaningful defintion of what God is, before you can meaningfully debate his existence. Seeing as we can only imagine a God who works in accordance with the laws of our universe, I don't think I'll be changing my stance anytime soon. We think according to our laws, and our experiences, we cannot hope to imagine what happens outside of our universe, or even outside of our particular area of this universe. I think this is what Einstein was alluding to when he describes the something we cannot understand which lurks behind everything.

Perhaps that seems depressing? To think that there is something that we simply cannot grasp, something which is (despite Dawkins' protestations) forever ungraspable. I don’t find it depressing in any way, in fact I find it uplifting, to know that there is something beyond our understanding, which won’t be confined to the history books of knowledge. Why Dawkins is fearful of the unknown I’m not sure. In all honesty I don’t think he is, I just think he’s got carried away in his condemnation of an Abrahamic God. You’ll excuse me for guessing what Dawkins is thinking, it’s a nasty habit I’ve picked up from reading his book in which he appears omniscient with regards to the thoughts of Hawking, Einstein, and Huxley to name a few. Suspiciously Godly I say.

Science proposes that the universe is simply a set of numbers and equations. That love, beauty, a desire to be good, enjoyment can all be explained with numbers. This is something I will never be able to come to terms with. This is where that dangerous word ‘faith’ comes in, the point where I just have to say ‘I think there’s more to it all than a set of numbers’. However, unlike Dawkins and many theists I won’t be forcing my faith down anyone’s throats.

Even if you do support the notion that the universe is just a set of rules and equations, then Stephen Hawking raises an excellent point when he writes:

‘What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?’

We do not know, and I don’t think we will ever know. Hawking quite rightly says it is philosophers, not scientists, whose business it is to ask why. There is nothing wrong with not knowing, it is in my eyes part of the beauty of life.

The fact that Dawkins attempts to disprove a deistic God using the logic of our universe is illuminating of the arrogance often associated with hard-line atheists. Scientifically we cannot understand what exists beyond the laws of our universe, and it is a fallacy to claim you can. It is an understandable effort to discount any form of ‘God’, from a man clearly frustrated by the presence of Abrahamic religions in our (supposedly enlightened) society. Sadly for Dawkins he is barking up the wrong tree, and should probably return to writing well–regarded papers on the rules for grooming in flies and the nesting strategies of digger wasps. Something I hear he does very well.

The arrogant and assumptive tone of ‘The God Delusion’ does no favours for the school of rational thought which Dawkins attempts to promote. I think ‘The God Delusion’ can do one of two things. The first is breed contempt among people who disagree with it. The second is get impressionable people to swallow it and everything it says wholesale. What’s the other book that does that? Oh, the Bible.


I have thus far resisted having a 'Blog', there's something pathetic and self-congratulatory about thinking that people will care enough to read it, and I continue to stand by that, naked, under the glaring floodlights of hypocrisy.

I write on here for three reasons. 1) It makes me feel more important and influential than I will probably ever be. 2) It allows me to express my opinions without having to bore my friends and family with them and therefore allows me to feel that I have 'done my bit' to set the world to rights. 3) It gives me an outlet so that I don't have to rip my own face off at the withering 'injustice of it all'. Which is, incidentally, the tragic name I gave to this blog when I couldn't think of anything more insightful (also, my preferred name was already taken - - posts include 'sweeney todd. how can you not think johnny depp is great?
sex & the city. kinda fun on a big screen. all those manolos.
reign over me. this movie joined my all-time top 5 before i even finished watching it. seriously'. Judge that for yourselves.) I have since changed the name to the eminently less embarrassing 'sifting the shit'.

You won't find anything personal here. That would be awful. Instead i'll just toss out my thoughts on the things that interest me (religion, politics, philosophy, the environment, society and the human condition etc.) into the uncaring void. Some music/book/film stuff might leak into it as well.

I take an interest in language and writing, so part of the challenge for me is making things fun/interesting/cutting etc. I hope I achieve at least some degree of success.

When I write things I think them. That doesn't mean I still think them. A lot of the things I have written are wrong, inane, twee, pretentious, arrogant, etc. The list is endless. I thought they were good at the time. Just take them as points of interest.

I'll begin as I mean to go on. By uploading a load of stuff I've already written.