In a forgotten corner of the city, squeezed between flyover and tired scrubland, a disused foundry admitted a small fraction of milky winter light through tall, soot-blackened windows. Inside, the peaks and troughs of minimal Chicago House surged languorously over a buoyant dance floor. The hypnotic, interlocking patterns seemed to directly control his motor responses, leaving him free to float in blissful introspection. As the next track was deftly teased into the mix to a raucous welcome of raised hands and whooping, he quietly decoded the intricate counterpoint of sixteenths over triplets with unaccustomed clarity.

His mind felt sharp, his body fluid; these speckled doves were certainly worth Cheeky Brian’s premium price. He patted the thin pocket of his linen trousers and ascertained that he had two left, with luck still safely ensconced in the clammy embrace of cling-film.

Christ, it was hot. Water drained from exposed brick, some drops catching the light to explode in rainbows or leave jagged, translucent trails that faded like… “What was the word? Ambition.”  He chuckled to himself ruefully, forgetting the intrusion of reality in an instant.

Emerging unsteadily from the roiling miasma of sweat and dry ice, she was momentarily distracted by an Evian bottle lurching across her path. As she tried to determine its direction, they met in a damp collision of limbs. A dishevelled snapshot of charcoal bangs and smoky eyes, accented with bold feline flicks that she’d learned from a girl half her age on YouTube. Her apology was muted like her lipstick, the curve of mouth haughty, but her flickering gaze clearly contrite. He caught a whisper of citrus.

“I haven’t a chance”, he thought, as his half-constructed joint disintegrated over her cropped T-shirt, on which Hello Kitty appeared to be defecating.

Without pausing to brush off the clinging strands, she touched a finger to her lips, sank onto rounded haunches and rootled around in a nondescript bag. After a few seconds she produced a red and white badge, on which was inscribed in a jaunty font, “Hi, I’m Alissa-Beth”. Above this sat a smiling cartoon chicken of questionable sanity. He was briefly haunted by the image of this chicken stamped on thousands of pills and almost laughed out loud.

“No ordinary waitress,” he surmised, acknowledging her inventive greeting with a matching grin. The situation suddenly looked promising. The last girl he’d dared to engage had been one of those thrusting perfectionists from HR or marketing, who shouted a lot and ran on coffee, heels and bitching. Attractive packaging with a distinctly limited shelf-life.

Besides, he’d always been enamoured of a double-barrelled first name. Many people thought them trashy but for him they exuded a quaint, wholesome charm. He mouthed “Alissa-Beth” to himself, savouring the soft, romantic cadence, then — noticing her puzzled look — pointed bashfully towards a cosy nook that promised shelter from the thundering bass.

To his surprise, she nodded, took his hand and led him briskly off the dance floor, swaying in time to a shuffling beat over which a tortured synth gleefully crackled. Her nails were neat and unpolished, her glance to camera imperceptible.

[Originally appeared on Fiction Crowd and to be continued (if I ever learn to write)]


Friday evening, faced with a catastrophic three bottle hangover which only butter, salt and chilli could appease, we lazily plied Dragons’ Den favourite Hungry House for a curry from Saffron on the Roundhay Road. Incorrigible creatures of habit, we ordered karahi gosht (baa!), palak paneer, nawabi khan chicken and chana dal, plus rice and roti. The food was delivered swiftly with a temperature that would not shame a sauna, although I had to talk the (very friendly and polite) driver in as apparently it is bad form to allow him to glance at a map before departure.

The complimentary pickle tray and poppadums swiftly dispatched, we set about the plastic containers with happy abandon. Each dish was a potent parcel of explosive individuality that caressed the mouth with a disarming depth of flavour, much more interesting than the generic fare of lesser curry houses who work to the modern McDonald’s ideal of bland, inoffensive* consistency, whereby one chooses a meat of uncertain parentage which is then steeped in Universal Sauce and impregnated with the food colouring that the proprietor feels best corresponds to the name of the particular dish.

Granted, the ingredients (fresh, tender and free of gristle) clearly like to frolic gaily in a glorious inch of ghee, but that is nothing that cannot be remedied by allowing a hungry Felis Catus to skim off the top layer.  Kitteh’s tongue bristles with rigid backwards-facing spines about 500 micrometers long and has the wherewithal to move at three feet per second, which helps it to tear through this trifling task in nanoseconds. I immediately thought of Uncle Monty.

It’s obsessed with its gut – it’s like a rugby ball now. It will die, it will die!

Actually I lie. On this occasion we ignored the plaintive mewing and fed viscous run-off to the sink, a provocation which no doubt persuaded the U-bend to start its winter blockage campaign early.

I digress. The palak paneer sported an imposing density of gorgeous silken dairy product, which I would wager is made on the premises, but could perhaps use a touch more fluffy spinach for balance. Application of chilli is liberal here and restrained there, i.e. not thoughtlessly hurled into every dish as per rivals, which was a welcome surprise, while the breads exhibited just the right balance of crunch and yield, a far cry from the steamed pudding or granite biscuits sometimes found lurking in greasy foil.

All in all we were very pleased with Saffron and will surely avail ourselves of their chefs’ delights again.

* This term is used inadvisedly: there is little that is inoffensive about McDonald’s.

Delusions of the profound

If your Tuesday is not sufficiently depressing, allow me to present serial tree-squanderer Paulo Coelho, a self-proclaimed philosopher whose love of wisdom seems not to extend to his own writing, which bristles with bird-brained observations taking flight in one of the following forms:

1. A fatuous gobbet of New Age toss wrapped in a cloying blanket of lyricism, as if Gwyneth Paltrow had unconsciously coupled with that pretentious bore in sixth form who always wore a trench coat and banged on about Jim Morrison’s poetry.

2. A cheesy platitude phrased in such a way that at first glance it appears profound, but actually asserts a triviality on one level and something meaningless on another. Often found on motivational posters, scrawled in winsome cursive over an ethereal waterfall, with the obligatory attention-seeking Facebook status not far behind.

This dastardly duo has mysteriously helped Coelho shift millions of sentimental self-help manuals whose unifying theme can be encapsulated by this beacon of ignorance:

to realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.

Never mind our other obligations, the crass selfishness, or the inconvenient fact that none of us has ever been allocated a cosmic burrow at the end of which quivers a predetermined fate, because if you cheerfully abandon reason the universe will totes look after you. Of course. More of that nonsense later.

First, let’s start by nervously sniffing a few deepities from The Alchemist:

All things are one.

Whoa, easy there Keanu. Sure, if I were able to group together all the things in existence, I could in a literal sense refer to this collection in the singular. Linguistically true, but hardly a revelation. Meanwhile, the illusion of profundity is provided by the false implication that everything in the universe is somehow interconnected by blue string pudding, or what prosperous vendor of quantum flatulence Deepak Chopra would call “cosmic consciousness”. As eminent rationalist Summer Roberts from The OC so aptly puts it: “Eww!

Oh how I miss Marissa’s imprecise diction and Ryan seething. Anyway…

There is always a right moment to stop something.

Stop holding your finger in a candle flame when it starts to hurt. Stop your car at a red light. Stop dressing up your cat as Dorothy. Yes, stop that right now. Banal and obvious. But again, reading from another angle, that slippery “always” also hints at a non-existent “grand plan”, in which, say, it is absolutely crucial that I stop typing right now and draw eyes on the bin so it looks like it’s nomming the potato peelings.

Granted, perhaps delaying this momentous decision by five seconds might actually make a surprisingly positive difference to my life, but that scintilla of chance pales in comparison to the number of times it won’t. Either way, my wife’s subsequent hollow laugh and filing for divorce certainly won’t be the result of divine orchestration.

…keep reminding yourself that everything happens for a reason.

A vintage deepity especially beloved of dippy teenaged girls and as hurtful to a functioning brain as it is ubiquitous. A part of me dies every time I hear it. Like, literally. Of course everything happens for a reason, but only in the self-evident sense that chains of cause and effect interact within the physical world: the cat rears on her hind legs because I am holding a sardine above her nose. But also implied is that my producing fish at that precise moment is somehow part of the cosmos’ fiendish plan to shape her little furry destiny. Sigh.

My favourite extract, which kicks off with a deepity and moves on to a barefaced lie, is so egregious it is tempting to give him the benefit of doubt and allow that it has been mistranslated:

Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.

It’s gratifying that by being wrong twice within this very aphorism he has already disproved the first part of it. One hardly need point out that something that happens twice must by definition have happened once. As for thrice? My boy cat has sired two children. Sadly one of them was orange, which swiftly earned him the snip and a sackful of consolation catnip. Just kidding! I love redheads and their preternatural affinity for cobalt blue, but sadly he won’t be fathering another. However, I’ve no doubt that our muddle-headed maestro will be silly a third time. One doesn’t have to wait long. Here he switches effortlessly to the first form:

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

Supersize that sick bag and pass it over pronto. Seriously, Paulo, it doesn’t.  A handful of people and perhaps a well-disposed opossum might conceivably do so, but the remainder is obviously incapable of thought, let alone conspiracy. Though feel free to suggest a plausible mechanism by which it might, turn decades of rigorous scientific enquiry on its head and claim your Nobel prize. No?

Though the bag is in danger of overflowing, he continues in the same vein:

There is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.

Ah, so it not only “conspires” in helping you achieve your desire, but also thought of it first. Such prescience from an unconscious void! And there was I thinking my unrequited longing to domesticate a rotund Pallas’ cat was due to a series of electrochemical reactions limited to my body. How prosaic and narrow-minded of me. After being subjected to this simpering rubbish, I really really want some China White to soften the pain, so presumably my “mission on earth” is to become a heroin addict? Nice touch, Pollo.

A helpful consequence of conjuring up this inexplicably sentient universe—a feat sadly shared with Rhonda “Victim-Blamer” Byrne’s breathtakingly hateful “The Secret” (beautifully eviscerated here)—seems to be the ability to convert any desire into reality using the power of thought alone. Hark at this whimsical pair of bollocks:

People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of
[…] And no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dream.

Except of course those who aren’t capable, for whom the dream is never fulfilled, for whom the land of reality suddenly fails to conform to Coelho’s mendacious, cosseting optimism.

Now, please don’t get me wrong:  cherished aspirations can certainly be pursued, provided that they are realistic. If you yearn to travel, teach, grow out your bangs (please don’t do that), learn a foreign language or raise several litters of ragdoll kittens and have the wherewithal to do so, then damned well go for it. I hope that goes without saying.

The trouble is, Coelho’s interpretation admits no boundaries or restrictions on the aspirant. Indeed, it typifies the second OED definition: “an unrealistic or self-deluding fantasy.” We are forewarned of this when the hapless shepherd Santiago is told that “dreams are a language used by the Soul of the World to communicate with people.” Oh dear. The reach of this type of dream tends to exceed the grasp of reality, in every sense.

To claim that anyone (which, if you think about it, implies ‘everyone’) can achieve the exalted heights of a pop star, president or, god forbid, Paris Hilton, merely with the application of positive (as opposed to actual) thinking, is stupid and cruel. Personal limitations and the structure of society simply don’t allow it. However, Coelho blithely rejects this inconvenience: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure”. If only that were true. On second thoughts…

If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man […] Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.

Yes, let’s totally ignore the consequences of our actions. Let’s ignore women. Let’s not learn from past mistakes. Fuck the future! If Don Draper took on a crack dealer’s account, he could do worse than that for copy. Credit card companies already use a variation of it. It’s a relief to know that, like Paulo (net worth $20m), they’re looking after our best interests.

The irony is that as soon as one accepts the fact that the universe is “blind, pitiless and indifferent” and harbours no ultimate purpose or sympathies, the chance of enjoying a fulfilled life actually increases, as it becomes grounded in reality not flim-flam fantasy where every dream—however lofty—is worth pursuing cause, y’know, with the universe as wing man anyone can do anything. No they fucking can’t, Paulo!

It’s also hard to ignore the questionable morality of the tale. At one point our protagonist temporarily pokes his shaggy head above the mystical nonsense to pause his quest with a delightful (if conveniently subservient) lady. In a rare moment of clarity, he realises he has found his “treasure” at last. This would be a sensible place to end, but unfortunately Coelho—failing to realise his book’s brevity is its greatest asset—soon makes him abandon her in favour of the tawdry pot of jewels he eventually finds at the end. So much for the “spiritual” message: just follow the money, bitches! The book is also suspiciously Randian in its relentless worship of the individual. Concerns for the lives, doubts and criticisms of others? No mate, it’s all about you you you.

Anyway, I’d best not continue or I’ll start reliving the upsetting experience of being stranded on a train in which I had only the choice of The Alchemist or Chopra’s latest rectal emission (definitely a Type 6) as potential company. Staring disconsolately at this brace of bullshit-artists pouting pensively from their book jackets, I was struck by the horrible thought that they might one day join forces. Coelho believes “Nothing in the world is ever completely wrong”. I sincerely hope I am.

Florid Collins

[A very silly thank you letter due in 2009 and sent three years later. I was so ashamed.]

Dear Aunt and Uncle,

Once upon a time there existed a half-decent nephew. Granted, as a growing boy he may have incorrectly suffixed his favourite Aunt’s name with an -er, abused discordantly the delicate keys of his Uncle’s harpsichord, smoked the odd illicit fag out of the attic window during his cousin’s more intense Buddhist chants and of course overcharged wildly for ineffectual tree surgery, but in general he could be relied upon to produce the occasional stilted screed and perhaps even show his face in return for morsels of game suffused with heavenly reductions. But as time accelerated he became lazier and self-absorbed—yet paradoxically busier—and good behaviour was rudely, disgracefully cast aside.

Yet still the wonderful geyser of presents and touching handwritten cards continued to erupt from Middle Earth, without fail scattering annual joy on the undeserving nephew.

A cornucopia of beautifully be-jarred herbs: every scrap now committed to curry, bolognese, melted shoulder of hogget and other unfortunate yet delicious creatures;

perhaps a cashmere jumper of such softness and quality that it nearly shamed poor Cotton into simply giving up production of her rough thread;

certainly a pussy blanket—possibly two—composed of luxury fleece once resplendent in tan and pure white, which has succumbed gratefully to a thick layer of tabby fur because one can count the minutes during which a pussy is not ensconced in it on one foot. The counting, that is, not the kitty, as their genes don’t allow for acrobatics (though I allow that there is the occasional dramatic sink-bound leap, to inspect the flow of water from the tap as if for the first time. These often fail with a skittering of paw and embarrassed thump – oh how we try not to laugh). This foot and its corpulent attachment are often found lurking under it too, probably watching trashy TV and not writing letters;

a deviously cunning bottle opener that glows gently blue in sympathy with the kettle (embarassingly, this was also a present) and managed to appear literally hours after its rival the Screwpull (1999-2011 RIP), having failed to entice its last cork even a quarter way out of the bottle, shattered its femur with a noise that would have worried the Inquisition.

I am certain there are countless other treasures that have enriched the life of this appalling nephew beyond the capacity of mere words; regardless it is clear that something of an imbalance has presented itself, to put it mildly. And mildly it will have to be because if I think too hard about the injustice of the situation I will probably weep. I’m so sorry!

Which diabolical apology leads me to the cheering news from M that we may see you next week in D for a well overdue ketchup, albeit not under the ideal circumstances; nevertheless your presence will line the afternoon cloud with a most considerable gilding of silver. The nephew will be found hiding in shame in a corner of the church, while his dear wife braves a short reading. Meanwhile on this balmy eve he hastens once again toward the wonderful corkscrew, yet again to challenge it with an evil plastic cork, staunch protector of a Chilean plonk whose number is up. A toast will most certainly be raised in your direction.

Much love,

Origin of religion

A blank slate?

If I had grown up in a sufficient degree of isolation from religious influences, I suspect the concept of god would never have crossed my mind, for the same reason that the concept of “thicklepsaur” – or any other novel notion you care to contrive – has not, that is extreme statistical improbability. Though of course as a baby I was incapable of active disbelief in a concept of which I was unaware, I was (at least in the sense of “absence of belief in god(s) of which my elders were aware”) born an atheist and only became aware of religion after being exposed to the swish of sweaty cassock and hard pews of school.

Assuming this was the natural state of every infant’s mind, I wondered how religious proclivities came to arise in the human brain in the first place and why, despite the scientific provision of far more lucid, elegant and empirical explanations for human existence, its irrational influence persists so fiercely today. To state the obvious, the solution is likely to lurk in a combination of “nature and nurture”, though nurture, with its positive connotations, is (at least for some) rather an unfortunate misnomer.


Natural selection

Digging first into the pockets of our genes, one frayed picture of a cat answer immediately emerges: natural selection favoured religious behaviour because there must be (or at least have been) a survival advantage involved. In other words, a random genetic mutation that conferred a religious inclination on its host was selected for and became more prevalent as it was passed down the generations. One can certainly imagine that when humans did not have access to today’s scientific knowledge and civilised societal constructs, a religious bent could have been helpful to survival and procreation.

Hidden agent detection

Pascal Boyer suggests in Religion Explained that culturally-widespread beliefs in the “supernatural” are a consequence of “hidden agent detection: the intuitive modular process of assuming intervention by conscious agents, regardless of whether they are present.” To put it more bluntly, before we understood natural phenomena, such as thunder and tornadoes, we couldn’t help but ascribe them to gods, spirits, and witches. This process may have stemmed from our survival-driven hypersensitivity to potential threats. For example, it is prudent to fear that a rustle in the bushes might be a hungry boar with a sore paw, even if nine times out of ten it turns out to merely be the breeze. Ultimately this notion of causal agents led to a belief in the daddy of hidden causal agents, i.e a god. A provocative but interesting theory.

Getting high on god

More controversially perhaps, Rutgers University evolutionary biologist Lionel “hear me roar” (not really) Tiger claims that the root of religious belief is an evolutionary drive to produce a “secretion” (serotonin) within the brain which provides the believer with feelings of well-being. His colleague Michael McGuire “discovered that serotonin in primates was associated with high status and that when animals had high status they felt better. If you took away their high status their serotonin levels would crash. Their brains would begin producing more cortisol and other neurotransmitters that are associated with feeling mean and feeling bad and feeling low, so we decided that one of the ways of looking at religion is to what extent and how does it generate the serotonergic juices that make us feel good.”

If indeed religious fervour is based on a neurochemical reward mechanism (though the connection with high status does not exactly leap out at me), I can understand more clearly why people might persist with their faith even while their conscious mind accepts contrary scientific evidence. Threatened with having its precious high removed, the primitive brain simply suppresses this evidence. Reward mechanisms can be incredibly powerful: consciously, I know that smoking is odious and provides no tangible benefit whatsoever, yet the drive to poison my brain with nicotine easily overrules the conscious mind. I can see a clear parallel with the warm fuzzy serotonin rush that might accompany a belief in the afterlife or a guardian angel.

The “god gene”?

Research by geneticist Dean Hamer at the NIH finds god in a single gene–vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2). Hamer identifies this as the “god gene,” a leading gene among many others written into our genetic code that predisposes people to religiosity. A genetic origin point of religiosity might stem from an evolutionary drive toward inclusion. In this way, learning a society’s religion, like learning its language, is hard-wired into humans through inherited genes. (Quote from here).

The god module

By observing epileptic seizures originating in the temporal lobes, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran speculates about the existence of a “god module”:

But most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, “I finally understand what it’s all about. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense.” Or, “Finally have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.” I find it ironic that this sense of enlightenment, this absolute conviction that Truth is revealed at last, should derive from limbic structures concerned with emotions rather than from the thinking, rational parts of the brain that take so much pride in their ability to discern truth and falsehood.

Could it be that human beings have actually evolved specialized neural circuitry for the sole purpose of mediating religious experience? The human belief in the supernatural is so widespread in all societies all over the world that it’s tempting to ask whether the propensity for such beliefs might have a biological basis.

The one clear conclusion that emerges from all this is that there are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics.”

(from Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran, Sandra Blakeslee)

This phenomenon has been repeated time and time again and offers powerful evidence of an innate predilection for all things godly.

Finally, by providing some form of comfort blanket against myriad inexplicable, frightening aspects of nature, religious belief may even have diverted some of our weaker ancestors from simply giving up onto the more fruitful path of reproduction.

A mere accident

A starker alternative to these suppositions is that it is simply an exaptation (accidental evolutionary by-product) of other adaptations that did confer a survival advantage, such as enhanced intelligence and cognitive finesse. Richard Dawkins makes the distinction here between believing in god (no advantage) and having a brain with the capacity to believe in god (advantage, because of other benefits conferred).

On balance, I think it is likely that some of us possess a certain configuration in part of our brain which causes us to be predisposed to faith and, for some, startling episodes wrongly interpreted as religious revelation. Without allowing for some form of innate religious capacity, I would find it completely baffling why people hang onto their gods in the teeth of such a persuasive body of evidence that they are both redundant and extremely improbable. This innate predilection is then reinforced by society.

Nurture past

The group

Given primitive ancestral communities riddled with disease, war, a high infant mortality rate and savage competition for scant resources, both from within and without, perhaps religion “both enforced moral instincts and motivated people to pay any cost in defense of their community. Religion secured a new level of social cohesion by implanting in people’s minds a stern overseer of their actions.” (Quote from here).

This quote makes me uncomfortable as it implies that people are incapable of acting morally without the threat of ‘divine retribution’ (not to mention the ineluctable corollary that unpleasant people will then only act ‘morally’ because they believe the threat) but this objection need not affect the end result: a nibble at the conscience on an individual level from whichever gods were fashionable at the time contributed to a form of reciprocal altruism in the community and thus aided the perpetuation of more of their genes.

Echoing this gene-centric view with a more complex flavour of the wildly unpopular group selection theory, David Sloan Wilson proposes in “Darwin’s Cathedral” that religion is a product of cultural evolution, developed through a process of multilevel selection for more cooperative and cohesive groups. By studying religious concepts in their group settings (religions are well known for their in-group morality and out-group hostility), Wilson places the evolution of social behavior, and religion in particular, on the same playing field as biological entities.

Nurture present

Preserving power

Whatever the initial cause, religion is still very much a prevalent social phenomenon, passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and crack of whip. Seneca opined that it “is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Whatever you think of the first two observations, the latter is as spot on now as it was then. Throughout the world countless unfortunates are brainwashed, subjugated, persecuted and oppressed by religious regimes, which justify outrageous moral edicts by claiming – oh so conveniently – that they derive from a god. Attempts to merely exercise free speech and offer a conflicting view are often punishable by torture or even death.

A religious apologist might counter by saying this is not the fault of the religion itself, but abuse of it. The problem here is that the authoritative text in question, such as the Bible, invariably contains a wealth of disparate, contradictory and often inflammatory material. While moderates may follow only the moderate instructions (many of which are perfectly sensible, such as the principle of reciprocity) and behave decently, those with more extreme aims can and do cherry pick wildly in order to “justify” just about any abuse they choose. If the hold these books have over people were to disappear overnight, these abuses would undoubtedly be harder to perpetrate.

Likewise, if a gun is used to commit murder, the NRA apologist will smugly declare it is not the gun’s fault at all; yet in the absence of the gun, that murder would not – or at least, have been much more unlikely to – have occurred. Guns and religion are both powerful facilitators, though if I were to be glib, my smirk would doubtless imply that at least guns have an iota of practical use. Poor squirrel? Think of it with bacon on its back!

Spare the kids

In countries where the barbaric edges of religious influence have been softened by liberal democracy – not without a prolonged and bloody fight, I might add – large numbers of young children are nevertheless routinely conditioned to accept religious doctrine when they are at their most vulnerable and credulous, often by well-meaning but misguided parents. Though I admit this is not necessarily a tragedy, it is at best a little depressing and, at worst,  borders on abuse. The idea and practice of calling someone a “Muslim child” or “Christian child” before they are old enough to make a rational choice of their own is reprehensible, as is scaring them witless with, say, an assurance that the price of disbelief is to burn in hell for eternity, or that to be gay is evil, unnatural and a “matter of choice”.

One must remember that children’s brains are predisposed to take everything they are taught by their parents pretty much at face value, as this allows them to learn essential rules of survival, such as “don’t pursue a scampering cat onto a busy road” very quickly. So at this age, it is essential that children are taught to think critically, with recourse to logic and evidence, not fed the contents of cultural relics such as the Koran and Bible – and the often bizarre, contradictory and deeply unpleasant moral precepts contained within them – as truths not to be questioned. I have no objection to consenting adults practising religion in private among themselves, but please leave the kids out of it1.


In the UK, as in many progressive countries that supposedly value free speech, where any concept, person or institution is fair game for satire and criticism, religion appears to enjoy a special exemption, which I pompously call theocratic immunity. We are continually admonished to show respect to, to not offend, to not question religion. No reason is given as to why: we are expected meekly to accept this hypocritical doublethink. Invariably, religious extremists find ways to take offence at the most trivial of things. Yet when their bewildering and utterly disproportionate response takes the form of burning down embassies and killing innocent people, instead of hearing universal condemnation, as one would hope and expect, one hears sympathy and appeasement, people bleating for the source of the offence (a cartoon, or video, say) to be banned. Indeed, there is even talk of the UN enacting an “International Blasphemy Law”, whereby to denigrate the protagonists of best-selling fictional works would become a crime. This is ridiculous, especially as you can bet it would not apply to, say, Harry Potter. Again, on what grounds is this special treatment granted? Religious privilege sucks.

Meanwhile on panel shows that feature a number of people discussing a topic in which they have expertise, qualifications or relevant experience, a religious spokesperson is also invariably wheeled out, as if their belief in a god automatically confers on them some special authority or insight in any subject. Why is this? Why are a bishop’s backward views on abortion allowed equal, indeed often greater, prominence than those of qualified experts?

Of course there are millions of sane, ethical people who quietly, privately believe in a god or gods, draw strength from their belief, treat women and homosexuals decently and don’t coerce others into sharing their faith. My beef is not with them and I do not wish to mock their belief. I am fortunate enough to live in a country where such people form the majority of a shrinking religious demographic, but many aren’t.

Religion can also be an oppressive umbrella under which loathsome individuals and institutions acquire a great deal of influence, money and power, from where they disseminate wicked, backward ideas and make the lives of a multitude of people a misery. Furthermore, in some cases, they clearly wish to extend the reach of this umbrella over people who prefer not to be forced to stand in the shade of ignorance and repression. One can only hope that the advance of science, humanism and liberal values will continue to weaken its pernicious global stranglehold.

1. That is not to say that kids should not be exposed to them, of course. They are fascinating historical works which deserve critical study. Just don’t teach them “as gospel” please.


Two small fragments of a recent discussion I enjoyed on a another site.

Without intelligence behind evolutionary design means that random chance engineered apparent design. Look at today’s top designers of engineering products, maybe a Ferrari F1 engine. If I said that the Ferrari engine happened by accident and without intelligence behind then I would be laughed at like an idiot. Yet look at the complexity in the engineering of the human hand which is literally infinitely more complex and this happened by accident. What about the human eye ? Again even our top most intelligent scientists cannot come close to the engineering capability of something that again happened by accident.

It is an oddly common (and I suspect often deliberate, at least among proponents of intelligent design) misconception that a complex creature (or element of one, such as a hand) as seen by a Darwinist is nothing more than a happy accident. This assumption fails signally to understand how evolution works. No Darwinist would suggest for a picosecond that the human hand is the result of an extended medley of dice throwing.

The process, which involves random chance (mutation) together with cumulative selection, occurs in minuscule steps starting from very humble (and thus realistic/credible) beginnings over a huge number of generations. Mutation may be random, but selection is not.

For instance, to use the old eye chestnut: once upon a time a single cell mutated and became sensitive to light. A single photocell gave a small advantage over the creatures with no photocell, perhaps gaining them the sight of a few extra scones. So the former became healthier and more prevalent. Then another mutation improves this most primitive of eyes a tiny bit further; that slightly improved creature again multiplies while the ones with less useful mutations die off.

“Heritable variations lead to differential reproductive success” to quote Darwin. So the eye is steadily honed (“climbs mount improbable”, to paraphrase Dawkins) over a large number of small steps into the glorious baby blues we have today, bringing with it to some a seductive illusion of design.

“Thus the creationist’s favourite question ‘What is the use of half an eye?’ Actually, this is a lightweight question, a doddle to answer. Half an eye is just 1 per cent better than 49 per cent of an eye, which is already better than 48 per cent, and the difference is significant.” (Dawkins)

If there is no intelligence behind our evolutionary development, this means that only matter exists and the human mind, the human soul and the human spirit only appear to have a separate conscious ability and existence. If this is not the case then how and where have they come from ?

I’ve never thought of my mind as anything other than a deliciously complex machine. The eye is impressive, the brain even more so, but fundamentally I don’t see why the two couldn’t have emerged similarly through evolution. The dualistic idea of the mind existing in some way separately from the rest of my flesh ‘n bones (I guess what people mean by soul or spirit), or being anything other than matter coursing with chemicals and electricity is alien to me, though I can see the romantic appeal of the notion. Muscles contract, rods and cones are sensitive to light patterns, brain cells process information, simple. Or rather, complex.


Given that one branch of this pitiful pseudoscience maintains that the gravitational attraction and relative position of certain celestial orbs at the time of one’s birth somehow have a lasting effect on one’s personality, is it not a tiny bit alarming that people may base important decisions on it?

Is it also not slightly disturbing that just about every organ in the country enriches a charlatan by carrying a horoscope column, in an attempt to satiate the incredible desire of the dim-witted public for this rubbish? This Scorpio believes so.

The only argument in favour of astrology – given the gaping vacuum of empirical evidence in support of it, or explanation of mechanisms by which it might work – seems to be that nobody has managed to disprove it. Hmm that sounds familiar, vicar.

Actually I’m a bit confused by this dreadful online dictionary’s definition of astrology:

The study of the positions and aspects of celestial bodies in the belief that they have an influence on the course of natural earthly occurrences and human affairs.

Well yes, up to a point. Clearly the moon causes tides. This is because the moon is sufficiently massive and close to a sufficiently massive body of water. Human affairs could easily be disturbed by a large wave if the human in question is stood on Mullion Harbour fiddling with her camera during a capricous Spring tide. Occasionally Selene gets in the way of Helios and we marvel at the eclipse, and so on. I wouldn’t argue with that, but these are the observations of astronomy, not astrology. Stupid dictionary.

However, according to the inverse square law, if the celestial bodies are sufficiently far away and/or acting on small objects (e.g humans) then the gravitational effect they will have on earth is minuscule and outweighed by objects closer to home, such as, in the case of the newborn, a rotund midwife. This observation alone debunks astrology.

So why do people fall for it? Given a sufficiently large set of data you will be able to sift through it in an almost infinite number of ways and eventually find some sort of correlation with something that involves movement/alignment of the stars, planets etc. It would be a surprise if you didn’t as the permutations and opportunities for curve-fitting are endless. On finding a so-called magic correlation the obvious mistake is to attribute any causality to it, but unfortunately people love doing that.

Coincidences are much more common than we might imagine as there are so many ways in which they can happen. How often does a flushed yummy mummy gracefully dismount her urban tractor to exclaim: “How amazing! I bumped into someone in Waitrose today with exactly the same name as me, her daughter goes to my old school and do you know she’s even wearing exactly the same fur gilet that I bought last month from Agnes B! What are the chances of that?!”

Well, the chances of someone meeting these predetermined conditions would be tiny, granted, but of course she didn’t predetermine them. It is likely that there would be an immense pool of things the two people might have in common and the three mentioned represent only a fraction. In fact it would be unusual for coincidences like this NOT to happen as there are so many ways in which they can. The paradoxical conclusion is that is would be very unlikely for unlikely events not to occur.


When I last looked, Zanussis performed considerably worse than Boschs or Mieles, according to Which? It would be unlikely that their brochure would rush to highlight this shortcoming. This dip into the fallen king of consumer idiocy followed an uneventful date with Kate Moss, you understand, though there was some hoovering apparent. Anyway, ‘Please beware form over function’, they blandly exhorted, ‘however enticing the tarty silver ones with subtly recessed controls may seem, the white, boring ones still have the edge in performance’. So now we know.

My wife and I have never rinsed ‘owt before challenging our Teutonic beast with the foulest platens of greasy residue, and we haven’t yet been disappointed. It really isn’t necessary, unless you have entertained a vegetarian with steak and kidney pie, in which case any available quadruped is the obvious beneficiary.

Actually I’ve noticed that folk who perform a ritual pre-dishwasher rinse and employ a cleaner are apt also to clean their house within an inch of its life before the cleaner arrives. There is a definite connection. I’ve never been sure whether they are ashamed, considerate, mistrusting or simply oblivious to the function of labour-saving technology.

Stacking a dishwasher properly is an art oft ignored yet easily learned, according to someone else’s Mum. Despite this discouragement, the act becomes an undiluted joy as soon as you realise how much less time even the most complicated “Tetris level 9″ stack takes when compared to the endless drudgery of using a brush and sink. Even if it involves dried-on cat food, tortilla, cigarette ash, lengthy spinach stalks and of course the ubiquitous ‘matter’, on this occasion nervously united with tea leaves by solidified lamb fat, all spread among sufficent oddly-shaped vessels to require devilishly inventive placement, you will still have saved time. Reading that sentence would have taken longer in fact. Wine glasses should never be put in a dishwasher unless you don’t mind them slowly turning grey (thanks to the harsh abrasive powder). Anyone who puts antique glasses in one is a wanton and dangerous idealist. I found a wonton lodged in the filter once, although the contents were ominously conspicuous by their absence. I can promise you a (German) dishwasher is an excellent investment, even if you have to re-clean the occasional omelette pan. Your water bill will thank you too.


Does one need to be a natural born artist to be an adequate web designer? Well, it probably helps, but for those like me not gifted in an artistic sense there is still much worth striving for.

Consider the drafts of Montaigne: they bristle with the prolonged torture of corrections, additions and alterations; endless careful detailed polishing that makes one realise the cliched schoolmaster’s advice of 10% inspiration 90% perspiration holds true even in the rarefied air of innate talent. Or look at Raphael’s drawings after he has studied the masters and learnt to do perspective. They may look like the effortless strokes born of raw talent alone, but with the context of his earlier drawings I think one could attribute the improvement mainly to years of diligent mimicry, a painstaking transfer of skills by proxy if you like. How prosaic and disappointing to imagine these elite creatures having to stoop to practice in order to make their work seem effortless! (Meanwhile the world is probably awash with lazy geniuses who have come to nothing because they expected their talent to somehow allow circumvention of the work required to bring it to fruition).

Sure, not every web designer will be a Van Damme but you’d be surprised how far graft can take one. To deny an aspirant the chance of success because he’s not “built correctly” from birth is to deny the immense and constantly surprising power of humans to learn and adapt. The obvious can become signficant with practice, though yes to the innately talented it will of probably come more easily and to a larger degree. Even if it doesn’t, there is hope for all those who are prepared to devote time to getting the details right, honing practical skills on the field of experience and slowly piecing things together, just as there is room for a skilled joiner to work alongside a cabinet maker. Indeed the lazy cabinet maker may have to watch out that he is not replaced.


Someone asks: I have a question about headphones –
“What do we really need the ‘L’ and ‘R’ indicators on them for? Is it not true that the vast majority of music will sound fine whichever ear you stuff the things in?”

If the audio is linked with vision then obviously it matters. I wired my projector the wrong way into the stereo and it was quite odd seeing people walking from left to right while hearing their steps pattering from right to left.

Swapping the L&R of a piece of music should not affect its objective integrity. It’s still exactly the same piece of music after all, with nothing added or subtracted. The trouble is it then has to strike our ears and be processed by two halves of brain in order to be heard and enjoyed. If the listener is habituated to certain conventions such as the spatial arrangement of an orchestra, e.g the trombones parping on the right, then to hear them suddenly on the left may produce a feeling of unease, much as one feels looking at a photo of oneself when used to seeing one’s ugly fizzog in the mirror. This is I suspect merely due to conditioning and could presumably be reduced with repetition.

More interestingly perhaps are subtle disctinctions between both the ways in which the different ears respond to sound and the way in which sounds are processed by the two brain hemispheres.

“From birth, the ear is structured to distinguish between various types of sounds and to send them to the optimal side in the brain for processing,” explains Yvonne Sininger, Ph.D., visiting professor of head and neck surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Yet no one has looked closely at the role played by the ear in processing auditory signals.” LOL at David Geffen school of medicine. School of rawk, surely?

“The auditory regions of the two halves of the brain sort out sound differently. The left side dominates in deciphering speech and other rapidly changing signals, while the right side leads in processing tones and music. Our findings demonstrate that auditory processing starts in the ear before it is ever seen in the brain […] even at birth, the ear is structured to distinguish between different types of sound and to send it to the right place in the brain.”

So could this mean, for example, that rhythms might be processed more effectively if piped in on one side and complex melodies or harmonies on t’other? And thus to swap over one’s favourite track could ensure we process it suboptimally and don’t enjoy it as much as we should? Are sound engineers aware of this? I suspect the brain is so fast it makes little difference, but you never know. Either way, if it’s Oasis blaring out I’ll be using my third ear only, to mark my appreciation.