Category Archives: culture

Stephen Fry on Twitter

Stephen Fry

“Jenny Baglady Beavan and Stephen Outrageous Misogynist Swine Fry at the #EEBAFTAs after party”

Richard Dawkins is not the only one having problems with his Twitter comments. Stephen Fry announced he is giving up on his twitter account – at least for now. this comes after a twitter storm attacking a comment he made at the British Academy Awards (see Stephen Fry deletes Twitter account after Baftas ‘bag lady’ criticism for details).

However, I did enjoy his own personal announcement at his official site – (see Too many people have peed in the pool). Here is what he has to say about what the Twitter community has become:

“To leave that metaphor, let us grieve at what twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know. It’s as nasty and unwholesome a characteristic as can be imagined. It doesn’t matter whether they think they’re defending women, men, transgender people, Muslims, humanists … the ghastliness is absolutely the same. It makes sensible people want to take an absolutely opposite point of view. I’ve heard people shriek their secularism in such a way as to make me want instantly to become an evangelical Christian.”

Really, it amazes me that people can take Twitter seriously as a source of information – especially seriously enough to demonise a person.

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Don’t put all the blame on the Germans – a lesson from World War II

800px-Khatyn_Memorial,_Belarus

Sculpture of the “Unbowed man” at the Khatyn Memorial site. The sculpture depicts Yuzif Kaminsky, the only adult to survive the massacre, holding his dead son Adam. Credit: John Oldale.Click to enlarge

The recent commemorations of Victory Day in Europe – the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe – got me thinking about how we refer to Germany as the perpetrator of the horrors in that war. Often we more correctly use the term “Nazi Germany” – but still it must place a burden of guilt on many Germans who were, and are innocent.

On the other hand, it seems to me, it almost ignores the very real responsibility of people from other nations for these atrocities. (Although, granted some speakers will also refer to involvement of collaborators).

The Khatyn Massacre

Many years ago I visited the war memorial at Khatyn, in Belarus. This was a very moving experience because it symbolised how that nation had lost a quarter of its population during the war. All the residents of this village had been herded into barns which were then set alight – anyone attempting to escape was shot. The photo above shows part of the memorial depicting the man who was thought to be the sole survivor.

Very moving.

I certainly got the impression that this horror was perpetrated by German soldiers. But my reading in recent days convinces me I was wrong, and had been wrongly informed. The perpetrators were a nazi battalion – but one established in Kiev and made up mainly of Ukrainian nationalists. Here are some details from the Wikipedia entry on the Khatyn massacre:

Khatyn or Chatyń (Belarusian and Russian: Хаты́нь, pronounced [xɐˈtɨnʲ]) was a village of 26 houses and 156 inhabitants in Belarus, in Lahoysk Raion, Minsk Region, 50 km away from Minsk. On 22 March 1943, the entire population of the village was massacred by the 118th Schutzmannschaft Nazi battalion. The battalion was formed in July 1942 in Kiev and was made up mostly of Ukrainian nationalist collaborators from Western Ukraine, Hiwis[1][2][3] and the DirlewangerWaffen-SS special battalion.

The massacre was not an unusual incident in Belarus during World War II. At least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were burned and destroyed by the Nazis, and often all their inhabitants were killed (some amounting up to 1,500 victims) as a punishment for collaboration with partisans. Khatyn became a symbol of all those villages. In the Vitebsk region, 243 villages were burned down twice, 83 villages three times, and 22 villages were burned down four or more times. In the Minsk region, 92 villages were burned down twice, 40 villages three times, nine villages four times, and six villages five or more times.[4] Altogether, over 2,000,000 people were killed in Belarus during the three years of Nazi occupation, almost a quarter of the country’s population.[5][6]

It’s worth following up some of the links for more details.

The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, which included the Schutzmannschaft Nazis involved in this and many other massacres, carried out anti-Jewish and anti-partisan operations in most areas of Ukraine. While these units were formed directly after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941 Ukrainian nationalist organisations existed before that invasion. These extremist organisations were not just “nationalist,” but were racist – expressing hatred for Poles, Jews and above all, Russians. And these three groups became their victims during the war.

Misinforming tourists

I had happily accepted the story that the Khatyn Massacre was perpetrated by “Nazis” – assuming they were German Nazis. So this information came as a bit of a shock to me. Worse – the role of such nationalist forces was not talked about much during Soviet times in fear of encouraging antagonism between the different republics. So innocent tourists were left in the dark about the true origins of the perpetrators – despite the fact that the leaders of the battalion involved had been brought to justice. As Wikipedia says:

“The commander of one of the platoons of 118th Schutzmannschaft Battalion, Ukrainian Vasyl Meleshko, was tried in a Soviet court and executed in 1975. The Chief of Staff of 118th Schutzmannschaft Battalion, Ukrainian Grigory Vassiura, was tried in Minsk in 1986 and found guilty of all his crimes. He was sentenced to death by the verdict of the military tribunal of the Belorussian military district.

The case and the trial of the main executioner of Khatyn was not given much publicity in the media; the leaders of the Soviet republics worried about the inviolability of unity between the Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples.”

A lesson for today

So the message is – when your hear about Nazi atrocities the perpetrators were not necessarily German. We should not forget the role played by collaborators and non-German nationalists in the Holocaust and other atrocities.

epa04318197 New soldiers of Ukrainian army battalion 'Azov' attend their oath of allegiance ceremony before departing to eastern Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, 16 July 2014. The government in Kiev does not recognize the declared independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and pro-Russian militants refuse to cooperate with the pro-European leadership in Kiev. Ukraine insisted that there would be no ceasefire or negotiations before the pro-Russian separatists in the country's east give up their arms.  EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

New soldiers of Ukrainian army battalion ‘Azov’ attend their oath of allegiance ceremony before departing to eastern Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine, 16 July 2014.Image Credit: EPA/ROMAN PILIPEY

And this is not an abstract appeal. Today the inheritors of the Ukrainian nationalist organisations which committed these atrocities are alive and very active in Ukraine. They even have military battalions fighting in the current civil war. Worse, the US has now sent their own troops into Ukraine to train National Guard battalions which include units like the Azov Batallion which is based on extreme National Socialist ideology.

Talk about a slippery slope.

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Tim Minchin – an inspirational speech to graduates

Tim Minchin Occasional Address and Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters –

This is a real classic – Tim Minchin’s inspirational speech to graduates on his being awared an honorary doctorate. It has a lot of wisdom in it and the ideas are concisely, but effectively, expressed.

Tim has placed the full text of his speech on his blog – see OCCASIONAL ADDRESS. I urge you to watch the video but will just quote from one section of his speech – his advice to “Be Hard On Your Opinions:”


A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat.
Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

By the way, while I have science and arts grads in front of me: please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things.

If you need proof: Twain, Adams, Vonnegut, McEwen, Sagan, Shakespeare, Dickens. For a start.

You don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet. You don’t need to hate GM technology to care about the beauty of the planet. You don’t have to claim a soul to promote compassion.

Science is not a body of knowledge nor a system of belief; it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome.

The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. The idea that many Australians – including our new PM and my distant cousin Nick – believe that the science of anthropogenic global warming is controversial, is a powerful indicator of the extent of our failure to communicate. The fact that 30% of this room just bristled is further evidence still. The fact that that bristling is more to do with politics than science is even more despairing.”


Scientists will love this speech – so will teachers.

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Talking sense about morality

Here’s a great blog post by Jerry Coyne outlining a scientific approach to morality (see How should we be moral?: Three papers and a good book) it gives a summary of his current ideas and a reading list of papers and a book which have influenced him.

I go along with Jerry’s conclusions but I would add a couple of things  to his summary:

  1. I agree that there is no such thing a objective morality – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can show an objective basis for morality. We can understand how some of our values have an objective basis (others may not) and this is important in our evaluation of moral codes.
  2. I think we should extend our understanding of an instinctual morality model (as opposed to a rational one) beyond the simple proposition of an evolutionary origins of our instincts. We need to see that the instincts or intuitions driving our moral feelings or emotions can also develop, or evolve, via cultural mechanisms. I think this is important to understanding of the moral zeitgeist, the way that our moral codes tend to change over time.

An objective basis for morality?

There is a difference between objective morality – which implies some sort of moral truth existing independently of humanity – and objectively based morality. This latter implies that there is a basis for our morality – the nature of our species – which means that we generally come to the same moral conclusions. Our morality is not just a matter of personal choice.

I see the simplest basis of morality in the simple facts of life itself. Living organisms, even the most primitive, have the property of valuing life and its continuation. Without this basic biological value such organisms would not survive and reproduce. Just imagine a simple organism which ignored indications of nutrients in its environment and had no ability, or “desire,” to reproduce. Natural selection would soon have put paid to it.

While initial organisms may have had simple physical and chemical mechanisms putting biological value into effect evolution eventually led to development of neuronal structures and brains. Biological value could be expressed as instincts and emotions.

Evolution of social animals provided requirements for a finer structure to biological value. The interactions between organisms became more important and this finer structure became represented in the instincts and emotions of social animals – including humans.

Long story short – I see an objective basis for human morality in human nature itself. The fact that we are a sentient, intelligent, conscious, social and empathetic species.

Hijacking human instinct

Of course, there is not necessarily a direct line between our evolved instincts, objectively based in biological and social value, and the morality we profess.  Jonathan Haidt described his useful theory of foundational moral values in his recent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (see my review in Human morality is evolving). While some of our moral codes related to life, care, harm and well-being are related to foundational human values involved with life and its survival – biological and social value – others are not. Or at least they are driven by instincts which have been hijacked. For example instincts of purity may well be related to survival and life, but moral codes related to sacredness, racial superiority and religious purity (unrelated to life and survival) rely on the hijacking of such instincts.

So while I assert that there is an objective basis for some of our morality – especially that related to life, care, harm and well-being –  some of our morality may well not have a genuine objective basis, even though it utilises basic human instincts.

Moral learning and moral zeitgeist

A simple instinctive model of morality, relying on evolved instincts and not conscious deliberation, really doesn’t explain how and why human morality changes. It doesn’t explain the moral zeitgeist.

I think it’s necessary to include both rational consideration as well as instinctive, emotional reaction, to explain this. As Jerry said, our “instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution.” But it doesn’t stop there. Our intuitions, and hence our emotions, are produced unconsciously, without delineation, but over time they are influenced by our conscious deliberation and learning.

When we learn to ride a bike, or even to walk as a toddler, our actions are deliberate. We consciously consider them and put them into effect. But with learning these actions no longer need conscious deliberation. They are incorporated into our unconscious brain and carried out automatically. Just as well – imagine that adults had to continue all the conscious activity the toddler uses when they start walking. With all the inevitable conscious mistakes. Just imagine grown-ups walking along the footpath, but every so often falling on their backside like a toddler! Because the process of walking had not been learned and incorporated into their unconscious.

I argue, that the conscious moral deliberations of individuals and society produce the same sort of learning. These deliberation may be active – as, for example, our current discussion of marriage equality. Or the learning could be almost passive. Exposure to our culture. I think many people have unconsciously shifted their attitudes towards working mothers, racial integration and homosexuals because of their exposure to TV shows, books, and life itself, where these modern moral attitudes are accepted.

Incorporation of this moral learning into our subconscious means that  homosexuality, for example, no longer automatically provokes our instincts of purity and disgust. Or meeting an atheist no longer causes us to react out of disgust or respect for authority.

So while our day-to-day moral functioning relies on these intuitional reactions and not logical consideration, these unconscious intuitional reactions have been modified by our learning and exposure to cultural changes.

Moral progress?

On the one hand, that moral attitudes related to care, life, harm and well-being can have an objective basis in biological value, in the very nature of life, means we have ways – both emotional and logical – at arriving at common agreement on what is “right” and “wrong.” On the other hand, although our morality is instinctive or intuitional and not rational (at least in common day-to-day activity) the deliberate intellectual consideration of moral issues, as well as our passive exposure to a culture which is changing because of that deliberate consideration, means that we are capable of moral learning. Of adjusting our automatic moral reactions over time. Of making moral progress.

And I think we can conclude that this has happened on issues such as human rights and discrimination – even if not uniformly and evenly.

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What’s in store for eBook readers

Dedicated eReader or an iPad?

I think many New Zealanders have joined the digital reading revolution. They are purchasing eBooks on-line and reading them on a tablet, such as the iPad, or a dedicated reading device, an eReader.

Personally I think eReaders are a better device for reading – because they don’t provide distractions. Anyway, here I just want to comment on what we can possible look forward to, or expect, in upcoming eReaders.

The major eReaders available in New Zealand all do their job well. The current standard is built-in Wi-Fi and a touch screen. Choice really seems to come down to aesthetics and not actual performance (for example, the major criticism of the Sony appears to be a shiny plastic bezel which could annoy readers). Book formats could also be another factor – choosing between Amazon’s mobi and the alternative ePub open format.

Retail prices for some of the current models in New Zealand have dropped recently. It’s that time of the year  – look forward to announcement of new models in the next few months. Currently I have no idea what to expect. Haven’t picked up any rumours yet. But here are some possibilities worth considering:

Glowlight!

Barnes and Noble latest eReader is the Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight. This has  LED lights embedded into the side of the frame. Power drain is low so battery life isn’t markedly reduced. But its a great idea – especially for those with who have sleeping partners but enjoy reading in bed.

Personally I enjoy the fact that eReaders are not backlit as tablets are. Apparently that makes reading harsher. And the dedicated eReader experience is more like reading the printed page. But in bed, or on other low light situations this innovation would be great.

Barnes and Noble does not sell their Nook eReaders in New Zealand but the fact that these new eInk screens are being produced makes uptake by Sony, Kobo or Kindle likely in the near future.

Colour screens

Colour eInk screens are a possibility in future eReaders. The technology is available. These screens won’t have the brilliant colour of backlit tablet screens but should be an advantage for some books – especially comics and technical books with images. However, manufacturers of the smaller screen eReaders may prefer to produce an alternative tablet or backlit screen model, such as the Kindle Fire, Kobo Vox and Nook  colour. For them this may represent the best approach to the market.

Larger screens

The Jetbook Color has a 9.7 inch screen

This is something we have yet to see in New Zealand. I feel there is a market for these – the 6 inch screens are ideal for novels and relatively straightforward non-fiction. But text books, and many other technical books would be far better on the larger screen. Such a screen would also by ideal for pdf formats – and we often have to read other documents besides novels – especially if we are students or researchers. And a larger screen displaying a full pdf or document page will probably work better a 6 inch screen with material we need to refer back to. Something to do with storing the place on the page of an image or piece of information on a page in our memory.

Non-dedicated tablets may be preferred by many people. However the larger iInk screen dedicated devices would have the advantages of longer battery life (using the iPad as a portable device must have its drawbacks because of the battery), less distraction and more comfortable reading. High prices for large screen eReaders could be a drawback, at least until they are more common.

Ectaco Jetbook Color under trial in a Russian classroom

A hopeful sign is that the 9.7 inch Ectaco Jetbook Color e-Reader,the only touchscreen Color E Ink eBook Reader in the world, has come on the market overseas. It is being evaluated for educational purposes in some US schools and a large number of Russian schools. This eReader is clearly targeted at the education market as it comes preloaded with many text books and educational aids. The US Defense Department is also using itReviews indicate that this could be a useful dedicated device.

Removal of DRM

Journalists are speculating that the days of Digital Rights Management (DRM) are numbered. A few publishers have already abandoned it and competition, or is it antagonism, between Amazon and many publishers could lead to its widespread removal. It’s a complex issue but publishers seem to think DRM enables Amazon to achieve monopoly control and to enforce use of their eReaders and eBook format.

Some people, including many authors, really hate DRM. Readers resent the inability to really own the book they have bought as DRM often enforces use of a single device, prevents lending or passing books on to friends and family, and often makes side loading (loading books from other sources, even in the proper format), complicated.

However, computer savy readers usually have no problem removing DRM. And there is a high motivation to do so. Not for piracy or any other illegal use. But to enable use of different formats and books from different sources. As well as legitimate sharing.

Just imagine buying a print book (pBook), going to read it at home and finding that some of the pages are uncut. Easily remedied. But imagine downloading an eBook and finding that your eReader will not open it. No, not a format problem. Maybe some images in the book are is the swg rather than jpg format.  Or there are a large number of embedded fonts which cause the eReader to crash. (Actually the poor conversion of many books to a digital format is another bitch I have about publishers). I have had both problems and let me tell you that eBook sellers like Kobo don’t exactly have a functioning help department.

In such cases the books can easily be corrected by the computer savy reader once the DRM is removed. Why should they be prevented from do so?

On the other hand I know from my friends that many owners of eReaders don’t give a stuff about DRM. They may not know it even exists. They are happy to use the device as a simple attachment to a single provider, purchase all their books from that provider (usually Amazon), and never go hunting for other sources. DRM is probably a non-issue for them.

Conclusion

I suspect a glow screen may be the next common feature – in fact this has already been rumoured for the Kindle. So I would not be surprised to see it in upcoming local eReader models.

Colour and larger eInk screens would be nice. However, I suspect this may not happen soon if tablets, like the iPad, continue their market dominance. On the other hand, institutional and educational pressures could bring the price of larger screen, colour, eReaders down. That is something I would like as the ability to easily read text books, technical articles, pdfs and reference material in a larger format would be really useful.

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Cascading books

This is the sort of public art installation I love. Years ago I spent a day in Hanover waiting for a train. The public art installations there impressed me. One that seemed to gather the largest audience was a simple bail of rubbish. People spent time just wandering around identifying the rubbish items in the bale.

I can see myself doing the same thing here – wandering around identifying the books. A bit like window-shopping in a bookshop – or wine store.

There are more photos of this installation at 5,000 Books Pour Out of a Building in Spain. Also some of the story behind it and the artist Alicia Martin and a video showing more detail (see below). The book pages even blow open in the wind!

Alicia Martin Biografias

Thanks to Adrienne Rewi (@AdrienneRewi).

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Science and the “supernatural”

I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

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Does science lead to secularism?

Some writings on the science/religion relationship are important and interesting. But we have to sieve through such a lot of rubbish to find the gems. I guess its one area where most people have their own agenda and can’t keep it out of their reasoning.

Frank James’s  article “Science and Religion in the London Library Magazine is an example of the latter agenda-driven analysis. He questions the role of science in the decline of Christianity. He claims that most modern science writing assumes an anti-religious stance. And such writings assume “that science has displaced Christianity during the 20th Century and that has been achieved solely due to science providing a ‘true’, evidence-based description of the world as opposed to mythic beliefs.”

Mind you, he provides no examples or evidence for this claim, although he obviously felt obliged to throw in the usual reference to “the strident outpourings of Richard Dawkins and others.”

In other words, a classic example of straw-mannery. I certainly have never read such a bald claim in the Dawkins’ writings, or the writings of any scientist. And certainly not in the writings of scientists who have researched religion, its origins and evolution.

But perhaps the straw man is just a literary device to enable James to convey his own onions on the relationship between science and religion and the real cause of secularism.* Let’s look at his claims:

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A hymn for Darwin Day

This little hymn brings back memories and seems quite appropriate with Darwin Day (February 12) coming up.

I remember very little from my Sunday school education. But three memories I have from the Salvation army Sunday School I attended are:

  1. Being told that in heaven the streets were paved with gold!
  2. Singing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam!”, and
  3. Singing “All things bright and beautiful.”

Of course the last hymn has been sung by experts – Monty Python comes to mind.

But here is the latest I picked up by Ben Hillman.

Thanks also to RichardDawkins.net. 

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Shoddy reporting on “god genes”

Having just read the paper referred to in my last post ) I was rudely distracted from my Sudoku puzzle during the TV news last night. A news report on this research grabbed my attention.

What a waste of time, though. Unfortunately it’s only value was as an example of the shoddy reporting which seems so frequent with science coverage these days.

What was the take home message for the ordinary viewer? – Scientists have discovered a “god gene”! A gene which makes people religious! We even got a shot of the first page of the paper to “prove” it. And other news sources have conveyed the same impressions (see for example Researcher discovers “religion gene”; Scientist: Religion gene spreads the word).

No god gene discovered!

But this is not true. The paper was written by an economist, not a molecular biologist. He developed mathematical models which  assumed a single god gene, or at least “religious predisposition (“religiosity” for short) is determined by a single gene”

It was an assumption for his model. It was not proved. No gene was discovered or identified in this work.

So the person in the street has been left with the impression that science has discovered a “god gene.” Worse, if the person in the street thinks about this and realises how silly it is she will take home the message that some scientists are really stupid.

Having conveyed a completely false message the TV report went on with fillers to rub it is. They interviewed Christians at a church who said they were happy to “believe in Jesus” and that their god created these genes anyway so they must be good. An academic got a brief sound bite – but he was an “expert on religion” not evolution or genetics and clearly didn’t understand this issue.

Ignore research results!

The news report effectively ignored the real findings of this research paper. This was that the model (which also assumed a higher fertility for members of conservative fundamentalist religions) predicted a growing influence of such religious views. Either by simple dominance via fertility or by spreading of a “god gene” via defections.

Now this is worth discussing. Irrespective of genes the higher birth rate for members of conservative fundamentalist relgions is an empirical fact.  There has been some discussion of this in other media. See God’s little rabbits: Religious people out-reproduce secular ones by a landslide in Scientific American; Atheists a dying breed as nature ‘favours faithful’ in Sunday Times; and  Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind and It seems religion is not a neurotic accretion on human nature in The Guardian.

And I am sure viewers would have found such news interesting. Just imagine all the discussion it would have provoked at home around the TV set. Rational and irrational. Thoughtful and racist. But interesting. And better out than in.

Why could that have not been the central point in the TV news item? And I am sure we have capable demographers and evolutionary scientists in New Zealand who could have added to the discussion.

That would have been worth putting my Sudoku aside for.