Monday, 19 December 2011

Goodbye Great Britain

I will be flying to the US on Tuesday morning to start a "new" life in New York City (via New Hampshire for Christmas). It has been a long process to get to this stage, my initial visa application was sent this time last year and I don't think there has been a single day since that someone hasn't asked me "when are you going?", my self deprecating side wonders if they are eager to get rid of me! Of course, though there is frustration at having to answer the same question many times a day (no fault of the questioner), it is also humbling and heart-warming that many have an interest.

Getting a (spousal) visa for the US is a long and boring process, but thorough, I've had medicals, police reports, interviews and just made a copy of our full application which ended up being a whopping 55-pages (probably more, but I only copied what I thought I really needed to). I've had to fill in tax forms for my wife covering the last six years, and the previous year we bought a house (which we're now renting). We've also got my wife British citizenship so I have filled in enough paperwork in the last two years to last a lifetime! Yet there are more forms to come when I enter the country...

I've never been to New York so to dive straight in to a permanent residency is perhaps a bit risky, but I'd be a fool to not take on the promotion and chance to live in a place like NYC, if it doesn't work out I can at least say I tried, and I'd only be spending the rest of my life wondering "what if..." otherwise. I've been relatively calm about all this for the last year but when my flights were booked last Monday and it suddenly became "real" there seemed to be a heavy weight dumped onto my shoulders. It wasn't until last week I even had sorted out a place to live in the city!

Still, I'd like to look back before I move forwards, when faced with such a move it's made me think about my identity, who I am as a person. I've been very fortunate that I just so happened to be born not just in England  (which must rank as one of the most desirable countries to live), but the beautiful city of Oxford. Such serendipity could lead one to become guilty of solipsism.

I often think of myself as first and foremost, someone from Oxford, then from England (then British), though I'm not overtly patriotic in any case. Oxford has felt a huge part of my life, I just love being in it, taking a stroll around Radcliffe Square (pictured) and many of the other wonderful main streets and narrow alleyways. Getting a sense of the achievements of many great scientists, authors and assorted intellectuals that have passed through the history of the area cannot help but give one a sense of wonder, and the architecture is exquisite beyond words and is truly moving. I love nothing more than talking a stroll around Christ Church meadow, spending a lunchtime in the Museum of Natural History or my personal favourite, The Museum of the History of Science, and of course one cannot overlook the main museum of the city, the Ashmolean, and there are many other museums worth a visit. So it is not without great consideration that I would move away from home, somewhere that feels like it's coded into my DNA itself. On Saturday I also managed to catch a final game at my beloved Oxford United, we beat Northampton 2-0 so it was nice to end on a victory. I'll have to worry about how best to catch up with the football when I'm out there.

Oxford is not without its flaws, of course, which include a lack of amenities in general and a dearth of independant shops (the recession seems to have been particularly cruel here) particularly for music. Sometimes the students can be a bit of a pain in the arse (many are perfectly pleasant, in my experience, I should say...), there is nothing more frustrating for this local boy than to overhear a conversation in the pub of people pretending to appear self-indulgently intellectual. This can reliably be experienced in the otherwise delightful Eagle and Child pub, no doubt the reason for misguided conversations of the wannabe intellegientsia is due to the venue being the pub of choice for The Inklings.

I will of course, greatly miss friends and family most of all, but efforts will always be made by and to those that matter the most, I would wish not to dwell on such thoughts for now as it is alien territory, but the fact is I don't get to socialise with many people as much as I'd like to anyway so all that is required is some careful planning. Unfortunately, christmas has been a bit of a bust this year and I haven't written any cards or bought and presents, which I feel bad about, but at least I have a good excuse I think! I sit here writing this, with time ticking by, trying to cram in a few of my favourite things while I still can. First and foremost I have David Attenborough's latest series, Frozen Planet, recorded and am trying to complete it before heading off, managed to squeeze in four episodes on Saturday morning and I have about 1 to finish! Attenborough is a personal hero and I can leave the country with the satisfaction of having met him briefly at a book signing a couple of years ago.

With bags yet to be packed and many last-minute arrangements to fulfil, I long for a moment at some point in the future (hopefully not-so-distant future...) where I am relaxed (preferably with a satisfying beverage), letting out a big sigh of relief that everything worked out just fine. With so much going on it has been hard not to drown in an ocean of stress and there will no doubt be difficult moments as I try to adjust, but there is much to look forward to and I am looking forward to living a new chapter in my life. As much as I love where I am from, this has made me realise a desire to experience something different. I will be back at least once a year so whilst there are many things and people I feel as though I didn't quite get time for, there will hopefully be other opportunities. My goodbyes have unfortunately been as inadequate as this blog, but the arrow of time only goes forward, and it is time to look that way...

First image in this post is by the amazing Terry Border

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011

I woke up this morning to the terrible, but not unexpected news, that Christopher Hitchens had passed away.

Hitch (always Christopher, never Chris) was a man of outstanding intellect and his mastery of the English language was, in my experience, unsurpassed by anyone. Reading his words and hearing his voice was like having a intravenous drip of knowledge delivered straight to your very core. Hitch's greatest weapon, for me, was his ability to make you think about a subject, even if you vehemently disagreed with his stance on something you had to admire his ability to make a compelling argument on just about anything.

Christopher was diagnosed with stage 4 oesophageal cancer in June 2010 ("there is no stage 5", he remarked), who knows if it was a result of his lifestyle, it was rare up to that point to see a picture of the man without a cigarette or a drink, but his father also died of the same disease so perhaps his genes are to blame.

His tour-de-force, in my opinion, was 2007's God Is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything. But his attacks on people like Mother Theresa should also not be forgotten and showed just how much damage she did as opposed to good.

Many people are wary of Hitch's political yo-yo performance over the years, but the left-right sides of politics should be much more blurred than what they are and he showed this over the years, I think. It seems almost ridiculous that you can often take a subject and predict someone's political leanings based on their answer (abortion, education, etc, etc) but each subject should be tackled on its own merits and people tend to stick to political ideologies through stubbornness.

One of the four horsemen of New Atheism (self-proclaimed by Hitch as he knew they would only be given a name by someone else at some stage) along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett, Hitch's performance in religious debates leaves a trail of defeated opponents that would make even a vengeful deity proud.

So often were his opponents left realing after a verbal knockout, the term Hitchslap was born.

This particular performance is a snippet from a debate he had alongside Stephen Fry, against Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop Onaiyekan (you can find the whole debate on youtube, search for Christopher Hitchens Stephen Fry Intelligence Squared or something similar).

While his support of the Iraq war surprised some and lost him some friends and allies, it is easy to understand why he supported it. Throughout his life the one thing you can say he was absolutely consistent with regards to a subject was his disgust of anything totalitarian in nature. This was his biggest gripe towards religion, the unjustified worship, the need to be subservient to a dictator that was not elected, he compared heaven to a celestial North Korea.

The world has lost a great intellectual and possibly our most devastatingly intellectually honest writer. He passed away with an unrivaled dignity. He never wavered during his illness, honest until the end. His last article on Vanity Fair titled Trial of the Will in particular is a brutal exercise in realising one's own mortality. But while some argue there are no atheists in foxholes, Christopher continued to prove many people wrong about such notions.

It is our office christmas party tonight, and I shall be having a contemplative toast in his honour, and if the bar has any Johnnie Walker Black Label then all the better. Christopher, thank you.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature

We are constantly bombarded from all directions with news stories and images of various atrocities throughout the world, so it's no surprise that when someone claims that we're actually living in the most peaceful time in human history, a few heads are turned. This is the claim that cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, has made in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I haven't read the book yet and am looking forward to doing so (it is a whopping 800-or-so pages, but such a subject is deserving of a full analysis). I did, however, have the pleasure of seeing him do a lecture about his new book at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on the 3rd of November. Unfortunately it wasn't possible for Steven to use a screen to emphasise some of his points with various charts and images, but it just made for more emphasis on what he actually had to say. While violence has not decreased to 0 and there are no guarantees that violence will not increase again in the future, there are reasons to be cheerful.

It seems Pinker has the empirical evidence to back up his claims (the list of source data is hefty), even the catastrophic wars and regimes of the 20th century are part of this decline in violence, it almost seems natural to think that it was the most violent time in human history, but as a % of the world population, World War II barely scrapes into the top ten of the most horrible events of all time. People never seem to cite pre-20th century atrocities in the first place (the Triple Alliance War is thought to have decimated 60% of the population of Paraguay, for example). To justify his claims, Pinker has to account for violent deaths as a % of the world population which may seem a copout for some who could say that a rise in the absolute number of violent deaths would be cause for concern (WWII is the deadliest in terms of absolute numbers), but it's the only fair way to gauge violence over the ages. If you consider that % of world population is not a fair measurement you run into some problems (both morally and rationally). Here is a passage of the book that goes a little way to explaining why a violent deaths as a % of world population is the best way to measure violence over history:

As I note in the book,  “Part of the bargain of being alive is that one takes a chance at dying a premature or painful death, be it from violence, accident, or disease. So the number of people in a given time and place who enjoy full lives has to be counted as a moral good, against which we calibrate the moral bad of the number who are victims of violence. Another way of expressing this frame of mind is to ask, `If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?’ [Either way, we are led to] the conclusion that in comparing the harmfulness of violence across societies, we should focus on the rate, rather than the number, of violent acts.”

There are many reasons speculated for the decline of violence, abolition of slavery (as of 1980 slavery is now illegal everywhere on the planet) and witchunts, humanitarian and equal rights movements, etc. Printing and literacy get high praise and other enlightenment values, when knowledge and reason have surpassed superstition and ignorance then there is no reason to be violent towards certain groups. Also the increase of literacy can increase the amount of empathy in the world, imagining what it is like to be someone else, is cited as a potential reason. Pinker shows that human nature is complex and while we still have inclinations to be violent, we also have historical circumstances that favour peaceful intentions.

This is not the lecture I witnessed but it is the lecture with which he is currently touring:

I got my books signed afterward (I also have a copy of Words and Rules) and he was kind enough to pose for a photo. It's also interesting to know that Pinker carries a gene that causes baldness in 80% in carriers, clearly he is in the 20%!

So, if Pinker is right (and I think he is), we should be optimistic and even more grateful for enlightenment principles than perhaps we take for granted, but it's important to remember that there is no guarantee that violence will continue to decrease and it would seem foolish to ever speculate it would become 0 (a point he stresses himself). It seems while we need to concentrate on what we as a species has done "right" over history to drive violence down, we shouldn't get complacent. It strikes me that while idiotic ideologies are still rife in the world, coupled with an increase in technology, it may become possible for fewer people to inflict more destruction on more people with less effort. While we still have irrational superstition in the world, and people who are willing to kill in the name of iron age mythology, we have reason to be wary. It seems obvious that reason and rationality will be the driving force towards a more peaceful future if we are to reach one on a much larger global scale.

Since this post, I have read the book, my review is here.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

My favourite video games

I found an article from a couple of years ago that I wrote about my favourite video games, and while I'm in the process of writing a few new articles for this blog (and I'd love to hear any suggestions about other subjects that might be interesting), I thought this would be a handy stop-gap.

When compiling this list, I found myself being drawn into nostalgia, perhaps because I have many more childhood memories with games than I did with other things, anyway, nostalgia or not I have picked games that I have enjoyed immensely since my earliest memories. My main criteria was “how much time did I / do I spend playing this game?” and while the order is fairly loose, I think it’s accurate.

Sensible World of Soccer (PC): This had to be number one, the first Sensible Soccer game was also brilliant, but Sensible World of Soccer added a new element, with tweaked gameplay but the best thing was you could select a team to manage, you could get promoted / relegated, make transfers, it had all the cups, etc. It was just brilliant, a strikeforce of Bebeto and surprise package Gordon Watson (anyone remember him?) who cost a bargain £325k... I was so into this game that I documented my entire 20-season (that's how long it would let you go in one game) history, including all player appearances and goals, transfers in and out, etc, etc. I had 2 A4 binders of the stuff, I think they're still in the attic. I doubt I have racked up more hours on any other game, and I would have thrashed the pants off anybody, I should have entered tournaments.

Counter Strike (PC): Of course, this had to be in here, given that I'm in a clan that is(was) dedicated to the game. I started playing in 1999, I think, when it was CS version 1.3. Many updates have since come and gone but the popularity of the game is still staggering. An online first-person shoot 'em 'up, simple goodies (Counter-Terrorists) versus Baddies (Terrorists), in a variety of maps, simply fantastic times although the family-community that is VMK possibly puts this game higher than it would if it were strictly on a gameplaying basis alone.

Football Manager / Championship Manager (PC): Any longterm fans of this series will know about the split between Football Manager and Championship manager (Football Manager is now very much the title to chose from) but they used to be one and the same. And I couldn't pick between an individual release so it's the whole lot I'm talking about here. I would lose days playing these games, always attempting to drag Oxford (much like in Sensible World of Soccer come to think of it) from the depths of the football league to domestic and European glory. Many people simply don't understand the idea of playing games like these where you don't really "play" the games themselves, but those of us with he bug know what it's about. In one game I even edited myself into the team as a youngster, although I made myself so good that I refused to sign a new contract and buggered off to a bigger club. Lesson learned. It was probably Championship Manager 3 that I have spent most my time on.

Pro Evolution Soccer (PS1 to present day, PS3): When this series started, it began as International Superstar Soccer but in more recent years morphed into Pro Evolution Soccer. The series as a whole has largely been excellent and continues to be lapped up in large numbers with each release. Although recent years has seen Fifa become arguably a better game in the last couple of years, I'm hopeful that Pro Evo can claw back the title of best football game. Playing this against friends had led to many laughs, and many insults!

Mechwarrior 2 (PC): What could be more fun than rumbling around in a giant robot blowing things up? Not many things. Mechwarrior 2 brought with it a sense of graphical awe at the time and this was a very skilful game to play with so many ways you could twist and turn your Mech, the thought of being able to move in one direction but swivel your body in another was great fun. My Dad and I and would play this together usually, I would be in control of the movement while he was the weapons man, and we still joke about him using an AC-20 like it was a machine gun, fun times.

Savage Empire (PC – 386 processor days): Savage Empire was a huge and complex RPG (especially for the time), set in an unknown Jungle land filled with dinosaurs and various tribes, the ultimate goal of the game is to get all the tribes to unite and destroy some kind of evil race. Of course each tribe has its own tasks you have to fulfil before they will join in with your unity, ranging from finding stuff, to killing a T-rex, etc, this game was huge, and fun, and very difficult. You had to communicate with computer characters by typing stuff in, which was also fun but made things difficult if you couldn’t find the right words to say to get more information (imagine how long it took before you even thought of typing the word “unite” for any reason!).

UFO - Enemy Unknown (PC – 486 processor?): This game was immense! Basically you had to save earth from alien invasions, the crux of the game was a turn-based strategy game while in contact with the enemy, but you also had to build up a base, research technology, keep various countries happy (you had a budget each month, the more you kept a country happy the more money they gave you) and just about handle everything you could imagine that would be thrown at you. I’m not sure another game has created such suspense as this.

Quake 2 (PC): Another FPS game but Quake II successfully attempted to bridge a gap between FPS shooters and task-based RPG games while also kicking things up a gear with impressive graphics.

Streetfighter 2: Championship Edition (Mega drive): The best fighting game, who hasn’t heard of Street Fighter? Anyway, this version in particular was the one that caught my fancy. Funnily enough I bought my younger brother one of those things that are essentially a control-pad that you stick into the TV and it has a game on it (imagine back in the day, 1993, that a whole console was needed to play this game), anyway a few months later he was playing it when I visited and he completely kicked my arse. It was a bit like the young pretender finally taking the crown of game-playing, a sad feeling, still, I taught him well.

Gauntlet (Amstrad CPC464): Spent many a day with this, usually playing with my brother, who tended to be the wizard, I would tend to (and have tended to ever since when it comes to games of this ilk) play as the barbarian. Gauntlet was a fantasy hack ‘n’ slash game, you had a birdseye-view, the graphics were simple and the game was hugely playable. The purpose of the game was simply to escape each level, finding the exit after a myriad of dead-ends and huge variety of monsters, if you ever saw “Death” chasing after you (I always thought it looked like a gorilla) then you had to just run! The game never actually ended, to my knowledge, after a certain point the levels would just randomly generate. And if you ever got stuck, you could just sit in the same place for an age (seriously, it felt like hours) and every block would turn into an exit!

Monkey Island 2 (PC): The best adventure game ever, enough said. If you ever played this game then you’ll know just how fun, and difficult it was.

Dune 2 (PC - 486): I’m not sure how many people played this game but it is one of the most influential games ever and essentially established the real-time-strategy games that most people later took for granted like Command & Conquer and Starcraft.

Duke Nukem 3D (PC): “It’s time to kick arse and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of gum”, those opening lines will always be remembered. Duke Nukem blew away the previous competition (Doom II) with the added ability of being able to jump and explore much more of the world you played in. We used to design levels for this at college and have big multi-player games (sometimes in lesson!) in the same room, very fond memories. It’s also where I decided on my first game name, Albatross, though that changed when Counterstrike came along.

V-Rally 2 (PS1): Many laughs were had with friends playing this game, you could play 4-player split-screen, obviously this is before the age of mega-TVs being more obtainable so 4 people sharing a 20” screen didn’t leave you with a lot of room to look at! However, it was great fun and the single-player game was also mesmerising, not to mention one of the most unforgiving games you’ll ever play, it wouldn’t take much to knock you flying although when you became more skilled at the game it made you appreciate it much more.

Baldur's Gate (PS2): This series of games is significant in the sense that my wife will happily play them, so I get to game without getting moaned at! Balders gate is your typical walk-around hack and slash RPG, but it’s done very well.

Micro Machines up to and including V3 (Megadrive – PS1): The first game I can remember that allowed you to play with more than 2 people at one time (the cartridge housed 2 extra controller slots), brilliant! So you’re racing along against your friends and basically if anyone falls so far behind that they disappear from the screen then they lose a life, which made for great entertainment. The 3V sequel took things to another level with the 3D element of the game, although the original was equally playable.

Double Dragon (Amstrad CPC464): Scrolling beat ‘em up game, basic, but brilliant, and at the end of the game after playing co-op through the whole bloody thing you had to fight each other to get the girl, needless to say when my older brother and I would play this game the fight at the end would sometimes turn into a real fight.

Tomb Raider (PS1): This is brought platform games into the modern world, gone were linear 2-cd landscapes, enter fantastic (at the time) 3D graphics and all sorts of difficult situations in your way.

Bioshock (PS3): One of the current-generation releases in my list, this game reignited my love of single-player FPS games, that had been on the wane since Quake II.

Silkworm (Amstrad CPC464): Another game I would play with my Dad, one of you could be a helicopter, the other could be a jeep, a basic scrolling shoot ‘em up game but great fun.

Descent 1 & 2 (PC - 486): Another FPS-type game but this time you had control of a small ship in often claustrophobic surroundings, the controls were fantastic, given you complete control with its 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) gameplay. This spawned the ultimately superior “Forsaken”, but Descent was where it began.

International Track and Field (PS1): Another communal game, the rivalry my friends and I had on this game was stupendous and also led to many different playing “styles”, I invented the fleece technique, by wrapping my finger up in my fleece I could glide over the buttons with great speed rather than trying to tap each one separately.

Honourable mentions:
Resident Evil (PS1):
Sonic the Hedgehog (Master System)
Diablo (PC)
Speedball 2 (Mega Drive)

Friday, 2 September 2011

UFOs and Alien Life

(Earth vs The Flying Saucers - 1956 movie)

Anyone who claims that Unidentified Flying Objects do not exist is making an observational claim of which no-one is capable. Do they really know what everything is in the sky? I suspect not. Unfortunately, people who claim UFOs are alien space crafts are making a statement that is equally dishonest.

Many people seem to ignore the U in Unidentified Flying Object, the moment someone makes a claim that a UFO is an alien space craft, they appear to have identified the flying object, it’s no longer a UFO, but intelligent alien life forms in a machine.

A UFO does not equal alien life, it just means we don’t know what it is. We can all look at blurry photos and videos all we like, the “evidence” so far is at best inconclusive, at worst contemptible. Eye witness testimony is just about all we have in terms of evidence that alien space craft have visited our solar system, the problem is that humans are very bad eye witnesses (despite eye-witness testimony being king of the courts, it means nothing to science and actual evidence).

We have to be intellectually honest enough to say that sometimes we just don’t know what something is, particularly as individuals who quite often don’t understand that what they have just identified as a UFO is nothing of the sort. Acting in haste like this often leads to embarrassing blunders such as a police officer chasing a UFO that actually turned out to be the planet Venus, which is frequently mistaken for UFOs. Until we have some actual physical evidence of an alien race visiting us, we must have the dignity to admit ignorance (or at least admit to simply guessing).

By way of comparison, think of the amount Elvis sightings or perhaps even more deluded, apparitions of the Virgin Mary or Jesus. Sometimes we just see what we would like to see, of course it would be a life-changing and amazing experience to witness an alien space craft, but no amount of wishful thinking can change reality unless some tangible evidence is thrust into our discourse.

MUFON claims that there are over 70,000 reported UFO sightings annually across the globe, and this is rising each year. That’s close to 200 sightings per day worldwide and yet what do we have to show for it? What are the chances of alien life being discovered by some passer by rather than SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), the United States Space Surveillance Network,
the myriad of observatories, and even amateur astronomers? These people know what they’re looking at most of the time.

It’s a bit baffling to concede that while an alien race has mastered interstellar travel across distances we can scarcely articulate (perhaps they are so advanced as to be able to bend space-time), and evade detection by the thousands of satellites orbiting the earth and the vast number of instruments observing space, these superbeings are detected time and time again by mere individuals (sometimes armed with cameras, most often armed with photoshop). This clash of logic and reason should lead us beyond mere skepticism at this present time in our history that we have ever been visited.

Michael Shermer has written a blog pointing out that members of SETI have derived a formula to calculate the likelihood that a UFO sighting was actually an alien encounter, it makes for a brief and interesting read

Another interesting Shermer video explains how to fake UFO photographs so that even professionals cannot claim the images are faked. 

Now, the question of whether or not alien life itself exists in the universe is a much more realistic conversation. Given the size of the universe, rare things must happen all the time, it’s a matter of probability. But we can’t realistically make a truth claim at this stage that there is life elsewhere in the universe, for there is no evidence for it, despite its incredible likelihood. 

Life on other planets could arise in many forms of course, and in my opinion it’s a bit of a shortcoming that we seem to largely obsess with looking for conditions in the universe that are similar to Earth. Of course we only have a sample of one when it comes to life (Earth) so it’s reasonable to look for the things we know that cause life, proximity to a star, water, etc. But who is to say that life cannot emerge under many other conditions? I think here we can have a reasonable discussion on what may be important/crucial for life to exist.

It’s certainly reasonable to suggest that Darwinian natural selection will drive any diversity of species on another planet, you would expect all life to need energy/food, any life converted something into energy will be involved in a selection race - which is best at converting the food into energy, which can reproduce most effectively (for you would again, expect some kind of method of reproduction), etc.

Given all that we currently know about evolution (despite what some crackpots argue against) it makes sense that life needs to start from something very simple and build up to more complex systems (of course, even finding very simple life elsewhere in the universe would be a monumental discovery) and so some form of replicating biology needs to be possible. This doesn’t need to be DNA, indeed it would probably be somewhat surprising if DNA were to evolve here and on other planets, but some form of replication would be necessary (and it’s worth pointing out that DNA replication is really the combination of DNA itself (which is a very good replicator, but a poor enzyme) and proteins (which are great enzymes but poor replicators). Perhaps there is some other kind of arrangement of biochemistry that would do the job just fine (or better!), undoubtedly there are uncountable combinations of elements and conditions for them to be arranged.

PZ Myers has said recently that all life will most probably be carbon based (some people seem obsessed with silicon will be an alternative), because it makes chains/branches, etc and does so at rapid rates. Carbon is so abundant in the universe that this seems like a reasonable hypothesis. Again, perhaps there's a chance that life can evolve elsewhere based on other elements, but we possibly don't need to think that outside of the box.

The idea of little green (or grey) men is nothing short of unimaginative arrogance in my opinion, why should aliens be humanoid at all? With all our powers of imagination, the best people tend to come up with is just another tetrapod? Really? This isn’t to say that tetrapods wouldn’t be possible (clearly they are!), there may be evolutionary reasons/incentives for tetrapods to form on other planets and environments but I think it’s just various degrees of laziness and arrogance to tap into the little green man model - which not only takes tetrapods as the starting block, but goes one step further to humanoids by going bipedal. Evolution is simply going to find solutions to whatever problem an environment throws up, so having some kind of standard model for species isn’t necessary. Though it's reasonable to expect certain senses, if there is a light source on another planet one would expect some form of eye to evolve, for example. Given the diversity of life on this planet alone, one would expect great diversity in the rest of the universe.

There are of course, plausible theories that bacteria stowed away on meteorites from other planets seeded life on this Earth, so we could all be “alien” anyway! (For anyone unaware of the difference between a meteor, a meteorite and an asteroid, please allow me to enlighten you: An asteroid is basically a rock in space (of varying sizes), they have no atmosphere though some even have their own moons. A meteor is basically a rock that has entered into a planets atmosphere (seen as shooting stars), a meteorite is an object that has entered a planets atmosphere and managed to hit the surface (as opposed to simply burning up en route))

Of course, all this is pure speculation and to a certain extent I do think the gloves are off somewhat in terms of allowing your imagination to run a bit wild until we have evidence otherwise. Is there really anything stopping gaseous life forms for example? Personally I don’t see why there can’t be life on every single planet even in our own solar system, when I say life it could be something as simple as single-cell organisms, but life nonetheless. We only need to look at our own planet to know that life can thrive in adverse circumstances, is it really too unreasonable to consider this possibility? 

Ultimately, the sad likelihood is that the universe is so large it's probably unlikely that we'll ever get to communicate with a species from another planet. But that shouldn't stop us trying :) 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Why Do I Prefer Redheads?

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have a preference for redheads - though this blog is not an excuse for mere ogling! 

Red hair is caused by a mutation of the MC1R gene, which is also a recessive gene. Recessive genes can skip generations but many people can carry the gene without it being active. To even have a chance of producing a redheaded child both parents need to at least carry the recessive redhead gene (if one parent doesn't even carry the gene then all bets are off, no redhead offspring), this is why there are simply less redheads than brunettes or blondes (which are more dominant genes). It's thought that only around 1-2% of the population are redheads, and there has been recent speculation that some Neanderthals were also redheaded.

There have been reports / hoaxes / sensationalised headlines in the last few years claiming that redheads will be removed from the gene pool in X number of years, thankfully these reports are incorrect. The only way for redheads to be removed from the gene pool is not just for all redheads to die and/or stop reproducing, but for everyone carrying the gene (speculated as around 1 in 4 in Europe and the US) to die and/or stop reproducing! So thankfully, while redheads are rare, the likelihood is that they’re here to stay.

While redheads may have a massive aesthetic advantage (in my opinion!) over non-redheads, I am also equally appreciative of dyed red hair, I do not discriminate! The first time I remember appreciating a redhead was Gillian Anderson playing Dana Scully in the X-files, though considering this was the first instance, there was no pattern of which to speak, I think my preference became apparent with Alyson Hannigan’s character Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (my attempts to warm to How I Met Your Mother were not helped by the fact that Alyson was no longer a redhead, though this in turn could be a blessing because I may have stuck with the rather turgid attempt at comedy otherwise), since then my bias has become much more apparent. Even non-redheads benefit from a streak of artificial red should they wish not to go the whole hog. I’ve noticed an increase in artificial redheads in the last few years, when I first met my wife there didn’t seem to be as many as there are now, I think this can largely be put down to the success of red headed celebrities like Anderson, Hannigan and more recently people like Christina Hendricks and internet geek queen Felicia Day, whose web series The Guild is a must see. Though being a redhead gives one an unfair advantage, it’s not a guarantee of beauty, but it’s an advantage nonetheless (and this is not to say that non-redheads can't be beautiful, far from it!). Of course, there are many different shades of red people can have, both naturally and artificially, here I don't think I have a preference, certain people will suit different shades more than others. Someone who thinks they don't suit red hair probably just hasn't found the right shade yet...

While being a redhead has no benefit in natural selection - in fact there’s good evidence that it would be selected against in, say, Africa, where the sun is very harsh and redheads tend to have pale skin. There is a good case for it to be more desirable to some in terms of sexual selection - and considering the sun never shines in Scotland, it could be a reason why the country has the highest concentration of carriers of the redhead gene.

It makes one wonder about the influence that colour has at the level of the brain, we cannot dismiss the importance it plays in our minds, as the excellent and recent BBC Horizon programme “Do You See What I See” showed, colour can affect us in many ways. It would be wise to point out, however, that while the colour red may give one a slight psychological advantage in sports, and even our ability to gauge time (Beau Lotto claims "Red makes us highly aware of our environment and so time slows down in your mind"), it’s down to our perception of a colour, not the colour itself (eg dying your red hair blue may affect your/our perception further still). And clearly, a healthy skepticism is wise amid such reports that are in their infancy.

It’s highly unlikely that character traits are linked to our physical appearance (eg “redheads are fiery and hot-tempered”), such stereotypes just happen to be true when people notice that someone who is a redhead happens to be fiery and hot-tempered, otherwise known as the Barnum Effect (this is one reason why silly people still look to astrology, see video below).

The topic of red hair makes me contemplate one of those important questions in life - why do we like what we like? I listened to a recent lecture by Paul Bloom who speaks about the matter. Though of course it's worth pointing out that you do not choose what you choose (eg we don't have freewill).

Bloom’s lecture mostly deals with how our values of pleasure and worth can differ based on knowledge and how the history of an experience or object matters, which is not something more basic such as preferring one colour over another (which presumably is the result of the brains processing of previous causal experiences and awareness of which I had no say), it’s interesting in a broader sense, and I’d favour the audio over the video as it includes the Q&A which is also good. Perhaps I put an exclusive value and history to redheads, there aren’t as many of them so the rarity is enchanting (the rarity is probably why they get teased, kids tend to point out differences).

Mark Twain said “when red-haired people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.”, some people even insist that they’re “strawberry blonde”, those of the redheaded variety needn’t hide behind fallacy and should embrace their genetic makeup, not make excuses about it. And those who aren’t blessed genetically, give it a try! 

So the question of "why do I prefer redheads" remains unanswered (or perhaps unanswerable), if indeed I don't choose what I choose, perhaps redheads chose me (in a broader sense), rather than the other way around.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Book review: Sam Harris - The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape (How Science Can Determine Human Values) by Sam Harris

This is the first of Sam’s books I have read but it certainly won’t be the last (in fact I ordered The End of Faith at the start of the week). The book is about the concept of a science of morality based on the well being of conscious creatures, made possible as we begin to understand more and more about everything that happens at the level of the brain. Using a baseline of the worst possible suffering for the longest amount of time (for everybody), we can see that all experience moves up or down this landscape Sam has created (if one does not want to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone for the longest possible time, then I don’t know what you’re talking about, and more importantly I don’t think you know what you’re talking about either). Everything we do that is worth talking about is something that alters our consciousness (mostly very little, other times hugely so) and anything that affects consciousness is happening at the level of the brain.

I had the pleasure of getting tickets for an evening with event that Sam and Richard Dawkins were doing at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in April earlier this year. I hadn’t yet read the book, in fact I only picked it up earlier that same day so I could get it signed afterwards. The talk was filmed and you can watch it here on youtube:

The talk is a good primer for the book (and while some people have attacked his idea as another form of utilitarianism, I think the tour he has done in support of this book shows he is not guilty of this), and of course some of his introduction is almost a direct lifting from it (as you would expect), but the book certainly goes into more detail. If I were to note a slight disappointment then it would be that I was expecting perhaps a bit more on the technical aspect of the brain given Sam’s expertise in neuroscience, though there is plenty about the brain and his FMRI experiments and it's these moments where the book is most compelling. Regardless, the book left me wanting more in that regard (better that way than bore me to tears), Sam writes with a razor sharp clarity and shows the fallacy of religious moral teachings admirably, if religion is ever right, it’s right by accident.

The criticism towards the book comes from a misunderstanding of the matter in my opinion, Sam has not written (or attempted to write) a book that has all the answers, merely opening the door and exploring how and why we should be able to deride moral values from science. Perhaps this humility is disappointing for some people. It’s a liberating idea and not one that should be met with scorn, he makes plenty of analogies towards a science of physical health, when Doctors tell us things like “smoking causes lung cancer”, we don’t picture this as hostile men in white coats telling us how to live our lives in some kind of Orwellian horror show. Indeed, physical health itself is difficult to define but we don’t doubt that a science of medicine is based on physical health, and so we should deal with moral science in a similar way. Sam points out the blurred lines between facts and values as processed by the brain (this is why beliefs matter so much), how we should not confuse a position between not having answers in practice and not having answers in principle, and how there will doubtless be many different ways to travel up and down the moral landscape regarding the same questions. Harris has responded to the most compelling criticisms of his book on his website -

It’s a huge topic that should be taken seriously, in my opinion, and hopefully The Moral Landscape is a means towards a rational dialogue on the matter.


I'd also urge you to read Sam's blog which never fails to make you think.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Anna Calvi: Artist and album review

 Water Rats, London - July 2009

I first saw Anna Calvi supporting Carina Round (whom I also first experienced as a support act, opening for Gutter Twins) in July 2009 at the Water Rats. She was jaw-droppingly good, cue close to two years waiting impatiently for her self-titled debut album to be released on Domino Records...

The record remains one of, if not the strongest release of 2011 and has what seems a rare sense of identity and confidence seldom seen from a debut these days. It's been described as a dark record and while one could easily nod in agreement to that statement, it perhaps conjures the wrong impression, yes it's dark on occasion but I find it a beautiful and uplifting effort. Anna knows when to leave space for the songs to breathe and other moments to let the music soar to a natural crescendo. It's the ease with which Anna is comfortable in such a wide dynamic range and volume that demands attention from the listener, and it's certainly an album that rewards any attention you can afford. When it's all too easy for music to become a bit more disposable in this digital age, it's seemingly hard to make time to just sit down and listen to something, but I assure you, dear readers, this deserves your time.

Having first experienced Anna in a live setting, you can't help but be struck at how incredible her guitar playing skills are, this virtuousity appears in a more subtle form on the record overall, so I would certainly urge you to catch her live if at all possible. Though this is not to say these studio versions are in any way watered down, there's just something about the intensity and passion with which she performs live and her range of skills from classical to flamenco, rock and blues become overtly evident.

Oxford - May 2011 

Anna is complimented by drummer/backing vocalist Daniel Maiden-Wood, who dominates his modest setup and knows just the right moments to add a bit of flare or drive a song forward. Mally Harpaz completes the lineup, mostly playing the harmonium (that's an instrument you don't see all that often) but also contributes with other instruments and additional percussion.

Calvi's vocals are reminiscent of some of my favourite singers such Jeff Buckley and PJ Harvey (unfortunately it seems to be quite hard to be a good female singer without being compared to the great Polly Jean at some point...) among others.

The album kicks off with a low-key guitar instrumental, Rider to the Sea, which hints towards an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western standoff. Desire is the second single release from the record, Calvi uses phrases like "the devil" as personal metaphors and this song features Brian Eno, who is a huge fan. Desire has a real drive to it while it's also hard not to be entranced with the perfect production on the record, you get some sense of euphoria as she belts out the chorus while the song builds to a triumphant finale.

My personal favourite song on the album is Suzanne And I, I love the pounding drums and the perfect guitar sound, it's a real victory and as you hear the album unfold you feel as though the band have really agonised over every single second of every song, they must all take their art very seriously but do so in a way that doesn't come across as pretentious. Listening to interviews where Anna is so mild and softly-spoken you wonder how she must flip some kind of mental switch to project such a powerful and commanding vocal when singing.

Oxford - May 2011  

The Devil certainly evokes the Jeff Buckley reference I made earlier and it's these quiet, reflective songs that really draw you in, immersed in the space between each note, aching for the next snare hit like listening to the best slowcore can offer. The mood perks up again with the album's debut single, Blackout, which features some rare bass guitar but at this point that only emphasises how little the presence of a bottom-end has been missed (and this coming from someone who plays bass).

I think this performance of Love Won't Be Leaving (from the TV show Live From Abbey Road, the song starts at 1:21) showcases Anna's all-round qualities, the dynamic range I spoke of, great voice and the blistering guitar solo is something to behold. Please give it your time, I do wish the extended mid-section was on the record. The only word I can use is blistering!

I wanted to get this blog piece done in time to predict that Anna would get nominated for the 2011 Mercury Prize - I couldn't really care less about it, but people do usually get some extra exposure from it, which will hopefully be the case here. There's something old and new that Anna is doing and I imagine I will continue to be entranced by her and hope she has a long career, let's hope she isn't put under too much pressure and allowed to flourish on her own terms.

Oxford - May 2011  

All photos taken by me apart from the album cover.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Misconceptions of Atheism

(Image by Terry Border)

The term atheist strikes many different emotional chords which usually depend on a person’s own feelings towards the existence of deities (all across the scale from the major religions to simple deism and even agnostics). I want to convey what it actually means to be an atheist, and the unfortunate misconceptions that people tend to have towards the subject of atheism.

So, let’s start off with what atheism is. There is only one thing that makes someone an atheist, and that is the lack of belief in the existence of deities. Aside from this relatively simple criteria, atheists are free to think and do as they wish (though atheism is no free pass to anarchy!). This is a very liberating position in which to be.

It’s true that as a consequence of not believing in the existence of god (or gods, but from this point on I will specify god as a singular entity as not to continually repeat myself) there are likely and logical conclusions that the majority of atheists will share. Agreeing or disagreeing with other atheists does not make one a bigger/better or lesser atheist, however. You can’t sort-of believe in a god, anything greater than 0 (the number of gods one believes in) is not atheism. People also confuse atheism with secularism (separation of church and state) or humanism, which is a non-religious belief system. Atheism needn’t be confused with either as many religious people are secularists, seeing the benefit of a church/state separation and atheists needn’t adhere to any particular belief system.

“But why aren’t you agnostic?” - One of the more common attacks on atheists is that we’re sure that there is no god, how arrogant! We’re all atheists with regards to Zeus, Poseidon, Neptune or any of the numerable gods that are no longer considered in our current discourse. The only difference between atheists and monotheists is that we have gone one god further. Theists (and I would urge, agnostics) only need to understand why they themselves do not believe in any number of other gods to realise why we don’t believe in theirs. Which position holds greater arrogance - the one that doesn’t believe the universe was created by a deity with only our benefit in mind, or the one that does? We also don’t make or have materials to make claims about physics, chemistry or biology that not even the greatest scientists currently know.

And yet, people who criticise religion are often claimed to be little more than disrespectful bullies. This is usually a last resort from a theist or religious apologist. Similar low-blows include claiming that atheism is just another religion or that there are fundamental atheists, it’s funny to consider that such desperation is little more than saying you’re just as bad as we are! However, atheism is not a religion (how could it be? Consider whether not collecting stamps is a hobby, for example) nor a belief system or a way to live ones life, and if there are atheist fundamentalists this is a case for fundamentalism being wrong, not atheism. When criticising religion I believe it is important to recognise a couple of things: Criticise the idea, not the individual – ignorance is not a crime and neither is stupidity, we are all ignorant and stupid with regards to many subjects and every single person is capable of being the victim of delusion. We can only hope that people are honest enough to look at evidence and come to a realistic conclusion when better reasons appear to believe something (in other words; ignorance is redeemable, but choosing to remain ignorant is indefensible). Secondly, one has to realise that when criticising religion, all people are doing is delivering rational critique, ridicule and satire in the same manner that everybody else does when it comes to every other topic available to us, and hope that people have the requisite mental capacity to deal with that as they would in those other topics (this to me, is nothing but a mark of respect). People who scream about intolerance and lack of respect must recognise hypocrisy whenever they use these tools elsewhere. 

 (Images from the Hubble Telescope)
I’ve heard that atheists see no wonder or mystery in the world by reducing everything to a material/mechanical level – Science may tell us how things work or what things are, but this does not take away any beauty in reality. Stars and galaxies are no less awe inspiring just because the god of Abraham didn’t click his fingers and make them. The flora and fauna on this planet are no less miraculous having ultimately evolved from a common single-cell organism billions of years ago. There is beauty and awe for all to see in every direction, past and present. Flying horses and burning bushes cannot hold a candle to the images we are treated to of space (see images above). Atheists can be spiritual, have spiritual experiences and appreciate the numinous - these words need not be linked with the supernatural.

Consider the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc - often cited as criticisms towards atheistic or secular societies. The problem with these monstrous dictators of the 20th century were not that they were the opposite of religion, they were too much like a religion! Any form of totalitarianism is a very, very bad thing indeed (as well as dogmatism/fundamentalism, these are the greatest crimes of which the human mind is capable). It’s also worth noting that wherever there is fascism in history, the catholic church doesn’t tend to be very far behind. It has been said elsewhere, but no society has ever suffered for being too reasonable.

Thankfully the notion that atheists have no sense of morality has long been quashed but it does crop up from time to time. There is no genuine moral action that a person of faith could undertake (because of their faith) that a non-believer could not. However, there are numerous immoral actions that religious people have undertaken because of their doctrine. Do people who make these claims on morality think that they themselves would be raping and pillaging were they to stop believing? This line of reckoning strikes me as having little confidence in their own moral compass. The golden rule, and versions of it, has been in many cultures throughout history much earlier than many appear to give it credit. We have great evolutionary reasons for our innate sense of right and wrong.

My own path to atheism? I suppose I can’t remember a time where I did truly believe in a deity, I don’t remember a eureka moment where I suddenly decided that religion couldn’t possibly be true, or that any of the numerous gods were simply man-made. I remember at primary school, dreading that we had to waste our time in communal prayer at assembly every day (basically forcing all the children in the school into a single room to utter the lords prayer among other bible stories), perhaps this early attempt by society to unjustifiably force worship down our throats was the beginning of my critical thinking (in which case I should be grateful?), but how many were lost to this seduction? Skipping ahead a few years into my first few days of secondary school, our first lesson in Religious Education (compulsory in schools, which I don’t disagree with, but it should be taught purely in a historical and cultural context. The King James Bible in particular is a fine work of literature with which one must be familiar to appreciate the English language at all) and our homework was to draw god. I failed to complete this task as the teacher said it was due for not the next lesson but the lesson after, yet called for the work in the next lesson and was angry when I said I hadn’t done it (not my fault!). Since the rest of the class had already completed the work, my god page remained blank, with hindsight this seems the best possible answer in any case. I don’t even remember ever hearing the word atheist until I heard Captain Sensible mention The God Delusion with praise at a Damned Gig back in 2006 (I got the book as a present the next year), perhaps we shouldn’t even have a word for atheism, we don’t feel compelled to describe ourselves as non-racist, for example. I’m happy to call myself an atheist given the current zeitgeist, but who knows if culture will change in the future. For the most part, I would argue today that it’s generally considered that most people have a religious belief unless otherwise specified, therefore it feels necessary to have such a label for those that don’t believe. Personally, I can hope for a time in the future where the roles could be reversed - through means of rational inquiry and critical thinking.

There is nothing wrong with having the humility to admit ignorance to things we don’t know, indeed it is a necessary position in all topics until compelling evidence arises (this is the reason why most atheists have come to their conclusion about god - a lack of evidence) and to accept change when yet better evidence becomes available. Let’s be realistic about our ignorance and not give in to the temptation to give credence to fanciful ideas and mere wish thinking, even if a religion may help someone behave kindly, there are surely better reasons, and reasons where one doesn’t have to cherry pick and ignore numerous acts of cruelty. One should be able to take influence from their religion (if they have one) the same way that one can take influence from anywhere. Claiming that holy books are the word of god is an unjustifiable and immoral position, and is one of intellectual dishonesty we can ill afford. Who knows, one particular religion may be right, but let’s not fool ourselves in the face of the evidence we currently have and the great lengths our species has gone to achieve it.