Monday, 28 October 2013

Two graphs

  1. When it comes to the UK's much-hyped economic recovery, one sobering graph is worth a thousand over-excited headlines (via).
  2. Now that we're suitably sobered up, let's see how much money Amazon's (not) making. Either the stock market really isn't driven by short-termism, after all, and investors have been funding a five year plan to flood the market with loss-leaders, until all that pesky market competition has been destroyed and there is only one Universal Store left, or Amazon really is 'a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers.' (via)

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The State of the Nation(wide)

So farewell then, Co-Operative Bank. Much as I'd like Euan Sutherland to be right and David Boyle to be wrong, it looks as if the Co-Op is about to pay for its botched takeover of Britannia with its soul.

So where do you go if you're fed up with the big banks, but still want to put your money with an organisation that has a nationwide presence? A while ago I suggested the last big mutual now standing, Nationwide Building Society as an option - not ideal, but better than the average high street bank (according only to me, an ordinary customer with no inside knowledge of finance). As far as I know from direct experience, their customer service is no worse than your average high street bank (which isn't saying very much, I know).

Anecdote aside, the Nationwide comes currently somewhere in the middle of the Move Your Money scorecard, which ranks British banks and other financial institutions according to these criteria. Plenty of room for improvement, I grant, but:
  • at least they're not sitting right at the bottom of the table with all the big high street banks
  • there are plenty of better institutions, but they're all pretty small, niche, or local - say what you like about Nationwide, but at least it does what it says on the tin.
There is one other well-known name up there in the mid-table, Virgin Money, although I can't bring myself to recommend them on the grounds that their current corporate strapline ('banking with a bit of soul'), along with the image of Richard Branson's grinning face, fills me with the urge to smash the plate glass windows of every branch I see.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Going Galt in techno-Narnia

It's not just Texas rednecks who dream of seceding from the Union. Some of Silicon Valley's tech entrepreneurs also think this might be a thing:
Ultimately, the Stanford lecturer and co-founder of Counsyl, a genetics startup, thinks Silicon Valley could lead the charge in exiting en masse because, eventually, "they are going to try and blame the economy on Silicon Valley."
"We didn't securitize mortgages, order bailouts, start wars, or refuse to write movies or articles on this until too late," read one of Srinivasan's slides on where the blame lies and what the real problems are that are holding technology back.

True, Silicon Valley didn't securitize mortgages, or need bailing out, but it was a Randian bonfire of the regulations that were allegedly holding another industry back that got us to the point where some other smart people on Wall Street were empowered to do complex but stupid things with impunity. That experiment ended catastrophically, and I'm not convinced that creating more spaces where clever people can get on with making lots of money without government 'meddling' (AKA oversight) is anything but insanely risky, having seen what folk get up to when nobody's watching.

Ramji Srinivasan, who 'began his career with Morgan Stanley in New York City, where he helped raise $2.7B in equity capital for Google and authored over 100 investment reports for Internet companies with a collective market capitalization of $200B' has no excuse for not knowing where insufficient oversight can lead.

It's a shame that all this self-serving jargon about 'disruption' and 'floating tech incubators' makes Silicon Valley sound like Wall Street, because there are important differences. Most importantly, the innovation that comes out of Silicon Valley is real. Ask yourself  the question 'What is it that these hedge fund managers "do"?' and the answer seems to involve shuffling (virtual) small pieces of green paper:
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
If I ask myself what Silicon Valley does, the answer is right at the end of my nose fingertips, as I'm typing these words on one of its products (and connecting to you, dear reader, via a type of network developed by Big Government, using hypertext, as developed by a contractor working for a multi-national inter-governmental state-funded collaborative science project, which sums up why I think the binary opposition between the state and entrepreneurialism is a piece of village-idiot-grade oversimplification). Silicon Valley produces actual innovation, whereas many of the financial services industry's cleverest innovators (enabled, ironically, by Silicon Valley tech), have merely incubated complex, obscure methods of gaming the system, creaming off rents and screwing the customer.

Silicon Valley (with the life support provided by those bits of society Ramji Srinivasan imagines might be painlessly left behind in his techno-Narnia of free-floating incubators) may produce even more awesome and world-changing things in future. According to some, nothing less than a new Industrial Revolution, leading (eventually) to a post-scarcity world in which automated replicating machines make all the stuff people need from readily-available raw materials. Here's the BBC's James Burke on "life in 2100" (the vid's also on YouTube, but you have to put up with an ad). There's a moment in the video when a map appears, with demarcation lines for national borders. After a moment, the border lines fade away to symbolise the disappearance of states, presumably because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single person in possession of a Star Trek Replicator must no longer be in want of a meddlesome government.

In Srinivasan's near-future dream, all the clever, creative people shrug off the burden of the state and the bondage of red tape in order to forge a brave new world where men are real men, women are real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri are real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. In Burke's further-off techno-utopia, people don't so much shrug off the state as let it wither away, Marx-style, as new means of production render it obsolete.

Srinivasan's dream sounds like a bit of a nightmare, both for the people who get left behind and screwed as rich corporations shrug off their tax liabilities and the regulations that protect the little people and for the corporations themselves (remember the cautionary tale of little Morgan Stanley who thought he was a big boy who could do whatever he liked, but when he started to get a bit silly and play in the traffic, it was Mommy State who saved him from getting squashed under the wheels of a bus).

Burke's world sounds like a far more pleasant destination, where there's no need for a government and its attendant bureaucracy to oversee the allocation of scarce resources, because ... d'oh! ... resources aren't scarce any more. And everybody lived happily ever after.

Which is kind of plausible, up to a point. If automation got close to the point where machines were able to supply all of a person's material wants then Replicators might do away with many functions of central and local government, who no longer need to tax 'n spend on your behalf, because you're now pretty much self-sufficient (bosses and the market in goods as we know it, have presumably also withered for the same reason).

Arthur C. Clarke, who predicted the Replicator as a far-future possibility back in the '60s, also thought it would 'disrupt' society in the true sense of the word  'A society based on the Replicator would be so completely different from ours that the present debate between Capitalism and Communism would become quite meaningless' (that 'debate between Capitalism and Communism' sounds pretty dated now. although I wouldn't bet against it coming back some time between now and the arrival of Replicator-world).

But I'm sceptical about the ultimate withering of the state, on two levels. Firstly, the 'state' that mainstream rightists/libertarians want to shrug off , is the big state, the one that kicked off when sovereign states started incrementally conceding rights and protections to ordinary citizens, the one that reached its apogee with the post-New Deal/post-war welfare states that fell out of political fashion as the 1970s turned into the ' 80s.

But there were states before that. Those states didn't do a lot for the ordinary citizen, but they had enough power to provide some protection from external attack and to dispense a sort of justice, funded by taxes from common folk. Of course, a lot of the taxes and tithes went to fund the lavish lifestyles and power struggles of the elite, but that was the price you paid for some degree of protection. I don't see many mainstream right libertarians wanting to dismantle this sort of state. Most mainstream welfare-haters are a bit more statist when it comes to maintaining a system of law that protects things like property rights, securing the borders and defending the state against terrorists and the rogue state du jour (see the Tea Party Nation's 2011 plan to stimulate the American economy by building more aircraft carriers, which The Economist wonderfully summed up as an adventure in cognitive dissonance).
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me,
Mom, in your long arms.
In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms. In your arms.
So hold me, Mom, in your long arms.
Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms.
You don't have to be Steven Pinker to concede that a post-scarcity world would probably be a lot less violent and insecure than one where people are engaged in a struggle over scarce resources. But if there are still humans there will still be humans doing bad stuff. Even without the present drivers of injustice, exploitation and violence, there will probably always be people who, without some systems  to defend the weak and enforce some generally-agreed notion of justice, will do bad things, from psychological torture to murder. Although there would be far fewer motives to commit terrible acts, a Replicator society, the technology - if unregulated - would give even the tiniest minority of malicious individuals an enormous power to do harm.

From a jilted lover replicating a deadly weapon to take revenge on a runaway ex and his/her new squeeze to some fanatic or nihilist on a mission to destroy as many other humans as possible, with the help of a Replicator that can fabricate almost any type of infernal device a sick mind might imagine, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that the state or something very like it, might need to control what comes out of the Replicators.

These problems arise long before you arrive at Burke's 22nd Century Utopia. If the trend towards distributed manufacture of increasingly complex artifacts continues, some group of non-state fanatics could make the pulp thriller cliché of terrorists with nukes or bio-weapons a reality well before we get to Replicator world. It's not an original idea - weapons control is a big issue in Neal Stephenson's sci-fi novel The Diamond Age.

Stephenson's Replicator society deals with the weapons problem in a way that seems to owe a lot to the right-libertarian ethos that runs through a certain strand of sci-fi (think Heinlein, or Niven and Pournelle) and the to the "good guys with guns versus an out-of-control criminal underclass" narrative popular with the National Rifle Association and its fans. In Stephenson's world you have a gated-community solution, where the stupid, violent proles only have access to public Replicators, loaded with crippleware to ensure they can only produce the harmless necessities of life, such as plates and mattresses.

Instead of the state having a monopoly on violence, justice (and the muscle needed to enforce justice) comes from the nice, clever, rich people who have gone Galt and organised themselves into 'tribes' or 'phyles' - self-governing anarcho-libertarian collectives. Tribe members, being nice, clever, rich people,* trust themselves to have access to Replicators that aren't feature-limited, so they can fabricate the firepower they need to suppress the occasional outrage perpetrated by any low-life criminal punk who manages to get hold of a piece of black-market weaponry from an illicit Replicator.

Which is all very well, provided you're born into the right caste, but if you've got any liking for a democracy, a society at ease with itself, equality of opportunity, or equality under the law, Stephenson's society sounds like even more of a nightmare than Srinivasan's near-term techno-Narnia. If you've got to control this stuff, I reckon it would be better done by something like a state, enforcing a set of necessary norms and rules that apply equally to everybody.

So, humans would probably be best off with at least a minimal state to disinterestedly enforce basic norms of civilised behaviour and prevent malicious use of technology. But we can leave all those nanny-state-ish rules and regulations, red tape and health and safety nonsense behind, right?

The trouble is, what looks like bureaucratic red tape from the entrepreneur's office looks a bit more sensible when your kid's just choked to death after playing with a toy that should have been better designed or at least had ' WARNING: CHOKING HAZARD. Unsuitable for children under 3 years' written in large, friendly letters on the box. Never mind weapons, if you are your own factory and can produce almost any device you fancy, the opportunities to accidentally kill or maim are legion. A lot of expertise, testing, thought, time and effort currently goes into making sure that the consumer goods you use don't maim or kill you, your loved ones, or innocent bystanders.

Some sort of standards and control would be needed - it might even come down to publicly-available replicators being feature-limited so they're unable to fabricate safety-critical parts or devices, as in Stephenson's world, although I reckon that the control of anything that has to conform to a particular standard is best left to a boring old bureaucracy, rather than to a self-appointed aristocracy of superior beings in the gated seclusion of Galt Towers.

Of course, there might be another way for those national borders to disappear - something like a World State, which might arise if people were more or less autonomous in terms of subsistence, but needed to be subject to laws enforcing basic norms of civilised behaviour and making sure that insanely dangerous and destructive things didn't come out somebody's Pandora's Box of a Replicator. If those basic concerns were the same across all societies, maybe one law and one state to rule them all?  Or supra-national agreements governing the city states or whatever polities people are living in in 2100 - I've no idea (except that I'm pretty sure they'll still be living under something more or less like a state).

Unless, that is, humans have wiped themselves out by then. If we assume distributed manufacture and the fact that (short of societal collapse), societies don't un-invent things, the airport thriller terrorists-with-nukes scenario gets more likely over the long term, then why would the trend stop there? Why imagine humans have already invented the most destructive things that can be invented? When nearly everybody can theoretically reproduce nearly anything that's ever been invented, there may come a day when vigilance really has to be eternal because it only takes one maniac and a doomsday device (or even a risky experiment that goes wrong) circumventing Replicator security to wipe the human race out.

Maybe that's the answer to the Fermi Paradox - intelligent life doesn't last, because any sufficiently advanced technology will become powerful enough to annihilate itself, by accident or design. And accidents always happen, eventually. Maybe we should all hope that even Burke's wonderful-looking techno-Utopia is just another unrealistic techno-Narnia, because such power would leave the human race just a whisker away from annihilation.


* I hope you can already see what's wrong with this picture, but in case you're a cup of coffee behind me, I've got two things to add:
a) What are the chances of a self-selecting group of 'superior' people really being your actual Übermenschen, as opposed to a bunch of people who just think they're superior to everybody else? Given the statistically impossible percentage of drivers whose self-assessed driving abilities are above average, I don't trust people to be objective when ranking themselves against others.
b) The Richard Cromwell effect. Even when somebody's flattering self-assessment is correct, well, some day they're going to retire or die and leave it to the next generation to carry on. Love him or loathe him, Oliver Cromwell made an impact. His son, and successor to the Lord Protectorship, didn't, and became a footnote in history. In theory, only the best rise to the top in a meritocracy. In reality, the best and the brightest love their kids, like almost everybody else, and try to ensure that they inherit the family firm, or get whatever other help they need to rise to the top, regardless of their ability, or the lack of it, shutting brighter kids from less privileged backgrounds out. Where 'there is no such thing as society ... There are individual men and women, and there are families,' it's not what you know but who you're born to that matters, which has always seemed more than a tad unfair to me.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Safety matches

For no particular reason, here's some 1950s public safety information from behind the Iron Curtain, as disseminated through the medium of matchbox cover art. I particularly like the inattentive tourist with the map and loud suit, who looks like a more rounded version of The Good Soldier Svejk, minus Svejk's instinct for self-preservation.

Don't have nightmares, comrades!

Via my dad's collection of matchboxes.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

I agree with Nick

Update - no I don't agree with this - but feel free to read the following as if he actually had dared to express mild criticiam of Free Schools without immediately spoiling it by climbing down.

I, for one, welcome Nick Clegg's belated questioning of the Free Schools experiment. Never mind that this ill-conceived project only exists because Nick and chums were either cynical enough to swap their principles for the chance to ride in a ministerial limo, or foolish enough to believe they could ride the Tory tiger without getting eaten for breakfast. Never mind that he didn't have to wait for this to happen - anyone with an ounce of foresight could have worked out the insanely dangerous parts of the experiment before anyone got hurt ('let's test the hypothesis that qualifications and teacher training are a complete waste of time by letting unqualified people teach your kids' is about as prudent and ethical as saying 'now then children, we're going to see what happens if we fire up the food processor, then stick little Johnny's finger in it').

Never mind all that, for verily I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

It's good as far as it goes, but I'm still waiting for a prominent politician to do something really brave and loudly ask some tough questions about the almost-as-divisive, and far more numerous, Academy Schools, currently waging a zero-sum war on Local Authority schools by sucking out their best-performing pupils, then leaving them to fail as their league-table results inevitably nosedive. But, Academy Schools, unlike Free Schools are part of a cross-party political consensus that still venerates league tables, 'competition' and 'choice' and can't bear to utter the word 'comprehensive' without adding the contemptuous prefix 'bog standard' - presumably on the principle that is you keep bleating 'bog standard' loudly enough and often enough, nobody will hear that the world's most successful education system is built of bog high-standard comprehensive schools.

It's all very well joining the back of queue to bash Free Schools on the back of a notorious failure and some bad headlines, but there's a strong case for being the first in the queue to point out the the Emperor of Academy Schools is stark naked. It's not as if non-politicians haven't pointed out the systemic problems, clearly and concisely - and not just in obscure educational journals:
Academy Schools have a lot of freedom to diverge from the curriculum, to hire unusual instructors, and to try variations on school meals and other conventions. In theory, this makes room for schools that are freer and more student-oriented. In practice, many of them are run by Young Earth Creationists who teach that the universe is 5,000 years old; or sell sugary drinks and candy bars as a source of profit for the school's investors; or do sweetheart deals with preferred suppliers for mandatory, overpriced school uniforms that include some form of kickback for the school; or hire totally unqualified ideologues to teach the kids.

Academies are "selective schools," meaning that they can suck all the high-scoring kids out of the local state schools, which brings down the average performance of the state schools, costing them budget and ensuring that parents will try to keep their kids out of them. And Academies are only accountable to the national government, instead of the local council, so if your local Academy is screwed up, your only real remedy is to ask your MP to raise a question about it in Parliament.

It's great if your neighbourhood Academy is a progressive hotbed of exciting educational ideas that uses community-based experts in its instruction and grows a garden to supplement the school dinners. But if it's a rent-seeking hotbed of loony Creationism and dumb ideas about policing language, it's still likely to be the only game in town for your kids, after the state school has been drained of any kid with the chance to go somewhere else, and then punished for failing.
Cory Doctorow

It would take a brave politician to take on the pro-Academy consensus, but I reckon that Nick needs a show of real boldness on this scale if he's ever going to come close to atoning for the tuition fees betrayal - 'and by the way, I always had my doubts about Free Schools' just ain't going to cut it.

Monday, 14 October 2013

A ghastly sight

Some notes on the interior decor of Dubai's (in)famous Burj al-Arab monster hotel, according to the blurb that came with a 3-D card model of the world's fourth tallest hotel.

Looks like they got Sam Wollaston to proofread their translation:
The Burj al-Arab is extraordinary, with its exterior steel skeleton and its helipad like a waterlily in the sky. Inside it's all gold leaf, crimson velvet, mosaics, marble, crystal chandeliers and giant fish tanks. A suite costs up to £14,500 a night.

It's fabulous, hideous, and the very pinnacle of tackiness - like Vegas after a serious, no-expense-spared, sheik-over.

Update 'world's tallest hotel' corrected to 'world's fourth tallest hotel.' It still seems to hold the record for the world's tackiest hotel, though.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The paranoid style in American comedy

If you live outside the United States, it's hard to get your head round what's going on with this federal government shutdown thing. Even the people who are shutting the government down don't seem to know what they're trying to achieve. Indiana Senator Marlin Stutzman famously told the press that 'We’re not going to be disrespected,' before demanding that 'We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.'

Still confused? Well, it's quite simple, really. It's all about President Obama's healthcare reforms. What's wrong with them? Radio talk show host and filmmaker Alex Jones explains all:

And there you have it. It has become necessary to shut down large parts of the federal government because rambling alien lizard in top hat hearts flabby dude in bad Halloween mask.

You know how people sometimes ask "where are all the right-wing comedians?" Well, I think we just found a couple. Step aside Jon Stewart, you don't know squat about satire, boy. I, for one, welcome our new reptiloid comedy overlords.

Via io9 which, being a science fiction site, identified the alien lizard mask as belonging to one of Captain Kirk's opponents from the original Star Trek series. I seem to remember finding Gorn/the Gorn (I'm not sure whether that was the creature's proper name or its species name) quite frightening as a kid, although it looks hilariously unconvincing now. Come to think of it, I think that thing scared me more than any of the Doctor Who monsters which people commonly cite as sending children of my generation scurrying behind the sofa in terror. It was probably those blank, unreadable silver compound eyes that creeped me out.

The thing is still both 'quite frightening' and 'hilariously unconvincing' in its new incarnation as Tea Party prop.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Is the Pope a Catholic?

Probably not. Probably not even a Christian.

If that statement isn't controversial enough for you, try this one for size. A fair proportion of the world's two billion-odd Christians aren't really Christians and this number includes many people who go to church and would describe themselves as Christians. For that matter there are a some self-described Muslims, Hindus and Jews who aren't really Muslims, Hindus or Jews. This is, I think, a Good Thing.

It's all a question of definition. As far as I can see, when it comes to religious belief or lack of it, people fall into four main camps:
  1. Theistic religion. Adherents believe in a particular deity, or set of deities, with very specific attributes, whose representatives on earth require followers to accept specific articles of faith and to worship in a particular way, to the exclusion of any alternative articles of faith and forms of worship promoted by different faiths.
  2. Deism. Adherents believe in a deity of some sort, but a deity who doesn't insist on a very specific, exclusive set of beliefs, or on a prescribed form of worship that differentiates believers from members of other tribes.
  3. Non- theistic religion. Adherents believe in a spiritual, reality of some sort, but not in a deity. As with 1. above, there are specific articles of faith and prescribed forms of worship.
  4. Unbelief. Adherents have no priori belief in a deity or a spiritual reality. The specific label (atheism, agnosticism, whatever), doesn't particularly matter.*
To be a Christian, as opposed to a deist, you must believe that you have access to a particular, exclusive, uniquely correct set of beliefs, necessary to peoples' salvation, which differentiates Christians from members of other faiths. If you don't believe that your faith is closer to the truth and a surer route to salvation than any other, then why not follow any other creed, join the "spiritual but not religious" crowd picking their way through the metaphysical buffet, or just drop out of the faith business altogether?

Christian churches are quite clear on this point, as is the Bible. Hence the repetition of the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Elijah, remember, didn't engage the prophets of Baal in a productive round of inter-faith dialogue. He told his people that Baal was bad and his followers wrong, challenged the priests of Baal to a "my god's bigger than your god" contest, mocked them, then had them all killed. Jesus omitted the violence but he was just as uncompromising as Elijah when it came to claiming exclusive ownership of spiritual truth 'No man cometh unto the Father, but by me' - in other words, accept no imitations.

Compare Elijah's and Jesus' uncompromising exclusivity with Pope Francis, who, last month, announced that even unbelievers - so long as they do good, are sincere and obey their consciences can be "forgiven" by God. Panicky church officials were quick to issue a "clarification", stating that he didn't really mean to say what we all thought he'd said and, terribly sorry atheists, but we're afraid you are still all going to hell. Rules are rules, nothing personal, you understand...

I can't prove that Francis didn't just mis-speak. You know how it is - you say 'great news guys, you're in practically no danger of burning in excruciating pain for all eternity' when what you really mean to say is, 'you'd better repent now, suckers, or you're all toast. Burnt toast.' Don't you think it would be super easy for the Pope to accidentally say the precise opposite of what he meant to say about a fundamental life choice which could affect those listening for all eternity? Me neither.

It seems more likely to me that Francis might actually be a humane sort of guy who can't really believe that the God he worships, the "merciful", "forgiving" one, can really be merciless and spiteful enough to torture sentient beings for eternity in hell. After all, he does seem to have enough humane instincts to play good cop to Benedict's bad cop (I might change my assessment if the allegations of collaboration with the Argentine junta were ever proved, but I'm assuming innocent until proven otherwise).

If that's the opinion he did let slip, you can see why the "correction" came out so quickly. In PR terms this would have been a huge "gaffe", since:
  1. The Church is supposed to be in the business of unchanging, eternal truths and to change its teaching (or to admit to having changed its teaching) would look like a U-turn.
  2. More importantly, once you start admitting that unbelievers and heathens might be saved, then what's the point of being a Christian? It's as if the CEO of The Vatican Inkjet Printer Corporation had announced to the world that it was okay to refill the company's expensive proprietary printer cartridges with generic printer ink from Dave's Budget Consumables Shack, rather than replacing them with new Vatican brand cartridges costing *Jesus Christ, how much?!?!*. The consumers are no longer tied in and the whole business model collapses.
If the Church is no longer the unique and only way to salvation, then what you're left with is a very big social club where people from similar backgrounds can get together. That, and a huge oversupply of infrastructure and personnel to service what is now no more than a global network of community centres.

Once you arrive at the point where your religion is no longer the unique and only way to salvation, there's a real break from religious certainty (at least in the exclusivist faiths - for Sikhs, for example, there's no break, because Sikhism has always been objectively deist). You may call yourself a Christian (or Muslim, or whatever), but once you start to believe that people of other faiths, or of no faith at all, can be good people with valid insights and an equally good shot at salvation, the exclusivity has gone and you're objectively a deist.

If this was just about what the Pope thought, it wouldn't matter very much. But I don't think he's alone. The jolly vicars, imams and rabbis who get together and pop up on the TV and radio every now and then to tell us how much they can learn from each other and how much they respect the other lot's deeply held beliefs, religious sensibilities and traditions - you know what, I reckon most of them really mean it. They probably don't believe that the other lot are deluded fools or wicked infidels who are going straight to hell. More objective deists. Add to their number all the sincere, liberal clergy who believe in inter-faith dialogue and even dialogue with the faithless. And then add the countless millions of religious lay people who don't get all Elijah-like and smite-y with the nice family next door who don't attend the same church, mosque, or whatever and who imagine, if they ever stop to think about it, that God probably loves their neighbours just as much as members of their own congregation.

Their faiths might want to claim these people and they might self-identify as members of a particular religion, but if you think about it, most liberal, non-fanatical religious people are, for all practical purposes, deists. I don't share their god-belief, but it's heartening to reflect that a lot of other people fall into this tolerant category and share my belief that you can believe pretty much what you like, so long as you're not hurting anybody (although I reserve the right to mock if your beliefs diverge too wildly from what seems to be objective reality).

A while back I had a look at the number of adherents who follow different belief systems. Because my source,, lumped deists in with "nonreligious", the total overstates the number of people who don't believe in god. But I reckon that there's also probably a big (if unquantifiable) number of people who are, for all practical purposes, deists (although they may self-identify as Christians, or whatever), who need lopping off some of the figures for mainstream religious adherents.

The corollary to all this is that, if the nicest, most reasonable believers are effectively deists rather than strict adherents of an exclusive faith, then the most intolerant, inflexible, bigoted, craziest and most violent ones are the True Believers. Whenever there's some insane atrocity committed in the name of religion, somebody's always popping up to explain that the perps weren't acting in the name of "real" Islam (sorry, but it usually is Islam at the moment). I disagree. I think that the people who believe that they have chosen the one true path and that the backslider, the apostate, the infidel and the unbeliever are wicked and must be punished in this world and the next, are the true heirs of exclusivist tribal religion as opposed to tolerant, inclusive deism. It's the militant jihadi, the Koran-burning pastor, the vicar who won't let the church hall be defiled by the pagan wickedness of a yoga class, the Genesis-obsessed science denialists, the idiots who shoot schoolgirls in the head for daring to go to school, who speak for zealous Elijah and his jealous God.

*I suppose there's fifth category, namely a sort of non-theistic equivalent of deism, where you believe in some kind of spiritual reality, but not in a god, or gods, and you don't adopt rigid articles of faith, or prescribed forms of worship. I don't know enough about niche forms of spirituality to give a specific example, but I'm sure that there are people who identify as "spiritual but not religious" and are drawn to something like free-form Buddhism. But I wanted to keep my argument simple and my list short.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

White whine in old bottles

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
John Scalzi

This is almost the perfect put-down to the white whine of "victimised" Ukippers / people who believe what they read in the Daily Heil. I say 'almost', because I suspect that the average 'kipper / Heil reader is probably too old to get a gaming reference. Which suggests, among other things, that Ukip's window of electoral opportunity may close quite soon, as one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh.

Or am I making a sweeping generalisation of my own, about the average age of gamers? If you know that there are far more grey gamers than I could possibly imagine, feel free to enlighten me (with citations).