Sunday, 30 March 2014

To Give A Damn

I alluded to this blog post the other day, but got busy doing other things. I've been nudged into it by what I've seen since.

OK, so whether or not you have enjoyed the Harry Potter books or movies, it can't have escaped you that some very interesting quotes have come out of them, which have become memes (no, NOT the little pictures on Facebook, REAL memes) and among them is this from Dumbledore:

"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." 

I love this quote, not that it offers anything new. This is standard wisdom. I love that an author took this standard wisdom, and put it it a story aimed at the young, who are the ones who need to hear it the most, and did it in such a way that it's memorable.

Of course, it won't be "heard" by everyone. When it comes to wisdom you can lead many a horse to water.

The basis of all wisdom is, actually, this concept. That our choices are The Thing. This includes the choice of not choosing, and the choice of doing nothing.

When we look at a person's character, we often say that his intelligence is not the most important thing. That people of low intelligence, even with a medical diagnosis of such, can often be perfectly moral, good people. Useful people. But if we break intelligence down we find it has several different components, one of which is a thing called executive skills. If a person is lacking here, they don't make good choices, and this can lead to them not, actually, being very moral.

On the other hand, a person of otherwise high intelligence can still lack in this area. Except now there's no excuse for it.

It all comes down to one choice really, at the beginning, and that is the choice to endeavour to make good choices. Perhaps that sounds a bit obvious, but clearly this isn't foremost in the mind of a great number of people.

But of course, we could argue that what a good choice is, will depend on opportunities available. Sometimes life is a multiple choice quiz rather than a free answer paper. Even so, generally there is an answer that is preferable to the others.

Let's say you received a bonus from your employer. Instead of just patting you on the head, he hands you $1000. Now you have to choose what you do with it. There are several options available to you. It could be debated as to whether it's wiser to spend it or save it, and if you choose to spend it, maybe investing in an item you get to keep for a long time could be a better choice than frittering it away partying. If you spoke to a financial expert he'd have no problem suggesting the best use of it. If you spoke to a person whose decisions revolve around having fun, you'd get a different answer, and you may just listen to the latter.

Because it's a bonus, what you probably won't get is much criticism, no matter what your choice is. Bonuses tend to be seen as "spare" money.

It would be a different story if you frittered away money that was needed to pay bills or debts. The advice you'd get now would be mostly "don't do it", and any friends who suggested "nah, go ahead, life's short" may have a happy-go-lucky attitude, but in the long run, they'd have you homeless. You are therefore less likely to listen to them, and you'd almost certainly be criticized if you did.

Money, however, is the least of it. Money can be counted, and you know how much you have spare, or you can at least look at the statement later and see how much you wasted. It is our other choices, that can't be measured that are much more difficult. Especially when seeking advice. Because attitudes vary so much.

So, when it's a non-financial decision (or at least one that isn't obviously's possible to argue that most decisions are ultimately financial, but that's another matter) there is more chance of the heart ruling the head.

Some people think all decisions should be made based on emotion. Some think that all should be based on logic. Wise people know that both are involved, to a greater or lesser degree.

But it all begins with that first decision, the decision to make wise choices.

So, that might sound like I'm stating the obvious, but as I look around me, it's not really clear that people have made that initial decision. Certainly, if you listen to their reactions when their choices are criticized, what you hear is not a rational explanation. What you tend to hear are excuses that come from a place of apathy, laziness, selfishness, or all out stupidity. In fact there seems to be a trend towards pride in bad choices.

My first task every time I go to Facebook is to hide conversations with friends of friends that FB has decided to show on my wall. Not because they are bad people - this is no judgement on your friends - but because I feel like a stalker. I feel like I'm seeing something private, that was never intended for me. I am not comfortable with this, but I cannot stop FB from doing this nor can I demand that your friends put their dirty laundry up for friends only. If they choose to make their most intimate stuff public, it lands on my wall. So, I hide them. One at a time.

That said, before I realised what was happening, I was privy to a number of conversations that shocked me. Perhaps they shouldn't. I am well aware that the world is full of this sort of drama, but I choose to systematically avoid it, so I see less of it, and when I do it leaves me open-mouthed.

These people are clearly making many bad choices, and not only in that they share these details publically. They are making bad choices in their relationships, in their lifestyles, and in their day-to-day dealings. They are doing dangerous things, things that can only lead to harm, either to themself or to others. They are not demonstrating any wisdom at all in what they say, or what they do.

But what's worse is that they don't seem to care. None of them ever say "I know it was wrong". And NEVER have I seen any of these people suggest for one moment that they will try harder in future, change their ways, or make an effort to be different. In other words they haven't made that basic, fundamental decision to at least try to make good choices.

I am also aware that no amount of gentle reminder or nagging or outright intervention will change that, if they are not ready to hear it.

I do believe however, that everyone, other than actual sociopaths and psychpaths, are capable of making that decision. To try. To want to.

I further believe that the whole idea of a good person, or a wide person, or a sensible person comes from them having made that choice. Even if they screw up sometimes. It's about the intent. The desire to improve.

In another famous character quote, Yoda said there is no try, but I think he's wrong. I think trying is what makes us the best we can be. It allows us to reach our full potential. Effort act as a base. By choosing to care about how we choose, we will choose better, and there's no downside to this.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

God Hates Tomboys

It would be easy to get angry about the following story:

But anger doesn't solve anything, the child is fine, in good care, and happy in her new school.

Still, I have to discuss this because I was that type of child, and in case you missed it, I've discussed this at length before:

What I'd like to say is this - this school doesn't know what it's talking about.

Define feminine. Go on, I dare you.

A few years ago on a forum, I was talking to a man who was a transvestite. I have no issues with transvestites in principle, and I want to make that very clear. However, we got into a huge argument because he said "I bet I am more feminine than you", and I said "Define feminine?" and he listed certain items and styles of clothing.

I said "You are correct in that these are not things I would wear, but that is only clothing, it doesn't define you or me". And we talked past each other for some time until I gave up, because he was so certain he knew what feminine meant, except he couldn't define it.

There is this idea that a skirt is feminine. I dare you to say that out loud, right to the face of a burly Scotsman in a kilt. I hope you have good dentist if you do.

Don't tell me it's different, and don't you dare say "You know what I mean" because these are just cop outs.

Let me tell you this. If you lived in a society where men wore skirts and women wore pants, with no exceptions, you'd "know" that this was "right and proper" and the way it should be. Because what counts as male attire or female attire is based WHOLLY ON FASHION.

When somebody says that it's got anything to do with God then I know it's complete and utter bollocks, because in Bible times


Is that plain enough? They also had long hair, wore as much jewellery as women, the same shoes as women, and the same headgear as women. 

Now, I am a great fan of a certain religious group of people, and that's the Mennonites, because they are wonderful people, but they have have some very illogical ideas. They have very strict rules about what they wear, and there's absolutely no way of mistaking a man for a woman, not even at a distance. This is based on 19th century fashions. People in the Bible didn't dress like that. No, they chose a period in history, and put the brakes on, right there. 

It's the same in Islam, it's the same in Judaism. What they claim to be correct clothing for men or women is based on a fashion which is actually comparatively recent. 

This whole idea about telling people how to dress is based on arbitrary ideas. There is zero rationality behind it at all.

This is even before you get to the idea of modesty, which has its own problems (it's all relative, for a start), but you can't even use that as an excuse when a girl is in a sweatshirt and jeans.

No, this is all about control and nothing more. That's all this is ever about. Control, control, control. 

Grow up humanity. 

A Something of Consciousness, Anyway, A Meandering River, Possibly

Today is my birthday, ha HA! So I'm allowed to witter on completely at random and I shall.

When I got up this morning I asked myself how I should celebrate 52 years on the planet, and I decided to do a little dance. No, really, I did. I figure if one is still able to dance, then dance one should. Anyway, it acted as a sort of warm-up, so I was ready for more go,go,go and I cleaned my office. Yes, before 8am. Sorry. And now I have a lovely clean desk. Which smells of unscented baby wipes. (Work THAT one out).

However.....while moving the computer (it's an all-in-one) I accidentally lowered the screen brightness. I figured out how to turn it back up, but my conscience got the better of me (damn scruples) and I decided to leave it mid-way to save power, seeing as it's on all day. Now it looks a rainy day. This is going to take some getting used to.

The other thing I did this morning was look up how to pronounce Saraswati. It was as I suspected, but the site I found it on had an annoying woman giving an announcement. Listen to this:

Now, I'm all for cheerfulness, but announcers who deliver with a laugh in their voice, when they are not telling a joke or anything remotely like one, make me want to slap them. It's fatuous and another example of all that's wrong with today's media.

But while I was there (WARNED YOU IN THE TITLE) I wondered if that site had an example of "Harry".

The reason being, that Harry Potter is on my mind due to what I originally thought I'd write about today (and still may well do, you never know) and they do! It wasn't quite what I had in mind though....

And of course, if you're French and your name is Harry (I suppose it's possible) this would even be correct.

So, the question is, what is the "correct" pronunciation of a name? Let's face it, there are lots of different ways to say names, even among people who all speak the same language.

I am very fortunate here because my name is pronounced more or less the same in most accents, and not much different in French. The vowels may alter a tad, but it's no big deal. There remains, however, a wrong way to say it - which I have been called - and that's Me-LANE-ie. My point is, here there's a clear distinction between just differing accents and actually WRONG.

But where do we draw the line?

My buddy Simona (who had better be reading this) has told me how she suffers from people saying her name wrong. It's Seem-O-na. Not Sim-O-na. Is this difference too subtle for some? Possibly. But it is a totally different vowel.

But then there's my daughter Sian. People see her name written and say See-AN. Which is definitely wrong. No question. Because this is not just a different vowel. It is pronounced SHAHN.

My poor husband, however is stuck. Martin is a name that is commonplace in both Britain and North America, and the pronunciation is totally, utterly different. But how can you expect somebody used to saying it the North American way to correct themselves for just one foreigner? Let's face it, it's not going to happen. So despite his mother naming him MAH-tin, he goes through life being called MR'N (the apostrophe being a glottal stop). These are two different words, but he's obliged to suck it up.

Apparently then, whether or not you get your name prounounced internationally the way you pronounce it yourself depends on many factors.

One of these would appear to be how famous you are. Colin Powell is a perfect example. When he first started appearing on the news, I called him the way I called all people called Colin, which is COLL-in. But I learned he pronounced it COHL-in. So, I tried to get it right, even though I never met the man. This is the reverse situation to my husband's situation. But you know, most people used the pronunciation he uses himself, because he's world famous.

So, I am obliged to ask why it's different for Harry Potter, who must one of the most famous fictional characters ever, and whose name has been heard pronounced HIS way on 7 box office smash movies, but nevertheless you never EVER hear non-British people say it that way. North Americans say "Hairy".

I understand why. That's how they pronounce that vowel. All the people they know locally call themselves "Hairy". What I'm asking is why Colin Powell gets his name pronounced his way, and Harry Potter doesn't. I'm not expecting it to change, I'd just love it if anyone can explain this phenomenon to me. There are many other examples.

As I often say, I ask a lot of questions.......

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Believers and Skeptics

Do you think it's better to be a believer, or a skeptic?

I had planned on posting this one today anyway, but after what I saw on Facebook this morning, I realise it's urgent.

My topic of the week is about how we think, how it affects us, and how much control we actually have over it all. You cannot have failed to notice that some people have opinions that make no sense. It's all very well saying that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but sometimes these opinions are based on misinformation, in one way or another.

Obviously this takes many forms, but the ones we see most are beliefs formed in childhood, usually from parental teaching, or in a broader form from the surrounding culture. This is going to include religious beliefs, but importantly they may not be orthodox. Think of the pentecostal snake handler families, for example.

But they may just as easily be political beliefs, which children are perfectly capable of taking on board as "facts" if they are presented in such a way. We see this quite often in the middle east, and 3 generations of Turks have a flawed knowledge of their own history. In some places parents actively discourage children from learning a second language which could in fact offer more opportunities for them later in life, for political reasons.

Then, of course, there are prejudices and biases; racism and sexism of all types could be mostly eradicated if it was never learned young. Remember the song:

And let's not forget general misinformation such as creationism, which while it may or may not have an element of religion, goes against current scientific thinking. So there are plenty of other examples here, mostly passed on by parents who simply don't know any better, but all too often deliberately.

Finally there is the absence of critical thinking itself. Believe it or not, many parents and certain types of teacher do not want children to learn critical thinking skills, because they may question the beliefs of their culture. But in any case, without those skills, kids grow up into adults unable to discern from the information presented to them. They fall for tricksters. They go on doing it, because they mix with others caught by the same tricks, and they reinforce one another's beliefs.

And so it has been with a heavy heart that I have read all the conspiracy theories surrounding the disappearance of the Malaysian plane.

Yes, it's amazing, isn't it, that something that big could disappear without trace, and I don't think there's any question that foul play could have been involved. But, just as easily, there could be a perfectly innocent explanation.

I'd like, therefore, to draw your attention to this article, which in itself is a classic piece of conspiracy theory, but, as always, it's the comments that are even more interesting.

You will find an awful lot of insulting going on there, so I'll group them for you. They fall under:

A) You are stupid if you believe this.
B) You are stupid if you don't believe this.
C) You are stuipid for making your particular comment.
D) You are stupid for calling that particular comment stupid.

And then, like a breath of fresh air, there are commenters like Kyle, who begins with "This is a ludicrous story " and offers a simple, rational possible explanation. Occam would be proud. He also explains just how and why misinformation spreads, and this is the crux of the problem.

But what happens next in any situation like this is very interesting.

While people have all sorts of ideas about what happened in any strange event, you can group people broadly into believers and skeptics.

This is not good vs. bad, because it can go both ways, it's more to do with how people choose what they read and how they read it.

There are those who call themselves skeptics, for example, because they honestly think that by doubting every news report and governmemt statement they are automatically closer to the truth. The statement that inspired me to add this section about the plane said (of this article):

" I don't trust any government...this story is much more believable than what the Malaysia government is saying! 

She thinks that because she's skeptical of official reports, that makes her wiser. She does. That's her angle.

On the other hand, she is willing to believe an article written by a complete stranger, on a website that is famous for conspiracy theories. She probably doesn't know that, the point is, she probably doesn't care/hasn't checked.

Skepticism is not, actually, disbelieving official statements. It is questioning ALL statements. The true skeptic would not automatically accept the unofficial version anymore than it would the official one.

Let's leave the plane and look at skepticism a bit closer.

You commonly see skepticism in religious matters. The same applies here, however. The skeptic is not not necessarily saying "That isn't true". He's saying "How do we know this is true? It may or may not be. Let's examine it a bit closer". He asks why. He considers possibilities. He is not a believer, obviously, but he's not dismissing the beliefs either.

It is possible that aftrer due consideration, he will become a believer. But it's much harder for the opposite to happen. Someone who is a believer tends to stay that way.

I could easily write an entire post on skepticism with regard to religion, or indeed to politics (which I'll return to), but I find it just as interesting to see how it plays out in more ordinary ways.

A good example is the microwave article I posted yesterday. One of my  friends commented, including the following:

" I have a friend who recently got rid of her microwave because someone told her it was "dangerous" and now she reheats leftovers on the stovetop."

We don't know who that "someone" was but I would bet good money that it wasn't a scientist. I'd throw a few more bucks on the pile, that if I said this to her she'd tell me "Well, you can't trust scientists" which I've heard many times. They are, appararently all scoundrels hellbent on killing us off with their new-fangled ideas. In league with governments, no doubt.

So, here we have those who are quick to be skeptical about science, but happy to believe "someone".

I've lost count of the times I've seen examples of this.

Before anyone objects, no, scientists and doctors and governments and engineers and whatever other experts don't always get it right. We know that. But they don't always get it wrong, either. And they have at their disposal the best information available.

There are, without doubt, corrupt governments who deliberately feed misinformation to their citizens. The Ugandan government has been telling its people for years that HIV does not cause AIDS, thus excerbating the problem and preventing treatment being available to sufferers. The Ugandan government is one of the most corrupt governments in the world, possibly second only to the North Korean. And ducks tend to quack.

But it doesn't mean they are all at it.

Governments do tell lies. Yes, they do. Trusting them implicitly would be a mistake. Assuming every damn thing they do or say is a cover up or evil plot to kill us all is also a mistake.

Ah, you say, how do we know who or what to believe? It's getting SO HARD!

Actually, it's never been easier.

200 years ago your government could have told you any old bollocks it felt like and you'd have been none the wiser. Actually, they did tell you a load of old bollocks. They told you that black people were lesser than white people, that they couldn't be allowed to be free, because civiliation would collapse. A bit more recently they told you women couldn't vote because they were lesser than men, and if they got into politics civilization would collapse. I'm sure you can think of more examples.

Today with the collected wisdom and knowledge we have access to around the world it's very hard to fool the masses. You might get away with it for a short time, but it won't last. There are far too many skeptics hanging on your every word and checking it out.

AHA! cry the conspiracy theorists, that's what we're here for.

Except, the vast majority of them argue just as aggressively among themselves, if not more so, than any arguments they have with normal people.

Few of them are skeptics at all. The vast majority are simply hangers on who have chosen to believe charismatic mouthpieces rather than mainstream spokespeople.

It gets harder when the "alternative" version of events is credible. It's not all tinfoil hat stuff.

So we can divide it all into two groups. That which can be easily disproven by High School level science, and that which requires real expertise.

A term goes around in these discussions, and it's pseudo-science. It's used quite fairly in some cases, perhaps less so in others, but the problem seems to be that many of the "alternative" people don't actually know what science is. This leads them to using the word wrongly, and making silly statements like "Well, science doesn't know everything!" (Statements that begin with "Well" can be read as "My uneducated opinion is....")

Nobody knows everything. There is always room for more information, and it's certainly true that there are people on the science "side" who are arrogant, dismissive, and therefore careless in their assumptions.

A good example of this is the vaccination debate, which I usually stay out of, and the reason is exactly examples like this. In a recent heated debate (oh boy, and how) about how those who chose not to vaccinate their kids are going to kill us all (hyperbole is not limited to "alternative" views). During the argument (can't call it anything else) one poster said:

"Vaccines never harmed anyone!"

I could feel a lot of wincing but nobody challenged it, proving that outrageous remarks and unreasonable peer support can occur anywhere.

It is statements like "always" and "never" and other generalisations that cause so much of the problem. And these are statements made by believers, not skeptics. A believer has stopped asking questions, stopped looking for exceptions, stopped examining other possibilities. He knows. He's right.

In so many spheres, and so many examples, those who think they are skeptics are just believers in the opposing view. Nothing more or less. They have chosen a side. It may be the right side, that doesn't matter. The believer is set is his belief.

A true skeptic may arrive at the same conclusion, but not by knee-jerk assumptions. Not by reading only one side of it.

So, if you want to ask me when governments are dangerous, I shall tell you. It is when those within the government are believers.

In Britain over the last few years a terrible injustice has happened. It could happen anywhere, and this type of injustice does indeed occur all over the world, and in many ways, but this one has affected people I know, so I took a particular interest in it.

Britain, as you probably know, has a well-established benefit (welfare) system, that theoretically acts as a safety net for all its citizens. In theory British citizens will be taken care of by their government if they are unable to care for themselves. In practice this is a terrible financial strain on the national budget and not surprisingly steps have been taken to see if some money can be saved.

Somewhere along the way the idea was put forward that benefit fraud was costing the country over a billion pounds a year. So measures were taken to clamp down on this, and many genuine people lost income as a result. Newspapers were full of stories of hardships and even suicides. But the taxpayer stood firm. These cheats were getting what they deserved. People were encouraged to rat on their neighbours.

And they believed this. The government and the taxpayer were united in the belief that this was the problem, and OK, it was sad if a few kids went hungry, but something has to be done. And this is what has to be done. So they did it.

Except the bare facts are that tax fraud costs the country many times that.

This is data. Hard numbers. The government isn't even disputing them. But beliefs won the day.

Nobody is saying that benefit fraud is OK, it isn't and yes, some money has to be spent to stop it. You have to buy an alarm to stop a robbery. There's no question there. But when cause and effect is this skewed there's a problem.

There just isn't enough skepticism around.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


In the valley of the blind, the one eyed man is king. With that in mind I'm about to give a science lesson.

But seriously folks, this is from good research, so you can trust me, and if you don't, you can look it up yourself.

I've been meaning to write about this ever since a friend showed concern on how "green" microwaves could be. That's easy to demonstrate, and I shall.

But this morning I saw this:

I've seen it before, and many other things like it. It's bollocks.

Let's deal with it in three stages.

One, the person who created this doesn't know what decimate means. It means to destroy one-tenth of something. If microwaves destroy one-tenth of nutrients, then it's doing a better job than a pot over a fire, which destroys far more than that. Actually. But in fact this is just bad English, so we can ignore it except to say that whoever created the graphic has already shown some ignorance.

Two, you can easily conduct experiments to prove this is not true. Plenty of researchers have. Oddly enough they don't feel the need to publish their scientific findings on internet memes, but you can find the research all over the internet, and you can even try it out yourself. Which reminds me......

A few years ago a purported experiment was going round online, showing that water that had been microwaved was then used to water seedlings, and according to the photo presentation, the seedlings died. Gasp. Shock. Horror. People were saying they'd never put their coffee in the microwave again! It might kill them! So, the first point was missed right there. Because people don't READ.

Nobody ever said that microwaved water would kill you. Not even the creators of these photos. It was simply suggested that somehow the water was changed in some unexplained way, and that given ONLY that water, the seedlings would die.

First of all, seedlings do not obtain nutrition from the water you give them. Water is for hydration. Seedlings carry their own nutrition inside the seed (q.v. basic biology) and once they have their seed leaves they also immediately begin photosynthesis, which is nutrition obtained from light. This is why plants that don't get enough sunlight don't thrive. Therefore we must assume that the creators of this experiment were suggesting that the plant's own package of nutrients was in some way damaged by the addition of water that had been microwaved. This is scientifically impossible.

Microwaved water is just water that has been heated and cooled again. It's not radioactive. There's no residue, nothing added, nor is there anything removed.

But in this alleged experiment there was a control set of seedlings that thrived, despite all other conditions being the same. So it wasn't lack of light that was killing them. But something killed them. So what DID kill them?

An agenda killed them. For whatever reason, the person taking the photos and trying to convince you that microwaved water was harmful to plants killed them. Deliberately. For the photo. It was murder.

I draw this conclusion because I conducted the same experiment and my seedlings watered with microwaved water did just fine. They grew as tall (or taller), as green, as strong, and as ready to become plants as the control seedlings. Conclusion? Hoax.

You can try it yourself if you don't believe me.

Recently it been suggested by actually quite reputable sources that baby formula should not be heated in a microwave. Unfortunately this advice came too late for me, because that was how Michael's formula was heated. He looks OK to me. Anyway, the rationale behind it is probably more to do with the containers, as we now know certain plastics leach chemicals into liquids when heated. This in itself is not because of microwaves, it's because of heat, it's just that we can't heat plastic on conventional stoves.

Which brings me to......

Three, cooking anything, anyway you like, destroys nutrients. Doesn't matter if you use a microwave, a campfire, a barbecue, a gas stove, an electric stove, a solar oven, or a frigging dragon. Heat changes the nutritional value of food. It doesn't destroy ALL the nutrients, but it does destroy SOME. Some are more vulnerable than others. But the point here is that it is HEAT which does this, regardless of the source.

I found a table for you, I don't guarantee how accurate this is, as it is supplied by a website that advocates raw food, and you may be able to find a better one, but it'll give you a rough idea:

But in a diet where some food is eaten raw, you will cover your bases anyway. Humans lost the ability to eat raw meat many thousands of years ago, with a few exceptions, it could potentially make you very sick. This is why raw food advocates have to be vegetarian, but they have to work hard to find the nutrients found in meat. That is not my concern, it's their lifestyle choice and it's not an argument I enter into.

We have been eating cooked food, especially in winter in cold climates, for a very long time. We are used to it. We are fine. We have the longest lifespans we've ever had. We have arrived in the modern world having done this. It has been successful for us. Some people choose to eschew it, which is fine, but, if you eat a normal, modern, western omnivorous diet, at least some of your food is cooked, and to avoid waste sometimes it will need to be re-heated.

And it is as safe to do this using a microwave as any other method, provided you heat it thoroughly. And it's cheaper. But let's look at what we are talking about.

What is a microwave?

It is a wave of electromagnetic radiation, and it lies somewhere between infrared light (which you've all used to keep things hot, I'm sure) and radio waves. Longer than light, shorter than sound. The microwaves used in domestic appliances are about 2 1/2" long. So you can't see them or hear them, but you can measure them with the right equipment. There are longer and shorter microwaves that are used for other purposes.

Microwaves create heat. They do this by making molecules move around very fast. This is easier in liquids than in solids, which is why water heats up very fast, and pork chops take a lot longer. It never gets very hot when used correctly, but you can still burn food in a microwave oven, and I have actually set fire to peas.

If you were exposed to a microwave, it would burn you, and therefore it's certainly not something you want to come in contact with. Thankfully in your microwave oven the microwaves are contained in a metal case.

And it is not, I REPEAT NOT, radioactive. The content of radioactive material in your microwave oven is zero. Radiation is not always radioactive, and in this case it isn't. There is no uranium here, no nuclear fission going on. It is just radiating waves, just as you do when you talk. They're just shorter.

Need it a bit more detailed but still easy to understand?

After you turn it off, the molecules inside the water or food are still moving, so it is still possible to be scalded or burned by touching it with bare skin, or eating it too fast, but it is never much hotter than the boiling point of water. Compare this to a lasagne that's just come out of a regular oven. So the overall risk of burns is actually less.

When thinking of the health effects of cooking with a microwave it is worth remembering than this maximum heat prevents changes within your food that can happen at higher temperatures that are potentially harmful. In fact, to talk at Facebook level, barbecues cause cancer, microwave ovens don't.

But above all the "green" effect comes from less power being used.

If you bake a potato in an electric stove, you are cooking at around 2000 watts for about 90 minutes. In a microwave oven you are cooking at around 1500 watts for about 15 minutes. You don't even need to be able to calculate the total watts used to see the obvious benefit here. You save money, the world has less energy it needs to produce, and you help save the planet. Win-win-win.

This is an overview, obviously, and if you are interested you can read up on much more, the internet is at your disposal. ALL the information you need is free, online, so there is no need to be afraid, or to be ignorant or misinformed.

Finally, we must ask ourselves why there are people out there trying to convince you this is dangerous. Follow the money. Apart from those who are afraid, due to ignorance or misinformation, and who project their fears by sharing them without seeing if there is any validity to it, there's often a profit motive. Many of the articles you will find online convincing you that microwaves effectively sterilize your food, are trying to sell you supplements, or juicers, or books. Remember what I said yesterday about manipulation? Fear is the most efficient way to manipulate people.

Monday, 24 March 2014

You Don't Know What You Want

I assume all of you reading this think it's a good thing to have an open mind. I also assume you all think that you have open minds. How many of you think you know your own minds?

Well, you don't.

You don't have to take it from me, either. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have been looking at this for a long, long time, and almost all of them agree. You are easily tricked.

You are frequently deluded, manipulated, and led to believe all manner of things, and not only from outside influences, either. You do it to yourself.

So, if you are truly open-minded, the most important thing to take on board is that your open mind could probably do with some sort of security system, because it's letting in a load of bollocks.

I consider myself to be a very analytical person. In fact I've been accused of being too analytical, and on occasions it's a fair comment. Sometimes I spend more time asking why than living in the moment. I am very solutions-oriented, which is obviously useful but not always what people need from me. I started asking why as soon as I could talk, and if anything, I've got worse with age.

But even I can be tricked, deluded, and manipulated because I'm human. What I'm saying is, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

There are several reasons for this. One, logic is not absolute. Even if the decision being made is regarding numbers, decisions are rarely purely mathematical. If that were the case economists would never disagree, anyone who could add up would be a billionaire, and businesses would never fail. You may have noticed, this is not the case. Two, the calmest people on the planet still have emotions. If you have emotions, you can be manipulated. Three, if you are relying on memory you're going to be fooled. Human memory is very, very fallible.

It won't help you to decide that you are not going to be tricked, because it happens at a level you are not aware of, deep in your subconscious. HIDDEN. The human mind is an amazing thing, but some of it is just not accessible. If you don't believe me, the next time you can't remember somebody's name, or how to spell a word, or where you left your keys, please, do tell me where that memory is stored. I rest my case.

And, you know what? It's OK. You don't have to be totally sharp all of the time. Nobody can expect that, and you can forgive yourself for the occasional screw-up.

But sometimes these delusions are long-lasting, all-encompassing, and what's more you will try to defend and justify them. And they can be very harmful.

An example of how they can be harmful to you is often referred to as low self-esteem, which really means lack of faith in your own abilities. If you believe you are worthless, or useless, or stupid, or ugly, or whatever it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that nobody likes you, it will happen. If you believe that you can't do X, you'll probably fail at it. And yet these are all delusions.

On the other hand if you believe that people (any group, or any individual other than yourself) are bad, evil, wrong, lesser, dangerous, or any negative at all, it can lead to that person or those people being harmed, by your delusion. This is where prejudice, oppression, and bigotry are born, and there is no limit to the harm this can do. It can lead to genocide if the delusion is shared.

You don't have to be mad to be delusional. I had a fascinating discussion yesterday about phobias. A phobia is essentially a delusion that you can be harmed by something that cannot really harm you. And this can be a real problem in your life, or in the life of people around you. It can lead to great harm. But anyone can be phobic, despite being perfectly normal otherwise. It's a pocket of irrationality in an otherwise rational mind. Because ALL minds have the potential for irrationality.

The only thing close to a solution here is awareness, and it guarantees nothing. But it's better than inertia, and I strongly recommend awareness as a stratgey to improve your life, and the life of others too. You can call it mindfulness instead if you are so inclined, it only matters that you think about it at all.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


Not everyone blogs. Obviously. Not everyone reads blogs. Not everyone reads. So, not surprisingly those of us who either write or read this sort of thing on a regular basis are really not understood by those who don't. But many of them are happy to discuss things at the same level, in person. There are many ways to share ideas. I don't think it matters how we share ideas, only that we do. I think people need to talk to one another to get along, and I think we need to listen.

I do not divide people into those who discuss online and those who don't, I just divide people into those who, somehow, share ideas and opinions in a rational and reasonable way, and those who......don't.

I have wonderful children, a wonderful husband, and wonderful friends. I value their thoughts, ideas, and opinions, even if I don't always agree with them. Quite often our conversations are not about us, but about the world, about history, about philosophy, about art....we talk about stuff. Interesting stuff.

I am very lucky with my kids. In case you are not familiar with my personal life (I know I've picked up a few followers, regular readers here, who I don't actually know, and that's fine) I have a large family: 6 biological kids and 1 adopted. The youngest turns 18 this summer so we can safely call them all grown up, and so I have adult conversations with them. I won't go into details because this is a public blog, and they are entitled to private lives, but I want to explain something.

These are 7 very different young people, and if I count in their partners, there are another 4 young people who I also love very much and whose opinions I am always interested to hear. So  there are 11 very different minds, with different ideas about the world. Different. All different.

What they all share is enthusiasm. Interest. These are not boring people, and they are not bored people. They have things to say. They are things worth saying. And the most important thing any of us ever does is listen.

You must have heard, I'm sure, people who complain that their teenagers don't talk to them, or indeed that they are rude, or they just grunt or whatever. They actively avoid talking to their parents as much as possible. There are definitely no interesting conversations.

I can't imagine that. We've always had these fascinating discussions. Deep, deep conversations, no taboo topics, and all opinions given a chance. It isn't necessary to agree, all that matters is that the conversation, however controversial, is done in such a way that everyone gets their say, and is listened to. Debate, not argument. It can get loud and heated, oh yes, it can. That's OK, passion is good.

But I might ask why their teenagers don't talk to them. Is it because their parents aren't listening when they do?

Anyway, my experience, what I'm used to, is open discussion, so I'm a great fan of it. And of course as they've grown up and their lives have changed the discussions have changed because some of their views have changed, which is normal, and expected. But their core values haven't, because they are good people.

I have laboured the point that these very different minds can talk at length on all sorts of topics, because I am interested as why so often people can't. Why people don't even bother trying.

You know exactly what I'm talking about. People who, for whatever reason, don't want to be reasonable, and don't want to participate in a rational debate. They may be dismissive, or insulting, or apathetic, but they just refuse to follow the basic rules that are necessary when opinions vary, to avoid a fight. Perhaps they enjoy being confrontational, but how do they not see how this affects them and everyone around them? But most of all, what I see is that unreasonable people DON'T LISTEN. Their ears work, they hear words, but they block out any ideas other than their own.

I suppose it's pretty hopeless for me to try and understand the mind of an unreasonable person, because I'm so focused on reason. I'll just be grateful that I am surrounded by reasonable people, and I'll continue to enjoy the fantastic conversations we have.

In my objective of being reasonable, I try to learn about other perspectives. I won't learn anything just talking to people whose opinions and outlook are the same as mine. I deliberately step outside my comfort zone and face the things I object to. I've done this for a very long time. I try to understand what makes people tick, those whose opinions are very different to mine.

It's not easy sometimes. Inside my head are two voices, one screaming objections to what these people are saying, and another one that says just listen. And it isn't easy, and it never gets any easier. But I think it's worth doing.

I'm happy to see that this happens more now than it did maybe 30 years ago. I think people are becoming more open-minded. They may not change their opinions, but they change their attitude. They are more ready to listen to two sides to a story. Or maybe it's just those who I mix with. I'm not sure.

So, I spend a lot of time studying ethics, and not least meta-ethics, as in "how the hell do we decide what is right and wrong anyway?" Hold that thought.

One of the things that I study is the Islamic world. This puts me outside of my comfort zone, but I feel it's something I must try to understand (even if it's only academically) because it's something that crops up constantly in today's world. I can't offer opinions if I don't make the effort to understand it.

Of course plenty of people do just that. They know next to nothing about it but they have plenty of opinions. And frequently these opinions are presented in a way that is unreasonable. Sometimes it's deliberately provocative or offensive. So, again, for whatever reason, these people have chosen to avoid all basic rules of debate, and prefer to just offer an opinion based on ignorance and prejudice. They are entitled to that attitude, but I don't find it very helpful.

The hardest thing to pin down when trying to understand the worldview of other people is how they identify. In my studies I have come across contradictory views on the identity of people in the Muslim world. It seems to be one of those situations where if you ask 12 members of the group in question, you'll get 13 different answers. I've spoken to many women who say they are female first, Muslim second, for example. But I've spoken to many others who say it's the other way around. So I look to experts, rather than individuals, to help me here, and it's no help at all. Some experts say that the Muslim identity is first and foremost just that, that they are Muslims. That their religion defines them. Others say this is not accurate. There is no consensus on this important issue, and that's people for you.

It matters because, for example, an expert I was listening to (Tariq Ramadan) was asked directly if politics and religion could ever be separated within Islam. This is probably the commonest question raised in any such discussion, and while opinions vary, I thought his answer was the most clear. He said:

"I don't think politcs should ever be separated from ethics, and ethics has to do with religion"

And the two voices screamed in my head. I don't think anyone would disagree that politics must be ethical. But ethics from religion?

It has been said that even if you don't personally derive ethics from your religion (perhaps because you don't have one) that it is inescapable that the modern western ethics that we all tend to see as the default is based on a history that was at least highly coloured by religion, and to be precise by Christianity. You don't have to be Christian to have been affected culturally and ultimately ethically by this history. It's unavoidable.

But Islam is based on the same traditions, surely? By lineage it's an Abrahamic tradition. By geography it's a middle-eastern tradition just as Christianity is in origin. There should be more similarities in core values than there are differences. If you look at the big picture Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all siblings, or at least cousins, and while their discussions may be heated or even passionate, it should be possible for them to agree to disagree on details (dogma) while sharing a common set of values. Ethics.

So why doesn't this happen? What's the disconnect?

Remember, we're not talking about fundamentalism here, but about reasonable people. People who care, who take the time to debate, and stick to the rules. But still just can't seem to find common ground.

One reason has been proposed by these experts, and it is that western ethics and religious tradition (with its Christian background, like it or not) focuses on the individual. On his rights and needs. On his value. However, in the Muslim world, the emphasis is on the group, the collective. The rights and needs of the individual are not as important.

Clearly, if this is true, it really is an insurmountable problem. Before you are able to discuss anything else, before you can get to the meta-ethics, before you can ask what is right or wrong, you are faced with "for whom?"

This idea that the rights and needs of the individual are of greater or lesser importance than the rights and needs of the group is not limited to west vs. east, Christian vs. Muslim, or religious vs. non-religious. This is an issue that arises all the time, and always has done. It is the basis of any utilitarianism argument, notably economic ones. It's a critical philosophical issue, and a scientific one too as it's pretty obvious where evolution stands here.

And while you may think, as a person with a vested interest in the western worldview that you place a great importance on the individual, I'm pretty sure everyone reading this would agree that one of our biggest problems today is the unequal distribution of wealth. Taken to extremes, if there were a million people and a million dollars to be shared out, we'd all cry "unfair" if just one of them got the lot.

But just like supporters of trickle-down economics insist that great wealth given to one will benefit everybody, so believers in group-think insist that what's good for the group will ultimately benefit each individual in it.

While there may be something in the individual/group differentiation, I don't think it's as simple as that, there are just too many exceptions. As far as I can see, both systems, at their best, work just fine on a humanitarian level, and both systems, at their worst, commit unforgiveable injustices. It seems to be the application that matters, not the guiding principles.

Let's get one thing straight. Many of the criticisms of the west by the Islamic world, and the criticisms of the Islamic world by the west are valid. If you take an unbiased view, no matter how painful it is, if you are honest, no matter which side you are on, you cannot miss that both sides sometimes do harmful things, dangerous things, cruel things, and stupid things.

No matter how hard I try, and believe me I've tried, what I'm seeing is a disconnect between how CERTAIN groups, and CERTAIN individuals are treated. Each side in this has people it considers lesser. And it's based on....ethnicity and gender.

In any argument about rights and needs, the losers tend to be those who are ethnically the minority (in actual numbers, or simply not the ethnic elite), or women. Their needs (individually or collectively) are overlooked in favour of the majority.

Prove me wrong. Look at where human rights are compromised (or trashed) and look at who suffers. This applies to either side.

And this is where the fingers are pointed. In both directions. Even if it's not accurate. Pointy fingers.

This isn't getting us anywhere. 

At some point we have to accept the fact that IF there is both good and bad in both systems, then maybe it isn't the system that's the problem. Maybe it's the discussion. Maybe what's needed is a bit more listening.

More tomorrow.

Friday, 21 March 2014

And maybe God is a verb.

Today, as it's Friday, and we're all winding down, we'll just do a quick, easy one. We'll define God.

Or not.

I read an article recently (which I can't find now, or I'd link to it) which examined the motives of those who ask "Do you believe in God". The writer offered several possible reasons, including some sort of need for validation, but seemed to totally miss the basic problem behind the question. That is, quite obviously (to me) that the questioner and the responder may be referring to different things.

I can be a bit of a smart arse, so I commented that my answer would be "Which one?" but in fact, I would never say that. Even if I were thinking it. Because those who ask such a question are either perfectly sincere - in which case it would probably be rather unfair to throw such a question back at them - or they are just about to pounce on you with their beliefs, in which case it would just confuse things, and instead of ending the conversation, it would all get very awkward. There's a time and a place for such discussions.

Which is why we have blogs. This is where we talk about things we probably wouldn't bring up in a social setting, and where we need a bit more space to move in than the sound bytes of Facebook etc.

No, in fact when somebody asks me if I believe in God, I smile politely and change the subject. If they press it, I say it is complicated, and if they press that, I start to get annoyed. These are personal matters, about as personal as it gets actually.

But people DO ASK. They especially ask people like me who are mouthpieces, and it's probably not that surprising really. We probably ask for it. If you write whole books on the topic, they are not even going to hesitate to ask, which is why I was able to quote Robert Wright in a discussion on FB yesterday. His answer is even on Wikipedia:

When asked by Bill Moyers if God is a figment of the human imagination, Wright responds: "I would say so. Now, I don't think that precludes the possibility that as ideas about God have evolved people have moved closer to something that may be the truth about ultimate purpose and ultimate meaning... Very early on, apparently people started imagining sources of causality. Imagining things out there making things happen. And early on there were shamans who had mystical experiences that even today a Buddhist monk would say were valid forms of apprehension of the divine or something. But by and large I think people were making up stories that would help them control the world." 

The thing is, Robert Wright has written a book called "The Evolution of God", and others on similar topics, and is never shy to talk about religion (or God) regardless of which of his many hats he's wearing.

I think he's right. But any discussion on that quote depends on a definition of God, which is not supplied.

But this is a man who recognizes the concept of "forms of apprehension of the divine or something". So is THAT or isn't it, God?

Because you see, I have been told, categorically, that it isn't. And I have been told that, absolutely, it is.

There is a fairly common pop pantheism going on right now, whereby "The Universe" is not only presumed divine, but has a sort of persona. It has feelings, it has intent, and there are plenty of people, Pagan and otherwise, who talk of Mother Earth and suggest the same sense of personage.

In fact I admitted a pantheistic leaning and suggested something to the effect that my understanding of God was "all that is" to an annoying questioner once, and was promptly reprimanded for creating my own definition.

"That's NOT what the word means, you're just trying to dodge the question!"

So, what does it mean?

Before we go any further we need to examine the word deity. This is a useful word, because it suggests "God" without suggesting which one, it's more of an obvious role than a name, and it can refer just as easily to other people's deities as your own. Even if you have a low opinion of other people's deities. It's a neutral sort of word.

(But can I just take this opportunity to point out (because I can) that it's spelled deity (not diety) and that while there is a well-known alternative (cough) pronuncation (see.. I did NOT say "wrong") of dee-ity, the more obviously correct pronunciation is day-ity, because it's from the Latin deus, pronounced day-oos. OK, sorry. Just had to.)

So we have mythology. Mythology is full of deities. THOUSANDS of them. Good deities, bad deities, powerful deities, not so powerful deities, deities you can actually trick, deities that are unreachable, deities that live among us, deities that live somewhere else, and deities with names. Lots of names. Many names for the same deity sometimes. And epithets too, those are extra.

So, the first thing we have to decide, when we talk about "God" is who is included, and who isn't.

For the sake of ease, let's examine Odin. Odin is a Norse deity, and he is pretty much top dog in that pantheon. Back in the days when Odin was worshipped widely by the Norse peoples, he was also known as the "All-Father". If you had asked these people if they believed in God, despite having other deities, it's quite likely they'd have had Odin in mind. But also they'd have thought it was a silly question, because they all believed in Odin. The Norse culture and religion were not separable.

Today there are Neo-Pagans who use the Norse pantheon as their deities, and we must assume they are utterly sincere in this, despite it being optional, and a minority religion even in the same countries. If you asked one of these people if they believe in God, what are you asking them, and what do they mean when they answer?

Let's be honest, generally speaking, when people ask this question, they are either referring to the Abrahamic God (i.e. of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition) or (less often) they are referring to a nebulous concept.

And if a believer in the Abrahamic God asks a person of a similar background or tradition, there's a chance they both know what they mean (even without any solid definition of "God"). It's a insider term.

But if a believer in the Abrahamic God asks a believer in the Norse pantheon if he believes in God, what is he supposed to say?

If he says yes, an assumption is made. Possibly wrongly.
If he says no, a different assumption is made, also possibly wrongly.
If he says "Which one?" he's probably going to be seen as flippant, or rude, or at least difficult.

He can't win, and this would be a good reason not to ask.

It's worth noting that it's usually believers in the Abrahamic God who ask this. Not always, but generally, and there is a solid theological reason for that, they tend to be strict monotheists. That is to say they don't even acknowledge the possibility of other deities. It's theirs or nothing. They have taken the word God from a job description to a personal name. Which is why we need the word deity.

So they feel confident in their use of the term "God" (even if they couldn't give you a definition with a gun in their backs). And if you asked them about OTHER deities, they may well simply dismiss them as fantasy. Only mythological.

Because - here's a definition for you - mythological deities mean other people's deities.

If, on the other hand, you were discussing this with a non-monotheist there's far less chance that the question would be asked in the first place (polytheists and pantheists are far more likely to mind their own business) but if the topic comes up, they are also more likely to have broader view of what a deity is, and specifically who (or what) "God" is.

It could be the Atman or Brahman, couldn't it.

Now, I am not going to insist that any of these are correct or incorrect, and this not despite the fact I propose that agnoticism is the only credible position, but precisely because of that.

Hang on, who threw that in? Agnosticism? Why mention that?

Because this whole spew came about partly* as a result of a comment about Robert Wright. Who calls himself an agnostic. Not a believer, but, importantly, not a non-believer either.

And you CAN say that God is a figment of the imagination and also be an actual believer.

How? Well, that person up there asking about Odin did it, quite easily. A theist seems to find no difficulty whatsoever referring to somebody else's deity as a figment of the imagination.

Robert Wright, as it happens, is very interested in Buddhism, and while describing himself as "not hardcore" has actually been on week-long meditations. That's hardly dabbling, either. As a psychologist he's fascinated by the effects of meditation, and as a questioning person he has obviously explored the connections between meditation, prayer, religious experience, and all that jazz.

As a questioning person who is also a fan of meditation, I have explored those connections too, and I conclude that this is most definitely all in the same area. It's something outside of science, it's something outside of humanity, it's something you can talk about forever and not understand, because it's something you have to experience.

Next question then. Are such experiences anything to do with "God"? Plenty of people are not religious at all, would describe themselves as non-theists, or even atheists (and if you don't know the difference between those two, feel free to ask) and yet they have a concept of spirituality, or of "energy" (and they are not talking about propane), or of empathic ability, or of astrology, or any number of things that are outside science, and some of these people are very clearly on the mystical track.

I suppose the next question is whether any of this is supernatural or simply things we don't yet understand. There's a whole other blog possible there. But perhaps a better question for now is whether it's supernatural.....or superstition. And what does that mean anyway? Is it even related to theism? Can you have one without the other? Why is some superstition "bad", while yours is just fine?

Have you noticed that this post is full of questions, and very few of my usual statements?

That's because, as I implied earlier, I contend that anyone who claims to KNOW (be they believers or non-believers) are full of it. All they have is their own experience, their own view, their own biases, and their own opinions. Their own beliefs, in fact, which are meaningless to anyone else. They are fully entitled to whatever views they have, but they are not entitled to judge the beliefs of others, in whatever form they take, because quite frankly none of them really know what they are talking about.

I would even go far as to say that if you ask a person whether they believe in God, then you don't really get it at all.

Which is my ultra-long way of saying that if you ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

*I also have a far longer post brewing called "Believers and Skeptics". Consider this an introduction or companion piece to that.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

I Was Only Joking.

You know, there are lots of things, lots of people out there that you don't understand. And probably the hardest thing any of us ever do is accept the things we don't understand. Please muse on that thought for a moment.

I'm not talking about string theory, by the way. That's a blog post for another day.

No, I mean human stuff. Why your neighbour is so quiet and reserved, why your colleague is a philanderer, why your aunt is depressed, why your nephew is a drug addict. You don't understand this, because it isn't you.

But also really MINOR things. Weird things. Why your brother collects pens. Why your grandfather hums a lot. Why your teacher wears orange lipstick. Why your teammate calls his dog "petal".

You say "I don't get it." Well, you are not expected to. Moreover, your not getting it has no value. None. Nobody cares that you don't get it. You are not expected to understand. It's not your life, and it's not your problem. You may never understand. So what? It doesn't do you any harm at all, so you don't need to do or say anything. Society is a very broad range of people, we are all different and we have every opportunity to shrug at those who are different to us. But we don't, do we, what we often do, some more so than others, is tease. Jibe. "Joke". Why?

When people do things, or behave in a way totally alien to you, it is awfully difficult to just say "well, that's just how he is" and move on, but unless it directly affects you, it really is the best option. So why do we opt for poking fun?

Trust me, I know how hard it is not to react. I have one of those faces that is out of control. My eyes widen, my eyebrows go up, you can see what I'm thinking. But that's my problem. I have a responsibility to decide what happens next.

Fred has a truck that has the wheels lifted up. It's like a wannabe monster truck but it's an old, smaller truck and it looks silly. Why the hell did he do that?

Look, it's not your truck, and it's not your money. It's therefore none of your business.

You have the right to your opinion that it looks silly. What you don't have the right to do is ridicule him for it, either to his face or to others, and you certainly have no business judging his character by his choice of truck customization. Does it hurt you? No.

I put it to you (that's you, you reading this) that in small ways and big, on a regular basis, you are guilty of making fun, in your head, of people who, like Fred, make choices that baffle you. Yes, you do. You do. Hey, I know I do.

And we are wrong in doing this.

It is not wrong to have that opinion. It's natural. Fred almost certainly has opinions about us in much the same way.

It's perfectly human to be baffled by other peoples's tastes, choices, and decisions.

Sometimes, it's fun to joke about it. To tease a bit. But you have to think about this carefully. Do they see the joke? Are they laughing too? Are they doing so because they're enjoying it or out of politeness, embarrassment, or fear? If you decide it's OK, you must still be very careful not to overdo it, and to watch the reaction, so that nobody gets hurt. If in doubt, DON'T.

But most importantly you must remember that if it's harmless, that is to say, this baffling hobby or behaviour is not hurting anyone, or anybody's property, then if you are unkind about it, then you are an arsehole.

I'll just say that again, in case it's not clear.

If you mock a person about a totally harmless thing that they do, you are an arsehole.

And you've done it. And so have I. We have all done it, but that doesn't make it right.

The only right thing to do, is to try with every damn fibre of our being, to not do it again. I mean really make an effort.

Nowhere - absolutely nowhere - is it written that you have any right to decide how people spend their time or their money.

It is none of your fucking business.

Some of this stuff isn't funny at any level. Some of this stuff gets people hurt.

But before I get to that, let's deal with the arguments that arise from ANY suggestion that we keep our thoughts to ourselves.

First, there is that objection that an action is harmless. This is open to debate.

Then there's the valid point that we are not obliged to keep silent on our opinions. Free speech and all that.

And let's not forget that sometimes a criticism is fair and justified.

These are all exceptions we can discuss with ease, and I have, on previous blog posts. No, we don't have to be vacuous toadies agreeing humbly with everyone and never speaking our minds. That's not it.

Life would be incredibly dull without debates, formal or otherwise.

And let's not forget that our sense of humour truly is often based on the bizarre things others do.

This is where discernment comes in. On a sliding scale......

1. You can keep it inside your head. You can. I know how hard it is, but you can. This is a real option.

2. You can share it with somebody discreetly without mentioning names. The graphic above says enough for us to all share a moment without hurting anyone's feelings.

3. You can share it with someone who won't repeat it. You may need to be careful here.

4. You can find a careful way to express surprise at a choice. Parents have to do this all the time. Kids have feelings too and if you ridicule their hair/music/clothes they probably won't see the joke.

The guiding principle is kindness. Is it unkind to say anything? Then don't.

If the person you want to have a bit of fun with is thick-skinned, has a really good sense of humour, can give as good as they get, knows you mean no harm, and so on, you can get away with more. But there is still a limit. The person who gets to decide what that limit is, is the recipient of the opinions. You see? It is NOT up to you to say "oh get over it, I was only kidding". It is never OK to dismiss somebody else's feelings, even if they seem over-sensitive to you. They're not your feelings.

Now I'd like to return to the point that sometimes it's never funny at all.

Where does teasing become bullying?

Sometimes the way people are is not a choice. Their behaviour is a direct result of some quirk in their personality or their neurology. Sometimes their whole way of being is a result of DNA or some other physical aspect they have no control over.

Among your circles, is there anyone who makes fun of the disabled? If there is, chances are they are not people you like or respect. You wouldn't choose them as friends.

Why? Because you know this is wrong. It's unkind, it's unnecessary, and it's shallow. These are not good people. They KNOW it's wrong, but they choose to do it anyway.

What about race? Do you know anyone who wouldn't admit to being a bigot but nevertheless makes fun of people with a different skin colour? That's not a good person. That is somebody who AT THE VERY LEAST has a corrupt sense of humour. Chances are they are actually racist, i.e. they would discriminate against a person based on that skin colour.

You probably don't approve of that type of "humour", even if you have to put up with it, because you know it's basically stupid and wrong. Just wrong.

And you know that this sort of "fun" can lead to violence, to physical harm.

But you probably do allow blond jokes, Newfie jokes (or whatever the equivalent is where you live), and so on because you're used to them. You don't think about them. You never take the time to stop and think "is this really OK?". Not only that, if you say "Woah, hold on, there are blond people listening" the "jokers" will turn you on you. They'll accuse you of being politically correct. They'll tell you to lighten up.

So. What do we do? Do we all become very serious and boring?

Actually, no. You can have lots of fun if you are just aware of what you say, how you say it, and who to. That's all this is about - awarenessKnowing when to stop. Knowing when to just keep your thoughts to yourself. Testing yourself for unkindness.

As I said, I do know how hard this is. I'm not accusing you of something I don't struggle with myself. I just don't think cheap laughs are worth the pain they cause other people. I am easily amused, and it's very hard not to be sometimes. People are absurd. But what I want more than anything else, is to be kind. To encourage rather than discourage. To help rather than hinder in the confidence and personal growth in others.

And if, inside your head, you remind yourself that you really don't want to be unkind, you can get control over your words.

I choose to choose my words, will you join me?