Tuesday, 29 July 2014


Going on from what I said yesterday, and taking a slightly different tack, due to a couple of comments that arose in discussions in various venues, including privately, I'd like you to read this:


Depending on your perspective, you may or may not agree with Sam. I disagree with him on several key points there, but it's a worthy read, if nothing else than it spells out very well, I think, one side of the argument.

Sam Harris is an interesting and erudite man, and although I almost always disagree with him in some way, I always enjoy listening to him. That, I think is the mark of a great speaker or writer. That you can enjoy them even if you don't agree with them. I think I would be able to sit across a table and debate anything with him, we could disagree and shake hands afterwards.

I think he has made some assumptions there, based on his hostility towards Islam, which he makes no secret of. I do not share those assumptions or that hostility and this is where I usually find myself in disagreement with others on the topic.

Oh no, I don't like Islam. By which I mean, I don't share their beliefs, and I would never be willing to follow them. Above all I don't like the patriarchal aspect of it, and no assertions by Muslim feminists will ever convince me that women are protected by Shariah.

And I find Muslim extremists to be very frightening and dangerous people, because they cannot be reasoned with, and their objectives are not rational.

I even agree with Bridgitte Gabriel that in debates about the dangers of Islamism, that the moderates are not part of the equation, although I think she could have chosen her words better than calling millions of people irrelevant.

But I don't see Islam as some great evil. That is to say I don't see it any differently to any other religion. Yes, I have read the Quran, thank you. I've read almost every holy book out there, and I find them equivalent. They all talk about peace, they all end up at war. They can all be powers for good, and they can all be destructive. They are what people use them to be.

So, my position is very simple. All extremists, especially religious ones, have the potential to be dangerous, by definition - it matters not which religion it is. Because of history, because of economics, and also because of western attitudes, right now the danger just happens to come from Muslim extremists.

In other words, while Hamas is a dangerous, Muslim extremist organization, and no doubt about it, that's not the central issue here. And while Hamas probably do have in their own minds the desire to kill all Jews, that's not the central issue here either. Just as Harris points out that if Israel had wanted to obliterate Gaza it could easily have done so, if the Muslim world had wanted to obliterate all Jews, trust me, it would have happened by now.

So, while he put it very well, I don't accept his argument that it's correct to side with Israel here. I personally believe in taking the side of peace, and of civilians. What I see are two groups of people being badly led by leaders with agendas roughly equivalent.

So, there's that.

But what I do agree with Sam Harris on, is that the modern state of Israel should never have been created in the first place, including all the reasons he gives, but there are others. I believe the real problem here is Zionism, and always was. There are groups among Jews, even within Israel, who oppose Zionism and all that it leads to. Perhaps that is the real hope for the future. We have to have hope. But I am not hopeful for any solution any time soon, Zionism is not suddenly going to go away. It has been tolerated and pampered and enabled.........and it's all too late now, we cannot change history. Israel exists, is home to millions of people, and to reverse that would be as great an injustice as any other.

I do wish people could remember that. That what is done is done, and all we can ever do is move forward. Yes, we must learn from history, but to keep churning it over and over is just picking at a scab and wondering why it won't heal. Explaining things due to history? YES. Vital. Tearing our clothes over what has already happened? No.

And there's the problem. That's not what humans do, is it? Humans don't sigh and move on. That's what's different about us. Our ability to remember everything, and indeed record it, which allows us to be so amazing, also allows us to get bogged down in grudges and vendettas. It's hard to blame anyone wanting revenge, too. It's understandable. But that is what is holding us back from improving our lot as a species. With all our skills and technology, we always end up killing one another because of history.

Gah. I'm going gardening.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Land of Sowing and Reaping.

I haven't been sleeping well lately, which is unusual for me, I normally sleep like a log. But I try to use the time wisely. Instead of counting sheep or whatever it is other people do, I have been trying to organize thoughts into something I want to write, and it just isn't coming together. I was very glad, therefore, this morning when a friend of mine wrote this:


So, it saved me a lot of work really.

Instead of a beautifully crafted essay then, what you'll get from me are the thoughts that just won't go away.

Firstly, I am tired, just tired, of this whole anti and pro thing. The moment you say anything about the massacre in Gaza, you are suddenly anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic. But it doesn't end there. Suddenly, also you are pro-Hamas.

Not only is this absurd, it is lazy. It is really not my problem if you are unable to oppose two things at once, or that you can't get your head round that, but I can.

In fact with a bit of effort it is even possible to see several different sides of the story, not just two. This article, another way of looking at it, at least begins to cover the the idea that there are more than two sides:


Secondly, I am sick of being told that other conflicts in the world are as bad or worse. There are many things going on that appall me, but I happen to be talking about this one, as are a lot of other people. And one reason is that this one isn't new and certainly isn't temporary. Although the "latest round" is recent, it's a historical conflict, and that is part of the problem. It has been going on so long, with roots several generations deep, that it cannot be fixed overnight.

Thirdly, I've had it up to here with propaganda. AKA lies. It's as if there are two completely different situations going on.



The problem, of course, is trying to find the truth. Because somewhere between version A and version B is a murky grey truth along the lines of tossed salad and scrambled eggs. Not that this is unusual in any conflict, of course, but with the sheer quantity of information available today, it would be great if somebody with broad knowledge of the situation could at least try to clarify it, but if you go looking for unbaised reports? Good luck. Still, one thing is for sure, as in ALL situations, there are no angels or demons. Anyone who tries to pass off either side as wholly responsible or wholly innocent obviously doesn't get it.

Which leads me to fourthly, and that is how irritating it is to have people trying to educate me on the topic with stupid, simplistic, and again, biased videos. And this nonsense about there never having been a Palestinian state. Have you read the Balfour declaration? Do you know what Zionist REALLY means? Have you used the power of the internet to talk to ordinary people in the affected areas personally? And in particular, have you read reports from all sides, and have you given them an equal chance of credibility?

I don't think it helps anyone or anything for us, outside, to argue over this situation. And I try to avoid doing so. And when I get told to put myself in the position of an Israeli, and try to imagine how it feels, but that same person demanding this of me, when told to put themselves into the position of a person in Gaza, simply avoids that part of the discussion, it's not even worth continuing, because the bias is obvious, and also not logical.

Finally, it has been openly stated by Hamas that their actions towards Israel are in part revenge. And if you think it's bad now, you just wait. The survivors of this massacre are not going to just accept it. They are damaged mentally beyond repair, they will be filled with a hatred you cannot begin to comprehend. It's no use saying that this is wrong. Violence, revenge, hatred, is always wrong, but it always has a reason. See my title.

Saturday, 19 July 2014


Michael is cleaning. He showed me a dustpan full of so much dog hair that you could easily make a small dog from it. It's from Molly, who is half Old English Sheepdog, and resembles a Bearded Collie more than anything.

"I only did this yesterday!"

"Welcome to my world."

"Mom, this is ridiculous, that dog sheds constantly!"

"I know, I'll never get another shaggy dog, my mother warned me about them you know...."

"Why didn't you listen to her?"

"Well, she wasn't always right."

"No, just most of the time. Like you."

And he laughed.

Michael is my youngest and will be 18 next month, so I can pretty much say my kids are all grown up now. Whoever they are is who they are. Any damage is already done, and equally any advice I ever gave that was good advice is already ingrained. Clearly Michael has decided I give good advice. I do try.

It would be great if all mothers always gave good advice. If we always got it right. If we never erred, never failed, never regretted anything. Of course life isn't like that. Besides, all kids are different so you could treat them identically and get different results. We just try our best and then hope for the best.

The proof is in the pudding, and I like the people my kids have turned into. They are all different, and they are all fun. I think (I hope) that they are all people who will be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and at the very least do no great harm.

I will take some of the credit in their successes, just as I take some of the blame for their faults. You can't have it one way and not the other.

Needless to say, I am very interested in how this all plays out in the next generation, and my eldest grandson, who is 7, is starting to be aware of the more serious aspects of life, and he has questions.

So, Rhiannon found herself one evening in the week in a long and deep discussion with him, when he asked:

"Why do people start wars?"

That's not an easy question to answer. There are many reasons wars begin, and some of them don't really make an awful lot of sense. Politics, religion, ethnicity, money, land, madness, and just plain old ego, all play their part. Plus, much of the time the catalyst is not obvious. One thing leads to another, and if you examine the steps that lead up to the beginning of conflicts or the declaration of war, you can't always see it coming.

Somebody, somewhere decides conflict is a good idea. Perhaps it's the only solution they see to the problem. Frustrated with negotiations that go nowhere, feeling oppressed and otherwise helpless they resort to not just violence, but indiscriminate violence with no thought as to who is harmed. Perhaps they intend it to stay small, local, and short-lived, but whatever happens, human lives become secondary to the cause and anyone on the wrong side is the enemy, and this is justification to kill them.

When you are genuinely oppressed, when your welfare and safety is compromised to such an extent that conflict is the only solution, when you have nothing left to lose, perhaps, sometimes, it makes some sort of sense.

But how often is that the real reason?

Consider any conflict you like, and look at the grievance behind it. Not what is happening now, but where it began. You may have to go back a long way.

Not only that, how many opportunities were there along that path for those responsible to decide otherwise. How many times, in fact, was conflict a choice of convenience or glory rather than a genuine solution. How many times was it for the personal gain of a few powerful people rather than to liberate oppressed masses. How many times was a stated grievance an excuse, a cover, for the agitation and influence of those who stood to benefit from the conflict.

I did not write this to discuss any specific conflict, but to beg my readers to consider these points when reading about or discussing any conflict.

It is not easy explaining to a child why people start wars, especially because we don't really know the answer.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Simple People

I was asked by a fellow Etsy seller to write a short article about people who don't seem to grasp really quite basic concepts and are essentially the lowest common denominator when planning instructions or descriptions. But, she stipulated, there must not be any sense of insult, as the people concerned are still potential customers, will read it, and must not be offended.

I tried very hard to find a word to describe these customers. Those who have issues with downloading files can be said to be "not computer savvy" and they seem to tolerate that description. You can actually say directly "If you are not computer savvy I'll be only to happy to help further". Nobody seems to mind that.

But it doesn't go down well to say "If you are a bit slow, ask me for a translation of these instructions into words with one syllable." People don't like that.

Nobody likes to think of themselves as stupid. But I think most of us know our limitations, and understand that certain things will go over our heads simply from lack of experience or word usage. The following was criticised on Etsy as being too technical for a description of some artwork:

"I created this art with the help of fractal generating software. The algorithms and mathematics have been altered from standard formulas. "

The seller had questioned whether her art "went over peoples' heads" and was then chastised for suggesting people were too stupid to appreciate it.

So, you see, between things being too highbrow, and people sounding like they feel superior, there are all sorts of traps when discussing this sort of thing.

But if there is such a thing as average intelligence, it follows that some people are below average. Obviously if they are too far below they don't function well and need assistance through life. But those who are just a bit below do all the things that clever people do, such as drive, vote, get jobs, and spend money. Sooner or later we all run into somebody who is...to put it the way my husband would...as thick as two short planks.

Usually then, we find ourselves torn between two desires. One is to be kind and helpful, it's not their fault, we mustn't judge, we mustn't talk down to them, and so on. The other is sheer frustration.

So, the example that came up on Etsy was that of knitted blankets. Those in question were a good size, not quite bed size but the sort of thing you'd snuggle under on the sofa watching TV in winter. I've made these and I know both how long it takes and the quantity of yarn you get through. So these are not inexpensive items. Rather than try to recoup the cost of production, this lady sold the patterns to make the blankets yourself. It was a PDF download, costing $3.00 which is a reasonable price for a pattern. These were described as patterns, with the words "Instant Download" in the title too, and the same information in the description.

You know what's coming I expect. Having paid, the customer was angry that she didn't get a blanket for her $3.00. But while you're rolling your eyes, in telling the forums about this, there were HUNDREDS of replies of people with similar experiences.

Who in their right mind thinks they are getting a hand-knitted blanket for $3.00? You can't even buy a small hat for that. What did they think "Instant Download" meant? Did they read anything at all? Who can say.

We've all made mistakes when ordering online, but there's a limit. At which point is it not a question of being rushed or distracted or too enthusiastic, but of being dumb?

People do vary in intelligence, and let's not pretend otherwise.

You've heard of the infamous Nigerian scam. Did you know that the bad English in the emails is a deliberate policy to weed out intelligent people? The scammers are using it as a filter.

If you find this sort of thing interesting, here is some careful research on the subject:


But to summarize:

"The scam involves an initial email campaign which has almost zero cost per recipient. Only when potential victims respond does the labor-intensive and costly effort of following up by email (and sometimes phone) begin. In this view everyone who enters into email communication with the scammer is “attacked” (i.e., engenders a cost greater than zero). Of these, those who go the whole distance and eventually send money are true positives, while those who realize that it is a scam and back out at some point are false positives.

If we assume that the scammer enters into email conversation (i.e., attacks) almost everyone who responds his main opportunity to separate viable from non-viable users is the wording of the original email. If the goal is to attack as many people as possible, then the email should be designed to lure as many as possible. However, we’ve seen that attacking the maximum number of people does not maximize profit. Operating at the OOP involves attacking only the most likely targets. Who are the most likely targets for a Nigerian scammer? Since the scam is entirely one of manipulation he would like to attack (i.e., enter into correspondence with) only those who are most gullible. They also need, of course, to have money and an absence of any factors that would prevent them from following through all the way to sending money.

Since gullibility is unobservable, the best strategy is to get those who possess this quality to self-identify. An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine and follow up on the auto-complete suggestions. It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or friends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers' ideal targets. They represent a tiny subset of the overall population. In the language of our analysis the density of viable victims, d, is very low: perhaps 1-in-10,000 or 1-in-100,00 or fewer will fall for this scam."

As some well-publicized victims have been government officials in several countries - and these are just the ones we've heard about - clearly the level of gullibility required is not limited to the people you'd expect to fall for it. As it says, they have to have some money.

I actually knew of a person who fell for a simpler online scam. A lonely woman chatting to men online, she struck up a relationship with a man who suddenly one day was wrongly arrested and needed her to send him $1,000. And she sent it. And of course, she never heard from him again.

Now, it was her son who I knew, and who told me this. And I asked him flat out, is she stupid? And he said that yes, she was, and he'd long worried that she'd fall for something like this. But she held down a job, paid the rent, drove a car, etc. A "normal" person. She functioned just fine in society, but she could be "had".

They say every man has his price, and also every person has a point at which they can be fooled. But that point is much higher in those who are intelligent. Credulity is most definitely associated with lower intelligence.

But going back to our original problem, how do you discuss this without offending the people at risk?

How do you advise people to read things carefully, and how do you explain their errors after they didn't, without sounding like you are calling them stupid?

Another issue that crops up at Etsy is the import taxes charged in Britain. All countries have this duty at the border, but not only does the value of goods before duty has to be paid vary from country to country, the effort made to collect it varies dramatically. In Britain the value is low and the effort high. A buyer in Britain receiving goods marked to the value of just US$20 can find themselves paying as much again in duty and fees. This comes as a nasty shock to a first-timer, and some customers blame the international seller. Some refuse to pay it, and send the goods back, others demand compensation. It is not the seller's responsibility, but of course, people don't always see it that way.

So, international sellers always advise buyers that any taxes, duty, fees, or whatever incurred as a result of buying goods in from overseas is the buyers responsibility, and most sellers have gone to extra lengths to impress this upon British buyers especially.

Unfortunately there are two problems with this emphasis:

1) Most of them don't read it.
2) Those who do are offended that anyone would suggest British buyers are so stupid as to not realise that.

There's no winning. I think I've worded mine inoffensively, and so far I haven't had an irate British customer complaining about it either, but it's probably just a matter of time.

Now, I have listed some of the stupid things customers have said to me over the years before, most of which arise from not reading the information freely available to them if they care to read the listing, and perhaps it's the demographic, but I do seem to have mostly smarter customers. Nevertheless, questions arise that require tremendous tact, and something else. One has to remember that other people see things as defaults, which may not be the case.

Recently on a Chinese wholesalers' website I saw the following exasperated advice:

"Please remember sizes are in centimetres. Very important. Or you expect huge things and you say everything in China is too small."

However, the issue really is people not thinking. Critical thinking, that process that sorts us all out. And we're back to awareness.

So how do we do it? How do we get people to stop and think? How do we help those who don't do this naturally? Do they want to be helped?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Beliefs 3

I was going to start you off today with a video clip, but I can't find it. So here is the script instead.

(From "Dogma". Rufus is supposed to be one the disciples of Jesus, come back to help Bethany find her destiny. No more spoilers. Great movie.)


Bethany and Rufus sit across from one another. They stare out the window.


How you coping, kid?


It's weird. just when I think I've got a handle on things. something
wholely unbelievable presents itself. Sometimes I wish I had just stayed


You sound like the Man.



What was He like?


Jesus? Black.


Besides that.


The brother was centered. I mean, He was God, right? But I think He felt
left out because He was more than human, you know? We used to sit around
the fire - me and the other guys - and we'd be talking about what ass-holes
the Romans were or getting laid...


Some things never change.


...and He'd just sit there listening and smiling. We'd ask Him why He never
joined in the convo, but He said He just liked to hear us talk; about
anything. Said it was like music. I think He just wished He had unimportant
shit to talk about himself.


How does He feel now?


He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets
carried out in His name - wars, bigotry, but especially the factioning of
all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always,
built a belief structure on it.


Having beliefs isn't good?


I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a
belief is trickier. Life should malleable and progressive; working from
idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit
growth; new ideas can't generate. Life becomes stagnant. That was one thing
the Man hated - still life. He wanted everyone to be as enthralled with
living as He was. Maybe it had something to do with knowing when He was going to die. but Christ had this vitality that I've never encountered in another person  since. You know what I'm saving?


He was big on life?


It was more than that. He was the only person I ever knew who never engaged
in that most ancient of life-affirming activities.




Debate. That's the only way people know how to reaffirm that they're alive
- by debating. In all it's forms. People spend their whole lives debating:
we fight about who's right and who's wrong, we fight ourselves, we fight
each other, we fight death, we fight over beliefs, we fight over fights. We
believe that to stop debating - in any fashion -is to stop living and give
up. People say that life's a struggle, but it's not. Life is living. I'm
even guilty of it myself, the way I go on about Christ's ethnicity,
fighting for the truth to come out. And I'm dead. Even in death, the only
way I know how to live is through debate. That's sad, isn't it?


Not if you believe it's important for people to know.


A belief's a dangerous thing, Bethany. People die for it. People kill for
it. The whole of existence is in jeopardy right now because of the Catholic
Belief structure regarding this plenary indulgence bullshit. And whether
they know it or not, Bartleby and Loki are exploiting that belief, and if
they're successful, you, me. all of this... ends in a heartbeat.


All over a belief.

Bethany nods. Rufus looks around.

Some people, it goes without saying, find all this a bit irreverent, and as a result miss the point. And yet I've personally spoken to a septegenarian Catholic priest who enjoyed it immensely and encourages people to see it.

I have an opinion in fact, that if people are afraid to look at religious beliefs objectively, then it's actually superstition.

I've accused a few people of this too, and they don't like it. But the conversation ends there, obviously.

To round off this topic, for now at least, because it just doesn't go away, I want you to do a little test for me. It's not a new test, it's been around since I was frequenting Usenet, and that feels like a lifetime ago. They've just updated it, and now you have to give an email, but you can give a fake one, as you'll get your results at the end just fine.


Don't forget to take the political one that follows.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Beliefs 2

So, I said that a belief was just a strongly held opinion, no more and no less. Beliefs are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. It would be simplicity itself to find examples of both, but we'd venture off into the world of ethics there, and that's not really my intent here.

I was gifted with this, this morning:

Is this a perfect example of a foolish belief? On the face of it, it looks like he said something very silly there, and we can all laugh. But first we have to ask 3 questions.

1. Did he really say that? Here's the actual quote:
"Wind is God's way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it's hotter to areas where it's cooler. That's what wind is. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to wind energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I'm not saying that's going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can't transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It's just something to think about."

This is actually worse that the soundbyte, because...

2. He's wrong on more than just the obvious. Wind is not the way you shift heat from hot to cool areas. That's not what wind is. Mr Barton apparently does not understand weather at all. Furthermore he doesn't understand the difference between weather and climate. He doesn't understand how wind turbines work (despite having an engineering degree, please note). And a few other things. To sum up, he is not qualified to comment. And yet what position did he once hold?

The US (Republican) chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

But there's another question here.

3. Does he really believe that? I mean - if you sat this man down and discussed it, do you think he'd stick to what he said here? As much as I do believe in the stupidity of politicians, I don't think an educated man really believes that wind is finite, or that we could inadvertantly heat things up with more wind turbines. I think he knows better. I hope he knows better.

He mentioned God, and there's your clue. It could be another throwaway line, but the fact that he chose to say it, when talking about such an issue, suggests that he is the type of religious man who might just get ideas about how the world works from the Bible. Mr Barton is a Methodist, and I know how Methodists think, because my husband comes from a Methodist family. They are good people, to be sure, their doctrine is centered on kindness, but it's also very Bible literal. Without ever having met this man, I know what his head is full of, and I guarantee his education didn't cure it.

Still, it would have caused severe cognitive dissonance, rather than doubts. Two beliefs occupying the same space. A constant battle in his mind between the science he was trained in, and which he claims to be an expert on, and his nagging religious beliefs.

It is perfectly possible for a solid scientist to also be a deeply religious man. I know you love my Venn diagrams.

What doesn't work with science, however, are those religious people who take the early guesses of How Things Work that appear in books written over 2000 years ago literally. There are apologists who try, but they aren't very convincing. The question really is just how honest are these people being, when they insist that the Bible is correct?

There are so many examples of conflicts between scripture and science that whole websites have been created listing them, pointing out the errors, and whole other websites have been created by apologists explaining them, some more successfully than others. I once found myself in a discussion of the finer points of rabbit digestion as a result of all this, which was very, very strange, but today we'll go for a simple one, how God allegedly made Eve from Adam's rib.

in 1543, a Belgian anatomist named Andreas Vesalius dissected the body of a Swiss man who'd been beheaded, to study it, in public. He caused a massive argument not just by this apparent indignity, but also by demonstrating many things about the human body that had previously been unknown, or had been wrongly believed. The Greek anatomist Galen  had been the authority up until that point, and one of Galen's "findings" was that men had one less rib than women, "proving" the Bible correct.

Vesalius was a religious man, but also a logical man, and his explanation of this discrepancy was:

"It is commonly believed that men lack a rib on one side, and that men have one rib fewer than women. This is plainly absurd, even if Moses did say in the second chapter of Genesis that Eve was created by God out of Adam's rib. Granted that perhaps Adam's bones, had someone articulated them into a skeleton, might have lacked a rib on one side, it does not necessarily follow on that account that all men are lacking a rib as well."

His work was actually investigated on behalf of the church by the Emperor, and he was cleared of any wrong-doing, but that wasn't good enough. One of his peers, unhappy with the impact the research might have on believers, announced that "the human body has changed since the time of Galen".

Does that method sound familiar to you? When science doesn't agree with the Bible, change the science?

It's the same method used by creationists today, but of course the great irony is that it suggests evolution. It would be very interesting to hear the rib-story believers and the evolution-deniers sort that one out.

But of course nobody today believes that men have one less rib than women, or do they? (Deep sigh.) Google it yourself. Not only do some people still believe this, others acknowledge that Vesalius was obviously correct that the missing rib would not be passed down (but q.v. Lamarck's theory, which came later!), but that in any case, they say, Adam's rib simply grew back!

I should point out right now that none of this is actually Biblical, it's actually all completely irrelevant - it's a typical case of layers and layers of apologetics being created due to a complete misunderstanding. The Bible did NOT say that woman was created from man's rib. Nope. Never did. It said "side", not "rib", and the story was symbolic, not literal. The purpose of this piece, as has been understood by bona fide Torah scholars since ancient times, was to demonstrate that women are equal to men. Never mind what believers have corrupted THAT with, that's what it was about. But instead of finding a logical explanation regarding the intent of the story, people sit and argue the minutiae of bone regeneration. Look it up if you don't believe me.

So, you see, beliefs, specifically nonsensical beliefs, which is to say non-scientific beliefs, have survived all the way into modern times, masquerading as religious beliefs. Secondary mythology has arisen, based loosely on a poor interpretation of the Bible, that people have picked up on, and taken on board as beliefs.

Essentially what we have here is rumours, gossip, hearsay. The "some guy said" method of collecting information. Beliefs, no matter how wrong, are powerful, contagious, and therefore potentially quite dangerous.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

A Little Bit of Positivity For a Sunday

Snuggled in among blogs on serious issues, and because it's the weekend, I have to reflect on my blessings.

It's a very good habit to start one's day doing this. Some people do it as a sort of gratitude prayer, whatever works, I say, but the idea is to remember how lucky we all are to have whatever we have, rather than give any time or thoughts for what we don't have, or what we wish would go away. 

I was reminded by a friend's Facebook post of the simple pleasure she was finding in her garden one morning. Why do we grow flowers? We can't eat them. Perhaps we altruistically provide food for bees and butterflies, but we also do it just for us. For the sheer joy of the colours. Pleasure comes from simple things. We know this, we believe this, but we forget this.

I swear I absorb happiness from bright colours. Something physics has yet to explain, but I can feel it. I believe somewhere in my brain the signals sent from my eyes from something with pretty colours on it, releases endorphins into my bloodstream. I FEEL it.

I am therefore very aware at how lucky I am to have a lifestyle where colour features very much in it. A delivery of beads, for example, or a wander through my garden. All sorts of things, throughout my day are colourful, and when I am frustrated or whatever, these bring me back to my happy place. And smells, I have a box of real Tibetan incense on my desk. I don't burn it, I just open the box every so often and the wafts of sandalwood and fragipani have the same direct effect on my brain as a string of purple beads.

So, as I said, simple pleasures. But I also look at other peoples' lives and think, wow, I'm glad I'm me. I'm glad I don't have to deal with THAT.

I'm especially blessed in my family. They are a wacky bunch, trust me, and sometimes it all gets so loud and chaotic that I need a break. I'm a funny mix of extrovert and introvert (apparently I'm an ambivert) in that I need both alone time and people time. Essentially I'm a cat, I like attention on my terms.

But each of them is different, funny, lovable, and none of them give me too many sleepless nights these days. I look at the worries and trouble other people get from their kids and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Then there's the bigger picture. Every day we hear of people who don't have enough to eat, who have no home, who live in a warzone, who face disease from dirty water, whose living is very precarious, and this can run from starving Africans in camps, to local people who are scraping by in a society where being poor is de facto against the law. I'll never be rich in the usual sense of the word, but compared to over half the planet I live like royalty. I'm lucky simply having been born in the 20th century. Poverty and suffering was far greater and far more common in previous times, and my status as a peasant would have been far more lowly.

I am a lucky person. Throughout my life whenever things could have gone either way, the vast majority of the time I lucked out. The stuff that went wrong all served a purpose, OR my attitude towards it was beneficial, and there's some luck there too. The personality I was bequeathed at birth, the teachers I've had in my life, and the physical strength to be positive.

I have had enough luck, and collected enough good memories that I can't complain, whatever the future brings. And I really have no room to complain right now. So when I find myself complaining, I give myself a good talking to.

It's all about balance in the end, and about attitude. So much of it is optional.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Beliefs 1

Unless you live under a rock, you can't have failed to have heard about "The Hobby Lobby Decision".

Briefly, Hobby Lobby, a large arts and craft chain store in the US, has got permission from the US Supreme Court to be exempt from providing certain contraceptive options under its health insurance plan for employees. It is a controversial issue for several reasons, not least that this company invests heavily in pharmaceutical corporations that make said contraceptives, and that it opens the floodgates to other companies who wish to do the same. Also, many of us question the sincerity of these alleged "beliefs".

I have permission to share the following quote from a Facebook debate contributor:

'This is a ruse to stop what the right considers "creeping socialism". They don't give a f*ck about birth control. It was just a hook to hang their hat on.''

But the burning issue for many people is why the religious beliefs of the owners of a company should trump the rights of female employees to make their own choices regarding contraception.

There have been plenty of jokes involving possible absurd scenarios if this decision were to be used as the basis for others, if you haven't seen any, here's the one I thought was the most thorough:


Humour is often used to point out the irrationality of such decisions, but if you prefer a more serious look at it, look no further than Forbes:


Why do "Beliefs" have any power at all?

I think we first have to look at what "Beliefs" are, in this sense. They are opinions that individuals hold very dear.

While on the face of it, it seems rather strange that opinions should be protected by law, it's important to remember that laws are simply responses to opinions that are widely agreed upon. If enough people agree that a behaviour is wrong and completely unacceptable in our society, we make it illegal. What is illegal now may not have been 200 years ago, and vice versa. The same applies from place to place.

A simple example is the laws relating to absinthe. This was banned in Switzerland in 1905. So prior to that was legal, and afterwards it was not. Now, moves are afoot to lift this ban. Similar situations have occurred in other countries...some have lifted the ban, others haven't. It was never banned in Britain at all.

And these bans, and lifting thereof, came about because enough people decided it should be so, based on their opinions of the danger of absinthe.

As soon as religion enters the picture, the word opinion is not used. It is always then a "Belief".

And in fact many laws that used to be, or still are around, in various places, are indeed based on religious beliefs. In some countries religious law is the only law. Meanwhile in China where religion is de facto banned itself, many of the laws nevertheless are identical to laws taught by various religions. Some things are just so obviously wrong, such as murder and theft, that they are going to be included no matter what.

But quite often the law is complex and based on precedent - previous decisions - which are based on previous decisions, which are based on previous decisions....back as far as you like.

In our enlightened times we have two interesting and conflicting situations in law. One is that we don't base our laws on religion, and the other is that we afford religions and believers certain rights. Religious freedom.

It is this combination that leads us to situations where one man's religious beliefs CAN become law. But of course, that doesn't mean everyone agrees. The US Supreme court of 9 had 4 dissenters in this decision, but the majority won. Why? Well, the honest answer, when all is said and done, is religious bias. It shouldn't happen, but when humans are involved, bias is inevitable.

There are obviously better solutions, such as taking decisions about health care out of the hands of employers altogether, but that's a whole other issue, and I'd like to move on here.

People with "Beliefs" seem to think it gives them certain rights and privileges. And sometimes, it does. But usually only because somebody gave it to them. Generally, they then take advantage of it.

So let's look at what beliefs are again? They are opinions. Their source is irrelevant. Beliefs are just a subset of opinions.

Oh, they say, but these are dearly-held beliefs, religious and/or cultural, and very meaningful and sincere.


To the headhunters of antiquity, their practices were dearly-held beliefs, religious and/or cultural, and very meaningful and sincere. Prevented from doing it they surely suffered great spiritual anguish. Their entire belief system was torn apart by having a key part of it forbidden. And the explorers and missionaries and colonists said "so what?" to all that, and "civilized" them.

I'm not arguing that head-hunting is a good thing. I think it's awful. My point is that just because something is a dearly-held belief, religious and/or cultural, and very meaningful and sincere, doesn't give its practitioners any kind of rights at all. There has to be an agreement by all concerned that they can continue. What I think is neither here nor there. But if the vast majority think it's awful, they'll find a way to stop it.

On the other hand, generally, if the activity seems harmless, we allow them to carry on. Sometimes if we think it's maybe a bit harmful but none of our business, we still let them carry on. There is far more religious freedom in this world than many people think.

A good example is the wearing of the burqa. Here in Canada we currently allow this because we haven't reached a consensus that it's harmful, even though some people think it oppresses some women. We have decided, as a society, that to ban it oppresses other women, and presumably those responsible for such decisions have done the math and decided the greater harm would be to ban it.

France came to a different decision. They decided that more women were oppressed by burqas than would be oppressed by the ban, and they banned it. The argument isn't over, and with this, just as in all such decisions, it's never as simple as it looks. With French burqas, as with Hobby Lobby, there are other factors involved that have nothing to do with religious beliefs at all. We must always be aware of that.

But even when it is sincere, why should the beliefs of an individual or group have any extra power than the beliefs of any other individual or group?

To put it simply, why should your opinions affect me?

There is this wacky idea that religious beliefs should be respected. Why? As a matter of fact, most of the time, people with beliefs are given a lot of respect and tolerance, but they seem to think it's some sort of right. This is bogus.

You have a right not to be persecuted for these beliefs, definitely, but that's as far as it goes.

Now would be a good time to look at a piece written by the Rev. Emily C. Heath of the United Church of Christ regarding religious liberty:

 How to tell if your "Religious Liberties" are being threatened

Quick quiz to tell if your religious liberties are being threatened!

1. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to go to a religious service of my own choosing.
B) Others are allowed to go to religious services of their own choosing.

2. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to marry the person I love legally, even though my religious community blesses my marriage.
B) Some states refuse to enforce my own particular religious beliefs on marriage on those two guys in line down at the courthouse.

3. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am being forced to use birth control.
B) I am unable to force others to not use birth control.

4. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to pray privately.
B) I am not allowed to force others to pray the prayers of my faith publicly.

5. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) Being a member of my faith means that I can be bullied without legal recourse.
B) I am no longer allowed to use my faith to bully gay kids with impunity.

6. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to purchase, read or possess religious books or material.
B) Others are allowed to have access books, movies and websites that I do not like.

7. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) My religious group is not allowed equal protection under the establishment clause.
B) My religious group is not allowed to use public funds, buildings and resources as we would like, for whatever purposes we might like.

8. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) Another religious group has been declared the official faith of my country.
B) My own religious group is not given status as the official faith of my country.

9. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) My religious community is not allowed to build a house of worship in my community.
B) A religious community I do not like wants to build a house of worship in my community.

10. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to teach my children the creation stories of our faith at home.
B) Public school science classes are teaching science.

She ended by saying:

"Religious liberty is never secured by a campaign of religious superiority. The only way to ensure your own religious liberty remains strong is by advocating for the religious liberty of all, including those with whom you may passionately disagree. Because they deserve the same rights as you. Nothing more. Nothing less."

To sum up, if you don't approve of something that your beliefs forbid, then don't do it. And mind your own damn business. 

I have a lot more to say, but this is already long enough, so I'll call it part one and return Monday. 

Thursday, 3 July 2014


Continuing with my theme of human thinking, and before I go on to Belief, I wanted to do a short redux on the concept of Awareness. This is the very beginning of it all.

This is a far more difficult word than any of the others. One definition I found online was as follows:

Awareness is the state or ability to perceive, to feel, or to be conscious of events, objects, or sensory patterns. In this level of consciousness, sense data can be confirmed by an observer without necessarily implying understanding. More broadly, it is the state or quality of being aware of something. In biological psychology, awareness is defined as a human's or an animal's perception and cognitive reaction to a condition or event.

Which means that even plants are aware. But human awareness obviously is something much more complex and truly wonderful. It also varies.

Unless you are in a coma (and possibly at some levels that's not complete oblivion) you are aware in many, many ways, and this can go from the most basic (I'm hot, I'm cold) to the most advanced (empathy, probably), and everything in between. We have awareness we can't even identify (there's somebody standing behind me, there's a storm coming) and we could go off on quite the tangent here about sixth senses, but I'll do that some other time. 

When it comes to how we function on a daily basis there is quite the difference in individual awarenesses. If you've ever had somebody walk though a door ahead of you and just let it slam in your face, you know what I mean. This is often seen as thoughtless or rude, but at the bottom of it is a simple lack of awareness, an absorbtion in one's own affairs. It may not be intentional at all.

If you've ever been in a near-miss (or a collision!) with a distracted driver you know it very well indeed. 

All of us, from time to time make silly mistakes when we are not paying full attention. That's only normal, and it's just life. But you have surely noticed that some are more self-absorbed than others generally, and on an ongoing basis. It's habitual. 

Then there's that other lack of awareness, lack of critical thinking. It often leads to being duped. 

So, as I said at the beginning, I have written about this aspect of it before, and I won't repeat myself, but in my last couple of blogs I have emphasized how choice plays a massive role in our thinking abilities and the effects thereof. It happens in several stages. There is an initial choice to try harder, to learn, to discern, to assess, to analyze, and to act in the most appropriate way possible. There are choices right from "I'm getting out of bed now" all the way up to "I am going to forgive him". Some choices are contingent on other choices. You cannot choose between two offers unless you first chose to listen to them. You may possibly have chosen to learn a second language years ago for that to be possible. 

It's a matter of debate at which point in your life your first informed choice was made, and obviously different physiological ability in executive skills plays a part, and some people are actually disabled in this area. They cannot be blamed for their poor choices, they genuinely lack the capacity to make the best choice.

That aside, if you are reading this, you obviously do have that capacity. Nobody severely compromised in executive skills is going to be reading this. Therefore, what I am saying applies to you. 

Advanced awareness in people like you and me, is very much a matter of choice. There are no excuses available for your bad choices. Even if you are temporarily compromised by anger, exhaustion, illness, etc., you can look back at it afterwards, and see where you went wrong. You know that you need to put things right. You may have to apologize to somebody - and it may be yourself. Or you may simply need to say "lesson learned". Because if you don't learn from your mistakes (and we all make them) you will not grow in wisdom. Which means you have chosen not to. 

So, how do we increase our awareness?

The first thing to do is really listen to other people. I saw a wonderful quote recently that went something like "We don't listen to understand, we listen to reply" and it's true. We listen just enough to be able to come back with our own thoughts, without really letting the thoughts of others percolate into our consciousness. The thoughts of others are a potential source of worthy data, even if we utterly disagree with them. As frustrating as it can be, we need to listen to opposing opinions, even those that are illogically formed. Because unless we know what others think, however irrational it is, we can never really deal with them effectively.

But we don't just take information in through our ears. Much of people-watching is...watching. What people say and what they do are often two different things, from the most subtle body language to the most egregious hypocrisy.

Then, using all this collected data we have to analyze. All the "why" questions. You'd think this would come naturally, but it's a choice. Too often we go straight from observation to judgement without passing GO.

Parents of young children see this all the time, and my daughter and I had a lengthy conversation about this yesterday. People are so quick to jump to conclusions, and so slow to offer actual help. If a child is behaving badly it's common to get dirty looks and snide remarks from total strangers. It's very rare to get a smile of understanding and support, or genuine advice. Old maids' bairns are the best.

My daughter's friend was told, by a total stranger: "that child is too big to be in a stroller". Observation > judgement. No analysis. No consideration that the child may be exhausted, injured, or disabled. As a matter of fact the child is soon to be tested for autism, is very impulsive, and has a habit of running into the road. A stroller is the safest place on a busy street, as Mom has a baby to cope with as well. This stranger scores a zero for awareness, and probably follows the same direct route from eyes to mouth, without engaging brain, in other situations, as most people tend to at least be consistent in that respect.

So, she almost certainly also offers her unsolicited opinion when she sees homeless people, public displays of affection by same sex couples, people wearing turbans, healthy-looking people using disabled parking spaces, heavy people eating, women breastfeeding, and girls wearing short skirts. Meanwhile she probably texts while driving, and runs into you with her shopping cart in the supermarket.

What's important to her is her own schedule, her own opinions, and her own beliefs.

Beliefs is next.