Current Affairs

The cables, the leaks, and Assange

For some time now, it has been all but impossible to pick up a newspaper, or open any sort of news site without seeing the words “Wikileaks” or “Assange”; neither the site, nor its public face in the form of Julian Assange, need any introduction. Apparently inextricably embroiled with the existence of, and recent information releases by, the Wikileaks website, are the charges being laid against Julian Assange, and the conduct of the countries, governments, and law forces involved. The information varies wildly with each news report, and it seems that nothing is presented without bias – painting Assange either as a saviour, or as a demented rapist; the Wikileaks site, then, is his stone tablet, or his deadly weapon.

The problem, as far as I can see it, is that there are really two separate issues here (the legality/morality of the Wikileaks site, and the alleged crimes committed by Assange), and the two are now so linked in the media, and in the minds of the public, that I believe it will be very difficult to ensure that Assange is given fair treatment, and a fair trial (which he, like any other person, is entitled to). While various governments, right-wing pundits, and politicians may be queuing up to demonise Assange, the simple fact of the matter is that he has not been charged with anything to do with the Wikileaks site. Unfortunately, the name Julian Assange is now so entangled with the word Wikileaks that every mention of one inevitably brings with it information about the other.

Supporters of Assange have opined that the charges have only been brought as part of a character assassination attempt, and that they are untrue. Well, I have no more information than the rest of the public on those charges, and with arrest warrants and court documents yet to appear on the now infamous site itself, I can only go on what has been reported. While I would question the timing of the charges as a little suspicious or coincidental, the one thing of which I am certain is that Assange has the right to be treated as innocent until he is proven guilty, regardless of what websites he may own. Whether the charges have arisen now by design, or simply by (in)convenient timing, Assange’s detractors have leaped upon the charges with a fervour that can only be described as malicious. Assange has been labelled a sex criminal, and this has been used to draw both him, and the Wikileaks site into disrepute.

The fact of the matter is that any charges laid against him should be treated as distinct and separate from any personal feelings that potential jurors may have about the legal, moral, and other issues raised by the existence of the Wikileaks site. In my opinion, current media coverage of both issues has made this an impossibility. Although it is not right, Assange will not be tried only on the merits of the case against him, but also on whether people truly agree with the actions of the Wikileaks team.

So, what of infamous Wikileaks site? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure that I believe it to be worth the fuss. I’ve been aware of its existence for some time, and have often popped on to see if there are any interesting documents on it, but I believe that this current batch of leaked documents would not be so prominent in the media, and the minds of the public, if the respective governments had simply allowed it to pass, rather than getting all hot and bothered, and reacting in a completely overblown fashion. I understand that some documents are considered classified for good reason – to protect lives, to prevent damage, etc., but I also believe that greater transparency in the running of the various countries and governments is both important and necessary, because that confidential privilege has been terribly misused, and has allowed corrupt, amoral people to hide behind red tape and secrecy. While I recognise that it may be technically illegal, I believe that, to a certain extent, the governments, companies, and officials in question have brought it upon themselves by abusing their position, misusing secrecy laws, and recklessly flouting regulations that they had no right to ignore. As for their handling of the situation, it bespeaks a very poor level of understanding of the way information changes hands these days, and the motivations of those who pass that information. If they had wanted to keep secrets hidden, rather than making a fuss about the site, they should simply have released more communications – garbage ones. Bury the team in years of cables about what you would like for dinner, and dry-cleaning instructions, and it’s likely that few will persevere long enough to discover the corrupt dealings you ill-advisedly took part in.

Of course, it’s not the information theft that they find truly bothersome. Rather, it is the prospect of suddenly being held accountable in a new, and very public forum. For a long time, the line between private and public information has been blurred, and often to the detriment of the general public. Crimes have been hidden, indiscretions papered over, and money disappeared, all in the name of state secrecy. It is my belief that many of those in power have become complacent, lazy even, and consider some of these transgressions so routine that they do not even matter, but the fact is that, regardless of your position, you should not be above the law. If a private citizen steals money, they are caught, trialled, and punished. It is only recently that we have seen the same happen to government officials in the UK, who fiddled expense claims and cheated taxpayers to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Anyone else guilty of the same must be feeling more than a little apprehensive at the moment, but this is what comes with adulthood – being responsible for, and accountable for, your own actions.

It seems to me that there is a real disconnect between generations. Those in power, many of whom are slightly older, are handling the situation extremely inexpertly, and that is largely down to a very poor understanding of those who would create a site like Wikileaks, those who would visit it, and those who will offer to host it as other providers pull the plug. Information is, and always has been, power. Those who have the information have a great resource that can be used to aid, or bludgeon, as they choose. In the past, it was easier to keep information hidden. Documents could only be accessed in hard copy, and it was simple to keep the public away from the filing cabinets that contained “need to know” information. This time is long gone, however, and the longer the politicians, officials, and companies take to acknowledge this, the more likely it is that they will never catch up.

I have grown up in an era where information is a very real commodity. Within my lifetime, archives have been digitised, mobile phones have become commonplace, and computers have become simple to use, and affordable to almost everyone – it is an age of ubiquitous computing. Like many, then, I am used to being able to get the information that I want quickly, easily, and most often, freely. And, also like many, I have become adept at finding the information that I want, even if it is not easy to do so. To me, the notion of extreme secrecy in the age of the internet seems absolutely laughable; for better or for worse, the internet is here to stay, and one thing holds true for almost all information that passes through its channels – once it’s online, it’s there forever.

It might be comforting for people to think that, if they were to revert to more traditional forms of communication, they would be in less danger of having their secrets spilled. It’s easy to forget, though, that before Wikileaks, before leaked PDF documents, hacked computers, and stolen email conversations, there were leaked photocopies, stolen faxes, bugged phones, and intercepted letters. Over time, the desire for transparency, for information availability, has grown. It has forced the passing of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act. It has created nations of people who are familiar with the terms “Privacy Policy”. And, perhaps most importantly at this moment, it all started long before Julian Assange burst onto our screens.

Do I think Wikileaks will change the world? Maybe, but probably not. In time, this current scandal will die down, and the site will probably fade. I do, however, think that it’s an important step along the way – just like those who fought to pass legislation allowing people to access information being held about them, Assange and his site will chip away a little more at the information barriers. It will open the door for a new generation of information brokers, and make it a little easier for them to exist. Finally, it serves to reaffirm the notion that information is power, and to emphasise that that information is no longer in the laps of the gods, but the hands of the people.

Current Affairs Science

Susan Greenfield: I h8 u

My love-affair with the Baroness Greenfield started and ended when a colleague, on hearing about some of my interests (in this case, neuroscience, and science fiction), presented me with a copy of Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, assuring me that it was fantastic, and that I would absolutely love it. The blurb certainly made it sound exciting – a critical look at how existing technology and future technology may shape the way we think sounded pretty interesting, and like something I would enjoy reading. Sadly, any sense of enjoyment that I felt had largely seeped out of me by the time I reached the end of the first chapter. I slogged on through the book, determined to finish (and to see if it improved), but barely struggled to the end. The book itself is not one that I can recommend. Far from being the eye-opening, explosive treatment that the cover promised, I found it to be a sub-par, overly-general, ham-fisted description that barely nicked the surface of future technology, that seemed hesitant to actually discuss effects on the brain, and that seemed more like a school report written by a teenager who had just read their first sci-fi book, and was completely new to many of the concepts. In short, it was patronising, uninformed, and rather dull.

Well, writing a bad book isn’t a crime – there are plenty of stinkers out there – and nor is it reason enough to hate someone. What makes me bristle whenever I hear the name Greenfield in a news report or an article is the unsupported, scare-tactic declarations that will inevitably follow, all stated by someone who is a qualified scientist and who, at least allegedly, wishes to promote science to the world. At first, I put it down to a strong difference of opinion. As a child/young adult of the 21st century, I have wholeheartedly embraced technology, and all that it can do for me, whereas Greenfield appears to be somewhat neophobic, or at the very least, technophobic. Now, though, I’ve come to realise that it’s more than just that.

What really bugs me is that, in so many ways, she’s similar to the kind of quacks I often blog about – she claims that modern technology is ruining the brains of our children (won’t someone please think of the children), and yet endorses and sells a “brain-training” computer game, despite mounting evidence that these games have no demonstrable effect on brain “age”, memory, or “fitness”; she makes sweeping claims about the effects of social networks, without evidence to back up what she’s saying; despite being asked repeatedly, she has yet to formalise any of her assertions in a paper (which could be examined, peer-reviewed, etc.); she claims to promote science, yet mostly seems to use her publicity to promote herself, and her unproven, unsubstantiated theories about modern tech and social networking – but unlike most of the quacks, she’s actually a scientist!

It seems that not a week goes by without an article or news report telling us how social networking sites are ruining our lives, melting our brains, or stripping us of our social skills. Whenever this comes up, we usually here about the same few cases repeatedly (the online bullying suicides, the facebook divorces, the twitterati spats), and are then told that if we continue to use these sites, we will become mindless drones, unable to pay attention to anything, unable to communicate in real life, and incapable of having friendships that exist outside of Facebook. All of these assertions have two things in common; there is absolutely no evidence to support them, and Greenfield insists on repeating them at every given opportunity. Unlike most of the “social media experts” or quacks who may prattle on about magical HIV curing boxes, or soundwave mp3s that cure cancer, Greenfield is someone who should know better. She is someone who certainly has the resources and the pull to conduct a proper study to establish the truth about brain change due to social networking, but for some strange reason, she refuses to do so.

I don’t personally believe that the advent of social networking will lead to the decline of humanity. I think that that is an attitude held mostly by those with an incomplete understanding of the technology in question, and how people really use it. In every scenario, with every new “big thing”, there will be some who misuse it (by abusing it, using it to hurt others, or simply damaging themselves through overuse), but generally, these people are the outliers, the exception, rather than the rule. For each messy “Facebook divorce”, it’s easy to find literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people who use the site as intended – sharing photos, reconnecting with old school friends, and organising events, to name just a few functions. However, I’m a reasonable person and, above all, a scientist myself. If someone presents me with the studies, and they show that there really has been a change, for the worse, in our brains, then I will happily eat my words, and laud Greenfield as a visionary. However, in order for that to happen, she’d have to behave like a scientist (rather than a sensationalist) and actually do the research. As a scientist, she should be responsible enough to ensure that when she says that computers are damaging children’s brains or causing obesity, she possesses evidence to back it up. As a particularly PR-savvy scientist, she should be well aware of the fact that her name carries significant weight, meaning that people will believe what she says more readily. And finally, as a scientist, it’s her duty to back up her claims; to do the research, submit the paper, and allow it to be reviewed by her peers. Until then, it’s just empty words.

As a woman, a scientist, and someone working in an industry that is typically dominated by men (I.T.), I have a much more personal quibble with Greenfield. Recently, she was sacked from the Royal Institute. Although the exact reason is unclear, there has been much speculation about the reasons for her being sacked; among them, the massive debt in which the R.I. finds itself after a renovation spearheaded by Greenfield (although, in her defence, the trustees did also agree to go ahead with it). There are also rumours that the sacking may have been much more personal, and that there was a personality clash between Greenfield and other members at the R.I. The one thing that is certain, however, is that Greenfield is preparing to take the R.I. to an employment tribunal to allege, among other things, that sexual discrimination played a part in her sacking.

While it may be true that seeing a woman like Greenfield in a prominent position somewhere as respected as the R.I. may well have encouraged and inspired other young girls to pursue science, I believe it is also true that her tribunal will quash any such inspiration more effectively than any public sacking could have done. If there was an issue with her sacking, as there may well have been, then she has every right to take them to a tribunal, but why, oh why, must she play the gender discrimination card? Doing so sends so many messages, and they’re all bad. It tells people that, when firing a woman, you always risk a frivolous lawsuit. It reinforces the stereotypical notions that women are a bad hire because they will cause problems. And it helps to maintain the corrosive attitude that exists almost everywhere today – that women need special treatment to get along in the workplace. If there was a gender issue, then of course, she should address it, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Instead, I believe that she has seized upon the fact that it is a predominantly male workplace to class her sacking as a gender issue, and avoid the real problems. Frankly, I think it’s beneath her.

Baroness Greenfield, I (along with many others, I’m sure) invite you to write up your research into social networking, and present it to the scientific community at large, so that we may review it, and possibly benefit from the knowledge held within. And on a purely personal note, with regard to your recent termination, I recommend that you “take it like a man”.

Current Affairs


The media is all a-flutter again, and this time, it’s about a website called BirthOrNot. On this website, you can learn about Pete and Alisha Arnold, who are a couple from Minneapolis. Apparently, they have had trouble conceiving in the past (two miscarriages, according to their blogs on the site), but have managed to conceive again. They have taken the unusual step of setting up the BirthOrNot site to allow the public to vote on just one issue regarding their pregnancy, and it’s not the child’s name, or the nursery colour… By heading to BirthOrNot, you can vote on whether they will continue the pregnancy, or abort.

As you may imagine, this is proving a contentious issue. As well as the moral quandary raised whenever abortion is discussed in the media (and the inevitable fallout as pro-life and pro-choice supporters clash), there is also the more unique issue of whether it’s appropriate to discuss these issues on the internet, and of course, whether it’s appropriate to make a decision based solely on an internet vote (particularly given the ability for voting to be wildly skewed if a particular poll becomes very popular/notorious). I’ll be honest – I find the notion a little ridiculous. Pro-life or pro-choice, to make a decision like that based on an internet poll seems a little idiotic (and perhaps callous too). With any medical procedure, there are a number of risks, and pregnancy tends to multiply those risks. Since the website claims that the vote will remain open until just 2 days before the foetus has reached the legal age limit for abortion in their state, it is fair to say that the procedure they are considering is a substantial one. Late term abortions are more risky, and given that Alisha apparently has a number of health problems (again, discussed on the blog), it seems downright reckless to be postponing any sort of procedure so that you can conduct an internet poll. Regardless of your views on the rights of a foetus, it would seem logical that you would not want to endanger your own health!

As I read through the website, I began to see little red flags waving – something just didn’t seem right. The blog posts on the site chronicle the development of the foetus, whom they have named “Wiggles” and deemed to be male based on a home gender test. Whenever there are updates about the pregnancy, they include the kind of emotive language that you would expect from people who are planning on having their child – comparing the size of the foetus to objects, talking about the stage of development that it is at (“The hair, eyebrows, and lashes are filling in and taste buds are forming.”), etc. The couple maintain that they are simply attending the scans to ensure that everything is healthy should the result indicate that they do not abort. However, given the language used when discussing the development, it seems that they are more attached than they allege. Rather than using any sort of neutral or medical terms, such as embryo or foetus, the word “baby”, and often “Baby Wiggles”, is used. They mention how issues with the pregnancy have shown them that “even something like this can be completely out of your hands”.

While the slightly biased language, and seemingly religious phraseology of some of the things said on the blog made me question the intent, I knew that I couldn’t debunk a site based simply on a gut feeling. With that in mind, I began a little investigation. The first, and most simple of these steps was to find out about the domain itself – who owns it, etc. This is pretty straightforward, you simply feed the domain into a WHOIS checker, and let it do the searching for you. When I checked, I received some interesting results. Firstly, the domain was registered in on the 17th of May, 2010. According to the blog, Alisha had a miscarriage in January, and became pregnant some time around late August/early September. Why would you register such a domain if you a) had just recently had a miscarriage, and b) were not yet pregnant again, nor certain if you could become pregnant again, or carry a child to term?

The second item which raised concern for me was the fact that the domain is registered by a service – DomainsByProxy. This is a service which allows you to keep the registration information of a domain private, so that your contact information is not available. This is a service that you must pay an extra fee for when you register and renew your domain, and so, despite privacy concerns being ever present on the internet, it is not a service that is availed of by many. The fact that the couple chose to hide their registration information could simply be coincidence, but given the discrepancy with the registration dates and the pregnancy dates, I suspect that it may actually indicate that they are concealing something (perhaps the true domain registrars?).

I decided to move on and investigate the source code of the website. You may remember that source code discrepancies were something that effectively marked Gillian McKeith as a liar when the veracity of her twitter account was called into question – it seems to be an oft overlooked area, whether down to carelessness, or lack of knowledge. One of the first things I noticed was that the website has Google Analytics tracking. This is not unusual, plenty of websites do. What caught my eye, though, was the tracking code clearly visible in the source of the site. It’s UA-7524334-2, and that ‘2’ is quite important. What that ‘2’ tells me is that there is more than one site being tracked by the same account, and that this is the second. From here, the next logical step is to investigate what other sites are being tracked by the same account.

Well, as it so happens, it didn’t take very long to find another site being tracked by the same account. The site is The Church Of Global Warming, and it’s a climate change denial website. It’s a site run by a decidedly right wing individual or group (likely group) who set up Climate Change as a religion, with Al Gore as its prophet, and refer to people like Colbert as a “left-wing asshat”. If you have nothing better to do, feel free to browse – I found it quite entertaining. You could, of course, point out that many people use web developers to set up their sites and/or manage their domain and hosting services, and this would be true. In that case, it might be possible for them to be completely unrelated to the Church of Odd and it’s right wing slant, and to have simply, and completely by chance, stumbled across the same web developer, who registered their domain with the same registration service as the Church of Odd, who prefers to always register domains privately (because, of course, the Church domain is privately registered also), and happened to update the Church domain just shortly before their own (last updated on 3rd of May, 2010). After all, even unlikely coincidences happen sometimes.

This led me to some further research into the individuals themselves, Pete and Alisha Arnold. Rather helpfully, they both have facebook pages which have enough public information to discern rather a lot about them, such as their political and personal views. In Pete Arnold’s public writer fan page, his photo shows him in a rather distinctive shirt. If you can’t make it out, it says “Bitter typical white person clinging to my God and my guns”. While it’s possible he could have been wearing it ironically, I doubt that many would disagree that that’s a rather right-wing sentiment.

From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a click to view Alisha’s page, which rather obligingly allowed me to view a list of pages she had “liked” and things that she is interested in (Screen of FB page). Among them, I found the following:

and (drum roll please)

Rather than clutter this post with more heavy right-wing American rhetoric, I will simply say that if you’re not familiar with any of the above people/groups, a quick Google should suffice to inform you that they are all prominent right-wing groups and/or lobbyists.

While it’s hardly a crime to have political views, it would seem very contradictory to have such clear right-wing views and also be allowing the internet to vote to abort your pregnancy. It is these contradictions, as well as the discrepancies above, which lead me to believe that the site may simply be a rather elaborate hoax perpetrated by some pro-life group in the US. If that is the case, then while it is by no means the most offensive campaign I have seen, it is most certainly deceitful, and just a little disgusting.

The Arnold’s have received an awful lot of publicity, and have conducted numerous interviews, as a result of their controversial website. When asked, they maintain that it is a genuine site – that they merely wish to offer people a chance to have their vote “make a difference […] for the first time”. Interestingly, in a recent interview, Alisha’s mother Sandi mentioned that they “said they have the right to veto, just like the president”. I don’t know about you, but I’d be betting on a midnight-hour conversion around about December 8th, followed by a blog post explaining the wonders of having a child, and how wrong it would have been for them to terminate the pregnancy. I shall keep my eyes peeled, and promise to be duly shocked by their unexpected turnaround.


Divining Intervention

Some quackery is obvious – there are posters, flashy ad campaigns, the works. Sometimes, though, it floats under the radar, waiting for someone to stumble upon it accidentally.

Today, I was trying to find some information on public water supply in Dublin. As you might expect, I turned to the official websites of the various councils and boards involved to try to find accurate information. One such website is the usually extremely useful Citizens Information site. This site is an Irish eGovernment initiative, and is maintained by the Citizens Information Board – in other words, it’s properly official. It’s the responsibility of the board to provide accurate and up-to-date information on all manner of public and social services available in Ireland (among other things).

As I tried to find the information I was looking for, I spotted some odd information under the Private Water Supplies section. I’ve quoted the section here:

If you are not part of a water supply scheme (capital or group), you will have to consider boring your own well and drawing out groundwater to supply your needs. One way of finding a suitable spot for a well to hire a water diviner to find out if there is groundwater beneath your land. However, even if a water diviner can tell you where to dig, he or she will not be able to tell you how deep you will have to drill or how much water you are likely to get. You can get this information from the Geological Survey of Ireland and it is usually free of charge.

Yes, that’s right. If you’d like to have your own connection to the groundwater, and want to know where you should put your well, the Citizens Information Board are happy to direct you to hire a water diviner. Water divination, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the process by which someone walks up and down with a y shaped stick, or “dowsing rod”, and when it points downwards, tells you that there is water present. If you think that this sounds ridiculous, and like it has absolutely no basis in modern science, you would be absolutely right. To date, water divining has not been shown to be any more effective than random chance. Indeed, prestigious scientific journal Nature puts dowsing in the category of “effects which until recently were claimed to be paranormal but which can now be explained from within orthodox science”, with dowsing effects being a result of the observer-expectancy effect and probability (i.e. random chance).

Worse still, a perfectly accurate and completely free resource, in the form of the Geographical Society of Ireland’s groundwater web map, is shunted to the bottom, and inexplicably recommended as something you might check after consulting a water diviner, but only to see how deep you might have to drill.

Honestly, I occasionally despair for the future of this country sometimes…

Current Affairs Science

I can do science me

In a few days, Science Week Ireland will begin, bringing with it a host of lectures, demonstrations, and good, clean, scientific fun. The aim of Science Week is, in their own words, “to promote the relevance of science, engineering and technology in our everyday lives and to demonstrate the importance of these disciplines to the future development of Irish society and to the economy.” An excellent cause, I’m sure you’ll agree, as science impacts, in some way or another, on almost every aspect of our daily lives.

Maybe I’m biased – I’ve always loved science, from the first moment I stepped into a lab, beginning my secondary school education, to the moment when I donned cap and gown to graduate with a BSc. I have always believed that a basic understanding of science is an extremely important part of any education, even if the student does not go on to study science at a higher level. You can perhaps imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Science is not a compulsory subject at Junior Cert level.

I had always assumed that, while Leaving Cert science subjects were optional, Science as a subject was compulsory until Junior Cert. It seemed to make sense to me, considering that it’s an extremely useful subject, and that at least half (if not more) of all third level courses require at least one science subject to have been done at Leaving Cert level. I was honestly surprised to find that it is considered an optional subject in schools and is, as such, not a subject that schools are even obliged to offer to their students.

I have always felt that, for students just embarking upon their secondary education, one of the most difficult decisions that they must make is what subjects to study. After all, not studying Music, for example, at Junior Cert level will almost certainly preclude you from studying at Leaving Cert level, and similarly, will make attending a third level Music course nigh on impossible. By making certain subjects compulsory, schools hope to ensure that, regardless of what optional subjects a student takes, they can be sure to receive an education that is well rounded. How can any school not consider science to be a fundamental part of a student’s education, a subject that, at least until Junior Cert level, should be compulsory? Worse still, how can any school allow a student to begin their secondary level education with so many career options already closed off to them, and so many third level courses now beyond their scope, not due to inadequacy on the part of the student, but because the student may not be offered the opportunity to study science at all?

The goal of science week is to promote the relevance of science, something which, in my opinion, is even more important today than it has ever been before. The influence and impact that science and technology has on our lives has become so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible – who thinks of the detailed understanding of plant genetics necessary to produce viable crops when chopping tomatoes, or of the understanding of sound waves and their transmission when answering the phone? Surely it is crucial that people have some understanding of the world around us, steeped as it is in a rich history of scientific discovery and development.

The sad fact is that, perhaps because science is now so ubiquitous as to be commonplace, people no longer seem to feel the drive to study it. Uptake of study in various science courses remains consistently poor, and the rate of drop-off in science courses at third level is, frankly, embarrassing. I was, for example, one of just five students who took Computer Science in my 4th year in college. We shared a lab with students studying CSSE (Computer Science and Software Engineering), but between us all, we took up less than half of all the room allotted to us.

Almost without fail, when our politicians discuss the potential reasons why investors should choose Ireland, they will mention the high quality of our graduates, the progressive nature of our technology education, etc. If we are to live up to our reputation, we need to encourage people to study science, and enable them to do so. Those in charge of our curricula, namely, the Department of Education and Science, should make science education compulsory, and ensure that any student’s interest in science is not nipped in the bud before they’ve even reached their teens.

If you know someone who is starting secondary education, ensure that their school does offer Science as a Junior Cert subject, and encourage them to study it. Doing so will open up a world of possibilities, both in terms of career options, and further study options. If you know of a school that does not offer Science as an option for students, why not use Science Week to ask them why?

Martial Arts

Warriors & W*nkers

14/02/2012 – Update: We have made a decision to modify slightly the contents of this blog, because the matter has been put to rest in a mutually satisfactory fashion, and I have no wish to tarnish the reputation of the club’s new administration, nor the greater organisation to which they belong, based solely on the actions of past instructors.

02/02/2012 – Update: My personal integrity is very important to me. I try hard to ensure that the information contained in my blogs is accurate and fair. As such, it behoves me to inform my readers that I have been contacted by members of the club in question, who advised me that the club is under new management, and that the instructor who was in charge at the time of this blog is now no longer a member of the club or organisation.

There’s a saying that goes “when a door closes, somewhere, a window opens”. Perhaps it is an altogether too finely tuned sense of cynicism that leads me to suggest and addendum: sometimes, people are waiting at the window with boards and a nail gun. This week, I had the uniquely unpleasant experience of being expelled from a martial arts club that I have been studying with for a number of years. Shortly after a seminar which we attended, during the post-seminar coffee, one of our instructors called T over for a chat. After a few minutes, he returned, and once we had left, T told us that we had been handed back our licences, and expelled from the club. Apparently, our behaviour had been deemed unacceptable, and our motivations for training had been questioned.

I won’t lie – this news left me absolutely devastated. After speaking to my former instructor myself, I left, feeling pretty distraught. I had, honestly, no idea that it was coming. Although our instructor maintained that we had been warned, I don’t recall ever having been told that we needed to behave differently in class. I feel sure that, if I had been told, I would have made efforts to change my behaviour – I would have done whatever necessary to continue with the club, to continue learning the system. Our instructor was asked if we could take this incident as a warning, but apparently, this was not an option, due to the fact that he had allegedly warned us multiple times, and had “had enough” of us.

Sadly, they felt it necessary to deliver a parting shot – apparently, I only ever trained there because T did, and not due to any interest or dedication of my own. This was a particularly cutting blow for me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, unfortunately, this is not the first club I’ve had to leave.

Some time ago, I was actively training in two clubs (in addition to my own home club). As my usual training partners were away for the summer months and variously busy, etc., I had ended up substituting a lot of my mid-week training by going and training in another style, with a very talented instructor. I made good progress there, and really truly enjoyed it. What’s more, I actually felt like the instructor respected me, and was glad to see me coming training. He seemed genuinely happy to teach me and to train with me, and seemed to consider me as an individual, and as someone who was really in it to learn. As a girl, I often have to work hard to get that kind of respect in the world of martial arts, so to be treated like this meant an awful lot more to me than I think that instructor could even imagine.

As any martial artist will tell you, unfortunately, there is no training without politics. No matter what style you choose, and what club you train with, there will always be fights, disagreements, and grudges with other clubs or instructors, and these clubs were no exception. After several months of instruction, I was getting on pretty well, and starting to progress, and so, as is often the way with these things, it was time for an ultimatum. Due to a long held grudge between the head instructors of the two styles, I was essentially told that, for as long as I was continuing to train with one club, I could not also train in the other. I had to make a very difficult and unpleasant decision then. With no friends or training partners around to help out, I defaulted to a old standard of mine – namely, if you ask me to make a choice, you have made that choice for me. So, with huge sadness and regret, I stopped training there.

Around this time in the first club, because my regular training partners away, I was attending classes alone. This meant that, each class, I was treated to one of two options – either largely ignored and left in the corner to practice alone, or grouped with the beginners, and left to train the first few strikes and blocks of the system. While learning all of the single strike patterns by myself in the corner undoubtedly improved my basics, it was hardly the most stimulating or rewarding way to spend class after class. After one particularly memorable class, during which I was left alone and not given instruction for the duration, I was given what has become affectionately known as the “dedication speech” (where I was told that I needed to be showing up consistently (I was), training my material outside of the class time (I was, and continue to do), and really dedicating myself to the study of the art). At this point, I decided to take a week off and consider my training options for the future. Having already given up one system to continue to study at this club, I needed to make sure I was willing to keep going to class, even if it meant being ignored, in order to learn the system.

As you may have discerned, I continued to attend the club. While the class format, and constantly being ignored, often brought me to tears, I wanted the knowledge. And so, I went to as many classes as I could. I continued to train the material outside of class, and tried to improve as much as I could. Meanwhile, I kept hoping that we (myself and my training partners) would eventually be accepted as part of the club, and would be able to progress to the higher levels of the system. Whenever I was asked, I bought the necessary equipment, attended the extra classes, went to the seminars (where possible). In short, I believed that I was putting in all of the effort possible to show that I really was interested in this system, even including, as mentioned above, sacrificing another system that I also loved, to continue in it.

And so, this brings us to Sunday, when I tweeted that I, along with my training partners, had just been expelled from the club, handed back our licence fees, and told to never darken the doorstep again, prompting many replies and emails asking what on earth had happened, and wondering what I/we had done to get kicked out. The truth is, I don’t know. I’ve spent the last few days running through everything in my head, and I still don’t know. My loyalty and dedication was drawn into question by my instructor, who takes attendance at every class, and who could quickly and easily demonstrate that I have the one of the best, if not the best, attendance record in the club. My longest absence from training there was in the immediate aftermath of surgery, when I was prohibited from training for 6 weeks. On the first day of the 7th week, I was back in training. I was told that I only attended when T did, and that that was the only reason I attended at all. Of course, only I know what my motivations for training are, but I thought that I had done everything possible to demonstrate that I was interested in, and dedicated to, learning the system, up to and including quitting another club to do so.

Finally, we were told that we were always messing and joking around in class, and never sticking to the one exercise. On this, I must hold my hands up – I will not say that my behaviour in class has always been one of submissive studiousness. Where people shared a joke, I joined in. While training, I did sometimes chat to my partner (while continuing to train though). If an exercise became boring after the 20th consecutive minute without change, I did work other movements in (sticking with the same drill, for example, but adding extra strikes). I did these things because I believed them acceptable, having taken my lead from the more senior students in the club, who sometimes stood and talked instead of training, who occasionally improvised within or changed the prescribed drill, or who often just did completely different things. Most of all though, I believed that it was acceptable because I was never told any different. While our instructor maintains that we were warned several times, I can honestly say that I was not aware that we were causing such a level of annoyance. Rather than believing that we were on the road to being expelled, I had thought that, recently, we were finally being accepted as members of the club. Up until recently, there was even talk about when our next grading might take place. This contributed significantly to the level of shock and upset that I felt on Sunday, as our expulsion came as a complete bolt out of the blue.

Upon hearing about some of the things that have happened in class, many of my friends have asked why we stayed – why we continued to attend class when we were so often ignored or, seemingly, punished for our attendance. Frankly, we put up with it because we wanted, more than anything, to learn the system. For every three classes of monotonous ignorance, there might be one class where we were taught some new material. This gave us something new to practice, and one more piece of the whole system, and this made it worth while. Every now and again, one of the other instructor level students/instructors would show us a small twiddle, or a set of techniques, perhaps from a higher level, or from the older syllabus, and these were the gold dust in the river mud that kept us coming back for more.

Some time ago, I promised myself that, once I had completed my studies with the club, I would tell the instructors that, while I loved the system, I often hated the classes. I would explain that we never once felt like part of the club, that we couldn’t understand why every other new student seemed to be brought into the fold, and we were still left out in the cold. I would tell them that it was profoundly frustrating, and frankly, a little insulting to be ignored every week, or to ask a question, only to be told to piss off, to be told “I’m not your instructor”, or to be told that that was far too advanced, only to see it being taught to another beginner who was two grades beneath us. I promised that I would tell them that they took some of their most dedicated students, and systematically chipped and picked away at that enthusiasm until it was almost all gone.

On Sunday, my former instructor did not even have the decency to tell me that I was expelled. Instead, he chose to deliver the message through T, one of my training partners, since we were “only there for him anyway”.  To me, this neatly exemplifies the level of antipathy and apathy that we often experienced while there. I returned to the pub, and kept my promise to myself. With my former head instructor, and my other two instructor-non-instructors (depending on the day and their mood) sitting at the table, I told them all of the above and more.  My former head instructor, once or twice, attempted to refute points I was making. I won’t lie – I didn’t let him speak. As far as I was concerned, he had had his opportunity to talk to me about it, and had chosen instead to deliver the message by proxy. The other two instructor-non-instructors sat at the table, refusing to make eye contact, and making faces behind their hands.We’ve been de-friended and blocked on facebook, and ignored via email. It would appear that the love affair is, well and truly, over.

While the experience won’t put me off training martial arts, it will probably change the way I trust instructors in the future. While I had never thought that I was friends with my head instructor, I had honestly believed that I had a pretty decent relationship with some of the others there. Myself and my training partners have made provisions to begin training in another style, to replace the training hours. We’ll continue to revise the material that we were shown, and try to add to it where possible, through seminars, dvds, etc. Another addendum to the “door closing, window opening” phrase perhaps: don’t forget your metaphorical crowbar.

A phrase that my friend, T, likes to use often is that, when it comes to training, “There are warriors, and there are wankers. Which are you?” By this, he means that, if you want training respect, you have to earn it. You do so by showing up time and time again, when you’re tired, when it would be easier to go home and sit in front of the tv, when you don’t feel like it. You keep trucking on, you keep showing up, and you keep trying, and that’s what makes you a warrior. I can, at this point, only feel sadness and regret that, when it came down to it, I wasn’t warrior enough for them.

Note: This blog is, by virtue, a one-sided account of what has happened. While I’ve been honest about what I know, I can only speculate about the motivations of the instructors, about how annoyed they were at us, etc. 


Ten miles in the snow. Barefoot.

Yes, in my day, we had to walk ten miles to school, in the snow, barefoot, carrying our books in our hands, while rabid dogs nipped at our cold, snow covered ankles and tried to steal the lunch that we had to work 27 hours a day to pay for. And we were grateful for it! Well, not really, but it seems that any sort of nostalgic discussion must, inevitably, devolve into a sort of odd, one-downmanship where each had it worse than the one before.

As you may have guessed, this is a post about the good old days, and why I think we shouldn’t give them up just yet. Make no mistake, I am a lover of technology. I’m on almost every social networking site, and my iPhone might as well be grafted to my hand with the amount of time that it spends there. I’m a big fan of computing, and the fact that I no longer have to queue in a bank simply to pay a bill has, on occasion, made me giddy. In short, I wholeheartedly embrace our always-on world, and if and when someone discovers a way to simply transmit information directly to one’s head (perhaps through some sort of implanted USB/Firewire port), I’ll be first in line.

With that said, however, I can’t help but lament at the loss of certain skills which are, in my opinion, timeless. Perhaps it’s  a little “Stepford Wife” of me, but I genuinely enjoy cooking – from scratch. When I bake, there are no mixes. When I cook, there are no pre-prepared vegetables. It’s true that it takes a little longer to peel those potatoes, chop those peppers, and dice that meat, but cooking for real has given me so many valuable skills – the ability to follow a recipe, an understanding of different weight and volume measurements (and conversions between them), and, perhaps most importantly of all, the knowledge of what things are made of. It’s this knowledge that helps me to avoid purchasing completely useless and pointlessly expensive products like this:

Pancake Mix

I promise, this is a real product. And the fact that anyone would buy this makes me despair for the future of hungry people everywhere. (If you are someone who doesn’t know why this is so ridiculous, shame on you!) Pancakes are arguably one of the most simple and versatile things you can make in a kitchen, working with both sweet and savoury fillings, and requiring only the most basic ingredients to make – flour, eggs, and milk. Meaning that this pancake mix is, essentially, flour. Flour in a smaller, and much more expensive bag than any other flour available in the supermarket. This fact isn’t even hidden – the ingredients state pretty clearly that basically the only ingredients are flour, rising agents, and a pinch of salt – i.e. self-raising flour. I honestly cannot fathom why anyone would buy such a product…unless there are an awful lot of people out there who are completely unaware of what pancakes are really made of.

This is not just bothersome because I enjoy cooking – it implies that there are plenty of people without a basic knowledge of cooking, something which I consider an essential skill. Convenience foods exist for those times when it’s simply inconvenient to go through the process of preparation, and while a diet entirely composed of them probably isn’t very healthy, they certainly won’t be too damaging. And I’m sure that, sometimes, it’s lovely to be able to bake some bread without having to activate yeast, wait for dough to proof, etc. This isn’t a convenience food though, this is a “we saw you coming” food, as it’s honestly no more convenient that making pancakes the “hard way”, with your unbranded, non-pancake-mix flour. It’s a package of stupidly expensive flour, designed to be bought by people who don’t look at ingredients. And the fact that they continue to sell it (and that people continue to buy it) makes me honestly worry about the future of baking trays and weighing scales everywhere.

There is a genuine joy in making things yourself, and while it may not always be practical, it is almost always fun. For every kitchen disaster, there will always be a really tasty treat (or at the very least, several too-wonky-to-display cakes to dispose of)

Since today is, apparently, National Punctuation Day, I’m going to roll another “back-in-my-day” complaint into this blog – namely, the slow decline of writing and reading skills. (I will save comment on the fact that virtually every day of the year has now been attributed to some cause or other for another blog). Rather than rehash the same arguments about the fact that children no longer read as much as they used to, I’ll simply touch on a few other points instead.

There is a generation of children and young adults emerging from our schools without a number of basic skills such as penmanship, letter composition, spelling skills, and punctuation usage. We are all working increasingly on computers, and this makes it easy to rely on typing as a means of communication, but penmanship is still important. While it is not necessary for every child to have perfect script, it should at least be legible!

One only has to do a quick Google search to see just how many people have no idea how to lay out a letter (be it a personal letter, or a business letter). Reliance on MS Word (and similar) templates, pre-programmed CV templates, and job-search websites has allowed people to simply forget, or worse, not learn how to put together a basic letter. However prominent the internet and email become in business, it is still important that people can put together a professional looking document if they need to. Personally, I cringe when I receive emails that contain the “Hi” and the following message on the same line; I always insert spaces as if I were writing a traditional letter, not just to be a fuddy-duddy, but because it actually makes the email easier to read and understand.

Finally, we come to spelling and punctuation. It is a particular bug-bear of mine that so little emphasis is placed on correct spelling and punctuation. We arrive to school speaking English, and so, very little time and effort is put into teaching any English grammar. In fact, I recall arriving into my penultimate year in secondary school only to find our entire class being given out some handouts and exercises on basic English grammar, because even then, there were people making the same mistakes. Knowing how to spell and use punctuation isn’t just something boring and archaic, it’s an important skill. Correct spelling and punctuation make it instantly easier to understand whatever it is you’re trying to communicate, and indeed, incorrect spelling, grammar, and punctuation actually impact on the speed at which people read and understand text to a measurable degree.

The thing about grammar is that, just like cooking, it’s all bark and no bite. A grammar book might look like an absolute monster, but the truth is that most grammar rules are quite simple, and even make a lot of sense. Just like following a recipe, following those rules and directions will make your final piece, be it a simple email or a preachy blog post, so much better.

Current Affairs General

Whatever you do, don’t call me an atheist.

It will probably come as no surprise to hear that, on the whole, I’m not a true believer. I don’t believe in God, Allah, Jesus, Mohammed, or any other higher power that is on offer. I have come to this belief (or lack thereof, as the case may be) after many years of thought and personal exploration. I don’t feel the need to “convert” religious people to atheism, nor do I feel a particular need to constantly argue about belief with them. Simply, they believe, and I don’t.

Recently, however, I’ve started including a caveat whenever religion is discussed – I don’t believe in God, but I’m not an atheist. The reason I’ve started doing so is because I find myself disinclined to be associated with some of the more famous atheist names, and some of the more recent atheist activities. I don’t believe in God, but I don’t believe in Dawkins either.

Richard Dawkins is a very talented and intelligent man. His books are interesting, compelling, and convincing reads. Broadly speaking, I believe the same things he does (i.e. in the existence of evolution, that evolution explains our development, that there is no higher spiritual power, etc). I don’t, however, believe that the best way to go about spreading your message is to be abrasive, combative, and, to a certain degree, as extremist as those you deride.

Due to his status as a prominent atheist and his obvious pro-evolution stance, Dawkins appears in countless interviews and programs. One such example, which I found particularly hard to watch, and which demonstrates my difficulty with Dawkins, is his interview with a creationist woman named Wendy Wright. I’ve embedded the first part here, you can follow on to watch the entire interview (7 parts) on youtube.

I found it genuinely difficult to watch this interview all the way through, and probably not for the reasons you might expect. Granted, the creationist is quite annoying and her laugh/dismiss way of answering each question gets old very quickly indeed. But equally annoying is Dawkins’ interview technique; he doesn’t address any of her questions, merely batting them away. Rather than addressing her points, he simply verbally bludgeons her for the duration of the interview. In short, while it is supposed to be an interview, it is actually two people talking beside each other, with neither listening to, or addressing the queries of, the other party.

The documentary “The Root of All Evil?” aka “The God Delusion” is another program which, in my opinion, misses the mark. In this program, Dawkins had the opportunity to address genuine questions and issues, but instead, he simply paraded the worst examples of extremist faith believers possible, to reinforce his own point that religion is the cause of all wrong. While it is true that there are extremist factions associated with almost every religion, the majority of followers of any religion are not represented by these extremists. Choosing only extremists to demonstrate what is wrong with religion is fundamentally flawed – it doesn’t really represent any of those belief systems accurately, and it only demonstrates the beliefs and practices of a minority of followers. Rather than consulting anyone with more moderate beliefs (i.e. one of the majority), Dawkins specifically selects the most extreme believers, knowing that it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to construct an argument for those extremist beliefs that would harm others, for example (who would really argue that it is correct to want all non-Muslims off the lands of Muhammed, and that it is acceptable to resort to violence to achieve that?).

What’s so annoying about this is that it is poor, lazy argument technique. It is harder to paint those with moderate beliefs, the majority, as crazed, dangerous, or insane, so he doesn’t try. And this is exactly the kind of argument that he will not tolerate from any believer, as seen recently in his reaction to the Pope’s comments with regard to atheism and Nazis. The Pope’s comments appear to be directed at atheist extremists, and while it is not made clear what he sees as an extreme atheist, what is clear is that he is, somewhat ironically, employing the same strategy as Dawkins – highlight the worst possible example, and imply that they are the majority. It’s sloppy, lazy, ignorant, and offensive to imply that simply because extremists exist that everyone who believes anything (even if that belief is no belief) agrees with the extreme views. And Dawkins is often as guilty of that as the various Creationists, Muslims, and religious leaders he interviews and rallies against.

I absolutely don’t support the Pope, or any of his declarations that seem to imply the worst of any who don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s acceptable to lower myself to his level by painting all religious people as fundamentalist extremist nutters. To do so will, ultimately, achieve nothing; no one will learn anything, it will only serve to prove to each side of the debate that they were right to assume the worst of the others.

Indeed, one could argue that this has been shown by the Pope’s recent visit. The comments made in his speech about atheism rapidly overtook most of the other issues to do with his visit (e.g. child abuse, monies from fund-raising, etc.) and brought out the worst in all concerned, leading to the word Nazi being used more times in the last week than I have seen it used in several years previous. True believers from both sides (yes, atheist “true believers” too) spent the duration of the visit trading verbal blows, and by the time it was all over, both sides were convinced that their assessment of each other was correct. After all, did the Catholics not call atheists Nazis? And did those Nazi atheists not do all within their power to disrupt the Pope’s visit, up to and including threatening arrests, violence, etc? Well, no, not really. An ill advised comment in the Pope’s speech led to a ridiculous game of chinese whispers, resulting in people maintaining that the Pope had said outright that atheists are modern-day Nazis, and overreaction to internet chatter and personal opinion led to prominent atheists (such as Stephen Fry, Terry Pratchett, etc) being virtually tarred and feathered by newspapers, and even to people being arrested, to protect the Pope.

The demonisation of atheism in the media means that many people will believe that the Pope was right to compare atheists to Nazis, and that being an atheist means that you want to murder the Pope, declare anarchy in the Holy See, and redecorate with a combination swastika and pentagram theme. The demonisation of the Pope in the media (mostly internet based, to be honest) means that many people will believe that the Pope actively molested children himself, and that all young people should be kept at a safe distance, lest they be sucked in, molested, and warped by his papal-magnetic-child-bothering field, provided he’s not too busy spending money senselessly and denying any and all accusations.

Time and time again, both sides of the debate engage in the same ridiculous, over-the-top mud slinging, and afterwards, they go home, safe in the knowledge that they were right after all. Surely it is time for a new tactic? Would it not be more effective to ignore the ridiculous comments, and instead focus on the real issues (e.g. child abuse, money, etc)? Would it not be better to prove disparagers wrong by behaving in a dignified and mature way?

Argue against religious belief if you want, but please do so logically, rationally, and well. Using twisted, exaggerated, contorted examples of faith does no one any good, and merely serves to show that fundamentalists exist in every walk of life, even if they choose to call themselves atheists.

Current Affairs Science

The Nonsense about The Origin of Specious Nonsense

Normally, I like to leave a little time between blog posts. This week, however, has been far too full of blog-worthy topics to pass up, so please excuse my break from routine.

One topic doing the rounds of the internet is the launch of a new book by an Irish author, John J May, called The Origin of Specious Nonsense. The author claims that the book will “unceremoniously unashamedly and unmistakably [going to] expose the fiction of evolution”, which is, I think you’ll agree, a pretty big claim for any author to make. Of course, there are plenty of people who launch books that will “change the world”, but what made this one so special was that, for a time at least, it appeared to have the support of our very own Junior Minister for Science (and other stuff), Conor Lenihan.

Mr. Lenihan’s involvement in the launch of this book catapulted what would have otherwise been a banal book launch into the international spotlight, as news services and prominent skeptics (Dara O’Briain, Ben Goldacre, etc) cried foul after picking up the internet buzz about it. Lenihan maintains that he was launching it merely as a friend, and a TD, rather than in his capacity as minister, and therefore saw no issue with it. Perhaps he was not aware that, as a minister for science, his launching a prominently anti-evolution book would cause a stir, or perhaps he was simply hoping that his involvement would not be noticed.

After the story was picked up by news services, there was a dash to back-pedal and save face – the Irish Times tells us that the author asked Mr. Lenihan to withdraw, because he was embarrassed that the minister had been insulted. There was a hurried removal of most (but not all) mentions of Lenihan on the book launch website, and the whole issue seems to have died down. It does, however, raise an interesting question, namely, at what point, if ever, do ministers stop being ministers? Can a minister for science support anti-evolution or similar theories and still be credible in his professional role? Should we require some sort of qualification or relevant experience of our ministers to ensure that they understand the area they govern?

In the spirit of fairness, I perused the author’s launch website, and read the sample chapter provided. After all, it would be unfair to dismiss the author’s theories without first examining them. While you may be expecting me to spend the rest of this post attempting to explain or dissect his arguments, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint, because after a careful reading of the samples provided, and the promotional material, I have found not a single properly constructed argument or point that would stand up to even the most basic of scrutiny. That said, this would be a poor entry if I didn’t at least try, so I’ve examined the varied and unconnected points which he attempts to present as arguments, and dissected them instead.

The author poses 7 questions at the start of the sample chapter, which may lead you to believe that he intends to answer them, or refute the accepted scientific answers for them. In actual fact, he does neither – rather, he repeats the 7 questions several times throughout the chapter, at random intervals, apparently simply to fill space! The questions are:

  • How and why do cells split?
  • How do toes know where to grow?
  • How do cells know how to build a heart?
  • How do cells know how to make blood?
  • How does blood have all the right chemicals?
  • How did the reproductive system develop?
  • Was I truly one single cell?

These don’t seem to me like questions that will shake the very foundations of evolutionary theory – in fact, they appear more like the questions of a child who has been studying some basic reproductive biology, and found the book lacking in detail. (And since he continually refers to Cell Diferenciation [sic], one could also say that they are like the questions of a child who possesses neither a dictionary, or a computer with a spell-check function).

The chapter doesn’t appear to have a single coherent point. Instead, it touches lightly on a number of processes that happen during the growth of an embryo and foetus (jumping somewhat erratically around the timeline of foetal development, from 3 weeks to 8 weeks, and back to 7, etc.), deems each of them wonderful (“The triumph of one cell metamorphosing into one beautiful baby”, “wondrous creation”,), and goes on to speculate that they could not possibly be the result of random chance, but must instead be the work of a creator figure: God.

It is irrational to suggest that such molecular action, chemical cleverness, D.N.A. codes, sperm and egg, 46 chromosomes, cellular differentiation, hormones and blood, skin and bone, eyes and heart plus millions of other atomic structures came from nothing – means nothing, will be nothing! And since it is totally irrational I commit it to the realm of ridiculous speculative fantasy. It is far more reasonable to conclude a creator of awesome prodigious intellectual capabilities was – is and forever shall be…

The Cognitive Artistic Genetic Engineer. (God)

He seems to suggest repeatedly that the only alternative theory to his own (which appears to be that we were created by God, i.e. intelligent design) is that we came from nothing, and tries to refute this point. His argument here is moot, however, because the theory of evolution does not state anywhere that we ultimately came from nothing, but that we came from our ancestors, and developed in response to various selective pressures.

In fact, the crux of the “argument” in this chapter appears to be that something so wonderful and clever could not possibly have evolved by accident, and must instead have been designed by God. To support this assertion, he simply refers to random biological occurrences and body parts, and several photos of foetuses, and asks us to agree either that they came from nothing, or that they came from God – in short, a poorly constructed straw-man argument that is barely worth blowing down. Indeed, towards the end of the chapter, his whole argument hinges on a picture of a small child with (presumably) her parents, as he implores us to believe that “It is quite simply not credible that this beautiful baby combining physical characteristics of both parents, plus linkingand [sic] strengthening two humans into three in love came from nothing!”.

In addition to some fairly questionable arguing strategies, there is also the fact that some of his sentences simply don’t make any sense. For example, later in the chapter, after demanding that we stop ignoring God and believing that pregnancy is proof of evolution, he writes:

Mental dysfunction manifests itself clearly through disassociation from reality and evinces shades of psychosis. I think the epithetmost [sic] descriptive of intelligent individuals who embrace evolution and reject reason is FANTASISTS. [sic]

What is he trying to say with the above sentence? That mental dysfunction is a result of belief in evolution, or a lack of belief in God? That psychosis is preventable if you believe as he does? Or perhaps he intends to imply that believe in evolution means that you are a “fantasist”, and that mental dysfunction is merely a side effect of those living in the evolution-believing fantasy? Leaving aside those unpalatable and ridiculous notions, there is also the fact that the sentence construction is poor, and the word usage, appalling – a trait seen throughout the chapter, and doubtless throughout the book. There is little use of punctuation, and where it is used, it is often used incorrectly. I am certain that, given enough time, a child of 10 could produce an equivalent document with fewer errors.

The book promotion website is full of jaded promotional phrases, and ludicrous attempts to attach credible names to the book itself. Below are just some of the more ridiculous statements found on the website. For clarity, my own comments on each are included in blue.

  • “From author John J May comes the most controversial book in decades” – I wonder how many “most controversial” books that makes this decade?
  • “It is a non academic attempt which is currently very popular worldwide due to the brilliant observationalist naturalist Charles Darwin’s 200 year birth anniversary and 150 years celebration of his monumental laughable fantasy, The Origin of Species which I have read forensically and counted 1550 suppositions.” – Is he saying that non-academic academic books are popular, that his unorthodox approach is popular?
  • The international appeal of such a book is evident by four of the worlds best known innocent atheist evolutionary authors, (Plus many others) Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C Dennett, et al – The appeal of the book is evident by other authors who vehemently disagree with the kind of things he’s saying in his book? Aside from the ludicrous idea that his book is of the same calibre as any written by those mentioned, that sentence doesn’t even make sense! These names are literally pasted in large text, before smaller text decries them as people who have “sacrificed reason on the alter of Chance, Mutations, Randomness which is a concoction for chaos”
  • “The Origin Of Specious Nonsense” is a plea for sanity and reason in a dangerous world further morally polluted by the corrupting hoax of evolution as tragically illustrated by the Columbine High School killers ten years ago in the USA. Those two deluded young men spoke on video about “Helping out the process of natural selection by eliminating the weak.” One of them Eric Harris on the day of the massacre actually wore a T-shirt with the words.. “Natural Selection” – Included in the “Mission Statement” on the website is the above quote. To imply that evolution, as a theory, had any bearing on the actions of the teenagers who carried out the Columbine killings is simply ridiculous. In an attempt to weaken arguments for the theory of evolution, he is attempting to attach a horrific event to it, when in fact the two are completely unrelated.

Essentially, the website contains more of the same weak rhetoric found within the book – it’s unconvincing, badly structured nonsense. May’s understanding of evolution appears to be very poor, and based on flawed information, and so all premises based on his understanding are fundamentally flawed. In addition, the arguments he presents against evolution are not based in fact, but rather on opinion, and there is no evidence to support them (unlike evolution, for which there is plentiful evidence).

This is a book that would have faded into obscurity, like so many other self-published works (yes, surprisingly, the book is self published by a vanity publisher in Ireland), without so much as a blip and no hope of a second print run. Sadly, due to the ill-advised involvement of a prominent politician, even for a short while, John J May has received the kind of publicity that every raving lunatic with €2000 and a word processing program can only dream of. I can only hope that the fuss will disappear as quickly as it appeared, and then Mr. May can go back to handing out pamphlets on Grafton Street alongside the other “respected and revolutionary” authors of our time.

Current Affairs

Holy Marmite!

After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that Pope Benedict (aka Joseph Ratzinger) is essentially the Marmite of public figures at the moment – people either love him, or hate him; overall, there seem to be very few with a moderate opinion of him.

With his planned visit to the UK imminent, tensions between both sides (the lovers and the haters) have reached a fever pitch. There are planned protests alongside planned vigils, as much supportive merchandise as there is anti-Pope merchandise, and more than one person planning to attempt a citizens arrest upon his arrival in the UK. If nothing else, the visit promises to be an interesting one.

One bone of contention is with the organisation of the events. People planning to attend are being told that they must give a donation of £20. This is apparently to cover the costs associated with his visit, and to help cover a shortfall in church funds. They hope to raise £7,000,000 to cover all of the costs associated with the visit, and helpfully break down these planned expenditures on the website. Apparently, they will be spending the money as follows:

In total the expected costs now associated with these events is £5.2m. Direct costs associated with three smaller pastoral events also fall to the Church – these are likely to be £600k in total. Then in addition to that, there are costs involved in planning and preparing for the visit, with our own website and communications work (£650k), and fundraising (£200k) Finally the Bishops are developing a range of catechetical and evangelisation materials to anticipate and follow through on the likely increased interest and attention that the Visit will generate in the Catholic Church. (£350k).

Having performed some basic math, I am left with some questions; as far as I can see, 7 million is rather a lot more than 5.2 million. And indeed, adding up all of the figures presented gives a total of 3.6 million, not 5.2 – so where exactly is all that extra “donation” money going to go? Finally, as stated on the official visit website, the UK government are actually paying most of the associated visit costs themselves, including security costs, which leads me to wonder at what the rest of the 7 million is being allocated for. (And, on a less serious note, I also wonder exactly how many Pope t-shirts are they making, if their merchandising costs are 350,000!). I think that, given the rather mandatory nature of the “donation”, it would not be unreasonable to expect them to explain, even roughly, how this extra money will be put to use, especially considering just how much money it is. Perhaps they could use some of the leftover money to pay compensation to the victims of sexual abuse, whom they were previously too poor to compensate.

This, of course, leads us on to the major sticking point about this visit – the issue of child sex abuse within the church. It is no longer news that, for a long time, children were systematically sexually and physically abused within the church, by priests and carers. The fact has been well established, and proven. Unfortunately, most of this proof has been obtained without the help of the church, or Pope Benedict, due to his continued refusal to cooperate in any way with any investigations into the abuses.

Many say that Pope Benedict is being unfairly targeted as the head of an organisation where abuse was endemic, and that he cannot be blamed for things that happened before he was in a position of leadership. I respectfully disagree. Prior to becoming Pope, Joseph Ratzinger held the position of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this position, he was responsible for defending and reaffirming doctrine , and teaching on important topics, such as homosexuality, inter-religious dialogue, etc. In addition to this, however, the Congregation also has jurisdiction over other matters, such as clerical sexual misconduct, serving as a sort of “court” to deal with priests accused of misconduct.

Ratzinger held his position as Prefect of the Congregation from 1981 until 2005, a time during which child sexual abuse was rampant within the church. There is evidence to suggest that details pertaining to a large number of cases were reviewed by Ratzinger, and that they were ignored – the priests moved to a different parish, those involved sworn to secrecy, and no charges brought. For example, as recently as April of this year, a letter was discovered in which it appears that, in 1985, while Prefect, Ratzinger refused to laicize (to de-priest, so to speak) Father Kiesle, a priest accused of molesting several boys in California. Not only was Kiesle not defrocked or laicized, but he was not reported to the police, and no further action was taken, despite admissions by the priest that he had abused the boys.

There have been several documents leaked which purport to show Ratzinger’s involvement in the cover-up of sexual abuse within the church. Sadly, the only way these documents can come to light is when they are leaked, because to date, Ratzinger has refused to cooperate with any investigations. No documentation has been provided to investigating authorities, and when Ratzinger was personally accused of covering up the abuse of three Texan boys, rather than take the stand, he demanded (and received) diplomatic immunity, preventing his prosecution.

In short, it would certainly appear that Ratzinger does not want thorough investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse, a position which seems to be supported by the Crimen Sollicitationis document, in which those involved in trials are sworn to secrecy within the church, under threat of excommunication. This document remained in force until 2001 (when it was replaced by new, still inadequate, rules), yet Ratzinger still holds to church secrecy about the abuses.

At this point, I can only refer to the old adage – an honest man has nothing to hide. Surely it is in the best interests of all involved for there to be full disclosure of all documentation, all actions taken or not taken, and all parties involved? And surely, if Ratzinger was not involved, as his supporters claim, then he would have no problem disclosing the information and letting an investigation proceed unhampered? Regardless of their position within the church, no man is above the law of the land, and there is no land in which child sexual abuse is lawful. As such, it is both his legal, and moral duty to disclose the information, and see to it that a proper and thorough investigation is carried out, and that those who were in the wrong are brought to justice.

The issue of child sex abuse within the church is not one that can be ignored, or swept under the carpet. Regardless of how obstructive the church are, the truth will out. I believe, therefore, that it would be in the best interests of everyone involved to simply allow the investigation to proceed, and help where they can. Even if it is not something that they feel morally obliged to do, it is something that they are legally obliged to do.

With all of the above in mind, I’m afraid to say that I cannot, in good conscience, support a visit by the Pope to the UK, or to anywhere. In my opinion, if the church wants to reaffirm the faith of the congregation, it should not be looking to do so by spending money, and begging for money to spend, on organising visits. It should, instead, be focusing on investigating the problems that have emerged, on making amends to those who were wronged, and on proving that they are examples of the truly faithful to which they hope we aspire. The people involved should be honest about their wrongs, ask for forgiveness, and accept their penance, whatever it may be. After all, is that not what they ask of us?