Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Agnosticism and Me

I've been thinking about writing this blog for a while.

I used to describe myself as an optimistic atheist, because, while I found it impossible to believe in a higher being, I really hoped that I was wrong - as least as far as the fact that I didn't much fancy the idea of ceasing to exist when I die. I hoped, simply, that I would live on in some form. I imagine most people do, really.

However, after some thought, I decided to change that description to 'agnostic', because I felt it was a better description of my thoughts and feelings on the subject.

But since then I have found something interesting - everybody else seems to have a somewhat low opinion of the idea of being agnostic. A Christian friend of mine once described it to another Christian - who didn't know what it meant - as meaning "They don't know what they believe." Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, basically calls agnostics fence-sitters and argues they should follow the logic to decide that it is at least most likely that atheists are correct.

Both of these annoy me. So I'm going to address them.

First, however, I'm going to say that I have no beef with anyone's religious beliefs and everyone is very much welcome to believe whatever they choose. In fact - that's one of my points - I don't think anyone can "choose" to believe anything. Either you are convinced of something, or you are not. You believe it or you don't. And no religion has ever been able to convince me that they are the one, in all of history, to have got it right. That's it.

Why not? Well, even if I found one of the various books attractive, what does it have to argue that it is more accurate than the other ones? Why the Bible and not the Koran? Why the Old Testament but not the New One? I'm just not convinced. And as for them being attractive, women seem to get a raw deal in the main religions I know about, and that makes them extremely unattractive to me, as someone who firmly believes in equality for everyone - including women and homosexuals.

But that doesn't mean that I don't know what I believe. I know exactly what I believe. I believe that it is impossible to know one way or another what happens after we die and whether or not there is a god or gods until then. And I can live with that. I accept the unknowable and embrace it. Life's mystery. I'm happy to live my life and take the consequences, if there are any, at the end. And if all there is is oblivion - well then I won't be around to be disappointed about it, will I?

On the other hand, Richard Dawkins - whose book I stopped reading halfway through because I found a number of his argument specious and flawed - says I'm a fence-sitter. I should accept that science suggests there is no need for a creator to explain the universe. Well...

You may or may not know that the Big Bang theory - science's biggest theory for the creation of the universe - is fundamentally flawed. I didn't know this until recently myself. Firstly, the universe is too ordered for a normal explosion, which should have sent things flying off in different directions at different speeds. So there is an odd theory of 'inflation' to account for this, whereby "something" caused everything to expand up to a certain point in a perfect sphere - like a balloon - before all exploding and shooting off at exactly the same speed.


Then there's dark matter. For physics as we understand them to work, space doesn't make sense. So science has invented dark matter - which nobody has yet been able to find any way to measure or even confirm it exists - but it must do or else the universe would all collapse.

And then there are the other questions - where did the dust and gas come from in the first place? What was there before that? Nothing? What did that look like? How and why did something come into existence from nothing?

None of these questions have answers, but Dawkins' argument that of course science is still learning is perfectly valid. Yes, one day we may understand all of this. But we don't. Not currently. So why is the "most logical" conclusion that there is no god? He seems to want to assume his own hypothesis on the basis that he thinks science will eventually prove it. Well, the logical conclusion is actually that we don't have enough information to make a decision one way or another. And even if we did understand how it all happened, that doesn't explain why, does it? Does an understandable, traceable explanation of the way the universe developed preclude the idea of a guiding hand behind it all? I don't think so.

So there it is. I am agnostic because I believe, after a lot of thought, that it is the only logical, intelligent solution to the wonders of existence and creation. Simply put, we don't have enough information.

If I'm still around after I die, I'll pop back and let you know who was right.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why the US should build a mosque at Ground Zero

If you read the title of this blog post and immediately thought "Absolutely not. Over my dead body." then please read on, because you may be exactly the kind of person I want to speak to.

I recently had a debate with a family member about this very topic. Just after Bin Laden was killed, actually. His response was along the lines of: "That's easy for you to say - how would you feel if it was your family they had killed?" Well, that's my point, really: Who are "they?"

Well, "they" were Muslim Extremists. Not Muslims - Muslim Extremists. These are two utterly different things and one of the biggest obstacles to defeating Extremism is the failure by Western Judeo/Christian countries to be able to tell the difference between the two.

Hamas called the death of Bin Laden another casualty of the "War on Islam". In reality, there is no War on Islam. There has been a "War on Terror" (sic). (Let's not get into a debate about the folly of waging war on an emotion, that's another blog post.)

One of the biggest and, I believe, very valid criticisms of the invasions of Afghanistan and, much more so, Iraq, is that they are fueling the recruitment of more terrorists by giving extremists something to point to and say: "See? They hate Islam. They are at War with Islam." And they have.

This is what I'd like to ask: "What more effective way could there be for America to show that they are NOT at war with Islam than to build an Islamic holy building on the site of the worst terrorist atrocity on American soil?"

Seriously. Give me a more symbolic gesture to clearly say: "We do not hate Islam. We do not blame Islam."


Build a mosque at Ground Zero and the terrorist recruiters claiming the US is at war with Islam will have a much harder time. It would be a huge symbolic getsure and a huge victory over terrorist recruitment. It would be a huge step towards peace.

However, there are several problems which will prevent it from happening. First, too many people really do think Muslims are collectively responsible for 9/11. For example:

"Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington," former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich said. "We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There is no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."

A major American political figure who can't distinguish between followers of a peacful religion and extremist terrorists. (This is a man considering running for President, by the way.) Sadly, his attitude is not atypical.

For the record, Newt, the Nazis DID kill millions of Jews and the Japanse army, under orders from their government, DID kill hundreds at Pearl Harbor. Muslim Extremists killed thousands at 9/11. Not Muslims.

Equating Muslim Extrmists with Muslims is the equivalent of equating the Ku Klux Klan with all Christians. Are you happy with that, Newt? I suspect not.

First, America needs to understand that Islam is not the enemy, just as much as Muslims need to know that America is not at war with Islam. And those two things can only happen if there is a clear lead taken on exactly that front.

Again, though, what better way than to build a mosque at Ground Zero and use the discussion it will inevitably inspire to clearly make those points?

Sadly, it won't happen - certainly not soon. Obama can't do it - not before re-election anway. There are already too many Americans who suspect him of being a Muslim and, sadly, who consider that a problem with him being their President. If he hinted at doing this, he'd drop like a stone in the polls.

The real "War on Terror" should be a matter of waging peace wherever possible.

If we really want to conquer "Terror", first we have to conquer ignorance.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What do you believe in?

I've been having a few debates recently regarding the Alternative Vote referendum.

If that first sentence almost put you off reading any more, let me just quickly plead with you to give me a minute to be more interesting.


What do you believe in? What's important to you? What do you want to be important to your government?

These are the questions you should be asked at every election. It should be a simple process: Which party most closely represents the values you hold dear? Then you vote for them.

But currently, there's a good chance you don't. Maybe you vote for one of the two parties you believe, or have been told, can win in your constituency, because you would rather have them than the other lot. Or maybe you don't vote at all, because voting seems to make no difference. And maybe you're tired of all the negative, mud-slinging campaigning and utterly disillusioned with politics.

If any of these things is true for you, or even if you do vote for the party you actually believe in but feel it's a futile effort, then you are exactly the kind of person who should be beating a path to vote for AV next month. Because AV gives you a real voice. It means you don't have to waver about who you SHOULD vote for, you can vote for the party you really, truly support, and then use your alternative vote rankings to show who you would support if you can't have your first choice.

It's a very simple system that the No campaign want to make sound very complicated. You just rank the candidates in order of preference, until you no longer have one. 1 to 5 or 1 to 10, even. Anybody can do that. Anybody can understand that. It's really, really that simple.

Don't be put off by the complicated explanations you'll see of how the votes are counted. As Vince Cable pointed out, it's the same system they use on the X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and all these other reality shows. The act (candidate) with the lowest votes is eliminated, and then everybody gets to vote again. Except instead of holding another vote, they simply refer to your ballot and see who you prefer out of who is left. So you only have to vote once, but your vote will be counted for every round, as long as you have ranked one of the remaining candidates. This continues until there is one winner. In America, they call the system "Instant Runoff".

It's that simple.

Don't be put off by the lies you'll hear, either. The No campaign want you to believe that minority party votes will have more power. It's a lie. In each round, every vote counts once. Every vote.

What would this system mean, practically? How will it affect you?

Again, simple.

Your vote will never be wasted again and you never have to vote out of fear for who might win.

Because the ranking system allows you to express preferences out of all of the candidates, you can vote for your first choice first, even if you don't believe they can win. After that, if there's a candidate you don't want to win, you can rank as many other candidates as you like, showing your preference for those. As a cartoon I saw recently said, it's like asking for something from the shops, but letting your friend know what else you'd like, just in case they don't have what you really wanted. We do it all the time in life. Everybody does. It's so easy.

You never have to change your vote out of fear again.

And the other beauty of the system is this: The bigger parties in any constituency are going to have to reach out to voters from smaller parties if they want their second or third preference votes. Do you care passionately about Green issues? Vote Green first - then see who else's Green agenda is the best and rank them second. Want to see the UK out of the EU? Vote UKIP first, then rank the other parties on their EU policy. Always wanted to vote Lib Dem, but vote Labour to prevent a Tory victory? Never again. Vote Lib Dem and rank Labour second - or third!

Not only that, but the rise in first preference votes for smaller parties, which should follow in a change to AV, will give the bigger parties a more true picture of the amount of support there really is for smaller parties across the country, meaning they'll know just how important certain issues are to people like you.

The Alternative Vote system is about empowering EVERY voter to have a say in who their local MP is and, by extension, who runs the country. The winner of each election will be the candidate with the most broad support in their constituency.

You may not care about AV right now, but you should. Because whatever you DO care about, AV is going to make it easier to support it. It's going to give you a much more powerful voice in politics and in government.

It will NOT, as has been said, be more likely to install far right parties, like the BNP, in government. Quite the opposite. For that to happen, over 50% of voters in any constituency would have to rank them. They know themselves that's never going to happen. That's why the BNP are in the NO camp.

AV is about making your vote yours. It's about letting YOU vote for what YOU are passionate about.

Please go out and vote for the Alternative Vote system next month.

Let's demand that our politicians ask us, "What do you believe in?" not "What are you afraid of?"

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'm Feeling Good

I received an email today that made me feel pretty damn good about myself. I didn't do much, I just signed an online petition about something that I found atrocious a few months ago.

Look what we accomplished:

"Dear Justin,

A small group of lesbian activists from the poverty-stricken townships of Cape Town walked into South African parliament on Monday and convinced their government to finally start fighting the country’s decades-old scourge of "corrective rape" -- where men rape lesbian women to "turn" them straight. You made that moment possible.

Late last year, these activists called on the world to help them pressure their leaders to take action on corrective rape. We answered their call, and more than 170,000 Change.org members from 163 countries joined with them, making this the largest campaign of all time on Change.org.

Three and a half months later, they succeeded. Teaming up with 23 major South African organizations, they got some of the most powerful officials in the country to agree to bring together various government arms and civil society groups to develop and implement a national action plan to combat corrective rape.

The ministry officials asked for details of specific cases in need of immediate attention, committed to a series of meetings beginning in six weeks, and promised to present concrete proposals to prevent corrective rape by the next meeting.

It’s an astounding victory, far beyond what we ever could have imagined when we set out late last year. Now these activists need your help holding the government accountable for its commitments.

If there was any question about the effect you had, the chief of staff himself confirmed it: At one point in the session he explicitly said, in a pleading voice, "Please don't petition us again."

But that’s exactly what we need to do. The government is making a series of urgent decisions on sexual violence legislation in the next few weeks, and South African activists need your help in pressuring them to follow up their words with tangible action:


Your work led to overwhelming international press coverage of the campaign, taking corrective rape from an unspoken epidemic to a prominent international issue. In the last two weeks alone, the campaign against corrective rape has been covered by Time Magazine, the Washington Post, USA Today, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, Seattle Times, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, MSNBC, Dan Rather, Forbes, Yahoo! News, Salon, and dozens of global outlets from Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, Canada, Spain, and even a Finnish tabloid.

An elated Luleki Sizwe Founder Ndumie Funda (pictured to the right, alongside the chief of staff from the Ministry of Justice) called it "an incredible achievement…I humble myself to the 170,000 people from all over the world who made this possible. It was about time this happened."

There is still much to be done, but every Change.org member should be proud about what has been accomplished here. In just 100 days, a tiny group of township activists have managed to mobilize more than 170,000 people from 163 countries and engaged the highest levels of government to address their demands. That’s incredible.

Thanks for lending your voice.

- Weldon and the Change.org team"

I may have been one of 170,000 people, but because 169,999 other people all did the same as me, we helped make a genuine change and improve the lives of people we've never met.

I love the internet.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Not-Very-Champion League

I love football. I grew up with it.

But I hate the Champions League.

This is not just the spiteful sour grapes of the outsider, standing out in the cold, with my nose wistfully pressed up against the window, watching the bloated, drunken, over-fed hogs self-congratulatorily rolling around in the swill. Though, that's certainly part of it, but not for quite the reason you might expect.

However, let's begin at the beginning. The Champions League. A league of champions, yes? And yet, how many of the teams that are in the tournament are actually champions of anything? At today's date, the international distribution for Champions League qualification for the 2012/13 season is as follows: England, Spain & Germany - 4 teams; Italy, France & Portugal - 3 teams; Russia, Ukraine, Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, Denmark, Belgium, Romania & Scotland - 2 teams; 37 other countries - 1 team.

By my calculations, that gives us a total of 76 teams. Of those, 52 will be champions of their national league. That means that 24 of the competing teams are champions of, well, nothing at all. Almost a third of the teams competing.

More than that, the teams who get more representatives are, by definition, seeded more highly. This means that many of the teams that were actually champions of their league are culled in the early stages of the competition. So by the time the competition reaches the group stages, the proportion of actual champions is inevitably smaller again.

So there you go. Reason number one that I hate the Champions League: it's a total misnomer. In 1999, when Man Utd beat Bayern Munich in an incredible, injury time turnaround, neither team was the reigning champion of their national league. They were both runners-up.

It makes a mockery of the competition. It's no longer about them being champions, as it always was under the European Cup. The prestige is gone. It's not about being the best of the best anymore. It's about being the best of the richest.

Money. That's what it comes down to. The Champions League is a format designed to help the rich clubs get richer and to keep it as exclusive a club as possible. It is no mistake that most of the clubs who repeatedly appear in the latter stages of the competition are those who were qualifying for it when the European Cup was sacrificed at the altar of filthy lucre. Because they got the benefit of the extra cash in those early seasons, which allowed them to outspend the rest and keep themselves at the top of their leagues. The exceptions are those, like Chelsea, who have had a financial benefactor come in and throw money at them.



Football used to be about sport. It used to be about teams punching above their weight and winning a trophy unexpectedly. My own team, Aberdeen, did this with the Cup Winners Cup in 1983. But the big clubs, and most importantly, the sponsors, didn't want that happening. They want the biggest teams playing each other as often as possible, so as to generate the biggest TV audiences possible. So European competition has been redesigned to benefit the biggest teams. How else can anyone explain the ludicrous situation where the third team in the group stages of the CL gets to drop into the "Europa League". That's nothing but a golden parachute, designed to help those teams who finish third to still make some more money and, thus, continue to outspend their competition.

Last night, Arsenal were on the wrong side of a terrible refereeing decision against Barcelona. It didn't necessarily cost them the game, but it certainly raised questions of whether the "authorities" have teams they prefer to get through to the latter stages to guarantee the biggest crowds and therefore to keep the advertisers happy.

There is no question that they do. The whole of European competition has been designed to make it as difficult as possible for an unfashionable team to succeed.

It's not about sport anymore. It's about revenue.

That's why I hate the Champions League.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Media v Reality

I am agnostic. I mention this, only because I want what I'm about to say to be viewed in the context of that knowledge, as I feel it's important.

Amongst the turmoil and uprising in Egypt, I have come across two stories that make an utter mockery of the supposed religious frictions that I regularly read about, which are the apparent basis for the War on Terror.

Firstly, there was this wonderful story of Egyptian Muslims choosing to risk their own lives to help protect the lives of Coptic Christians threatened by Extremist Muslims. It clearly shows how the difference between Islamist Extremists and Muslims is akin to the difference between the KKK and regular Christians.

Then, there was this image, showing some of the said Coptic Christians protecting praying Muslims during the Egyptian protests, which almost made me cry with happiness and pride in humanity. It also made a mockery of these religious differences, showing that ordinary people respect each other's views, beliefs and rights. It was especially poignant, when put in the context of a video showing peaceful Egyptian protesters being run over by a van in the street.

These things reinforce my belief in humanity. So why haven't I seen and read about these things all over the news? Why are the media obsessed with showing us the negative side of everything? I really feel that they have a resonsibilty to show some more positive stories like this, because to someone relying on mainstream media alone to know what's happening in the world, it is perfectly reasonable to assume the four horsemen will be appearing over the horizon at any moment. And since our own western governments clearly rely on us believeing the end is nigh at any moment to let them away with pushing through whatever legislation suits them (and their backers), it is even more essential that everyone sees that humanity still exists all over the world. That the things that separate us are infinitessimally smaller than the things which bring us together.

In short, I believe that news media have a responsibility to remind us that, despite the disasters, the deaths and the tragedies, there is always hope in the world and there is always good in humanity.

Because they don't, I am eternally grateful for social media like Twitter and Facebook, because it lets real people communicate with each other and show the world what's really happening.

The internet is changing the world, more and more every day. And for the better. Media will either have to adapt to keep up or die, as people seek out more balanced ways to know what is really happening in the world.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tease Me, Tease Me

I'm reading a book. Which, in and of itself, is not worth blogging about. It has over 600 pages and the usual teaser blurb on the back cover, telling me some of the interesting things that are going to happen in it, so as to convince me to buy it. I was going to buy it anyway, because I had picked up a later book by the same author and liked it, so had decided to go and seek out his earlier books, featuring the same character. I still read the blurb, though, just to see what it was going to be about.

Now, I haven't told you what the book is or who the author is, and for good reason. Because if I had, I'd be about to spoil it for you, in the same way that that stupid blurb spoiled it for me. One of the things it told me was that the protagonist's "former partner" turned up murdered, and asked "Why she was trying to contact him when she was killed."

When I began reading,I wondered when they were going to mention this former partner. Then, not far into the book, he was transferred and his "current" partner from the beginning of the book became his former partner. A character who was a significant presence in the story. And then I realised she was going to be the one murdered. Already, I was annoyed. I didn't want to know she was going to die.

But then, she didn't. Well, not for ages, anyway. So, when she discovered something interesting and was trying, unsuccessfully, to get hold of our hero, I realised she was about to be murdered. Again, annoying. Total loss of any suspense which I imagine the author, when he was writing this twist, felt pretty good about. None. Dead. I knew she wouldn't get hold of him and I knew she was going to be killed.

Which, of course, she was. On page 334. Over halfway through the book! Now, I'm all for giving me details of what the setup of a story is, but don't tell me things that are going to happen well into the story. Let me read it!

This doesn't actually win the "too much information" award, though, of books I have read lately. One, which I actually enjoyed very much and am looking forward to the sequel, due out this Spring, told me something major about a character which was revealed as early as ... the final chapter of the book. And it wasn't in the blurb, it was a one line teaser on the front cover!

My point is this. As an aspiring author, I think a lot about story structure, character etc., not only when I'm reading, but also when I'm watching TV and film. I tend to see things coming. I read story cues very well - such that I annoy people I watch things with by telling them what's going to happen. (Well, less so than I used to, since my wife keeps telling me to stop it. :) )

What I love, therefore, is story twists that I don't predict. I absolutely love it when I don't see something coming, or when I don't entirely understand what's happening. I loved LOST, for exactly that reason.

So, I particularly hate it when I know more about a story than I should. When I absolutely know something that is going to happen. It ruins it!

It's long been said that, often, the trailers for films contain all the best bits, which inevitably makes the film a disappointment. And this, I think is a symptom of one thing: Marketing.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for marketing. I want, when I finish my book and, all being well, have it published, to sell lots of books and the more marketing I can get for it, the better. However, there is a line to be struck between teasing a reader with enough information to get them interested and throwing so much of the story at them that their ultimate enjoyment of the book is negatively affected.

Even when people ask me about my own book, I only tell them the set up that occurs in the beginning of the book. My usual answer is: "It's an urban fantasy / comedy about a hermit who discovers his living room carpet is the deciding factor in a bet between God and Satan. Then the carpet is stolen and he has to get it back to save his own life."

Most people look at me very strangely at this point. Which is fine. I didn't set out to write the kind of book that people would respond to with, "Oh, like (Insert name of famous book / film here)." But the point is, there is much more I COULD tell them, to interest them, but I don't want to. It would spoil the story.

A friend, who recently read what I've written to date (just over 75,000 words) gave me a great compliment. She said that the twists and turns made it difficult to be sure who were the goodies and who were the baddies. I was delighted with that. It's exactly what I wanted.

Good stories have to have a bit of mystery. You have to not know what's going to happen, to make you want to keep reading in order to find out. The same applies to films. And I'm not sure that Marketing people understand this.

Tease me, by all means. Make me interested. But don't give me everything on a plate before I've even started on the journey.

I don't want to know.