29 February 2012

27 February 2012

start the week

Interesting Start the Week. The mistake is to think that 'values' get lost outside a religious context. I don't think they do: there is a dizzying amount of discussion and debate about values, about meaning and about philosophy taking place outside of the institutional religious context; possibly more than ever took place within it, and not just online either, but in all manner of face to face contexts. The reason institutional religion can't adapt fast enough to this change is because it is buried under such a weight of tradition, dogma and scripture. You don't adapt to change by being hard, you do it by being fluid.

Maybe then, when they finally accept that we're not going away and won't be shut up, they will come to see all this as an opportunity rather than an assault. Who knows?

24 February 2012

for shame!

Richard Dawkins at the Sheldonian being his usual loud-mouthed, extremist, fanatical, fundamentalist, ignorant, aggressive, hostile, twisted, warped, uncivil, peevish, contemptuous, coarse, hostile, rude, dogmatic, shrill, strident, viscious, rancorous, boorish, savage, irascible, spiteful, amoral, cynical, depraved, crusading, subversive, bigoted, thuggish, intolerant, unprincipled, sadistic, petty, vindictive, crusading, curmudgeonly evolutionary biologist self. For shame!

table manners

Islam has to go through an enlightenment. Until it can view with equanimity the questioning of its ideas, dissent from its doctrines or even burning of its books without feeling the need to kill somebody it doesn't even qualify for a place at the table.

21 February 2012


This is where you go to find out what you believe. Who knew?

It sounds like a machine you'd find down the Quikkiemart.

It appears I'm
1. Secular Humanist (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalist (93%)
3. Nontheist (77%)

That makes 270% of me. Wonder what the rest believes? What are you?

vision in red

Ferrets have stereoscopic vision so their peripheral vision is good but beyond a few ferret lengths they can't see much detail. Close up, they will see in good detail but their sense of smell, hearing and touch are probably more important than sight. They have a reflective layer at the back of each eye (tapetum lucidum) so their low light vision is much better than ours. They can see red so Pan knows whose shoulder he's on here, apart from the smell of course.

20 February 2012

Arab Spring : Nuclear Winter?

As the international tensions over Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions ratchet up, I'm reduced to asking dumb questions like: if they're developing a nuclear weapon, what on earth do they think they are going to do with it? If they're not, WTF has the IAEA and the west and the Israelis have to gain by turning up the heat? Does Iran think that one nuclear bomb will do the trick and they can avoid, somehow, the inevitability of Israel turning Iran into a big radioactive sandpit in reprisal? Why does Iran block moves towards the creation of a Palestinian state if not for the reason that it cannot and will not ever allow the legitimation of a state of Israel? Does Israel feel that the Arab spring will turn into an Islamic summer with hardline theocracies emerging in Egypt and Syria and a return of Arab ambitions to destroy the state of Israel? If Israel decides to strike unilaterally this spring will the US and the UK decide it's in their best interests to join in? Are the American religious right about to hurry it all along because the 'end times' are taking just too damn long for their liking?

I expect the fruit loops on the left will have invented a new disease called 'Iranophobia' before too long. The symptoms will be uncontrollable twitchiness at the sight of nuclear facilities buried hundreds of feet inside mountains surrounded by sophisticated air defence systems. All you would expect to see in a civil nuclear program really.

The rationalists in Iran must find all this political and theological lunacy and military brinkmanship unbearable. I hope their Arab spring doesn't become a nuclear winter. Is it wishful thinking to dream there is any way out of this mess that doesn't involve violence?

see also: On War and Morality

19 February 2012

ancestors tale

I figure that before I get a visit from a journalist from the Mail or the Telegraph I ought to apologise for my ancestors involvement in the massacre of the Amalakites, The Mongol invasion of Europe, the 100yrs war, Pearl Harbour, the 30yrs war, Wounded Knee, The Highland Clearances, The Armenian Genocide, The Boer War, The Destruction of Carthage, Wiping out the Neanderthals, Various Viking raids, The Holocaust, The Taiping Rebellion and Barry Manilow.

16 February 2012

culture warsis

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

House of Lords



Dear Baroness Warsi

Good show!

Mrs Root was just saying how encouraging it was that somebody in the establishment is standing up for good old traditional faith values even if they’re not sure what values they mean or what faith it is they’re standing up for.

Well, let them stew Sayeeda! We jolly well know what we mean, don’t we? And let me assure you, Mrs Root and I have no problem at all with an unelected, muslim Cabinet Minister without portfolio representing a protestant country delivering Islamic gifts to the head of the Catholic church. Don’t let these liberal loud-mouths tell you any different. You Go Girl!

Could you just give His Holiness a bit of a heads up though. We still haven’t had word on the non appearance of Vatican back-up during our Re-Evangelizing of the West tour, and we’re nearly in Clitheroe now! We urgently need remittance of the expense claims submitted by ‘The Ordinary Folk Against The Rising Tide Of Filth In Our Society Situation Society’ - (TOFATRTOFISSS for short). Just give the Vatican Treasury a nudge for us would you? We need the money urgently now in order to continue on with our re-evangalisation mission all the way to Morecambe.

Champion! Keep up the good work! As Mrs Root put it, over a nice bit of breaded haddock last night, “We didn’t get where we are today by not being a judeo-christian culture, did we?” Quite right too!

You and I both know full well, that if these loud mouthed, extremist, fanatical, fundamentalist, heretical, ignorant, aggressive, hostile, twisted, warped, uncivil, peevish, contemptuous, coarse, hostile, rude, dogmatic, shrill, strident, viscious, rancorous, boorish, savage, irascible, spiteful, amoral, cynical, depraved, crusading, subversive, bigoted, thuggish, intolerant, unprincipled, sadistic, petty, vindictive, crusading terrorist secularists, have their way, we’ll all be in an atheist concentration camp before you can say Jack of Kent; and we’ll be made to concentrate and do all sorts of demeaning reasoning. It’s unthinkable isn’t it?

Let’s head them off at the pass!

Oh, by the way Baroness, someone altered your Wicki entry yesterday. Straight off the top it read…” Sayeeda Hussain Warsi, Baroness Warsi (born 28 March 1971) is a British lawyer and politician who has difficulty grasping the concept of Separation of Church and State". Bloody cheek! I hope you can get your hands on whoever was responsible for that and chop one of theirs off!

Yours Insha'Allah

Henry Root
(Suppliers of Judeo-Christian Wet Fish to the World's Jihadis)

PS: I forgot 'curmudgeonly'
PPS: Sorry, I also forgot to enclose a pound. Just ask Jo if you're caught short, he's loaded!

11 February 2012

mental caries

Richard Cary [ex Archbish of Cantebury] has said that Bideford coucillors should continue with prayers before meetings.

By doing so he is actually advocating breaking the law as Mr Justice Ouseley has written - 'there is no specific statutory power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the Council.' And, from a prior case, 'The precepts of any one religion and belief system cannot by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of another. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy which is necessarily autocratic.

The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the State, if its people are to be fee, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.

So it is that the law must firmly safeguard the right to hold and express religious beliefs. Equally firmly, it must eschew any protection for such a belief's content in the name only of its religious credentials. Both principles are necessary conditions for a free and rational regime.'

Accordingly Justice Ouseley has concluded [that]...'the Council has no power to hold prayers as part of a formal Council meeting, or to summon Councillors to a meeting at which such prayers are on the agenda.'

IMO this is the correct conclusion in law and the former Archbishop Carey's comments amount to little more than the usual special pleading and complaint that religion is being marginalised in society. It is not being marginalised: it is simply being put in its rightfull place as one interest group amongst many many other interest groups in society and has no 'as of right' claim to special priviledge or exemption from the law.

As has been noted elsewhere, there is nothing in his ruling that precludes Councils from holding prayer or meditation or whatever meetings prior to the start of official Council business. Attendance at those would be voluntary and would therefore not be discriminatory of any of other faiths or of none.

Difficult to see why Carey doesn't grok this but easy enough to see why he doesn't want to.

10 February 2012

another brick in the wall?

Prayer sessions were a formal part of Council meetings with required attendance. However the High Court today ruled that "The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under s111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue".

Mr Keith Porteous-Wood (Exec Director of the Secualr Society said: "This judgment is an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it. This is particularly important for activities which are part of public life, such as council meetings.

"There is no longer a respectable argument that Britain is a solely Christian nation or even a religious one. An increasing proportion of people are not practising any religion and minority faiths are growing in number and influence. This underlines the need for shared civic spaces to be secular and available to all, believers and non-believers alike, on an equal basis."


Who gets to decide whether something is legitimate or not? I'm thinking here about Syria and about how you hear that the regime of Asad is no longer 'legitimate'. Usually, in this context, we'd be looking at a definition along the lines of being in compliance with the law. However, law, like religion can legitimate anything it chooses and then turn to outsiders and say 'you may not like this but you've no right to interfere'.

Syria's population is 74% Sunni muslim, 16% other muslim sects and 10% Christian. The ruling elite are from the minority Alawi muslim sect (12%) who make up most of the socialist/secularist Ba'athist gov't.

The Syrian muslim brotherhood, who regard Alawi's as borderline heretics, have engaged in armed uprisings before based on the city of Hama. In 1982 the gov't used heavy artillery, levelling parts of the city and causing thousands of deaths, to crush the fundamentalist opposition which has been relatively quiescent until spring 2011.

When Asad's father died in 2000, they had to immediately ammend the constitution to allow his son Bashar to take the presidency: the constitution previously mandated 40yrs as the minimum allowed - Bashar was only 34. The referendum in 2007 confirmed Bashar al-Asad in power for a futher 7-year term.

So, is the west saying the Asad administration is illegitimate because it's basically an authoritarian, totalist regime masquerading as a democracy? Sure people vote there, but the votes are rigged and the choice is limited. Doesn't that remind you of somewhere else?

So the accusation of 'illegitimacy' seems to be based on the observation that the government is, in reality, a stitched-up, totalitarian state and the claim that it is a free multi-party democracy a mere projection, a hologram to present to the outside world which fools nobody.

The command and control of the military and the internal security services is all in Alawi control, but many of the conscripts, (compulsory since late 2011), to the army are Sunnis - so defections from the ranks is likely to grow as they will refuse to kill their Sunni brothers.

But the insurgency seems unlikely to succeed against a vast, well armed regime and ruthless internal security forces, unless they get the active backing of external forces which Russia and China will veto. Russia's interest is presumably to keep a toe-hold in Arabia, maintain it's naval base in the med on Syria's coast, and keep a valuable customer for its arms sales. China's interest is, I suppose, to protect its now billion dollar investments in the country. It's not clear to me that their support for Syria will not badly backfire on them later on so this may be quite a big gamble for both.

Maybe Asad could've headed this off by engaging in some meaningful reforms much much earlier, ones that would have compromised sufficiently to make the insurgents back off yet still leave him in overall control. Who knows?

Where is the Arab League in all this? What happens if the Asad regime falls and a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy is the outcome? What will Israel do then? How far is Turkey going to take its opposition to the Asad regime?

What a mess!

[EDIT] Some further reading: The Long Road To Damascus

07 February 2012

Tally Ho! part 4

So, what motivates the rapacious greed of market traders and bankers and what can mitigate against it? In primitive society, checks on such behaviour were built in. Because such societies were very small, often tribal goupings, where everyone knew everyone else and knew their place within the social norms of the group, it was easier to spot those who were not players, or who's behaviour was antisocial or exploitative, so that, even if their personality inclined them towards sociopathic tendency, they would quite quickly hit the buffers of group toleration and thus they have a fairly powerful incentive to curb, to reign in their cheating hearts or they would have to face the consequences.

In very large complex societies, there is a much bigger niche available for such people to operate in: their activities are much easier to hide away from public scrutiny; there are many more ways of legitimating their activities; there are more opportunities to associate with like minded people for mutual benefit; it is easier to justify their exploitative activities as part of the norm or as social/economic necessity, even inevitability; it is a lot easier to hide away from shame and humiliation in large societies: if you've been caught out fleecing one group of people, well, just move on a bit and fleece the next group. You see that a lot in the shady, (real or vitual), world of scams and get rich quick merchants.

In such societies, one need have little care or concern for the 'marks' of one's scams: because there is no need to have any close personal relationship with them. Often there are several layers of secrecy and insulation between the exploiter and the 'mark' which isolates them from any serious social consequence, or the need to feel shame or remorse, for their activities or face any damage to their position or reputation.

The MP's expenses scandal was a pretty good example of this. It was all fine while it was an in- house secret and while more or less everyone was 'at it'. When the lid was taken off, the disgust and contempt towards politicians was so thick in the air you could cut it with a bulldozer. The truth though, is that the politicians are probably no better or worse than any of us, faced with the same opportunity to work a system we are in to our own advantage. How many have not fiddled expenses, exaggerated an insurance claim, returned goods as faulty that we damaged ourselves, helped ourselves to 'resources' from the workplace, and so forth? No, the problem for the politicians was that they are public servants and can't afford for their reputations to be so fatally damaged without facing the chop. Apart from the Chris Huhne case now in the media, there are dozens of examples of this going back to the year dot.

The bankers, by contrast, don't really have to bother all that much about what we think of them. They are at another level of remove from the general public: more isolated, mostly not public servants, but operatives of private commercial banking enterprise, not responsible for public policy, and for the most part, deeply suspicious of regulation, critical of interference, and very defensive of the culture in which they operate and of the rewards they feel they are entitled to. The economist Will Hutton put it thusly.."the huge bonuses...trashed the need for individuals to worry about integrity." Such people, he continues, "don't need to be concerned about their reputations; they just need one deal or one year at the top and they need never work again."

In 'The Surprising Science of Reputation', John Whitfield writes "..extreme wealth damages society not because it corrupts, but because it isolates. Inequality severs connections, splitting people into groups whose members cannot influence one another. This may be one reason why more unequal societies suffer more crime and mental illness, regardless of their wealth. Making connections, on the other hand, forces people to confront the consequences of their actions."

Exactly so. The bankers are divorced from the consequences of their actions. More, they are even protected from the consequences of their actions. The temptation of the massive rewards and the incentive to take huge risks whilst knowing that if things go belly up the gumment will step in to bail you out, even continue to reward you for failure was too much. What kind of sane society permits this?

Banker Stanislas Yassukovich has said that investment banks came to see scandals as an advertisement, rather than an indictment. "Reputational risk is no longer a meaningful element of corporate policy. It is no longer a question of knowing right from wrong: it is a matter of knowing what you can get away with and what might be the cost of getting caught."

If any good is to come of this mess, social policy must move towards removing the protection bankers enjoy. They, as well as us, should be made to feel (and to suffer), the social consequences of their actions and the harms that unfettered, unregulated, irresponsible capitalism meet on us all.

06 February 2012

Wool I Never! (Tally Ho part 3)

It isn't the first time the excesses of the banking industry have left European economies in a mess. Edward III effectively put the country in hoc to the rapacious Lombardi bankers of northern Italy by signing over all his revenue from wool tax in the 14th century: effectively creating a bank controlled monopoly of the wool trade, which was Edward's main source of income. At the time the custom due on every 26 stone bale of wool was 6 shillings and 4 pence. But because the trade was seasonal in nature, (whereas Edward's wars with the French and the Scottish were not), he would borrow heavily on wool futures to get the finance he needed. The trade was so important to the country that, at one time, there was a law which stated that every man had to wear a woolen cap, and another, that the illegal black market exportation of wool, (a practice that went by the term of 'owling' - presumably because it took place in the dark), was punishable by the chopping off of the left hand.

The family run banks, the Bardi, Peruzzi and Acciaiuolo, became the first European 'superbanks', (too big to fail), but fail they did in 1345. They got too greedy: during the 100yrs war they tried to impose a rate of exhchange on Edward which overvalued their gold Florin by 15%, which cut into Edward's revenue and provoked the English king to say STFU and to default on his debts: he effectively said 'Can't pay, won't pay'. He did a runner. At one point Edward had left his wife and children abroad as collateral for his massive debts, but he managed to get them out and substituted a couple of expendable earls and the crown jewels instead. The Lombardi banks played much the same game all across Europe but when they failed, they left pretty much the entire European monetry system in tatters, apart from the Hanseatic League bankers of Germany, who had had the sense not to let any of these ruinous Italian banks and merchant companies anywhere near their cities.

When Mr Papandreou stood down as Greek PM on 9th Nov last year he said, "Today I want to send a message of optimism to all Greeks. Our road, our path, will be more stabilised. Our country will be in a better situation. We will be stronger."

It isn't that easy. The markets know that the economic cracks in the Greek economy were papered over to allow it entry to the EU. They also know that it is not a state that has an economy which can generate the income needed to repay the debt, and even the selling off of capital assets and austerity savings won't be enough. As Paul Mason said "the problem is that.....if you choose to bankrupt states instead of banks, (which we have done), and you then impose austerity measures as the cure for bankruptcy...Greece is a country which cannot recover through austerity...it cannot grow faster than its debt is growing?"

Greece is no stranger to default. It last did it in 1932 when it was broke and took the begging bowl around the capitals of Europe and was refused any money. Is there not always a point when one realises that throwing good money after bad is a mugs game?

The difference is that Edward III ran a feudal economy. He held the power and the authority to unilaterally walk away from his debt, and he could (and did), recover his fortunes in further warring escapades across Europe. Today, the whole of capitalism is based on a global sovereign debt market of ~$20 trillion and its annual interest payments of 100's of billions of dollars!

When you start considering the effects of defaults from countries like Spain, Italy, Portugal, it's no wonder there's a lot of very worried capitalists fiddling with their worry beads. Even in Edward's time the defaults were contagious, but in todays world of complex global financial markets where no one really understands the degree of financial exposure faced (because everyone has borrowed from everyone else and loaned to everyone), and it's all wrapped up in hopelessly and deliberately opaqe complex financial instruments, who knows where it all goes?

6th May 1339 - REVOCATION - On account of the Kings Necessity, of all assignments of money or other things made by him or his Ministers, before or after his passage to parts beyond the seas, other than those for defence of castles and towns in Scotland, and to the merchants of the societies of the Bardi and the Perruzi and of all respites of his debts made since his last crossing over - AN ORDER - That until his return, no fees be paid to any Justices, Barons of the Exchequer, Clerks Promoted, or Other Ministers who have other means of support. - Witness - The King

In Edward's time, some of the bankers who had contributed to all of this chaos ended up in the notorious Fleet debtors prison in Farringdon Street London. These days they seem to get awarded million pound share options or put out to grass with an obscenely large pension. Odd, that. I wonder if her maj could be persuaded to issue a declaration and bung a few of these modern day Bardi's and Peruzzi bankers in clink rather than just take a an honour away here or a bonus there?