Friday, April 30, 2010

Lying Pixels

I think it fair to say that  I wouldn't voluntarily jobswap with someone who earns their daily bread by cleaning sewers. If, however, there is the remotest chance of a photographer lurking behind his silly piece of twenty thousand dollar fish-eyed box, which he probably had to sell his mother to pay for, I'd seriously consider it. If he makes me stand there, usually on the back row, waiting for the bloody photocopying lady, who is never on time for anything, to show up for the school photo and has only been invited because she's a personal favourite of the Boss's, I would  happily trade places with someone who collects batshit for a living. 
Like most well-adjusted people, I dislike having my photograph taken. I still ask myself in my more lucid moments why people collect fifteen hundred pictures of themselves and upload them all on to their Facebook page? Worse still, there are another five thousand on a hard drive somewhere.
I won't  smile to order, and if I try, I either look menacing, deranged or frightened. Here's a little secret. The camera does tell lies. Great big, whopping ones. I know what I look like; I look at myself in the mirror every morning. A camera makes me look like me but with special needs. My passport photograph is of the Yorkshire Ripper with a red nose. And it’s why, in virtually all group photographs, I look like the village idiot, inconvenient at weddings.
Here's a few little tips. If you are constrained by force majeure to be part of a group photograph, there are a number of things you can do by way of passive-aggressive sabotage. If you’re on the edge in a group picture, you'll tend to lean in. Don’t. Leaning in makes you look desperate to be part of a group that obviously hates you. Most cameras for group work will have slightly wide-angled lenses which have the effect of making your already slightly pointed head look even more so, so you look like an alien. Here’s the strategy. When situated on the edge of a group, make a point of leaning out, ignoring the bleats from the man at the front to 'huddle up a bit'. And don't forget to bare your teeth and go slightly cross-eyed. It screws the shot for everyone else, which ticks off the photographer, which serves him right for having bad teeth and for being a photographer.
This little tantrum originated from the fact that I have had to have new passport photographs taken, which is unsettling.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How to Cheat in Exams

As another school year draws to its grinding conclusion, students around the world are preparing to face Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to Promethean hubris all the rest of the year - the end of year exams. The implacable executrix of justice - and sacrificial goddess of all educators - gets her own back on our behalf. So, here are a few simple tips on how to circumvent her mendacity with minimal effort. I make no reference to any people groups in particular, but, you all know who you are....
  • If asked to write a critique about a poem, write the title of the poem followed by the words "is about man's relationship with nature." This will appeal to the marker who's probably a tree-hugging anorak.
  • If you're going to permanently tattoo answers on your forearm, make sure a) they are correct – have a grown-up check them first for you - b) you tattoo them the right way round – important for physics – and make sure it's for an exam in a subject you really love.
  • Have everyone take out their textbooks and cheat all at once, sometimes referred to as the 'Oh, Captain, my Captain' principle. They can't fail everybody. Or, can they?
  • Offer the examiner money. It sometimes works, really it does, if the price is right. Mathematicians are expensive. Be advised.
  • When passing notes that have answers written on them, be sure not to label the note "Test Answers”, 'cause it's a bummer if you get caught.
  • Some schools equip classrooms with hidden cameras to catch cheaters, or entrepreneurs, whichever you prefer. A simple low-inductance capacitor bank appropriately modulated with a three-way phase adapter discharged into a single-loop antenna can send out an electromagnetic pulse capable of disabling all cameras within a three-block radius. This will give you a three point five minute window at the most. Use it well. Regrettably, however, your BlackBerry upon which you had been relying for external text updates, will also fail to function. Don't get caught plugging it in, will you...
  • It is notoriously difficult to cheat on most applied mathematics tests, since the examiner actually expects you to apply what you have learned. It's probably best to avoid taking these classes altogether.
  • No matter how small, crib notes can be conspicuous, especially when used as missiles. Commit them to memory for an innovative, unencumbered cheating method. Carpe diem.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Visiting Sodom

I wonder if we can construct a general theory which pulls together institutional stupidity, hierarchy and satire. I think the rich tradition of Juvenal, whose satire was more savage than most, was at the back of the minds of the hamstrung young intellects at the FO  when they came up with a beautifully spoofed piece which was spectacularly leaked, prompting a grovelling apology from their lords and masters. The substance of the piece involved suggesting that as part of his pastoral responsibilities, HH could be invited to open an abortion clinic and bless a gay marriage during September's visit to the UK. Excellent!  Important people make the joke funny – if Father Brendan  from the Church of the Assumption had been paying a pastoral visit, nobody would have cared much if his route took him through the red light district or whether he handed out a few condoms to a couple of local tarts or not. The aura of, well, holiness, surrounding HH meant that nobody had the stones to ring him up and ask if it was OK to have a bit of fun at his expense, to which he might have replied ‘Well, OK, lads, but do try to keep it more or less decent, won’t you?’, thus denuding him of the magisterial mystery so necessary for the maintenance of his office. The junior civil servant responsible for distributing the leaked document has been reassigned to Francis Campbell's office, the UK’s ambassador to the Vatican, where he will be in daily contact with those his actions most offended. "We couldn't think of a more sadistic punishment for him”, an FO spokesman said. Tee hee.
The image is of the Foreign Secretary, who, like the prophet Ezra, is clearly 'appalled'. Quite right. Oh, yes. None of the above is true.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Faith, Aliens and Herbal Remedies

I was speaking to someone the other day about homeopathy. What surprised me was not this person's robust defence of the practice,  - in fact they made no attempt to do so - it was my own knee-jerk reaction to it. I trotted out the usual scientific line about the quantities being insufficient for any appropriately beneficial metabolism and it was only after a little research that it became clear that whether or not homeopathy has any benefit, my reaction to one of its proponents was less than adequate. It further became clear to me that I had no idea what I was talking about. I had fallen for a stereotype, or more properly an archetype which did not necessarily have any factual basis. I then began to wonder how many other things I simply 'reacted' to or dismissed without any clarity of thought. I know someone well, a reasonable, well-educated individual, who believes in a literal Adam and Eve. I don't, but my reaction to their belief was an urge to dismantle it in the light of what I might suppose to be superior rational thinking, when the postulate requires nothing of the kind, since concepts like 'belief' in the sense of 'faith' often (I won't say 'never') cross over the tramline of  empirical or provable science. Stephen Hawking, in the light of massive advances in theoretical physics has suggested the hitherto unprovable proposition that since it is likely that there are billions of planets on which 'life' might evolve, the probability of there not being sentience - in the same way as we might comprehend it - is remote somewhere in the Universe. Were we able to and if we were to decide to 'make friends' with it or them, as SETI seems bent on achieving,we may find ourselves the subject of unhealthy interest from civilisations more advanced and possibly considerably more rapacious and malevolent than our own, with life forms possibly having brains shaped like pretzels, according to Murray Gell-Mann. A small quantity of malevolence might be able, it seems, to poison a planet. Much the same as reversed homeopathy, I suppose...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

England and Saint George

Brits - or more properly the English here stoutly and - it seems - somewhat forlornly celebrate St George's Day, now yesterday, which is ironic, rather like ageing groupies follow a long-forgotten pop idol. There probably was a historical figure called George, who was a prominent Christian in the reign of the pagan Roman Emperor, Diocletian, and was killed in 303. One version of his life records that he was an officer who refused to carry out the Emperor's order that all soldiers must make sacrifices to pagan gods, for which he was hideously tortured to death. A very different story is told in Gibbon's “Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire”. He alleged that George was "an odious priest", a Cappadocian wiesguy who was chased out of Palestine for selling dodgy bacon to the army. He fled to Egypt, adopted a new and growing brand of Christianity called Arianism. With this as leverage, he got himself appointed Archbishop of Alexandria in place of the genuinely saintly Athanasius the Great, whose authorship of the Creed is now widely disputed, whereupon he instigated a reign of such "cruelty and avarice" that he was lynched by the outraged citizens. Ah. No dragon-slaying myth here, then...
Shakespeare was, a fan, of course. Before Harfleur, where it took eight thousand English, armed to the teeth with bows and arrows nearly a month to overcome 400 determined Frenchmen in late summer 1415. Henry V's stirring speech roused English blood - you know, the one beginning "Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more..." or "Come on and get slaughtered for the Motherland, lads..”  I recall learning it at school. This is how it ends...
"And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!"

Henry V Act 3 Scene 1

Makes you proud to be English. Yeah, right. I wonder if it would work at the Six Nations in Stade de France? Probably not. The French haven't forgotten Agincourt, either.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I've always been fascinated by hands. A friend particularly likes the work of Lucian Freud - perhaps a modern British equivalent of the towering Renaissance masters, who also seems interested in them. His hands are always a little larger than life, crafted as workpieces - hands that do things. These hands are obviously female, from "Girl with a White Dog".
I think the mark of a master is that so much can be read into a small area of canvas.
These are maternal hands, a little careworn, the hands of a nurturer, hands that have held precious things.

My hands have been described as 'cricketer's hands', functional, not particularly beautiful, square, even safe. Like Escher's perhaps.

Thinking in Circles

"Here is the Earth", ran the T shirt slogan. "Don't spend it all at once". I've never been, or felt the need to become, a bearded, tree-hugging anorak so the passage of Earth Day today, actually celebrated in almost two hundred countries worldwide, usually fails to ripple my profligate, wasteful conscience. My father didn't recycle. He burned stuff  on a vast pyre at the bottom of the garden, creating a cloud of pollutants large enough to swamp Shropshire, returning hours later, satisfyingly begrimed, with a healthy odour of hard outdoor work about him. The closest he came to recycling was the maintenance of a compost heap. It has been said - with good reason - that the less educated don't recycle, either because they can't be bothered to put the soda can in the pretty green bin rather than the grubby brown one, or whatever, or they forget which is which because vandals have torn off the labels, or perhaps the different coloured bins cost money which they don't have. Vapid, shallow and irreflective? Possibly. Lacking in public spirit? Probably. It doesn't often cross people's minds that entropy always increases and there's a thermodynamic inevitability about recycled material that it's going to cost more than you think it does to retrieve the original material in usable form.  Electricity, generated from oil, gas or nuclear material is needed to manage and drive recycling processes and joules are expensive.
There's another agenda. Recycling of cross-species animal feeds accumulates what is rather grandly called 'biomagnifying toxins' in the food chain, as well as pathogens causing bizarre diseases like CJD and possibly the emergence of other toxic or infective organisms resistant to recycling chemistry.
As a teacher I am supposed to care about recycling. I wondered therefore, neglecting for a moment the small forest I annually sacrifice in print and photocopy, mostly filled with rubbish which students scrawl on, are the tools of my trade 'green'? Is it better to write with white chalk on a blackboard or to use dry-erase markers on a whiteboard, I wonder? A possible and quite persuasive argument can be found on this site. Interested persons can squander a few more joules by clicking on it.
In this country, recycling means dropping something on the floor for some poverty-stricken immigrant to sweep it up after you and put it in a bin, where squadrons more of his countrymen take it away and process it. Old Mr Cynical, or what....

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fruitcake Corner

According to the Associated Press via the Jerusalem Post, a senior Iranian cleric has asserted that women who wear immodest clothing and 'behave promiscuously' are to blame for earthquakes. Table-dancers in Teheran? Surely not...
No jest, people. Unlike previous posts, this one isn't a spoof. It was in the Daily Telegraph as well, so it has to be true.

Iran, as we know, is earthquake - prone. The cleric's unusual explanation for why the earth shakes follows a prediction by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  (aka President Fruitcake) that a quake is 'certain to hit Teheran' at some unspecified time and that up to five million of its inhabitants - about 40% - should relocate. Where to? The Negev, perhaps?
"Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity (they should be so lucky)  and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes," Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted by media sources in Iran.
Sedighi is Teheran's acting Friday prayer leader. It is rumoured that he shows a lot of hair and has dandruff. The guy has a lot of frown lines - he needs to smile more.
I wonder what the CFPL (chief Friday prayer leader) had to say...Probably something about the decadent West reaping the whirlwind for its shameless moral turpitude by having all its flights cancelled.
Women in Iran are required by law to cover from head to toe, but many, especially the young, ignore some of the stricter codes and wear tight coats and scarves pulled back that show much of the hair. Public stonings take place on Fridays. Tickets only, please. Ladies - usual dress code applies. The caption reads..'yeah, whatever'.

"What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble?" Sedighi asked, ironically, during a prayer sermon on Friday. "There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes." Ah. Of course. Why didn't I think of that...

Today is Independence Day in Israel or Yom Haatzmaut. L'chaim, Yerushalayim! I have said the evening shema for you tonight.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tricky Verses

I was in conversation about belief with someone the other day. Most people hold to belief systems that they absorbed as children, whether or not they recognise the fact. The usual issues came up - 'why does God allow injustice/disease/war/famine' - and so on. Then the conversation switched to scriptural authority when even cursory readings proclaim that as translated there are holes in reasoning, morality and narrative. I didn't really think that this was the time or place to discuss the Marcan codicil or the existence of Q, but I was left with a few unresolved thoughts.
Some time ago, a group of people were once asked for their Top Ten Worst Scriptures. Here they are, as voted for by panels of experts - the man in the pew, in other words.
Paul cantered home in first place with his rules for church life in first-century Ephesus, beating genocide, infanticide, executions, dismemberment, human sacrifice (and donkeys) to get there. All the verses that placed from fifth to second place resorted to violence to do so. Number 1 is I suppose, predictable, since voters were Western liberal and, presumably believers in some form of democracy. Hold your breath, ladies...
"I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." (1 Timothy 2:12) It's a verse that's particularly difficult to discuss, obviously, if it's opened as a topic for discussion in Church, since all the women have to contribute in either semaphore or sign language. But, see number 6. 
In second place, Samuel give Saul a tutorial in ethnic cleansing: "This is what the Lord Almighty says... 'Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'" (1 Samuel 15:3)
At number 3 is the only entry from the Torah: "Do not allow a sorceress to live." (Exodus 22:18) There isn't really a proper legal definition of 'sorcery' to this day. A man in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to death for it, but he claimed only to be doing a bit of fortune-telling for fun. Sorceresses elicit greater sympathy than blasphemers, rebellious sons, unfaithful fiancées and brides who fail to prove their virginity. No mention is made of sorcerers in the passage, but, back to 1 and 6.
Number 4 is particularly nerve-racking because it comes at the end of a favourite psalm. Boney M missed this bit out of 'Rivers of Babylon' "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" (Psalm 137:9) No concealment of emotion here, then...
Judges, a history of Israel before its first king, has the reputation for being the most unpopular book in the Old Testament. Here's why..."So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go." (Judges 19:25) The man in question is so outraged by the treatment of his woman that he cuts her into a dozen pieces and sends a piece each to the twelve tribes in protest. The biblical writer makes no comment, so I don't think I will either.
Back to Paul and familiarly homophobic ground. "In the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." (Romans 1:27) You don't hear much preaching on that these days. Unless you're a Southern Baptist, that is...
Now back to Judges for some human sacrifice:  "And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, 'If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord's, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.'" (Judges 11:30-1) Lovely. Turned out to be his daughter. Tough call, that.
God speaks to Abraham."Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." (Genesis 22:2) Muslims seem to remember this one, slaughtering ovines publicly.
Paul again. He can't have had a wife, or if he had, she must have been really high maintenance. "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord." (Ephesians 5:22) Nuff said.
And scraping in at number 10, it's the man who gets a much better press for saying most of the same things, St Peter: "Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel." (1 Peter 2:18) Great. You get to feel guilty for being a slave.
So, what have we got? A mixture of historical horror and crackpot restrictions that some enjoy applying today. Biblical sexism trumps genocide, but maybe it's because it's more of a live issue. No one is using the Book of Samuel to justify genocide today, but Paul's observations are still used to silence women.
I think the Scriptures are capable of surviving the spotlight of a bad press sometimes. I once believed that every word was true because my Sunday School teacher told me so, and, for openers, it's probably no bad premiss. I suppose now I view Scripture with an eye that is nuanced enough to treasure its comforts and challenges, its classic stories and groundbreaking ethical wisdom, while facing the plain fact that some of it is unjust, dogmatic and cruel. Much like life, really.

Righteous Anger

It really is a wonderfully diverse, complex - almost psychotic world, isn't it...I'm so glad you agree. 
Someone invited me to comment on the weather today - how very British. At eight this morning, the skies turned to murk, the sun was blotted out  and howling winds played music around the buildings. A sandstorm had reduced visibility to less than 25 metres and all the lights in the house flickered and went out. Garden furniture ended up in the pool and stout palms bowed like saplings in  the wind. 
God is clearly very cross with me and the storm is all my fault. I have to say, I found myself not quite sharing the Reverend Clyde H Higgins' righteous anger on the +5 sandstorm in Beijing on March 20th. Don't blame me for the grammar, I didn't write it.

"God has made his frustration with China known by casting a great sandstorm plague upon their dread pirate nation. Today, billions of Chinese flee in terror as a great orange sandstorm whips (sic) their soy scented streets.  New reports show this great wrath of God extends over 810,000 square miles and immediately struck down over 250 million Chinese. For centuries, China has disobeyed God. They have worshipped false idols and torture their people. China persecutes Christians. They reject democracy and hate America for its freedom. The Chinese are truly a wrong people and no wonder our good friend Amber Cooper says I am extremely terrified of Chinese people. The Bible warns that God will punish China for their sin of being Chinese".

Regular readers are gonna LOVE this site. Did you know, gays are to blame for the volcano in Iceland?

My horoscope is a source of endless amusement and elicits childlike clapping of hands whenever I get to look forward to all the nice stuff that's gonna happen to me. Listen to this... 

"No matter what is going on in your life, most of you should be able to find something to be joyful about. Look to your siblings and neighbours for support; even if you think your life is terrible, they are likely to have it worse! Honestly, Capricorn, with so much going on in your fifth house of pleasure, your biggest problem is trying to decide what path of revelry you want to take."

I shall die laughing. In my fifth house of pleasure, clearly.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Clouds Darkling

I'm getting into this despair thing. It's really quite a friendly, non-threatening place. The abyss, I mean. When you take the trouble to look into it.

How about these, to enlighten, elevate and amuse...

It can turn a lump of coal into a diamond, or your average Joe into a basket case.

No matter how great and destructive my problems may seem now, I should remember I've probably only seen the tip of them.

If I expect to score points by whining, I should join Real Madrid.

Nothing shouts "you're a loser" more loudly than owning a motivational poster about being a winner. Before you

Tradition ( my personal favourite).
Just because I've always done it this way doesn't mean it's not incredibly stupid. But, I'm going to do it anyway.

I'm so glad that reason continues to prevail in my dealings with the rest of the human race. Should I be in danger of dropping a marble or two, doubtless those around me, having stifled their laughter, might be kind enough to help me pick them up.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Light Entertainment

It's time for my genial, insouciant self to crawl, red-eyed, out of the woodwork with a little light entertainment. A friend, mindful of my psychological welfare, introduced me to despair dot com. It felt like coming home.

Not that I'd be tempted to wear any of the foregoing on a T shirt, in other words, actually pay hard currency to advertise, but I did rather like the following...(captions mine)




Enough ecclesiastical hammering. Here's a nice picture instead.


The prize for the best caption in this week's competition...

'Slavery Gets Shit Done'

Tee, hee...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I think I've said it before here - 'the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there', which in the past I have mistakenly attributed to Hemingway. It wasn't. It was L P Hartley, and it's the first line of 'The Go-Between', which, I have to say, I find strangely ironic, since I haven't read it for forty years. Some places are worthy of  revisiting, others certainly are not. The future, therefore, represents places that one might like to visit - if in optimistic frame of mind, or, places which one knows one is going to be compelled to visit if the black dog is yapping at one's heels.
I'm often confused by those who ask me 'is the glass half full or half empty?'. What trickery is this? The contents measure precisely 50% of available capacity, no more and no less. Which leads me to suppose that if the half-empty glass represents a nostalgic, whisky-sodden, watery-eyed gaze at the past, and the half-full one pictures a future which might be either rosy or very thorny, I find myself, by default, it would seem, living in the present. This being so, the present contains roses and thorns in more or less equal proportion. Taking the long view isn't really a very good idea when one lives in the present, small, well-wrapped serendipities are spotted, often out of the corner of the eye, like a vibrant flower in a desert. Grace is a strangely transparent, almost leisurely, commodity...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mind Games

I'm sure some people I know do this to me deliberately. They present me with a series of games to play just to see if I'll take the bait. OK. I admit it. I almost always take the bait because I'm basically a sucker for a new game. They then reason that I'm too much of a showoff to keep the findings to myself. Right again. I suspect the reason for this is that in the ether somewhere, I hold the entirely spurious belief that someone is going to offer an opinion on whether I'm 'OK' or not. I spent half an hour filling out what appeared to be a quite mindless but extensive personality questionnaire which at the end of it led me to the conclusion that I wasn't severely abnormal - in other words, at the edges of any of the measured scales, and for the most part, pretty much in the middle of most of them. I did try to answer the questions objectively and with as little dissembling as I could manage, despite noticing that many questions were repeated or counter-presented to make me give the opposite answer, presumably to weed out inconsistency. Some questions offended me - again - perhaps they were supposed to. I have a distrust of data which seems trivial - how can one form an opinion on the basis of so little?  I wonder whether had I done the test in the presence of a qualified head-shrinker whether or not my answers would have been the same. I suspect not.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Existential Medicine

When I was about seventeen, I flirted briefly with hallucinogens. OK. I took drugs. Most people did, I expect - at least, most of the people I hung out with. I didn't take them because I had any particularly deep scientific interest, observing dispassionately the effect they had on my awareness - yes, I had read 'The Doors of Perception' and 'Alice in Wonderland' - not in that order - but they were hedonistic times when we were all looking for whatever it was out there that we couldn't quite find. Mostly, we got smashed to see the colours.
At about the same time, I discovered faith.
It was interesting in consequence to pick this story up today. According to the New York Times, there appear to be similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by a professor of behavioural biology at Johns Hopkins. H'm I wonder how the selection criteria were identified. The arguments look rather circular and subjective to me. How, for example, does one define or measure a 'profound spiritual experience' since by its very nature it often eludes definition.
In one study, however, involving less than forty people with no serious physical or emotional problems, it was found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was being administered.
Experimental monitors sometimes had to console people through periods of anxiety, but these were generally short-lived, and none of the people reported any serious negative effects. In a survey conducted two months later, the people who received psilocybin reported significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behaviour than did the members of the control group.
Studies on patients with end-of-life anxieties and cancer patients seem to have been beneficial
The findings were repeated in another follow-up survey, taken over a year after the experiment. At that point most of the psilocybin subjects once again expressed more satisfaction with their lives and rated the experience as one of the five most meaningful events of their lives.

I am left with two conclusions. There's a great deal I (or we) don't know and I wonder where I can get hold of some mushrooms....

Friday, April 09, 2010

Clever Fowk

Heard a sermon today about a fellow-melancholic - Thomas, author (allegedly) of my favourite Gnostic Gospel, apostle (allegedly) to Arabia and India and founder of the Coptic Church. You remember him, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that very few dead people turned up for lunch and he basically said out loud what all the others were thinking. Caravaggio's portrait is memorable for the furrows on his brow when realisation dawned, also the close attention paid by the onlookers.

When I was at theological college, the academic staff were very much concerned with 'the quest for the historical Jesus'. Needles in haystacks? No, more like finding a replica of London Bridge at the bottom of the Atlantic. Many were more accepting of Thomas' Gospel than that of John.

Various clever fowk have worried themselves into senility over this, using a voting system to decide truth from fantasy. Textual authenticity was determined by multiple attestation - in other words how often the same story crops up in different places and also something called 'embarrassment' whereby the early church would hardly have gone out of its way to create stuff and place it on record which only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.
According to the Jesus Seminar, a group of over a hundred and fifty scholars with advanced degrees and presumably, equally advanced critical faculties and theological positions - caveat lector - :
Jesus of Nazareth was born during the reign of Herod the Great.
His mother's name was Mary, and he had a human father whose name may (or may not) have been Joseph.
Jesus was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.
Jesus was an itinerant 'sage' who shared meals with social outcasts. I was tempted to make reference to accountants here, but I won't.
Jesus practised healing without the use of ancient medicine or magic, relieving afflictions we now consider psychosomatic. Oh. The 'issue of blood', disease-related haemorrhagia was obviously caused by psychological childhood trauma. So sorry.
He did not walk on water, feed the multitude with loaves and fishes, change water into wine or raise Lazarus from the dead. Neither was he a regular contributor to the Washington Post.
He was arrested in Jerusalem and was executed by the Romans as a public nuisance, not for claiming to be the Son of God.
The empty tomb is a fiction – Jesus was not raised bodily from the dead.
Belief in the resurrection is based on the visionary experiences of Paul, Peter and Mary Magdalene.
Ah. Of course. That's settled, then.

These people voted with COLOURED BUTTONS, for God's sake, to decide which bits are made-up and which bits are historically accurate. Might be worth them voting with buttons to begin with 'who thinks God is a construct based solely on the human need for him to exist, then....

Here's my own little logical fallacy: if clever fowk believe it, it must be true. 

This image is much more like it. Peter is telling Thomas how big the fish was that got away.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Disclosure and Panic

This image is a sad reflection, it would seem, of who I really am. Publishing it is the ultimate self-disclosure, perhaps thus moving the ominously small purple rectangle southwards. It's the result of a Johari window test which I did on myself when in a dark, brooding, Heathcliff - type frame of mind, which accounts for the pitifully small rectangle in the top left which is the bit that represents 'known by self and by others'. Moving clockwise the northeastern quadrant is 'unknown by self, known by others' - the blind spots, if you will. Does everyone imagine, like me, that there aren't any? I seem to have squadrons of them, just waiting to trip me up. In the southeast is the 'unknown by both self and others' quadrant - presumably the bits nobody knows (or cares) about, where the amygdala does pretty much its own thing. Finally, the southwestern quadrant represents 'known by self, unknown by others'. The sheer acreage is bloody terrifying suggesting me to be devious and secretive, probably with serial rapist tendencies. This kind of self-diagnosis is almost certainly frightfully unhelpful for people like me, so I won't do it any more, and just admire my graphic instead. I put in the 4-4 quadrants as markers, but I do wish someone could tell me where 'normal' is, like a bell curve of 'normal areas', with confidence intervals. I found myself scrutinising the graphic rather peevishly, and felt tempted to actually cheat - how sad is that - to extend the purple area to a place more consonant with my own expectations of myself. I seem to have nothing to look forward to except years of expensive therapy.

By way of postscript,

I attempted a crude error analysis on the results - each question can be self-weighted so that the result is skewed by up to 20% and discovered that a more generally benevolent approach to the questions - such as one might give after, say, four gins and tonic, changed the profile significantly, shifting the rectangle of self markedly to the south-east. H'm...

I am the Walrus

I’ve been thinking about perception and experience recently. Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” - thanks to the rock band as well – was my first experience of experience – if I can still remember what the diethylamide haze felt like after all these years.
Finding a foothold on behavioural and experiential reality is more slippery at some times than at others.
This from R D Laing’s “The Politics of Experience” (abridged) – most of which I think I agree with.
We can see other people’s behaviour, but not their experience. This has led some people to insist that psychology has nothing to do with the other person’s experience, but only with his behaviour.
The other person’s behaviour is an experience of mine. My behaviour is an experience of the other. The task of social phenomenology is to relate my experience of the other’s behaviour to the other’s experience of my behaviour. Its study is the relation between experience and experience: its true field is inter-experience.
I see you, and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me. Just as you cannot "see" my experience of you. My experience of you is not "inside" me. It is simply you, as I experience you. And I do not experience you as inside me. Similarly, I take it that you do not experience me as inside you.
"My experience of you" is just another form of words for "you-as-l-experience-you", and "your experience of me" equals "me-as-you-experience-me". Your experience of me is not inside you and my experience of you is not inside me, but your experience of me is invisible to me and my experience of you is invisible to you.
I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. We are both invisible one to the other. Experience used to be called The Soul. Experience as invisibility of man to man is at the same time more evident than anything. Only experience is evident. Experience is the only evidence. Psychology is the logos of experience. Psychology is the structure of the evidence, and hence psychology is the science of sciences.
Evidence, it seems,  that demands a verdict. One way or another. John Lennon's "I am he as you are me as you are we and we are all together" sums it up for me today. I think I'd prefer to be 'just me'. The upper image is of Aldous Huxley. I have no idea who the other guy is, but I think I know how he feels.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Petty Gossip

Old Joe Ratzinger has my sympathy. Over ten thousand Britons have signed a petition protesting the his visit to England and Scotland in September. Northern Ireland - maybe not this time...The Pontiff currently enjoys immunity from prosecution in the UK, specifically over sex crimes by paedophile priests. Some time ago, two American cardinals were reassigned to Vatican City after allegations of cover-ups in regard to the sex-abuse scandal  in the US threatened their positions. Both hold Vatican passports.
All this comes on the heels of a sermon by the dean of the College of Cardinals, in which he called the scandal involving Catholic clergymen "petty gossip" during Mass on Easter Sunday. The Pontiff, seemingly untouched by recent events, suggested that the Vatican's reputation would prevail due to divine protection. "The loving presence [of Christ] accompanies the church on its path and supports it in times of difficulty," said the Pope in his address at Castelgandolfo on Easter Monday, today. Since he dismisses 'petty gossip' he won't mind if I add a little of my own. I read an article HH wrote in 1984, when, as God's Rottweiler, he was quite well known for stifling dissent. The article was a strong condemnation of liberation theology, which is a potent political mix of Marxist hermeneutic and revisionist history and which really only served to convince me that the old feller had even then begun to lose touch with reality, since the marbles were beginning to rattle. 
The Catholics seem to love dressing up, whether figuratively or literally and recent scandals have provided them with the best excuse they've had in centuries to manufacture a new suit of clothes for the emperor - perhaps even a new emperor. When in doubt, add spice to the mixture seems a fine 'maxima vaticana'.

Go ahead.  Smokescreen. Blur the edges. The Church will, as always, hide behind all kinds of silly nonsense, believing that the preservation of doctrine is going to buttress the priesthood and save it from popular savaging, rather like the following:

Since the launching of the “Voice of the People for Mary Mediatrix” (in May 1993), as a popular movement of the People of God from the five continents of the world praying and petitioning the Vicar of Christ to papally define the fifth Marian Dogma of Our Lady as “the spiritual Mother of all Peoples”, in her three motherly roles as Co-redemptrix, Mediatrix of all Graces and Advocate, a lot of good things have been happening in the Church and in the world as a result of this endeavour.

Of course they have.

It's a logical fallacy to suggest that the people have a voice - remember 'Father knows best'...Co-redemptrix? Hogwash. I wonder if she'd be OK about messing with little boys....


I have been to a few mountainous places over the years, some flat, broad highland plateaux, some conic, some bare and whistling, some forested, some wildly vertiginous and some volcanic; they fascinate me. Mountain men know how the view from the top looks different every morning, and how her winds, whether stroking, whispering or howling – seem to speak of her mood that day.

And yet mountains, just as they fascinate, can also terrify, worse, they can deceive. The Greeks were convinced that their gods resided at the summit of their own Mount Olympus, and the Japanese thought the same thing about Mount Fuji, and the biblical Arameans thought of the Kingdom of Israel that “their god is a god of the mountains” (I Kings 20:23).

But God does not reside in the mountains, any more than he has a home in the desert, or the stars. For millennia, men looked upwards, believing that the stars were small imperfections in the firmament, through which the glory of 'heaven' shone.
I do not know 'where' heaven is, because I don't know 'what' it is. A friend is writing a book about heaven. Were I to write the same book, my perceptions or imaginings would be more abstract and mathematical than his. Were the ancients to picture the place where God is, they would have seen him in terms perhaps of the unfathomable power of the elements, in lightning, driving rain, the terror of earthquake or volcano.
I have often held - lightly - the dangerously heretical, almost Gnostic worldview that as a species we have yet to discover the essence of being and interacting which, like growing dawn, overcomes the twilight of ignorance and slowly, delicately introduces us to a higher, purer thought. Perhaps God is Thought as Heaven is the Expression of Thought, complete, precise and finished. John saw a 'sea of glass, clear as crystal' a metaphor for full proof, not conjecture.
Perhaps we spend our entire lives like moles, reaching for - even accidentally finding - the strands of light which speak to us, illuminating the next few steps toward Heaven.
The image is of K2, the most dangerous peak on the planet. I flew over it once in a light aircraft.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

In the Barber's

I went to my barber today. he's the same one I've used since I arrived here, a cheerful, blokeish, overweight Lebanese geezer, with a flair for the scissors, a tough, manly handshake and a no-nonsense look in his eye. Unusually, I had to wait for him to finish with another customer, a fey, perfectly coiffed Kuwaiti in an immaculate dishdasha with more than a streak of left-footedness about him. When he was finished, he left the shop, apparently changed his mind, walking back in again to demand a large mirror with which he scrutinised every inch of his perfectly groomed face - speculatively poking the facial tissue with the elongated finger of one hand, while picking his feet with the other - the national pastime. He had one of those virtual moustaches - a shadowy representation of the real thing which he stroked like a pet, repeatedly smoothing the fine downy hairs to a state of perfect, symmetrical rectitude, making small moues into the mirror. I tried not to stare, not wishing to send inappropriate signals. I have been gently teased about being fussy about my appearance, also about being over-preoccupied with my own facial hair - it itches if the truth be told - but the young Narcissus in the barbershop was in  a league all of his own. Which led me to ask myself - one rather wonders what signals are being given to the remainder of the male community from young men such as these? One meets quite a few unreconstructed gender non-specifics in trousers (can't use the 'g' word, it's un-Islamic) here - fluttering their dark eyelashes indiscriminately and giggling with the girls. Young men - or post-adolescents, let's say - are rigorously segregated from the fairer and bumpier sex, who flirt just as efficiently as Western girls, and the consequences of an abundance of bottled testosterone may have what might in the West be described as antisocial outcomes. Boys apparently 'experiment' in much the same way as Western boys, if the rumours of what went on behind the fives-courts were accurate, but are socially less stigmatised in consequence. It's perhaps fortunate that mosques have no altarboys and imams are mostly occupied with at least one wife, so Islam can never be accused of systematic child abuse in the same way that Rome has been.

I was undecided which image to post. The John Waterhouse with his belaureled Narcissus looking at his reflection - he does paint yummy pre-Raphaelite women so very well, or Dali's 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus' which seemed quite apposite, it being Easter, with eggs and all...