"The function of words, then, is to be sensible marks of ideas." ~ John Locke

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Sensible Marks of Ideas

Sunday, 16th Nov. 2014

6.14 pm - Somewhere, I hope...

Somewhere, I hope, there is a middle ground between #shirtstorm and #gamergate.

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Monday, 10th Nov. 2014

4.44 pm -

Happy birthday eve_prime!

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Sunday, 9th Nov. 2014

3.14 pm - More stirring words from our man in the Vatican

"We must be careful not to slip toward the path of being pagan Christians, Christians in appearance. The temptation to get used to mediocrity, the mediocrity of Christians, these Christians, it is their undoing because their hearts cool, they become lukewarm. And the Lord had strong words for these lukewarm [Christians]: 'because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth'. These are very strong words! They are enemies of the Cross of Christ. They take the name, but do not follow the requirements of Christian life.

"Do I like to brag? Do I like money? Do I like pride, arrogance? Where are my roots, that is, where am I a citizen of? Heaven or earth? ...

"How did this steward in the Gospel arrive at this point of cheating, of stealing from his master? How did he get there, from one day to the next? No! Little by little. One day a tip here, the next day a bribe there, and this is how little by little you arrive at corruption."

Mohammed also railed against the "munafiqun" (hypocrites). If you're only going to read one chapter of the Quran, read Al-Ma'un ("Kindnesses" / "Charity"). Well, considering it's so short, here it is.

Have you seen the one who denies the Recompense? For that is the one who drives away the orphan And does not encourage the feeding of the poor. So woe to those who pray [But] who are heedless of their prayer - Those who make show [of their deeds] And withhold [simple] assistance.

The pope's homily also puts me in mind of one of my favourite poems.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have crowned Neaera's curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

~ G.K. Chesterton

Of course, none of this is meant as disrespect to my pagan/heathen friends. In fact it struck me that the pagans of today are in some ways like the Christians of the first century or the Muslims of the seventh century, and Muslims and Christians today are all too often like the pagans of the first century.

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Wednesday, 5th Nov. 2014

7.10 pm - Pope Francis laying it down

“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought … For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements. The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

And compare with the Turkish theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk (my rough translation) "To make a religion violent, you need to convert it into an ideology. The imperialists have succeeded in doing this to Islam." (Of course you could counter that Islam was pretty violent way before imperialism, but then Öztürk directs some of his strongest ire at the Ummayads, so fair's fair.)

All of these are interesting thoughts, though I am still unsure as to what exactly constitutes the difference between a religion and an ideology, and to what extent we can really claim that all the world's religions were all rainbows and group hugs at their inception. But still, these are steps in the right direction. My main priorities when dealing with religious believers of any hue are:

They don't want to kill me.

They don't want to kill anyone else.

They aren't pushing views that could lead to ecological disaster (like climate change denial).

They're not trying to justify political, economic or gender oppression.

Theological niceties come way down the list. So I'm down with liberal Muslims, Reform Jews, Unitarians, wishy-washy Anglicans, fluffy bunny pagans and, it seems, the Pope. Never thought that would happen.

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Saturday, 25th Oct. 2014

2.04 pm - Julius Caesar, Bad Role Model

Since someone recommended reading The 48 Laws of Power, I checked it out on Wikipedia: "Although Greene was unhappy in his current job, he was comfortable and saw the time needed to write a proper book proposal as too risky. However, at the time Greene was rereading his favorite biography about Julius Caesar and took inspiration from Caesar's decision to cross the Rubicon River and fight Pompey, thus inciting the Great Roman Civil War. Greene would follow Caesar's example and write the treatment, which later became The 48 Laws of Power."

Hmmm. Crossing the Rubicon may be an iconic example of a momentous decision, but it is also an example of stupid decision. Caesar took an unconstitutional action which plunged the republic into a war that eventually ended it, and which in turn led to his assassination. So, a pretty dumb move, and that coming from someone who had recently killed and enslaved millions of people because it seemed like a good idea at the time, setting up the whole "Let's conquer the whole world" thing that overextended Rome's territory and led to its eventual destruction. Despite widespread condemnation, Caesar thought so well of his murderous rampages that he wrote a book about it, which until recently was forced upon schoolboys learning Latin because its leaden prose was at least easy to parse.

It is not a good advert for the book when the author takes his inspiration from one of history's greatest failures.

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Sunday, 19th Oct. 2014

10.18 pm - Interesting that ...


Interesting that they advertise a meeting of the East Asian Society with a picture of a girl with red hair and big round eyes (with purple irises to boot) and it seems perfectly appropriate. When characters like this first appeared in manga and anime, they were accused of perpetuated racial stereotypes whereby Caucasian features were seen as more desirable, but it's going way beyond that now. It's almost like anime characters are a race unto themselves.

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12.37 pm - Of Jews and Jinns

Of Jews and Jinns

“The Jew is very practiced in sorcery. Indeed most sorcerers are Jews,” says Prof. Valiollah Naghipourfar, who reckons Israel is using jinns to spy on Iran. This is a new twist on a very old trope, since the Jews had a reputation for magic going way back, regarded with grudging respect by Christian occultists and sheer terror by ordinary folk. I reckon there are two reasons for this supposition. The first is that if you want to oppress a minority over a long period, you need to keep them in subjugation so they have no real power while giving the impression that they have some secret power to justify your fear of them and the measures you use to suppress them. The second is that a group deprived of political power and treated with hostility into the bargain will naturally turn to other forms of power. The stereotype of the Jew as magician is like the stereotype of the Jew as usurer; when you deprive people of the right to own land and bar them from various professions, they get creative.

The funny thing is applying this stereotype to modern Israel. A nation with warplanes has no need of jinn.


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Wednesday, 15th Oct. 2014

8.49 am -

“Treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for that is the law.” ~ Jesus
"Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.” ~ Buddha
“Hurt no one, so that no one may hurt you.” ~ Mohammed

"Kill them all, God will know his own." ~ Arnaud Amalric

I think that's called signal degradation.

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Tuesday, 14th Oct. 2014

11.11 am -

Guys - if you want to feel superior to women, hold a press-up competition or something. Just stay off social media, OK?

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Sunday, 12th Oct. 2014

11.04 am - Upworthy Scholar

Upworthy Scholar

In the wake of the success of Google's academic search engine, the good people at Upworthy have brought their own magic to academia, serving up the best peer-reviewed journal articles in their inimitable way. Here are some samples.

These facts about supply-side economics will blow your mind.

5 heart-warming stories of rural-urban migration in developing countries.

How the Treaty of Westphalia changed everybody's lives.

This longitudinal study will bring tears to your eyes.

Finland 1939-1945: how one plucky little country stood up to bullying

We added silver nanoparticles to super-heated polytetrafluorethylene. You won't believe what happened next.

Othello thought his wife was cheating. Here's what he did.

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Friday, 10th Oct. 2014

5.41 pm - A Simple Solution to the Chaos in Syria

A Simple Solution to the Chaos in Syria

(that will never happen)

  1. The Americans approach Bashar al-Assad and say "Dude, we don't like you very much, but we don't hate you as much as some of those other guys, so let's do a deal: you promise reforms and play nice with the Kurds, and we'll leave you alone, drop all the anti-Assad rhetoric, and maybe throw you a bit of military intelligence. We can't give you any actual military support because that would make us look as stupid as we really are, but at least we'll turn a blind eye if the Russians and Iranians want to help you out." (This is the bit that will probably never happen, and on which all the rest depends.)
  2. Assad makes conciliatory noises to the Kurds, mentioning democratic reforms, regional autonomy etc. Since the Kurds and the Syrian government already have a de facto leave-each-other-alone agreement, they shouldn't find it too hard to present a united military front (while making it look like they aren't really united).
  3. The half dozen remaining "moderate Syrian rebels" get pressured into talks with Assad. They don't need to agree anything, just stop fighting while ...
  4. The Syrian government, the Kurds and anyone else who wants to join in kick seven kinds of shit out of ISIS, al-Nusra etc.
  5. Fighting finishes, Assad stands down with a guarantee of immunity (which is the only way you get dictators to stand down, BTW), and the factions left standing agree on an all-party transitional government.

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Wednesday, 8th Oct. 2014

8.22 pm - Can We Say ISIS Are Not Islamic?

I suppose it's inevitable that with ISIS making the headlines almost every day that the question of whether all Muslims are baby-eating monsters would again raise its head. At the moment it's the spat between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher that's all over the interwebs, with Affleck making the controversial claim that over a billion Muslims don't want to kill us all. There are some fair points on all sides, but overall the dialogue is on a pretty low level, so I won't bother commenting on it. More interesting is Jerry Coyne's article in The New Republic, "If ISIS Is Not Islamic, then the Inquisition Was Not Catholic". This also criticises the view that ISIS can be dismissed as a fringe group that has nothing to do with "real Islam" but does it in a more interesting way, and makes points that are worth addressing.

The argument goes that "there are no defensible criteria for whether a faith is “true,” since all faiths are man-made and accrete doctrine—said to come from God, but itself man-made—that becomes integral to those faiths." Therefore, we cannot isolate any doctrine—including the ideology of ISIS—that comes out of a religion from the religion that spawned it. It would seem that saying ISIS has nothing to do with Islam is not just like saying the Inquisition had nothing to do with Catholicism, but also that football hooliganism has nothing to do with football.

But there is a sense in which we do say that football hooliganism has nothing to do with football. Obviously we don't mean it has nothing whatsoever to do with football, since we're talking about fans of one football team beating up fans of another, not Harry Potter fans beating up Game of Thrones fans. What people presumably mean is that football has no essential characteristic that relates in a meaningful way to violence, or in other words that the violence is something grafted onto the game in a fairly arbitrary way. If they weren't fighting about football, the argument goes, they'd be fighting about something else.

Coming back to ISIS, I think the truth is mid-way between the football hooligan analogy and the popular view that ISIS are the ultimate in Islam. (Incidentally, calling groups like this "extreme" and others "moderate" only reinforces the view that the problem with ISIS, Al Qaeda and all is that they are simply too Islamic.) Coyne seems to be saying that since religions have no objective truth, we cannot say that anything with "Islamic" in its name is un-Islamic, but I think he overstates his case. Take the KKK, for example. There are good grounds for classing it as a Christian terrorist group (at least in its heyday), since not only has it attempted to terrorise a population through acts of extreme violence, it has attempted to justify this using Christian rhetoric. On the other hand, I can see where Christians are coming from when they say the KKK most certainly is not a Christian group. Religion is more than a mush of memes; all the major religions have well-documented core beliefs. You can argue about what exactly they are and whether some of them can be dropped or modified, but there is a point at which a doctrine abandons or violates enough of the core that it can be regarded as heretical, or just way off-base. If Jesus tells you to love your neighbour and that we are all children of God, then it's reasonable to claim that lynching your neighbour because of the colour of his skin is un-Christian. There are theological grey areas, but this is not one of them.

We can go further and say that although the Inquisition was certainly Catholic, in the sense of being an arm of the Roman Catholic Church, it was not really Christian, no matter how Christian its members thought they were, just like we can accuse the Chinese Communist Party of not really being Communists.

In the case of ISIS, then, we need to ask whether its beliefs or practices violate enough core Islamic doctrines to condemn it as heretical. (The question of whether it adds enough doctrines to Islam for its beliefs to be counted as an offshoot of Islam rather than truly Islamic is much harder, since the same could be said of many popular variants of Islam; common practices like celebrating the Prophet's birthday, visiting the tombs of Muslim saints, veiling, and even the so-called Islamic headscarf have all been championed by some as essential Muslim traditions and condemned by others as nonsensical innovations.) It has been pointed out by many Muslim clerics that the killing of non-combatants (particularly women and children), and indeed making war on those who wish peace, is forbidden in both the Quran and hadith. The radical/Salafist/jihadi answer to this is that (a) this is not an external war of aggression but a revolution to eradicate injustice within the Muslim world, and (b) anyone who opposes the Caliphate is an apostate and deserves death anyway. This is an exceptionally weak argument, but even if it weren't so bad, the fact that we can argue about it means that it is not meaningless to claim that ISIS is not Islamic.

ISIS is obviously Islamic in the sociological sense that its views and practices grew out of the culture of the Muslim world, just like football hooliganism is rooted in the culture of football. At the same time, but in another sense of the word, it's about as Islamic as the KKK is Christian.

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Monday, 6th Oct. 2014

7.25 pm - The danger of yoga pants

This Salon.com articlemakes a good criticism of an American school's attempt to stop female students wearing yoga pants on the grounds that they distract boys' attention from more academic things. It's a pretty complete argument, but I'd just like to add two points.

1. If they have such a poor understanding of their pupils that they think it takes yoga pants, leggings or short skirts to distract teenage boys' from academic subjects, they really shouldn't be teaching teenagers. I am reminded of the exchange in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Cordelia: Well, does looking at guns make you wanna have sex?
Xander: I'm seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.

2. If you go along with the dress code logic, it makes no sense to criticise those crazy Muslimanics for wanting to cover up every inch of a woman's body, as the mentality is exactly the same: male sexual misbehaviour is women's responsibility. (Note that this isn't actually an Islamic attitude per se, but that's another a story.)

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6.42 pm - It looks like I a...

It looks like I am one step closer to my "write in Diaspora; read in Flipboard" universal social media set-up, having got IFTTT to print my public Diaspora posts in Live Journal. No titles working yet. though, as there doesn't seem to be a way to get a title tag into Diaspora.

Now all I need is a way to get Flipboard to read my Diaspora and LJ streams - so far I keep getting "No content" when I try to add feeds to Flipboard.


#NewHere #livejournal #IFTTT

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Friday, 3rd Oct. 2014

12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Fri, 08:19: I can't believe it's the tenth anniversary of the last episode of Friends. Ten years ago was 1994, wasn't it?

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Thursday, 2nd Oct. 2014

12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Wed, 13:52: Sufi poets talk about being drunk without drinking. I seem to be having a hangover without drinking.

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Wednesday, 1st Oct. 2014

12.00 pm - My tweets

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Monday, 29th Sep. 2014

12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Mon, 11:01: The factors that make religions toxic - blind faith, intolerance, puritanism, violence - can all be replicated without supernatural beliefs.

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Sunday, 28th Sep. 2014

12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Sun, 10:15: "We do not 'come into' this world, we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean 'waves,' the universe 'peoples.' - Alan Watts

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Saturday, 27th Sep. 2014

12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Sat, 10:06: If other people's freedom annoys you, call it a form of slavery.
  • Sat, 10:17: RT @BigRedDreck: "The jock-nerd dialectic was resolved with a negation of the negation; both sides incorporated the other, merging to becom…

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