Archive for September, 2009

Guest thoughts


Last week, I had a conversation at the university chaplaincy with a couple of the honorary chaplains. As always, I enjoyed learning about different people’s backgrounds, and the beliefs that inspire and motivate them, and of course I also enjoyed sharing my own perspective.

One of them, Richard Frazer, showed us a “Practical Ballad” he had written. It was inspired by an event at the chaplaincy, which he describes below. I liked the ballad, and invited him to share it on this blog. Here are his thoughts, followed by the ballad itself.

I attach my practical ballad: it is not at all poetic, but as I said, the University Chaplaincy has arranged these multi faith public conversations and this one was about the state of the global economy following the global financial meltdown of 2008.

The speakers represented a range of world faiths and none and their perspectives were wide ranging, though all, it seemed to me, were saying similar things which had something to do with justice for the poor and justice for the earth. The only person who seemed out of step was the professor of economics!

What struck me most profoundly was that each faith tradition was contributing something very deep and special to the discourse. One tradition reminds us of the importance of knowing what it is you are spending money on, another asks us to consider whether an investment is pure self indulgence, or is there a social element? It leads me to the conclusion that our way into a viable future depends upon us laying aside dogma and replacing it with the pooling of the world’s great wisdom traditions, alongside our best science. None of this threatens our traditions unless we think that the well being of our particular faith tradition depends on holding on to power and the exclusive right to be right.

A Practical Ballad

Don’t buy a thing you know nothing about,

That applies to unknown debt bought by the banks

That turns out to be toxic and worthless,

And to the ill considered, impulse item you grab on the way out of Tesco,

A thing you invariably do not need.

Does the investment you plan to make have any social element?

Will it better the world, or better only you,

And maybe damage a child or two?

Reflect again before you buy.

The true cost

In lives and land blighted,

In animal misery and the earth’s scarring would break your heart.

Surely, your prosperity does not have to depend on endless growth,

For on this planet, growth cannot be endless.

If you just cherish more the things you have,

The people you have and hold,

The beauty and craftsmanship of delightful things,

You will be rich in a new kind of way.

Let’s have economies that mirror evolution,

Change and constant adaptation,

Not policies that declare “use it all up, over live and exhaust it all”.

Justifying your actions because,

“it’s within the rules” is just a way to abdicate personal moral responsibility –

Mr Member of Parliament.

If armaments and drugs are the world’s two biggest industries,

Doesn’t that tell us about humanity’s dis – ease?

Science is telling us the world is one organic whole – Gaia.

So let’s live and work and make one whole thing of this earth

And all its people, its places and its diversity.

Learn to disagree without being divisive,

To embrace difference without being threatened.

We will need all our human powers for good,

Not one brand of ideology, to fashion the wisdom of survival.

And let us not build a society based on debt.

Let’s rediscover productive work, because, right now,

We are stealing our children’s future,

Selling it in the present,

And calling it gross domestic product.

Gross, it certainly is.

You can learn more about Rev. Dr. Richard Frazer at the Chaplaincy website, or on his own website, where he has also posted this ballad.

Turing apology


A few days ago, I pointed out a petition calling for a posthumous apology to Alan Turing for his disgraceful treatment by the British government when it became known that he was gay.

Well, Gordon Brown has delivered. He has issued what seems to me to be a very frank apology, acknowledging not only Turing’s significant contributions to computing and to the outcome of the Second World War, but also the injustice of his treatment at the hands of the country he had served so well.

As of this moment, there are 31070 signatures on the online petition. (I assume the petition is closed, now that its aim is achieved, but cannot find a clear statement to that effect.)

Here is the full text of the Prime Minister’s statement:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

Well done, Mr Brown.

Five influential female authors


Here’s an internet/blogging meme coming via Ken at C. Orthodoxy. It asks us, as the post title says, to name five female authors that have been influential to us.

As the father of a precocious almost-two-year-old girl, I make sure to celebrate female excellence as much as possible in order to counterbalance the undeniable tendency, here and now, for there to be more men than women in prominent positions – politically, socially, economically, and culturally.

So here goes: five awesome writers who happen to be women.*

Ursula K. Le Guin. Every book of hers that I’ve read has moved, delighted, and surprised me. She wrote The Dispossessed, the best argument for an egalitarian, property-free, anarchist society that I’ve come across (it’s a novel). She wrote the Earthsea books, easily equal to Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series (both of which I love) for epic awesomeness and tender humanness. She wrote an excellent version of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. (Here’s one of the verses from it, which I quoted from here.) There are more, but I think I’ll let you discover them for yourself. Le Guin’s influence has been to show me that bold ideas don’t preclude humble values like compassion and human vulnerability. Most of the science fiction I read growing up (and there was a lot – I was that kind of kid) was written by men from a particular era. At the risk of sounding sexist, it shows. Action, adventure, sex, but not much quiet humanity. Le Guin taught me that, even in genres like science fiction and fantasy, even when your characters include hermaphroditic psychics living on a planet of snow and ice or powerful wizards who can command the elements with arcane words, there is space for a fully human narrative. (There are male authors who I would rank close to her in this regard, but none quite as good at it, and anyway this post isn’t about them.)

Gloria Borden and Katherine Harris. I’m listing these two together, because they are co-authors (along with Lawrence Raphael) of the Speech Science Primer**, my first textbook in phonetics – the physical science of speech. I am now at the end of a PhD in phonetics, with a dissertation approved and bound (nice thick tome) that adds a little to the sum of human knowledge. Although the main credit for my education goes to all the in-person teachers I’ve had (several of whom were women), I have to acknowledge that this well-presented and understandable textbook gave me a level of understanding and confidence in the field that helped cement my choice, leading me into an exciting field of scientific discovery.

Marjorie Tew. We humanists pride ourselves on following the evidence. We make a big deal of the fact that modern medicine is generally evidence-based (as opposed to most types of alternative “medicine”, which are either evidence-free or based on very fallible types of evidence, such as anecdote). Tew, a statistician, followed a line of evidence in a surprising direction, and relates the story and the evidence in her book Safer Childbirth? (the question mark is in the title). In it, she presents a compelling empirical case that, in modern industrialised nations, giving birth in a hospital is not safer than giving birth at home. (For anyone interested, I related some key details of her arguments a couple of years ago in this thread at the Bad Science forums.) Her book was a large part of what persuaded Deena and me to plan a homebirth with Kaia. We are planning the same for baby #2 (due in a few short weeks). Again, there were other influences, but Tew’s approach and her arguments were an important factor in our decision.

Julia Sweeney (and here). Okay, so this may be stretching the definition of “author” a bit. I know Julie Sweeney through the audio version of two of her monologues: In the Family Way, and Letting Go of God. They are basically books, just in a different medium. Sort of. Anyway, it’s my blog, so I can choose whoever I want. Julia Sweeney’s main influence on me is through the religious monologue, Letting Go of God. In it, she recounts her journey from being a contented Catholic, through reading the Bible, encountering doubt, wrestling with it, trying out different ideas, and eventually coming out a contented atheist. It’s a fun listen. It’s also valuable because whenever she elicits laughs, they are primarily directed at her – or at ideas she entertained, or thoughts she had. Not at other people, not in a sneering “I’m better than you” way.

It is, I think, the gentlest way I have ever encountered for someone to outline why she doesn’t believe in God. Let someone laugh with you, at you, and you cease to be a threatening figure, an enemy. You become simply human, and it’s much easier to try to sympathise with someone who’s simply human than someone who is speaking as a scientist, or as a philosopher (or, perhaps, as a blogger). Goodness knows I have nothing like Julia Sweeney’s talent for humour, but whenever I think about engaging a religious believer in discussion about topics we differ on, I think of Julia Sweeney and her approach. I think she has helped me become a more friendly humanist.

So there you have it. Five women whose writing (or similar creative output) has influenced me. One author of fiction, three scientists, and a performer/autobiographer.

The five women I’ve talked about above have influenced me, but their influence pales next to that of the women I know and have known in person – family, friends, colleagues, teachers.

Also, though I celebrate these women and their influence on me, I do it because of what they have done, not just because they are women. I hope that, as she grows up, Kaia will find inspiration and perhaps role-models in women like these, but also in men who write influential, inspiring, interesting, or great things. Or even humble things that nevertheless make our world better.

* I couldn’t find photos for all five, so I’ve decided to leave this post image-free. You can see some of them by following the links provided.

** I’m linking to Amazon’s listing of the 3rd edition of the Speech Science Primer, which is the one I used. There are more recent editions that you should look at if you are considering buying the book: speech science is a dynamic field, and some of what they had to say in 1994 is out of date now.

Marc on opinion


So I was hanging out with my friend Marc again, and he had this to say about opinion (Meditations, book 3, paragraph 9):

Treat with respect the power you have to form an opinion. By it alone can the helmsman within you avoid forming opinions that are at variance with nature and with the constitution of a reasonable being.

Now, this far, I was on board. I was nodding along with Marc. We can’t help forming opinions; they are very useful in navigating the myriad choices around us. And yet, to paraphrase another pal of mine, Lao, “opinion is the barren flower of the Way” (from Tao Te Ching #38).
Once we form an opinion, it’s hard to unform or revise it, even in the face of good evidence. So we need to be careful in forming opinions in the first place.

So anyway, I’m nodding away, then Marc goes on like this:

From it you may look to attain circumspection, good relations with your fellow-men, and conformity with the will of heaven.

Good relations with fellow men – okay. (Marc has a very sexist bent to him, I’m afraid, but it’s easy enough to add “and women” or to substitute “fellow people” when listening to him.) But what about this “conformity with the will of heaven” bit?

Well, okay, I understand that Marc believes in the existence of gods. He says so very explicitly now and then. But it’s jarring to be listening to something that fits my own position so well, and then hear something about the “will of heaven” thrown in as part of the same thought.

I like Marc, so ultimately I’m not too bothered by the odd literal reference to “gods” or “heaven”; I can just focus on the valuable part of what he’s saying, and set aside the stuff I don’t accept.

But what about when I’m talking to someone else, or reading someone else’s writing, where I don’t have that easy relationship with the person? This aesthetic aversion to casual god-talk could make it more difficult for me to hear the positive value in what they’re saying.

Do you notice a similar tendency in yourself? Do you see it as a problem? How do you deal with it? Let me know.

Image credits:

Emblem of Stoicism created by DT Strain – see this blog post for an explanation of the elements in the symbol.

Yin and Yang symbol (associated with Taoism) from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.


Call for apology to Turing


This is a story of a national hero who was censured by his country and died alone on account of love.

Alan Turing was a key figure in the early years of computer development, before the Second World War. During the war, he was a key figure in the British team that decrypted the German Enigma cipher. Their contributions gave the Allies a pivotal advantage over their adversaries.

He was prosecuted for “gross indecency” because he’d had consensual sex with another man in the privacy of his own home. His work with the British intelligence service was over, and he was given the choice between chemical castration or prison. He chose the hormone treatment. Two years later, he committed suicide. He was 41 years old.

The last word the British government had to say about him was that his private actions, harming nobody, merited ruining his life.

Turing was a very prominent individual; I am sure that many other lives, both prominent and not, were needlessly ruined by this shameful law (happily repealed across Britain by the late 1970s).

There is now a call for the British government to apologise for its treatment of Turing. Given that an apology would be very easy to issue, would cost little and harm nobody, I think it is worth doing.

If you are a British resident and think this is worth two minutes of your time, please go sign the petition.

Also, let me know what you think of this sort of apology. Is it worthwhile? Is it a waste of time? Is is otherwise inappropriate? What consequences do you think such an apology would have, in terms of people’s actions and their attitudes?

Photo credit:

Alan Turing photo, author unknown. Photo was found at Ally Action, among a list of prominent individuals and events in the history of gay rights.