Wednesday, June 27, 2012

There goes my hero. He's ordinary.

One of things I've learnt in life is that everybody's is just a normal human being. It's true some do extraordinary things, but everyone messes up once in a while. I wanted to write a post about it a while back, initially it was about Anthony Grayling and his New College of the Humanities; Johan Hari's plagarism and Richard Dawkins on Elevator gatePZ Myers now joins the list of people I admire who've left me feeling disappointed, also related to ElevatorGate.

I've mostly steered cleared (well, almost entirely to be honest) of the whole drama, but here's how I've seen it:

Rebecca Watson got propositioned in a hotel elevator at four in the morning by a guy asking her to come back to his for coffee, after expressing that she was done for the night. Rebecca Watson, quite rightly, said "Guys, don't do that". Then the internet blew up (or at least, the Atheist/Skeptic bit of the blogosphere), and the fires from it haven't yet died down.

Alas, there are plenty out there who don't seem to get that it's pretty creepy to corner somebody you don't know in an enclosed space and ask them back to your room in the early hours of the morning.

Rebecca Watson appears to be one of life's marmites - people love her, or hate her. Given the massive amounts of abuse she receives, I'm unsurprised that she quite ready with the block button on twitter. Who can blame her? Even if she didn't get all the abuse, who cares? Twitter's for opting in, and if you don't want to follow someone, or simply just don't like something (for whatever reason), why not block people?

However, last night Rebecca Watson falsely accused someone (CoffeeLovingSkeptic on Twitter @TPRyan007) of calling her a cunt:

You can read his account here.

PZ's response was off par - not because he went and blocked a bunch of people, or wants nothing to do with CLS, it's because he's retweeted Rebecca's accusation, knowing it's not truthful (as he has commented on the blog post linked above). It doesn't take much to remove. Whatever the disagreements are, it's best to remain truthful. PZ went on to tweet:

Given CLS blog post, it seems the burden of proof really does sit with Rebecca? Or, an admission of confusion? It's hardly a fall from grace, but it's a useful reminder that, no matter how much you admire someone, everyone's human and fallible.

As PZ himself has said, nothing is to be held sacred.


Rebecca Watson has corrected the accusation that was made:

And PZ has also responded to CLS on Pharyngula.

If I had more time, and wasn't so tired, I'd comment further, but I tried, and couldn't get the thoughts in my head written down into a blog post.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tips on getting started with a new sport/exercise etc

As readers may well know, I play capoeira, and have done for nearly four years. Before that I did Chinese martial arts (some different styles of kung fu and tai chi) for around seven years, with a break in between the two where I ran a lot. Through that time I've noticed people coming and going, and these are my top tips if you've been contemplating taking up some new kind of exercise, be it going to the gym by yourself, a fitness class, or something like capoeira, but haven't quite made that first step.

1. See a doctor: Seriously. If you don't really do much exercise at all, this is a sensible step to take. It'd be a shame to injure yourself when you're actually out to improve yourself.

2.  Just do it: The most important thing. Actually go. I've been wearing capoeira/marathon/kung fu t shirts out and about and had people say they'd be thinking about doing, but hadn't. Sometimes it's for reasons like "Capoeira looks really cool, but I've got no coordination or flexibility" or "I'd love to run a marathon, but I can't even run for the bus". If that's your reason - don't worry. Taking up your new activity will allow you to do those things in time. In 2006 I ran my first marathon, and my second, third and fourth. This was deliberately a big challenge, but I planned my training, starting small and building it up. In 2009 I ran the Chicago marathon. My training started with a 4ish mile run, which was my first in literally years, and that 4 run was hard going. At the end I thought "Crumbs, I've got to do over five times that!". In the end, I got a PB (3:54:47). I couldn't do handstands before capoeira, but now I can walk on my hands. These things all take time. But they're worth it!

3. Don't worry about other people. I've seen people stop doing activities because they find the more advanced students intimidating, and worry about not being able to do things first go. Don't be! If you could do things first go, then you'd just need a You Tube tutorial and teachers would be redundant. Don't be scared by the advanced students/people in the gym who've obviously got experience. Everyone started off as a beginner. Some people I've met have worried about going to the gym, saying things like "what will everyone else there think of me?". Chances are, they'll be absorbed in their own workouts and won't even notice.

4. Enjoy that it's hard going. Some people don't really get going because, having taken up their new exercise, they hurt and ache the next day (this is especially true of capoeira I've found), and so stop. This hurt is a good thing - working new muscles is going to cause them to ache the next day, and it's a sign you're already starting to get fitter (with the obvious caveat of watching out for injury - don't train too much too soon!). These aches won't last, and the more you train, the less this will happen. But you need to stick with your activity for this to stop.

5. Track your progress. Improvements can sometimes be obvious - being able to climb more stairs without getting out of breath, or being able to run for that bus. But others can be quite gradual, so it can be hard to actually spot your improvement. Tracking progress can help you see how far you've come, and help your motivation. I've used Nike+ for running, and use Fitocracy now, but I've heard good things about Endomondo, and there are other options out there too.

That's just my experience though - file it under anecdata, but there it is. Hope it helps : )

Lies, why you can't trust the Catholic Clergy and Sam Harris is still keeping me honest

As well as going into the cognitive development that's needed to lie (autistic people make very poor liars), how people give away their deceit, and how to spot lying, it also used the premise to discuss how the brain works - for example, touch your nose with your finger.

Go on.

It felt (or it should have done) as if your finger felt your nose, and your nose felt your finger, at the same time. However, it takes longer for the signal from your finger to reach your brain than it does for the signal from your nose. Your brain fudges in, to make it seem that these things are happening instantaneously, but they are not. The audio and visual output from your tv can be a tenth of a second out, or less, and our brain automatically makes us see them in synch. There are lots of other short cuts our brain takes that we cannot escape - we have them because they were good enough to let us survive.

It also goes into such things as the placebo effect, cognitive dissonance, and self deception (most people rate themselves as being above average over a range of factors).

I'd thoroughly recommend reading it, but, it did not shake my notion that it is better not to lie.

By lying, I mean to intentionally deceive someone when they expect honest communication - I'm still free to bluff at poker.

It's true that deception is all around us, but that is no excuse. Ian Leslie also says that "Honesty is not effortless, but something at which we have to work". True, to an extent, but lying is harder - you need to keep in your head all that is not true, and make sure that the statements you disseminate do not contradict what other's know. Being honest only means you have to stick to your own memory.

As Sam Harris says:

"When asked “How are you?” most of us reflexively say that we are well, understanding the question to be merely a greet- ing, rather than an invitation to discuss our career disappointments, our marital troubles, or the condition of our bowels. Elisions of this kind can be forms of deception, but they are not quite lies. We may skirt the truth at such moments, but we do not deliberately manufacture falsehood."

Effort with honesty only seems to crop up around social norms - "Do I look fat in this dress?". But, it's still the better course of action.

Even if there are Nazis at the door, one needed lie to save Anne Frank - "I wouldn't tell you even if I did know" is not a lie, and should suffice for all instances.

So yes, do go out and read Born Liars, and, if you haven't. Sam Harris' Lying. (Which I can email you for free, though if I do, Sam Harris asks in his book that if you do receive it for free, you buy a copy).

One thing I did learn about was the notion of mental reservation:

"The most influential advocate of what became known as 'the doctrine of mental reservation' was the Spanish theologian Dr Navarrus, who wrote that there are some truths 'expressed partly in speech and partly in the mind'. According to Navarrus, the Christian's overriding moral duty is to tell the truth to God; 'reserving' some of that truth from the ears of human hearers is moral if it serves the greater good. For example, the user of mental reservation could reply 'I know not' aloud to a human interlocutor but silently add 'to tell you', and still be telling the truth. The doctrine's adherents claimed that Christ himself practised it; he told his disciples that he did not know the Day of Judgement, even though his omniscience meant that he must have known".

What surprised me is that this piece of 16th century theology is alive today. This came to light in the 2009 report on the widespread allegations of clerical child abuse in Ireland. Here are two examples from the book:

"Marie Collins, who was abused by a Dublin priest, testified that when the archdiocese said in a 1997 press statement that it had co-operated with the police over her complaint of abuse she was upset because she had good reason to know this wasn't true. When a priest made inquiries on her behalf he was told by the archdiocese 'we never said we co-operated fully".


"Cardinal Connell felt compelled to emphasise that he did not lie to the media about the use of diocesan funds for the compensation of clerical child sexual abuse victims. According to the report, this is how the Cardinal explained away his misleading statements to the press:

...that diocesan funds ARE [reporter's emphasis] not used for such a purpose; that he had not said that diocesan funds WERE not used for such a purpose. By using the present tense he had not excluded the possibility that diocesan funds had been used for such purpose in the past... Cardinal Connell considered that there was an enormous difference between the two."

I don't know if mental reservation is one of the examples of sophisticated theology that Richard Dawkins et al have been accused of not addressing...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Was she right?

If you don't read Richard Wiseman's blog you should.

Over there he writes:
Today I overheard a woman describing a rather unfortunate event that had happened to her.
She was driving along and suddenly an Alsatian dog ran out in front of her car. She did an emergency stop, causing a bus to go into the back of her car and, unfortunately, killing one of the passengers onboard the bus.
The woman felt partly responsible for the death.
So, my question is….. should she have carried out the emergency stop?
I put this on Twitter yesterday and received a large number of very different replies, so thought it would be interesting to have
Here are my thoughts:

My thoughts echo others: She was right to perform an emergency stop. The bus should have had sufficient braking distance, and so, the bus driver was in the wrong. The lady who stopped is not responsible – though of course if I were in her place, I’m sure I would also feel partly responsible. However, I’m also confident that, again, if I were in her place, I would emergency stop again if another animal came running out into the road. Also, it should be remembered, that the emergency stop is also quite a reflexive operation – you do it without really thinking.

Go and chip in your own!

In other news, am busy finishing my PGCE - looking forward to blogging about my assignment which looks at attitudes to science and religion in school children.
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