What is the Harm in a Little Belief?

There has been much hoo-hah about Richard Dawkins in the past week, with his polls about religious identity in the UK. I won't comment on them here other than to say their findings weren't exactly surprising to this godless heathen. I want to focus on one particular recurring criticism he faces: Though most people can understand why he goes after the fanatics, there surely isn't any harm in a moderate belief, is there?

Dawkins' own answers variously mention pre-rapture suicides and killings, and the fact that, if you are willing to take the existence of a deity on faith, you will be more likely to take an unquestioning view of other woo, such as alternative medicine or creationism. While the latter will just get you laughed at, or maybe narrow your job prospects, the former might lead to not taking the correct medicine for an avoidable illness, or taking the wrong medicine because the woo-peddlers aren't regulated and so didn't test their 'natural remedies' before encouraging you to down it.

But the clincher for me is this: If you believe one thing to be true, you are likely to force that thing onto your kids, whether they agree with it, or not. Thinking you are doing the best for your children by ensuring they grow up in the Christian faith for example, you might insist they read the bible, or maybe enroll them in a bit of Sunday school. Perhaps a visit to a local Alpha Course if they don't take the hint and keep on with their pesky reasoning.

In America, they have another choice - a whole industry devoted to setting your child on the right path.

And for those whose loving parents send them there, it is a horrifying nightmare.

A teenager has apparently spent a few years there, in the name of 'curing' his atheism:
In September 2009, after admitting to my parents that I was atheist, I was abruptly woken in the middle of the night by two strange men who subsequently threw me in a van and drove me 200 mi. to a facility that I would later find out serves the sole purpose of eliminating free thinking adolescents.


Let me give you a detailed run-down of my experience here: To start off it's a boarding school where there is literally no communication with the outside world, the people who work here can do anything they want, and the students can do absolutely nothing about it. The basic idea is that you're not allowed to leave until you believably adopt their viewpoints and push them off on others. The minimum stay at these places is a year, an ENTIRE YEAR, that means no birthday, no christmas, no thanksgiving etc.; my stay lasted 2 years. The day to day functioning of this facility is based on a very strict set of rules and regulations: you eat what they give you, do what they tell you (often just pointless things just to brand mindless submission in your brain), and believe what they tell you to believe. Consequences for not adhering to these regulations include not eating for that day, being locked in small rooms for extended periods of time and the long term consequence of an extended stay.
The skeptic in me said to keep a suspicious mind, and reddit isn't known for the integrity of its journalists. I want it to be at least partially a reactionary rant, as this is worse than I could possibly believe the effects of simple religious faith had scope to inflict.

However, this page shows just how many of these places have come and gone, apparently shut down for all sorts of gruesome reasons. This connected site profiles the still at large and those fighting to shut them down. It profiles the many legal cases brought against various WWASP organizations. Finally, there are actual House and Senate bills, brought in to regulate or shut down these institutions.

Judge the authenticity for yourself by reading the comments, some of which come from fellow survivors.

Edit: There is also a documentary in production:

A Problem Self-Proved

A small taster of why SOPA et al will have a disastrous global impact on the internet comes from this article, which highlights exactly what will happen if such draconian censorship laws are passed.

Someone writes an article about the problems of SOPA/PIPA, and then Google gets a DMCA takedown request from someone who doesn't like the sound of the article, that means it is omitted from search results. The site was removed, despite the request being completely baseless.

Without a trace of irony, the offended party have demonstrated exactly why such an act should not be adopted. Thank you, offended party. Now go off and have a good read of how teh interwebz works and you'll see why you've just made things worse for you.

Edit: And as if by magic, we have another example within hours of the first.
Edit 2: Oh, this is getting silly!

A Holiday in Post-Uprising Egypt: Part 3

Day 3: Nile Cruise to Kom Ombo

I woke early the following morning to the feeling of movement. We had been travelling up the Nile all night. It was about 5am, and I tiptoed to the window and peeked out through the thick curtains. The night darkness was just beginning to abate, and I saw an opportunity.

I threw on a jumper over my nightclothes and headed out barefoot with both cameras. The ship was quietly making its way through the oncoming current and there was little sign of life. On the top deck the sunbeds were being straightened by a bleary-eyed ship hand while another similarly alert soul was restocking the towels. They looked at me quizzically as I scanned the horizon for signs of brightness, I was going to catch the sunrise on another continent. Many times had I seen beautiful pictures of sunrises or sunsets on the plains of Africa, and while this wasn't exactly Kenya, it was on the same landmass, and there was a similar sense of untouched wilderness, at least in patches between the piles of rubbish and the occasional humble riverside abode.
A short wait in the cool morning air brought the expected reward. The sun rose slowly from behind the distant African plains, filtered by some suitably streaky cloud formations to add a bit more mystique. Satisfied, I caught some shots of wildlife mixed with the occasional early riser, and then headed back to bed for a snooze.
A bit of breakfast followed by some sunbathing and snaps, and by midday we were approaching the port at Kom Ombo. The temple stood prominently just above the port entrance, and since we were told that the temple was the high-spot of the day, it was clear that experiencing Kom Ombo as a city would have to wait for another time.
Hani was on hand to guide us up to the temple, where he handed out a ticket each. We entered the temple grounds and up a gentle gravel path to the temple level. The last of the afternoon daylight shone on the ancient stone and we gathered around just inside the entrance, where our guide waxed lyrical about the characters on the beautiful wall murals and the sunken reliefs on the massive pillars.
Unusually, they had been largely left alone by the representatives of the religions of ages subsequent, who by and large took offense at the depictions of godly icons of worship and desecrated them throughout the region, to try and erase the past and impose their preferred reality on the world.
As night fell, we took some moody pictures of the temple, whose nooks and shadows were accentuated by judicious underlighting, and then returned quietly in dribs and drabs to our little boat. We scoffed what was becoming quite the usual amount of delicious food in the dining suite. Sure, my trousers were feeling tight, but we were on holiday, so I didn't care much. Then, after being briefly caught by the resident on-board tourist shop keeper (whose tactics matched those of the land-based vendors) we went back to our rooms to get some rest, where a towel crocodile greeted our return.

The day felt a little half-done however, so as the night descended we headed out on deck and watched the stars above. Orion was right above our heads, and lit by the moon and an IPad, we shared a peaceful drink underneath a clutch of beach towels as the boat made it's way slowly upstream to Aswan.

OK, Now it's Personal

We all know America is pretty screwed. If you don't, read on.

The interchangeable republican candidates are hateful, intolerant, ignorant idiots - whose campaign videos actually attack each other for any outward sign of education. But I am confident (read:hopeful) that when the eventual presidential candidate is chosen and he opens his mouth on the voting stage, his own idiocy will be loud enough to discount him from enough of the voting slips.

The religious fanatics (who often comprise much the same group) work hard to erase the trail of social development, scientific discovery, technology and knowledge if the subject matter goes against their holy books. Welfare systems lose backing, black people are barred, women are excluded from debates about contraception, clinics are burned and doctors are threatened with their life, children are kicked out of church, the dead have their lives desecrated, and their public school system is under attack from politically and religiously motivated re-imaginings of how things are, and how things work. I certainly wouldn't want to be a parent over there, but - selfishly, I know - it works out well for my lineage because the more indoctrinated creationists and other such woo-peddlers there are, the more openings there will be for people who have actually learned something useful, available to my kids.

Their police are out of control maniacs who heroically swarm round their massively outnumbered and outgunned target and assault them to within an inch of their life, or sometimes kill them. And then actively impede any attempts to file complaints with intimidation and threats. But I am out of their jurisdiction, so my life is relatively safe from their hot lead justice.

Many of the most powerful companies are massively corrupt institutions that avoid taxes, and avoid responsibility for their actions, and certain ones are lobbying with the mostly right-wing representatives in congress for much tighter control over people with the ACTA and SOPA acts. But they are being exposed for their ignorance of the consequences of those bills and it looks like for now, they will not make it into law.

However, their news people - those who are tasked more than anyone else to describe the world to the average American on a daily basis - affect the lives of everyone beyond on a daily basis also, coloring opinion with their own brushes and simplifying reality to make the guided choices of the masses easier to make; and lets just say the quality and impartiality varies.

I get to see snippets of this sort of thing daily thanks to the wonder of RSS feeds. Today however, I found this and it made my jaw drop, somehow also managing to leave my teeth clenched and gnashing together:


I just don't understand. Has America really lowered itself to such a level that this can happen? Does a particular demographic of the American people actually entertain these views? Actually sit there, dribbling in front of their screens nodding their heads along to this?

News debates need standpoints to discuss and promote debate. Wheeling on three people whose opinions barely differ is not news, and NOT DEBATE! It's just a fat old man's club, whose patrons sit squarely in their comfort zones and bitching about stuff they clearly don't understand and have no desire to try. Both films are adaptations of stories written decades ago. Both of which have had several other adaptations in the past. They are suddenly a threat to the kiddywinks now? Gaah!

That they've said this about some films with an environmental bent is.. well even I didn't think that a mainstream channel could puke out such a massively ignorant viewpoint? Attacking the president because he wants everyone to have a fair shot? Criticizing a film because it has themes about protecting the environment? Suggesting that you go see the movie and throw popcorn everywhere before storming out? Somehow - somehow - tying all this to the Occupy movement?!

But all this I could handle, because it's America, and they have people as stupid as that over there. (Demonstrably, 1, 2, 3, 4...). But when you have a go at Arrietty, Lou, and for such massively stupid reasons.. well, you have just crossed a line, m'illaddo.

I am watching you, Lou. I don't want to, because every stupid, ill-informed, distrustful, intolerant, paranoid, bigoted, ass-hatted word from your purdy mouth makes me want to punch my computer repeatedly until my hands bleed. But it's clear that you personify all that is wrong with your fine nation, and my eyes are drawn to you and the effect you have on the world like a slow-motion multiple car pile-up.

Please, America. Stop this. Stop this now. It used to be funny from a distance, now it's as batshit scary as the nutters you are apparently fighting against in the name of freedom.

A Holiday in Post-Uprising Egypt: Part 2

Day 2: Valley of the Kings

We woke early for our first taste of Egypt by day. We all gathered in the entrance lobby of the boat and filed out through the adjoining ships. Even though my cohort was confident and relaxed at the situation, having been to Egypt briefly not six months previous I was still feeling a bit apprehensive, maybe recalling the 'helpful' men from the night before, or perhaps a little of the stereotypical Aladdin-style arabs who may be lurking around the first corner. Of course, no such people existed as we made our way to the coach, but the advice about pickpockets and not straying far from the group that still rang in my ears didn't help matters.
The path from the boat up to the main rode was - as expected - paved with shops, and hanging around many of them were men, women and children waiting for the procession to come past them. As we were trained to do, we kept walking and politely refusing as they swarmed around; the men walking with us and trying to get eye contact, while the children pulled at our coat-tails to get our attention, asking us to marvel at their cardboard beads. 'Free, free', they exclaimed after some rebuffs, but they clearly weren't when the next thing we encountered was open hands waiting to be crossed with silver.
Eventually we made it to the street level and across the dusty tiled pavement to the waiting coaches. In the morning light, the Luxor shorefront looked unloved and broken. Streetlights hung powerless with their shades cracked or missing, traffic lights were almost destroyed by clumsy driving incidents, and many of the shops were boarded up or dusty and lifeless. Men sat or stood scanning the area for tourists, with little else to occupy them. Life carried on in the near absence of tourism as best it could.
The coach took us through the dilapidated Luxor streets until we escaped the city and saw a little greenery. As we traveled, our local tourist guide, Hani, introduced himself. Hani was a well-built freelance tour guide who had boned up on his local Egyptian history and expressed this knowledge - or at least his entertaining interpretation of it - with passion and a sardonic edge to his humour. On the way to the valley, the coach stopped off at the Colossi of Memnon, where Hani ushered us out of the coach in almost military fashion to the gravel area.

Down a short track, two well-worn giant statues of Amenhotep III, one of the kings buried in the valley beyond. They were impressively large although on their own they were difficult to get too excited over. This was clearly anticipated, as a small group of men stood behind stalls or covered in cotton blankets took advantage of the latest set of wandering eyes that began to appear after a few minutes to zero in on a potential sale.
Racks of black and white stone depictions of gods and wildlife, alabaster vases and miscellaneous temple icons sat patiently on display, waiting for a new owner. Across the road stood some decidedly run-down souvenir shops and broken buildings, and a wooden sign with the letters WC daubed on with paint, carelessly jammed in the side of a clay hut, pointing down a narrow track into god knows what beyond. Despite our wet behind the ears naivety, we all declined and returned to the coach.

The coach carried down the road for a short while and bore right, and our first sight of the Valley of Kings could be seen to the left. Just beyond a low wall, the stony ground began to gently rise into the distance until ending sharply at the base of a sheer cliff, beyond which stood the Valley of Kings proper. In between was a vast area that looked as if it had been partly excavated by archaeologists, revealing a network of paths between small tunnels in the rocks below, which may have once been homes to those who were burdened with the construction of the scenes we were about to encounter. Off in the distance, we could make out the temples at Deir el-Bahari, and though we didn't know it at the time, the nearby Valley of the Queens nestled among the hills.

Eventually the coach began its trek through the enveloping heaps of excavated stone into the valley. It was at this point that Hani decided to undermine what little confidence we had that we weren't in a potentially dangerous country by telling us that we had to leave our cameras on the coach. Instructions had come down from the intermediate ruling council that all photographs - even when just milling about in the valley looking at large piles of rocks - was forbidden, and that if you did this would get you locked up and in serious trouble. The coach party nervously giggled before realizing Hani wasn't kidding. The last picture I dared to sneak was of the rather lax (and unmanned) security barrier, so how much this was enforced I could not say, but I decided not to take any chances.

The coach stopped in an open parking area, which was peppered sparingly with vendors, milling about waiting for the next band of tourists to pester. Shortly a train-like vehicle - much like those segmented electric powered buggys that take people round a fairground - came along and we all grabbed a seat. Nimbly, and without much concern for their feet, a couple of vendors came along for the ride, straddling the towbars between each segment and stuffing black stone carvings under the nose of anyone who happened to be sitting close enough. We got away without one near us, this time at least.

A little way up - enough for us not to need transportation, although the sun was strong enough for us to appreciate the sentiment - the train stopped and we all got off. Ahead of us was a wide gravel track that disappeared into the distance and merged with the hills on either side. Virtually everything was a dusty chalk colour, save for the signs for the tombs, branching off the main path at several intervals.

Hani gathered us round and gave us a ticket each. This would allow us to see three tombs out of the dozen or so in the valley. They were valid for all the tombs except two of them - the tomb of Ramesses IV, and the most well known one - King Tutankhamun. In order to see them we would need to buy separate tickets, and Hani made clear there would only be enough time to see one of them - and most of us went with his recommendation that we gave the popular but apparently underwhelming King Tut a miss and go see Ramesses IV instead. The extra ones cost about 50 Egyptian Pounds (about £5) each so we were not much out of pocket.

We all followed Hani into the first tomb of Ramesses II as a kind of trainer session. A man stood at the dusty entrance and hole-punched our ticket to make the first of three holes. The tomb pathway burrowed down into the rock at a slight angle, and was protected by a wooden walkway and guardrails to keep us well aware of where we could go. The walls and ceiling closed in as you got further inside, but you had to keep on the conveyor belt - there was much to see and not so much time. We could only briefly marvel at what remained of the ancient depictions of the gods above us.

Outside, and after a short lecture on the place by Hani, we all split up and for the first time proper had to head out on our own into the sparse crowd ahead, made up of equal parts tourist and vendor, the former tracking between tomb entrances or looking up at the enveloping summits above while trying their best to avoid the incessant badgering by the latter. We went together to the tomb of Ramesses IX, and because by then we were all Ramesses-ed out, we headed off to the more remote areas away from the crowds, and chose Pharaoh Setnakhte's tomb, where we fended off the advances of a helpful vendor who thrust his torch into my hand and then tried to charge me for its use on the way out.

To be honest, the tomb tour was one big blur of slightly claustrophobic but beautifully decorated chambers, a mix of the beautiful and the desecrated, both by time and by the careless hands of those who discovered, looted and squatted within them. Without the benefit of pictures to remind us after the fact they merge into one big underground complex - but I would certainly recommend braving the crowds and spending some time there visiting the tombs at hopefully a more leisurely pace than what we had to.

While the missus answered a call of nature I was left alone, and in the midday sun I decided to take shelter under a wooden sit-down area. Curiosity required me to scale a set of steps after a short while that headed upwards to what appeared to be a lofty viewing platform. Several uniformed people could be seen with their feet up at the top already, and just as I was about to climb the steps to join them, a couple of similarly dressed soldier types cheerily went ahead of me. They smiled at me and I said hello to them, and then as they ascended the steps I saw the rather large automatic rifles they were carrying and decided I had perhaps better not follow them.

Our fellow holidaymakers re-assembled back at the meeting point and headed back to the train. Hani took advantage of the no-photos policy to give everyone the chance to purchase a set of pre-approved photocards of the area, at a reasonable price of course. Some people took the bait and handed over their cash.

On the way back to our coach, we got caught by a vendor who hopped on just as we thought we would get away with it. In broken English, he explained to us how it was proper stone rather than fake that he was showing us - a set of black stone scarabs of various sizes - which he proceeded to loudly bang together in front of us as if the fact they made a clacking sound was a sure sign of their authenticity. A few hundred Egyptian pounds was asked for, and since we just weren't interested we said no. And we continued saying no as the train carried on and the amount began to tumble, until by the entrance to the valley, as we were getting back onto the coach, our desperate vendor was asking for fifty just to get rid. But we didn't care, we were just glad we had managed to run our first gauntlet.
We trundled back down the bumpy roads towards our last attraction, an Alabaster shop - one of the more reputable ones it seemed, as we suddenly became of the number of haphazardly arranged buildings at the side of the road that were, (or once were) purveyors of Alabaster based fineries. No doubt during the less difficult years, these places would have been able to survive for their authentic quaintness, but now the tourist wagons drifted by in far fewer numbers, many lay abandoned.
One that still seemed to be trading was where we were headed next. The coach gingerly came off the rough road and onto an even rougher gravel area and parked up next to what seemed like a well-constructed building, in relation to some of the crumbling wrecks we had passed. We stopped outside as a trio of supposed Alabaster sculptors launched back into what appeared to be some highly-skilled crafting whereas it was probably just spinning the same old bit of pot around for the stupid tourists, as the leader went through the motions of the alabaster trade in front of them.
Surprisingly, the inside of the building was modern, tiled and air-conditioned. Not what you would expect having just seen the dusty and care-worn walls outside. We had walked into a massive Alabaster shop; the walls covered with shelf upon shelf of hundreds of figurines on various themes - Egyptian gods, vases and candle holders, temple artifacts and structures, mystical animals and pyramids of all sizes, and stone tablets depicting similar scenes to those painted or sculpted on the tomb walls. Many were made with the same creamy-green marbled material being faux-whittled outside, or the beautiful, otherworldly green alabaster that looked like it had been melted into shape, but there were also several sections dedicated to figures carved using the same black stone.
Chunky obelisks and pyramids stood next to thin, reedy pharaohnic gods and delicately winged creatures, and all sizes were available.

Hani gave us a short amount of time to look around and then we were off again, which conveniently gave us a hurry up to either buy or lose out.. and we bought, although with a degree of restraint at least. Ms Plants bought a small alabaster candle-holder, and I got a greeny-bluey fish for my mantlepiece.
We were quickly rounded back up and onto the bus, and we headed off to our final stop for the day. The monastery at Deir el-Bahri contains three temples, the main and most intact one being that of queen Hatchepsut, whose burial tomb connects through to the Valley of the Kings on the other side of the rocky hills, from deep inside the temple. Of course, we couldn't go through it, but we could walk around the place.

The now familiar combination of a short electric train ride and a peppering of persistent vendors greeted us, and then Hani took time out to remind us of his passionate, shrill voice and maybe-accurate facts of the place ahead, and then giving us a short while to see the sights, headed off to the shelter of a nearby cafe where we would meet back up.

The first thing you see after walking the lengthy and barren entrance strip is an orchard - or the petrified remains of one at least. A clutch of trees and plants of foreign climates had been gathered from around the world and planted in neat rows to satisfy the many pharaohs that walked the temple paths. Now, after the gardeners and carers had long since gone and the beautifully manicured trees were left to the parching sun and the dry sand, they were now little more than dark nodules in the ground.

The fragmented group headed to the summit, which was a deliberately deceptive way away, up the long, gentle incline of the temple entrance. Though the temple was ancient, it was clear that the pathway was modern, or at least heavily reconstructed from the original stonework. The surface was smooth and the stone edges were well-defined. It is unlikely the original had a provision for wheelchairs either. The Temple of Hatchepsut had three levels; each one fronted with a thick pillared grill protecting the decorated walls behind from the glare of the sun. At the highest level, the views back into the valley were fit for a king or queen, and gave the best view of the remains of the two other temples, which were dwarfed by comparison.
We took pictures, admired the ruined statues of Hatchepsut and her various contemporaries at the upper level, and at least once went inside and came back out to the glorious blue sky and sandstone view that would have been enjoyed by the ancients as they rose from their slumbers. Not able to pause for breath, we checked our watches and headed back to where Hani and a growing group of familiar bodies were sitting down drinking drinks and munching crisps.
We took the train-truck-thing back to the coach and then headed back to our ship, which just after boarding broke from the shore and began heading up the Nile to our next destination. The downstairs dining area gave us a water-level view of the scenery as it began to change from dilapidated city to a more natural looking rural scene. Once we had gorged ourselves on delicious food while sharing our differing stories with the family at our table (who had been elsewhere for the day) we spent the evening relaxing on deck, watching the Nile go by and waving at the kids who came to greet us or called from their windows. When we returned to our rooms, we got the first of a running theme of pleasant surprises; a pair of snakes greeting us from our window seat, skilfully made from towels by the staff.
We were settling down nicely and getting the measure of the locals. Though the country was in a state of transition and a certain level of unrest, it was clear that most people were getting on with their lives as best they could. Of course, it was only some time afterwards that we found out that we had been walking about carefree where not so many years ago, a religious massacre took place, which jolted us back into the reality of the unrest bubbling under.

If Someone Was Going To Do It...

If there was going to be one journalist that would be able to do a piece about Japan in a non-defensive, personally involved sort of way and bring it to the mainstream, it pretty much had to be Charlie Brooker.

Obscure games, technology and culture fan, and a sometime columnist in a major national newspaper. It had to be him, and his seemingly brief trip to a place he has wanted to visit for ages brought back some of my own fond memories and feelings for the place. He picks up on what I love about the place, was confused out of my mind about, and just went with the flow about.

Shame he didn't seem to look beyond the capital and into the beauty and oddity of the rest of the country. The comments are full of others who have done the same, whose words make me nostalgic and happy.

"Somehow, I was home." - Charlie, I know exactly how you feel.