"I fell in love. What else is there to do?"

- Jeanette Winterson

Hope and Charity

Belief and faith. They're not quite the same thing.

I believe that this object in front of me is a teacup. My belief may be correct or it may be misguided, I may have good reason to believe it or not, but do I have faith that it's a teacup? No. That would be a very strange thing to have faith about.

Some people say they believe in marriage. It's a strange collocation - believing in something rather than believing that or believing about. But what does it mean? Others "believe in" love, which is not simply to believe that there is such a thing as love, but to regard it as in some way valuable. Telling someone "I believe in you" or "I have faith in you" seems to mean something like "I trust you".

Evangelicals don't encourage us to believe that there is a god, but to believe in a specific god. Theologins aren't much concerned to prove that there is a god up there, but that he deserves to be worshipped. Their job is to defend faith, not to defend belief. Indeed, some of them wind up having lots of faith, but no actual belief.

Belief concerns matter of fact. Faith is about value. Faith is an attitude, an emotional state of cherishing, idealising, even idolising.

But it's not as simple as that, because there's one other defining feature.

Faith has to be under attack. It's a defensive position. To have faith in, say, the future means to be optimistic, but also to be clinging to optimism in the face of doubt - otherwise it's just a belief that the future will be good. People only have faith in their romantic relationships if they fear the relationships might crumble.

We say "Keep the faith", implicitly admitting that it takes constant effort not to lose it. Indeed, that faith is constantly on the brink of being lost.

People who have faith in a deity feel the need to constantly re-affirm and prove their devotion. That's what a lot of praying is really about - not asking for things or saying thankyou for things, but checking that the connection with the deity is still there by sending contentless messages along it. That's why regular prayer, even when you've nothing to pray for, is always strongly encouraged by churches.

There are of course other ways to try to retain god's attention. One is to sing sycophantic songs at him. Another is to prosetylise - even if it's done by leaving holy books in hotel rooms in the forlorn hope that strangers will one day read them. Charitable works, caring for the sick and helping the homeless are routinely done by exactly the kind of people who, in different parts of their lives, moralise about the laziness of vagrants. If you want to know why people blow themselves up while shouting religious slogans, a cost-benefit analysis of loss of life versus the rewards of an afterlife won't give you a motive.

And then there are stagmatics. Indeed, I suggest that self-harm in general is an act of faith, even when it's not an act of devotion. It's a reaffirmation, a defiance, and the least important thing about it is what's being reaffirmed or defied. The cutter doesn't seem to know, and it doesn't seem to matter.

Political causes are often compared to religions. It's a lazy analogy, but activists do have faith. Which is to say, they see themselves as defending something - often from activists in opposite causes. Both left and right are defending culture against attack from heathens, and the greater the faith of the activist, the greater their fear of the enemy at the gates.

And that, I think, is at the heart of the difference. Belief is simply a description of reality which is accepted by the believer - usually not accepted in any passionate way, just held and not questioned. Faith is a desperate hope against fear that something precious is about to be destroyed.

Belief is holding, faith is clutching.

The strange thing is, most of us seem to have a need to clutch.

"Humbug has the peculiar property of always being committed by others, never by oneself."

- Max Black

"It takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen."

- Homer Simpson

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction."

- Harry Frankfurt

Back to the Future

I've had a webspace for two years.

I just...haven't had anything to put on it. Well, I still don't have anything to put on it, but I've got a great design for when I do. It takes a lot of clever programming to recreate the look of a terminal from 1981. That's not text you're looking at, it's a lot of specially blurred letter-graphics.

Kapitano's website: More retro than anything you'd come up with, guaranteed.

Update: Bugger.

On the one hand, I've been extremely clever in figuring out how to use JavaScript to convert strings of characters to strings of processed images to create retro, blurry text in primary colours.

And on the other hand, there's a one-line CSS trick to do the same thing - that takes three seconds instead of the entire weekend spent doing it. Gah!

"Suicides are frequently acts of revenge."

- Mark Simpson

"Anyone who points out the obvious, no matter how calmly and moderately, must be demonized and driven from the stage."

- Paul Krugman

"Necessity and curiosity aren’t necessarily opposites."

- Colby Keller

"When one commits oneself to the struggle, it must be for a lifetime."

- Angela Davis

Philosophy of Philosophy

A simple philosophical phriday this week, on the two senses of the word 'philosophy'. I actually wrote it last phriday friday, but couldn't think of a way to finish it.

There's the sense in that famous line from the film Videodrome: "It's dangerous, because it has something that you do not have. It has a philosophy". Which immediately prompts the question: "Whose philosophy?".

This is philosophy as in belief system, doctrine, body of knowledge, culture, and indeed way of life.

Then there's philosophy not as something one has, but as something one does. An activity, a practice, an undertaking. Indeed, there are people whose job description is 'philosopher', and we generally feel they're not doing their job properly if all they do is talk about the history of philosophy.

The result of philosophy in the second sense is presumably philosophy in the first sense, and there are plenty of other words like that. Cookery is both something you do, and something you have as a result of doing it. Science is both a method of studying the world, and the resultant collection of laws and observations.

But it seems to me there are two kinds of philosopher, corresponding to the two senses of philosophy. Those who are interesting for their method, and those who are interesting for their conclusions. And it's the first set who are more interesting.

The early Wittgenstein did not have a clear method, but he gave us a model of the way language relates (or doesn't relate) to the world. It's very elegant, but it's difficult to see what we can do with the model except admire it.

The later Wittgenstein thought there was no unified model to discover - there was only the cataloguing of the inconsistent ways words are used.

Hegel was quite explicit that his Compleat History of the Universe was the final discovery of mankind - leaving followers like Bradley and McTaggart with little to do but fill in the details.

Marx thought he'd found the hidden method at the heart of Hegel, to be applied in changing the political world - though he never got around to explaining what the method was.

Whatever you think of either, it's not difficult to see who had the greater impact, who's had the most enduring impact, and who's work is still being extended.

Spinoza and Libnitz were system builders. Descartes may be best known for his conclusions - including 'I think therefore I am' - but his method of radical doubt is much more interesting, and remains fruitful today.

If you want to know what it's like to be a subject in the world, read Martin Heidegger. If you want to know why it's like that, read Edmund Husserl.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred Ayer spent their lives trying out different approaches to questions like 'What is experience?' and 'Why does mathematics work?'. Even though most of their attempts ended in failure, the failures were instructive, and form the basis for further attempts.

Michel Foucault excavated forgotten history to find the political power structures hidden behind seemingly inexplicable cultural practices.

And so on. Perhaps it's just that the chase is more interesting than the catch, but thinkers who found answers are firmly part of the history of philosophy, whereas thinkers who contributed a method for finding answers, even if they lived centuries ago, still have something to say.

"A narcissus may perform, but he can never act."

- TP McKenna

"Everybody's under somebody's spell. Unless they've already gone to hell."

- Pet Shop Boys

"I need a man who'll talk dirty to me, in HTML code."

- Johnny McGovern

"People don't inflict harm because they are unaware of doing wrong but because they believe what they are doing is right."

- Stephen Reicher

"The best predictions are always made in hindsight."

- Martin Robbins

Sublime Prime Rhyme Time

Sometimes it's only when you write things down you realise they're wrong.

That's why I managed to write 10,000 words on why there are are seven kind of rhyme in English...only to realise reading it back that there had to be either hundreds...or about five.

So here's what I reckon on the kinds of rhymes.

Oh, 'Kinds' and 'Rhymes'. They sort-of sound the same. I'm a poet and I don't kn-....

[Cough.] Anyway...

The division of speech sounds into consonants and vowels has its problems, but I think it's good enough for our purposes.

Sound Example
/p/ Pit
/b/ Bit
/t/ Tit
/d/ Dim
/k/ Kit
/g/ Git
/tS/ Church
/dZ/ Judge
/f/ Fill
/v/ Vat
/s/ Sit
/z/ Zip
/S/ Show
/Z/ Television
/T/ Think
/D/ Those
/x/ Loch
/m/ Me
/n/ Knee
/N/ Thing
/r/ Run
/l/ Let
/w/ Water
/j/ Yes
/A/ Part
/V/ Putt
/O/ Port
/Q/ Pot
/u/ Poot
/U/ Put
/i/ Peat
/I/ Pit
/E/ Pet
/a/ Pat
/3/ Pert
/@/ ago
/aU/ Now
/VI/ Nigh
/eI/ Neigh
/@U/ No
/OI/ Noise

So a nice common word like 'Kapitano' has the sound: /kapItAn@U/

I'm using the hash symbol (#) to indicate the syllable of the word which is stressed, so my name is: /kapIt#An@U/

Now we can find words which rhyme perfectly with my name, by searching for any that end in /#An@U/ - that is, words which have the same sound from the vowel of the stressed syllable, forward to the end.

Which gives us: Boliviano, Guano, Carnot, Mano, Mexicano, Meccano, Romano, Soprano...and plenty of others.

These are perfect rhymes - my first type.

I'm glossing over a lot here. /r/, /w/ and /j/ are stricly speaking what are called semivowels or glides. The two-part vowels are diphthongs. There are some diphthongs like /U@/ in 'poor', which linguists disagree about. There are some sounds like /VI@/ in 'tire' which can be analysed in more than one way. There are vowels like /{/ which only occur in loan words like the German 'Froelich'. The consonants /tS/ and /dZ/ may be represented as two other consonants jammed togther, but in sound they're not. /l/ is really two sounds - the 'light' /l/ in 'Let' and the 'dark' /l/ in 'Full'. And so on.

Having lampshaded these difficulties, I'm now going to completely ignore them.

If there are perfect rhymes, what kind of imperfect rhymes - or 'half rhymes' - are there?

Well, about half of the consonants can be grouped into pairs by whether they're voiced or not. The /p/ in 'Pat' is unvoiced, and its voiced counterpart is the /b/ in 'Bat'. Likewise:

Unvoiced Voiced
Part Bart
Tart Dart
Call Gall
Mitch Midge
Fail Vale
Sip Zip
Rush Raj
Think That

There are other ways to group consonants, for instance by place of articulation - whether they're made with the lips, the tip of the tongue or the blade of the tongue. Thus the final sounds of 'Gap', 'Saff' and 'Lamb' could be grouped together. But are you more likely to try to rhyme 'Gap' with 'Cab' than 'Gap' with 'Lamb'?

For purposes of finding rhymes, the voicing distinction seems the most useful. But what about the consonants that don't have unvoiced counterparts, and are there any that can be put in groups of more than two? The answers are yes, and...yes, but be careful.

Here's my full list of consonant groupings:

/p/ /b/
/t/ /d/ T D
/k/ /g/
/tS/ /dZ/ /S/ /Z/
/f/ /f/
/s/ /z/
/m/ /n/ /N/
/r/ /l/
/w/ /j/

This does allow for half rhymes that you might think a stretch too far - rhyming 'Third' with 'Firth', or 'Pang' with 'Sam'. If so, just ignore the ones you don't like and keep the ones you do. Or come up with your own system.

Incidentally, the consonant /h/ is nothing more that a devoiced version of the vowel which comes after it, so it can't be grouped with anything.

My third category of rhyme involves, somewhat inevitably, grouping vowels instead of consonants.

Now, about half the vowels fall into short and long pairings, like this:

Long Short
/A/ /V/
/O/ /Q/
/u/ /U/
/i/ /I/
/3/ /@/

/a/ doesn't have a long counterpart. There's some dispute over whether words like 'Hair' have a long version of the /E/ sound or something like a /Er/ glide - my source (the SOED) doesn't make a consistent distinction, so I've dropped it, leaving /E/ for both the vowels in 'Pet' and 'Mare'.

After some long, painful thinking, I've decided the five diphthongs can't be grouped with anything else. Well, they can, but it gives some painfully 'off' rhymes.

So with vowel half-rhyming, we can rhyme 'Gart' with 'Putt', and 'Seen' with 'Gin'.

My forth category is simply to group consonants and vowels.

This is getting quite a long way from the perfect rhymes, allowing us to rhyme 'Seed' with 'Sith', 'Horse' with 'Moss' and 'Cup' with 'Garb'.

The fifth kind is one familiar to poets - the vowel rhyme. This just involves putting all consonants into one group, and rhyming words if the vowels are the same, and they have consonants or consonant clusters in the same place.

This rhymes 'Barre' with 'cafe', 'Deck' with 'then', and 'Bill' with 'Did'.

Category five is the same as four, but with vowels in groupings.

Words are accepted as rhyming in songs which people would never accept as rhyming in speech. Poetry is even more loose, but these two give rhymes which I think few poets would accept.

There is one assumption which I haven't broken from the start - that the 'rhyming part' of the word is from the emphasised syllable to the end. With the implicit assumption that in monosyllables, the first and only vowel is the emphasised one.

This means that 'Subject' and 'Object' as verbs rhyme, because the emphasis is on the second syllable. But as nouns they don't rhyme, because the emphasis is on the first syllable.

But could we break this rule and ignore the word stress? Could we rhyme a word like 'Telecine' (/telis#Ini/) with a word ending in /esIni/? Probably, but I can't think of a single example of any real words we could do this with.

So for my sixth category, I'm including all the potential rhymes for the first five which were excluded by the emphasised syllable rule. This kind of rhyme is like the locrican mode in music - a theoretical possibility, but barely ever used, and terrible to listen to.

"Shame is a lie someone told you about yourself."

- Anais Nin

"Cynics make the best oracles."

- Bryan Lambert

Words and Numbers 3

I've been having another stab at writing a rhyming dictionary. And the result....

The SOED lists five words with no vowels at all. They are:

Brrr - an excamation of cold
N - the abberviation of 'nano' and 'nitrogen' in chemistry and 'knight' in chess
Pfft - a sound made to dismiss something as insignificant
Tch - another sound of dismissal (though not one I've ever heard)
Tsk - a transcription of the 'tut' (or unvoiced alveolar or retroflex implosive), used to express irritation or contempt. Or in idiomatic Turkish to say 'no'.

But I wouldn't take the compilers of the SOED too seriously if I were you. They manage to list 1452 words and phrases as having no word stress whatsoever - mostly French.

And seeing as I have neither the patience nor the fluency in French to correct the list, I have nothing else to do with it than publish it here. So....

à chevalà contrecœurà deux
à fondà laà la page
à merveilleà outranceà point
à terreà tort et à traversà trois
abonnementacharnementacte gratuit
ad remadageaffaire
agent provocateuragrémentaigre-doux
ambianceâme damnéeamende
amende honorableamour courtoisan sich
ancien régimeandouilleandouillette
anisao daiaperçu
appellation contrôléearc-boutantarme blanche
attentismeattraitau courant
au faitau fondau grand sérieux
au gratinau mieuxau naturel
au pairau pied de la lettreau reste
au revoirau sérieuxaubaine
Auvergnatavouéback seat
bal costumébal masquébal musette
balancéballonballon d'essai
barrébarrelbas bleu
beardbeau gestebeau rôle
beau sabreurbeauté du diablebeaux arts
beaux yeuxbeerbéguin
bel espritbelle laidebelles-lettres
bidonbien entendubien pensant
bodgerbois brûlébois d'arc
bonheur du jourboomerboor
Bow Streetbrandadebriquet
canthuscapable de toutcapitonné
carmagnolecarrefourcarte d'identité
carte du payscarton-pierrecatalogue raisonné
cause célèbrecauseriecauseuse
chaînéchaise percéechalumeau
chapelle ardentecharcuteriechassé
cheerschef d'écolechef d'orchestre
chef-d'œuvrechemin de fercher maître
chère amiechétifcheval
chose jugéechoucroutechronique scandaleuse
ciné-véritécinq trouscire perdue
comme cicomme il fautcommère
commis-voyageurcompagnon de voyagecompany
compotiercompte renducomptoir
comtesseconcours d'éléganceconférencier
coq au vincouleur de rosecoureur
courgecourse librecourt bouillon
crémaillèrecressoncri de cœur
criardcriblécrime passionnel
Croix de Guerrecroquiscrudités
curecurécy pres
dame de compagniedame d'honneurdanse du ventre
danse macabredanseurdanseuse
de haut en basde nos joursde nouveau
de rigueurde son tortde trop
dégringoladedehorsdéjà entendu
déjà ludéjà vudéjeuner
développédévotdiable au corps
Ding an sichdirigismedix-huitième
double ententedouceurdrageoir
du restedu toutdure
éminence griseempresséempressement
en attendanten avanten beau
en blocen brosseen cabochon
en clairen croûteen daube
en échelonen évidenceen face
en familleen fêteen garçon
en grand seigneuren grande tenueen gros
en l'airen masseen noir
en pantouflesen passanten pension
en permanenceen placeen plein
en plein airen posteen prince
en principeen priseen rapport
en regarden règleen retraite
en revancheen tout casen train
en ventre sa mèreenceinteenchaînement
encoignureenfant gâtéenfant terrible
entente cordialeentrainentre nous
explication de texteexternatextincteur
façon de parlerfaçonnéfairish
faisandéfait accomplifamilistère
faubourgfaute de mieuxfauteuil
faux bonhommefaux pasfaux-bourdon
fête champêtrefête galantefeu d'artifice
feu de joiefeu folletfeuillemorte
figurantfille de chambrefille de joie
fillettefilm noirfin de siècle
fine champagnefines herbesfirn
force de frappeforce majeureforcené
fou rirefouettéfoulé
fourgonfourniturefranc tireur
franc-archerFrançois Premierfranglais
friseurfrissonfromage frais
gage d'amourgaieté de coeurgalant
garçongarconnièregarde champêtre
Garde Mobilegarde-du-corpsgargouillade
Général JacqueminotGenevoisgens de la robe
Gloire de Dijongobblegourd
gros bleugros pointguérite
half moonhandlerharas
hausse-colhaut mondehaut ton
haute Bohèmehaute bourgeoisiehaute couture
haute cuisinehaute écolehaute noblesse
haute vulgarisationhaut-goûthaut-pas
hélasHenri Deuxhere
higlifhipsterhonnête homme
horizontalehors concourshors de combat
hurlingidée fixeidée reçue
japonaiserieje ne sais quoijeer
jet d'eaujeune fillejeune premier
jeunessejeunesse doréejoie de vivre
jolie laidejongleurjouissance
journalierjuge d'instructionjusqu'au bout
justaucorpsjuste milieukiddier
Lambiclangue de chatlangue d'oc
langue d'oïllaquais de placelavaret
levée en masselever de rideaulimon
livraisonlivre de chevetlivre de circonstance
lycéelyrema foi
maîtremaître d'maître d'hôtel
maîtressemajoratmal de mer
mal du paysmal du sièclemal élevé
mal vumalade imaginairemaladif
maniérémanière cribléemanoir
maréchalmaréchausséemari complaisant
mariage blancmariage de convenanceMarivaudage
mélangemenus plaisirsmere
métayerméthode champenoisemétier
metteur en scèneMilicemilitaire
mise au pointmise en scènemise-en-page
mon amimon chermon Dieu
mon vieuxmondainMonseigneur
monstre sacrémont de piétémontagne russe
mousseuxmouton enragémouvementé
museaumuséemusique concrète
muzzlenaïveténature morte
navarin printaniernearnécessaire
Neversniaiserienicht wahr
Niçoisnoceurnom de dieu
nom de guerrenom de théâtrenon avenu
nostalgie de la bouenote verbalenotes inégales
nous autresnouveau pauvrenouveau riche
nouveau romannouveaux arrivésnouvelle
nouvelle cuisinenouvelle vaguenuancé
nuée ardentenuit blanchenuméro
oeilladeoeufs en cocotteold field
old landold schoolombré
ombre chevalierombres chinoiseson dit
Ondes MartenotoomOort
opéra bouffeopéra comiqueoraison funèbre
Palais de Justicepalmierpalourde
panier de crabespaperasseriepapeterie
papierpar excellenceparapluie
parti prisparticulepartie
partie carréepartousepas d'âne
pas devantpasséismepassementerie
pearpeau d'Espagnepeau d'orange
peerpelousepelure d'oignon
pensionnatpensyperfide Albion
permis de séjourpesadepesanteur
phanerozoicpièce à thèsepièce de circonstance
pièce de convictionpièce de résistancepièce d'occasion
pièce justificativepièce noirepièce rose
pied d'éléphantpied noirpiedroit
pirepis allerpisé
place d'armesplafondplaidoyer
plaisanterieplein jeuplein-air
pliéplique à jourplongeur
poêléepoète mauditpointillé
politiquepomme de terrepompier
ponceauponcifPont l'Évêque
pont-levispoorpoor man
poortpopoteport de bras
port de voixportefeuilleporteur
portièreportrait parléPortugaise
pose plastiquepostmanpot de chambre
poudreusepoule au potpoulet
poupéepour encourager les autrespour le sport
pour passer le tempspour rirepourboire
précieuxpréfetpremier cru
premier danseurpremière danseuseprepone
primeurprincesse lointaineprintanier
Prix de Romeprix fixeprocédé
procès-verbalprocureurprofil perdu
puncturepur et simplepur sang
purepyrequand même
quantité négligeablequartierqueer
raison d'étatraison d'êtreraisonné
recherche du temps perdurécitréclame
reculer pour mieux sauterrédacteurreflet
reglementReine Clauderelâche
rien ne va plusrinceauris de veau
rite de passagerivièreroche moutonnée
roerrognonroi fainéant
roi soleilromanromancé
rond de cuirrondeursrond-point
ruse de guerresac de nuitsacre
sacré bleusajousalade niçoise
salaudsale Bochesalut
saphir d'eausapinsapristi
saugrenusauve qui peutsavoir
savoir fairesavoir vivresceatta
scène à faireschuitscribble
searsecret de Polichinelleseer
segregantséjourselon les règles
soignésoigneursoirée dansante
sons bouchéssoorsorcerize
sortie de balsottisesottisier
soupirantsoursous vide
squireSt CloudSt Raphaël
Steyrstil de grainstire
suprêmesur placesure
swiresympathiquesyndicat d'initiative
Système Internationaltabactabagie
tailleurtant bien que maltant mieux
tant pistaovalatapénade
tâtonnementtaxe de séjourtear
temps perdutendressetendu
tenueterrain vagueterrasse
terre cuiteterre piséeterre-à-terre
tête de boeuftête de cuvéetête de mouton
tête de nègretête de ponttête montée
tiercétiers étattiers monde
toilétoison d'ortonnelle
TontonTonton Macoutetooting
torsade de pointestoujourstour
tour d'horizonTourangeautourmente
tourntourtetout ensemble
tout Paristrackertragédie lyrique
trahisontrainantetrait d'union
traiteurtranchanttravaux préparatoires
tricoteusetripe de rochetripot
tripotagetrois pointtrompe l'oeil
trou-de-louptrouvailletruite au bleu
twitterunbelievableUnion Corse
urinoirursva banque
vendeuseveneralventre à terre
véritévernissagevers de société
vers d'occasionvers librevespasienne
vice anglaisvicomtevicomtesse
viguierville lumièrevingt-et-un
vinnyviolette de Parmeviolon d'Ingres
viveurviviervogue la galère
voilàvoix célestevolupté
voyouvrai réseauvraisemblable
vraisemblancevue d'ensemblevulgarisateur
ying ch'ingyttro-yurt

I'm fairly sure 'poor man', 'chicken', 'seat belt', 'ghastly', and 'unbelieveable' are neither French nor stressless. If the lexicographers of the most prestigeous English dictionary in the world make this kind of mistake routinely, I have to wonder what other dictionaries are like.

And how many problems they cause for students.

Anyway, watch out for the Kapitano Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary...in whatever form I eventually make it.

"When the theatre presents poor people as good we call it sentimental. When it presents them as bad we call it squalid."

- Kenneth Tynan

Who am I? (Part 2)

I'm the kind of man who slops out most mornings.

There's a bucket outside my bedroom. It's there because I have blocked sink with a dripping tap inside my room, and if I don't empty it, it'll overflow. Directly onto my bed.

So the water goes in the bucket, and I empty it down the toilet.

But I've found that having a bucket is very useful if you spend the night drinking tea and watching movies (see last post). Because if your sink is blocked up, where else do you pour your cold tea at four in the morning so you can make another cup?

And if you drink that much tea, and you're diabetic so have overactive kidneys...well, you see where this is going.

Douglas Adams may have shown us the value of towels, but I think buckets are pretty useful too.

"Anyone driven by desperation to an irrevocable act is potentially a tragic hero."

- Kenneth Tynan

Who am I? (Part 1)

I'm the kind of person who's got the following five films waiting to be watched on his hard drive:

Phase IV - classic scifi about ants preparing to take over the world.

There are plenty of films about the end of the world. There's lots of films about what happens to the survivors after the end of the world. These often have zombies in them.

But Phase IV is about the events leading up to the end, without showing the end itself. Which makes it a film about what's going to happen.

The Party - Plotless, slightly racist Peter Sellars comedy about a bumbling Indian guy being clumsy at a sophisticated dinner party.

Lost Highway - Dreams, fantasies, femme fatales, 1950s smalltown America, guns, cars, gangsters, screwed up families, and a storyline like a moebius strip.

Yes, it's a David Lynch movie. Specifically, it's the version of Mulholland Drive which he made before Mulholland Drive, a film held together by a lesbian love story that was added as an afterthought in postproduction shooting.

I love David Lynch's movies. I don't understand them, I don't drink his coffee, I think his Transcendental Meditation is a load of rubbish...but his films are great.

Silence - A film by Ingmar Bergman. And that's absolutely all I know about it. But I do have a vague feeling I should have seen more than one Ingmar Bergman film in my life.

Cannibal Holocaust - Depending who you ask, it's an utterly disgusting piece of degrading schlock, or one of the greatest horror films ever made. Or possibly both. I'll know when I've seen it. Probably.

"Low drama with high principles is better than high principles with no audience."

- Kenneth Tynan

"What do I know of death? I am alive."

- To My Boy

"The chief source of problems is solutions."

- Eric Sevareid

"Most of us would like to kill the thing we love from time to time – probably with our bare hands."

- Mark Simpson

"Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths."

- Karl Popper

God (Part 3)

In parts 1 and 2, we looked at the common intelligent arguments for the existence of a god. But most arguments - for anything - are stupid, so I'll finish off the series with a look at the most common of the stupid theological arguments I've encountered. Enjoy.

  • You can't prove he doesn't exist, therefore he does.

This is the classical Argument from Ignorance.The general form is: 'You can't prove that X is false, therefore X is true'. Occasionally you'll encounter the converse: 'You can't prove that X is true, therefore X is false'.

It relies on a failure to distinguish between 'not proven' and 'proven false' - a surprisingly common mistake in political discussions.

  • God is beyond all reason or evidence, therefore all arguments against his existence fail, therefore he exists.

This is the Trancendental Argument, which is a special case of the Argument from Ignorance, this time failing to distinguish between 'neither provable nor disprovable' and 'disproven'.

  • The bible is true because it says it is.

Good old fashioned circular reasoning.

  • If god didn't exist we wouldn't be able to conceive of him.

This one was actually used by Rene Descartes, who also argued that: God, being good, wouldn't let me be deceived by false experiences. My experiences are genuine, therefore god made them that way.

  • Something unexplained happened, therefore god did it. Or aliens.

Another variant on the Argument from Ignorance - 'You don't have an explanation for X, I'm putting forward explanation Y, Y is the only explanation available, therefore Y is true.'

You'll often find this in political discussions, where it takes the form: 'You reason that explanation A is false, but you don't offer an alternative,therefore A is true.', often as the rhetorical question: 'Do you have an alternative?'

  • The only possible explanation for christianity's success is it's truth. Alternatively, X million believers can't be wrong.

Known as the Argument from Majority. Sometimes countered with an argument from a different majority, eg: 'Islam is the fastest growing faith in the world.'

  • If there's no god, there's no heaven. So where do you go when you die?

This one isn't really a failure of logic as such - more a failure to distinguish logic from hope, or from beliefs chosen simply for the comfort they give.

  • The proof of god's existence is only available to those who already believe.

A common variant is The scriptures make perfect sense and are all true, but you'll only see why if you believe them.

This is essentially a redressed Argument from Revelation, dealt with in part 1.

  • Everyone has faith in something, so there's no such thing as an atheist, so faith X is the correct one.

This is a blend of two arguments - the second is yet another Argument from Ignorance, but the first relies on conflating two difference senses of 'faith'.

Specifically, there is inductive faith, that past experience is a guide to the future - my chair won't collapse today because it hasn't collapsed so far, or the last three Transformers movies have been rubbish, so the forth will be rubbish too.

Contrast with faith in the absence of an evidence or experience whatsoever, or faith which actually goes against the evidence. That's the kind of faith involved in religion.

The believer will object that their faith is actually of the first kind - that they see evidence of god everywhere. Which brings us to our final blunder, confirmation bias:

  • Look at the structure of the universe, the beauty of the world, the goodness of people. It couldn't happen unless a good god made it that way.

Odd how they never mention entropy, cruelty in nature, or war. Confirmation bias involves taking notice only of evidence which agrees with a belief, and ignoring or handwaving the rest away.

Most counterfactual beliefs don't require support beyond habit, upbringing, or to be shared by one's group. But occasionally doubt intrudes, either in the form of an intense personal experience that can't be immediately rationalised away, or a falling out from the group, or the beliefs of one group that one is a member of colliding with the beliefs of a different one.

When this happens, it doesn't take much to patch up the belief with ad hocreasoning that looks solid until the moment it's examined - but of course, there is motive to not examine it. Indeed, for some people the vast majority of what they believe is a heap of contradictory ad hoc rationalisations that have built up over the years.

The above list give the patterns of the most common rationalisations. Being familiar with them may or may not may you less susceptible to bullshitting yourself, but it should at least help in spotting when others are doing it.

"I’m stuck in a loveless relationship with myself."

- Charlie Brooker

"In the future everyone will have a sextape."

- Dan Savage

"The numbers didn't lie. We did."

- Penn Gilette

Dirty Mind

Superstitions grow up around things we regard as important. Not necessarily things we like, but things we feel strongly about - whether we admit to these feelings or not.

Which means if you want to know the obsessions are of an individual or a culture, look for their rituals.

I don't mean rituals like putting the milk in before the tea (or vice versa), or shaking hands after doing business. Those are just habits and politeness. I'm talking about little actions that are believed to change the structure of the universe in magical, beneficial ways.

How many rituals are there to bring luck? Blowing on dice, wearing the 'lucky' pair of socks, reciting affirmations, doing 'positive thinking' exercises, and of course praying.

How many rituals are there to ward off bad luck? The groom not seeing the bride shortly before the wedding ceremony, actors not mentioning Macbeth, even throwing a handful of salt over your shoulder and never shaking with your left hand.

Sometimes it's not exactly about luck - more about being 'worthy' of success. If you go to sleep at 2am and wake up at 10am, you're supposedly somehow less renewed than if you sleep from 10pm and wake at 6am. Early risers are in some mysterious way 'better at sleep'.

Have you ever known someone who started using mudpacks? And did they look notably younger than before? No - if anything the opposite.

Okay, we all know that these rituals don't work, because they're based on beliefs that aren't true.

But what about washing your hands after urinating? And that goes for women as well as men.

Urine is sterile, and the skin of your genitals isn't any more infested with bacteria than any other organ. In fact, given the number of things you touch with your hands, you'd do better to wash your genitals after handling them.

But no. The idea is that your sex organs are physically dirty, and it seems to make sense, because the waste products that pass through or near them are breeding grounds for germs. Except...actually they're not.

We think sex organs have an ineradicable, invisible dirtyness about them because...they're spiritually unclean. The old judeo-christian horror of sexuality hitches a ride on the modern fear of pathogens, and the result is a superstition connecting disease with sex.

That and the slightly strange practice of putting plumbing for sewage in the same room as plumbing for ablution.

There's a lot of superstitions about genitals - especially male ones. If you doubt it, just think of the pointless ritual of circumcision, and the idiotic arguments made to justify it.

Compare it with the rarity of the much worse female circumcision, and ask how many of those who campaign against the female variety think the male variety is a good thing.

So, there are probably more superstitions about penises than vaginas, and a whole lot more about being lucky than being worthy. I think this tells us something about the cultures we live in.

"You don't become an atheist so much as find out that's what you are."

- Christopher Hitchens

"To have a good idea, stop having a bad one."

- Marcel Kinsbourne

"The only performance which makes it all the way is the one which achieves madness. Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

- Mick Jagger

"I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused"

- Elvis Costello

"You can only gaze at your own navel for so long, before you start gazing up your own derriere."

- Mark Kermode

God (Part 2)

Last time, I looked at the first three of the half dozen 'intellectual' arguments for the existence of a god or gods. This is the second half of the set.

  • The Argument from Morality (1): Right and wrong exist, but aren't corporeal, so must be spiritual, so must come from a spiritual source, which must be god.


    People can make laws but not morality. Therefore something else made it, therefore god did.

This is really about transcendental authority. Your boss has power over you, which is given by their boss who has power over them, and so on to the top of the tree. But who awards and justifies the power of the man at the top?

Does he have it by right of inheritance? But where does that right come from? Of conquest? Of just being born with 'natural authority'? Same problem.

God is the obvious super-authoriser and self-authoriser. He's also conveniently invisible, and unavailable to answer questions. We have to be content with his subordinates, who are presumably instructed by him when we're not looking.

There is a parallel between this transcendental authority and the transcendental origin of the Cosmological argument. And the two have the same problem - that once the notion of self-authorisation (or self-creation) is permitted, the whole need for a super-authoriser (or super-creator) disappears.

Morals come from people applying imperfect intellects to imperfectly defined goals in imperfectly understood circumstances.

  • The Argument from Morality (2): People are evil, so will only be good if frightened into it, and the only thing capable of doing that is god. Therefore he exists.


    All atheists are sinful. All christians are sinless. Therefore god.

Yes, there are actually two arguments from morality - though people making them often smudge them together. This second one isn't actually an argument about the existence of god - rather it's about the social utility of the masses believing in a vengeful god.

Thus, like the first morality argument, it's about ultimate authority.

The obvious empirical facts that nonbelievers are, if anything, more moral than believers - and indeed the secular nations are uniformally the ones with the lowest crime rates - are easy to ignore.

In its benign form, you often find this argument used by people whose reason pushes them to reject the religion they were raised in, but whose emotional attachment to its moral certainty or financial dependence on its power structure compel them to remain.

It's a sort of halfway house - a notion that although there is no god up there, we should all behave as though there were. It therefore sometimes shades into the 'religions for atheists' - humanism, or the 'spiritual unbeliever' movements.

Either way, it relies on the authoritarian notion that humans are born morally defective and with insufficient intellect to recognise the ethical good, and insufficient willpower to act on it even if they do. Thus they need a ruthless but benevolent dictatorship, to control them for their own good.

Obviously, those who hold such a position don't include themselves in the common mass - they see themselves as 'middle managers' in the dictatorship. Unsurprisingly then, it's a doctrine popular in the middle class.

  • The Argument from Revelation: God changed my heart. Therefore I know with absolute but incommunicable certainty that he's real.


    I had a powerful vision, and only true visions are powerful, so god exists.

Also called the argument from personal experience, this is a fallback position for when logical or empirical arguments fail. It attempts to locate the proof of god in a place where the skeptic can never reach it. Namely in the private experiences, conveniently inexpressible, of the believer. And in this one case, the experiences are declared to be self-guaranteeing, though for reasons which are also conveniently inexpressible.

The argument ultimately just pushes the burden of proof one stage further back. The believer is saying "You need to believe X and my proof is Y, but I can't tell you what Y is. You need to believe Y."

Plus, any argument from revelation can be blocked by another argument from revelation.

I've listed the six 'respectable' arguments for the existence of a deity. Each has many variations, which try to avoid the pitfalls I've outlined.

The most common evasive strategy is to word the arguments in far more oblique, slippery and insinuating ways that I've given. However, once the verbiage, vagueness and meaningless qualifications are burned away, the central arguments become clear - and so therefore do their refutations.

Of course, there are many other arguments commonly used - in fact, these are the ones that ordinary believers tend to produce. And some of these will form the final part of this unholy trinity of essays.

"If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."

- Voltaire


There are two kinds of verb.

I don't mean transitive and intransitive, or active and passive. I mean there are verbs which tell you about an action but not the result, and those which tell you about the result but not the action itself.

Here's some of the first kind:
  • The monkey hit the window.
  • Five mothers sat on a sofa.
  • A minister spoke to us.

Now, what was the state of the window after the monkey hit it? Did the sofa sag under the weight of five mothers? What effect did the minister's speech have on us? Indeed, did we even hear what he said?

We don't know. That information isn't in the sentences. The verbs 'hit', 'sat' and 'spoke' tell us about a process or event, but not the result or consequences.

But here's some examples of the second kind:
  • The monkey smashed the window.
  • Five mothers strained a sofa.
  • A minister fascinated us.

There's no problem here finding the results - a smashed window, a creaking sofa and an enthralled audience. But how did these results come about? What actions led to these consequences?

Was the window smashed by a hammer, a fist, or the monkey falling through it? Did the mothers stand on the sofa, jump up and down on it, or lie on it? How did the minister fascinate us - with a sermon, a striptease, or a demonstration of advanced yoga?

So far as I know, every language has these two kinds of verb, and the only example I can think of, of a verb which might be in both categories is...'is'.

I've also not met a single teacher of English who knew the distinction - though that may not be surprising, as most of them know less about grammar than I know about quantum electrodynamics.

But you may ask: So what? How is this useful outside the EFL classroom?

Well, I think bearing the distinction in mind helps you focus on something important when you're explaining or teaching anything - including to yourself. Namely, on what kind of explanation or instruction you're giving.

Are you a film director explaining to your camera operator how you want a shot framed, or are you an auteur talking about the filmic effect you want, so your technically trained operator can use their experience to work out how to get it?

Are you a music producer working on mid/side EQ, or are you a music lover who hears something missing in the mix and is looking for a way to make it right?

Are you a cook following a recipe or a foodie fine-tuning a meal?

Both are perfectly valid ways of working, but I think a lot of confusion results from not being clear in your own mind what kind of question you're asking and which kind of answer you're looking for.