The Samovar

The ultimate dilemma
October 28, 2006, 5:00 am
Filed under: Film

Which is the funniest film of all time?

  • The Big Lebowski


  • Dr Strangelove

Those are the choices, and that’s an objective fact.

I think in the end my money is on Dr Strangelove because the humour is do damned dark and I love that. But… it doesn’t have El Duderino.

Confessions of a reformed fundamentalist
October 28, 2006, 4:40 am
Filed under: Manifesto, Politics, Religion

I used to be a fundamentalist.

No really.

I used to be a fundamentalist atheist. I’d like to describe why I no longer am.

First, a bit of personal history. Neither of my parents are religious, so I never had the misfortune of a belief in god at a young and impressionable age (although I went to a C of E school for a while and was apparently not entirely atheist for a time). As I became older and more rational, I became increasingly annoyed at people who were religious because it seemed clear to me that there was no evidence for god, and certainly not the very specific god of religious texts like the bible. I became convinced that they couldn’t be generally capable of rational thought if they believed in it. I would describe this stage of my life as fundamentalist atheist. Richard Dawkins is probably the most well known example of someone in this stage. (And yes, my using the word stage is a conscious rhetorical trick for suggesting that his development has been retarded at an early stage.)

At university and subsequently, I became acquainted with religious people who clearly were capable of rational thought at quite a sophisticated level. I also realised that you could be right wing and capable of reason, which perhaps came as even more of a shock to me. Although to this day, I honestly can’t say I understand the mind of a rational person who is religious, the evidence suggested I had to revise my position (reluctantly though).

More recently, another reason has become more important. Anti-religious feeling has begun to be associated with specifically anti-muslim feeling, which is in turn tinged with a strong element of racism. The pope recently expressed the sentiment that islam is “evil and inhuman”. You’d expect the pope to think this – after all, islam is the competition – but many atheist or slightly christian people (you know, the ones who come up with cop out crap like “I believe there’s probably something”), who probably like to imagine that they’re not racists, think the same thing. It is of course possible to be anti-religious in a non-racist way, but I believe this to be much rarer.

I also realised that it is equally possible to be a liberal theist or a bigoted atheist, and I realised that I much prefer the former. In fact, whether someone believes in god or not is wholly irrelevant to how they behave in society. What is important is how they relate to other people. A recent study showed that muslim children at two schools in Blackburn were more tolerant than ‘white’ children. This is related to another point. Atheists can be manipulated by nonsense beliefs just as much as theists can. They can be motivated by racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, etc. Many of these have quite close parallels with religious forms of intolerance. As I argued in an earlier manifesto entry, focusing on religion and ignoring all these other forms of intolerance makes us miss some very important points.

I do think that ultimately, if rationality is to triumph then religion has to die out. I have some reservations about this based on my lack of personal knowledge or experience of religious sensations, but to be honest I don’t have many reservations about it. I don’t even think the concept of god is epistemologically meaningful. But this really is about the ultimate triumph of rationality, an event so far from the present as to be hardly worth speculating about. This fight is not the important one. The important fight is for rationality and compassion in the political domain, for freedom and tolerance.

The Pigeon Conspiracy
October 26, 2006, 5:14 am
Filed under: Frivolity

BBC news is reporting a pelican eating a pigeon.

How is that a pigeon? It’s quite clearly a coot. Why are the BBC lying to us? What is the basis of the great pigeon conspiracy? Are they trying to airbrush the coot out of history? Are they trying to start a war between pigeonkind and pelicankind? We need to know!


The conspiracy goes deeper. Flickr user James Bunton posts pictures of a pelican eating a pigeon dated NOVEMBER 1ST 2005!!!

And what do we see in the foreground here? A pigeon. QUITE SAFE!!

And what do we see here if not a PELICAN EYEING UP SOME COOTS!?!

Image crappification on wordpress
October 25, 2006, 4:13 am
Filed under: WordPress

Whenever I upload a custom header picture for this blog, wordpress seems to crappify it. It takes a perfectly good image and does some nasty stuff to it and then it looks rubbish.

I feign ignorance, but I know what it’s doing. It’s taking the picture I upload and resampling it as a JPEG file whose size is 10kb. Is there any way round this? Does this happen for every theme or just the Kubrick one? Why does it resample it even if I upload a nicely tweaked JPEG file which is under 10kb? (It actually managed to increase the file size and make it look worse.)

Search terms
October 24, 2006, 2:37 am
Filed under: Internet, Search Terms

I’ve just noticed that WordPress allows you to see where people are coming to your site from, and what search terms they used to get them here. I decided to post a few of the best. If funny ones keep turning up I might make this a semi-regular feature.

  • do anarchist believe in a god – this person must have been really committed because my blog doesn’t come up in the first 15 pages of Google with this search
  •  spells to stop noisy neighbours – I’m on page 3 talking about ASBOs
  • what does samovars mean and a little later a followup, samovar how to use – sadly I didn’t provide anything helpful on either of these questions

Review: Anarchist Bookfair
October 23, 2006, 12:55 am
Filed under: Activism, Anarchism, Civil Liberties, Economics, Environment, Politics

Yesterday I went to the anarchist bookfair in London. It was quite an interesting event.

General impressions

Although I call myself an anarchist, I had never been to any anarchist event before, so it was interesting to see the sort of people who turned up to it. There was a healthy mix: what you might call lifestyle anarchists in various costumes; political activists, either tightly or loosely affiliated to anarchism; intellectual types; young people, including quite a few children; old people; etc. Dreadlocks and mohicans were the haircut of choice. One thing that was quite noticeable was that almost everyone was white. I think that probably bears thinking about. The contrast with Holloway Road, where it was held, was striking. But then again, the contrast with Waitrose supermarket which was next door was probably even more striking.

I went to two talks. One by Michael Albert of ZNet talking about parecon, which was pretty good. I’d heard pretty much everything he said about this before from reading articles of his online, but the discussion afterwards was quite interesting. I’m glad that he was talking about it because I think it’s a really important idea that deserves to be better known, particularly in the UK. The other was by someone who it turns out is some mainstream psychologist, talking about how politicians use our fear to manipulate us. Potentially interesting topic but she didn’t say anything that wasn’t obvious, and it was very, very slow. I left halfway through.


I went to two discussion groups. The first one was organised by the London Anarchist Forum, and was on the subject of anarchism and environmentalism. There were lots of interesting ideas, but nothing groundbreaking. We talked a little about whether or not anarchists should cooperate with mainstream political parties, or even the Green party, on this issue. The major arguments against were that (a) it isn’t effective because when parties gain power they usually sell out and don’t do all the good things they said they were going to do, and (b) that if you have capitalism you can’t solve environmental problems and so you can’t really work with any group that basically approves of capitalism. We didn’t spend enough time on the topic to deal with it thoroughly. I was going to say that working within a political party can help to achieve modest victories, and was going to raise the question of whether or not it is worth expending a lot of effort to achieve modest environmental victories. I did say that because the problem of the environment is so pressing and so potentially catastrophic we couldn’t afford to be so idealistic about how we approached it. I think that we need to do everything we can to address environmental problems using whatever approach might work, even if it means organising together with people whose views we fundamentally disagree with. After this, we spent some time talking about particular things you might do. To me, most of these seemed like quite small symbolic gestures, but I haven’t really made my mind up about this sort of thing in general.

The second discussion I went to was about ID cards. This discussion actually worried me deeply. Not because of the subject matter which I already knew all about and I’m already very worried about it, but the ignorance of the participants. A lot of people seemed to be concerned about things which were irrelevant or factually inaccurate. For example, one man was worried about what an iris scan might potentially reveal about you. Even if you could tell things about people from an image of their iris (which is dubious), this is not an issue because biometric scans don’t keep a copy of the image of your iris, only an electronic signature of it from which it isn’t possible to recover the original image. There seemed to be very little realisation that the real problem with the UK ID card proposals is not the card itself but the database that goes with it and the fundamental change that entails in the relationship between the individual and the state.

I also thought that the suggestions people were making were strategically very unsound. There was a lot of focus on the card itself, the cost of it, fears about iris scanning technology, etc. It seems obvious to me that if you base your campaign against something on things that are not fundamental to it, you’re bound to be caught out later on. As far as I was concerned, my main conclusion from this discussion was that a lot of effort needs to be made to educate activists about exactly what the problem is with the ID card proposals. Unfortunately, we ran out of time so I didn’t get a chance to make the point that it ought to be linked to protests against other repressive measures such as anti-terrorism legislation because they are both manifestations of the same problem.


As well as the talks and discussions, they also had stalls for selling books or for individual groups to promote themselves. I spent a very short time wandering around these, but I was quite tired after about 5 hours of talks and discussions, and the rooms were incredibly hot and crowded so I left pretty quickly. I think next year they need to allocate more space for this part of the bookfair, and maybe they even need a larger venue.

I also think they could profitably spread it over two days. There were a lot of discussions and talks that I couldn’t go to because they clashed with others. Maybe this is just inevitable but I think this could easily have been a two day event. I missed out on two discussions about terrorism, the state and prisons, and one on immigration and border controls. If I had the energy, I would have gone to the discussion about whether or not the concept of class war was still a useful one.

Overall, the actual ideas of anarchism were not much discussed, but I don’t think that’s actually a bad thing. I think that most things that need to be done don’t actually need the concepts and ideas of anarchism, but that if people drift towards it when organising or discussing things with anarchists then that is fine.

Question about public money going to private companies
October 22, 2006, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Economics, Politics

I was thinking today – what percentage of public expenditure becomes profit for private companies? Who are the main beneficiaries and how much money in total does it come to?

Comments Off on Question about public money going to private companies

That Lancet report
October 19, 2006, 8:10 pm
Filed under: Politics

The Lancet medical journal recently published a study showing that the war in Iraq has caused approximately 655,000 excess deaths. This has understandably caused some extreme reactions, both in affirmation and denial.  Many people find this statistic difficult to believe, and I think this reaction is understandable. I am not going to attempt here a complete defence of the report and its conclusions, because I’m not an expert in these matters. However, I do want to put forward some observations.

  1.  The paper was published in a peer reviewed journal, which means it was subjected to very high academic and intellectual standards. The conclusions consequently cannot be just written off, as Bush has done, by saying that it’s “simply not credible”.
  2. The statistical analysis of the report claims that there is a 95% chance that the actual number of excess deaths is between about 390,000 and 940,000. The chance that it is less than 390,000 is therefore 2.5%, or one in 40. It’s possible, but quite unlikely. I’m not acquainted with the statistical model that they have used, but assuming that this confidence interval comes ultimately from a normal distribution, I estimate that this would mean that the chance that the true figure was 200,000 or lower would be 0.04% or about 1 in 2,200, and the chance that it was 100,000 or lower would be 0.002% or about 1 in 37,000. Daniel Davies wrote a good article explaining some of this in the Guardian.
  3. Most, but not all, of the denials of the conclusions of this report seem to be based on ignorance and rhetoric rather than any actual argument. This is of course only a heuristic way of judging the value of the report. A good example is Christopher Hitchens’ article in Slate.
  4. There are a few responses that I am aware of that merit some attention however. The Iraq Body Count website for example has issued a strongly critical press release. They do not attempt to address the statistical methods of the study, instead they attempt to show that if the conclusions of the report are correct, the consequences are at variance with other known facts. Personally, I find much of their reasoning a bit weak as it seems to rely on common sense ideas about how absurd such and such would be (and I don’t want to rely on my common sense understanding of what things are like in a war zone), but this is at least something that bears thinking about. For some discussion, see Leninology’s critique of IBC, and some of their responses to it.
  5. The Iraq Body Count counts deaths by a passive technique (they wait for information to be brought to them) rather than an active one (the Lancet authors actively sought information about deaths). Previous experience of estimates of numbers of people killed in war zones – according to the Lancet – show that passive techniques typically underestimate by at least 5 times and as much as 20 times. The passive estimate of the IBC is about 46,000 which if it were an underestimate by 5 times would become 230,000 or if it were an underestimate by 20 times would become  920,000. These numbers are similar in scale to the numbers in the Lancet report.
  6. Another interesting discussion can be found in an article by Gavyn Davies in today’s G2 section of the Guardian. He mentions one possible response which would lower the estimated number of excess deaths. The Lancet report estimates the pre-invasion death rate as 5.5 (which is also very close to the CIA World Factbook estimate), and the post-invasion death rate as 13.3. These death rates mean the number of people who die per year per 1,000 individuals, see the next point for some discussion of this. However, the United Nations apparently estimate the pre-invasion death rate to have been 9.5, which Davies says means that the Lancet estimate would mean the number of excess deaths was about 319,000 (he doesn’t give confidence intervals). Again, to come to a satisfactory conclusion about this would take a lot of work understanding the way that the Lancet / CIA / UN methods for estimating death rates worked.
  7. Death rate statistics are quite odd. I decided to look up the UK’s death rate to compare with the Lancet report estimates of the Iraq death rates and to my great surprise the UK death rate is approximately 10.1 according to the CIA World Factbook. On the face of it, it seems unlikely that Iraq’s pre-invasion rate would be as low as 5.5 if the UK’s is 10.1. This intuition seems to be unreliable though, as becomes clear by looking at a list of countries ranked by death rates. At the top of the scale are mostly African countries with rates in the 20s. At the bottom of the scale are many Middle Eastern countries. For example Kuwait and Brunei with rates of 2.4 and 2.6 respectively.

So what are we to make of all this? For most of us the details of the statistical and methodological techniques involved in these estimates are very difficult for us to make our own judgements about. Having said that, there doesn’t seem to be any serious criticism of the techniques involved and so it seems safe to assume they are sound. Possibly some bias has creeped in somewhere in some unclear way that the researchers overlooked, but it’s far from obvious. It seems unlikely on the basis of this that the report is a wild overestimate, and even if we consider that it might be half as much as they say it is (as Gavyn Davies’ article suggests might be the case), this means that enormous numbers of people have been killed because of this war. The whole debate has an element of quibbling about it, because even the very much lower figures of the Iraq Body Count website (44,000-48,000 at the time of writing) are shockingly high.

Discussion point: who are the biggest shits?
October 18, 2006, 6:17 pm
Filed under: Politics

The government or the press?

On the one hand, the government lies, misleads, is full of corrupt and often stupid individuals. On the other hand, the press distorts the facts, oversimplifies, inflates stupid and easy stories whilst burying important, difficult ones. Neither of them are representative of the real interests of society because they are both peopled by a privileged elite, and are dependent for their success on the patronage of the wealthy (through donations, influence or advertising). It’s a shitty choice, but one of the two must be worse?

Some things to consider:

  • Which group is on average stupider?
  • Which group is more corrupt?
  • Which group is more subservient to wealth?
  • Which group is responsible for more lies/distortions?
  • Which group has a worse effect on society?

Arguing with people
October 17, 2006, 2:54 am
Filed under: Activism, Politics

Any thoughts on the best strategies to use when trying to persuade people of something? I don’t mean rhetorical strategies, I mean ways of getting through to people that allow them to see things in a way they hadn’t seen it before, ways of making them question their current way of seeing things. Personally, I have found myself most convinced by people and arguments that are very confrontational and won’t give up, when I’m told that I have to confront such and such consequences of my beliefs in no uncertain terms. If someone argues passionately, and that shows in their speech or writing, I am more likely to be convinced. But, I’m not sure if that approach would work for everyone. Some people might well be put off by someone pursuing such an aggressive strategy.

Any thoughts? Experiences?

Conversely, what makes people less receptive to an argument or point of view?