Category Archives: Personal

Scottish Exceptionalism

A lamentably consistent theme has developed in my recent encounters with pro-independence advocates and campaigners, which threatens to dispel my prior notions on the nature of the modern brand of Scottish nationalism. I believe that I can still say that Scottish nationalism, for the most part, is perhaps the most admirable variety that has yet been evolved. Not for the Yes campaign vulgar assertions about the purity of blood or the superiority of race. If you live in Scotland you get a vote in the upcoming referendum, regardless of whether you were born in Dundee, Dhaka or Dubrovnik. A comparison between the Scottish Nationalist Party and the British Nationalist Party is simply ignoble and inapplicable; comparing apples to racist oranges. However drawing differences between people based on where they happen to live is potentially problematic, and one of these problems seems to be manifesting among some Yes voters. I stress that my sample size is too small to be representative, and hence I am addressing precisely this idea and not the Yes campaign as a whole.

I have been told, in no uncertain terms, that Scottish independence is desirable partially because it will unleash the innate tendency of Scots towards social justice and egalitarianism from its Westminster shackles and allow Scotland to act as an example of progress to our erstwhile fellow Britons. From the first encounter of this claim I was struck by a powerful unease. Stating that an entire nation holds to a particular view, even a positive one, is both a gross generalisation and strays dangerously close to being racist. One may identify voting tendencies – it is entirely true that Scotland’s lone Conservative MP is significant – and elements of Zeigeist, but to make this kind of blanket statement is unjustified and unjustifiable. Scots desire social equality. Scots are virulently homophobic, racist or misogynistic. Scots are deeply religious. Scots are gleefully irreverent. Scots think taxes should go up. Scots think taxes should go down. As a matter of fact, Scots are as diverse as any other randomly selected group of people. Absent a North Korea-style system of systematic ignorance and isolation, you will find liberals, conservatives, socialists and anarchists almost anywhere you look.

An apparent corollary of this claimed Scottish exceptionalism is the implication that our failure to achieve such an egalitarian society thus far has been the result of obstruction by less enlightened English, Welsh and Northern Irish. Or, to soften the claim a little, the blockage is caused exclusively by Londoners (who, I am assured, get exactly what they want from Parliament). This commits the same offence in the opposite direction. Those in the rest of the UK are as diverse in opinion as those in the upper third, and to state otherwise is to demean the countless people who fight for social justice beyond Berwick or across the Irish Sea. To paint England in particular as a hotbed of right-wing politics seems to me to mistake anti-Labour feeling – after 13 years of decidedly mixed-to-shoddy governance – for pro-Conservative feeling. Citing the rise of UKIP is equally vacuous, as I firmly believe that ideas are loudest as they are losing. UKIP’s racist, homophobic and misogynistic policies have no future, and their apparent resurgence seems more death rattle than bugle call.

In the last days before this referendum I remain firmly in the No camp, having heard no convincing argument to change my position. The word “convincing” is important here. This issue is complex enough that points may be launched in both directions and discussed and, ultimately, decided upon. Whatever your view, it is essential to make an informed choice and to be able to back up this choice with facts and not empty assertions. The discourse has descended on numerous occasions to jeering in the streets, facile internet memes and simple-minded tribal loyalty. I want us all to be better than this, and claims of Scottish exceptionalism are merely a slightly more sophisticated version of this tribalism. Make your decision, make it well, but please make it on the basis of facts and not fantasies based on geographical happenstance.

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Holding Out For a Hero

Children’s media is often dismissed as sentimentalised and condescending tripe, and in many cases this is entirely true. The heroes are as pure as the finest Colombian marching powder, driven towards benevolent ends by unselfish motives and bearing only the most superficial of flaws, ripe for a teachable moment or two. The villains are theatrically cackling menaces, skipping along the tightrope between irredeemable depravity and appropriately G-rated mischief. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and as always, England prevails! Ahem… These are literally infantile morality plays of the kind that I have previously denounced as insulting to the intelligence of anyone over the age of twelve. I personally abhor being spoken down to and kids’ television and films are often prime examples of this irksome tendency. This preamble has been a clever exercise in misdirection because I am about to defend exactly this stark good/evil dichotomy, and why this can be valuable to us as emotional and only partly rational beings.

As is my custom, a few definitions and distinctions must be noted before going any further. The terms used going forward are largely colloquial, and are not to be taken as strict definitions in any kind of logical argument. My case is not logical or necessarily rational but rather emotional, and thus it may be unconvincing to most people. The fact that emotions are non-rational does not diminish their importance to us, and per my last piece on the objective-subjective distinction, subjective matters may be simultaneously crucial and indefensible. It should also be made clear that I am referring to an abstract kind of good vs. evil story, wherein the only stakes are those of a fictional scenario, and no real world parallel is intended. This is for a very simple reason: the world in which we live is not one of black and white issues, wherein any situation can be reduced to this kind of bifurcation. To do so is offensive precisely because it fails to respect the intelligence of the audience and the complexity of the situation. Though five years have passed, James Cameron’s Avatar remains at the top of my list of least favourite movies, precisely because it commits this cardinal sin. Acting as a clear metaphor for modern American foreign policy, or whichever colonial catastrophe one wishes to mention, it attempts to reduce real history to the level of a pantomime. The following examples do not do this; any resemblance to real events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

The 1990s were the decade of the televised superhero team. This was the era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Biker Mice from Mars and the mighty Samurai Pizza Cats.  More specifically it brought the shows of Saban, a company adept in the Americanisation of Japanese tokusatsu shows, bring us VR TroopersMasked Rider, and Big Bad Beetleborgs. But the king of these programmes was one that continues to this day, and which is so ingrained into the consciousness of my generation that the first three words of the theme song will elicit a spirited singalong: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. All of the necessary elements are present: comedy, action, romance, giant monsters, giant robots, and a main cast so diverse and stereotypical that everyone could easily pick a favourite. The titular heroes would regularly foil the machinations of Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, two villains with charmingly convenient evil monikers. It was all so simple. A monster would wreak havoc, the Rangers would defeat the creature and, crucially, they saved the world. To a child this is a glowing example of the power of hard work, friendship and a pure heart overcoming any adversity. To an adult this is a bittersweet reminder that we once believed that it was as easy as that. The only threats to humankind can be overcome if we only try our best and saving the world is as easy as vanquishing a personified evil presence. To watch this now is to experience a kind of jealousy at the world that Power Rangers presents. Huge monsters ravaging the abandoned warehouse district may be a legitimate threat, but we have people we can rely upon the stop them, and these special people are capable of making a real difference and bringing peace to the planet. This is uncomplicated and incredibly endearing, and as a form of escapism functions personally. For just over twenty minutes I can almost believe that the darkness is powerless before the light, sink into a disconnected ethical simplicity, and find a little peace.

In comparison to films and TV shows, video games hold a unique advantage. You can both witness and participate in the action, by your own hand determining success or failure. This is what makes games a distinct and valuable medium, and why they deserve a place in the pantheon of the arts. Of course some games are more worthy of this status than others, and I am not here concerned with any game I would call a work of art. The interactive aspect is the important component of my point. Thus, my subject is another nostalgic creation, familiar to anyone familiar with the ’90s: Sonic Adventure, the blue blur’s first true 3D outing on Sega’s doomed Dreamcast. As with Power Rangers, there is a surprisingly jovial criminal mastermind planning to take over the world with a giant monster. But in this case, we get to take control of a group of superheroes in order to take him down. Minor conflicts abound, yet running through the middle of this game is the same moral dichotomy, and undiluted satisfaction that one is on the side of the angels. Moral choice systems have been a feature of video games since before the age of dialogue wheels, but they are noticeably lacking in this game, and it is better for it. The experience contains precisely that which I earlier lamented that Power Rangers could not give us: a chance to save the world. A computerised world, composed of nothing more than a few lines of code, but a world nonetheless. For the vast majority of us this is the closest we will ever come to the real experience, and a fictional facsimile of feeling is better than no feeling at all.

The charge of hypocrisy looms large over my comments. Surely this is a privileging of feeling over thought, of sentimentalism over rationalism. Is ignorance really bliss, and knowledge an unbearable burden? Ought we to value happiness over reality? Better a beautiful lie than an ugly truth, right? Well, no. What I am extolling is the feelings that such works can ignite in us, but also the recognition that this is escapism. The world is an enormous, complex and frightening place, and it is beyond the capability of most humans to face brute reality with no buffer at all. Even the most rational, nay cynical, of us need to take some time out with a novel, a film or a game, to take a break from the “real world”. To be absolutely clear, this can only ever be a temporary respite. To take this too far is to flirt with irresponsible delusion and an unwillingness to treat life with the weight and importance it deserves. I do not really believe that I can leave the world in the hands of superheroes, or that I can personally solve every problem with a clever gambit or righteous battle. All I can do is try to leave the world as a better placed than I entered it. But in the meantime, there is nothing wrong with stepping back and finding something simple that you can enjoy. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, love is the only thing that allows finite creatures such as us to cope with the enormity of the universe. This love can take many forms, among which I hope I have illuminated the love of these simple stories of heroism and the impossible dream that good can, once and for all, defeat evil.

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One-Man Rapid Response Unit

Hi, my name is John and I’m an answerholic. For as long as I can remember I’ve been an insufferable smartarse. If you were to ask me a question, I will reflexively give you an answer, regardless of my expertise or lack thereof. If I know the subject well, you will get a more comprehensive answer than you ever wanted. If I don’t, oftentimes you will be subjected to a stream-of-consciousness, motor-mouthed list of theories, guesses, and promises of future research. Admitting that I haven’t got a clue is becoming more common, but remains the exception. Incidentally, I cannot overstate that brevity is not my strong suit. A notable number of these encounters end with my interlocutor looking wildly for an exit and performing the shuffling retreat of the finished conversation. I suppose that the reason for this confession is curiosity. It’s certainly not absolution, I’m hellbound and proud of it. But I am curious about whether I am alone in this, and whether it is quite as irksome as it seems.

My disorder makes itself most known in my day job, in that most inconsequential of arenas. Given the large volume of tourists who frequent my workplace I am often asked for directions, whether to landmarks or restaurants, or information about local or national oddities. A recent encounter saw a very nice Australian girl enquiring about the ubiquitous pineapples adorning our Scottish souvenirs. After gently pointing out that these were actually thistles, and that thistles are the floral emblem of Scotland, the matter ought to have been settled. The question was answered and the conversation was over. But this poor girl was then subjected to the fascinating back-story of our national flower. Some sleeping Scots were alerted in time to the presence of some marauding Norsemen, by the shouts of pain after the attackers trod on some prickly thistles. Almost certainly apocryphal, but relate this I did. Halfway through this tale, the signature nods of the no-longer-listening were readily apparent. I wish to sincerely apologise to this young woman and her many fellow victims, as this is far from an isolated incident.

Outside of employment, my targets tend to be my long-suffering friends and family. The most casual of discussions becomes a lecture series peppered with one of my favourite dialectical tools: the historical anecdote. Every single time, for instance, that any ludicrous story of censorship or prudery comes up in conversation, I can launch a one-two punch of strong opinion and a funny anecdote, which I will now inflict upon you. After finishing his dictionary, Samuel Johnson was approached by some respectable ladies who wished to congratulate him for not including any profanity. Johnson’s response contains the perfect response to any pernickety puritan: it’s rather amusing that you were looking for the naughty words in the first place. Again, this may be apocryphal, but it’s a very useful illustration, and can handily be told in only five solid minutes of flavour text and pantomime acting.

You may have noticed by this point that I am recounting my crimes while committing further instances. Peppered throughout are the very features of blowhard and know-it-all that I’m supposed to be resisting. Maybe some have already switched off, maybe some were mildly interested. It does seem fairly certain that this sickness is far from cured. So, lacking a remedy, should I more fully embrace this quirk? Are the glazed looks of the many worth the relative attentiveness of the few? I have to hope that the answer is an emphatic “yes”. There is an underlying current to this, beyond being a show-off about what I know. I genuinely love learning new things, and thinking about the world. Carl Sagan once compared a love of science to romantic love; when you feel it, you want to tell everyone about it. Philosophy literally translates as “the love of knowledge” (φιλοσοφία), and it is no accident that this is my chosen field. I can’t stand not knowing something, and this drives me to find out everything that I can. This is a battle that is already lost. I only have one lifetime, and there is simply too much to be known. Indeed, Socrates defined a wise man as a man who knew the extent of his own ignorance. But the insurmountable nature of the problem simply can’t deter me – I’m going to give know-it-all status a damn good try. And this love of learning leaves me quite perplexed when faced with someone who doesn’t feel the same drive to know more. Hence my incessant questioning and answering. After all, half the fun of learning something fascinating is communicating it to your fellow humans, and sharing the philo sophia

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Shapeless Ramblings from an April Fool

Spoiler warnings are implied if you haven’t listened to the most recent episode of Podzilla, my kaiju-based side project. In our April Fools episode, we dealt with what I, to put in the gentlest terms possible, regard as the absolute nadir of the Star Trek franchise. Insurrection is the point for me where both the quality of the media and and the competence of the writing and the c0ncepts are at their lowest. So, if you will indulge me in a little ranting, I want to deal with these aspects of this abysmal film.

Given the wider circumstances of the Star Trek universe at the time, Insurrection feels very small. During a period of galactic war, the writers choose to tell the story of a petty squabble between a few hundred aliens whom we have never seen before and will never hear from again. As an early TNG episode this might have sufficed to waste 45 minutes, but as a feature length film the plot is lamentably thin. The new characters of the piece have zero depth. I could entirely summarise every one of them in a single sentence and have nothing more to say, so why should I feel any connection to these strangers? Even our familiar main cast have been Flanderised, barely showing any of the character development of the past decade. This is admittedly partially explained away by the “fountain of youth” McGuffin, regressing particularly Riker and Troi to horny teenagers who seem to end up together entirely due to age appropriateness and proximity. But the absolute worst character assassination, entirely without excuse, is inflicted upon Data, who goes from emotionless android struggling and somewhat succeeding to understand the human condition to a clueless comic relief ‘bot who can’t even grasp the concept of “fun”. Throw in a sprinkling of unfinished special effects and a soupçon of convenient sciencey magic. garnish with plot convenient time dilation, and you have a cinematic experience guaranteed to nauseate.

Conceptually, Insurrection falls at the first hurdle. At its core, we have a moral conundrum: We are faced with the choice between saving 300 lives and saving (even if we allow the only ~1% of the Dominion War casualties will be averted) billions. Simple consequentialist ethics demand that we take the latter option. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and all that. But simple consequentialism can lead to terrible consequences and cannot be consistently applied to moral questions. By this method we might murder a healthy person and harvest his organs to save five sick people. But a more complex ethical approach would take into consideration both the consequences of an action and the motive that led to the act. In this situation, 300 people will die, or 9 billion people will die. Given those choices, the only reasonable choice to to take the option with the better consequences and the purer motive – the drive to save countless lives from death and injury – and choose the billions. Either outcome is terrible, and so we are choosing an evil, but the much lesser of two evils. Really, after a little consideration, this is the only thing we could do. Is the moral high ground really worth the lives of numberless people? But I’m being a mite unfair. This is not actually an accurate description of Insurrection’s ethical dilemma. The option exists to relocate the Ba’ku, or even to use the vast tracts of empty space on their planet to heal the casualties of war. Yet even this is seen by our protagonists as more morally abhorrent than billions of preventable deaths.

This leads us to a deeply immoral and stupid part of the situation that is nowhere mentioned in the film; the treatment of the Ba’ku deprives them of all agency. Immanuel Kant implored us to treat people as ends in themselves, rather than merely means to an end, but the Ba’ku are nowhere asked their opinion or given a choice in the matter. They are simply pawns in a greater game between Picard and Dougherty. In fact, it is essential to the integrity of the film that they never be made aware of the whole situation and directly asked to voluntarily assist. Allowed agency, the Ba’ku either destroy the entire plot by resolving the central dilemma in a second, or become the film’s villains if they selfishly refuse to aid their fellow galactic citizens. It would be like a person refusing to donate their organs after death, writ large. So we can’t allow the simple alien folk to be morally autonomous or the film just collapses in on itself.

This is all so that this film can bill itself as a morality play on the evils of forced relocation and the merits of a simple, rustic approach to life. I don’t appreciate being preached to by a hypocrite. If your parable is riddled with inconsistencies and immoralities, I take that as permission to stop taking you seriously. In fact, I stop listening altogether. The Ba’ku are not moral exemplars. At best they are hapless, victimised straw-people. In reality, they are Luddites and hypocritical pacifists. I say “pacifists” as a pejorative because they claim to reject violence in all its forms and abstain from all armed defence, while being perfectly happy to allow the Enterprise crew to defend them with energy weapons and the high technology they claim to despise. “Luddite” is an easier claim to level. The Ba’ku despise advanced technology as tinkering with the natural order, but this is a prime example of the naturalistic fallacy. Essentially this states that is wrong to claim that something is good simply because it is natural, because being natural says precisely nothing about the morality of something. In a “natural” state, most of a person’s time will be taken up by finding food, avoiding predators and suffering under the assault of whatever microbes have taken up residence in their body. Technology frees us from this animal cycle, giving us free time to improve ourselves and our societies, curing disease and protecting us from the elements. But then most of us lack a magical healing planet to live on. To deny the utility and morality of technological progress entirely is not noble, it is the myopic view of those privileged by the protection from reality offered by being fictional constructs in an unreal dream world created by an idiot scriptwriter.

With much of the bile released, I feel I should stop now. I promise that my next posting will be less vitriolic. In conclusion, my co-called friend Ben did this to me, and I will have my vengeance in this life or the next. And please, if you’re interested, check out the sister blog, also titled Podzilla, and the accompanying podcast at Soundcloud.

[Reposted, with minor edits, from Podzilla! – The King of the Podcasts.]

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Why I Love Godzilla or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Metaphor

What could lead a young man to become infatuated with an obscure, often poorly produced film genre from a faraway land? The short answer would be “childhood indoctrination, admiration for practical SFX and a lust for wanton destruction”. The longer answer may well be more interesting. Disaster movies have become increasingly common, going in and out of fashion for the past few decades. But there is something alluring about centring such a calamity on an identifiable aggressor. Humans don’t always excel at thinking in the abstract, but we’re rather good with empathy, so there is a clear advantage to making the damage personal. We are not just the victims of happenstance, but the targets of some malevolent force. But beyond the artistic merit of daikaiju movies, there is another pertinent fact: Monsters are cool, more monsters are cooler, and getting those monsters to throw down in major cities is the coolest. Grow all this to gigantic size and the cool is cubed.

Our story begins in the dying days of the 20th Century, when mobile phones were a seldom-seen luxury and YouTube and Facebook were the digital dream of a prophetic madman. My first exposure to Godzilla, beyond the ingrained cultural custom of labelling anything massive with the suffix “-zilla”, was Hanna Barbera’s The Godzilla Power Hour on Cartoon Network. CN held a special event called “Green Day” (Hey, I just got that!) featuring their most verdant characters, which for some reason I had recorded on VHS. For the younglings in the audience, a VHS was a boxy DVD that would occasionally unravel and destroy itself. This was to become one of my entertainment staples, and Godzilla featured prominently. Being that Godzilla is grey and not green, his involvement is questionable, but the episodic adventures of a gigantic and ill-tempered reptile thoroughly intrigued me. None of Toho’s other kaiju could be featured in the cartoon (bloody copyright laws) so Hanna Barbera were forced to create a myriad of odd creatures for the Big G to battle. My memory isn’t what it once was, but one beastie that sticks in my mind was an enormous, translucent caterpillar that attacked the US Mint to attempt to sate its hunger for coinage. Insert your own banker joke here. Despite some weirdness – Godzilla’s atomic breath was replaced with flame, and he gained the ability to shoot laser beams from his eyes – the show was a lot of fun, and introduced me to Godzilla as a heroic, if grumpy, figure.

Thus, in my naive little mind, Godzilla was a big, scaly superhero. If I had stuck to his 70s adventures, I’d have had my delusions bolstered, but instead I went back to the beginning, to the 1954 original. We’ve discussed that masterpiece on a previous podcast, but I never did state what a wake-up call that film was. My animated hero became an engine of destruction, indiscriminately leveling an entire city. And nobody was cheering. There is no happy ending with pointless devastation on this scale. In hindsight, it’s almost perverse that such a dark character would become so iconic and beloved by children. But having seen the two extremes of Godzilla, it becomes clear that the character is more complex than simple good or bad.

I have since seen most – shamefully not all – of Godzilla’s films, and the evolution of the character is clear. From terrifying symbol of nuclear fire to blockbuster movie star, by way of marketable merchandising machine and vehicle for image experimentation, Godzilla has many masks. But for me, he’s at his best when he’s a simple force of nature, neither actively malevolent nor mawkishly benevolent. Sometimes we humans commit the Ancient Greeks’ favourite sin, hubris, and then over the hill comes a bloody great reptile. Oftentimes this is interpreted by the human characters as a judgement on polluting or bellicose action, but this is to overanalyse. Godzilla simply shows us the simple fact that, powerful as we are, nature is factually more powerful than we are. Even the tenderest action by a 50,000 tonne creature would cause tremendous damage. And while humans are often the cause of great problems, we are also excellent at solutions, and nothing unites humanity like a formidable opponent. Searching for meaning in the mere existence of Godzilla is futile. Rather, we need to accept that if we’re going to share the world with such powerful and destructive elements, we need to band together and figure out some living arrangements. What such arrangements might entail, I cannot say, but there are many schools of thought, and all of them are interesting and worth looking into.

This is why I love Godzilla, both as a character and a concept. Not only are his movies very entertaining and delightfully cheesy in places, but they allow us to see the best and worst of humankind in the face of overwhelming adversity. For this reason, I hope that the upcoming Legendary Godzilla does not take the form of a simple morality play, but rather accepts human culpability while focussing more on what we need to do to survive and save lives. Every disaster, natural or man-made, shows us images of unimaginable sadness and suffering, and we should never attempt to mitigate or dismiss these because of some positive consequences. But we also see the most incredible human decency and strength, and that deserves to be acknowledged and honoured too. Ultimately, Godzilla brings us together in many ways, whether we’re fighting for our lives or enjoying a damn fine piece of film-making.

[Reposted from Podzilla! – The King of the Podcasts.]

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Sagan and Hope

December is a heavy month for the Deathdays of atheistic celebrities – Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong-Il being the most obvious examples. However, there is one that slipped my mind before being reminded by Jerry Coyne. (Not personally, obviously. Despite deigning to pose for a picture with me, Dr. Coyne and I are not on a first name basis…) 17 years ago today, Carl Sagan died. At the time, I was a fresh-faced five-year-old with no concept of… well… anything, but many years later, I discovered Sagan’s work through the incredible documentary series Cosmos, and John D. Boswell’s fantastic Symphony of Science videos. Apart from his enviable eyebrows and aurally orgasmic voice, what most struck me about Sagan was how obviously he was enamoured with science, and its ability to explain the world around us. Particularly stirring is his image of the pale blue dot, that tiny orb upon which every great figure, every incredible idea and every single human event ever occurred. Sagan phrases it much more elegantly, of course:

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

I still look up often, and on a cloudless night am struck by a terrifying feeling of insignificance, staring as I am into effective infinity. But Sagan has these comforting words:

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

This profound statement says almost all that is necessary about humanism. When challenged to explain how love evolved, or how it can have meaning in a world of “mere” chemical reactions, or why those of us without a god don’t commit suicide en masse, this is my response.

As I said about Hitchens just a few days ago, I admire the stoicism and courage with which Sagan faced his death. Both men had the questionable advantage of seeing their end coming to meet them, and this makes their adherence to principle and their refusal to give in to delusion all the more admirable. Sagan’s thoughts on death are as comforting and reasonable as his thoughts on our cosmic finitude:

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Not much else needs to be said by me about Sagan. He was more than capable of speaking for himself, and his Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is still a superb primer for any budding sceptic. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space will quickly knock any anthropocentric chauvinism on the head. And Cosmos (both the book and the television series) will provide a riveting introduction to life, the universe, and everything.

On a final note, Sagan also counts as my favourite celebrity chef, purely for his apple pie recipe:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

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Hitchens and Mortality

Well, it’s after midnight, which means I’ve been terribly remiss. Two years ago yesterday, 15 December 2011, Christopher Hitchens died. (Incidentally, two years ago today, Kim Jong-Il died, broken-hearted at having lost the one person on Earth who understood what a truly twisted, cockatiel-haired little psychopath he was.) Hitchens’ death affected me more profoundly than the death of any other public figure, and recently reading his autobiography and re-reading his short volume “Letters to a Young Contrarian” both saddened me and emboldened me to renew my efforts to make some impact, however small, towards making this planet a better place for my fellow primates to live. The man himself would likely have regarded me as slightly obsequious, but sometimes it is hard to repress feelings of admiration. I didn’t agree with him about everything, but he could never be accused of having made a statement lightly, or of being unable to defend his positions with admirable reasoning, delivered in an infuriatingly clever way. As for thoughts on death, I’ve yet to hear someone better Hitchens:

“Well, to the people who pray for me to not only have an agonising death, but then be reborn to have an agonising and horrible eternal life of torture, I say, ‘Well, good on you. See you there.”

And:

“They call it gallows humor for a reason. You may laugh at death all you like, but only on the condition that you allow death the concluding cackle.”

To follow Hitchens’ own advice, it is important to remember to regard every expert as a mammal. Hitchens was every bit the fallible human, capable of error, boorishness and arrogance. However, I would claim that it could never be said of him that he was a friend to tyranny, earthly or celestial, and nor was he willing to surrender an inch of hard-won ground to those offering threats of eternal or temporal harm. Unlike prophets and preachers, whose words must be regarded as sanctified and inviolable, instead we ought to take Hitchens’ work as exactly what it is – the thoughts of a fellow human, sometimes correct, sometimes incorrect, but always worth considering and challenging. Even violent disagreement, if it stimulates thought and results in a more well-reasoned conclusion, can be of tremendous value.

From Hitchens, I learned that the written word can stir more than simple emotion or excite the imagination. Purpose and intent can be communicated through the pages of a book, and can stimulate a strangely irresistible impulse to action in the right mind. For now, I can honestly say that I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I do know how I want to do it – boldly, intelligently, and always remembering that as this is the only life of which we can be assured, squandering too much of it on useless or malicious endeavours is an irretrievable waste.

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