Friday, 30 July 2010

Atheist schools? No, secularism for all please

Ever feel like someone is just missing the point?

Michael Gove, ConservatitMichael Gove, Education minister for the Tories in the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, is apparently open to the idea of atheist schools which could be set up under the new Academies Bill which ironically gives more freedom for faith-based schools.

Well, it's not that ironic. When I set up the original Atheist Agnostic and Secular society at Bristol University, it had two main purposes - the first of which was to provide the same forum, community and representation for atheists that all the other religions had at university, from the creationist nuts in Christian Union to the "Islam is Truth!" crazies in the Islamic society.

So you might think I'd be all in favour of some explicitly atheist schools, especially seeing as even without new legislation, Britain has many many faith-based schools already. It's just a case of balance and choice, right? Well, no, not at all.

Firstly, "choice" in schools is a red herring. There's no better and faster way to over-subscribe successful schools and destroy failing schools than to expand everyone's choice of where they can send their child. It's bad enough having school league tables in England and Wales: they give schools a one-dimensional judgement based on limited criteria which the media then further distorts. Schools aren't like supermarkets - families just need a small choice of several good schools, not a whole market, and bad schools need support instead of being allowed to fail and close.

More importantly, the idea of any school having one particular faith or religion is absurd and backward - and that includes atheism. I might be a fully paid-up atheist, but like Richard Dawkins and the majority of right-minded people it doesn't mean I want to indoctrinate my child to be an atheist. Religion is a personal choice and it's the right of every person - children included - to choose their own beliefs based on their experiences and evidence. It should also be the right of every child to receive an education without the interference of religious dogma or faith-based reasoning.

People often say that religious schools don't influence the education they provide. Bullcrap. As a church, the only point in having schools is so that you can influence children's education, whether it's just prayers in morning assembly or full-blown denial of evolution, the history of the Earth and other science stuff.

Religious schools are apparently instructed to take a certain percentage of pupils from different faiths or no faith. Again, red herring - no school should discriminate againt a child on their faith just as companies can't when employing people. Imagine a company or government department "generously" allowing 5% or 10% of its employees to believe in whatever religion they liked!

There's always the usual crowd who whine about how faith schools provide "moral" education and teach "values". In practice these "values" usually take the form of hatred and discrimination of gay people and people of other or no religion. If you believe schools should teach morality and values, that's great, because morality has nothing to do with god and it certainly has nothing to do with religion. If not, fair enough, because teaching kids right and wrong is mostly down to parents.

Some people think secularism is anti-religion. But here's something ironic - secularism exists to protect freedom of religious choice, and to prevent government and institutions from discriminating against or offering preferential treatment on the basis of religion. That's the second reason I set up that society: to campaign for secular values and equality for everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. In regard to education, it's a principle that ensures schools are not factories where people can make little copies of themselves, but places of unbiased reason-based learning.

Looking back at the BBC article above, it's sad but predictable that at least one person manages to misinterpret Richard Dawkins - even a humanist!
"I am member of British Humanist Association, but against Dawkins idea. I want all schools to be secular with no morning worship."
Me too mate! I think a lot of people want that. But I think Dawkins was mainly making a joke - setting up an atheist school - to point out the ridiculous nature of the legislation. Either way, the article explicitly points out that Dawkins "would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded".

Gove's half-hearted invitation to atheists, secularists and rationalists to support the Conservatives' idiotic reforms (they're not supported by the majority of Lib Dems, that's for sure) is thankfully rejected by Dawkins, and should be by all.

Richard Dawkins, rational awesomeness propagator

Time travel explained. Like, completely.

I love time travel. Not that I partake myself, just when I see it in films and books. But I get worked up when I see it done wrong, and when people often fail to understand basic logic behind it.

I've felt for a long time there's a problem, but it was this rather patronising and condescending article in the Torygraph that got me going. I shouldn't have been surprised - along with "racist Islamo-Euro-phobia" and borderline-paedophilia pictures of hot young totty every time the A-level results come out, the Torygraph deals best in "patronising" and "condescending" - but I'd like to apologise to that Facebook friend for ranting a little bit on her profile. It wasn't about or at her but no-one likes ranting on their virtual doorstep.

Many people get their ideas about time travel from the wonderful film trilogy Back To The Future. I love the films, but sadly its theory of time travel is - just like that Grandfather Paradox - complete gubbins.

Let's take a scenario
Say I go back to the year 1910, kill someone - NOT my grandfather, let's call them Mr. X - then come back to just before I left in the first place. Sound confusing? Let's chronologise that shit!

June 1910 - Time machine appears. Man with strange clothes (Jez) steps out with a gun, shoots Mr. X dead. (Strange man is clearly a bastard.) Strange man (Jez) gets back in time machine, which disappears.

May 2010 - Jez (strange man) invents time machine. Chrome and shit. Looks awesome.

June 2010 - Another time machine appears next to the one Jez just invented. Another Jez steps out, about half an hour older. Jez waves to Jez, Jez waves back at Jez. Universe does not explode.
Jez (original Jez) picks up his gun (no idea where I got it from, I'm not into guns ... maybe I borrowed it from the NRA), gets into time machine (original time machine), sets it to 1910. Time machine disappears. New Jez sits down, has a scone.

...and that's that. There is nothing logically or scientifically impossible in the above sequence. Let's look at some details:

Mr. X never has any children. He doesn't have any children when he is shot in 1910 - maybe he wanted some in the future, but sadly, he is now dead. Mr. X has no descendents because he has been shot dead. There is no paradox with any descendents because he doesn't have any.

Jez meets himself. (Actually, I tell a lie, there is a problem - if the time machine is just a time machine, it would appear and reappear in exactly the same place, unless it had wheels like the Delorean in Back To The Future. Assuming it's not a moving vehicle it would have to teleport as well, or at least be on little wheels.) Back To The Future suggests that if you meet yourself, you could cause the whole universe to explode or melt or something. But aside from the whole "you can't change the past anyway" problem, there is a flaw with the BTTF logic: the human-centric angle! In the BTTF trilogy there is at least one occasion I can remember where Doc and/or Marty meets and interacts with himself/themselves from another time. The way they survive okay and don't blow up the universe (phew!) is by obscuring their identity, so their other self doesn't realise it's them. This suggests the universe actually cares about the conscious mind and awareness of individual human beings, so unless you're counting God or Fate as part of the science here, the concept is bogus.

In the scenario, Jez says hi to Jez, who then goes back and kills someone, comes back to 2010, and says hi to Jez. The event happens twice to Jez, but only once in reality. No worries.

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomicThe loop potential

Here's something - what if Jez (are you sick of my name yet? I am) went back in time with the OTHER time machine? The one that just appeared? This creates a loop. Jez didn't need to build a time machine in the first place, because he used the one that came from the past. Obviously this makes it logically impossible, but a loop with no origin/start has been used on a larger scale in many books and movies (e.g. the awesome original vampire series Necroscope by Brian Lumley), so just thought I'd mention :)

Grandson-on-Grandfather action (time porn?)

Let's try replaying the above scenario but different. Let's say Mr. X actually IS Jez's grandfather (Cecil - no really, that was his name), and that Jez tries to shoot him, but something goes wrong and he fails (obviously). Let's also make it 1930 so my grandfather has actually been born. Chronologise!

June 1930 - Time machine appears. Man in strange clothes (Jez) steps out with gun. Jez sees his grandfather Cecil, fires the gun but misses because he's a bad shot (seriously I've only ever fired an air rifle in Scouts, and a laser clay pigeon gun). Tries to fire again but gun misfires and burns his hand or something. Jez realises he is being a twat trying to shoot his own grandfather, gets back in time machine, which disappears.

June 1990 - As a young boy, Jez is told by Cecil how some magic silver box (chrome and shit etc.) appeared and some idiot tried to kill him. (Or not, I mean, it's not important if Jez does or doesn't know, I'm just saying the event was recorded/remembered at the time in 1930.)

June 2010 - Jez invents time machine (chrome blah blah) and for some reason goes batshit mental, deciding to go back and kill his own grandfather. Batshit mental a) because killing people is seriously rude, and b) actually impossible, because his grandfather is still alive in 2010, and so he can't have killed Cecil in 1930.

Okay so I didn't bother with getting Jez back to the present (no scones for attempted murderers) but the above is all you need. Let's think about it:

MAIN POINT: Don't look at it from Jez's point of view. Look at it from reality's point of view.

Okay, if you're watching a film or reading a book and Jez is the lead character and the story follows his life, it goes a) June 2010, Jez invents time machine, THEN b) June 1930, Jez shooting at grandfather. Your attention is focused around Jez being a free agent with all possibilities depending on his actions. Forget that! Eject the idea from your very brain.

It's a red herring. See it from reality's point of view: a) man tries to shoot other man and fails, then b) man invents time machine and gets in. He misses the shot like anyone else misses, and the gun backfires like guns sometimes have done throughout history. There are no special laws of physics, reality or causality that apply only to Jez that do not apply to Cecil, or anyone else there at the time in 1930; Jez is not a special case. Logically it is utterly impossible for Jez to kill his own grandfather, but this doesn't mean his grandfather a) has a magic shield, b) Mother Nature's got his back, c) bullets will bend around him like some 1930s Art Deco version of the Matrix. Jez simply does not kill his grandfather, no more, no less, full stop.

Parallel universes (are you kidding...)

So this is the parallel universes concept comes in. What I find frustrating is that it's not just the writers of BTTF who thought "hey, it's a film, we'll just bypass one bit of logic and BAM! Great story!" - there's actually scientists and clever thinkers who, in order to make killing your own grandfather possible, drag in the many-worlds parallel dimensions rubbish just so it makes sense.

Here's the standard theory on multiple dimensions/universes:
There is an infinite number of universes, one for each possible outcome of every event that could ever have occured. Many sci-fi stories like Sliders and Red Dwarf have just focused on the human events - it's a pretty boring story if the heroes jump into a dimension where there the Milky Way doesn't exist - but the theory accounts for each and every event that could happen to quantum sub-atomic particles. That's a LOT of events (hence the infinite number).

Now I don't much agree with this. I accept the idea that there could be a lot more dimensions that we know about - humans can only sense 3 dimensions (+ time), but there could be lots more. I'm not sure about String Theory - 11 dimensions? Why not 27, or a zillion? - but in general that's fine with me. I just don't really see why there has to be a universe/reality for each and every single quantum event that ever happened. I'm not a quantum physicist, but this is all theoretical, and it sounds far from obvious, let alone likely.

Back to time travel. In order to muck around with the past, the "branches" theory suggests that you can "change" an event in your own history by dimension-jumping to another reality where killing your grandfather actually happened.

This is poor logic and crap judgment. It's like someone tacked on the whole multiple realities thing as an afterthought to make it work. For instance, if the defining feature of this other universe - the only thing that makes it different from my home universe - is that I appear in 1930 and kill my grandfather, how do the sub-atomic particles make it happen? The infinite universes are based on the outcomes of events that can actually happen - whereas it would be absolutely, physically impossible for the particles to change shape into a time machine with me and my memories in it. Not just impossible like time travel is generally impossible, but actually, totally impossible.

I should bring this to a close.

There's a hell of a lot of logical errors in the history of time travel in sci-fi. (And since it hasn't been invented yet, sci-fi is pretty much the only place you ever find time travel.) Even great films like Twelve Monkeys (excellent FAQ here) which generally has the whole time travel stuff nailed (it all wraps up very neatly at the end) make errors with stuff like the radio transmitters in the teeth. Seriously, radio that talks through time? They would've known from the start that he pulls his teeth out and would never have chosen him for the mission. But this is a minor detail just like most errors are minor details. Nooooo problem.

My point - the Grandfather Paradox is junk. It's bunk. It's other words that rhyme with "unk" that mean "loada rubbish". The "branches" theory of time travel, that doesn't stack up either - it simply doesn't hold water.

I'm not really disputing the physics and concept of multiple universes based on quantum mechanics - I don't agree with it, but that's not the discussion here. Besides, most people when thinking about time travel aren't using quantum physics to back up their thought process - they actually think it is just the one universe, the same reality we're all talking about, and that you can muck around with the past like sketches in a sandpit when in actual fact the past has set like concrete.

Sure, I don't worry about it when I watch Back To The Future and Red Dwarf because they're fun and it's not a problem. But next time someone opens their mouth and says "man if I went back in time I'd try not to change anything my granny did so I still get born!", gently remind them that you read a blog and they're talking nonsense. And offer them a scone.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Reasons you should follow my RSS feed

1) I'm awesome (we've proved it in tests)
2) You want to know about my upcoming projects including books, singles, albums and videos
3) You want my unique perspective on politics, music, writing, New Zealand and more
4) This blog feeds into both my Facebook profile and page, but Facebook is rubbish and these can take up to a week. You want these things now!
5) You want me to smile when I look at my online stats.

Okay, admittedly it all hinges on point 1 - if you don't think I'm awesome, you probably aren't fussed about 2, 3, 4 or 5.

If you're not familiar with RSS feeds, basically it's a way of getting blogs/news/updates emailed to you, except not as emails. Simply take the link and plug it into your email program (e.g. Windows Live Mail) or online reader (e.g. Google Reader). Then you get blog posts just like this one delivered to you as soon as they happen.


Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Problems of Merch

Every now and again I like to be frank. With F451 I used to give unvarnished insights behind the scenes of a functioning band, stuff that people basically never tell you. Today I'd like to do the same.

I've just ordered some CDs and T-shirts for the Dinosaurs single launch gig (Bar Medusa, 154 Vivian St, Wellington, Wed 11th August, $5 in case you were wondering). Being a single launch, it really does need some CDs to sell, and the I <3 Dinosaur T-shirts look pretty cool, so a few of those are pretty key too.

Here's the first problem- I've got 2 sites that do T-shirts: Reverbnation (the one-stop-shop for bands where I throw all my music) and Redbubble, a very cool, friendly, community-styled art/writing/T-shirts website. I'm a fan of both for different reasons.

I'm not exactly rich at the moment, and with a 3-week holiday to Europe with Kiwi Girlf coming up and only a couple of weeks' work, I am thinking about the pennies very much. So here's all the initial factors:

-The T-shirts from Reverbnation are significantly cheaper than those at Redbubble

-Redbubble offers free shipping on orders of 4+ T-shirts

-Friends have already ordered shirts from Redbubble, so I know they're good quality - but both Reverbnation and Redbubble's standard T-shirts are American Apparel, so I can only assume they're both of a likeness

-Reverbnation's standard delivery is "7-21 business days after manufacture", while Redbubble's is a more reassuring 10-15 business days. With less than 4 weeks to the gig, time is a factor.

There's another problem too. Reverbnation's CDs are excellent quality - full case, full-colour, full coverage CD label print, 4-page inlay, double-sided tray-liner, the WORKS. Which makes it brilliant for albums, but perhaps less good for singles. I've pumped up the single to have 8 tracks, because I know that some people still really like having a real copy to hold/look at (I'm not a fan of vinyl, but man, 12" artwork and LPs look awesome) - but these are just different versions & mixes of the 2 basic tracks. I guess there's a difference between people going on the internet really WANTING to buy one, and me trying to flog them to people who've come to the gig. So after doing some calculations, I was a little bit distraught to find the CDs will cost $10 NZD (£4.50 GBP, $7 USD) to make and deliver.

This is pretty shit for several reasons. I wanted to sell the CDs for a reasonable price of $5, because I think a lot of record companies and even some bands are sharks and overcharge for CDs. Sure, okay, they are 8-track CDs with awesome inlays etc., but even if I charge $10 and sell all of them on the night, I won't actually make any money.

Added to this is a rule I imposed on myself - in order to show my thanks to the 3 awesome friends from Throw It To The Fire who are learning my songs and playing them with me, I'm splitting not only my takings from the door but also the money made from the CDs, badges and T-shirts. I figured this because when you sell stuff at a gig, it's a reflection on the whole band - if the band play well, you sell more, in theory. Also I thought it was a good gesture considering I'm asking good friends to take time and effort learning and playing MY songs, the big egomaniac that I am. So after selling CDs for $10, and making some internal calculation on how much to give the guys from that $10, I definitely will be out of pocket. To put the icing on the cake, there's a fancy dress competition for the night - best dressed dinosaur wins signed copies of the CD and my NO UP trilogy.

Back to T-shirts, and the consideration of time. If, say, the CD delivery is delayed or lost, that would be pretty shit - but if I ordered the T-shirts with Reverbnation as well, that means they wouldn't arrive either. It's my fault for leaving it this close to the gig, absolutely, but basically there would have to be lots of good reasons to put all my eggs in one basket. Too bad that Redbubble is the more expensive option, and that I don't even want to order 4 T-shirts that would qualify for free delivery - I have no guarantee anyone will actually buy any T-shirts. As for price, I wanted to sell the T-shirts for $20 (ideally $15 would have been nice but definitely unrealistic) ... as it turns out, production + delivery costs just under $20 from Reverbnation and just over $20 from Redbubble. Bugger.

All in all, it's turned what should be a profitable part of being in a band into a kind of millstone round my neck - there's no rational or financial reason to actually order any CDs at all for the gig, but it'll be ridiculous NOT to have them. Oh, the situations I get myself into.

The fact is my circumstances are quite unique. If you're in a band, you've got several people who are committed to the project, whereas being on your own gives you control but means when the shit is delivered on a plate, it's only got your name on it. Also, bands are often ongoing projects with lots of dates - don't sell any merch one gig, you might do at the next one. Plus if you order in bulk, planning on future sales, everything's a little bit cheaper. I'm hoping to have more gigs in the future but this one really is a one-off, so I can't bank on selling stuff in the future.

So, in the end, what did I do? What I always do - I committed myself properly, although with a dose of realism, and ordered 15 CDs from Reverbnation and 4 T-shirts from Redbubble. Reverbnation had cheaper shirts but I don't fancy the risk of late delivery for CDs AND T-shirts. I was umming and ahhing about how many CDs to get - keep it minimal at 10 in case no-one buys them, or get 20 in case a whole bunch of people get upset when they run out? Well, if I'm not making any money from sales, getting more seems risky and pointless. On the other hand, I want one for myself, there's the fancy dress prize copy, plus a large number of people are helping out on the night and were involved in the video - there's a chance I might have to give one or two away as thank-yous. So I think 15 is the right call.

As I've said, after crunching the numbers none of it made any sense at all (a friend on Facebook suggested I try squeezing the numbers instead, because it makes them look nice). But it's a single launch, and it's my single launch, and I want to do it properly. I've bitten off more than I can chew with many, many things in the past - booking gigs, organising university events, running a band, book launches - and I like to think I've been organised with this gig and haven't overreached myself, haven't overcommitted myself, and haven't opened myself up to potential financial fuck-up-ery. But if I lose money on selling CDs from giving it to bandmates who are helping me out, that's just a price - not a loss. And damn it, no single launch of mine isn't having CDs, T-shirts, balloons and sweets.

Thanks for reading - sorry for the level of boring detail, I hope you may have found it interesting in some way!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Jez can has make a single.

Hello. Here in one place are the 8 tracks for the "I Believe In Dinosaurs" single, along with the video.

Playlist link:

...and they have been sent to Teh Internetz for being available by the launch on Wed 11th August.

Now all that needs doing is:
- Sorting out the launch gig
- Ordering CDs & Tshirts
- Doing posters
- Getting badges done
- Making up promo CDs and sending them for review/radio play


Thursday, 8 July 2010

I edited Twilight out of the Muse video. Someone had to.

Recently, Muse made a bad video to an average song for a terrible film. I've managed to fix one of those things. Watch, enjoy, feel free to share!
Here's the original, just in case you wanted to gouge your eyes out from the horror like Sam Neill in Event Horizon

Well, I kind of fixed it - the thing is, if you take away the 2-dimensional impression of a Muse song and the clips of Twi-shite, you're left with possibly the most boring, unimaginative and cheap Muse video ever. But I still think I've made it 6000% better* by removing the emo vampires sponsorship bullshit (which is, incidentally, the worst thing you can do with an official soundtrack video - fill it with unrelated random flashes of your film). New clips used are from the awesome opening song of Muse playing Wembley stadium in 2007 (Knights Of Cydonia, the final track off Black Holes And Revelations).

Also, the reason it's on Vimeo is because the Youtube auto-bots kept rejecting the video. I've learnt since then from this fascinating website that it's down to Youtube's audio fingerprint recognition software - intriguing, bizarre, and a little bit scary all at once! Hopefully Vimeo won't take it down, and if it does there's always the sordid internet ghetto of Myspace. I know they're not too picky to reject anything.

*Actually I think I did an alright job with adding the clips in, e.g. the flash when the second chorus hits :)