Going underground

Today, we held a service for the Dead Dad at the church in the village where He lived for over 40 years. He was cremated quite some time ago, but He’s had a nice green box to rest in while we waited for an appropriate moment to hold the service.

And that moment was today. We took His ashes down to the church, where Stephen the vicar was waiting for us. Mother carried Him a fair bit of the way, but he was heavy so I carried him the rest and held him during the service. Stephen had dug a little hole, just big enough for the box.

And then Stephen read the following, from Psalm 139:

1 O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.

2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.

3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

4 Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.

5 You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.

6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”

12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.

19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

20 They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name.

21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you?

22 I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

We then said a couple of prayers, again led by Stephen.

Now, it turned out that I was the only man in our party. So Stephen asked me to put Him in the hole, which I did – box and all. And then he asked me to cover up the hole with earth. I was in a suit and ill-prepared for this sort of gardening, but I did a reasonable job. There was a worm on top. And my sister placed a pot of hyacinths on it. We’re still waiting for the stone to be engraved, so that was that.

Later that day, while we were eating sandwiches back at the house, we learned that his granddaughter is expecting her first baby. And so the circle of life continues.

Text of Psalm 139 is copyright THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (a Hackney SITP review)

Last night, I returned to the Hackney SITP to see Guardian journalist Alok Jha talk about his new book The Doomsday Handbook: 50 Ways to the End of the World. The book, as you might expect, sets out 50 ways that civilisation might end in gruesome and catastrophic ways. Jha has aimed to use science to illustrate each one, in order to demonstrate just how fragile our modern existence is.

At Hackney, we got only a cut-down version of the book, with 5 ways the world might end:

  • An asteroid crashes into us. Jha pointed out that Hollywood loves this storyline but that the truth is much more mundane. Earth gets hit by asteroids all the time; it’s just that most of them burn up in the upper atmosphere. However, a large asteroid of greater than 1km across would make it all the way through and cause enormous damage. As well as the impact explosion, it would throw up clouds of dust that would obscure the Sun for years. Jha stated that this remains the best explanation of what wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
  • We all die of a deadly pandemic. Everyone remembers H1N1 and H5N1. And the film Contagion. But Jha reminded us that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed millions and millions of people. Were one of the current deadly types of flu to mutate into a novel form, we could see similar numbers of deaths, not least because of the much higher global mobility today.
  • We get sucked into a black hole. Jha suggested that a black hole could wander too close to our solar system and we would find ourselves affected by its deadly gravity. We might be thrown out of orbit altogether, which would condemn us to a freezing winter on the vast emptiness of space, or we might be sucked inside. Nobody really knows what would happen to us there. Except people think we might get stretched like spaghetti, as those parts of us that are nearer to the black hole get sucked in faster than those bits that are further away. Or something. This section was amusing because Alice excitedly pointed out that the image he had chosen was more specifically a quasar rather than a black hole (which would be simply black, right?).
  • Aliens turn up and kill us. If aliens land on Earth, we hope that they might be nice. But they could turn out to be evil, like those nasty Mars Attacks! aliens and merely want to stick probes up our butts and kill us. He referred to the Drake equation, that aims to get its arms around the likelihood of there being alien life.
  • Strangelets. He finished with strangelets, which are definitely one to place in the “File under: Weird” category. Strangelets are (gross simplification alert!!) in such a low energy state that, on coming into contact with any other matter, would convince that matter to turn into a copy of itself. Within hours, everything on Earth would become strangelets. And we’d all be dead. Jha consoled us that the number of interactions that must have taken place in the Earth’s atmosphere over the years, we would expect a strangelet to have been created, were it possible. So the fact that it hasn’t happened so far might suggest that they don’t really exist. [As a side note, strangelets really reminded me of Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine in Cat’s Cradle].


And that was that. Jha took some questions, most of which were fairly mundane – “What’s your favourite?”, “What’s the most boring?” But TruenFairview hit the nail on the head with her question: why should we worry about things we can’t control that will kill us, when shouldn’t we really be worrying about things we can control that, if left unchecked, might severely impact our way of life? Sure, it’s fun to ponder the end of the world, but ultimately there’s really not a lot we can do about it.

I was also a bit unconvinced that the 50 items in his book form a coherent set, at least based on the five he chose to present. Unless we find a clever way to refuel the Sun, we know that in a few billion years it will start to run out. At that point, it will start to expand, consuming the inner planets – including Earth – as it goes. By then, we will need to have designed an enormous rocket or to have found a way to coax Earth into a more hospitable orbit around its (now bigger) sun. That’s a good application of our best understanding of science. By contrast, aliens coming and killing us is just science porn. There’s no real scientific basis underpinning it. Strangelets also feel a little bit the same.

Given that the Skeptics movement exists, in part at least, to counter the abuse of science by charlatans and showmen, I found myself unsure that Jha wasn’t sort of doing precisely that. OK, so he does know some science and is, at least according to the judgement of last night’s gathering, “a good guy”. But this isn’t a book that’s going to teach you a lot of science. It appears to be primarily an entertainment book that will titillate and thrill you, while leaving you not really any more enlightened about science than before. And that seems a bit of a lost opportunity.

Hackney SITP meets on the last Monday of every month at the Hackney Picturehouse from 7:30pm, and is, my slightly doughy reviews notwithstanding, a very good night out. I got to say hi to Alice and to chat to the lovely God_loves_women (I’m afraid I was too chicken to introduce her to the Dead Dad).

Sally can’t dance

Sally can’t dance, because she’s dead. And neither can Diane, lest she go to Hell.

Now, this looks to be a pretty obvious fake. And, having Googled it, that seems to be the conclusion of much of the Internet as well.

However, some people seem to be of the view that, even if it is fake, there’s a church somewhere in the US that produces material like this. Are people really so detached from evidence that they’ll believe something that’s fairly obviously false, even where there’s no corroborating evidence for it?

That’s sad.

Dead horses and red meat

People are outraged that five horses have died at the Cheltenham Festival. Yet, not so long ago, people were trashing claims that eating red meat increases an individual’s chance of death.

The moment you claim that it’s daft to suggest that eating red meat increases your chance of death, you must simultaneously agree that it’s daft to suggest that racing at Cheltenham increases a racehorse’s chance of death. This isn’t to downplay the sad story of how racehorses are treated, but to demonstrate that people are incredibly comfortable holding inconsistent views.

(Of course, this is just another scope issue).

We’re all going to die!

Oh, how tweeps have been having fun today with the “news” that certain types of food will increase your chance of death. They point out that a living individual’s chance of death is 100% and therefore cannot be increased any further. The Dead Dad is unliving proof that this is the case.

But what the joyless wags are overlooking is the implied scope within the claims. When I open the fridge and proclaim “There’s no beer!” it’s understood that I refer only to the inside of my fridge and not to the world at large. Similarly, claims about rates of death need to be understood in a narrower scope than “forever”.  Otherwise the entire branch of actuarial science may as well give up.

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Fox hunting and gay marriage

Gay marriage is indeed the topic du jour. And an argument that I’ve seen doing the rounds is that opponents of gay marriage need not worry, because they don’t have to marry a gay. They just have to tolerate other people, who may be gay, getting married.

This brings to mind a debate from an earlier decade: fox hunting. In the fox hunting debate, you’ll recall, it was proposed that there are some activities that are so pernicious, so depraving, that they corrupt not only those who partake of them but potentially others in the community around them. As this risk cannot be tolerated, it’s accepted that part of society can impose its will on the rest of society.

Once you have accepted that those opposed to fox hunting, most of whom know next to nothing about fox hunting, can legitimately stop those who want to hunt foxes from doing so, you cannot complain when those opposed to gay marriage, most of whom know next to nothing about gay marriage, seeking to stop gays from getting married. Those who seek to restrict the liberty of others must accept their own medicine when the iron hand of authoritarianism knocks on their door.

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The real lesson from Cardinal O’Brien’s comments

Another day, another Twitterstorm. This time it’s around comments from Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, on gay marriage. First, an article he wrote for the Sunday Telegraph sparked protest. Then, his comments on the Today Programme the following day, during which he compared the issue of gay marriage to slavery and said the plans were grotesque, made things worse.

The very worst dregs of humanity came out to protest against him, against the Catholic Church and against religion in general. Here’s a taster:

These are by no means the worst. They’re just a selection of the many thousands that were posted.

And every single one misses the point. It’s easy to say that Cardinal O’Brien is an idiot, a bigot, an anachronism who can safely be ignored. Or perhaps even locked up, out of sight. But there’s a fundamental error in this analysis: if he is such a feebleminded person with such obvious character flaws, how did he rise to become the most senior Catholic in Britain? The explanation doesn’t fit the facts.

Calling him a bigot is also incredibly lazy. The critic can put his/her feet up, job done. There’s no need to understand O’Brien any further, because he’s a bigot! The true thinker would be asking “given that O’Brien’s explanations are confusing and erratic, what actually is his true meaning?” Insulting him and his church’s followers means that meaning will never come to light, because the critic has closed his mind.

I’m reminded of John Francis. John Francis is a man you may not have ever heard of. He did two profound things as a young man: he started walking around the world and he stopped talking.

In a radio interview I heard with John, he explained the value of silence. He found that in most arguments you never listen to your protagonist. While they’re talking, instead of listening to them you spend the time thinking about what an idiot they are and how you’re going to crush them with the force of your argument. As a result, you argue against what you think they’re saying instead of arguing against what they’re actually trying to say.

In O’Brien’s case, we need to dig deep to understand his meaning. He’s clearly finding it difficult to articulate his point in a way that we can understand. We need to stop talking and listen. Then – and only then – can we have a prayer of finding out what he’s really trying to say. And that’s the real lesson from his comments. It’s a pity that so many people prefer the sound of their own voices.

Happy birthday, Dad

Today would be the Dead Dad’s birthday, you know, if he hadn’t died last year.

He had always said he was terrified of living his last days with either mental or physical disabilities. So it’s probably a good thing that, in the last few years his memory got so bad he wasn’t really aware of where, or occasionally even who  he was. He had Parkinson’s, in a non-shaking manifestation, which sapped his strength and left him unable to get around the house comfortably. Given his love of walking, this was a cruel blow.

But he always remembered his family, even in the last few days. So, for that we are eternally grateful.

If you have left lost a loved one, take some time on their birthday to remember them, warts and all. Through their passing, you may be able to comprehend better the glorious mystery of God’s love.

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