Belief is not a Choice

This has to be one of the best elucidations of what is a fairly difficult concept to put into words. I get asked all the time why I “choose” to believe what I believe, as though belief admitted of choice. This brief article sums up exactly why I find such questions both vexing and hilarious.

Laïcité - Secularity and Secularism

I’ve heard a fair share of testimonies by Christians who proudly proclaim how they “chose” to believe in Jesus and how much their lives have changed for the better after that decision. I have also faced many proselytization attempts based on the general idea of “choose Christianity or suffer eternal damnation”. These religious zealots present the choice as an easy one: believe in Jesus and enjoy eternal life in heaven, or disbelieve and endure fire and brimstone in hell. Who would be so stupid or defiant as to deliberately choose to get into the bad books of an omnipotent omnipresent being? But the fatal flaw in this is the assumption that we can choose what we believe in the first place.

We must first define what “belief” is. Simply put, believing in something means that your brain perceives that it is true. Can it be a conscious choice?

Let’s take…

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Audio Books and P G Wodehouse

I’m not sure how many of you are aware of this fact, but written fiction normally has a copyright for 50 years.

Now I am a big fiction fan, and I would spend quite unreasonable amounts of my time reading and nothing else if I could. But now, alas, my eyesight is failing, to the point that I can no longer read while walking, cooking or performing my ablutions without straining my eyes.  And so it was suggested to me that I investigate audio books, and yes, they are great, but not, unfortunately, cheap.

So I searched the web for “Free audio books” and, along with the usual pirate material, found that there are many classic works which, having been published more than 50 years ago, are available very cheaply or even free.  The first site I came across when searching was Books Should Be Free.

However, the audio book format is not always as satisfying as you might think. I am a great  fan of P G Wodehouse and consider him to be the greatest English language humourist  of the 20th Century.  I have read and re-read the Jeeves and Wooster stories avidly, and have enjoyed the various TV adaptations, but when you have to listen to his work read by someone else it becomes very tiring quite quickly.  And I really don’t know why this should be.  I love the wit, I enjoy the aridly dry turn of phrase that Wodehouse puts into his characters’ mouths, the subtle interplay of culture and learning combined with earthy good sense and utterly gob-smacking chinless-wonderisms.  I am even prepared to overlook the slight but unmistakable Nazi-sympathy running through much of the material.  But I just can’t get along with anyone else but me doing the reading.

I can listen to anything by Bill Bryson read by the author or by a variety of other readers with pleasure.  I can listen to non-fiction read by pretty much anyone, but Wodehouse needs to be read from the page.  If anyone can offer any reason why this should be I would be grateful to know.

Until then, I shall be mostly listening to “The Golden Bough” by James Frazer (1854-1941).

Going to the Pictures

When I was a kid we used to go to the pictures. There were films on the telly, of course, but they were all at least a year old, even at Christmas and other holidays.  I was lucky in that I belonged to my school’s film club, so, in return for running the projector, twice a month I would get to see proper films like You Only Live Twice, Ice Station Zebra, If, though again, not new releases.  If you wanted to see a new film, you had to toddle off down to the Odeon or ABC,  And despite the cheapness of Saturday morning children’s presentations, seeing a mainstream general release film of an evening was expensive for a twelve year old.

By the time I got to University, “The Pictures” was more about the romantic side of life than about actually watching films, and people started saying “going to the Movies” instead of the Pictures.  True, the University Film Society took it upon itself to screen films in a nice large lecture theatre, but I gave up after enduring several unrelentingly poor and achingly hip moody pieces by Warhol and other artists who should have known better.
Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film
A few years later, people had VHS video recorders (or Betamax, if they were unlucky and/or had taste), and it became possible to record films off air or even buy or rent them.  And it is from this time that I suggest people stopped keeping books on shelves in their houses.  There simply was not enough room in a normal house to keep both a decent library and a large film collection. I read a lot.

TV sets were still generally small-screen, and watching True Grit or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was not really a true cinematic experience, so going out to see a film was still something one did if there was a new film on release that was worth watching.

Things have changed.  These days, anyone who wants to see a film with their family faces paying the thick end of £100 for their evening’s entertainment, and when you factor in such overpriced but essential items as pop-corn, drinks etc., you really want to be sure that the film is going to be worth watching.  And thence the whole piracy thing.

It is perfectly possible to watch almost any film you could wish for free these days, albeit illegally, and then decide if it is a) suitable for your family and b) actually worth going to see in a theatre.  I have to say that I base my purchasing decisions upon seeing digital samples.  If it is a good film, I’ll buy it.  If it isn’t I don’t. Films that I have purchased over the last couple of years, entirely because I saw clips from the web include District 9, How to Train your Dragon and Despicable Me.  And yes, I know that the last two are “Family oriented entertainment”, but there is a great deal to enjoy in such pictures, not least all the little hidden gems and quotes from other films included for the benefit of the adult viewer. 

The fact remains, though, that a lot of people actually buy a computer these days with pretty much the only purpose in mind being to download films from on-line sharing sites, store them on a large, cheap hard drive and watch them on a big-screen TV.  (And yes, I know I am technically doing the same thin when I lend one of my books to someone, but I can only lend it to one person at once.)

Then there’s the whole music scene, but that’s another blog.

You’ve got how many laptops?

Three (at the moment) and one of them isn’t mine, and one is on permanent loan to a friend who needed it a few months ago and now doesn’t, but still finds it useful. And actually, one of them belongs to work.

So none, actually.  But I use one everyday, mainly because it is cheaper to run than my desktop, and for most of the things I want to do it is perfectly adequate.

I just want to step back a bit and put a few things into context.  Just so you know, I’m a very nearly fifty year old bloke, whose main business is helping people to make sense out of hardware and software, and fixing said hardware and (occasionally) software so that it does what people want it to do.  “So,” people say to me, “you understand all this new technology…”, but it is not quite as simple as that.

For a start, what do we mean by “new”?  We (and by that I mean people of my generation) tend to think of computers as new technology, but our children were born into a world where computers were already becoming ubiquitous.  I can remember working on a punched-tape reading teletype terminal when I was at school, around 1978-79, and now my spell checker is so ageist it does not even recognise the word “teletype”.  My children have been au fait with PCs since they found out that you could play games on them, and cheerfully do end-runs around my pitiful attempts to secure our router and server.

It’s not that I dislike computers, mobile phones, iPads (actually, yes I do dislike iPads) etc., it’s just that there are so many more and different ones every year that I’m running full tilt to keep up.  And I probably only dislike iPads because I haven’t got one.  What I object to is not the technology itself, but the impossibility of owning a new one of everything.  Aside from the cost, it is simply that I do not have time to learn how to make effective use of all the new shiny bits of electrobling that I a dribble over on the web.

From the first I was an “early adopter”, or “mug” as we are probably called by large technology company marketing people.  I have always loved and will always love gadgets, especially shiny, small and clever ones.  My first mobile phone cost a fortune to buy and run, and lasted about half an hour on one charge.  I kept it in a shoulder-holster case.  My first PC cost (in real terms) more than all of the computers currently in my home (7 at last count), and I have literally thrown away three and given away as many.  I simply cannot remember how many mobile phones, PDAs I have had, and I still keep finding mysterious adapter leads and mains chargers for devices I cannot even remember acquiring.  It seems that as soon as I have one mobile phone it is out of date and I need another.

Well, I have given up chasing the golden dream of owning one of everything at the cutting edge.  I have decided that, unless I need a device for work, or it is not possible to do without it, I am sticking with my current crop.  I have a phone with no camera on it, (I have a camera, for goodness’ sake), an mp3 player that has no fruit logo on it and does not play videos, and I cannot get enthusiastic about 3D TV.

So no new toys.  (Unless it’s really shiny).

Watz all thys Lolcatz Stuffs???


Image via Wikipedia

I first came across this kind of spelling on Yahoo! Answers (peace be upon them), and thought I was reading the output of an educationally challenged Kindergarten kid.

However, close examination of the avatars of the perpetrators revealed that there was a conspiracy to pervert proper English usage and spelling that had been going on behind my back for who knew how long.

Once I had cracked the two keywords (“Teh” and “Cheezburgers”) I had that flash of insight that comes every once in a while.  I noticed that there were a higher than normal number of “Kittehs” posting answers, and the avatars’ pictures frequently featured feline characters doing madly random stuff.

Then, a breakthrough: as a family we have three cats of our own, all variously handicapped with different personality problems and lack of intellect, and the most cerebrally challenged of these is Ninja (a black cat with a white moustache who has a robust attitude to personal space and property taboos).

At feeding time about a month ago, both of the other cats turned up as usual, but Ninja (full pedigree name “Dragon-Fisting Ninja Wrath of Buddha”) was nowhere to be seen.  I called upstairs to my youngest son (17, and an addict hooked on World of Warcrack) to ask if he had seen Ninja.

“He’s on my bed, ruining up my shit.”

“Meh” said my daughter, and at that point I was initiated into the esoteric world of the Lolcatz and given the secret URL:

Now, the point I am making here is that I managed to surf the internet for over a year without once coming across this phenomenon.  Does this make me a noob, dweeb or just someone’s Dad?

Of course, now I know about this phenomenon, “it’s completely, like, last year” according to my kids (sorry, kidz), so I have decided to try to start a viral internet phenomenon of my own.  And to steal it from my daughter, as she seems to have invented the core philosophy independently.

I propose that all conversations that take place in any internet forum should now conform to the following set of guidelines.

Question: “Who (what/when etc) did/does/are whatever?”

Answer “Meh”

Here are a few scenarios for illustrative purposes

Q: “How old are you?”

A: “Meh.”

Q: “Spiritually speaking, should I wish bad stuff to happen to my enemies?”

A: “Meh.”

Q: “Will this PSU be beefy enough to power my mega-bicep jet-powered quad-SLi gaming rig?

A: “Meh.”

As you can see, not only does this approach strike a deep chord with today’s disaffected internet generation, but it works for ANY question.  Which of us has previously been aware of the multiple shades of meaning encompassed by those three little letters?

In the examples above we have three similar but quite specific usages: the first example shows “meh” being used to say “None of your business!” succinctly and inoffensively.  The second is a little more profound: here it means “Not only do I not care, but I don’t care in such an extreme way that I could not be bothered to read your question further than ‘Spiritually speaking…’”.

The third example is a little more deep than meets the eye: It could be taken to mean “I really don’t care” (or, more picturesquely, “I couldn’t give a flying f***), but look deeper.  Can you not discern, after a few more moments thought that there is also the connotation “If you are capable of both affording and building such a pointlessly over-specced rig, why don’t you simply work it out for yourself or, to be brutally frank, just buy the most expensive one you can find with the biggest numbers before the word “Watts””?

See yah next week?  Meh.