Category Archives: critical thinking

Amputation – shocking but not taboo?

There were smiling photographs all over the news this week of four young people and a Fire Crew. The two young women wore short skirts showing their amputations, each with her stump dangling alongside her remaning leg as she balanced on her crutches.  A happy smiling event but with powerful images.

Daniel Thorpe, Leah Washington, Chief Fire Officer Peter Dartford, Joe Pugh and Victoria Balch

Daniel Thorpe, Leah Washington, Chief Fire Officer Peter Dartford, Joe Pugh and Victoria Balch

Showing the amputations is the result of choices by many people from the young women themselves (and whoever they discussed their plans for the day with) through to the picture editors on the newspapers. I have no way of knowing how many of these choices were deliberate and how many were unconscious but these are image-aware young women of their generation.

Leah Washington – click through to Daily Record article with photo-gallery

These are images loaded with messages but without knowing the context, it’s hard to read the messages. Did these young women, lying and then sitting in hospital for weeks with their smartphones, gain inspiration from the powerful and often eroticised photographs of veterans created by Michael Stokes? Do they want to say they remain proud of their bodies?

US Veteran Mary Dague, by Michael Stokes

US Veteran Mary Dague, by Michael Stokes

US Vetearan BT Urruela by Miachel Stokes

US Vetearan BT Urruela by Miachel Stokes

Did the young people’s legal advisors encourage the decision in order to influence negotiations about compensation? Did anyone (on purpose or by accident) introduce a sense of shame or the pressure of normativity to the event and suggest hiding the stumps with trousers or by photographing the women sitting down, in a Fire Tender perhaps? And the picture editors, some chose to crop the image or run other images from that day but enough chose to run with it. Or is it just that times have changed and amputation is no longer taboo (though it retains its power to shock) and I am over-thinking this?

Pictures paint a thousand words but some of them raise a thousand questions.

However, one thing these pictures do show is that we’ve come a long way from the days when Marc Quinn broke taboos by placing his sculpture Alison Lapper pregnant on the fourth plinth. The image is so powerful and iconic that a replica featured in the 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony

Alison Lapper, Pregnant (2005)- Click through for contemporary comment, reviews etc

Alison Lapper, Pregnant – Click through for comment, reviews etc from 2005

Whatever the background and intended messages, the visit of Daniel Thorpe, Leah Washington, Joe Pugh and Victoria Balch to Staffordshire Fire and Rescue centre celebrated the four young people’s progress and the contribution of the Fire Crew. So let’s hear it for them and for the other emergency crews that day and the teams of healthcare workers who have worked with them since. And let’s also remember that this is not about them being brave or inspirational for us. Leah Washington  says “I haven’t come to terms with what’s happened, it’s a bit too soon” so  let’s wish them the best as they set out on the next stage of their roads to recovery.

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I’ll ride with you Charlie

Thank heavens I’m English, for truly we & the French are the only people worth being in Europe just now.

There’s no doubt, however Brutal it sounds, that they must be wiped out & sat on once & for all; they are only savages apparently, & as such have no place in Europe.

There are my grandfather and his brothers, fighting the Germans in the First World War.

And from To Kill A Mockingbird:

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”
Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”
She hates Hitler a lot…”
What’s wrong with that?”
Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treating the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?”
Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?”
Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was— she was going’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her— she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themelves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home…”

I refuse to let Fundamentalists edge me towards racism or fear of believers. And by ‘Fundamentalists’ I mean yesterday’s murderers of the #CharlieHebdo cartoonists, but also those who have a fundamentalist or absolutist response to that outrage and who make things worse, not better.

I am not my grandfather.

#IllRideWithYou

#JeSuisCharlie

#JeSuisAhmed

John Donne, Meditation 17

Dark at 9:03am in London – or why I like the clock change

Ok. Stand back. Let me explain. The hour shift only actually makes a difference for eight weeks a year.

What??? You all say.

Let me explain. Be careful now, this will involve science.

In the UK, the times of sunrise and sunset change by about 15 minutes a week or about an hour a month. So though we have a big jump this weekend when the clocks change, all that’s happened is that we’ve shifted Sunrise a month to when it was at the end of September, and shifted Sunset a month to when it would be at the end of November. There’s nothing in the clock change in October that we haven’t already had or wouldn’t have in a month’s time anyway.  It doesn’t make the daylight hours any shorter, though to listen to the grumpiness and ill-informed comments at this time of year, it seems that is what people think.

With me so far?

So the eight weeks which have sunset and sunrise times which we wouldn’t otherwise have are from Nov 22nd to Jan 22nd or so – ie a month either side of the winter solstice.

So here are the sunrise and sunset times and the length of the day for 21st Nov, 21st Dec and 21st Jan for London

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
07:29 16:03 08:34
08:03 15:53 07:49
07:53 16:30 08:37

Without the clocks changing, these numbers would be

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
08:29 17:03 08:34
09:03 16:53 07:49
08:53 17:30 08:37

I don’t know about you, but 9:03 is pretty late for sunrise and I hate actually going to work in the dark. So to my mind the clock change is worth it for those two months at least.

But guess what – even with the clocks changing, here in Edinburgh I do have to go to work in the dark.

Even though Edinburgh is only about half way up the UK, that is sufficiently further up the planet for those numbers to be inaccurate.  In January and November the daylight hours in Edinburgh are about 40 minutes shorter than daylight hours in London. and by December they’re about 50 minutes shorter. (Though of course, our daylight hours are longer by the same amount in midsummer).

So here are the sunrise and sunset times and the length of the daylight hours for 21st Nov, 21st Dec and 21st Jan for Edinburgh:

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
08:02 15:55 07:53
08:42 15:40 06:57
08:25 16:23 07:57

Without the clocks changing, these would be:

Sunrise Sunset Daylight hours
09:02 16:55 07:53
09:42 16:40 06:57
09:25 17:23 07:57

If it sucks when it’s dark at twenty to nine in the morning, it REALLY SUCKS if it’s still dark at twenty to ten! (I spent a couple of winters in Sweden – I know).

As I said, the specific eight week period between 22 Nov and 22 Jan are the only time when the sun rises at times it wouldn’t if we didn’t change the clocks.

I hope this helps explain

  1. why it’s not that much of a deal
  2. why you’d miss it in December if the clocks didn’t change and
  3. why I’d REALLY HATE YOU if they didn’t

V for Vegetarian

“But what do you eat…?”
“…er…. food…?”

In much the same way that there are deaf people with a small d and the Deaf community with a big D, I am beginning to think that there is vegetarian cooking with a small v – which is all about  meat and the lack of it – and Vegetarian cooking with a big V which is about actual Vegetarianism.

It seems to me there are five types of meat-free cooking.

Aphra’s guide to vegetarian food

1 – Something that’s “almost but not quite entirely unlike meat” (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Expensive factory-made vegetable protein that passes itself off as cheap factory-farmed meat. These are Seitan, Quorn meat-style pieces, Soya mince, and so on. I loathe these on principle but am ok with them in practice. Mr Behn is a vegan and quite likes them

These represent a style of cooking I was never fond of in the first place; I never did use cheap factory-farmed meat for a start (I used cheaper cuts of meat for sure, but went for good meat usually from independent butchers).

But there’s more to my dislike than that.  There’s an element of selling-out here: there is so much more to vegetarian cooking than pretending to be chunks of meat. For me, this is the vegetarian equivalent of the choice I made to become “one of the lads” when faced with sexism in the workplace. It’s like changing your accent to fit in. It’s accepting normative pressure to be or do something you are not, instead of celebrating something real and much richer.

2 – Even better than the real thing, baby (with apologies to U2)

Well -ish.

There’s a category of vegetarian food which copies meat dishes rather than chunks of meat, and some of these are surprisingly good.  Meat eaters (including me) are surprised by how good Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are. They’re no match for artisan-crafted Cumberland sausages made out of Gloucester Old-Spot pork by an independent butcher, but they are better than most cheap sausages.  (Q: Why do butchers put bread in the sausages? A: Because they can’t make both ends meat. Boom-tish.) Likewise McSween’s Vegetarian Haggis and Simon Howie’s Vegetarian Haggis are as good as meat haggis without the apparent ikk factor. (Haggis is one of the few things I miss: I was never frightened by offal).

Not everything is as successful as these; I’ve had vegetarian haggis that’s been little more than mashed beans. But aiming for meat dishes rather than aiming for meat gives the manufacturers more room for maneuver.

3 – Tribute dishes

These are ones prepared in the style of meat dishes, but unashamedly substitute non-meat ingredients. Don’t look for steak or seitan in a mushroom and chestnut suet pudding. My tendency to use lentils instead of mince puts my lasagne and moussaka into this category.

This isn’t always successful: for years mushroom strogonoff was the default vegetarian option on most pub menus, (mushrooms are apparently “meaty”… no I don’t get it either).

This approach still betrays the thinking that goes “start with meat and work out from there”.

4 – If the meat is in teeny tiny pieces, is it necessary at all?

A lot of dishes, especially mess-in-a-bowl ones, really don’t need meat: risotto, jambalaya, many kinds of curry, chowders, and so on. I can get four meals for six  people out of one chicken (roast, pie, risotto, soup) I know damn fine you don’t need chicken to make a good risotto.

I’ll grant you bacon and ham; there’s no real substitute for teeny tiny bits of bacon and ham as in pea and ham soup, though I do sometimes fry sunflower seeds in soy sauce for small crunchy salty bits to sprinkle on things.

5 – Ta dah! – Vegetarian Food!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you…. capital V- Vegetarian Food. Food that doesn’t give a toss about meat. Food where meat would be an intrusion. Food that didn’t start in someone’s mind with meat and work out from there. There is so much of it, and it’s so goddam delicious. And that’s what hurts.

There’s starter veggie food that everyone knows about but doesn’t think of as veggie because it’s comfort food: Mac and cheese, Fried egg sandwich, Beans on toast, Bubble and Squeak, Cheese on toast, Eggs Florentine, Baked Potatoes.

Then there’s a whole swathe of Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine: Chana Masala (chick-pea curry); Dolmades (rice or aubergine in vine leaves); Hummous (c’mon, you know what hummous is); Baba Ganoush (always sounds like the witch in a Russian fairy story, but it’s an outrageously delicious smoked aubergine dip); and a wide range of beans in every variety of savoury dressing both hot and cold.

The point about all these dishes is that they don’t need meat.  It’s not missing – it’s irrelevant.

I appreciate that meat substitutes have a place – some vegetarians miss meat and others like Mr Behn find they add variety to their diet. But I see no reason to imitate cheap meat badly when you can celebrate the amazing range of Vegetarian food really well.

How to plan a Vegetarian main course

The trick with Vegetarian food is mixing two or more kinds of protein; so rice and pulses (chick-pea curry with rice),  pulses and grain with dairy (lasagne). It’s a knack, it’s easy once you get the hang of it. And it stops you thinking “meat and then what…..?”

Some rants  – Blue Cheese, Goats’ Cheese and Tofu

While I have your attention, let me share the warm hatred I have in my heart for goats’ cheese. This is the mushroom strogonoff of our times and I’ve had enough to last my one and only lifetime.  Goats Cheese Tart,  Salad with Crumbled Goats Cheese, Grilled Goats Cheese on a Red Onion Marmalade are lazy lazy thinking by chefs who think “if it doesn’t have meat it must have cheese”. And I just plain don’t like the flavour of blue cheese in cooked food. Bored, bored, bored of these two.

What not to serve a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Goats cheese on roast veg, with roast veg – how to sadden the heart of a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Finally there’s tofu. Tofu is compressed soya beancurd and varies in texture from cheese-cake to cheese. It’s nothing like cheese in other ways, and saying “tofu is a substitute for meat” is like saying “ferries are a substitute for trains”. They do different things in different circumstances.

But saying you dislike tofu is meaningless. There’s almost nothing there for you to dislike. It’s an ingredient (like flour), by itself it tastes of nothing (like flour),  it gets its flavour from what it’s cooked with (like flour), it works well when it’s marinated (ok, this is where my analogy breaks down) or when it’s smoked. So don’t bung tofu into your recipe instead of meat and then complain about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll treat you.

I am sorry about those rants; I just had to get them off my chest.


About being a Vegetarian

I shouldn’t be irritated when people who eat meat ask what we eat in our largely vegan household. Mr Behn is vegan. Me, I don’t eat chunks of cheese, buy milk or cream, or eat eggs, but I’m a vegetarian not a vegan because I cannot face having to read every single label of every single product forever. Plus I don’t actually like Oreos.

I rather enjoy telling people “Mr Behn’s never eaten meat” because he was raised vegetarian by dippy hippies, but apparently his family weren’t completely vegetarian until he was a toddler. He did try to eat chicken as a training exercise for going to China. (Note the unpleasant use of the word “try”). So the truth is “he’s never consciously digested meat”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

I don’t actually know when I became a vegetarian.

I was raised by women who were adults during the war (both wars, in the case of my grandmother) so I learned to treat meat with respect because you won’t get it at every meal. My grandmother’s macaroni cheese was a wonder to behold, involving soft-boiled eggs and a breadcrumb topping.

They raised me to be fussy carnivore, preferring good meat (free range, from independent butchers) though not necessarily expensive cuts (I can and did stew neck of lamb, casserole rabbits, stuff hearts and cook belly pork with butter beans and apples, as I said offal held no fears for me).

So easing back from meat three times a week, to once a week, to once a fortnight was easy.  I don’t know when I last ate meat.  I do know when I finally identified as ‘a vegetarian’ rather than ‘someone who eats vegetarian food’: it was when a cafe gave me bacon with my pancakes and maple syrup and I felt sick at the smell.

No such thing as “gender neutral” language – Creating safe spaces in Skepticism

Roman Woman in Pompeii

Roman Woman in Pompeii

I was challenged the other day for stipulating that there should be no “ad hominem or ad feminam attacks” in the Skeptics in the Pub UK and Ireland Facebook Forum.

The challenge was a linguistic one, on the entirely accurate basis that:

There is no such thing as ‘Ad feminam’, and its use displays a mis-understanding of basic Latin. ‘Ad hominem’, although grammatically masculine, is actually gender-neutral.

Here is my response.

Skepticism has earned a reputation for being an “unsafe space” for women. I am not going to go into the rights and wrongs of how it earned that reputation here.

The best way to stop Skepticism being an unsafe space is by setting the lead and making it a safe space, and one way to do that is by sending out strong signals and backing them up.

There are many ways of sending out those signals. In Edinburgh Skeptics, for example, we make sure that women members of the committee or women volunteers are active and visible at every event. (This is easy right now because there’s currently only one male committee member, but the numbers ebb and flow). [This paragraph has been edited for clarity].

Another way to do it is with language. Language frames our thinking (a few of us have additional tools such as mathematics and other modelling tools, most of us only have language). So language that silently writes out half of humanity should be resisted by Skeptics whether we are feminists or not if only so we can think accurately about the situations we are in.

You fell for the equivalent trap to “mankind” means all of “humankind” – technically it may do, but it was almost always men who said so. (I read a book in the 70s that explained that babies were weaned too young, and “when the child grew up he became fixated with breasts” as a result…). Gender neutral language can be bad for your thought.

We do not live in ancient Rome; “ad hominem” may have been gender neutral there and then, but here and now it writes out women.

I chose to add in “ad feminam” because it explicitly says “we will not let women be attacked for being women”.

Given that women who speak out online are regularly the subject of rape-threats and death-threats, and given that skepticism has earned a reputation for being full of straight, white cis-men who are members of the academy and who will stay up late arguing because there is Someone Wrong on the Internet, I wanted to signal very explicitly that – in this forum at least – attacking a woman for being a woman is not ok, and I wanted to put men and women on equal terms.

So, I stand by my linguistic error: it helps us think more clearly as Skeptics and it makes it possible to have safer, more inclusive and more diverse spaces for Skepticism.

Plus, as I said in my first post, [I had replied earlier more light-heartedly] it amuses me. Not only, but also. (I am SO over the binary).

A series of small epiphanies

Nell

Nell

For a while I’ve been planning  a talk about what it’s like to be  what Skeptics call “a Woo” and about my journey from there to being one of the folks running Skeptics on the Fringe.

“Woo” is a term I dislike for a bunch of reasons, mainly because labelling people makes it too easy to stop thinking about them as people and stereotype them. No-one should do that to anyone, but we are Skeptics, dammit: we should think, especially when we are complaining that the defining group of this other group is that they don’t think.  Irony, much?

I had a couple of hours of driving to do tonight, appropriately enough  visiting Ash Pryce founder of Edinburgh Skeptics and then Keir Liddle founder of Skeptics on the Fringe.  I used the time to sketch out the structure of the talk and identify the key points I want to make.  It’s now sitting as bullet points on my laptop.

I hate bullet-points because PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, bulletpoints kill presentations. I prefer slides – if they are used at all – to be images rather than words.  The bullet-points will become my speakers notes. I could even use this as an opportunity to learn Prezi.

So I need to get some images together.  This glamour-girl from the 1920s in my grandmother.  Come to the talk when I eventually give it and you’ll see why she’s there. Somewhere I have a supercute pic of my dad with me slung under his arm when I was about two years old, and if I can find that I want it in the slides, failing that there’s one of him in what looks like a bishop’s mitre.  I think I still have my O’level certificate somewhere.  And I want to include some book covers, some podcast logos, stuff like that.  As it says here, the talk is about a series of small epiphanies.

It’s going to take a chunk of time to put together yet, but I hope it will explain why intelligent and rational people are still attracted to Alternative Medicine, reincarnation and similar things, that it will interest scientists and atheists lucky enough to have been raised that way, that it will reassure skeptical activists that skeptical outreach really is worth it, and explain why Phil Plait was right when he said Don’t be a Dick.


I’ll be keen to do this talk at Skeptics in the Pub and other appropriate events once I’ve finished the slides. Contact me via contact@edskeptics.co.uk if you’d like to discuss dates.

Show and tell – why I’m entering a competition at the Beeb

The BBC are holding a competition for someone new to do six “Pause For Thought” items on the Radio Two.

Can you make us stop, think and reflect in just two minutes? Would you like to be the newest voice on matters of faith on Radio 2? Then here’s your chance…

I am entering this competition though I don’t expect to win it; I am a humanist and an atheist and these slots on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day or Radio 2’s Pause for Thought are reserved for faith groups.

However, I am encouraging humanists and skeptics to submit entries, and to do so thoughtfully and in good faith. (Pun unavoidable).  In other words, don’t be a troll, and don’t be a dick.

And here is why.

The most senior people at the BBC, the policy-makers, seem reluctant to accept that humanists, atheists and philosophers may have something to say on ethical and maybe even spiritual matters.  

In November 2009 the BBC Trust said:

it had found that Thought for the Day is “religious output….”

But I suspect that this faith in faith groups is eroding; people taking editorial decisions seem less convinced. The then Controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer said:

it was a “finely balanced argument” whether non-religious speakers should become a part of the long-running Today programme feature.

The way to get these slots opened up so humanists, skeptics and atheists can discuss issues of ethics and morality in these mini-sermons is to undermine the argument that religion deserves special treatment in this way.  This competition gives us the opportunity to show the people who make editorial decisions that we can do it.

These are not the guys who make policy decisions, but one day they will be.

And — hey — I could be wrong, and one of us could win!