Riots in Tottenham

August 7, 2011

Whenever a big protest happens when property is damaged, I always find myself in a curious situation where I wonder whether I agree with it or not. There are always people who will support any riot regardless of what it’s about, because it represents some kind of rebellion against the state, and similarly there are people who’ll say things like “there’s no excuse for violence” and always condemn any kind of disorder.

Last night a riot broke out in Tottenham, a pretty working class area of London, after earlier in the week a black man called Mark Duggan was killed by the police in an arrest attempt. Police cars and a bus were all burnt out, as well as a fairly high number of shops in the area, and another nearby area called Wood Green. Should we condemn this? Let’s look a bit closer.

There are quite a few things you have to take into account when you’re not at the scene yourself. You cannot trust the media to give an accurate representation of what’s happening, and that’s not because it’s all a big conspiracy, there are some very good reasons behind it. The media like immediacy. They’ll crawl all over any kind of angle they can find to try and get one over on their competitors. They want pictures and figures and anything else to fill those excruciatingly repetitive minutes on 24 hour news channels, and the coverage on those news channels shapes the view of the protest that the next day’s papers and the public have about it.

Now the police and the government can provide those things, they can issue statements, they can (falsely) claim to represent the silent majority, they can give the news channels figures on how many officers were injured, and make it seem like they’re the victims. The protestors can’t do that. There’s no-one counting the protestors who get smacked around the head, unless they go to hospital about it, but if a police officer grazes their knee they can count that as an ‘injured officer’ and report it as such. The protestors don’t have spokespeople, and the people who are most involved are often too busy or riled up to give a well thought-out statement (or they don’t want to be identified), so you often get the news interviewing some twonk who’s got no idea what they’re talking about. This gives a biased view. It’s only a very long time after the event that the real facts come out, by which time everyone’s forgotten about the riot and don’t reconsider whether it was justified, if the facts come out at all. Alfie Meadows barely got a mention in the news until well after Millbank. You even still get people who condemn the Brixton riots in 1981.

The media toss-up between editorial independence and access also means that if they don’t seem pro-establishment (or at least painfully ‘balanced’) then they risk losing their access to government officials and statements, upon which they rely for their stories on a daily basis.

Right now the media have been claiming that Mark Duggan was some kind of gangster or drug-dealer, and implying that he shot at the police, which is why he was killed. But people who knew him are saying he was a normal bloke. If the reports turn out to be false, will people reconsider what they think of the riot? I don’t think they will, not for a long time. It seems a bit fishy to me that they shot him twice in the face, shouldn’t they rather be trying to disable a dangerous suspect rather than go straight for the kill?

How come the people who are condemning the “violence” aren’t focussing on the one death in the whole story? What is violence anyway? If you bully someone to the point where they kill themselves, is that violence? In that case, is cutting benefits to disabled people and pushing them to the point where half have considered suicide, is that violence? Does property damage always count as violence? Undoubtedly it does sometimes, such as if I punched the wall right next to someone’s head, but is that true in all cases? I don’t think so.

I think people also put an unfair emphasis on whether the property damage can be justified. They’ll often ask whether it will help the cause or whether it will just turn people against them, but that is asking a mob to have an unreasonably high level of forward-thinking. It’s not a useful distinction to make. I much prefer to think about whether what’s happening is understandable, and I think in this instance it is. It’s a reaction to the institutional and structural damage that is being done to the people in Tottenham.

So does that mean I agree with everything that happened? No, of course not, and in particular I think burning buildings down was fucking stupid. They had no idea if people were still in there, and they had no idea how far it could have spread. I don’t care about the property damage so much but they put lives at risk and I don’t think it was necessary. Neither do I think people were rioting because they disagree with the concept of a police force, as much as some people amongst the left would like to think so. But what I do think is that what happened last night was the inevitable consequence of pushing a community to the edge. The features section of a newspaper is often more important than the news section, because it focusses on long-term trends rather than individual events. The features section might have told us about the way black people are more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people. The news section will only tell us about the riot.

And that’s why the real news isn’t what happened last night in Tottenham, it’s what’s been happening there for the past few decades.

My experience of the March for the Alternative

March 28, 2011

It’s been a very, very long time since my last post, and a lot has happened between then and now. I decided to run for a sabbatical position at my students’ union, won that election, then got myself involved in staff strike action at university, probably more demonstrations and marches than I’d ever been to before in my life, plus a little thing called my degree, so it’s been a very busy time.

The latest demonstration was called the March for the Alternative this past Saturday, you may have heard about it from the media coverage. In fact I’ve just been watching Theresa May answering questions about it, and the way Parliament is speaking you would think the media was on the side of the so-called violent minority. That’s far from the case. So here’s an outline of my day:

We set off from Edinburgh by coach at 11pm on the Friday night, and parked about 9.30am. On the way we’d seen the stage in Hyde Park which was presumably where the rally was to take place later, and IIRC overhead it read something like “all cuts are wrong”. I could imagine Ed Miliband talking there later saying “well they are wrong but we’d do most of them anyway”. Some of us went straight to the starting point at Victoria Embankment whilst the majority, myself included, decided to head to the Education feeder march at ULU. I noticed the first signs of conflict there, where a large group of more militant activists using Black Bloc tactics had already formed up and were getting restless. I later realised that the Militant Workers Bloc was supposed to be setting off from ULU an hour earlier than the Education feeder, and impatient to set off, they started getting frustrated with who they thought were the SWP, but who I knew were actually there as activists from the Glasgow anti-cuts group.

We set off at around 11.15, and the feeder was actually the best part of the march, with plenty of chants and songs going. Some of our group had instruments, and played various lefty tunes on the way. We eventually joined the main march at the embankment, and the atmosphere there was noticably different. Noone joined in with chants or songs, and the majority of people were just walking along chatting. Even uncontroversial chants like “no ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts” got no response. This was a very different march to the ones I’m used to, but given the numbers, it’s hardly surprising. It was also good to see all the old-fashioned TU banners, I’d only really seen ones from the UCU and a few from the Fire Brigade strike before.

At around 1.30pm, we got bored of the march and decided to head towards Oxford Street where UK Uncut had some action planned. We went via Trafalgar Square where a large group had gathered, and then on the way to Soho Square (near the middle of Oxford Street) we bumped into a lot of splinter groups that had already broken off. I think the 400,000 figure that’s being bandied about at the minute is a massive underestimate. A lot of demonstrators didn’t go to the march at all.

We got to Oxford Street and it reached 2.11pm, when a lot of action was supposed to start. The UK Uncut action appeared to have been taken over by people in the Black Bloc, who split up into 2 groups, heading towards each end of the street. A small group of us noticed a lot of police heading down to either end, and it seemed like a kettle waiting to happen, so we stayed in the middle, wandered down some side streets and tried to keep our friends in both groups aware of which way the main body of police was heading. Riot vans were speeding from one end of the area to the other, so it was obvious that the protestors had been too quick for the police. We passed a McDonald’s restaurant that had been smashed in, and heard about a few HSBC branches, the Ritz, Topshop and Starbucks.

After 45 minutes of that we went to Oxford Circus, where UK Uncut were supposed to be announcing a big target at 3.30pm. It was right next to Topshop where there had already been a confrontation with the police, and they dragged a Trojan horse into the Circus, and had a street party, which was nice. Apparently they later set off fireworks from near the horse and it caught fire and went up in minutes. Oh well. Instead of just announcing the target, they told everyone to follow the people with the red umbrellas, who went towards Picadilly Circus. We already knew there were masses of riot police down there, so again, to avoid a kettle, we took the back streets, and ended up in Trafalgar Square again, where there were still thousands of protestors, and we met up with other people we knew. This was at about 4.30 and we could see down the street that the main march was nowhere near finished yet. We stayed there for a while and enjoyed the atmosphere, then went back to the bus. Brilliant day.

A quick note on the violence. It’s interesting to note that the media (and the police) have latched onto UK Uncut as the main instigators. In fact, the people smashing windows in the Black Bloc were almost certainly not regular attendees of UK Uncut events, for a fairly simple reason. UK Uncut is generally run by Greens and the Robin Hood Tax people, social democrats in other words. Many of those in the Black Bloc were carrying anarchist flags, and campaigning for certain companies to pay their taxes doesn’t fit very easily into an anarchist ideology.

Shamelessly stolen from the Independent

Inside Fortnum and Mason - hardly the most violent example of direct action

There was also a difference in targets (they overlapped, but I don’t know of any UK Uncut demo at a McDonald’s, for example), and a difference in tactics (UK Uncut generally just sit in the doorway and don’t let anyone in, rather than smashing windows), so it’s misleading to conflate the two groups. Some of the more typical targets of UK Uncut like Barclays and Vodafone seemed to have already shut their branches so there was no point in doing a usual demo there. I’d also point out that whilst the media goes into its usual hysteria about “anarchy in the UK” or whatever, as far as I know noone was actually hurt in any of the vandalism on businesses – most injuries were sustained in confrontations with the police. It’s worth keeping in perspective that we’re talking about some windows being smashed, property damage, nothing that can’t be fixed. All the right windows were smashed. Where the more typical UK Uncut group took a more typical direct action by sitting in Fortnum and Mason – nothing that could be called violence or even property damage, they were arrested and had their phones and clothes confiscated, despite being told they’d be allowed to leave. That’s probably the action that I most agreed with, the least controversial one, and yet that’s the one the police cracked down on. They were very strange and unusual tactics.

Inane, Imbecilic and Irrelevant

December 5, 2010

Last night after a meeting to discuss the anti-cuts movement, a few of us went over (including a fair number of the Students for Justice in Palestine) to a pub for a drink. We noticed a couple of young guys speaking Hebrew and after a few funny looks they shortly left, but they left a Scottish guy behind who decided to argue the toss. This was the most ridiculously pro-Israel person I’ve ever met. I didn’t hear most of the conversation because my workmate was also there and wanted a conversation, but there was one point I picked up on and it was the most inane shite ever.

“There’s no such thing as a Palestinian.” That’s what he actually said. Repeatedly. At first I was completely confused, he kept saying “define a Palestinian!” and I said “someone who lives in Palestine?” Then he asked what the difference is between someone from Palestine and someone from Lebanon, and I asked what the difference is between someone from England and someone from France. “A different race” he said. I’m sure I could find someone in France who looked more like him than they looked like me, race has nothing to do with it. But he kept going on and on about all the Arabs being the same (he didn’t recognise Arab Israelis as Israeli and he thought Iranians were Arabs too…) and I just don’t understand what his point was. Even if he was right, did he think that because the Palestinians are the same as the Lebanese, then they should go there and the Israelis can have their land? In that case, if he thinks all the Arabs are the same, what’s to stop Israel going into Lebanon and saying they’re all the same as the Saudis and sending them all packing there? Really, what was his point?

He kept saying that Palestine was created by the British, but when it was pointed out that Israel was also artificially created, he said that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel 2,000 years ago. Now the people who live in Israel now can’t trace their ancestry right back to the Israelites so to claim this is a continuation of the same state is a bit ludicrous, but even if they could, so the hell what? In a similar sort of logic, should be give England to the Italians because the Romans were there 2,000 years ago? Or maybe to Ireland to honour the Celtic history going back even further?

The guy was a moron, and he had the gall to call us closed-minded. One thing that gives me heart is that history will look back and mock these kinds of people, just like those who defended apartheid, and those who opposed the Civil Rights movement.

Michael Behe and the Centre for Intelligent Design

November 29, 2010

Last week, some of the student humanists and the skeptics went to Glasgow Caledonian University to see Michael Behe, the Intelligent Design proponent from the Discovery Institute, who was speaking fot the Centre for Intelligent Design.

It was the same old crap.

That could be the totality of this review, but there are a couple of issues that come out of the talk which I’ll discuss here. He went through the usual stuff about how we recognise things as designed, using the difference between a mountain and Mount Rushmore as an example. I didn’t have much of a problem with this section because he continually referred to ‘the appearance of design’ rather than the fact that something is designed.

Then he went onto the mousetrap claptrap and his baby, Irreducible Complexity in the bacterial flagellum. It’s complete rubbish and purely by coincidence, QualiaSoup has just released an excellent video which includes a section on that very topic, starting at 4.20:

So as you can see, systems can evolve even if they seem irreducibly complex because parts of the system can have different functions, parts that were previously necessary can be lost, and parts themselves can be changed.

It was mentioned in the (very short) question section that parts of a system can have different functions, and Behe’s reply was basically “yes, but look at the definition of Irreducible Complexity that I gave at the start, it says objects are Irreducibly Complex if removal of one part means it cannot carry out that specific function.” That’s fine if he wants to define it that way, but he can’t simultaneously define it that way and claim that Irreducibly Complex systems are a significant obstacle to the evolution of those systems. In order to claim that, he must come up with a system which is truly Irreducibly Complex, in the sense that it couldn’t have evolved through the gradual addition, removal and change of parts and functions. If he has any examples of that, he hasn’t been showing them.

After he’d explained a feature of organisms which he considered a blow to evolution, he then went back to the fact that organisms appear designed. He then said that concluding they are designed is an inductive argument, and then looked up a dictionary definition of inductive reasoning which said that’s the kind of reasoning used in science, and concluded that therefore Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis. If I’d had time for a question I would have asked whether he could see the leap in logic he’s using here. Let’s take a look at it again.

Inductive reasoning is used in science.
Concluding things are designed from their appearance is an example of inductive reasoning.
Therefore that conclusion is scientific.

Using the same logic, I could make the argument that:

Bands played at Woodstock.
U2 is a band.
Therefore U2 played at Woodstock.

I would have pointed out that although inductive reasoning is used in science, there are other things that make a hypothesis scientific, just as there are other things that define bands that played at Woodstock. So for example, how would Behe use the Intelligent Design hypothesis to make specific predictions? What evidence should people look for if they want to disprove his hypothesis? I suspect he wouldn’t have had an answer.

The last part of the talk was phenomenally ignorant. He just boldly asserted that his findings are consistent with findings in other fields such as the fine-tuning of the universe.

There is also an issue with universities hosting speakers such as Michael Behe. Yes, there is a free speech argument to be made, but free speech does not imply that you must give a platform to anyone who wants to speak. You’re free to say what you like but that doesn’t mean I can’t kick you out if you come and say it in my living room. You could say that having both Intelligent Design advocates and evolutionary scientists speak is a form of balance, but the difference is that evolutionary science has gone through peer review and is established, and then it is put into books and taught at universities. Behe and his colleagues can’t get through the peer review process, so they try to bypass it by going straight to writing books and getting talks at universities. I think it’s pretty clear that hosting these kinds of speakers at prestigious locations such as universities gives an air of credibility to a movement that doesn’t deserve it.

Anti-Cuts demonstration

November 27, 2010

I’ve spent the last couple of days in an occupation at Edinburgh University, fighting against the cuts to education proposed by the coalition government in the UK. On Wednesday a group of students took over a lecture theatre in Appleton Tower, and the group has been there since then. What do we want? We have a pledge which we want the university to sign, and that’s it. I don’t think there’s anything controversial about it, and indeed I think the university largely agrees with it. The anarchists and socialists at the uni tend to take a leading role in these kinds of things at our university, and one of the benefits of that is that decisions are made using the consensus decisionmaking process of which I’m quite fond, and which was also used in the occupation for Gaza. I’ll expand on what that is towards the end of that post but first an update on what’s happening now and what will be happening in the near future.

Security were at first very reasonable. Matriculated students could access the building at night, and even non-students could access it during the day. The University Secretary did not come to speak to us until today because they’ve been tangled in graduations. Today she came down and said they’ll give a response to the demand on Monday. Then the head of security told us that we wouldn’t have access to the building over the weekend, except for informatics students who normally have access anyway. Unfortunately I had to leave this evening for a screening of the Blair/Hitchens debate (on now) and so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get back in until Monday morning. Until then, we have meetings in Teviot at 1pm tomorrow and Sunday for the outsiders to help plan for 2 more events happening this week.

Firstly there’s a Scotland-wide rally starting at Bristo Square, Edinburgh, on Tuesday 30th at 11.30am. We’re hoping to get a walkout from several of the local schools, and a good turnout from universities across Scotland. Tuesday night is also the EUSA AGM where there are 2 relevant motions. On Sunday, we’ll have another rally for the benefit of those who work and who are stuck in school.

I’m running out of battery so I’ll describe the consensus decisionmaking process later.

Edit: Ok, managed to get myself smuggled back inside now, I’ll be here til I go to work tomorrow afternoon. The consensus decisionmaking process is a way in which a group can make decisions and get things done without having any kind of a leader (which is why it’s so popular with the anarchists). Basically in any meeting, someone takes the role of a facilitator. Typically the group will sit in a circle but that’s not necessary. At the start of the meeting, people raise their hands to put things on the agenda, and someone taking the minutes writes it down. Then going through the agenda, people raise one hand to make a point, both hands to make a direct response to something that’s just been said, they make a P shape to suggest a proposal, and a T shape to make a technical point (something outside the discussion such as “we’re running out of time” or “the building’s on fire”). On top of that, if you agree with something someone’s said, you wave your hands, palms facing forwards. If you disagree, you move them side to side, palms facing down. That way noone gets shouted down and there’s no applause so everyone can be heard. The role of the facilitator is to make sure people aren’t ignored, and that points get prioritised properly (technical points obviously come first, direct responses come before normal points, and proposals are prioritised over general points, particularly when we seem to be exhausting a discussion).

So typically a discussion will involve various points being made on various aspects of the discussion topic, then after a while someone makes a proposal (an action to be taken, a decision to be made, or – particularly in something like an occupation where there are lots of meetings over a few days – a decision to postpone discussion until another time). The facilitator then takes what’s called a ‘temperature check’, where everyone that agrees with the proposal waves their hands, then the facilitator asks if anyone disagrees. This is the important part – the discussion does not move forwards until the disagreement is resolved in some way. So if there is disagreement, some make points for, others against, and there’s another temperature check. This can come to one of three outcomes. Either everyone ends up agreeing on one of the two options or a compromise, or the group decides not to make a decision either way given that there’s no agreement, or if only a small number of people disagree, the facilitator asks if their disagreement is a ‘block’ or a ‘stand aside’. As the name suggests, a block is used only if the group’s passing a proposal would mean they want to leave the group, whereas a stand aside is if it’s not a massive issue. If some people decide to block, the rest of the group votes on whether it’s acceptable to overrule or not. Obviously people don’t like doing this, so I’ve only seen a block overruled when there was just one person disagreeing.

I think the advantages of this system are pretty obvious. The group isn’t led by any kind of clique or leader, and it is not just a majority rule, the whole group comes to an agreement about what to do and everyone is relatively happy about what is decided. The disadvantages are that it breaks down when there is serious disagreement with a significant number of people, that it can take a long time, and that the individuals in the group will not necessarily be the same the next time, so a decision made by one group can be binding on another group of individuals. But so far it’s worked.

Why protest against the Pope’s visit?

September 9, 2010

When I got back to Scotland, I was very keen on doing some kind of protest or demonstration against the Pope’s visit. Unfortunately most of the groups I’m involved in were either busy with other events or were reluctant to do anything because they didn’t want to be associated with the Orange Order. So I found a protest in Glasgow on Facebook, but it’s horrendously organised and it wasn’t an ideal place to stage a protest. There will be a Popemobile parade going through Edinburgh so I thought that’d be a better location. Anyway I’m in the process of sorting that out with the police, but I thought it’d be good to explain a few of the reasons why some of us will be protesting. Let’s do this as a rather boring numbered list, starting with the fairly mundane:

1. The disruption. Look at all the bus services that are being affected by the Pope’s visit to Edinburgh. Look at the roads that are being closed in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  There will be still more disruption in Coventry and London. Bin collections are being cancelled, businesses are having to close, schools are being closed, hospitals are on high alert, all so the leader of a tiny proportion of the UK’s population (1.6% if we go by mass attendance) can have his parades and his masses and be ‘adored’ from behind his 6 inches of bulletproof glass. Faith in action, as Bill Hicks would say.

2. The cost. All the current estimates for the costs have failed to include the security costs. To my recollection, the UK government was originally supposed to cover £8million of the costs of the visit, whilst the Church would cover £7million, which supposedly reflected the proportion of the visit which would be a state visit as opposed to a pastoral one. The government’s contribution went up to £12m, and soon after that up to £20m, which is where I believe it currently stands. In the grand scheme of things that’s not so much, except that looking back at past events, the security is usually by far the biggest factor, and they’re not included. Bringing George Bush to Gleneagles for the G8 cost £72 million, and although there were much bigger protests happening then and IIRC that visit was a bit longer, the trip didn’t involve any parades or open-air masses, or any of that malarkey, and he was kept in one place, so we’re looking at a comparable sum of money. The News of the World claim to have uncovered a paper which showed the Scottish portion of the security will cost a minimum of £10 million, and the starting estimate for the costs of the London element is £1.8 million. I suppose we won’t know how much the visit will cost until it happens, but it’ll certainly be more than the £1m – £1.5m that the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police has quoted today.

Don’t forget that this money is coming from the normal police budgets, budgets that are already facing massive cuts in the coalition government’s spending review. People’s jobs and people’s safety are literally on the line because of this visit. Ok, not literally because I don’t know what line that would be, but they are literally at risk.

3. The Pope’s criticism of the UK’s equality laws and its opposition to equal rights for LGBT people. Despite the fact that there is already an exemption in place for ministers and priests, the Pope claimed that the UK Equalities Act which came into force this year imposed unjust restrictions on freedom of religion, basically because it wouldn’t allow the Church to discriminate against gay people when employing people. Let’s be clear here, the Church would not be forced to employ women or gay priests, but they would be banned from discriminating against gay people for example when employing people to be a secretary, or a window cleaner, or anything else that didn’t involve religious teaching. He wanted the Church to be above the law, basically. So not only are we paying through the nose for him to come over here, but while he’s here he’s going to rub salt into the wound by criticising our hard-won freedoms which we’ve had to prise out of the claws of religious groups like his.

4. The continued subjugation of women in the Catholic Church. I’m not just talking about not letting women be priests, but every time the Church releases a statement on the family, it’s always hearkening back to tradition and the old times, which is basically saying women should stay at home and be obedient to their fathers or their husbands. Granted, this isn’t just the fault of the Catholic Church, it’s a widespread phenomenon, particularly amongst religions, since the idea of the sacred is an inherently conservative force, and especially amongst Abrahamic religions. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church’s teachings on the family, abortion and contraception limit women’s reproductive rights and help to propagate the image of women as baby-making machines, which has all sorts of consequences.

5. The promotion of segregated education. We only need to look across the water at Northern Ireland to see the damage that segregated education does. Richard Dawkins made an excellent documentary on this issue which can still be viewed on 4OD.

6. The Vatican’s appalling handling of the abuse cases within the Church. As I’ve covered on this blog before, and as I’m sure new readers will be aware, a huge number of children have been sexually abused in the Catholic Church, and rather than handing over the perpetrators to secular authorities to be punished, Bishops, Archbishops and even Cardinals have chosen instead to deal with it privately within the Church, moving paedophile priests from parish to parish, free to offend again, whilst swearing victims into perpetual silence to protect the reputation of the Church. Whilst I don’t necessarily suggest that the present Pope has been personally involved in such cases, he has certainly not done enough to punish those who have covered up abuse cases. He has not called for the resignation of bishops who definitely did cover up abuse cases, and it is evident that as a Cardinal he put the reputation of the Church well ahead of the safety of children in its charge. He issued a self-serving apology to the Irish Catholics which offered no material solution to the problem. He appointed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor as head of the Apostolic Visitation to Ireland, himself a bishop who moved a known paedophile priest from parish to parish to reoffend. The Church has repeatedly blamed the paedophile crisis on homosexuals.

7. The Pope’s irresponsible comments about condoms and HIV. The Pope and others in the Church have repeatedly stated, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, that condoms do not help prevent the spread of HIV and that in fact they help to spread it. Abstinence-only education programmes have been shown to increase the spread of STD’s and whilst abstinence and fidelity are good ways to protect yourself from infection, it is not a choice that many women have in Africa, and condoms have been shown to be a good way to help prevent the spread of HIV and other STI’s. The Pope’s comments have undermined the work of many AIDS charities working in Africa, and have undoubtedly put lives at risk.

8. The Church’s continued silence about its role in the Rwandan Genocide. There’s not much else that can be said.

Those are some of the reasons. Notice that I have not attacked the Pope’s position as a head of state. Whether or not the Holy See is a legitimate head of state or not (and I’d say the Vatican is not much more than a palace full of old men in frocks) is irrelevant. In the sense that it’s necessary but not sufficient to justify a state visit. Kim Jong Il hasn’t had any state visit invitations recently, and if the heads of state of various other tiny countries like Macedonia or Andorra receive a state visit invitation, they won’t be parading in the streets of various cities. Seeing as the Holy See and its religion is pretty much one and the same thing, it’s only a minute distinction anyway. The Pope’s state visit should be opposed not because he is not a head of state, but because he is the leader of a Church which is completely out of touch with the majority of Britain’s Catholics, never mind the rest of the population, and which is morally corrupt. The visit will come at a great cost to the UK with relatively little benefit.

Skeptics on the Fringe

August 13, 2010

I’m back up in Edinburgh looking for a flat, and that means it’s Fringe time! If you don’t know what that is, it’s nothing to do with my hair. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is actually a group of festivals under the same name. It’s a lot of arty-farty dancing and music which I don’t really go for, loads of comedy, some jazz, a book festival, and some bits and bobs alongside it. It attracts gazillions of tourists every year, and it pretty much funds my student union so I like it. There are a number of shows of a skeptical/sciencey/humanist/atheist bent which I would wholeheartedly recommend, and that’s more or less what this post is for.

First of all, and the title role of this post, is the Skeptics on the Fringe. The Edinburgh Skeptics in the Pub are putting on this astonishing ambitious array of events made up of 3 parts. Each day at 1.15pm in Cabaret Voltaire, they’re hosting a comedy panel show with a science and skepticism angle, featuring a different panel of comedians each day, called Devil’s Advocate. Later in the afternoon at 6pm at the Banshee Labyrinth they have a Skeptics in the Pub-style lecture called At the Fringe of Reason featuring such speakers as Richard Wiseman (tonight!), Simon Singh, Chris French, Matt Parker (see below), Caroline Watt, Tracy King, and me (this week, so you missed that)! As if that wasn’t enough, on the weekends they’re leading a Skeptical ghost tour called Ghosts Busted, starting at 9pm at the statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile. I’ve been to most of these events and they’re all well worth seeing.

The aforementioned Matt Parker is both a qualified maths teacher and a standup comedian. Put those two together, add some morbidity and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect at Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death. That’s on at Assembly on George Street at 11.25am, and I can’t think of a better way to start your day. Matt and his partner in stats Timandra Harkness have been kind enough to appear on Devil’s Advocate a few times, and he’s also done a slot in At The Fringe of Reason. They’ve both had us all in stitches all week so get on up and go see their show.

If sciencey comedy is what makes you tick, you won’t want to miss Robin Ince. Robin has apparently lost his mind this year and he’s doing at least 3 shows. The first called Carl Sagan is My God, Oh, and Richard Feynmann Too, is at 12.10pm in the Canon’s Gait on the Royal Mile. It features different acts each day on various different sciencey subjects, interjected with comedy bits from Robin Ince and readings from Carl Sagan and Richard Feynmann (that’s Robin that’ll be reading, he hasn’t perfected his necromancy skills). I went to see it this morning and it featured a rap about the effect of ovulation on human mating practices, a demolition of Einstein’s theory of relativity, a song about chemistry and a rant about Joe Power. Win! I haven’t seen his other shows but I think there’s another one in the Canon’s Gait around 7pm and that’s bound to be awesome. Go to the afternoon show and ask him what else he’s doing.

Helen Keen is performing a show called It’s Rocket Science at the Gilded Balloon, at 1.15pm. I haven’t seen it yet but she’s said to be a great entertainer and she’s got some great reviews so far. Once I’ve seen it I’ll let you know.

Baba Brinkman is performing The Rap Guide to Human Nature at the Gilded Balloon, at 3.45pm. This is the guy doing the rap about ovulation and human mating practices at Robin Ince’s show, and he’s also appeared on Devil’s Advocate. He’s a really witty guy so he’s definitely recommended.

Evolutionary psychologist Carole Jahme of Guardian fame is presenting a show called Carole Jahme is Bio-Diverse! which is at the Zoo Southside Cabaret Bar on Nicolson Street at 7.45pm. It seems to be aimed at a fairly young audience (apparently she dresses herself up as a human-chimp hybrid), but it’s all about evolution and biodiversity and how to protect the environment.

If I think of any more I’ll add them in here.