Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Development of Religion in the West: Part I

This post is the first in a series exploring the importance and the evolution of religion in Western society. This is a vast and convoluted topic and it is impossible to do it justice in one of my: 'Trilogies in four parts' series. What follows is not even a synopsis but a fine skip across the surface that barely wets the reader’s toes. And for this, I make no apologies.

Don't expect finely researched scholarship. I am not an academic historian and have never made claims toward this end. What remains is an intensely subjective view based on my amateur interest in the topic spanning over 30 years. What spews on the page is my personal opinion, only. History, as a topic, is about interpretation and generally not subject to scientific rigour (science as I understand it, anyway) except in the realm of 'archaeology'. Anyway, gentle reader, read on and if not enlightened, at least be enchanted.

It is a rare society indeed that doesn't have its early development rooted in religion and a belief in gods. I say, gods, because primordial, developing societies invariably have a concept of god in the plural. The development of monotheism is a later, but not an inevitable societal progression. Even the devoutly monotheist Jews were originally polytheist. Thus, a belief in supernatural beings seems a basic drive and need for pre-scientific societies. And this, of course, is thoroughly understandable. Without a conception of natural law and causality, natural phenomenon such as storms, wind and the presence of the sun, the moon and stars must have elicited grave wonder and consternation. Primitive, but intelligent humans could only gape in awe. Life as they understood it was brutal, short and capricious. How could there be meaning in their unpredictable existence? Enter gods, stage left. 

To the unsophisticated, the ‘deity concept’ fulfilled an epistemological void. To say that supernatural beings were responsible for natural causation enabled primitive societies to ‘explain’ their inexplicable world. Early gods were anthropomorphic and inventive minds soon filled in their biography with layers of character and intention. The gods became fleshed out and became fathers and lovers and were often destructive. Rarely were gods assigned moral and ethic values; they were beyond mortal strictures. They morphed into man writ large. Men would act as the gods if only they could. And with a pantheon followed a priesthood, usually an expensive and well-heeled priesthood.

How were the gods to interact with the mortal world? Surely intercession was required. A special caste emerged, often heredity, that could interpret the ‘signs’ and act as mediators between gods and men. Sacrifices were required to appease and please the gods to prevent plague, hunger and war. Arcane rites became established to further divorce the priestly class from the common and uninitiated folk. Power structures became established and religion became deeply intertwined within societies. Rulers embraced the theocracy and worked with the priest to maintain the social status quo. In times of political weakness, the priestly class became thrust into the political arena and exercised tangible secular as well as ‘other world’ power. All the most successful religions are firmly rooted in this world especially when it comes to obtaining land and money. In some societies, such as ancient Egypt (beyond my remit), the ruler became embedded into the theological system. Pharaohs were the embodiment of god manifest on earth.

Two thousand years ago the fierce rollicking and hard living gods of the West were typified by the theology of the barbarian Teuton and supposedly civilised Greek and Roman. A pantheon of jealous warrior and fertility gods had been spawned; a god for all seasons. This was not a sophisticated theology and in the Greek world at least, far-seeing thinkers criticised the prevailing theology. The Greeks were the first people, of which we know, who strayed from strict adherence to mythical explanations for the natural world. The initial Greek steps into the world of rationalism were faltering but at least it was a start. With Socrates, Plato and Aristotle it reached a zenith of intellectual endeavour which would not be matched for nearly 2,000 years. The writings of Plato suggest a belief in gods. I think with regard to Plato the sentiment was genuine as he was always prone to lapse into the transcendent and ridiculous even when he approached the most rational and sublime. What other Greek philosophers thought of the gods is another matter. Impiety or atheism could result in the ultimate penalty. I find it inconceivable that men of culture, high education and high intelligence could not perceive the inherent absurdity of the Greek pantheon and stodgy Greek theology. From there tis a single step to consider all religious systems absurd. The charge of impiety was a constant reality for upper-class Greek men. It covered a multitude of sins and was motivated mainly by partisan politics. If convicted the death penalty was a real threat. It is remembered that Socrates was charged with impiety, which from our lofty perspective of 2,400 years is patently ridiculous. His real crime lay in the realm of politics. He offended the existing power structure in Athens. Although not a political threat in any conventional sense, he did exercise a certain influence amongst the citizens, especially the young. Conservatism is always the default mode in society and major change comes only after the shedding of much blood.  

To what extent educated Greeks believed in the ‘Classical Pantheon’ is difficult to divine. It is not inconceivable that many adhered to theism as a matter of practical form, cultural conformity and political policy. Performing rites and religious abeyance are not the same as theistic belief. 

Brave principled Greeks did explicitly espouse a disbelief in gods. Diagoras of Melos (5th century BC) is credited with being the ‘first atheist’. This, of course, is not the case. Others before him espoused views which could be construed as atheistic. Two hundred years later, Theodorus wrote a book outlining his atheistic ideals.  

With the Romans, we see nothing new and everything stated about the Greeks apply here. Some educated Romans stated theistic scepticism, but most kept their counsel strictly private. Seneca famously stated: ‘Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful’. Does this constitute a form of atheism? I would say, nay. But it does convey a world-weary, cynical and critical standpoint. We gain insight when we consider the Roman habit of deifying  Roman Emperors. If men can become gods, what does this say about the concept of divinity? Surely it becomes devalued and loses its original supernatural connotation. Gods are no longer unique and become a mere abstract cypher for the state thus losing any believable content, at least amongst the educated classes.

Roman religion had plunged into a decadence which mirrored Roman society in general. The pagan religion lay prostrate and vulnerable to change. That change would come in the simple garb and unassuming raiment of Christianity. The development and influence of Christianity on the Western world will form the next two instalments of this gripping and succulent saga.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Lies, damned lies and,,,,,,,

Many years ago as a snot nose student I undertook a course in statistics. It was a compulsory course designed to help in my further research as a professional biologist. I'm sure you have heard the expression: 'lies, damned lies, and statistics. But statistics is just a tool and can be used for good or ill. Where patterns need to be divined from large complex data sets or whether the significance of a particular finding is relevant or just random 'noise', then stats can be a wonderful, nay beautiful tool.

During the whole of my professional career, I have never had to calculate any statistical method. I simply input my data into a stats programme and press a couple of buttons. If I need advice concerning the statistical tool required in any given situation then I consult the department's statistician for expert guidance. As an aside, our statistician is a strange old cove. He sports long hair and a beard and wanders about the building barefoot. What his designated health and safety officer has to say about the matter, I have no idea. In essence, the statistician is an ageing hippie and a caricature. He has a Che Guevara poster on the wall next to a 'ban the bomb' sign.

The point I'm trying to make in my characteristic and rambling way is that I don't have to be a statistical 'wunderkind' to apply stats. Although, perhaps I should have been more assiduous in my studies. My son's girlfriend has a stats degree and now works in a big bank crunching numbers for investment portfolios. At 28 she earns twice as much as the Flaxen Haired One and receives an annual bonus. I'm starting to digress.

This rather lengthy introduction is just a means to set the background for today's topic: Bayesian theorem. Bayesian statistics has applications in a wide set of disciplines and is even intuitively used, by everyone, in everyday decisions.

Prosaically stated: Baye's theorem enumerates how risk/probability starts with a base knowledge/data status and then enables the layering of new information which mitigates or increases risk. From a prior premise, additional information can be added sequentially thus altering the odds or final outcome. In a way, this is how we make decisions in real life scenarios, although not as mathematically precise. For those of a mathematical inclination, I've placed the Baye's formula below.

a prior
Bayes' theorem is stated mathematically as the following equation:[2]
where  and  are events and .
  •  and  are the probabilities of observing  and  without regard to each other.
  • , a conditional probability, is the probability of observing event  given that  is true.
  •  is the probability of observing event  given that  is true.

I'll just outline a practical example which has relevance to my line of work.
The carrier status of the disorder, cystic fibrosis (CF) is 1 in 20 in the North Western European population. Carriers are just that and are free from the disease. The chance of two carriers coming together to produce issue is 1/20 x 1/20 which equals 1 in 400. As CF is a recessive condition, the chances of them having a CF-affected child is 1/4 x 400 which equals 1 in 1,600. This is a risk-based solely on population data. How could this risk be modified? Perhaps in a particular instance, we ascertain that a relative, say a grandparent was affected by CF. Now we can factor this information to produce a modified risk structure for this individual. If we do the maths we will see that the risk will be higher than population risk. I will not reveal the mathematical reasoning here, however, it will be interesting to see if any of my readers can be arsed to work it out. As my audience demographic leans toward (sometimes totters) to the smarter end of the spectrum it will be interesting to see whether someone will rise to the challenge.

In our everyday life, we use Bayesian stats to further refine our judgement, as previously stated, not in any precise mathematical way, but in a subliminal and perhaps invisible way. But still, it is there. If we are prudent in our decisions we base it on incoming data. We then modify our response, accordingly. This is the essence of Baye's theorem. If we are logical in our thought processes, which consistently we are not, then maybe we can make sense, sometimes at least, in our insistent and chaotic world.  Please do not hold your breath.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017


Total insanity is not a pleasure in which I can fully indulge, at present. Society punishes the mad and I cannot afford to be castigated by an uncomprehending society, just yet. I have a responsible and professional persona to protect. Ultimately I  must provide for my family. Although on occasion my aberrant thought processes cascade into speech discombobulating colleagues and the random passerby, equally.  Only the exceedingly rich can afford to be totally insane. But under these circumstances, they are merely rendered  'eccentric'. 

I hope to retire soon. Once unleashed from conventional conforming and fettered society I'll hunker down in a rural idyll and ride out my dotage in unrestrained lunacy. Released from the prison of conventional societal mores I will soar into the yonder and slake my fill in a fetish of delirium.

Then again I could decide to take my medication.   

Arse bucket ago,go

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Another Celebrity Scandal

Sir Arse, in repose
Shock breaking news as the sleepy, soporific and moribund twee hamlet of Tipton nestling cosy warm in the enveloping greasy folds of the West Midlands comes to terms with the vile allegation that  Sir Archibald Spacecadet has been involved in a bit of ‘hanky panky'.

Sir Archibald, the much acclaimed but fey Tipton actor, has been the focus of sundry sex allegations from a coterie of washed up ‘celebs’ of yesteryear. It is claimed that Enoch Vowel Jnr was inappropriately molested by Sir Archie (call me Mavis) at a party hosted by the same. It is averred that in a moment of madness, Archie got out his twinkle and started to wave it about in an intimidating manner knocking porcelain poodles off shelves numerous while shouting: “come and get here, big boy.”  In a characteristic lull in the proceedings, Enoch managed to rush out the room and escaped unscathed except for a little ‘twinkle juice’ on his pubescent thigh.  

Notorious Heterosexual
After the allegations, a host of luvvies has come out of the pub to accuse Sir Archie of sexual molestation, various. As a desperate move toward damage control, Sir Archie was prodded to issue the following statement: “I am a howling wooftah, a knob jockey of the first water prone to lifting shirt, nefarious. A big girl’s blouse of a man who likes it up the chuff. If I inadvertently allowed my love rocket to burst through Enoch’s sound barrier I offer serene apologies. In mitigation, the event occurred 30 years ago when, I was very, very, drunk and may not have been at the venue as stated.

Leaves More Totty for us Real Men
The entertainment industry has been swift to act/react and the producers of the critically acclaimed political satire: ‘Politics is a load of bollocks replete with fat old men acting on their own self-interest and lining their pockets with large amounts of largesse, abundant’. Had this to say: “We always knew that this very private man was a penis pirate; a bum inspector; a rampant poof who sniffed men’s undergarments, however, this shock revelation has forced us to retract Sir Archibald’s contract on the hit televisual show: Politics is a load of bollocks replete with fat old men acting on their own self-interest and lining their pockets with large amounts of largesse, abundant".

Big Fat Arrrrrsssse
Due to fates fickle dance of doom, Sir Arsiebollocks will no longer be eligible for this year’s prestigious actor’s award for lunchtime achievement: 'Best closet homosexual and bugger of boys accolade’.

Ms Actor, a lifelong friend of Archie, gushed with rampant abandon: "I always knew he had a penchant for whipping out his tumescent member at every available opportunity and inserting his erect gristle in orifices meant for faecal excretion".     

The man on the street is understandably stunned: Mrs Enid Mugumbo (of no fixed undergarments) had this to say after being accosted in Tipton High Street after closing time: “Oooooh, a lovely man with a radiant ebullient acting talent. I particularly liked him as the dark brooding, moist and incontinent detective in: The raving homosexual detective with slack anal sphincter control after taking it up da arse, times numerous (arse)". When asked what the future may hold for this well reamed pooftah, Mrs Mugumbo waxed, languid: “Hanging is too good for him. He should be hung upside down from a lamppost and repeatedly shot in the manner that befitted Mussolini at Giulino di Mezzegra in 1945”.

Wise words indeed Mrs Mugumbo………..  

Mussolini in repose
Follow the link to reveal Archie's fine acting prowess and buggering proclivities

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Where are the little green men?

Feeling a bit off colour today
This post is the first in a series of posts concerning our universe. I've always had a deep abiding fascination for the cosmos, probably because it is impossible to grasp with a mere mortal brain. A select few of mankind, such as Einstein, Feynman, Hawkins, and Newton have been allowed to peek behind the veil. They can only convey what they see in a maelstrom of mathematic formulae; sadly, formulae, only they can understand.   

In 1961 an astronomer, Dr. Frank Drake, deduced a formula for calculating the existence of intelligent life in our own galaxy. The formula is very basic just a succession of simple terms. I don’t intend to consider the equation here as it will be dealt with in a future post. It makes a lot of assumptions, but even on a conservative estimate, it calculates that there should be 50,000,000 technological civilisations ‘out there’unless of course, the equation is not an accurate reflection of how the universe runs. Recent revisions of the formula suggest that this figure is a gross underestimate.

If we take a lower limit of 50,000,000 technological civilisations as a reasonable estimate we are left with the question, where are they? Or more to the point, why haven’t we detected their presence? I know some would argue that we already have and that UFO sightings are proof of alien life. I’m not convinced. The evidence to date for  UFOs being non-terrestrial is not compelling.

It is not as if we haven’t tried. The SETI Institute has been actively searching for intelligent life with detectors reaching out into the deepest regions of space and have come up blank. It is likely that a technological civilisation would give off electromagnetic radiation as a by-product of civilisation, even if they are not intentionally beaming their presence to other civilisations. The earth has been emitting radio waves into the cosmos for about 100 years. Those signals travelling at the speed of light could conceivably be monitored by a civilisation within that 100 light year radius (1 light year =8.9 trillion miles ). Another possibility is that we are in fact all alone in a cold, almost lifeless, universe? And if we are alone, why? The seeming paradox of the Drake equation and the absence of evidence of advanced life is known as the Fermi paradox, named after the physicist Enrico Fermi. Here are a few postulates as to why we may be alone and adrift in an uncaring universe……

No intelligent life
Biologists have concluded that the formation of life on a suitably primed planet with the right conditions is virtually inevitable. Remember life comes in many forms and does not necessarily equate to advanced intelligent life. Taking our own earth as an example: Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years. The first simple life emerged at about 3.5 billion years ago. For 2.5 billion years life remained very basic and mono-cellular. A single event in evolution produced a cell with a fundamental advantage. A primitive cell engulfed another cell for nutrition, but the cell resisted digestion and became incorporated within that cell and contributed to the cell’s metabolism. Today we can still see that primitive ingested cell within all advanced cells today- they are called mitochondria and act as the ‘power generator’ for the organism. Perhaps this chance event in evolution is exceedingly unlikely and without such an event advanced life cannot evolve. Thus the universe may well be teeming with life but not advanced life as we know it Jim. Is it conceivable that we are the only technological advanced species in the whole of the universe?

Intelligent life is exceedingly rare
Maybe intelligent life has existed in the universe, but currently, we are the only example. The universe has been around for 14 billion years. During this period civilisations may have come and gone. Maybe, most technological civilisations fizzle out because of nuclear war and/or over utilisation of resources. The universe can be a dangerous place. Planets can be sterilised or destroyed by cosmic events such as supernovae explosions, gamma ray bursts and large object impacts. A star going supernovae within 1,000 light years of the earth would be sufficient to destroy all higher life on earth. 

Broaden our horizons
Mayhap we are not looking in the right place or using the right search frequency. Our search parameters are very restricted and the universe is very large, perhaps infinitely so. Even if we are looking in the right part of the sky the detectors may not be tuned to the correct incoming frequency. Or maybe the signals have not reached us yet. The speed of light appears to be the fundamental speed limit of the universe. Even though electromagnetic wave propagation is blisteringly fast it would take information 100,000 years to cross our galaxy. A signal from our nearest galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy, would take at least 2.5 million years to reach us.       

Prime directive
Could it be that aliens are deliberately masking their presence? Perhaps they are operating a ‘Star Trek Prime Directive’. They could be leaving us alone and watching our development. The problem I think with this hypothesis is that communication is still restricted to light speed. To watch us they would have to be close. It is not inconceivable, I suppose, that highly advanced aliens have developed a means of communication and travel much faster than the speed of light, even though it would violate all known laws of the physical universe.   

Some argue, including Professor Steven Hawking, that it is a good thing that we haven’t established contact with alien beings. There is no reason to assume that they would be benign. They may be so advanced that they may view us as we view microbes. They might just ignore us or simply swat us as a minor irritation or impediment. They could be predatory and exploit our planet for resources and despoil all with impunity. If this proved to be the case then it is probably a good idea that we haven’t established contact. When humans groups come into contact with cultures less technology savvy than themselves, the ‘developing folk’ invariably suffer.   

One day, if we haven't destroyed our civilisation, we may be able to traverse vast interstellar distances and actually seek out other civilisations. Hopefully, we will be more technologically advanced in order that we may rob them of their precious commodities, enslave the population and make better lives for the dominant life form in the universe, US. 

That's more like it

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Flaxen's Thursday Rant

Celebrity endorsements really tick me orrrf. The tele is swamped by 'D' rated celebs of yesteryear or ex-sportsmen gone to seed berating us to buy some bloody product or service on their gainsay. They drone on how bloody wonderful this item/service is and how they would purchase no other and how it has changed their lives.

You have got to ask why an ex-boxer or ‘star’ from a 70s soap opera should know anything about carpets, building homes or insurance. But there they are with toothy smiles that don’t quite reach their eyes and paunches and thinning hair, barely concealed. They exhort (nay hector) us to buy their favoured product and explain how it's superior to the competitor’s product, also, strangely enough, promoted by an ex ‘reality show celeb’, called Candice Marie. Remember her? NO. I have a vague recollection of a young vivacious Candice, whipping out her thruppnees in episode two of: I’m in a gypo encampment- get me out of here before they nick my gold fillings’. I’m starting to digress. 

One thing you have got to ask: why are ‘D listers’ waxing lyrical about a lacklustre product? Mayhap, they are so impressed that they decided to contact the company and beseech the CEO to help promote their product/service, for nowt. Or more likely they are being paid squidoogles of cash for cavorting 'on air' for our televisual delight. And who ultimately pays the endorsement fee?

I suppose the advertising model works, otherwise, companies wouldn’t bother with celebrity branding. Clearly, the association of a product with a barely literate boxer of yore works for some mug punters. For me, however, tis a reminder to look elsewhere and find a competitor who doesn’t employ 'celebrity endorsement' in order to secure the lowest priced, but equally serviceable, product.  Arrrrrrrssse.   

Monday, 23 October 2017

Bow III: A Trilogy in Four Parts

Flagella Dei English Longbow in all its spirited glory

I was pleasantly surprised yesterday when my two bows ordered from Flagella Dei, Hungary turned up. I was hosting a Sunday BBQ at the time and have only just managed to have a close look at the bows.

As I recall, I ordered two self-bows in Osage Orange: an Old English longbow and a primitive, rustic, flat bow. I did indeed receive the longbow. The other bow, although a flat bow is not what I ordered. Instead, I received a tri-laminated, flat, longbow. Perhaps it was my mistake. Anyway, I can't complain. Both bows are stunningly beautiful to behold (beauty is in the eye of the bow holder) and look very well made.

I've only managed to string up the flat bow, as yet. I tried it out this morning and once I got used to the bow I was able to repeatedly hit a 20cm square target at 20 metres. The bow is 74 inches long with a draw weight of 46 pounds at 29 inches. The bow shoots smooth and there is virtually no hand shock. I'm comfortable with a 46-pound draw weight as this is roughly comparable to my compound bow. Also, I'm used to shooting an Asiatic bow at 55 pounds so I'm hoping that the English longbow, at 64 pounds, will not be too much of a challenge.

I've not had a chance to string up the English longbow. The string supplied has only one loop and I need to learn how to tie a 'bowyer's hitch' on the un-looped end before I string up this bow.

So first impressions: I'm very impressed. Both bows appear to be well made, quality products. I paid $NZ480 for the bows and paid an additional $NZ100 for import charges. So altogether, I've paid $NZ580 for two traditional type bows. Could I have bought a superior quality product, elsewhere? Well, yes. If I were prepared to pay $NZ1,200 for a bespoke longbow made by a master craftsman. While I would love to own an English longbow, fashioned in Yew and made by master bowyer, there is no way I could justify paying this sort of money on a bow. I can afford it but my wife thinks it a waste of money and she doesn't grasp the inherent beauty in a well-made bow. As I own ten bows currently, she may have a point. I'm an obsessive and highly focussed man by nature and require reigning in on the odd occasion. If left to my own devices my world would quickly spin into unrestrained chaos and madness. My wife is the sensible one and prevents me from leaving the real world of mundane inanity to one of hectic insanity. Ain't dat the sad truth?   

Final words: At this price point you would find it hard, nay impossible, to find a similar quality product. I would certainly order from the company, again. Next time I would like an Asiatic war bow in the Hun or Scythian style. And yes, I still hanker after the rustic, self-bow in Osage Orange. Psst, don't tell the missus.       

Nice looking bow and well shooting bow
The one that got away. Self bow, Osage Orange, primitive flat bow