Monthly Archives: December 2008 – Is it Human?

hYesterday,  something very strange happened to my blog statistics…. There was a 3000% increase in the views. I watched with amazement all day as the numbers kept climbing. Something must be wrong as the viewing figures went exponential….It turns out that this was all down to being listed at a new site which profiles a rolling screen of other blogger most recent posts. You simply click and it takes you to their site. 

But then I got wondering, is this activity on my site down to me sitting all day watching the figures… in other words was I self-stimulating myself? Or maybe it was entirely automatic. There was no sudden increase in comments left on my blog from traffic directed  from alphainventions but there was an increase in views of other blogs on my site… and not in any random order. In other words, some humans must have been poking around my site. So I am left to conclude that this amazing blogger promotional site created by the wonderful Cheru Jackson (check him out, you wont believe what he gets up to) is the real thing.

Now Cheru can you also help me sell my book in April?

Oh, and if you do come over from alphainventions, drop a comment so that I can check you are really human. I’ll feedback on this next week to give you numbers.


Filed under General Thoughts

Ectoplasm Smells Like Seamen

unexplained-v2Last night, Channel 4 began broadcasting a 3-part series, “Unexplained,” presented by the loveable Tony Robinson. I am a huge Blackadder fan and these guys are comedy geniuses in my opinion. However, I know this series will annoy me. The first episode, “The Blitz Witch” was based on Helen Duncan, the last person to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 for her reputed psychic revelations during WWII. The second, “The Ghosts of Glastonbury,” will investigate antiquarian Frederick Bligh Bond who claimed that his excavations of Glastonbury Abbey were guided by communications with dead monks. The final episode, “The Medieval Reincarnation,” looks at a group of Bath residents who recounted past life dreams to a local psychiatrist in the 1960’s.

The series already annoys me for a number of reasons. In addition to all the analysis based on hearsay, Tony will take part in pseudoscientific studies of psychic ability, past-life regression, séances and automatic writing. These are all discredited and yet presented in a framework that suggests they are possible.

 “Unexplained” perpetuates the belief that there is something real going on by confusing the public with the veneer of the scientific credibility. In last night’s episode, Robinson latched on to every piece of ‘evidence’ where possible. Moreover the production team deliberately misled the audience. They began by going over again the well-hashed episode where Helen Duncan claimed to materialize the ghost of a dead seaman from HMS Barham before news of the ship’s destruction was made public. The truth was that not all hands were lost and in fact it was common knowledge that the ship had been sunk. The Admiralty had already sent condolesence letters to relatives before the séance took place.

duncan_spiritFaced with the fact that the sinking of HMS Barham had not been a secret, the TV audience was left with two more clinchers. One was from the last surviving person to attend one of Duncan’s séances who described the  medium’s materialized ectoplasm – the spiritual snot that is supposed to exude from various orifices. The witness was a very elegant, demure and well-spoken old lady so you can imagine my shock when she revealed that the ectoplasm ‘smelt rather like semen!’  Maybe she meant seamen? 

The second conclusive piece of testimonial evidence came from an authority figure. At another séance in Edinburgh in 1941, Duncan revealed that HMS Hood had been sunk by the Bismark to no other than Brigadier Roy Firebrace before word had reached the Naval Office. Clearly this was no gullible believer. However, the TV production company failed to tell the viewing audience that Firebrace was already a major spiritualist at the time and went on to set up his own movement.

Nevertheless, Robinson concluded that the case of Helen Duncan was one of a ‘mixed medium,’ someone who may have used daft gimmicks like ventriloquist’s dummies or linen ‘ectoplasm’ but undoubtedly she was someone with a gift hounded by the authorities for her abilities … Give me strength. 

The number one reason people believe in the supernatural is because they have experienced something they cannot explain. If people are inclined by their supersense to such beliefs in the first place, then it is all the more easier for them to accept the supernatural. But let’s not bring pseudoscientific made-for-tv investigation into the picture if it is going to be used to present an unscientific conclusion.

“Unexplained” was partly produced by a Bristol-based company responsible for the series “Time Team” where Tony gallivants enthusiastically around the country with a team of archaeologists speed-dating digs in the course of 3 days. When Time Team first appeared, it used to annoy the hell out of serious archaeologists but they had to admit after the third or fourth series, that its huge success with the general public led to a popularizing of archaeology. It is about to broadcast series 16 in 2009! Let’s hope that “unexplained” does not increase applications to join psychic societies. 

UPDATE: Just in case you think that I am being mean, see what the reviews say

Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch

IT SOUNDS like a rival series to the Harry Potter books: Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch (and its sequels over the next few nights: TR and the Ghosts of Glastonbury, TR and the Medieval Reincarnation, TR and the Mystery of the Missing Acting Career). But unfortunately the Time Team man’s new series is less thrilling than that and with less scientific rigour.

Robinson has become a sort of professionally interested person these days, presenting all sorts of documentaries, usually history-related, and making them accessible through his apparently genuine fascination. But this hokey programme about the case of the wartime medium Helen Duncan didn’t convince me that he actually cared about the subject. Which was fair enough, because it was daft. Andrea Mullaney “The Scotsman”

Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury was another exercise in credulity, him and Becky McCall doing their feeble Mulder and Scully act, this time over some simple-minded stuff about automatic writing and dead monk spirit guides offering archaeological advice. I wondered whether any of the academic institutions that have awarded Robinson honorary degrees for his services to archaeology might consider withdrawing them, or at least issuing statements dissociating themselves from this wilful stupidity. Robert Hanks “The Independent”


Filed under supernatural, Television

Bush Shoes for Christmas

I am all excited for tomorrow as I am hoping that Santa will have brought me a pair of Baydan Shoes Model 271. Yes, that’s right, these are the infamous Bush shoes hurled at the president in one of the most ridiculous and funniest moments in this whole sad episode.

A Turkish company claim to make them and have taken on an extra 100 staff to cope with the demand for the black polyurethane-soled footwear. “Between the day of the incident and 1pm today we have received orders totalling 370,000 pairs,” Mr Turk (I kid you not)  told AFP news agency. Normally the company sells only 15,000 pairs a year of that particular model, he added.

However, the brother of the journalist “shoe –ter” denies this. “It’s all nonsense. These people want to exploit what my brother did,” he said. “The Syrians claim the shoes were made in Syria and the Turks say they made them. Some say he bought them in Egypt. But, as far as I know, he bought them in Baghdad and they were made in Iraq.”

Why shoes? Well if you did not know, throwing shoes at someone is a major insult in the Middle East. How odd until you remember that we used to throw shoes at people leaving on a journey for good luck. Hence the origin of tying shoes and cans to the departing carriage of newly-weds. How quaint that these old customs still survive today.

Me. I don’t believe in any of this stuff. But I still want to wear a pair of Bush shoes… oops.. that’s sympathetic magical reasoning again… damn my supersense.


Filed under In the News, Television

Light-Hearted Christmas Jest

As you will see if you go to the events page, I am chairing and organizing some talks next year by leading atheists. Generally, atheists have a pretty miserable reputation but as my colleague Paul Bloom points out in a recent article, this is more to do with the likelihood that they are an outcast minority. They are the least likely ever to be voted into political power.In Nordic countries which are more secular, atheists are a happier bunch. So to bring a little cheer on the topic, please watch and play spot the atheist.  Doesn’t Dan Dennett look like a cross between Father Christmas and Darwin?


Filed under atheism

Human or Not?

One of the first distinctions that infants make about the world is the difference between non-living objects and things that are alive. However, they sometimes get confused. I saw this on the weird and wonderful Dr. Fong blog and like him, I am strangely compelled by the site of dancing robots. 

On the other hand it is very hard to see this guy as human!


Filed under General Thoughts

“Every Little Helps”

Like every blogger I have become hopelessly obsessed with my statistics… 38,32,36…(actually I have no idea what these are). This morning I noticed a spike in activity coming from Stephen Fry’s blog.. Tosh balderdash….titter ye not!  For our foreign visitors, Stephen has become a British National Institution for sparkling wit and repartee on the box. The man is clearly immensely bright but seems constantly bedeviled by his own demons.

Right now, I have my own demon looming. An editor of a textbook I am adapting just told me the trade publishing market has collapsed and I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to bring out a book. So I really appreciate any effort with the forthcoming launch of SuperSense which now has me very nervous. 

Thank you Katie for posting the link to my blog. As the major retailer, TESCO would say, “Every little helps.” Now I hate that bloody phrase. It’s not even a phrase! It’s gibberish.

In response to the idea that any belief (including supernatural ones) can be easily passed on, I make the point in the book that first they must make sense. A statement can be structurally correct but if it is meaningless then it does not compute. Hence the famous statement created by the linguist Chomsky, “Colorless, green ideas sleep furiously.” Perfectly grammatical but absolutely incomprehensible. Chomksy used it to make the point that language structure is not enough to convey meaning.

Anyway, “Every little helps”  is not only meaningless, it’s not even grammatical. And whilst we are on a rant, who the bloody hell is responsible for the current financial crisis… major companies like TESCO’s who suck up all the competition and then finance everything with credit. I prefer the anagram of “Tesco…Every little helps”   – “Let every shop sell it etc…”

I feel the wrath of Stephen Fry every time I hear it.

(sorry TESCO if I have offended thee. .. will you please, please, please stock my book in your stores when it comes out?)


Filed under book publicity