Thursday, 18 December 2014

Saying "That's not Islam" doesn't help

I've just read that a Muslim cleric — the aptly-named Kamal Mousselmani — has denounced "fake sheiks" in the wake of the Sydney siege. He thinks it's too easy to call oneself a religious authority. Fancy that. He comments on the Sydney hostage-taker who claimed to be a religious authority, and says, essentially, "He wasn't a proper one."

More and more, I've been hearing moderate Muslims say that fundamentalist Muslims or extremist Muslims are "un-Islamic". Sometimes they go full Scotsman: "That's not real Islam."

On one level, I'm glad to hear that Muslims are denouncing violence. That's very positive. This needs to happen — not just in Western countries, but everywhere — for human survival on Earth to continue. And I stand with Muslims who are my friends, co-workers, and students, even as I find their religion to be just as nonsensical as all other religions.

But for a Muslim to flatly disclaim other versions of Islam as "fake" or "not Islam" is disingenuous. What makes this imam so sure that his moderate reading of Islam is the right one, and fundamentalists have it wrong? The fundamentalists can quote scriptures in their defence, just as the moderates can; everyone picks their favourite cherries. This is religion we're talking about, and one of the things about religion is that it doesn't offer a good way of telling who's doing it right and who's doing it wrong.

See, with science, reality is the court of final appeal. But religion doesn't get its data or practices from reality, so reality can't be appealed to when there's a schism. All the parties can do is excommunicate each other and move on. That's what we're seeing here with this disavowal. But moderates can't just say "That's not Islam" and then keep going as if the extremists don't exist. The book that they think is so wonderful and peaceful is the same book that the encouraged the extremists to commit violence in the first place. The good guys? That's Islam. The bad guys? That's Islam, too.

This kind of denunciation is also self-serving. A religious leader denounced his competition as fake? Gee, never seen that before. In part, this imam is trying to make sure that the image problem generated from Islamic-motivated violence doesn't affect him. I get why he's doing it, but it's ass-coverage all the same. It also prevents that pesky need for any self-analysis. You don't have to grapple with the problematic part of your faith or history if you just wall it off and say it doesn't apply to you. How much better it would be to say, "There are things in the Quran and the Hadith that do encourage violence, and we need to be aware of this to make sure we don't go down that road."

I don't want to come down too hard on someone for not wording things exactly the right way when they're saying the right thing. I'm encouraged that many Muslims are disavowing violence. (Welcome to the 19th century.) I hope they succeed in reining in the worst behaviours of the Muslims who are — whether they like it or not — their co-religionists. But by saying "That's not Islam", moderate Muslims are copping out, not stepping up.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

My most-listened (and therefore favourite) albums of 2014

This year I'm doing my annual music review by the numbers. I figure my favourite albums are the ones I've actually listened to the most, so here I'm ordering them by average play count, according to my scrupulously kept iTunes stats. Merciless, unbiased statistics!

This isn't to say that the albums I've listened to the most are the best, or even that they're my favourites. There are some fairly new albums that I haven't had time to get into yet (but I'll add those at the end). There are also some great albums that, for one reason or another, I rarely feel like playing. But in general, the principle holds: if I've played it a lot, it probably has something to do with how much I like it. And doing it this way removes the temptation to try and appear cool by recommending albums I haven't been listening to. You might find some of my guilty pleasures, as well.

I'm releasing these by fives, so new updates will be at the bottom.

25

Hotel Valentine by Cibo Matto
Average 4.8 plays per track


A most welcome return to form from these two. It's been far too long.

Cibo Matto brings its usual sense of fun and zaniness, but this time it's framed by a visit to a hotel, from check-in to check-out. There are parties, banter from the housekeeping staff, and a ghost girl who appears mysteriously throughout.

Standout tracks include "Empty Pool" and "10th Floor Ghost Girl".



24

Mandatory Fun by "Weird Al" Yankovic
Average 5.3 plays per track


Even though I've enjoyed his work off and on since the 80s, I've never really had a "Weird Al" phase. But then I guess this album has attracted a lot of new fans. It went to #1 on the Billboard charts; the first comedy album to do that in fifty years.

"Weird Al" songs fall into three broad categories: polka medleys ("Now That's What I Call Polka!"), songs that parody the style of other artists ("My Own Eyes", "Mission Statement" , "First World Problems"), and straight parodies of existing songs ("Word Crimes", "Tacky", "Foil"). These latter are useful because, really, did you want to buy the original?

There are laughs to be had throughout, but the real accomplishment here is "Jackson Park Express", a brilliant Cat-Stevens-style story of a romance that plays out through meaningful glances across the aisle of a bus. But also great is "Word Crimes", which I discussed in two recent episodes (170 and 171) of Talk the Talk.



23

Opening by Christopher Willits
Average 5.4 plays per track


I've always enjoyed Christopher Willits's clicky-yet-smooth ambient style, so I had high hopes for this album. I haven't listened to it as much as I thought I would, though. It's pleasant enough, but it's all a bit indistinct for an album that should be his big breakout. It does benefit from the influence of Scott Hansen of Tycho.

I think I just need to put this one on at work more often.



22

You're Dead! by Flying Lotus
Average 5.5 plays per track


Endlessly inventive and active. This may be the best album on my list, but for some reason I find it exhausting and more than a little bit grim, which is why I rarely reach for it. It's my problem, I know.

One good memory though: I was waiting for the lunar eclipse earlier this year, sitting on my roof for a better vantage point, and listening to this album. It was so insane and enveloping that I thought I could fly. Good thing I didn't try it.

Love this video, too. What fantastic young dancers.



21

Brand New Love by The Go Find
Average 5.7 plays per track


There's something odd about every Go Find album (and no, we're not talking about OK Go). The songs are enjoyable, and I can listen to them a lot, but I can never remember the tunes when the record stops. This album is no exception.

I do remember one thing, though: that damn saxophone on "Japan". Is there any pop song a sax can't ruin? It cemented my hatred for that instrument on everything but jazz and ska.



19 (tie)

Shriek by Wye Oak
Average 6.4 plays per track


I first ran across Wye Oak when they did their cover of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill". Watching the clip, I was impressed by Andy Stack playing the drums with one hand and the keyboards with another, but what stands out on this album is Jenn Wasner's voice, which makes me think of Annie Lennox. The songs seem simple, but can take unexpected and deeply involving turns, as with the title track.



19 (tie)

Sylvan Esso by Sylvan Esso
Average 6.4 plays per track


It's fitting that these two albums appear side by side, because they're very much of a piece. Sylvan Esso is Amelia Meath (of Mountain Man) and Nick Sanborn (of Megafaun). Again, electronica merges with listenable songwriting. "Coffee" is one of my favourite songs this year.



18

Barbara Channel 3 by Tom Ellard
Average 7 plays per track


You know Tom Ellard from Severed Heads, and if you don't, you should. Though he's turned in his Severed project for an academic job, he still can't stay out of music, and Barbara Island series is the kind of music he wants to make now.

And what music. Is it ambient? Maybe — it's certainly good to work to — but there's enough of an edge to remind you who's in charge here.



17

Saudade by Thievery Corporation
Average 7.5 plays per track


This is, if not the album ThievCorp was born to make, certainly a very comfortable addition to their collection. This album gives a Latin spin to their chilled-out grooves, and when you're in the mood, it's the only thing that will suit.



16

Syro by Aphex Twin
Average 7.9 plays per track


It's great to have a new AT album after so many years, especially when the artist brings his consummate skill to every track. As famously prickly as Richard D James is, this is a surprisingly accessible album, and seemingly polished to a sheen.



14 (tie)

Black Coral Sprig by Talk West
Average 8.3 plays per track


Introspective ambient guitar from Oklahoma's Talk West. I would start the album, and — oh, look — another hour's gone by. Utterly enveloping.


14 (tie)

1979 by Deru
Average 8.3 plays per track


For a Deru listener, this album comes as a bit of a surprise. There's not a beat to be found. It's all texture, and the texture is dark and warm, fuzzy analogue. Maybe I'm too suggestible to titles, but 1979 is a good year to describe the mood here. For me, 1979 was sitting in suburban houses, waiting for something to happen, everybody somewhere else. Yes, very apt.



13

Buffalo Buffalo [EP] by Soop
Average 8.6 plays per track


You might get stuck on "Ostrich of War" because it's a fabulous glossy piece of music, but you also need to hear what awaits on the other tracks: dreamy pop tunes suffused in John-Hughesy nostalgia. These are tremendously talented guys who don't take themselves or their music too seriously.



12

Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn
Average 9.8 plays per track


This album reached me in a way that very little else has in Albarn's catalogue. Boy, is it bleak. Its opening line is a perfect way of describing weary commuters on the bus. "We are everyday robots on our phones / In the process of getting home". The rest of the album has a similarly exhausted feel, and there's a really deep sadness that settles over it, despite the attempts of "Mr Tembo" to keep things light. But despite that, the tracks really are beautiful, and they have a depth that sustains many listenings.



11

Our Love by Caribou
Average 11.3 plays per track


What's going on with Caribou? Last we heard, Dan Snaith had eschewed the sunshiny pop of Andorra for a solid dance groove on Swim. Our Love keeps going down this same road, but with an even more marked — dare I say younger? — EDM sensibility. There's something of a summertime vibe, too. Going for the youth festival crowd? Who cares, when the groove sounds like this. You just have to realise that he knows what he's doing.




More to appear soon.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Meeting James Randi

There's really only one person who qualifies as a living legend in skepticism, and it's James "The Amazing" Randi. For decades, he's performed magic and taken the hairbrush to spoon-benders, psychics, and faith healers. A bit of background if you're unfamiliar with his work.

He's also behind the "Million Dollar Challenge", in which anyone can walk off with a million bucks if they can do supernatural feats under controlled conditions.

Last week marked Randi's first visit to Perth as part of his "An Evening With James Randi" tour with Think Inc. Since the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society was helping with arrangements, five of us took up the invitation to meet Randi at the airport.

Randi is 86 now, but he was in surprisingly good spirits despite what must be a grueling touring schedule. He was wheeled by members of his entourage, which included Richard Saunders of the Skeptic Zone podcast. With luggage collected, we headed to the nearest airport Dome café for some refreshment.

While we were chatting, Richard Saunders took a banknote (Mongolian, I believe he said) and split it up into two perfect squares. With one, he folded an origami pig with wings. Pigasus is his own creation. I hadn't realised he was an origami expert. Very cool!

Ever the performer, Randi delighted us with some cigarette magic using the rolled-up other half of Richard's banknote. Pretending to push the roll into his other hand, he palmed it instead, making it seem to disappear when the expected hand was empty.

This is the general idea:


I've always loved magic, but I've never done the sleight of hand. What I love is how magicians exploit our expectations, and make us realise how bad our assumptions can be. Important lessons for skeptics, to be sure, and probably the reason that magicians are the greatest skeptics.

There was a question on my mind. I asked Randi, "Have things changed? It used to be that in the 70s, we'd be fighting astrology, pyramid power, and Bigfoot. Now, we fight…"

"…pyramid power!" said Richard.

"Yes, exactly," I said. "But now we also have homeopathy, anti-vaxxers, and Bigfoot. Are things moving?"

Randi thought not; people still believe a lot of the same nonsense they always have. Trying to quote accurately here: "If you go to some of the most backward places on Earth, you find people believing the same things that have since before I was around."

It's true. Psychics today use the same techniques they've used for a hundred years. It's all a bit dispiriting. If we're just confronted with more new nonsense along with the old nonsense, then what keeps us going?

Perhaps if there's a bright spot, it's this: We no longer fight alone. There's now an organised skeptical movement taking on fakes, fools, and folly. And we have James Randi to thank for that.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Do we have free will?

I recently interviewed professor of neuroscience Thalia Wheatley for an episode of Talk the Talk, but at the tail end of the interview, I threw her a curveball and asked her about free will. I've been trying to understand this for a long time. Do we choose something, or does our brain just… do it? And if it does, what does that mean?

Here's that part of our conversation.


If you want some prep, here's a video of Thalia with actor Alan Alda.


The rest of our interview will be appearing in an episode this August. Watch for it!

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Daniel font rundown: World traveller edition

Stephan Wagner is using the Daniel font to show his travels all over the world. It gives his site a cool 'diary' feel.
I'm a sucker for books that use Yataghan, and here Pete Mahr has used it to psychotically good effect on his eBook festival. Get it here.

Josh Work loves the Daniel Black font, and he's included it as a watermark on his wonderful photographs. Head over to his Flickr page and check them out. But where's the text? It's in the lower right-hand corner of every picture. With his keen eye, he's reduced the opacity until it's nothing but a whisper, easy to spot if you're looking for it, but not distracting if you're not. 

Find and download all my fonts on the Page of Fontery. Thanks to everyone who keeps using them, and if you've made something great, let me know and you might see your work here!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Response to "Quit Acting Like Christ Was Accepting of Everyone and Everything"

A Latter-day Saint on my Facebook feed has posted a link to Greg Trimble's blog post: "Quit Acting Like Christ Was Accepting of Everyone and Everything".

It's partly a response to the Kelly/Dehlin excommunications, but also a call-to-arms for conservative Mormons to hold fast to their intolerance and authoritarianism. It says, in part:
I don’t care whether you’re Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, or any other type of Christian…one thing is for certain. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a ‘buffet’ that you can compile your perfect plate from. There is no salvation in building your own religion or customizing Christ to suit your needs and wants. The popular trend is to determine how you’d like to live your life and then to conform Christ to that lifestyle. It is done by appealing to Christ’s infinite love and mercy. But you can’t just go around rehearsing that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) and then be done with it. John 3:16 is awesome…but it’s just one verse! God wouldn’t have given you all of those other verses if he didn’t want you to read them and apply them.
In my response, I decided to ignore the fact that conservative Mormons are cherry-picking just like the liberal ones are, and to focus instead on the inflexible 'iron rod' mentality that I see in this piece.

Here's my Facebook response, written to a wall full of Mormons:
I'd like to respectfully share my thoughts, even though I'm coming from the perspective of an ex-Mormon atheist.

In a way, I completely agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. So many times, I've seen liberal religious people saying, "Jesus would have loved everybody! Jesus was all about the lerrrve." And my response has been, "While it's admirable that you're trying to emulate those good qualities, 'love everybody' is by no means the sum totality of Jesus' message."

Jesus was a 1st-century rabbi who knew the law of Moses, which required (for instance) gay people to be killed. While he was somewhat revolutionary in his willingness to teach women, there's no indication that he would have been aligned in any significant way with 21st century political liberals.

I confess that I have an ulterior motive in pointing this out to people: I secretly like it when religious conservatives (like the author) give voice to sentiments like these, because I know that this is the one thing that is driving people away from conservative religions like the LDS Church. The more hardened and stuck Latter-day Saints are in these attitudes, the fewer people will be attracted to the LDS Church and to Christianity, and as an atheist, I think this is a good thing. My biggest nightmare is that the Church will liberalise, because then it will become more appealing to people and actually become stronger. There is a lot that is (or could be) good about the church, but currently a small constellation of political issues and actions are making it less-than-appealing to potential converts, and churches who take this course are not surviving. This may not be a concern if you think that the church is true, inspired, and can't fail. From my outside perspective, I think members should be very alarmed.

I will say one thing about the liberal religionists: Yes, they are cherry-picking the good bits, and ignoring what's in the scriptures. But they are generally nicer and better people for it; less authoritarian, less likely to have oppressive attitudes toward women, less likely to reject their gay kids. I agree that a strict reading of scripture lends itself to the kind of conclusions that this author is arriving at. But I'd say, so much the worse for the strict reading. I don't think it leads to a good place.

I welcome your thoughts on this.
For religions like the LDS Church that fight social justice and inclusion in a world where doing so is less and less acceptable, there's only one way for the numbers to go. It will shrink and harden into a rump. Yes, it's sad that good people are getting harmed by the dogma of this church. But if it refuses to change, then I'm happy to watch it drive itself into the ground, and drive away its younger and more tolerant membership.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Font rundown: Looks good, sounds good.

Creative people have been doing things with my fonts lately that I just had to let you know about.

First, though, just so you'll enjoy this blogpost more, hit play on this bar, and listen to soop! "Ostrich of War" is the lead single from their new EP, Buffalo Buffalo. You're welcome.


And what's the typeface on that EP? Why, it's the Daniel face. You should totally buy this from their Bandcamp page. I bought it before I even knew it used my font because

  1. it sounds amazing and they are the future of pop
  2. I happen to know Stacy Gougoulis, a member of soop and someone who appears on some important episodes of my Talk the Talk podcast.
Get it in ya.


The next one uses Yataghan: a book by Tonje Torres entitled Hulder. The cover is eerily erotic, and I really like what they're done with the H. Maybe I'll be stealing that for a future version.

And finally from the desk of Form Productions, an advertisement for a project about our own dear  William Street. I love Perth because people can get sentimental about a street.

You can download my fonts for free on the Page of Fontery.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

I swam naked… and survived! Reflections on skinny dipping

Today I got naked with 800 people and jumped into the ocean. It was an attempt at the world's biggest skinny dip at Perth's Swanbourne Beach.

You may not know this, reader, but at one time I was a rather enthusiastic nude beach goer. In my Mormon days, no less. Even though I normally wore the g's, I loved the opportunity to throw off the constraints of clothing and swim freely with nothing on.

The first time I went to a nude beach was in Barcelona in 2004. I didn't know what to expect. What I found was people, doing people things. Some old, some young. Gay couples cuddled, a professor-looking type strode au natural across the sand. But the thing that stood out most to me was a young couple kissing. He drew a modest towel around himself, and he and she kissed like boys and girls have kissed on that same Spanish beach for millennia. I was seeing something primal and human. I was watching Orpheus and Euridice. The eternal dance.

I've had that kind of experience at nude beaches several times. Once on a stroll, I saw a nude man and woman, and as I got closer, I saw their baby was with them. The human family. Somehow the lack of clothing made the moment transcendant.

Then I would go back to church, with their conventional views on 'modesty' and 'morality', and I'd think, What a small worldview. This world is so much more than they can imagine. It was one more thing that got me thinking, and put some mental distance between me and the church.

The people at Swanbourne Beach are not much of a draw really — lots of dudes, some younger couples (shy female, won't undress), and gangs of leathery 60-somethings sitting around talking, being entirely too comfortable around each other. But that's okay; I don't care how people look. There's something about getting nude in public that's very come-as-you-are. Everyone looks fine to me. Which was the message of the Skinny Dip: everyone's body is fine. Proceeds are even going to the Butterfly Foundation, which raises awareness about body image.

So this was a good chance to get back to the dear old Swanny. Oldest Boy (now 19) opted not to come along because a) Dad naked, and b) there might be too much penis for his liking. He's quite right; these things do tend to get rather penisy.

I wondered what the headline in the West would be: perhaps Naked Skinny-Dip for Charity: 800 Nudists Hit Swanbourne for World Record Attempt. I actually ran into some friends at the event, and we chatted in our sarongs, provided by the organisers. It was a cold grey morning, but no one seemed to mind.

But when we all got to the water and got our gear off, there was a plot twist: choppy seas and huge waves. A horn sounded, and in we went, the front line getting battered by walls of water. Now the headline was Terror Dip: Sexy Swim Becomes Desperate Race for Survival as 3-Meter Waves Pound Shore. It was such a struggle to get into the water that I could hardly concentrate on the boobs. The trick to avoiding waves is to get out past them, but the 600 or so people who made it that far found themselves on a roiling roller-coaster that was quite worrying, but actually really fun. Good thing the Surf Life Savers were out there on their jet skis, watching everyone like hawks.

Did we make the world record? No, for that to happen we'd all have to be in the water for 5 minutes, and about 100 people looked at those waves and said NOPE. I don't blame them, especially if they didn't feel they were strong swimmers. That stuff was dangerous. I was dumped by a serious wave on the way in and lost my hat, but hats can be replaced. It was still fun, and I'd do it again next year.