Monday, 26 October 2009

The rise and rise of the BNP

With the BNP having appeared on the BBC's flagship politics programme Question Time, it seems that the BNP have made it into the mainstream political landscape.

It is really not surprising too see how this has happened. Over the last decade, we have seen rising numbers of immigrants arriving on our shores, with few if any checks to see if they were entitled to do so. The tide started under the leadership of Tony Blair's New Labour government.

While there is nothing wrong with having an immigration policy that let's in those who genuinely want to be here to get a better life and contribute to the country, there is everything wrong with a policy of letting everyone in, whether or not they have any intention of putting anything back into the country. And this is precisely where we now find ourselves.

The British public for the most part are decent, hard working and tolerant. The issue most people have with immigration is the strain it causes on our services (NHS, housing, schools), and the cost to the tax payer for footing the enormous bill.

Labour have failed to stem the rising tide of immigration. Our borders have been wide open for over a decade. While they may have recently amended this policy failure, it is too little, too late.

Amid all of this, a party such as the BNP cannot but fail to exploit the public dissatisfaction. People who are fed up with what they perceive as the failure of mainstream politics to resolve the issue, will be pushed further and further into the political verges and recesses where parties such as the BNP inhabit.

The rise of the BNP can be blamed fairly and squarely on the incompetence of the mainstream parties. With the recent scandals over their expenses, to their failure to curb the obscene bonus culture within the banking sector, it is little wonder that people are turning away from mainstream politics.

There was much controversy over Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time. As a non partisan reporter of the news, they have to ensure all political parties are treated with the same level of impartiality. This has absolutely nothing to do with their policies, and everything to do with a democratic society.

The real question for me though is this. How can a party as overtly racist as the BNP have ever been formed in the first place? How can a political party get away with having a 'whites only' exclusion policy? If the BNP has passed all the checks and balances for forming a political party, then what on earth does that say about the rules we have for forming political parties in Britain.

As the BNP is a legitimate party, then that speaks volumes about the complete lack of regulation we have surrounding forming a political party. If you can create a political party as racist and vile as the BNP without breaking a single rule, then I find that more disgusting than whether or not they should appear on programmes such as Question Time.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

An easily offended nation

Hardly a week goes by without a story emerging from the media about someone who has been offended in some way. People seem to be getting offended in increasing numbers, and are getting offended by an ever increasing list of issues and subjects.

While I am most certainly not advocating deliberately offending someone, I do think that as a nation of self proclaimed tolerants, we need to take a step back and re-evaluate why we get so offended, and so easily.

With compensation culture now being a steadfast part of Britain, and a raising awareness of human rights issues , we seem to have also seen a rise in people taking offence. In my opinion, these are related. People are aware that they can seek compensation if they feel aggrieved. They can demand that they feel their human rights have been violated.

However, the biggest factor in the rise of offence being taken, is political correctness. It is now practically impossible to mention subjects relating to race, religion and so on, without falling foul of political correctness. This is one of the greatest causes of polarity within this country. It does little to create unity, but does everything to cause division. Again, I am not advocating deliberately offending someone.

Comedians are treading on ever increasingly thinning ice. The list of topics they can poke fun at is getting smaller by the day. Instead of laughing at ourselves, we take offence and file a complaint, or even a lawsuit.

Unless you stay inside your house permanently, do not read a single newspaper or magazine and do not watch television, then you are going to be offended. The only way an enlightened society can progress is to accept that other people have differing beliefs and opinions, and that yours are no more valid than theirs.

I once heard someone say the phrase "No one has the right NOT to be offended". I couldn't agree with this sentiment more.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Restoring faith in British democracy Part II

Following on from my earlier article about how to restore faith in British politics, which was written as a response to the MPs expenses scandal, I now find myself writing an article on the scandal concerning the payback of those expenses.

The current review of MPs expenses, being led by Sir Thomas Legg, is to determine what should be repaid. Already, over three hundred letters have been sent out to MPs to either ask for further information to clarify a claim, or to demand that they return the money.

What is galling about this whole sorry episode is the fact that some MPs are so incensed by this, that they are threatening to refuse to pay the money back, with some threatening to take legal action (presumably at tax payers expense).

Having been caught red handed with their trotters well and truly in the till, having sucked on the teat of the tax payer's nipples, they now have the arrogance to whinge when asked to return what they were never entitled to in the first place. Their bleating that it is unfair and unjust is lamentable.

They were caught flipping their houses for personal gain, claiming for luxurious home appliances, moat cleaning and a duck pond amongst the most contemptible of their claims. In practically any other situation, they would have been charged with fraud. Now that they have been asked to return their ill gotten gains to the tax payer, it is appalling that some are so out of touch as to feel hard done by.

We are in the middle of a recession, money is tight, firms are closing all around, people are losing their jobs and homes, and yet some MPs are stamping their tiny little feet that they need to repay back their exorbitant claims.

Let's be clear, none of the MPs claims were just and reasonable, even under the old system. It just so happened that it was so riddled with corruption and inefficiency, that these claims ever made it through in the first place. Even judging many of their claims against the old system, they would have little if anything to do with their roles as a serving MP.

MPs are well paid, and are supposed to act in the interests of the public to whom they are rightly asked to serve. At least the party leaders seem to have correctly gauged the public outrage and disgust, and have demanded that their members return whatever cash is asked of them.

In my opinion, a failure to return what was not yours to take in the first place, should result in your swift exit from the party, and from politics. If they want to be voted in by their constituents, they had better get out their cheque books, and quickly.

Becoming an atheist

What is an atheist?
Having already written an article about becoming a vegetarian, I though it was high time I wrote an article explaining why I am an atheist.

Firstly, what exactly is an atheist? An atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of a deity, who lacks religious faith, and has a naturalistic worldview free from superstition and mysticism. Just t clarify from the outset, I am not a practicing scientist, but I do think like one. I don't want to give out the false impression that atheism is confined to scientists only. Atheists can and do come from all walks of life.

So why do I reject the notion that there is a higher being who watches over us? An omnipotent, omniscient deity who created the universe and our planet in a handful of days, and created every single species to boot.

Atheism is aligned with science
To turn the question round slightly, instead of asking why I am an atheist, a better question is why should I believe in the notion of a deity? We have explanations for the formation of the universe and the planets. While the birth of our universe may not yet be fully understood, this does not mean we have to resort to superstition to fill the gaps. Thanks to branches of science including astronomy and cosmology, we understand how planets and stars are formed. Our knowledge of such formations grows daily.

We understand gravity, atoms, chemistry. To anyone who denies that science has shed light on our understanding of the world, I would urge you to step out of an aeroplane when it is 30,000 feet in the air and jump out without a parachute. The fact that an aeroplane flies at all is also a testament to science.

Where is the evidence?
As a died in the wool sceptic, I demand to be shown evidence to substantiate a claim, especially one as grand as an omnipotent deity. Am I really to believe in the idea that our universe, planets, animals, seas and life were all created by a single omnipotent being? This leads to the obvious question of - who or what created the creator?

We know from the physical sciences that you cannot conjure up complexity from nothing. This violates the first theory of thermodynamics, an expression of the conservation of energy which states that "energy can be transformed (changed from one form to another), but cannot be created or destroyed".

That a being complex enough to create planets, stars and life was spontaneously created out of thin air is therefore impossible. Complexity does not arise from complexity, it arises from simplicity. The creationist myth that the Earth is several thousand years old is pure fantasy. We know that the age of the Earth is somewhere between 4 to 5 billion years old.

Extracted from the Wikipedia:
"This age has been determined by radiometric age dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples."

Anyone who denies the age of the Earth is either scientifically ignorant, or pushing their religious ideology.

It is often claimed that atheists are immoral people, as they do not have the moral framework and guidance of a sacred text. As I was at pains to point out in my earlier article Do atheists have the moral high ground?, it is perfectly possible to be a good, decent and moral person without religion. For religion to make claims of morality is absurd, when you look at fundamentalists who fly planes into buildings, or murder physicians who perform abortions. The fact that these are extreme acts is irrelevant, they were nonetheless carried out under the name of religion.

As an atheist, I do not believe in the notion of going to hell for being a bad person. I therefore do not perform acts of kindness to curry favour with a vengeful deity, who will smite me down and let me burn in hell for all eternity if I do something wrong (so much for an all loving deity).

If you need to rely on a sacred text to tell you that murder is wrong is deeply worrying. Without resort to any sacred text, an atheist innately knows it is wrong. If theists could steal themselves to throw away their sacred texts, which are nothing more than moral crutches, they would realise that they knew it too.

I perform acts of kindness because they are the right and moral thing to do. Not out of fear of a vengeful deity, or because I have read it somewhere in a sacred book.

Atheism is the only true path to enlightenment
I am far happier living my life as I see it. My life is not based around superstition, fear, vengeance and all the other artefacts that constitute religion. It is based on common sense, evidence and logic.

I do not need to have a meaning to my life ascribed to me by a sacred text. My life already has meaning. I have family and friends, goals and objectives, love and happiness. All these things give my life meaning.

If being a husband, father and friend is not enough to give your life meaning, then I do not know what is.

There is no place or need for religion in my life. We have the scientific methodology to explain the world around us, and our place within it. We are all born with an innate sense of morality. We do not need religion to explain these things. The only thing religion teaches us is to be satisfied with not understanding the world.

Religion is superfluous, surplus to requirements, irrelevant.

I am perfectly happy without it.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Blocking web sites does not stop time wasters

Many companies and organisations cite the reason of reduced levels of productivity as a driver for blocking web sites, particularly social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and the like.

It should be obvious to anyone who has given this more than a moments thought, that blocking access to certain web sites will not stop a time waster from wasting their time - they will simply waste their time in other ways.

As I have said before in previous articles, the issue of dealing with people spending too much time on social media sites during working hours should be dealt with by measuring their performance against set targets i.e. by measuring their performance indicators. Time wasting should NOT be dealt with by technological intervention. Using technology is a very blunt instrument which does not adequately deal with the problem.

There are many reasons why an individual may waste their time. They may be lacking in motivation, suffering from stress, a personal issue or any number of other reasons. What is important is to get to the bottom of the underlying problem, not simply tackle its after effects. Using technology to deal with a potential lack of motivation, does not deal with the lack of motivation.

The reason there is an appetite for blocking social media sites, is that many people simply do not understand it. I think I can safely predict than over the next few years, social media will be as ingrained into our collective technological consciousness as email and the Internet currently is.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Extreme Daredevils

For anyone who has not watched this on television so far, it is a "series of visually stunning films following some of the world's most extreme individuals, who risk their lives pushing themselves to the physical and mental limits of human capability" - Extracted from the Daredevils web site

I have watched the last two in this series - The Ice Man and The Skywalker. The former program centres around Wim Hof, who is able to cope with freezing temperatures. In sub zero temperatures 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Dutch Daredevil Wim Hof attempts to run a full 26-mile marathon clad only in shorts and a pair of sandals.

In The Skywalker, Dean Potter is the only person in the world who does extreme slack-lining (similar to tightrope walking). We see him crossing a canyon some 3000 feet up on a one-inch-thick stretch of rope without using either a pole for balance, or any kind of safety harness.

The important question for me watching this series has not so much been why they do these extreme sports (although that would still be an interesting question to ask) but how. I find myself asking the question "could someone be trained to learn how to do that?"

They are probably not physically different from you or I, what sets them apart is their mental capacity to switch off their surrounding environment and completely focus on what they are doing. Dean Potter repeatedly talked about how slack-lining at such incredible heights would induce a state of hyper awareness, where he felt in complete control. Watching his face closely as he crossed a 3000 foot canyon in Yosemite, his face was a mask of concentration. Wim Hof would meditate and get his mind into the "zone" as he called it, before immersing himself in freezing Arctic water and doing an underwater dive.

On the one hand these are mortals made of flesh and blood just like the rest of us. What sets them apart is their ability to completely and utterly focus their minds on a task, to the exclusion of everything else. As the series has also highlighted, in their personal lives they are just as focused, and have found it difficult to form and keep normal relationships with people around them. This must be the trade off for having such enormous mental strength - shunning those around you, focusing on a task to the exclusion of everyone else.

Listening to them talking about what they did, there was always a sense of logic to their thought process. I found myself agreeing with much of their rationality and reasoning. Despite their rather extrovert behaviour, they seem to be introvert people in real life, not particularly wanting the attention that their stunts generate.

This has so far been a fascinating series, and shows just how powerful the human mind is, and what it can achieve. It has also showed some of the character make up of such people, and given us a glimpse of what drives such people to push themselves to such incredible limits!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Innovation vs opportunity

I was having a discussion recently with a work colleague about how some companies are very good at releasing innovative products to the market, whether or not they are fully fit for purpose.

An example of this can be clearly seen with the release of the Apple iPhone. In many ways, this was an innovative product, but it's fair to say that it was released before it was ready. It lacked many of the features that are now found in the current version. In fact, many industry experts have stated that the iPhone 3 represents the version that ought to have been released initially, as only now does it contain the features that make it a fully functioning product.

Other phones now contain similar features to the iPhone, but they have lost ground to Apple who got their first.

It's easy to see why companies release innovative products early. They immediately corner the market, so competitor companies are immediately on the back foot. This gives them an immediate advantage. Releasing an innovative product represents an opportunity. To fully exploit this opportunity, you simply have to get there first. Coming second in a race to release an innovative product is a major blow.

Another example is in the gaming machine market. Sony got there first with its Playstation, long before Microsoft with its XBox. Even though the Microsoft offering is equally good, it has lost huge market share to Sony.

There are some interesting products that may yet prove to be an exception to this rule. The Microsoft search engine Bing has made a huge impact in a short space of time, and it will be interesting to see how much of Google's market share it will steal. It will reciprocally be interesting to see how much of a dent Google makes into Microsoft with its Chrome browser and operating system (targeted to the netbook market).

I'll stick my neck out and say that Google will continue to lose market share to Microsoft in the search engine war, but that Google will still be the dominant player (keeping to the rule of releasing first). I will also predict that Chrome will win the war to be the dominant operating system and browser, but only in the netbook market. Microsoft will continue to be the dominant force across all other hardware platforms (and therefore breaking the release first rule, but only partially).

While it is certainly possible to gain sufficient market share to dominate a particular product or service space by releasing later, it makes doing so much harder. The key rule should always be release first!