On Leadership

If I was the leader of a political party, or the leader of anything at all, and I heard “general non-specific allegations” of serious misconduct about a member, they would not remain general and non-specific for very long. They would either become very specific indeed, and dealt with accordingly, or they would be disproven. Those are the only two acceptable results.

While my current ire is directed against Nick Clegg, leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, for his attempts to weasel out of responsibility for what Lord Rennard has been getting up to under his leadership, it’s something we’ve been seeing recently in every part of society, from the well-paid chairmen of global banks, to the leaders of the Catholic Church. When evil-doing is going on within the organisation that you supposedly lead, you don’t get to shirk that by saying “That is an ecumenical matter”.

We’re all part of various organisations or groups, be it as employees, industry representatives, or guildmembers. Our first responsibility is for our own actions, of course, for those are the only one we have complete control over. However, to the extent that we have any agency in the matter, the actions of the groups we are part of reflect directly upon us.

This is one reason why I very seldom join MMO guilds these days. It has become increasingly difficult to find gaming guilds which do not tolerate some degree of bigotry against some group or another. While there are often perfectly nice people even in the worst of guilds, I am unable to perform the necessary ethical gymnastics to stay part of such a guild while still believing my hands to be clean. If nothing else, the presence of hateful behaviour can have a poisonous effect upon the soul. Manners of thinking can be as contagious as any bacteria, particularly when they are supercharged by the opiate of group-belonging, and it is a matter of self-preservation to not bathe yourself in the thoughts of those who hold bigoted ideas in those conditions.

While it is nice to think that it might be possible to stop hateful behaviour within a guild once it has become established, in practise it is almost impossible. The existing members have already come to accept it, and a new member who complains is far more likely to be told to get a sense of humour than to achieve anything useful. No, the only way I have ever seen succeed is for the guild to start off with no tolerance for bigotry, and then for it to guard against it ever-on. And guard you must, for it is all too easy, especially if you care about growing, for new members to start to try to push the boundaries, and for it to be tolerated for fear of causing trouble or driving them out. Once the cancer has found a hold, it will grow roots and metastatise, and you end up with just one more casually misogynistic guild. At that point the only real option is for the non-bigots to leave and try again with a freshly made guild.

Being a leader is not about being popular all the time. It’s about standing up for the ideals of your organisation, whether it is popular or not, and sometimes this will mean that you have to tell a member that they need to stop what they’re doing. Nick Clegg and the other leaders I mentioned earlier have failed because they did not take responsibility for the actions of their members. Turning a blind eye is never leadership, whether you’re a bishop, a managing editor, a pro-gamer team leader, or a guildmaster.

Arkwatch: The Mount Ararat Structure.

Time had a post yesterday with the title “Has Noah’s Ark Been Discovered in Turkey?“.

I hate titles like that, as they always make me want to just say “No, it probably hasn’t.” While I suspect history is far more interesting than we know, I’m not so up for evidence that has been rustled up with folks with the agenda of proving that our planet is less than ten thousand years old. I believe many wonderful things, and hope many others are true, but I have trouble with that one.

As it happens, I am considered one of the world’s leading experts on Arks of all kinds. OK, both kinds. The floaty type*, and the sort that blow things up and melt Nazis. I must be considered an expert on them because people from around the world are constantly coming to my website to seek my opinion on them, at least according to my site logs. Thus far they have been sorely disappointed, but today I shall grant their pleas, and I shall try to focus my deep understanding of Arkaeology upon this new discovery.

It is in the right place. Noah’s Ark was supposed to have come to rest in the mountains of Ararat, currently in Turkey, of which Mount Ararat is a part. This Ark has been found inside a glacier, and is apparently in quite good shape, considering. A glacier could help to preserve organic material, though glaciers, being ever in motion, are also rather good at grinding things apart into gravel.

The team, a collaboration between the Turkish Government and the China-based Noah’s Ark Ministries International Limited, won’t tell regular scientists exactly where the site is just yet, but they have provided some photos. Let’s take a look!

Noahs Ark Ararat 2010 499x267

That certainly is very well preserved. From what I can see, it is taken inside the ship, in a cabin perhaps. The raised platform could be a bed, or a bench. I’m particularly impressed at the freshness of the straw, presumably left over from feeding the animals, of which you will recall there were 2 of each kind, except for animals deemed to be clean, of which there were 7. I’ve often wondered how Noah got his hands on polar bears. Carefully, one would suppose. The straw could also be bedding, I guess.

I’m unsure exactly what the structure in the middle of the picture is. It might be some sort of odd chair, but it looks a bit too complex for that. Probably is a container. I want to call it a chest, given the shape. Perhaps Noah kept his precious booty within it.

The team reports that carbon dating has shown the wood to be 4800 years old; more or less what you would expect it to be if it were part of Noah’s Ark. Curiously, and with splendid irony, carbon dating has been thoroughly debunked by creationist scientists, who say that it will always make objects appear to be far older than they really are, if they are from before the biblical flood, as they believe there was much more carbon about pre-flood. As the wood used to build the Ark quite obviously grew and lived pre-flood, it is odd that they have suddenly forgotten this objection. If carbon dating is reliable, then it shows the world is far older than 10,000 years, and if it is not reliable, then why are they using it?

In another part of the structure they have found a massive chamber.

Noahs Ark Chamber 500x375

To give you a sense of scale, a diagram shows a human coming up to about halfway up one of those horizontal bands, with the picture being about 7 people high. That’s a big…something. I’m not too sure quite what to make of it. It looks like three bands of vertically aligned, um, planks? It’s not clear how those bands are joined together, or what is stopping it from collapsing. It seems a very odd way to build a sea-worthy vessel, especially if that banded wall is the outside of the ship.

It looks almost like those wicker or reed blinds you can get, if you bashed them around a bit, soaked them in tea, and covered them with mud, even down to markings that resemble where the strings would go. Of course, those blinds are much smaller, and the diagram clearly shows that this chamber is huge, even more so if you consider where the camera would have to be to take that picture.

Rattan Blinds

Also, what is going on with the floor? After 4800 years it still seems completely flat, but it has a weird texture to it. It doesn’t look like a ship’s floor. Almost like cobblestones. Even more like dungeon tiles.

I am, perhaps, being a little mean. While the pictures do look rather too good to be true, the involvement of Turkish governmental scientists does suggest this isn’t all just a hoax. Unless these governmental scientists happen to work for the Turkish Ministry of Tourism.

My Expert Arkaeologist opinion? Lets call it 3 doves out of 5. It’s a better effort than the rock that looked a bit like a ship that they found last time. If it is genuine, it might well be a find of great interest; an ancient building perhaps, but I’m betting against it being a ship.

*The Ark in my site’s title is supposed to, metaphorically, be of the floaty persuasion. A fine vessel with room for all in which I sail about in search of true things. I suspect certain of my readership might think it more as something which shoots gouts of flame.

Thinking too hard.

It is not a new phenomenon. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Someone trained as an ecologist, such as myself, is prone to look at things through the lens of environmental adaptation, and competition. When you’re a sociologist who specialises in religion, everything starts looking like religion.

I was reading a New Scientist interview with a chap called William Sims Bainbridge, who has written a book called The Warcraft Civilization.

In the past, you’ve done a lot of work with religion. What does religion in WoW tell us about religion in the real world?

The horrendous question that always troubles me is, what if religion is factually false but necessary for human well-being? What does science do then? Could there be some other stage of development in which we express ourselves through a kind of protean self in numerous realities with different levels of faith or suspension of disbelief appropriate to each of them?

That, on a much smaller scale, is what is happening with the fictional religions in WoW. The overwhelming majority of the people that play WoW don’t take its religions seriously.

And we actually have good reason to believe that people who play computer games are, on average, much less religious than the average person in society. I tend to think that fantasy literature in general inspires people to believe that the traditional religions are fantasies too.

Maybe we will move to a time when we no longer make a distinction between belief and the suspension of disbelief. The difference between faith and fantasy might not have been very distinct in ancient times, and it’s possible that we will move towards a time when instead of religion, people’s hopes can be expressed in something that’s acknowledged to be a fantasy but also, on some level, sort of real. WoW might exemplify that kind of post-religious future.

People do not take the religions in WoW seriously because they know they are not real. The majority of people that play WoW ignore most aspects of the lore and backstory, not just religion. It is no more a guide for what is happening to religions in the real world, than it is a guide for the state of our dwindling dragon population.

MMOs are certainly a fantastic laboratory for scientists. Through them you can examine many aspects of game theory, economics, and ethics. But from what I read above, the writer is trying to squeeze his own favourite subject into something that I don’t think has much to do with it, perhaps in an attempt to make his subject matter appeal to a wider audience.

I’ve not read the book itself yet. I suspect it is quite fascinating, and no doubt covers far more than just religion, but the interview suggested to me that he may have vested online gaming with a great deal more philosophical weight than it deserves. He needs to use his gamer eyes, not just his philosopher ones.

Doomwatch: Swine Flu

The outbreak in the Americas is starting to look rather serious. At issue is the idea that the virus has managed to sneakily combine not only swine flu and human flu genes, but it has also managed to get some avian flu genes also. Clearly a virus strain with a very interesting history. Avian flu was considered the most likely candidate for the next flu pandemic, so this “threefer” is ringing a whole lot of alarm bells.

The World Health Organization is set to declare the deadly swine flu virus outbreak in Mexico and the U.S. a global concern, potentially prompting travel restrictions, said a person familiar with the matter.

An emergency committee of the WHO in Geneva will declare the outbreak “a public health event of international concern” in a 4 p.m. teleconference today, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting is confidential. In response, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan may raise the level of pandemic alert, which could lead to travel restrictions aimed at curbing the disease’s spread. – Bloomberg News

Given our modern antivirals, some of which have been proven to be effective on this new strain, it is unlikely that the mortality rate would be anything like the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, but it could still be rather nasty, especially if it makes it as far as the densely populated cities of the developing world who cannot afford widespread preventative use of antiviral drugs. Like the Spanish flu it seems to be at its worst in otherwise healthy young adults, unlike more common strains which are mostly a danger to the elderly, infirm, or very young.

So far it has only been found in Mexico and the southern US, but the BBC has quoted a “top US health official” as saying that “the strain of swine flu had spread widely and could not be contained.”. It is only a matter of time before it crops up somewhere else, I expect, most likely elsewhere in Central America.

It is not the most important aspect of this, but the very last thing the global economy needs right now is travel restrictions and the shutting down of public buildings such as schools and libraries. (Mexico City has pretty much shut down everything, and I don’t blame them one bit.) Nice timing, pandemic swine flu.

With any luck, it’ll peter out like the other outbreaks of recent years, but until then, it deserves our attention. I hope the UK is ready to offer all the scientific assistance we can provide.

Probably not the source of the outbreak.

Probably not the source of the outbreak.

I draw odd comfort from seeing that the pro-rapture movement has already started putting out the idea that this is possibly the beginning of the apocalypse. Given their record for being utterly wrong on such predictions is 100%, maybe we’ll get through this alright!

Update: The US Center for Disease Control has just confirmed 2 cases in the state of Kansas, 8 suspected cases in New York, and additional confirmed cases in Texas.

Update: According to MSNBC, there are suspected cases in Minnesota and Massachusetts.

Some thoughts: How common is it for a virus to manage to gather genes from swine flu, avian flu, and human flu before it gets noticed? I would have thought it would have been causing problems when it combined just two of those. Has this happened before?

Update, 1 AM, 26th of April:

Genetic analysis of the virus indicates it is highly unusual: It is a hybrid that resulted from a combination of four different viruses — one that typically infects people, one that originated in North American birds and two from pigs in Europe and Asia. – Washington Post

Bobby Jindal: Exorcising Science

Meet Bobby Jindal, the new face of the Republican party. Currently the Governor of the state of Louisiana, he was picked to do the official Republican response to President Obama’s address to congress, yesterday.

Now, depending on your politics, different things will have leapt out at you in what he said. The thing that stuck out most for me though, was this line:

“While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a “magnetic levitation” line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called “volcano monitoring.” Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.”

The US has the third highest number of active volcanoes in the world. The $140 million is earmarked for “U.S. Geological Survey facilities and equipment, including stream gages, seismic and volcano monitoring systems and national map activities.”, so is actually for earthquake as well as volcano monitoring. Does anyone, of any politicial persuasion, truly believe that keeping an eye on volcanoes and earthquakes is a waste of money?

1906, the “Great San Francisco Quake” kills 3000 people, through both the direct tremors, and the subsequent fires that raged through the unprepared city.

1980, Mount St Helens in Washington state erupts, killing 57 people.

1989, the Loma Prieta quake kills 63 people and does an estimated 13 billion dollars of damage to the state of California.

It is true that Louisiana does not have any active volcanoes to speak of, so on a very simplistic level it might seem reasonable for the Governor of Louisiana to be against having to pay towards mitigating against their destructive potential. Of course, all US states pay towards things that do not necessarily directly benefit themselves. Reconstruction of hurricane-ravaged Louisianan cities, for instance. In any case, if the Yellowstone caldera were to blow (unlikely in the near-term, but on the whole I’d like to know someone is keeping an eye on it), it would most certainly be noticed in Baton Rouge.

Mr Jindal has no real chance of stopping seismic detection programmes, thankfully, but the way that he, and those like him, find science to be a source of punchlines, is just one reason why his party is often considered to be incapable of real change. Intellectually incurious, like the line John McCain overused in the Presidential campaign about studying bear DNA “”I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money”. They think that science is a waste of money, because they do not understand that research, be it about bears or volcanoes, is the first step to creating real-world applications that use that knowledge to make a difference to our lives and the world around us. Understanding volcanoes helps saves lives and property, and also grants us a little peace of mind if we live in an area prone to such things. Understanding bear DNA might help us to protect them from population decline (if you happen to care about that), but can also lead to advances in medicine. Maybe bear genes holds the secret to solving male pattern baldness, the fight against which is no doubt dear to many elder statesmen. The point is, you do not know until you look. That’s rather the point. Science tries to find things out, instead of taking things on faith. It will take many years to repair the government watchdogs, who had their science and reality based staff replaced by ideologues over the course of the Bush administration, and as it has turned out, these agencies work a lot better when science, rather than blind conviction, is their guide.

In 1996, Bobby Jindal wrote an article about an exorcism he took part in, called “Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare”. Not only did he believe that a demon possessed his friend, and was banished through the power of exorcism, he also credits the intervention with curing his friend’s cancer. Now, I am the last person to discount the possibility of extreme weirdness taking place. I do, however, also acknowledge that if faith-healing does exist, it is extremely unreliable, and thus would make a very poor foundation for a health-system. Neither would I recommend a prayer-based defense strategy (though that would at least be quite cheap). I am sure that Mr Jindal would be against relying on god to defend nation’s shores, if only because it would financially inconvenience many of his campaign contributors, but he is a strong proponent of teaching creationism in schools, and a passionate foe of evolution. If, like many of his associates , he views natural disasters as manifestations of god’s wrath, it would follow that there is little point in monitoring them, as they will occur according to god’s will, and will kill whoever he wants them to. Is this why he does not want us to monitor them? Someone ought to ask him directly.

The Republican party needs to find a leader who can appeal to the mainstream. They need to find someone within their ranks that will not come across as either deceitful, deluded, or wilfully ignorant. Neither Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, nor Michael Steele is up to that task.

27th of February Update:

Seems it’s worse than we thought. The story he told in his address about the sheriff and the boats turns out to have been a total lie.

Jindal had described being in the office of Sheriff Harry Lee “during Katrina,” and hearing him yelling into the phone at a government bureaucrat who was refusing to let him send volunteer boats out to rescue stranded storm victims, because they didn’t have the necessary permits. Jindal said he told Lee, “that’s ridiculous,” prompting Lee to tell the bureaucrat that the rescue effort would go ahead and he or she could arrest both Lee and Jindal.

But now, a Jindal spokeswoman has admitted to Politico that in reality, Jindal overheard Lee talking about the episode to someone else by phone “days later.” The spokeswoman said she thought Lee, who died in 2007, was being interviewed about the incident at the time.

This is no minor difference. Jindal’s presence in Lee’s office during the crisis itself was a key element of the story’s intended appeal, putting him at the center of the action during the maelstrom. Just as important, Jindal implied that his support for the sheriff helped ensure the rescue went ahead. But it turns out Jindal wasn’t there at the key moment, and played no role in making the rescue happen.

Given how badly Governor Jindal was panned by conservative commentators when they thought his speech was true, I suspect his time as de-facto leader of his party is over. That lasted, what, 4 days? Who’s up next?

Radical Cleric Mike Huckabee

“I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And thats what we need to do is amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than trying to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.” – Mike Huckabee

In some parts of the world, they have a special name for a system of laws based upon “God’s standards.”: Sharia Law. It is quite strange that many of the same folks who recall in horror from the idea of Sharia law, are the same folks who would relish Evangelical Preacher Mike Huckabee becoming the next President of the United States. As things stand now, he is one of the front-runners for the Republican nomination, having won in Iowa. He is likely to win the upcoming South Carolina primary also.

“A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.” – Mike Huckabee.

“I don’t think the issue’s about being against gay marriage. It’s about being for traditional marriage and articulating the reason that’s important. You have to have a basic family structure. There’s never been a civilization that has rewritten what marriage and family means and survived.” – Mike Huckabee.

“If a person dresses provocatively, they’re calling attention — maybe not the most desirable kind — to private parts of their body.” – Mike Huckabee. Perhaps if the women were to wear some sort of full body covering, or a veil, that might solve the problem, Mike.

“If you want to believe that you and your family came from apes, that’s fine. I’ll accept that. I just don’t happen to think that I did.” – Mike Huckabee

“It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations—from homosexuality and paedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia.” – Mike Huckabee.

In 1997, Huckabee requested an amendment to a state Senate bill stating “that it is Arkansas public policy to prohibit sodomy to protect the traditional family structure.” . That was as Governor of that state. Would he take similar actions as governor of the whole country?

As the video shows, he desires to alter the Constitution of the United States to fit into his own narrow view of what it is that God desires. How far would such a man be willing to go? I move that if all his beliefs were enshrined into the Constitution, it would be very similar to Sharia indeed.

Bible literalism is incredibly dangerous.

HAYDEN, Idaho (AP) — A man who believed he bore the “mark of the beast” used a circular saw to cut off one hand, then he cooked it in the microwave and called 911, authorities said.

The man, in his mid-20s, was calm when Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies arrived Saturday in this northern Idaho town. He was in protective custody in the mental health unit of Kootenai Medical Center.

“It had been somewhat cooked by the time the deputy arrived,” sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger said. “He put a tourniquet on his arm before, so he didn’t bleed to death. That kind of mental illness is just sad.”

It was not immediately clear whether the man has a history of mental illness. Hospital spokeswoman Lisa Johnson would not say whether an attempt was made to reattach the hand, citing patient confidentiality.

The Book of Revelation in the New Testament contains a passage in which an angel is quoted as saying: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury.”

The book of Matthew also contains the passage: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Saint Vladimir, or Putin the Prophet?

Russian RIA Novosti reports:

Vladimir Putin may be popular in Russia for saving the nation from the chaos of the 1990s, but a sect in the country has taken its devotion a step further by praying to ‘presidential icons.’

The Bolshaya Elnya village in the Nizhny Novgorod Region is home to the “Rus’ Resurrecting” sect, a group of local residents who believe that President Putin was both the Apostle Paul and King Solomon in previous lives.

Rus’ is the term used for the medieval East Slavic nation that gave its name to modern Russia.

“We didn’t choose Putin,” Mother Fontinya told the Moskovsky Komsomolets paper, expounding on the first time she laid eyes on the “holy one.”

Saint Putin

“It was when Yeltsin was naming him as his successor [during a live New Year’s Eve TV broadcast in 1999]. My soul exploded with joy! ‘An ubermensch! God himself has chosen him!'” I cried.

“Yeltsin was the destroyer, and God replaced him with his creation,” claimed Fontinya.

The sect possesses a President Putin icon that Fontinya claims miraculously appeared one day.

“He has given us everything,” she said, pointing to the sky.

A special newspaper published by the sect – ‘The Temple of Light’ – features interviews with long-dead religious figures, including the Apostle Paul. The sect members are also convinced that President Putin knows about and supports the actions of their ‘Mother Superior.’

Russian Christian sects have long been known for their unusual choices of icons, some of them praying to portraits of such well-known ‘holy men’ as Stalin and Ivan the Terrible.

Another Russian sect is currently holed up in an underground shelter in the country’s central Penza Region and has threatened to commit mass suicide if any attempt is made to bring them to the surface.

Religion was tightly controlled in the U.S.S.R. and the collapse of the Soviet Union saw an explosion in sects and cults, as well as interest in New Age philosophies and beliefs. The back pages of many Russian tabloid newspapers are full of advertisements for ‘healers’ and ‘magicians’ who promise to bring happiness in love, success in business, as well as a range of other services.

This reminds me slightly of the cargo cults that have chosen Prince Philip as their unlikely saviour. Unlike Prince Philip, though, Vladimir Putin is the leader of a huge cult of personality. It’s not too surprising that a proportion of his followers have taken that extra step and decided he is their messiah.

With his term as President almost up, he has made it very clear that while he will obey the letter of the constitution and stand down, he fully intends to maintain a steel grip upon the governing of Russia for the foreseeable future. The unfortunately named Putin youth group, the Nashi, are numerous and skilled at intimidating anyone who dares to criticise him, and are impressively zealous and filled with love for Putin. For the time being it seems, Gary Kasparov notwithstanding, that Russia is a one-party state, and the depth of devotion to their dear leader only seems to be increasing with time. Until such time as someone within Russia is willing (And able to avoid dying or imprisonment, both of which are epidemic amongst Putin supporters.) to stand against his complete dismissal of criticism of himself, or the darkly comical way in which the political system of Russia is conducted, his powerbase will continue to grow.

By the way, calling him an “ubermensch” does absolutely nothing to make feel any better about all this. I don’t mind so much other people thinking he’s the messiah, just so long as he doesn’t start believing it himself…. Perhaps this is what George W Bush really saw when he famously looked into Putin’s soul…