Why I left Facebook, and so should you.

I begrudgingly signed-up for Facebook some years ago, because it was simply easier to sign-in to mobile apps and other services which required authentication.  I had no intention of using as it’s intended to be used.  Of course, I eventually fell into the trap of using it for precisely that, and it quickly took the place of staying in touch with friends and colleagues the old fashioned way; i.e., phone calls, emails, and SMS text messaging.  Before long I was using it to share stories and opinions about current affairs, politics and other articles from mainstream news-sites, blogs and comment threads on reddit, Google Plus, and other social media.  I’d been suckered in.

Over here in the UK, at the moment, there is an unprecedented amount of rightwing propaganda permeating the proverbial airwaves.  Even organisations which built their reputation on giving voice to a balance of views, have begun repeating verbatim government press releases, talking down the importance of pressure groups, and openly ridiculing political parties simply because they have policies which challenge the status quo.  This is helped along by the overabundance of opinion formers masquerading as journalists, pushed in-front of the 24 hour rolling news cameras, to tell us what to think, when to think it, and when to pretend we never really thought it, as soon as the political winds blow from another direction.

Now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that in these turbulent times, the ruling elite should become more and more blatant about their disregard for democracy, the open exchange of ideas, and an informed debate.  Their track record for closing down anyone and anything which threatens to educate the electorate as to their true grip on the levers of power, runs throughout the history of the 20th century, culminating in the failings of the 9/11 commission, and the orchestrated collapse of the world financial system.

But what remained true throughout most if not all of these events, which have shaped our modern world, was the grip on reality which ordinary working people clung on to throughout the melee of misinformation being thrown at them by the press.  No right thinking person, for example, took one look at the failings which led to the melt-down in the American mortgage market, and concluded that this was accidental – a catastrophic series of otherwise unrelated events, which couldn’t have been predicted or prevented.  Indeed, in the aftermath of the economic crisis, analysts and economists were positively tripping over themselves to explain in lurid detail to anyone who would listen how and why this was a situation deliberately created by those who stood to gain the most from everyone else’s misery and loss.

We all knew, in other words – regardless of our particular political affiliations – that this was something beyond anything which could be fixed at the ballot box.  The decisions were out of our hands.  That is to say, that the vast majority of people knew then what they’re beginning to now forget — that there is such a thing as a ruling elite, and that their number one agenda is to make it impossible for ordinary people to seize any real power.

It is my contention that a major reason as to why people are beginning to forget this, is down to the way in which social media, Facebook in particular, erects a forth wall between real world friends, family and co-workers.  It enables people to say out-loud what they would hesitate to say in polite company.  It enables in-groups to attack out-groups with such efficiency, that far from its ostensible aims of bringing people closer together, it is in-fact creating more and more division among communities and as a consequence wrecking real-world friendships.

Your data in their hands.

As print newspapers transition from ink to 1’s and 0’s, and their readers move from paper to tablets and smartphones, it is natural that publishers who wish to stay in business should have a marketing strategy.  A big part of the strategies used by these content providers, is one which uses Facebook as the jumping off point where readers discover further content.  Clicking a link on your Facebook timeline, which opens on, say, the Guardian website, will launch the Guardian app on your smartphone.  Some sites even design the layout of their mobile website in such a way that viewing the story you’re interested in is rendered virtually impossible unless you download and install their app first – where the content is properly formatted for reading on a smaller device.  This means that when you click the ‘back’ button, after reading the article, rather than being directed back to Facebook, you’re instead landed on the front page of the website, where you’re more likely to read other stories, and in-turn share them on your Facebook timeline.

This isn’t done for your convenience.  It’s done because, in the small print of the licence agreement, which most people agree to without actually reading, after installing a news app the vendor is immediately given the right to view your Facebook data whenever you read, share or comment on a story on your own timeline, your friend’s timeline, or in a private group.  This enables the publisher to track stories you’re interested in, and match you to other readers in your socioeconomic bracket; your level of education, your work history, where you went on a first date, and so on.  This valuable data is then sold-on to advertisers.  This is where on-line newspapers generate the majority of their revenue.

It might be argued that as long as you’re smart about the information you share on your profile this could actually be a good way of keeping news services free to view.  The problem is, Facebook makes it virtually impossible to restrict the amount of information you unwittingly share about yourself, simply by reading other posts, and commenting on them.  We might think we’re being careful about the information we include in our personal biography page, for example, but it’s the information which can be gleaned from our ordinary day to day interactions which in-fact tell a much deeper story about who we are, how we think, how we vote, and how we view the world around us.

This is the data which can be used to manipulate the stories you see being shared by others on your timeline.  It is also the data which can be used to make your Facebook posts visible to other users.  Opting out of the systems which make this possible, lowers the chances of your voice being heard – even to the point that something you post might never be seen even by your friends, if Facebook’s algorithm decides on their behalf they’re more likely to be interested in something which contains metadata more valuable to them.  It is this sinister way in which Facebook ‘games’ your data and mine, which explains my decision to leave the site for good.

No smoke without fire.

Just before Christmas 2015, at about 8:30pm, I set out to buy movie night snacks from my local convenience store.  As soon as I stepped outside, there was an acrid smell of smoke in the air, and it was obvious something not too far from my front door was on fire.  Sure enough, as I walked along a darkened path behind a small industrial estate which links one part of my housing estate to another, flames were lapping up the walls of a warehouse inside the compound.  By the time I’d spoken to other residents, who assured me the fire brigade were on their way, and returned from the corner shop, the unit was fully ablaze, and the small path I’d walked along not 5 minutes earlier was engulfed in vile black smoke.

When I returned safely home via another route, I posted about this on Facebook.  I was worried there might have been someone trapped inside the building.  By this point there were blue flashing lights everywhere, and it was obvious this was a major incident.

The next day, as I was walking past the site again, I saw a small group of people working to clean the place up.  They were using car headlights to see what they were doing in the dark of a cold and miserable wet December evening, inside a totally destroyed business unit.  Still worried there might have been someone hurt, I walked over and asked if everyone was OK, and if there was anything I could do to help.  You can literally see my front door from the entrance to the trading estate, and I was shaken by how close to home such a violent fire had reached.

One of the volunteers seemed weary of sharing anything with me at first.  He assured me no-one had been inside when it caught fire, and went back to what he was doing.  I then explained to a girl standing next to me that I was a local resident.  I asked her what kind of business the unit housed.  The previous night, when I’d briefly stood to watch the blaze, a passing motorists wound down his window to ask me if I knew what was going on, and suggested that it might have been an electrical fire, because the place was used as a TV repair shop.

The girl turned to me and said, “No.  We were collecting for Syrian refugees.  Two men were seen running away.  The police said it was started deliberately.”  It turned out, that the unit was being used by a local charity to collect food and clothing for people fleeing one of the bitterest wars currently raging in the middle-east.  The police were treating the fire as an arsonist hate crime.

When I was in my teens, I volunteered every year to work on a street festival organised by the local borough council.  We would host artists from around the world to perform music, street magic, high-wire acts, mime.. there were world-famous jazz musicians performing alongside local jam-bands; dancers from India, comedians from Canada, jugglers from Turkey… for two weeks my little town boasted one of the largest street festivals in Europe.  People of all ethnicities would rub shoulders, and celebrate music and art and life.  In the 20 odd years since then, how had we now become a town which saw arsonists attack a humanitarian charity at Christmas time?

This was the simple question I asked on a Facebook group called ‘People of Stockton’.  The group is ostensibly a place to share information about the small part of North East England where I live.  Some would post pictures of how our high-street had changed since the 1950s.  Others would post personal stories about their life as a Stocktonian.  There were people on the group I went to school with.  Nostalgia reigned down on many of the group’s most popular threads.  So I presumed the good folk of the town where I grew up would be ready willing and able to help our fellow Stocktonians clean up their fire damaged business, and re-stock it with blankets, tents and food, which were destroyed in the fire, destined for some of the most desperate people, currently tracking their way across Europe on-foot.  How wrong I was.

Are you now or have you ever been a reader of the Daily Mail?

The first comment reply to the short appeal I posted to the group was from someone who insisted “They should help British people before they send our money overseas”, and who went on to list every stereotype in the book about who “these people” are, and why a fire which destroyed food and clothing intended for women and children was spuriously linked to something Prime Minister David Cameron had said about “encouraging them to come here”.  To my great shame, this comment quickly received many ‘likes’.

So I suggested to the person, that this really wasn’t a place to discuss the geopolitical ramifications of the decades long failings in US and UK foreign policy, and that my only reason for posting the appeal was to help people from our town, as opposed to wherever he seemed to think “they” should “go back to”.  He then proceeded to broadcast yet more hatred and was quickly joined by others – each receiving plenty of ‘likes’ for their highbrow and conscientious analysis of “bloody foreigners”, and how “our lads” are homeless as well; and “charity begins at home”.  Again, my attempts to point out that I agree, hence the charity in question being quite literally five minutes from my home, fell on deaf ears.

Eventually, some people who did see I was simply trying to help chimed in, and scolded the naysayers for being so blinkered.  Indeed one chap who had originally started out with the usual laundry list of tabloid opinions back-peddled slightly, when he was challenged on whether or not he supported the arsonist attack.

The next morning I woke to a private message in-box full of comments from people expressing their disgust at my appeal post being removed from the Facebook group.  And, indeed, upon closer inspection I also found that I had been banned from the group, and the post had been removed with no explanation from the moderators as to why.

I explained my disappointment at this in a short post on my timeline, while expressing my hope that the people who moderate the group had also removed the people who’d posted blatantly racist comments, and received many ‘likes’ for them in return.

Later that evening, when I pulled into my usual parking spot, outside my house, a fairly well-built man was standing on the pavement and staring directly at me as if he’d waited for me to arrive.  I wound the window down, and asked him if he needed me to move.  Parking in my area is tight, and at first I thought he might be making sure no-one took the spot.  He shook his head without saying anything, and as I jumped out of the car, another car pulled up behind me and the man inside began talking to the man on the pavement.  As I walked towards my house, the other car drove away, and the guy on the pavement began walking behind me.  As I turned to walk down my path, I looked back, and he continued to stare right at me, before going into a house directly opposite mine.

I took this as a warning.  In the original post, to the Facebook group, I had appealed for anyone who knew about the arsonists to go to the police.  I live in the sort of area where the police don’t usually bother to turn up if you call them to complain about some of the commonplace antisocial behaviour which the disaffected youth of Stockton reign down upon areas like mine precisely because they know the police are overstretched and unable to attend in a timely fashion.

Watching you, watching them.

I’m not suggesting I have hard and fast proof that this was indeed a warning, nor that it was issued by the people who’d posted to or took down the post I made to the Facebook group.  I am however saying that what we really mean by the phrase, ‘a climate of fear’, is fleshed out and made all-too-real by my experiences then, and by events which led to my subsequent decision to leave Facebook altogether earlier this week.

In the two months following the fire, and my appeal for help in catching the arsonists which was removed from the Facebook group, every other post on my timeline began to take on a sinister tone.  If it wasn’t people regurgitating the full gamut of anti-immigration noise generated by UKIP, and other rightwing groups, it was people I’d never heard of requesting to add me as a ‘friend’ only to immediately reveal themselves as brainless morons.  On some days, I would find myself with 2 or 3 “friends” requests, from people I’d simply never heard of, all of which claimed to have at least 5 people in common with those already on my friends list.

When the leader of the Labour Party, of which I am a member, recently visited the refugees living in squalid camps outside Calais, in France, for a solid two days I had to remove, block and report people desperate to goad those of us who support Jeremy Corbyn into a fight about his links to the Stop The War Coalition.  Many of these posts seemed completely devoid of any understanding of what this group stands for, much less what it stands against.  None of these people showed the slightest bit of interest in having their opinions challenged, nor indeed even a basic interest in defending their views without recourse to racist imbecilic misspelled claptrap.

I’ve also seen posts on my timeline from otherwise perfectly nice people, who I am happy to call my personal friends, expressing the view that “refugees should be put in camps”, and that the camp which might be particularly well suited to “these people” – many of whom are fleeing the tyrannical Saudi Arabian regime – would be a giant refugee centre currently standing unused and empty in, you guessed it, Saudi Arabia.

The lack of thought put into most of this rhetoric is mind-blowing.  Many of the people who reposted a story about the refugees from the Daily Mail website, which suggested the Saudi camps should be used to house those fleeing conflict before they leave the area, did so at the same time as recognising World Holocaust Memorial Day — and all with seemingly no sense of the supreme irony at play in their stance on a refugee crisis happening here and now in 21st century Europe.  Even pointing this out to them was lost in a cloud of “Jeremy Corbyn hates this country”, change the subject, fingers-in-your-ears, stomp your feet idiocy, on a scale which embarrasses me to say I ever counted some of these people as friends.

And that’s really the point I’m ultimately trying to make here.  Friends always have differing opinions.  But they talk about them face to face.  We are far more likely to take on-board what someone is saying to us if they do it calmly, giving enough space for us to respond in-turn.  That doesn’t happen on Facebook.  The usual conventions for communicating ideas have been abandoned to the number of ‘likes’ next to an icon of a blue thumb – as if this and this alone dictates whether or not someone is worthy of attention.

The shades of grey, which exist in-between all opinions, have been pressed to the margins, and coagulated into a giant battering ram ready to be deployed whenever the slightest chink in someone’s armour is exposed.  We are being pitted against each other in service of a click-bait algorithm used to generate vast sums of money for a corporation which pays no tax.  I simply refuse to play this game any longer.

http://www.gazettelive.co.uk/news/teesside-news/syria-charity-project-leader-devastated-10631175

http://www.itv.com/news/tyne-tees/update/2015-12-23/stockton-charity-overwhelmed-by-donations-after-fire/

Is MiniClip’s 8 Ball Pool deliberately broken?

8 Ball Pool, by Miniclip, is a hugely popular game for iPhone and Android, which can also be played in a web browser via Facebook.  When it’s working properly, it’s an entertaining and hugely addictive game, based on American rules Pool.

The casual gamer can pop it open during their lunch break, and play against thousands of people from around the world.  It also has a world league and friends league, which players are incentivised to compete in through in-game purchases of everything from more accurate and decorative cues, to humorous speech bubbles.

In theory, by progressively becoming a better player, the more coins and cash you win, the more you can play on the higher tier tables with higher cash prizes, and more importantly see your name on the leader board.

In practise, however, the only way to unlock higher tier games is to buy large amounts of in-game coins and virtual cash.  And although Miniclip do offer discounts on coin purchases, at £1.49 ($2.26 US) their lowest price coin deal isn’t going to get you very far.  This is not only because you might get randomly picked to play against someone who is simply better at playing the game than you are, but because a series of bugs and software glitches which have remained un-patched for months, make it virtually impossible to win enough coins to stay in the game through competing in honest and fair tournaments against other honest and fair players alone.

Before I explain why I believe this is a deliberate ploy on the part of Miniclip to con players into buying more coins, I should first say that clearly this isn’t a problem for casual gamers, who just want to play a few quick games against their friends during their train ride to work in the morning.  Every 24 hours, the game issues enough free coins to play at least one 1-on-1 game against a random opponent, on one of the lower tier tables.  In that sense, it is a free game, with no ads, which is very pretty to look at and ostensibly works well.

But 8 Ball Pool also appeals to more serious gamers with a competitive streak.  There’s something about the allure of seeing your name at the top of a video game league table, which has driven players around the world to perfect their skills, ever since the late 1970’s, when Space Invaders and Donkey Kong reigned supreme.

The difference between those games, and Miniclip 8 Ball Pool, however, is that the classic arcade machines, which are still competitively played to this day, are not rigged to penalise their players through deliberately engineered software glitches.  If you put a coin into a PacMan machine, and the game doesn’t start, you push a button, your coin pops back out, and you start again.

In Miniclip 8 Ball Pool, things are very different.  Instead of getting your coins back when things go wrong, the only recourse you have is to email Miniclip’s technical support, who might occasionally feel like replying to you, only to insist that the whole thing is your fault in the first place.

The game is rigged

Screenshot_20151215-160450

All of these players have lost their money

The screen-grab opposite is of the waiting screen for players who have won the first of three rounds in the Downtown London Pub tournament.

Once a player from round one wins their game, they wait for the winner of the other game taking place in their group in this holding area.

Every now and then, as the game between both of your potential future opponents progresses, a speech bubble will appear above their avatars telling you how many balls they still have left to pot, and who is currently at the table.

My avatar is the red and white rose icon. My player name is ‘Jim’.  I am signed into the app via my Facebook account.  As you can see, I have played and won against a player with a rating of 7 to my 52.  In the other game from my group, Khiali, rated 12, has just beaten a player with the default anonymous silhouette question-mark avatar, rated at 2.

Therefore, myself and Khiali should now play each other, for a chance to play in the final against Said, rated 50, who has already beaten Basma, rated 33, and another player in his first round game rated at 36.

But myself and Khiali will never get to play against each other, or Said.  This waiting screen will in-fact just hang until, without any of the scheduled games taking place, all three of the remaining players are left with no choice but to exit the tournament, and lose their initial stake of 200 coins.

And here’s why I believe Miniclip are deliberately ignoring this common fault, which is guaranteed to occur at least twice every half hour, and which myself and many other players have been complaining to them about for at least the last 6 months.

All 8 of the first round players had to deposit 200 coins to start the game.  That’s 1600 coins up for grabs to the eventual winner.  But the total prize for winning in the final is just 1000 coins.  This means that Miniclip are up by 600 coins per London Pub tournament that they host.  Unless, that is, they simply take all 1600 coins and never pay anything out to anyone.

The next table in the tournament, Sydney Marina Bar, costs 3000 coins to enter, but the total prize fund is only 18,000 coins.  Which means of the initial 24,000 coins paid into the pot, Miniclip simply keep the remaining 6000 coins to themselves.

If each player in just one round of the Sydney Marina Bar tournament paid £1.49 to add, let’s say, 30,000 coins to their account (the amount of coins you receive per-£1.49 purchase varies, depending on the deal which is currently on offer via the in-game store), that player’s account after one game is now down to 27,000 virtual coins, while Miniclip have made £11 and 92 pence in real world currency from those eight tournament players.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.32.51.pngThe screenshot opposite shows the version of 8 Ball Pool playable in a web browser, via Facebook.  It was taken randomly on a regular Wednesday morning, at 11am GMT.  It boasts of having 44320 players currently on-line.  If only half of those players paid £1.49 each, that’s over £22,160 straight into the Miniclip coffers.

Let’s half that number again, and say that of those 11,080 players remaining, every third Sydney Marina Bar tournament they enter quits to the waiting area without anyone proceeding to the final, thanks to the “glitch” described earlier.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.46.45.pngThis screenshot was taken just 45 minutes after the one above.  As you can see there are currently 45534 players currently on-line – and as the time gets closer to 12 o’clock, when lunchtime casual gamers are more likely to log-on, that number is set to increase even further.

On-line gaming is BIG business.  And with traffic numbers like that, it’s easy to imagine how expensive it is for Miniclip to maintain their servers.  It must be a very tough job, and no-one is suggesting Miniclip shouldn’t make money in order to stay competitive.  But doing this by ignoring the complaints of paying customers is just not fair.  It’s understood that game developers need to be profitable, otherwise their apps simply wouldn’t get made.  But passing off their own players with lame excuses, when bugs are reported, is just not on.

I wrote to Miniclip three times, twice via their Facebook page, and once via their support forum, before eventually receiving the following reply.  Bear in mind that in my original messages, I explained that I had already ruled out the possibility of the issue being to do with my internet connection, or my mobile devices, since it occurred on two different broadband connections, three different mobile networks, and four different devices – three Android and one iOS:

We are sorry for the inconvenience.

Please know that we keep a close eye on our server to make sure this kind of issues are kept to a minimum.
Nonetheless it is very difficult to identify the root of the problem in cases like the one you described, as the connection fault may also be on the player side, please bear in mind that the connection problem doesn’t mean necessarily internet problem, can be a conflict in the browser (in case you play in our page) or any problem related to your device.
Please be also aware that as our Terms and Conditions state we are not liable for connectivity issues you may experience.

We credit your account as an exception since we were not able to find any issue in your account of match played.

Thank you for playing and understanding.

For more questions feel free to contact us.

Best regards!
Tiago

Clearly, there is little incentive for Miniclip to fix these glitches and bugs, that have existed for months, when the net affect of these issues is to actually increase the likelihood of competitive players making more in-game purchases.

Of course there could be another explanation for all of this.  Of the 40,000 players which Miniclip boast are on-line at any one time, for example, it’s entirely possible I am the only one who repeatedly suffers “connection problems” or “problems related to my device” which conveniently fall outside of Miniclip’s responsibility.

To that end, I shall be returning my brand new Nexus 6, running the latest release of Android 6.0, with no root access or other non-standard modifications, connected via the fastest fiberoptic broadband internet connection package Virgin Media UK currently provide, to the manufacturer, with a complaint that the only app from hundreds I have installed on it which doesn’t work properly is Miniclip 8 Ball Pool.

What are the odds?  Especially when taking into account I can recreate this bug on my Amazon Kindle Fire HD, on my old HTC One M7, on my iPad, and on my Hudl tablet – all of which have been tested on three different mobile networks, BT, Three Mobile, and O2, and every Wi-Fi hotspot within a 50 mile radius of my home – all of which suffer the exact same issues that apparently have nothing whatsoever to do with Miniclip.

Worse still, the apparently non-existent waiting area bug, which despite being in my imagination warranted a begrudging and measly 12,000 credit from Miniclip, isn’t the only problem with the game which appears to have been deliberately crafted in order to penalise regular paying players.

Denied

Another bug which regularly crops up happens after potting a ball in a game against a player who repeatedly reports a slow connection error.  At the bottom lefthand side of the screen, the message “Waiting for player response” appears after every pot made.  This is presumably done to ensure the data between the two player’s devices are synchronised, so that the player with the slower connection doesn’t lag too far behind.

But a bug with this sync-delay often means that, once you’re given back the cue to play your next shot, your opponent has already been led to believe that you are in-fact the player with a slow connection.  This results in all the pool balls suddenly jumping back to where they were before you successfully potted your last ball, with the cue being handed back to your opponent – missing your turn entirely, even though you’ve already played a successful pot.

A similar synchronisation bug also occurs, however less frequently, in the middle of London Pub and Sydney Bar tournament final rounds — which suddenly throws you out of the game, back to the waiting screen for a moment, before declaring a player you hadn’t played against in earlier rounds as the winner.  A bug which further adds insult to injury by failing to pay back the 200 or 3000 coins paid to play, as would occur under normal gameplay for reaching the final, even if you lose.

These problems, combined with Miniclip’s apparent inability to answer emails, much less read them properly, together with other small frustrating bugs which affect the way the app performs in general – such as interface inconsistencies from device to device, and a dog slow animation frame-rate, which makes the pool balls seem to randomly vanish and reappear somewhere else on the table after a full-power shot — all adds up to make 8 Ball Pool a perfect example of how mobile gamers are taken for mugs by developers like Miniclip.

They know it’s a hassle to contact support, explain your problem, and wait for a reply.  They know the bugs exist, and they know we know why they won’t fix them.  But for as long as there are 40 odd thousand people out there who aren’t aware of these problems, who pay to play their designed to fail games, they’ll continue to behave as if these issues are actually the fault of their own users.  For as long as there’s a buck to be made from releasing buggy software, they’ll keep on deleting messages on their Facebook wall, from paying players who’ve lost real-world money because of those same bugs.

And, when they go to the wall, like so many other games developers before them, whose model was based on profits rather than gamer satisfaction and playability, they’ll have the brass neck to write yet another ‘woe is me’ resignation blog, questioning the future of the mobile gaming industry – blaming everyone other than themselves for the very issues which, had they been addressed quickly, would have differentiated them from the competition in ways that gamers in particular not only notice, but appreciate perhaps more than any other demographic in the broader software market.

These issues, however, have plagued 8 Ball Pool for at least a year – and were actually made worse by an “update” in late Spring / Early Summer 2015 – which not only introduced a nag-banner for coin top-ups, that takes 30 seconds to load, and requires two presses of the X button to close, but also seemed to increase the frequency of the tournament waiting area bug beyond the simply annoying level it was already at – suggesting that in fact this “bug” was deliberately tweaked in the wrong direction.

Should a future update to 8 Ball Pool by Miniclip satisfactorily address these known bugs, I would be happy to update this post accordingly.  But I won’t be holding my breath.

Penn Jillette just isn’t funny anymore

I’m by no means a fan of Hillary Clinton.  But my preference for Bernie Sanders to take the Democratic nomination for President is a blog post for another time.  I’m also a big fan of Penn Jillette.  His books are entertaining, and of course his stagecraft as a magician is second to none.  But telling a bad joke just to get away with using the word ‘bitch’ on TV is childish and beneath him.  He also appears to realise this very shortly after saying it, as an embarrassed cringe comes over his face, when he realises it has also offended the two presenters of the show.

As a libertarian, Jillette no doubt feels that he should be entitled to say and do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to say and do it.  Fair enough.  But even he qualifies this in his book ‘God No‘, in describing his brand of libertarianism, as a rule of thumb which crosses the line whenever those words and actions impact on the life of someone else.  In the above video, he also claims that the only reason he told the joke in the first place, was because he expected it to get a small droll reaction.  But when it exploded among his audience, he was shocked.  So much so, apparently, he deemed it necessary to repeat again on a national news programme.

Bad form, Penn.  Bad form.

A religion without foundation

One of the recurring problems when communicating with the religious, both on-line and in real-world conversation, is in explaining to the believer why it’s OK for them to concede their faith is in faith itself, and not matters of proven fact.

In a recent exchange with a contributor to the Philosophy of Religion Google Plus Community, I attempted to see if someone who had responded to comments with bible verse, understood the circularity inherent to his ‘God exists because it says so in the bible’ argument – which he repeatedly used to the detriment of answering the actual questions being put to him.

I began by the use of a lighthearted analogy, which has produced interesting responses in the past, where I claim to posses the power of flight; that I can leap into the air and float around the room at will.  I invite the person to learn my technique, by explaining that in order to do so, they must first unequivocally state their absolute belief I can fly without seeing any proof.

I then go on to explain that this is precisely the sort of commitment to the impossible, which the religious often insist it is necessary for the nonreligious to make, when they argue – as this person had done – that “The book is hidden in mystery (Rom.16:25) that no one can understand unless you believe God’s sending of His messengers and their teachings (Rom.10:13-17).” and that the essential claim he appeared to making, that a simple belief in things which cannot be true is sufficient for those beliefs to become true, jarred against reality for reasons that should be obvious.

When applying the logic of ‘you will believe it when you believe it’ in any other area of rational discourse, the meaninglessness of additional claims, based explicitly upon those foundational claims, become staggeringly obvious – and anyone who continues to make those claims despite this, can be placed at some point on a sliding scale between harmless if delusional, and clinically insane – depending on how much weight they continue to place upon such obviously flawed reasoning, even after they have had these discrepancies explained to them.

And yet here we are, in the 21st century, where to even point this simple fact out is to invite a tsunami of criticism, and moralising as to the suitability of whoever speaks such heresy, as if the irony of doing so by use of technology that simply wouldn’t exist were such observations about the true nature of reality found invalid doesn’t play any part.

Every single person – no matter how well meaning or conscientious they might be – who takes to the internet, to say with a straight face, “God allowed it to happen.”, “How do you expect God to tell us everything while we are made limited for now?” – and all such variations on these themes, which we nonreligious have had put before us time and time again, as if we haven’t heard them a million times before, should be embarrassed at the sheer size of this hulking great big logic elephant right smack dab in the middle of the room.

But still the assumptions and presumptions of God’s basic existence keep on coming – as if building an argument upon these assumptions and presumptions magically transforms them into indisputable facts.

Addressing this should be the primary concern of all who wish to witness their faith to the world, long before they presume to do so as if no one else has noticed the centuries which have passed in silence, since this problem was first identified. Without it, you might as well leap into the air, and wish for gravity to stop working.

It doesn’t matter how fervently you want it to be true, or insist that it is true, if only to those who believe it is true. Without evidence that your claim is true, the logic used for all ancillary claims, which are based upon the assumption it is true, are meaningless – not least because they are themselves an abstraction of the very assumptions used to assert their own validity in the first place. You cannot draw a conclusion from its own premiss. And all the wishful thinking in the world isn’t going to change that.

He responded to this by saying, “If you demand tangible proofs for the existence of God then why not present your proofs for His non-existence?”, while adding that the group was not the exclusive domain of atheists and agnostics.  I replied to this by agreeing, adding, “I am merely pointing out that you cannot be expected to be given a get out of jail free card when your claims, which depend upon an assumption the bible is an absolute arbiter of truth, are either demonstrably false or unfalsifiable.”

No one is questioning your right to believe Christianity is in-fact true. I am simply pointing out that beliefs are not the same as facts. And that fact number one, in the very Philosophy of Religion you apparently wish to discuss without any objection, is that since they are self-contradictory not all of your beliefs can be true, and precisely because of this could all in-fact be false.

We can examine whether your claim, that Yahweh exists is true, simply by examining the evidence — which it is incumbent upon you to present in the affirmative. Not the other way around. Yahweh’s existence is not my truth-claim, it is yours. Until you present such evidence for Yahweh’s basic existence, none of your additional claims, based upon the assumption the specific God of the particular religion you belong to does in-fact exist, meet the first and most important standards in all rational thinking:

1) How many assumptions have we made, in order to arrive at our existing worldview?

2) What would happen to our existing worldview should those assumptions be shown false?

3) By what means could we establish the validity or falsity of our assumptions, without invoking those same assumptions in order to do so?

This, again, fell on deaf ears and I rather disappointingly had to leave yet another chat thread on yet another blog posting, through the simple inability of someone taking part in it — who may well be an otherwise perfectly reasonable person — to see the fundamental problem at the heart of their own worldview.  This was after I also took the time to explain in some detail, why this wasn’t a niggling detail, but in fact went to the heart of the very Philosophy of Religion the commenter apparently wished to discuss.

My first assumption is just as unfalsifiable as your first assumption, because they are one and the same: Reality exists. We cannot move beyond reality in order to observe it externally, since we are part of that very reality we wish to examine.

Dissatisfying though this first assumption may be, it is nothing compared to the stark differences between my second assumption and yours.

Your second assumption, is that our observations of reality take place within the purview of a specific God from a specific religion – and that these observations self-confirm the basic existence of that same God.

My second assumption, that reality is a natural phenomena, measurable and testable within degrees of certainty set only by the limits of our ability to observe that same reality, is arrived upon precisely because reality can be understood without the need to invoke supernatural causality in order to do so.

This is what gives naturalism the edge in terms of intellectual honesty – that is to say, arguments which are arrived upon by conscientious agents, wishing to identify methods of falsification for their claims, are always preferable to those which specifically negate all methods of falsification simply because they would undo the internal logic of those claims.

I am perfectly free to change my second assumption, at such time that evidence to the contrary is produced. Whereas your second assumption, under divine command theory, cannot be changed, or else you would no longer hold to the very Christian worldview which you have placed the burden of proof upon yourself to establish in the first place, despite erroneously claiming to have shifted this burden back upon me, with an appeal to the very same articles of faith ancillary to your initial assumptions.

Therefore I have no reason to believe any of the claims you make, which are based upon your second assumption being true, because they are by definition arrived upon by faith in faith itself, as opposed to the very deductive logic which you only negate because of what this would do to your second assumption – rather than any valid objection to the logic itself.

His final reply was to say, “I wouldn’t try to answer you point by point because there seems to be no point in arguing with someone who is determined not to believe in God and further complicate things. I feel you will never believe unless presented with the kind of evidence that is testable, measurable and everything.  I would just leave you with this simple question, if, by any chance, God revealed to you personally, His existence the way you want it, do you guarantee that you will acknowledge, revere and submit to Him perfectly the way He wants you to? You alone can answer that with all truthfulness and honesty.

I have just attempted to explain to you, in terms, precisely why I am not “someone who is determined not to believe in God”, rather that I am someone who simply identifies where the burden of proof rests in this regard.

To which he replied: “Our burden of proof rested upon the words of God written in the Bible, the coherence of His teachings, the fulfilment of His prophecies and many more. Pristine teachings of God’s messengers are not based on earthly knowledge of man. But because you refute the authority of the holy scriptures there’s really no way we can arrive at the same conclusion.”

I have removed this person’s name from the above text, but have invited him to comment on this article below.  It would be very helpful to hear from anyone who has a different approach to mine, when faced with those who adopt the approach used here – perhaps because they genuinely don’t see why first principals, such as those I attempted to outline, must be addressed long before we can even think about setting the assumption of biblical inerrancy to one side.

In the meantime, the commenter advised me to seek God on the website http://incmedia.org/ – the Church of Christ, founded by Felix Ysagun Manalo, which teaches that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are apostate sects, and whose incorporation with the Philippine Government in 1914 is celebrated as being “concurrent with the coming of the Seventh seal marking the end of days.”

The petition to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK

 

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 18.48.15.pngThe big news story in the UK today, surrounds the comments of Republican Party frontrunner Donald Trump, who as well as saying that America should be closed to all Muslims, also suggested that parts of London were no-go areas for the Metropolitan police.

An online petition calling for the UK government to ban Mr. Trump from entering the UK has already gathered over 200 thousand signatures – over 100 thousand of those added just since 3pm.

Any petition which reaches 100 thousand signatures or more, on the official government petition website must be debated by Members of Parliament in the House of Commons – and, sure enough, Gideon Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, standing-in for David Cameron at this morning’s Prime Minister’s Questions, was asked about Trump’s comments.

His reply was to suggest that ignorant comments of this kind have no place in politics – but he stopped short of agreeing with the thousands of people up and down the UK, who have so far signed the petition, calling for Trump to be barred from entering the country.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said “As a city where more than 300 languages are spoken, London has a proud history of tolerance and diversity and to suggest there are areas where police officers cannot go because of radicalisation is simply ridiculous.”

A statement from The Metropolitan Police said: “We would not normally dignify such comments with a response, however on this occasion we think it’s important to state to Londoners that Mr Trump could not be more wrong.”

Zac Goldsmith, who is in the running to replace Johnson as mayor of London, said Mr Trump was “an appalling creature… one of the most malignant figures in politics”.

Meanwhile, in Washington, poll numbers show that Mr. Trump’s ratings have actually risen.

It is a sorry enough state of affairs, that the party of Jefferson and Lincoln, has found itself being overtaken by scientifically illiterate, racist, wilfully ignorant trash in recent years.  But it is particularly worrying, that even among the other candidates, who variously believe the Egyptian Pyramids were used to store grain, that women should hand over control of their body to men, and that tackling climate change is a liberal conspiracy, Trump should be the one who garners the most attention.

A cynical person would be forgiven for concluding, that Trump is a convenient distraction from the bat-shit lunacy of Ben Carson, or the sheer stupidity of Ted Cruz – who, in an interview with NPR, actually said out-loud that climate change is about “liberal politicians who want government power over the economy, the energy sector and every aspect of our lives”, when his own campaign is financed by some of the biggest players in the global energy market.

Trump distracts the already short attention span of the US news media away from reporting more thoroughly on the blatant hypocrisy and lies of people like Ted Cruz.  That is why Trump exists.  It serves the agenda of those who are always in power, no matter who the electorate vote for, to have the alternate future version of Biff Tannen leading the polls, spewing the sort of ill-informed rhetoric which even the most gun-crazy bible bashers who form the Tea Party contingent of the Republican party might privately think, but dare not publicly say.

Trump creates the atmosphere in which other similarly twisted individuals feel free to speak.  Even Fox News have begun to notice this.  On Monday the 7th of December, a contributor to the Stuart Varney programme, Ralph Peters, was forced to apologise for calling President Obama “a pussy”, live on air, during a section which was supposed to be about a speech the President gave urging patriotic restraint in attitudes towards the majority of American Muslims, who have nothing at all to do with terrorism, and are as appalled by the events in Paris as everyone else.

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Y’all yourselves a High School Massacre of a Christmas!

In 2008, Sarah Palin was the punchline to a bad joke.  In 2015, she is every candidate on the ticket.  The sorry decline of the once proud Republican Party, is a genuinely disturbing thing to witness.  We are actually at the point now, where even as gun violence in the United States threatens to knock road traffic collisions from the number one spot in biggest causes of death, a State of Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore and her entire family posed with guns on their family Christmas Card.  This is the level of ignorance parts of America are not only comfortable with, but actually proud to announce to the world, as if stupidity and patriotism are one and the same thing.

Donald Trump, and all of his breed, are not welcome in the United Kingdom.  So why are they tolerated in the United States?

It’s about bloody time!

I stopped blogging about 2 years ago, and now I’m back.  So why did I stop, and why have I now decided to return?

You might remember me from such blogs as How Good Is That?, and from the internationally acclaimed podcast and Google Hangout Fundamentally Flawed.  (Link leads to an archive of all past FF episodes, thanks to the work of Alex Botten.)

How Good Is That? started out as a place to write about science, politics, current affairs and technology, in around 2005 / 06.  The podcast began as an experiment between Twitter friends, on the back of the fact that Apple had just begun to include a Podcasting section in the iTunes music store, thereby sending the genre into the mainstream.  We wanted to see if we could start conversations around the intersection of religion and science.

Following a series of run-ins with Christian fundamentalists, who would leave the usual ill-informed comments under posts to the HGIT blog whenever evolution or life sciences in general was discussed, the podcast was about talking to the people behind those comments face-to-face, so to speak.  We chatted with many interesting people in that time – many of whom turned out to be actually pretty nice people.

Sadly, the podcast is perhaps remembered among the majority of listeners for the times we chatted with not so nice folks.  This included one encounter which, over two years later, I still get YouTube comments and emails about on a near weekly basis – as it is shared and reposted around the world.

It involved an angry Scottish man, with a total lack of manners, and a co-host of the podcast (that’ll be me) who picked the wrong night to drink four bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale.  Comedy gold in hindsight, but reason enough for me at the time to call a halt on regularly appearing on the show.

There has been speculation among a fair sized group of people, who congregated around the Google Plus Group which formed around the podcast, as to why the whole thing came to an end the way it did.  Some of it is pretty close to the truth, but much of it is sheer nonsense.  So, with your kind indulgence, I would now like to kick off this new blog with a few clarifications.

Firstly, the aforementioned and purposefully unnamed angry Scot was not the straw which broke the camel’s back – at least for me.  I had actually decided I didn’t want to do the podcast any more a few weeks earlier, when another angry idiot had appeared on the show, and basically sucked all of the considerate and well-argued conversation out of the room.  Indeed, the in’s and out’s of this person’s on-line antics dominated the conversation for many weeks after his first appearance, to the point that even when we tried to produce a podcast in which we had specifically agreed off-air not to mention him at all, the post-show Google Hangout became entirely about him, rather than the stories we had talked about on that week’s episode.

I persevered with the podcast despite this, because after all was said and done, the guys and gals who regularly co-hosted the show with myself and Alex Botten, became real-world friends of mine.  Indeed, we even got together for a party at Alex’s house – which stuck in the craw of a few people who, despite not being there, took it upon themselves to spread utterly false rumours about what happened in the course of our evening.  It was the failure of those who I had hoped would speak up about this, but didn’t, which ultimately caused me to walk away – not just from the podcast, but from the Google Plus community which had started in its wake.

I am now back in the proverbial saddle, because events in the news, and in UK politics, have reminded me how much I actually enjoyed blogging.  When I first started, the word blog itself had barely entered the popular lexicon. Today, not blogging, almost feels like cutting my nose off to spite my face.  Yes, the experiences which led to the end of the old blog were frustrating.  And, yes, the ending of the podcast was a real shame.  But I feel that now more than ever, that those of us who are ignored by the mainstream media need a place to talk, debate, and organise with one another.  It is my humble hope that this blog, among the many others screaming for attention, will stand out as being a place where all voices are heard.

I also hope that those of you who stuck with me during the heady days of getting thousands of views per day, on the old blog, will remember that I always tried to be evenhanded with all but the most aggressive and wilfully ignorant trolls.   They say the subjects of religion and politics are the hardest to moderate.  I’ll do my best.  Stay tuned!  Jim.