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Friday, 16 December 2011

Icon Series: Arch-Enemy of God - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens
Image via Wikipedia

Today, the death of this particular icon  caused me to change my mind. Although I never knew Christopher Hitchens I can't help but feel a bit like a guilty "friend" who speaks up only after the demise of a colleague. I am never comfortable with these sort of analogies, as it smacks of hero-worship, but it seems strange to suddenly now feel it is appropriate to write about my feelings towards the new atheist movement only when one their key figures (second possibly to Richard Dawkins) dies.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Scepto-nomics (a review of "Freakonomics")

Image via Wikipedia
 Steven D. Levitt stormed onto the social science scene like a rock star with his unconventional questioning and sometimes controversial conclusions on certain matters. He has come to define the term “rogue economist” and has made numbers sexy. At least that is the way his co-author Stephen J. Dubner wants us to see him. “Freakonomics” introduced Levitt to a far wider audience outside of the world of academic papers by asking unusual questions about a vast array of subjects in modern life. Each chapter is based on the academic work that cemented Levitt’s reputation for good or ill. Levitt is presented as being something of a mental enigma and I guess Dubner is his translator to us mere mortals. This debut book looks at links between such disparate subjects as cheating school teachers and rigged sumo matches. He uncovers the reason why estate agents don’t have your best interests at heart when it comes to selling property by tenuously linking this truth to what led to the growth and decline of the Ku Klux Klan. Along the way, the certain myths about the drug industry are blown apart by asking the question “Why do drug dealers live with their parents?”

Sunday, 30 October 2011

My "Case" for Halloween

Jack-o-laternImage via WikipediaUnless you are a Christian fundamentalist or a neo-pagon, the celebration formally known by the ancient Celts as Samhain will have little spiritual meaning to you. Perhaps that's a rather sweeping statement, but I think for the most part if Christmas is losing the battle with commercialization (and my opinion on that is complex) then Halloween lost it a long time ago. In fact, “Halloween”, for all its association with the supernatural, is generally regarded as a secular holiday – and that suits me fine. Our middle class torch-bearers of the "old religion", bless every sky-clad and Hermetic spell-weaving one of them, look to this like a Christmas – except I guess for those also assert, with justification, that Christmas is also a hijacked European pagan festival. Whereas some of the even wackier members of the Christian Right would have us believe that this is the time Satan or the Enemy rides out. And the sight of people - worse still, children! - wondering the streets dressed as the many representations of supernatural evil must be enough to confirm their long held belief that we are all approaching the prophesised End of Times.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Many Nightmares of Elm Street

Freddy Krueger's appearance in New Nightmare w...Image via WikipediaWith Halloween approaching, what time would be better than to have a look at one of the most popular horror movie franchises of all time. I was way under the legal age when I first saw one of the worst installments of the series, "A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge", and was mildly disappointed. The whole build-up had been too much. School friends had told me it was the scariest horror they had ever seen and to this day I see reviews written saying pretty much the same thing. Of course, they weren't talking about this particular part - although some had seen the sequel and had just got carried away by the impact of the original. I borrowed my VHS copy off one of those adults who let's kids borrow that sort of stuff. In fact, I saw most of my first B movies off this guy. The whole taboo and decadence of the experience was enhanced by the stink of Raffles cigarettes that always seemed to cling the cases.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Bad History: A Review

It’s quite disappointing to see how much flack this excellent little book has received. I was under no illusion that the book I was about to read was going to be a light read. The book’s title does imply that it is to be considered to be in the same category as Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” and Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy”. Despite both of these books being written for a lay audience they were not shot in details or text. Emma Marriot’s slim collection of short essays might be with Goldacre and Plait in sentiment, but the work isn’t intended to educate the reader in good historical research. However, it does provide examples of what good research achieves and how good historians view the past. Unfortunately I think many history buffs were looking forward to a heavily cited and in depth analysis of historical myths and a debunking of pseudohistory; not a book strictly for academics, but nevertheless one with a scholarly appeal. Recent years have seen some good academics, like Richard J Evans take on the postmodern anti-historical wave and others like David Aronovitch, Kathryn S. Olmsted and even sceptical scientist Michael Shermer produce sterling investigations that both debunk and seek to understand the nature of conspiracy theory.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Quasimodo meets Dr Doolittle

The Elephant ManThe Elephant Man (Image via"The Elephant Man" was probably the first film that had me reaching for tissues. That was when I was an impressionable child and bought into the simple fairy tale melodrama being told me. Today only my own sense of dignity stops me from shedding another tear of indignation, but I will get to that later. Lynch's film is a perfect symphony of pathetic emotion. The film-maker's pedigree has generally been built on art house projects, which jerk unpredictably between surreal cleverness ("Lost Highway") and pretentious twaddle ("Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me"). Sometimes his work is under-rated - "Dune" may have been overblown, but did really deserve to fall like it did? - and sometimes it is over-rated - "Eraserhead" may be nightmarishly atmospheric for a short, but it's a meandering non-event for a full-length horror. Faith in Lynch's own grip on reality was thrown into serious doubt when he praised the egregiously bad 9/11 conspiracy theory documentary "Loose Change". It also seems to tip the argument away from Lynch being a bona fide intellectual director/writer to being more of a superficial sophisticate. "The Elephant Man" demonstrates another feature of the latter argument - middle class snobbery.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Lie That Will Not Die - a review of "The Protocols of Zion" 2005 Documentary

'Praemonitus Praemunitus'', New York: The Beck...Image via Wikipedia
"The Protocols of Zion" is director Marc Levin's documentary on the cultural impact of "The Protocols of The Elders of Zion", a debunked piece of anti-Semitic Russian literature that details the Jewish global conspiracy. Levin was inspired to create the film when an Egyptian taxi driver claimed that no Jews came to work in the Twin Towers on 9/11. The driver told Levin that this was all part of the Jewish global conspiracy as revealed in "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion". The documentary follows the continued success of a forgery despite it being exposed publically in the US press almost a century ago. The documentary looks at its historic influence over such famous anti-Semites as Henry Ford and then at the legacy of institutionalized criticism towards the Jews as exhibited through such people as Mel Gibson and his even harder-line Catholic father. The documentary covers some of the controversy surrounding the release of "The Passion of the Christ" Levin visits his own Jewish roots, discusses the Jewish roots of Hollywood and goes through various Jewish reactions to anti-Semitism from those feel it is better not to draw attention to the problem to far-right supporters of Israel. Likewise, Levin's other interviewees range from moderate critics of Israel to outright believers in a Jewish conspiracy...

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The FIRST House on the Left - Review of "The Virgin Spring"


A young Christian girl, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) embarks on a journey to take the candles to the local church - a task only befitting a virgin of pure spirit. She is accompanied for part of the journey by her pregnant foster sister, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) who secretly worships the Norse god Odin and has jealously wished a curse on Karin. On the journey the two part company and Ingari encounters a one-eyed man who causes her to flee in terror. Meanwhile Karin encounters two shepherds and a boy. What follows is a cycle of vicious violence and retribution that will leave Karin's distraught father (played by Max Von Sydow) praying for redemption...


I feel I must apologise first for any spoilers I might inadvertently blurt out in my review/examination of this classic picture. However, in my humble defence this is a film based on a traditional moral tale and revealing the beginning middle and end is about as harmful as telling you the full plot of Cinderella before you see Disney's interpretation. This is really a film about how the story is portrayed, interpreted and executed than the actual plot.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Top Ten Best Movie Villains

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in the film ...Image via Wikipedia
This article was written out of total unashamed (or perhaps even shameless) self-indulgence. It is shamelessly low brow geeky and will probably never find its way into any self-respecting publication. However, when I first started writing paid online reviews this topic cropped up and I just couldn’t resist the urge to put my thoughts down. Villains are fascinating characters in fiction whether it is on the big screen, as the ones below are, or in literature. Without them we don’t get the contrast with the heroes. However, there is something much than that. The villain often speaks the words we dare not speak or presents us the line we dare not tread…

Friday, 8 July 2011

The line between candour and sensationalism: a review of "Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir"

I have mixed feelings about the proliferation of tragic biographies. This newish sub-genre is a bit like the reverse of a true crime biography. Like Steve Salerno’s definition of self-help styles, empowerment and victimization, the true crime biography caters to a perverse idea about empowerment whilst the tragic

Friday, 3 June 2011

Critical Thinking for Health and Medicine

31 July 2010 015Image by EadaoinFlynn via Flickr"Bad Science" is a modern classic of scientific sceptical movement. Its importance and influence easily rank it alongside the defining works of Carl Sagan, Martin Gardener, James Randi, Michael Shermer, David Aaronvitch, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Carol Tavris, Paul Kurtz, Sam Harris and Phil Plait. My rather unscientific mind put it on my "to read" list for way too long. As I learnt more about the scientific method and critical thinking from subjects I was more comfortable with like history or the social sciences, I slowly made my way to Goldacre's book with trepidation.

As it turns out, and according to Goldacre, this is the problem. The general public are confused by science and therefore untrusting of it, which makes them more susceptible to pseudoscience, quackery and manipulation on a grand scale. Whether it is buying ineffective "natural" cures from nutritionist quacks to over-priced and under-tested drugs from devious pharmaceutical companies, Ben Goldacre fears that an ignorant public is being duped and the consequences can be catastrophic.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Unearthing another eagle


The audio play tells a tale of a noble and very brave centurion, Marcus Aquila (Tom Smith) who is almost crippled when he attacks an enemy chariot in battle. As he recovers he saves the life of a gladiator, Esca (Tony Kearney), and buys him as his slave. Having formed a bond with the man he then releases him from slavery, but asks him if he would like to accompany him on a perilous journey. Impressed by his former master’s kindness and a desire to see the homeland he was originally taken from, Esca agrees to accompany Marcus.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Invisible Man - review of a classic novel

Cover of "The Invisible Man"Cover of The Invisible ManA strange series of events commence in the village of Iping, West Sussex, when a mysterious stranger arrives and lodges at a local inn. The man's face is swathed in bandages and he wears huge goggles and a wide brimmed hat along with a thick cloak and gloves. He is reclusive and hides himself away in his rented room. Soon after his appearance a series of mysterious burglaries take place. Curious about the stranger the innkeepers look into his room only to see his clothes strewn across the room and the man nowhere to be seen. Suddenly his furniture seems to come to life and flies at them. Before long the people of Iping discover they have been visited by the incredible and insane Griffin, the invisible man, an individual who has terrible plans for the entire human race...

My first proper encounter with a proper "Invisible Man" story came in the form of the BBC's 1984 television series. I cannot say I relate it to the happiest of memories. I was aired on Sunday night during our colder months and only served as a mild diversion that the first day of school started tomorrow. However, it was the most faithful adaption of the book and I kept tuning in every week. Many years later and having seen several adapted and too many inspired works, I finally got round to reading the original novella.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology - a book review

Psychology, being a soft science, gets a lot rough press. We live in a time where the self-help industry and the modern day followers of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis have brought the study of how we think into disrepute. Thanks to the Oprah Winfrey Show, any quack seems to be able to give us advice on how our mind operates whilst everyone seems to have their own take on psychology, based on what they’ve seen, heard or experienced. However, psychology and its myriad of different disciplines is a science that deserves respect. There is a massive body of evidence taken from robust and decades long studies based on the hard neuroscience available and in accordance with the scientific model. Behavioural science has helped improve the way we teach and understand one another, and improve all sorts of rehabilitation. There is a thick and definite line that separates peer-reviewed and tested academic psychology and psychiatry from psychomythology. This book’s single purpose is to explain this to psychology students and the general public.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Seven days of change and consequences - a book review of "The Godless Boys" by Naomi Wood

Set in an alternative history where England is ruled by the Church and the secularist community has been banished to a solitary island, Naomi Wood’s debut novel,“The Godless Boys”, is a story about a dramatic week on the island. Nathaniel, the son of an original member of the secular movement, leads a gang of teenage boys, the Malades, who are determined to protect the island from any religious influence. This means intimidating potential “gots” and prowling the streets at night. Eliza Michalka lives a sorry existence on the island - a part-time prostitute and a part-time undertaker who drops corpses into the surrounding ocean - she pines after her lost love, the aloof fishmonger Arthur Stansky. However, this week all their lives will be changed when Sarah, daughter of 1976 church-burner, Laura Wicks, stows away to seek out her mother on The Island…
We are living in a time that has seen the rise of fundamental religiosity and New Atheism. Therefore it isn’t difficult to see where the author’s inspiration came from. Why she decided to set it in 1986 is another matter altogether. There is little in the way of obvious parallels with the real 1986, but I guess it helps to keep matters simple without the presence of the internet and the normalcy of mobile phones. The whole book is markedly minimalistic without being pretentious. This is perhaps reflective of the two radically opposing philosophies that form the backdrop of the story.

Wood does not explore the details of either the Christian dogma that now rules England or the strict secularist movement of The Island. Two vital dates are given for when secularists, usually involved in anti-religious activity such as church burning, were deported – 1951 and 1976 – and we are given an overview of the violent struggles between the state and rebels, but otherwise the history of the whole conflict is kept down to a minimum. Likewise aside from Christian imagery and the hatred certain characters, such as Nathaniel’s Malades, have towards religion, there are little intricate details regarding what each side actually believes. Despite one newspaper critic describing The Malades as Richard Dawkins in bovver boots, there is nothing whatsoever mentioned regarding a scientific argument against the Christians. The Secular Movement’s problems with the church are never lain out or described. Therefore, this could be a story about any society divided into polarized factions.
This leaves the story to be entirely character-driven and concerned with the relationships its players experience over seven days. One man, an ardent first generation secularist, will re-evaluate his relationship with God. Nathaniel will be made to reconsider his devotion to The Malades. Arthur and Eliza will have to look at the personal defensive walls they have created. However, the driving force for change in all of this – the story’s catalyst – is Sarah. She enters having already received a revelation after 10 years not knowing her mother had been arrested for being involving a Secular Movement terrorist attack. Although the story follows her fact-seeking mission, she seems to be the only character that isn’t experiencing personal changes in her attitude, having already gone through a dramatic personal crisis.

Despite some of its adult content, “The Godless Boys” reminds me of the typical sort of material read for GCSE English. This is not a slight on its simplicity, but I think there might be a lot teenagers can relate to in the text. “The Godless Boys” is also a story about consequences and the way different individuals react to dramatic changes. Nathaniel is a part of his tragic father’s legacy, but little does he realize he is leaving a legacy of his own in The Malades. His personal philosophy and beliefs have their own consequences. Wood succeeds in getting this across, providing certain moral twists reminiscent of David McKenna’s “American History X” that provokes a lot of thought.

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Thursday, 3 March 2011

SHAM - Book Review

Cover of "Sham: How the Self-Help Movemen...Cover via AmazonThere is a scene in Dolly Parton’s 1992 film, “Straight Talk” that immediately comes to mind whilst reading “SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless”. Parton’s character accidentally becomes a “radio therapist” despite having no qualifications in psychology. In the scene I am thinking of, Parton is challenged by a professional clinical psychologist and only just saves herself from embarrassment by telling him she got her qualifications in the school of “screw you!” Later, when Parton fails to follow some of her own advice, she eventually confesses on air that she has no qualifications and is not really a doctor before leaving. Her viewers beg her to return and she does on the condition that she isn’t referred to as “doctor” and just her first name.

If Steve Salerno has seen this film he might remark how prophetic it was on the whole self-help industry. His book reveals the huge industry that has cropped up under the Self-Help and Actualization Movement (or appropriately SHAM) banner and the people behind it who are often hypocritical and under-qualified to offer advice. These self-help gurus have garnered a reputation brought on by their own brand of “straight-talking”, which many psychologists have argued can be very harmful to the vulnerable people they are advising. If only, Salerno might say, many of these self-appointed “doctors” would acknowledge their own hypocrisy and humble themselves like Parton’s character. Instead they have become pious millionaires and billionaires, making a fortune off a whole host of subjects they have questionable experience in and provide highly dubious or ambiguous results in. Nevertheless, Salerno argues they have integrated their ideas into our language, industry and education.

“SHAM” shows how the self-help movement can be roughly divided into two areas, victimization and empowerment. Victimization apparently came first, with gurus creating a whole host of states of victimhood they claimed their clients suffered from. Empowerment came later and was clearly more in line with the 1980s culture of power and advancement. The book documents how, mainly through their promotion by Oprah Winfrey, these gurus have grown into hugely influential individuals, hired by educators, large corporations and even governments.

Salerno’s book is divided into two sections, “The Culprits” and “The Consequences”. In the first section we read about the rise of the self-help guru and his industry. These chapters document certain key figures, such as “Dr Phil” McGraw and Tony Robbins who have entire chapters dedicated to them, and groups of specialist self-gurus such as those who use spirituality or their “life experiences” in crime – Salerno calls these guys the “Contrepreneurs” – or those who either target sport or use their sports coaching experience to apply to other seemingly unrelated activities. Essentially the crux of Salerno’s arguments against the movement is that much of the advice is overly simplistic, has little or no basis in mainstream cognitive behavioural studies and rarely solves the problems who buy into it. This latter point is laboured home time and again. Those who invest in the expensive programmes, buy the related merchandise and routinely attend their seminars don’t seem to ever achieve what is being promised by the gurus. They tell those who ask that the experiences are “life-changing”, but there is little in the way of the concrete results from any of this and the simple issue remains that they just keep going back.

Salerno says this addiction has long-term bad consequences for our very culture. Now businesses think little of “team-bonding” events or hiring all sorts of New Age gurus to help improve group performance, despite there being very little evidence to suggest these investments make any difference whatsoever. Self-help has also made its way into schools and its impact particularly via the “victimization” path is very evident. Now everyone has “issues” of some sort or another, including bullies and disruptive children, in fact everyone except for the “disempowered” teachers!

As far as sceptical subjects go, life-coaching and the motivational industry is a less black and white subject for me. I have many friends in the industry and I don’t think what they do is necessarily wrong. The line between philosopher and motivational guru is a thin one. I admit to being sold on the defining works of Stephen R. Covey, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “Principle Centred Leadership”, but on reflection a good amount of his stuff is clearly cleverly marketed “old wisdom” coloured by corporate clichés. Nevertheless, I still enjoy them today and there is a lot of good commonsense stuff in there. Self-help has definitely invaded the martial arts and self defence industry I teach in and to a certain degree it isn’t harmful. However, as the New Agey side of things, along with the unscientific practice of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and the Robbins influence becomes more overt, I fear a lot for its future. Salerno does make some strong arguments that have made me think twice about certain ideas in the industry and I am grateful for the overall view of SHAM’s history. His critique of the industry stretches back to and beyond “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. This provides an interesting clash with another book popular in the sceptical movement, Richard Wiseman’s “59 Seconds”. Wiseman, who is a regular interviewee of many sceptical shows, found a lot of the assertions made in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to stand up to scientific scrutiny. So, not all “lifestyle” books need be painted with the same brush.

I don’t like wheeling out the “balance argument”. However, many critics of this book have made the valid point that “SHAM” only offers a systematic critique of the self-help culture. However, in Salerno’s defence there are no other books that have tackled this subject head on. There are books that cast a critical eye on counselling and the therapy culture, but not the whole issue of the self-help and actualization movement. For me, seeing the way the self protection and martial arts industry are buying into the SHAM movement this book was a bitter pill to swallow. I don’t think that Salerno is always right in his arguments or even in his tone. He seems to contradict himself too. Early in the book he rightfully pulls apart the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” franchise, by describing it as a throwback to the pre-60s gender defining psychology. Then he later, when he gets to the impact SHAM has had on education, he makes the rather puzzling and conservative-leaning assertion that boys have become effeminized by the movement. The 1990s has certainly seen the rise of the metrosexual and we are seeing more androgyny these days than in the past few decades, but these seem to be more to do with fashionable phases – such as the foppish effeminate dandies of the early 19th century. We are also in an era of extreme sports, mixed martial arts cage fighting, white collar boxing and retrospective machismo in our media. As I mentioned before some of his arguments also pit him against fellow sceptics, such as the aforementioned Richard Wiseman, and he doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of a solution. Nevertheless, much of what is said in Salerno’s book needed to be said and there is more that Salerno and Wiseman agree upon than disagree with. I would highly recommend this book to most people and it has led me to want to seek out more critiques on our therapy and self-help culture. Sometimes in order to get back balance you need an extreme work as a counterweight.

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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Debunked! (Book Review)

Richard RoeperImage by rexb via Flickr

Pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and superstition hits the general public at many different levels. However, despite a growing amount of excellent books used to argue the case for rationalism, logic and freethinking, they are easily outnumbered in the populist section of any bookstore or newsagent. So although the Michael Shermers, James Randis and David Aaronovitches of this world might be just about holding their own with middlebrow readerships and above, it is unlikely that your average reader of “Nuts” or “Heat” is going to be interested in their work. Even “Counterknowledge” by Damien Thompson and “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World” by Francis Wheen seems more like short intellectual distraction than books intended for a typical undemanding readership. It is here where Richard Roeper truly triumphs with “Debunked”.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Belated 2010 review & my best books of the year

Condesa Elizabeth Bathory, CarmillaImage via Wikipedia
First off, I appreciate how late this, but I have been busier than ever with my various projects, which bodes well for 2011. I did consider not writing anything, as I thought moment had past, but in the end it was just too indulgent of a tradition let pass me by.

2010: The first year of a new decade, which again hasn’t received a title the majority are comfortable with. I really didn’t like the naughties as a term. It was just a non-word and totally unnecessary. For me, the 2000s, pronounced two thousands, worked in the same way as the 1900s. However, I have no issue with using the term twenty-ten. After all we were comfortable using the term nineteen as a prefix for the majority of the 20th century. Saying two thousand and ten, which unfortunately seems to be the most popular way to say it, just seems a bit “In the year of our lord...” to me. Anyway, enough trivial debate, on with my annual review...