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Sticky: A Sceptical Anthology

Some favourite sceptical quotations, accumulated over the years

Index of authors cited
Allen Anon Austen Baldwin Bierce Borrow Bradley Broad Butler Campbell Carroll Coward Crisp Critchley Dalai Lama Darwin Dawkins Deacon Dennett Dickens Dodds Ehrenreich Epicurus Feynman Fortey Frayn Goldstein Greaves Grimwood Hawkes Hobbes Holmes Hume Huxley Jefferson Johnson Jones Kaminer Laski Lawrence Lovelock Lucas MacNeice Magee McGinn Mencken Miller Montaigne Mornar Murdoch Oppenheimer Osmond Parfit Putin Ridley Russell Sagan Sapolsky Searle Schopenhauer Seneca Shakespeare Skinner Sontag Storr Stove Strawson Sutherland Swift Voltaire Warburton Wegner Woolf Xenophanes

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Sticky: Becoming mobile-friendly

There's currently a lot of excitement among web designers about Google's announcement that they will penalise sites that don't work well on mobile devices. I've decided I need to comply with this although with less than total enthusiasm. Nearly all my pages now meet Google's new criteria (the only exception is my cycling pictures.)

The disadvantage of the change is that if you read my pages on a desktop or laptop the lines will be long (unless you adjust the width of your browser, of course). Perhaps I should have alternatives for people who are using those devices, though that would mean more complication and difficulty in maintaining both alternatives. And the variety of ways that web pages can be viewed has increased enormously, so it isn't possible to cater for all of them. Probably it's no longer a good idea to specify the width of one's lines as I did previously.

I'd be grateful for feedback on this.
1 Comment
Last modified on 2015-08-15 16:13

Book review: The Closing of the Western Mind, by Charles Freeman

This book covers much the same ground historically as the author's later book A New History of Christianity, although its time span is wider, starting with Plato and Aristotle and ending with Thomas Aquinas. And rather than being purely descriptive, Freeman wants to advance a thesis,which he summarises at the outset like this.

We begin by returning to ancient Greece and exploring in particular how reason became established as an intellectual force in western culture. Then we can see how Christianity, under the influence of Paul's denunciation of Greek philosophy, began to create the barrier between science - and rational thought in general - and religion that appears to be unique to Christianity. Far from the rise of science challenging the concept of God (as is often assumed by protagonists in the debate) it was Christianity that actively challenged a well-established and sophisticated tradition of scientific thinking.

The first seven chapters present a survey of events and ideas in the ancient world before the advent of Christianity. The classical period in Greece was followed by Hellenism after the conquests of Alexander; then came the establishment of the Roman empire with its absorption of many Greek ideas. All these periods were characterised by plenty of intellectual activity. Christianity was to bring about a major change, although not immediately. Freeman's book is intended to explain how this came about. Read more

Book review: A New History of Early Christianity, by Charles Freeman

This book provides an account of Christianity from the death of Jesus in approximately 30 AD to the founding of the mediaeval papacy by Pope Gregory (the Great) at the end of the sixth century. The story is told three parts. Part 1 describes how the followers of Jesus developed their understanding of him in the decades after his death, Part 2 is about how Christianity arose from this background and expanded as a religion in the Roman empire, sometimes in the face of persecution, and Part 3 describes the radical changes that followed the Emperor Constantine's patronage after 313. Read more

Book review: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford

Rutherford is a journalist and a BBC Radio 4 presenter as well as a geneticist, and I think this background shows in the way this book is written. It could almost be the script for a broadcast. The style is informal in the extreme, sometimes slangy and with plenty of often good jokes. Contractions such as "would've", "could've" abound.

And this informality is more than skin deep; it extends to the way the book is conceived. Its basic aim is to educate the reader. I don't mean that the tone is patronising, but Rutherford wants to convey certain messages and to counteract some erroneous ideas about genetics that are widespread today. [Read more]

Book review: The Pursued, by C.S. Forester

Marjorie Grainger comes home after spending the day with a friend to find that her sister Dot, who is baby-sitting Marjorie's two children, has committed suicide by gassing herself in the oven. (That wouldn't work today but this novel was set between the two world wars, when coal gas was in use in Britain.)

At the inquest it emerges that Dot was three months pregnant. The verdict is suicide but Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, realise that Dot was having an affair with Marjorie's husband, Ted, and that he has murdered her. They don't acknowledge this explicitly to each other and neither of them wants to involve the police, which would make the children the object of notoriety and scandal. Marjorie tries to put the knowledge of Ted's crime to the back of her mind, but her mother has a different response. Read more

Firefox: enabling HTML5 for BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer is now moving away from Flash towards HTML5, which is excellent news. But in recent versions of Firefox (e.g. 49.0) I found nothing was happening when I tried to play programmes. The solution is quite simple.

Select New Tab and enter about:config (the warnings about this being dangerous no longer seem to appear; ignore them if they do).

In the search box, insert "media" (without the quotes). Look through the list that this produces and find:

media.autoplay.enabled: false

Toggle this to "true" by clicking on it. Now you can exit about:config and BBC programmes on iPlayer will work correctly.

Book review: Getting It Right, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Gavin Young is a 31-year-old women's hairdresser who works in a London salon and lives with his parents. He is sensitive and cultured, interested in literature, classical music, and art. Events are seen entirely through his eyes and we are privy to his thoughts, fantasies, and numerous anxieties, especially about women; outside the safe confines of the salon he finds them fascinating but also terrifying, and he has never had sex with anyone, male or female. This is a bildungsroman - a coming-of-age novel; the events it describes take place in a single week, in which Gavin's life takes a new direction. [More]

Libelling the Assassins

This morning on Today the eminent historian Antony Beevor was commenting on the recent revelation that Hitler was under the influence of drugs towards the end of the war. He mentioned other examples of the use of drugs in a military connection, including the mediaeval Iranian sect of the Assassins.

This was an off-the-cuff remark, of course, but it is based on a widespread misapprehension. The term hashishin, from which our word Assassin probably derives, was not used by members of the sect themselves but was a nickname applied by their enemies; even so, it was not in common use. The usual names for the Assassins were esotericists (batinis), Ismailis, or Nizaris. In any case, the idea that the members of the sect carried out their 'assassinations' under the influence of drugs hardly accords with their famed cunning, patience, knowledge of languages and so forth.

On all this, see MGS Hodgson, The Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Isma'ilis Against the Islamic World (The Hague, 1955), and also my book The Assassins of Alamut.

Book review: Brown on Resolution, by C.S. Forester

The story opens on the (fictitious) volcanic island of Resolution in the Galápagos, where a wounded British sailor is dying of blood loss and thirst. The rest of the novel tells the story of how he came to be there.

Leading Seaman Albert Brown is the son of Agatha Brown, a middle-class religiously brought-up woman who conceives him as a result of a five-day fling in 1897 with a young naval officer, Lieutenant-Commander Richard Saville-Samarez. Agatha is resourceful, and as she has her own income she is able to leave her disapproving family and take lodgings, where she represents herself as a widow. [More]

Book review: The Man in the Yellow Raft, by C.S. Forester

This collection of stories was published in 1969, three years after their author's death. All the stories concern the US navy during the second world war after Pearl Harbor and most relate in one way or another to the (fictional) destroyer Boon. Most of the stories are fairly short, but two, "Dr Blanke's First Command" and "Counterpunch", are longer. [More]

Book review: The Vital Question, by Nick Lane

Nick Lane is a biochemist at University College, London, where he leads the UCL Origins of Life Programme. In this book he recapitulates quite a lot of what he said in two previous books (Life Ascending" and Power, Sex, Suicide, but there is also a good deal that is new and the ideas are so important and so complex that I welcomed the chance to revisit them.

This is an extraordinarily rich book, whose implications stretch well beyond the strictly biological. The style is informal but there is no shirking of complex ideas, so one has to take one's time in reading. The vivid analogies help here and the effort the book demands is repaid amply. It is not necessary to have read Lane's previous books in order to understand the arguments in this one, although I think some readers may wish to go back at least to Power, Sex, Suicide if they have not previously read this. [More]