Wednesday, 29 February 2012

More irony than an iron made of iron ... if only it were true

This story surfaced (again) this week:

'Drummond's Bar (Mount Vernon, Texas) began construction on an expansion of their building to increase their business. In response, the local Baptist Church started a campaign with petitions and prayers to block the bar from expanding. Work progressed right up until the week before the grand reopening when lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground!

After it was burned to the ground by the lightning strike, the church folks were rather smug in their outlook, bragging about "the power of prayer", until the bar owner sued the church on the grounds that the church ... 'was ultimately responsible for the demise of his building, either through direct or indirect actions or means.'

In its reply to the court, the church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection to the building's demise. The judge read through the plaintiff's complaint and the defendant's reply, and at the opening hearing he commented, 'I don't know how I'm going to decide this, but it appears from the paperwork that we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that now does not.'

It's a great little story ... but almost certainly untrue. It first appeared here in 2007 (unless you know an earlier version) as happening in a 'small, midwestern town' and has been doing the rounds ever since. Only the details have changed. It appears on at least 50 websites and blogs that I've looked at (including Richard Dawkins') and not a single one can quote the source. Some of those sites do, at least, say that the source is unknown and that the story is most likely untrue. Most don't.

It does raise an interesting issue though.

The basis of law is that a person be considered innocent until proven otherwise. If, however, a person fervently believes that the power of prayer will cause events to happen and, in the case of this 'midwestern bar', that they did indeed cause the fire ... could they be prosecuted for the offence? The intent was there. And they believed that their actions were just as responsible as if they'd doused the place in petrol and set it alight. Surely by not prosecuting in those circumstances, the law is saying that prayer does not have the power to cause physical effects. Or, at the very least, that prayer is, in every sense, unprovable or lacking in any evidence for its existence.

As I reported here, there used to be a major loophole in English law. Up until 1981, attempted crime fell under the heading of 'common law' and test cases had created the situation that a person could not be prosecuted for attempting to commit a crime if the crime was impossible to commit. To give you an everyday example, a person who attempted to pick your pocket could not be charged with attempted theft if the pocket was empty. The crime had to be capable of being committed before you could be guilty of attempting it. The Criminal Attempts Act 1981 changed all that by, quite rightly, placing the onus upon the offender's intent rather than the possibility of their success.

The clever thing about the Criminal Attempts Act was that it created the offence of 'attempt' and could be applied alongside other legislation to anything from theft to burglary to sexual assault to embezzlement. It worked because the definition of 'attempt' meant a person doing an act which was 'more than merely preparatory to the commission of the offence'. So thinking about murdering a banker wasn't an offence, but sitting in the car outside his luxurious home with a crossbow might be. In law, attempting to commit a crime is all about intent and some degree of preparation.

So, logically, a person could be prosecuted for attempted arson if they believed their prayers would work.

There's one for the philosophers.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Naked Cartoon Characters Part 3

Some more bizarre cartoon (or otherwise fictional) character anatomy from the very talented Jason Freeny:

And he sculpts as good as he illustrates!

His Deviant Art site is here and his blog is here.

My thanks to my splendid chum Ken Plume for bringing them to my attention.

Naked Cartoon Characters Part 2

Remember those wonderful sketches of cartoon charcater skeletons by Michael Paulus that I posted a while back (see here)? I can go one better now.

These extraordinary skeletons were created for a 2007 exhibition called Animatus by South Korean artist Hyung Koo Lee. We start with Bugs Bunny:


Donald Duck and Huey, Dewey and Louie:


Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote:

Here's a video of the show in Italy in 2007.

Sadly, I can't direct you to his website as it appears to have been taken down. His catalogue at the Arario Gallery in Seoul is here.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Age of Invention

Some cool inventions from the 1920s and 30s. See more here.

Inner tubes used as bouyancy aids.

Radio in a straw hat.

Gas-resistant pram.

Face protection from snowstorms.

Thanks to Mo McFarland for finding these. They originally come from the always entertaining Bored Panda site.

The eerie car photography of Peter Lippmann

There's something poetic and beautiful about these images of cars slowly becoming part of the planet from which their metals, glass and plastics originally came. It's from a series by Peter Lippmann called Paradise Parking. You can see them all, plus more of his photographs at his website here. The Women of History series is simply stunning.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

A Brazilian for Jesus


Some time ago, I wrote a fairly protracted essay on why I was an atheist and how it saddened me that some people of faith saw that as a threat. You can read it here if you wish. It crystalised how I felt at the time and attracted lots of comments including a couple from Dave Gorman and Stephen Fry. I will reiterate here what I said then; I am a sceptic and cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god or gods. However, I see no evidence for their existence and so my current standpoint is atheist. For me, belief is not enough.

However, I have no problem with other people believing. Why would I? Their strength of conviction is no less strong than my belief in a deity's non-existence. The only time that I come out fighting is when children are told lies so that they cannot make their own decisions about what to believe or when people are hurt, supposedly in the name of some god or other. I'm sorry, but every single religion, faith and philosophy has, at its heart, a version of the Golden Rule of Reciprocity, namely that we should all treat others as we'd like to be treated ourselves (you can see the various different versions here). It seems to me that if god(s) exist then he/she/they is/are actually pretty wonderful beings - it's the twisted interpreations of their teachings by humans that cause all the problems. After all, every religion, faith and philosophy also states that killing is bad and that a higher power is the only true judge.

One of the most extraordinary uses of this handy 'interpretation' lark is a site I found recently that uses the Bible to 'give permission' for various sex acts. Now, I'm aware that it may be a spoof site but, as is the case with so many sites of this kind, there are no clues to help me make that decision. It was registered through a company called Domains By Proxy from Scottsdale, Arizona, USA so the owner wished to remain anonymous. A more obvious spoof site would tend to go over the top with a Biblical 'okay' for things like bestiality, incest or paedophilia, for example. Nor does it have a central agenda such as 'proving' that God is okay with homosexuality. So, I don't know how real it is; all I do know is that I've seen stranger sites that turned out to be absolutely genuine. So, I won't assume either way. I'll just report what the site says. If you are of a gentle disposition or are embarrassed by sexual content, I suggest you go and look at a site with baby hedgehogs being cute for a bit.

Sex In Christ is, as I say, a website dedicated to finding mitigation in the Bible for various sexual acts. Among the headings on the site are: Oral Sex and God's Will, Viagra and God's Will, Threesomes Within a Christian Marriage, Masturbation - God's Great Gift to Us, A Proposal for a Christian Pornography, Bondage in Christ - BDSM in a Christian Marriage, Bare before God - Shaving and the Bible, A Philosophical Argument for Masturbation, Anal Sex according to the Word of God and the altogether disturbing Fisting and God's Will. Here's an example of the kind of content you'll find (voyeurs note: there are no photos or diagrams).

On the subject of anal sex:

'Anal sex is confusing to many Christians because of the attention paid to the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual acts. However, it’s important to realize that these often quoted scriptures refer only to sexual acts between two men. Nowhere does the Bible forbid anal sex between a male and female. In fact, many Biblical passages allude to the act of anal sex between men and women. Lamentations 2:10 describes how 'The virgins of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground,' indicating how a virginal maidens should position themselves to receive anal sex. Another suggestive scripture tells of a woman’s pride in her 'valley' (referring to her buttocks and the cleft between them) and entices her lover to ejaculate against her backside: 'How boastful you are about the valleys! O backsliding daughter who trusts in her treasures, {saying,} ' Who will come against me?'' (Jeremiah 49:4) And in the Song of Songs, the lover urges his mate to allow him to enter her from behind: 'Draw me after you, let us make haste.' (Song of Solomon, 1:4)'

On the subject of intimate topiary:

'Many women already wax or trim their bikini line, but question whether they can or should remove more pubic hair than that. Fortunately, we can look to the Bible for guidance: 'For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn.' (1 Corinthians 11:6). The point of bikini waxing is to remove hair that is not concealed by a swimsuit or panties, and this is appropriate for public or semi-public situations like swimming pools and fitting rooms. But if you anticipate revealing more of your intimate parts - that is, if someone (like your husband) is going to see you uncovered (i.e., without underwear) -- your genital area should be shaved or at least trimmed closely.'

And on the tricky subject of masturbation - 'God's great gift':

'The Scripture tells us that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, and that everything that we do should glorify the Lord. While masturbation is not a sin, we must be careful to masturbate in a way that is respectful to our bodies, and respectful to God. Masturbation is a gift that we should not abuse. This means we should not masturbate to excess, or to the point where we injure ourselves. If you are masturbating until you are exhausted, or until your genitals are raw or bleeding, this is excessive, harmful, and not what God intended. If you masturbate compulsively to the point that it interferes with your work or your relationships with friends, family, and God, this is a problem. If you masturbate while indulging in impure thoughts (fantasizing about your neighbor’s wife, for example), this is also a misuse of God’s gift. Of course, this is not to say that masturbation in itself is wrong – simply that we must use masturbation in a way that is healthy and responsible.'

But what about the story of Onan and the origins of onanism? Yup, he (you can tell it's 'he' by the rampant sexism alone) has an answer for that too:

'Many people are under the impression that the Bible specifically forbids masturbation. In reality, the Bible does not even mention masturbation. The story of Onan (Genesis 38:7-10) is always cited as an example of how God will punish masturbators; this is where we get the term 'Onanism,' which refers to masturbation. However, the story of Onan has absolutely nothing to do with masturbating. After his brother died, Onan was commanded by God to impregnate his brother’s wife. Onan had sex with her, but defied God by pulling out before he ejaculated so she wouldn’t get pregnant. His seed spilled on the ground – due to coitus interruptus, not masturbation – but this detail became equated with masturbation by those who apparently had their own agenda.'

Their own agenda! The irony is so heavy it's crushing.

As I said, I don't know if this is a spoof or not. What I do know is that some people will use it as 'proof' that they can indulge in various sexual practices and God won't mind. It's also causing genuine debate on some Christian forums. Amid the fire and brimstone and demands that 'This evil site must be shut down!' you'll find comments like:

'When the Church was teaching me I was going to hell because I was gay while growing up in the late 70's/early 80's I knew these teachings didn't fit into the words of a loving God found in the Gospels. I read the Gospel of John and was startled to see the relationship between Jesus and John went beyond anything else Christ had with another human being. It was quite clear they were in love. I mean, come on, one of the most heart wrenching moments in history is when John leans back against the 'bosom'of Christ and asks who will be the one who betrays Christ and thus kills Him. It must have been so devistating (sic) for John especially since John must have had 'could it be me'playing in the back of his mind. It is one of the most intimate moments of any literature and for the Vatican to try to tell us being homosexual is wrong and evil, and hence Christ is evil according to their teachings, then you know institutional religion is the one which is nothing but evil. Love, IMO, is never wrong.'

'That is just hilarious! I am right now forwarding this to a few of my very Christian friends, want to see how they will react to it. I will just let them and some of my other friends know... hey, if you are dating a Christian women... print this out and show it to her :-)'

'It just goes to show how far people will go to twist the word of GOD, to fit their own agenda ,but the thing is by doing it they will only cause it to backfire on them.{GALATIONS 6:7} Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.'

'Who is to say the writers of the site do not utterly and wholeheartedly believe what they wrote, if you say they are wrong and they say they are right it just becomes a circular argument. If you think they are wrong, prove them wrong, don't just say they are wrong because you say so. Christians seem to believe they can bash anyone that doesn't agree with them (sic), but if someone gives it back they cry foul. If anything sites like that should strengthen your belief, no need to get into a hyperbolic argument where never the twain shall meet. If this site offends you, don't look at it, [and] if it makes you question your belief then the basis of your belief is not so solid.'

'I've had the 'hair on the back of the neck' kinds of conversations with religious people who quote the Bible, and you start to realize that their mind has taken a walk off the map. Once you remove from yourself the hindrance of reading the Bible in an honest manner, with the same rules of English that you would use to read a newspaper, then ALL SORTS of 'Biblical' possibilities are available.'

'I have studied this website thoroughly and feel confident that the authors behind it are Christian, know God and know what their (sic) talking about. Scriptually they have twisted nothing but come to their conclusion through thorough reading, and personally as a Christian I am very impressed with there site. It's great for Christians who have been wrongly painted, pointed at, laughed at, stereo typically thought of by many as boring and frigid as quite the opposite. It also gives people the opportunity to learn something about Christianity and reminds us all that the bible is as relevent today as it was back then.'

'Cool, I just bookmarked it.'

For me, as an ethical atheist humanist, such considerations don't matter. I don't need a website to cherry-pick quotes from a holy book to vindicate me. I make my choices based upon my personal ethics and respect for myself and the other person involved (if I get that lucky). I don't need to be told what I may or may not do by some book that was, let's face it, written by committee. As I wrote in my 2010 essay, one reason I find belief in god(s) so troublesome is that the guidance he/she/they gave us - in the form of holy books - is so wishy washy. If a supreme being could make something as extraordinarily complex as a dragonfly's wing or a human brain, why couldn't they have passed on instructions in a non-ambiguous form?

Sadly, it's left to us all-too fallible humans to figure out how he/she/they actually want us to live our lives.

But with every human 'given' free will, that was never going to work was it?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Happy to be Mr Gruff

Have a look at this extraordinary leaflet that was doing the rounds of Twitter this week:

Naturally enough, it was soon attracting an appropriate amount of ire from atheists and religious people alike. But you can't always believe everything you see on the internet so I decided to find out a little more about it and I soon found the source. Here's another leaflet they produce, apparently aimed at Hindu children:

The source for these leaflets, and others, is a website apparently run by an organisation called Objective Ministries  ... but it's a spoof. The first thing I will warn you about is NOT to visit the main page of Objective Ministries as it contains a virus. Most pages are okay, if you can load them, but there are lots of blind links and weird jump-offs. Here's a safe entry to the website via the Kids page where the leaflets are - look around at your own risk! If you do wade through the various pages (and have decent anti-virus software) you will eventually find this disclaimer:

'Biblical Artefacts and Studies (sic) does not necessarily agree with all the doctrines promoted by Answers In Genesis, but their scientific and Biblical information about Creation, the Flood, fossils and the family is very informative.'

I got a sense of it not being quite right when I read the opening paragraphs on the 'Just 4 Kidz' page which state:

'And for all He's done for us, all Jesus wants is for us to love Him back! He wants us to love Him soooo much that any other love would be like hate: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." I love Jesus more than ANYTHING... how 'bout YOU?

My OBJECTIVE is JUST 4 KIDZ! The "Z" is for "ZEALOUSNESS," 'cause Jesus wants us to be hot for Him, not lukewarm. I read in the Bible that He said: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent"... '

Hmmm. Hot for Jesus eh, kids?

Do have a read of Rational Wiki's dissection of the site here. It appears to be a very good 'Poe' (see below).

The first person to send it to me via Twitter simply tagged it, 'Is this true do you reckon?'. The second person said 'Have you seen this?'. But very soon, the tweets were saying things like 'A church in America is giving these out' or even 'This is what kids are being given in schools'. While not committing myself, I did make the comment, 'Imagine substituting Muslim or Christian for atheist. There would be uproar' but I now wish I hadn't. Inadvertently, I may have added fuel to the fire. Stories like this take on a life of their own and are often embellished before being passed on. Hopefully this blog sets the record straight. As a sceptic (or skeptic if you prefer) it's as important for me to debunk fake Creationist and fundamentalist sites as it is to hold real ones up to scrutiny. The hard part is telling which is real and which isn't. As Poe's Law states:

'Without the use of a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to make a parody of Creationism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.'

Sadly, isn't this so true?

The real crime, of course, is the author's excessive use of Comic Sans.

P.s. Good news! Even though the site is riddled with viruses and blind links, you can still get the origami instructions for making Mr Gruff the Atheist Goat and his grumpy non-believing chums here. It's a safe clone of the original Objective Ministries 'Kidz Crafts' page. You can even make an origami nail like the one that was hammered into Christ. Praise be to Jo Potocki and her God Debate blog.

Sir Jeffrey Hudson - Short but Deadly

A week or so ago, I happened to catch this photo being posted on Twitter (firstly by Gareth Aveyard and then by Sam Liu and Alex Andreou). It made me laugh and I grabbed the photo to keep.

It made me go off and track down the story. And what an extraordinary story it is.

Jeffrey Hudson - the marker in the photo appears to be misspelled - was born in Rutland in on the 14th June 1619. His father was keeper of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham's, baiting bulls. Bull-baiting was a ghastly sport in which a tethered bull was attacked by dogs. The British Bulldog was bred solely for this purpose. These were bleak times but for a child born with some special 'difference' there was opportunity to escape the grim realities of being a pauper.

It was immediately apparent that Jeffrey was much smaller than his siblings and yet, he was very proportionate. As a 'rarity of nature', he was presented to the Duchess of Buckingham on his seventh birthday, and she was so taken with him that she invited him to join the household. A few months later the Duke and Duchess entertained King Charles and his young French wife, Queen Henrietta Maria in London. The climax of the lavish banquet was the presentation of Jeffrey to the Queen, served in a large pie. When the pie was placed in front of the Queen, Jeffrey arose from the crust supposedly dressed in a miniature suit of armour. The Queen was delighted and the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham offered Hudson to her as an amusing gift.

Jeffrey moved into Denmark House in London in late 1626, where the Queen maintained her royal household, with its many French attendants and Catholic priests. He was one of several natural curiosities and pets, among whom were a giant Welsh porter named William Evans, two disproportionate dwarfs, and a monkey called Pug. As he 'grew up' in years, if not in inches, Jeffrey learned to amuse and entertain with his wit and courtly behaviour as well as his appearance. Dwarfs were not rare in the courts of Europe but Jeffrey's fine proportions and tiny size made him uniquely famous. He is reported to have been no taller than 18 or 19 inches and to have grown little between sevenand 30 years of age. He was often cast in picturesque roles in the elaborate costumed masques which were staged by Inigo Jones for the amusement of the court. This is Van Dyk's portrait of him with the queen:

File:Anthonis van Dyck 013.jpg

Hudson was knighted by the king and became known throughout the land as 'Lord Minimus'. And things went swimmingly until the 1640s when the tensions that would eventually lead to the Civil War started to affect courtly life. The queen headed for Oxford and the protection of Royalist forces, where she appointed Hudson a Captain of Horse. It is not known whether he commanded troops or saw combat in one of Prince Rupert's cavalry raids, but he considered the appointment an honour rather than a joke and later in life continued to style himself Captain Jeffrey Hudson. As the conflict spread and worsened the queen fled to her native France with a small group of courtiers and household staff,  including Hudson.

At this time, Hudson appears to have become a much more serious character and let everyone know that he was no longer happy to be teased as a pet or a clown. However, a young officer called William Crofts continued to tease him and, after declaring that Hudson would 'lose a fight with a turkey cock', was challenged to a duel. Crofts thought this was a joke and turned up for the duel with a water pistol. Hudson demanded a real duel on horseback and shot Crofts through the head. Crofts' death was a disaster for Hudson. Duelling had been outlawed in France and his illegal act was seen as a transgression against French hospitality. Besides, William Crofts was the Queen's Master of Horse and head of her lifeguard. She asked permission of the French to administer justice and expelled Hudson from her court.

Jeffrey Hudson by Daniel Mytens and James Stow (after Mytens)

Exiled and without the protection of the royal court, Hudson mooched about for a short while before being unfortunately captured by Barbary Pirates and sold as a slave in North Africa. He was to spend the next 25 years labouring. The date and circumstances of his rescue or redemption are not known but several missions were sent from England to Algeria and Tunis in the 1660s to ransom English captives, and his first documented presence back in England was in 1669. It is said that during his captivity he had somehow doubled in height.

He returned to Oakham in his native Rutland for several years, where he was interviewed and a short record of his life made, by an antiquarian named James Wright. Then, in 1676, Hudson returned to London but had the misfortune of arriving at a time of turbulent anti-Catholic activity, which included the 'Popish Plot' of Titus Oates (also from Oakham). As he had been a well-known figure at the Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria, he was imprisoned at the Gatehouse prison. Being a 'Roman Catholick' was his only recorded offence, but he was not released until 1680. He died about two years later on an unknown date, in unknown circumstances.

Source:  Page, N. (2002) Lord Minimus: The Extraordinary Life of Britain's Smallest Man. HarperCollins, London.

Footnote: Since posting this article, a couple of people have contacted me to tell me about statues of Sir Jeffrey. Mo McFarland found out that the first is at Longleat and accompanies the misspelled sign at the top of this post. Here's the statue:

It appears to have been bought for Longleat as a garden ornament and Hudson has no connection (that I can find) to the property. However, an almost identical statue (see this site) can be found in Scotland at Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire. Isobel Glenelg tells me that the castle was in the hands of Sir Alexander Seton in 1596 (made Lord Fyvie in 1597/8), who was given guardianship of James VI's 2nd son, Charles. So there is a connection as James VI of Scotland, of course, became James I of England and Scotland. At the end of the 19th century a great deal of James I related art was acquired by Alexander Forbes-Leith (Lord Leith of Fyvie). The statue suffered in the Scottish weather and now stands inside on the stairs by the Dining Room. What can be verified is in Treasures of Fyvie (1985) Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and Fyvie Castle (1928) by A.M.W. Stirling (London).

What I can tell you about the statue is that it's one of quite a few made by Austin and Seeley circa 1844. It's catalogued as 'modelled in the armour of the Holy Roman Emperor, with lead mounts to musset and spurs, losses, on a later associated stone pedestal with a wooden base. The figure - 44 in. (112 cm.) high; 78½ in. (199 cm.) high overall.' Felix Austin went into business making artificial stone in New Road, London in 1828, describing himself variously as an architect, statuary mason and sculptor as well as artificial stone maker. His material was not the same as the ceramic body used by Mrs. Coade, (although he is known to have copied old Coade designs), but made from Portland cement, broken stone, pounded marble and coarse sand (The Builder, 1868). However, like Mrs. Coade he encouraged leading architects and designers to work for him. Around 1840 he entered into partnership with John Seeley; Seeley had trained at the Royal Academy Schools and also made an artificial stone, which he called 'artificial limestone', before entering into partnership with Austin. In 1841 they published their first catalogue, Collection of Ornaments at Austin & Seeley's Artificial Stone Works for Gardens, Parks and Pleasure Grounds etc. The firm continued in production until about 1872. A drawing of Sir Jeffrey appears on page 10 of Austin & Seeley's 1844 catalogue. (Source: Christie's Auction house.)

My thanks to both of you!

Photo of the statue by Cyberslayer.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Critical thinking is better than criminal drinking

I assume that most professional chefs know that alcohol doesn't 'burn off' when cooking a dish that it has been added to. A significant proportion of the alcoholic content remains. Tests by various food laboratories has shown time and again that this is so. For example, the University of Idaho, Washington State University and the USDA’s Nutrition Data Lab have used gas-liquid chromatography to determine how much alcohol remains in food after various cooking scenarios. I can precis their results by saying that the quicker the food is cooked and served, the more alcohol remains: alcohol added to boiling liquid & removed from heat - 85% alcohol retained; flambĂ© (alcohol flamed) - 75% alcohol retained; no heat, stored overnight - 70% alcohol retained; baked, 25 minutes, alcohol not stirred into mixture - 45% alcohol retained. Even food that is baked for two and half hours (150 mins with alcohol stirred in) will retain a minimum of 5% alcohol content (see the full table of data by clicking here).

So why do TV chefs persist in telling us that it burns off during cooking? It firstly raises some serious issues about their knowledge of food science. But, secondly, it's perpetuating the myth because they are seen as experts. It's something called False Authority Syndrome, where we believe something because someone 'expert' tells us it is so. I've written about this several times (see here and here and here) and the need to check facts before accepting them. There has never been a time in human history when being a critical thinker was more important.

But, even if we set aside lofty ideals about truth and accuracy ... don't you want to know just how much alcohol you've had when you leave that restaurant and drive home?

Ref: Augustin J, Augustin E, Cutrufelli RL, Hagen SR, Teitzel C (1992). "Alcohol Retention in Food Preparation". Journal of the American Dietetic Association 92 (4): 486–8. PMID 1556354.

Fake that

I did my first talk for one of the regular Sceptics in the Pub meetings at The Monarch pub in Camden on Monday night. I was talking about crime science and how changing perceptions can be a powerful weapon in solving problems. During one part of the talk I mentioned products that are specifically designed to 'trick' people. Here's a great example. They're called 'seat savers' and they're cast in soft vinyl. The idea is that you leave them on your seat at an event and no one swipes your place.

I don't know how well they sold but I assume not so well as the New York-based company that made them, called Jeremy's Place, seems to have vanished from the Internet. However, I did find another company called Fake Food Online who still appear to be trading. Here's the site.

Meanwhile, here's a similar idea. This one not only fools our senses but plays with our emotions too, most notably disgust. These 'Anti-Theft Lunch Bags' are pre-printed with what looks like green mould. The idea was developed by Sherwood Forlee and Mikoko Ouchi of the the. Design Agency as a tongue-in-cheek method of preventing co-workers or fellow college students helping themselves to your food. Interestingly, I've read reports that some people, even when shown that it's nothing more than fake, printed mould, still won't eat the sandwich afterwards. The initial impression of yuckiness is so strong that it effectively puts some people off. I guess it's that 'First bite is with the eyes' thing that makes Japanese chefs so extraordinarily careful about presentation.

Nasty eh? I include it for a reason. I'm working on a new book at the moment and one part of it talks about perception. I've interviewed some fascinating people so far and was lucky enough to spend some time chatting to comedian and musician Tim Minchin who had some very interesting stuff to say about 'magical thinking' and superstitious notions of tempting fate. One spin-off of this chat was that Tim introduced me to an old friend of his from Australia called Rob Schutze who trained as a psychotherapist specialising in helping people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Rob has some great examples of when our mind seems to operate against us, like it's a separate entity. Did you know, for instance, that chewing gum doesn't lose a lot of flavour as we chew it? It loses some but what actually happens is that our minds get bored with it and effectively 'switch off' the taste. To prove it, try leaving a bit of 'tasteless' well-chewed gum (on the bedpost?) overnight and return to it in the morning; it will seem to have got quite a lot of its flavour back. You can get the same 'bored brain' effect by concentrating on another activity such as reading while eating. The food will 'lose' its flavour. But if you then stop reading, shut your eyes and concentrate on thinking about what you're tasting, the flavour will return. Chefs like Heston Blumenthal recognised this long ago and use sound and vision to do the opposite - to enhance the taste by making you concentrate more on the food. Famously, his 'Sound of the Sea' seafood dish looks like objects on a beach and you eat it while listening to a recording of crashing waves on a MP3 player concealed inside a seashell.

This brain/taste/perception thing is so powerful that if you melt a bar of chocolate in front of people, pour it into a mould shaped like a dog turd and then ask them to eat the resulting object many won't; the association is so strong. It's also why, here in the West, we don't eat insects even though many are very tasty; certainly no less tasty than the bugs we do eat like shellfish (I wrote about this at some length here). Fascinating stuff eh?

Do come along to one of my future talks (see top right of blog) or you can book me to speak at an event or a company training day. Just mail me at

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

So THAT'S what happened

Sadly, not real Creationist literature but a spoof by the always excellent Fake Science Tumblr Blog.

(Via Mo McFarland and Reece Shearsmith)

Sunday, 19 February 2012

I will force spiders and badgers on the enemy

Some of this week's favourite videos.

Kenneth Williams does 'Carry On Up The Empire' ...

Almost ANYTHING on the Bad Lip Reading site makes me squirt tea from my nose. But these recent posts about some of the contenders for the US election made my sides hurt.

Saturday, 18 February 2012


Bjork has one. I want one.

Today's Dose of Freaky

Click on this link to be taken to a portfolio of photos taken inside a Chinese factory making sex toys and dolls. Strangely disturbing.