Various Lies

Monday, December 27, 2010

Sisyphus probably had it worse

I hope you had a nice Christmas Dear Reader. I hope, as everyone should at this time of year, when family are at the forefront of our minds, that it was filled with the Peace and Joy of the season. A Cool Yule works too. Or a even Celebratory Solstice. How about a Happy Chanukah, or even a (very belated) Elated Eid ul Fitr.

I classify myself as a "spiritual atheist", perhaps humanist, but to be honest I'm still not sure what a humanist is. I was deeply invested in my Catholic faith as a child. I was baptised Anglican (the 'high' Church of England), but my mother converted to Catholicism when I was very young, and I attended a private Catholic boys school from the age of 7. I loved the mythology of the faith, the personal relationship with Jesus that it offered and the loving Father God you could reach out to. I loved the solemnity of the mass, the mystery of the priesthood, the 'bells and smells' - the reek of incense from the thurible, the call to fall to your knees.

As a Dungeons & Dragons(TM) addicted teen I always played a Cleric. It was the closest I could get to being a Priest. We were taught by The Brothers of the Sacred Heart. Black cassocks, brass crucifixes around the neck, a full Rosary worn as a belt. I loved it. The strict and often vigorously applied corporal punishment didn't perturb me, raised as I was a Royal Navy brat steeped in tales of Horatio Hornblower and such like. I loved the selfless, militaristic splendor. I didn't want to be a teacher though, as the Brothers of the Sacred Heart were. I wanted to be a doctor, and heard about the Brothers of St. John of God, who fulfilled the same spiritual role as the Brothers that taught me, but you could be a medical doctor instead.

I knew by the age of 13 I wanted to join their ranks.

As an Anglican I was forbidden from taking the Eucharist and I was jealous of my Catholic friends taking their catechism classes as we became teenagers. I longed to taste the holy Eucharist, and to be a part of the mystery of faith. Why didn't I convert? Express my faith?

I don't know. There was just something I didn't understand at the time, it was a nagging feeling about...something. I wasn't worthy, because...of something.

I finally converted at 17, in a typical teenager's act of rebellion against my Grandfather ("You'll be written out of my will", and I was) and my own self doubt, and underwent my catechism and confirmation. It was all rather disappointing. I don't know why. I had been Catholic in my heart all my life, I even had a blind nun as a Catechist for crying out loud! That winter, three times a week, I would sit in Sister Mary's office, a roaring fire in the hearth and she would talk with me for hours, week after week, explaining the Faith and helping me question and understand my own. But it started to feel silly. Stories and myths. I had trouble staying awake and was guiltily frequently glad that Sister Mary was blind for that same reason. The Bleeding Heart Jesus who had stood in the main atrium at school was increasingly horrific and frightening. (The image below does not do justice to the statue whose chest was flayed open. Needless-to-say, when I visited last He had been moved to storeroom somewhere.) In addition it was, by simple logic, becoming increasingly blasphemous given the first couple of Commandments I was re-memorising.


"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image"

The Bishop of our diocese presided over the Confirmation mass. He didn't know me...where was Father Robert who had been my pastor these ten years? They got the name of my Catechist wrong. I saw Sister Mary try not to cry. They said that when we died we lose our sense of self and become one with God. I was horrified. I hadn't been taught this! The whole point was life after death was supposed to be a perfect and sin free continuation of my life in the service of God. Doing nothing but singing his praises.

Not that I could sing, or even really enjoyed doing so.

Like the devil writes in Twain's "Letters From Earth" (which I read many years later), how could a group of typical Christian men look forward to the one thing they dread most every week.

Something was horribly wrong.

That Christmas I went to midnight mass and instead of sharing the fellowship of Christ I listened to two mothers in the pew in front do nothing but complain about how Mrs. Soandso's son had gotten to be alter boy and their's hadn't and how he was really a little sod and he shouldn't even be allowed to wear the white.

And that was the moment my faith died.

It wasn't about God at all. You stupid selfish bitches killed God. And I hated them. Right there in the church, in front of God, I hated them with all my heart. Because they made Him a sham in front of me. In front of us all. He didn't matter at all. Smoke & Mirrors.


Yet, there was lingering Need in my heart. I met and married a devout Christian woman after I graduated college. I went to church with her when I had to and I went through the motions, hoping it was making a difference, and yet knowing I was damned. God had seen my lack of faith and I was damned for all eternity, no matter what I did. Because He knew I didn't believe, really didn't believe in my heart anymore.

Odd isn't it? We moved to the US together and started attending a Presbyterian church. I tried to find my faith again. I thought perhaps Martin Luther had been right and the fault lie in the Catholic church, not in God Himself. His Godhood could stand intact against the weak faith and sin of billions, because the Church of Christ, our Mother, was safe in the protestant faith...faiths.

But you soon learn that each branch of protestantism is at war with every other, each is convinced that they alone have the right path to salvation. In the eyes of their Loving God, everyone else ever in the entire world is going to hell.

Wait. What? Seriously? What the fuck kind of messed up "loving faith" is this? The same people that disrespect and despise the Muslim faith for their damned Jihadist faith, to Convert or KILL, is pretending to mourn the loss of the world, while waiting for death and smugly enjoying the view they'll have from the gates of heaven as they watch the sinners burn. Oh, and of course only the Muslims are guilty of that, right? All of them, apparently.

When there's only one straw man to burn it's surprising how many tar brushes come out.

Arrogant, self-righteous bastards. And we're not even getting into the obvious hypocrisy that lurks beneath the surface of any large group like a church group. Who's fucking who? Who's trying to one-up who to curry favor?

That final desperate grasp at salvation was actually the death knell of my faith. I couldn't NOT question. I decided God, if He existed, had given me a questioning brain. A questioning reason and intellect. After all I was a scientist. I HAD to question things. Becoming a scientist didn't finally kill my faith, or fix liberal political views in me, despite the propaganda to the contrary. The two go hand in hand and there's no easy separation of the two. One drives the other. And who lives willingly in ignorance?

I can't deny that the Catholic indoctrination to Hellfire, Brimstone and Eternal Agony doesn't still run deep. But that's a symptom of the disease within that church. First thing any propagandist knows is get to the children. And they've had millennia to perfect it. The protestants are no better. And neither are the Muslims.

There's been a long and slow reaffirmation of selfhood in recent years. It's not been easy, and it certainly hasn't been quick. There's a British ex-vicar, Mark Vernon, now an atheist, who had a series of podcasts I listened to. PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and the "New-Atheist movement" have been often painfully strident supporters of atheism that forced me ignore or re-evaluate certain issues I still struggle with. I chose to re-eavaluate.

I think, as long as the journey took me to get this far, it will be a long road ahead still. I still stand closer to Agnosticism (lack of knowledge) than Atheism (lack of belief). Agnosticism seems like a weak way out though. A compromise. I don't know what to think so I cling to this as a label. I don't want a label, I want to understand, at least understand my own mind and faith. Even an atheist can have faith and hope, but faith and hope in something real, not a myth, or legend.


It's been a wonderful Christmas, filled with Peace and Joy. With family, with fellowship with good friends, with good food, with good beer and with silly gifts. Not everything was, or will be perfect. But it's going to be a great New Year too and the best part of that is that it's really just down to me to try and make it that way.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Standing in the Foothills

I wondered how I'd feel coming back here. I'm still parsing the information I think. For some reason, and it's as likely to do with the unseasonably cold weather as it is anything else, I'm feeling oddly introspective.

However, introspection is best done in private, at least until the process has finished. At that point one can decide to share as much as one wishes of the journey. But to interrupt preemptively with extrospection and declamation is likely to force a early termination of the initial event itself.

I wondered what I would write about now that I once again had the freedom to write about anything I so chose. And of course, I can now think of nothing to write. I thought creative writing might again be fun. I used to do a lot of that for LabLit and I really enojoyed it. Some time peices were more free and creative than others, but I tried to put my style on everything I wrote, even book reviews.

"I can clearly remember the first time I saw the Milky Way. I mean, really saw it. I’d noticed it before while vacationing with my parents in rural Yorkshire, a wisp of starlight like a cloud trapped in moonlight. I remember being impressed, or at least as impressed as a surly teenager stuck in the Dales with his parents for a week can be. But the first time I saw our galaxy in its full glory was driving across the Texas panhandle a few years ago. I had reached a crossroads in my life and decided that the best way to determine which direction to head in was to take some time off work and embark on the kind of road trip my heroes had taken before me. Sometimes it was more Kerouac than Steinbeck, but it was nevertheless the quintessential American road trip.

I was somewhere between Amarillo and Oklahoma City on I40, a thick brown scar cutting across the belly of the nation. The sun had set and the landscape around me, an unending sea of featureless desert and scrub, had disappeared, swallowed by a thick darkness that pressed in on the windows of the car. I stopped, switched off the headlamps and walked off the road. Above me an infinity of stars receded to the limits of imagination. The foreground of familiar constellations was blazing atop a shimmering highway of starlight. Only once before have I been rendered breathless at the realization of my own infinitesimal place within the majesty of the universe. In April 1997, my band and I had traveled to the Scots border to watch comet Hale-Bopp glide overhead. As we entered a forest clearing and looked up we suddenly seemed very small and foolish, and our bottle of vodka for the toast, oddly sacrilegious."

(from What It All Means A review of 'Origins of the Universe for Dummies')

I tried to do it sometimes when I wrote for Nature Network, but felt the exhortation to stick within the unwritten guidelines of 'being scientific' stifled my creativity. It also effectively put an end to my writing for LabLit because every idea I got for something science-based to say was written for Nature Network instead. I deeply regret that.

I moved recently to LabSpaces and enjoyed the re-creation of 'A Meandering Scholar' with more freedom to wax lyrical. But as you know that little experiment didn't pan out for me. This is self-imposed, I think, but I still didn't feel free to write about anything I chose.

Oddly, part of my rapid and sudden departure from LabSpaces was the gnawing urge to write freely again. Silly, I know. There was literally nothing to stop me doing that either there or here. We were told we had freedom to whatever we liked, but I think having the banner of a network let me construct a mental barrier. I know at least one of my fellow exiles felt/feels the same way.

I think this is why Occam's Typewriter is going to be enormously successful. Not just because of the very talented crew of writers they have, but also because they are very open about being a blog network by scientists, not for scientists, or even always about science.

The best advice a writer gets is "write everyday", or my personal variant, "Just fucking write it". Grad students working on their first proposal or manuscript often feel like an asthmatic staring up from the foothills to the cloud smothered peak of Everest. "How am I going to do this?"

I was taught, and still rely on the same technique, to write, starting in the middle if need be, and rely on editing to whip the beast into shape. I feel the same when facing enormous projects involving any level of creativity. The most recent (and on going) is the annual overhaul of our Institute website. This year I decided to take the initiative and just do it my way. Partly this is borne by the confidence that I finally know what I'm doing, and partly by the fact most of the senior investigators involved don't believe we have a hope in hell of getting funded so the whole exercise is futile. Well, not to me. Right now, at my career stage, every experience is potentially valuable, and almost everything can be used to pad my resume in one direction or another.

It has been a protracted event this year because my time has been split between this and another major institutional project, but I think I'm nearly there. One of the investigators gave me 21 pages from the grant and said, "Use this to make the website". Well, shit. Talk about standing in the foothills of Everest with my Salbutamol inhaler uselessly back in Memphis. But, following my own advice, I have finally figured out to do it (it involves liberal use of internal redirects, pop-ups and understanding how to effectively use ahref anchors inside pages).

But what about the blog. What do I write here. I guess, sometimes you need to just write. Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Mole Returns Home

*cough cough*

*sneeze sneeze*

Gosh it's dusty in here... 4 months with no house cleaning, time to get the feather duster out.

yes, dear reader, my adventure at LabSpaces has come to grinding halt. You can see the final post down below. I feel a bit like Mole, from Wind in the Willows right now. If you haven't read it, shame on you and I demand that you buy a copy immediately. And then read it.

Mole is befriended by Ratty and drug off on adventure (along with Toad (of Toad Hall) and Badger, and a nasty band of stoats and weasels). Somewhat like Bilbo Baggins, Mole isn't sure he likes the adventure, but goes along with the charismatic Ratty anyway. One of the most poignant moments in the book is when he finally gets home again, to his hole by the riverbank, to find it in disarray due to his absence. Of course, his friends help him spring clean and all is well with the world and they live happily ever after, perhaps some inter-species bestial love-up. Who knows. Milne never finished the sequel.

Anyway, I shall miss the traffic at LabSpaces, but I shall really miss my fellow bloggers. There is a surprising amount of camraderie, and I shall miss that.


To My Fellow LabSpaces Bloggers,

I assume it's obvious from the twitter discussion and general tension that it was me who emailed Brian regarding some of my concerns with LabSpaces. I assumed the email would be in confidence and would be the start of a dialogue, but in a sublimely, and typically, passive-aggressive manner he chose to actually post near verbatim sections of the letter for you all to see.

I wrote, "There are two main issues we face right now. Firstly, temporally at least, is the constantly increasing stable of bloggers. You stated clearly that you wanted the current bloggers to have some say in the recruitment of new "talent", and went so far as to share a spreadsheet with us. However, there have been more and more additions to the site and we haven't been consulted at all. I hope to keep this in confidence between us, but I don't think you're selecting the right people. Some of the bloggers really aren't very good writers and this is diluting the "talent" on the site. Moreover some of the blogs at LabSpaces are barely used anymore. We believe this isn't necessarily good for the LabSpaces reputation. We're also aware that you're still sending out invitations to bloggers, some of whom have declined your offer before. This too damages the reputation of LabSpaces, because people talk, and importantly for us, the bloggers are thus damaged vicariously."

Brian posted:
"Said bloggers have also complained that they think the stables are too full and include some lame horses. I'm not going take any of you out to pasture, because that's not right, but I do think that it looks bad on the community to have people in our "Active" Writer's List that haven't blogged in over a month. I'll code in some new changes to remove blogger names from the lists after 6 weeks of inactivity. I think this is fair. Once a new post is made, the writer list will be re-compiled to include the inactive accounts."

I have added emphasis to mine to highlight my wish.

I can understand that some of you are disappointed and hurt by my saying this, and I can only apologize to your feelings. Science communication, indeed, effective written communication in general, is surprisingly difficult to get right and takes a lot of practice. It is certainly not an art in which we are trained. It is also important to bear in mind the tone one might employ when writing a private communique versus something to be considered and discussed in public. I meant to offend no one by my statement, and surely I am not commenting on anyone as a person, but merely pointing out that, as I said above, effective written communication is hard.

Brian made it clear that this site is his creation and I respect that, but it was also implied that the current bloggers would have a say in site additions, and we clearly don't. Please believe me; I'm not singling anyone out here. It's the process, not the people that I'm pissed at.

In addition there are some other issues and concerns, but I have (surprisingly for me) calmed down enough to not stomp my feet, throw my toys out of the sandbox and start pointing fingers and calling names.

To Brian, best of luck with the site. It's certainly a major investment and I hope it pays off.

To my friends, the bloggers, I am sorry to jump ship in bad weather like this. I consider all of you to be my friends and I'll miss your companionship.

To my readers, I hope you'll continue to follow the adventures, tales and mishaps of The Tideliar at Some Lies on Blogger.