Thursday, 23 December 2010

Monday, 20 December 2010

Sweet Pepper Starter

Having been vegetarian for 25 years I welcomed this recipe that a friend brought back from Greece. He served it when we ate with them. My wife now uses it regularly when we have friends for dinner.

I posted it elsewhere on the net, in answer to a question, and have decided that it’s worth sharing here.  Who knows; perhaps in time for next weekend’s festivities.

Sweet Pepper Starter.
Serves 2 people
2 Sweet Red Peppers
1 Mango
1 Avocado
4 good sprigs of basil
2 cloves garlic
half a lemon
2 tablespoons of Hummus
50 grams of blue stilton or Docelatte cheese
chop stalk ends off peppers and slice down the middle
place on baking tray and sprinkle with crushed garlic and torn basil leaves
drizzle with garlic or plain olive oil
put in pre-heated oven approx 180 c for 15 minutes or until peppers are soft
leave to cool
when cold arrange 2 halves on each plate
slice avocado and sprinkle with lemon juice
slice mango
dice cheese
arrange 2 avocado slices beside peppers and top with hummus
arrange 2 mango slices beside the other ingredients
sprinkle with small cubes of cheese and serve with ciabatta bread
garnish with a little lettuce

It looks good on the plate, too, which adds to the enjoyment.

And, two thing I can do without at this time of the year, religion and meat.


Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Life just ain’t fair.

I have been feeling very sad recently.

I haven’t made many posts since I began this blog.  When I began I wondered where it might lead me.  The brief that I gave myself was about as wide as it could be.  So far I’ve had fun with the subjects that I’ve used.  However, I now find that it’s a useful medium for expressing something about which I feel deeply.

Early in the 20th Century something referred to as the ‘Serenity Prayer’ was written, for use when one finds oneself in unwelcome circumstances, it goes something like this, “God, grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other”

At face value that prayer sounds sensible; look closer.  In reality it is saying that there are there are things I am able to control and things over which I have no control.  Bringing god into it doesn’t change anything.  Something very similar appeared over 200 years earlier, in the collection of Mother Goose nursery rhymes:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

Being able to take positive action to make things better makes one feel good.  Being helpless in the face of difficult, sometimes almost unbearable circumstances is appalling but that’s how things are.  We can’t escape the arbitrariness of what nature delivers. Life just ain’t fair. 

I have a close relative who is now in the advance stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  I’ll call her Jennifer; it’s not her real name.  Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease.  It eventually robs the sufferer of their personality.  The person we knew and loved has disappeared leaving a being unable to respond to the world around her.  She was so full of life and sparkle.  It is ironic that she was the one who regularly found a reason to bring the family together with a birthday celebration, an anniversary of some sort, always something to facilitate communication and interaction.  Alzheimer’s has robbed her of that ability; it has taken away her life.  It has robbed us, we who love her, of the person we knew.   Jennifer has a family wracked with grief: a husband, daughters, grand-children, and soon a great-grandchild she will never know.  She still lives, and so the ability to grieve her loss properly is impossible.  Who knows how much of the person we once shared our life with is still functioning deep within her?

Alzheimer’s disease is no respecter of persons.  Three years ago Sir Terence David John Pratchett, OBE, better known as Terry Pratchett the novelist, author of 47 novels, including the The Discworld series, received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.  He's writing about it as long as he can and showed his courage in a two part documentary series, for the BBC, based on his illness.

It is a strange life when you “come out”. People get embarrassed, lower their voices, get lost for words. Fifty per cent of Britons think there is a stigma surrounding dementia but only 25% think there is still a stigma associated with cancer. It seems that when you have cancer you are a brave battler against the disease, but when you have Alzheimer's you are an old fart. That's how people see you. It makes you feel quite alone. It seems to me there's hardly one family in this country that is not touched by the disease somehow. But people don't talk about it because it is so frightening. I swear that people think that if they say the word they're summoning the demon. It used to be the same with cancer.

Terry Pratchett

. . . it is strange that a disease that attracts so much attention, awe, fear and superstition is so underfunded in treatment and research. We don't know what causes it, and as far as we know the only way to be sure of not developing it is to die young. Regular exercise and eating sensibly are good ideas, but they don't come with any guarantees. There is no cure. Researchers are talking about the possibility of a whole palette of treatments or regimes to help those people with dementia to live active and satisfying lives, with the disease kept in reasonably permanent check in very much the same way as treatments now exist for HIV. Not so much a cure therefore as - we hope - a permanent reprieve. We hope it will come quickly, and be affordable.

When my father was in his terminal year, I discussed death with him. I recall very clearly his relief that the cancer that was taking him was at least allowing him “all his marbles”. Dementia in its varied forms is not like cancer. Dad saw the cancer in his pancreas as an invader. But Alzheimer's is me unwinding, losing trust in myself, a butt of my own jokes and on bad days capable of playing hunt the slipper by myself and losing.
You can't battle it, you can't be a plucky “survivor”. It just steals you from yourself. And I'm 60; that's supposed to be the new 40. The baby boomers are getting older, and will stay older for longer. And they will run right into the dementia firing range. How will a society cope?

One of Jennifer’s daughters wrote to me recently.  Commenting on her mother’s plight, she said,

"I feel very privileged to have such a wonderful, loving mum who never put herself first once. She is still a beautiful person to me.  ‘Beauty comes from within’, is something she always told me - she was so right.

She doesn't deserve any of what is happening but I can do sod all about it - and they say there's a loving god!”

If we’re looking for life to be fair we’re going to be disappointed.  We’ll be equally disappointed if we look for a loving god, or any sort of supernatural being, to come to our aid.  There is no evidence of such in the Universe.

But, life goes on.
Life is for living.

It behoves we who are able to awake each morning, alive and alert, to get on with living.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Things that make me happy; things that make me sad.

A walk with my wife this crisp, autumn morning.  We enjoyed the sunshine and a keen, exhilarating breeze.  It is great living in this part of the world and to be able to appreciate the scenery and wildlife.

We moved to Wales from Wiltshire, where there is a great deal of arable farming; consequently, much crop spraying is carried out there.  The effect of this produces monoculture in the fields and a very restricted selection of wild flowers in the hedgerows and verges.  Here, the land is used mostly for raising sheep and cows.  I can’t recall having seen any spraying in the past six years.  Roadside verges are rich in an abundance of plants and insects fighting for their place in our environment. 

It was fun to find these Oak apples:

Technically they are ‘galls’; outgrowths on the surface of life forms caused by invasion by other life forms.  The oak apple is a mutation of an oak leaf caused by chemicals injected by the larva of certain kinds of gall wasp.  Having just finished The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins it helped my appreciation of being alive.

Looking north, in the far distance, over Cardigan Bay we could see the mountains of Snowdonia.

 I want to share with you a little poem, by Mike D, that I found over on the Flying Ungulates [*] blog:

I can't help but feel a hole where words should be
I would have listened, if you'd only asked
I would have understood, if you'd given me the chance
My love for you was given freely, without conditions
Given because I had it to give, not for what I would receive

I would wait for you again
Hold you while you cried again
Share my dreams with you again
Watch the sunrise with you again
Even if I knew the end

Mike D

In reading this I felt the joy and sadness of a happy relationship now ended. I think it is a beautiful little poem; it pulled at my heartstrings and made me want to cry, “Find her again.  Perhaps all is not lost.”  But, my experience has taught me that real happiness is found in facing reality rather than believing fantasies, holding false hope or dreaming of what might have been; trying to recapture what Robert Browning might have called, ‘the first fine careless rapture’.

Life moves on; life is now; live with it!

 Many children’s lives are profoundly affected by the fact that they have no choice but to provide care for others.   The BBC reports:

“A total of 4,029 pupils from 10 UK secondary schools responded to a questionnaire designed by academics at the University of Nottingham.

The questions asked about both the levels of responsibility young people have in the home, and the types of caring activity they undertake.

Of those who responded, 337 (8%) said they had carried out "personal care" of someone in their home either "a lot of the time" or "some of the time" over the last month.

This includes activities such as helping the person they care for to dress, wash, bathe or shower.”

Throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve it, but it seems to me that putting recourses where they are most needed is what a civilised society ought to be doing.  When one considers the finance and effort that goes into something like the maintenance/renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine programme you have to wonder.  How civilised are we really?

[*] Update. 10.12.10  This blog appears to have recently been discontinued.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Bad Faith Awards

From the New Humanist

"After a nomination period that saw you put forward those you feel have made the most egregious contributions to irrationalism and superstition during the course of this year, we've whittled them down to a shortlist of eight. Now all that's left for you to do is vote for the person you think should take the Bad Faith crown from last year's winner, Pope Benedict XVI."

Here's the list:

Lauren Booth
Prince Charles
Baroness Warsi
Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed
Ann Widdecombe
Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi
Cardinal Walter Kasper
Pastor Terry Jones 

I'm not saying for whom you should vote . . . . 


. . . . make up your own mind.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Carl Sagan - November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996

Carl Sagan is a man I admire.  He was born four months before me and died almost exactly forteen years ago.  He was unknown to me until three or four years after his death; until my son introduced me to Demon Haunted World - Science as a candle in the dark.  As I have said elsewhere, it was in reading that book that I finally woke up to the wonderful world, and liberation, of critical thinking.  Carl Sagan presents himself as such a gentle man.  Perhaps it was being such a great astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist that gave him the humility that comes over in his work.

As a child I loved to listen to David Davis as he read Swallows and Amazons, and other Arthur Ransome books, on the BBC's Children's Hour.  Coincidentally, he died only eight months before Sagan, at the age of 97.  His voice was smooth, comforting, and confident; one that, as a child, I felt I could trust.  Carl Sagan has the same affect on me as an adult.  David is now, largely, lost in the mists of time to all except those who, like me, remeber him fondly.  Carl published more than 600 scientific papers and popular articles and was author, co-author, or editor of more than 20 books.  YouTube is awash with clips from his TV Series Cosmos, so he is still, very much, in the public eye.

To remember him on the anniversary of his birth here's a sample.  Enjoy!

Monday, 8 November 2010


I have posted this for a creationist contact, on Struck by Enlightening, who asked, “Where are the half elephant half whales? Or the half horse half hippo?

Unfortunately, I have no direct evidence for either of those.  This is the best that I could find.


Saturday, 23 October 2010


The Truth of Homeopathy

Placebo’ is a work of art portraying the truth of homeopathy.  The substance of this work consists of the wooden stretcher and canvas upon which the image is portrayed in water-mixable oil paint.  White on white it is whatever the viewer wishes it to be.  The image itself, if it can be so called, contains a memory of the artist’s thoughts as he produced the work.  The subject is dealt with in a delicate and sensitive manner as there is no discernable content.  The commonality of painting and homeopathy is that each is an art, not a science, and each is able to deceive.

The only action of any consequence in this work is the percussive (succussive?) effect of stapling the canvas onto the stretcher.  In summary, there is nothing to it.

This painting is beautifully presented as if it had real value and is grossly overpriced at


However, where the science of the placebo effect is concerned, you may find this interesting:

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

Why would a government organisation tasked to collect data, upon which important decisions will be based for years to come, not want the most accurate figures possible.

Since 1801, every ten years Britain has set aside one day for a census - a count of all people and households. It is the most complete source of information about the population that we have. A census is conducted in each year ending in a one; the next will be next year, 27 March 2011

A great deal of personal information is collected via the census process but we can sleep easily in our beds in the knowledge that none of the detail will be published until after we are long gone.

Once census records are made public, 100 years after they are collected, they mark the beginning of a journey for thousands of people to discover the lives, loves and lifestyles of their ancestors. However, this expensive operation is not carried out so that, years later, somebody can discover whether their great, great grandfather was a toy salesman or a high court judge. The main purpose is to provide data for decision makers. It is, therefore, important how questions are asked because if framed in the wrong way the question can vitiate the answer.

In 2001 there was, for the first time, a question about religion. The question was, “What is your religion?” It doesn’t take much thought to realise that this is a loaded question. By assuming that all participants hold a religious belief, the question captured some kind of loose cultural affiliation, and as a result over 70% responded ‘Christian’, a far higher percentage than nearly every other significant survey or poll on religious belief in the past decade.

The data on religion produced by the England and Wales 2001 census gave a wholly misleading picture of the religiosity of the UK, cutting the number of non-religious people in half. This pattern is set to be repeated in the 2011 census, because the same single, flawed question on religion will be used again.

The British Humanist Association worked with the Office for National Statistics to try and improve the question for the 2011 Census. However, despite agreeing to the testing of alternative questions and admitting that the existing question was flawed, the ONS took the decision to keep the same inadequate question for 2011. It is true that one of the given options is to tick ‘No religion’ but by that time the leading has been done.

Why is this issue important?

After the 2001 Census, the figures collected were used to justify the following policies:
• Increase in the number of faith schools
• The continuation of collective worship in schools
• The public funding and support of ‘interfaith’ and faith-based organisations above the support offered to secular organisations
• Suggestions of an increase in the role of faith in Britain under the coalition government
• The appointments of government advisors on faith
• Contracting out public services to religious organisations
• Keeping the 26 Bishops in the House of Lords as of right
• Continued high number of hours dedicated to religious broadcasting
• Specific consultation at government and local level with ‘faith communities’ over and above other groups within society
• Continued privileges for religious groups in equality law and other legislation

Is there a conspiracy to distort the figures that the census will produce? I doubt it. It is probably best to apply Hanlon's Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Impressive work

This video has had over 5 million hits since it was first published 11 days ago and it deserves them.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Who am I? My view world view.

For many years I was a committed, evangelical christian.  That changed a while ago.  I no longer have belief that there is such a being as god.  I'll probable blog some time about the process of change through which I went.  I now describe myself as a skeptic and critical thinker.  In the search for truth I asked questions such as, “When I pray does it change anything but me? Is prayer heard ‘out there’”?  I arrived at no satisfactory positive answers.

Recently I have been following a blog written by a young Canadian woman, Lindsay; it's called Struck by Enlightening.  She writes about the journey she has undertaken from believer to atheist.  Lindsay learned to think critically and to be skeptical early in her life.  It took me much, much longer.  It is not so very long ago that 'skeptic' and 'critical thinker' were entirely new concepts to me.  Although I was well along the road to acknowledging that I was no longer a believer it was in reading Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a candle in the dark that I encountered them and understood my experience.  I knew that faith was, for me, no longer viable but I had no words to describe myself.  Recognising what was real for me was wonderfully liberating.

I am aware that many who read this may not have a clear understanding of what being a skeptic is.  It is, perhaps, a common misconception that one who defines him or herself as such could also be labelled a contrarian or a disparager.  A skeptic is certainly not someone who is cynical, close-minded or who rejects new ideas. In fact, quite the opposite is true.  A skeptic is someone not in a fixed position but rather one who adopts a process. Skepticism uses the application of reason to evaluate all claims and requires compelling evidence before accepting something as believable.

John Jackson, on the UK Skeptics web site, puts it like this:

Skepticism is an honest search for knowledge. It is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions. It is used to search for the (provisional) truth in matters and to make decisions that are based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence. Skepticism is based on a simple method: doubt and inquiry. The idea is to neither initially accept claims nor dismiss them; it’s about questioning them and testing them for validity. Only after inquiry does a skeptic take a stance on an issue.

See a fuller explanation here.

Finally, here is a short video on critical thinking.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The next step

I set up this blog full of verve and enthusiasm.  It horrifies me to realise that was over eleven months ago.  Before I could make my second post things happened and blogging ground to a halt.

First there was swine flu.  It knocked each of us in turn for six.  Maureen's bout was worse than mine.  We recovered in time for our long awaited trip to spend Christmas with our son and his family in America.

We returned, after an eventful journey, into the coldest spell that the country had experienced for many years.  Having the car stuck in the snow and being pushed out by two burly, young farmers we arrived home to crunch the car against a pile of rocks at the entrance to our drive.  Next morning our surrounding roads were blocked and we were cut off from the outside world for the next ten days.

Winter turned to Spring, and Summer saw a great deal of work in the garden.  The blog remained on hold.  Now is the time for its revival.

It is ironic that, just as I am ready to resume/commence blogging, my days as The Pick Man could be coming to an end.  Maureen (Maureen to me, Mo to many of our friends and Titch to her family) has two main loves in her life, painting and gardening.  I share an interest in both.  Often, when she isn't doing either of those things she is either cooking or on the telephone to one of her many relatives.

When we moved to west Wales, six years ago, we left behind a perfect little garden.  "We've done the gardening bit," we said, "let's go live by the sea, paint and grow old gracefully."  We ended up in a delightful cottage in an ideal location, with great views, set in three-quarters of an acre of untamed hillside.  Our thought was that we could live here, enjoy the situation and tidy up as much, or as little, as we chose.  But, the gardening bug took over!

Novenber 2004

We cleared a small area nearest the cottage and planted a few flowers.  Then the little bit next to it - and then the next - and then . . .  You get the picture.  Six years later, having worked at it, we have most, if not all, under control and have created a garden.  My role is establishing the grassy areas and keeping them neat.  It is also using the pickaxe, sometimes vigorously sometime delicately, to make manageable shapes and create beds.  Maureen uses her knowledge and love of plants to fill the beds.  We think of it as me sculpting the garden with a pickaxe and her painting it with flowers.  It is an exhausting but really rewarding activity that seemed to give us both a new lease of life.

August 2010

Then, a short time ago, I took a tumble and fell heavily on my shoulder making it difficult to use my left arm.  My doctor suggests that a small operation may be necessary.  So, at present, The Pick Man isn't picking.  It looks as though it might be a long layoff . . . but there’s plenty else to blog about.