Category Archives: Uncategorized

Trolls and Tesseracts: Playing dice in four dimensions

My question for today is, why are there three dimensions? If there were more, would the universe be a better or worse place? What would it be like?

We currently live in a world with four dimensions, but one handles movement through time and therefore doesn’t affect the shape or area of objects. This is why, for example, you can get a train to Swansea, but not to 1973. There may be many more dimensions, according to string theory. But that, again, is a different thing.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll be looking solely at what things would look like if we added more dimensions in regular, unstring-ey space. Turns out, the best first question to ask to understand this is, how many dimensions are optimal for playing Dungeons and Dragons? Of course, that makes this one of the most nerdy blog posts I can imagine. But I’m okay with that.

Continue reading Trolls and Tesseracts: Playing dice in four dimensions

How many Satanists are there in the UK?

BaphometThere’s a very simple answer to this question. But it’s wrong. Despite this, I should start with it. According to the last census there are 2,095 Satanists in the UK.

The survey results break down like this:

  • England and Wales – 1,893
  • Scotland 171 link
  • N Ireland 31 link

Why this is wrong

  • The question may be misleading. The census question is ‘What is your religion?’ and many Satanists don’t see it as a religion. It has been noted that this census question leads to unusual results compared to other surveys.
  • 13,813 people in England and Wales selected religions with under 100 members. This list has not been published as far as I know. This may include Luciferians, LaVeyans,  and other sub-groups of Satanism.
  • Many Satanists may feel that it is safer not to self-identify as a Satanist. This may be because of a fear of other people in their households finding out, or a fear of government persecution.
  • The Church of Satan doesn’t share membership numbers. They feel that if they’re seen as too big they’ll be viewed as a threat, and if they’re too small they’ll be ignored. Some Satanists may follow this principle, it’s probably a good idea, the census results for Satanists are used in sensationalist articles.
  • The last census was is 2011, so the numbers are out of date anyway.

Other considerations

With good press like this, isn't it amazing people didn't admit to Satanism
With good press like this, isn’t it amazing people didn’t admit to Satanism

A big question has to be raised about what defines a Satanist, and there’s no clear-cut answer to this one because Satanism is a broad church. There’s a big distinction to be made between theistic Satanists (who believe that in some form or other Satan is a real being) and atheist Satanists, who see him as an ideal to aspire to.

This means that there’s a lot of Satanists who might not be recognized as such, and people who don’t call themselves Satanists who others may think are. This is true of every religion, but it’s especially true of Satanism. The current head of the Church of Satan doesn’t see Theistic Satanists as Satanists at all. Meanwhile, some theists consider everyone not in their particular religious group to be really worshiping Satan.

Even if you avoid being too exclusive or too hysterical in defining Satanism, there are Left Hand Path groups that are similar to Satanism in some ways, but might not use the term. The Temple of Set split from the Church of Satan, and use their symbols. But they call their God Set rather than Satan.

In trying to work out how many Satanists there are, we should consider that studies into Satanism in teenagers. Most big Satanic organisations don’t initiate children, but delinquent and mentally unwell young people sometimes adopt Satanist beliefs and practices. Some may want to argue that this is not valid.

So

If you want to guess how many Satanists there are you should consider a few things: what makes a religion a religion? How far can you diverge from the common beliefs of a religious community before you’re no longer a member? Can being young/irrational mean that a religious belief doesn’t count?

We can’t really guess how many Satanists there are in the UK, but I think that thinking about it tells us a lot about religion in general.

Draining seas, melting the Arctic, rock musicals! Four remarkable geo-engineering projects

1. A Soviet Scheme to melt the north pole

df9e8d1c71597ef2e6e26098c2a60175Many modern proposals for geo-engineering projects aim to prevent the ice caps from melting, but it was not ever thus. In fact, a Russian scientist called Borisov spent his career arguing that melting the Arctic would benefit everyone. His plan was to build a dam across the Bering Straight so that the Arctic would be warmed more by the warmer currents coming in on the jet stream.

His vision wasn’t just an engineering project. Borisov believed that it would be a valuable co-venture between Russia and America. In a 1959 interview he said “When this warming up occurs, and the ice of the cold war melts, broad vistas for teamwork in warming up the eternal ice of the Arctic Ocean will open too.”

This was perhaps prophetic, with the cold war behind us, America and Russia are working together to melt the Arctic. If only unintentionally.

2. A 10,000 kilometer wide illegal plankton bloom

On the other side of the global warming debate, in 2012 a US entrepreneur called Russ George tried to reduce global warming by encouraging the growth of a 10,000 square kilometre plankton bloom off Canada’s west coast. The local indigenous people supported the project because it would increase their fishing stocks. The UN wasn’t so keen. Their concern is that this kind of project could have a long term negative impact on the health of the environment and people in the area.

Only time will tell how projects like this will end up. I suppose we should consider this as an experiment, even if it was potentially an illegal. While we’re waiting to see what the long-term consequences will be, Russ George has produced what could be the world’s first rock musical about plankton ocean fertilisation, called 40 million salmon can’t be wrong.

3. Reclaiming Doggerland

xlg_north_sea_drainageIn September of 1930, there was a ridiculous plan to reclaim the land-bridge between Britain and Europe. This would have created 100,000 square miles of new land, it would also have been thoroughly impossible. It would have involved 450 miles of dams to the north, and they suggested 150 miles of dams in the south, looping around London and Antwerp to keep them open for shipping. River water would have had to be re-routed through a vast canal. This is fortunate for Germany, perhaps as otherwise it’s shipping would have been blocked from the English Channel.

4. Damming the Mediterranean

Weirdly, this project is more reasonable by far than the last one. The plan was the brain child of a german scientist called Herman Sörgel. He was worried that European civilisation would be outperformed by Asia and America, and thought he could avoid this through engineering.

The plan was to build a dam across the straights of Gibralter, harness vast amounts of hydro-electricity, and create 576,000 km squared of new land. The excess water would have been drained into Chad and Congo, and vast hydro-electric dams would have allowed the newly aquatic inhabitants of those countries to produce vast amounts of energy.

Sörgel was an odd man, by modern standards he was a terrible racist, seeing this new land as purely for the benefits of Europe. But he was also a pacifist, and his works were banned by Nazis. On the other hand, in 1938 he did make an attempt to appeal to the Fascist desire for Lebensraum.

The Atlantropa organisation set up to advocate this plan continued to operate until 1960, when it finally disbanded, leaving the Earth’s major landmasses safe from human tempering.

For now, anyway.

What has God got against cities?

An interesting thing I’ve noticed is that the early Bible stories seem to have a really anti-city, pro-nature morality to them. This seems odd given that the text would have been compiled by literate scribes and priests.

For example, Cain was the first farmer, but most famously he was the first murderer. God’s punishment was that nothing Cain planted would grow, so he would have to live as a nomad. Some early translations miss out the bit about Cain having to wander the Earth.  This is understandable, because as well as being a lifelong wanderer and nomad, Cain is credited with building the first city for his son to live in.

A few generations later, a descendent of Cain called Lamech was a murderer and the world’s first recorded polygamist. His children included Jubal, the first musician; Jabal, the nomad; Tubal-Cain the first blacksmith; and Naamah, who is variously described as a mother of monsters, and as wife of Noah. After God flooded the Earth, humans got together to form a new city called Babel under King Nimrod and God destroyed it again. So, the villains of Genesis are the city dwellers, blacksmiths, and Emperors.

Also, it’s worth noting these early sections contain an interesting feature: there’s two branches of Adam’s family tree, and the names of the two families are very similar. For instance, there’s two Lamechs, two Enochs, and the other names are quite similar. Little is written about either branch, so we’re left wandering why they’re there.

The documentary theory offers a possible answer: it states that the first books of the Bible were compiled from various sources, written at different times by different people. One of the sources, the Jahwist source, seems to be responsible for all these anti-city sentiments. The current theory is that this source wasn’t a single text, but represents the folk traditions of the northern areas.

This source contains the myths of Babel, Cain, and Lamech, but not the children of Seth. It skips the first prophet (Enoch), sainted figures like Methusaleh, and Noah’s father Lamech. This would seem to indicate that in this version of the story, Noah’s father was Lamech the blacksmith/tyrant/polygamist.

So, we’re left with a story where human sins constantly take them away from the land, and where redemption seems to involve people like Noah returning to the land. It also gives us the notion that human history a process of decline.

It seems to me that this tradition that saw history as a tragic decline into cities met another tradition that saw history as a set of mythic heroes. As so often happens, two cultures interpreted the same myths radically differently. The Genesis we have seems to be the result of a possibly politically motivated compromise.

This is enticing because it makes Bible history cyclical. The Bible was codified, and then various other texts were added to it, then it was codified again in the Roman Empire. Since then, schisms and different interpretations have continued endlessly.

If we accept this, then people who embellish or add to the Bible are carrying out an important function that may have helped strengthen and spread this religious tradition. They’re finding new meanings in old myths.

For instance, the Mormons have written comparatively large amounts about Cain’s City of Enoch, but as occasional city dwellers they gave it an counter-weight to it called Zion, which was founded by Enoch the prophet. Better yet, they had it raised into the heavens before the flood, and some argued the the tower of Babel was built by people trying to reach it.

This is a great way to embellish the story. I hope the next time some civilisation tries to codify the Bible, they include these kinds of Mormon sources.

Lilith: dark goddess, bad room-mate, queen of Sheba

lady-lilith
Lilith

Who was the first woman? Unless you want to get all realistic and silly about it, the normal answer is probably Eve. But there is an alternative.

There are two creation accounts in the Bible. In the first, man and woman were created at the same time. In the second, Adam’s wife was created from his rib-cage. How can this be? The answer is obvious. They’re two different myths Adam must have had two wives.

Adam’s first wife was called Lilith, and was created by God after Adam got tired of mating with horses.  Adam wanted Lilith to be subservient during sex but she refused to do this and left him. Pretty soon, she hooked up with demons and started to have her own children.

God sent three angels; Senoy, Sansenoy, and Samlegot, after her. They threatened to kill her children but she told them that if they did she’d kill all the children of Adam. This was a real threat, as she had been ordained by God to watch over children and therefore had authority in this area.

They worked out a compromise where the angels would only kill 100 of Lilith’s children each day, in exchange Lilith would leave alone any human children protected by the names of the angels. The thousands of her children who nonetheless survived became demons called the Lilim, and protective amulets against Lilith and her kin were used up to the 18th century.

After Adam’s son Cain murdered his brother Abel, Adam and Eve separated for 130 years. In this time, Lilith and Adam got together again. Their relationship seems to have come to an end after the birth of Naamah, a great-great-great-great grandchild of Cain. She followed Lilith’s example and made out with angels to create new powerful demons, we can only assume that Lilith found Naamah more fun to be around than Adam.

Millennia later, Lilith and Naamah were evidently still close to some degree. It seems they may even have been living together, because one of them stole the other’s baby. This is a major breach of ettiquette in most shared living arrangements and according to legend they disguised themselves as prostitutes and sought the judgement of Solomon to find who a child’s real mother was.

sheba819
The Queen of Sheba, whoever that may have been

It seems odd that Lilith couldn’t afford her own place because she apparently ruled a kingdom called Zmargad, some people think this would make her the Queen of Sheba who killed the children of Job, the Bible’s most unfortunate man.

The Queen of Sheba later visited Jerusalem to meet Solomon, and according to an Ethiopian text called the Kebra Negast their child was the ancestor of all the monarchs of Ethiopia. The Yoruba Ijebu clan of Nigeria also draw their royal line back to the Queen of Sheba. This is just one example in history where a mythic figure is a demon to some people, and a hero to others.

How does a figure get reinterpreted so differently in different cultures? It’s hard to say, but it’s starting to happen now with Lilith. As early as 1899 Lilith was being rehabilitated as a mother goddess by Neopagans, especially by those of a Jewish persuasion. She’s also becoming a symbol for some feminist Jews. So things may be starting to look up for her.

The Mysteries of the Muggletonians

Ludowicke Muggleton

The Muggletonians were one of those long-running sects that came out of British Puritanism. Their story starts off with the two prophets with supernatural powers picking fights in London bars, continues in centuries of internal squabbling and fights with their dreaded enemy, the Quakers, and ends in lost treasures and mystery.

Remember I mentioned the Ranters in the last post? They are largely remembered as drunks, naked dancers and general fun people to be around. But it’s important to remember that they weren’t just a drinking society. They were also a very spiritual people. Few people could exemplify this better than the prophets John Tannye and John Robins, they reportedly condemned their enemies to Hell, raised the dead, and tried to establish a new society in Israel.

John Robins ended up in jail for his beliefs in 1652. There he was visited by two people he knew from the sectarian community in London, Muggleton and Reeve. He may have expected that this would be a nice thing. He knew them, and they’d entertained Ranters in their homes in the past. So it may have been a surprise when they announced they were prophets and cursed him to Hell.

As Prophets do, he cursed them back. What happens next is difficult to judge, we only have Muggleton’s word, and he obviously says that he won. This may be true though, because Robins later recanted and apologised, while the two new prophets went on to form their own sect.

The next few years seem to have been wild for these two prophets. As they were establishing their sect, so were the Quakers. The two soon became best of enemies, exchanging curses, and vitriolic pamphlets. At this time, according to The World of the Quakers groups with names like Familists, Seekers, Behmenists, Baptists, Levellers, Socinians, and Quakers would meet in taverns, argue, curse each other, and exchange their pamphlets. I haven’t found a reference to singing, but the Muggletonisn went on to develop a rich musical tradition. We can assume that these were fun evenings.

It sounds like the prophets fitted into all this quite comfortably. Muggleton’s own biography contains the wonderful passage “For God’s sake, Lodowick, let us be gone, else we shall be killed: so he paid for the drink and we departed out of the house and went to another a little distance off.”

After the monarchy was re-introduced, sects like the Quakers and Muggletonians started to get respectable. The Muggletonians argued that the Quakers only changed in response to Muggletonian criticisms, the Quakers refused to comment. They stopped responding to Muggletonian criticism and concentrated on things like inventing sweets, instead. Slowly, the non-comformists moved out of the pubs.

The Muggletonians kept on cursing people until as late as 1826, and seem to have had successes. Walter Scott, their target, died a reasonably horrible death. They even kept on meeting in pubs. Their songs were designed to sound like popular songs so that they could hold their meetings surreptitiously in public spaces. But a lot of time was taken up with incredibly sophisticated doctrinal disputes. or a sect that rejected reason as Satan embodied in humanity, they had highly cerebral answers to a lot of theological questions. They were hard-line materialists: they believed that God had literally come to earth in the body of Jesus, that souls were part of the body, and some of them believed that the sun revolved around the earth.

The movement did modernise, and started to open up more to outsiders. But it’s numbers began to dwindle. It was commonly believed to have died out in the 19th century. Except that it didn’t. A small group in London kept a meeting house running until 1941, when it was bombed by the Germans. Then, their treasured archive was removed to a farm in Kent by “the last Muggletonian” Phillip Noakes, where it languished until 1974 when a Marxist historian called EP Thompson tracked down Noakes, and discovered the archive. It currently sits in the British Library, and is an absolutely unique historical resource.

But, it may not be unique, in the 30s Noakes was in contact with a second group of Muggletonians in America. They also had a treasured archive. It would be surprising if they let it simply vanish. Even if there is no American archive, what about the other people who used the meeting house? There’s some anecdotal evidence of Muggletonians in existence as late as 2000. Could they still be out there? It’s hard to say. The Muggletonians were never exactly secret, but they never promoted themselves and they did enjoy pulling the wool over people’s eyes. I have my figers crossed that they’re still out there somewhere.

Puritans and their weird names

round headI am a Puritan fan. How could you not be? We’re talking about a bunch of people who, in the days when the future of Protestantism was insecure in Britain, got into trouble for saying that Britain was not protestant enough. When parliament raised its standard against the king, it was the Puritans who formed the New Model Army and won the day.

And they did it with style. I mean, they did it with Bible study groups, discussions about politics, and an sense of discipline based on a shared faith that allowed room for people to work things out for themselves.

Civil War is a horrible thing, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any group that made it look quite so good.

Obviously, their victory was short-lived, and in 1660 some people decided England should be a monarchy again. Just two years later, in 1662, Puritan priests were expelled from the Church of England if they refused to accept the revised Book of Common Prayer. Most became non-conformists. Puritans were banned from holding positions in the military, positions in government, and even from getting degrees from Oxford or Cambridge. These restrictions were in place till the nineteenth century, and weirdly, in this time Puritans got into business. The Quakers alone developed fixed prices for goods in shops, drinking chocolate, and set up lots of businesses that looked after their workers as well as they could.

Ain't no party like a Ranter Party
Ain’t no party like a Ranter Party

They weren’t all humourless and restrictive either. There were groups like the Ranters who didn’t believe in sin, but did believe in dancing naked and drinking heavily. They were a diverse bunch. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Puritan sense of humour is some of the names they gave to their children. Ostensibly, the goal was to give children godly names that wouldn’t be tainted by unbelievers using them. They also helped Puritans to recognise their own. But some Puritan names just got odd.

Here are some of my favourites. Most of these are courtesy of the brilliant Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature. Weirdly for me, many of them originate from East Sussex, which means that most of the weirdest Puritan names in the country originate just a few miles away from where I’m sat now. Continue reading Puritans and their weird names

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire Part 2 – The Pitcairn Islands

Pitcairn Islands

With a population of just 62, the Pitcairn Islands have the smallest representative democracy in the world. In 2012, the population was made up of 52 resident islanders and 10 non-residents. The statistics on the island are truly fascinating because they’re so exact. There are 34 able bodied people of working age, and 31 of those work public sector jobs, although its mostly part time and private enterprise also has a role.

So, 95% of the government’s money comes from Britain, and the population has dropped from a high of around 250. The island also has to deal with the aftermath of a series of sexual assault trials that affected nearly every family and seem to indicate a deeper, cultural problem in the colony.

As if this isn’t bad enough, global warming is likely to have an affect on the survival of this community. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change lists problems such as a decrease in the size of coral reefs, warmer waters bringing up more poisonous or dangerous fish, risks of tropical storms. The biggest risk for Pitcairn is flooding: most shipping comes through one small jetty. If that is damaged then the island could become difficult to access. Such a disaster, even if it’s temporary, could mean soil loss for the island, and could affect the community’s ability to survive.

Chance of survival

The main lesson to draw from this is the political force that the British government puts into keeping the colonies running. In 2012 and 2013 DFID donated £3.6 million to the island, which is £58,000 per islander. This shows a real desire to invest in the survival of British Overseas Territories.

However, in my opinion, the money doesn’t seem to be helping. Big projects on Pitcairn include RSPB running a rat extermination programme on an outlying island, and an abortive attempt to build a wind farm. These projects aren’t creating work for islanders. The population is still leaving. Reliance on British foreign aid doesn’t seem to be a good option for them.

Pitcairn faces big challenges with global warming, and the risk of British funding cuts to foreign aid. There is a good chance that this colony could disappear within the next few decades, in spite of the UK government’s best efforts.