Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cheap wine 'good as pricier bottles' - blind taste test

Cheap wine 'good as pricier bottles' - blind taste test

Woman tasting wine (library picture) The wines tested were priced up to £30 a bottle
Wine costing less than £5 a bottle can have the same effect on the palate as those priced up to six times as much, a psychological taste challenge suggests.
The blind test at the Edinburgh Science Festival saw 578 members of the public correctly identify the "cheap" or "expensive" wines only 50% of the time.
They tasted a range of red and white wines including merlot and chardonnay.
University of Hertfordshire researchers say their findings indicate many people may just be paying for a label.
Two champagnes costing £17.61 and £29.99 were compared, alongside the bottles costing less than £5 and vintages priced between £10 and £30.
The other varieties tasted were shiraz, rioja, claret, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.
The participants were asked to say which they thought were cheap and which were expensive.
By the laws of chance, they should have been able to make a correct guess 50% of the time - and that was the exact level of accuracy seen.
The findings demonstrate the volunteers cannot distinguish between wines by taste alone, the organisers of the test say.
Lead researcher psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman said: "These are remarkable results. People were unable to tell expensive from inexpensive wines, and so in these times of financial hardship the message is clear - the inexpensive wines we tested tasted the same as their expensive counterparts."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Born in a death camp: A miracle baby and her mother

Born in a death camp: A miracle baby and her mother

Eva Clarke has been called the miracle baby. By the time of her birth, her mother Anka had endured six years of Nazi rule, had survived three concentration camps and weighed just five stone.
Baby Eva and her mother Anka Eva and Anka: Baby Eva weighed just 3lbs (1.5kg) when she was born
In the late 1930s, Anka Bergman was a lively law student living in the Czech capital Prague.
"I wanted company and boyfriends and to enjoy myself. I didn't know that Hitler was coming, but I filled my time with only cinemas and theatres and concerts and parties," she says.
It was at a nightclub that Anka met her husband, Bernd Nathan, an attractive German-Jewish architect who had fled Germany in 1933.
"He thought that it was far enough to be safe," said Eva. "It wasn't but, if he hadn't come to Prague, he wouldn't have met my mother."
In March 1939, the Nazis invaded Prague and, from that moment Anka's life, and Bernd's, changed forever.
Secret pregnancy Anka and her entire family were sent to Terezin (also know as Theresienstadt), a transit camp for the Auschwitz death camp.
Eva's father, Bernd Nathan Eva's father was killed before his daughter was born
Anka and her husband Bernd were to remain there for the next three years.
Although the sexes were segregated, Anka managed to meet secretly with her husband and she became pregnant.
"My mother stayed in the same barracks as I did," said Anka.
"And she looked at me: 'How? And where?' She laughed actually, because - in all that misery there - she had a sense of humour."
But as Anka soon discovered, to be Jewish and become pregnant under Nazi rule was a serious offence.
"There were five couples in the same position and we had to sign a paper that the babies, when they are born, will be taken away.
"That's the first time I heard the word 'euthanasia'. But we did sign it."
Anka gave birth to a baby boy. He was not taken away, but he died in the camp from pneumonia when he was two months old.
Chimneys In October 1944, Anka became pregnant again - but before she was able to tell her husband, he was sent to Auschwitz.
Eva (left) and Anka (right) today Eva and Anka Clarke now live together in Cambridge
Astonishingly, Anka volunteered to follow him and was transported to Auschwitz the following day. However, she never saw Bernd again. She later found out that he was shot dead in the camp on 18 January 1945.
It was at Auschwitz that Anka came to understand the true horror of the Nazis' actions.
"We saw the chimneys spouting the smoke and fire and the smell. And it looked like hell," she says.
She herself was lucky to survive more than a few hours there.
"Had my mother arrived in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp holding my brother in her arms, she would have been sent straight to the gas chambers," Eva says.
"But because she arrived in Auschwitz not holding a baby, and although she was pregnant again - this time with me - nobody knew, so she lived to see another day."
As Eva puts it, she owes her life to her brother: "His death meant my life, which is a very strange thing to say."
Anka was selected for hard labour working in an armaments factory. Food was scarce and for the next six months she slowly starved.
Then, in April 1945, in the dying days of the war, she was caught up in the Nazi attempt to get rid of all living witnesses to the Holocaust. She endured a torturous three-week train journey.
"It was open to the skies and it was filthy, with no food and hardly any water," she says.
Liberation On 29 April 1945, Anka arrived at Mauthausen death camp.
The sight of the name Mauthausen at the station was a deep shock to her, as she had heard of the camp's awful reputation early on in the war.

Start Quote

She always says that nobody knows what they can withstand until they have to”
End Quote Eva Clarke
"She says the shock was so great that she thinks it provoked the onset of her labour and she started to give birth to me on that coal truck," Eva says.
"There are two reasons why we survived, and the first is that, on 28 April 1945, the Nazis had dismantled the gas chamber in Mauthausen.
"Well, my birthday is the 29th so presumably - had my mother arrived on the 26th or 27th - I wouldn't be sitting here today.
"And the second reason we survived was because, a few days after my birth, the American army liberated the camp. My mother reckons she wouldn't have lasted much longer."
After the war, Anka remarried and in 1948 - when the communists took over Czechoslovakia - the family moved to Cardiff.
Today she lives in Cambridge with Eva, who is now retired and spends her time visiting schools, telling pupils the story of how she came into the world.
For her it is important to commemorate all the victims of the Holocaust.
"To remember all those thousands and thousands and thousands of people who died, who were killed in the Holocaust, and especially all those thousands of people who've never ever had one single person remember them because all their families were killed," she says.
And she has a huge amount of admiration for her mother: "I can hardly believe that she actually did go through it. But, you know, she always says that nobody knows what they can withstand until they have to.
"And fortunately most of us are not put to the test."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Staedtler and Faber-Castell's productive pencil rivalry

Staedtler and Faber-Castell's productive pencil rivalry

Pens on the Staedtler production line The proximity of Staedtler and Faber-Castell encourages innovation at both firms

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The ancient city of Nuremberg, steeped in medieval and Nazi history, is home to a cluster of fiercely competitive pen and pencil manufacturers whose survival is driven by innovation.
Staedtler and Faber-Castell are both part of the Mittelstand, the backbone of German industry, made up of thousands of small and medium-sized companies. Privately-owned, many are still family businesses after several generations.
Ancient 'pencil war' Staedtler celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2010, while Faber-Castell will celebrate its 250th birthday in summer 2011.
But despite this, the two companies have argued about which company can rightfully claim to be the oldest, a "pencil war" that ended up in court in the 1990s.

Start Quote

Count Faber-Castell
I would have been fired a couple of times in a publicly-traded company somewhere in the US, where you are judged according to quarterly earnings per share”
End Quote Count von Faber-Castell Head of Faber-Castell
Staedtler lost the legal case, but managing director Axel Marx still points out that Friedrich Staedtler, who was born in Nuremberg in 1636, was "the first person worldwide to be mentioned as a pencil manufacturer".
His sons had their own pencil-making businesses. But the city's strict guild rules meant that the Staedtler company was not set up until 1835.
By this point, 10km (6.2 miles) down the road in the small town of Stein, there was already a flourishing pencil company, Faber-Castell.
Outside the city limits, Kasper Faber had been able to incorporate a company in 1761.
The current head of the family firm, Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell, is the eighth generation and a direct descendent of the founder.
"I do hope the company will still flourish with the ninth and tenth generations," he says.
That the disagreement over longevity continues to rankle is symptomatic of the keen rivalry that has helped to shape both companies.
The need to survive in high-cost Germany - and in such close proximity to each other - has forced the companies to innovate and export.
Both are profitable, global companies and still highly dependent on the same school-age consumers who use their pencils, crayons and pens.

Head to head

Vital statistics
451m euros
250m euros
14 in 10 countries
5 in 3 countries
Grip pencil
Wopex pencil
Source: Faber-Castell and Staedtler
Staedtler has an annual turnover of approximately 250m euros (£220m). It has some factories in Asia and world-wide sales but still manufactures 80% of its pencils and pens in Germany.
At the Nuremberg plant where it makes graphite leads and pens, it has developed an "anti-break system" for coloured pencils.
This extra coating around the coloured pencil leads stops them breaking when sharpened, which Staedtler says has boosted sales.
Its most recent development is the Wopex pencil, manufactured on a secret production line visitors are not allowed to see.
It uses mashed up wood and therefore, the company says, is more environmentally friendly - 80% of the wood from a tree can be used, rather than the 20% used in traditional wood-cased pencils.
Axel Marx describes this new production method as a "revolution", and says the pencils have double the writing capacity of older versions.
He accepts that the new process will be copied in time, but is determined to exploit the window of opportunity before competitors catch up.
'Cautious' decisions Staedtler is no longer in the Staedtler family. It is owned by a private foundation.
It has no bank debts, and in fact the company is reluctant to take out bank loans for new projects, preferring to re-invest profits and expand more slowly. Mr Marx says this is typical of the Mittelstand mentality.

Find out more

Blue Faber-Castell pencils
In Business is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 14 April at 2030 BST and Sunday 17 April at 2130 BST.
"You do not say, 'OK, there is a business opportunity, let's take a bank credit to realise it'. You are more on the cautious side," he says.
He acknowledges this approach means many Anglo-Saxon rivals consider German companies to be "a little bit conservative in financial issues".
Down the road at Faber-Castell, in factories painted as brightly as the pencils that roll off its production line, Count von Faber-Castell appears to share his opposite number's philosophy.
"I would have been fired a couple of times in a publicly traded company somewhere in the United States, where you are judged according to quarterly earnings per share," he says.
But even without shareholders breathing down his neck, there were some in his company who were sceptical about his plan to introduce luxury pencils, a move he says was unique among pencil manufacturers. The Perfect Pencil comes in a platinum holder, and sells for 190 euros (£170).
"It helped tremendously to really position Faber-Castell as a company which is making interesting products even in a dull business of pencils," he says.
Thinking big Turnover for the financial year 2009-10 was 451m euros (£402m), with pre-tax profits of 46.5m euros (£41m).
In contrast to Staedtler, Faber-Castell has more of its production abroad than at home, with factories in South America and Asia, but remains committed to its German presence.
Ten years ago the company introduced the grip pencil which has painted dots on the outside to make it easier to hold and use.
Workers on the Staedtler production line Staedtler has developed an "anti-break" system
The product won five design awards, and was one of Business Week's products of the year in 2001. It boosted sales worldwide and secured the future of the German pencil plant in Stein.
With yet another large writing instrument manufacturer, Stabilo, nearby, Nuremberg mayor Ulrich Maly insists the pencil makers are "more than just companies, because they are part of the city's history".
He says Nuremberg's economy depends on the Mittelstand companies like the pencil makers to provide employment. There is a great deal of loyalty to local firms, and he says pencils are bought "patriotically".
And he says the relatively high labour and manufacturing costs the companies face within Germany offer their own reward.
"In places where labour is expensive, the ideas simply have to be greater."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Stone tools 'demand new American story'

Stone tools 'demand new American story'

Stone tools (M.Waters) Researchers report almost 16,000 items

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The long-held theory of how humans first populated the Americas may have been well and truly broken.
Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of stone tools that predate the technology widely assumed to have been carried by the first settlers.
The discoveries in Texas are seen as compelling evidence that the so-called Clovis culture does not represent America's original immigrants.
Details of the 15,500-year-old finds are reported in Science magazine.
A number of digs across the Americas in recent decades had already hinted that the "Clovis first" model was in serious trouble.
But the huge collection of well-dated tools excavated from a creek bed 60km (40 miles) northwest of Austin mean the theory is now dead, argue the Science authors.
"This is almost like a baseball bat to the side of the head of the archaeological community to wake up and say, 'hey, there are pre-Clovis people here, that we have to stop quibbling and we need to develop a new model for peopling of the Americas'," Michael Waters, a Texas A&M University anthropologist, told reporters.
For 80 years, it has been argued that the Clovis culture was the first to sweep into the New World.
These people were defined by their highly efficient stone-tool technology. Their arrow heads and spear points were formidable hunting weapons and were used to bring down the massive beasts of the Ice Age, such as mammoth, mastodon and bison.
Clovis first? The hunter gatherers associated with this technology were thought to have crossed from Siberia into Alaska via a land bridge that became exposed when sea levels dropped. Evidence indicates this occurred as far back as about 13,500 years.

Start Quote

The Debra L Friedkin site demonstrates that people were in the Americas at least 2,500 years before Clovis”
End Quote Michael Waters Texas A&M University
But an increasing number of archaeologists have argued there was likely to have been an earlier occupation based on the stone tools that began turning up at dig sites with claimed dates of more than 15,000 years.
Dr Waters and colleagues say this position is now undeniable in the light of the new artefacts to emerge from the Debra L Friedkin excavation.
These objects comprise 15,528 items in total - a variety of chert blades, bladelets, chisels, and abundant flakes produced when making or repairing stone tools.
The collection was found directly below sediment containing classic Clovis implements. The dating - which relied on a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) that can tell how long minerals have been buried - is robust, says the team. And, they add, the observed sequence is also reliable; the sediments have not been mixed up after the tools were dropped.
"The sediments were very rigid in the fact that they were clay, which worked to our advantage," explained Lee Nordt from Baylor University. "If you go to many other sites, they are loamy or sandy in texture, and they are mixed very rapidly by burrowing from animals or maybe from plant roots, etc."
Getting around The newly discovered tools are small, and the researchers propose that they were designed for a mobile toolkit - something that could be easily packed up and moved to a new location. Although clearly different from Clovis tools, they share some similarities and the researchers suggest Clovis technology may even have been derived from the capabilities displayed in the earlier objects.
Friedkin site (M.Waters) The Debra L Friedkin site lies just outside Austin
"The Debra L Friedkin site demonstrates that people were in the Americas at least 2,500 years before Clovis," said Dr Waters.
"The discovery provides ample time for Clovis to develop. People could experiment with stone and invent the weapons and tools that would potentially become recognizable as Clovis. In other words, [these tools represent] the type of assemblage from which Clovis could emerge."
But anthropologist Tom Dillehay, who was not involved with the latest study, commented: "The 'Clovis first' paradigm died years ago. There are many other accepted pre-Clovis candidates throughout the Americas now."
Professor Dillehay, from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told BBC News: "If you look at the prose of this paper, it bothers me a little bit because it's as if they are reconstituting the Clovis-Pre-Clovis debate and saying, 'Here's the site that kills it'."
He commended the researchers on their well-presented data and "tight discussion". But he said that the OSL technique was less reliable than radiocarbon dating, which has been applied to other early American sites.
And assigning the artefacts to Clovis and pre-Clovis technologies was not straightforward because the site lacked the projectile points required to reliably distinguish between the two. Clovis projectile points are unmistakeable.
In addition, said the Vanderbilt anthropology professor, the tools come from a floodplain deposit that is just 6-7cm thick. This, he said, was "potentially problematic" because of the possibility that artefacts were transported around by water.
Professor Gary Haynes, from the University of Nevada in Reno, US, praised the "good work" by the research team.
But he said it was plausible that natural processes could have caused some stone tools to migrate downwards in the clay - giving the impression of a pre-Clovis layer.

'Music of the stars' now louder

'Music of the stars' now louder

Soho image of the sun (SPL) Kepler studies of distant stars will help us understand our own local star, the Sun, much better

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The Kepler space telescope measures the sizes and ages of stars five times better than any other means - when it "listens" to the sounds they make.
Bill Chaplin, speaking at the AAAS conference in Washington, said that Kepler was an exquisite tool for what is called "astroseismology".
The technique measures minuscule variations in a star's brightness that occur as soundwaves bounce within it.
The Kepler team has now measured some 500 far-flung stars using the method.
Bill Chaplin of the University of Birmingham told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that astroseismology was, in essence, listening to the "music of the stars".
But it is not sound that Kepler measures. Its primary job is spotting exoplanets, by measuring the tiny dip in the amount of light that it sees when a planet passes in front of a distant star.
Such precision light-level measurements also work for astroseismology, because as sound waves resonate within a star, they slightly change both the brightness and the colour of light that is emitted.

Start Quote

I could literally spend the rest of my research career working on these data”
End Quote Bill Chaplin University of Birmingham
Researchers can deduce the acoustic oscillations that gave rise to the ripples on the light that Kepler sees.
Like a musical instrument, the lower the pitch, the bigger the star. That means that the sounds are thousands of times lower than we can hear.
But there are also overtones - multiples of those low frequencies - just like instruments, and these give an indication of the depth at which the sound waves originate, and the amount of hydrogen or helium they are passing through.
Since stars fuse more and more hydrogen into helium as they grow older, these amounts give astroseismologists a five-fold increase in the precision of their age estimates for stars.
"With conventional astronomy, when we look at stars we're seeing the radiation emitted at their surfaces; we can't actually see what's happening inside."
"Using the resonances, we can literally build up a picture of what the inside of a star looks like - there's no other way of doing that. It's not easy to do, but we're now getting there, thanks to Kepler."
Kepler is not the first mission to lend itself to astroseimology; Canada's Most and Esa's Corot satellites, for example, are designed specifically to collect similar data.
But just the first few months of observations by Kepler has provided scientists with data on hundreds of stars, whereas Dr Chaplin said that only about 20 have been studied in detail before.
"Suddenly we have this huge database to mine," he said.
"I could literally spend the rest of my research career working on these data - we're just starting to mine them."

New York set to be big loser as sea levels rise

New York set to be big loser as sea levels rise

New York (Image: BBC) Places like New York are projected to experience an above average sea level increase

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New York is a major loser and Reykjavik a winner from new forecasts of sea level rise in different regions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in 2007 that sea levels would rise at least 28cm (1ft) by the year 2100.
But this is a global average; and now a Dutch team has made what appears to be the first attempt to model all the factors leading to regional variations.
Other researchers say the IPCC's figure is likely to be a huge under-estimate.
Whatever the global figure turns out to be, there will be regional differences.
Ocean currents and differences in the temperature and salinity of seawater are among the factors that mean sea level currently varies by up a metre across the oceans - this does not include short-term changes due to tides or winds.
So if currents change with global warming, which is expected - and if regions such as the Arctic Ocean become less saline as ice sheets discharge their contents into the sea - the regional patterns of peaks and troughs will also change.
"Everybody will still have the impact, and in many places they will get the average rise," said Roderik van der Wal from the University of Utrecht, one of the team presenting their regional projections at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) meeting in Vienna.
"But places like New York are going to have a larger contribution than the average - 20% more in this case - and Reykjavik will be better off."
Of the 13 regions where the team makes specific projections, New York sees the biggest increase from the global average, although Vancouver, Tasmania and The Maldives are also forecast to see above-average impacts.
Gravity trap
One peculiarity of the projections is that areas closer to melting ice sheets will experience a smaller sea level rise than those further away.
Graphic showing sea level variations (Eumetsat)
Sea level rise is not set to be consistent around the globe
This is because ice sheets such as those on Greenland or Antarctica gravitationally attract the water.
This pulls the water towards the coast, effectively making it pile up to an extent that can be measured in centimetres.
If the ice begins to melt, it raises the average sea level simply by entering the sea; but the gravitational pull is now smaller, so locally the sea level may go down.
"So if the Greenland sheet melts more, that's better for New York; but if Antarctica melts, that's worse for New York - and it's equally true for northwestern Europe," Professor van der Wal told BBC News.
The effects are particularly pronounced for Reykjavik, the closest capital to Greenland, which is projected to receive less than half the global average sea level rise.
Ice sheet question
Roderik van der Wal is one of scientists working on the sea level projections that will be included in the next IPCC assessment, due out in 2013-4.
Before then, other scientists are likely to have completed more regional models that can be put into this mix
"We're right at the beginning of making regional projections, and at this point there is still a lot of uncertainty," commented Stefan Rahmstorf, a sea level specialist from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
"But it is clear that some parts of the world will feel sea level rise much more quickly than other parts; and an additional factor is land movements.
"In some places such as a lot of the Scandinavian coastline, the land is rising so fast that they will not have any problem with sea level rise in the near future, whereas in other places the land is subsiding - that includes some of the world's big delta cities."
Just before the last IPCC report came out in 2007, Professor Rahmstorf published research showing that sea levels had been rising faster that climate models predicted.
Since then, he and others, using various techniques, have concluded that somewhere between half a metre and two metres is likely by the end of the century.
He came to the EGU with a further analysis putting the likely range at 0.75-1.9m - the range reflecting uncertainties in how ice sheets may melt, and in how society may or may not respond to the findings of climate scientists by controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

Nazi family history put to good use by Inge Franken

Nazi family history put to good use by Inge Franken

Inge's father

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Inge Franken is a sprightly 70-year-old who lives in an apartment on two floors in Berlin. She has a task, a mission. She tours schools educating children about her - and their - country's dark history.
She shows the class a photograph of two young boys (see photo) who pose in Nazi regalia, and she seeks reaction. One has his chest puffed out in pride, the other seems reluctant. It is for today's children to decide which they would rather be.
If the school visit goes well, she says, a child will say that he or she is going home to ask the parents and grandparents what happened in the war in their family. It makes Inge feel that she has set people thinking and asking.
She was spurred to this mission by her own past, a past hidden in a suitcase - and her mother's mind.
Inge Inge was 40 when she read letters detailing her father's activities during the war
She was only two when her father died in the Siege of Leningrad, so she never knew him, or knew him only through the letters that her mother would read to her on Sundays.
"She said, 'Come, sit down. I will read some parts of father's letter. You should know him because he is not here and you can't see what a wonderful man he was'."
Letters from the front But Inge the child noticed gaps, sections that her mother skipped over, and those gaps nagged her for decades into adulthood. At the age of 40, she asked her mother if she could read the letters in full.
What she discovered was that the gaps were detailed descriptions of bad events in which her father seemed to be implicated. He was a committed Nazi who joined the party in 1933 and an officer on the Russian front, and he had clearly been involved in terrible things.
"More than 30 partisans are hanging on the trees," one letter said. There was a sense of pride in his letters at the might of the German war machine.

Start Quote

My mother was a proud widow because she was widow for the Fuhrer, for the leader, for Hitler”
End Quote Inge Franken
"I phoned my mother and she said, 'Oh Inge. I didn't want you to read this because it was terrible'."
Over the years, Inge's mother, herself, had undergone a rebirth. When war broke out, she and her husband were both staunch Nazis, and when her husband died she had grieved with pride.
"My mother was a proud widow because she was widow for the Fuhrer, for the leader, for Hitler," says Inge.
She had a certificate from the Nazi authorities telling her that her husband had died "in the struggle for the freedom of Greater Germany". She kept photographs of him taken in uniform on the Russian front, his chest puffed out in pride.
Boys in Nazi regalia Inge uses this picture of two boys in her lessons on moral choice
And, then, with total defeat, she found she had lost everything - her home, her husband and her ideology.
And shame gradually came to her, helped by her daughter, so when Inge asked her about the events in the letters, her mother was very ashamed.
Jewish connections The discovery prompted Inge to help the descendants of Holocaust survivors and victims to find their history, and also to talk in schools.
"When I started to make connections with Jews in Germany and elsewhere, my mother said, 'You are doing this for me, too'."
Throughout Germany, there are people like Inge, seeking out the painful past - tending cemeteries and synagogues, creating museums, simply documenting.
Arthur Obermayer, who is Jewish, used to visit Southern Germany with his wife to trace their families' pasts.
Nazi certificate Inge's mother was initially proud of her husband who died in the Siege of Leningrad
"In every town, we found people who on a volunteer basis were preserving Jewish history and culture," he says.
"And they were doing it just because they felt that as Germans it was the right thing to do, because they felt that there was no other constructive way they could respond to Germany's horrible past."
Inge has called a family meeting for this summer. "In my family it was a long time before we could talk about the family history because a lot of the family have been Nazis," she says.
Will it be an easy, amicable meeting? "No," she roared. "People my age say: 'Why are we talking about it? Everybody knows what happened in the family'. And then the next generation says, 'Father, you never told me. I knew nothing about the family background'.
"But now they can come. They can listen. They can read a lot of letters and documents.
"And people are coming. Young people are coming".
It should be said that Arthur Obermayer feels great hope for Germany. Inge, too, says that much is being done. A past is being confronted - painfully.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Has feminism blocked social mobility for men?

Has feminism blocked social mobility for men?

Male and female worker

Feminism provided an obstacle to social mobility for working-class men, Cabinet minister David Willetts has controversially argued. But is he right?

They were meant to welcome a new era of fairness and opportunity for all. Instead, a minister's remarks have prompted debate over the effect of women's entry into higher education and the professions.

In a briefing to journalists ahead of the government's social mobility strategy, David Willetts, the universities minister, appeared to suggest that feminism had made it harder for working-class men to get ahead in life.

Asked what was to blame for a lack of social mobility, the Daily Telegraph quoted him saying: "The feminist revolution in its first-round effects was probably the key factor.

"Feminism trumped egalitarianism. It is not that I am against feminism, it's just that is probably the single biggest factor."

His remarks sparked a wave of criticism, and Mr Willetts made it clear that he supported the move of women into the workplace and higher education. But to some the notion that more jobs for females equals fewer opportunities for males will be a convincing one.

An economist's view


Alan Manning, professor of economics, LSE

"The expansion of university education was faster among women - they went from being a minority of students to a majority.

"But it's not true that if one group takes something, there's automatically less for the other.

"The deterioration in employment opportunities among young men was primarily the consequence of the decline in manufacturing.

"It's not the case that all these apprenticeships were suddenly taken by lots of young women. It's that the manufacturing jobs just weren't there anymore."

Certainly, there is no question that the number of female workers in the UK has increased significantly over the past four decades.

Labour Force Survey estimates suggest that the employment rate for women aged 16 to 59 rose from 56% in 1971 to 73% in 2004.

Whereas in 1971 there were nine million women over the age of 16 in work, by 2004 that figure stood at 13 million.

At the same time, social mobility for men appears to have fallen back over the same period.

According to the government's own social mobility strategy, the proportion of males born in 1958, with parents who were in the bottom fifth of earners, moving upwards was 70%. For those born in 1970, the figure was 62%.

In 2008-09, 51% of young women entered higher education, according to figures released earlier this year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, compared with 40% of young men.

It was the first time more than half of women went on to higher education - 20 years previously, only about one in five young women went into higher education and a decade prior to that it was about one in 10.

It is figures like these that may have led Mr Willetts to conclude that greater opportunities for women have resulted in fewer for men.

Mind the gap

  • The 2010 gender pay divide, which was the closest since figures started in 1997, showed UK men took home 10% more pay than their female counterparts
  • The Office for National Statistics data shows that, in April 2010, the UK workforce was made up of 12.7 million men and 12.3 million women.
  • However, work patterns were vastly different between the sexes. Some 88% of men worked full-time, but only 58% of women worked full-time
  • Women tended to have lower hourly rates of pay in general, the figures show

Rod Liddle, the son of a train driver who has risen to become a prominent journalist, says he does not like the manner in which the minister made his point. And Liddle insists the move of women into the workplace was just and correct.

But he says such statistics demonstrate that the arrival of middle-class women in large numbers into the universities and professions has restricted the prospects for men with working-class backgrounds.

"The move of women into the workplace is absolutely right - it should be guaranteed," he says.

"But what Willetts said in down-the-line, factual terms is right. It annoys me when the left refuse to accept that it's harder for men or that the process has had an effect on the family. That doesn't mean it was wrong."

Of course, the number of job opportunities on offer and the nature of the labour market did not stand still as women began to make up a greater proportion of the labour force.

As a result, many academics regard such an interpretation of the data as simplistic.

Factory Men used to achieve social mobility by rising through the factory ranks

Karen Mumford, professor of economics at the University of York, says it is "woolly-minded" to assume that the number of job opportunities has remained static.

In the days before feminism, she says, those working-class men who achieved upward social mobility tended to do so by moving through the ranks at their workplace.

But, Prof Mumford adds, the decline in manufacturing - which traditionally was a source of better-paid jobs for a predominantly male workforce - has meant that these opportunities are no longer available.

The number of jobs in manufacturing fell to 2.5 million in 2010, according to figures from business organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). This is equal to just 9% of the total workforce. In 1978 over seven million people were employed in the sector, equal to 28.5% of the workforce.

She points out, additionally, that the rise in the proportion of women attending higher education mirrored a huge increase in the number of places available for both genders. Government figures show an all-time high of 45% of young people going to university in 2008-09 compared with only about one in 20 in the early 1960s.

As a result, Prof Mumford says, there was never a pre-feminist golden age in which large numbers of working-class men attended universities.

A feminist for Willetts

Janice Turner, Times columnist

"I don't like to defend government ministers.

"But I don't think David Willetts was saying feminism is wrong or evil.

"It's not about social mobility per se. What's happened is that middle-class parents aren't just getting their sons into university, they're now getting their daughters in as well.

"That's just a fact. We need to have a clearer debate about these things. The issue needs to be unpicked."

"It was very rare then and it's very rare now," she says. "They are not competing. The problem isn't feminism.

"What's happened is that those middle-income working class jobs with which a man used to be able to keep a family have disappeared, while the number of lower-skill service sector jobs, which women have always tended to do, has expanded."

She acknowledges that the number of better-paid "problem-solving" occupations at the top of the income scale which require a university education have increased, but that this has benefited male and female workers alike.

Moreover, feminists would point to the fact that men in the UK took home 10% more pay than their female colleagues in 2010, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Kate Saunders, feminist writer and novelist, says the idea that greater female participation in the workforce is to blame for a decline in male social mobility ignores the large numbers of women working in badly paid service sector jobs that many men don't want.

"So many things have changed, not just the number of women in the workplace," she says.

"Years ago many working-class men used to work in the factory at the bottom of their street, it just doesn't happen like that anymore and that's not the fault of women. They aren't to blame for things like the decline of the manufacturing industry in this country."

But as long as there is a debate over social mobility, there will also be debate about the repercussions of feminism.

Why did LOL infiltrate the language?

Why did LOL infiltrate the language?

LOL graphic (Copyright: Thinkstock)

The internet slang term "LOL" (laughing out loud) has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, to the mild dismay of language purists. But where did the term originate? And is it really a threat to our lexicon?

"OMG! LOL's in the OED. LMAO!"

If you find the above string of letters utterly unintelligible, you are clearly an internet "noob". Let me start again.

Golly gosh! The popular initialism LOL (laughing out loud) has been inducted into the canon of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary. Blimey! What is going on?

The OED defines LOL as an interjection "used chiefly in electronic communications... to draw attention to a joke or humorous statement, or to express amusement".

It is both "LOL" where all the letters are pronounced separately, but also commonly "lol" where it is pronounced as a word.

The phrase was ushered in alongside OMG (Oh My God), with dictionary guardians pointing to their growing occurrence "in e-mails, texts, social networking... and even in spoken use".

As well as school playgrounds, words like "lolz" and "lolling" can be heard in pubs and offices - though often sarcastically, or in parody.

OED definition

LOL (ɛləʊˈɛl/lɒl) colloq.

A. int. Originally and chiefly in the language of electronic communications: 'ha ha!'; used to draw attention to a joke or humorous statement, or to express amusement.

B. n. An instance of the written interjection 'LOL'.

Love it or loathe it, "lol" is now a legitimate word in our lexicon, says Graeme Diamond, the OED's principal editor for new words.

"The word is common, widespread, and people understand it," he explains.

The word serves a real purpose - it conveys tone in text, something that even the most cynical critics accept.

"I don't 'LOL'. I'm basically someone who kind of hates it," says Rob Manuel of the internet humour site b3ta.

"But the truth is, we do need emotional signifiers in tweets and emails, just as conversation has laughter. 'LOL' might make me look like a twit, but at least you know when I'm being arch."

Death of the dictionary

But for young internet entrepreneurs like Ben Huh, of the Cheezburger Network of comedy sites, "LOL" is much more than a necessary evil. It's both a tool and a toy.

Ben Huh, CEO, Cheezburger Ben Huh says LOL is 'a part of everyday life'

"'LOL' is a part of everyday life. I use it all the time in e-mail exchanges. It's a polite way of acknowledging someone," he says.

"And yes, I do say 'LOL' out loud. In almost an ironic sense, like a slow handclap after a bad joke. 'Lol' means 'yes, I understand that was funny, but I'm not really laughing'."

But no matter how much irony we cake it in, the L-word grinds the ears of many people over the age of 25.

"The death of the dictionary" is how one blogger greeted its induction to the bastion of English.

While on Facebook, there are at least half a dozen "anti-LOL" groups, where lol-ophobes dream of loll-ageddon:

"If something is funny, 'ha', 'hehehehe', or 'hee hee' is perfectly fine depending on the joke, and more descriptive than 'lol'," writes one hater.

Another complains that lol "doesn't sound anything like laughter. In fact you physically CAN'T say it while smiling. I'm all for bastardisation of the language, but with lol, that thing you thought was rubbish really is rubbish".

Wags point out that "LOL" is almost always disingenuous. "How many people are actually laughing out loud when they say LOL?" asks David Crystal, author of Language and the Internet.

LOL around the world

  • mdr (and derivatives)

French version, from the initials of "mort de rire" which roughly translated means "dying of laughter"

  • חחח‎/ההה

Hebrew version. The letter ח is pronounced 'kh' and ה is pronounced 'h'. Putting them together makes "khakhakha"

  • 555

Thai variation of LOL. "5" in Thai is pronounced "ha", three of them being "hahaha"

  • asg

Swedish abbreviation of the term Asgarv, meaning intense laughter

  • mkm

Afghan abbreviation of the Dari phrase "ma khanda mikonom", which means "I am laughing"

Source: Know Your Meme

But those laughing least of all are the language purists, who lament "LOL" as a hallmark of creeping illiteracy.

"There is a worrying trend of adults mimicking teen-speak," says Marie Clair of the Plain English Campaign, in the Daily Mail.

"They [adults] are using slang words and ignoring grammar. Their language is deteriorating."

But is "LOL" really a lazy, childish concoction?

When the OED traced the origins of the acronym, they discovered 1980s computer fanatics were responsible.

The oldest written records of "LOL" (used to mean laughing out loud) are in the archives of Usenet, an early internet discussion forum.

And the original use was typed by Wayne Pearson, in Calgary, who says he wrote the first ever LOL in reply to a gag by someone called "Sprout".

"LOL" was "geek-speak that filtered through to the mainstream", says Manuel.

"I first saw it in the 1990s - at the end of emails. Then it got picked up by the young kids. Then it went naff. But it came back ironically - with people saying things like 'megalolz'."

A lolcat Lolcats brought the phrase to a whole new audience

Grandparents, for example, often adopt "LOL" as one of their first "internet words", says Huh. "'LOL' and 'OMG' are like momma and dada."

But many mistake "LOL" for "lots of love", leading to some unintended "LOLs", such as the infamous tale of the mother who wrote: "Your grandmother has just passed away. LOL."

It has also lent its name to some wildly popular internet crazes, like Lolcats, whose appeal spread far beyond the realms of cyber-geeks.

More than funny

So why has "LOL", above all other web phrases, become such a phenomenon?

Because it's simple and multipurpose, says Tim Hwang, founder of ROFLCon, a whole festival dedicated to "internet awesome".

"The magic of LOL is that it's both exclusive and inclusive," he says. "On one level, it's simple to understand.

"But it also conveys something subtle - depending on the situation. It means more than just 'funny'. For example, if I had my bike stolen, my friend might reply 'LOL'. It helps overcome an awkward moment."

For school kids, acronyms like "LOL" and "KMT" (kiss my teeth) are a kind of secret code, a badge of belonging, says Tony Thorne, author of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang.


  • :D (smileys)

Simple and clear but may appear childish. Are you a Comic Sans fan?


Even more annoying than LOL.

  • !!!

One is fine, three reeks of desperation: 'Look!!! I made a joke!!!' Yes, we noticed.

  • Haha, Hehehe, Arf arf

The safe option. Effective but not very imaginative. Were you really laughing?

  • Hilarious! How funny!

You are living in the dark ages.

"I go into schools and record slang words - all the new terms kids are saying - words like 'lolcano'. And if you talk to kids they will say this is our language - this is what identifies us."

But aren't these slang words also harmful to children's vocabulary? Not at all, says Thorne.

"Government educationalists get all worked up about words like LOL - they see them as substandard and unorthodox.

"But the small amount of research on this issue shows that kids who use slang abbreviations are the more articulate ones. It's called code switching."

If we have a literacy crisis, it's among adults as well as children, says Thorne. And slang is not the culprit. In fact, it is enriching the language.

Diamond agrees: "There will always be a minority who want the English language to remain as a frozen beast, that doesn't admit changes," he says.

"But language is a vibrant, evolving animal."

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A Rallying Cry From Atheists

A Rallying Cry From Atheists

Written by my atheist friends from a local Singapore Atheist Group, Atheisthaven:

Atheism is an abject failure.

As atheists we are in a unique situation. While we are ostracized,
marginalized, persecuted, prosecuted, abused and generally deprived of
our rights by unsympathetic regimes and autocratic systems in the real
world, it is in cyberspace where we can express ourselves freely to
some substantial degree. It is in this virtual realm that we dare
challenge theists and other proponents of illogicality and come away
truly victorious.

However, these victories, impressive as they are, cannot but feel
hollow. For all the reasoning and logic which made us, dare I say it,
ubermensch, we are unable to demonstrate our superiority where it
really matters. Dawkins and Hitchens might have made the world stand
up in recognition of the fallacies of religion, but is this
proliferation of truth and rationality changing the way people really

Sadly, the answer is no. Superstition still holds sway. To many,
atheism is a passing fad. People remain attached to their cherished
beliefs. After all, knowing the truth does not equate its acceptance.
Not only do people want to believe in something, they need to feel
wanted. Religion provides a very strong support in satisfying this
emotional need, as evident by the number of support groups, cell
groups, social and community structures the religious have put
together to bind its adherents.

It must be intoxicating knowing that `Someone' will always love you.
That `Someone' will look after you in every situation and never falter
in His efforts. To have this preposterous notion `validated' by your
fellow humans who actually help you in times of difficulties while the
`Someone' never makes an appearance must seem an affirmation to the
desperate. What religion does so effectively is to make each and
everyone of its followers feel special. Logic goes out of the window
in the face of this compelling emotional assault. It is an irony,
considering that rationality is painted over by a very real human need
which in turn is satisfied by an illusion instead.

This is where atheism fails so miserably. Atheists do not help each
other just because they believe in the same creed. The theists,
however, do so because their doctrine specifically wills it. For all
our arguments and justifications we do not deign to help one another
because we take the point of `not giving a damn about God' one step
further to include ourselves. I see friends who are Christians support
each other within their own church and cell groups. What do I see when
I look upon my fellow atheists?

Theist : 1 Atheist : 0.

Our endless debates with theists achieve little. We are wasting
precious time trying to convince people who do not want to be
convinced. People would rather live a happier life believing in a lie
than accept things as they really are and being less happy as a
result. Reading about the articles atheists post on the Internet makes
me think that all these well-meaning writers want are to amass as many
hits for their sites and to comment favorably on each other's writings
in the hope that the praised party, overjoyed at being appreciated,
would return the favor. We hide behind monikers like `infidel' and
`heretic', perhaps to impart some perceived quality in our cause, but
we do not back our words with concrete action. I have more respect for
the religious folk (the non-violent ones) who preach their gospel and
live their life accordingly than for self-proclaimed atheists who
cannot even be bothered to scrap their addled brains off the computer
screen to think: I am an atheist. What does this mean? What do I do?

Atheism is on precarious ground in this respect. And it is time to
stop the rot.

We must acknowledge that we are on our own. We have no god(s), no
temples, no institutions and nothing to rely upon. Social structure
and cultural norms, influenced to some extent by religion does not
give the atheist credence. In many parts of the world, atheism is
punishable by stoning. In more civilized climates, a priest who
incites violence against non-believers is at the most given a slap on
the wrist – he might even be lauded for his sense of justice. But an
atheist who gives credible reasons for his rejection of religion, and
quotes from reliable sources – he is making `seditious' remarks and
persecuted for being `anti-religion' . It is obscene. You can say that
people are treated equally in these modern times, but you cannot deny
that some are more equal than others.

In view of the many difficulties atheists face, I propose we take care
of our own. And we can do this through support groups.

A support group need not have a club-house or a fixed physical
location where members can convene. We can host a bulletin board
(forum) in cyberspace, much like what Atheisthaven is doing. However,
instead of `ghost members' and people who pack only rhetoric and
little else, such a group must consist of dedicated individuals who
genuinely want to make a difference. While we do not restrict the
membership to atheists (the non-religious, freethinkers, agnostics,
even Buddhists - especially those leaning towards a philosophical
bent may join), members must be committed. As this commitment takes
the form of certain obligations, we want positive individuals who
truly believe in improving themselves and others. Atheism by its own
nature, promotes self-reliance and an internal locus of control. All
efforts should have an egalitarian spirit in its core, mutual aid as
its strength, and self-actualization its ultimate goal.

This is strictly an informal group. No membership fee is required. We
only ask that members make an effort to know each other and to
interact, preferably face-to-face. This fosters cohesiveness which is
very important because people tend to help their own friends than
relative strangers.

What form should this aid take? At the most basic level, information
exchange. People who have questions can post them on the group site,
and those with the answers can promptly reply. Questions can range
from anything – potential job openings, which university to choose,
even where to get the best bargains! At a deeper level, members can
work on some task together or maybe enjoy a little soiree.

While we encourage members to look after each other's interests, we do
not look kindly to people who join for ulterior motives. This is not a
MLM (multi-level- marketing) scam, nor is it a dating agency. Promoting
any political agenda is also a no-no. In a nutshell, the group is
similar to a normal theist cell group, minus the praying and speaking
in tongues. Think of it as a secular social network, where normal
people (without a faith) make friends and chill out.

We must succeed in this endeavor. If sodden theists can organize
themselves, it would be a crying shame if intelligent atheists cannot
even produce a similar response. The time has passed for talking. Let
us show people that we are capable of doing great things, even without
divine edicts… because In Humanity We Trust.

Liu Weixian and Liang Xianghong
- 14/03/2008

Interview Transcripts: Atheism, & What It Means To Be An Atheist In Singapore

Interview Transcripts: Atheism, & What It Means To Be An Atheist In Singapore

In my previous post, I mentioned that I had the ignominious honour of being interviewed by a Straits Times journalist (Straits Times is a national, major newspaper in Singapore), who, upon chancing upon my post with regards to the issue of interfaith dialogues, decided to conduct a email interview, with what I presume as a further query with regards to the atheistic point of view.

Transcripts of the interview was sent to me on the 3rd of July, and my reply was sent out on the following day.

While I was hoping that the interview would be published (knowing full well the conservative nature of Straits Times, I was expecting a watered-down version of it), but the latest word I have received was that the journalist concerned, Ms Li (I shall not divulge the full name. For those who are infinitely curious, leave a note in my email or this blog's comments) seems to be occupied with her work.

So, without further ado, the transcripts, as follows. My replies, in red:

1) As an atheist, do you feel marginalised in Singapore? Why/why not? If so, do you have any specific examples?

With regards to feeling marginalized, I feel that much of what has been said and touched on about faith is mostly centered on two or three faiths, namely Catholicism, Christianity and its related denominations, and most important of all, Islam.

Take the latest issue on interfaith dialogues. We have imams, priests, reverends and even the odd Confucian scholar who gets invited. But no one, none from the scholastic circles, such as historians, scientists and the like, gets invited to such talks, much less atheists.

What is it about religion that allows them this privilege to get a piece of the limelight and spread their propaganda in such a manner? Are we saying that, short of discussing each other's religion, people from the various religions can't really communicate beyond mere religion? Or are atheists and other members of the free thought community so highly ostracized that we aren't even allowed a whiff of these bunch of self-appraised folks?

Dialogues are a good thing, but dialogues such as these are much political tools fabricated by people who wish to glamorize religion and portray a falsified unified front of various religious views.

2) Do you feel that because of the sensitivity of religious issues and the emphasis on inter-religious harmony in Singapore, you do not have freedom of expression, when it comes to airing your views?

I think a few years back, two young people or teenagers were arrested and charged with the Sedition Act, one for slandering Islam and the other for drawing Jesus-zombies munching cute little babies.

To talk about freedom of speech in Singapore is pretty much like playing Russian roulette: You can heap as much vitriol as you want, but once you bothered some higher-ups, get prepared to be slapped with ignominous charges, such as the ISA (Internal Security Act) and the Sedition Act.

3) Do you think that atheism is a faith in itself? And should it be accorded the same "respect" that other religions have?

Atheism, by its very definition (Atheist from the Greek word, atheos: A, without, theos, God), refers to a negative position of non-belief. An atheist, in essence, is a person who does not believe in God due to the absence of proof (To some atheists, it means observable, empirical proof).

Faith requires an element of belief. In the case of faith, it is more aptly described as "Belief in things unseen", which really boils down to blind belief.

If anything, atheism is the exact polemic of faith: One is an atheist because one sees no proof to validate the claim, while a person who dwells in faith believes because he or she has subjected to himself or herself a creed irregardless of evidence.

As for the question of respect, I feel that we should respect everybody who is generally law-abiding. The case of the gay movement (which I did wrote on my blog), for example, is one that deserves respect, because gays have long been marginalized and in a way, segregated from the majority heterosexuals because of this misguided notion that sex outside the realms of procreation is an abominal sin, a view justified and mortified by the biblical code of stoning gays to death.

Just as law-abiding gays deserve respect, recognition and dare I say, the rights to marriage, atheists deserve to have their voices and views heard. Unfortunately in Singapore, the religious right has mostly reserved for themselves the right to be heard, and many times, their views are highly eschewed by their belief systems. For example, one would not expect a priest to extol the virtues of condoms and other contraceptives, despite the devastating effects of AIDS and other sexual diseases. To the priest, sex for pleasure is a sin, regardless of the outcome.

4) Do you think that atheists should be allowed to set up an organisation to propagate their views, such as Christians have church organisations, Muslims Islam organisations and Buddhists Buddhist organisations to propagate their tenets? Why/why not? How do you think the society and the Government will react?

I feel that the atheist community in Singapore is too small at the moment: Unlike the American Atheists (AA), atheists here are mainly closeted and disjointed, so no, at the moment, atheists should simply focus on getting out of the closet, which itself is a difficult thing to do, especially for those who are stuck in very strict, fundamentalist sects like I was in the past.

If an atheist organization were to exist here, I cannot really fathom the framework which we should go about in setting up such an organization. Religion in Singapore is something that is held in excessive awe and respect, even rationalized in the form of moderate belief systems. If the organization seeks to be just a freethought organization, then I would feel that there is no need for an atheist organization, or for myself to joing one. An active atheist organization that is highly vocal against religious irrationality may be too hot a potato for a distinctively conservative and highly cautious society here in Singapore.

5) Do you think that a Singaporean atheist would be allowed to write a book like that of Richard Dawkins' or Christopher Hitchens'?

The problem here in Singapore, I suspect, is that in higher academic circles here, is that any academic must be strictly neutral, or at worst, slightly sympathetic of religiosity in order to continue their research here.

That aside, most publishers in Singapore would baulk at publishing such controversial material here. If there is even an outside bet that one could actually sneak past such works, I would gladly be the first one to try.

6) Do you feel that there are increasing tensions between those who are religious, and those who are secular, within Singapore? Some will call you a "secularist fundamentalist". Do you agree with such a label?

One of my earliest blog posts (still there, but I have abandoned it) was about this pastor in a megachurch who actually proclaimed that "the red colour of the Singapore flag symbolizes the blood of Christ".

I had attended that service on the behest of a friend,and was profoundly shocked to hear this lie being spoken life in front of 20,000 church members.

While it is too early to say whether the secularity of our nation is under threat, I think there are people in Singapore who definitely enjoy the idea that the tenets of our Constitution is somehow aligned with the Ten Commandments, even if it clearly isn't.

At present, I do not detect this threat in the Parliament. To me, the status quo quo of "Equal playing ground" still holds true up to a point, and I for one would definitely not want to see our nation turn into a fascist theocracy.

The final question with regards to "secular fundamentalist" was left out, because I find that such a term is indeed a grave insult to rational people, religious or otherwise, who do not seek to widen the religious scope towards the secular sector, be it in government institutions or even to the tenets of government.

Frankly, I doubt this interview would ever be published in our closeted media, and hence I have decided to publish this without the permission of the journalist.

In concluding this article, I urge all Singaporeans to speak up in the face of religious domination within our media. We must find a voice in a society that continuously trumpets the need for religious reconciliation, without sparing a thought for the 13%-15% of us who refuse to be part of this hypocrisy of grovelling towards religious moderates who, ironically are the major source of inspiration for fundamentalists and their dastardly plans of terror and extremism.

The Invisible Atheists of Singapore?

The Invisible Atheists of Singapore?

I must admit: in recent weeks, I have been thoroughly frustrated (to put it mildly) by the hypocrisy that has surrounded the recent rise of Atheism brought about by the meteoric rise of Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheist authors.

In response to this trend, the local media in Singapore has decided to entrench itself with the religious right. This pro-right stance is so pervasive that much of the opinions from the pro-left are either ignored, or moderated to a point that they do not offend "religious sensitivities". Our pro-religious Ministry of Home Affairs has actively supported inter-faith dialogues that effectively cater to the major official religions, effectively ignoring the non-religious communities altogether. Everyone in Singapore is either religious to the hilt, or are merely non-Singaporeans to begin with.

In short, atheists and the non-religious do not exist within the Singaporean clique.

According to this article, written by Today, atheists do not even feature in the sectarian landscape. No atheists. No infidels. Period.

Excerpts From Today Online
Tug of War for America's Soul
14th July 2007
By Tiffany Tan

A wave of secularisation is again sweeping through industrialised nations, but will it come around to our corner of the world? Even though Singapore is on the same economic development scale as secular Western countries, experts say atheism in the city-state is a distant possibility. In a study, Dr Pereira discovered that Singaporeans value religiosity and it is "deeply embedded in society".

For some religious leaders, atheism is no reason to lose sleep over.

"If there is a war, it has been going on for the last 300 years and atheism is clearly not winning," said Dr Simon Chan, a professor of systematic theology at Singapore's Trinity Theological College.

"Previous generations of atheists had been no less vehement and hopeful, but a vast majority of the world's population are too incurably religious to be bought over."

A distant possibility??? For the love of Zeus, I don't know where these journalists got their facts from, but just for the sake of "objective journalism", we shall take a sneak peek into a population consensus report taken in the year 2000 (Link here).

According to the report, 340,094 Singaporeans have no religious affiliation, out of a population of 2,494,630. The minimum age group of this consensus was in the 15-19 category, so we can safely surmise that no kids were involved, which would have muddled up the numbers and give the religious ranks a higher boost in numbers.

With these figures, one can assume that at least 13% of Singaporeans do not subscribe to any religion. Unfortunately, there is no way to break the figures down further into atheists, agnostics, deists and other non-religious affiliates, but surely, there ought to be atheists amongst them?

Quite contrary to the news article, religion has not been "embedded deeply" into the fabric of society. Considering that there were only 9733 Sikhs reported by the consensus, the non-religious community occupies a sizable chuck across the sectarian board.

And then there is the "vehement" culture of atheists. Of course, we are riff-ruffs of the sort that really do speak out against religious abuse, but hey, we aren't the ones strapping bombs and flying planes to skyscrapers for the sake of paradise and some 72 virgins (I am sure most atheists like sex, but we are not delirious enough to believe in bullshit of this nature), or for any particular father figure in the sky.

Not a good word, it seems, can be said about atheism. If this article is to be taken as gospel truth, then atheists are no more than invisible shrews, so to speak, good only for spewing vitriol at our persecuted religious counterparts.

Ignoring the Non-Religious Community In Singapore

But why are we, the non-religious sector, constantly ignored by the mass media? Are they trying to tell us that we do not belong here, or that we are, at least in the metaphorical sense, "expendable"???

On a more personal note, I have had an email interview with an ST journalist, who has somehow stumbled on one of my articles regarding interfaith dialogue. While she did not promise to mention about it from her political correspondence desk, I doubt she will ever publish it (again, to my frustration) because of the anti-religious nature of my replies.

Perhaps it is time for the atheist community in Singapore to rally together and break this religious monopoly within the ranks of the mass media. Only then, will our voices be heard by those who will spare no afford to undermine the interests of the non-religious community.