I did the Ice Bucket Challenge and I don’t get the backlash against it

It’s an imperfect way to fundraise but it’s weird to gripe about it wasting water

If you have any kind of exposure to social media then you have probably seen people having freezing water thrown over themselves in the name of raising money for and awareness of motor neurone disease. You might have been pleased that you can watch say Benedict Cumberbatch, Alistair Darling or even David Lynch doing the challenge. But here’s the video you’ve really been waiting for:

Surprisingly, given the fact that this challenge has raised £4.5 million for MND alone, it has attracted a fair amount of criticism.

There are prima facia reasonable concerns that fundraising gimmicks like this can cannabalise generosity. I don’t have the knowledge or expertise to comment on whether that’s fair or not in general. However, I feel that for me personally I do usually donate money in response to a prompt of some kind and this seems like a pretty effective one.

There are the patently unreasonable complaints of Catholic groups that research into treatments for degenerative illnesses sometimes use stem cells derived from embryos AKA sacrifices single celled organisms kept in freezers in order to help people who are dying unpleasantly.

There are the also unreasonable complaints that this research also uses animal testing but that’s an issue worthy of a blog post in its own right, so I won’t dwell on it here.

What I do want to look at is what seems to me to be a rather strange criticism: that the challenge wastes water. Water Aid issued a press release saying that they had “noticed an increase in donations from people citing the wasted water as a reason to donate to WaterAid in lieu of taking the Challenge.” They go on to suggest that if you do the challenge, then you should do so in “your bath, shower, local lido or swimming pool. You could also leave your bucket outside and wait for it to fill up with rainwater before taking the Challenge.” As it happens I was at my parents’ and was able to use rainwater they’ve been collecting to water the garden with. But if I hadn’t been then I would have been quite happy to use water from the tap.

To be clear, I have no complaints about Water Aid using the challenge to raise awareness of water shortages as doing so is their job. But I do feel that it is silly that waste has become one of the main gripes about the challenge.

Why? Well:

  • it’s rather a stretch to describe using water to raise money for charity as wasting it;
  • while there may be water shortages in many parts of the world, after the wettest winter on record Britain isn’t one of them; and
  • it’s lacking in any sense of proportion. Water Aid claim on their website that the average Brit uses an average of 150 litres of water every day. In that context, whether people on one occasion use one bucketload of water to do the Challenge is basically irrelevant.

So while I can well believe there are better ways to get people to donate to charity, I just can’t see the Challenge as an objectionable way to use a bucket of water.


P.S. Thanks for Mum (Verity Kemp aka the cackling camerawoman) and Dad (Richard Mills) for helping me do the Challenge!

Can you explain to me how anarchism would work?

So you might have seen that last week I posted my review of Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchism. I was underwhelmed by his unwillingness to engage with how the principles he was outlining might actually work in practice. So dear readers, I was wondering if any of you can succeed where he failed and give me a sense for how anarchism would actually work.

What I did get from Chomsky was he that he thought that he thought that enterprises should be owned by their workers. So presumably you’d wind up with an economy of John Lewis’s. He also seems to like the model of a kibbutz as a way of running a local community and to believe in “dismantling state power.” However, these three suggestions and their interplay raised more questions for me than they answered.

Below are the questions I think are most pressing. I, of course, realise that different anarchists are likely to have different answers to these questions. So am more than happy to hear personal views or your sense of where the weight of opinion within the movement is.

1) How would resources be allocated between enterprises?

Having worked for Waitrose, I have a pretty good mental picture of how resources would likely be allocated within a co-operative. However, I’m unclear how resources would be divided between them. Would they continue to trade in a competitive market with the less efficient co-operative losing market share and potentially going out of business? Or would the allocation happen by some alternative mechanism?

2) Would resources be redistributed from wealthier enterprises and kibbutzes to their poorer counterparts? If so how?

I accept that like socialists, anarchists think the community has a responsibility to care for its members. However, they do seem to operationalise it as something rather smaller. I can see, for example, that if you lost your job then the people you live with on your kibbutz might step in to help you out. But is also true that sometimes whole areas fall on hard times. How do they get help? Will that simply be a matter for private charity or will it be formalised in some way?

Similarly, it seem that even if an investment bank and a cleaning contractor are turned into co-operatives, the people at the former will still be a lot wealthier than the later. Would there be redistribution between them?*

3) In this new era of decentralisation how will individuals be protected from abuses by their community?

Presumably many communities will continue to have some rather oppressive instincts. So wouldn’t dismantling the state leave say a Catholic in Castlereagh or a women in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan?

4) How are public goods that cross boundaries of localities going to be provided?

I don’t see how HS2 would ever happen in an anarchist society. Wouldn’t the kibbutzes that covered rural Buckinghamshire veto the idea regardless of the benefits to other parts of the country?

5) How do disputes between kibutzhes and enterprises get resolved?

4) is essentially a subset of this question. Clearly from time to time there are going to want different things or will have grievances with each other. How do they get resolved with a central state?

6) What have co-operatives and kibutzhes got to do with curtailing state power?

Tito’s Yugoslavia was a pioneer of Worker’s Self-Management yet was still a Communist dictatorship. Israel has plenty of kibutzhes yet its state still oppresses the Palestinians. Is there any link in practice between these principles?

7) What if any functions would the state retain?

There’s an episode of Family Guy where under the influence of the Tea Party, the residents of Quahog abolish their city government. Predictably the city promptly descends into chaos. The mess is only sorted out when Peter Griffin persuades his fellow Quahogians to try “this crazy new thing” whereby they elect a group of representatives “who will decide the rules we all live by” and take part of each person’s salary each year to hire people “to provide us with social order and basic services.” Once order has been restored, Peter proudly proclaims “and we did it all without government!”

As you might have detected by now my underlying scepticism about anarchism is that it would wind up following a similar trajectory to Quahog. The state’s ability to instigate, to mediate and to redistribute make it too important for achieving the ends that anarchists are seeking that if they don’t retain it, then they will have to reinvent it.


*I appreciate that in an anarchist society there might well not be investment banks. However, I think you’ll see the point I am trying to illustrate.

Two Days, One Night (Review)

The Dardenne Brothers and Marion Cotillard produce a majestically simple story about struggling, sacrificing and surviving.

When Americans were asked by pollsters to come up with the most boring headline imaginable they reputedly plumped for “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” If you did a similar poll of Europeans only this time asking about descriptions of films, then “worthwhile Belgium film about post-industrial poverty and mental illness” might well be a contender. Yet in the hands of writer-director duo the Dardenne brothers it becomes captivating.

The film tells the story of a woman named Sandra who following a battle with depression is preparing to return to work but the Friday beforehand is told that she will lose her job unless by Monday she can persuade a majority of her colleagues to forgo their annual bonus.

Much of its success is down to Marion Cotillard’s performance as Sandra. Even for an accomplished (and Oscar winning) performer it’s a role that demands a lot. For starters, her face is on screen in close up for the majority of the film’s running time. And Sandra’s personality and condition as well as the Dardenne’s ultra-realistic style demand that she is generally rather subdued. So Cotillard has to carry the audience through more or less the whole film while only being able to convey thoughts and feeling in only the subtlest of ways. And she does it and then some. It’s all the more impressive because it’s not the kind of role she’s known for (in the English speaking world at least) – Sandra is a long, long way from Talia Al-Ghul!

However, it’s not a performance that exists in isolation. It can only exist because the Dardenne’s can make films in which their filmmaking apparently disappears. Let me just present one detail to show how impressively constructed it is: Sandra is always drinking bottled water. This is partly a matter of necessity because she uses it to take her Xanax tablets. But the ritual of drinking it also seems to be calming for her. It was only on the way back from the cinema that it occurred to me that of course it would: if you associate bottled water with Xanax then that would condition you to find the water calming. For me that captured the level of thought and care necessary to make a film that feels so much like watching real people.

Verdict: 9/10 – a seriously smart and engaging film

Don’t nag couples to get married

The Atlantic reports new research suggesting that a big determinant of the success of a relationship is how the couple deal with relationship milestones. If they make a proactive decision to say get married or move in together then that appears to work out better than just sliding into them:

For couples, deciding means taking the time to communicate and to make mutual decisions when something important is at stake. Couples who decide rather than slide also have more practice working together and are likely better at proactively talking through important life issues, a skill that could help them build a happy marriage.

When partners slide, they tend to be less thoughtful, which could have negative consequences, like marrying a poor match. For example, couples who slide into cohabitation without formal plans to get married could continue on into marriages that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The problem with cohabitation is inertia. It is much harder for couples to put an end to their relationship when they live together. They buy furniture together, get used to the routine of living together, and split bills and rent. Research shows that these constraints could prevent them from breaking up.

Deciding rather than sliding revolves around commitment—not just to each other, but to the decision itself. Making a decision, research shows, sets individuals up for better follow-through. Further, most cultures have strong and public relationship rituals that help the couple make the decision and see it through. The engagement is the perfect example. There is a societal script for getting engaged that makes it less likely for couples to slide into an engagement. As two people approach an engagement, each partner has (hopefully) determined that he or she wants to spend his or her life with the other, there is usually an expensive ring involved, and the engagement announcement tells the world that the couple plans on getting married. The very act of making the decision to get engaged leads to all of the preparations for the marriage and likely to a stronger commitment to it.

I might speculate that one of the things which makes this ‘sliding’ easier is the expectations of friends and family that you really should have moved onto the next milestone by now. I know I’ve done it: ribbing couples I’m friends with about how they’ve been going out for x years longer than such and such a couple who are getting. And I’m far from the worst culprit in my social circle at trying to play puck. However, the most serious offenders seem to be parents* and grandparents, who really seem to think that their desire for a wedding to plan or (great)grandchildren to spoil should be a serious factor in how their progeny’s relationship progresses.

What I take away from the research above is that we all really need to stop. Relationships are between individuals and as such will not move along according to someone else’s timetable. Life is not a rom-com and meddling is more likely to result in bad decisions than true romance.


*Fairness requires me to point out that mine don’t.

Just how implausible are AIDS conspiracy theories?

Quite a few conspiracy theories surround HIV/AIDS. Most destructively there is the notion tragically adhered to by former South African president Thabo Mbeki that AIDS is not actually caused by HIV. There are also significant numbers who believe that it was created deliberately:

According to a 2005 survey of African Americans living in the US, almost 50% of the respondents believed that HIV was manufactured in a lab. Furthermore, over 25% believed that this was done by the government. A significant number also believed that it was created in order to control the population of black people/homosexuals.

In general I’m quite interested in conspiracy theories (or in their debunking at least) but this later idea was one I’d paid little attention to. The risks faced by the purported perpetrators and the degree of cruelty required of them seemed – even by the standards of conspiracy theories – outlandish. It’s also probably true that as a white graduate living in Berkshire I hear less about this theory than about say those around JFK or 9/11.

Therefore, it was not until I read this article on the origins of HIV at I Fucking Love Science that I came to appreciate quite how implausible it is:

Some of the earliest documented cases of HIV were in the late 1950s; it’s absurd to think that scientists would have had the knowledge or technology to create viruses back then. We only identified the structure of DNA in 1953. We’ve only just managed to create the first synthetic bacterial genome, let alone create a virus from scratch.

Creating a virus would require knowledge of genetic manipulation. We simply did not have the expertise to be able to achieve something like this at that time.

That puts this theory into its own league of detachment from reality. The CIA would at least theoretically have had the capacity to shoot JFK or hijack planes on 9/11, where as even that claim cannot be made for the supposed nefarious creators of HIV.


P.S. In case your interested the article winds up concluding that there “exists an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that HIV arose from cross-species transmission of closely related viruses that are found naturally in various primate hosts in Africa” and suggests this most likely occurred when these apes were hunted for bushmeat or kept as pets.

Lessons in being liberal from Mormons

Joking about religion too often leads to demands for censorship and threats of violence. The youngest of the world religions shows how to behave when you are the subject of a joke.

Stewart Lee is one of my favourite comedians yet I’ve never seen his stage show Jerry Springer: the opera. Having heard an interview in which Lee tried to defend lyrics about the Virgin Mary being “raped by an angel”; I concluded it wasn’t for me. I found the notion offensive and daft, and as a Christian I wasn’t prepared to tacitly endorse it.

What to this day I find strange is that there a small number of Christians who decided that because they didn’t like the idea, nobody else was allowed to. The woefully misnamed pressure group Christian Voice picketed theatres where the play was being performed and even went as far as threatening to picket the centres of a cancer charity if it accepted a donation from the show’s cast and crew.

We’ve of course seen worse than that in the name of prevent offence to religions. When the Birmingham Rep put on a play by a Sikh author about sexual abuse within her community, some of her co-religionists decided what was offensive was not the notion that sexual abuse was happening but that (sacrilegiously) it might be depicted happening in a temple. And that’s not to mention the global howls of often violent rage that have met the Satanic Verses, the Danish cartoons of Muhammed and the Innocence of Muslims video.

Now it should go without saying that these acts of violence and bullying are the work of a minority of believers and have met abundant resistance from their fellow believers (including yours truly). However, they remain deeply depressing.

That’s what makes the way the Church of the Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons) has reacted to smash hit musical the Book of Mormon all the more heartening.

“Book of Mormon” is by no means an attack on Mormonism. The way Mormons are portrayed is generally affectionate. It avoids the lazy jokes about polygamy that tend to define humour about the Church even though it has condemned the practice for 70% of its history and that in the present day is almost certainly more prevalent among Christians and Muslims than Mormons. And the play ultimately (sort of) winds up concluding that religion is valuable.

However, if they were to choose to be offended by it, there would be plenty in “Book of Mormon” for actual Mormons to object to. There are big helpings of the kind of outrageous humour you’d expect from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. And if it is affectionate towards Mormonism that can manifest itself in the form of gently going for the faith’s jugular. There is a running joke about the implausibility of the idea that having discovered a holy book on ancient golden plates, Joseph Smith would neglect to ever show them to anyone. And there are swipes at the Church’s exclusion of black people from active membership till the late 1970s.

Nonetheless the Church seems to have made a concerted effort to get the joke:

The response of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the musical has been described as “measured”.[67] The church released an official response to inquiries regarding the musical, stating, “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”[68]Michael Otterson, the head of Public Affairs for the church, followed in April 2011 with measured criticism. “Of course, parody isn’t reality, and it’s the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny. The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously—if they leave a theater believing that Mormons really do live in some kind of a surreal world of self-deception and illusion”, Otterson wrote, outlining various humanitarian efforts achieved by Mormon missionaries in Africa in recent years.[69][70]

Stone and Parker were unsurprised by this response:

“The official church response was something along the lines of ‘The Book of Mormon the musical might entertain you for a night, but the Book of Mormon,’—the book as scripture—’will change your life through Jesus.’ Which we actually completely agree with. The Mormon church’s response to this musical is almost like our Q.E.D. at the end of it. That’s a cool, American response to a ribbing—a big musical that’s done in their name. Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, ‘Are you afraid of what the church would say?’ And Trey and I were like, ‘They’re going to be cool.’ And they were like, ‘No, they’re not. There are going to be protests.’ And we were like, ‘Nope, they’re going to be cool.’ We weren’t that surprised by the church’s response. We had faith in them.”[10]

The LDS Church has advertised in the playbills at many of the musical’s venues (including Louisville, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Detroit, Durham, Hartford, Houston, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Ottawa, Toronto, London, Atlanta, and Washington, DC) to encourage attendees to learn more about the Book of Mormon, with phrases like “the book is always better.” and “you’ve seen the play, now read the book.”[71]

Mormons themselves have had varying responses to the musical. Richard Bushman, professor of Mormon studies, said of the musical, “Mormons experience the show like looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion.”[72] Bushman said that the musical was not meant to explain Mormon belief, and that many of the ideas in Elder Price’s “I Believe” (like God living on a planet called Kolob), though having some roots in Mormon belief, are not doctrinally accurate.[72][73]

The Church highlighted one conversion story by the musical in its semi-official Deseret News.[74]

A single conversion might not burst heaven open but it is probably more than the number of souls that were won for God by the hissy fit over Jerry Springer the Opera. And the violence over the Muhammad cartoons and the Innocence of Muslims almost certainly reinforced rather than challenged  prejudices about Muslims.

What is more, there is something disingenuous about religious believers who first insist on having a say in public debate but become angry when others have something to say about the,. Make no mistake we are combatants in the battle of ideas, we do not have and do not deserve immunity, and we should expect to be hit with a variety of weapons including satire.

I am aware that the paragraph above sounds rather combative but I do actually think that satire has a lot to offer religions. An abrasive approach can force you to face things you would otherwise massage over. And comedy is given to surreality, which is helpful when dealing with the somewhat mind-bending aspects of religion. For a musical with abundant jokes about having sex with frogs, the Book of Mormon has plenty to say about how literally one needs to believe a religion for it to be meaningful and about the pitfalls of preaching to those less fortunate than oneself.

So while the Mormons don’t exactly have an unblemished record of supporting personal freedom, on this matter I take my hat off to them.

Deep Breath (Review)

So Dr Who has returned with a new Doctor and some very high expectations to meet. And I’m pleased to report that mine at least were broadly met.

True, the episode itself was pretty so-so. It had some impressive visuals and director Ben Wheatley gave it a nicely cinematic feel. There was also plenty of Paternoster Gang which is always welcome. However, it was let down by a villain recycled from The Girl in the Fireplace (an episode which wasn’t that great in the first place) and a rather uneven pace. Also, quite how many villains does the Doctor have to kill before, he and the writers realise that he is emphatically not a pacifist.

However, this episode was always going to interest fans less for its own sake than for what it was going to tell us about the future of the show. And here the indications were encouraging. Capaldi was the perfect blend of mirth and menace for the role and was an engaging departure from the style of Tennant and Smith. He was in short everything we’d hoped we would be.

More surprising was that Deep Breath was a triumph for Jenna-Louise Coleman. I’ve not been a great fan of her time playing Clara. However, with Moffat seems to have taken the opportunity of a regenerated Doctor to renew her character. She’s no longer a cypher nor seemed like somebody constantly doing a Zooey Deschanel impression. As she reeled from the reinvention of her travelling companion, she felt like a rounded and believable character for the first time.

Verdict: 7/10 – not a classic episode but the omens for the rest of the series are good.