Saturday, January 31, 2015

13 Observations From A Newcomer To Edinburgh/UK

Note: This is a guest post authored by my awesome wife, Diana

I have been living in Edinburgh just over 6 months now, and I thought it would be fun to share my initial thoughts on things that have stood out for me for one reason or another. Maybe some of these things are just Edinburgh or Scotland specific and are different in the rest of the UK. This is not meant to be a newcomer’s guide to the UK.

Maybe it helps for you to understand these thoughts if you know that I have lived in various parts of Australia, and I lived 3 years in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. So it is not just from the perspective of someone who has never lived overseas before, but I have only lived in one other country, so I am not exactly an expert on these sorts of things, and if I was I would probably see these things I have noticed in a more balanced way.

You will probably notice that some things I am quite particular about for emotional/non-rational reasons, and so I'm not pretending that my position or point of view is always logical and well reasoned here, but that's not really the point of this post. I just want to present some of my reactions to things over here and I'm hoping others will find it interesting or amusing.

Anyway, let's get started...

13. My feet should not touch the end of the bed

Apparently a double size bed is the standard bed size for couples in the UK. Even some UK hotels will provide this size and it is a special thing if they have UK king size (Which is Aussie Queen size). I guess this is mainly due to smaller room sizes? Maybe if you never turn over and are deep sleepers, and are slim and short, and do not have pets that sleep in your bed, double size is fine for two people sleeping, but for me this size really reduces the quality of my sleep. And good quality sleep is really important to me and I don’t think I am alone on this.

We rent a furnished place as otherwise I would have bought a larger bed (the room is just barely big enough for a larger bed). But I am surprised that couples here seem ok with sleeping on a double bed. I guess something is wrong with me. Adam and I had a king size bed is Australia (UK super king size) and we had plenty of room and you could not notice if someone turned in bed, and there was even plenty of room for the cat. I guess with hot weather as well, you do not want to be close to someone else when trying to sleep. So maybe that is it, UK couples snuggle and if so that is great. But yeah, I look forward to sleeping in a larger bed again.

12. Trash bins in the streets

I get that Edinburgh is an old city, and it was built before they had to think about effective garbage removal, but seeing all the large black garbage bins in the streets makes the place look shitty (the bins are out there all the time, not just on rubbish collection day). I think it leads to more bits of rubbish being in the streets. This is not everywhere, and our newish apartment complex has a storeroom for the common garbage bins, but there are still plenty to be seen around Edinburgh. I guess this particularly bothers me as the place is so beautiful, so it seems such a shame to have big black garbage bins on the street ruining this. Maybe people here are used to seeing the bins and they do not even notice them anymore? I have noticed recently on Leith Walk they are trialling having the bins there only certain times during the week, when they are actually going to come around and empty the bins, and I think this has really improved the look of that road.

11. Power points in Bathrooms

I want to be able to dry my hair in the bathroom.

So, bathrooms can be small here, true. But apparently there is some rule about how there needs to be 1m between a power outlet and a water outlet (Or something like this), so this basically means very few bathrooms have any power outlets. They can have an outlet for shavers, and you can buy electric toothbrushes that can plug into these shaver outlets. So, from what I have heard most people just dry their hair in the bedroom.

I know they are trying to save me from electrocuting myself or someone I love. But I don’t care, I can handle a power point in the bathroom. I know my brother’s first apartment only had one power point and it was right up near the ceiling away from any water source, and you also needed a ladder to use it (maybe an exaggeration), so I guess Australia had something like this before. Aren’t there things you can install like a safety switch that stops electrocutions in houses anyway?

And a minor note, but do the shaver power outlets emit some kind of magic electricity that can't electrocute you? How is one type okay but not the other?

10. Mailboxes, you are doing it wrong

Actually I guess they are mail slots, because you basically get your mail delivered through a slot in the front door. For our place it is actually quite nosy when the mail gets delivered, the first few times it really scared me! What I understand even less about this, is that we live in an apartment which you need to either have a key or get someone to buzz you in to get inside, so how does the mailman get into the building? Does he have keys, or could anyone who buzzes and says they're the mailman get let in? Then why have security? Also, surely it annoys him having to walk up 3 flights of stairs to deliver my mail. Perhaps we can all agree having mailboxes at the front of apartments that we can also access with a key makes more sense.

9. Let me run free

One of my favourite things about Scotland is the freedom the average person has to walk on someone else’s land. The Pentland hills near Edinburgh are a great example of this. I won’t go too much into this, as I could write a whole other post on this topic. And I am sure most of you already know more about this than me, and if you don’t, google it!

I had this more or less at Lennox Head growing up. I use to walk on farmland, but I would have to climb through barbwire fences to do this (I got quite good at this) and I obviously was not meant to be walking on this land. But because I guess I was a bad child, I got to see some really beautiful parts around where I lived. Down the end of my street there was a bit of rainforest where there were vines me and my friends could swing on, but I had to get through barbwire fences to access this. So I really love the freedom to explore over here.

8. What’s all this about no sunshine?

Honestly it is not that cold, and not that cloudy. Maybe we have been really lucky with the weather, and I admit the sun setting at 3:30pm is a little soon, but this only lasts a short while, and in summer you get the sun setting at 10:30pm, so to me the trade-off is worth it. Maybe it is just because I love variety, and the weather and daylight hours vary quite a lot here. What bothered me was the endless sunshine and hot days without any rain in Perth. I really missed the rain. The cold is fine as you just have the proper clothes, and the heating in our home is great. I was way colder in my home in Perth in winter.

7. Scottish people are awesome

Yes, I know this is a generalisation, but you should be used to that now from me and meh!

Our first impression of a Scottish person in Scotland was our cab driver. He went out of his way to find exactly where our apartment was as we did not realize apartment number and street number are switched here when you write them (So 9/10 is unit 9 street number 10 in Australia , whereas here it is street number 9 apartment 10). We gave him a tip, and he handed back half of it as he said it was too much. Pretty much this first impression has held up. I feel really welcome here which is nice. Maybe I am actually not as welcome as I think, but I certainly feel like I am.

6. Castles, for real

Castles for us are such a novelty. We love roaming through them. We get as excited about castles as we do about snow. I am very glad that so much effort and money has been put into keeping these amazing buildings accessible to the public.

5. That was not food

The quality range here can really vary. My impression is that things are a little more expensive in Germany but you have better quality. We had some Toad in the Holes (admittedly this was frozen food) heated up in the oven and I have never felt so ill from eating something in my life (except when I have gotten food poising). I have no idea what type of meat they used but it was such bad quality. Maybe we should have known better, and maybe you all know better. Maybe all frozen meat products are a no go here. I do not know. Adam and I have frozen vegetarian meat as part of our lunches now.

4. Pierogi my favourite

So apparently there is quite a large Polish community here, there are Polish speciality shops all over the place. And we totally win from this as I love Polish food. I can get a pack of mushroom and sauerkraut pierogi from the local supermarket for £1-1.50 (AUD2-3.00 roughly). Bargain! My background is Ukrainian, Polish and Belarussian (or as Adam says it does not matter, and I guess I tend to agree), and my grandma use to make varenyky which is more or less the same as pierogi. I would like to make it too, but it is too time consuming. So it is nice to get it (or something close enough) so easily here. Now if only I could get cabbage rolls like my grandmother use to make…she was the best cook.

я голодний

Hope that translation was correct, I know how to say it, I don’t know how to write it. (It says "I am hungry!")

3. Not hot chips with meals, what?

Just so there is no confusion, I mean what you call crisps in the UK or potato chips in Australia. We have had a few times now when we have ordered a sandwich at a café where it would come with a few potato chips or corn chips on the plate. We have never had this before, and we think it is the strangest thing. But I guess do hot chips make more sense? Yes, yes they do! Or else you might as well throw a few Gummi Bears on the side if you're going to head down that path!

2. Washing, washing everywhere

It seems so odd to me that dryers are common in Australia but they are not in the UK, not even laundries seem common. In some units/apartments in Australia they do not have a separate laundry, but they will have something within the bathroom, like a cupboard with the washing machine and dryer behind it. Maybe this comes back to the lack of power points in the bathroom… and smaller sized places in general. In Germany we had a communal laundry room where we could all put our washing machines and dryers.

With the unpredictable rain, you cannot really hang your washing up outside here (There is not even the option where we rent), so the only option for our case, and I think this is common in the UK, is to air dry your clothes inside your home. So this means almost all the time we have two clothes racks with washing drying. From what I have seen new places are also being built without a laundry, and with the washing machine in the kitchen.  Why! Does it honestly not bother UK residents? I have seen some larger homes will have a laundry, so maybe having a laundry is a rich person thing here? I think maybe it would be fine to dry your clothes inside if you were one person, and you could open the windows to have airflow remove the dampness. But with it being 0 degrees outside, I do not really want the windows open all the time.

1. Tiny deathtrap bathrooms

They seem to love having the shower in the bathtub here. I think this is a US thing too. In Australia, only cheap places (Or maybe old ones) have the shower in the bathtub in the main bathroom. We tend to have a separate shower. Bathtubs are slippery, the shower curtain sticks to you, and it’s cold! With a shower with glass doors you are in this warm, safe box. I don’t know how old people manage to step into these bathtub/shower combo’s. In Australia, if there is a lack of space, they will only have a shower and not bathtub. The main plus of the shower/bathtub combo is not having to clean the grout. But to me, that is it.

Because the bathrooms are so small, the sinks tend to be right up next to the toilet, virtually to the point that you could be going to the toilet while leaning over the sink and brushing your teeth at the same time. I can't even imagine what this does for hygiene, but I know Adam is not overly impressed putting contact lenses in and out of his eyes two feet from a toilet bowl!

We tend to dislike the trend of putting toilets in bathrooms in general, but over here it's almost like they built the bathroom at a size intended only for a bath and sink, and then just decided to jam a toilet in there because they've been playing too much Tetris or something.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Atheism and Belief

Statue de René DESCARTES - Jean-Charles GUILLO

I've seen many atheists try to distance themselves from the concept of 'belief'. They will tend to argue that atheism isn't a belief, but rather the lack of belief. They will say that an atheist doesn't believe that there is no god, but rather lacks any belief that there is one. They will point to the infinite possible things that may or may not exist, and say that you don't explicitly believe that these things do not exist, but rather that you don't hold a belief unless there is evidence to support it.

I understand why many atheists head down this path of reasoning. It's a common debating tactic of religious people to claim that atheism is 'just another religion' or 'just another belief', implicitly or explicitly trying to remove any claim atheism has to being more truthful or rational than all the religious belief systems.

Now it's certainly true that atheism isn't a religion. However you want to define a religion, it really doesn't seem that atheism will fit the bill, since it's purely the belief that there is no god. There are no other core 'tenets' to atheism. While many atheists will tend towards similar moral principles and beliefs (such as humanism), these are not part of atheism itself, just like most atheists accept that evolution is true, but evolution is not a tenet of atheism.

The problem I have is with atheists trying to distance themselves from the concept of 'belief'. I'm yet to meet an atheist who doesn't actually hold the belief that there is no god, whether they consciously realize that they hold this belief or not, and here I hope to explain why this is the case.

Reasons For Belief

I think the underlying problem is that people misunderstand what a 'belief' is, thinking that it somehow implies either refusal to change your opinion if you get counter evidence, or that it means thinking something is true without evidence. But a belief can be a perfectly scientific and rational concept. We all hold beliefs on countless different things: whether humans are causing climate change; whether gravity exists; whether it's safe to drink the water out of your tap; whether your next door neighbour is a nice person. These are all beliefs, and we will hold them to different degrees, based on our reasons for holding them.

The strength of your belief in something will be based on how solid you think your reasons are for that belief. This is true regardless of the particular type of reason. What are the possible types?

  • Evidence is the obvious one, with the scientific method being the route of choice for evaluating evidence. It's not perfect, but based on results it seems to be the best way we have for testing beliefs against real world data and separating out what is likely to be true from what is likely to be false.
  • Faith is the other big one, where people will explicitly admit that they don't have evidence for their belief, but choose to hold it anyway, for whatever their justification is.
  • Authority is another common one, and is interesting because it can fall in between evidence and faith. Ideally we would never rely on authority and always insist on evidence, but in practice we often have to. For instance, I will tend to rely on the authority of an expert like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss or The National Health and Medical Research Council to help determine my beliefs about things within their areas of expertise. On its face this looks like faith, and to a degree it is. But my trust is not based on blind whim or just wanting them to be right, it's based on evidence having supported their previous claims, which increases confidence that they are reliable on other issues within their area of expertise, combined with the fact that I know I can look for specific evidence on these things if I want to. I'm never required to take their word on faith; I'm just using that as a shortcut because I don't have the time to look into the evidence for everything in my world that may or may not be true.

So, for a rational person, the strength of their belief in something will be based on the strength of evidence to support it. This can range from near certainty for extremely well supported theories like general relativity or evolution, or well refuted theories like phlogiston (look it up) or the moon landings being faked. You implicitly use the same method to determine what constitutes a healthy diet, or if your partner is cheating on you, or what the fastest route is to get to work.

(Note that the scientific definition of a fact is generally considered to be something that is so well supported that it would be perverse to deny it. So it's not really anything qualitatively different from a belief, just something so well supported that you'd basically need a damn good reason to expect anyone to waste time questioning it; time is limited and we've all got better things to do!)

I Think Therefore I Believe

But here is the key thing about belief: as soon as you ask yourself whether or not you believe something, you now hold a belief about it.

Up to now, you will not have held a belief one way or the other about whether or not an orange unicorn named Shirley is happily living at the top of Mount Everest, but as soon as I pose the question of whether you believe it or not, you now hold a belief. You effectively weigh up the evidence you have for and against it (which would include things as specific as whether you've heard of this exact thing before to more general things such as knowledge about whether unicorns exist and the survivability of the peak of Mount Everest) and decide whether you believe it is true or believe it is false (hopefully the latter).

The strength of this belief can vary by all kinds of degrees, but you're going to believe something about it, somewhere along the spectrum from absolute certainty that it's false to absolute certainty that it's true. You would have to be the blankest of slates to have absolutely no opinion one way or the other, to have absolutely no knowledge that would make you lean even slightly one way or the other.

So when you ask an atheist what his belief is regarding the existence of a god, the fact of the matter is that this particular belief is not the same as the infinite other possible things that may or may not exist, because he has specifically pondered it. In reality, if you believe that the evidence at all leans towards there being some kind of higher power, then you are a theist, even if you think the evidence is very weak. And if you at all lean towards there not being any kind of higher power, then you are an atheist, and you believe that there is no god. This belief may be weak; you will of course be willing to change it if you are presented with good evidence to the contrary; but it's a belief, not the absence of one.

And this holds true for anyone taking an agnostic stance too. Agnosticism is just the belief that it's not possible to prove the existence of a god one way or the other. This is completely separate to whether you believe a god exists or not. You can hold beliefs without the hope of ever having definitive proof, and quite often you have to do so because you usually have to take action in life with incomplete information. Whether you can get definitive proof or not is generally a moot point because we have to act without definitive proof most of the time.

Consider whether it is knowable or not that the water in your tap is safe to drink. In theory it's knowable, but in practice you do not have certainty and never will. But you either drink it or you don't, and that says what your belief is on the issue. Is your car safe to drive? If you drive it, then you believe it is (to some degree). Can you fly? If you jump off a building and flap your arms then you believe that you can (at least strongly enough to risk your life over it). Do you believe in a god? If you act in a way that you would not if you did not (such as praying or making moral arguments based on sin or the existence of souls), then you believe it. Knowability is just not really relevant in practice.


So I hope with all the previous rambling I've made a reasonable case that 'lack of belief' is really not what atheists have, and that any atheists who read this are more willing to own their actual beliefs without feeling that it compels them to make any claims to certainty, or equates beliefs based on evidence with beliefs based on faith. And for any theists who read this, I hope I've made it a bit clearer that you effectively apply reason and evidence to 100 different things every day, and maybe start to apply the same to your opinions on religion and the existence of supernatural beings.