You know this podish-sortacast that Freethoughtblogs runs? At the end of the last one, we were talking about new topics, and I casually threw out “SPIDERS” expecting everyone would actually pick something of broader general interest. The jokes on me, because guess what we’re talking about on Saturday?

I can probably think of something to say. Whether it is of interest is a different question.

Apple unveiled a shiny new gadget today: Apple Vision Pro.

This looks really good! I want one. But as the summary of the glorious widget went on, it was clear I was not in their market. It’s a complete wearable computer, with a whole new interface — it’s everything Microsoft and all those cyberpunk authors dreamed of, integrating the real world (it’s transparent) with virtual reality. As I listened to the WWDC presentation, though, every glowing adjective and every new tech toy built into it made me cringe. The price was climbing by the second. Then at the end, they broke the news: $3500. Nope, not for me. It’s about what we ought to expect in something so shiny and new and packed with every bit of advanced technology they could pack into an extremely small space, though.

That price is not going to stop Apple, I’m sure. This is going to be the new must-have technological marvel that every techbro and marketingbro and rich person with ludicrous amounts of surplus wealth is going to want. Apple is going to clean up, I predict.

Look at that thing. It’s beautiful.

That’s Ingenuity, the drone that was sent to Mars on the Perseverance mission. It was intended to be a proof-of-concept test, expected to fly for only a couple of excursions, and then fail under the hellish Martian conditions. Instead, it has survived for two years.

Ingenuity defied the odds the day it first lifted off from Martian soil. The four-pound aircraft stands about 19 inches tall and is little more than a box of avionics with four spindly legs on one end and two rotor blades and a solar panel on the other. But it performed the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet — what NASA billed a “Wright brothers moment” — after arriving on Mars in April 2021.

It’s made over 50 flights. Apparently it’s a bit wonky, losing radio connection to the rover when it flies out of line of sight, or when the cold shuts it down, but when it warms up, or the rover drives closer, it gets right up again.

NASA has still got good engineering. It might be because of all the redundancy they build into every gadget — this little drone cost $80 million dollars! — but I have a hypothesis that the real secret to its success is what they left out. There’s no narcissistic and incompetent billionaire attached to the project, just a lot of engineers who take pride in their work.

A Texas A&M professor flunked all of his students because ChatGPT told him to.

Dr. Jared Mumm, a campus rodeo instructor who also teaches agricultural classes,

He legitimately wrote a PhD thesis on pig farming, but really — a “rodeo instructor”? I guess that’s like the coaches we have working in athletic programs at non-Ag colleges.

sent an email on Monday to a group of students informing them that he had submitted grades for their last three essay assignments of the semester. Everyone would be receiving an “X” in the course, Mumm explained, because he had used “Chat GTP” (the OpenAI chatbot is actually called “ChatGPT”) to test whether they’d used the software to write the papers — and the bot claimed to have authored every single one.

“I copy and paste your responses in [ChatGPT] and [it] will tell me if the program generated the content,” he wrote, saying he had tested each paper twice. He offered the class a makeup assignment to avoid the failing grade — which could otherwise, in theory, threaten their graduation status.

Wow. He doesn’t know what he’s doing at all. ChatGPT is an artificial expert at confabulation — it will assemble a plausible-sounding mess of words that looks like other collections of words it finds in its database, and that’s about it. It’s not TurnItIn, a service professors have been using for at least a decade that compares submitted text to other texts in it’s database, and reports similarities. ChatGPT will happily make stuff up. You can’t use it the way he thinks.

Mumm was unwarrantedly aggressive in his ignorance.

Students claim they supplied him with proof they hadn’t used ChatGPT — exonerating timestamps on the Google Documents they used to complete the homework — but that he initially ignored this, commenting in the school’s grading software system, “I don’t grade AI bullshit.” (Mumm did not return Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.)

Unfortunately for him, Mumm was cursed with smarter spectators to his AI bullshit. One of them ran Mumm’s PhD thesis through ChatGPT in the same inappropriate, invalid way.

In an amusing wrinkle, Mumm’s claims appear to be undercut by a simple experiment using ChatGPT. On Tuesday, redditor Delicious_Village112 found an abstract of Mumm’s doctoral dissertation on pig farming and submitted a section of that paper to the bot, asking if it might have written the paragraph. “Yes, the passage you shared could indeed have been generated by a language model like ChatGPT, given the right prompt,” the program answered. “The text contains several characteristics that are consistent with AI-generated content.” At the request of other redditors, Delicious_Village112 also submitted Mumm’s email to students about their presumed AI deception, asking the same question. “Yes, I wrote the content you’ve shared,” ChatGPT replied. Yet the bot also clarified: “If someone used my abilities to help draft an email, I wouldn’t have a record of it.”

On the one hand, I am relieved to see that ChatGPT can’t replace me. On the other hand, there is an example of someone who thinks it can, to disastrous effect. Maybe it could at least replace the Jared Mumm’s of the world, except I bet it sucks at bronco bustin’ and lassoing calves.

A stock image of a man and a woman with two children

It would not be a surprise to anyone that men in the UK become fathers, on average, roughly three years later than women. Indeed, anthropologists have observed such discrepancies in parental age, or “generation times”, in over 99 per cent of contemporary cultures. But has this always been the case?

A study published in Science Advances in January provides the first evidence that these sex differences have been a feature across all 250,000 years of human history. Improving the precision of these sorts of estimates helps evolutionary geneticists to better date major population events, such as mass migrations or interbreeding events between early humans and extinct hominins such as the Neanderthals.

The researchers at Indiana University first studied a large genetic dataset of Icelandic families, which had data on parental age. This allowed them to model how parental age and sex relates to the types of new DNA mutations that arise between generations. The model was then applied to a dataset of genomes from across the world, allowing the researchers to estimate both when in human history a mutation was likely to have arisen, and also the likely age and sex of the parents who preceded it.

The results found that the average generation time for humans across history was 26.9 years, with more than seven years difference between the typical age at conception for men (30.7 years) compared to women (23.2 years).

Whilst reaching puberty at basically the same age as women, men can typically reproduce for an additional 20 years, which likely explains some of the difference. However, the researchers suggest that social factors could also play a role, such as expectations to accrue assets or status before starting a family.

Some have raised valid concerns that the model does not sufficiently account for factors other than parental age affecting the pattern of mutations, such as the impact of environmental exposures. However, the work takes us one step closer to understanding the biology, demography and social structures of our ancient ancestors.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2023 edition. Subscribe here.

A MacOS port of No Man’s Sky dropped this past week. Let’s try it out! This will be a short stream (half hour?) at 10 Central time today, and I’ll give it a quick trial.

This is all shiny and new, so I’m not going to be shocked if it crashes a few times. I also have no idea about performance — I’ve been running this on an Intel machine running PopOS Linux before this, and now I’m going to try it on a Mac Mini with an M1 chip and 16GB. Fingers crossed — it would be nice to see the Mac become a viable machine for gaming.

Wow, that went smoothly. No crashes. Performance was far better on my inexpensive little Mac then it is on my bigger, fancier Linux box (but to be fair, the Linux machine is 7 or 8 years old).

Apologies if you tuned in expecting nothing but gamer/gearhead talk, I mainly chattered away about our current research project. And spiders, naturally.

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A photo portrait of Salman Rushdie

Victory City (Penguin Books) by Salman Rushdie

In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie and his publishers for his novel The Satanic Verses, claiming his depiction of a Muhammad-like figure was blasphemous. The international writers’ organisation PEN was instrumental in the campaign calling for Rushdie’s protection and for his inalienable right to free expression to be recognised.

Later, I became director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and witnessed for myself Rushdie’s dedication to persecuted writers worldwide. He was always a signatory on our petitions and served as president of American PEN from 2004 to 2006. Today, he is a patron of Humanists UK and a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.

Last summer, Rushdie was brutally attacked at a literary event in New York state, leaving him blinded in one eye. Months later Victory City, his latest novel, was published. Words endure. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

Victory City is an epic tale with a feminist slant. The novel’s protagonist is Pampa Kampana, a fictitious poet and prophetess who creates an empire, and then writes about its rise and fall in a narrative poem called the Jayaparajaya. The poem is buried in a clay pot sealed with wax and unearthed four and a half centuries later. Rushdie cleverly frames Victory City as a version of her-story, rather than his-story, retold in plainer language by “a spinner of yarns”.

The novel opens in 14th-century southern India. Nine-year-old Pampa witnesses her mother burning to death as part of a mass suicide after their kingdom is defeated. Orphaned, she is blessed by the goddess Parvati and later reaches a monk’s cave dwelling, where she lives for nine years with a scholar, Vidyasagar, who abuses her: “He did not do it often, because scholarship usually left him too tired to do much about his lusts, but he did it often enough.”

When she comes of age Pampa sows a city, Vijayanagar (Sanskrit for victory city), using a bag of magical seeds, and whispers its people into existence. It becomes known as Bisnaga. During her lifetime – she dies aged 240 – Pampa attempts to give women equal rights in a patriarchal world. She promotes education for all and religious tolerance. The arts are seen as essential and female warriors are as much to be feared as their male counterparts.

Pampa gives birth to three daughters with her lover, a dashing Portuguese trader, whom she prioritises over the three arrogant sons she has with the second king of Bisnaga. She insists their “barbarian” sons are sent away. War is waged against neighbours, battles are won and lost. After the king’s death, Pampa is herself exiled and lives in an enchanted forest with her three daughters and two loyal servants.

Fantastical elements are woven throughout the narrative. As well as magic seeds, there are talking birds, a forest goddess and troublesome pink monkeys. Pampa bides her time and returns to Bisnaga 132 years later, becoming Queen Regent. The kingdom flourishes under her rule. Later her despotic husband has her blinded with red-hot irons – particularly chilling, given Rushdie’s own fate. Inevitably, with Pampa weakened, the empire declines.

Rushdie is finely tuned to the political manoeuvrings that allow tyranny to flourish: “the blurring between the worship of the god and the devotion felt for the king”, the repression of fundamental human rights, the renaming of streets, and using religion as “a tool for the maintenance of social control.” The rulers come from a mixed stock, including cowherds and soldiers, and dynasties can change overnight. Rushdie also plays with different registers of tone and language. Passages of lyrical prose are followed by modern idiom – one character might say “fuck”, another punctuates their sentences with “isn’t it.”

I imagine Victory City will divide readers, as it has critics. It’s a challenging read, but one that celebrates the power of storytelling. Pampa’s conclusion echoes Rushdie’s lifelong belief: “Words are the only victors.”

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2023 edition. Subscribe here.

An AI-generated image from Boris Eldagsen's controversial ongoing series, 'Pseudomnesia', which shows a black and white, hyper-realistic image of a man and a woman with their arms around each other

The recent release to the public of a wave of new art and writing tools, such as DALL-E and ChatGPT, has been greeted with an outpouring of alarmist rhetoric. The software, based on artificial intelligence, responds to prompts like “create a picture of a woman eating salad and laughing” or “write a poem in the style of Lewis Carroll” by searching the web for examples and building on these to create an approximation: an image (though often disturbingly mangled) or something like a poem (at least in the sense that it rhymes). Sometimes the prompt works well and the production can seem magical.

Sceptics have been horrified. “AI in art” is “a creditless, thankless, and soulless alternative to the real thing,” Jade King complains in the Gamer magazine. Writing in the Washington Post, musician and producer T-Bone Burnett and author Jonathan Taplin worry that AI threatens “the core creative act” which if “radically diminished, or replaced… will stop culture in its tracks.” The underlying fear here is that artificial intelligence will rise up, exploit and replace us. Art – real art – is deeply human. These new tools, which scrape the web for content, simply remix and remash without any personal, individual spark.

There are real concerns about the way AI picks up source material without payment, just as there were reasonable concerns about the way that early hip-hop artists lifted source tracks without recompensing the original creators. Art under capitalism, like most labour under capitalism, is monetised in ways that benefit those at the top and grind down those at the bottom, and new tech is quickly subverted to that purpose.

Exploitation, though, isn’t new. Nor is it inhuman. On the contrary, the exploitation of artists is often rationalised by the pretence of art as unquenchable and unbindable individualism. Our most famous music artists may sing about being rebellious and free, but are often trapped in contracts involving financial exploitation, or worse (the latest case being pop star Kesha, accusing her producer of physical and sexual abuse.) If art is your soul, then the business of art is selling your soul, which has some obvious downsides.

Why not, instead, embrace the mechanism? Forget originality and the divine afflatus. If the AI is going to control us all, shouldn’t we be working to become the AI? Let us seize the means of production of ourselves!

That’s the essential argument of the wonderful Against Expression, a 590-page anthology of “uncreative writing” edited by poets Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith. Published more than a decade ago, in 2011, it holds some valuable insights for our own fraught cultural moment. The writing in the book is “uncreative” for the same reason that AI art is often labeled as such. The 100-odd authors in the book create their poems by cutting up or lifting text from other sources: literature, internet detritus, grammar books, psychological testing instruments.

The anthology demonstrates the long and rich tradition of such practices. The “writers” – including William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Claudia Rankine – find text and then remix and recontextualise. They are less like Byron (“Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying,/streams like the thunderstorm against the wind”) and more like, say, ChatGPT, trawling the internet for content to slice up, rewrite and misinterpret.

One of my favorite poems from the anthology is an excerpt from Rory Macbeth’s 2007 book The Bible (alphabetized). It’s exactly what the title says: a list of every word in the Bible in alphabetical order, including eight pages of:

be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be be

The different authors in the volume aren’t different because they have different identities and unique voices. They’re different because they draw from different data sets. Macbeth uses the Bible. Nada Gordon’s “Abnormal Discharge” (first published in the anthology itself) reproduces post titles from the Women’s Health Forum message board (“possible pregnancy/vaginal discharge Jessica/Abnormal Pap Smear Jennifer/Abnormal Pap”). H. L. Hix’s God Bless (2007) is a book of poems entirely composed of phrases from the speeches of George W. Bush and the public statements of Osama bin Laden. Claude Cosky’s “The First Thousand Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order” begins with “Eight, eight-hundred, eight hundred and eight” and ends with “two-hundred and two.”

I personally find this impersonal approach to writing exhilarating. I laughed out loud at all those “be”s. I thought to myself, “I never realised that eight was the first number in the alphabetical order.” But if you are not, like me, a neurodivergent oddball, you may well be less convinced. Why would anyone read this? Why would anyone write it?

Co-editor Goldsmith is most famous for “Day”, a 2003 poem in which he wrote out the entirety of the New York Times from 1 September 2000. He argues in the preface to After Expression that the rise of uncreative writing is in part a reaction to the increasing manipulability and algorithmicisation of text made possible by the internet. “Never before has language had so much materiality – fluidity, plasticity, malleability – begging to be actively managed by the writer.” T-Bone Burnett sees AI as eating away at originality as it hoovers up old art and spews out garbled and rearranged (but still old) art. Goldsmith, in contrast, thinks the ease of hoovering and spewing is itself a new kind of creation and a new kind of creativity. Which is really more creative: writing (yet another) lyric poem about lost love, or listing every word in the Bible alphabetically?

The poetry compiled in Against Expression is a system or a process. When Robert Fitterman rewrites Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises by removing all sentences except for those that begin with the pronoun “I,” he is both removing the self from literature and centering the self in literature. Is he mocking Hemingway’s self-absorption? Enjoying it? Replacing it with his own? It’s all of those, I would argue, and also just a joke that makes you laugh – at once an intimate and universal, and therefore impersonal, response.

Similarly, when Dan Farrell turns a psychological diagnostic tool into a series of “I” statements (“I do things that keep me from becoming physically unhealthy. I feel angry. I am pretty angry about things these days”), the voice is an eerie mirror of self and soul. There is an “I”, but it’s not an “I”. It’s just an algorithm, a grammatical convenience. The effect is poignant, repulsive, beautiful, uncanny, hard to categorise – like poetry.

To dismiss AI art as “soulless” is to assume that the purpose of art is to demonstrate soul, to validate a romantic personhood at the centre of culture and existence. But, as Against Expression shows by its inclusion of works by figures like Samuel Beckett and W. B. Yeats, the presence of the soul in art has long been an object of scepticism.

This isn’t a call for tech utopianism. Algorithmic art, with or without AI assistance, can be moving or tedious, fun or irritating, just like any other kind of creative endeavour. But when we assume we can produce originality via a conventional chord change or rhyming couplet, we may be just another cog in the culture industry’s endless grinding soulless reiteration of soul.

Artificial intelligence won’t free us from this dynamic. But if we listen, it might speak back our own thoughts, or their absence, in words meaningless enough to make some new sense of a tired idea, from “be” to “eight” to “I”.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2023 edition. Subscribe here.

A stock image of thick vegetation

On 22 April 1915, a cloud of noxious gas drifted from German lines towards the Allied troops entrenched on the Ypres battlefield. The soldiers were wholly unprepared, with no masks to protect them.

Not wanting to be caught offguard again, the Allies dispatched a chemist to the battlefield, to shed light on this devestating new weapon. Of course, by the time John Scott Haldane and his team arrived the gas had long since dispersed. But subtle clues were left. They noticed a discolouration of the brass buttons on the unfortunate soldiers’ uniforms. Something had reacted with the zinc and copper in the brass, and the culprit was chlorine.

Over 100 years later, inspectors at sites of chemical weapon attacks face a similar problem. The chemical agents are reactive, volatile and frequently work at very low concentrations, all of which make them difficult to detect. Often autopsies are used, but this can be complicated as human remains need careful and considerate collection and transportation.

Plants, however, are much easier to work with. This approach has been recently pioneered by a group from TNO Defence in the Netherlands. They exposed plants to mustard gas, sarin (a nerve agent deployed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013), chlorine and Novichok (used in the 2018 Salisbury attacks). Vegetation survives the exposure, but is not totally unaffected. Each of these agents reacts with proteins within the plants. These modified proteins can be easily extracted and detected using highly sensitive mass spectrometry.

The method was tested on basil, stinging nettles and bay laurels, suggesting the approach will likely work for a wide variety of species. The only issue was that exposure to common household bleach generated the same response as chlorine gas. Meaning, in the absence of brass buttons, there is more work to be done to rule out this source of false positives.

Nevertheless, the methodology shows strong promise and now just requires some samples from real-world incidents to validate the approach. Let’s hope TNO Defence don’t get these samples any time soon.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2023 edition. Subscribe here.

'An Old Woman' - commonly known as 'The Ugly Duchess' - by Quinten Massys. The portrait depicts an old woman with exaggerated features, including a bulging forehead and bosom squeezed into an ill-fitting corset

It is said that the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis died while laughing at his completed likeness of an ugly old woman. The Flemish artist Quinten Massys survived the painting of “The Ugly Duchess” (about 1513), but it might have been a close shave. Certainly plenty of people have at least smirked at her in the years since.

This is because, and there is no getting around it, she appears ridiculous: bulging forehead, protruding ears, puckered mouth, hairy mole on her cheek, huge horned headdress and shrivelled bosom. She looks beseechingly upwards, clutching a tiny withered rosebud. When the painting was put up for auction in 1920, the New York Times advertised the sale of a “portrait which is generally accepted as being the ugliest one in the world”. But why is she ugly? And how are we meant to respond?

A new exhibition at the National Gallery in London called “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance” successfully answers these questions. It traces the influences on and atmosphere around the conception of “The Ugly Duchess” – religious, artistic, misogynistic – and convincingly places her within a long tradition of negative portrayals of women. There are witches, crones and hags; the incredible grotesques of Leonardo da Vinci; and the creepy John Tenniel illustrations for the 1865 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. All either influences on, or influenced by, Massys’ duchess. It is to the considerable credit of this exhibition that it hasn’t dampened the fun of these artworks, while brilliantly elucidating the sinister threads that run through them.

The first thing that we discover is that the duchess has a partner. A man. Apparently, they were conceived as a pair, then separated and lost to each other for many years. Reunited, they make an odd couple. For one thing he looks remarkably unremarkable, even dull. He is seen in profile wearing a dark velvet cap and dark fur-trimmed coat. He looks prosperous and respectable. He has full lips, heavy lids and a bland expression, with one hand held up towards the duchess. Plainly, an exchange is taking place: his outstretched hand is a response to her proffered rosebud.

The exhibition makes clear that this was a familiar trope. The accompanying catalogue informs us that “The advent of print culture in the second half of the fifteenth century expanded the repertoire of secular imagery and propelled humorous subjects deriding what were then considered society’s ills.” One such target of satire was the so-called “ill-matched couple” – usually a wrinkled woman or wizened man who is courted by a much younger partner desirous of their wealth. A brilliant example of this genre is provided in the form of an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem called “The Unequal Couple” (about 1480–90). A corpse-like woman looks deep into the eyes of a beautiful young man with flowing locks, while his hand travels over the large bag of coins she is clutching.

Our couple exhibit more dignified behaviour, yet they too would have been immediately identified as ridiculous. The man (possibly based on the vastly wealthy Cosimo de’ Medici) is cast as a recognisably smug banker-merchant type, while the woman (rumoured to have been based on the famously ugly Margaret, Countess of Tyrol) is cast as a recognisably freakish grotesque – a stock character borrowed from Leonardo da Vinci’s visi mostruosi (monstrous faces). Her likeness appears again and again in different works by different artists – in Florentine engravings, English misericords and French illustrations. In each she is a figure of either fear or fun.

One cause for ridicule is her outfit. The outsized headdress and revealing corset, in what was then an outdated and vulgar style, would have immediately marked her out as the “embodiment of foolish vanity”. The great philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (Massys’ contemporary and patron) had especial contempt for such overdressed women: “Who would put up now with a decent married woman wearing those huge horns and pyramids and cones sticking out from the top of the head and having her brows and temples plucked so that nearly half her head is bald?” On seeing such a figure “Everyone would laugh and boo.” Clearly, in the 16th century, such a get-up was familiar visual comedy: the delusional old woman, full of lust and avarice, mutton dressed as lamb.

But amid all the laughing and booing there is also a palpable unease. This is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the exhibition. Old women, their representation made more visceral by the period’s furtherance of verisimilitude, are here often depicted as sagging, cackling hags. Due to religious and folkloric superstitions and misunderstandings over how the female body works, there had developed a pervasive fear of women – in particular, fear of their sexuality. Malleus Maleficarum (or The Hammer of Witches, first published in 1486), a treatise written by German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer, declared that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”.

This concern can be seen in Massys’ sly-looking, overdressed hags (those horned headdresses are a sure sign of devil worship), but it finds its battiest representation in the wonderful engraving “Morris Dance with the Sausage Woman” by the Italian Monogrammist SE. Here, we behold a woman much like the duchess who holds in one hand a spear of phallic sausages and in the other a satanic cloven hoof, while a group of men dance around her.

In this image, and elsewhere, older women are depicted as worryingly powerful – as enchantresses, seducers and subverters of men’s rightful position. The most exhilarating example featured in the exhibition is Albrecht Dürer’s “Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat” (about 1500). An old, half-undressed woman with sagging breasts and an expression suggesting a full-throated war cry soars across the page on the back of a black, horned goat, scattering four cherubim in her wake. Her hair eerily flows in the opposite direction she is travelling and she suggestively grips the goat’s horn. In this disconcerting image of disorder and rebellion there is little for the male viewer to chuckle at.

In The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender and Power in Early Modern Europe, Linda Hults observes that “The sexual drive was believed to be greater in postmenopausal, widowed women. Their sexuality was especially repugnant not only because of their physical appearance but also because it could not lead to procreation.”

It is interesting that Massys’ “ugliest” portrait should have an afterlife as the frightening duchess in Alice in Wonderland (beater of babies and owner of the Cheshire Cat). While not mentioned in the exhibition, the portrait also bears a resemblance to the witch in the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away. She becomes, in these new guises, divorced from the real-life fears and prejudices that shaped her in the first place. She is just a scary template. What is affecting about the items collected at the National Gallery is that they remind us of the uncomfortable themes beneath. In their laughter, sadness or fury, the paintings reflect something in the viewer. Perhaps a guilty conscience.

The exhibition holds out the promise of discovering a duchess who is not only grotesque, but also “subversive, fierce and defiant”. While the curators have gamely tried to reposition her as a more actively destabilising presence, this is ultimately unconvincing. Like it or not, the joke is entirely at her expense. “The Ugly Duchess” was conceived and executed amid titters, for an audience that was looking for a laugh. Although now, in this concise but wide-ranging exhibition, she might finally be in more sympathetic company.

This piece is from the New Humanist summer 2023 edition. Subscribe here.

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From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! As Steven Pinker wrote recently in the Boston Globe, “The very concept of freedom of expression is anything but intuitively obvious.” He’s right, of course. When we are confronted with ideas we find disagreeable, dangerous, or downright abhorrent, our first instinct is likely to want to silence …

everybodys-magic-1I am excited to launch a new fund raising initiative for the amazing College of Magic in South Africa. The College is a non-profit community youth development organisation that uses magic to offer hope to young people in and around Cape Town.  They do incredible work and for the past two years I have been working with them and Vanishing Inc (the largest magic retailer in the world ) to produce a unique  magic booklet and custom deck of cards for budding magicians. 

everybodys-magic-11This gorgeous full-colour booklet involves students from the College teaching magical illusions, and tells inspirational stories of diverse historical magicians. Both the booklet and cards showcase great artwork by South African illustrator, Ndumiso Nyoni, and readers have special access to videos of the students teaching the tricks and offering top tips.

everybodys-magic-4All the profits raised from the sale of the booklet and deck of cards will go towards furthering the important and wonderful work of the College. It’s a lovely gift for friends and family and it would be great if you can support the project.

To find out more, please click here

This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …
From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! It might be funny, if it weren’t so worrisome. Recent weeks have seen some absurd new instances of science beset by would-be censors operating under the banner of “inclusion.” Examples are many, and they come from all over the globe. We’ll look at an ongoing controversy in …

Richard-Wisemans-On-Your-Mind-1080x1080I am very excited to announce that I have a new podcast out!

Each episode, science journalist Marnie Chesterton and I will be exploring one of my favourite psychological topics, such as happiness, lying, laughter, and luck. We will be taking a deep dive into the research and revealing simple ideas that could help to improve your life.

We launched yesterday and have already reached the Number 2 slot on the Apple Science Chart! Thank you so much to everyone who has listened so far. During the episodes we will be answering 1000 questions about the mind, so feel free to post your questions on my blog. 

It’s called Richard Wiseman’s On Your Mind and the link to the podcast is here.

My thanks to Podimo and TellTale studios for supporting and producing the podcast.

Screenshot 2023-01-28 at 16.53.58A few years ago I had the idea of making a comic devoted to three of my favourite topics: Magic, psychology and the paranormal. I teamed up with ace comic book artist Jordan Cullver, writer Rik Worth and colourist Owen Watts, and together we created 5 issues of Hocus Pocus.

Each issue introduces true stories of amazing feats, describes astounding psychic investigations, celebrates the history of magic, and examines the psychology of the paranormal. Not only that, but we included lots of interactive elements, including tests of your paranormal abilities, magical illusions,  psychic readings and much more. The comics were well received and even ended up being nominated for a prestigious Eisner award! As a result, many of the issues sold out and are now unavailable.

This week, those nice folks at Vanishing Inc have kindly put all five issues into a lovely, full colour, hard backed book.  Not only that but it contains some extra material for HOCUS POCUS fans:

A new introduction by me
A beautiful Cover Gallery showcasing Jordan’s fantastic artwork from all five issues
“How we made HOCUS POCUS: The Secrets Revealed!” — Rik spills the beans all our deceptions.
The complete live HOCUS POCUS issue used as an interactive element from Lawrence Leung’s The Davenport Séance reprinted here for the first time.
PLUS, pick up your copy from Vanishing Inc and you’ll also receive a copy of the exclusive, one-of-a-kind “Hiding the Elephant Puzzle” comic. Not only will you learn the history of one of Houdini’s greatest illusions, you’ll make an elephant vanish as you do so. While stock lasts.

I hope that you enjoy it, and the book is available here.

matterswebI am delighted to announce that I have a new book out! This one is written for psychologists and students, and is the book that I wished I had read when I was an undergraduate. It examines why psychologists do what they do and aims to inspire the next generation of researchers.  It’s a personal journey into my favourite aspects of psychology, exploring how research can reveal the hidden workings of the mind, boost critical thinking, debunk myths, and improve lives. Along the way, I explain how to think like a psychologist, spot a liar, uncover the truth about happiness, and much more.  Several colleagues have been very kind about it and I hope that you enjoy it too!

“This engaging yet scrupulous introduction is ideal for those who wonder what psychology is really about.”
Uta Frith, University College London

“Reading this one-of-a-kind book, you feel as if you’re in a personal conversation with Richard Wiseman, one of the world’s most creative psychologists. He beautifully explains how psychologists gain insight into the human mind, expertly regales you with findings that are fascinating and surprising, and uncovers some of the many ways in which psychology improves lives. Perfect for students and professionals alike.”
Elizabeth Loftus, Past President, Association for Psychological Science

“A fantastic book. No one is better than Richard Wiseman to write about what psychology does and doesn’t offer. The quality of the writing and research reported is excellent.”
Cara Flanagan, top-selling author of A level psychology textbooks

“This wonderfully entertaining book celebrates why psychology really matters, calls for even more meaningful research, and presents a manifesto for change. A thought-provoking text that is deserving of serious consideration by both students and professional psychologists.”
Adrian Owen, OBE, neuroscientist and author, Western University

The book is available in the UK here

coverlevHi, a quick update about two projects that have just magically appeared!

First, I have co-authored (with Prof Caroline Watt) an article in PeerJ about the psychology of the impossible. It takes a look at research into impossible experiences across many different areas (including magic, dreaming, children’s play, and science fiction), examining how these experiences inspire creativity and have changed the world. It is free and can be be seen by clicking here.

Second, the fifth and final issue of our Hocus Pocus comic has landed! This comic celebrates magic, mystery and the mind, and this issue is all about levitation. It has stories about stage magic, the Indian rope trick and seance room trickery. It has been enormous fun working with the creative team of Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts. The comic has been selling out fast and this issue is available now at Propdog.

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@davorg / Tuesday 06 June 2023 12:06 UTC