Friday, August 28, 2009

Genuine blond!

Here is a heart warming story for brunettes who would rather be blonds. Apparently this little mouse in Nebraska has achieved what human women have been trying to do for years, it has turned itself from a "mousy" brown to a sandy blond without using any chemicals or suffering the humiliation of a Friday night rush job when the instructions on the packet weren't entirely followed correctly. How did she do it? evolution of course; just tweak a little gene in the right place and let natural selection do its thang!

Drawbacks? only a couple.. it takes 8,000 years and a lot of eagle eyed predators to get there :(

Victorian snake oil

I came across this picture in a BBC story today, it is mind boggling and certainly up there with Earth rise and the hubble ultra-deep field as the most important photographs ever created. The scale of the picture is a single molecule and the picture shows a "pentacene" molecule which is 5 linked benzene rings. The incredible thing about this picture is that it clearly shows the bonds between the atoms of carbon & hydrogen, the other thing that struck me was how similar it was to the text book images of the same molecule, such images were first created over a century ago (1865) by chemists who could only "reason" about such shapes and had no way of ever hoping to actually see them.

The image below shows the text book version of the same thing.

What with all this talk of revealed and reasoned knowledge on the blog lately this discovery has a nice little story associated with it; the Chemist that discovered the structure of Benzene was a German called Friedrich August Kekulé who claimed to only have realised the truth after a dream in which he saw a snake eating it's own tail (hence the ring structure)

Oh those victorians, such romantics, who says scientists can't be dreamers too!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Long March of the Koalas

Following on from my previous post about creationists and the daft things they think, I couldn't help but ponder on the bizarre ways they try to contort and obscure facts to fit their dogma, and how they think this delusional practice is somehow equivalent to "science"; to this end I came across this lovely little piece about Ken Ham who runs the Creation Museum in Kansas (as per previous blog entries here). Ken is an Australian and believes that the Earth is only 6000 years old, and that the Noah/Flood story is literally true; the writer of this blog points out the problem Ken has in explaining how Koala bears physically got to Australia after they were deposited on the top of Mount Ararat in 2300BC. Here is a snippet from the post:

"So how does Ham account for these wonderful creatures? His abbreviated timeline of the universe has Noah's ark landing on Mount Ararat along about 2300 BCE. Then what? Do the seven koalas walk to Australia from there? Seems rather a long walk, followed, I suppose, by rather a long swim. All without encountering a single eucalyptus tree -- the basis for their exclusive diet -- until they arrived at their destination on the other side of the world."

I just thought what a wonderful mental image this paints, imagine those 7 little koala bears trudging across the Indian sub-continent moaning to each other as they went, "I'm bloody starving… mate"

Educational Dissonance

There is a place near Bristol (UK) called the Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, it claims to belong to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums and claims to offer science education to school parties; however following a recent visit by a member of the Humanist association it has become clear that certain educational elements of the establishment run entirely contrary to established science, one could go so far as to say these people are lying to children. You have probably guessed by now that as usual religion is behind it; a simple cursory glance at their WEB site reveals a link called "creation research" (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and the report from Paul Pettinger of the BHA exposes many falsehoods being passed off as "science education", for example signs proclaiming reasons why apes are *not* related to man and how goats are biblically clean because of their cloven hooves.

No one objects to these people having religiously inspired theme parks, or indeed expressing their views as much as they like, however they cross a line when they call it "science" and encourage school children to visit as part of the national curriculum. To qualify as science and therefore part of the science education program you need to go through a proper peer reviewed process, do research and get published in respected scientific journals. There are no short cuts as these people seem to think there are, i.e. you can't just make stuff up that agrees with your religious beliefs and contradicts reality then call it "science", that is called dishonesty.

Someone from the educational authorities in Avon needs to drop in for a couple of hours and explain this fact of life before these people make even more cash from unsuspecting families by peddling their delusions as science.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Where is the harm?

I often read or participate in depressing exchanges on blogs and forums where some religious person admonishes me for suggesting that we in the west should support and raise awareness of the issues surrounding the emancipation of Women in oppressive (theocratic) cultures, particularly Muslim women living in Western countries such as the UK and France. In the best tradition of religious apologetics they claim that it is not my place to comment on the affairs of such women, and to do so is effectively making a mountain out of a molehill.

Reading between the lines the message is normally clear, "you can't criticise religious belief".

The hypocrisy of this attitude in light of the widely reported abuses of girls and women in some cultures really surprises me, it simply does not compute, I can not understand it. When we look back at history it is full of stories of people fighting to overcome injustice, more often than not in the teeth of opposition from vested interests and religious establishments, the very least we can do from the comfort of our safe suburban sofa's is to speak about what we see and feel within our peer groups; raise consciousness and even if we don't feel able to campaign directly we can at least morally support people who do campaign against injustice.

In addition to the perception that religious belief cannot be criticised I also often sense an accusation of exaggeration being levelled at me, a sentiment of "leave the nice religious people alone, there's no harm, stop being nasty". Clearly there are a large number of religious people in the world who are indeed nice people, moderates if you will, but I would make two important observations about moderates. Firstly, most moderates (of the main faiths) don't actually practice their religions as "documented", they tend to cherry pick the morally acceptable parts and ignore the rest, labelling them "allegorical" and secondly there are a lot less moderates than there are people under the yoke of the fundamentalists, especially in the Muslim world. A recent example came up in the news of the sub-Saharan country of Mali, here the demographic is 90% Muslim, and the story was about the recent attempt to introduce laws to enforce equality in marriage. It seems the religious leaders there are firmly against such laws, in an utterly transparent comment the leader of the National Union of Muslim Women's Associations claimed that:

We have to stick to the Koran. A man must protect his wife; a wife must obey her husband. It's a tiny minority of women here that wants this new law – the intellectuals. The poor and illiterate women of this country – the real Muslims – are against it.

There was also a picture that went with this story, I have agonised about linking to it here, it is a powerful and shocking image; some might say sensationalist and I have no idea about its provenance. However I feel posting it is warranted, these are real and terrible things happening to long suffering people for no other reason than irrational "mythology"; as a father it gave me reason to seriously reflect on my incredible luck to have been born in a free and secular society.

We can both ignore this kind of thing and chalk it up to "culture" i.e. none of our business, or we can show some human solidarity. Unlike moderates who advocate an apologetic approach to religion, my position and hopefully my conscience is clear.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Is it so hard to understand?

So, what's up with the USA?

Having released a convicted criminal because he is dying of cancer the Scottish establishment is being subjected to all kinds of abuse from various US commentators. I have to say this is somewhat baffling to me, why isn't it clear to people in the USA that for a large proportion of the population of the world they are the "enemy"? Being British, we are somewhat conditioned to expecting this kind of response (even in the USA), with our history, i.e. subjugation of a large percentage of the worlds population at one point or another over the last 500 years; it's not hard to find someone that bears a grudge. The US outburst seems to be naïve at best, and at worst a form of drinking your own "coolaid" to the point of absurdity.

Yes the Libyans shouldn't celebrate the return of this person like he was a hero, but frankly so what, who actually gives a damn about what a few Libyans do on a piece of airport tarmac in Libya itself. There are clearly people in Libya (and elsewhere) who feel that this conviction is unsafe, there even appears to be new evidence to suggest that, but even if he is guilty, the reaction is simply an "us vs. them" knee jerk reaction. Just like the majority of people in the USA believing that god is on their side in the "war against terror" or GW Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished", these are all primitive reactions based upon irrational beliefs, the logic of crowds. If we're going to get through the next few centuries then we're going to need to rise above this kind of thing, there are simply too many skeletons in both cupboards to take either side seriously on this.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Intelligent life discovered in America..

At last some signs of intelligent life in the debate about American health-care, promote this man immediately!

Actually my dinning room table probably has more humanity than the questioner.

Making History

Usain Bolt did it again this evening, taking a tenth off the 200M world record; another moment of history, watching a human being run faster than any human being has ever done before, quite emotional. Being in a race with him must be totally depressing, much like listening to athetes who thank their "God" for a winning performance even before mentioning their families, trainers, supporters or even sports science in general.

I guess indoctrination works regardless of how fast you can run.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What’s mine, is mine

I picked up this little gem earlier today, according to this Bahaman newspaper men and women in the Bahamas are divided over a new piece of legislation that attempts to outlaw rape within marriage (they don't already have such a law?!) Anyway, as you can read some of the objections have a rather familiar and common thread to them, here are some examples, see if you can work out what that might be.

"It is ridiculous for them to try to make that a law, because I don't think a man can rape his own wife. After two people get married, the Bible says that they become one – one flesh. How is it possible to rape what is yours?"

"I disagree with the bill because I disagree that a man can rape his wife. The Bible tells me that a man's body is his wife's and her body is his. How could he rape her?"

"Even if a woman says no to her husband it still can't be considered rape because she is his wife. He already paid his dues at the church and she already said 'I do,' so from then on, even if [a man] forces sex on his wife, it isn't rape,"

It's good to see that these Christians are at least being honest about what their instruction manual actually says, i.e. slavery masquerading as property rights is what marriage is about.

I always thought all of that "partnership" stuff was a little far fetched.

Righter than right

Here is an excellent article by Johann Hari in the Independent today; it concerns the recent furore about the US and its health-care reforms but he attempts to broaden the discussion to talk about the general trend in the political right to run counter to reality and to argue against demonic creatures of their own invention. I particularly like this paragraph which I think sums up my feelings on this phenomenon nicely.

"How do they train themselves to be so impervious to reality? It begins, I suspect, with religion. They are taught from a young age that it is good to have "faith" – which is, by definition, a belief without any evidence to back it up. You don't have "faith" that Australia exists, or that fire burns: you have evidence. You only need "faith" to believe the untrue or unprovable. Indeed, they are taught that faith is the highest aspiration and most noble cause. Is it any surprise this then percolates into their political views? Faith-based thinking spreads and contaminates the rational."

I can only hope that Obama sticks to his guns, it's not possible to use reason to defeat these people, he can only use democracy.

Tim Minchin

The wonderful Tim Minchin is performing in Reading!

Someone at work just informed me that he's doing two dates at the Hexagon 4th & 5th of October, if you don't know him here is a sample of his comedy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The sins of our fathers

If you asked a random sample of people today who "Alan Turing" was I'm not confident that you would receive a majority of positive responses. If you work in the computer industry as I do then you have less excuses for not knowing, Turing has been referred to by many as the "father of modern computing", in fact the computer industry equivalent of the Nobel Prize is called the "Turing Award". Alan Turing was a genius, way ahead of his time and you could argue saved our bacon in WWII; he was a pivotal member of the code-breaking team that cracked the German enigma code, probably the single most important factor in securing the eventual victory of the allies over the Nazis. Now you would think that after such a brilliant feat of mathematical genius that helped to save our entire nation, he would be well known, like Barnes Wallis or Winston Churchill. Unfortunately such accolade was not infused into our collective consciousness, you see, Turing was a homosexual. After the war he went to Manchester to work on the Mark 1 computer being developed there but lost his job when he was convicted of being gay in the early 50s, he avoided public humiliation by agreeing to undergo chemical "castration", but troubled, he went on to commit suicide shortly afterwards aged 41.

A British computer expert has launched a campaign to posthumously apologise to Turing, I'm not entirely convinced that would achieve much, perhaps putting his face on five pound notes or naming a wing of the science museum after him would be more lasting, it's a nice idea anyway.

Go on, laugh, its good for you...

A Jewish couple, preparing for a religious wedding meets with their rabbi for counselling, the rabbi asks if they have any last questions before they leave.

The man asks:

Rabbi, we realise it's tradition for men to dance with men, and women to dance with women at the reception.  But, we'd like your permission to dance together, like the rest of the world.

The rabbi says: Absolutely not. It's immodest. Men and women always dance separately.

The man asks: So, after the ceremony I can't even dance with my own wife?

"No," answered the rabbi. "It's forbidden."

"Well, okay," says the man," What about sex? Can we finally have sex?"

"Of course!" replies the rabbi. "Sex is a mitzvah – a good thing within marriage – to have children!"

"What about different positions?" asks the man.

"No problem," says the rabbi "It's a mitzvah!"

"Woman on top?" the man asks.

"Sure," says the rabbi. "Go for it! It's a mitzvah!"

"Doggy style?"

"Sure! Another mitzvah!"

"On the kitchen table?"

"Yes, yes! A mitzvah!"

"Can we do it on rubber sheets with a bottle of hot oil, a couple of vibrators, a leather harness, a bucket of honey and a porno video?"

"You may indeed. It's all a mitzvah!"

"Can we do it standing up?"

"No!"thunders the rabbi.

"Why not?" asks the man.

"Could lead to dancing!"

Cavalry rescues Brits from the NHS

The news biscuit is spot on the money as usual (why does satire resonate more than real news these days?) this wonderful story outlines the US plans for military intervention to liberate the UK from the NHS, here is a snippet

'I thought I'd seen everything, but we have further video evidence which shows that these alleged 'hospitals' are not only run by a terrifying network of nasal, mincing administrators and obese, tyrannous matrons, but many of them actively oversee the abuse of patients by sticking daffodils up their bottoms.'

Ah those Right Wing American drones, the motherlode of comedy gold.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The fast show

I love athletics; there is something about the idea that it's just one human being pitted against other human beings, no safety net, no props or aids (well not many) and just muscle power, skill and strength of will to determine the outcome. My son and I watched the World Championships on TV last night and what a treat it was, not only were the broadcasts in glorious HD we got to see Jessica Ennis win the Heptathlon gold with a spirited 800m run, and the superb Usain Bolt smash the 100 meters record. I really like the idea of athletes as role models; they always appear much nobler than their (all too often) cynical, tribal and violent colleagues in Football and Rugby.

Its time to prise open this closed shop

In the first major review of RE teaching in 15 years the wishes of the vast numbers of non-religious people in this country are again being ignored. New guidance fails to give secular groups any voice in drawing up RE syllabuses even though this content is supposed to reflect their views. The big problem is that there is no national curriculum for RE and every local authority has a committee called the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) that decides what should be taught; as is typical of unfair and closed practices, certain religious groups get a free pass to these committees, i.e. C of E, Catholics, Muslims etc. It was hoped that secular/humanists would be included in this core group simply because this would represent a fair and proper cross section of the religious views of modern Britain.

The fact that religious interests continue in their thinly veiled attempt to suppress reality is very annoying to Atheists like me, but also very telling at the same time, such groups are shining a light on their deepest fears by doing things like this and making it easier for non-religious people to campaign for equality.

Teaching RE without reference to the long and established tradition of non-belief is rather like teaching maths without the numbers 2 and 6, i.e. pretending they don't exist, a hopelessly closed minded and solopsistic perspective. I think we are rapidly approaching the time for a more active campaign. We need a more open debate on religious education in public schools, perhaps religion should be subsumed into History, after all that's essentially what it is, i.e. cultural history, or perhaps it should be made optional and more like the US system where religion and state are more clearly separated.

Strangely for a modern society the UK still clings to the notion that religion has some kind of "special" status and yet millions of her citizens vote with their feet and reject that view. It is high time that we properly represent the views of the majority of people in this country and remove the priviledged position of these sects who by their selective and partisan actions are more or less admitting that RE in its current form is nothing more than indoctrination in bubble wrap.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I see the light.. dude

I just discovered Dudism!

Now, I realise this is an advert but I sense a geek meme in the making, you can check out the philosophy of Dudism at the following site.

I must watch that film again..

Top British scientist honoured by Obama

President Barack Obama presented top British scientist Stephen Hawking with the highest US civilian honour on Wednesday. The award was only tainted by some rather bizarre and ill-informed reporting by the right wing media in the USA who, in their irrational fear of public healthcare reform, put out a report that pointed a finger at the UK's National Health Service, claiming it doesn't work and provides an example of why the US shouldn't change its own system. Unfortunately for the dolts that put the report out, it was totally inaccurate.

They published the following:

"People such as Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless".

I think they were attempting to break the world record for the most inaccurate and insulting single sentence ever published in a newspaper?, they seemed blissfully unaware that Hawking is actually British, not American, and in a later disparaging rebuttal is quoted as saying he owes his very life to the NHS.

Not only was the piece an insult to Hawking, the inference that the UK operates some Orwellian euthanasia scheme via the public health service is frankly disgusting. These selfish and small minded morons are an insult to intelligent people all over the USA; the self deluding, gun toting, god loving, money grabbing, war mongering right wing had their chance under Bush, they screwed it up; perhaps some humility wouldn't go amiss?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bloody weather!

No, I'm not complaining because I like hot weather or even because I want to top up my tan, but the clouds hanging over Southern England right now (10:30pm) are preventing me seeing any of the Perseid meteors that are raining down on us as I write.

You can read more about this once a year phenomenon here at the BBC science site. Apparently those lucky northerners have clear skies tonight, oh well; at least I don't need to water the garden!

A plane full of horny Jews

Who needs medicine, when chanting, wailing and making an appalling racket with a horn made out of a part of a goat will do instead. Here we have a whole plane load of Jewish religious leaders acting like imbeciles under the pretence of stopping people dying from H1N1 swine flu.

Take a look at this BBC video if you need reassuring about what the meaning of religion stripped of its modern theological word mangling really is, notice how they all rock back and forth whilst they are chanting and wailing, very spooky, as all good voodoo men should be of course!

(Did they really think God would hear them better from a Boing 737?)

Would you know?

According to a story on the BBC today a recent poll shows that most parents could not answer a basic science question from their kids. I find it interesting how these kinds of stories are presented in the mainstream media, I can kind of see their perspective, but these aren't really "science" questions as such, they are questions about how the world works; science is the thing that we use to find the answers. Perhaps this is a pedantic point but framing like this does tend to separate science from "people" IMO, i.e. science is something that boffins in white coats do rather than a thought process that everyone can use to find out about the reality they exist in.

Anyway, here are the three questions they cite as examples of "science" questions, see if you know the answers

  • Where do babies come from?
  • What makes a rainbow?
  • Why is the sky blue?

For the curious here are my answers,

  • Babies come from the fusion of an egg cell from the mother and a sperm cell from the father, the cell then divides, and each new cell further divides and so on making more and more cells forming an embryo which then grows over 9 months to form a baby.
  • Rainbows are the result of (white) light from the sun being split into its constituent colours (wave lengths) as it passes through rain drops.
  • The sky is blue because air molecules absorb and scatter blue light better than all the other constituent colours in the sunlight which mostly pass through the air unaffected.

So, Albert Einstein or Hommer Simpson?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Come fly with me

Following on from my previous post I thought I would put up a picture or two of me doing something reckless; here I am paragliding over a rather beautiful lake in the southern French Alps; I took off from a place called St. Vincent les Forts which is at an altitude of 1270 meters you get a good kick from thermals over the village and some ridge lift to the North, I broke my altitude PB here nearly 3,000 meters, fab. Landing is a little hairy though as there are electricity cables running along the back of the landing field. If you miss the landing field you can land on a small beach down by the lake, and then scrounge a lift back up to where you parked your car!

Next here I am trying out paragliding with a motor strapped to my back, a little moped sized engine and a propeller, it looks highly unlikely and weighs a ton (25Kg), you need to be quite fit to do it as you have to run with the motor on, but its really good fun; if you can rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time then you can do this (lots of things to control all at once). Of course, you don't need hills to fly with a motor, just open the throttle and away you go, very cool; in this picture I am flying by the shore of a glacial lake in France, the control is so fine that you can even be flash and trail your foot in the water as you go.

Paragliding is a great sport if you have the nerve, there is nothing like pitching up on a hill somewhere and unpacking your canopy whilst onlookers scratch their heads, then a quick flip to get the wing over your head, a little jog and off you fly (well in theory), occasionally you end up on your arse with the canopy wrapped around a gorse bush of course (not so cool). To the casual observer it looks very relaxed and calm, it often isn't though and constant concentration is required as well as navigation skills, awareness of the environment and a keen eye for a landing spot. Often the air gets turbulent, particularly around rising thermals, dealing with collapsing canopies, spins and strong air currents are part of it although nothing too dramatic ever happened to me. I found it liberating to put my life in my own hands, the sense of achievement is very addictive. I hung up my harness a few years ago now, but who knows, maybe when the kids are older and I have more time I'll go back to it,

The religious mind

We recently filled a rainy afternoon by digging out an old box of video tapes and showing our kids some of the stuff we used to get up to before they arrived. It was really surprising how interesting they found this, and really interesting trying to answer my young daughters question of "but where am I" posed at every key moment throughout the screening. We covered all kind of things on the tapes, holidays, birthdays, parties and special events we also had some footage of the action sports that we used to engage in, the kids were particularly interested in watching us skiing and diving, I even found some old shots of me paragliding and rock climbing. I think they found it really odd that their mum and dad could do such seemingly adventurous things in places that they have, so far in their short lives only read about, such as Africa, Asia and Australia. The thought went through my mind about how happy we were, what fun we had, love we shared and how optimistic we were for the future, looking at the pictures I can remember thinking at the time that things couldn't possibly get better, but the truth is they did, in ways we could not have even imagined back then.

Anyway, to get onto the main topic of this post, as we were all watching and laughing at the images together it got me thinking about the nature of the religious mind, several analogies popped into my head prompted by recent interactions with theists which were catalysed by the emotional reactions of the children and the images on the screen. I was reminded of a frequently voiced opinion that a lot of religious people seem to have which is that Atheists must be gloomy, selfish and without love, hope or purpose. Interestingly these are exactly the things that most religious people "claim" to get from their faith, and so it would probably be fair to conclude that not having such things must represent some of their deepest fears, is this some kind of deluded projection or is there more to it. There were two questions on my mind; firstly how do religious people justify these kinds of thoughts, what makes them believe they are true when to everyone else they are demonstrably false and secondly in what ways is the religious mind like the mind of a child.

Firstly religious people almost by definition have certain ways of thinking about the world that have been indoctrinated into them as small children; for example the idea that "faith" is a virtue, that is to say believing things without evidence is a good idea. Also, the idea that faith is reinforced by authority and tradition, for example if your pastor (authority) tells you something is true and your holy book (tradition) says its true then chances are you don't question it, to do so would be unfaithful, a perfectly circular system. Extending this idea into the real world it is plain to see that this mode of thought would have a strong propensity to fall foul of straw-man arguments, for example if the preacher says the Bible says that Atheists are evil then that's obviously what they are, the recipients of this falsehood would have no inclination to investigate the assertion themselves by say actually talking to an atheist, it simply wouldn't enter their mind to do that why should it? This kind of thinking has gotten religious people into all kinds of trouble over the years as reality has a tendency to prove our intuitions wrong, faith is possibly the worst way by which to acquire knowledge, as experience has shown us time and time again, mostly fatally.

So, why do religious people think this way when clearly as a method of knowing things "faith" has served them so poorly over the years? One theory I've read recently is that faith is a misfiring of another less obvious, but much more critical behaviour, loyalty. When two people believe the same thing (regardless of what that thing is) then they share something, sharing things brings people together and when people work together and strive for common goals they are more likely to survive than those people who don't. Over time you can imagine that the "sharing gene" would be selected for and would become pervasive in the population, loyalty to the ideas of the group would become more important than the "truth" of those ideas. Such behaviour also gives the group a mechanism to identify competing groups, or "out-group", in evolutionary terms eliminating competition is almost always as important to survival as anything else. Clearly there are many more subtleties layered onto modern religions but if you strip the years of culture away is this what is really going on? Like the ignorant red-neck who blames all his failures on the government or the commies, are religious people unavoidably susceptible to the straw-man trap?

Then we have the child-like mind set; just like my daughter who couldn't rationalise a world that didn't contain her, the religious person is unwilling to contemplate this thought too although the universe clearly functioned quite happily without them before they were born. Almost all religions contain the most fabulous and unlikely contrivances to ensure that the "faithful" are spared the natural cessation of their consciousness, all kinds of promises and threats are made to ensure that they as individuals are "saved" along with their in-group of course. I can't help but think how childish and selfish such thoughts are, for example, that the whole universe exists for the purpose of entertaining you and preventing your own personal suffering is mind boggling, any superficial study of the scale of the universe and the nature of nature shows us that we are totally insignificant as individuals, indeed our entire planet and solar system is insignificant. Theists often jump on this reality and in the best tradition of "shootinging the messenger", they exclaim ah ha! so Atheists believe there is no point to life; the old straw-man trap springs shut again, we make our own purpose we always have; and just like the wonderful experiences my Wife and I shared together in our movies we continue to hope, work, and dream to achieve our modest goals.

If there was one thought or message that I hope my children took away from watching our little films together it would be that life is short and precious, you never know what is around the corner and we only get one shot, so make the most of it!

PS. Thanks to TRP for the picture.

Monday, August 10, 2009


I spent a wonderful afternoon at the O2 arena in London last Friday watching "Walking with dinosaurs"; this is a spectacular show that features life sized animatronic dinosaurs along with a narration, light and sound show. What I particularly liked about it was the educational bias rather than the "Hollywood" bias, the narration was informative and current in terms of the science and talked the audience through the vast evolutionary time line through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, starting 230M years ago and finishing with the extinction event 65M years ago. This narration was interrupted by the appearance of various dinosaurs playing out little scenes, all the usual favourites made an appearance, Stegosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Raptors, Pterodactyls, Allosaurus, Triceratops (Torosaurus) and king of them all T-Rex, all realistic, animated and life sized; moving around and roaring it was wonderful.

We took half a dozen little boys aged between 4 and 8, throughout the show their faces were a picture, fluctuating between awe and terror, the music and lights were dramatic and you could tell that they were totally captured by the whole thing; it was an inspiration. Fortunately a good friend has a company box at the O2 which he graciously allowed us to invade, so getting in and out was stress free and we had food and drink on-tap throughout with a panoramic view of the proceedings, a great show, thoroughly recommended.

As mad as a box of creationists

Uber-blogger PZ Myers and a group of 300 or so secularists, atheists and scientists visited the $27million creation museum in Kentucky last week en-mass; the purpose of the visit was to learn what evidence was being presented as "science" in this establishment and to report back to the wider community from the perspective of scientific practitioners on that evidence. The trip was organised by the group as it corresponded with a Secular Student Alliance conference being held nearby, i.e. most of them were in town anyway.

Anyway, according to reports the trip went down without any serious incidents, for example atheists being smitten down by God or believers being turned to Satan. Although apparently one member of the group was singled out and expelled from the building because he was wearing a tee shirt that said "There is probably no god …" etc. (the same slogan as the bus campaign); seems a little harsh to me but perhaps illustrates what this museum and the people behind it are really all about. Would it be reasonable to stage an exhibition of modern art and expect people not to visit, contradict and discuss its content in a civilised manner, of course not, clearly these people are all about telling people what to think and not how to think, a sinister and typically conservative Christian perspective.

Exhibits at the creation museum present a history time line of the world based upon literal interpretations of the Bible; they attempt to explain how we see the world today using the stories and anecdotes in scripture, for example dinosaurs are explained as living at the same time as Adam and Eve and that mankind populated the globe by walking across the floating trunks of trees felled in the Biblical flood and the grand canyon being formed in a few hours by that same global downpour. Now, if this museum was positioned as a Christian (Disney style) attraction as opposed to a scientific one then most real scientists would probably ignore it, however that isn't the case the people there and particularly Ken Ham who runs it are keen to assert that their view of the world as expressed in the museum is scientific!, hence the attention it gets from real scientists like Myers.

Ken and his buddies are very keen to acquire the benefits of calling their work science, i.e. respectability, authority, rigour etc. however they are not so keen to do the work required in order to validate their theories with real facts; they are also unwilling to accept critical scrutiny and as is the way of so many right wing bigots they cherry pick evidence and facts in order to support a prior held viewpoint as opposed to simply allowing the evidence of their own eyes to lead them to a conclusion. It will be fascinating to read the bitch slapping that these saps get as the spotlight of real enquiry is shone on their ignorant drivel over the coming weeks.

What Ken and crew also seem unwilling to accept, as is typical of their kind, is that simply presenting facts that fit with your theory is not sufficient to prove that theory; you also have to explain the facts that don't fit. Ken says that radiometric dating of rocks is inaccurate and wrong (by a factor of many 100s of millions apparently) however he has no explanation for why this is the case, he simply says it's wrong because it doesn't fit his theory.

Myers and people like him have the right approach IMO, put the leg work in, go visit these places read what they have to say and then rip it to shreds in the public forum, challenge them head on, and don't let the slippery creationists off the hook just because they hide behind the veil of "faith"; what these people are selling is snake oil, they need to be treated the same way societies have always treated hucksters and purveyors of fake miracle cures, i.e. tarred, feathered and thrown out of town!

Welcome to the mad-house

According to the Archbishop of Wales children and young adults should be forced to pray to HIS invisible friend every day because… well, he didn't give any actual reasons just the usual "warning" of impending moral disintegration if we didn't tow the line and be subservient to his particular cult.

What is wrong with these people, do they think we are stupid? I am so sick of this country being assumed to automatically be a "Christian" country, statistically and practically it is not.

Even today we have Gordon Brown our prime minister saying that this state's values are based on traditional religious teachings, and that people should be encouraged to promote their faith in the "public square" in order to maintain "cohesion". We are talking about magic books and talking snakes here! People can already believe whatever they like and express themselves however they like, the real cancer here is that certain entrenched sects force their narrow and deluded views down the throats of everyone else without choice or option, in schools, in government and in the workplace; it is a prejudiced and elitist system that has no place in a modern democratic society.

We have two sides of the same coin on display here, on one side the stick on the other the carrot, believe it or suffer dire (but unfalsifiable) consequences and don't rock the boat and you can proselytise as much as you like. This is so transparent that even a child can see through it; a fairground three cup scam has more integrity than these con-men. In my view the only thing rational people can conclude from such outbursts is:

  1. Campaign harder for a secular society enshrined in law, not some wishy-washy elitist cartel based on the morals of a 500 year old horny monarch.
  2. Do what ever it takes to remove Gordon Brown from power at the next election; he is clearly as deluded as the rest of them.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Is faith harmless?

Recently there was a another seemingly random shooting in America, the person who perpetrated this crime left a diary and the following quote is a snippet from that diary,

Maybe soon, I will see God and Jesus. At least that is what I was told. Eternal life does NOT depend on works. If it did, we will all be in hell. Christ paid for EVERY sin, so how can I or you be judged BY GOD for a sin when the penalty was ALREADY paid. People judge but that does not matter. I was reading the Bible and The Integrity of God beginning yesterday, because soon I will see them.

Now clearly I am not arguing that all Christians are gun toting mad-men or indeed that doctrine like this automatically leads to violent crime. However I think it is fair to say that the concept of Christ being a scapegoat for all the sins of mankind is mainstream dogma, there is nothing fringe or extremist about it from a Christianity point of view. This still doesn't warrant the actions of course, but there is no doubt in my mind that there is a pathway here, if someone really, really believes this kind of thing then just about anything can be made to make sense, particularly when combined with corresponding stress or mental illness.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Robot Wars

Here is an interesting thought, should we have a debate in society about the ethics of using robots in warfare? Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield thinks we should (Sharkey holds the chair in the department of computer science at Sheffield). He thinks there are problems with the concept of people piloting unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from a bunker in Ohio that drop bombs on people in Pakistan, I can see his point this must seem like a video game from their perspective; I hope the psychological vetting process for those jobs is thorough!

There are many things to consider here, the main objections boil down to the fact that robots cannot easily distinguish friend from foe and by removing humans from the loop there is no proportionality. The first problem could conceivably be solved by technology, for example friendly troops could wear emitters of some kind, however the second problem is an order of magnitude more difficult to automate, and in fact I would go as far as to say that we are generations away from such automation. Proportionality means determining a reasonable amount of force to gain a military advantage, and is clearly wrapped up in the morality of individual human beings, it is unlikely something that requires such a corpus of life-experience could ever be codified. However it could also be argued that proportionality is not necessarily guaranteed even when humans are involved, the conflicts of the 20th century are particularly nasty examples of that.

Here is an interesting thought experiment, imagine if we ever progressed to the point where competing armies simply pitted their machines against each other and accepted the outcome; an advance on even the gladiatorial system in terms of reducing suffering. Imagine the effect of an arms race where there was no risk of harm to the participants, the intellectual advances might be amazing, transformers eat your heart out!

Orangalf the wise

I came across this wonderful picture today,

I had to post it in deference to the sage like and always balanced Oranjepan who comments on this blog from time to time, although I fear he may be suffering from theological fatigue as evidenced by a comment he made recently over at Elizabeth's blog

OP I promise not to mention religion any more ( this post) ;-)

Is this the room for an argument?

More on the new primary school curriculum, I learn today that a group of leading scientists are making an official complaint to the government (Ed Balls) regarding the teaching evolution to our children (or lack of it!) Will the government succumb to apologetics and pandering to religious interests or will it take the advice of the experts and stand up for reality – we shall see.

The following snippet appeared in the Telegraph

Professor Richard Dawkins and 25 other leading British scientists have written to Ed Balls, the schools secretary, to protest that evolution has been omitted from plans for a new primary school curriculum. The scientists, including three Nobel laureates, have asked Mr Balls to ensure that the new science curriculum for English primary schools includes teaching on natural selection.

A draft of the curriculum, which was drawn up by an independent review under Sir Jim Rose and put out to a public consultation that closed last week, did not mention the principle. In the letter, which was organised by the British Humanist Association, the scientists wrote: "We find it extraordinary that evolution and natural selection find no place in the section 'Science – life and living things'.

"The theory of evolution is one of the most important ideas underlying biological science. It is a key concept that children should be introduced to at an early stage."

Here here!

Monday, August 03, 2009

This time next year Rodney we'll be billionaires..

I notice with interest that Firefox the open standards (Mozilla) based WEB browser passed the 1 billion downloads mark recently, this is an amazing achievement for something so recent in a market that has traditionally been so sewn up by existing players, it gives all of us the software industry some hope for our own little brain children. Firefox is a good browser, in terms of speed and compatability it beats Internet Explorer hands down IMO, however I don't use either these days having switched over to Google Chrome a while back. Chrome seems to anihilate everything in terms of raw speed and seems to be as robust and standards complient as Firefox (so far at least).

So what browser do you prefer? IE/Firefox/Chrome/Opera/Safari or something else, is this something most people even think about?

Having fun.. for Jesus

Something related to my last post on education popped up on the BBC today about "Christian" skateboarding parks you can read more about it and watch a video here. The idea is clearly to combine worship with something that will attract kids although there is a lot of strenuous denial in the video and clearly some sensitivity around this idea not being about enticing children with the "bait" of something they clearly enjoy doing, only to hit them up with Christianity as soon as they are through the doors.

As the preacher says to the kids, we thank God for wheels and ramp 48.. amen!, but since both ramps and wheels were invented by people a long time before the Christian God this seems somewhat presumptuous to me, but then even from this short clip it is clear that rational thinking is not what such establishments are focused on.

Now I can't get too excited about Christians doing whatever they like to facilitate physical activity for children, we have such a camp near to where I live and all the local schools pay to use their climbing wall now and again, the only beef I have with this is the lack of transparency about the objectives of the endeavour, to claim it is entirely altruistic is simply untenable, so, nice try chaps but pull the other one, it has (church) bells on it.

A-Level inanity

I came across another disturbing education story the other day; Education is critically important, everyone agrees on this but few (and I include myself in that) seem to be too concerned about the details. As an indirect education consumer I think I can understand why this is, like most complex endeavours education seems impenetrable to the uninitiated, unless you have huge quantities of time available it is neigh on impossible to do anything other than observe and comment after the event; we have an image of education that we don't really want to dispel, we live in hope that things will turn out OK.

Like most organisations engaged in delivering personal services (like medicine and government) we like to think of teaching as something that is independent, caring, tolerant, rational and focused on nurturing the individual to the best of their ability, this is a fantasy of course, teachers and schools are just like everyone else they have strengths, weaknesses and agendas of various kinds. Schools are focused on efficiency as much as any other business these days, the average is what is important not the specific needs of your beloved Johnny or Jenny even if you pay.

Religion of course has long recognised the importance of education although I suspect the motives for involvement are less than altruistic in most cases, there is no such thing as a free lunch! Most religious involvement with education seems to come with caveats, proselytising and indoctrination being the most common fee. People often argue that what religious people teach their kids is their own business and whilst I can see some logic to this from the point of view of passing on a tradition, I wholeheartedly disagree with the usual implementation of it, particularly when it comes to science education. Science is science, there is no such thing as Christian biology or Hindu physics, attempts to subvert it (i.e. the methods or the facts) in order to pander to ancient texts is tantamount to (intellectual) child abuse IMO because it censors or denies the child a basic freedom of information and speech in the same way that denying a child the ability to read would.

Here we have the ICCE or the International Certificate of Christian Education which is supposed to cover secondary subjects including science, as it says in their literature "ACE graduates need never return to state schools to gain college and university entrance qualifications". The story concerns the UK government organisation that has ruled this course as comparable to A-levels; however when we look at some of the science elements of it we find long discredited, fallacious fundamentalist nonsense. The same old canards are here, for example "there are no transitional fossils", God created everything, evolution is discredited etc. there are even some rather dubious political elements to it as well, for example that South Africa benefited from apartheid because segregated schools helped maintain the culture of the children.

Biology seems to be the main sticking point, it is interesting that the religious see it as the primary informational threat to their worldview; even in the state system evolution is not taught at primary levels to our children. This is scandalous in itself IMO, evolution is the core theory of a whole branch of science, nothing in Biology makes sense except in light of evolution and yet we don't teach it alongside all of the other foundational subjects. Would anyone attempt to make a justification for this other than because evolution is such a contentious issue for Abrahamic religious believers, I've never heard one.

I recently wrote to my MP expressing a desire for this subject to be included in the new primary curriculum for purely educational reasons, i.e. I didn't mention religion. He replied to my email stating that he would take it up with the appropriate minister; I am assuming this positive response means that he agrees with me, hopefully all rational people would.