Monday, February 28, 2011

May the force be fourth..

Apparently (according to the last UK census) Jedi-ism is the fourth largest religion in the UK with over 400,000 adherents, larger than Judaism or Buddhism. I'm waiting with much excitement for the first Jedi faith school to be commissioned, and can only drool with anticipation over what the time table will be like, 9:30 light sabre training, 10:30 Levitation, 11:30 Helmet craft... and so on. What must be concerning for "real" religions is that compared with the normal choices, the manifesto of the Jedi faith seems so damn reasonable, here are some snippets so you can see what I mean,

"The Jedi church has no official doctrine or scripture. The Jedi church recognizes that all living things share a living force and that all people have an innate knowledge of what is right and wrong, and the Jedi Church celebrates this like no other religion."

"The original starwars trilogy was the best visualisation of what we believe, as it is what binds us all together in this faith. There are repeatitive references to an afterlife, in which people in the afterlife can talk to us. I think it is fair to say that many Jedi probably to believe in an afterlife of some sort or another, however, this is really left up to each of us to make a judgement call."

No threats of hell fire, no magic books, no edicts on what you should or shouldn't eat or what you get up to in the privacy of your own bedroom, just cool weapons and an honest (as opposed to making stuff up and calling it "truth") outlook on the things that human beings would like to know but cannot, what is there not to like?

The next census here is on 27th March so hopefully people will think carefully about the religion question, don't just tick "Christian" because that's what your Granny would have done, if you don't believe, and you have no compelling reason to do otherwise, don't be scared to say "No Religion". Future government policy may be influenced by your answer.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Time to shuffle the deck

With middle-eastern dictators dropping like flies at the moment it seems appropriate for everyone over there to calm down, pull up a chair and stick the kettle on. I'm put in mind of a 1976 film called "Logan's Run" starring Jenny Agutter and Michael York, set in some future fantasy world, citizens have every luxury and comfort, unlimited leisure and sex on tap but only live until they are 30 years old at which point an implanted device blows them up in a quasi-religious ritual called "carousel".

In the real world of the middle east it seems like the leaders of those countries get to live out this fantasy, living in opulence until their time runs out at which point they have to jump into the carousel where they face what must be an awful dilemma of hanging on long enough to extract billions of dollars into Swiss accounts but not too long to be strung up to the nearest lamppost by the mob and set on fire.

Like the petulant teenager I guess this is a necessary "phase" that these countries have to go through, luckily for us in Europe we (mostly) did all this hundreds of years ago and got a few steps ahead (mostly by exploiting all those behind us) anyway, hopefully there will no more bloodshed and the leaders of these countries will wake up and smell the coffee, get out while you can or the sandmen will hunt you down.

Monday, February 21, 2011

It must be spring..

There's a definite spring in the air here in the UK, the average temperature is rising, there are the first inklings of buds on the trees and soon we'll be seeing the first shoots of daffodils and crocuses emerging to meet the equinox in a few weeks. As the season progresses I'll be looking forward to the many milestones on the road to Summer, seasonal rack of lamb with a herb crust and tasty Pauillac, lighter evenings, carpets of woodland flowers and that quintessential sign of renewal, the call of the cuckoo.

For those not familiar with the life cycle of this bird it's a fascinating story, many millennia ago evolution for this species took a branch which lead to a path of parasitism. At some point in history it became more efficient (survival-wise) for cuckoos to fool other birds into expending the effort to continue their kind rather than the harder work of carving their own furrow. An evolutionary arms race has ensued ever since, with Cuckoos becoming ever more adept at exploiting their hosts as their hosts become ever more adept at recognising the imposters. There are many kinds of cuckoos and many different shades and hues of exploitation; here in the UK the cuckoo chooses hosts from our own native species and makes many adaptations to local habits and conditions, birds such as Robins, Dunnocks, Reed buntings and various finches all play host to the parasitic and destructive cuckoo. The parent cuckoo will alter the colour of it's eggs to better mimic the eggs of the host, the cuckoo will also adopt some of the habits of the host species, who will willingly sacrifice themselves in their endeavours to feed the ever ravenous and unfeasibly greedy cuckoo chick. Some cuckoos even learn suitable responses to the alarm calls of the particular host species that raised it and for example, female cuckoos raised in Robins' nests will continue the exploitation within their host community by specifically seeking out Robins for their own broods.

In the end all this mimicry and faux cultural assimilation leads to one outcome, the continuation of the cuckoo line at the fatal expense of the host. Of course it's important to understand that there's no malice involved, the cuckoo is not planning these outcomes it's a slave to genetic programming, the evolution of the cuckoo is not predetermined by cuckoo's it's guided by the forces of natural selection, all it would take to bring the whole pack of cards tumbling down for the cuckoos would be some tiny but pervasive switch in say the egg colour of a host or perhaps it's feeding habits, selection would do the rest.

Imagine if the power of parasitism wasn't arbitrary, imagine if the evolutionary arms race between parasite and host was being analysed and pre-empted by an intelligent force, now imagine that the parasite is the Catholic church and the host is you! Check out this story on the BBC Web site and think about the cuckoo.

So what do I think we have here, the way I see it we have an unfalsifiable, dogmatic, traditionalist and authoritarian system claiming to be interested in advancing the cause of science, yes science, the system of thought that rejects the supernatural, disregards ideas simply because they are traditional, abhors dogmatic and unquestioning acceptance of unfalsifiable ideas and seeks to discover the universal truths of reality wherever the data leads, rather than pre-conceived imaginary ones aligned to the self interests of a few.

The Catholic church has been at war with science ever since the enlightenment started it competes with it to define our reality; this is well known and well documented and I don't need to repeat the many examples and evidence here some of which are mentioned in the article. My sense of this is more simple, are we going to swallow the deception and feed the insatiable imposter or take the more rational approach, i.e. kick the egg out of our nest and let the cuckoo take it's chances and prove its worth by supporting itself.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Here's an interesting leak, it's from an Administrator at the south downs school of Homoeopathy and it's regarding the potential change to medical labelling and licensing standards that the MHRA is considering, essentially if the change is made substances may only be dispensed as "medicine" with an appropriate licence by qualified doctors, meaning that 99.999% of homoeopathic remedies will no longer be able to be dispensed by non-medically qualified homoeopaths.

Here is the email, the key sentence is in bold..


This is urgent. TOP PRIORITY!!! The deadline is the 18th of February. The practice of homeopathy by lay homoeopaths is at stake, and if the MHRA changes the wording to the document mentioned below, we will ...not be allowed to practice any longer. This will take effect immediately. The new wording which is being suggested by sense against science, and is being considered by the MHRA will effectively put us in catch 22 so that we can no longer give out remedies - basically, it is about the difference between dispensing and prescribing. all homoeopaths dispense remedies as a normal part of daily practice. the new rules will mean that it will be illegal to dispense without a license, and only a qualified doctor can make a prescription. without the ability to dispense, all we can do is sit and listen to people's problems, but can do nothing else about it. this will also have an affect on the homeopathic pharmacies, who will only be allowed to dispense licensed remedies (currently, only arnica and possibly one or two others are licensed) unless prescribed by a physician, and this means the potential loss of thousands of remedies. The key words in the version we want, which help keep homeopathy going are "...use within the homeopathic tradition". This avoids the need to prove the science behind prescribing of remedies and allows us to practise as normal.

So my reading of this says not only is it a scam (which any rational person already knows) they know it is too!  Although I'm not sure why this administrator is so worried about the Government removing this loop-hole, after all it's only the "sitting and listening" part that does anything anyway, the medicine part can be replaced by an Evian dispensing machine in the waiting room.

What really concerns me about this though is the thought that by weakening the status of Homoeopathic remedies in our medical establishment will we just be making them stronger?

Vital statistics

I seem to be on a run of computing oriented posts at the moment, Yahweh is probably breathing a virtual sigh of relief ;) anyway, I came across a bunch of statistics yesterday about the internet which I thought worthy of some chat. Now, before the non-Geeks start groaning, I'm not saying statistics are interesting in themselves but check these babies out...

Emails sent in 2010: 107 Trillion
Average/day: 294 billion (or 50 per person on the planet, what the hell is everyone talking about!?)
Web sites added in 2010: 21.4 million (that's 600,000 per day or 7 per second!)
# of blogs: 152 million (only a handful worth reading of course!)
30 Billion pieces of content shared on Facebook per month, nice kitty
175 million twitter users, 7.5 million of which follow Lady GaGa, OMG ROFL!

I can remember the first time I saw the "internet" back in 1990, we all huddled around a screen for about 20 minutes watching a grainy picture of a gorilla's face slowly paint itself as it was being downloaded on a 24.4K modem, once it was complete the geek running the show proudly announced "that picture came all the way from Australia!", for months after that the "internet" was known in our crowd as that thing which allowed you to look at pictures of primates from around the world, I still think that was an accurate assessment.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

All hail our computer overlords..

I love it that the computer beat the people in a game of jeopardy, not because I am some weird techno-nihilist but because I can appreciate the work that went into it, years and years of work. 

Computational linguistics is the field I'm working in currently, it's a fascinating field and it's really, really hard to make software that can truly understand and act on human communication. We all forget that the reason we can understand one another is that we've had a life-time of experience and learning doing it, we understand nuance, pun, humour, allegory, irony etc. without really thinking about it (well, unless you're American) and for a machine to understand it we need to almost codify "human life" and put it somewhere that can be accessed instantaneously from any direction, not easy. With this showcase it looks like the folks at IBM are making strides in the field although the equipment they used is beyond the reach of mere mortals currently (I'm physically drooling at the specifications) of course, that will gradually change over time, exciting stuff.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Its all just 1's and 0's

Someone has estimated the amount of digital data that represents the sum total of human information in the 21st century, and the figure is 295, doesn't sound like much but that's 295 exabytes, which is 10 raised to the power of 18 or 295,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. A byte would represent something like a single letter of the alphabet or digit and normally consists of 8 binary digits, i.e. 1's or 0's. The estimate includes things like music and video, as well as text, things like video take up millions of times more space than plain text; anyway suffice to say that's a heck of a lot of 1's and 0's!

However uncomprehendingly vast this amount of information is it's peanuts compared with the potential storage capacity that our DNA has, which is estimated to be around 300X the total amount of information we currently store in all our technological devices per human body! or in other words about one third the amount of information transmitted during each telephone conversation between my Wife and her Mother ;-)

and I still can't find a decent book to read ...

Muslims in dispatches

I watched the excellent channel 4 Dispatches documentary last night entitled "lessons in hate and violence" it was an undercover expose of lies, hypocrisy, bullying, intolerance and outright sedition apparently going on every day in some of the 2,000 Muslim faith schools up and down the country. The program was a follow on from a previous undercover sting by the same production team at certain British mosques which showed anti-Semitism and hate speech being openly preached. The program was particularly topical because of the recent controversial comments made by David Cameron regarding the failure of the multicultural state and a suggested re-evaluation of relativism.

The program was shocking, in that it showed teachers (so called) instructing pupils to dehumanise and hate non-Muslims and also to detest the very society they derive their freedom and living from; it also showed teachers and child carers beating, kicking and abusing young children in their care. No doubt there will be a flood of drivel from the accommodationists in the press now; no doubt we will hear all about how this is the fault of extremists and not Islam, that these views don't represent the views of the majority of Muslims bla, bla, bla. Except that these are straw-man fallacies, the problem for the Government and indeed all of us is that there are clear warrants for all the things seen on the program last night in the various holy books that with alarming cognitive dissonance we are supposed to "respect", to the extent you could be arrested for burning one. This obvious contradiction and the Tory policy of encouraging more and more faith schools will surely result an increase in ghettoisation of peoples via faith schools, along religious, racial and cultural lines, this in turn will spur on an inevitable back-lash from people who look for any excuse to persecute out-groups.

If the Koran, Bible, Torah etc. didn't exist and the EDL (or some such organisation) created and published the same elitist, intolerant, racist and misogynistic philosophies in a book now it would be banned by moderate governments everywhere. It seems obvious, the problem is these religions and what they say is true without evidence, what they define as moral and how they indoctrinate the children to believe it. We are fortunate as a species that most sensible people choose to ignore the vast majority of the teachings of their religion because a) its clearly bronze age quackery, b) because the secular societies they live in don't tolerate it and c) they don't derive their morality from a literal reading of the words in those books, morality clearly comes from somewhere else; these people we call moderates and the ones who actually follow the instructions (we're supposed to respect) are the extremists - it's a funny old game.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Walk like an Egyptian

Finally President Mubarak of Egypt has got the message that most of the people he supposedly represents don't actually like him that much, maybe now he can shuffle off to an ex-dictator island paradise somewhere and pass his remaining years in opulence as a reward for failing to alleviate the poverty of the majority of people he leaves behind. I'm very pleased for the people of Egypt, I spent some time there when I was younger and always found the place fascinating and the people super hospitable. I do worry about two things though, firstly the army is now in charge, which is how they got into this mess to begin with and second I heard a BBC interview with some guy on the street after the announcement was made, he said

"at last Egyptians are free, Allahu akbar"

Not quite yet, I thought, one more dictator to go.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rib tickler

I had an all day (& all night) meeting in London on Tuesday; every year I get together with the other managers of my company to plan out what we're going to do in the next year, what our targets are going to be and what our challenges are etc. It's usually a pretty intense but fairly dry, business like affair. This year we decided to break the day up by going for a little spin in a speed boat up the Thames over lunch, I'm really glad we did, the weather was glorious (for a change) and the trip was great fun.

I've never actually been in a boat on that part of the Thames before, it gives you a completely different perspective on the famous landmarks; London is such a rich tapestry of triumph, folly and plain old cool stuff.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Atheist Vader

Well I suppose at least in star wars his faith was demonstrable. A religion that enabled you to choke people across a room would come in so handy for those annoying meetings with people who don't know when to shut up; I think even I would believe it!

Bring it on!

Interesting article in the Telegraph today it talks about a plan that the Anglican church has to instruct its clergy to "take on" the gnu atheists, saying "Britain is under threat from Atheists" and that the church is being "pushed" from the town square by Dawkins and Hitchens.

Well I don't know how true this report is but if so then wow, don't they realise this is exactly what us gnu atheists want? In our minds religion thrives in dark shady corners, the more obfuscated the better so by all means bring it out into the light lets all have a good look at it, chew it over, debate the evidence for it, the truth of it and it's relevance in our time; at the end of the day that's all we're trying to do anyway. I bet most rationalists and secularists reading this are now thrilled that the theological "big guns" are to be wheeled out to blast us with their irrefutable logic and powers of persuasion, (hint) some fresh new arguments or a scintilla of evidence for anything would be good.

A couple of random thoughts sprang into my mind when I read this article,
  • Why are these Atheists "new", haven't these guys ever read Epicurus, Shaw, Russell or Paine?
  • In what way are Atheists a threat to Britain, don't they really mean a threat to their own organisation?
  • How come a retired scientist and an polemicist dying of cancer are able to rattle the entire edifice of the church, is that really all it takes, a couple of books and a WEB site?
  • If someone is disciplined for breaking a work practice then they are not being disciplined for practising their faith, come on guys, it's not complicated!
  • If you prevent someone being (irrationally) intolerant towards a section of your community then is that intolerance? If it is then we're all screwed.
  • I can't think of a society where secularism or indeed atheism is a "social problem" unless perhaps you have a vested ($$) interest in religion, now, how about where religion is a social problem, hum that didn't take long.. (pot-kettle-black?)
We await the theological onslaught with relish..

Friday, February 04, 2011

Friday smirk

Last one to leave, switch out the light...

I see that the attendance figures for the Church of England have been falling (again), further evidence that this country is becoming more secular in it's outlook, however I'm not sure it proves any diminishment of religions overall. In some ways I'm encouraged by the apparent abandonment of superstition by more people but I suspect I might be forced to swallow that thought if we were able to look at what that CofE religiosity has been replaced by.

A combination of things spring to my mind, firstly apathy, my suspicion is that people haven't abandoned the religion because of a reasoned argument to do so more likely they just can't be bothered, secondly I fear the decrease in one flavour of superstition is simply being offset by an increase in others, for example Islam where the 2001 census shows the number of Muslims in the UK is now greater than the number of church going Anglicans (1.5M vs 0.9M approx.) Of course there is all kinds of woo woo that people believe; how many times have you heard someone say "well, I'm not religious but I am spiritual". I've never really understood what that means other than "there's a bunch of things I don't understand therefore gods/spirits/crystal healing/fairies/unicorns exist (delete as appropriate)" I'm not sure what's worse, if people must be superstitious, which brand of woo woo would I prefer them to believe?

In my personal experience I find that the Anglicans I know are on the whole are much more considered and tolerant than other variations of religion, there is always a spectrum of course (because it's all man made at the end of the day) but generally Muslims and Catholics I know are least concerned with the anti-arguments and most well educated regarding their own beliefs, Baptists and Jehovah Witnesses seem most selective regarding what their actual holy books say and generally oblivious to the anti-arguments but tend to be quite familiar with the faux arguments (why are there no transitional fossils etc.) the only Jews I know seem to agree with me that it's all hooey. I know a couple of Buddhists who just agree with everything in a contradictory manner but don't seem to care about that and I also know a few Hindus who are a bit like a mixture between Jews and Buddhists in that they should believe in a whole bunch of weird stuff but don't take it too seriously. Of course this is not a scientific survey the data set is too small, but here's a little straw poll analysis of what I think about superstitious people I know, the axis show how much they seem to believe their own flavour of woo versus how tolerant they seem to be of other people that don't.

To answer my own question I guess I would find most common ground with Anglicans or Jews..

PS if you look at this chart, squint and don't pull focus you should see the face of Richard Dawkins... ;)

Money for nothing...

As predicted by a lot of secular commentators the final bill for last summer's visit to the UK from the Pope is higher than predicted but not to worry, the difference is being made up by the UK taxpayer; £1.85 million pounds was transferred from the international development budget to pay for the visit. This is money normally ear-marked for aid to "war-torn or fragile states" as part of a commitment to fight global poverty, or in other words roughly a tenth of the value of one Botticelli hanging in the Vatican museum or 1/125th of it's annual income last year.

All this scrounging and sordid wheeler dealing over who pays for this minority freak show is unpleasant enough but placed against the backdrop of the ongoing abuse scandal and the Irish "smoking gun" letter that proves beyond reasonable doubt that the leadership of that organisation was complicit in covering up child abuse it is beyond the pale. Catholics need to examine the morality of their organisation very closely, is it a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul or perhaps denying the people in the picture above in order to maintain the power, opulence and privilege of the person below?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Wasting time..

A huge cyclone is about to hit the North Eastern coast of Australia, it's a very big storm and there are a lot of people in its path I hope they have made their preparations well and will be OK. I visited Cairns a few years ago it's a beautiful part of the world, with the forests and the reefs it's a veritable feast of natural wonders, however combinations of big oceans, warm water and a spinning planet means that from time to time there will be storms and particularly now that our climate is changing we can expect this kind of thing more often than previous generations experienced. Fortunately our predictive powers are significantly better than they used to be, as the satellite image above shows we can model these systems in computers and watch them forming and moving from above, all this technology helps to warn people of their approach sometimes days in advance, the fruits of rational minds and science saving lives. However, there are still those people out there who advocate less reliable survival strategies.

An organisation called "Operation Safe" put this piece out recently, it's titled "How to pray when disaster strikes" an eight point plan that lays out what magic words to mumble in the event that a category 5 storm is bearing down on you, one particularly stupid sentence summed up their delusions for me,

"Prayer always comes first – before we can even attempt to do our “little bit” we should make sure that we have called in the big guns"

If you find yourself in such a situation there are many strategies you can take that may increase your chances of surviving, I can safely say that praying isn't one of them. Run away, board up, get in your cellar, hoard fresh clean water, buy canned food, get medical supplies but please, please, please don't waste time mumbling to yourself, it may make you feel better but if you think it's going to help then natural selection will certainly chew you up and spit you out. Air molecules carrying Toyota pick-up trucks and coconut trees moving at 140mph couldn't care less that god is love.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Its Criminal

I read with some interest that a new Police WEB site that shows people crimes in their local area has been inundated with hits, something like 75,000 per minute, so much so that the whole thing has crashed or is essentially unusable. Why are people so concerned about proximal crime, is it morbid curiosity or acute anxiety?

Apparently the site cost £300,000 to build, clearly they weren't expecting this volume of hits and there have been some complaints about inaccuracies. I can't help thinking that we have a curtain twitching phenomenon happening here, clearly there is a big demand for proximity information regarding objectionable behaviour I sense an iPhone location aware application in the offing, pinpoint your nearest Catholic priest or militant atheist, the possibilities are endless.