I think I mentioned this before, but just so no one is in any doubt, I hate IE6, I hate it because it's a 10 year old browser that insidiously permeates large corporates like a dose of colonic cancer; it makes the fruits of my labour look like shit, it prevents me from delivering truly innovative advances to people that want them and causes me hours and hours of pointless testing and fixing-up of cosmetic crap.
It always amazes me that otherwise intelligent people have a complete blind spot when it comes to superstition, from the billions of practitioners of it to the apologists who attempt (and fail miserably) to support it, defend it or even dismiss it as unimportant. Here is a classic case in point a story steeped in woo woo from top to tail whose outcome typifies the unthinking and prejudicial response that characterises human interaction when people subscribe to invisible, undetectable and yet purposeful imaginary agents.
Carole Smith is one of those people who work in American airports manning the security scanners and doing the frisking, she is also a Wiccan. Apparently her work colleagues complained about her saying that they were fearful of working in close proximity to a witch, one of them even claimed to have been cursed by Carole, a curse which manifested itself in the heater of her car not working properly. Now if I were managing these people I'd seriously check them for drug or alcohol abuse or perhaps investigate personal grievances, but the authorities in the case decided to take a different tack, they fired Carole Smith.
What the majority Christian, Jewish, Muslim population don't seem to "get" is that from a rational point of view there is nothing (other than tradition) to differentiate their superstition based beliefs from Carole Smith's superstition based beliefs, none are grounded in fact and all require the abandonment of reason, they are in effect equivalent. The tangible fear and prejudice projected from one group to the other with no basis in reality simply illustrates that fact.
The solution seems obvious, remove any credence or privilege for unfalsifiable beliefs from the workplace, a properly secular society should insist on this, anything else is only trouble waiting to happen.
I came across this little story this morning, it is supposed to be by a serious politician, a potential presidential candidate, making a serious point, warning us all of perils to come but it just made me laugh out loud. Check out this quote and see if you can spot the flaw in the logic,
"I have two grandchildren: Maggie is 11; Robert is 9," Gingrich said at Cornerstone Church here. "I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."
Yes, that's right folks, beware those secular Islamic atheists they're the worst scum you can possibly imagine, they'll steal your jobs and rape your daughters as soon as look at you. The politician who made these remarks is one Newton Leroy "Newt" Gingrich, ex speaker of the US house of Representatives and all round leading right winger. "Newt" claims he's a big Christian although he used to be a Baptist and is now a Catholic. I wonder if he has the same problem choosing between latte and cappuccino? Newt has also been married three times and has been implicated in a number of extra-marital affairs so clearly he takes his religions' guidelines on morality with a pinch of salt; although interestingly for someone with such "flexible" moral standards he remains adamant in his stand *against* gay rights, I guess when it comes to morality some are more equal than others.
In my own worst nightmare future we would have someone like this running America with someone like Palin waiting in the wings, lets hope the American electorate don't fall for the pseudo-Christian chest beating and "Newt" will crawl back under the rock he first emerged from.
In an interesting demonstration of the interconnectedness of everything here is the Japanese Tsunami working it's way across San Francisco bay, fortunately with a little less ferocity than it did across Northern Japan!
When I saw this the first thing I though of was that unless people knew what it was then local observers of this phenomenon would probably chalk it up to a freak of nature or possibly even a supernatural event, it's all a matter of perspective.
Although not widely reported, last Thursday may turn out to be a turning point in the battle between supporters of free speech and supporters of special pleading. Islamic countries set aside their 12-year campaign to have religions protected from "defamation", allowing the U.N. Human Rights Council to approve a plan to promote religious tolerance, switching the emphasis from protecting the idea of religion to protecting the practitioners of religion.
This is a much better outcome for humanity, it allows for the concept that religions may be legitimately criticised, in my view an essential thing to have if we are to avoid further division and discrimination in societies along religious fault lines in the future. On a more worrying note, it's interesting that Pakistan is singled out in the review, for some time now the Islamization of Pakistan has been proceeding at pace with outspoken objectors to medieval blasphemy laws being gunned down in cold blood. A secular Pakistan is an important idea for the west, a theocratic Pakistan would seem a backward and problematic step.
Here's an interesting essay, it tells the tale of ordinary Saudi women and the every-day injustices they face at the hands of Saudi men and their religiously inspired system of discrimination against them. It makes depressing reading but it's worth it just so you can remind those smug ex-pats when they're banging on about how much money they made working in places like Saudi, Kuwait, UAE etc., what systems those labours help to prop up.
It has always baffled me why the three main desert dogma's and most of the subsequent chips off those blocks consider that the only possible gender for their deity must be male, it's almost like at the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago when the foundation stones of these myths were being laid it was the muscle-bound labourers that were the only ones who got a say in making the rules, the thinking members of those societies were clearly subjugated. You could be forgiven for thinking that the desert deity must have a predilection for muscle mass, body hair and penises, each to their own I suppose, but what a waste of human potential, relegating 50% of the population to submission and servitude. I wonder how many Marie Curie's, Margaret Thatchers and Emily Bronte's have been overlooked in history because of these bronze age attitudes.
Now why didn't we do science experiments like this when I was at school? Here is a graphic illustration of a nuclear fission reaction done with nothing more complicated than mouse traps and ping pong balls.
If you're wondering why the fuel rods in the Japanese reactors continue to generate heat take a look at this and image it happening on a molecular scale i.e. trillions of times more ping pong balls and each time a ball bounces a small amount of heat is released.
Looking at the evidence it would seem that some Russians are confused about what constitutes loving your children. Apparently some people over there think that in order to remove "sin" from their children all they need to do is strip them and dunk them in a frozen lake against their will; take that "sin"!
What could they possibly be thinking I hear you ask, don't they realise that there is a good chance a young child's heart might just stop dead by doing this, never mind the psychological trauma of having people you trust thrust you into what is obviously severe jeopardy, not to mention discomfort. Well you won't be surprised to know that superstition is behind it all, yes religious superstition moulded by centuries of warping due to local climatic conditions (no mention of cross shaped ice holes in lakes in the Bible that I recall?). Of course not everyone jumps naked from -26C air into freezing water for the sake of religion, in fact the Orthodox Church frowns on the ritual, but mainly it seems because people aren't coming to church to get Christened as opposed to the potentially lethal nature of the practice, but anyway it's a nice change to see the voice of reason coming from organised religion for a change even if it is only acting in self interest.
If you want to experience the full effect of a screaming 5 year old having this done to them then you can find a video on Youtube here (warning it's not for the feint hearted)
Quantum computing is here apparently, this little story on the BBC web site caught my eye today, its about a team in the USA who are showing off their latest device in Texas. It's a 6cm X 6cm chip that contains 4 (quantum) bits. Compared to modern transistor based devices this sounds puny, almost laughable, but quantum processors have an important trick up their sleeves, they take advantage of some quantum weirdness that is so weird it once lead the famous physicist and Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman to say "if you think you understand quantum theory, then you don't understand quantum theory". Normal computers deal with things that are in binary states, i.e. on or off, 1 or 0 but quantum computers can deal with things that are on and off at the same time, although completely counter-intuitive (i.e. how can something be both on and off at the same time?) this allows them to do calculations and scale at rates unprecedented in today's devices. There is much more work to do though, quantum states are notoriously difficult to maintain, even the slightest interaction with the outside world will destroy the delicate interactions going on inside the device.
I wonder if the rate of development in quantum computing will be as rapid as "Moore's Law" (a doubling of power every 18 months) has been with regular computing, I have plenty of tasty analytic problems to solve that are simply impossible with current technology although as with anything new, it's the interface with human beings that will be where the real challenge lies. I suspect my programming team would find all kinds of new and cunning ways to avoid fixing their bugs, "there's nothing wrong with my code boss, it's obviously quantum uncertainty"...
Many years ago (when I was an ickle lad) my dad decided to take me to work with him as a treat in the Summer holidays. At the time he worked as an engineer at a large chemical refinery, "cat crackers" were his thing at the time and I was both nervous and excited to be seeing something like that up close for the first time, it sounded so macho and dangerous. We drove to the plant and went through the large gatehouse, once through we were escorted into a side building. Since I'd never been there before it was decided that I should be given a safety briefing, the briefing was given by an extremely laconic Northerner in a boiler suit and hob-nail boots (the plant was in the North of England) and to this day I'm convinced it was a stitch up, anyway, I listened with great determination as much as a 12 year old could muster. My instructor explained about the different sirens, the safety zones, where to go, where not to go etc. and right at the end he said "and never forget the most important thing on the whole site is that union jack fluttering high on the flagpole outside", why, I thought to myself was this some kind of workers pride thing?, I plucked up courage to gingerly raise my hand and ask, "well lad, he said, where ever you are on site, never forget where that flag is, if a siren goes off look at the flag, work out which way the wind is blowing and bloody leg it in the opposite direction" (much sniggering broke out among the men present).. Anyway I didn't actually get to see that much (there isn't much to see really), just a lot of pipes, the flares were cool but I was only allowed to look at those from a mile away, it's the safety briefing that sticks in my memory most vividly.
I was reminded of this story today when I read about two Catholic Bishops who released a document to their "flock" advising them of a list of unsuitable charitable organisations for Catholics to donate either money or time to, the list was surprising, I was expecting a bunch of front organisations for sinister or corrupt governments or companies but no, it contained some familiar names, for example,
-The American Association of University Women
There were even some religious organisations on their list like the Church World Service, anyway you can probably guess why these organisations are no longer considered kosher by these Catholics, but it made me think, there is something comfortingly reliable about such pronouncements, if I am ever in any doubt about my own moral compass, I could clearly do a lot worse than taking a quick look at which way the Catholic flag is blowing, and then running in the opposite direction.
30 years ago for me it was a little black box like this..?
Back in 1981 this little design icon represented the cutting edge of computing power that ordinary people could realistically buy and use. I was one of those excited young purchasers who waited by the post box for weeks listening for that tell tale "ding-dong" that signified a package too big to fit through the letter box. Sure there were other machines around like early Apples and business machines like Osborne's but they were way out of my price league, the Sinclair was actually affordable, if I remember correctly it came in at £79.95. For this princely sum I got a basic computer and a new hobby that I loved, later that hobby turned into a job and subsequently a career leading to a marriage, a family and I guess you could say a nice life ever since; all that for (in today's money) the price of a tank of petrol.
Senior pastor Cho Yong-gi of Yoido Full Gospel Church in Korea, a somewhat sinister sounding Christian outcrop in an otherwise majority Buddhist or non-religious population is clearly hell bent on keeping with religious tradition, the tradition I'm referring to is that of claiming the latest geological event on behalf of his particular vengeful deity (aren't they all). Apparently this time it's not gay people or Jews or feisty women that are the problem but Atheists and materialists, yes not being superstitious and owning an XBox causes his particular Christian God to slaughter innocents via violent movements of the Earth's crust; "show off" I guess you could say, whatever happened to the old-world guy who used to get the job done with simple plagues of frogs, this latest oriental incarnation clearly has no finesse, too many Godzilla films if you ask me.
Of course the pastor is now trying to distance himself from his remarks (I don't know why, there will be a queue of loons waiting to take credit) however, the genie is out of the bottle, the hurt is done, all we can hope for now is that normal people around the world ridicule the insensitivity and ignorance of this buffoon and those like him mercilessly, if it sows a seed of skeptical doubt in only one of this churches million or so followers then the world will be a slightly better place for it.
Dr Usama Hasan, a science lecturer and Muslim has resigned his position as an Imam at the Leyton mosque in East London because of death threats received after he dared to suggest, in a piece in the Guardian, that the facts of evolution may potentially be incorporated into Islam, just as they have been into Catholicism. What Dr Hasan was referring to is the idea that God created man via evolution, a delightful little brain fart first conceived by Catholics who were too embarrassed to continue pitching Adam and Eve as anything other than a fairy tale invented to try to explain to children something the authors of Genesis could not explain.
Of course this little deistic work-around isn't true either, one of the facts of evolution is that it's not a directed process, there is no pre-determination of the outcome of random genetic mutation (the clue is in the name) this has been shown by experiment. The improbability that God achieved this by purposefully tweaking every one of a googolplex of cell mutations over the period of the 14 billion* years that it took to get from big bang to the Pope doesn't seem to worry the faithful. The skeptic is left wondering why an omnipotent God would bother to do something this laboriously, however, would also recognise that this idea has got something very important going for it, however ridiculous, it's nicely unfalsifiable as all good religious ideas need to be these days.
A Humanist campaign designed for the upcoming UK census featured the above wording on a poster, the company that owns the advertising space has prevented this organisation from using these words because of hypothetical "offence" that it might cause. Presumably this company are concerned about offence to people that believe in "God", although which particular "God" is unclear, the fact that this is a very common expression of speech in the UK seems to have been ignored in favour of a more literal reading. Clearly the words were chosen for effect, why would you have an advertising campaign that didn't draw attention? Surely this is reasonable, the word "God" appears all over our language it is part of our culture for example, oh my God, good God man, goodbye (short for "Godbwye" or in modern English God be with you) etc. is this company seriously suggesting that people would be offended by having the word "goodbye" on a poster?
The campaign is a serious campaign, it makes the point if someone isn't really religious then they should say so rather than simply checking the "Christian" box because that's what they've always done. Failure to correctly assess the proportion of religious and non-religious people in the country will skew the practical outcomes of the census in areas such as law-making and government resource allocation, particularly around sensitive issues such as government funded faith schools, science policy, social policy and sexual/gender equality legislation.
Being a skeptic and a geek I find that most advertising offends me for one reason or another, but I don't feel the urge to deny others their freedom of speech or their delusions so long as no one is harmed; at the end of the day I assess things based on evidence and fully expect to be offended some of the time. Sticks and stones etc. in any case I get over the offence pretty quickly if not instantly. So this banning is IMO utterly pathetic and shows the lengths faith based lobby groups will go to in order to prop up their superstitions with a blunt stick rather than evidence, reason or argument.
Morton Schapiro of Northwestern University sounds like one of those progressive types that they never had at my old school. For a psychology lecture on human sexuality he organised for a woman to demonstrate a motorised sex toy in a lecture hall. Shocking I know, and I guess this means knees up on the desk at the front? Apparently student feedback has been uniformly positive (duh), although Mr Schapiro has had his knuckles wrapped by the brass at the school and admits the show may have reflected poor judgement on his part. I can't imagine such a thing happening the UK, although if it did I reckon the health and safety brigade would insist on at least three people standing over her with fire extinguishers, you can never be too safe.
I'm reminded of a suitable joke for Friday, years ago, when asked if he was aware that there were now motorised devices that sexually excite women, David Niven (or someone like that) said, yes darling its called a Mercedes 350SL convertible...
I read with dismay that a member of the Pakistani government has been gunned down in cold blood for suggesting a change to a law in his country, a task which you would have thought was in his job description. If this is all sounding a bit odd then you'd be right, the law in question protects magical super-beings who are simultaneously all powerful and yet apparently can't cope with a cosmically insignificant speck of carbon based life asking questions; some people call it "blasphemy". For those who are unaware of such things this law means that whilst in Pakistan you are not allowed to criticise the religion of peace and submission, or they'll kill you.
Quite a lot of blogs are talking about the high court ruling yesterday on a Christian couple who have been denied the opportunity to foster children because of their views on Homosexuality, whilst it's an interesting story, I'm sure these people are perfectly capable parents, certainly within the median range of nice people in the world. The problem is not them as people but the views they have (no doubt indoctrinated into them) regarding Biology which come directly from the Bronze age and are wrong on many levels; however "traditional" they may be.
What I find interesting about this case is not that this couple is Christian, its not because of what they believe nor because they claim their "rights" are being denied but because the judges have decided that Christian values have no automatic place in our law. This is a landmark ruling because it's saying that in the marketplace of ideas Christian ideas are not special and that ideas cannot stand on tradition alone they must stand on merit, this is a secular idea and clearly it means that in this case the law is being interpreted according to secular values and not religious ones.
No one would deny that Britain has had a long history of Christianity ruling the roost, some good times, some bad times, the divine right of kings and all that; but, this ruling is challenging the dogma that we must unconditionally respect the values of that historical legacy. Importantly the judges are not saying that all Christian values are wrong nor that Christians have no right to hold them, but that they have no place in the law unless they square with reality; meaning reality in 2011 and not reality in 1411.