Thursday, June 30, 2011


I see that the Pope recently posted his first Tweet; the BBC ran a story about it although from the look of him didn't seem entirely comfortable with the iPad used to do it, luckily someone had run up something with a big blue button in the middle of the screen which he just had to press.

Two thoughts about this. First, does this mean that Yahweh sanctions Apple products? I always suspected that he would but then you know how controversial and dogmatic the whole Apple-Microsoft-Google-Linux thing gets, even I wouldn't dare go there! Second, I wonder what the comedy version of the Pope's first tweet would be, "Dwkns is sooo gay, ROFL" ?

Booming boatmen

Nice little science story on the BBC today, apparently the loudest animal (for its size) on the planet is the humble water boatman. This little critter sits at the bottom of ponds and rubs it's penis against its abdomen making a noise that measures 99 decibels, equivalent to listening to a full orchestra from the front row, although clearly a lot wetter and with less impressive arrangement.

As usual in nature such overt displays are to do with reproduction and attracting a mate, although in this case selection has driven the adaptation to an extreme level. So next time you are passing a pond and hear one of these bugs (you can hear a sample of it on the BBC page) you can amaze and impress your friends by pointing out what a clever dick the little water boatman is.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The beautiful question, re-visited

Last week I looked at the question "should evolution be taught in schools" which was asked of Miss USA contenders, the answers were surprising and overwhelmingly missed the point of science education. Here is another way of explaining the problem with those answers using humour (bordering on ridicule) - see if you think it communicates the problem better.

PS. I like the way that they capture the different responses from the different state representatives in the same "style" as the original answers (including the sensible ones)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hands off our angels!

Here is the inimitable Pat Robinson explaining where the word "sodomy" comes from, according to him it used to be a place in the Middle East (Sodom) where homosexuality was "embraced". Even visiting angels were sexually harassed by hordes of gays, although why beautiful men wearing skimpy dresses and feathers would be targets of such shocking behaviour remains lost in the sands of time. Then, after some dubious sexual bartering, Yahweh nuked the whole area killing everyone except one family minus the mother who God transformed into sodium chloride sculpture (well, ice is no good in the heat obviously) - the meaning of this story is clear to Pat, don't try to bum angels or God will nuke you!

So, all straightforward so far, but what I don't get about Pat's God is why he keeps on making stuff a certain way and then destroying it again for being that way, sounds like a complete incompetent to me? Anyway, Pat goes on to explain that no society has ever embraced homosexuality and survived; This almost sounds like a fact but I guess it hinges on what he means by "society", "embrace" and "survive", in fact what the hell does he mean? Never mind, the USA is obviously on the wrong slippery slope when it comes to tolerating gay people, the angels should be arriving any day now and then the fun will start, you just wait* and see!

*Oh and while you're waiting send all your money to Pat, mansions and private jets don't pay for themselves you know!

One life, this life, and its beautiful..

Here's an uplifting little song for a muggy Tuesday..

Monday, June 27, 2011

French about face..

I see that the new burka law in France has got off to a shaky start, according to this news story two women who were to receive fines for refusing to remove theirs in public were refused entry to the courts where the case was being heard because, yes you guessed it, they were wearing their burka's!

Apparently police have specific instructions not to remove the garments themselves and so the defendants were simply instructed to leave leaving the officials with egg on their faces (they should probably cover that up with something)

Personally I wouldn't have fined these particular women, they clearly relish every opportunity to remain intransigent over this issue by playing the "human rights abuse" card (LOL). A more fruitful approach perhaps would be a course of psycho therapy to treat them for the obvious Stockholm syndrome they're suffering from, surely we all have a right to proper mental health before having to endure the stress of a court case?

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I spotted (get it!) this little story on the BBC yesterday it's about a species of wasp that lays it's eggs inside the living bodies of ladybirds, creepy enough, but the story doesn't end there. The wasp larvae doesn't actually kill the ladybird, it grows inside it's abdomen until it "hatches", at which point it spins a cocoon that sits under the body of the beetle all the while controlling the ladybird with chemicals that affect it's brain keeping it in a semi-paralysed state.

The purpose of this behaviour (from the wasps' point of view) seems to be to use the ladybird to protect the larvae whilst it develops by injecting the host with brain toxins that cause erratic twitching and grasping actions in the body of the bug thereby deterring predators from attacking.

The cringe-worthy thing about this life-cycle is that 25% of the ladybirds actually survive the ordeal, presumably with a sore bum and a headache.... like too many beers followed by an inadvisable curry.. maybe...

The seven ages of the technologist

I made this list (1-6) today, well, if you can't laugh at yourself etc...
  1. As student, listens to professor talk about the university’s own work as "state of the art"
  2. First job, talk about your own work as "state of the art"
  3. First management job, talk about "state of the art" as what your team does.
  4. First executive job, talk about “state of the art” as being what the company does.
  5. First consulting job, talk and write about “the state of the art” eccentrically and incorrectly—always in a self-aggrandizing way.
  6. Start a company and agonise about why you can't find anyone doing "state of the art".
  7. Blog about science and religion
(I added number 7 just for completeness)

Small win in a long game.

I read today that the poster boy of the right wing in the Netherlands Geert Wilders has been acquitted of all charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims. The case against Wilders was somewhat artificial to begin with since the trial was forced by the appeal court having previously been refused by various prosecutions since 2008 who were unwilling to take it on. However, its a small victory for free speech albeit involving a somewhat seedy character, the case was summed up nicely IMO in the following statement,

"His comments may have frequently caused anxiety and insult, they were not criminal as they criticised Islam as a religion and not Muslims as a people."

There is much in Islam to be critical of, the colonial aspirations of it, the treatment of women, the glorification of barbaric acts, racism, parochialism etc. and of course not all Muslims agree with all these things either; but they exist they are real, they affect the lives of millions and are codified in the holy texts of that religion. In many debates the elephant in the room which no one dare mention for fear of "offence" is Islam. If we believe in free speech we should not be afraid to call out these undesirable traits and counter them with rational and if needs be forceful argument where ever they are encountered. For me this is the main point, not whether we agree or not with the politics and tactics of the Geert Wilders but whether anyone living in a society that claims to uphold the principal of free speech should be able to criticise ANY idea, religious, cultural, political or otherwise and to have the weight of that criticism stand on its own merits through evidence and reason.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Should evolution be taught in schools?

For a rationalist, or indeed anyone that values scientific knowledge (as opposed to uninformed opinion) and how we acquire it, this question seems utterly preposterous, why even have such a question? Evolution has been an established fact for over 200 years so why on earth would we still be debating if we should even talk about it.

Take a look at this little clip of miss USA delegates being asked this very same question, it's fascinating, is this really a cross section of mainstream American opinion?. Now then, I'm keen to resist the urge to make wise cracks about the kinds of women that compete in beauty parades, that would be too easy, in actual fact none of the responses are too horrible from a general coherence point of view at all. However, many thought that evolution shouldn't be taught at all and out of those that thought it should, none thought it should for what I would consider to be the "right" reason.

So, regardless of what we believe religion-wise, why should evolution, or indeed any science be taught at all, here are some of the suggestions from the "girls".

- It should be taught because children should be given every possible opinion and then they can decide what they want to believe.

- It should be taught as a theory only, not as a fact.

- It shouldn't be taught because I am a Christian and I don't believe it at all

- It should be taught but we should miss out Human evolution, because that's controversial

- It should be taught because it's part of the belief system of the West

- It shouldn't be taught but it should be mentioned, since it might not be compatible with the morals of the child's parents.

- It shouldn't be taught because so many different cultures have their own beliefs

- It should be taught as long as its given equal time with creation

Looking down this list it's not difficult to see why there is so much confusion regarding this question, some of the answers even sound reasonable. However, it's clear that many people were simply parroting the propaganda of their religious sects or indeed woolly concepts of post-modernism and yet showed no signs of actually arriving at those views by any rational means. It's also clear that science education, critical thinking and reasoning skills among this group is somewhat weak, I found it ironic that so many of them offered the "teach both sides" defence when they hadn't got a grasp of the "other side" of that argument. It's not only the facts of science that are lacking but the rationale behind science and why it is the basis of our modern lives, why it's so successful and why so many other means of acquiring knowledge are not.

Of course, the correct answer to this question is...

"Evolution should be taught in science class because it has an overwhelming mountain of physical evidence that supports it and because of that it forms one of the core pillars of Biology, without evolution nothing in Biology is understandable. It should be taught because it is as certain as any other major scientific theory, for example the theory of gravity, the germ theory of disease, quantum theory, thermodynamic theory etc.

Evolution should be taught as science because science is not about personal beliefs or opinions, science deals with the study of evidence and reason in order to formulate explanations of reality that can be tested. Religion and personal belief systems on the other hand belong in philosophy, religious education and history classes, not science classes, religious instruction belongs at home and in church."

Hopefully this answer explains why all the previous suggestions are flawed, although Miss California and Miss Vermont get my vote, actually Miss California eventually won - although that's probably got more to do with what she looks like in a bikini than her being a science geek... they never had science geeks like that in my day!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Praise be to dog...

In an amazing show of daftness a Rabbinical court in Israel recently sentenced a dog to be stoned to death. Why would such an act of anti-canine violence be justified you might well ask, did this dog bite some religious bigwig in the bum? Nope, in an all too familiar attack on secular criticism the stray dog wondered into the court and wouldn't leave, so therefore the proper conclusion is that the poor animal had become possessed by the spirit of a secular lawyer who challenged the court 20 years before, i.e. someone who attacked the sect. Such "interpretation" of the real world to support the narrow (vested) interests of a deluded few is commonplace in religion. More alarming in this case was that the judges from the court wanted the children of the district to perform the stoning, children stoning animals to death, just how cynical can you get in the name of religion before your constituents should start picking up rocks and looking at you through narrowed eyes..?

Anyway, the possession of the dog is certain to be untrue, everyone knows lawyers never infect loyal creatures like dogs, it's always rats or cockroaches, surely?

Update: Looks like this story may be a prank, lots of furious denials going on today..

Friday, June 17, 2011

"one with everything"

Here's a question for theologians everywhere, can you be religious and retain a sense of humour about your faith?

Take a look at the following video and watch an attempted joke by an Aussi TV anchor man fall horribly flat as the Dalai Lama just didn't get his Buddhism joke...

Actually being more charitable some of the meaning of the gag may have been lost in the translation, never the less a funny moment. Not mentioning any names, I could imagine other religious leaders who would equally struggle or be "offended" at such an interaction...

Jesus messes with your genes..

I love this, it shows beautifully how ignorant people grab at scientific concepts and butcher them embarrassingly in order to acquire a scintilla of credibility for their ranty woo woo. The crowd in this case is clearly equally as ignorant and so everything works out fine and they all get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. I suppose that's what this kind of thing is for, but me, I just see the perpetuation of ignorance.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Free education vs. freedom to educate

I couldn't let the recent hoo-ha regarding AC Grayling's efforts to launch a new private university concept in London pass without some kind of comment.

It's not that I particularly care what a bunch of semi-retired professors do with their spare time, how they fund it or how much they think its worth, ultimately commercial value is whatever someone is prepared to pay. We live in a society (UK) that is organised around freedom to pursue personal financial and developmental goals within the law, if we allow this for some then we should allow it for all, and let's face it paying for education is hardly a precedent past, present or future.

What interests me in this is the content and nature of the criticism levelled against this initiative, there seems to be two sides to it, firstly we have a bunch of students who are focusing on the money and secondly we have the religious apologists who seem to be fixated on some cocktail of anti-atheism, loathing of science and general scaremongering against sliding toward an "American system".

Students recently heckled and smoke bombed a launch talk that Grayling held in Foyles bookshop in London, leading to people having to be evacuated from the building. From the commentary about the event and a related heckling of Richard Dawkins at an event hosted by the British Humanist Association, it seems that the students are against people wanting to charge for education services or perhaps the concept of private education generally. Whilst I can agree that a universally free system may be an ideal worth fighting for as a safety net for everyone, it can never be the only solution, one size fits all doesn't work and ultimately (within the law) who should dictate what people spend their own money on? It seems somewhat hypocritical of a bunch of higher education recipients complaining about professors wanting to make money when getting a better job and making more money is generally the whole point of getting a higher education for most people in the first place. It seems to me that it would be far better and more fruitful if the students focused their attention on our Government; IMO the primary source of cock-eyed and short sighted educational resource decision making.

Then we have the apologists, there are a bunch of theological commentators out there who appear to want to attack the so called "new atheists" at every turn, regardless of the subject. I suppose I can understand this, after all we are diametrically opposed to most of their views, chalk and cheese, oil and water, cats and dogs, natural adversaries you might say. In a piece in the Guardian Terry Eagleton bitterly criticised the initiative, calling it "odious". Eagleton is a well known literary critic and religious apologist, raised a Catholic he exhibits may of the a priori laden intellectual positions in his writings that are characteristic of that organisation. I came across him in connection with his critique of Dawkins book "The God Delusion", which I can summarise for you simply by saying "how dare a mere scientist criticize theology?". I found the whole premise of his book that a scientist can't comment on theology totally vacuous, especially when that's not what Dawkins actually comments on; Dawkins focuses on reality and science, something Eagleton demonstrates scant regard for and hopeless ignorance of and yet feels amply qualified to comment on it ad nausea, such is the mind of the theologian. We don't need to study the arcana of drawing up horoscopes to know that astrology is bunk in the same way that we do not need to spend years poring over the scribblings of Aquinas to see that his God is a phantasm, Eagleton's argument is a grand exercise in avoidance.

Putting Eagleton's Christian indoctrination laden rantings to one side I feel there is an idea much more central to this debate; that of the two cultures war thesis first popularised by British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow. In a lecture back in the 50s Snow put forward the idea that there exists a widening divide between the humanities and science in our society, a rift that may be harmful if allowed to continue unchecked. I am somewhat sympathetic to this idea, I certainly see and read some strange perceptions of science among non-scientists and even in trivial ways many people think it's cool to be ignorant of our understanding of reality, preferring illusion or magic, the reality TV effect perhaps. Snow sums it up well in the following quote,

I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, Have you noticed how the word "intellectual" is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn't include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don't y'know.

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

So is this really an argument about money and privilege or are there deeper divisions being played out here,  can we honestly say that selecting rich liberal students by charging a big fee is any more elitist than selecting students by which church they attend? Does the ideal of providing free higher education trump giving adults the freedom to educate themselves however they wish, I for one hope the experiment will succeed and become more accessible over time, it will certainly be interesting to see how it plays out.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Science proves atheists wrong... apparently...

There's a ton of these idiotic refutations out there, many making their way into the myriad leaflets and propaganda scripts spouted by fundie Muslims, Christians and Jews running around the place;  a sad reflection on science education and an indictment of religious indoctrination.

It's hardly worth pointing out the fallacies in this document, but just in case you're wondering what a simple falsification would be try drinking a couple of pints of water wait a few hours and see if that liquid disappears from the universe for ever, if by some remote chance it does then you shouldn't take this argument any more seriously rather you should urgently seek medical assistance.

I can see your house from up here!

Wonderful picture of the ISS with the space shuttle docked onto it; a rare shot as it's taken from a soyuz capsule leaving the station, normally that doesn't happen whilst the shuttle is docked.

An iconic image of a now (hard to believe) "legacy" technology.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The ages of man

Spot on as usual from xkcd (click on the image to see a bigger version)


Back in 2008 an American creationist organisation funded and produced a nasty little propaganda film called "Expelled". Its main presenter a fifth rate American actor called Ben Stein presented a toxic caricature of science, a straw man designed to appeal to the denialists and conspiracy theorists that seem to swell creationist ranks the world over. Stein claimed that "big science" (whatever that is?) was suppressing the truth, pushing an agenda of evolution at the expense of "heroic" creationists who supposedly had killer evidence that evolution was false (although we never saw what this evidence actually was?)

The problem for Stein and creationists everywhere is that there is no conspiracy, no cover up, there is just a mountain of solid evidence for evolution, accumulated over decades from all the major scientific disciplines, geology, palaeontology, biology, chemistry, physics, cosmology etc. and each thread of evidence supports the other, if you're claiming that Genesis is literally true then by definition you are also claiming that everything we know about physics is WRONG - a bold claim.

On the other hand there is no evidence whatsoever for creation, no matter now hard they try and no matter how many millions of dollars harvested from gullible believers they pump into this they cannot come up with a single sliver of a single shred of a minuscule shard of evidence that their stories and delusions are real, so instead they resort to monstrous distortions of the truth like "Expelled", they lie for Jesus.

In a rare example of cosmic justice, the company that produced this appalling little film just went into receivership, and the whole pathetic artefact is going under the hammer. I wonder who would buy such a thing? perhaps some university could use it to underpin a module of a psychology course, I can see it now, "Herd mentality, using Godwin's law to support mass delusion 101"..

Monday, June 06, 2011

Psst.. wanna see some hot pictures..

Now here's a cool picture; you may recognise the fiery disc of our sun but any idea what the little black dot is in the middle? Well it's the international space station and what's even more remarkable is that the space station has the penultimate NASA space shuttle Endeavour docked onto the side of it.

Here is the same photo but cropped so that you can see some detail,

I visited the science museum at the weekend and marvelled at how far aircraft and rocket science and technology has come in such a relatively short period of time, it was only 34 years ago that the pioneer German rocketeer Wernher von Braun who started it all (among others) died, and we're now at the point where the leading US launch platform is about to be retired. Let's hope the shuttle's replacement is just as inspiring to a new generation of geeks, and can we have it soon please, I'm not getting any younger you know!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Pesky evolution again..

This story is filling our news channels at the moment, it's about the new strain of E. Coli bacteria that has infected more than 1,500 people of which 18 have died: 17 in Germany and one in Sweden. Note the word "new", this literally means that a strain of the old E. Coli bacteria has EVOLVED to become a new strain with a different, slightly modified genetic code which no longer replicates to produce the old strain. If this new animal is successful (unfortunately that may mean it infects millions of people) then it will replicate itself to become perhaps a dominant population from which new animals will also evolve.

Amazingly there are still people who deny that evolution occurs even though this kind of thing is happening around them all the time, how they intellectualise outbreaks like this we can only speculate on but suffice to say what they think is unlikely to be rational or true. Unfortunately for our society such people seem overly keen to inflict their ignorant, head in the sand views on the rest of us, particularly children. Clearly such proselytising has the aim of indoctrinating whoever will listen into the same deluded and brain washed state of religiously inspired denial as themselves. Even now, in enlightened Europe in the 21st century we have people who wish to spread such lies and ignorance to our very own school kids.

Think I'm exaggerating? take a look at the picture above it shows a wooden boat made by a Dutch creationist Johan Huibers and is supposed to be a replica of the ark from the Bible story of Noah. Mr Huibers is seeking permission to have his monument to stupidity moored on the Thames during the London 2012 Olympics. In a statement about his plans he says that "It will be nice for British schoolchildren to visit." This "attraction" is obviously a work of great commitment and skill and no doubt it will be full of fluffy, furry animals designed expressly to appeal to young children but beware, be skeptical, stealing from another ancient myth this wooden vessel is also a Trojan horse, one full of toxic ideas that are designed to ensnare and which need to be opposed at every turn.

As you would expect Huibers has a strange, warped kind of logic, when asked about his monument he is quoted as saying,

"This will speak very much to children, because it will give them something tangible to see that Noah's Ark really existed"

So, (using Huibers logic) just by building a model of something from a story in a book it means that it really existed, I wonder if Huibers has seen the  huge elaborate models of Ganesha the elephant God, does this mean our kids should accept that Hindu deities also existed too? Just for a laugh, I'd love to hear him explain how millions of different species of animals would fit into his boat (including dinosaurs) Given the puny dimensions of the ark you couldn't even liquidise that many animals and still fit them in!

Can you watch?

Loom from Polynoid on Vimeo.

Here's an incredible movie, it graphically shows one example of the life and death struggle going on in every nook and cranny of every dusty shed, every acre of wood and every spindly hedgerow. It's difficult to watch this and not feel sorry for the moth but our feelings count for nothing of course; this is reality, nature red in tooth and claw, all we should do is count our luck that spiders didn't evolve to the size of dogs (even though my wife claims there is one that lives in our bathroom that size..) I challenge anyone not to wince even slightly as the spider sinks his fangs into it's prey and starts injecting the enzymes that will slowly dissolve its internal organs to be consumed by this furry little predator, its no wonder so many people have arachnophobia.

So much for teleology, if there is a loving deity he must really hate moths...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Godless sex

In my humble opinion there's nothing more disconcerting or concentration killing than suspecting that you're being secretly spied on for punitive purposes. I guess that's the feeling a lot of religious believers have which underpins the results of this survey done in the USA which concludes that Atheists have much better sex lives that their religious brothers and sisters. Different religions were even scored for the "guilt level" of practitioners during sex, the results were interesting and unsurprisingly exactly what you'd expect if this were purely the product of impressionable human minds; the more fringe the beliefs the more the guilt. 

Here's a sampling of their findings,

"Strict religions such as Mormons ranked highest on the scale of sexual guilt. Their average score was 8.19 out of 10. They were followed closely behind by Jehovah's Witness, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, and Baptist.

"Catholics rated their levels of sexual guilt at 6.34 while Lutherans came slightly lower at 5.88.

"In contrast, atheists and agnostics ranked at 4.71 and 4.81 respectively."

Of course unlike religious people tending toward creationism, rationalists understand that sexual desire is a natural urge we get from our evolutionary heritage, it's a good thing without which we wouldn't exit, ergo, it's a human universal even though it manifests itself in many different ways. Understanding reality clearly has benefits which extend beyond mere understanding, once people realise that consensual pleasure between adults will not be punished by an omnipotent busy-body in the sky then guess what, they enjoy themselves more, probably have less stress and live happier, longer lives.

Obviously I can't prove that last comment, but could this be yet another sound reason to be an atheist?