Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday chuckle

Found on

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The magic of interaction

Richard Dawkins has a new book out at the moment, it's called the "Magic of reality" and deals with scientific explanations for some of the "big" questions, like "what are we made of" and "how did we get here". The book is aimed at younger children (ideally I reckon about 10-14) but is actually easy for anyone to read and get something from (I did). The format of the book is consistent throughout, each question has it's own section and each section consists of one or more attempted explanations from mythology followed by the actual scientific explanation. So for example for the question "what is the Sun" we have myths about golden chariots flying across the sky and aboriginal fire gods culminating in the real explanation, i.e. that the Sun is a very hot ball of gas like all other stars of its kind in the universe, it works really well. As well as the book there is a more interactive iPad version which is the full text of the book plus some interactive games, movies and audio content; throughout both there are many colourful cartoon illustrations by Dave McKean.

In the interests of true scientific exploration I thought I would try the iPad application out on my own lab rat 10 year old, we sat and read through some of it in place of a bed time story last night, the reaction was really positive in fact we got into it so much that in no time it was 9pm (way past bed time!) A couple of things really grabbed our attention, firstly the humour, lots of laugh out loud moments, particularly around the fabulous illustrations (the porcupine wrestling with the beaver seemed to tickle a funny bone) and secondly the interactive features, it's one thing explaining about the wavelengths of light in words and pictures, but then to be given a virtual light bench that allows you to play with lenses, slits and prisms right there and then really solidifies the learning experience and helps capture imagination.

All in all a thoroughly recommended little educational app; suitable from about 10 upwards I'd say; some of the words used are what I would call "advanced" and perhaps not sufficiently familiar to children for them to comprehend fully on their own but with an adult assisting it's probably fine for even younger people.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday chuckle

Stolen from and genetically modified for my own nefarious purposes wahhahaha

Thursday, September 22, 2011

2000 years in one chart

The Economist recently published a chart that claims to show "When history was made", their blurb goes on to explain that since people make history then the more people you have then the more history you make, so now that our population is 7 billion we're making more history now than we ever have before, I'm not sure its this simple but I'll run with it. On the chart they're showing economic output and years lived (which are %'s of the total), the scales are a little hazy and for example, they don't explain how they could possibly arrive at a figure for economic output for the 5th century, so it's not data that I would necessarily bank on, but I get the overall point.

So here's an interesting thought, since modern humans have been around for at least a couple of hundred thousand years how come it took us so long to master agriculture on the left hand side of this chart and yet once we invented flying it took us less than 100 years to reach the Moon on the right hand side. The rate of acquisition of knowledge is increasing dramatically; over 20% of the products and services made in the last 2 millennia were made in the last 10 years. Clearly the systems of government and cumulative nature of science have all contributed to this change in pace, for most of this period people were dogged by superstition, ruled by theocratic kings (some still are) and died young, but as we know, over time the old ways have evolved into more enlightened systems allowing some fortunate populations to truly thrive.

It's also clear that those populations left behind at the beginning of the industrial revolution are catching up fast, India, China, South America are all powering up the greasy pole to attain 1st world status, but with another few billion people living at this accelerated pace how long can it last? It's certainly a question that is beyond our ability to compute at the moment. I would like to be an optimist and believe that we'll just figure it out as we have in the past, but with side effects like over population, climate change and shortages of basic resources it would seem like something somewhere has to give.


I'm a bit too old to properly remember the genesis of REM although I do distinctly remember sitting in my sisters student digs waiting for her to get ready prior to taking her out for dinner (she was glad of some free food as students always are) REM was blasting out of a boom box providing an audible canvas to the cacophony of hair driers and shrieks of pain as various brushes and pointy things probed places they shouldn't have. It was the first time I'd heard the group and it sounded really cool, I bought their then current album (Monster) the next day and I've followed them ever since.

Now they are breaking up, probably wise, quitting while you are ahead or in rock circles whilst you still have good liver function is always a good idea, lets face it they've probably made a fair bob or two. In celebration of the group and their music I think I might download some guitar tab and try to learn one of their tracks, the atheist anthem "losing my religion" seems appropriate, thanks REM!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Let there be light

Here's something really awesome, the Southern lights as seen from space, kinda reminds me of all those sci-fi movies that featured green forcefields that pop up around the aliens to prevent us shooting at them, and I suppose that's exactly what our Earth's gravitational field and atmosphere is for us.

The light is produced when sub-atomic particles hurtling at us in the Solar wind actually penetrate our magnetic field and collide with molecules of Oxygen and Nitrogen in the upper atmosphere causing them to emit photons. The photons are essentially a release of packets of energy as the molecules (or parts of them) move up and down  between different states of excitement.

Just to follow on my train of thought from the previous post, i.e. that some people seem to require mystery or "faith" in order to appreciate the universe. My own feeling is that the fact that we know all this about something as fleeting as an aurora doesn't make this natural phenomenon any less beautiful or luminous, it makes me appreciate it more.

Nail in the coffin of Atheism?

OK, now I'm worried, could this be the beginning of the end for the new atheists?

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury was in public conversation with famous comedian (and Catholic) Frank Skinner last week and accepted that Atheism is "cool", and his organisation was finding it hard to compete with the "coolness" of science and rational thought. At which point a horrible realisation struck me, can anything that the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks is cool actually be cool?

On a more serious note, it was a good conversation, very telling in many ways, here are my take-away thoughts,
  • Rowan Williams is decently witty (if it was scripted then I withdraw that complement!)
  • Frank Skinner seems to have a simplistic view of religion, for example he earnestly used Pascal's wager as a reason that believers needed to convince non-believers.
  • Williams seemed to have a somewhat strange view of how publicity works, he said that because atheism was cool it meant that atheist books were cool and therefore there was an amplification effect. Whilst this is true, what he didn't acknowledge was that there has to be a catalyst for anything to become popular to begin with; for new atheists that is usually things like 9/11, the Catholic child-rape scandal and creationism/fundamentalism, plus the fact that as we learn more about the universe the religious stories become less and less compelling and therefore disbelieved.
  • The conversation was basically an affirmation of faith, faith seemed to be the most important thing, whether or not the argument for the basis of it was good or not. This of course goes to the core of the difference between believers and non-believers, lack of evidence defines faith, the flakier the story the more faith you need to believe it so if you admire "faith" then you will naturally seek out the most unlikely things to believe in (or not!)

Social workers

I see that Google+ has opened it's doors to the great unwashed recently; for those who haven't heard of it Google+ is essentially Google's answer to Facebook, a social networking application aimed at providing social object* sharing capabilities to people.

The conceptual model underpinning Google+ is superior to that of Facebook IMO, its' more obvious what's going on and much easier to use; Google's engineers have clearly incorporated a lot of learning from existing products and their own failed first attempt "Orkut" (although oddly that's still popular in Brasil?). It will be interesting to see if the features of this new offering will be sufficiently better to entice people away from Facebook where millions already have established networks and repositories of content in place. Whatever the software does I suspect it won't get very far unless the boys from Mountain View make it as simple as pie to suck all your Facebook junk into Google+.

*Social objects are things that people want to interact with each other around, for example photographs or film clips etc.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Only science in science classes please.

I fully support the recent initiative by various secular organisations and leading scientists to go on the offensive regarding various religious groups trying to slip creationism into science classes in our publicly funded schools. For anyone who values education and frankly, honesty, a robust response is clearly needed; the people that advocate the teaching of creationism or intelligent design as science seem determined to use every means at their disposal including deception to meet their anti-science goals.

A campaign to oppose such moves aimed at lobbying the Government now has a web-site and many leading scientists are already signed up. Their positioning statement reads as follows:

"Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.

But this is not enough. An understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology. The teaching of evolution should be included at both primary and secondary levels in the National Curriculum and in all schools."

I also agree that evolution should be taught much earlier within the academic careers of children, it is incredible that such a foundational scientific concept, one that pretty much explains the rest of Biology is not even broached until secondary school.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Going, going....

Here's a scary picture...

It shows the amount of ice present in the Arctic at it's minimum position (i.e. at the height of the Summer melt), which occurred more or less yesterday September 15th. The orange line shows the average position of the ice at exactly the same point between 1979 and 2000, clearly there is a lot less ice now than there was in the past, in fact you can see that the whole UK would fit comfortably into the gaps several times over.

I hope this won't all end in tears, but fear it will.

Software industry legend

I was up in town yesterday and talking to various people about my company and what we are doing; one of the people I met was a chap called Bernard Liautaud, for those readers not in the software business you can probably stop reading now; but those who are will probably know of Bernard as he is somewhat of a celebrity in our industry. 27 year old Frenchman Liautaud started a company called Business Objects back in the halcyon days of the early 90s when relational databases were first becoming main stream, the tyrannosaurs of Oracle, Sybase, Ingres and Rdb roamed the surface of the planet and Facebook wasn't even a glimmer in 6 year old Mark Zuckerberg's eye.

Business Objects was always going to be one of those disruptive products, it aimed to wrestle the job of creating management reports out of the quagmire of the IT backlog and squarely into the hands of business people, it never fully succeeded in doing that but it was good enough to spawn a multi-billion dollar company and helped to create a brand new software industry segment, one that still thrives today. In addition to technical innovation Business Objects became the first French company to list on the NASDAQ, successfully making the transition to the USA that so many European companies find so difficult. During those years I worked for the main competitor of Business Objects, a Canadian company called Cognos, we were bitter commercial rivals but we all had a deep respect for the company Bernard was building, they kicked our butts on many occasions.

In 2007 software giant SAP acquired Business Objects for $7 Billion, and later IBM acquired Cognos for $5 Billion an era had ended, the raw human energy and individuality of  those early years was dissipated into the amorphous mass of the mega-corporations.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Searching for meaning...

The technology space is littered with big ideas that never made it into the real world, especially ideas involving the internet and what people might want to use it for. Semantic search is one such "big idea" but I can't help thinking that the jury is still out on a) if it's really feasible and b) can it make money.

Semantic search companies aim to provide people with a mechanism to ask "real-world" questions and get sensible answers (ideally correct ones!) This is different from keyword based search (like Google) where words are typed in and the search engine returns a list of WEB pages that contain those words. A good illustration of the difference would be if you typed in the question "is pink married" into Google you'd get a selection of pages back regarding the colour pink, the pop-star pink and the subject of marriage but probably not a straightforward answer to your question. If you typed the same thing into a semantic search engine you (should) get the answer "yes" because the software has "understood" the context (meaning) of your question and has an underlying database of facts from which it can answer the question correctly.

One company that is trying to achieve this is a Cambridge based firm company called "True Knowledge", there are others, for example "wolfram alpha" and the mainstream players, like Google and Microsoft are also experimenting with semantic concepts in their search engines.

Out of interest I typed the following question into the true knowledge engine, "is Richard Dawkins religious", a resounding "yes" was the answer! 100% wrong but I can see how they might think that. Religion is probably a highly frequent term within documents that also mention "Richard Dawkins" but obviously the answer is completely wrong (in any meaningful sense, even though some apologists would like to bend the meaning of these words)

You can see the problem, in order to answer random questions phrased using human language requires so much more than facts, more often than not it requires actual life experience. This is a really vexing computer science problem, i.e. how do we get software to really understand us without us having to learn alien languages that computers can understand. The True Knowledge engine gets the question about pink being married correct (but then that is one of their stock examples), Wolfram Alpha doesn't clearly not recognising the fact that in the context of this particular question pink means the pop-star pink.

The second issue facing companies trying to solve this problem is how can it be monetised? Whilst it's easy to see how someone wanting to win a pub quiz could potentially use such technology what value is it outside of academic interest, or put another way who would pay for it? Google famously solved this problem with advertising and I suppose these new search engine companies could try the same thing, but that would seem difficult to me since there is such a momentum around keyword search; so how about businesses? Let's say I'm a sales person wanting to find out if the company True Knowledge is a suitable prospect for my product or service, that's intelligence I might consider paying for so a typical question would be "how many people work for true knowledge". I tried this in the true knowledge system, it couldn't answer the question, then I tried the same question in Wolfram Alpha and got the answer 3 million (it clearly misunderstood what I meant).

On both fronts of practicality and commercial value there is clearly still much work to be done.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It's a fair cop?

Human rights lawyers and victims are to file a complaint to the International Court of Justice in the Hague recommending that the Pope be investigated for covering up the large-scale rape and sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

Whilst I can sympathise greatly with the desire for justice underpinning this move I can only conclude that it is doomed to failure. The simple fact of the matter is that the Catholic church have 2000 years of experience of putting things "outside" of the realm of worldly investigation, including themselves. It's highly unlikely that the ICC will have jurisdiction over the Vatican since they aren't one of the 117 countries around the world that signed up to the Rome statute (interestingly neither have the USA).

Even if unsuccessful, let's hope this action serves to keep this important topic fresh in people's minds, unlike Catholics I don't believe that crimes against humanity will be punished in the next life, I'd much prefer to see justice in this one.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Selective hearing

I saw an intensely frustrating program over the weekend (in a slow motion car crash kind of way). It was called "Conspiracy road trip" and featured Irish stand up comic Andrew Maxwell taking five typical young British conspiracy believers on a road trip from New York to Washington in an attempt to debunk their various delusions regarding the 9/11 attacks in New York. In the program each conspiracy theorist presented their own personal account of what they thought happened that day and this was then debunked via the group being taken to meet various experts and eye-witnesses.

Of the 5 people involved in the program only 1 of them actually changed their mind, 2 of them became more entrenched and the others remained more or less on the fence. It was frustrating (for a rationalist like me) because these people were obviously decent people but went to extraordinary lengths in order to retain even the faintest grasp on their pet theories, despite being confronted with overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary. The similarities between the kind of obvious emotional investment needed to do that was so similar to the religious debates I have it was uncanny, lots of futile "seeking meaning" within meaningless "why" questions and blatant confirmation bias for the actual "how" answers easily provided by real life. I wanted to gaffer tape the mouths of these people whilst I read them Carl Sagan's "dragon in my garage" essay, but no doubt they wouldn't have seen themselves in it as I did.

There was one lady in particular, "Charlotte" who came across as an archetypal relativist, a triumph of self-confidence over ignorance and like some obnoxious contestant on "the apprentice" she became more and more entrenched the more reality and evidence pulled her delusions into focus. Her initial theory was that the whole event was stage managed by the US government because no one could fly a plane into a building with such little training, it sounds reasonable, but the program then picked one of the sceptics (who had no flying experience at all) and within an hour of training had her landing a real aircraft. Rather than addressing her error, Charlotte simply moved onto the next theory, claiming that the towers were toppled using "thermite" in a controlled demolition, a chemist then proceeded to demonstrate what thermite does to one inch thick steel beams, surprisingly, bugger all. After a series of similar refutations and several tantrums, Charlotte finished the program accusing all the participants of collusion with the Government, or was it the Illuminati, I forget, anyway, in her mind "feelings" trump reason and evidence, she is not alone in that view, the 9/11 hijackers had exactly the same perspective.

PS. In case you're wondering why I posted a picture of the surface of the Moon it's because a recent NASA probe has sent back some splendid high resolution pictures that show in some detail the detritus left behind by the various NASA Lunar missions, driving a final nail into the coffin of the plethora of Moon landing conspiracy theories out there - or not, if Charlotte is anything to go by.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Dem' bones...

Spent a lovely weekend down in West Dorset/East Devon visiting some friends and went to the beach at Charmouth, and in a recent mud slide at the foot of a hill called Black Ven the kids and I found this, looks like a huge fossilised bone to me, it was too big to lift and we didn't want to hack at it so just had to leave it there... tantalising!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Pray kid, or else...

I was listening to a random program on Radio Berkshire this morning about a recent survey of parents regarding compulsory prayer at school, many people probably don't realise that having a daily act of (Christian) worship in school is actually the law in England but the meat of the program was focused on the fact that most schools don't do it. Various arguments were aired for and against, and whether or not this law should be enforced. There's a reasonable summary of the story on the BBC news site.

Parents apparently have the right to withdraw their children if they wish and sixth formers can choose for themselves, however my view is that withdrawal of young children from a majority activity and the obvious stigma that would be associated with this is probably more harmful than just going along with it and simply teaching the child to think for themselves, evaluate the evidence and come to their own conclusions.

What I found encouraging about the program was that the pro-worship side had utterly dismal arguments, easily on a par with Piers Morgan, some of them are repeated in the on-line article, for example The Bishop of Oxford seems to think that forcing people to pray together makes a statement about cohesion, what nonsense, if you look up the word "divisiveness" in the dictionary it says "see religion". The solution seems obvious to me religion (or any similar cultural hobby) should not be a mandatory part of any state school timetable unless it's being taught comparatively to everyone, the law should be changed.

Piers Morgan argues for God, and fails.

Famous Las Vegas magician and outspoken atheist Penn Jillette has a new book out, it's part autobiography and part a conversation about atheism, from what I've seen so far it looks like a reasonable read. At the moment Penn is doing the rounds of talk shows in the USA promoting this new book and last night I happened to catch him on the Piers Morgan show (see YouTube version here) I haven't been paying attention to Piers Morgan much lately, I had some vague notion that he was popular in the states but nothing more than that. I had no idea that he was such a moron, either that or he plays at being moronic very well indeed.

Take a look at the interview and see how many basic logical fallacies you can spot in his arguments against atheism, I spotted at least half a dozen (argumentum ad populum, non sequitur, straw man etc..). Morgan declared his hand almost immediately, i.e. that he was a believing Catholic and attempted to goad Jillette into a negative reaction by being aggressive, argumentative and talking over Jillette from the outset. Jillette on the other hand handled it really well, he remained calm and polite and simply neutralised Morgan's ridiculous arguments with "logic 101", although it was clear that Morgan didn't understand why his arguments were stupid. I like Jillette a lot more after seeing this, he's cool, as for Piers Morgan all I can say is I'm glad he's working in the USA and I don't have to listen to his idiotic views at home.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Looking back, and looking forward...

It's a funny time of year for me, on the one hand it's my Son's 10th birthday so we're all very excited about that and on the other hand it's the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These events are inextricably linked for me, if it weren't for his birth I would have almost certainly been in New York on that fateful day probably staying at the Marriott World Trade Centre (photograph above) or at the Millennium Hilton hotel (The thin black building in the foreground of the photograph below) - chances are I would have been physically OK since my habit was to go to the office on Wall St. early, long before the first plane struck the North Tower, but still, it's a sobering thought.

Of course there are plenty of documentaries and deconstructions going on in the media currently about these events and they are all interesting in their way, but for me they tend to focus far too much on the mechanics of what happened, the horror and the spectacle and not enough on the terrorists themselves and the bigger cultural picture. The best article I've seen on this is by Christopher Hitchens writing for Slate magazine. I agree with most of what he says which is backed up by my own experience; ask 10 people in the pub or office why Al-Qaida attacked America on 9/11 and you'll get 10 different answers, most of them far too complex to be credible and most avoiding what for me is the elephant in the room.

Hitchens sums up this evil organisation nicely by saying it's,

"a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and "unbelievers," and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire."

What I like about this definition is that it isn't afraid to address that elephant in the room, Islam.

As we all know, correlation doesn't prove causation and so I wouldn't be so naive to blame Muslims for these specific attacks but the article goes on to point out why Islam is absolutely essential and central to the mechanisms that enabled these attacks and why the philosophy underpinning them will not prevail.

The key point for me about Al-Qaida and organisations like it is that, unlike the secular West, they have no mechanism for self criticism and correction, it's essentially a faith based organisation. Whilst Al-Qaida's motivations may be materialistic and/or political the rationalisation for their existence is only possible because of faith, without it you cannot rationalise such actions and goals, with it, anything is possible and you can convince intelligent, degree educated men to fly planes into buildings. Armed with faith it is entirely likely that short lived symbolic victories like 9/11 and 7/7 can be manufactured, but like all faith based philosophies from the Catholic Church, through Stalinism to Al-Qaida they are doomed to eventually implode because they cannot evolve effectively in any kind of time-scale that enables them to compete in an ever accelerating global marketplace of ideas.