Friday, May 27, 2011

You don't need to be a psychic...

Here's a bijou little story it's about the witches of Salem (USA), well psychics to be more precise who are up in arms because apparently it's far to easy for interlopers to muscle in on "their turf". According to some resident hucksters practitioners, since local legislation changed to relax psychic licensing laws any old fraud can set up shop and practice their version of voodoo in Salem. This increased competition is making many uncomfortable, perish the thought that "untrained" psychics could be let loose on the public, gullible unsuspecting people could get fleeced hurt!

I visited Salem many years ago whilst touring New England, it's a quaint little place and we did the various tours and re-enactments of the witch trials that occurred there 300 years ago. I find it astonishing that anyone would think that the story does anything but illustrate what happens when superstition egged on by religious clap-trap is allowed to escalate out of control. The fact that people still think the place is bewitched and seek out spiritual vapour-ware there is plain bonkers to me, but then again on reflection I guess it's no different than what millions of people seek in mosques and churches up and down the land on Fridays and Sundays all over the world.

Apparently things have turned nasty in Salem though recently, with dead animals being deposited outside certain premises, how awful!, it's strange though, you'd have thought they should have seen it coming?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Heavy man...

Its been an interesting week for records, this story from CERN describes how the most dense material ever seen has been created in the worlds largest particle accelerator. Smash lead ions together at suitably high energies and you get a super-hot quark-gluon plasma that's so dense a sugar cube sized sample of it would weigh more than 40 billion tons; just goes to show how much empty space we contain, in fact we're mostly empty space, particularly fundamentalist Christians who predict raptures who seem especially empty in the reasoning centres of the brain and yet exceptionally dense at the same time?

Not wanting  to be outdone by the boson bashers, the astronomers took this snap shot of an exploding star, not too special except when you realise that it's 13.14 billion light years away, i.e. it actually exploded 13.14 billion years ago and it's taken the light that long to reach the tiny sensor in NASA's Swift telescope.

At the opposite end of the size/mass spectrum another team of physics buffs working at Imperial (London)  have used some fiendishly precise lasers to make the most accurate measurement yet of the shape of an electron, and ta da... they're spherical! This is interesting because the standard model, our current best framework for how everything works, suggests that they should be more egg shaped, if this is correct then these results could mean that theory is scrambled!

The real thing!

Here's to 21st October 2011! (the new rapture date) clearly, some people don't know when to quit..

Monday, May 23, 2011

This lady's not for 3 point turning

Here's an interesting theological dilemma, where in the Koran does it say that woman aren't allowed to drive cars?

Of course it doesn't, and that's the problem with pegging so much of your law, culture and life to books that were written in the dark ages, they don't make much sense in the 21st century. Its one thing to derive useful insights into human nature from such materials but literalistic readings will just end up making you look foolish. As Rev. Camping re-learned yesterday morning, the law of all demonstrable things (particularly software) states, never prefix any action with the words "it's absolutely reliable, now watch this.." it's just in the nature of things.

However, some enlightened Saudi women are taking matters into their own hands, as this youtube upload shows some are openly defying the ban although since this was made the woman in the video has been arrested. Could we see an Arabic "Emmeline Pankhurst" soon? I hope not, such a senseless waste of human potential, but never forget, we are all just monkeys with shoes; sometimes it seems that different peoples need to learn the lessons of enlightenment first hand before reason kicks in.

Now that's chatty..

I couldn't resist this little story on the BBC and elsewhere today, it's about how much data scientists in Germany have been able to squirt down an optical fibre at once, the answer (so far) is a staggering 26 terabits per second! That's a lot of data, something like 525 DVD's worth of data every second or roughly 35,000 simultaneous streams of 1080p hi-definition video. Of course it will be a while before this kind of band-width is commercially available and the team doing this work have already figured out on paper how they can get to 100 terabits per second.

As we know the internet of the future will (unfortunately) probably be mostly used like the internet of today, i.e. it will keep a lot of onanists very happy indeed.

Geek heaven..

Since religion is such a plastic concept and yet another "rapture" date has come and gone, I thought it would be a good time to redefine what "heaven" means. Apparently this is how "sophisticated" religions differentiate themselves from the primitive evangelistic ones like Harold Camping's, i.e. avoid anything that is actually falsifiable, if anyone questions anything too closely then fall back on your own personal subjective definitions, use the phrase "that's not *my* idea of God/heaven/morality/faith/charity you're describing" etc..

The following diagram shows what "geek heaven" would look like...

(ruthlessly plagiarised from

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Good morning Britain...

Still here!, no great surprise among rationalists, Harold Camping can't be reached and there are a few extra baffled Christians running around the USA wanting their money back, just like any other day really. Planet Earth's natural laws remain un-subverted as they have done for the last 4 billion years.

It's a shame that not all of us can simply laugh at this idiocy, some families are waking up to some very difficult times as significant chunks of their resources and money have been squandered on this ignorance. Supporters of the supernatural may have to wind their necks back in ever so slightly and people may be more wary of such scams for a while but until indoctrination is outlawed and cultures stop revering the concept of "faith" there will always be a next time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Sign?

I don't want to alarm anyone but I just read about a celestial sign of the impending rapture. It happened in a rural village called Soltmany in Poland, reports are just coming in; apparently just after 6:00 a.m. local time, Mrs. Alfreda (an early riser) noticed a whistling sound followed by a large crash, she rushed outside to see roof debris spread over her front lawn surrounding a shattered cobble sized rock still warm to the touch. What could possibly be happening? She picked up the stone, running through it, like the letters in a stick of seaside rock, was a word, indistinct at first but upon closer examination spelled out a name...... DAWKINS.... could this be true, are angels hurling ancient rocks at God's atheist enemies on Earth?

Actually I made that last bit up (this prophetic mythology stuff is so easy!), anyway, a cobble-sized rock weighing about a kilogram really did fall down nearly vertically and smashed right through a roof of a farm house in Poland last month. This kind of event is very rare, not that meteorites are rare but if you consider the surface area of Earth and the tiny fraction occupied by human buildings the probability of something being hit is very small. A bit of Googling reveals that these chunks of 4 billion year old rock are travelling around up there at around 40km per second, that's a lot of energy, luckily for us our atmosphere slows them down to a paltry 200mph, still, if you're wondering what kind of damage that does the following photo shows the roof after impact..

Clearly the thing I wrote about God is just a bit of fun, any omniscient being would know that Dawkins lives in Oxford duh!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Man imitates box of frogs...

Harold Camping is a Christian radio broadcaster and president of Family Radio. He is the man behind a recent nationwide billboard campaign in the USA  (which cost millions of dollars) that warns commuters "The Jesus" will return to Earth on May 21, 2011, the world will end and the most gullible faithful Christians of some flavour will be raptured up to heaven to spend an eternity doing something or other as yet unspecified. Yes folks May 21st!, that's this Saturday in case you were wondering. Apparently when someone interviewed Mr Camping on the phone yesterday they could hear a hoover running in the background, now I was curious about this and checked with my wife regarding the hoovering protocol for the end of the world, apparently it would be quite near the bottom of her "to-do" list, I'm too scared to ask what would be top.

Just how bonkers do you need to be in the USA before some nice, humane government employee arrives in a van and a white coat to lead you off to a place with no sharp things?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Problems with words

Occasionally I catch an episode of the "The Big Questions" a quasi-religious program on the BBC, it's usually fairly sterile but now and then they invite someone on who stirs things up a bit. Last week Richard Dawkins was on the programme and the subject being discussed was "is the Bible still relevant", I had thought it might be interesting but alas I was disappointed, the opposition (to the token atheist perspective) were so weak and wishy washy that it was either bickering school kids arguing over semantics or happy clappies "praising the lord", nothing substantive.

It's on Youtube (4 parts) now if you're interested,

There were a couple of smallish points that stood out, for example it was pretty evident how much Christians disagree with each other on major points of principal and indeed what the Bible actually is or means; nothing new in that of course but it always amazes me how people can invest so much in something so obviously plastic. The other cringe-worthy moment was when Dawkins asked why anyone would heed a 2500 year old book written by people who were as ignorant as the myriad scribes who contributed to that document must have been. It was the word "ignorant" that nearly caused a fight, ruffled cassocks or what! In a peak of relativist indignation one of the apologists on the panel blurted out that the ancients "had just as much knowledge as we do, but different knowledge", what a crock, these were people who sacrificed goats to treat infectious diseases, they were unaware of most of the nature of reality around them. This doesn't mean they were all bad people or that they couldn't make valid observations on human nature it just means they didn't know much stuff and the stuff they thought they knew was mostly wrong!

In some future age (if the armies of the faithful don't nuke us back to the stone age before then) our descendants will look back on us and call us "ignorant", maybe in specific ways, maybe generally, who knows, but this has no bearing on us, just what we don't know. In modern secular societies each generation generally stands on the shoulders of previous ones via work done in science and developments in society, law and the arts etc. Of course, if you are unlucky enough to live in a theocracy or a totalitarian state then the chances of stagnation, corruption or even a reversal of  knowledge are much higher than if you don't; none of this is radical or new of course its just a statement of fact, clearly a corrosive fact if (like some on this panel) you happen to be invested in the past and not the future.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cool pic.

Wouldn't it be cool to see a space shuttle launch from along side; this lucky person did, shooting an amazing photograph from the window of a commercial airliner.

Creationism round up..

Creationism, that eternal weeble  of lies, misinformation and stupid ideas has cropped up in a number of places this last few weeks, for example Harun Yahya that crazy Turkish Bond villain lookalike (see photo above) is taking a band of "Muslim creationists" on tour around France visiting "faith schools" preaching lies and ignorance. One interesting tactic in this story is that he's clearly trying to align himself with the equivalent loons on the Christian side, pointing out the Genesis myth and how "6 days" really means "6 long periods of time". Of course, using much the same epistemological slight of hand us Atheists understand that "6 creationists" really means "6 idiots". He even claims that Jesus will return to the Earth soon as a Muslim and convert everyone to that faith, I'm wondering what Christians would want to say about that? Although unfortunately for them they have as much evidence that this won't happen as he has that it will.

Closer to home we have a controversy brewing over the increasing influence of creationism in UK schools, the NSS reported on a case in St. Peter's state secondary school, Exeter, where a creationist was introduced to kids as a "scientist" and allowed to indoctrinate speak on the subject for a hour and a half, presenting creationism on equal terms with evolutionary science. For readers concerned about this the people behind the complaint against this stupidity have started an on-line petition aimed at Michael Grove the Secretary of State for Education.

Back in March we had death threats issued against a London Imam Usama Hasan because he advised Muslims to "grow up and accept evolution", once again police are having to monitor the situation in case some followers of the religion of peace reach the conclusion that violence against Mr Hasan's family is the best way to settle intellectual disputes in the 21st century.

From top to bottom it seems that religion abhors evolution, even those religious leaders that claim they support it occasionally let the guard slip to reveal an abiding dislike for evolutionary biology and genetics in particular, here is Rowan Williams, the Arch Bishop of Canterbury on the subject in a recent book review,

"The gene has been presented as the irreducible monadic agent for biological science, but this begs important questions. We need to remember that the gene itself is part of the evolutionary story, not its sole motor (I was reminded of a passage in C. S. Lewis’s letters where he describes with relish hearing of a passionately enlightened schoolteacher who insisted to her students that all life forms descended from apes). If the only model for evolutionary logic we possess is the mythology of the selfish gene, we leave unanswered and unanswerable the question of the gene’s own history; quite apart from the problems in speaking of “selfishness” as the sole generator of development."

It's not clear which evolutionists in particular don't recognise that the origin of genetic information, and how it interacts with proteins, is an intriguing but unsolved puzzle? But how does this denigrate evolution, which begins only after the first replicator has evolved? Of course all biologists recognise C.S. Lewis as a reliable arbiter of such scientific matters.

Clearly the Pope wouldn't want to be left out of this select group of science manglers, as previously reported he seems to drift in and out of acceptance for the idea of evolution, not quite denying it but not quite accepting it either, depending on who is listening I expect.

Creationism is the intellectual equivalent of athlete's foot, usually not a serious handicap (unless you happen to be a London Imam!) and easy to defeat in open debate but ever present, lurking just beneath the surface ready to reappear on those that neglect their basic reasoning hygiene. Once infected it causes a nasty itch and has the ability to spread rapidly among the ignorant. All us scientists can advise is that, like most parasitic diseases and bad meme's, prevention is usually better than cure.

Monday, May 16, 2011

All hail Zeus...

Like a lot of people I'm sure, I checked my credit card balance this morning to see if any money for London 2012 tickets had been extracted from my account. The gods of Olympus were obviously indifferent towards me as my previous balance remained intact. I'm not sure what that means now, perhaps I didn't get any, perhaps the payment will be processed later, who knows, all I can say at this point is that it's not a particularly transparent process.

Of course if I don't get any allocation then I shall be giving my disappointed children Lord Coe's photo-fit picture and they can track him down and pester him directly, although thinking about it, even if they did find him, they probably couldn't catch him!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The magic of reality

Dawkins has a new book coming out soon, this time it's aimed at children and seems to cover all kinds of important stuff from how science works to comparisons of things like creation myths through to specific facts like what a rainbow is made of (nod to Keats), from the PDF that you can download on the RD site the illustrations look wonderful, I hope it does well.

No doubt this will ruffle some religious sensibilities again (oh well, not difficult) I can imagine the apologists and fleas flocking in readiness even now, "how dare he call our beautiful creation stories "myths" who is he to thrust so called scientific facts in our face, science doesn't know everything, atheism is just another religion, Hitler was an atheist, my (insert God of choice) is love bla, bla" and such like; all of which will miss the point by a country mile as usual. Any bets on what follow up books will emerge? "The magic of faith" perhaps, "The reality of God" no doubt, lot's of illustrations of lambs, clouds and sunbeams, I should snap up some appropriate domain names, just in case :)

Quiet but not silenced

I see today in various places that Christopher Hitchens has lost his voice and has written a heart-rending piece about it in Vanity Fair; it's a nice essay and provides clear evidence to any reader that the author's brain remains unaffected by his illness, the last sentence is lapel grabbing,

"What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech."

Cancer's a bitch..

Monday, May 09, 2011

Witty come-backs... (I can never remember)

I spied this little photo caption today on Pharyngula, it's not bad but there's an even better retort to this well trodden atheist put-down hidden away in the post comments, a military guy replied by saying that whenever he hears a theist spouting this kind of thing he always replies...

"There are certainly no Chaplains in foxholes"...

That would do it..

Teach them to fish or give them a fish finger..?

Here's a cool little device, it's a computer that could easily fit in a fish finger (note the 20p piece at the bottom of the shot) but more impressive than the size is the price; the developers (the Raspberry Pi Foundation) reckon it weighs in at a meagre £15 a pop! (or about the price of a kilo of salmon, just to keep the fishy thing going... )

Each one of these devices has a processor, 128Mb of memory, HDMI (to connect to your TV), USB, SD card slot and a bunch of open-source software to make it all work, that's quite an achievement in the form factor shown above. The main objective of the foundation in making such a device is to facilitate the teaching of real computer science to children. This is a noble aim in my opinion, kids that don't know their way around a computer are as disadvantaged as those that could not read or write in days gone by. Clearly, this doesn't mean that everyone will or even desire to become a Shakespeare or J.K. Rowling but at least they will stand a chance of exploiting the possibilities indirectly. Many people these days stand isolated from the actual task of making computers do things for them, they rely on others to provide tools and content, often that means expense; and a great deal of creativity is potentially stultified simply because of the ease by which someone else's ideas can be cut and paste.

This is a subject close to my own heart and is a source of some frustration even in my own limited experience. The few teachers I do know seem to perceive science subjects like this as "optional", ICT as a subject seems to have morphed into something that would be more accurately called "Learning Microsoft Office" and no one seems interested in encouraging kids how to "create" their own stuff any more. I do wonder why this is, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that most teachers at the foundational levels are arts/literature graduates, maybe it's because of their own limitations and non-scientific backgrounds, perhaps that's over simplifying? It would be nice to have a landscape where computers as learning tools are used in every class to facilitate the different educational and problem solving challenges in each subject, in the same way that reading and writing are used ubiquitously to the same end, after all that's what real working life is like.

When I started this blog back in 2006 the topic of computer science was one of the first things I posted about, not much has changed since, hopefully developments like this can help.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The terrorist threat

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have therefore raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved." Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or even "A Bit Cross."

The English have not been "A Bit Cross" since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from "Tiresome" to "A Bloody Nuisance." The last time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

The Scots have raised their threat level from "Pissed Off" to "Let's get the Bastards." They don't have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide." The only two higher levels in France are "Collaborate" and "Surrender." The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France 's white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country's military capability.

Italy has increased the alert level from "Shout Loudly and Excitedly" to "Elaborate Military Posturing." Two more levels remain: "Ineffective Combat Operations" and "Change Sides."

The Germans have increased their alert state from "Disdainful Arrogance" to "Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs." They also have two higher levels: "Invade a Neighbor" and "Lose."

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Australia , meanwhile, has raised its security level from "No worries" to "She'll be right, Mate." Two more escalation levels remain: "Crikey! I think we'll need to cancel the barbie this weekend," and "The barbie is cancelled." So far no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Where's my smoking jacket...

I'm sitting here writing this little post and all I can smell is wood smoke, it's quite a disconcerting sensation!

Apparently some moronic waste of skin and organs arsonist started a deliberate fire in an area of Swinley forest between Bracknell and Crowthorne which is about 2-3 miles from where I live and only a mile from where my kids go to school. It's been very dry and windy over the last few days which I'm sure isn't helping although luckily for us there are over 100 fire fighters dealing with the blaze and keeping it under control by creating fire breaks and preventing the flames from reaching buildings, subsequently all but a few local roads are closed and no one has been hurt so far. The smoke from the fire is gradually working its way over the whole area, yesterday there are a kind of yellow haze in the air, we even made the BBC news, hopefully we'll get some rain soon!

Here's someone's video of the unfolding event, although the date should read 3rd May..

Is there nothing a dead Pope can't do?

It seems as though (dead) Pope John Paul II has been up to his usual beyond the grave tricks again, no sooner than he was beatified by the Vatican than he guided an elite squad of US Navy Seals to an obscure compound in Pakistan in order to "take out" an (unarmed) 53 year old with a limp and kidney problems, obviously a Papal miracle! Clearly these two events separated merely by a few hours and a couple of thousand miles must be causally linked, how could they not be?

No I haven't finally lost my marbles, this pronouncement was made by the current Peruvian president Alan Garcia, a Catholic, who is clearly still missing most of his pearls a cat's eye and a few turtles.

I find it amazing how epically dumb things can be said by serious world leaders without anyone batting an eyelid as long as they invoke religion. If this president had claimed he'd been abducted by alien squirrels and anally probed with a pine cone, we'd all be laughing at him, but mention a dead Pope and hey presto, nothing is off limits. I wonder how many credulous Catholics there are out there right now who are reading the story and nodding sagely thinking they actually have an explanation for something?

oy vey..

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


I've been watching the news saturation around the death of Osama bin Laden, and whilst I'm glad the world contains one less terrorist intent on destroying my way of life, I can't resist a little bit of a definitional quibble over the celebrations in the USA and all this talk about "justice"; I always thought justice involved a trial of some kind?Anyway, clearly I'm not qualified or informed enough to comment on what practical options the US Navy seals had in the middle of the night with regards to capturing or killing Bin Laden but on the question of justice or retribution I offer the two pictures above, both show celebrations of people who think that they've attained justice, one taken outside the Whitehouse yesterday and the other back in September 2001 in Palestine, I wonder how these feelings will eventually pan out given a bit of history in between.

For now its all eyes on Pakistan, did they know or didn't they, everyone loves a good murder mystery.