Monday, January 30, 2012

Busy week

I can't believe it's a week since my last post!

It's been a really busy week for me lots of stuff happening at work, we're expanding, hiring people and setting up a bigger office (knocking a hole in the wall through to the empty offices next door and expanding sideways!) all good stuff but enormously time consuming. There's been a lot of stuff happening in the news to talk about though, every day I've seen something that I felt the urge to scribble about but never quite got around to it, what with work, kids, short days and cold nights this time of year always seems to rush by the quickest.

I noticed that the unholy row over the Jesus & Mo. cartoons has intensified and spread to more universities, the student (Robbie Yellon) running the atheist society at UCL who originally sparked the protests has resigned, it's not entirely clear why but I suspect he got a little more than he bargained for by invoking the wrath of the superstitious in this way. Apparently, due to the screechy whining of a few Muslims, the special (untouchable) status of certain religions is being affirmed by the authorities at UCL, I wonder what's next, a ban on satirical criticism of the Government or the Royal family, what about the English cricket team?

In a linked story Rhys Morgan (above) the teenager blogger and Crohn’s disease sufferer, famous in sceptical circles for taking on a large medical clinic in the USA who peddle "alternative" non-evidence based "cures" for cancer sufferers and charge a lot to do it. After heavyweight threats and legal posturing from the USA Rhys came out on top of his argument with the Burszynski clinic wining much praise and admiration from fellow rationalists around the world. In a show of solidarity with the Atheist students at UCL he also posted the Jesus and Mo cartoon on his (personal) blog only to be formally warned by the head of year at his sixth form college in Cardiff, he now faces potential expulsion unless he removes the cartoon, let that sink in for a second, in Britain in 2012 satire has now overtaken threat of violence as an act for which people can be bullied and excluded from our supposedly secular institutions. I can't help thinking that our ancestors, many of whom gave their lives fighting for principals of free-speech and liberty from tyrannical ideologies (like Islam) would turn in their graves at such a display of spinelessness.

I came across another example of someone wanting to remove the argument from the debate last week. The philosopher Alain de Botton has a new book out called "Religion for Atheists" and has a TED video discussing the ideas in it. He's a good speaker but I can't agree with his conclusions, as far as I can see he's advocating that Atheists should just ignore religious people, stop arguing with them and get on with the business of stealing everything that's (supposedly) good about religion, things like ritual, art, music, morality etc. He calls this "polite difference", but in my view ignoring people and refusing to engage with their ideas albeit in opposition is the opposite of this, but then again I'm far to honest to get into politics. Of course politeness might work if religious people adhered by the same laissez faire principals, but they demonstrably can't, they are compelled to proselytise, interfere and dictate, so the argument is fatally flawed from the get go. In any case I don't see what's so good about religion that I'd want to emulate it; if church attendance statistics are anything to go by then most people these days don't care much for such ritual (at least the ones in Europe who have a free choice), the vast majority of modern music is not religious, the vast majority of art is not religiously inspired any more and as for morality, religions of any hue are demonstrably unnecessary to live a fulfilled, moral and meaningful life. I must conclude that whilst de Botton may of had a point for Atheists living prior to the 19th century, for those of us living in the 21st he appears to be hopelessly out of touch.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Had a fellow wine geek over for lunch yesterday so I opened something good. The wine I chose was a red from Italy (Tuscany) called Tignanello, made by a producer called Antinori. The vintage was a stellar one for that region (1997) and now with 15 years on the clock I thought it was about time to see how it's getting on. Opened about an hour before lunch and decanted the wine was served with roast beef and all the trimmings.

It performed really well, bright and deep ruby in colour and just starting to brown at the edges, great nose of ripe Morello cherries and vanilla with more meaty background tones (olives?), longish and memorable finish. Surprisingly it tasted pretty young, certainly drinking well now but the acidity was such that I get the impression it could wear at least another 15 years and improve all the way. I bought this wine many years ago and at the time could only afford a couple of bottles, it has a good name and has increased in price since then however there is undoubtedly much better value to be had elsewhere these days. South Africa and New Zealand may give more bang for the buck today but if you're looking for that original "Super Tuscan" experience then Tignanello is hard to beat.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

This'll put colour in your cheeks

I love this; check out some of the other pictures, colour makes them so much more real.

Now there's an interesting computer science problem to work on, i.e. automating this painstaking process.

Thick atheists

Here's an interesting role reversal story, an atheist in South Africa complained to the advertising standards authority in that country about a Church advert (see above) - he complained that the billboard offended him as he didn't believe he was an accident and the image implies that Atheists are stupid.

My own view is that this particular Atheist is probably stupid! This advert does a brilliant job of illustrating just how ignorant these particular believers are, not only do they clearly misunderstand the facts of evolution they don't understand Atheists either. Ultimately if you believe in freedom of thought and speech then anyone should be free to express their opinion as long as it does not physically threaten others and/or overstep the boundaries of accepted decency.

The main religious dogma's are inherently insulting, they make claims that cannot possibly be substantiated and arrogantly assert that everyone else must therefore be wrong, often under threat of mental or physical harm. Even in moderately secular western countries members of religions frequently use a combination of personal abuse, bogus accusations of racism and threats of violence both veiled and explicit to put down any criticism however well founded. However, I firmly believe that the only effective counter to this is education, education, education, millions of people simply do not question their beliefs, are not aware of the alternatives and do not understand the arguments, if Atheists and secularists can draw attention to these gaps through books, blogs, media debate, science, humour, cartoons or any other peaceful means then there may be hope for us yet.

Rick rolls

Yay, another creationist bites the dust he believes he was created from in the republican US presidential candidate race; Rick Perry quits or should I say intelligently resigns.

When the lights go out

It would appear that the protests by various internet A lister's yesterday (like Wikipedia) over the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation in the USA has had at least some of the desired effect. 8 of the main backers of the bills have withdrawn their support included a couple of sponsoring senators. This is really good news for those of us who value freedom of speech, this legislation was poorly conceived, badly worded and utterly out of touch with the way people use the internet for business and pleasure in this modern age, it would be like putting the onus of responsibility for every reckless driver and vehicle accident onto Ford, General motors and BMW etc.

For those in power I have a humble recommendation regarding how to deal with privacy laws and media legislation, it goes like this, take a look at what Rupert Murdoch rabidly supports and do exactly the opposite, you won't go far wrong sticking to this simple rule.

In other news I've been watching the excellent BBC mini-series about star-gazing over the last few nights, Dara O Briain and Prof. Brian Cox do an excellent presentation job (for a comic and a physicist!) especially when you consider the number of props they have to use and the number of cut-away segments to far flung locations the program has, it all flows pretty well keeping the engagement level high. Not only did they discover a new exo-planet via crowd-sourcing the analysis of a bunch of observation data (an amazing outcome!) but they also got the small town of Dunster in Somerset to switch off all it's lights to get a better view of the sky. The effect was interesting, not just from the point of view of the darkness but also the interest it generated in science among the population there, something that perhaps other communities could consider doing to enliven school science projects everywhere!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Parasites united

It's amusing to see Rupert Murdoch complaining about Google in the news recently. Apparently he tweeted a couple of remarks along the lines that Google are pirates because they index sites that stream films and music for free and also that they are somehow trying to mitigate this by pouring millions into lobbying politicians. You can read the tweets here and here.

Its amusing because either Murdoch is incredibly ignorant or incredibly conceited or both? Is it really possible that someone of his standing and influence doesn't realise the internet and Google are not synonymous? Of course most normal people know that Google simply indexes other peoples sites, and understand that it would be complete nonsense to expect them to also be responsible for every dubious activity on the public internet or even vet such activities. Much in the same way, Murdoch's companies are not responsible for the activities of people who advertise in his newspapers, it would be trivial to find a small ad somewhere that promoted something dubious (or even a few big ones!).

If you believe (as I do) that Murdoch knows full well what Google does, and is attacking it because it's a threat to an establishment of which he owns a significant stake then it would seem obvious that this is simply the age old battle between old technology (media) and new technology (software), the disrupter and the disrupted, of course in reality there is a place for both, but transitions of power like this are always painful for the former. Following recent revelations regarding phone tapping by his companies as well as a well established history of benefiting financially from the efforts and misfortunes of others it seems incredible that Murdoch would be so conceited as to accuse another of profiting from parasitism, whatever happened to honour among vampires?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Americans and Brits

Everyone knows that there are some really obvious cultural differences between the USA and the UK, tea breaks and coffee breaks, thanksgiving, green-backs, irony and I dare not even mention fannies. However these differences pale to insignificance when compared to how the two peoples view the relationship between politics and religion.

Here in the UK secularists have been running a campaign recently against creationism being taught as science in schools, particularly schools that are funded or part-funded from the public purse, that campaign has been successful and the Government agrees, taking an eminently sensible and secular position. Michael Gove, the education secretary said,

"We will not accept any academy or free school proposal which plans to teach creationism in the science curriculum or as an alternative to accepted scientific theories," the spokesman said, adding that "all free school proposals will be subject to due diligence checks by the department's specialist team".

Hopefully this will mean that huckster creationists are further marginalised and will be confined to peddle their ridiculous lies somewhere other than science classes, ideally somewhere other than schools! In America however they take a different tac, creationists run for President.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Jesus and Mo update

Following the heat (but little light) generated at the UCL union this week over the Jesus and Mo cartoon used to promote an atheist meeting on a Facebook page, the producers of the cartoon have responded (see above), and an apt response it is too.


It's with great delight I read today that ICT, the subject intended to educate children about information technology, is to be scrapped. The government announced that it is to be replaced by a proper computer science course, one that actually teaches something intellectually challenging and central, i.e. programming (shock horror!).

As some of my scientist friends remind me (often) computer science isn't really "science", particularly if you limit your definition of science to mean only activities that study nature. I think it's reasonable to say that computer science, like mathematics and engineering is applied science in this sense, although some of the work done on language processing is border line IMO. Anyway, regardless of the definition the challenge that businesses in the UK have is a chronic shortage of good quality school leavers and graduates who understand how to make computers do things outside of the narrow scope of existing applications like Microsoft Excel; ICT today is a bit like studying English literature without ever writing a story of your own, i.e. fine if everyone aspires to become book critics but pretty useless for generating the next J.K. Rowling.

Computers are unique and special tools, whereas most other tools enhance our physical capabilities, for example, telescopes allow us to see further than eyes, cranes lift weights our muscles cannot etc. computers extend our most valuable biological asset, the human brain. Just like brains, it's the plasticity of computers and their ability to solve many different problems through different programming that gives them their power, but this power can only be leveraged to solve previously unsolved problems if you actually understand how to program. Let's hope that these changes address this important issue and open up such possibilities to all children should they wish to take them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

UCL, shame on you!

Here's a little story that caught my eye today. It's about an atheist group at UCL (University College London) who created a Facebook page to publicise a social event at a pub. Now then, where do you think they could they lay their hands on a suitable image that conveys the image of a pub and the notion of outspoken atheism all in one neat package?

That well known comic strip Jesus and Mo of course! (see above) One of my favourite cartoon strips, which I often feature here and like any good satirical cartoon, always right on the money when it comes to poking fun at religious hypocrisies, injustices and inconsistencies. The powers that be at the UCL union (ironically the first secular University in this country) asked for the image to be removed because, yes you guessed it, it might offend Muslims (why they thought it wouldn't offend Christians baffles me?)

So what I say, who among us has the divine right not to be offended? I am offended by the images on the web site of the UCL Islamic society showing children being indoctrinated and Women being oppressed, images which aren't part of an obviously absurdist and satirical comic but actually REAL! If you feel, as I do, that free-speech trumps spurious religious sensibilities and that the right to free expression should include the right to criticise religion then sign this petition. If you believe that just because something offends you that you should be able to impose your parochial and unjustified beliefs on everyone else by banning it then start a cartoon strip mocking freedom, liberty and enlightenment of your own, however don't be surprised if some of us take the piss.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Red flags

Copied from the excellent site, click for higher resolution.

Wine but no spirits..

Noticed this (above) the other day, I haven't tried the wine but I wonder if they are aiming at atheists i.e. the "A" logo is remarkably similar to the red "A" atheist symbol as used on T-shirts everywhere (see below)

Thursday, January 05, 2012

I've got religion!

Now here's a religion I could sign up to. The Swedish government has reluctantly accepted that Kopimism who's central tenet is "file sharing", should be officially recognised as a religion. Of course there will be lot's of spokespeople for established religions who will go on telly and ridicule the idea, claiming it's "not a proper religion". But then a lot of religious people sneer at things not of their exact or preferred denominations, which mostly consists of other religions of course, but what such people cannot seem to see is how they all appear to  have the same apparent purpose and look equally flimsy to those of us with none. Anyway, with CTRL-C and CTRL-V as sacred symbols I can't see how followers can really go wrong, no doubt the ancient protocols of BitTorrent must be chanted daily and war waged against those heathen FTP'ers... where do I sign?

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Nothing isn't stable

Krauss finds something in nothing from ASU News on Vimeo.

I like Lawrence Krauss, I think he's a dedicated educator and a good one, not just because he's smart but because he's funny, human and most importantly acutely skeptical. He's got a new book out at the moment called "A Universe from Nothing" it talks about how something as substantial as a universe could emerge from something we would consider to be "nothing", yes I said "nothing", counter intuitive isn't it but it's an idea that has very, very strong physical evidence. This little video is focused on selling his book so it's short and punchy but if you want more detail on the topics mentioned check out the original talk that spawned the idea for the project in the first place here.

Like most things in nature reality as revealed by scientific enquiry is much weirder than our parochial intuition suggests, in fact our intuitions on most things are usually wrong as they are in this example. So, next time you find yourself thinking about the origins of our Universe and the question "why is there something rather than nothing" comes up you can suggest the (real) answer, as it turns out is that it's because nothing is highly unstable.

Bachmann turned over and drives

It looks like Michele Bachmann, US Republican presidential candidate has quit her campaign. This is good news for secular and liberal people the world over, Bachmann was an anti-science, pro-Christian evangelist barbie-doll of the right wing a member of the notoriously unreasonable "tea-party". She believes things like earthquakes and hurricanes are messages from (her) God and that evolution never happened. Amazingly she calls herself a politician in touch with the needs of the people and yet holds anti-vaxer, climate change denial and anti-gay views an almost perfect right wing fundamentalist loony CV, good riddance to her, just the guy with the magic underpants, the womanising bigot, a piece of arse froth, a creationist cowboy and the really old bloke to go now.