Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Only two of us left in the office now, me and one other colleague (who happens to be Chinese and therefore doesn't really "do" Christmas) hopefully I'll be shutting up shop around midday and heading out into the frenzy that is last minute shopping. The stillness of our normally bustling, noisy office offered me a moment to reflect, so what is Christmas supposed to be about anyway?

Well I think that depends on your perspective, like most cultural phenomenon there is no hard and fast definition and the whole thing seems to be a mash up of all the different elements and traditions that have sprung up and evolved alongside us as the Homo-British-sapiens species has moved through time. Personally I like most of the things in this diagram, vive la difference! would be my philosophy, just be wary of any particular community who claim to have sole ownership of the season, no one really does and that's probably why it persists.

Conspiracy theories

J&M sums up the secular conspiracy pretty well; just watch out all you religious folk, we're coming to GET YOU... not until after the Christmas break of course, no point in starting a revolution when Waitrose isn't even open!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Special treatment?

When is it OK to make exceptions?

In life we make exceptions all the time, we don't force family members or work colleagues to eat things they don't like even though no harm would come to them if they did; we are tolerant of different choices in entertainment, sport and all manner of interests and hobbies even when sometimes those activities impinge on others; even in the thorny area of politics we celebrate diversity and equate it with the health of our society. Organisations and societies make exceptions for people all the time, so why then would some people get upset about a Muslim shop worker refusing to serve someone with alcohol in M&S, isn't this just another justifiable reason for exception making?

There are of course two sides to this story, some of us look at it and think how trivial, what's all the fuss about, a classic "non-story", exceptions are made for things like this all the time. On the other hand some look at it and think, is this a slippery slope?, should a line in the sand be drawn? Personally I think this is an overreaction by some, there are clear precedents for dealing with certain goods such as alcohol, cigarettes and pornography in most shops. In most supermarkets there are already procedures in place for under 18's to sell products only intended for over 18's, i.e. a supervisor comes over and authorises the purchase, in a well run shop this needn't delay the customer at all. I don't understand why M&S couldn't employ a similar process if certain employees have "problems" with certain products.

I guess a slight delay in buying Christmas Champagne brings the clash of cultures into sharp relief for some middle class commentators, shame it took so long.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reasons to be cheerful pt 3

Continuing on the "war on Christmas" theme I came across this article today. The right-wing news station Fox News (owned by Rupert Murdoch) ran a piece by the well known American Christian Theologian/Philosopher William Lane-Craig titled "A Christmas gift for Atheists - Five reasons why God exists". Now, WLC is supposed to be (according to many Christian commentators in the USA) the leading Christian light in terms of rational, philosophical debate, he is pitched as some kind of "Atheist's worst nightmare". You can imagine my excitement when I saw this headline, perhaps finally, the theistic side of the house will be presenting some decent arguments, something that isn't just the usual strung out, circular dribble of wish thinking, scientific ignorance and moral cherry picking, something we can all get our teeth into.

I've copied and commented on Craig's 5 points below, so let's have a look..

1.  God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe.  Given the scientific evidence we have about our universe and its origins, and bolstered by arguments presented by philosophers for centuries, it is highly probable that the universe had an absolute beginning. Since the universe, like everything else, could not have merely popped into being without a cause, there must exist a transcendent reality beyond time and space that brought the universe into existence. This entity must therefore be enormously powerful. Only a transcendent, unembodied mind suitably fits that description.

Hold on a minute, these assertions are based on a flawed premise, this is just the old cosmological argument, the assertion that everything has a first cause is unjustified, it's an argument from intuition. You'll need a lot more than simple "intuition" to convince the theoretical physicists on subjects such as infinity and causality. Where's the Maths WLC? And why would an "unembodied mind" be the only possible explanation, why not an as yet undiscovered natural phenomenon, or the multi-verse, or quantum fluctuation?

2.  God provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. Contemporary physics has established that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent, interactive life.  That is to say, in order for intelligent, interactive life to exist, the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range.  There are three competing explanations of this remarkable fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design. The first two are highly implausible, given the independence of the fundamental constants and quantities from nature's laws and the desperate manoeuvres needed to save the hypothesis of chance. That leaves design as the best explanation.

But, the universe isn't "fine-tuned" for intelligent life (like Human beings)? It may have escaped WLC's attention but 99.99999999 (and so on) % of what we currently know as our "universe" is totally uninhabitable for our kind of life, in fact most of planet Earth is the same, too cold, too hot, too dry, too wet or simply devoid of the essentials for life. In addition to this fundamental point, I have to ask, with what is Craig comparing our universe, how many universes were sampled to come up with this assertion?

3.  God provides the best explanation of objective moral values and duties. Even atheists recognize that some things, for example, the Holocaust, are objectively evil. But if atheism is true, what basis is there for the objectivity of the moral values we affirm? Evolution? Social conditioning? These factors may at best produce in us the subjective feeling that there are objective moral values and duties, but they do nothing to provide a basis for them. If human evolution had taken a different path, a very different set of moral feelings might have evolved. By contrast, God Himself serves as the paradigm of goodness, and His commandments constitute our moral duties. Thus, theism provides a better explanation of objective moral values and duties.

But we do have an objective moral source, it's us, homo sapiens sapiens! We would not have thrived so long as a social species unless we developed our own moral values and cultural frameworks (of which Christianity is but one example). Atheists can be demonstrably good without God, Christians can be demonstrably bad with him and our moral standards change over time, so a much more likely explanation is that Atheism is the correct position and simply that people will be people, the good the bad and the psychopathic.

4.  God provides the best explanation of the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Historians have reached something of consensus that the historical Jesus thought that in himself God’s Kingdom had broken into human history, and he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms as evidence of that fact.  Moreover, most historical scholars agree that after his crucifixion Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by a group of female disciples, that various individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death, and that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection despite their every predisposition to the contrary. I can think of no better explanation of these facts than the one the original disciples gave: God raised Jesus from the dead.

So WLC can't think of a better explanation for the disappearance of a body from a tomb than divine intervention? really? (Roman medical experiments?) Assuming Jesus even existed (and that's a stretch) all the work still remains ahead of Craig in terms of proving that this person was in fact a God and that his legend was not simply created after the fact, like Craig must think all other religious myths were, there is nothing remarkable or exceptional about the Christian one. Does Craig's God explain how Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse or how Krishna was the eighth incarnation of Vishnu?

5.  God can be personally known and experienced.  The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Down through history Christians have found through Jesus a personal acquaintance with God that has transformed their lives.

And so says every other religious person throughout history! Atheists do not claim that religious people don't experience subjective psychological phenomena that can affect how they see the world, this is well known. Our brains are predisposed to such phenomena through a myriad of chemical interactions and environmental effects. The essential ingredient missing from Craig's analysis is some critique of the nature of the experience, simply stating that "I had a dream" or "I felt warm and fuzzy whilst singing hymns" is simply not enough to prove anything beyond normal (natural) human experience.

How disappointing, I guess I'll stay an Atheist then, merry Christmas WLC..

Monday, December 16, 2013

War on Christmas?

Is the Anglican Church starting a war on Christmas?

I read today that Wiltshire Canon, Simon Tatton-Brown spilt the beans to a group of primary school pupils attending his "festive address", causing a furore of angry parents and leaving a sobbing crowd of upset youngsters. Apparently the good Canon told his audience that Father Christmas was based on the legend of St. Nicholas and not a cherubic fat man dressed in a red suit that lives at the North Pole surrounded by elves and reindeer! I can't help but sup deeply from the cup of irony here, I sympathise with the chap since it's an easy slip to make, but, having spent a life-time in the Church he of all people he should have been well versed in perpetuating mythology and going with the flow because it makes people feel warm and fuzzy inside.

I would suggest a more honest course of action in situations like this, simply tell children what we know and what we don't know, teach them to take the risk of thinking for themselves; much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to them that way.

I wanna be like you ou ou.

You see a lot in the press these days on the subject of "rights", interest groups up and down the land put forward their claims to various "rights"; from Christians wearing crosses to work through to Islamists demanding that alcohol be removed from sale in our high streets, people demanding the right to equal treatment and people demanding the right to be free to deny equal treatment. Sometimes these rights are supposedly handed down from supernatural forces on high through middle-men and sometimes they are just common sense measures to protect a minority from a majority, one thing is for sure and that is Human beings are the purveyors of what we call "rights", we invent, package, barter, sell and donate them to each other and have done for centuries.

So far so good, but what about the "rights" of other species of animals, how about our closest relatives the great apes? Back in 1772 in England there was a famous legal case that established the right of habeas corpus in our legal system; this means that someone being held captive may seek relief by having a judge force his captors to explain why he is being held. In the 1772 case the person being held was an escaped American slave and the ruling concluded that the slave was not a piece of property but a person and as such could not be held captive for no reason. However, this basic "right", one that we've all taken for granted in this country over the 250 odd years since this ruling is not extended to animal species other than humans, we still treat our closest cousins in the animal kingdom like plantation slaves, worse in fact. So do apes have a right not to be imprisoned? Some people think they do and campaign on behalf of chimpanzees and other apes for basic "human" rights, for example habeas corpus; as with all questions on rights, its up to us.

Personally I think we should be guided by science on this, as we know, species boundaries are not fixed over time and since we've been aware of genetics it has become obvious that the differences between species are much smaller than previously imagined, as the photo above shows even our most primitive reactions (to things like cold stethoscopes) are identical.

Monday, December 09, 2013

It's not rocket science..

Some people, particularly American Christians, seem to get hot and bothered about what gets said and what gets celebrated at this time of year. For me it's a battle that was lost a long time ago, Christmas is one of those generic holidays where people these days do whatever the hell they want to do, shop till they drop, drink, eat, pray, sing, work, celebrate, moan about the TV or whatever. Who cares, it's a couple of days off, the least we can do as human beings is be civil with one another (as if we need a special holiday to do that!). As usual Jesus, Saturn and/or (insert your Deity of choice) is irrelevant for most of the rest of us on the planet however the period provides some much appreciated family time and relaxation for a lucky minority, let's just leave it at that.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Old ideas

This little cartoon made me chuckle today; excellent work as usual from the farleftside.com doing the important work of illustrating the reality upon which our perceptions rest.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Door to door daftness

I had some Jehovah's Witnesses knock on my door the other day, now, usually I don't mind being polite and taking five minutes for a little theological debate with my superstitious brothers and sisters but on this occasion I had somewhere to go so I cut them off at the pass quickly. Surprisingly they seemed relieved, thanking me for my honesty, perhaps it was all a ploy to make me feel sorry for them or perhaps they'd just reached their quota for the day and wanted to get back to the hive for a cuppa. Anyway, I saw this cartoon today, it made me think of them, you have to wonder what goes through the minds of people who would take their half-baked philosophy and childish (anti-science) pamphlets door to door. I can only admire (in a sociology experiment kind of way) the thickness of their skins and the strength of their toecaps as doors all over the globe slam shut on them, I guess it makes them feel special.

Gossips r us

Been really busy at work lately so I haven't been reading the news much; however I did take a look for 5 minutes this morning and what struck me was the shear quantity of banal content about Tom Daily and what he prefers to do with his genitals (I don't give a flying half-pike!) and a little side story about the fact that for the first time, the UK does not make the top 20 in any subject, in international tests taken by 15 year olds in maths, reading and science.

I have reached the conclusion that I'm not compatible with mainstream media, my interests are far to adult in nature.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Oort humour

We've been following the fate of comet ISON with much interest in our family. Last night was the climax of the event as the comet slingshot around the Sun at a million km/hour. From first reports it looks like poor little ISON got beat up pretty bad, extreme temperature and gravity can be mean to ice and rocks. Hopefully there will be something left to see next week as the remnants make their way back towards us, we'll be looking out for it and I'll be doing my best to stimulate the empty space in some little minds here on Earth.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I predict death in my future

Well known American author (#1 Times best seller) and professional psychic Sylvia Brown died yesterday, whilst death itself has the air of certainty about it for all of us, the precise timing of the event usually isn't clear. Brown made her money (easily in the $millions) from convincing people that she could talk to dead people and predict the future, it's ironic in the extreme then that she once made a prediction about her own demise live on the Larry King show, she claimed to know when she was going to die, "aged 88" she asserted to her audience, unfortunately her actual age yesterday was only 77. Brown was also criticised for making several claims about missing persons that turned out to be completely wrong, most notably kidnapped children Shawn Hornbeck and Amanda Berry.

So much for psychics.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pets in the modern world

Imagine if you could text with your pet dog...

Christian parenting

Here's a really good response to some Christian Woman in the USA writing to a magazine agony column complaining about her gay son, here's the complaint..

Dear Amy:

I recently discovered that my son, who is 17, is a homosexual.

We are part of a church group and I fear that if people in that group find out they will make fun of me for having a gay child.

He won’t listen to reason, and he will not stop being gay. I feel as if he is doing this just to get back at me for forgetting his birthday for the past three years - I have a busy work schedule. Please help him make the right choice in life by not being gay. He won’t listen to me, so maybe he will listen to you.

- Feeling Betrayed

And now the response from the editor of the column (Amy)..

Dear Betrayed:

You could teach your son an important lesson by changing your sexuality to show him how easy it is. Try it for the next year or so: Stop being a heterosexual to demonstrate to your son that a person’s sexuality is a matter of choice – to be dictated by one’s parents, the parents’ church and social pressure. 

I assume that my suggestion will evoke a reaction that your sexuality is at the core of who you are. The same is true for your son. He has a right to be accepted by his parents for being exactly who he is. When you ‘forget’ a child’s birthday, you are basically negating him as a person. It is as if your saying that you have forgotten his presence in the world. How very sad for him.

Pressuring your son to change his sexuality is wrong.

If you cannot learn to accept him as he is, it might be safest for him to live elsewhere.
A group that could help you and your family figure out how to navigate this is PFLAG.org. This organization is founded for parents, families, friends and allies of LGBT people, and has helped countless families through this challenge. Please research and connect with a local chapter.

- Amy

Monday, November 18, 2013

Starting new traditions

I could definitely get all dewy eyed about an advent calendar like this one!

Snuff movies

I noticed the other day that Russell Crow is starring in a new movie about a very old story!

Noah, the ultimate snuff movie, where not just the guy wearing the red tunic gets taken out but our whole planet and every single creature in it! That's right, were're talking major extinction event and the only way life on Earth is going to survive is by some bloke in a frock building an infeasibly large wooden boat and loading it with every creature and plant there is (yeah, yeah I know, the cynics out there are thinking, what, including blue whales, giant redwoods and 400,000 different species of beetles?). I don't need to dwell on the vapidity of the plot, it always was a ridiculous story and no matter how much CGI is thrown in it's still going to be nonsense.

What would have made the whole thing much more interesting would have been to introduce some new characters, like an evil overlord from the future (played by Mike Myers) who is remains hidden in orbit but mischievously beams ridiculous commands (i.e. stone naughty children to death) into the minds of people for maximum sadistic laughs, thereby causing violence and mayhem for millennia. All this just so he can watch the primitive monkey-men run around sucking up to invisible beings and killing each other for believing in the wrong imaginary man in the sky. You could also have one of those brain-bending circular time paradoxes where the evil overlord turns out to be some future political leader called Maximus Yahweh, who's setting the whole thing up to ensure that his ancestors (the Yahweh believing ones) are the ones who seize power and thrive eventually begating the evil Yahweh himself.. hold on a minute!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Simple answers

Often, (most usually when I'm down the pub with friends) the subject of technology comes up and as the token "technologist" in the group I will be consulted regarding the relative merits (or otherwise) of whatever it is. Like the Oracle of Delphi (or should that be TVP?) I receive questions from the less technically au-fait among them and like the Oracle of Delphi my wisdom is imaginary. However, being in the technology business I feel a certain responsibility to provide objective and positive responses to such questions even though they tend to be quite barbed!. Being a bunch of curmudgeonly old gits and set in their ways my friends pose questions that frequently fall into repeated forms, usually along the lines of "that's ridiculous, who could possibly need that?"

I've often been tempted to pre-compile a list of stock answers that can simply be referred to in a kind of "self-help" way but the clever people at xkcd.com beat me to it - here's their solution (it made me smile)..

Knickers to clerics

I saw this rather odd story on the wire today, it's about a group of religious "clerics" in Saudi Arabia who are threatening to pray for a member of the government to "get cancer" if he doesn't stop women getting jobs in (female) underwear shops. I suppose it's fairly predictable that a bunch of misogynous fundamentalist males would object to females doing anything remotely related to biology but the unanswered question that  fascinates me more is who they think *should* work in women's underwear shops? pubescent males? can you imagine the amount of shop soiled stock that would involve! The other fascinating thing about this story is what the name of God (praise be upon his boxers) are "prayers for cancer", isn't this the same as voodoo? I thought witch-craft was punishable by death in Saudi Arabia!

The whole thing is pants if you ask me...

Friday, November 01, 2013

Family values

One of the soap box subjects that you often hear conservative Christians banging on about is "family values", you know, protecting the nuclear family of a man, a women and 2.5 children against the temptations and informalities of a secular world. A reasonable aspiration you may think until that is you look at the rate at which these same people seem to contradict themselves and break up nuclear families by getting a divorce! It would seem that breaking up families has little to do with God and much more to do with cultural trends and modern expectations, particularly of better educated Women. Unfortunately for the Christians who so frequently use this rather blunt intellectual club to batter secularists on matters of legal reform, the rate of divorce among atheists is less, you could say that being an atheist is better for the family!

It seems obvious to objective observers that on the whole humans are pretty much the same and influenced by pretty much the same hopes and desires, why atheist marriages are more successful who knows, perhaps having a perspective that gender role models aren't handed down from on high by some supernatural deity helps to more fairly negotiate who's doing the washing up!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Run away, run away...

Saw this, want one...


Atheists always do trick or treat disguised as the Holy Ghost, that way we don't need to bother to go out.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What's your excuse?

The problem with books, arguments and ideas that claim to explain everything is that they invariably explain nothing. I can't remember who said that originally but I remember Christopher Hitchens using a similar line in a debate with a religious apologist once, it was a powerful quip in that debate and certainly rings true with my experience of life so far.

The cartoon above illustrates this problem nicely using the Bible as the source of the "explanation of everything" but the same can equally be said of the Koran, the book of Mormon and many other so called "holy texts". As concious beings who have evolved to seek reasons for experiences, we crave the quick fix, the silver bullet or the fast-buck, life is short and most of the time we recognise the difficulty in finding the real solutions to hard questions; on the whole we would rather outsource stuff like that so that we can get on with the business of surviving, thriving and investing in our selfish genes.

Unfortunately for us Humans the best (as in most successful in history) way of finding answers to things is Science, but science is hard; it's also complicated, time consuming and sometimes very expensive and by definition incomplete. Because of this a lot of people view it with indifference and sometimes even resistance, they prefer the easy route, they "outsource" their answers if you will. Of course for some people the unexamined life works out just fine (in an evolutionary sense), for the rest of us the feeling of dissatisfaction with not knowing and more importantly not knowing how to get to know for ourselves is unacceptable and overwhelming.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Gender equality

Overall Gender Equality

Religiosity (dark = less religious)

The top chart shows overall gender equality by country, green is good (equal) and orange is bad (i.e. unequal); the bottom chart shows religiosity by country, dark = less religious and light = more religious. Obviously these kinds of generalisations can only ever be generalised by definition and clearly correlation doesn't prove causation but it's pretty unlikely such strong correlation is a complete coincidence either, I'm left asking why do religious men in power distrust women so much?


Surprisingly I made it to work this morning in record time, my route was deserted and looked like a post zombie apocalypse movie with leaves, rubbish, road signs, branches and the odd tree strewn around the place (fortunately no zombies). The Atlantic storm that passed over the UK early this morning peaked for us at around 6 am and the wind was loud enough to wake the whole family, luckily nothing was damaged.

There are lots of pictures of fallen trees and smashed cars in the media this morning it would seem that we were lucky although I did spend a useful hour yesterday securing loose fencing panels and tidying away kids junk in our garden, I even got some new batteries for our torch which was unusually forward thinking for me. It must be said that the 2-3 days of pre-warning for this storm has been reassuring, clearly those computer models are getting better and better all the time.

I couldn't resist a quick look at the Met Office WEB site on the subject of computing power and the data there would suggest that the computers being used to run the models today are roughly a million times faster than they were in 1987 when the last big hurricane-strength storm blasted through the UK, then no one had the first clue it was coming.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Theology for dummies

As usual the excellent JesusAndMo gets to the crux of the big question, to be honest I'm not sure what the question is exactly but whatever it is theology almost certainly isn't the answer.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I hope you remembered to send a card

I saw a tweet today that read, "Congratulations, the universe is 6017 years old today!", after a bit of Googling I discovered that Bishop James Ussher, a 16th Century theologian worked out "based on an intricate correlation of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean histories and Holy writ" that the universe was created by God (presumably Yahweh and not Zeus?) on 23rd October 4004 BC. This is an interesting calculation not only is it incredibly precise it seems that Yahweh never bothered to tell the Chinese who were busy building community centres, cemeteries, and kilns around this time, he also neglected to inform the Sumerians either who by 4000 BC had already invented beer, writing and multiplication tables, essential ingredients for student life ever since. For a supernatural being who can create universes by willing them into existence Yahweh would appear to be a hopeless communicator on all other fronts.

Thanks to some rather more rigorous work done by generations of scientists living since Usshers time we now know that the universe is around 14 billion years old and our own planet some 9.5 billion years younger than that. For the first billion years of planet Earth there was no life at all, then for the next 2.9 billion years there was nothing but bacteria, then, around 600 million years ago things got a little more interesting and the slime started to evolve legs, teeth and fins. Since then we've seen cycles of expansion and extinction, many times over across billions of generations of creatures; modern humans only appeared on the scene a few hundred thousand years ago and recorded history started a mere 70 centuries ago all of which make the Christian creation myth believed by intellectuals of his time like Ussher considerably less interesting and awe inspiring than reality, I wonder what Ussher would have made of it?

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Unfortunate Church art or Freudian slip regarding the content of the philosophy? Regardless of which it's smirk-worthy for fans of infantile toilet humour (like me)..

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Shoulders of giants

It interests me what Atheists of the past thought about the idea of God and religions, their rationale I suppose. Across the historical surface of theoretical physics there lies the formidable indentation of Paul Dirac, a modest man who came up with an equation that unified previously impenetrable fields of quantum mechanics and special relativity, and here it is..

These are subjects I do not begin to understand but from from what little I can fathom from reading about his solution to this problem I can appreciate the superhuman feat of reasoning that it took to crack it. The following passage is what he thought about religion early on in his life, apparently he mellowed slightly in older age as we all do. I find it fascinating to read his thoughts and reassuring in some ways that more and more people seem to hold with such views or at least are less concerned about expressing them openly.

I cannot understand why we idle discussing religion. If we are honest—and scientists have to be—we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can't for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards—in heaven if not on earth—all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.

Paul Dirac

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sticks and stones..

I read this little gem today; apparently Malaysian Muslims are upset that people of other faiths are using their word for God "Allah" to refer to Gods that aren't "Allah". You'd think that since any word by definition is an abstraction, a reference to something and not the actual thing itself they would be quite pleased that other people found one of their words useful, apparently not.

No doubt this court ruling will prompt all kinds of church burnings, stone throwing and general mayhem until something else distracts the mob. In my experience religious apologists of every shade bristle with indignation whenever secularists and atheists poke fun at religion, on this occasion such a ruling deserves ridicule plain and simple, haven't these people got anything more productive to do with their time? Then again, I suppose it beats working for a living and in the "pointless ways human beings harm themselves" stakes probably doesn't trump getting crushed to death whilst contemplating similar invisible beings.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Brick by brick..

I read today that the scouting association has finally relented and offered an alternative pledge for people that don't want to swear allegiance to someone else's anthropomorphic ideas about the creator of the universe. Although what the origin of the universe has to do with helping old ladies across the road is another question entirely, probably something to do with woggles. I suppose this is progress of some kind, an tiny change to syntax and a big step in semantics, a slight movement in the zeitgeist, much like how we hardly ever say things like "man-days" and "coloured people" any more, such distinctions don't add any value to most conversations.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Religious fundamentalism vs humanism

I think today's cartoon from the excellent farleftside.com sums it up...

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Philosophical musings

I was listening to radio 4 this morning in my car on the way to work and there were a couple of religious stories in the news and the usual "thought for the day" which is always religious in nature, one of the stories was about the Al-Madinah school in Derby being shut down by Ofsted because of concerns about over-jealous implementations of fundamentalist Islamic principals like segregation of girls and strict dress codes etc. I was pondering these things and the following analogy came to me,

What religious people around the world (the main ones) believe is like having a school where all the kids turn up everyday (in fact it's mandated they do) but there are no teachers. All that's there are piles of books and ancient (half erased) scribblings in a language no one speaks any more left on the blackboards. Over time the children align themselves to particular books and particular classrooms (mostly depending on which street they live in), fierce arguments and debates ensue about which are the "correct" books and which particular books and scribblings must be interpreted in which particular ways in order to enter particular classrooms. On the last day of school a teacher finally turns up, he (because it's obviously a he) praises the kids who have picked the right interpretations and 2 kids out of hundreds get to go home and have endless ice-cream and Xbox time; the teacher then dowses the remaining pupils and the school in petrol and sets the whole lot on fire.

Who'd want something like that to be true?

Friday, September 27, 2013

The lure of what we'd prefer to believe

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has delivered a report this week that concludes Humans are the dominant cause of climate warming, and yes, climate warming is really happening. Of course this will trigger a tsunami of deniers and armchair environmentalists who, armed with nothing more than vested interest or wilful ignorance will make all kinds of pronouncements with the aim of casting doubt, uncertainty and fear into the minds of the public. Why do this you may well ask, there probably isn't one reason, vested interest in "big oil", greed, politics, human behaviour, scepticism you name it and it probably plays a part, what is clear is that the science needs to be communicated well and unambiguously or we will be at the mercy of those like the Murdoch's, Lawson's and Monckton's (among many others) who so clearly have agendas not aligned to finding out the truth.


This puzzle popped up in my Twitter feed this morning, took me about 30 seconds to crack it but then I didn't do an arts degree.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Common-sense sound-bites..

Accustom a people to believe that priests, or any other class of men can forgive sins, and you will have sins in abundance.

Thomas Paine 1737-1809

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pascal's Wager

Pascals wager is the famous logical fallacy proposed by the famous seventeenth century mathematician Blaise Pascal, it goes something like...

A person might as well live their lives believing in God, if there is no such being then the loss for believing is finite (for example an amount of pleasure) however if God does exist then the loss for not believing is infinite, i.e. eternity in hell.

The conclusion people often draw from this is that the chances of getting this question right or wrong is therefore 50-50. The reason it's a fallacy is that it starts from the assumption that there is only one God and only one outcome if you get it wrong, both false assumptions. Over the years humans have believed in over 20,000 different Gods possibly more, so in reality the probability of guessing the "right" one is reduced from 50-50 down to something tiny. In addition to this, the wager takes no account of the "weight" of a complete lack of evidence that there is any such thing as Gods, when all the reality checks are in place it becomes a pretty pointless bet.

For amusement the following table shows what will happen to you (after you die) according to different beliefs plotted against those same beliefs, i.e. what someone might believe in (or not); it highlights the stupidity of this wager (and the weird things people think happen to you after you die) very well.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Do librarians have a sense of humour?

Of course they do, LOL!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Message from God

te he...

Drawing a veil over (real) freedom

I'm fascinated by the current veil debate; it seems to me we have two entrenched positions neither of which is actually focused on the real issue,  two opposing sides arguing about a straw man that is irrelevant to the actual ethical question raised by this issue.

On the left we have a lot of hand-wringing about the role of Government, i.e. Governments should not be legislating what people can or can't wear and on the right we have indignation that an Islamic tradition (alien to them) must be swallowed lock stock and barrel meaning veils should be able to be worn in courts and schools etc..

Both positions miss the point and that is should the rights of the Woman be protected by the Government? Its all very well valuing freedom from being bossed around by the authorities but where is the concern about being bossed around by Husbands and Brothers or religious authorities?

Consider the following points,

  • People bleat on about religious freedom, but the veil is nothing to do with Islam or religion, there are no religious texts or edicts that mandate wearing one?
  • People bleat on about racism, but Islam isn't a race?
  • People bleat on about tolerance, but should we be tolerant of backward (in relation to our own cultural evolution) systems that are intransigent and demand special privileges with threats of violence?
  • People bleat on about freedom of expression, but we throw people in jail for being naked in public, isn't this a double standard?
  • The silence from feminists on this issue is deafening.

It's about time we take a rational approach to this issue, if it is safe to wear something and the wearer wants to wear it then fine, if there's a rational and therefore practical reason why something shouldn't be worn, i.e. a disguise in a courtroom or a necklace in a factory then ban it! If any adult person is being bullied (by anyone) into wearing something against their will then they should be supported to the hilt by the law in a proportional and fair manner, stuff "culture" or "tradition".

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Some old news

A couple of stories tweaked my interest this morning, firstly we have a triumph of engineering and science over stupidity and secondly the exact opposite.

First up is the salvage of the Costa Concordia, a huge cruise ship that ran aground and tipped over next to the small island of Giglio in 2012. The ship capsized due to what appears to be an act of negligence by it's Captain for which he is standing trial. Not withstanding the loss of life which is bad enough, the wreck is cluttering up what is a beautiful coastline. It could have probably been left to break up naturally but it would have taken decades to do so and caused untold environmental and economic damage in the process. The process of righting and then floating it so that it can be towed away to a scrapyard is a monumental engineering project, the forces and masses involved mind boggling, however it looks like the salvage team have been successful in the first phase which is to bring the ship back up to the vertical and to place it on a submerged platform, the time-lapse video of the process is amazing.

Next we have the anti-evidence brigade, a coven of senior politicians that include John Redwood, Peter Lilley, Andrew Tyrie and Graham Stringer who seem to hell bent on ignoring or misrepresenting the mountain of scientific evidence on man-made climate change. The debate last Tuesday, proposed by MP David Davies, seemed to be awash with fables, conspiracy theories and zombie myths; at the very least Mr Davies owes the house some corrections for the woeful errors and flagrant misrepresentations he made during the debate. The motivation for such apparent feeble powers of comprehension among such expensively educated men is predictable, the politicians mentioned all have links to the oil industry and seemed to be attempting to use this debate to cement some kind of kinship in denial, as Upton Sinclair once said "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!". For me, the scene was reminiscent of a kind of Scopes monkey trial, a flavour of fundamentalism that is unhelpful and much like religious objections to progress based on rational investigation a millstone around the necks of future generations.

Friday, September 13, 2013

One gigantic step

What were you doing in 1977?

In the Spring of that year I remember buying the Fleetwood Mac album "Rumours" and playing it obsessively for weeks. Later in the Autumn I remember hearing the Sex Pistols and The Clash for the first time causing me to reject my precious Fleetwood Mac album (figuratively of course, it cost me £2.99 after all!) to buy a baggy mohair jumper, a pair of 10 hole DM's and to make my hair spiky. I remember being thoroughly bored by the whole silver jubilee thing (nothing changes) and upset that Marc Bolan died in a car crash, I guess you could say that I was a fairly typical stroppy teenager. What passed me by in my youthful self obsessed haze (I must have missed the relevant edition of "Tomorrow's World") was the launch of a spacecraft called "Voyager 1", despatched in September of that year it's mission was to study the outer planets. On 25th August 2012 (confirmed yesterday) that little tin bucket full of transistors and solder (plus an LP record) officially left our Solar System, the first man-made object to achieve that feat.

How far is it to the edge of our solar system?  About 12 billion miles or in other words, a bloody long way! Voyager is travelling at 100,000 miles per hour or to express that on a more understandable scale its about London to Bristol in 3 seconds! Even so, it has taken 36 years to reach proper "interstellar space" and what's more mind boggling is that even at this huge speed it will take a further 40,000 years to reach the next nearest star to our Sun! (unfortunately long after it's Plutonium power source has run out)

In some ways its a shame that Voyager was launched when it was, i.e. at the dawn of the digital age, if it had current digital/computer technology on board imagine the hi-resolution pictures it could be sending back. It's a sobering thought for us folks of a certain age that even if we launched another voyager now I probably wouldn't be around to see it reach the same point. On the positive (and less self obsessed) side though, what a fantastic achievement!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

10bil LOL ;)

I read this evening that Twitter intends to float on the stock exchange, they reckon that the price will be $10 billion, that's an 18X multiple on revenue which I suppose isn't too outrageous bearing in mind the eyeballs it attracts today and the sheer scale of the global mind-share it has. I won't be investing though as I think their business model is unrealistic, the amount they charge for access to their data and the channel model they've opted for seem too much like hard work for potential business consumers like me. I reckon unless they crack the commercial market and diversify quickly others will eat into their share of the personal micro-blogging scene driving their value down, for this reason I'm out! (like they care :)

Welcome to the 1920s

I see today that the Church in Wales has voted to allow Women Bishops; many would say about time too, some (incredibly) would say that such a move represents a mortal blow to the unity of their organisation, as an outsider and someone interested in promoting secularism, reason and tolerance as a way of achieving cohesion between all the different elements of society I hope that this is too little, too late.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Makes perfect sense...

Saw this cartoon today, it made me smile, which is always a positive on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon...

Monday, September 09, 2013

Weekend beers

I've been trying some different craft beers lately; there seems to be a resurgence of interest in beer of late in the UK with an explosion of choices ranging from traditional regional bitters through to American style hop busting IPAs as well as more exotic "flavoured" beers which are paired with everything from fruit to coffee!

Here are four interesting examples from a small Scottish brewery called Brew Dog, they focus on individual hop varieties (names on the labels) but in all other respects are made to the exact same recipe. The idea is that the drinker gets to directly experience the flavours of the different hop species and is able to compare and contrast them, all in all an interesting taste experiment. The hops are from all over the world, Goldings from the UK (Kent), Waimea from down under (New Zealand), El Dorado (USA) and Dana (Slovenia) and the in the finished beers the differences between them were marked. My favourite was the Waimea, lemony, clean, fresh and seemingly lighter than all the others even though the alcohol level was exactly the same in each. My least favourite was the Goldings which tasted more fruity but in a soapy/perfumed kind of way, like an old fashioned 70s home brew, they were all nice enough and very drinkable but at 6.7% ABV only in small quantities!

Friday, September 06, 2013

What's the point?

As usual JesusAndMo nails the hollowness of the religious position..

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


I was speaking to a friend the other day about "ideal" holidays, she said she was a beach fan and that her idea of a perfect holiday would be the Maldives, in fact if given the choice (and unlimited funds) she would go there every year. Not being a beach person (fair skinned and short attention span) I was interested in why the Maldives were so great, her response was an unequivocal "it's paradise".

Whenever I hear that word my spider senses start to twitch, in the case of the Maldives I couldn't help but recall a BBC program about the Indian Ocean that visited the Maldives, sure, the brochure views of azure sea and palm fringed white sand were present and correct but there was also an apocalyptic scene of the "rubbish island" which is a stinking, fly infested pile of dead coral covered in all of the garbage that the tourist industry generates, it was quite eye opening, barge after barge simply piling up all manner of detritus and pollutants seemingly without any other disposal solution. I also happened on this story today about an unfortunate 15 year old Maldivian girl who having been raped by her step father was sentenced to 100 lashes for "fornication", as you can probably guess the Maldives have an "Islamic" government. Only after an international pressure campaign that called for holiday boycotts and got two million signatures was the sentence overturned.

I guess "paradise" is a relative term; in the immortal words of Don Henley and Glen Frey "you call some-place paradise, kiss it goodbye"..

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Silly ink

Saw this and it made me chuckle, the dangers of cherry picking..

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Here's a shocking and sober story for this 21st century of ours. In the home of the brave and the land of the free, no not Yorkshire but the good o'l US of A an atheist by the name of David Silverman applied for a custom number plate, nothing wrong with that I hear you say however it just so happens that Silverman is the President of American Atheists and so naturally he asked for his number plate to read "ATHE1ST". His request was denied by the traffic authorities in the state of New Jersey, the reason given was that this would be offensive!!

In the immortal words of Jim Royle, "land of the free my arse!"

Slip sliding update

Looks like we won't be raining fire down on anyone this weekend... more PIMMS anyone?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Slip sliding away

With the western world seemingly sliding toward greater involvement in the conflict in Syria its probably a good time for our politicians and leaders to think seriously about the pros and cons of military action. On the one hand we have an atrocious situation where thousands of people are being killed on a monthly basis and on the other a political, ethical and legal quagmire that could seriously bite us if done wrong. If it were me I'd try to build a model and iterate through different scenarios in order to reason about the possible outcomes, it would be a very complex model of course. I wonder how our government will do it, I read today that parliament has been recalled to debate it so it seems likely that something will happen. It's an interesting thought experiment to try to write down the list of factors, even more so to try to think about scoring them, anyway, here's my list (0=bad, 10=good).

Saving lives6Short and long term angles to this but should help
Ethical7What would we do if our own people were being gased
Self interest3Not a huge amount of trade with Syria but they do have some oil
Cost (money)4Not as expensive as Iraq, could do without it in a recession
Cost (human)4As long as it's an air campaign, not huge (like Libya?)
Complexity2Horribly complex, Russians, Turks, Americans - political rats nest
Impact(failure)3Bad but not too bad
Impact(success)7Can't see a massively positive outcome, perhaps a construction windfall?
Inconvenience8Most ordinary people won't notice any effect
Impact(long-term)7Probably won't affect the terror situation, might upset the Russians
Political6Probably good for the tories
Hypocrisy4Why are drone strikes less ethical than gas bombs?
Evidence4Need something incontrovertible

If you then take the average of these factor scores you end up with 5, i.e. possibly only just worth doing but not conclusive either way, which pretty much sums up my feelings about it.