Monday, January 28, 2013

Wondrous Life of Brian

A new BBC science series started yesterday, called the "Wonders of Life" it's been advertised all week and is fronted by the ubiquitous Prof. Brian Cox, so, at 9 pm I settled down on the sofa with a nice Thornbridge IPA and tuned in.

The first thing that became clear was that this program will almost certainly generate a lot of "letters" to the BBC from quivering Christian and Muslim apologists who will probably be offended by the lack of deference to their various myths. Brian Cox is a fairly outspoken rationalist, he doesn't believe in God(s) and is outspoken on the subject of woo-woo (i.e. things like homoeopathy and astrology) this was clear from the outset. Life as he described it is a natural process, no need for magical spirits or souls and science should be able to explain everything about it using only the laws of physics. He's got all the evidence on his side of course but as the words were emerging from my TV speaker I was thinking about all those tedious CIF comments espousing "mystery", "fundamentalist atheists" and "you never know..". It was refreshing to watch something that went to the heart of things and took a strong position rather than the usual dancing around the handbags when it comes to public broadcasts and the origins of life / nature of conciousness etc. Creationists be damned.

As for the content, I quite liked it, I learned a few things and overall I though that it handled some complex topics with reasonable examples and analogies whilst not dumbing down too much. The filmography was slightly cheesy (lots of stunning backdrops, unnecessary helicopter shots and dramatic music) but then again his hero is Carl Sagan so what do you expect. I recorded it for my kids to watch at an earlier time, that's usually the acid test for me, if it holds their attention for an hour then it's all good in my book.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lines on the map (and in our heads)

Once we've voted on whether the UK wishes to remain in Europe or not I think we should vote on our position in the North Atlantic, personally I've always preferred the Mediterranean, the food is so much more interesting and the wine situation incomparable. Then we should sort out the thorny issue of planet Earth, I find the gravity here limiting, somewhere with less mass would be much better for those of us reaching a certain age and starting to suffer minor niggles with our backs and joints, isn't the democratic process wonderful.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Time flies like bullets at an NRA open day..

Where has January gone? Last time I looked at my watch it was new year, and now it feels like everyone is well and truly gripped by a bad dose of the mid-January blues. Apparently the 21st of January is the most depressing day of the year, I wouldn't argue, what with the mildly inclined road I live on under 2 inches of solid ice; every morning is an angst filled adventure. Will I make it to the main road or will I join all the other under-qualified ice-drivers in the front garden of the nice (but rather depressed) man who lives at the bottom of the hill.

Anyway at least the kids are having fun throwing ever more discoloured snow around at every possible opportunity. Mine get home from school looking like they've been dragged through a cold car wash backwards but at least they have rosy cheeks and smiles on their faces unlike most of the adults arriving at my office in the misty first light of morning; they grasp their cups of tea in clenched hands and stare unblinkingly into the middle distance as their stress levels and core temperatures return to normal.

Still, mustn't grumble, there is always someone worse off than you, spare a thought for the many people killed or injured from accidental shootings whilst attending the recent NRA "Gun Appreciation Day" event in America, I suppose at least they now appreciate the problem with guns, well, the ones that aren't dead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What discrimination?

Looks like the European courts have junked all but one of the recent religious discrimination appeals although the one upheld was certainly the case that made the least practical sense. The ECHR upheld the appeal of Nadia Eweida who back in 2006 had a job as a check-in clerk for BA and was told not to wear a piece of jewellery which happened to be a cross on a necklace. At the time BA had a very strict policy on jewellery (which I can sort of understand for public facing roles) regardless of the religious significance or otherwise. The BA rules have since changed (2007) and interestingly Nadia still works there, so I guess she forgave them. In any case I'm not sure where it says that Christians must wear crosses, I always thought fishes were the approved symbol, then again, I'm no theologian. Perhaps one of my religious readers could point me to the verse that says "And Jesus said, take this rather delicate and attractive 9 carat necklace and wear it in remembrance of me...and perhaps a nice little brooch sometimes too"?

Monday, January 14, 2013

The downside of claiming the moral highground

Here is a fascinating insight into the mind of a Catholic apologist, his article is from 2011 before the Jimmy Savile scandal was unpleasantly inserted into our conciousness. The author of the piece is irate that the press would report on the death of a celebrity like Savile (who died in 2011) elaborating on his many charitable and voluntary acts but not reporting on where these things came from, which according to the author was the fact that Savile had "faith" and was a devout Catholic attending regular Mass. The choice of quotes in the article about the fallen star is (with hindsight) chilling, the author particularly likes the question Savile is reported as asking Broadmoor inmates, “what do you want to go round strangling crumpet for?”.

The problem with this kind of claim of course is what happens when it all goes wrong, as it invariably does, and the people you hold up as leading lights of your faith/political party/race/nationality etc. turn out to be nothing more than ordinary, weak, flawed and sometimes monstrous human beings. If religious people of any flavour feel inclined to attribute good things like charity, flowers, sunshine and puppies to their particular omnipotent Deity then they also need to accept the logical necessity of attributing the bad as well, suffering, disease, hate and child molesting ex-BBC presenters.

I maybe sometime

Here's an interesting idea, retrace our species ' "long walk" out of Africa through the Middle East, Asia, North and South America to the furthest point of our colonisation of the planet Tierra del Fuego at the Southern tip of the American continent, and do it all like they did, i.e. on foot.

It's estimated that humans made this migration around 45,000 years ago although there is evidence of earlier migrations 65,000 years ago and as many as 100,000 years ago, in any case even at walking speed this journey will only take US journalist Paul Salopek 7 years to complete (and he won't be walking every day). Of course it's not likely that early humans did the trip in a oner as Salopek will, most of them probably found a nice spot along the way somewhere and stayed a few generations before moving on. Even when they did some must have left the odd tribe behind since we now see people that are physically adapted to the climate and environments of their chosen plots along the route. Its also interesting to consider the land bridge that must have existed at some point between Asia and America during this period, we already know from fossil evidence that other species made this same journey back and forth much earlier (Bison, Horses, Bears etc.) but even during warmer periods the crossing must have been a fantastically daunting proposition for barefoot primates equipped only with with fur coats, stone tools and curious minds.

Friday, January 11, 2013

How do you know you're old?

I remember seeing my first personal computer when I was 16 years old, I thought it was amazing, the size of 4 bread bins stacked on top of each other and a tiny monochrome screen with a resolution of  40 X 25 characters. In the picture above we have a potty with an integral iPad mount, perish the thought that little junior could go more that 15 minutes without a full colour, high resolution, internet connected, multi-core multi-media, touch sensitive computing experience; that's progress I suppose.

This photo did make me think though, a device like this could be quite handy for those excruciatingly long meetings with arty agency types who bang on interminably about how wonderful Apple products are and how "they just work", no need for even the shortest comfort break.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Here's a chilling photo for you, it shows (amazingly) the super massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy and the white stuff is matter (planets, stars etc.) being sucked in and mashed.

We tend to think of our cosmic backyard in the universe as safe, unchanging perhaps boring even, but as this picture shows even our own neighbourhood we have some pretty scary stuff going on. Once black holes start digesting stuff then you tend to end up with chaos, beams of matter blasting out at nearly the speed of light, bursts of high energy X- and gamma rays, and pretty much annihilation for anything with a few hundred light years. Fortunately for us our galaxy is a hundred thousand light years wide and we're located out in the sticks, so we're safe... for now.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013


We've all been there, pesky auto-correct software on mobile phones that messes around with the banal, poorly spelt and grammatically incorrect stuff we type and turns it into pure comedy gold. Follow the link here to see more of the same although be careful if you're in an office, you will laugh out loud.

Monday, January 07, 2013

News me

I spotted a couple of interesting stories on the BBC site today. First we have news that the oldest man in the UK has died at the grand old age of 110, wow now that's a pretty decent innings! It made me think, imagine having the title of being the "oldest" person in any given population, a cursed position if ever there was one.

I also spotted this little Biology story, it's about restoring the sight of mice by transplanting photoreceptor (light sensitive) cells into their eyes. The hope is that similar treatments might be developed that help humans with degenerative sight disorders, I must admit though I was distracted by thought that there was probably only 3 mice and the scientists probably spent a lot of time watching them run.

Lastly we have the on-going saga of gay people and the slightly weird simultaneous obsession and revulsion that organised religion has with them. This time it's my favourite state religion, the Church of England and their recent decision to allow gay men to become Bishops so long as they don't actually have gay sex with anyone. It amuses me how otherwise normal educated people can support the idea that an all powerful omnipotent deity really cares where certain men put their penis. This is doubly baffling to me since this edict is clearly taken from a book Christians supposedly revere (the Bible) that also endorses slavery and treats rape as property crime among many other things that modern Christians would abhor.