Thursday, November 27, 2014

The power of prayer

As usual Jesus and Mo gets to the true heart of the matter.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Oy vey, some Christians!

If you want to see a contender for the most arrogant and simultaneously stupid Christian yet evolved on planet Earth take a look at this Woman. Megan Fox visited the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History in order to "audit" it, which as far as I can see means wandering around making snide remarks about the exhibits whilst verbally demonstrating pitiful ignorance of any of the scientific evidence that supports evolution from any field, i.e. Geology, Chemistry, Physics, Zoology, Biology etc.

The scary thing is that this folksy soccer mum come global conspiracy theorist "home schools" her three children; the poor little buggers don't stand a chance, watching this makes me really feel sorry for them. Anyway, I won't bother refuting the classic creationist canards being spouted by this silly person but will simply refer readers to the top 10 signs that someone doesn't understand evolution at all (from a Christian web-site) I think she regurgitates them all at one point or another; it might provide some intellectual relief to tick them off the list as she vomits them out; failing that mute the video and get a free tour of what looks like a really good exhibit.

The 10 signs you know sweet FA about evolution are as follows,

1. You think “it hasn’t been observed” is a good argument against it.
2. You think we’ve never found a transitional fossil.
3. You think macro-evolution is an inherently different process than micro-evolution.
4. You think mutations are always negative.
5. You think it has anything to do with the origin of life, let alone the origins of the universe.
6. You use the phrase “it’s only a theory” and think you've made some kind of substantive statement.
7. You think acceptance of evolution is the same as religious faith.
9. You think that we can't have evolved from monkeys because there are still monkeys!
10. You think it’s inherently opposed to Christianity or the Bible.

IMO the best "WTF" moment is when she says that "Neanderthals are just people with big foreheads and deeply set eyes, you know, like Eastern Europeans...", priceless.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Double bubble Labour

I was listening with increasing confusion to Tristram Hunt (Shadow Education Secretary) on the radio on the way to work this morning. This (privately educated) opposition minister is threatening to withdraw tax benefits (specifically business rate relief) from private schools should the Labour party be returned to Government in the next election. What he wants is for private schools to share more of their resources with State schools, although he wasn't entirely clear about what that meant, presumably he means teaching resources, expertise and physical resources like sports facilities and public spaces etc. This would seem like a potentially very self-destructive (from a votes point of view) and divisive policy; reminiscent of "old Labour" and socialism with a capital "S", a sure-fire way to disenfranchise a couple of million people.

Private schools generate about £5 billion in tax revenue each year and at the same time save the taxpayer around £4 billion by not having the pupils in the State system. The tax benefits in question are only worth around £700 million. Giving private schools a pure businesses status by making them pay business rates or by removing charitable status would seem like a guaranteed way to increase the distance between them and the State sector, the opposite of what most rational people would want. Imagine forking out 25 grand a year to send your kid to a private school only to find that your cash is disappearing straight into a state system that you are already contributing to (but not using) through your income tax, it doesn't make any sense. Using business vernacular this is known as "double bubble" or getting paid twice for the same thing.

Either citizens can pay to educate their children or they can't; if the Labour party has a moral objection to private education then fine they should be open about it and make a case for abolition. If Labour wish to place private schools on the same footing as businesses then fine, pay a £4 billion rebate back to those people who choose that option; that would be the fair thing to do, somehow I doubt they'd do either.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Basil Brush?

I noticed this amazing picture today, pulled from surveillance footage it shows a fox wandering around the National Portrait Gallery at night after all the people have gone. It's certainly a fascinating story, but is it art?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Different sides of the same coin

I don't know about you but I think this info-graphic is quite shocking (click the image to see a bigger version). It shows the landscape of the USA state-by-state on the topic of making "religious" exceptions for crimes committed under the banner of "faith". A good example of this would be parents who deny their child proper medical attention and rely on "praying" for a cure instead. In places like Idaho (where 11 children have died in recent years because of this kind of neglect) this legal protection for religion means even if your child dies from an entirely preventable condition (diabetes for example) then you almost certainly will not face any charges so long as you claim to have been on your knees whispering magic words to yourself.

So, next time you hear an American person bleating on about how uncivilised and religiously extreme ISIS are for chopping the heads off of prisoners; agree with them that this is indeed barbaric but also remind them that in their country too, it's legal to kill people in the name of religion.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Grubby pubs

The House of Commons recently passed a bill allowing pub landlords to source beer from the open market breaking the all too common tie between a particular pub and a particular brewery that's been a feature of the UK pub scene for hundreds of years.

I am a great fan of (good) pubs, I think it's very sad that many of them have been forced to shut down or been converted into maisonettes in recent years. I don't think this can be put down to one simple thing; we are perhaps seeing the inevitable effect of changing consumption trends generally as well as impact from a changing demography and perhaps more subtle indirect effects from technology.

There are lots more disincentives to going to pubs than ever before and generally, pubs have not raised their game to meet these objections head on. With the exception of adding TV screens, a typical pub has changed little in the last 20 years; apart from getting emptier. Years ago the pub was one of only a few places that people could go to be entertained (via drinking and socialising) now there are many more choices, technology improvements mean that we have ample (some would say more than) choices right in our living rooms, hundreds of channels, gaming consoles, films and music on demand etc. When you add to this a limitless choice of ingredients, pre-prepared food and drink to consume that can be purchased (relatively) cheaply from most supermarkets then there seems little reason to leave the house, especially if you invite a bunch of friends round. What could possibly reverse this trend? It's a good question and not an easy one to answer for all cases, but I think this decision could be a game changer for some pubs.

Pubs these days tend to be either ruled out (the stay at home argument) or are simply a meeting place prior to going on to do something else; pubs need to become majority destinations again, there needs to be a reason to go. I can think of several ways to achieve this, specialisation, i.e. sports bar style, inclusiveness as in family/kid friendly, music etc. but the obvious one (to me at least) is serve decent interesting beer! Allowing the consumer to vote with their feet and frequent pubs that serve beer they actually seek out rather than simply "bitter" or "lager" would seem to me to be an obvious way of building a reason for people to go. Fashion and taste changes of course, so the other thing pubs need to do (and most have no clue) is to leverage social media and modern (cheap) marketing channels to give people more reasons to visit; you may have a keg of the latest and greatest West Coast IPA, a batch of locally sourced Scotch eggs, or a case of a new trendy Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc but unless you tell potential customers somehow, how will they ever know?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Civilised societies?

In the USA 80 year old serial killer Charles Manson is permitted to legally marry a 26 year old nut-job woman from inside jail; but millions of law abiding, tax paying voters cannot, because they are gay.

Need to let that one sink in.

Getting there first?

According to the Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, the Muslim faith was widespread in America BEFORE the arrival of Columbus. Yes really! And this fascinating revelation is based on nothing more than a rather tenuous interpretation of one of Columbus' diary entries that mentions a "mosque" being seen in on a hill in Cuba. Historians interpret this same material in a different way, that Columbus was simply talking about mountain that looked a bit like a minaret. I know which I think is more likely.

In other news, the European Space Agency (ESA) have released the latest images from the Rosetta satellite showing stunning views of comet P67 which is currently 380 million miles from Earth (see above). The picture clearly needs more digital processing, but I'm sure there's something about it that looks familiar?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bouncy comets

I've been following the exploits of the Rosetta satellite and it's little probe Philae very keenly in the news over the last day or so. The tension last night was wonderfully palpable as scientists were unsure about the fate of Philae as it descended to the surface of the comet and apparently "bounced" when it's harpoon mechanisms and it's thruster rockets both failed to secure it to it's landing site. All of this hi-drama and science was enthralling; for a moment I was transported back to 1970 huddled around a small TV waiting for Apollo 13 to emerge through the clouds (accompanied by most of the other kids in our street).

I'm happy to see that things seemed to have stabilised this morning; the probe does appear to have settled onto the surface of the comet after "bouncing" a few times, and is communicating with it's Mother-craft and scientists back on Earth. The next phase should be equally exciting, the big question everyone is dying to know the answer to of course is, is it made of Camembert or Cheddar? It's amazing what we can achieve when we try.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A question of ownership..

In typically "never a truer word" fashion the satirical magazine, the Onion, ran this story recently, unfortunately many people in our country still believe it's actually true

Talking about the weather

Great cartoon from Stephen Collins in the Guardian; a typically English computer.. (Click on the image to see it at full size)

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Biggest Killers

Eye-opening! I would have put the human figure much higher. The moral of this story seems to be to stop worrying about wolves, lions and sharks and swat more mosquito's!

Friday, November 07, 2014

Pots and kettles

On the money, as usual.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The most dangerous idea in the world

I didn't think it would take long and I was right. The man in the picture is Archbishop Lewis Zeigler a Catholic clergyman in Monrovia (Liberia, Africa) He's on record as saying,

"one of the major transgressions against God for which he may be punishing Liberia [with Ebola] is the act of homosexuality,",

..and so it starts.

Since this pronouncement (and other religious twaddle like it), life for gay people in that country has become more difficult; people are already reporting violence against them and community leaders in some quarters are asking for the death penalty for homosexuals.

So, is "God" the most dangerous idea in the world? I don't think so. God is just a side-effect of conciousness, he is our earliest attempt at explaining the world before we discovered science. The idea I'm talking about is a much more unfalsifiable one, it's the idea that it's possible for certain "special" members of the tribe to know the mind of this unknowable universe mechanic; the idea that certain evolved apes are privy to revealed information that the rest of us are not. Spookily this "data" is almost always supportive of the confirmation biases of the in-group to whom the "special" people belong, it's invariably parochial and has it's foundation in ignorance, it's almost like they're just making it all up!

We only need read the daily torrent of stories like this from around the world to realise that it's time to relegate superstition and religion to history. So long, adieu and thanks for all the Gothic architecture; the long suffering minorities of the world deserve better. There are plenty of more tangible reasons to hate each other and there are also better ways we can motivate charitable behaviour and good morals, in fact, when you think about it, threats of extreme violence and psychological torture (in this world or the next) are rarely a good way of inspiring anything.

Fun for all the family

It's that time of the year again, no, not good old fashioned secular Christmas where the worst that can happen is that you get acid reflux from eating too many mince pies or a bruised shin from the Granny trying to grab the last turkey from the supermarket freezer. Across the Shi'ite Muslim world they are celebrating the day of Ashura (4th Nov) through the ritual cutting, whipping and thrashing of themselves (and their children) in order to drench themselves in blood and wander zombie-like through the streets to remember some bloke who died in a battle 1300 years ago (see picture above).

What a bizarre species of Primate we are, why would people expose themselves and their offspring to extreme pain and the risk of serious harm through infection in this way? This bodily-abuse tradition isn't unique to Muslims of course it seems to be a popular feature of all three Abrahamic religions (among others) from the Flagellants in the Catholic church to Jewish obsessions with re-modelling the penises of small boys. Whenever I read stories about these kinds of things I'm always left with the question, what's the point of it? Is there possibly some kind of evolutionary origin of such seemingly stupid behaviour, I think there probably is.

If you think about it the overriding evolutionary advantage of Humans (apart from our big brains) has been that we work in teams, hunting, building, farming etc. are all team sports. One of the most important facets of any team is that there is cohesion and a sense of common purpose, the interests of the team have to override (albeit sometimes temporarily) the interests of the individual; without these attributes the power of the team is reduced and the survival benefit is lost. Natural selection therefore will have probably selected for populations of animals that do team-work better, i.e. animals who find ways to abandon self interest in favour of group-think. I think it's this ancient instinct at work here, one of those primal urges to feel part of the in-group and the dopamine reward in our brains that this feeling delivers, as is evidenced here, this urge often overrides common sense. It's clear from rituals such as Ashura that we still possess this biological urge even though reason should tell us that it's completely unnecessary from an individual survival point of view these days. You can see the same thing at work all over the place, from rugby teams to political parties to religions to cultures, we crave the in-group, you could say that we possibly even need it.

Unfortunately for us such in-group instincts are ultimately harmful at the macro level, the problem with teams is that they naturally (by definition) compete, and when disparately evolved groups are smashed together in modern cities or multicultural mash-ups tensions arise. Whilst we all crave the the chemical hit we get from kinship, like all junkies we also feel compelled to protect our supply. In-groups depend on the concept of an out-group; naturally this leads to divisive behaviour and ultimately to conflict even though the focus of the conflict can simply be an idea (as opposed to real physical resources) that fosters group cohesion.

In order to survive in harmony I think we need to better understand and moderate these in-group/out-group differences wherever they arise, the solution as always is comparative education and inclusiveness; in the end we are genetically all the same species our similarities are much more numerous than our differences, everything else is the product of our own imaginations.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

USA,wuz up?

So now that the Republicans are back in charge in the USA does it mean we'll all get more awesome wars, God, climate change denial, corrupt bankers, strident corporations and automatic weapons?

The rest of the world can't wait...

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Christian country?

HuffPost UK questioned 2,004 people in October about the role of religion in the UK today and got a bunch of answers that I would say are pretty obvious for ordinary people who live in our actual society, but probably quite confusing and/or inconvenient for those (like David Cameron and others in the establishment elite) who don't. They still believe we live in a "Christian country".

For example,
  • Atheism is the fastest growing segment up by 6.4 million people since 2001
  • 45% of Christians and 70% of Jews thought that religion does more harm than good.
  • 69% of Jews and 60% of Christians believe that Atheists are just as likely to be moral as religious people.
  • 50% of Jews said they were not religious at all, only 7% of Muslims said the same.
  • Older people dismissed the idea that atheists are less moral people, only 3% of over 65 believe that (clearly wisdom does come with age - I live in hope at least!)
  • 12% of young people (18-24) believe that atheists are less moral people
  • 43% of Women vs. 36% of men describe themselves as very or somewhat religious.
About the only things that surprised me were the % of young people that clearly don't have a clue about morality and where it actually comes from (probably befuddled by a combination of Church of England RE schooling and the X-Factor) and the possibility that more Women than men are very religious, this seems at odds with how most religions treat Women, i.e. unequally.