Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas spirit

My son has a Spanish friend "Carlos" (an ex-school buddy) who occasionally comes to stay with us here in England, last time was back in October when we all went down to Devon and had great fun. Whenever he comes over he brings gifts as is their (generous) family way and last time he was here he bought me a bottle of wine from the Ribera Del Duero which is a prestigious Spanish region. The wine was from a producer I hadn't tried before (Pago de Carraovejas) and since it was a gift and old enough (2011) to be opened, I thought it a good choice to partner with Christmas lunch.

I wasn't wrong, it was simply delicious, layers of dark red fruits, balanced and complex, a real taste of Spanish heat; it also has that talcum powder/sweet quality that you only find in really top-end Bordeaux and Californian red. From the nose alone I could tell this was a quality wine by any international standard; comprising mainly of traditional Tinto grapes but with a small splash of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in French oak for a couple of years it punches well above it's weight. None of your wishy washy Rioja here, just a focused and impressive wine; really world-class. There are a couple of places to buy this wine here in the UK for around £17-25 a bottle (believe me this is a bargain) I'll certainly be seeking it out for future festive meals, but to be honest it would be fabulous any time and unlikely to hang around "su casa" for long.

And here it is... merry xmas

Fantastic view of the ISS last night, so bright! (photo doesn't do it justice)

Haven't seen my children yet, they still have their noses buried in various electrical gadgets; adults just contemplating opening something nice to kick off proceedings, something with bubbles perhaps.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Winding down

It's December 24th here on planet Earth, for some of the primates on a small fraction of the surface that means the start of a period of over-eating, drinking too much and the giving of gifts whilst wearing knitwear that they wouldn't normally think twice about burning; it's a funny old game. I'm certainly looking forward to catching up with family and friends and not having to think about work or getting up in the morning for a few days at least. I'm less interested in whole commercial side of the season, I could do without that aspect, for me it's more about enjoying mealtimes and watching movies cuddled up on the sofa with my family; as time goes on and children grow up you realise something about the transient nature of experience, it's good to press pause now and again.

It's a lovely day here; the sky is blue and it's not at all cold. I'm hoping it remains clear tonight and then we'll get a great view of the ISS as it hurtles overhead the UK at 7km per second (17:20 overhead West to South East) For some of us, this time of year presents a good opportunity to wind down and hit pause for a while, and, as implied by the famous photograph above reflect on things. For example how we can make the most of this tenuous and short life, it's certainly not by deluding ourselves about our place in nature or by murdering each other over these delusions, we only need look around the surface of this tiny celestial body to see how that turns out. It's a depressing thought that so many people are at this moment suffering unnecessarily in places like Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria, not to mention suffering for random happenstance reasons in Glasgow and St Louis. On the other hand it's thrilling to think that we can achieve so much against all odds when we innovate and cooperate, as this picture proves. Shame more people don't see things this way, for me it's not the blue that should inspire us, it's the black.

Monday, December 22, 2014


Apparently there are 4 circles and they don't touch...  my brain begs to differ,..

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Women bishops

I was pleased to read today that the Church of England has appointed its first Women Bishop. Libby Lane is now the Bishop of Stockport.

When I was a kid I used to live near Stockport, it's a suburb of Manchester and hardly seems populous enough to warrant a whole Bishop (maybe a demi-Bishop?). Stockport's claim to fame at that time was its railway viaduct which I must admit was impressive and the obscure fact that I always remember about it (from a school project) was that it's where the rivers Tame and Goyt meet (under the shopping precinct) to form the Mersey which then flows clear through to Liverpool and the sea. I remember one of my younger sisters being a toddler at that time, she was just learning to talk and referred to the scrawny pigeons in that very shopping centre as "Stockport chickens", still does.

It might seem strange that an Atheist would be pleased about such an announcement but having this perspective on life means being realistic about the influence and scope of religion in the modern world, it involves weighing up the relative merits of trends and picking your fights. Religions all around the world seem to be changing (as they have always done) and like most big organisations they seem to be constantly at junctions along their evolution (albeit at a glacial pace); one path leads to obscurity another to extremism and another to modernisation, it's only the middle one I really worry about. When religions change to become more aligned with secular thinking they move away from that middle path and by definition have more in common with the rest of us; IMO that's a good thing for everyone. Anyway, good luck to Ms. Lane, she must be very proud to be making a historical impact in her organisation.


Religion in our modern world - or how to play tennis without the net.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Atheist Christmas

Ever wondered how an Atheist gets through that most religious of all holidays?


PS. What film do Atheists watch at Christmas?... "Coincidence on 34th Street" :)

Its all relative

I noticed a story today about the Government announcing that over a five year period (2016-2021) they will be investing £6bn in scientific research infrastructure. This sounds like a lot of money but actually is only a little less than the cost of one of the two new aircraft carriers currently being built for the Navy or about one tenth the amount of tax evasion in the UK per year. Don't get me wrong you can do a lot with £6bn (or a billion per year) but I'm reminded of a famous exchange between a General and a scientist during some governmental budgetary meeting in which the General asked the scientist "what's the point of spending all that money on project X when it could be used to defend our country?", the scientist replied, well sir, projects like X make our country worth defending.

Comfortably Numb

Came across this today, a fifteen year old covering one of my all time favourite pieces of music; the epic guitar solo from Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb (which is from the album "The Wall") It's a complex solo, a roller coaster of emotion and she nails it.

Time to put my old strat. on eBay..

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

An atheists definition of hell

The Islamic theocracy that is Pakistan...

"Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." ― Voltaire

UKIP and other well known abbreviations

Abbreviations are wonderful things, they both condense and conceal at the same time, they are like flags in that they become symbols that permit a large number of different people with different views to appear and act as a united force.

Take UKIP for example, this simple abbreviation clearly encapsulates a whole raft of different attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and aspirations. Different people with different backgrounds align their political careers to this abbreviation even though it's not entirely clear to the rest of us what these individuals truly represent, that is, until they take drugs and spill the beans or they publicly express hateful or ignorant opinions that belong in a bygone age. Those of us not aligned to this particular abbreviation wonder how many times it needs to suffer structural damage to it's reputation via wayward subscribers exposing their idiocy before the entire abbreviation crumbles in the eyes of everyone?

It would appear that some abbreviations are surprisingly resistant to damage from idiots and lunatics, is this a case of the Dunning–Kruger effect applying to the subscribers or simply a case of people thinking their choice represents the best of a bad bunch? I would suggest that humour is a great way of attempting to resolve these kinds of questions, once the views and discourse of an organisation becomes indistinguishable from parody (like the Catholic church) then potential subscribers immediately have a social disincentive to subscribing; no one wants to be laughed at and in some circles this seems to be a much more elemental force than logic and reason.

In other news, Council gritters are on high alert after a man went into a bar in Peterborough and ordered a glass of white wine. (courtesy of @UkipWeather)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Fringe Hypocrisy

I read today that the Government (more specifically the Tories) have vetoed proposals allowing Humanist weddings. The reason given was that this issue is seen by Lynton Crosby (the abrasive Australian spin doctor that advises the Tories) as a "fringe issue". Interestingly in Scotland (where Humanist ceremonies are legal) around 10% of marriages aren't religious; it would be rational to assume that the percentages would be similar in England, i.e. if 10% of marriages here were Humanist in character then it would (numerically) make them much less "fringe" than say Muslim, Jewish or Hindu weddings, I wonder if Cameron dare label these kinds of weddings "fringe" and effectively ban them, clearly a rhetorical question even though "Aussie bloke" Crosby might privately believe it.

This apparent hypocrisy is baffling to atheists and humanists, it is clearly bonkers to any reasonable person that a Government would allow Scientology (an American alien/cash based cult) weddings but not Humanist weddings. I am reminded of the stance often taken by Christian religious commentators when confronted with Humanist objections to religious privilege, they dismiss it via "argumentum ad populum" or in other words they take the tac that there aren't as many Humanists as Christians so therefore we can ignore them; this is invariably a cover for blatant authoritarianism in my experience.

Fortunately over recent years census results show Christian numbers falling off a cliff as educated young people in developed economies find much more productive things to do with their short time on this planet. Hopefully as this trend progresses the non-religious communities can get their acts together around issues like this to such an extent that people in power realise that side-lining the wishes of such a large minority will be politically catastrophic, not to mention unfair.

Friday, December 12, 2014


Every so often you come across something that tickles your cockles; found this guy and his comic strip today then I noticed he'd done some public speaking (see above video), bloody hilarious and most informative, like steer clear of Brazilian banana plantations (unless you're a man of a certain age, nudge, nudge, wink, wink)

Tackling the big issues

Fascinating story in the Independent today about whether or not pets can go to heaven.

Apparently Pope Francis recently suggested in public (to a boy whose dog just died) that all of "God's creatures" can get to paradise. This is in stark contrast to previous Popes who generally have taken the line that animals aren't concious therefore can't get into heaven (apart from my Guinea Pig of course, who everyone knows is more politically astute than Russell Brand).

This new information will, I'm sure, comfort the many pet owning Catholics out there who were concerned about this; the pet owning Muslims will of course not be so pleased since they now face the possibility that their pets may end up in Catholic heaven whilst they languish in a lake of fire for not believing in the right God in the first place. The Buddhists on the other hand suggest that if we're naughty we may just become our pets, so they remain neutral on the issue. Meanwhile atheists are feeling left out and many fundamentalist Christians will now consider siding with those atheists since at least they will be able to feed and house their pets when the rapture comes.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mutant giant spider dog

One of my favourite prank videos of the year, and clearly a lot of people agree - a real talent in our midst.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Cultural Imperialism

People often feel insulted when you're honest and tell them that you don't think the causes, beliefs and past-times they have are true or worthwhile; it's a common response, a childish response, but a Human one nevertheless.

For what it's worth, I find a healthy sceptical attitude to life in general helps me to overcome the negative effects of this emotion, allowing me to change my views on things as new evidence comes in without undue stress. The beauty of the one true path to enlightenment is that there are so many to choose from.

People that throw stones...

Here are a couple of wonderful objects; two stones thrown through the windows of Buckingham Palace by women suffragettes protesting to acquire the vote 100 years ago. It seems inconceivable that 50% of our adult population could not even vote only 100 years ago, it's even more sobering to realise how huge numbers of woman around the world remain abused, ignored and discriminated against by governments and religious institutions today. Women truly do have the potential to change things in our world for the better if only they are given the basics of education and opportunity. I wonder how many Einstein's, da Vinci's and Mozart's there are living in the world right now that are languishing in obscurity, chained to their reproductive cycles oppressed by ancient tradition and myth.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Children of the code

I read with interest today that many are worried the new initiatives around teaching computing in schools, which include a new national college for digital studies and a new GSCE in computer science, might be causing a few teething problems that leave some children disadvantaged. As usual the issues arise where the rubber hits the road, there aren't enough specialist teachers trained up to cope with such a monumental shift in emphasis and schools with one eye on the results league tables are only pushing a minority of pupils (who are good at maths) into computing subjects meaning that everyone else gets very little.

As someone who campaigned for better and earlier computing education (i.e. from age 5) I am delighted that there is progress and high-level support from Government but I think the approach currently being taken might have some scope to be even more impactful.

It's clear that not every pupil can or wants to have a pure computing qualification, it's the same age-old difference between pure and applied science, not everyone wants a degree in Chemistry, some of us preferred to take the Chemical Engineering track and from the point of view of skills shortages in UK PLC we need both. So I don't think an overemphasis on a pure Computing qualification (although this is undoubtedly easier to measure) is the only way to go. Sure, offer it to those with aptitude and interest but for most people we need a slightly different more "applied" approach.

I was sitting with my 10 year old daughter the other day doing some maths homework (fractions) and thinking how laborious it was, paper based and deadly dull, more like learning by rote, i.e. very similar problems over and over again. Instead of simply cranking out the answers I got her to dictate a little pseudo-code solution to the generalised problem of adding and subtracting fractions; we then wrote a little program together that implemented this solution and I installed it onto her iPod (for the cool factor). Doing this really drove home the underlying method (it forced her to articulate it very precisely, which is much more likely to stick) and also made the experience much more interesting for her. It wasn't necessary that she understood all of the aspects of the coding or deployment etc. in order to "get it" hopefully the interest gene has been stimulated sufficiently for her to want to learn more. i.e. we saw how you can use a programmable general purpose machine (i.e. a computer) to solve real-world problems, it also boosted her street-cred., when she showed her mates the app (colours, fonts and background images of pets played a big part) - never a bad thing if it can be weaved into education in my limited experience.

It's this aspect of "application" that I think is missing from current computing education thinking; it's not the ICT teachers that need support it's the maths, science, art and design teachers that need to incorporate computer based learning and (more importantly) problem solving into their own subjects, after all this is a much better reflection of the real world these kids are destined for where computers will be cheap and ubiquitous; the winners will be the ones that can exploit that to their advantage in whatever field they choose.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Epic failures of history

What happens when you mark the 10 commandments like they were a (modern) morality test?

Well, looks like the tablets from Exodus come up a bit short; and what about slavery, genocide, gender discrimination, race discrimination, ill-treatment of animals, lack of care for the environment, censorship, indoctrination and so on?

If it were me I'd score this a lot less than 30%, the Hitch came up with a better set,

1. Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or their colour.
2. Do not ever even think of using people as private property, or as owned, or as slaves.
3. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in all relations.
4. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child.
5. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature if that nature is causes no harm.
6. Be aware that you, too, are an animal, dependent on the web of life. Think and act accordingly.
7. Don't think you can escape judgement by robbing people with a false prospectus rather than a knife
8. Turn off that fucking cell phone - you can have no idea how unimportant your call is to us.
9. Denounce jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopaths with ugly delusions.
10. Be willing to renounce any god, faith or political force should any directive contradict this list.

In short: Don't swallow your moral code in tablet form.

The Galileo fallacy

I read that  MP David Tredinnick is getting laughed at again for trying to promote Homoeopathic remedies as part of his (ludicrous) role on the Science and Technology Committee. In an interview on radio 4 today he was exposed by Professor Lord Winston to be a wilfully ignorant buffoon whose grasp of scientific facts is truly appalling (starts at 2:54).

Tredinnick kicked off by claiming that Winston was not "qualified" to comment on Homoeopathy because Winston had never "studied it" - this fact doesn't seem to stop Tredinnick (who has a "business degree") babbling on about it at every turn, but in actual fact Winston has studied so called "alternative medicines" and reiterated the fact that no Scientific study has ever shown any significant Homoeopathic effect, ever. You would have thought that if successful outcomes were as obvious as claimed then it would be trivial for the Homoeopathy industry to pony up some money (from their bloated pots of profit) for double blind trials in order to highlight data that shows efficacy? Apparently not.

Tredinnick then went on to babble about microbial resistance to antibiotics and how this can be alleviated by people taking Homoeopathic remedies instead; he cited his own experience of having a cold over the weekend and getting better via a Homoeopathic remedy "without taking antibiotics". Lord Winston reminded everyone that colds are viruses and therefore antibiotics would have no effect anyway. Such ignorance is criminal for someone who is supposedly representing people on a committee with a scientific and medical remit and how he got onto this committee in the first place cause for grave concern.

No one really cares what nonsense Tredinnick believes in the privacy of his own home, if he wants to pay £10 of his own money for a few milligrams of pure water believing that it will cure him of a common cold then so what; there are much worse things in the world to worry about. However what does worry me is misinformation, and the wider issues of what homoeopaths themselves do: undermine vaccination campaigns, wasting precious NHS resources, give foolish advice on serious illnesses, attack medicine, attack individual people, undermine the public’s understanding of evidence, and so on. Mr Tredinnick seems to have a bad case of the Galileo fallacy, i.e. the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. As Carl Sagan once pointed out, people also laughed at Coco the Clown.


Sunday, December 07, 2014

Want to know your horoscope?

Just in case you were wondering...

Friday, December 05, 2014

Rocket Science

NASA's latest space exploit lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida a few minutes ago, incredible power and precision on display in a faultless launch. The actual "Orion" mission is the bit sitting on top of this Delta IV heavy lift launch system and is the craft ultimately intended to take men to Mars (wow!). This time the trip is a short one however, a couple of orbits around the planet and home for tea and scones, let's hope the new heat shield test is a success or the crash test dummies might splash down a bit singed.

The only disturbing thing is that I can't help thinking the twin boosters make the whole thing look a bit like a mosque - next thing we'll know is the Turkish prime minister making some kind of religious claim on outer space ; he'll have a job facing Mecca from up there.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Some more equal than others..

My son informed me today that he's secured a part in his school play; it's a rendition of that well known allegorical story Animal Farm by George Orwell; his character is to be "Moses" the tame raven, ally of the hated Farmer Jones. This could be seen as somewhat ironic since the character of Moses is generally thought to be Orwell's metaphor for religion (initially aligned with Czar Nicholas II) in all of it's interfering, conniving and deceitful glory. Undoubtedly an interesting part, something to get his teeth into; although I can't help wondering if his drama teacher has been reading my blog?

Christmas Venn

I can't believe I haven't seen this one before, it seems relevant and accurate.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Holiday countdown

Only 15 working days to go until the Christmas break so I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy about the prospect of a proper holiday. To celebrate I thought I'd find my own little nativity scene to post. As you would expect it has a few more verifiable facts in it that the other more well known versions; for example, T-Rex was definitely real and Keanu Reeves can play guitar!

Questions of mortality

I spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon at a remembrance service for a family friend who died of cancer a few weeks ago. It was a lovely event in a very pretty village church (he was very religious) loads of people turned up and there were many heart-felt reflections on his life and loves. It was a very traditional event and was a perfect reflection of his character, I'm sure he would have been delighted with how it went and his family should feel very proud.

The event made me reflect on how we think about death, particularly the differences between believers (the majority of people there) and how I (a non-believer) think about it. The service was a bit of a mash-up in the sense that our friend was a Baptist but the service was being held in a CofE church so both flavours of Christianity were represented by different speakers. The sermons were certainly different in style, which was interesting, but both centred on one theme and both used almost identical words to set that theme up. Paraphrasing, they said, "you may be angry, you may be asking why X died so young (he was only 42), but don't dwell on these questions, celebrate his life instead". Many people in the audience nodded sagely at this point. I was thinking, "I'm not angry, I know why he died, he had pancreatic cancer and if we're inclined to dwell then surely this question is the most prescient question of all?". To me it felt like one of those times when I've been applying pressure to a particularly bad wound on one of my kids elbows or knees, saying, "don't look at it, you'll be fine, just think happy thoughts" whilst all the time feeling fear and anxiety but desperately not wanting to show it. We all know why we say such things but we also know that the words are intended to distract, the way we speak to children.

As we grow up and encounter real-life we soon realise that when our position is weak often the best bet is to distract attention back onto more solid ground. So why do bad things happen to good people?For Christians and other religious people this must be the most difficult circle to square,  there doesn't seem to be a satisfying answer in their philosophy; they seem to prefer to avoid the question, "mysterious ways" is what they're told. For atheists there is a satisfying answer, one that seems to agree with the reality we all experience, does it help? maybe, sometimes, I guess it depends how your brain is wired, it certainly makes me feel satisfied.

For me that explanation goes something like this...

We live for a brief time on a tiny decaying rock in a vast universe that is largely unaware of our existence, 4.5 billion years of evolution have made us what we are but we're not perfect, destructive flaws in our DNA are faithfully copied from generation to generation by purely natural (chemical) processes and some of us are unlucky enough to inherit these defects which sometimes interact unfavourably with our bodies causing cancerous cells to replicate out of control. Nothing and no one is guiding these processes, it's not about what we did or what we thought, nor what we didn't do or didn't say we have all been dealt a certain hand and derive our own purpose from playing that hand the best way we can in order to learn about our world and ourselves and most importantly leave our children a better world than the one we experienced, we don't always succeed. This explanation fits the evidence of our senses and eyes perfectly, it explains things in a way that no Deistic religion does. Living in a post-enlightenment age and possessing this deeper (and yet incomplete) understanding of how life actually works (rather than how we would like it to work) in no way diminishes or negates our emotions, we can still feel inspired to love, hate, fear and cherish but this knowledge gives us the power to shape our destinies, it liberates and empowers us to change the future for better or worse, we need no longer settle for comforting distractions.