Thursday, August 28, 2014

Real awesome..

I had a holiday in the USA last month and spent some time in Yosemite national park and while there did some rock climbing with my kids (nothing too dramatic); for us even small achievements felt thrilling. However, whilst out one day we spotted some "proper" climbers on "El Capitan" (see above image) which is a famous climb in the park. Photographs can't do it justice but I snapped a couple of shots in an attempt to show the true scale of the feat being accomplished.

There are three pictures at different levels of zoom showing a climber about two thirds of the way up the 3000 foot face. It takes around 3-4 days to complete the entire climb meaning this person probably has at least a day and a night left to do and will sleep (anchored by ropes) whilst clinging to the vertical granite face. The physical exertion required to do this is off the charts, not only is the climbing very physically challenging a climber has to drag up all of the equipment, food and water required for the entire duration of the climb (that's about 80kg of water alone!); having struggled (pathetically) up a few hundred feet of a much simpler face I'm left with a deep respect for the people that attempt this and a feeling of real awe at the majesty of nature.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Want ice with that?

I'm sure science geeks everywhere have been captivated by the recent ESA achievement of placing a spacecraft (Rosetta) in orbit around comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko at a distance of over 350 million kilometres from Earth. The early photographs of the object against the black featureless backdrop of space make it look small but in reality this object is massive, roughly 2 miles across and weighing approximately 10,000,000,000,000 Kg it would make a pretty impressive splash if it ever hit our planet.

For a better sense of scale someone has created the above picture showing what this comet would look like against the backdrop of the city of Los Angeles, now that's a big lump of ice!

Angry of Mayfair here...

I was disgusted to watch a sickly performance on the news last night by Dr Kent Brantly the US Christian missionary doctor who, thanks to a vastly expensive experimental drug and the advanced medical/logistical resources of the USA, survived an infection of the Ebola virus. The thing that upset me was the sheer arrogance of the little speech he gave, the crass solipsism that spewed from his mouth denigrated both his profession (and the scientific bedrock it sits on) and the 2000+ African victims of this terrible outbreak. At the same time as religious people of all stripes are getting agitated and vocal in large numbers over Richard Dawkins' harmless ethical masturbations on Twitter we have some Christian nerd preaching on prime time TV that the reason he was cured of Ebola was because people prayed for him and *his* God answers prayers, in fact he went so far as to say "God saved my life" and deserved "glory and thanks". To use an American expression, what a complete douchbag.

Where was his malicious "God" when in terror and ignorance those poor African parents prayed for their kids, where was he as they haemorrhaged and writhed in agony as their vital organs shut down, and why the fuck did he create such a virus in the first place? What a vile and immoral view of the world these "Christians" have. Did those African victims not pray hard enough, did they receive the wrong theology?

No of course not, this smug Christian WASP survived because he is rich and American, they died and continue to die because they are African and poor, no mystery, no puppet master in the sky, just evolution, chemistry, biology, society, technology and money, that's what determines the outcomes here.

Now where are those blood pressure tablets..

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Google mysteries

Someone pointed this out to me today (click the image for a bigger version), I thought it was just a joke but then when I actually searched for Greggs on Google it's real!

It's either very clever or very dumb marketing or nothing to do with the company at all, bearing in mind they're based in Newcastle, I can't quite decide which.

*Update @16:00* It seems to have disappeared now ;)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sour as grapes

It was a bit of a slow weekend so to liven things up a bit I visited a cheese & craft beer shop in Reading (The Grumpy Goat) and picked up an interesting cheese and a couple of beers to try. In the picture above we have a flavour sensation from one of my favourite London breweries (The Kernel) called "London Sour", and wow, they're not kidding! Made in a unique style the flavour profile is more like a young Chenin Blanc wine than a beer, citrus, sour and acidic with the faintest hoppy undercurrent. This is definitely not for everyone but at 2.5% ABV it's something you could drink quite a lot of if you fancied a session on it. The closest thing I've tried that's anything like this is a Belgian Lambic beer, but that was much sweeter. If you're looking to truly experiment with the flavour of your ale then look no further!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

land of make believers

So I read this morning that Baroness Warsi, the Minister of State for Faith and Communities has resigned because she's unhappy with the Government policy on Gaza. It's nice that she is finally showing some backbone however Warsi is a politician I have strongly disagreed with in the past. She always struck me as anti-secular and anti-atheist, an apologist for religious vested interest, a token Muslim in an invented (and unnecessary) position. I could never understand why a secular country needs a minister for "faith", to me it's like having a cricket coach in a football team, admirably inclusive but ultimately academic.

Hopefully the Government will not replace her. From my perspective we need fewer two-faced, unelected, superstitiously inspired lawyers in the corridors of power, not more; maybe she should consider a job as a Middle Eastern peace envoy, surely there are some vacancies coming up soon?

Monday, August 04, 2014

Unequal equivalence

A couple of stories and the associated ripples in the chatter-sphere caused me to pause and think about the concept and utility of equivalence last week. Firstly we have the entrenched and on-going conflict in Gaza and Israel. The conflict isn't new of course, but I've seen some interesting twists and turns as media heat has increased, many people on both right and left of the political landscape seem to be lobbing ever more extreme emotional labels around in order to articulate their views on this war. Secondly, there was an altogether less important but related micro-storm on twitter as Richard Dawkins made a comment about equivalence in crime which many people got upset about, I suspect for similarly entrenched reasons rather than purely rational ones.

Israel are trying to destroy Hamas who are in turn are trying to destroy Israel, both sides are killing people in order to achieve their goals, this shouldn't be a surprise, that's what we do in war. Israel has overwhelming fire-power and consequentially Hamas will not win the battle, however, Israel will not win the war (by inspiring a whole new generation of enemies) a depressingly desolate landscape. The more pressing question for both sides is whether world opinion will constrain Israel somehow before they are able to achieve their tactical goals against Hamas.

Dawkins, on the other hand, only caused a flood of ire; with a tweet that said "date rape is bad but stranger rape at knife-point is worse". He claims that he was trying to illustrate a logical point, i.e. that comparing two things doesn't imply endorsement of either and also that for practical purposes (i.e. legally) it is often necessary to compare things that we would rather not compare because the subject is too emotionally loaded rather than being logically and ethically impossible to do so (of course our legal system already does these comparisons all the time). Dawkins could have chosen a better forum to make his point, but on the other hand I'm not sure why people feel that any topic (within the law) should be out of bounds on a system where you must "follow" someone to see what they've written, people do seem to go out of their way to be offended.

The parallel I'm trying to draw here is that when discussing Israel and Palestine it should be quite reasonable and rational to discuss the behaviour of both sides and to debate their relative morality without necessarily endorsing either, we need to take this approach or disappear in a pointless froth of absolutism and emotion. Perhaps because of the perfect storm of taboo subjects like religion, the holocaust and anti-Semitism very few commentators seem able to get past hopelessly simplistic sectarian and historical polarisation, something new is needed but unfortunately I don't see any light on the horizon.

When a BBC interviewer asks an Israeli spokesperson, "why are you killing children?" it seems to me that the same fallacy of equivalence is being used to make a rather cheap dramatic point. Bombs are ambivalent when it comes to the bombed, a child seeking missile has yet to be invented, a more useful line of debate would be to ask why certain places can't be reserved for "innocents" to shelter and those places should not be targeted or used by either side. Of course, a question like this is NOT an endorsement of what Israel is doing generally, that's the point. When some right wing blow hard like Sean Hannity prevents a Palestinian spokesperson from speaking during an interview by shouting the same pointless questions (when everyone knows the answer) we see the same problem, pointing out Israeli injustices against Palestinians is not an endorsement of Hamas terror.

Here are the kinds of questions and thought experiments I would like to be debated more widely,

We can (and should) debate the morality of using overwhelming force in self-defence or to achieve political goals, but how can we single out Israel for doing it when we are perfectly happy to do it ourselves. It's exactly what we did in Iraq (with UN sanction), Afghanistan, the Falklands and everywhere else we've fought, in fact wherever our Government thinks we cannot achieve overwhelming advantage (militarily) we simply do not fight, no matter how disagreeable the regime or need to prevent injustice (for example Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, Iran etc.)

Is it morally right to wish for the destruction of a state and a people, is it possible to negotiate with an enemy who is sworn to commit genocide against you as opposed to simply making you surrender.

What is the role of fundamental Judaism in this conflict, would Israel be better served by NOT being a "Jewish state" but merely a secular democracy, is it moral to invoke a subjective entity (like a deity) in order to make a "claim" on physical resources, like land?

What would happen to Jews if Hamas had all the weapons? Is Israel morally superior to Hamas in that it treats human shields as a deterrence (albeit an imperfect one) whereas Hamas actually aim to kill as many Israeli people as possible; imagine the ridiculousness of Israelis holding up their children as shields.

Since Hamas spent their time building tunnels rather than bomb shelters (as the Israelis did) then isn't it unavoidable that the casualties will be disproportionate, is this the fault of Israel?

Should Israel be blamed for developing a an effective rocket defence system, does this diminish the moral case for self-defence?

Where are the 000s deep protests by the left in Western countries about ISIS in Iraq who are crucifying people at the side of the road, do they care about Muslim on Muslim violence?

What is the role of powerful Christian Zionists in the USA in funding and supporting (beyond reason) Israel in a deluded belief that stoking the fires of violence in the "holy land" will accelerate the second coming of Christ?

and so on...