Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Being Human

xkcd nicely pointing out that our existence as evolved apes on planet Earth is not as "special" as we like to imagine that it is.

Monday, June 29, 2015


Not an entirely bullet proof analogy but I certainly understand the point being made; on a related theme, I was glad to see that same-sex marriage was voted into law across the entire USA last week, about time too. Perhaps the sign should read something like...

"If you think your personal religious beliefs should dictate what's law for everyone else, then you are a complete doughnut!"

Hang on a second

Owning to the irregular rotation of our planet around the Sun any time measuring system based on some fraction of a calendar year or average day length (UTC - coordinated universal time) is simply not precise enough for modern day electronic devices such as computers and satellite navigation equipment. In 1967 scientists switched from time based on a celestial measurement and started to run super accurate atomic clocks based on the radio-active decay of a caesium atom. However these atomic clocks gradually get out of step with normal celestial based clocks and ever since we decided we can tell the time better than planet Earth, we add an extra second to UTC as needed to keep the two systems in sync. Tomorrow is such a day, clocks will read 11:59:60 before clicking over to 12:00

For those of us in the computer industry, we will be crossing our fingers that nothing untoward happens to our precious servers and systems as the time beacons that they are synchronised to add an extra second to June 30th, it's not the first time this has happened so all should be fine, then again saying something like that is bound to jinx it.

So, what are you going to do with your extra second? I think I'll spend mine snoozing; I'm always grateful for a lie-in.

Approaching the truth, millimetre by millimetre

Well, that was one hell of a weekend for Islamist terrorism!

In Tunisia we had a seemingly "normal" student, radicalised at college and persuaded to unload an AK-47 on a beach load of tourists, killing some 40 odd foreigners, most of whom were British. Then we had a Muslim lunatic in France deciding to behead his boss at an Air Products factory in the middle of nowhere and attempting (but failing) to use a car as a device to blow the plant up. In Kuwait we had a suicide bomber detonating a device in a busy Mosque killing 27 of the exclusively Shia congregation unlucky enough to be there on that day.

I suspect that these three attacks won't be the last of it either; many commentators are saying that this spate of violence may mark the beginning of a strategic push by Isis for just these kinds of incursions.

At home (UK) we had our Prime Minister David Cameron standing up and saying that "Islam is a religion of peace", this is blatantly untrue. When an assassin wanders through a heterogeneous group of people separating out the Muslims from the non-Muslims and putting a bullet in the latter, as was the case in Tunisia and also previously in Kenya then the act clearly has something to do with Islam, the worst version of Islam, but Islam never the less. According to numerous surveys and studies, significant numbers of Muslims follow this version of Islam, the number is not insignificant, lazy liberals in the West who bleat on about this problem being one of a "tiny minority" are simply wrong. Millions of Muslims believe things (based on their holy-texts and indoctrination) that are catastrophic for the well-being of our liberal democratic society. Fortunately the majority of Muslims choose to interpret these texts and cherry-pick in ways that avoid the most obviously homicidal narratives, in exactly the same way that most modern, liberal Christians and Jews do. However before we relax, it's worth noting that in December, al-Azhar University in Cairo (an Islamic authority) declared that although Isis members are terrorists they cannot be described as heretics.

It is indisputable that Christianity has had a bloody history, but I think we can all easily imagine how much more bloody that story would have been if instead of telling his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’, Jesus had called (even once) for his disciples to ‘slay’ non–believers and chop off their heads? (as Mohammed did) This is a problem for Islam. Not being a Christian I have no requirement to "love" my enemies, actually I think it's more rational to want to defeat them. It seems to me that there is currently a clear and present danger not only to our way of life but also the liberty and prosperity of future generations; this threat is Islamism in all its forms, and the sooner we acknowledge this fact by naming it we can get on with the work of assisting liberal Muslims to challenge it militarily and also help them develop a more compelling, less homicidal Islamic narrative. Until then I fear we will remain firmly on the back-foot making painstakingly millimetric progress toward a safer world for everyone.

Friday, June 26, 2015


Not an analogy I'd heard before but seems reasonable; Jesus and Mo shoots and scores...

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Modern parenting

I'm always looking to leverage technology to assist with parenting tasks; here's a nice example of someone providing a really powerful incentive so that their kids get to do some minor house work.

God's Dog

Much chuckles at the FarLeftSide

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Now only 2nd most hated..

Our pious American cousins have voted on the kinds of people that they would least likely vote for in the upcoming presidential election. At the bottom of the list below Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Gays and Women are Atheists. Now statistically speaking it's almost a certainty that several American presidents have been atheists already, it's likely that Obama is, and Kennedy would have probably been a safe bet; but we all know that no politician worth his or her salt in the USA can actually admit even being doubtful and still get elected to office. This is one of the great dichotomies of the modern age; how can a modern, liberal superpower not elect a leader from one of the largest, if not the largest identifiable sections of it's society, it can't be because of belief as the majority Christian population can't by definition agree with the beliefs of a Jew or a Muslim and many religions remain steadfastly discriminatory when it comes to women leaders and people of minority sexual orientations. No doubt this is a question that will baffle scholars for years to come, but atheists can take one small crumb of consolation, at least we're not as hated as Socialists. (although, what if you're an American, lesbian atheist and a socialist? Probably not wise to quit your day job..)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Collective something or other

I see various religious people are getting a bit flustered by the latest policy advisory report by ex-Education secretary Charles Clark and sociology professor Linda Woodhead. There are several recommendations in the report, but in summary, the conclusion is that the relationship between religion and schools in the UK needs to be re-examined and in certain places overhauled. For example, they call for the abandonment of the "collective act of worship" which as the name suggests can only really apply to half the population (or less) and is a clear throw-back to a long since extinct age of compliance and uniformity of population.

There are some interesting facts and commentary in the report and I would broadly agree with most of it's conclusions, where I don't it's more a case of wanting to go further.

  • Compulsory collective worship is a joke, the vast majority of kids (at least the ones I've ever known) don't want it and most schools pay lip service to doing it. I wish I could have back all of the time that I wasted as a child being forced to sit in draughty churches listening to complete drivel and despising every second of it; if the parent and/or child wants that kind of thing then they should be doing it on their own dime.
  • Comparative religion (RE) should be taught in all schools to the same standard; it should be objective and have the goal of educating children about the world they actually live in and not indoctrinating them into one particular way of thinking, it should be done in a pluralistic way.
  • Religion is NOT the same as morality, claiming that religion needs to be a part of school life in order to instill morality into children is a complete fallacy. Children should have the option to learn about philosophy and ethics; schools of thought like deism, atheism and agnosticism should certainly be included as first-class citizens in that same thread of education.
  • Religious schools should be allowed. I agree, but I don't think they should be state funded. I prefer the American model where religion is kept completely out of state-schools, this is the only way to ensure fairness in terms of funding but also in terms of equal treatment for all children, no stigma associated with having to "exclude" yourself from certain communal activities (like collective worship!)
  • If parents are so insecure in their religious beliefs and/or feel overwhelmingly obliged to indoctrinate their children into their own particular brand of woo then they should be paying for that themselves, I don't believe it is the job of the state to promote one particular religion.
  • There is a widespread belief in this country (UK) that religious schools are somehow "better" than religion neutral state-schools, superficially that may be true if you restrict yourself to just looking at exam results; but it can't be argued that a selective school is better than a non-selective one, that's not comparing apples with apples.

The days of segregating children at a young age by the arbitrary religion of their parents is thankfully becoming the exception rather than the rule. It seems obvious to me that this kind of segregation is just a recipe for storing up future problems, we need only look at places like Northern Ireland to see how that story can play out. No one would want to deny the rights of parents wishing to imprint their own convictions onto their children, but the sooner we move to a properly neutral i.e. secular state education system the better (and fairer) for everyone.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Mid-Summer smirks..

I'm thinking of doing a series of these...

A different kind of cat video

Check out this little cat video I came across today; it's not the usual run of the mill cute kitten-fest more of a feline thriller!  At about 0:47 into the clip our dare-devil moggy appears stage right and proceeds to do his best "clinging on for dear life" impression as the pilot and passenger become aware of his presence; don't worry nothing bad happens but if it were me I'd have a stern word with the pilot about his pre-flight checks!

Voices from the echo chamber

I see that my favourite unelected, ex-Conservative political cry-baby Baroness Warsi has been in the news again. This time she's criticising David Cameron for stating the bleeding obvious in a recent speech, i.e. that Muslims who quietly condone the prejudices of Islamic extremists like ISIS help to add weight to a narrative that may in turn lead to the radicalisation of weak minded and vulnerable people. This seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable and logical thing to assert, we all know that indoctrination with irrational dogma (religious or otherwise) and peer pressure combined with a feeling of cultural isolation does indeed create some rather odd responses; much like the flight to war-torn Syria of three Bradford sisters and their nine children within the last few weeks.

Warsi seems to confirm every stereotype we are advised not to parody. When politicians like Cameron draw obvious conclusions she claims it's an "attack" on all UK Muslims. That's like listening to a police spokesperson asking people not to turn a blind eye to drink driving and then accusing them of "attacking" everyone who's ever had a pint in a pub. Why such over-reaction? It seems to me that people like Warsi are part of the problem rather than part of the solution, she clearly shares a very undesirable characteristic with the fundamentalists, i.e. she will not listen to or properly engage with arguments against her position, debate = "attack" in her mind, for me this exposes a very worrying alignment with the medieval theocratic attitudes running riot in the Middle East right now; ironically the exact point the PM was making in his speech.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


I'm an Atheist and a humanist, probably always will be, it's the only intellectual position that doesn't cause me severe cognitive dissonance but I cannot help but be impressed by the Christian relatives and friends of the victims of the latest mass murder in a church in Charleston, USA; their reaction to this horrific racist attack seems genuinely "Christ-like".

Friday, June 19, 2015

Tribal Perspective

It often amuses me how tribal we are; we have an incredible capacity to become specialised and expert over time and yet a pathetic inability to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Even in the relatively new and progressive world of computer software development there are deep-seated tribal divisions. As the picture above suggests there's a constant battle between the left and right brain crowds and yet it's impossible to build a successful modern product without both skill-sets, not to mention managers, testers, salesmen, accountants, lawyers and tech-support. Ultimately we're all parasites of one kind or another, feeding off the life-investments of others, in my humble estimation the happiest people seem to realise and accept this fact.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Yahweh is moving mysteriously once again...


Absolutely right! The key word here though is "due".

Monday, June 15, 2015

Magna Carta

I see that celebrations around the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta are in full swing this week; the Queen and other dignitaries will be visiting Runnymede today (scenic route to Ascot?) to attend a ceremony at the famous (approximate) site of the original signing of this most important treaty. I would imagine that all standing monarchs visiting Runnymede today will ponder their luck that the chain of thought and legal reforms triggered by Magna Carta and other secular advances still hasn't reached it's logical conclusion or permeated all parts of the world. In many countries there are still powerful people and institutions that consider themselves above the law, and many laws whose foundations lay outside of the realm of evidence and reason. For example, just this week marks the fifth anniversary of the arrest and imprisonment of a Christian woman Asia Bibi who has been sentenced to death for Blasphemy in Pakistan over what seems like a simple case of religious persecution combined with a trivial domestic dispute over drinking cups.

Of course, all around the world there are countless other cases and abuses of the core ideas of Magna Carta, ideas that have stood the test of time even though they were quickly suppressed by the religious powers and vested interests of their time. In the heady days of it's inception and even before the ink was properly dry (within weeks), the Pope annulled the treaty in return for King Johns submission to his authority. I guess that freedom and the idea that no one is above the law, not even God's henchmen or the King, is still an anathema to those who prefer the arbitrary implementation of Earthly power.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The morning after..

The Philae comet lander finally woke up, scratched it's bum and tweeted a short message back to mission control on Earth. That must have been some party it thought to itself, last thing I remember is bouncing around on the surface of this comet, sniffing all manner of alien substances before falling into a dark cold shadowy place and drifting off. I've been asleep hurtling through space since last November, but now it's finally warm enough for me wake up. I must remember to send all that data I gathered back home, but first things first, who won X-Factor?..

Amazing little machine.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

RMS Lancastria

There's a story about RMS Lancastria on the BBC site today; it's a tragic story of a ship sent to rescue British soldiers from Northern France a few weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation. Unfortunately the ship was hit by German dive bombers just outside the port of Saint-Nazaire and sunk, estimates vary but at least 4,000 men, women and children died that day, perhaps as many as 7,000 it was certainly the largest loss of life in British maritime history but it is largely unknown. It was hushed up by Churchill and reports of the disaster were censored, the politicians of the day felt that such bad news coming straight after Dunkirk would be cripplingly bad for the moral of the nation, so no one knew.

The story has a highly personal element for me; my Grandfather was one of the soldiers escaping from France and was on that ship. He went into the water along with thousands of other people and luckily for us both managed to survive (barring minor burns on his feet) the oily water, the fires and the strafing of German machine guns. He was picked up by the Navy and returned to Plymouth. The spooky thing is that the family knew very little about his story (he never talked about it much); but a few years after his death a book was released that featured a couple of photographs of the incident (there are only a two dozen in existence). My Mother bought the book out of interest and low and behold there he was, plain as day, my Granddad covered in oil with a white blanket over his shoulders, he's in the picture above, the fifth head from the left in the back row.

It's amazing to think of the unbroken chain of lucky escapes over thousands of years, hundreds of wars, plagues and disasters that link us to our ancestors and by virtue of pure luck mean that we exist at all; I guess someone has to.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Deity psychoanalysis

Te he...

Double standards?

I'm feeling slightly shocked that Nobel laureate Tim Hunt of UCL has been forced to resign from his position in the faculty of life sciences over some remarks he made about Women and men at a recent conference. He said that when women work together with men in the lab they fall in love and cry when criticised (implying this was an impediment to productive working), factually correct albeit a generalisation fallacy, but seriously, why such a shocker?

Now, he did say this to a conference about Women in science so certainly not sensitive, tactful or clever; but let's face it we all know geeky people like this who are socially awkward when addressing members of the opposite sex. Public speaking, empathy and emotional intelligence is usually NOT their forte! But, think about it this way, who would you rather have working on a cure for cancer at UCL, Tim Hunt or Russell Brand?

Now, clearly Prof. Hunt has screwed up, he's made what's known in the trade as a "gaff" and his geeky, socially retarded manner seems to have caused him to dig the hole even deeper as he tried to apologise, but in the big picture of the oppression of Women in the world, so what? Give the guy a reprimand and ban him from attending conferences for six months or make him attend a communications skills course; such a minor infraction does not warrant being hounded out of his job. This over-reaction is especially pulled into focus when you consider how other people in public roles can seem to get away with sexist or racists remarks pretty much unnoticed. If he was a Muslim Imam, for example, who proclaimed from his pulpit that Women and men should be segregated because his sky God disapproved then no one would have blinked an eye; in fact people would probably be screaming Islamophobia at this point and rushing to defend his precious "beliefs". Even UCL itself is no stranger to segregation rows, only last year there was a scandal when the Islamic Students Society hosted a debate and ordered that men and women in the audience should sit separately! Jeremy Bentham will be turning in his grave (or at least shuffling slighting in his chair)!

What a hypocritical world we live in.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Mountain spirits hate wobbly bits

Trouble is brewing in Malaysia, apparently the reason for Fridays earthquake in the Mount Kinabalu region (Borneo) that killed several climbers has been discovered to be a group of foreign tourists that posed for a naked photo on the mountain on May 30th, 6 days before the 5.9 tremor struck.

Now I know what you're thinking, but it's not just any old crank making these claims, it's the Deputy Chief Minister of the state, Joseph Pairin Kitingan no less! He also goes on to announce that a special ceremony will be held later to "appease the mountain spirit". He's also preventing the Canadian and Dutch tourists in question from leaving the country and wants to charge them with a criminal offence.

The most bizarre part of this daft story is that although Malaysia is officially a Muslim country Kitingan is supposedly a Catholic, apparently a vengeful, bashful "Mountain spirit" believing kind of Catholic! Shame Geology wasn't a priority at his Catholic missionary school.

Atheist banter

I read an amusing exchange this morning between an Atheist and a Christian on Facebook, the Christian was making the usual naive mistake of thinking that the Atheist would somehow be impressed or fearful of silly Biblical threats regurgitated verbatim with absolutely no evidence or explanation. The theist in question sounded like one of those naive middle-American Bible bashing types who'd never heard any of the many logical, philosophical or ethical arguments against his position.

Anyway the exchange also highlighted another Christian dilemma involving the existence of Gods; it went something like this,

Christian: ... but what would you say if you died and found yourself standing before God?

Atheist: Well that would depend..

Christian: What do you mean?

Atheist: It would depend on the God I was standing before, for example if it were Thor then I'd probably ask for hair-care tips...

Gun flint and apricots

We hosted our first BBQ of the Summer yesterday (Sunday) and spent a lovely afternoon in the garden watching the kids perfecting their trampoline somersaults (lot's of wincing going on from the adults) and gossiping with 3 generations of my kin. To accompany the rumours and bad jokes about absent family members I opened a bottle of Dog Point Chardonnay from New Zealand and it turned out to be even more fruity than the rumours!

Run by a couple of guys who used to work for "Cloudy Bay" (probably the most internationally famous NZ winery) Dog Point (based in Marlborough) have been knocking out great Sauvignon Blanc for a good few years, but up until now I'd never tried their Chardonnay, which isn't such an established variety in NZ. The wine (from the 2011 vintage) was a revelation, wonderfully Burgundian in some ways and yet typically Kiwi in others, just what you would hope for from a producer at the top of their game and a relatively new (to the international market) and exciting wine region. From Burgundy there was a rich hazelnut oil viscosity paired with citrus and a flinty gun smoke aroma but then you get a smack in the chops from some wonderfully exotic New Zealand fruit flavours, apricots, mango and pineapple; an absolute delight paired with the usual Summer BBQ spread. I bought this last year so hopefully they still have some left at the wine shop!

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Saturday samples

Decided to treat myself on Saturday evening; dropped into the Grumpy Goat beer shop in Reading and picked up a couple of new beers to try. Arbor is a small brewery near Bristol and not one that I'd heard of before, there were a couple of different beers on offer so I picked up one bottle of each. The Yakima valley was an American style IPA; hugely hoppy, pours a murky orange colour with a great aroma, fruity, citrus, light, long dry and bitter finish a success, I really liked it but at 7% it drank far too easily, restraint required. The second of the brace was called "Transpacific IPA" which superficially was along similar lines but using a mix of New Zealand and US hops; very hoppy on the nose again but a completely different taste, instead of a zesty, citrus spine this beer was heavier, overcast, more of a golden syrup/burnt sugar vibe going on, not as easy to drink and not as likeable in my opinion (more of a Winter brew perhaps). Certainly not a bad beer by any means, but for my palette, not as good as the Yakima Valley.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Peer pressure

It always baffles me how some people are completely indifferent to what they put into their bodies and consume things just to "be social" - beer and wine are great examples of that. Many people I know view food and drink as fuel (which of course is partly true) but that's it for them; they're happy to scoff ready-meals and drink cheap lager and some are even dismissive toward those of us who prefer to consider these things slightly more deeply. Pretentiousness is the most common accusation levelled and perhaps in part they have a point; after all, only a tiny minority of humans on this planet are privileged enough (by birth rather than talent) to even be in a position to consider these matters. However I suspect that fairness isn't at the root of their position, to me it smells more like fear; fear of being an outsider, fear that if you don't do what everyone else does then somehow you're not doing your part or playing the game. I'd like to think that perhaps you get to a certain age when you stop worrying about what other people think and also that the truly interesting people in this world are the ones who don't follow the herd.

I guess it's all a question of priorities and of course everyone is entitled to their own. I just can't help thinking that people miss out by not trying things and experimenting, even just a little bit; by considering and comparing experiences just a little more deeply and seeking out new ones at every opportunity. Physics, Chemistry and Biology are why we're here in the first place, but experience and learning new stuff are what makes the whole thing exquisitely enjoyable.

Thursday, June 04, 2015


Most "revelations" seem to be of the self-serving kind; funny that.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

This remedy is a hoot!

Came across this enlightening YouTube today; it's about a homoeopathic pharmacy in Glasgow called "Freemans" that receives tens of thousands of pounds from NHS Bristol and NHS Glasgow for treatments which include things like Asbestos, E. Coli and Uranium (handy for people that live near Chernobyl?). In their materials they were advertising homoeopathic 'Horned Owl' which was so intriguing that a researcher from the Good Thinking Society phoned them up and asked about it assuming this was a supposed remedy for people allergic to owls; he recorded the call. The response from the pharmacy was even more bizarre than he thought; absolutely hysterical, you just have to listen to it.

What grown adults waste their own money on is their own business; but NHS money wasted on this crap is criminal especially when the news is full of stories about the service being unable to afford new life prolonging cancer drugs and potentially life changing treatments like IVF.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The female of the species

I heard a short piece on radio 4 the other morning that featured a Christian lady who wants Anglicans to use more feminine pronouns when referring to "God"; she made the argument that God is "beyond gender" and that all humans (not just men) are made in the image of her God. Is this finally the female backlash against the insidious misogyny of most religions or are these people firmly in the realm of debating how many angels fit on a pin head?

Monday, June 01, 2015

AI for grown-ups

Saw the latest AI (artificial intelligence) film at the weekend; Ex Machina written and directed by Alex Garland is a visual delight from the start. The story takes place around a fictional "Google-like" company where uber-programmer Caleb wins a prize to spend a week at the mountain retreat of the software genius CEO/billionaire/founder of the company Nathan. What Caleb doesn't know is that Nathan has created a secret artificial intelligence in the form of a beautiful woman-robot called Ava and wants him to be the Human component in a Turing test. Lot's of twists and turns as the truth about Nathan and Ava is gradually revealed, accompanied by atmospheric and dramatic music with a real "dark" menacing feel to the movie which is set in fabulous scenery (Norway) I won't spoil the twist at the end which absolutely takes no prisoners! Perhaps the best AI movie so far, a real thought provoker; love it.

When in doubt

It seems as though the de-rigour thing to do these days when your back is against the wall and you've run out of arguments is to accuse your accusers of being racists. This tactic seems to be a particular speciality of Islamic people although not exclusively. I see that the former PM of Qatar, that bastion of equal rights and opportunities is accusing the "West" of being racist for questioning the fairness of the World Cup voting process that saw this small Arab country with little football infrastructure and day-time temperatures of 50 degrees Centigrade winning the right to host the 2022 football competition. I've visited quite a few Arab countries in my time and generally the people are friendly and welcoming, but in my limited experience some can also be very racist toward non-Arabs too; people in glass houses etc..