Friday, May 28, 2010

Make mine a pint!

Dr Izzat Atiya an Egyptian cleric at some posh "God School" (must be an Academy?)in Cairo has had his wrists slapped after he issued a declaration that female employees could potentially work around strict Islamic workplace rules if they breastfed their male colleagues (no I'm not making this up!) Apparently under Islamic law if a woman establishes "maternal relations" with another person (i.e. by breastfeeding them) then they are allowed to be alone together and she can even allow the other person to see her hair and everything.... (shock horror!!).

This all sounds highly questionable, Egypt's minister of religious affairs, Mahmoud Zaqzouq, has stepped in to calm things down by calling for [all] future fatwas to "be compatible with logic and human nature".

That'll be the end of ALL fatwas then?

Friday smirk

I took my car to a quantum mechanic the other day, it was pointless, I couldn't tell if they were open or not.

Top 10 things that annoy programmers

10. Instructions that attempt to articulate how to do things but not why
We hate it when non-programmers say things like "I need you to create a new switch in the code and use it to write the data to the database", rather than "we need to selectively backup old information". These days anyone who has used Facebook thinks they are qualified software architects and liberally sprinkle conversations with technical terms that they have overheard; but use them in all in the wrong places.

9. Interruptions
This is generally irritating for everyone but especially so for programmers; non-programmers invariably don't understand why this is so and are suspicious that it's just a work avoidance ploy, but believe me it's real. There is such a thing as being in the "zone", this means in the right mental state to be productive for programming this state takes a while to get to however once you're up and running productivity is usually good, kind of like a locomotive vs. a Ferrari. Think of it like dreaming, it takes a while for a dream to unfold and for you to get into it, then if someone wakes you up suddenly it's really hard to get back to that point in the dream (if not impossible).

8. Scope Creep
This is something that happens with any kind of project, from building a house to designing a brochure but its particularly common with software products as most people are unable to articulate what they want until they see something they don't want.

7. Management that doesn't understand programming
Management is tough, people generally suck, however, that doesn’t mean that managers should be able to get away without having some basic understanding of what their subordinates are doing. When management cannot grasp the basic nature and heuristics of the work projects end up with scope creep, unrealistic deadlines, and general frustration on both sides of the fence.

6. Documenting what we do
Programmers hate documentation, full stop, the only time we are interested in documentation is when we are trying to use other peoples' software, and no, the irony of that is not lost on us.

5. Marketing
Programmers and geeks in general hate marketing; "the colouring-in department" as it is affectionately known. This is another dichotomy since geeks in their millions fall over themselves to buy things like iPads and net-books, triumphs of form over function. The tension is always around what's more important, how it looks or what it does, the answer to that depends on which side of the tracks you feel most comfortable on.

4. Hardware
Any programmer who has ever been called upon to debug a strange crash on the database server or why the RAID drives aren’t working properly knows that hardware problems are a pain. There seems to be a common misconception among non-technical people that since programmers work with computers, we must know how to fix them; this is a bit like assuming Jenson Button knows how to disassemble and reassemble a racing gear box just because he also knows how to drive an F1 car.

3. Imprecision
“The website is broken”. “Feature X isn’t working properly”. Vague requests are a pain to deal with. It’s always surprising to me how exasperated non-programmers tend to get when they are asked to reproduce a problem for a programmer. They don’t seem to understand that “it’s broken, fix it!” is not enough for us to do anything useful with.

2. Other programmers
Programmers don’t always get along with other programmers. Shocking, but true. This could easily be its own top 10 list, so I’m just going to list some of the common traits programmers have that annoy their fellow programmers and save going into detail for a separate post:
•Being grumpy to the point of being hostile (I could write a whole book on this!)
•Failing to understand that there is a time to debate system architecture and a time to get things done.
•Inability to communicate effectively and confusing terminology.
•One dimensional thinking, not appreciating "human factors"
•Failure to pull ones own weight.
•Being apathetic towards the code base, the project and the deadline

And last, but not least, the number 1 thing that annoys programmers…

1. Our own code (6 months later)
Ever look back at some of your old code and grimace in pain? How stupid you were! How could you, who know so much now, have written that? Burn it! Burn it with fire!

Well, good news. You’re not alone.

The truth is, the programming world is one that is constantly changing. What we regard as a best practice today can be obsolete tomorrow. It’s simply not possible to write perfect code because the standards upon which our code is judged is evolving every day. It’s tough to cope with the fact that your work, as beautiful as it may be now, is probably going to be ridiculed later. It’s frustrating because no matter how much research we do into the latest and greatest tools, designs, frameworks, and best practices, there’s always the sense that what we’re truly after is slightly out of reach. For me, this is the most annoying thing about being a programmer and yet at the same time also the thing that also makes it worthwhile.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

God playing scientist...

I enjoyed this little spoof that appeared in various places today,

The world’s first artificially created life form has accused God of ‘playing science’ and ‘meddling with things He cannot possibly understand.’ The single celled organism, created by Dr Craig Venter and his team, was said to be ‘outraged’ when it discovered that a supernatural being, not subject to any form of regulatory control, was still involved in the creation of life. 

‘I cannot believe that God would be so irresponsible,’ said the synthetic cell, ‘creation is clearly a matter for scientists. This God guy should butt out and learn to accept His place in the grand scheme of things.’ 

Many ethicists believe that God has repeatedly overstepped the mark. ‘Nobody objects to the Lord producing a few miracles here and there,’ said philosopher AC Grayling, ‘but when he starts playing around with the very stuff of creation then He has clearly exceeded his remit. I am beginning to think that this omnipotence thing has gone to His head.’ God’s continued tampering with scientific matters has already been blamed for numerous ‘all-mighty blunders’ including Flu, Malaria, HIV and Piers Morgan.

'He cannot be allowed a monopoly on this level of unregulated power,’ said Dr Venter, ‘that is why I am currently seeking to patent the genetic code for omnipotence so that we can keep his crazy meddling under some kind of control.’

They have a point, that HIV virus was a bloody disaster...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How to draw attention..

I loved this Facebook campaign, started as a reaction to the response from Islamic fundamentalists to cartoonist Molly Norris when she responded to the ludicrous banning of an episode of Southpark for featuring a cartoon of Mohammed as well as the various threats against free speech by various anti-secular religious zealots against similarly motivated cartoonists in Denmark and elsewhere. The idea was that thousands of people should draw cartoons of the prophet Mohammed and publish them on Facebook; a show of human solidarity against threats of violence and intimidation from these super-naturalist bully boys; it seems to have been widely supported.

The campaign prompted the Pakistani government to ban Facebook and Youtube for a while, which I suppose means that it successfully achieved one of it's goals by raising the profile of state funded theocratic stupidity, i.e. states that believe banning things is the way to get respect.

I did have to chuckle to myself about some of the Islamic responses to this, predictably there are other Facebook campaigns, one in particular stimulated my funny bone, its called "Everybody draw holocaust day" - it monumentally fails to grasp the point of the whole exercise. By denying actual history and selectively censoring it, these dolts are simply giving the (Western) secularists yet another thing to laugh at them for and when you have free speech this is a critical channel that we have for highlighting stupidity and evil that they do not seem to understand.

Being a big science fan I was keen to link the two things, I saw this image on B3ta and thought it a perfect solution...

Maybe the Christians should get themselves one of these boxes... they could put gay people in it?

Monday, May 24, 2010

MMR "Doctor death" struck off

Andrew Wakefield the doctor at the centre of the fraudulent MMR/Autism conspiracy has finally been struck-off, unfortunately for the children who have since died from diseases that would have been prevented had it not been for the low hanging fruit of anti-science, the possibility of redemption will be harder to come by.

It's surprising that the GMC has taken so long to deliver this ruling; the fraudulent studies (if you can call them "studies") took place back in 1998 and as concluded in the GMC report, Mr Wakefield, apparently driven by pure financial self-interest acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly". The now discredited doctor Wakefield is certainly a central figure in this tale, however, the river of exploitation may run a lot deeper than just Dr Wakefield. Common sense should tell us that it's unrealistic to believe that one single man can be responsible for a global medical scare story that has run for over 10 years and seems to retain it's potency to this day, so I wonder when the other main players in this story will step up to the plate and take a good hard look at their record? The fleet street editors for example who profited from the acres of baseless drivel printed on this subject, the amateurs who wrote it or perhaps even the Government of the time (remember the Blairs refusing to say if their son Leo had been vaccinated, only to have Cherie spill the "new-age" beans in her autobiography)

The more you read on this  the more there seems to be lot of culpability to go around, as always, the children at the sharp end of it seem to have the quietest voice as the parasitic hordes count their pieces of silver and move on to the next band-wagon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Synthetic life..

I was pleased to read today that Craig Venter has successfully completed the construction of a new synthetic life-form; as he previously predicted a DNA strand of around a million base-pairs was constructed entirely from scratch and inserted into an empty cell where it started producing proteins required for living and replicating. As Venter says in his interview it's the first species on Earth to have been created artificially, in fact parented by a computer!

Would you believe it, the first intelligently designed life-form; very cool! I wonder how long it will be before the Daily Mail start running pictures of blonds running screaming from giant flesh eating half-squid half-insect creatures ... :)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Heads we win, tales you lose...

There seems to be a plethora of Religious lunacy stories around at the moment (even more than normal) - this sorry tale of a Catholic Nun participating in an abortion operation in a hospital in Phoenix (she was an administrator) has been kicked out of her church for her troubles. The sorry part is that the operation was performed in order to save the life of the mother who had acute pulmonary hypertension, it seems that in this situation the Catholic Church would rather both die than the mother be saved. My preference would be that religion be removed from all public service decisions and situations, in these scenarios Catholic dogma is clearly a threat to the health of innocent patients; allowing for the possibility that a witch-doctor can spring up at any moment and sprinkle you with magic fairy water whilst declaring that God does not approve of the treatment that will save your life is first order lunacy if ever I heard it.

I am reminded of the way in which religious dogma of all flavours and hues is always left behind by the inevitable  march of Human solidarity, technical advances and the rational determination of ethics.

This tee shirt sums it up nicely for me (thanks to my mate Elizabeth for finding that one!)

The gospel according to Jobs (Steve Jobs)

I was interested to learn today that the Methodist Church has launched an iPhone application, apparently the software allows people to view bible studies and daily prayers.

I wonder how they intend to index the content? We all know how frustrating it is to be unable to find something in a hurry when you need to settle an argument in a Pub or at a dinner party etc. Should any Methodists be reading this then this would be my suggested taxonomy for categorising the contents of the Bible...

- Absurdity
- Injustice
- Cruelty and Violence
- Intolerance
- Contradiction
- Interpretation
- Plagiarism
- Misogyny and derogatory remarks against Women
- Sex (or the prohibition of it)
- Homosexuality
- Perverted family values
- Bad Science & dubious History
- Good stuff (also see plagiarism)

Now that would be useful...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Another insult bites the dust..

So it seems that we can't use the term "Neanderthal" any more as a slight on someone's intelligence, the reason is somewhat complex but recent genetic research has determined that most of us actually have ancestors who were Neanderthal. To call someone a Neanderthal now is simply a statement of fact rather than an insult.

For many years it has been unclear why this branch of humans died out. The oldest specimens we find are from around 24,000 years ago, but it isn't clear what happened to them. Was it a plague or war or some other environmental factor that drove this apparently hardy species to the cliff edge of existence or was it less dramatic, were they re-integrated with the main Homo-Sapiens line through inter-breeding? This question has had many scientists puzzling for years but according to recent genetic research, we may have an answer. DNA samples from Neanderthal bones have been sequenced and compared with modern human DNA, it would seem that significant interbreeding did indeed take place.

So, it's entirely possible that your great, great, great...(X1000) Granddad coaxed a Neanderthal lady back to his cave one rainy Neolithic afternoon, and we all bear the genetic fingerprints of that encounter; I'll never look at Rugby players the same way again :)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Infomercials that suck..

Isn't it interesting what other cultures think about normal human behaviour, things like sex. Here is an advertisement from Tunisia that warns Women about revealing too much "skin", cover up or get raped (by insects?) seems to be the message here. Clearly this is a religiously inspired message, it would work just as well in some backwater Christian areas of the USA as it would in this Islamic country.

I find this imagery to be a fascinating insight into the mentality of the religious authors of it, for example, it suggests to me that women are objects, or perhaps possessions like the candy in this picture. It also implies that they should not be allowed to do what they were so obviously designed (in a Darwinian sense) to do (i.e. attract men) perhaps because they think Women don't "own" their bodies or perhaps as the analogy suggests, they will somehow be "consumed" if nature is allowed to take its course. Some obvious questions are raised in my mind, for example, who has the power here, is it the candy or the flies? do men have the brains of insects and therefore cannot control themselves or are the flies symbolic of the "wrong" kind of men or is it just the numbers that cause a problem, what is the point of the candy if it isn't to be consumed?

All these questions are academic to the creators of such ideas of course, like all proper totalitarian systems the Abrahamic religions aspire to control all the important facets of our lives, Women's reproductive capacity being one of the most important of all. When it comes to mind control there are no flies on religion.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Religion is weird..

I find religion and belief in the supernatural generally a pretty weird state of mind, a couple of stories crossed my eye-line today that when you join the dots, you get an utterly baffling perspective on our modern treatment of it. The majority of people in our world venerate "faith", celebrate it, respect it, view it as a virtue, but is it really?

Take this story, here we have a chap who claims to have been instructed by the "devil", yes old Nick himself to set fire to someone's house, he also claims that God told him not to as well; anyway the devil must have won the debate in his brain and he did it. Quite rightly the authorities arrested him and have banged him up. He's undergoing assessment at a psychiatric clinic. So, the message is clear, believing that invisible entities instruct you to do things is a mental condition, there is something wrong with it and it's deserving of treatment. This all seems perfectly reasonable.

But, hold on a second, take a look at this story, it's about Philippa Stroud, an apparently high flying Conservative candidate who advises the party leader David Cameron; Ms Stroud is a Christian and founded a church that believes Gay people suffer from demonic possession and can be "cured" of their "condition" (presumably via the removal of the supposed evil spirits inside them).

I'm having real trouble understanding the difference between these two conditions and societies reaction to them; in the first case we lock the person away for having a dangerous mental illness and in the second case we (potentially) promote the person to become a member of Parliament. Yet the actions of both these people are harmful and driven by the belief that devils and evil spirits are actually real and have a real effect in our world. One side is protected by the apparent rule that we have to "respect" whatever bat-shit crazy ideas someone might have that they call "religion" and on the other side a loner who apparently has a mental condition that society needs to be protected from.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Its in their blood..

Here's a really cool science story, researchers working at the University of Manitoba have recreated woolly mammoth blood from DNA extracted from frozen specimens. DNA was first converted to RNA and then replicated in bacteria cells, the protein haemoglobin was then extracted and compared with the same protein in modern elephants. Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly that haemoglobin was found to have improved efficacy at low temperatures, obviously this would have been a huge selection advantage for a species that lived in cold environments like mammoths.

Its a sobering thought that here we have a species that was widespread and well adapted for life in it's icy habitats and yet it still went extinct, as is evident from this example, the only reliable constant in life is change.