Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Frequency of miracles

Obvious really...

Undesirable side-effects of faith

Faith, or in other words believing things without evidence or against all evidence often leads otherwise intelligent people to do really strange and sometimes insanely inhumane things. Take these 4 morons in Chile for example, they belonged to some kind of quasi-religious personality cult and believed in their own imaginary crap (grounded in Bible crap) so intently that they took a young baby they believed to be the anti-Christ and burnt her alive. The interesting part of this story for me was nothing to do with the pathetic actions of the feeble minded end-timers themselves but the fact that everyone in the sect had university degrees!

I guess you can lead a horse to water etc..

Monday, April 29, 2013

Why do I need Warsi?

Baroness Warsi (the person in the photo who most resembles Liza Tarbuck) is our (unelected) "minister for faith and communities", she recently attended and spoke at a meeting of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) an organisation that has previously hosted some highly undesirable characters including people who openly support suicide bombing, one of the three people said to have inspired the 9/11 attacks and many other extremists. Warsi's own party (and the Lib Dems) boycott this organisation and condemn it as "failing to fully challenge terrorist and extremist ideology" so its rather surprising that the Baroness chose to speak there and also that her talk was rather apologetically on the subject of media demonisation of Islamic students, something which given the evidence and history of late is a pointless question with a rather obvious answer.

Warsi is famously anti-secular, and from the point of view of her efficacy and qualification to govern hides behind her superstitions; she is after all a token (middle class) Muslim in a Government keen to tow an apologetic line. Like a lot of religious politicians she seems keen to fight aggressively for a level playing field for religion when it comes to hand-outs and access to political power and yet demands special privileges for them against the cultural and political forces of equality, secularism and reason. For me she represents one of the most objectionable faces of religion today, the sickly sweet fa├žade of respectability and liberal reasonableness that attacks hard won secular values (like freedom of speech) from the comfort and security of enlightenment institutions.

We don't need to scratch very hard to expose the true colour of metal below the surface of Warsi, its the same old privileged arrogance that pays lip service to the truth of religion and faith and really just rides the audience, utility and influence that it delivers. No contradiction illustrates this better than Warsi's own position, in this BBC report she comments on how Islam is perfectly compatible with "British values" and visits an Islamic centre in the North West. Like most TV reports of this ilk the images carefully depict Women visiting the centre but if you look closely you can read the sign above the door, it says "Women's entrance". With such glaring cognitive dissonance regarding her own position and the attitude toward Women and free speech of the tradition she defends it's very difficult to take Warsi seriously, in fact I would question why in a modern, secular country like ours we need a "minister for faith" at all?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Double standards

I read with fascination and a sense of utter incredulity that some bloke called James McCormick has recently been convicted of fraud for selling fake bomb detectors to the Government for £27,000 a piece when they consisted of nothing more than a novelty golf ball finder normally sold for $13. My disbelief stems not from the conviction but the fact that he was able to get away with it for so long and make millions of pounds selling utter trash packaged up as something miraculous to otherwise intelligent people.

This story made me think of the strange double standard at work in our society, i.e. how come we can convict someone like McCormick for selling fake bomb detectors but embrace Homoeopathy into our state funded health service? The parallels seem excruciatingly similar to me, false security in potentially life threatening situations, extortion of unreasonably large amounts of money for unproven and unskilled products and services and a complete disregard for normal processes of testing and validation.

The more you think about this case and the wider implications of it the more you realise that our society is riddled with similar situations, in fact you could say this predator-prey state is the norm and not the exception. From greedy bankers exploiting unrealistic aspirational borrowing, unscrupulous doctors seeding future measles epidemics via scaremongering media moguls selling newspapers through to handicapped people paying thousands of pounds to travel to Lourdes hoping for a miracle, only to catch a water-born parasite from drinking polluted "blessed water" from a communal font.

If we want to examine the true cost of credulity then we don't need a case like this, we need only look around, it seems to be part of our nature.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Vapid chumminess

For those people of a nervous religious disposition, whatever you do don't click on the play button, you may just be offended to your core by this piece of foul-mouthed, subversive and blasphemous church bashing. Seriously though, how the hell did the BBC end up pulling this little sketch from the iPlayer, what has our pluralistic and supposedly enlightened nation come to when on the same (charity) show jokes about disabled people are fine but jokes about elite, privileged members of the establishment are censored.

“Foul-mouthed” is the wrong phrase, Rowan Atkinson’s offence was simply being accurate, perfectly characterising the cheerfully vapid chumminess of a thoroughly liberal Christian leader. That’s what got people upset, he didn’t just dis religion, he showed the objectors what they looked like through our eyes, and it was so close to how the believers see them too it was a palpable smack in the chops!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Spirit of the dance

Love this Christian advice...

The most unbelievable part is that you'd actually want to dance to "Christian rock"...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Blood non-relativism

Here's a rather odd story, apparently some Jewish Rabbi/leader has decreed that in the case of an accident, orthodox Jewish males should not receive blood from Jewish women unless it's a matter of life and death and even then the donor needs to be married and not single. Receiving blood from a non-Jew is strictly verboten in all cases and blood may not be taken from males and females at the same time or in a synagogue ... obviously. It's not clear who female orthodox Jews can receive blood from, maybe women don't actually get healthcare in this religious sect, who knows. It all sounds like a lot of making stuff up as you go along in order to exert control over the lives of ordinary people to me.

In other Orthodox Jew related health news today I noticed that some bloke has produced the first ever sex manual for Orthodox Jews, good for him! Although why this is different from the countless other sex manuals already out there is a slightly strange concept to grapple with. What with all the prohibitions this particular group has on food, behaviour, clothing, healthcare and human interaction a less natural state of affairs for a group of people seems hard to imagine, maybe that's the point?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

CofE cool wall

More class humor from Crispian Jago, click the image to see it full size.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Beatriz's choice

Imagine being told that your unborn foetus is suffering from Anencephaly (which means it's developing without a brain and will die, see above) and in addition to that it may just take you with it. That's exactly what is facing a Woman in El Salvador right now as medical services try desperately to help her.

If this isn't traumatic enough, imagine also being told that if you abort the foetus chances are you'll recover but then you'll go to jail because you live in a country that has a government so backward that it enshrines in its law an interpretation of an ancient myth from the Middle East, delivered to its shores in the 16th century by Spaniards (who no longer bake these religious interpretations into their legal system) at a time when the medical remedy for most things was thought to be a bucket of leeches.

People often ask the question, why do atheists care about religion when they don't believe in God, it's simple, atheists are also human beings and have empathy, we can't help it we're just wired that way. A more relevant question in my view would be why aren't Catholics?

Thursday, April 18, 2013


This says it all really...

Chatting up geeks

Dealing with geeks must be hell for most normal people, particularly geeks who are also computer programmers. These folks lives are dominated by precision and a desire to eliminate ambiguity yet they often lack the social skills flexibility to be able to switch into the normal fuzzy, egocentric, ambiguous imprecise communication mode that most non-geeks are comfortable with. I sometimes think that anyone observing a typical geek conversation would think it torturous, strained and mostly unnecessary or not to the point.

To illustrate what I mean, here is an imagined conversation between a geek boy and a non-geek girl he wants to ask out for a date (it would be initiated by the girl obviously)

-Girl: so why should I go out with you?
-Geek: because I think I might like you and you might like me
-Girl: you don't seem too sure, let me ask you some questions..
-Geek: ok
-Girl: do you own a BMW?
-Geek: no
-Girl: do you have your own flat?
-Geek: no
-Girl: do you have a good salary?
-Geek: no
-Girl: ok, let me think about it, see you later.
-Geek: great, email me

Conversation ends..

Later the geek thinks to himself,

- I don't understand why she wouldn't go out with me, I own a software company worth 50 million, a house in the London, a house in France and a house in California, I pay myself £250,000 a year through dividends and I don't see why the hell I need a BMW since I already have 2 Mercedes, 2 motor bikes, a speedboat and a jeep for weekends?

It's all about the detail..

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Real wonder

Great imagery from the ISS (International Space Station) - it's fun to try and pick out the countries and land-marks as they whizz by below.

From way up there you can get a sense of our place in the enormity of the universe, IMO we should send our politicians and especially that twit from North Korea up there for a few weeks so that they might gain some perspective and perhaps even humility.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Particularly relevant in the tech industry..

The nature of experience and evidence

You hear a crash and a bang late at night, perhaps it wakes you, what could it be?

We've all experienced surprise like this, and perhaps even fear, especially when confronted by sensual stimulus (like noise or feelings) that can't necessarily be seen directly. A frantic thought process ensues as we scramble to identify possible causes, we all seek causes for things its in our nature; from an evolutionary perspective it's obvious to understand why establishing potential causality would be useful from a survival point of view, without it our bodies would be totally unprepared for whatever happened next.

Did something fall, is someone breaking in, is there a ghost? We can't disprove any of these ideas without evidence but a lack of evidence leaves us with only statistics to go on, what's more likely? That a decrease in ambient temperature caused the central heating pipes to contract and make a noise, or, that every known physical law of nature has been temporarily suspended and a phantom from beyond the grave has taken time out from a busy haunting schedule to bump into the kitchen table (how ethereal beings interact with real molecules is perhaps a philosophical point for another time)?

Evidence is the raw material that we use to help us sort out the useful ideas from the frivolous ones, in the mysterious case of what went bump in the night, how about a pigeon flying into the bedroom window? Pretty unlikely you may think, but how much more likely than a poltergeist, 100 times, 1000 times or more? A quick inspection of the windows may even turn up a greasy imprint like the one in the picture, sealing the deal, not 100% of course (an angel might have put it there to fool you) but good enough for me to settle back down to sleep, case closed.

None of this commentary on Human nature is new of course, back in 1748 a rather smart Scottish philosopher called David Hume wrote a book that explored such ideas, here is a short extract.

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding 1748 - A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation....

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

In the foregoing reasoning we have supposed, that the testimony, upon which a miracle is founded, may possibly amount to an entire proof, and that the falsehood of that testimony would be a real prodigy: But it is easy to shew, that we have been a great deal too liberal in our concession, and that there never was a miraculous event established on so full an evidence.

So, next time some apologist for religion or fan of the supernatural confronts you with that tired old canard of "you never know", just ask them to think about what's more likely, i.e. that,

a) all the natural laws of our universe were suspended momentarily just so that one evolved primate (of billions) on an insignificant speck of rock somewhere in a minor galaxy (of hundreds of billions) could learn something about themselves, or..

b) they are mistaken...

Monday, April 08, 2013

Rust in peace

Its going to be difficult to avoid Mrs Thatcher over the next few days, there'll be the reviews, the obituaries  the specials the tributes and countless spurious references from politicians who desperately need to get their chubby little faces on the goggle box. I have mixed feelings about her, I admire her for what she achieved as a Women in the male dominated world of politics and I admire her resolute approach, but I'm less keen on the divisive and unsympathetic nature of some of her more dogmatic policies. We should only really judge people in their time I suppose and I believe we live in a fairer country today, although I can't help sometimes wishing that we had more politicians with a backbone, iron would be nice although just plain bone would do.

Topless Jihad

Ukrainian feminist group Femen urged women throughout Europe to stage protests last week in support of a young Tunisian activist named Amina Tyler. Last month, Tyler posted naked images of herself on-line with the words "I own my body; it's not the source of anyone's honour  written on her bare chest.

Most reasonable (i.e. grown up) states wouldn't pay much attention at all to such a harmless protest but unfortunately for Amina she lives in a country where the government is infused with religion, in her case Islam. The head of Tunisia's "Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice," (yes there really is such a position!)  reportedly called for Tyler to be stoned to death for her putatively obscene actions, lest they lead to an epidemic. Tyler has since gone quiet, leading some to fear for her safety.

Sometimes I think that Women really do hold the key to dismantling the various oppressive (and mostly theocratic) states that still exist in the 21st century. The sooner Women in these countries feel empowered to take some influence and stake in their own lives the better.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

A glimpse into the dark ages

Looks like an interesting and enlightening program due to be broadcast on Monday; Panorama has been secretly filming experiences of some unfortunate Muslim women trying to seek remedy for domestic abuse via the Sharia council system in the UK, no doubt the program will cause some ripples in the pond of community harmony, if its accurate so it should. This is a system which in my view is simply divisive and frankly unnecessary in a modern secular country. The law, like ethics should be based on current learning, reason and inclusiveness not religions which in most cases are the antithesis of these, it should evolve and improve based on experience and not be shackled to ancient books, anything else seems like a retrograde step to me. To me this looks like a glimpse into a long since abandoned way of doing things based on vested interests and superstition that regardless of peoples beliefs is simply inferior. Of course our legal system is imperfect, there are flaws and it can be slow to move sometimes, however, on the whole issues do get addressed over time.

Sharia (or any kind of alternative Law) don't need it here, don't want it here.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Happy April

Its been ages since I've posted anything, my excuse is that I took some (rare) holiday last week and went skiing with my family. Wonderful place (France - Val Thorens) and great snow conditions for the time of year but because of the pesky Gulf Stream the weather was awful (low cloud) as it has been here at home; we only had one nice day in the week (as per this picture of my son).

If I ever get rich and decadent I think I'll buy a pad in the mountains somewhere..