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.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The power of prayer

As usual Jesus and Mo gets to the true heart of the matter.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Oy vey, some Christians!

If you want to see a contender for the most arrogant and simultaneously stupid Christian yet evolved on planet Earth take a look at this Woman. Megan Fox visited the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History in order to "audit" it, which as far as I can see means wandering around making snide remarks about the exhibits whilst verbally demonstrating pitiful ignorance of any of the scientific evidence that supports evolution from any field, i.e. Geology, Chemistry, Physics, Zoology, Biology etc.

The scary thing is that this folksy soccer mum come global conspiracy theorist "home schools" her three children; the poor little buggers don't stand a chance, watching this makes me really feel sorry for them. Anyway, I won't bother refuting the classic creationist canards being spouted by this silly person but will simply refer readers to the top 10 signs that someone doesn't understand evolution at all (from a Christian web-site) I think she regurgitates them all at one point or another; it might provide some intellectual relief to tick them off the list as she vomits them out; failing that mute the video and get a free tour of what looks like a really good exhibit.

The 10 signs you know sweet FA about evolution are as follows,

1. You think “it hasn’t been observed” is a good argument against it.
2. You think we’ve never found a transitional fossil.
3. You think macro-evolution is an inherently different process than micro-evolution.
4. You think mutations are always negative.
5. You think it has anything to do with the origin of life, let alone the origins of the universe.
6. You use the phrase “it’s only a theory” and think you've made some kind of substantive statement.
7. You think acceptance of evolution is the same as religious faith.
9. You think that we can't have evolved from monkeys because there are still monkeys!
10. You think it’s inherently opposed to Christianity or the Bible.

IMO the best "WTF" moment is when she says that "Neanderthals are just people with big foreheads and deeply set eyes, you know, like Eastern Europeans...", priceless.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Double bubble Labour

I was listening with increasing confusion to Tristram Hunt (Shadow Education Secretary) on the radio on the way to work this morning. This (privately educated) opposition minister is threatening to withdraw tax benefits (specifically business rate relief) from private schools should the Labour party be returned to Government in the next election. What he wants is for private schools to share more of their resources with State schools, although he wasn't entirely clear about what that meant, presumably he means teaching resources, expertise and physical resources like sports facilities and public spaces etc. This would seem like a potentially very self-destructive (from a votes point of view) and divisive policy; reminiscent of "old Labour" and socialism with a capital "S", a sure-fire way to disenfranchise a couple of million people.

Private schools generate about £5 billion in tax revenue each year and at the same time save the taxpayer around £4 billion by not having the pupils in the State system. The tax benefits in question are only worth around £700 million. Giving private schools a pure businesses status by making them pay business rates or by removing charitable status would seem like a guaranteed way to increase the distance between them and the State sector, the opposite of what most rational people would want. Imagine forking out 25 grand a year to send your kid to a private school only to find that your cash is disappearing straight into a state system that you are already contributing to (but not using) through your income tax, it doesn't make any sense. Using business vernacular this is known as "double bubble" or getting paid twice for the same thing.

Either citizens can pay to educate their children or they can't; if the Labour party has a moral objection to private education then fine they should be open about it and make a case for abolition. If Labour wish to place private schools on the same footing as businesses then fine, pay a £4 billion rebate back to those people who choose that option; that would be the fair thing to do, somehow I doubt they'd do either.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Basil Brush?

I noticed this amazing picture today, pulled from surveillance footage it shows a fox wandering around the National Portrait Gallery at night after all the people have gone. It's certainly a fascinating story, but is it art?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Different sides of the same coin

I don't know about you but I think this info-graphic is quite shocking (click the image to see a bigger version). It shows the landscape of the USA state-by-state on the topic of making "religious" exceptions for crimes committed under the banner of "faith". A good example of this would be parents who deny their child proper medical attention and rely on "praying" for a cure instead. In places like Idaho (where 11 children have died in recent years because of this kind of neglect) this legal protection for religion means even if your child dies from an entirely preventable condition (diabetes for example) then you almost certainly will not face any charges so long as you claim to have been on your knees whispering magic words to yourself.

So, next time you hear an American person bleating on about how uncivilised and religiously extreme ISIS are for chopping the heads off of prisoners; agree with them that this is indeed barbaric but also remind them that in their country too, it's legal to kill people in the name of religion.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Grubby pubs

The House of Commons recently passed a bill allowing pub landlords to source beer from the open market breaking the all too common tie between a particular pub and a particular brewery that's been a feature of the UK pub scene for hundreds of years.

I am a great fan of (good) pubs, I think it's very sad that many of them have been forced to shut down or been converted into maisonettes in recent years. I don't think this can be put down to one simple thing; we are perhaps seeing the inevitable effect of changing consumption trends generally as well as impact from a changing demography and perhaps more subtle indirect effects from technology.

There are lots more disincentives to going to pubs than ever before and generally, pubs have not raised their game to meet these objections head on. With the exception of adding TV screens, a typical pub has changed little in the last 20 years; apart from getting emptier. Years ago the pub was one of only a few places that people could go to be entertained (via drinking and socialising) now there are many more choices, technology improvements mean that we have ample (some would say more than) choices right in our living rooms, hundreds of channels, gaming consoles, films and music on demand etc. When you add to this a limitless choice of ingredients, pre-prepared food and drink to consume that can be purchased (relatively) cheaply from most supermarkets then there seems little reason to leave the house, especially if you invite a bunch of friends round. What could possibly reverse this trend? It's a good question and not an easy one to answer for all cases, but I think this decision could be a game changer for some pubs.

Pubs these days tend to be either ruled out (the stay at home argument) or are simply a meeting place prior to going on to do something else; pubs need to become majority destinations again, there needs to be a reason to go. I can think of several ways to achieve this, specialisation, i.e. sports bar style, inclusiveness as in family/kid friendly, music etc. but the obvious one (to me at least) is serve decent interesting beer! Allowing the consumer to vote with their feet and frequent pubs that serve beer they actually seek out rather than simply "bitter" or "lager" would seem to me to be an obvious way of building a reason for people to go. Fashion and taste changes of course, so the other thing pubs need to do (and most have no clue) is to leverage social media and modern (cheap) marketing channels to give people more reasons to visit; you may have a keg of the latest and greatest West Coast IPA, a batch of locally sourced Scotch eggs, or a case of a new trendy Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc but unless you tell potential customers somehow, how will they ever know?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Civilised societies?

In the USA 80 year old serial killer Charles Manson is permitted to legally marry a 26 year old nut-job woman from inside jail; but millions of law abiding, tax paying voters cannot, because they are gay.

Need to let that one sink in.

Getting there first?

According to the Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, the Muslim faith was widespread in America BEFORE the arrival of Columbus. Yes really! And this fascinating revelation is based on nothing more than a rather tenuous interpretation of one of Columbus' diary entries that mentions a "mosque" being seen in on a hill in Cuba. Historians interpret this same material in a different way, that Columbus was simply talking about mountain that looked a bit like a minaret. I know which I think is more likely.

In other news, the European Space Agency (ESA) have released the latest images from the Rosetta satellite showing stunning views of comet P67 which is currently 380 million miles from Earth (see above). The picture clearly needs more digital processing, but I'm sure there's something about it that looks familiar?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Bouncy comets

I've been following the exploits of the Rosetta satellite and it's little probe Philae very keenly in the news over the last day or so. The tension last night was wonderfully palpable as scientists were unsure about the fate of Philae as it descended to the surface of the comet and apparently "bounced" when it's harpoon mechanisms and it's thruster rockets both failed to secure it to it's landing site. All of this hi-drama and science was enthralling; for a moment I was transported back to 1970 huddled around a small TV waiting for Apollo 13 to emerge through the clouds (accompanied by most of the other kids in our street).

I'm happy to see that things seemed to have stabilised this morning; the probe does appear to have settled onto the surface of the comet after "bouncing" a few times, and is communicating with it's Mother-craft and scientists back on Earth. The next phase should be equally exciting, the big question everyone is dying to know the answer to of course is, is it made of Camembert or Cheddar? It's amazing what we can achieve when we try.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A question of ownership..

In typically "never a truer word" fashion the satirical magazine, the Onion, ran this story recently, unfortunately many people in our country still believe it's actually true

Talking about the weather

Great cartoon from Stephen Collins in the Guardian; a typically English computer.. (Click on the image to see it at full size)

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Biggest Killers

Eye-opening! I would have put the human figure much higher. The moral of this story seems to be to stop worrying about wolves, lions and sharks and swat more mosquito's!

Friday, November 07, 2014

Pots and kettles

On the money, as usual.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The most dangerous idea in the world

I didn't think it would take long and I was right. The man in the picture is Archbishop Lewis Zeigler a Catholic clergyman in Monrovia (Liberia, Africa) He's on record as saying,

"one of the major transgressions against God for which he may be punishing Liberia [with Ebola] is the act of homosexuality,",

..and so it starts.

Since this pronouncement (and other religious twaddle like it), life for gay people in that country has become more difficult; people are already reporting violence against them and community leaders in some quarters are asking for the death penalty for homosexuals.

So, is "God" the most dangerous idea in the world? I don't think so. God is just a side-effect of conciousness, he is our earliest attempt at explaining the world before we discovered science. The idea I'm talking about is a much more unfalsifiable one, it's the idea that it's possible for certain "special" members of the tribe to know the mind of this unknowable universe mechanic; the idea that certain evolved apes are privy to revealed information that the rest of us are not. Spookily this "data" is almost always supportive of the confirmation biases of the in-group to whom the "special" people belong, it's invariably parochial and has it's foundation in ignorance, it's almost like they're just making it all up!

We only need read the daily torrent of stories like this from around the world to realise that it's time to relegate superstition and religion to history. So long, adieu and thanks for all the Gothic architecture; the long suffering minorities of the world deserve better. There are plenty of more tangible reasons to hate each other and there are also better ways we can motivate charitable behaviour and good morals, in fact, when you think about it, threats of extreme violence and psychological torture (in this world or the next) are rarely a good way of inspiring anything.

Fun for all the family

It's that time of the year again, no, not good old fashioned secular Christmas where the worst that can happen is that you get acid reflux from eating too many mince pies or a bruised shin from the Granny trying to grab the last turkey from the supermarket freezer. Across the Shi'ite Muslim world they are celebrating the day of Ashura (4th Nov) through the ritual cutting, whipping and thrashing of themselves (and their children) in order to drench themselves in blood and wander zombie-like through the streets to remember some bloke who died in a battle 1300 years ago (see picture above).

What a bizarre species of Primate we are, why would people expose themselves and their offspring to extreme pain and the risk of serious harm through infection in this way? This bodily-abuse tradition isn't unique to Muslims of course it seems to be a popular feature of all three Abrahamic religions (among others) from the Flagellants in the Catholic church to Jewish obsessions with re-modelling the penises of small boys. Whenever I read stories about these kinds of things I'm always left with the question, what's the point of it? Is there possibly some kind of evolutionary origin of such seemingly stupid behaviour, I think there probably is.

If you think about it the overriding evolutionary advantage of Humans (apart from our big brains) has been that we work in teams, hunting, building, farming etc. are all team sports. One of the most important facets of any team is that there is cohesion and a sense of common purpose, the interests of the team have to override (albeit sometimes temporarily) the interests of the individual; without these attributes the power of the team is reduced and the survival benefit is lost. Natural selection therefore will have probably selected for populations of animals that do team-work better, i.e. animals who find ways to abandon self interest in favour of group-think. I think it's this ancient instinct at work here, one of those primal urges to feel part of the in-group and the dopamine reward in our brains that this feeling delivers, as is evidenced here, this urge often overrides common sense. It's clear from rituals such as Ashura that we still possess this biological urge even though reason should tell us that it's completely unnecessary from an individual survival point of view these days. You can see the same thing at work all over the place, from rugby teams to political parties to religions to cultures, we crave the in-group, you could say that we possibly even need it.

Unfortunately for us such in-group instincts are ultimately harmful at the macro level, the problem with teams is that they naturally (by definition) compete, and when disparately evolved groups are smashed together in modern cities or multicultural mash-ups tensions arise. Whilst we all crave the the chemical hit we get from kinship, like all junkies we also feel compelled to protect our supply. In-groups depend on the concept of an out-group; naturally this leads to divisive behaviour and ultimately to conflict even though the focus of the conflict can simply be an idea (as opposed to real physical resources) that fosters group cohesion.

In order to survive in harmony I think we need to better understand and moderate these in-group/out-group differences wherever they arise, the solution as always is comparative education and inclusiveness; in the end we are genetically all the same species our similarities are much more numerous than our differences, everything else is the product of our own imaginations.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

USA,wuz up?

So now that the Republicans are back in charge in the USA does it mean we'll all get more awesome wars, God, climate change denial, corrupt bankers, strident corporations and automatic weapons?

The rest of the world can't wait...

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Christian country?

HuffPost UK questioned 2,004 people in October about the role of religion in the UK today and got a bunch of answers that I would say are pretty obvious for ordinary people who live in our actual society, but probably quite confusing and/or inconvenient for those (like David Cameron and others in the establishment elite) who don't. They still believe we live in a "Christian country".

For example,
  • Atheism is the fastest growing segment up by 6.4 million people since 2001
  • 45% of Christians and 70% of Jews thought that religion does more harm than good.
  • 69% of Jews and 60% of Christians believe that Atheists are just as likely to be moral as religious people.
  • 50% of Jews said they were not religious at all, only 7% of Muslims said the same.
  • Older people dismissed the idea that atheists are less moral people, only 3% of over 65 believe that (clearly wisdom does come with age - I live in hope at least!)
  • 12% of young people (18-24) believe that atheists are less moral people
  • 43% of Women vs. 36% of men describe themselves as very or somewhat religious.
About the only things that surprised me were the % of young people that clearly don't have a clue about morality and where it actually comes from (probably befuddled by a combination of Church of England RE schooling and the X-Factor) and the possibility that more Women than men are very religious, this seems at odds with how most religions treat Women, i.e. unequally.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


The media seems to be buzzing with the news today that Tim Cook (above) CEO of Apple has announced that he is gay. Good on him I say, it's a stone in the shoe of all those bigots who cling to Bronze Age attitudes towards gay people, i.e. he's living proof that being gay has nothing to do with what kind of person you are nor how successful or talented you can be; it's a simple fact of Biology and in the end Biology will always trump ancient mythology and ignorant prejudice.

The thing that surprises me more is that this is news at all, most people I know have known Tim Cook is gay for years now, it's about as interesting as knowing his lens prescription.


Cinema goers in Hong-Kong filmed watching a public information video; a neat way of making an important message memorable.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pope speak

Pope Francis made a speech recently at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in it he declared that the big bang and evolution are true and that pseudo-science like "intelligent design" and creationism are false. I agree and he should have left it there but unfortunately he went on to spoil an otherwise sensible statement by saying that these scientific theories do not contradict the idea of a creator but "require it".

We only need unpack that last sentence a tiny wee bit to see that intelligent design is exactly what is being suggested here, albeit in a fuzzy, weasel-worded way. What Pope Francis is hinting at is "purpose" in evolution, some notion that although evolution happens it was directed by God. His view seems to be that God created the first protozoa and the rules of the game such that some master plan lead inevitably to Human Beings, souls, sin and redemption, i.e. all the unfalsifiable and specific cultural junk his organisation relies upon. Why would any creator rely on such a torturous route spanning 4.5 billion years and trillions upon trillions of random mutations and extinctions to arrive at something that he can apparently conceive of (in its entirety) right at the beginning anyway?

He gives the game away by claiming that "God created Human Beings", if this is true then evolution must have had a purpose and must therefore be guided by something, this is precisely what the intelligent design brigade say. The evidence that we see all around us confirms that this is not true, evolution is an unguided process, it has to be since it rests upon the random initiator of genetic mutation and populations are then sculpted by the non-random process of natural selection. It is extreme anthropomorphism (hyper-ego in other words) to think that our particular species of primate (Homo Sapiens) is the focus, indeed the purpose of the entire universe. Based on what we now know about the character and scale of the universe through the laws of physics it's is hard to think of a more ridiculous and conceited idea than this.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The argument from ignorance

This is so true, and the certainty with which it is usually asserted is a dead give-away that ignorance is the driving force. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wisely said, "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cultural relics

This is not a politically correct statement but one I firmly believe is true.

Some cultures and religious dogmas are long past their sell-by date and need to be re-imagined and reformed; most urgently by their constituents.

See the story behind the picture here..

Friday, October 17, 2014

I'm not a gamer but...

I realise the title of this post sounds a lot like the usual opening salvo you get from religious apologists who say things like "I'm not religious but...(insert oxymoron here)" I'm not a gamer (any more) but, there seems to be a lot of unnecessary angst being expressed at the moment about sexism in video games it even has a name... gamergate. Many prominent feminists are getting very upset about it and the topic is starting to creep into the mainstream media.

I'm with this lady (see video above) who rightly points out that games (like books, films, plays, operas and pantomimes) are supposed to contain ideas that allow us to escape from reality, they're supposed to allow us to imagine situations and acts that we would never do in our real lives, it's kind of the point of them. It's not like every game contains characters that run around raping women characters (key word here is "characters") - a tiny minority of games do; but they are certificate 18, i.e. adults only. In terms of content that may cause harm or offence, I don't see any real distinction between grand-theft-auto and say the film reservoir dogs; you would expect that the vast majority of people would see both as fiction. Of course, I wouldn't for a moment suggest that the gaming community doesn't have a standard bell curve in terms of psychopaths and socio-paths but those guys just need to be caught and locked up like they would if they were part of any other interest group, for example, doctors, engineers or cannibalistic psychiatrists.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Use it or lose it..

It's a shame many people still don't agree with this and remain in favour of religious privilege or as is often the case protect bad ideas because they believe all ideas are equal.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Should have seen it coming ..

Psychic Sally Morgan is in trouble again; members of her family have been threatening sceptic Mark Tilbrook with violence and targeting him with homophobic insults. All of this thuggish behaviour was captured on film by Tilbrook who was peacefully handing out leaflets (see above) outside a theatre hosting one of Morgans' psychic shows. The threats were particularly sinister, at one point Morgans' husband (the main protagonist) says that Tilbrook will be “lifted” and “disappear”; the entire confrontation can be seen on YouTube here. Since these unsavoury revelations were made public Morgan has supposedly "sacked" her husband (who I assume worked for her), although unfortunately she has not yet apologised or offered recompense to Tilbrook who, as can be seen from content of the leaflet he was handing out, has done nothing but suggest that emotionally vulnerable people think for themselves.

I'd be surprised if the police didn't have something to chat with the Morgan family about after this episode (although I doubt anything substantive will happen) and you'd think that such controversy would put people off paying hard earned cash to someone who employs such thuggery to protect her business interests. In my view it's about time such exploitative "entertainment" was at least more closely investigated/regulated and ideally banned; until then sceptics will have to continue to highlight the issue and present the evidence based side of this argument.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Perfect books

Jesus and Mo nails it again...

Now I see how it works..

Te he he...

Human Universe

Unusually for me I carved out an hour last night to watch TV. Science poster boy Prof. Brian Cox started a new series called "Human Universe", the show is about our species and the first instalment discussed possible environmental reasons for the evolution of primates with big brains in the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa as well as the development of civilisations, writing and subsequently science and space travel.  It was a nicely made programme although as usual with these kinds of series I felt I could have done with more detail on the science especially the bits about evolution (i.e. more exposure of the evidence). Anyway, the points were made clearly and the photography wonderful; I even noticed a Metallica track being used in one of the sequences, not a band you hear on mainstream TV much.

No doubt further detail will follow in the "Christmas book" :)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Persistent memes

It's amazing what people believe just because they've been told it's true by a credible source (like a parent, a teacher or a priest). Click on the above image to see a bigger view, I must confess to actually believing some of these things; for example I did think dogs couldn't sweat (they can through their feet!) and that an Iron Maiden was in fact a medieval torture instrument (it's a 19th century fake) as well as a brilliant 80's metal band of course.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Not all Muslims..

Batman actor Ben Affleck sparked a much heated and tweeted debate on the Bill Maher show last week; things got edgy when Affleck accused Maher and guest Sam Harris of being racist for criticising Islam. Affleck seemed to be suffering from the exact same cognitive dissonance regarding the rational criticism of "ideas" (like religions) that Harris and Maher were trying to describe. He seemed comfortable saying that as Liberals we should attack bad ideas but threw a hissy fit when the subject of attack was religion and specifically Islam.

I must say I thought Affleck embarrassed himself, he reacted like someone who's been living under a rock for the last 15 years and someone who had never read or digested any of the arguments against his position. He also didn't listen to the points being made and relied heavily on emotion and hurling insults at straw-men.

The debate (so far as it was) followed very familiar lines, any Atheist who has debated religious apologists will be totally familiar with the fatuous defences that Affleck so dramatically unleashed. The first fallacy he used was that you can't hold an opinion on something unless you are an expert on it. Unfortunately for Affleck, Sam Harris, is by any everyday definition an expert on religion and philosophy; he has a Philosophy degree from Stanford and has studied world religions and neuroscience among other things; not to mention having authored many books on the subject. In any case this is a totally bogus idea; I don't need to be a climate scientist to understand that if my house is 3 meters underwater it's absolutely not a good thing for me. Next we had a variation of the "all or nothing" fallacy, or as is more common these days the "not all Muslims" fallacy.

When someone says religious doctrine or practise X is bad or stupid or evil the apologist immediately responds with "not all Christians/Muslims/Jews believe in X" as if somehow this removes the objection. When X is only believed by a tiny, insignificant fringe then this is a valid point however when it's widely practised by millions of followers or enshrined into law by theocratic states then this argument (although factual) is at best irrelevant and at worst a blatant attempt to distract attention from reality. Do all Muslims want to kill apostates? No, of course they don't but do we really have disagreement that when 64% of Muslims in Egypt (pew 2013) say death for apostasy is justified then we have a sufficiently large number of Muslims (54 million) to warrant a strong opinion if not outright alarm. This is not a small number of "bad apples" it's more like the entire population of the UK believing it's reasonable to burn witches.

The next fallacy was the classic "straw-man", when Harris says "Islam is the mother-lode of bad ideas" and Affleck responds by saying it's "gross and racist" to claim that "all Muslims are bad" this is a blatant twisting of what was actually said. Harris is attacking an IDEA, i.e. Islam and Affleck is attacking a straw man that he invented i.e. "all Muslims", only a fool would say that all Muslims are bad, these two things are simply NOT the same.

On balance I think that high profile spats like this are useful. People who otherwise don't follow politics or have any opinion on the "war of ideas" that is causing so much strife in the Middle East at the moment are suddenly engaged because their favourite movie star is involved. Some of those people may go on to do their own research and formulate their own views on such topics, this can only be a good thing, an enlightening thing. I do think Affleck is genuine though and until this programme I had thought he was one of the more enlightened actors on political/religious issues. I thought his film Argo was a brave and interesting movie which touched on some of these topics; however in this exchange he simply reinforced an impression of a stereotypical Hollywood pretty boy. Hopefully we will see this thread continue to stimulate conversation and debate, if Affleck has the guts to clarify, defend or even recant some of the things he said then even better.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Pig gets drunk, fights cow.

Saw this story in the news this morning, it made me laugh out loud. Apparently a wild pig in Australia stole cans of beer from careless campers, necked it down and then got into an altercation with a cow... we've all been there..