Saturday, 31 December 2011

Dinner for One

Some time during the last year I heard a story about a short black and white British comedy film which is played on German TV every New Year's Eve. I heard that it was a tradition to watch it, and I knew that almost nobody in UK had ever heard of it.

So I didn't really believe a word of the story - at least not until I had asked some of my German colleagues.

And sure enough, each and every one of them confirmed the story and most of them said that they will watch it.  Almost all said that they found it funny, at least at a certain level.

Here it is. Dinner for One, (or The 90th Birthday), starring Freddie Frinton and May Warden It really is quite funny, and although some people in UK claim that it is a pathetic type of humour I think that they are missing the finer points.



This video is only 11 minutes long - and the point of the last scene is worth the wait. Just remember that the butler is required to follow the 'same procedure as last year', four times and that the four empty seats at the table would formerly have been occupied by 'gentleman friends', sadly now deceased.

Friday, 30 December 2011

I'm a Creation Agnostic too

Have you ever noticed how some people just need to believe something about everything.  There are no areas of knowledge where they are content to know that they don't know.

Of course, as with everything in the world there is a spectrum of people.  It is often said that the world is made up of people of two types - namely those who divide people into two types and those who do not.  I am in the latter category.  I observe a spectrum of people from those who question very little and accept a lot, through to those who question a lot and accept very little.  Questioning and accepting are 'orthogonal' quantities in my opinion.  In other words, some people neither question nor accept, whereas others do both with vigour.

Now, I put myself fairly firmly into the more questioning but less accepting corner of this two dimensional diagram, but I notice that there are certain areas where I feel that I neither know the answer, nor ever will.  The fact that I don't know how the universe was created does slightly interest me but it doesn't bother me unduly.  As I mentioned on 5th August this year, I am a Multiverse Agnostic.  There might be other universes, but by definition I will never know whether there are or not.  Even if the maths describing such a situation is beautiful and convincing it doesn't make it true in any real sense.

I just don't know.

And the same line of reasoning applies to the creation of the universe.  Who knows whether it began with a big bang.  Maybe it was a big bounce.  Or maybe it never began at all and has always been there.  There are scientific (or at least semi-scientific) theories that describe all of these options and each theory has its followers.

I am a proponent of none of the theories for several reasons.  Why do I not ally myself with any of the theories?  Its easy.  Even with a degree in physics I simply don't understand any of them well enough to be able to choose.  I do like the idea that there are some things that are not known to us.  Indeed there are some things that probably can never be known - and that is fine with me.

On the other hand I have noticed that certain religious apologists just 'know' that the universe came into being because a god put it there.  In fact they 'know' that it was their particular favourite god.  Somehow they can ignore reasonable doubts.
  • If their god did create the universe, who created their god (as of course all things are said to have a cause).  This infinite regress makes you question all the premises associated with the argument for a Creator.
  • If indeed the (I mean our) universe was created by their god, and it was created specifically for mankind, why would it have to be so complicated?  The universe is unimaginably vast, and mankind has such a tiny, puny and dangerously insecure presence.
  • An even if those two arguments are accepted unquestioningly, what makes you think that this god would alter the physical laws according the the desires and prayers of just one tiny person in this unimaginably vast universe.
All in all, claims that the universe was created by a Creator are even less satisfactory to me than my ignorance of the actual mechanism.  I'm as certain as can be that invoking an Old Testament or Qu'ran style Creator god is not an explanation that I find credible or useful. 


Claims that science requires belief in itself and that it must start from unproven assumptions are, in my opinion, merely an example of desperation and the need to rationalise the irrational.  As Kenny Wyland wrote in the comments of the recent post A life without belief is possible - if not preferable! :


"Ah, but the part that I think you, and many other theists, miss is that actual science combats this problem. A single scientist _absolutely_ has a pre-conceived idea and attempts to prove that idea exists. They research, they experiment and then publish their findings... which are then VERIFIED by other scientists who do not have the same initial bias that scientist had.

That's why it doesn't take faith to believe scientific findings, because knowledge gleaned through science strips away individual biases and relies upon independent verification. The scientific community may run with a reasonable hypothesis for a short period of time, in order to experiment with it and verify, but if the community cannot produce verifiable and reliable information then it eventually discards the notion until additional evidence is introduced. "


The scientific process is imperfect, but at least it is self-correcting, whereas the religious approach has no such virtues.  Let's face it.  A creator god has no right to a place in the mind of any truly rational thinker.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Wisdom from an economist? Yes really!

John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946, was a British economist who overturned the earlier ideas of neoclassical economics and worked to replace them with modern macroeconomics.

We are all doubtful about economists these days and would do well to remember the adage that:


"The economy depends on economists about as much as the weather depends on weather forecasters."


However, surprisingly, Keynes spoke a lot more sense than most of them and here are a few interesting quotations from him.


The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.  Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again. 
-- 1923

Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking. -- 1933

There is no harm in being sometimes wrong — especially if one is promptly found out. -- 1933

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it private enterprise on well tried principals of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. -- 1935

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind that looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10 000 years ago. 
-- 1942

If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.  -- 1931

This one seems to tell the secret of Richard Branson's success:

The old saying holds. Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed. -- 1945


and finally, one that I empathise with very strongly (at least the first half):


I work for a Government I despise for ends I think criminal. -- 1917

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A life without belief is possible - if not preferable!

A few days ago, on the post 'Long live the legacy of Hitch' one of my most regular and popular commentators, @Hilary, wrote a paragraph.  As you know - I like to engage with the topics that people leave as comments, and this one is worthy of further inspection because it gets to the very heart of the difference between those who have faith and those who do not because the faithful simply find it impossible to believe that a life without belief is possible.


Y'know I was thinking, it takes a real lot of faith to be an atheist. When looking all around at the complexity of life and all created things whether animate or not, it must be very difficult not to come to the obvious conclusion that there is in fact a Creator, a Grand Designer, and to go against the grain so to speak, to imagine that actually, all of it happened by mere improbable chance, and not just mere improbable but where the improbability is ridiculously as improbable as to make it pretty much a certainty that such a thing is impossible, then to carry on believing so in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary is nothing short of amazing faith, based on so little as to render it greater by far than the faith needed to believe in a Creator God, or in Jesus Christ for which evidence abounds. So well done all you atheists for having so much faith in so very very little. 


I wondered first of all, which logical fallacies could be found in this paragraph.  I think I only recognise one of them, namely the 'argument from personal incredulity' although several times over.

We are faced yet again with the suggestion that there is abundant evidence for the existence of god, and as usual no actual details about what form this evidence takes.  This is one of the most common claims for god which many atheists find frustrating.

From our perspective there is abundant evidence for the lack of existence of a god, but it is just had to find the final clinching argument to prove it.

Returning to Hilary's comments, we can easily dismiss the idea that atheism is a belief at all.  Atheism is in fact a very specific 'lack of belief' in a very specific type of god.  Atheists have all sorts of personal beliefs, but the one that we must share in order to wear the name 'atheist' is that we do not believe in a god who intervenes in the universe to change physical laws in order to answer prayers.

For this viewpoint there really is abundant evidence, as whenever studies of the effectiveness of prayer have been conducted it seems that God goes on strike - or worse than that it can actually be bad for people to know that they are being prayed for.  (See this link - not part of the evidence in itself, but at least it is a friendly description of that evidence.  Alternatively here is a Wikipedia article.)

Aside from that, the very suggestion that all the 'evidence' of design and beauty leads to any one specific god is utterly illogical.  It is only a matter of upbringing which leads most people to the god that they worship.

As we often say, all religious people are atheists too, but it is just that those of us who admit to being atheists take it one god further.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Human figures in the chalk

I had planned to conclude the series about the chalk figures of England, with two human figures carved into the hillsides.  However, people have kindly been sending me links to other objects and I have not had chance to investigate them.  For now this is a tentative conclusion, but I might follow up in future weeks with some additions.



The Long Man of Wilmington, in East Sussex.  (See on Google maps.)



and the famous Cerne Giant, at Cerne Abbas in Dorset.  (See on Google maps.)

Not a word of a lie!  You can find them for yourselves.

See also:
White Horses in the Chalk
More Hillside Art
White Spires at Christmas

Monday, 26 December 2011

Uncontacted Tribes

This moving and amazing aerial footage of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon forest says more than any words I can imagine.



Just imagine how it would feel if you have never seen a plane before.  Something is circling round your village, obviously looking at you.  Does it think you are food?  Or is it not a natural predator but a supernatural one - one of the gods just checking up on your behaviour?

Has it now gone down in the folklore of the village about the day that the great  noisy bird circled around and scattered the people?

Mind you - looking at that photo - one could be forgiven for wondering whether stainless steel has already made it to that village.  The knives have an oddly commercial and shiny look to them.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

What I want for Christmas

If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next Christmas, I would have all the kings and emperors resign and allow the people to govern themselves.

I would have all the nobility crop their titles and give their lands back to the people. I would have the Pope throw away his tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not acting for God -is not infallible - but is just an ordinary Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology, nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would have them tell all their "flocks" to think for themselves, to be manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to increase the sum of human happiness.

I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm off guesses as demonstrated truths.

I would like to see all the politicians changed to statesmen, to men who long to make their country great and free - to men who care more for public good than private gain - men who long to be of use.

I would like to see all the editors of papers and magazines agree to print the truth and nothing but the truth, to avoid all slander and misrepresentation, and to let the private affairs of the people alone.

I would like to see drunkenness and prohibition both abolished.

I would like to see corporal punishment done away with in every home, in every school, in every asylum, reformatory, and prison. Cruelty hardens and degrades, kindness reforms and ennobles.

I would like to see the millionaires unite and form a trust for the public good.

I would like to see a fair division of profits between capital and labor, so that the toiler could save enough to mingle a little June with the December of his life.

I would like to see an international court established in which to settle disputes between nations, so that armies could be disbanded and the great navies allowed to rust and rot in perfect peace.

I would like to see the whole world free - free from injustice - free from superstition.

This will do for next Christmas. The following Christmas, I may want more.


Robert Green Ingersoll
The Arena, Boston, December 1897.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

White Spires at Christmas

Following the theme of the strange forms of art found in the chalk uplands of England (having covered horses in the first post, other animals in the second), and with human figures to come in the next, this one is about some other shapes that can be found.


Bledlow Cross - pretty hard to find due to the unfortunate lighting!  (See on Google maps).



 Whiteleaf Cross (See on Google maps).



The Watlington Triangle  (See on Google maps). This one has a funny story attached.  Although I have driven past it and wondered what it was several times, it is only this week that I have discovered the story.

The Watlington White Mark was designed by local squire Edward Horne, who felt that the parish church of St. Leonard, when viewed from his home, would be more impressive if it appeared to have a spire. He had this unusual folly cut into the chalk escarpment of Watlington Hill in 1764. It is 36 feet (11 m) wide at its base and 270 feet (82 m) long.

We might not have a white Christmas here in Oxfordshire, but just a fake white spire.


Related posts:

White Horses in the Chalk
More Hillside Art

Human Figures in the Chalk

Friday, 23 December 2011

The 'New War on Christmas'?

So . . . there is a war on Christmas.  Or so we are told by so-called Christians who seem to think that their 'ancient traditions' are being eroded away by honest questioning in the free-thinking blogosphere.  It seems that demands from secular organisations for fairness to people of all-faiths-and-none are being twisted into an attack on Christmas.

This claim of the 'new war' does make me ask some other questions though.  Who is really leading the war against Christmas and who is fighting for Christmas.  I think I would claim that in some ways it is the same people who are fighting on BOTH sides.

I don't think that the Christian communities can with any degree of honesty claim that the modern Christmas has much to do with their faith for most people.  It would be highly disingenuous to try that argument.

Let's face it, the commercialisation of Christmas was completed many decades ago.  To paraphrase Tim Minchin's great song "White Wine in the Sun", a dead [and mythical] Palestinian has found himself press-ganged into selling Play Stations and beer.  It is obvious that the main thrust of the Christmas message these days revolves around commercialisation.  Businesses rely on the excessive Christmas spending for their very survival.

The tradition of the tree is ancient and pagan, and Santa doesn't even have a place in the polytheistic pantheon of Christian 'deities' alongside God, Jesus, something godly and intangible called the Holy Spirit, and Mary.  Whichever of the particular sects of Christianity you choose to prefer, none of them include the character of Santa.   Perhaps this is because of the simple fact that there is too much evidence for the existence of Santa and that he therefore cannot be considered to be sufficiently god-like.

Even the really ancient parts of the Christmas tradition - such as the choice of the date of Christ's birthday - were stolen from previous traditions.  The time of the solstice had ancient significance, but 25th December was stolen directly from Mithraism in the Roman world when Constantine chose to change religion - for whatever political reason seemed expedient at the time.

All in all, I think it is much too late to cry that there is a war on the Christian version of Christmas now.  I accept that rational voices have the power to communicate with each other world-wide for the first time in history and the confidence of the Free Thinking movement is growing, but for most people, the spiritual version of this holiday has gone, long ago.  Whilst it is sometimes dressed up as a nice story for the children, it is important that those children don't find out too early about the disgusting 'scape goat' philosophy of Christianity.

We wouldn't want to spoil their Christmas, would we?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Mass

A priest greets a Higgs Boson and welcomes him into the church.

"We haven't seen you here before"

The Boson replies

"You might not have noticed me before, but you have mass don't you?"

Small note:   Any more boson jokes?  Feel free to put them in the comments.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Subtle but cheeky advertising

Remember a few years ago - amazingly it was 2001 when it was published - when this advert went 'viral'?  I don't think the word viral meant the same thing then, and I'm pretty sure that I didn't see it for a couple of years after that.  I wonder how much of the world it touched, being a French product? 

Anyway - it is due for revival due to its ssurprisingly subtle but highly entertaining imagery.



Small note: it was an advert for a lubricant gel, in case your French is even worse than mine.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

UK needs its own Dover Trial

We are now 6 years on from the historic Kitzmiller vs Dover Trial in which brave parents challenged a US school board's decision to teach 'Intelligent Design' (ID) as if it were part of some sort of scientific controversy.  By doing this the ID movement neatly tried to sidestep the obvious truth that ID is not science in any real sense.

Kitzmiller et al were pointing out that ID's backers had sought to avoid scientific scrutiny by advocating that 'the controversy', but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. They claimed that this tactic was at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the ID movement was not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.

Tammy Kitzmiller

It seems obvious that we desperately need a 'Dover Trial' in the UK to counter the spread of irrational teaching in our new plague of 'faith schools'.  Things in UK are even worse than they were in US.  They are actually trying to teach ID and creationism as if they were science.  They do not even need to dress it up as controversy.

The problem is that the UK has no constitutional protections against the spread of pernicious supernatural beliefs throughout the state system, infecting the minds of our children while they are still vulnerable.  We have no constitution in the sense that USA has one.  Worse than that, we have no First Amendment guaranteeing the separation of church and state.

Most people in UK are probably completely unaware that USA even has a First Amendment.  It they are aware of any at all it is most likely to be the fifth, as a few Brits bandy the phrase "I'm claiming the fifth".  They use this expression to boast that they are not going to admit to an indiscretion that they are secretly proud about, but they probably don't know what the fifth is the fifth of.

Tammy Kitzmiller et al were fighting for rationality, as was their constitutional right.  UK rationalists have to fight even to gain that constitutional right, and the problem is that few people have noticed the impending problem.

UK in fact has state sponsored church, being one of only two countries in the world which appoints religious officials as part of our government.  The only other is Iran.  Aren't we in good company?  So things seem to be going from bad to worse as faith schools establish a new foothold, trying to drag the country back to the beliefs and technology of medieval times.

In the Dover Trial - and I think to the great surprise of many people - the conservative judge, Judge Jones, ruled in their favour, doing a great service to the young people of their nation.  A few of the findings leave it in little doubt that the Dover School Board lost the case with no hope of appeal.

"The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labelling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."

and

After a searching review of the record and applicable case law, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are:
    1. ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation;
    2. The argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and
    3. ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.
    It is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.

      Judge Jones headed off all hope of an appeal with a wisely worded paragraph.  (We could do with some wise judges in UK too!)


      Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.



      May Europe learn something from this sensible decision!
       

      Monday, 19 December 2011

      Fusion gets a bad press - a personal view on the reasons

      Why has there been so much negative news about fusion energy this month?  I suppose it is because the EU has finally committed itself to spending some extra funds on the ITER project, and a few people still try to pretend that 1.3 billion Euros is a lot of money.

      Is it?  What can you buy for a few billion?

      How much did CERN's LHC project cost?  I have heard figures up to 10 billion Euros spent over about 10 years, with most, if not all the funds coming from European countries.  (The LHC itself admits to a figure nearer 3 billion, but I'm sure it depends what you count as LHC and what infrastructure was already there.)  Its a beautiful project and it is sure to produce some beautiful science.  But it is also certainly not going to be part of the solution to the world's energy crisis.

      The London Olympics comes with a similar price tag, but this time it is being funded almost entirely by a single country.  For a few weeks of sporting 'fun', (or to me, a few weeks of sheer tedium), the UK tax payers are paying out £10 billion after private investment failed to materialise.  Is that value for money?  No doubt many will claim that it is, and I have to try to respect their opinions.  However, it will also not be part of any solution to the world's energy crisis.

      The International Space Station is another $10 billion scale project.  And many people point out what a sheer waste of money that has been!  It has a certain fascination for the inner child, but none of the excitement of earlier manned missions and certainly less value for money than the unmanned space programme.

      These three examples - and believe me, there are countless others - show that it is actually a paltry investment when you consider how the ITER project is being funded.  Half the world's population are paying towards it, and the total cost is a mere £1 billion dollars per year.  (I am deliberately changing units of currency as I regard them as broadly equivalent, within the measurement errors that we are dealing with.)

      Is it part of the solution to the energy crisis though?

      The answer to that is clearly not known with absolute certainty, but I can tell you that it has a much better chance of returning value for money in this endeavour than big science, big space missions or big sport.  I don't consider ITER to be big science in the same sense as CERN.  It is more of a technological challenge where we know what we want the machine to do and just need to find the best way to make the most efficient and reliable machine.  The science that we get from ITER is interesting and relevant, but its main value (to me) is that fusion might finally come to the rescue as the fossil fuels dry up.

      I'm not saying 'don't invest in renewables' at the same time.  I'm not even advocating an end to spending on other things.  I'm just saying that the coming energy crisis will affect us all and if you open your eyes to the possible consequences of shortage of energy you will realise that the world as a whole cannot afford not to invest in every possible solution however weird and wacky.  And as weird and wacky goes, ITER is very much towards the sane end of the spectrum.  Fusion already works on a smaller scale and all the indications are that bigger is better, and that ITER is at least nearly big enough.

      Given the context of the level of spending on other things around the world the 'gamble' of building ITER is certainly worth it and at least construction is progressing now.  Buildings are starting to appear on the site and large contracts have been placed with industry.


      ITER construction site.  More photos from here

      Fusion might be thirty years away, and it might always have been 30 years away, but since the last credible device built to take the technology forwards is now over 30 years old I wonder why anyone would expect that to have changed.  Can you think of any other area of technology where a 30 year old device is still 'state of the art'?

      Let's just keep in mind that 'the huge price tag' is not huge in the context of the things happening in the 'real world'.

      As in everything - context is king!

      Small note:  This is the private opinion of an almost irrepressible enthusiast - not representing the views of any official organisation in the fusion community.  Far from it in fact!

      Sunday, 18 December 2011

      Poe's Law, and lying for Jesus!

      'Poe's Law' is one of those expressions that seem to have arrived in vernacular English from nowhere.  There are several variations on a theme and another altogether independent option here.  One possible application is:

      "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing."

      In other words, No matter how bizzare, outrageous, or just plain idiotic a parody of a Fundamentalist may seem, there will always be someone who cannot tell that it is a parody, because they have seen similar real ideas from real religious/political Fundamentalists.

      Pretty image 'ethically sourced' from here, (thank you).  Isn't it better than those horrible smileys that you try to get by struggling to find the right combination of keystrokes?  :)

      A more general case of Poe's Law is

      "It is impossible to tell for certain the difference between genuine stupidity and a parody of stupidity."
      [You should know that intuitively from reading this blog!]

      It seems that this version of 'Poe's law' was created by Nathan Poe in August 2005 at the website christianforums.com (deliberately not linked from here because I doubt that you will want to go there).  Apparently it was in the the section of their forum which focuses on creation vs. evolution debating.

      Another version - independent from the others - is a Christian theological principle that states:

      "Elements of the Gospel speak to different levels of spiritual concern in different cultures at different times."

      This one was named after theologian Dr. Harry Lee Poe, a cousin of Edgar Allan Poe.  It is taught to modern evangelists as a way to better target the message of 'The Gospel' to different audiences for 'maximum salvific efficacy'.

      In other words - feel free to indulge in cherry picking of verses that seem to prove what you want to prove here and now, and ignore the possibility that they really mean something else - or indeed nothing at all.  Elsewhere it is known by the expression 'lying for Jesus'.

      So next time you hear someone quoting Poe's Law, ask them which version they mean.

      Do they suggest a lack of sense of humour or lack of total open honesty?

      Small note: And remember that expression 'maximum salvific efficacy'.  Mind you it is quite hard to forget it as it is so utterly awful!
       


       

      Seasonal Sunday extra




      Just an innovative Advent Calendar

      Saturday, 17 December 2011

      More hillside art

      Following on from the surprisingly successful post about White Horses in England, here are some other animal figures.


      The Whitehawk Hawk, near Brighton in East Sussex, (see on Google maps).


      Whipsnade Lion, close to Whipsnade zoo (see on Google maps).

      And now two figures from areas where the geology is not based on chalk.  The flora have been cleared away to reveal quartz-like rock near Strichen in Aberdeenshire.


      This is the only 'white horse' in Scotland (see on Google maps)



       and this animal is a little more typically Scottish (see on Google maps).

      Next time - some other shapes in the chalk.

      See also:
      White Horses in the Chalk
      White Spires at Christmas
      Human Figures in the Chalk - Coming soon - link to be added

      Friday, 16 December 2011

      A Big Question for Christians

      Christians often ask atheists a question that they seem to think is the blockbuster that proves that their faith is well founded. 

      "How do you know what is right and wrong if you don't believe in (our) god?

      It is not unusual to hear them ask what stops us from killing and stealing and raping, and it is not even unusual to find people - christian people! - who will claim that if there was no god then nothing would stop them from a frenzy of 'sin'.  I find that quite shocking!

      Strangely, atheists have no problem knowing the answer to this.  If anything, we struggle to understand how the question is in any way meaningful.  We don't need to use data (such as the observation that only 0.2% of people in prison in USA are atheists, whereas perhaps 15% of the population are 'out' atheists).  We just know that some things are right and some are wrong, and can distinguish between them quite easily.

      But let us turn the question the other way round.

      "Dear Christians - if you know that you can be completely forgiven for all your sins, what stops you from killing and stealing and raping as much as you want to just now?"

      Doesn't that question sound ridiculous when it is that way round?  Doesn't it sound offensive? 

      Many atheists are similarly outraged and offended when you ask it your way too - please remember that.

      Incidentally - this is not really intended to be a question for Catholics.  I have noticed that this concept has not escaped some of them.  Whole 'Catholic countries' cheerfully ignore some of the teachings of their church and perhaps they confess it - or perhaps they don't.

      Long live the legacy of Hitch

      Sadly, the news this morning tells us that Christopher Hitchens has finally lost his battle with cancer.  I wonder whether anyone could replace his wit and wisdom, his drive to achieve justice across the world and his sheer energy.

      Jut grabbing a few examples of his work from my collection of notes:

      We often heard him claim about religions:
      "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."
      Never afraid of a controversial truth, he said about Jerry Falwell - evangelical fundamentalist Baptist pastor, televangelist - 1933-2007:

      "If he could have been given an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox"


      and who could argue with his claim that

      "We don't have any choice but to have free will"  and


      "God creates us sick and then offers a cure under penalty of eternal torture".



      I'm sure the tributes will flow around the atheist blogosphere for a considerable time.  Let's hope that some of this tide of adoration leaks out and influences other thinking communities.

      Thursday, 15 December 2011

      White Horses in the Chalk

      Real white horses make me sneeze and wheeze, but the horses you see here don't have that effect on me. 

      I was browsing around the superb resources of Google maps the other day and looking at some of the amazing figures carved in the chalk hills of England.  Some of them are quite ancient and others are positively modern.  Several were quite hard to find.  All are a little eccentric.

      Chalk has its uses for artistic purposes and that is the main point of this, the first of a short series of posts - more in a few days.  However I'm sure you would be disappointed if I didn't take the opportunity to mention that it is also undeniable evidence for 'the fact of evolution' - evidence cast in stone.  (Or else it all happened in the flood - but you can believe that if you like.)

      Here are a few of my favourites, with a link to their locations on Google maps.  They are all real.  I know that people are too sensible in most countries around the world to indulge in such follies, but fortunately the English have historically been different in this respect at least.



      Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire (view on Google Maps), probably the oldest one in the world, dated to a few thousand years BCE.




      Kilburn in North Yorkshire (view on Google Maps) - a Victorian mess?




      Hackpen Hill in Wiltshire (view on Google Maps), rather an eccentric image, almost more like a long legged rat than a horse.




      Osmington in Dorset (view on Google Maps), depicting George III.




      Alton Barnes in Wiltshire (view on Google Maps)




      Westbury in Wiltshire (view on Google Maps), now covered in concrete and painted white, but possibly the most realistic shape.



      That shows you quite a variety of hillside art, and there are others in different parts of England.

      In fact, the English hillsides are covered with other interesting figures too, including other animals, and figures of people.  Over the next week or so I will show you a few of them.

      See also:

      More Hillside Art
      White Spires at Christmas
      Human Figures in the Chalk - Coming soon - link to be added

      Wednesday, 14 December 2011

      The wrong sort of people?


      I have nothing to add except that the concept that it might be a fake need not prevent you from smiling!

      Tuesday, 13 December 2011

      Gallopin' Gertie

      As I publish this post a strong wind is blowing across the whole of UK, and it seems appropriate to think of the destructive power that it has.  I remember being astounded when I first saw this incredible footage. Even now, the movie never ceases to amaze.



      This was the famous collapse of the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge, known even during its construction as Gallopin' Gertie, in Washington State, USA on 7th November 1940.  The bridge collapsed just 4 months after opening due to an unfortunate resonance effect known as 'aerolastic flutter'.  The only casualty was a small dog which was trapped inside a car.

      Monday, 12 December 2011

      Where do unbelievers get morality from?

      Christians will answer that question easily.  It is obvious that we get it from the bible.  Muslims will be equally certain.  It is certainly from the Qu'ran. And every other religion will have a similar answer and all of them are wrong.

      How do I know this?

      Well I just know.




      ******************

      Oh - you are expecting more?

      What do you mean, that isn't enough?  It seems that it is enough whenever religious apologists claim that they know that the truth comes only from their own holy book.

      Since I most often see this question from Christians (due to the happenstance of my own particular cultural background) I will use the Christian holy book to give an answer that Christians might (possibly) at least think about.

      I refer you to St Paul's Letter to the Romans in the words of the King James Version:

      1:18    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
      1:19    Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
      1:20    For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
      1:21    Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
      1:22    Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
      1:23    And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
       


      Perhaps I ought to translate that, as it is written in a sort of code - the code of the King James Bible.

      What it means is that Paul is answering the question that is often asked.  How do the people who have not been fortunate to be born into Christian families get saved?  How come they are not doomed to everlasting damnation?

      Paul tells is that is is simply obvious to all living things that everything was created by God.

      In the New English Bible it might be a bit clearer

      1:18-19  For we see divine retribution revealed from heaven and falling on all the godless wickedness of men.  In their wickedness they are stifling the truth.  For all that may be known of God by men lies plain before their eyes: and indeed God has disclosed it to them.  His invisible attributes, that is to say his everlasting power and deity, have been visible, ever since the world began, to the eye of reason, in the things that he has made.  There is therefore no possible defence for their conduct . . .

      So there you are.  Right and wrong are apparently obvious - even to the unbelievers.

      Is it obvious to you?

      Next time a Christian asks you how you know what is right and wrong if you are an unbeliever, just refer them to the words of Paul.  Paul says that it is obvious.  Paul is always right.

      I'll return to the topic of right and wrong in a few days time - this time with a question for believers.

      Sunday, 11 December 2011

      Post a brick

      I was entertained to see a link to this article about how to get back at junk-mail providers.

      Now admittedly I often stuff all their advertising material back into the postage-paid envelope and post it back to them, sometimes with a kindly

      "No thank you, I thought you might like this back so that you can re-cycle it"

      But even I had never thought of using their own envelope to post a brick back to them, thereby helping to increase the profits of the Post Office while depleting the coffers of the junk mailers.


      The very idea of posting bricks to people reminded me of something that happened a good few years ago.  When I was at university, I did actually mail a brick to a friend who lived less than a mile away . . . to cheer her up!

      The idea came about because she was upset that her 21st birthday was coming up and she didn't think she would get any presents on the actual day.   So I organised a solution to the problem.  I found a nice clean new brick somewhere, painted it white and set about finding people to help pay for the mad and extravagant scheme.

      I asked everyone I could find who knew her to pay 5 pence to sign the brick.  The donations just covered the cost with a few coins to spare, and these were put in the holes in the brick so that it made a sort of jingling sound.  At the time I think I remember that it cost just over £2 to post it to an address less than a mile away.


      The man in the post office seemed to think I was mad - perhaps he was right.  :)

      Amazingly the photo survives to this day and although it is not perfect quality I was able to scan it.

      Small note: I wonder whether Janet still has this?

      Saturday, 10 December 2011

      Why be an anti-theistic blogger?

      Bloggers who consistently seem to attack religion can find themselves criticised for their efforts.  They are sometimes labelled 'aggressive' or even (believe it or not) 'sanctimonious' by people who do not seem to know the meanings of the words.  Typically I am asked why I spend so much time attacking Christianity when it is obvious that the religion brings comfort to people in times of need.  I have never heard the same argument used about Islam, but then again I can only imagine that it is about as comforting as a bed of nails.

      I also find that people sometimes accuse me of pointing out the transgressions of particular Christians as if they are typical of the acts of all the others.  In actual fact I try rather hard to avoid these particular ad-hominem attacks, not because the hypocrites don't deserve to be singled out, but because is is clearly a weak line of argument.  Please accept my apologies for the few times when I have done this as it was just a case of inconsistency on my own part.

      But should I apologise for being anti-religious?

      After all, look at all the good things done by church members worldwide.  Look at the charitable works that they perform.  Look at how they help the poor in Africa. And look at the way that they can console the bereaved or those who have had a traumatic experience.

      I accept that religion is not altogether bad, but I strongly believe that it is not altogether good either.

      Faith frightens!




      Christianity and Islam both preach (in their own ways) about eternal damnation in the fires of hell.  Imagine teaching little children this doctrine and blighting their lives.  It is no use denying it.  Different traditions approach this topic with different priority and levels of dogma, but I suggest that it is there - at least by implication - in all branches of these two religions.  I know ex-Catholics who spent their childhood terrified by this story and who feel liberated by escaping from their religion.

      Both fundamental Christianity and fundamental Islam also find themselves at odds with science.  Islam teaches that salt water and fresh water do not mix.  Certain creationist Christians teach that the sun is not producing power by nuclear fusion, but that it is 'young' and all the energy is coming from gravitational collapse.  Some deny the big bang and 'the fact of evolution' using tired old arguments.

      All this is based on nothing more tangible than some holy books - books that are not even internally consistent!  On top of the sacred texts there is doctrine. 

      Much of doctrine is based on even less tangible things that someone somewhere 'just knew' to be the truth.

      Look at the harm caused by doctrine.  For example, the Catholic Church is going to find itself responsible for the death of millions of people by their teachings - no lies - about how AIDS is spread.

      Anyway - aside from getting drawn into talking about the harm caused by religions - as after all there is no lack of evidence to be found - there is another thing. 

      Christians typically meet at church on a weekly basis to affirm their faith and to share their experiences.  Atheists have no such meetings and one opportunity that they do have to affirm and indeed challenge each other is by writing and reading about each others' views.  Communication between us is so much easier via the internet and we all learn from each other and add our own 'teaching' in our own ways. 

      This is why I join in the conversation.  I feel that I have a right to say the things that I believe, even if some few people take offence at them.  I don't seek to offend but to lift the veil of superstition and reveal what I believe to be a small part of the truth.

      Am I robbing people of hope?  Perhaps. But what is the value of hope in something that is supported by so little evidence?  I think I prefer to think that I am supporting others who find that a 'lack of faith' is both liberating and empowering.

      *******

      (Added later: Don't miss the supportive and inciteful comment from Todd, which you can see below.)

      Friday, 9 December 2011

      Great White adventure

      You all deserve a nice suprise.



      It made me chuckle, however fake it might be.

      Thursday, 8 December 2011

      Mysterious ways

      God works in mysterious ways!

      So we are often told.  This is one of those phrases that we all know.  Those of us who can't decide which god we believe in the least find that the expression is used with monotonous regularity by christians whenever you ask them a question that they find impossible to answer.

      Where does this phrase come from anyway?  It seems that it is not to be found in the bible in this form, even though some people contrive to find it in various (mysterious) passages.



      Most people will have come across the expression in one of those glorious hymns that I miss singing, as it originates in a verse by William Cowper (1731–1800),  God Moves in Mysterious Way.

      God moves in a mysterious way,
      His wonders to perform;
      He plants his footsteps in the sea,
      And rides upon the storm.


      I always thought that the writer of the hymn must have thought in mysterious ways too, with ideas of planting footsteps in the sea.

      There is an urban myth about how the words came about.  Who cares whether it is true, but its a plausible story.

      Cow­per oft­en strug­gled with de­press­ion and doubt. One night he de­cid­ed to com­mit su­i­cide by drown­ing him­self.  He called a cab and asked the driv­er to take him to the River Thames.  How­ev­er, thick fog pre­vent­ed them from find­ing the river [yeah yeah - very likely!]  After driv­ing around lost for a while, the cab­by fin­al­ly stopped and let Cow­per out. To Cowper’s sur­prise, he found him­self on his own door­step and concluded that God had sent the fog to keep him from kill­ing him­self.

      Wednesday, 7 December 2011

      Car jumping for real!

      Some famous basketball player's Youtube video has gone viral recently.  He appears to jump over a speeding car.  You can find that for yourself - it shouldn't be difficult and it has been viewed over 5 million times.

      On the other had this guy, Aaron Evans from Milwaukee, does it for real as you can see from the fact that Youtube has plausible videos from different angles.



      Even my darling daughter thought it was 'really cool'!

      Cultural Values Map of the World

      Published on Michael Nugent's blog, this map by Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michegan and Christian Welzel of Jacobs University Bremen seemed quite interesting and surprising.  I like maps!



      Maybe it runs in the family.  My father was a surveyor and loved maps too.

      Tuesday, 6 December 2011

      Is the bible a collection or a singular work?

      Regular readers will know that I like to follow up on comments that people have made on earlier posts, and that is what I am planning for today.  This comment was left anonymously on my recent post "The Fallacy of the Taxi Cab Fallacy"

      "You all do realize that the Bible is not a singular work, but a collection, right? There are certainly cases where Christians will engage in circular reasoning, but I don't think it's as common as everyone says.

      It's not circular reasoning to say that, for example, writings in Mark give evidence to Matthew because these are two different books written by two different people at two different times in two different places. Saying they can't evidence each other is like saying that if I published a collection of scientific journals on a topic (let's call it "Journals"), none of the individual journals could evidence another one in the same collection because that would be using Journals to prove Journals.

      Do you not see the problem there? Putting books in a collection does not then make them all the same book and thus incapable of evidencing each other. "
      and a reply from @DerbySceptic said

      @Anonymous It is clear that the bible is not a singular work but a collection of stories. This is evidenced in the gospels by the contradictory reports of supposedly one set of events.



      *****************

      So, can we unpick this?

      To me it is quite clear that the bible is indeed a singular work in one sense.  Sure enough, it is a collection, but it is a particular sort of collection.  When the (more-or-less) present canon of the bible was 'suggested' (e.g. by Origen in the early 200s CE and confirmed by Athanasius in 367CE) it was not exactly done in an unbiased way like a scientific journal, with new work being presented for peer review and published contemporaneously. 

      In fact, the faithful had worked through the many thousands of available documents and cherry-picked the ones that best represented the story that they wanted to portray.  Even poor Marcion, who first proposed a uniquely christian canon of the bible in about AD140, was deselected later when his version of the gospel of Luke was dropped in favour of the current form.

      Considering the amount of apparent 'evidence' that they had to hand - as we are often assured that literally tens of thousands of fragments of early documents survive to this day - it seems surprising that the best they could do was the bible that we have now.  This is more like a collection of short stories than a scientific journal.  Such collections always have a theme.  You don't find books of short stories containing sci-fi together with ghost stories and murder mystery and romance.  They always have a theme.

      So, in the case of the bible I agree that we have a collection but it is one that has been collected specifically in order to 'prove' that Jesus was the son of god and that it had all been prophesied in ancient times.  It also specifically excludes a lot of other documents (like the Gnostic documents, and the Gospel of Marcion) that could be equally useful as evidence but give rather different accounts of the apparent life of Jesus.

      This is exactly why it fails to be convincing to the skeptical eye.  An independent peer review by serious historians would certainly have selected a different set of documents for inclusion in the combined work.  That is not even to mention that the 'ancient wisdom' that is the basis of the prophecies comes from people who hadn't even invented the wheel.  And as @DerbySceptic points out the collection is not very consistent in spite of this cherry-picking.

      Maybe I am alone in my view that the bible should still be regarded as a single book, albeit made up from a collection of other documents, and that it can't therefore be used as evidence to support itself - but I doubt it.

      Monday, 5 December 2011

      Peculier, of Masham

      The North Yorkshire town of Masham (pronounced (Massam) is famous for its beer, and in particular a brew from the original Theakston's Brewery, called 'Old Peculier'.  It is a strong dark and unusually sweet beer, perfect to comfort you in the winter (and indeed not unpleasant in the summer).

      On the label there is a strange symbol, the Seal of the Official of the Peculier of Masham.



      You might ask what this is all about while quoffing the contents of the bottle, or you might not, but I'll tell you anyway.

      In the 12th century, the Archbishop of York established the Peculier Court of Masham an ecclesiastical court which enabled the parish to govern its own affairs, independent of the rest of the diocese.   The chairman of this court is known as 'The Official' and he has a special seal to mark his approval or decision.

      Apparently the Court has (or had) a great deal of local power and the following are some of the offences dealt with in the past:
      • not coming to church enough
      • keeping a hat on at communion
      • bidding the church wardens to do their worst on being asked to go to church
      • not bringing their children to be baptised
      • husband and wife living apart
      • drunkenness
      • swearing
      • brawling and scolding
      • harbouring Roman Catholic priests
      • carrying a dead man's skull out of the churchyard and laying it under the head of a person to charm them to sleep.

      Another brewing establishment can be found in Masham associated with the name Theakston.  The independent "Black Sheep Brewery" was established by Paul Theakston in 1992 after a legal battle relating to the takeover of the original brewery by one of the large national brewing companies.  It also produces strangely named, strong and delicious beers, one such being called Riggwelter.


      Small note:  Any guesses about what a 'riggwelter' might be?

      Sunday, 4 December 2011

      Aiming where?

      HMS Belfast is the only surviving light cruiser from the 1930s.  It is moored on the River Thames, close to Tower Bridge in London.



      Not many people know that the guns of turrets A and B are aimed at a specific place, namely at Scratchwood Service Station (now renamed as London Gateway Services) on the M1 motorway on the northern edge of London.  The 'target' is over 12 miles away.

      Having never visited that particular service area, I have no idea what it did to deserve this ignomy (or infamy).

      John Titor - time traveler

      John Titor first appeared on the Time Travel Institute forums on November 2, 2000, under the name TimeTravel_0.

      He described his time machine saying it contained the following:
      • Two magnetic housing units for the dual micro singularities
      • An electron injection manifold to alter mass and gravity micro singularities
      • A cooling and X-ray venting system
      • Gravity sensors, or a variable gravity lock
      • Four main caesium clocks
      • Three main computer units
      Was he a real-life Dr Who or not?  Who knows.

      Titor claimed that he had been sent back to 1975 to retrieve an IBM 5100 computer which he said was needed to "debug" various legacy computer programs in 2036, when the UNIX operating system will reach its own equivalent of the 'millenium bug' problem.



      He also claimed to be on a 'stopover' in the year 2000 for "personal reasons". 

      I tend to believe that 2000 was not exactly on the way from 1975 to his time in the future in any real sense.  Its a fun story though, and well worth a glance at the Wikipedia article.

      I wonder how he overcame the difficulty that I described in  How does Dr Who do this?


      Small note (in larger text than usual):
      Why not listen to the excellent Episode 113 of The Pod Delusion to hear more about the story.  And while you are there, if you live in London UK, why not glance at the CV for Liz, one of the stars and the Deputy-Editor of that podcast, who is seeking a job at the moment.  Perhaps you can help her?

      Saturday, 3 December 2011

      Enjoy even more surprising things via Facebook

      If you like Something Surprising, you will also enjoy some of the extra items that I have started to share on Facebook along with posts about new entries on the blog.  Then you can comment and share your surprising finds with your Facebook friends at the click of a button.


      Just follow this link to the Something Surprising's Facebook page.  You don't even need to be a member of Facebook to see it, but if you are a member and you 'like' it, and you will get a few (not TOO many) entertaining links on your Facebook newsfeed.

      https://www.facebook.com/pages/Something-Surprising/151209068277285

      Are today's “militant atheists” persecuting Christians?

      A guest post by C. Stuart Hardwick

      This is the third of the guest appearances by other readers of Something Surprising to celebrate the first 50,000 page views.  It comes from USA written especially for publication here, inspired by a conversation on Facebook.  Some people reading this post outside USA might be perplexed about aspects relating to the First Amendment to their constitution which guarantees the separation of church and state.  I just wish we had that right in some other parts of the world!


      *************************

      Most people are wrong about most things, most of the time – it's just matter of degree. So whenever a dispute arises, the truth often lies not somewhere in the middle, but somewhere outside the realm of contention.

      Today's non-believers are certainly more vocal than in years past, and along with other non-Christians, now influence western culture sufficiently to attract Christian derision as "militants" bent on Christian persecution. For their part, atheists disclaim the label, asking "who ever heard of an atheist suicide bomber?"

      Both groups, of course, are wrong at least in the particulars. To see why, you need only look up the definitions to the words "militant" and "persecute". First, though it does refer to any unaffiliated military combatant, "militant" can also refer to any overtly confrontational person. When uber-atheist Christopher Hitchens tells a Christian evangelist "If you don't think I am your enemy, then you don't know an enemy when you see or hear one." this clearly is militancy, but rhetorical militancy. It is ironic, however, that Christians should use this term as a pejorative, since its use in this fashion stems directly from Christianity, which until the latter twentieth century explicitly declared all living Christians to make up "The church militant, or military church, which is engaged in constant warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil".

      So score one for the Christians, then take it away for hypocrisy. Now what about persecution, the "systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another group". Hitler killed 6 million Jews. The Crusaders slaughtered at least a million Muslims. The Missouri Extermination Order caused the death of hundreds of Mormons, the tarring and feathering of hundreds more, and the confiscation of the property of thousands.

      Christians decry the loss of organized prayer in public schools, ignoring the fact that under federal guidelines, a student may express explicitly religious convictions, even those that contradict the factual content of the curriculum, and "a teacher should not silence the remark [nor] ridicule it". Meanwhile, atheists and theists alike are accused of persecution for saying "Happy Holidays".

      Failure to show respect for one's known beliefs might be insensitive, it might even be rude, but it is hardly persecution. Using rhetoric and the rule of law to enforce equal protection for all at the expense of the traditional majority''s ability to persecute others with impunity does not, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute persecution.

      So both sides are wrong. Today's vocal anti-theist activists are militant, but until atheists buy out Joel Osteen and start turning lions loose in his 17,000 seat church, the only religious persecution widely practiced in America remains directed against the non-Christian minority, the same minority whose militant defense of the separation of church and state protects the rights and liberties of all citizens, Christians included.

      Happy holidays.

      *************************

      Many thanks to C. Stuart Hardwick who blogs as cStuartHardwick.wordpress.com and I recommend visiting to see more of his work.  He can frequently be found debating on is work.  SodaHead at www.sodahead.com/cStuartHardwick

      Friday, 2 December 2011

      Tame lightning, dead monsters and metal!

      Browsing around and link-following in a lazy moment (this being a physically lazy moment rather than an intellectually lazy moment if you see the difference) I found a very complete list of Questions and Answers that all atheists should have to hand.

      This was An Atheist Catechism: Part One, The Questions Christians Ask
      from The Lady Atheist's blog.  She says:

      There are two problems with the dialogue between Christians and atheists.  The first is that Christians define the  terms and control the territory.  They have well-worn traditions behind them, but little experience asking the questions they should answer.  They only "answer" the questions they have been taught to ask.  There's also some psychological projection going on, in my opinion.  They have so little idea of how others think that they can't conceive of their preconceptions not being shared, only that the conclusions differ.  They seem very concerned about atheists' souls, as if they can conceive of not believing in a god but they can't imagine not believing in a soul . . .

      I've come up with some answers to their (often stupid) questions. 

      And indeed she has.  It is a catalogue of answers to all the common questions that we hear frequently, and her answers are well worth reading.  Then there are a few more answers in the comments on the page.  Here's a nice one selected from her list:

      Q:  You just left the Church because you want to sin
      A:  If I really believed in the concept of "sin" the last thing I would do is leave the Church!  Unless you're hinting that you can game the system and run around sinning until the very last moment then accept Christ as your Lord and Savior and have it all erased.  What has been considered a "sin" has changed so much over the history of the Church that almost anything a person does over the course of the day could have been considered a "sin" at some point in history by some religious group.   Read on
      And then I found another interesting take on the same topic, a response written by an ex-Hindu.   Atheist Catechism Redux - The Hindunator can be found on a blog called "A Million Gods" I particularly liked:

      Q: What about the miracles of the Bible?
      Which ones? You know they can simply be fairy tales or fables. What about the miracles of other religions? What about the miracles of science? As we speak this is posted through the power of tame lightning on a device made out of sand, dead monsters and metal. That's pretty miraculous if you ask me. A lot more so than something that may not even have happened.  Read on

      Thursday, 1 December 2011

      100,000 year old light!

      How 'old' is the light from the sun?  I mean the light that you can see when you go outside today.


      You might be surprised to know that the light took something like 100,000 years to get from the centre of the sun where it was first created by the process of nuclear fusion to the surface.  Then took only about 8 minutes to get from the surface to the earth.

      Most of the fusion takes place close to the centre of the sun where the pressure and density are high enough.  Photons that are created in this process can't escape as they are surrounded by hot plasma.  Every time the photon 'hits' another nucleus or electron it is reflected in a random direction, and you can use some simple mathematical physics - known as the 'random walk' - to estimate how long it takes a photon (traveling at the speed of light of course) to get away from the core.

      This is almost analogous to trying to get out from the centre of crowd of people. You couldn't just run straight through because you would be pushed back by people and be bounced around. You might have to go back to the centre to get past a tightly packed area. The other people represent the nuclei and electrons that make up the sun.

      Incidentally - you might remember reading my post Indecisive Neutrinos about the speed of neutrinos measured from the 1987A supernova. I mentioned that they arrived 3 hours ahead of the first light from the event, having traveled for 168,000 years and I half-explained that the reason for the three hour difference was because the neutrinos hardly interact with matter but that the light does.

      'In the light' of what you have just read, that comment might make more sense now.

      Wednesday, 30 November 2011

      'Sheriff of Nottingham Tax'

      UK will possibly descend into a day of chaos on 30th November as up to 2 million public sector workers go on strike over planned changes to their pension schemes.  The level of that chaos will, no doubt, be the subject of considerable spin from both government and union propaganda.

      We are told that the government cannot afford to pay the pensions that it has promised to its employees.   That sounds plausible.

      We are told that the pensions are 'gold plated' but they neglect to mention that over the last 10 or 20 years the annual pay settlements have been slightly reduced year on year in recognition of the value of a public sector pension and that it would be typical of this barely elected administration to steal from the poor to pay the rich.  Its a sort of Sheriff of Nottingham Tax, not the usually discussed Robin Hood Tax that many would like to see implemented.

      We are also told that public sector workers are paid more highly than their private sector equivalents, but they neglect to mention that these overpaid workers are generally more highly qualified too.  In contrast, MPs are much more 'highly paid', are allowed to have second (third and nth) jobs while they are being paid handsomely to be public servants, and their qualification is often merely rhetorical.

      We also note that the freeze in pay is resulting in a steady brain drain.  I know one young, well-qualified engineer who is leaving his public-sector organisation for a 30% pay rise.  (Yes yes, its anecdotal evidence, but I guarantee that it is not surprising to any of his colleagues.)  It has also achieved the aim of reducing headcount and is seen t be seeding private sector companies with highly qualified people, so the government wins anyway.  It is just that the work will not be done, but who will care?

      But for now . . .  just in the spirit of fairness, let's assume that the crisis that was CREATED by bankers and regulators really has made it impossible to afford the commitments that the government had made to its loyal (and less loyal) employees.  If we can't afford everything I wonder whether there are any other areas that might offer cuts - perhaps before the pension cuts.

      I guarantee that you will not agree with all of the following list of items that we seem to have no trouble affording.  I have heard negative comments from several treasured friends who disapprove of the strike.  However, I would be very surprised if there aren't several that you could happily disapprove of:
      • MPs truly gold plated pensions - a full pension for MPs who have put in service of only 5 years (and who will no-doubt be directors of companies until their dying day in addition to their income from the public purse).  There is no suggestion of savings on this exorbitant spending.
      • Second houses for MPs, (which of course are justified), but the problem is that when these houses are sold for a profit the tax payer sees none of the proceeds.
      • Replacing Trident - which we would never use (or would we?)
      • 'Adventures' in Iraq, Afghanistan (and wherever is next - possibly Iran?), pretending that the UK is somehow the world's policeman, and a bigger target for terrorism.
      • Bombing Libya - a sovereign country, admittedly ruled by a despot but why does the UK taxpayer have to pay for the ordnance to undermine it?  And what right do 'we' have to depose that particular government and risk whatever is coming next?
      • Spurious benefits (including free further-education, free prescriptions etc) to the people of 'remote parts' of UK but not to the people of England.
      • Increasing overseas aid - including nearly £1 billion in aid to two nuclear powers for some incomprehensible reason.
      • Bonuses paid to the bankers who caused the problems in the first place.
      • Allowing tax avoidance by the highest paid people in the country who hide behind the veil of tax havens where their wives are citizens etc.  You and I couldn't get away with that, but for Osborne and his cronies it appears to be mandatory.  This could bring in a tidy £25 billion per year according to the best estimates.
      • Sale of the 'profitable' part of a nationalised bank, Northern Rock, for a price that is unbelievably low.  Meanwhile the tax payer remains burdened by £20 billion of debt from the rest of the same organisation.
      • Tax benefits to the churches, including to the Roman Catholic Church which is one of the wealthiest organisations in the world.  Many argue that it causes some of the greatest harm in the world (e.g. by its teachings about AIDS).
      • The 2012 Olympics - for which private funding has not been forthcoming to the extent that the government expected.  Well isn't that a surprise?

      Meanwhile - by the end of 30th November, the government propaganda wing (including the BBC) will be busy spinning tales of the loss to the economy and putting the blame on the public sector workers.

      I know that most people who do not work in the public sector are not in favour of the strike and many are in favour of the cuts.  But I just ask you to consider whether this is fair in the light of the outrageous list above? 

      Your comments are awaited.  When you do comment perhaps you could just say how many of the 12 points above you could live without.

      In my case it is probably 10.

      Tuesday, 29 November 2011

      'Real' Militant Atheism

      This is another guest appearance by an reader of Something Surprising to celebrate the first 50,000 page views, comes from USA with permission for publication here.

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      You can call it "militant atheism" and say Christians and other theists are being persecuted when we start burning, torturing, imprisoning, and mutilating theists for their beliefs.

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      Thanks to Shay Chandler for this  Facebook post which she has kindly agreed that I can publish here.