Friday, 30 September 2011

Blasphemy Day

Apparently it is blasphemy day.  Haven't I been well behaved?

I will just give you a link to a blog about the 'legalisation' of blasphemy within the United Nations.

UN legalises blasphemy as protected speech  from the Science and Atheism blog.

"Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant  . . ."  Read on

Incidentally - if you feel up to it you can find the whole document at this location.

Profiteering anti-environmentalism!

From the blog of The Sceptical Curmudgeon on the topic "Ban the plastic bag"

Part of the problem is how people use the bags, not just the bags themselves. 

When they were freely given out I tended to use them for bin liners in small bins, for bagging other rubbish before putting it in the wheelie bin, for separating laundry when returning from holiday, for storage of out of season clothing etc.  In short I tried to get as much use as possible out of them and in doing so avoided buying other plastic bags to address those needs. 
Read on

Branding and profit.  Those are the answers to most of this. 

Cardboard boxes have the wrong brand.  Supermarkets want you to demonstrate their brand name and if they can get you to pay to do it they are even happier, especially if the government gets the blame for the cost. 

As for the way that we now have to pay for bags so that we can throw away (sustainably - because after all, they are biodegradable), while not throwing away the other bags that we pay for to take our shopping home . . . hmmm. 

Profiteering anti-environmentalism!

Small note: its a lazy blog day today as I was at work before there was even any light in the eastern sky and now that it is dark again I feel too sleepy to write more.  No sympathy?  Why?

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The fallacy of "The Taxi-Cab Fallacy"

Apparently 'The “Taxi-Cab Fallacy' is committed when one hops in and assumes a certain system of thought or world-view in an attempt to make a particular point but then jumps out of the system of thought when it suits their fancy. Some say that such practice lacks logical consistency and is therefore a logical fallacy.

For example, it is claimed that a detractor from the Christian world-view should not hop into the Christian system of thought by erecting an objection grounded in the Bible and then demand an answer be given without the use of a Bible.

Others say that 

It's a blatant attempt to limit the skeptic's use the bible as evidence of how stupid the bible is.

or that it is an example of reductio ad absurdum.

I have to side with the others so you will not find it in my "Delusional Logic".  I find it somewhat obtuse for people to try to avoid being questioned about the bible like this.  (I think William lane Craig uses it more often than he has hot dinners.)

Any explanation of the bible that uses the bible as its premise is circular and pointless.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Why would an atheist want to hear William Lane Craig speak?

Someone asked me the other day why I would be interested in hearing William Lane Craig speak if I'm a real atheist.

The suggestion was that most atheists are not really committed to their atheism and that we want to find ways to be 'saved'.


For a start, being committed to atheism is a concept that is slightly odd.   Would that require me to be 'committed to a lack of commitment'?  

The reasons we might want to hear someone like him speak include the following:

  • He's quite famous (or is the word 'notorious'?)
  • He unashamedly claims various lines of 'proof' that I find to be empty
  • In spite of that, he has a reputation for winning debates
  • Given the highly dubious material he has to work with its amazing that he achieves that, and
  • We might be interested to see for ourselves how he does it.

As 'Kriss' pointed out the other day (echoing a point that I obviously failed to make clear before), winning a debate is not at all the same thing as being right

To claim that is similar to claiming that courts of law are there to dispense justice, when in fact they are only there to examine just one possible line of that justice that relates to the person who is accused of the crime.  If it became clear during a trial that another person was implicated, the court could do nothing about it other than to find the accused not guilty.

Formal debates tell you much more about the skill of the combatants than about their line of argument.  In my opinion Craig is a great debater but also a great deluder of credulous people. I'm really quite keen to understand what power he has to carry the audience in that way. I'm interested to hear him speak live, even though his style irritates me immensely and the content is largely vacuous and old fashioned.

Is it surprising that atheists are often prepared to think about things and to hear the opposing arguments without sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting la la la la la?

Small note:  Being delayed at work this evening resulted in a nonsensical first edition of this post.  Sorry!  (Of course this version might not make much sense either.  Sorry again.)

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Evolution regresses

Anyone who knows anything about evolution knows that it doesn't regress.  It marches forwards without looking back, and sometimes it makes improvements and sometimes it leads to extinctions.  It never takes a species back to where it came from though

The evidence suggests that American presidential candidates might not demonstrate the same characteristics.  Look how far they had advanced last century, and then consider how they have gone back to the beliefs of the previous century.

Woodrow Wilson - believer in evolution

During his successful campaign for the presidency in 1912, Woodrow Wilson, Ph.D., the former president of Princeton University, was asked whether he believed in evolution.

He replied, that "of course like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised."

Theodore Roosevelt, his predecessor in the White House, wrote in "My Life as a Naturalist" about his childhood reading: "Thank Heaven, I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley."

What do the current candidates say on the subject.  I wonder whether a single one of them would dare to say such 'outrageous' things.

Monday, 26 September 2011


A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to  reinterpret the first part.

First a few interesting observations about life:
  • Some cause happiness wherever they go. Others whenever they go.
  • The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas!
  • If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.
  • Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.
  • I didn't say it was your fault, I said I was blaming you.
Of course God features in some of these:
  • I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.
  • Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.
  • A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.
And then a few lessons to the wise:
  • The early bird might get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
  • When tempted to fight fire with fire, remember that the Fire Department usually uses water.
  • You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
  • The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it's still on the  list.

Related post:  The Four Jokes   (see item 1)

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A Great Debater!

Is Christian apologist William Lane Craig a great debater?

Well - of course the answer is emphatically yes, but only in the sense that his command of the podium helps him to carry the audience to a conclusion that he has persuaded them is true.

These persuasive skills do not necessarily have anything to do with truth or rational thought.  We all know that great speakers can engage with the audience and carry them along with them towards a conclusion.  We know of powerful Roman Catholic speakers who have done this throughout history, Adolf Hitler being just such a person.  We might not agree with his philosophy, and no doubt many Germans felt nervous about it at the time, but a powerful leader can be very persuasive.

Let's examine one of William Lane Craig's debates, with famous atheist and author of "God is not Great", Christopher Hitchens.  The event took place at Biola University on 4th April 2009 and if you have the patience and stamina, you can watch all 2 hours 12 minutes of it at this link.  I choose this one because it was widely claimed that Craig 'won' it and it is interesting to analyse why.  Given the demography of the audience it would have been somewhat strange if he had not and Hitchens' performance was not one of his greatest.  He failed to nail Craig's arguments as incisively as usual.

Craig used five arguments which he repeated ad nauseum.

Not a single one of these is actually persuasive unless you happen to believe in the same particular god that Craig worships.

1/  The Cosmological argument or 'Kalâm argument', also sometimes known as the 'argument from first cause',  is treated well here and I feel that it is not worth adding to it except to reiterate that its assumptions are flawed and its corollary could apply to any god that you choose.  Indeed it was originally used to prove the existence of Allah, not 'God'.

2/  The Teleological argument or 'argument from design' is also totally flawed.  The universe looks superficially as though it has been designed for 'us', but when you look in more detail the hypothesis begins to fall apart.  I address a similar topic here.  Looking at the alleged difficulties in physics, Victor Stenger counters them very clearly in his books, including "God, The Failed Hypothesis."

3/  Objective morality is a strange concept.  For one thing, it is perfectly clear that there is no such thing as objective morality.  Most of us would not wish to be associated with Hitler's view of morality, but it has to be accepted that it came very much from the teaching of the Roman Catholic church - even the anti-semitic parts.  People from cultures that are not based on christianity would surely be expected to have even more alien ideas of objective morality.

The christians who claim that the only objective morality is theirs have failed twice.  First they have not looked at the world to determine whether there is any such thing - which there is not.  Secondly they claim that it is theirs and accuse atheists of not having any way to explain it otherwise.  In my view it is those christians who need to provide evidence to support their claim.  Just because their bronze and iron age writings contain something that is a little bit like present day western morality (if you ignore the correct passages), they seem to claim that these things were not already developing throughout pre-history.  But of course they do that with the whole Jesus myth too.  It is not a new tactic.

4/  The evidence for the resurrection has been covered by many people including me here (and obliquely, here, since the resurrection could not have happened without the crucification).  Since there is really no independent evidence that the resurrection happened at all, and since the story was already many thousands of years old at the time (here), this point can be dismissed as a smoke screen.

5/  Immediate experience of god falls into another category.  It might indeed be 'true' to the person who has had the experience, and they could easily consider it to be evidence to themselves.  I make a point of never denying that such experiences might have happened to them but it is not actually evidence for me.  Even if I had that kind of experience tomorrow I would probably find a different explanation for it.  At the very least I would wonder whether I had met god or just had an interesting and not-uncommon psychological experience.

 * * * * * 

And that is all there was to it.  Five easily dismissed arguments could win you a debate, even against an acknowledged rhetorical opponent.

You have to draw your own conclusions.  Yours might be different from mine and they might not, but at the very least you can understand why Richard Dawkins described Craig as  'a ponderous buffoon who brandishes impressive-sounding syllogisms'.  Craig's use of language is not designed to promote understanding but to impress the audience with his rhetorical expertise, and he achieves this very impressively.  His use of words such as 'cosmological', 'teleological' and 'transcendent' are all examples of his art.

It is sad that he has to repeat the same old topics as if they somehow prove anything.  They don't.  But of course there are no new arguments for the existence of god.  All the new arguments attempt to use the progress of science to prove that science has not progressed and they attempt to invoke god as a supernatural alternative.

Related post:  William Lane Craig to visit

Saturday, 24 September 2011

William Lane Craig to visit

One of the greatest proponents of Christian goobledegook is coming to UK soon, and the for some reason the organisers of his tour have found it a little challenging to find an opponent for him in a debate.

This is hardly surprising, not just because he is undeniably a skilled and experienced speaker, but because he tends to take no notice at all of what his opponents say and the whole exercise could be a little pointless.  Rosa Rubicondior mentioned this on her blog about the Kalâm Cosmological Argument, describing how this outdated and long discredited line of argument has passed its sell-by date.

Briefly the argument goes:
  • Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause.
  • The universe had a beginning.
  • Therefore the universe had a cause.
  • That cause must be God.

Given the right audience, namely one filled with unquestioning believers, he wins the debate.  Given an audience who can see through his tricks he would have a tougher time.  It remains to be seen which type he will get at the venues that he will visit on his 'Reasonable Faith' tour.

The preferred 'victim' for Lane Craig was Richard Dawkins who has gracefully declined from the challenge, saying that it would look better on Lane Craig's CV (or resume) than on his own.  Another Oxford professor, Daniel Cane, has warned Dawkins "The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part."  Fortunately Dawkins has the presence of mind and bravery not to take such threats seriously.  After all - all the arguments are well known already and there will probably be nothing new to hear.

On, Dawkins described Lane-Craig thus.  "He is a ponderous buffoon who brandishes impressive-sounding syllogisms from Logic 101 to bamboozle his faith-head audience into believing he is 'winning' a debate. He also possesses some stunningly unpleasant opinions, including his view that the massacre of the Canaanites was OK because God ordered it . . .Read on

Following the rebutted challenge to Dawkins, A C Grayling was invited as a substitute.  He said that he would prefer to debate the existence of fairies and water nymphs.  Polly Toynbee, president of the British Humanist Asociation briefly agreed, but once she saw what she was up against she (perhaps sensibly) stepped down too.

At present another able speaker, philosopher Steven Law, author of Believing Bullshit, is slated to debate with Lane Craig at Westminster Central Hall. Having seen him speak a few times, including at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub, I am sure that he will have a few ideas in mind.

I'm very tempted to get a ticket and have an evening out in London on 17th October, or to go to the Sheldonian in Oxford to hear his views about The God Delusion!

Anyone want to come?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Random but relevant quotations . . .

What they are relevant to . . .

. . . I leave to your imagination.

But they are relevant to the general theme of Something Surprising.

"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." -- George Bernard Shaw

"A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism." -- Carl Sagan

"There is not enough love and kindness in the world to give any of it away to imaginary beings." -- Nietzsche

"It will yet be the proud boast of women that they never contributed a line to the Bible." -– George W. Foote

"I don't have to prove that god doesn't exist. However, show me how you would prove Zeus and Ra don't exist, & I'll use your method ." -- Anon

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Here to run fast!

I don't watch much sport on TV, but some members of my family seem more happy to listen to overpowering and strident sports commentators.  Even the sound from another room makes me want to run away from home.

However, one comment that I overheard the other day made me laugh. 
They were waiting for Usain Bolt to run in a 200m race, somehow expecting him to break the world record - which he didn't!  That all seemed to me like media hype.  How can one expect such a thing, whoever happens to be running?

The commentator said something that caught my attention (however much I was trying to ignore her).

"You can see he's here to run fast!"

No!  Really?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Conkering invading spiders!

I was amused when the cleaner of my office at work came in for his weekly visit.  Having removed a couple of spiders he went on to explain to me that the best way to keep spiders out was to put a 'conker' in the corners of the windowsill.  (For those of you outside UK, a conker is the nut produced by a horse chestnut tree.)  He told me that is definitely works and to support his claim he told me about various seemingly rational but arachnophobic colleagues who had conkers in the corners of their offices.  [Note that the presence of a windowsill or an open window is not relevant as much as the use of the corners!]

I laughed (of course) and he complained that everyone laughed when he told them.  (I assume it is the way he tells them!)

Skeptical antenna twitching, I found myself googling for conkers and spiders and found a range of similar claims.  There really does seem to be something special about 'corners', just as much as about the  conkers and whatever mysterious substance they emit to deter the spiders.

Consulting the said rational colleagues, I found them surprisingly credulous and but fortunately all of them were easily amused by the speculation.  Or else they were deliberately winding me up, but if this was the case, why would the conkers have been there when they showed me?

Results of the google searches included several entertaining accounts.  The first, 'Bonkers for Conkers' might be purely tongue-in-cheek:

"Heard on the radio this morning that a conker in the corners of your room deters spiders - apparently conkers attract mice, which eat spiders so the spider, knowing this, steers clear of conkers and hence the room. Obviously mice don't eat spiders? and it is nicer to have mice in your house than spiders (true)" [Is it?  Not for me!]

What a great concept - that the spiders 'know this' about the mice! 

Then, courtesy of Reuters, here is a link (you have to be patient while the advert loads and disappears) to a study carried out by a school.  Seemingly the spiders prefer conkers to wood after all.

Conclusion: Maybe not an Old Wives' tale, but a young wives' tale and a jolly funny one!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Rosa's Ten Plagues

Fellow blogger, Rosa Rubicondior (@RosaRubicondior) has written a witty, informative and incisive account of the events leading up to the Exodus.

She writes:

  1.  All the water turned into blood.  The Egyptians never recorded this.  Nothing happened.
  2. Frogs.  Millions of frogs!  The Egyptians didn’t notice them either, so nothing happened.
  3. Lice.  Nothing.
  4. Flies.  Still Nothing.
  5. Pestilence to kill all the livestock.  Nothing.
  6. Boils. Even the livestock... er... see 5 above.
  7. Thunder and hail.  [Shrug]
  8. Locusts. Now this is just being silly.  Still nothing.
  9. Make it dark for 3 days.  You’ve guessed it. Nothing.  Not even a marginal note in the official records.
  10. Kill all the ‘first born’, even the ‘maidservant behind the mill’ (what did she do?), and even the livestock, yet again.  (And the Hebrews find lambs to sacrifice... even though they all died in the fifth plague).
Read on

I loved the comment about the lambs in number 10!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Why the Pope must face justice at The Hague

After Saturday's march for a Secular Europe I came across this article by Barbara Blaine on The Guardian's Comment is Free site.

On 13 September, we travelled to the Hague to file an 84-page complaint and over 20,000 pages of supporting materials with the International Criminal Court, documenting our charge that the Pope and Vatican officials have tolerated and enabled the systematic and widespread concealing of rape and child sex crimes throughout the world.


By the Vatican's own account, "only" about 1.5-5% of Catholic clergy have been involved in sexual violence against children. With a reported 410,593 priests worldwide as of 2009, that means the number of offending priests would range from 6,158 to 20,529. Considering that many offenders have multiple victims, the number of children at risk is likely in the tens, or even hundreds, of thousands. 

Read on

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Judas - the essential anti-hero

I have often thought that Judas Iscariot had a raw deal in the New Testament.

Without Judas it seems that the whole dramatic ending to the Jesus myth would have collapsed in ignominy.  It seems that Jesus was so unknown in Jerusalem after his two of three years of miracle-laden perambulations that nobody would have noticed him if he had continued to preach until he died of old age.  Someone had to volunteer to go to the authorities and lead them to the Garden of Gethsemane to find him.  Being such a threat to everyday life in the region at the time, it seems that they couldn't find him without Judas.  Doesn't that seem surprising?

Of course he probably had to do it because of a prophecy in the Old Testament or for some other mysterious (non-)reason like that.  Or was it because the whole thing had to be done in a hurry at passover and they had to act quickly?

In fact Judas did it because he was instructed to do it, by Jesus himself as it explains very clearly in the Gospel of John, chapter 13.

21 After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, "I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me." 

[Strange use of the word betray.  And as I mentioned in my recent post about Islamic 'science', just saying "I tell you the truth" should be enough to make you suspicious.]

26 Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. 

27 As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. "What you are about to do, do quickly," Jesus told him 

[So Judas betrayed Jesus by doing as he was told?  I would have thought it would have been more of a betrayal if he had refused.] 

Later in Mark 26 in Gethsemane 

50 Jesus replied, "Friend, do what you came for." Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.

So let's get this clear!  In the myth, Jesus told Judas what to do, then still called him friend after he had done it!  Adding Satan to the account is clearly part of the story-teller's art.  It wouldn't have been such a good story without a little betrayal from a trusted companion, and after all this story does need to be made into a good story if you are expected to believe in the rest of it.

But whatever the reason, his role appears to have been pivotal and his reward was that he died horribly and significantly. In its usual inconsistent way the bible describes (Acts 1:18) how he bought a bit of land with the proceeds of his 'villainy'.  These were presumably the proceeds that he had already returned to the priests when he was filled with remorse as described in Matt 27:3.

As it says on  Judas Iscariot--In Heaven or in Hell?

"Prior to the betrayal, Judas' only recorded sin was stealing from the money box. The other 11 apostles had accounts recorded of them of sins which included unbelief, lust for position and power, not being mindful of the things of the spirit but of man, all the disciples left Him, Peter denied Him 3 times in one night, falsely condemning people to fire when Jesus said He came to save, etc., etc.."

However, for some reason Judas "fell forward and his entrails poured out" and presumably as a friend of Jesus he should now be in heaven. Somehow I feel that the Old Testament version of god still had some influence at the time though, and that justice (as usual) was the last thing on his mind.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

March for a secular village

Just home from the march for a Secular Europe, in London today and feeling tired but very content.

I have to admit that I expected a better turn-out, but had a great day out and met some lovely secular people!

Maryam Namazie was one of the speakers who gave an impressive performance, and I came away from the rally having a greater admiration for her work.

Friday, 16 September 2011

One is false and one is true . . .

Not many things make Jeremy Paxman laugh in the middle of an interview, but that comment from Richard Dawkins did! (Time stamp 5:34.)

Watch a great interview and enjoy Richard Dawkins being 'as strident as ever'.  (In other words, being totally polite and reasonable!)

Thursday, 15 September 2011

In fusion, size REALLY matters!

The old cliche that size matters is actually true in nuclear fusion.  Over two hundred 'tokamaks' have been built at various sizes from a bit larger diameter than a compact disk or DVD, to huge machines the size of JET.

Scientists have done experiments to study how the performance scales with size.  Broadly speaking, the answer is 'the bigger the better'.

Why is this?  The analogy of a camp fire is a useful comparison.

Imagine making a camp fire that is the size of a golf ball.  It is difficult to keep it burning.  The size of a tennis ball is a bit easier, but a fire the size of a soccer ball will produce a lot more heat and be harder to extinguish.

Similarly with a tokamak it is better to have a larger volume of plasma.  Not only is the heat retained better because the volume rises faster than the surface area, but impurities are likely to have less chance of contaminating the plasma and the fuel particles can be kept in the plasma longer so that they have more time to meet and fuse together.

None of the machines built so far have been big enough to achieve better performance than breaking even (which would be called Q=1).  In other words we are not yet producing more energy than we put in.  JET is around about the size needed to reach 'break-even' and the next time it is operated with deuterium and tritium it should be able to break its own world record (Q=0.65) because the understanding of the performance of the plasma has improved since 1997 when the record was set.

ITER will be ten times larger than JET and it is expected that it will produce about 500 MW of power (at Q=10 or so).  The only question is how easily the larger volume of plasma can be controlled.  Don't worry - it only weighs as much as a few postage stamps so even though it is enormously hot it will not escape, but until it is in good control the machine would not be considered reliable enough to be a good power station.

Don't hold your breath.  A machine as big as ITER will take another 10 years to be ready for operation.  But starting construction is a step forward, at least!

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Fusion and 'the 30 year problem'

Nuclear fusion made the news again this week but the one thing that the news item shows is that the 'inertial fusion' (or as they sometimes call themselves 'laser fusion') people are much more active at public relations than the 'magnetic confinement' community.

That doesn't mean that they are closer to the goal of making fusion a commercial reality.  Realistically speaking, both approaches can predict a similar timescale to reach fruition, and I personally believe that it is important that both are pursued with vigour - greater vigour than they currently have.

The BBC news article UK joins laser nuclear fusion project is a good example of making news out of a classic non-announcement.  Laser fusion research in the UK is rather in the doldrums at the moment, significant funding not being forthcoming.  One might conclude that this has resulted in certain leaders of the HIPER project going over to work at the National Ignition Facility, contributing to the continuing brain-drain from UK.  NIF is close to its first operation, but to paraphrase the industry 'joke' that 'fusion is 30 years away and always has been', fusion (or ignition) at NIF is one year away, and let's face it . . . it has been for several years.  If I remember correctly, the latest delay was due to a concern about something called 'sky-shine' - not a new problem that had not been considered but something that had been analysed a decade ago.  It was probably just a scare story of the type that often delays progress in anything that the public does not understand. 

NIF also benefits from funding from military sources to pay for its multi-billion dollar price tag.  Even though only a few percent of its operational time will be spent on military work they have gone to the huge expense of a second independent control room to protect the 'classified data' that they will collect to teach them how to make better hydrogen bombs.  (Does this explain the interest of the UK's AWE now?)  Meanwhile magnetic fusion has no military applications at all and can't gain from such funding.

If there is one thing to demonstrate the media hype from NIF I can tell you this.  I have personally visited the facility, after seeing a series of presentations about it, heard about how huge and impressive it is, how it is going to be the answer to the world's energy problems and seen numerous stunning photographs.  It was a nice facility but I was totally 'underwhelmed' by it.  It is much smaller than I had been led to expect. However, I wish them well and would not be at all surprised if they achieve 'ignition', for a short period, earlier than the magnetic confinement devices achieve the same. When I say a short period though, it will be for a micro-second or so, not really rivalling  the current record of 16 MW for 1 (whole) second on JET.

The other good news is that there is now hope on the horizon for magnetic confinement fusion too.  This '30 year problem' (not 50 years as the BBC claimed) might actually be realistic at last.  I don't say this out of sheer optimism, but from the observation that the world has now started to take the issue a little bit more seriously and the ITER project is progressing quite well now.  International squabbles aside, there are actual buildings on the site and at long last a commercial reactor-sized tokamak is finally being built.  In about 10 years time we will know a lot more about the feasibility of magnetic confinement fusion.

When I said 'a little bit more seriously' we have to set the spending in context.  In total, ITER is costing as much as one beer per year for each person in Europe.  Its quite a lot of cash but as it is spread over a period of two decades it is not all that much per head  This is especially true since this cost is spread between the governments representing half the world's population, and not just Europe.


The international media has missed another important real event on the subject.  The most successful tokamak in the world so far is based at Culham in Oxfordshire.  The strange thing is that this 'break-even' sized device, called JET, is still in many ways the 'state-of-the-art' in spite of the fact that it has been operating since 1983.  This is a testimony to the design of this incredible machine.  At the time it was 100 times larger (in volume) than any previous machine.  Now, 28 years later, it is the only tokamak in the world capable of running with the 'real fusion fuels' of tritium and deuterium. All the other tokamaks in the world produce good data too, but JET is currently the closest to ITER in almost every way.  (ITER will be only 10 times larger than JET in volume.)

Just 3 weeks ago JET went back into operation after a 2 year shutdown to upgrade its internal components and its heating systems.  By all accounts, the first weeks of experiments are producing excellent data.  You can bet that the people at ITER are keen to get their hands on the intellectual property that is being gained there.

But the media have commented on this almost nowhere!  A few techy journals have mentioned it, but real progress on a real machine has not had the world-wide coverage that has been achieved by the non-existent UK device called HIPER.  HIPER should perhaps be renamed HYPEr.

Our relatively small machines have paved the way for real progress towards a plausible future energy source.  Fairly detailed and credible designs and project plans for a machine like ITER - which is big enough - have been available for at least 20 years, so . . .

Progress in fusion is not being held back by the technologists as much as by lack of funding and ambition of the governments setting the targets! 

There is one message that we should all keep in mind.  There is a global energy crisis coming and it is coming soon.  Many people reading this will experience it in their own lifetimes.  If we as a race do not invest much more heavily in developing alternative energy of all kinds it will be difficult to see how humanity can survive.

Governments should be setting aggressive and competitive targets and asking why the technologists have not solved the problems - whereas at the moment it is, to a larger extent, the technologists begging for breadcrumbs to make any progress at all.

This isn't a game and it isn't a hobby for pure scientists.  Seriously!  This is a matter of life and death.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

This is Islamic science?

See whether you can spot the errors in this video. (You can skip the advert, so don't be put off by it.)

In fact, let's put it a different way - see whether you spot a single scientific truth in this video of Dr. Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyed of the Egyptian National Research Center.  (Or if you prefer to miss the genuine way that is presented with English sub-titles and want to read a transcript, you can find it here.)

I must admit that it made me smile, and yet I find it a strangely disquieting mixture of pseudo-scientific nonsense and conspiracy theory. Here are just a few quotes:

"The centrality of Mecca has been proven . . ."

"[short wave radiation] emanates from Mecca, and to be precise, from the Ka'ba"

"Imagine that you are the North Pole and I am the South Pole – in the middle there's what is called the magnetic equilibrium zone. If you place a compass there, the needle won't move"

"There's a study that proves that the black basalt rocks in Mecca are the oldest rocks in the world. This is the truth."

You can often spot a lie when someone adds "This is the truth".

I understand that the Nobel prize committee is considering its response.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Glowing Cats

If you met one of these creatures on a dark night you could be forgiven for wondering whether the gates of hell had been opened (even if you don't actually believe in the concept of hell).

It seems that that genetic research to find a cure for AIDS has succeeded in producing glowing cats!

The spooky-looking moggies had their DNA modified with a gene from a fluorescent jellyfish. Placed under blue light, their fur, claws and whiskers emit an eerie green glow.

The purpose of the study was to show how a natural protein that prevents macaque monkeys developing Aids can do the same in cats.  Read on

OK, so it would have to be a dark night bathed in blue light, but the concept was too good to waste.

Small note: Thanks to Liz for the link.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The 'other' 9/11

On the 10th anniversary of the American 9/11 disaster, I think it might be interesting to remember the 'other' significant 9/11 - the one that saved us all from rampaging islam.

Of course every year has a 9/11 (or as we prefer to call it in Europe, '11/9'), but a few of them stand out from the others.  2001 is obviously one when the dark forces of Islam appeared to triumph briefly. 

We should also remember the victims of the sometimes-forgotten bombings in Madrid and London, in the decade since the Twin Towers.  America has certainly suffered from Islamic terrorism but it has by no means been singled out.  Europe has had to live with it for centuries.

There is speculation that the date for this attack was chosen as a way to exact revenge for an ignominious failure of a previous islamic army when the second islamic of invasion was halted in Austria.

The Seige of Vienna in 1683 marked the point where the Turkish army (140,000 strong) was stopped in its tracks by a Polish force led heroically by Jan Sobieski.  The Poles arrived at Vienna on 11th September that year, just in the 'nick of time',  and just as defeat seemed almost inevitable.

That is possibly the only reason why we are not all Islamic, and why we all have freedom of speech (up to a point), and science and civilisation.  The bronze age myths of the Abrahamic religions were enforced pretty brutally by Christianity, but how much harder would it have been to escape from them if Islam had been in power.

In this way we can all celebrate 9/11 while remembering the victims in New York.

Small note - even if this idea of the Twin Towers attack being on the anniversary of the 1683 event is true (which I am skeptical about) it was of course 11 days out.  Between 1683 and today the whole world has changed its calendar.  It happened in 1752 in UK but in other countries even as late as the 1900s.

Another smaller note:  Apologies for re-using the image from an earlier post

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Patron saint of skepticism?

Do skeptics have a patron saint?

That sentence has a faintly ridiculous ring to it, but if we do have to have a patron saint then it is obvious at first glance that it should be the apostle Thomas.

I don't propose him because of his works for christianity, because he was the only one to witness the 'Assumption of Mary' or for his missionary zeal in India.  I admire him because he actually dared to ask questions of the ultimate (if fictional) authority figure, Jesus.  His questions were sensible and rational.  After all, it is not every day that someone gets tortured to death, buried and then rises again, unrecognised by their very closest friends, and then claims to be god.

Thomas wasn't being cynical and trying to undermine the myth of Jesus in any way.  He was just asking skeptical and sensible questions and in doing so he clearly strengthened the faith of the other apostles.

"Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" does not apply in any way to the remaining apostles.  They didn't have the opportunity for that honour, but you dear reader should find yourself more convinced by the story because of Thomas.

They may be laughed at his disbelief, but they were helped by the story that he did doubt that this could be Jesus, back from the dead, and that he wanted to see proof for himself.  When that proof was offered to Thomas and he was able to put his finger into the open wound, he was made to appear foolish.  But the proof was also observed by the rest of the assembly.  It is obvious that Thomas was used by the gospel writers primarily as a way of showing that there was more evidence than a mere verbal claim that this was the risen Jesus.  In their own minds they besmirched Thomas's good name in order to tell a good story.

In my mind they found a way to celebrate Thomas's rationality.

To me it always seems to be much more odd that the other apostles behaved in the way that they did - sheep-like and credulous - when they hadn't even recognised the man they had been following.  But of course this is seen as a good quality by the controlling forces of christianity.  It is much easier to herd sheep than cats.

Thomas was only a temporary anti-hero and he made up for it later.  I have always thought that the other anti-hero in the gang was treated rather shabbily too.  I will come back to Judas one day next week.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Monty Python's Universe Song

Thanks to Sarah who suggested that this was a good addition to the post about Dr Who and time travel.

She also suggested a link to a nice Facebook page about the earth moving through space. You can see it on the Facebook page for Something Surprising on 10th Sept 2011.

Google's latest style change . . .

Oh dear - great products always have to be made greater - but why is it that some 'improvements' are not appreciated by the consumers.

Is it just me that seems to have a totally new 'look' on my iGoogle page?  I assume that it has changed for everyone and I must say that I don't like  it.

The 'dashboard'  for Blogger changed last week too, but at least that gave me the option to use the old interface. 

I suspect that the increasing prevalence of huge screens is contributing to some of these changes, but the larger use of white space seems to be extravagant and not pleasing to the eye.

Still - in spite of everything that I don't like, I must admit that Google offers great value for money

Thursday, 8 September 2011

One Coat Fewer!

This week has been a decorating week in my household.  It was 'deemed' (not be me) that as soon as the last room was finished we should start on another - which will definitely be the last one for this year!  I was determined to finish it in less than one week.

Whilst opening a tub of "One Coat" emulsion to paint the walls, I was struck by the irony of the instruction to

"Leave 2 - 4 hours between coats"

True - I have never got away with only one coat of the stuff - but why call it "One Coat" when it might be more accurate to call it "One Coat Fewer"?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Pascal's gambling debts

In 'Pascal's Wager' he famously speculated on the benefits of believing in God or not.

There are various ways to phrase the wager but here is a non-mathematical approach.  Pascal was specifically Catholic, but this version is generically christian:
  • It is possible that the Christian God exists or that the Christian God does not exist.
  • If you believe in the Christian God and he exists then you receive an infinitely great reward and if he does not exist then you lose little or nothing.
  • If you do not believe in the Christian God and he does exist then you receive an infinitely great punishment and if he does not exist then you gain little or nothing.
  • It is better to either receive an infinitely great reward or lose little or nothing than it is to either receive an infinitely great punishment or gain little or nothing.
  • Therefore it is more rational to believe in the Christian God than it is not to believe in the Christian God.

There can be few young people who are not convinced by this argument while in the safety of their knowledge that their god is the 'real' god and that other gods are just different ways of worshiping 'their' god.  They know this because their parents, their family, their teachers and even their government might have led them to believe it. 

I was convinced by it, but now I realise that there are a few flaws in this way of thinking.  Strangely it was Richard Dawkins who made me realise that I had been duped - or indoctrinated! 

For one thing, it is difficult to believe in something just because it seems to be the least dangerous thing to do. If the only evidence for god is a book that says that you must ignore the fact that there is no evidence, then you could be forgiven for starting to doubt.  (Apparently god will not forgive this.) Some people can manage it, but those are not the people who question things and try to understand more of the world. We have to accept that this is not an altogether convincing argument.

There is another flaw - and Pascal was well aware of this, but I'll come back to Pascal in a minute.  Diderot phrased the problem rather succinctly: 

"An imam could reason the same way."

In other words - you have to factor into the equation that there is not just one god, recognised by all of humanity.  In all probability the majority of people will back the wrong god - and after all there have been at least 3000 of them to choose from.

Pascal dismissed the question of other possible gods with

"That would be sufficient for a question in philosophy; but not here, where everything is at stake."

He couldn't believe that the god of the heathens was worthy of the same respect as his god.  Can you?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

How does Dr Who do this?

Have you ever wanted to travel in time?  The idea seems quite attractive in spite of  the obvious potential paradoxes.

On top of the 'usual' risk of accidentally (or purposefully) killing one of your own ancestors and thus forcing yourself not to have existed, or the freak accident of reappearing inside a wall that somebody built while you were not looking, there is another subtlety that most people don't think about.

Not only do you have to find a way to travel in time, you also have to plan to travel in the three spatial dimensions and three complex rotations in order to land in the same place on the same planet.  Think about it.  The earth is speeding through space on its orbit around the sun, rotating as it goes.  The sun is circling the centre of the galaxy, and the galaxy itself is moving.

So imagine yourself getting into a time machine in your house and just going back or forwards 10 seconds to try the new 'toy' out.  Surely no paradoxes can be caused by that.  Other family members probably wouldn't even notice.

However, think how far your house has traveled through space in that 10 seconds.  When you re-materialise you will be in the vacuum of space with no way to return.

It might be OK if you are cocooned in the tardis with a friendly Time Lord, but for us lesser mortals it will be much less comfortable.

Time travel seems too risky.  Making the machine itself almost seems easy compared with the problem of trying to get to the right place, the right way up.

Added 10th September:
See Monty Python's Universe Song and a further link to a nice Facebook page about how fast the earth is moving through space. 

Small note: I seem to remember Asimov using this idea in one of his novels.  Its not new - but just an unusual thought.


Monday, 5 September 2011

Will we ever know?

An interesting conversation was overheard on a plane recently.  Two people nearby were marveling about the special features of their mobile phones and about the communications revolution that is spreading around the world.

One was heard to say . . .

"Do you think we will ever know exactly how it works?"

Presumably they imagine that the technology has been discovered somewhere in its complete form, ready made for human consumption!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Dawkins latest - Magic of Reality

Richard Dawkins' new book, The Magic of Reality is out very soon and I have just pre-ordered my copy from Amazon, via the link on

MAGIC takes many forms. Supernatural magic is what our ancestors used in order to explain the world before they developed the scientific method. The ancient Egyptians explained the night by suggesting the goddess Nut swallowed the sun. The Vikings believed a rainbow was the gods’ bridge to earth. The Japanese used to explain earthquakes by conjuring a gigantic catfish who carried the world on his back—earthquakes occurred each time he flipped his tail. These are magical, extraordinary tales. But there is another kind of magic, and it lies in the exhilaration of discovering the real answers to these questions. It is the magic of reality-science.  Read on and order your copy!

It might be aimed at younger people, but so was Harry Potter and I enjoyed that.  One thing can be certain - this book will be interesting throughout, not dipping into dreadful Tolkeinian intricate detail like some of the later Potter novels.

The other difference is that this is about reality!

Scientology's Deathly Hallows

Have you noticed that I never publish any criticism of Scientology?  There's a good reason for that.  Its not that I like their nasty little cult.  I'm b****y scared of them!  Your average muslim fundamentalist who is determined to get to heaven for his 72 virgins is nothing compared with Scientology's men in black, if the urban myths are to be believed.

You might wonder what the symbol for The Deathly Hallows (from the Harry Potter story) has to do with Scientology.  But I was reading the Richard Dawkins site (as I usually do) and saw this article about the Australian Government taking action to force the Church of Scientology to pay their people the national minimum wage.  They have also been reviewing Scientology's tax exempt status, and a decision on that could come soon as well.  Bankruptcy looms.

Anyway - this picture came up.

See the similarity?  (Or am I just deluded?  It's quite possible!)

Maybe Harry Potter's author, J K Rowling, was hoping for the same outcome as the rest of the rational world?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

TAM London 2011

The skeptical community of UK has been waiting with bated breath, optimistic that the lack of news about The Amaz!ng Meeting might still be good news.  A few people have ventured questions on forums but there has been no official announcement. 

What is The Amaz!ng Meeting? Well, for several years these meetings have been held in Las Vegas, but then a couple of years ago it started to be an international event.  They bring together some of the best speakers in the world of science, critical thinking, religion, skepticism, and the paranormal. By all accounts they have been very well attended and I have never read a negative report from anyone who attended a TAM.

Last year I very nearly decided to spend my spare cash attending TAM London 2010.  (Click that link to find the only 'news' available!)  London is not very far away, and the fee for the weekend was about £200 (plus either daily travel by train or a hotel in London).  I now regret that (avoidable) family commitments and general meanness were just the excuses I needed to save my money, but as the following months passed and my interest in skepticism has continued to increase, I have read and listened to many of the speakers that I missed at TAM.  I had decided that I was going to go to the next one - definitely!  I registered for news about the sale of tickets.  I followed @TAMLondon on Twitter.  Sometimes I did a google search or looked hopefully on the web site of the JREF (the organisers of TAM).

And . . .


Not even news about nothing!


I am beginning to put the responsibility for the lack of news, for the lack of anything inspiring at the JREF, with the 'new' president, D J Grothe.  Since he took over the presidency in early 2009 the JREF seems to be declining from its position at the forefront of critical thinking.  Isn't that sad?  Even their web site is becoming a little out of date, with the greatest activity being on the forum where loyal fans continue to discuss interesting topics.

You might ask why I blame Grothe (but not his partner Thomas, who he rarely fails to mention).  Well, Grothe is the president so the responsibility does lie with him in the end - even if not the fault.  But there is more to it than that.

Before joining the JREF he was the presenter of a nice (if slightly unexciting) podcast called Point of Inquiry, which he founded (with his partner Thomas).  He says that he had offered to continue to host it even though he would be employed by another organisation, and surprise surprise, the CFI declined his generous offer.  Does this begin to demonstrate how much his attention was focused on his new organisation?  Besides that, the new hosts actually do a better job in many ways (and rarely mention their partners, who might or might not be at law school - as if we cared).  Point of Inquiry goes from strength to strength - well worth a listen!

Once installed at JREF he started a new podcast called "For Good Reason" and in spite of gaining a few star speakers including Randi (twice), Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins, the programmes seem to have petered out.  There hasn't been a new episode since August 2010, and surprise surprise, there have been no announcements to tell the listeners what has happened to it, or why.  Wouldn't it have been polite to tell us?  You never know, someone might actually have been enjoying them.  (I must admit that I wasn't - and haven't even listened to all of them.)

Are you beginning to see a consistent picture here?

Lack of commitment to the JREF's information flow, lack of focus on its potential supporters, lack of news about what might be happening and what might not (but no lack of news about Thomas wherever you hear Grothe being interviewed). 

What a shame that TAM London 2011 seems to be cancelled - well when I say cancelled maybe I should say 'abandoned' (as someone on a forum pointed out that you can't actually cancel something that was never announced).

Small note:  This is specifically not a homophobic rant, as I can honestly say that I have no concern about the private lives of the minor celebrities, but just a rant about D J Grothe.  For example, I have the greatest admiration for James "The Amazing" Randi who established the JREF.  He has been openly gay and with a long term partner (who's name I do not know).  However, it was not until after his 80th birthday (and coincidentally after Grothe took over the presidency) that he announced the fact to the world.  I think Randi was right in his explanation that he hadn't been hiding anything.  It simply wasn't relevant to anyone else and it was really none of their business

Friday, 2 September 2011

Irreducible complexity - evidence AGAINST god

Creationists seem to use the argument of irreducible complexity as one of their lines of evidence to show that there really is a god.  Until you start to think about it, this might seem to be a reasonable argument.  But as I get older and the more I learn about the sheer quantity of complexity in the universe, the more I doubt this line of thinking and recognise it as a logical fallacy - the argument from personal incredulity.

The more complex we find things to be, the more unlikely it is that there was a single original creator with the capacity to deal with the complexity.  I think we have long passed the point of no return. 

The way I look at it is like this.  If god has been involved in the minutiae of the whole of creation it must have taken a lot of effort and thought, computation and clever planning.  OK - he's omnipotent apparently.  He could create the physical laws but suspend them long enough to work his magic all across the universe without having to break the light speed barrier.  (I never heard a creationist deny that the universe is large - but maybe some do.)

But could such a deity possibly be this omnipotent and still not be able to solve the 'sin' problem without having to send himself to earth, to torture and kill himself in a barbaric scape-goat ritual that befits the ignorant thinking of the bronze age more than the wonderful understanding of a super-intelligent all-powerful creator? 

Think of the intricacies of setting up the physics of the universe so that the initial physical laws are apparently just right for whatever was coming next.  Quite a bit of forethought would have had to go into this.  Then to split the universe into tidy chunks, the galaxies, then to structure each of them in subtly different ways just so that his 'ultimate creation', humans, have something to study and explore when they learn to build powerful telescopes.  After all, if it was not for this reason, what would have been the point of all that intricate detail?

Not only that, but he set the light going so that it got here just at the right time to make the universe look consistently 'old', when if fact apparently it is quite young.  On top of that he set off these photons in exactly the right place so that wherever you look from, consistent images are visible.  (In other words he deliberately lied to us.)

Then he orchestrated the detailed design of the solar system in this unremarkable galaxy, making one planet just right for life to thrive, but not skimping on the detail that is built into the other remote planets and their moons, the comets and the asteroids.  Even the way that the earth spins gives us day and night, warming and cooling just at the perfect rate.  The moon was put there to tell us when to celebrate Easter - and to cause the tides, introducing such a wide range of habitats along the shorelines.  He made it look different on the other side, leading to the latest ideas that the earth originally had two moons - for some inescapable reason.

Having made the earth just right, supplying it with exactly the right elements that were needed for biochemistry was quite a chore (because only the right elements will work together - and nothing works as well as carbon).  He then built all the micro-structure of life, including the amazing detail in the DNA of each separate creature and planted life almost everywhere.  The harder you look, the greater the complexity, but omnipotent god did it all, including planting the 'false evidence' for evolution (in copious quantities)!

We could go on, delving into atomic structure and all the physics that leads to the special features of the electromagnetic spectrum, enabling us, and only us, to identify the different elements from huge distances.  Those features obviously bring us back to the paragraph about the galaxies.  The details of emission and absorption bands just had to be there so that when his 'favourite creation' learned how to build telescopes and spectrometers they would be able to see the inescapable evidence for an old and expanding universe.

Knowing the myths of Genesis we would obviously suspect that god had been lying to us all along, and thus he could test our faith.

Or am I indulging in shallow thinking again?  Maybe there is some theologically sound reason why it is easier to create the complexity and beauty of DNA than to solve the problems of sin and suffering.

Maybe there was even a reason that he tried to pass off the bronze-age notion of the human scape-goat to an iron age audience.  But even if it was appropriate for the people of the time - perhaps it was - isn't it about time that he refreshed the message for us?  Interestingly this question might not seem logical to christians or muslims because they think they already have the answer.  Meanwhile the Jews are patiently waiting for an update on the notion of the nature of god.

I don't think I expect an update soon.

Small note: Thanks to JM for the interesting lunch-time conversation leading to the last paragraph but one!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

In praise of rain

I can hardly believe it!  My Portuguese friend and colleague LMJ is learning at last to appreciate English weather.

You might wonder why I find that surprising, but you should have seen her response the last time I popped my head round the door on a rainy day and said that the weather was lovely!

Rain Comments

Picture courtesy of Rain Comments

Admittedly, I partly said that for the reaction that I knew I would get . . . but I do know that the summer rain is what keeps England green and beautiful.  It's nice to sit indoors with the window open, listening tot he gentle swish of the rain falling on the leaves.  When we have dry sunny summers England is more like a desert by the end of August, and let's face it, the last thing we want is to have a country that looks as dry and parched as Texas this year.

Dry weather like that has a tendency to encourage the religious, or at least the loud and 'publicly religious', to make themselves look ridiculous beseeching an invisible sky-being to send rain, as recently happened when Texan Governor Rick Perry offered up public prayer for the end of the drought.  Christopher Hitchens displayed his usual literary skill in an article about the event in (or should that be 'on'?) the Slate website - pointing out that:

These incantations and beseechments, carrying the imprimatur of government, were duly offered to the heavens. The heavens responded by remaining, along with the parched lands below, obstinately dry.  Read On

Speaking of Rick Perry, I strongly recommend reading Paula Kirby's excellent recent article on the topic of Rick Perry and the scandal of prayer.

There is no magic friend. There is only us. We are not perfect, we are not all-powerful, we are not infallible; but we are all we have. No amount of wailing to an empty sky (to borrow a friend’s expression) is going to solve a thing. And the very least we have the right to demand of our would-be leaders is that they proceed on the basis of reason and intellect, and that they don’t simply sacrifice our futures to the imagined whims of fictional ghosts and goblins, myths and magic, spells and potions, demons and deities. It is time to grow up, Rick Perry. If you lack rational proposals for the solution of America’s problems, what makes you think you’re fit to be its leader?   Read On

If there is one thing that I might be tempted to pray for (even though I'm sure it would make no difference) it is for divine intervention in the US Presidential Race.  Let's just say that I would feel much happier if someone wiser and more rational than Perry was elected!  Obama is bad enough with his 'national day of prayer' but if I had a vote it would go to him instead of Perry.