Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Nobeliefs.com - worth a a visit

Sometimes you come across a site that achieves many of the things that you always thought you might strive towards.  Although tempting to be disappointed that someone else has done it already, the inner pragmatist encourages me to enjoy reading the good material that has been collected there and to share a link with my readers.

I recommend a visit to NoBeliefs.com.  Among the highlights you find collections of great articles such as:

Did a historical Jesus exist? - a topic that I sometimes talk about here at Something Surprising.  The more I read, the more I am skeptical about it.

Problems with Islam - another topic close to my heart.  This is a great collection of articles on the topic from people who came from Islamic backgrounds and others.

Problems with Creationism - more evidence that there are few aspects of Creationism that do not have problems.

There is a lot more there too.  Go and have a look.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Things Christians say

I came across this video recently and found it both insightful and delightfully presented by a lady who should be a professional actress.  (The only thing I didn't really like is the title.)  The odd thing is that I have heard almost all these arguments used in my presence here in UK too (with the exception of those relating the the US 1st amendment - the separation of church and state).  I can't even think of many that she hasn't included.

Taking this as inspiration, I'm planning to start a series tackling the common things that christians say to atheists and giving an alternative viewpoint.  I haven't quite worked out the best format - but rest assured, I will! I think it might take the form of two separate viewpoints on each topic - the moderate accommodationalist and the outraged!

There's scope for a separate strand too - Things Islamists Say.  Any thoughts?  Check back soon to see what I come up with.

Part 1 - The Fool

Celebrate honour among thieves!

If you read Up with which WE will not put on Saturday, and even one of you signed the petition linked from there, then we can each feel justly proud of our small part in influencing public life in UK.

Hints that Hester might have a conscience!

The breaking news this morning is that Royal Bank of Scotland boss, Stephen Hester, has done the honourable thing and turned down the bonus that he was due to get for being head of a public-owned company which has lost nearly three quarters of a million pounds in the last year.

William Wright, investment bank analyst for Financial News told the BBC: "It sets a very dangerous precedent for RBS.  It raises the level of political risk and political interference in the day-to-day running of RBS to what some people many consider to be intolerable levels.  It raises very serious questions about who actually is running RBS day to day . . .

Yes it does, doesn't it!  Finally the public outrage has been noticed and it sets a precedent for justice

Enough said . . .  but whooopeeeeeee!

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Chimps complain that their links are missing

We have all heard the Victorian term 'the missing link' used by anti-evolution campaigners and we have all heard it used as a puerile and pejorative put-down.

The odd thing is that so many missing links have been found in the line between us and our last common ancestor with the apes.  Setting aside the Piltdown Man hoax - a masterpiece of mischief or a disastrous prank - there are a lot of fossils of human-like ancestors and their distant cousins, stretching back through the 6 million years since humans began to separate from chimpanzees.

Piltdown hoax in leafy England!  A false positive in the search for missing links.

Naturally there are debates about the lineage of all these mysterious fossils.  Scientists debate about which are the direct ancestors and which are not, but in the grand scheme of things, considering the gradual nature of evolution, it matters very little.  There is a visible trend towards homo sapiens, world-wide.

Creationists would have you believe that this trend is false, and that every gap filled makes two more gaps.  Their scientific evidence for such an assertion comes from one place which is obviously riddled with error and inconsistency - the bible!

Surprisingly, chimpanzees would not have the same problem about missing links if they had the cognitive powers to worry about such things.  You might find it hard to believe, but no fossils of chimpanzees have ever been found between their current form and our common ancestor.  This is probably because they are forest dwelling creatures, and in such an environment the chance of being fossilised after death is even lower than it is anywhere else in the world.  You are much more likely to be eaten swiftly.

Fortunately they are blissfully unaware that their links are truly missing.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Up with which WE will not put!

Following on from yesterday's dose of humorous prepositional pedantry, here is an example of one thing 'up with which we will not put'.

Bankers bonuses!  Specifically the bonuses for the Royal Bank of Scotland!

The corpulent Mr Hester - not many lunches missed

Here is an image of a man who clearly hasn't missed many lunches while fighting to make his company profitable on behalf of its shareholders, the UK taxpayers.  These UK taxpayers are the same people who bailed out his beleaguered bank; the same people who have just seen the profitable part of Northern Rock sold off to Richard Branson at a discount price while we continue to carry the can for the rest of it.

It seems reasonable that we should start get quite upset about this now.

Can you imagine any other kind of company where the employees are rewarded for making a loss?  No profit always means no bonus, right?

Are the rest of the public sector workers going to be rewarded for their efforts in a similar way?  Of course not.  Their meagre bonuses are strongly related to the achievement of targets.  What is the difference?  Why does this man get a special deal?  Why doesn't someone tip over the trough that he has his snout embedded in?

If you live in UK I hope you signed the petition that was run by Avaaz, called  Osborne: Stop the RBS Fat Cats.  It is too late to sign that one now, but Avaaz is an organisation that is really beginning to be noticed by the barely elected government.  That particular petition reached over 100,000 signatures.  In spite of that, the Prime Minister has caved in and granted the discretionary £1m bonus to his crony. 

Now we can only try to shame Hester into not taking it.  Another highly noticeable campaigning organisation, 38 degrees, has now started a petition which has already gathered a lot of support.  At the time of writing it had already reached 55,000 votes in one day. 

I'm sure Hester feels that he has done something to deserve such a large sum on top of his already inflated salary.  I doubt that the word 'shame' is in his vocabulary.  However, please do join the rest of us in expressing our disgust at the things that happen in our name by signing the 38 degrees petition.

Fair's fair.  It would be alright to reward success (to a reasonable extent), or even to hold back this bonus until a success was achieved and pay it then.  But to pay a bonus for failure is simply outrageous!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Up with which I will not put!

First reported in Plain Words (1948) by Sir Ernest Gowers, it is said that Winston Churchill once made this marginal comment against a sentence that clumsily avoided a prepositional ending.

"This is the sort of English up with which I will not put".

What a good job he never read the following sentence as it ends with a surprising FIVE prepositions!

"What did you bring that book that I didn't want to be read to out of up for?"

It takes a bit of practise to say that!  There is your challenge for the day.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

'Cognitive dissonance' is a term that I hear surprisingly often these days.

It is sometimes described as the discomfort we feel when we hold two ideas that clash or conflict with each other.  It can also describe the difference between an attitude we hold and a behaviour that is inconsistent with the attitude.

As Lewis Black once said, "When an environmentalist buys an SUV they might as well be filling the fuel tank with cognitive dissonance."

When we are confronted with such a discrepancy we either have to admit that we were wrong or dismiss the evidence.  Tragically most people dismiss the evidence.

If we are able to see how dissonance works in our own lives we  might be able to reduce the  tendency to suffer unnecessary stress.  For example, unhappy smokers have to do one of two things - quit smoking or justify smoking. (Happy smokers can just enjoy it of course!)

Stress!  (A picture rescued from the archives here!

In my case I found that I had to quit church or find a way to justify attending even though I could see all the gaps in the arguments for a belief in God.  Ultimately, and for me personally, quitting church seemed to be the more intellectually honest of the two.  Since that time I wonder whether I can claim that I have no cognitive dissonance relating to my religious views.  I presume that I am not the right person to judge that.

It has been said that everyone can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite.  They do it by reducing the dissonance in some way that allows them to continue to think well of themselves.  This does not just apply to bad or evil people, but equally to good people who can fall for the fallacy of 'confirmation bias' just as easily.

In fact, we all see that people behave in surprising ways.  When a prophecy fails, such as Harold Camping's end of the world in 2011, you might assume that his followers would have given up their beliefs.  But dissonance theory predicts the opposite.  You are much more likely to dismiss the contradictory information without a thought than to change a treasured belief.

Many of Camping's followers have probably come out of 2011 with a stronger belief in him.  They would find some sort of religious explanation.  "Thanks to the belief of our little band, God has spared the world again."

I wonder how many false biases I have self-confirmed today!

Protection from ridicule

Have you heard about the fuss that erupted in London a couple of weeks ago?  It was all about the use of a Jesus and Mo cartoon on a poster created by an student atheist group at University College London.

You can find the whole story here on Richard Dawkins' web site.

The strange and simple Jesus and Mo cartoons have an appearance that belies their cleverness, and I can now say that I am a devout convert.  If you have never seen them before I should explain that the invisible character is the barmaid.  She speaks more sense than the two 'stars'.  (Oh by the way . . . erm . . . Mo is short for Mohammad.  I just thought I would mention that for the sake of clarity.)

Having seen this, you might understand why my Twitter icon has recently changed in support of the right to free speech.  If Islamist Fundamentalists are allowed to get away with silencing people in UK's capital then it is clear that the future of Britain as a free democracy is being eroded at its very heart.

Here is the latest brilliant cartoon in the series.  I recommend you to visit the site and look back through the archives.

Jesus and Mo is licensed under a Creative Commons License:
Feel free to copy for noncommercial purposes, under the same license.
Please provide a link back to jesusandmo.net

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

After Independence - civil war?

Let's assume that Scotland does get independence from UK within the next few years.  That would be great from the English perspective.  Would it be good for Scotland?

It all boils down to the question of whether Scotland is a single nation.  Having lived there for 4 years and enjoyed the friendship of many Scots, some of whom probably read my ramblings here, I notice divisions in Scotland that are at least as strong as those throughout UK as a whole.

All of my Scottish friends are moderate people with moderate views - possibly leaning towards supporting independence.  But we must face the fact that the majority of people in any country in the world do not think through the big political issues on an everyday basis.  They vote the way they vote because they always did.  In just the same way, they tend to follow the religious views of their parents and the people they grew up with.

Scotland is clearly made up of a collection of different secular communities on a geographical basis.  The Highlands and the Lowlands tend to despise each other, partly because of the cultural differences between the urban and rural lifestyles.  The Highlands and Islands tend to be lumped together - in opposition to the Lowlands, but the islanders are fiercely independent when you speak with them.  However, the Hebridean Islands seem to lean slightly more towards an association with the mainland than, say, Orkney.

All in all there are big differences to be found in the views of this one 'race' of 'the Scots'.

On top of that Scottish sectarianism is rife.  It is not by accident that people in Glasgow joke about what answer to give if you are stopped in the street by a gang of men, and asked whether you support Celtic (fiercely Catholic) or Rangers (fiercely Protestant).  One of the 'smart' answers is to say that you support Partick Thistle, and while they are rolling around the floor laughing at you, you make a run for your life!  You have to realise that this question is about MUCH more than two soccer teams.

One way or another, Scotland is a divided country.  I support the campaign for independence (as you might have noticed) but I fear that the fall-out from independence might not be quite what the Scots are expecting.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Twenty Twelve

At last the new millennium is establish in speech!  Ever since the beginning of the century people in England have been divided.

Initially there was a great debate about the true date of the beginning of the 21st century, with one side claiming January 1st 2000, and the opposition claiming 2001.  Well obviously the latter is strictly correct, and as a permanent pedant I could hardly be expected to take the opposite view.  After all, there was no year zero, so the last year of the first century (strictly speaking) was 100, and the first year of the second century was 101.  Logically 2001 got my vote.

Pedant or not, I am also a pragmatist.  When failure is inevitable I can be swayed to accept it, and after all, some battles are worth fighting and some are not.  In the minds of most of the public the number 2000 is much more important than 2001.  This is just numerology.  It doesn't actually matter at all does it.  The first day in the new millennium was simply the next day in our lives.

But this year it is different.  Until 2012 we have struggled with the question of how to say the year out loud.  It was impossible to contemplate saying 'Twenty One' because that is not written as 20-01 but 21.

'Twenty Oh One' just sound silly although shorter than 'Two thousand and One' it is not a saving that our aesthetics consider worthwhile.

Finally Twenty Twelve sounds right.  A few still say Two Thousand and Twelve, but let's face it, we will all be converted to the sensible shorter version soon.

Twenty Twelve marks the point when we are finally happy with our century.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Every colandar is really a bowl

Among the geological wonders of New Zealand, the Moeraki Boulders (see Wikipedia article) are surprisingly spherical in shape.

See this Youtube video - one of many but it has nice music.

Some regard these remarkable stones as proof of the existence of a god - presumably their own particular God.

Geologists who are aware of similar septarian concretions all around the world have theories about how they were created, but no definite conclusions.  As it says on the Wikipedia article linked in this paragraph:

A number of mechanisms, i.e. the dehydration of clay-rich, gel-rich, or organic-rich cores; shrinkage of the concretion's center; expansion of gases produced by the decay of organic matter; brittle fracturing or shrinkage of the concretion interior by either earthquakes or compaction; and others, have been proposed for the formation of septaria. At this time, it is uncertain, which, if any, of these and other proposed mechanisms is responsible for the formation of septaria in septarian concretions.

Claiming that this gap in our knowledge proves the existence of god is a logical fallacy.  Just because there is a gap, it doesn't mean that there has to be something to fill it.  Here are some gaps . . .

Every colander is really a bowl (with gaps)

Would you ever think of calling a colander a bowl?  It is the gaps that make it useful.

Make your computer monitor into a mirror

I happened across a silly question while surfing the web

"Does anyone know if it's possible to use a background that would essentially turn my computer monitor into a mirror? Scanning a mirror doesn't work."

That sounds as though he actually tried it.  As a matter of fact though, you might like to think about what you actually would get if you scanned a mirror.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

More about 'Asherah - wife of Yahweh'

This is an unusual post today - drawing together some interesting feedback from an earlier article and a bit of a plug for the Reddit community.

One of my posts about the gods of the Old Testament from earlier in the year was submitted to the Reddit site recently, and for whatever reason it took off as a success for a day.  Reddit is a great site and I recommend it highly, whatever topic you might be interested it.  I still find the 'rediquette' slightly mysterious, and users seem to get accused of being spammers sometimes when they hadn't realised that they were doing anything wrong.  However, it seems to bring a good quantity of traffic to a web site or blog, along with an opportunity for feedback (good and bad) and there is a sense of community on many of the individual sub-reddits.

Since some of the readers of this blog will not have taken the plunge to become members of Reddit they will have missed some of the good feedback about 'Asherah - wife of Yahweh', which received over 3000 visits one day recently, along with more than 10 comments.  I'll quote a few of the most useful comments here and add links to some relevant items.

Irish_Whiskey kindly says

It's very interesting. The writer is correct in saying that there isn't "strong evidence" and it's one explanation among many, but is just one more thing which "all points towards the Old Testament being a huge mixed bag of myth and legend".

All the Abrahamic beliefs have changed massively over time. Christianity today hasn't been around for hundreds of years, let alone thousands. It just shares a name and a few limited claims with much older religions it descended from that were very different in practice and beliefs.

Keldrath has kindly provided a link to an interesting and believable Youtube video about polytheism in the bible.

unfinite gave a link to a BBC documentary on about polytheism in the bible.  Francesca Stavrakopoulou's BBC programme "The Bible's Buried Secrets - Did God have a wife?"

This is indeed the programme which provoked the thoughts leading to my series of posts about polytheism in the old testament. I have provided the link but I fear that it might not be available worldwide

Flonkkertiin says :
I took a class on ancient israel and this is a common thought. It is all part of the henotheistic origins that judaism is believed to have. YHWH started to pick up attributes from other deities to the point where he could replace them. Henotheism evolves into monolotry, monolotry to monotheism. Pretty interesting stuff I always thought.

cosmonaut205 says:
It's believed that Asherah was once the wife of El, amongst a pantheon of Gods, in which Yahweh was just one of many. In the earliest stages of the transition to monotheism (enacted mostly as a political measure to ensure a centralized worship center) Asherah was thus transitioned to be a wife of Yahweh instead.

The transition from polytheism to monotheism is referenced in Psalm 82.

badcatdog says:
I enjoy the "Persian imperial authorisation" motivation for Monotheism. 

I can't provide a link because I'm on a mobile and don't know how to copy and paste but try googling youtube user Evid3nc3 and watch his video titled 3.3.3 A History of God. He does a good job covering Karen Armstrong's book by the same name.  [That is the video shown above.]

kontankarite just says:
Man, that's some interesting shit.

As you can see - Reddit provides some interesting feedback sometimes!  Why not join the redditors?

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Scottish Independence for aye!

The topic of Scottish Independence from the rest of the UK is rumbling around the news and will continue to rumble for the next year of two.

At the bottom of the whole story is the question about who has the power to call a referendum.  There is a false assumption that the Scots want one thing and the English want the opposite.  The (barely elected) UK Prime Minister, David Cameron (pardon me for spitting after saying his name) seems to be taking the line that the Scottish Parliament under Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, does not have the power to secede from UK without the approval of London.  Meanwhile Salmond is 'sabre rattling' and claiming the opposite.

The more I hear about this story, the more I feel that the question is bigger than is being discussed at the moment.  After all it is not a one sided issue.  There's a very simple solution to Salmond's problem. 

Ask the English!

Being a fundamentalist Scot he is falling into the same trap of making the assumptions that his 'type' often makes in the opposite direction.  They accuse the English of not understanding how the Scots think, and in some ways he is right.  As I mentioned on January 1st, in 'An Independent Hogmanay', the English do not even know how the other English think, as there are a lot of us and we live in very separate communities across the country.  (While many of us may smile at the particular version of Englishness portrayed by Flanders and Swann here, I think most would flinch slightly.)

This time though, Salmond is making the false assumption that he does know how the English think.  When you contemplate this for a moment you will see where he has gone wrong.  He draws the conceited conclusion that the English don't understand him, but that somehow he has some sort of superior intellect to understand them.  Harking back to the long-gone colonial era, perhaps he assumes that the English actually want to retain power over his 'independent nation'.

Well - from my own (albeit limited) viewpoint I think he couldn't be further from the truth.  People of my generation and younger have almost nothing in common with the English of the colonial era.  Not only that - when it suited them to do so, the Scots played a full and active role in ransacking the colonies, and modern Scots have exactly as much in common with their culpable ancestors - almost nothing

In the present times of austerity I would say that the majority of the English would be only too happy to stop subsidising the remote corners of the UK. My opinion falls short of the imposition of independence that many would subscribe to, but if they truly want independence, why not let them have it?

However, living in the heart of England, the question of Scottish home rule is almost irrelevant to most people.  After all, UK squanders enough money on other lost causes (a new 'Royal Yacht' being this week's nonsense!) so what difference does a few billion wasted on Scotland matter.  However, in recent weeks I have only heard one single objection to the idea of splitting up the Union.  That came from a colleague who usually has a live-and-let-live approach to life.  Unusually his objection went like this.

The campaign for independence is being led by radical Scots.  Think about all the other moderate Scots who would be badly affected by independence.  Think how their quality of life would be reduced when the English subsidies stopped flowing.  As one nation we should all stand together. 

Well pardon me for disagreeing.  But when the ordinary people of England start to get the same subsidies - including free prescriptions and free further education for their children - then we will be 'one nation', and then I will start to feel sorry for the folks in 'North Britain'.

The message to Alex Salmond is clear.  Get the English involved in 'your' vote for two reasons.  One - it is their right to have a say in the matter.  Two - you would gain a massive surge in support for your aims. 

Without the English sympathy vote you might not achieve your target within your own lifetime but with our help you could have it much more quickly than you expect.

Small note:  I shouldn't have revealed this English secret should I?  If the Scots get wind of this they will want to stay - just to spite us! 

And another: This is far from a racist opinion.  Where is the line between racism and nationalism? 

The English are Best - Flanders and Swann

I will shortly post a an opinion about Scottish Independence.  As you might know, I'm English and I am all for Scottish independence.  The sooner the better.  Then we can get on with our lives in mutual respect.

Aside from that will refer to a classic (and humorous) song from the comic duo Flanders and Swann, recorded half a century ago.  This is not the characteristic self-effacing English fare but something a little different.

As they said in a different recording of the same song . . . "Scotland for aye!, or for me as it should more properly be".

Friday, 20 January 2012

Paley's Watch was not ticking

For the last couple of hundred years 'Creationists' have used variants on the theme of 'the argument from incredulity' to explain how the complexity of life demonstrates the existence of a god.  Or should I say usually it is the 'God'?  William Paley's famous watch is at the heart of one of the best known versions of this story.  (Read about it here in the unlikely event that you are not familiar with it.)

Of course the idea is an analogy, and I strongly hold that all analogies are wrong  when it comes down to it.  They can be useful to teach real learning, but they can also be used to propagate nonsense in a plausible way. But setting that aside here is a question.

When Paley found his mythical watch, was it still ticking?

I think it would make a difference.  After all, the same analogy applies to the world around us in some ways.

If his watch was ticking, then it might imply that it had a designer, but it would also imply that it had a winder.  Within the previous day or so, somebody must have intervened in the existence of the watch and wound it up.  Without that intervention the watch would have stopped.

If his watch was no longer ticking then the conclusion about the designer is unchanged (and incidentally it is still wrong, being only an analogy).  But it would suggest that the designer had gone away and left his invention to fend for itself.

This is the type of world that we live in.  The designer might have made the world - although there is not a jot of evidence to support this idea.  He might seem still to be involved, but actually the designer no longer gets involved in it.  We all know that the studies of the effectiveness of intercessory prayer have demonstrated no value, or even a slightly negative correlation in the outcome of those prayers.  (See here for an example that shows no significant effect.)

God doesn't answer prayers, but the people who are praying still find ways to claim, without convincing evidence other than 'testimony', that it has made a difference to their lives.

Isn't the mind a wonderful thing?  It can make up credible explanations for uncaused non-events.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Is this a question?

There is a story as old as the hills about a question that might have been set in a finals exam for a degree in Philosophy at Oxford University (once upon a time).

The question was :

"Is this a question?"

You can imagine the convolutions that under-graduate philosophers might get into.  For three years they have been trained to think tangled thoughts and to back up their reasoning with seemingly logical arguments.

With so much at stake, how brave would you have to be to write as little as:

"Yes, if and only if this is an answer"

Small note:  The myth says that the candidate was rewarded with a first class honours degree!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A simple myth - homeopathy

A simple myth is more attractive than a complex reality.

So says John Cook in his Debunking Handbook, which is a guide for skeptics who are tempted to challenge the world-views of the credulous people around them.  By 'credulous' you might think I mean only the people who believe in their own local religions, but in fact I use the term much more broadly.

All of us are credulous.  I myself have seen 'evidence' for the effectiveness of homeopathic treatment in a 'miraculous' cure of an annoying ailment that one of my children suffered as an infant.  Remarkably, after two bouts of minor surgery, a homeopathic treatment appeared to clear up the problem.  18 months later, a recurrence of the same ailment appeared to be cured again by the same homeopathic approach.  Obviously homeopathy works, and for a while I was convinced by the idea.  After all, it was quite comforting to find that my grandparents had been believers in it too.  I was left wondering why it was not in the mainstream of medicine if it worked so well.

These instances of luck and coincidence can now be recognised as being just that, because 16 years later I can say that I have seen no more evidence at all that homeopathy works, and have seen a great deal of evidence to the contrary.  Not all homeopaths are charlatans of course.  I believe that many of them believe completely in their art.

Of course the answer, in the words of the great Tim Minchin, is quite simple.  As he says  - there is a name for alternative medicine that works.  It is called "medicine".

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Legal competition from Sharia - a government plot?

Sharia law is becoming much more widely used in UK, or so we are told in the news this week. It seems that it is much cheaper to resolve legal disputes in a religious court than in a real court.

It is not new news that there are at least 85 Sharia courts operating in UK, because this surprising revelation was made in a Civitas report in 2009.  However it is about time we had an update on this aspect of creeping Islam, just in case the country is completely infiltrated before the apathetic public notices anything happening.  After all, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice have already acquiesced to the start of the process as you can read in that report.

Thinking about it though, perhaps there is one good thing in this news.  Almost everyone in the world (except lawyers) believes that solicitors and barristers charge too much for their services.  When did you last see a barrister on a bicycle?  Maybe it is time they had some competition. 

In fact, it is tempting to speculate that the current government - being largely right of centre - might have introduced sharia deliberately in order to create a competitive market.  The next thing will be to privatise the Magistrates Courts.  I suspect that the Crown Courts will have to wait until after the next election but at least it would be a start.

After that the Church of England might reintroduce some of its own medieval institutions.   Prerogative Courts, Consistory and Commissary Courts, Archdeaconry Courts and Peculiars.  We could do with a few witch burnings to keep the public in control.

The more the better in a free market!

So . . who will be the first person to volunteer to be judged by sharia?  It is very cheap you know - and some of the punishments are administered swiftly.  No lingering in jail waiting to be sentenced to a humane punishment.

Decapitation can't hurt for very long can it?

Monday, 16 January 2012

Agile and empowered

Anyone working in a large organisation for a couple of  decades will see patterns of recurrent nonsense.  This decade is no different from any other, and we see many of the old traits re-emerging for another airing.

As a naive young engineer I always assumed that the senior management of every organisation had risen to its position of power through some sort of meritocracy.  These must be the people who we should look up to.  They must be the most able managers, the best communicators, and they must surely have the wisdom and technical knowledge to judge better from worse in the industry that they lead.

Sadly - whatever anyone will tell you - this rarely seems to be the case.  Without wishing to question their 'integrity' in any way it seems that the main requirement of the (increasingly overpaid**) directors in UK is to be able to recognise their own limitations.  Yes - they actually get paid for doing this!

And they actually get bonuses for failing too.  Having recognised their weaknesses they have to be able to choose the appropriate management consultants and bring them in to 'look at the big picture' for the company and in a 'cost neutral' way make a 'business case' for change, by 'evolution not revolution'.

These (even more highly paid) consultants brandish expressions such as 'agility', 'synergy' and 'empowerment'. They encourage you to generate a 'mission statement', and to 'cascade' their learning through the organisation, seeking 'enablers' to motivate and 'engage' the staff.  'Thinking outside the box' they identify the 'fast track' to 'diversification' but still make sure not to expand the 'core business'.  'Revisiting' the old accusations of 'silo mentality',  'facilitating change' and implementing 'knowledge management' they seek a 'strategic fit' with 'partner organisations',  'ring-fencing' areas of work and 'outsourcing' according to the 'game plan'.

The strangest thing is that the experts genuinely do not know how risible their teachings are.  If you use the word 'agile' in front of the board of directors it gains you 'traction'.  They all nod their heads sagely and agree that their organisation should have that characteristic.

But use the word 'agile' in front of the ordinary employees and and you will find that (generally) they have the wisdom not to laugh at you - but they will do it behind your back.  They have seen this sort of thing happen before and they know to keep quiet (and then ignore it).

Most of them also knew that agility and empowerment would indeed be good things for the company.  Oddly enough, they knew this before they were taught by the consultants, (even if the directors did not).  They also know that it is very rare to find a workplace where the 'change management' actions are properly implemented, however often they have been promised.  Even if they 'go the extra mile'  the management will 'move the goal posts'.

Consultants come and consultants go.  They usually use the same concepts even if they use different name.  Rarely do they deliver what they promised, and when they fail they are never 'attributable'.

Plus ca change!

** Small note: Directors pay continues to advance rapidly while everyone else experiences a pay freeze because after all, these are times of austerity!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

My Islamic conversion - failed

A kind person calling himself @MAXTRACkX on Twitter sent me a message which included a link to a Youtube video.  The Twitter account was only set up today and by now it has probably been reported for spam.  Anyway, I wouldn't recommend you to bother watching the video as it is half an hour of bearded men** talking about how they were converted to Islam, in German, with mulitple sub-titles.  Strangely, the ability to Like or Dislike it is not available at this time.

I say 'he', not because there is any actual evidence from a Twitter account's name and profile, but because it seems obviously to be a man when you see the subject of the video.

I guess he thought it might aid my conversion to the religion of peace.  Instead, it has confirmed my prejudices against Islam.  Why?

  • All the speakers were men.  Yes, I know that is hard to believe.
  • They tell us that Islam is one nation, whatever the ethnicity (but not of course not gender) of the people.  That suggests discrimination against the rest of us.
  • And they have a strong belief that 'all the world is their home'.  My bit of the world is not their home and I hope it stays that way!
  • You get all the holy images that you would expect in such a movie - including the Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaba etc., and that only makes me laugh even more.  Ever-decreasing circles?
Well - my part of the world has managed very nicely without their input to the law and as far as I'm concerned the secular law trumps Sharia.

Incidentally - just in case you wanted to know when the Hajj will take place this year you might find the advice from this site useful.

Hajj is expected to fall between October 24-29, 2012.
Note: The exact dates of Islamic holidays cannot be determined in advance, due to the nature of the Islamic lunar calendar. Estimates are based on expected visibility of the hilal (waxing crescent moon following a new moon) and may vary according to location.

So - science can predict exactly how the celestial bodies move over periods of centuries.  We can land spacecraft with great precision on these bodies, years after they have been launched.  And yet in Islam they can't predict the movement of the moon for this year well enough to predict the time of the New Moon.  Medieval science is still in action!


Small note:  I appreciate that the weather plays a part in sighting the new moon.  If that is the case, then at least they can predict the earliest possible date with certainty.  In the event of cloudy weather there is nothing to say that a gap in the clouds will appear as soon as 5 days later.

** And . . . I am not prejudiced against beards.  Indeed I am suspicious of men who pretend not to have them!

Evolution jigsaw

Studying evolution of the tree of life is like doing a jigsaw.
Some of the pieces are missing and some do not yet fit, but they will in the end!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Teach the controversy - but teach it from the pulpit!

Those of us who follow the argument about the teaching of evolution in schools realise that there is an ongoing battle around the world.  In USA the Intelligent Design (ID) movement uses rhetorical skills to push forward the idea of 'Teaching the Controversy'.

Teach all the controversies (source)

It seems that, in a recent poll, 80% of American adults agreed that schools should 'teach the controversy' about evolution.  That seems like a large figure, but of course it has not been revealed to us what the actual questions were, or how they were led to that choice.  Were they asked whether they knew that there really is NO controversy about it?  On the one side you have the overwhelming weight of evidence from every major science, all fitting together like a giant perfectly interlocking jigsaw puzzle - albeit with quite a lot of pieces still missing and a few that do not yet fit.  On the other hand you have the 'revelation' and imaginings of deluded individuals - some of whom have chosen to make a career out of being controversial.**

You might consider the following admission to be tantamount to confessing to self-harm, but I actually listen to the podcast ID the Future, which is published by The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture in Seattle.  The Discovery Institute is named after the ship HMS Discovery in which George Vancouver  first explored the Puget Sound in 1792.  But on the basis of their work we find that their 'discoveries' do not come from real science.  There is no danger that true hypotheses are generated and tested by their researchers.  In a sense the establishment ought to be called 'The Revelation Institute'.  To give an idea of their true aims, in 2005, a federal court ruled that the Discovery Institute pursues "demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions"

Back to ID the Future!  Yes - I find the listening experience rather irritating (and you can try it out here if you feel strong enough) but at least I have become familiar with the arguments that the ID movement promotes.  Listening to 'whining, whingeing, wet and wittering' regular presenter Casey Luskin is almost a physically painful experience.  (Just listen to an episode to hear what I mean.)  Not long ago he was talking about the shameful entry on Wikipedia for an organisation described as being "associated with the Discovery Institute".  Rather than correct the error the speakers spent an eternity complaining about it.  (Maybe someone should explain to them what a wiki is!)

To give you a flavour of ID The Future, one of their recent podcasts was actively encouraging biological scientists to withhold their critical views of evolution (or Darwinism as they pejoratively refer to it).  But they were only to keep quiet until they have got tenure in a university.  Then they can 'safely' nail their true colours to the mast of the Discovery Institute and claim that the whole of biological science is tainted . . . and that God did it all!  (Oh yes - we should add that it was their god - not any other random deity from the pantheon.)

This is a perfect example of the technique of 'lying for Jesus'.  It also tells a lot about the integrity of the people giving this advice - presumably 'good christians' - that they would publicly speak out about this disingenuous campaign.  This is Christian taqiyya!  It would tell even more if a scientist actually followed their advice, and once in a while you hear sob stories about people being rejected from academic institutions for doing exactly that.

On this week's episode, 4w's Luskin claimed that "We are perfectly comfortable with students learning about views that we disagree with". 

Let's test that theory then.  Would he be happy to teach the controversy from the pulpit in the same 'fair and open' way that they would like to use to promote ID mumbo-jumbo in schools?  For example, let's look at some:
  • the actual evidence for evolution (as mentioned above)
  • the counter evidence to claims about the biblical flood
  • the evidence of the actual life of Jesus (for which there is pitifully little - all of it being from a single collection of biased writings)
  • the evidence that there was no such place as Nazareth in the first century
  • and that 'Darwinism' is not the same as 'the theory of evolution' and it has nothing to say about the origin of life - but only about how it developed.
The list is more or less endless.

I think I'm all for the idea of teaching the controversy as long as we are talking about real controversies.  I suspect we might not agree about where it should be taught.

**Small note:  Might I be accused of making a successful blog out of being controversial?  Maybe.  I'll let you know my conclusion when it really is successful!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Robert Hooke's authentic wig

In yesterday's news, it was reported that a new portrait of the eminent physicist Robert Hooke FRS was to be unveiled in London's Institute of Physics.

What, you might ask, is unusual about this?  Surely famous physicists - and there really have been some famous physicists - are commemorated in this way all the time aren't they? 

Hooke was one of the greatest experimentalists of the 1600s and was described as "England's Leonardo" and "the greatest mechanic of his age" in an era where the word mechanic was a mark of the greatest possible respect.

In spite of all that, only one portrait of him was produced during his life time.  Even that one was destroyed by fire, in an incident that has often been attributed to the misdeeds of his rival, Isaac Newton.  This means that we have literally no record of his appearance at all, except descriptions in words.  And how easy is it to describe a face in words that convey the facts accurately?  I suggest that it is virtually impossible.

None of this seems to have deterred a commission from the Institute of Physics to paint a portrait.  The inability to guarantee that the portrait's appearance resembles him in any way has not prevented artist, Rita Greer from accepting the task.  However I suppose that there is one feature of this montrous image that might have been authentic.  At least the wig looks as though he might have chosen it at some point in his illustrious carreer.

I'm glad I am no longer a member of the IOP.  What a waste of money that could have been used for something useful - like physics! 

Thursday, 12 January 2012

10,000 hours

It is often said that in order to master anything completely, you must put in 10,000 hours of effort.  Those who are naturally skilled or suited to some activities have an advantage over others, and of course some people do not have the required aptitudes at all.  Therefore I think the figure of 10,000 hours applies to those who have a reasonable affinity for the activity but simply need to repeat their learning over and over again, trying every combination of possible approaches and learning which work together most effectively

Now, as Alexandre Dumas said many years ago, "All generalisations are dangerous - even this one", but when you think about it,  there must be a ring of truth to this idea.  It probably explains why I do not feel expert at anything.  When I imagine the things that I feel competent to do, there are probably very few that I have practised for 10,000 hours.  This period of time, after all, is the equivalent of 5 years of full time work (assuming that an average working year is of the order of 2000 hours). 

On that basis, the traditional four or five years spent doing a trade apprenticeship would get the trainee close to this figure.  During that time, the apprentice would have done everything from sweeping the floors and making the tea to at least an awareness of the most difficult aspects of their trade.  But even as newly qualified 'skilled men' (or women) they would continue to learn rapidly for the first few years, particularly if they change employer or move to a slightly different role. 

All is not lost though!  The Pareto rule probably applies, at least approximately.  After 20% of the time you probably gain 80% of the skill and the remaining expertise is only gained by very detailed study.  At the 80% level you can probably cover most of the ground and can feel pretty competent.

The idea also confirms my views about colleagues who change jobs every two or three years.  There is little doubt that careers can be built rapidly in this way, and some are cynical about people who climb the career ladder so quickly in this way.  Applying the 10,000 hour rule you might say that it confirms why people can be cynical, because these 'high flyers' never actually become expert at anything.  They just became pretty good at each role and before they start to get bored they move on to the next.  (Mind you - I have worked with some who seem to jump from job to job just about the time that each new employer realises how hopelessly useless they are!  I guess this is embodied in the Peter Principle.)

How many hours have you put in on any of your hobbies or your work?  Strangely enough, skeptical and atheistic blogging has become one of my hobbies in the last year and I was trying to work out how many hours I have spent on it.  The actual writing, editing and shameless self-publicity via Twitter and Facebook might take half an hour per day, but reading around the subject, listening to the news on radio (or TV), to podcasts and simply noticing every day life around us must take at least twice as much time.  In a year I might have clocked up a massive . . . 500 hours . . . perhaps!

On that basis, in another 3 years time I might begin to feel like competent atheist, and in the worst possible case I will live long enough to become a real expert just in time to be proven wrong!

P.S. That was irony

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Who was this 'Marcion' that Hitch referred to so often?

If you have listened to as much of the oratory skill of Christopher Hitchens as you really ought to have done, you can hardly have failed to notice how often he mentioned a few characters from ancient history and quoted their sayings.  Like me, you might have always intended to find out more about some of them, and like me you might have been out and about, in the car, listening to a podcast or waiting (otherwise bored to death) close to a sports field while one of the children is 'enjoying' herself.

Finally I found a moment to research a little about Marcion.

In this day and age we are quite used to the concept of the 'heretic' in everyday life, even if we do not actually use the word.  Fortunately we do not burn heretics at the stake or stone them to death (at the moment!) in most enlightened countries.  Let us hope that these parts of the world stay like this and that they are not overrun by 'creeping islam' or other religious fundamentalism.  Our present day heretics might include Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett and they have the power of the internet at their disposal to broadcast their message to the world.

It is the freedoms that we enjoy today that allow people like Hitchens to speak openly, and those open words help to open our minds.  No longer are we isolated in communities where the only religious and philosophical wisdom is delivered to us from the pulpit by some well-meaning but bumbling clergyman; a man who knows that he must keep the intellectual level down to the very basics in order to keep the congregation conscious (even if not truly awake and attentive).

Marcion was a man who was trying to do the same thing in the second century CE - to speak out against the accepted, flawed, wisdom of the time.  Fortunately for him he had a good start in life as the son of the bishop of Sinope, and the 'civilised world' (his audience) was small enough that he was able to reach a lot of it with his teachings.  If he was (as recorded by Tertullian) a ship owner, and later consecrated as a bishop himself, then he also had the opportunity to spread his message far and wide.  It seems that he was a man of great wealth, who was able to donate substantial sums of money to the church, and later to have had his donations returned to him.

Gradually he established a string of Marcionite churches, who's teachings were not exactly in line with the rest of the church.  For one reason or another (and scandalous reasons have been proposed by some) he was forced to leave his home town and eventually travelled to Rome.  Conflicts with the bishops of the Catholic Church led to his ex-communication and he returned to Asia Minor to continue his work.

But what were these heretical teachings which made him so unpopular?  When you hear about them you will realise that he was a man of great intelligence - an early free-thinker, and part of the tradition leading to the heretics of today.

First, he noticed that many of the (apparent) teachings of Jesus were wholly incompatible with the books that have now become 'The Old Testament'.  This lead him to a dualist system of belief.  Jesus was not himself god, but was sent, in a sense, to save us from the god of Judaism.  He was the saviour sent by the 'Heavenly Father' and Paul (not Peter) was his chief apostle.  You have to admit that the content of the New Testament (as collected two centuries later than Marcion's lifetime) does tend to lead us to that belief.  Paul has a greater say in the teachings of the church than anyone else and has done ever since the bible was collected.

Marcion also taught that Christianity was separate and distinct from Judaism.  (Here, perhaps, is the beginning of anti-semitism in the form that we still recognise today.)  He taught that the Jewish god YHWH was not the same god that Jesus spoke about.  YHWH had a physical presence on earth and was much less powerful than the divine 'Heavenly Father'.  YHWH was only the jealous tribal god of the Jews and his laws were retributive and unjust.  Jesus had come to bring the new law to the world.

He also had some curious points of view about the physical body of Jesus.  Jesus might not have been a man in the same sense as the rest of us, but instead his body was a representation of a man's.  However, in line with the teachings of the rest of the church he did believe that Jesus had paid for the sins of men by his death on the cross, and that through him we could all inherit eternal life.

This is probably enough of an introduction to the mysterious Marcion who is so often quoted, although it only scratches the surface of an interesting topic.  Now we can see why Hitch was keen to use him as an example of an early free-thinker, albeit a christian free-thinker.  The Marcionite church survived for centuries after he had been declared a heretic in 144 CE and it was a serious rival to the claims of the (surviving) Catholic church at the time.

The greatest point of interest to me is that here was an example of a distinct part of christianity which had radically different views from the rest of the church long before the canon of the bible was established.  It had already split.

Of course, those people who are biblical scholars, and those who have been trained as priests to represent the views of the present church(es), know enough about Marcion.

Marcion's views were overturned centuries ago. But you and I can start to see through that veil now, cant we?  We see that the current church takes a lot of trouble never to mention the alternative views of Jesus which pre-date their own received version.

As with everything, history is written by the victors, and this is certainly true of the way that the bible was collected.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

10 Surprising Things to celebrate!

Today marks the end of the first year in the life of the Something Surprising blog which has been an adventure in many ways. Apart from anything else the blog is a chronicle and collection of the reasons why I have nearly recovered from Christianity.  It is also a collection of some of the fascinating and surprising, scientific and skeptical topics I find out day-to-day.

This time last year I couldn't have imagined how much fun I would have with it.  I had been thinking for a while about blogging but wasn't sure whether anyone would want to read the nonsense I might write.  At the time, two close friends assured me that that they would read it, then my cousin @TrulyUsefulCo kindly showed me the basics, and the adventure began with just a few hits per day.

Fortunately it turned out that I really was  'indulging in another bout of self-deprecation'  as one of the above friends once said to me.  (It has been a standing joke ever since.)  It seems that a few of you can tolerate my regular daily musings and rantings after all.  I'm glad to be able to say that I have posted something, more-or-less surprising, every day since 11th January 2011. (OK - One day it was delayed because the otherwise excellent and free Blogger service was down for emergency maintenance.)  

Some of my posts have been more successful than others, and indeed some of the posts that I was most proud of failed to be noticed as much as I hoped.  Out of the 80,000 page views so far, the following are links to some of the most popular.

By a large margin "Religions know their place in Oxford" has been the most popular.  A chance observation in the famous bookshop, Blackwells in Broad Street, Oxford led to this photo which has amused thousands of people. 

The next most popular was a post that I personally regard to have been a bout of silliness.  (No, I'm not being self-deprecating this time.  It is silly.)  However, A School of Darwin Fish gets a steady flow of visitors, day in and day out.  In fact, that single post continuously gets as many daily visits as the whole of Something Surprising managed during the first two or three months.

You might have noticed a somewhat anti-theistic theme to many of my posts, and the next four posts were on that theme:

I was an atheist . . .  just like you! was a short post on a topic that many of us will recognise.

Asherah - the wife of Yahweh - a comment on polytheism in the Old Testament became very popular several months after it was published.

Entitled to believe was a response to a (now defunct) blog written by a christian friend.  Hopefully it still makes sense on its own.

Irreducible complexity explained with a mousetrap featured a Youtube video and a few comments about evolution.

Just to set the balance straight, although anti-theistic blogging seems to bring in more visitors, some of my semi-scientific observations of surprising things in everyday life seem to have been popular too.

Bursting the bubble showed some ultra-slow motion photos of a bubble bursting.  Beautiful!

Headington Shark reaches 25 years is about a bizarre spectacle in the leafy suburbs of Oxford.

Sink Holes! (in Guatemala) - apparently not caused by alien death rays from space and

Where has all the quicksand gone? harks back to the movies of yesterday.

All of them have had over 1000 views so far.  If you browse the blog you will find many other surprising posts - some better than these.

And did those two friends continue to read my writing after helping me to get started?  I think the answer is that they have not read it very much, but it doesn't matter, and to be honest I don't blame them.   I'm sure they didn't expect me to write so much.  However, without them I wouldn't have had the fun of exploring the world of blogging, and sharing via Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.  Therefore, thanks to LMT and JGM for inspiring the beginning; thanks to those select few who have written guest posts; thanks to colleagues (Little Miss Joey and The Erratic Photographer) with blogs much prettier than mine, who exchange ideas with me over lunch; and thanks to all the regular readers who's visits and comments make it so much fun to write 'Something Surprising' every day.

I will close the first year with a surprising fact!

Did you know that if you scaled the earth down to the size of a billiard ball, its surface would be smoother than the ball's?  The highest mountains and the deepest ocean trenches really are that small compared with the diameter of the earth.

Monday, 9 January 2012

No Health in Us?

The General Confession is part of the Eucharist service in the Anglican Church.   It is one of those Protestant compromises which serves the same purpose as the regular personal confession that Roman Catholics are expected to make to their priest (even though we all know that some of these priests have more extensive personal experience of sin than their parishioners). 

Over many years of attending Eucharist services I always had a problem with saying this every week.  Just read the words:

“Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

But Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare Thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore Thou those who are penitent; According to Thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for His sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of Thy holy Name. Amen.”

So the first problem I have is the word "We".  'We have erred and strayed' have we?  Looking around the congregation I would wonder to myself what gives the other people the right to speak on my behalf.  How can I speak on theirs when I believe that many of them are only there for social reasons, not because they are actually believers.  How do they know whether I have offended against his holy laws, and when it comes down to it, which particular holy laws are we taking about?

Come to think of it, they are not exactly sheep-like either.  It would be easier to herd cats.

The next problem that I have is the sheer negativity of the statement that "There is no health in us".  I find that to be an outrageous insult to each and every one of the congregation - well . . . maybe with one or two exceptions!  Somehow we are all stained with inherited 'original sin' through some magical process which nobody can really understand.   In my humble opinion there there is a good deal of health in many of them.  The fact that many of these people were kind and good, putting themselves to considerable inconvenience to help the needy seems to be good evidence

Moving on, what makes me into a 'miserable offender'?  I might be a bit grumpy at times, but on the whole I would not describe myself as either 'miserable' or an 'offender'.  I might have committed a few indiscretions and perhaps have perpetrated a few thought crimes, but 'miserable offender' seems a bit strong.

Gradually I also began to wonder about these 'promises declared unto mankind' too.  The more I have thought about it the more I doubt these 'promises' and even doubt whether there was a Jesus who was empowered to make those promises.

This General Confession embodies in a single prayer many of the things that I grew to dislike about the church, and in itself sowed the seeds of doubt that led me to become a confirmed atheist today.

So I plan to try to live an ungodly, righteous and secular life.  Complete sobriety is something that I'm still working on, but I don't think the prayer means it in quite the same sense.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Iron - one of the miracles from the Qu'ran

The miracle of iron is one of the Qu'ran's claims to contain some science - which let's face it is a ridiculous claim that cannot stand any serious scrutiny.  The Qu'ran, to give it its due, is at least an iron age text, unlike the Old Testament of the bible who's stories clearly date from the bronze age.

But to claim that

“And We also sent down iron in which there lies great force and which has many uses for mankind…” (Quran 57:25)

proves something that the prophet Mohamed (peace and blessings . . . ) could not possibly have known is just preposterous.

It is even said that this passage comes from the 'middle' of the Qu'ran, as there are 114 sura contained in it.  (This is islamic mathematics at its worst.  It might be more convincing if there were 113 sura.)  But anyway - so what if it is from the middle.  It is only an analogy to the iron in the middle - the core - of the earth.  All analogies are wrong - but only useful for teaching.

Being unaware of the place of the earth in the solar system and the existence of meteorites, apparently this shows that Allah told Mohamed about them, so that he could reveal the fact to his followers.

You might ask how we know that this is all nonsense.  In actual fact it is fiction in many ways.

For a start, does that simple verse suggest that the iron was literally sent down?  Did it arrive like rain or was it sent down in advance of people so that they could use it?  Which way is 'down' anyway?  This whole concept belies the flat-earth concepts of the time rather than any notion that the earth is spherical, and in doing that it disproves the scientific 'knowledge' contained elsewhere.

Even if we assume that the verse is to be interpreted as iron being sent down in the form of meteorites this has no prophetic value whatsoever.  It had been known for thousands of years that some of the 'stones' that fell from the sky had an unusual quality of being made of a metal that had not been found on earth.  It was only much later that people found how to extract iron from natural ores on earth, and all the early iron working is thought to have been carried out using meteoritic iron.  We know this because ancient iron artifacts are found to contain a substantial amount of nickel - typical of the contents of meteorites and very much untypical of iron ores found on earth.

The miracle of iron is not a miracle in the sense claimed by islam.  However, without iron, created in the supernovae of the past, life as we know it would not be possible.  Iron is only made in stars much more massive than our own sun, and all the iron in the solar system including that which makes up the core of the earth came from those long dead suns.

We are indeed made of stardust, and somehow the fount of all wisdom, the Qu'ran, fails to mention any of this truly amazing fact.

Miraculous isn't it?

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Customers wanted

Seen outside a nice little shop in Chapel Stile, Cumbria.

At least someone has a sense of humour there.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Recovering Christmas Curmudgeon!

I'm not saying that I completely dread the annual excesses and triviality of Christmas, but I'm glad to have survived to the end of another one and escaped, largely unscathed.  Even the New Year nonsense is more-or-less over.  All those questions from colleagues about whether I had a good break and whether I went away at Christmas can be put behind me for another year.

Although the holiday season has many features that we can all enjoy, it is nice to be able to sit back and relax and consider the benefits of reaching twelfth night, and knowing that it is all over for another year.  The turkey is either finished or safely frozen for use in coming weeks when we will be able to enjoy it properly.  The decorations are safely packed away and have been returned to the loft for another 11 months (or hopefully a little longer).  At last there is more space in the house where the dreaded Christmas tree was standing, and I can finally get into cupboards that were behind it.

The best thing about the end of the holidays is to be rid of that bl**dy tree - but for next year I have found the perfect alternative.  I have no idea why I haven't seen this before.  It could be a space-saving miracle to hang the tree upside down from the ceiling, complete with all the pretty decorations.  I'll try to get away with it next year - but I fear that I will fail.

No longer do I have to look delighted when given one of those presents that can be considered as nothing other than a 'gift'.  Have you noticed the sort of thing that I'm thinking of?  It is one of those products that you find in a 'gift shop'.  It is something that you would never dream of buying for yourself, but still you find yourself buying it to give to someone else. 

I suppose all of us do it to some extent, just to make sure that none of the relatives feel left out - even though many of them would probably feel as I do.  I have to admit (ungratefully) that I sometimes wish that people would have saved their money and thus saved me from having to lie about how much I appreciate the 'gift' . 

Think here of a tin of sweets in the shape of a train, bought by a thoughtful nephew, because 'Uncle likes steam trains doesn't he?'  Whether Uncle likes the dolly mixtures contained in the tin (he doesn't) or feels appalled by the pathetic depiction of a steam locomotive by an arty designer who appreciates nothing of the engineering beauty of a real locomotive (he does) isn't relevant.  At least he has been given a present and he should be grateful for it!

Well - lovely as it was that people think of me - please let me escape the Christmas commercialism for another year, along with the sheer waste that goes with it.

Bring back the old spiritual aspects of Christmas!  As a confirmed atheist I am likely to complain about the inconsistencies contained therein too, but at least I wouldn't be feeling offended by the sheer squandering of resources that the secular people of earth could use for something useful instead.

So next year, thanks for the thought but don't worry about giving me 'gifts'.

Small note:  Christmas rant over and done with now!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Surprising 'Wise men' myths?

How many 'wise men' (or kings or astrologers or whatever you like to call them) were at the manger at the time of Jesus' birth?

I'm sure you thought the answer was so obvious that it would be beneath contempt to say "Three".  Actually, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the answer is quite surprising.

In fact the Bible never mentions the presence of three (or any other number of) wise men at the manger when Jesus was born, even though you might think it does.  Their names are just as absent as the manger and their quantity, even if you happen to think you know that one of them was called Melchior and the others were . . . well . . . can't quite think of them just at the moment.

You might attribute the idea of 'three wise men' to the mention of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but as evidence goes that is a little thin.  However many there were, according to Matthew the 'astrologers' went to see Jesus in a house not a stable:

“And when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him”(Matt. 2:11)

Incidentally, Luke's gospel is the only other one to mention the birth of Jesus, and he neglects to mention either the star or the wise men who followed it.  Mark and John have nothing to say on the matter of the birth at all.

So how old was Jesus when they found him?  There is no mention of the 'twelfth night' of Christian tradition.  In fact he could have been up to two years old because when the wise men failed to return to Herod to tell him about Jesus, Herod set out to kill all the children under the age of two.  Presumably anyone could tell the difference between a new-born baby and a 2 year old?

So this is yet another case of the bible not actually saying the things that all Christians believe it to say. 

What a surprise!

Not only that, but Matthew keeps telling us which prophecy was fulfilled by each part the story, ensuring that we, the ignorant readers, are perfectly clear about the purpose of the wandering stars and miraculous escapes from unrecorded historical massacres.

Without these hints we might not have found it so totally believable!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The evidence is (not) overwhelming!

How often have you heard a Christian apologist express incredulity that you don't believe in an all powerful creator god who intervenes in the world to answer prayers?

They tell me that the evidence for god is overwhelming - and the moment I hear that expression I know that the last thing I am going to hear from them is any actual evidence whatsoever.

You hear:
  • the evidence of the bible
  • the evidence of the resurrection
  • the evidence of irreducible complexity
  • the evidence of fine tuning
  • etc etc
None of these work in any way.
  1. After all, the bible is not even self-consistent and any decent lawyer would quickly show it to be worth nothing as evidence in a court of law.  
  2. The resurrection is only evidence for anyone if you believe in the word of the bible.  See item 1.
  3. Irreducible complexity is only evidence of the logical fallacy of 'the argument from personal incredulity'. 
  4. Fine tuning arguments betray some of the features of item 3, but also demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the laws of probability when they are used retrospectively.
They all act as evidence that the person using the arguments does not have a real understanding of the term 'evidence'.  One type of evidence that most of us would accept is the 'double-blind' approach.

The concept of the double-blind test is one where neither the person carrying out the experiment nor the subject of the experiment knows whether they are participating in the real trial or the placebo control.  This idea can be extended in inventive ways to determine whether there really is good evidence for an hypothesis, even in cases where you might think it is difficult.

Controlled experiments have been carried out over the decades to determine whether prayer works.  I suppose you could claim that these tests are not truly blinded tests though.  Surely omnipotent god must know that he is being tested.  Perhaps these trials show only that god does not like to be tested - and hence he fails to answer the prayers while someone is watching.  However, that is not the sort of behaviour that you would like to see from a loving god is it?

So - I challenge you religious apologists to provide some of this overwhelming evidence that you claim to have for the existence of your god.

I'm waiting . . . .

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

New Year Numerology

I never could get the point of celebrating New Year, and this year is no different.

Apart from the fact that the household was disturbed by fireworks as late as 02:30 and that the phone rang a couple of times, we woke this morning to find the drains blocked by some kind and generous neighbour pouring liquid fat down their sink.  (You guessed it - it didn't remain liquid for long!)

The New Year seems to be no better than the old.

However, why does nobody ever notice that the timing of New Year is only the result of something akin to numerology?  Someone, sometime, decided that the clocks should say the time that they do.  The whole system is based on the happenstance that the zero meridian passes through the royal Greenwich Observatory at Greenwich.  Had the Rose Line in Paris been successfully deployed instead, the moment of celebration would be a few minutes earlier, (or indeed nearly an hour later due to the artificial and ridiculous one hour time difference between Paris and London).  If we chose the meridian on the basis of the 'centre of mass' of the world's population then it would sure be somewhere else.

Why not choose the meridian that passes through Mecca?  Many Muslims claim that it has a special place on the surface of the earth, involving the golden ratio in the distance from Mecca to the north and south poles and some other numerologocial nonsense.  (Their claims relating to longitude are not on such firm footing but hey - why not choose to use someone else's numerology when it turns out to suit your argument!  See the note at the end of this post for a link.)

As good skeptics, I feel that it is our duty to question the arbitrary choice of time and to celebrate whenever it suits us, instead of following the herd and doing what everyone else does.

After all, it was only from 1753 that New Year was deemed to take place on 1st January.  For centuries before that, in England at least, New Year was 'celebrated' on 'Lady Day', 25th March.

Let's just say that I understand the need for an excuse to have a party sometimes, and at least the fuss that surrounds New Year is little less annoying than the fuss surrounding the choice of 25th December as the birthday for the mythical baby Jesus.

I'm just glad that all the fuss is over for another year.  I only have to tolerate a few days of being greeted with a cheery 'Happy New Year' and then we can go back to celebrating a happy New Day every morning in the normal way.

++ If you want a good chuckle about numerology, follow this perfectly serious link to a Youtube video about the Golden Ratio and the place of Mecca.  The surprising thing is that the claims about the latitude of Mecca are quite (but not exactly) accurate. 

Small note: This is published deliberately at a moment that is not dead on New Year.  It might have been, if another arbitrary time system had been chosen.  Happy Alternative New Year!

A righteous brawl in Bethlehem

Priests and monks in the church at the spot that is alleged to be the birth place of Jesus have always had a hard time.

For a start, it is nearly obvious that Jesus wasn't born there at all, and that they have to convince themselves and the public that this form of 'lying for Jesus' is not a sin.

But the different denominations have also had to cooperate with each other to keep the place clean, and apparently the rights to clean particular areas are jealously guarded.

It seems that they have failed to maintain their composure this week.  Armed with brooms the clergy of the Armenian and Orthodox movements have had a pitched battle.

What a way to behave in front of the public!  Apparently injuries were 'slight.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The 'Gish Gallop'

Until the last 2 or 3 months I had never noticed the term 'Gish Gallop'.  That is not to say that I was unaware of the debating technique, either in writing or in person.  I'm sure we have all seen it happen, where one of the contributors to a debate tries to drown their opponent with a stream of barely relevant drivel in order to prevent the opponent from getting a word in.  In a parliamentary context, the technique of 'filibustering' is used for a similar purpose.

Duane Gish is an American biochemist and a prominent member of the creationist movement.  Gish has been characterized as using a rapid-fire approach during a debate, presenting arguments and changing topics very quickly.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the (US) National Center for Science Education, has dubbed this approach the "Gish Gallop," describing it as "where the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn't a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate".  This is the context in which the term is most often heard. 

She also criticized Gish for failing to answer objections that his opponents did actually manage to raise. 

The technique is far from rare, and far from acceptable.  The solution to the problem is very clear in the formal debates.  It is obvious that it is the job of the chair of the debate to give both parties an equal opportunity to make their argument and it appears to me that the gish gallop is a sign of failure to keep control of the debate.

Small note:  Have you ever noticed this being used in the comments on blogs?  :))

Sunday, 1 January 2012

An Independent Hogmanay

An old university friend pointed me to a web site campaigning for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom a little while ago.  Reading One Dynamic Nation  I find myself wondering what is in this for the English.

I find that it is disproportionately aimed at convincing the Scots to remain part of the Union because they get such a good deal out of the arrangement, and I think that is only half the story. 

I wonder, can anyone can put a positive spin on it from the point of view of the English?  We never get a chance to vote in these referenda, but if we did I suspect that the cause of Scottish independence would get quite a big boost. 

The main point is that rural England gets the worst of both worlds - we get trampled underfoot by the London government, just like Scotland, and we get the blame from the Scots for the way that government treats everyone else.  (I am writing from the constituency next to David Cameron's - one where my vote counts for nothing as the Conservative majority is insurmountable.)  Many of us who live outside the metropolis feel just as powerless as the Scots to influence the country towards a successful future.  Somehow we feel that this is not appreciated by those in the other parts of the Union, when solidarity would be better for all of us.

Remember that England warms to London about as much as Scotland warms to Glasgow - and yes I know that Glasgow is not the capital.  Somehow most of the English lump all the Scots together in their uncomplimentary thoughts, and the Scots lump all the English together in the same way.  But ask a Devonian what she thinks she has in common with a Geordie, or a resident of Barra what she has in common with someone from the Gorbles, or indeed Holyrood.  None of them understand each other, in either country.

In my travels around the world I have found people to be nicer than I expected in every country, and my inbuilt bias against the people has never survived intact.  Those who don't travel outside their own home area find their bias unchallenged.  I know a chap who seems to think (humorously of course) he needs a passport to go North of Woodstock (just a few miles North of his home in Oxford).  I expect most of us know people like that. 

It is not surprising that many Scots want independence when they have been taught to hate the English since they were toddlers.  But why fight it?  Why not just let them have independence and see how much they like their own government after they have got over the euphoria.  Its not use claiming the wealth from North Sea oil or gas.  That is a drop in the ocean - or should I say 'a potential slick in the ocean'.

English Independence!

I think many of the English would be happy to go for independence from Scotland too.  The subject came up over dinner on Boxing Day, and without actually taking a vote, it was clear that the majority of the adults would be quite happy to see this happen.

Or Independence from London?

As an alternative, should we all vote for independence from London?  That would make just as much sense as independence from the Union for Scotland.

Sadly we all have to put up with a London-focused government, or suffer the consequences of prime ministers and governments of the type we have today - namely those who were barely elected and who are laying waste to Britain by all their actions.