Monday, 31 December 2012

The fastest way to send data

Everyone thinks of super-fast optical fibres as being the best way to transfer data from one location to another.  Big organisations generate a lot of data, and in the case of one that I know, 1 terabyte is gathered every day.  It was expensive to gather that data and it is important that it is not lost, so a backup copy is kept on another site 10km away.

How is the data sent? 

By motorbike courier on a backup tape!

Who would have thought that the fastest way to transfer data would be by motorbike?

Small note:  OK, it probably takes a long time to write the data onto the tape, and that should be taken into consideration, but that spoils the story a bit!

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Three answers to prayer

You might think that there are only two answers to prayers (along with of course the lack of an answer that most of us experience if we are being honest).

The two obvious options are Yes and No.  You would hope that a prayer would be answered in such a definitive way.

However, faced with the need to rationalise the observation that prayers are not answered, religious people have invented a get-out clause.  The third answer is

"I have a better idea"

Well of course the one way to get better ideas for ourselves is to think about things - and surely that is all that prayer is.  Asking someone else for their opinions (even if they don't actually exist) is another way to have better ideas.  Haven't you ever had the experience of going to discuss a problem with a friend or colleague and then realising a new answer as you open your mouth to speak?

I've often experienced that and explain it without recourse to a magical friend in the sky.

Nothing fails like prayer!

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Surprisingly long . . .

'Abbreviation' is a surprisingly long word isn't it?

Along the same lines, 'typewriter' is the longest word that can be typed on the top row of keys on a QWERTY keyboard.

 By coincidence the length of this post is surprisingly opposite.

Friday, 28 December 2012

In those days we were all British

(Well - this applies to all the people in the British Isles of course)

Seeing this silly tee-shirt and smiling at it, I can't help but think of it as a sign of the times.

Titanic deception tee shirt
Titanic deception

The Titanic was sunk, in a vain attempt to win the Blue Riband for an Northern Irish company, Harland and Wolff, on her maiden voyage.  She was proceeding without caution as was standard practise at the time, under the command of an Englishman who had had his share of maritime accidents.  Captain Smith himself had declared that he could not "imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that."

Now I wonder who told him that?  Was that a case of an Englishman being deceived by an Irishman?  How unusual.

And if you are Irish you have no more right to be offended by this than I as an Englishman have to be offended by the tee shirt slogan.

Anyway, it all happened a long time ago when they were both British and we were nothing at all.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Full stops are rude?

I have been hearing some surprising small hints about the teen culture in text messaging.

Did you know that it is rude to finish your message with a full stop?  Apparently this is an indication that the conclusion is a somewhat  pointed remark.

And who would have guessed that a smiley face in the wrong context can be taken as a hint of sarcasm? :)

On asking how we are supposed to know these things, it was not very reassuring to be told "it doesn't matter for you because you are old".  Hmm . . . not all that old!  I don't yet know what I want to do when I grow up!

But apparently I am safe, so if you find me committing either of those offences please forgive my age!  I'll continue with my opinion that it is rude not to punctuate your sentences properly.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Being open minded

"Be more open minded" I am sometimes told, mainly by Christians who really mean that I should try harder to agree with their particular point of view.

So I could ask them, "Why should I believe an account of a random person with a spooky story that makes no sense?" and immediately I am being even more closed-minded even though I was asking a question that they can't honestly answer with facts.

To them I would say that it is not a virtue to be easily persuaded.  Critical thinking is the key.  Critical thinking actually requires an open mind, and simply requiring evidence before believing something is no more 'closed-minded' than to claim that faith is a virtue.

On top of that, personal anecdotes about the unexplained are not evidence of the existence of any god, especially yours, and cannot be explained by God any better than they are explained by the magical actions of the mythical tooth fairy.

So we have to ask who shows the most willingness to consider new ideas.  Is it the faithful or the skeptical?

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

One quiet atheist . . . and Christmas cracker jokes

I've found it best to keep quiet today, surrounded by a very pleasant family group, and outnumbered 12 to 1.  It is not that I was afraid to give my opinion, but I was polite enough not to.

Even when (or especially when) everyone at the table was supposed to say grace together, as if it was some kind of weird party game, I managed to keep quiet.  I fail to see why some magic spell chanted before eating is any use to anyone.

Christmas lunch brought the usual crop of Christmas crackers with their unbelievable puns.  A few of them seemed worth repeating though.

Q.  Why don't you see penguins in Britain?
A.  Because they are afraid of Wales!

Q.  What do you give a man who has everything?
A.  Antibiotics.  **

Q.  What did the grape do when it got stepped on?
A.  It let out a little wine.

Well . . . that was the standard of my Christmas Day humour.  How was yours?

**  Small note:  The two qualified medics at the table didn't really get this one!

Methodist Christmas!

Methodists are famous for disapproving - particularly of alcohol and games of chance.  So that makes it all the more amusing to find this large die on the table.  Apparently is is OK to play games of chance if the end result is to choose which version of grace to say before a meal.  (None of the sides are blank.  As usual things are stacked against non-believers!)

Methodist games of chance, for Christmas
Methodist games of chance, for Christmas

I tolerate this just as I tolerate all the other convenient compromises in Christianity.  It is best to be tolerant, otherwise I might not get anything to eat this Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all my readers, but only in a secular way!

Small note: I might smuggle a drop of Irish whiskey in for the evening!

Monday, 24 December 2012

FSM in Christmas lights

At this Facebook link, you can see an entertaining and surprising photo of some seasonal lights.  Is this the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the deity of pastafarianism?

FSM in Christmas lights
FSM in Christmas lights
Was this created by the church of the FSM, or the reformed church of the FSM?  This is the important question.

Which has truly been touched by his noodly appendage?

You may find guidance in your search for the truth in the related posts:
FSM strikes in Austria
The Invisible Pink Unicorn

Small note: Thanks to Paula and Theodora for this link

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Dr Who to the rescue

I've been hearing rumours about how the world was saved from near certain annihilation earlier this week.

Stories are circulating on the internet about a mysterious character arriving in a police box with a charming female companion, and defeating the space Mayans.

And who said that Dr Who is fictional?

You haven't arrived until you have spoken

I was (reluctantly) attending a training course a little while ago, and the trainer opened with "You haven't metaphorically arrived until you have spoken".

She also commented that "because I'm not a scientist I had to draw myself a picture".   That just shows how science is misunderstood.  After all, scientists never draw pictures do they?

But it got a little better when she told us that "Neurologically, humans work better if it is clear what is required"  (wow!) and then a little worse when we were told to "embrace praise but let criticism slide off".

After too many hours of being patronised by a trainer who would have been perfect for a younger less-experienced audience I fall back on the words of George Bernard Shaw.  You can find them at this link.

Paradoxically the poor trainer suffered the consequences of her opening remarks a little later when everyone was so outraged that they had almost all arrived metaphorically to an extent that required her to call in reinforcements.

I actually felt sorry for her.

Another aspect of the story is that fellow atheists might take her advice too.  You haven't arrived until you talk about your atheism.  That gives me an excuse for going on about it so much.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Is this the end of the world?

About 12 hours ago I started to ask myself, "Is this the end of the world?"

And then I realised that it was just Penrith at mid-day on a grey and drizzly winter solstice.  It was not a pretty sight!

The Mayans knew nothing of Penrith, just as they knew nothing about the end of the world.

(Sorry to Penrith and sorry for the lovely people living there!)

Friday, 21 December 2012

Fallen leaves

A pretty sight struck me one day and I captured it with that marvelous technological wizardry that is usually with me, my mobile phone.

A sudden fall of leaves
A sudden fall of leaves

After a sharp frost, the leaves must have dropped very suddenly.  Wouldn't it be fun to come back to your car after a days work and find it under a drift of leaves like this.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Join Avaaz and choose the campaigns that matter to you.

Avaaz is a significantly successful campaigning organisation.  They recently sent me an e-mail which I would like to share with you.  Join Avaaz and have your say.  It is one of the few ways that ordinary people in democracies have to affect the world around them.

With 2012 almost over, I wanted to take a second to stop and reflect on this crazy, beautiful community of hope that we've all created together. The numbers are mind-boggling --
  • 17.2 million of us are getting this email today, and that number is skyrocketing -- almost doubling in the last several months!
  • We've come together from all 194 nations, 1.7 million of us in Brazil, 1.6M in France, 773,000 in India. Here's the map
  • We've taken more than 100 million actions, online and offline, and told over 250 million friends about important campaigns
  • Our voices have brought awareness to critical issues, with coverage in at least 15,000 news reports this year alone
  • 400,000 of us have donated, giving almost $7 million through Avaaz to other humanitarian and democracy organisations
  • 20,000 of us have already started, and started winning, campaigns using our new community petition tool

But behind the numbers is so much more -- thousands of stories of people coming together with a hope that is powerful enough to overcome cynicism and achieve change. Not just in small ways, but in some really, really big ways.  

Remember Malala, the incredibly brave young girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for girls education? In a week, the Avaaz team worked with partners in Pakistan to identify an ambitious plan to get all kids into school, and after 886,000 of us signed the petition for this plan, the UN education envoy Gordon Brown presented it directly to President Zardari who himself signed the petition! Malala was "thrilled" to be greeted in hospital with the news that Zardari had approved funds to get 3 million more children into school! Brown called our mobilisation "crucial".  

This was just before 1.8 million of us played a major role in winning a Palestinian state. After Israel and the US started bullying countries to vote against it at the UN, we unleashed opinion polls in 4 countries, thousands of phone calls, lobbied leaders and erected giant 4 storey flags outside official meetings. In the final vote only 9 countries out of 193 voted against! The EU Palestinian Ambassador said "Avaaz played a critical role in persuading governments to support the Palestinian people's bid...their solidarity and support will be remembered and cherished across Palestine".

And earlier this year, a whopping 2.8 million of us joined a powerhouse campaign to stop the ACTA treaty -- a critical win against global corporations trying to censor the Internet. The treaty died in Europe, and the Parliament's president said he was "very impressed by Avaaz's massive petition which was taken seriously by the European Parliament". Other leading members of Parliament publicly cited our voices as critical to getting them to scrutinize and oppose ACTA.

That's 3 of literally hundreds of stories to tell about this year alone! (Check out our updates page for more.) I can't wait to see what our community is capable of in 2013, from protecting rainforests and wildlife to standing with the Syrian people and the Arab Spring to dismantling Rupert Murdoch's corrupt media empire, and so much more.   

This is an amazing thing we've built together, an engine of hope and change in the world. And every one of us has contributed to make it happen. Next time you're out at dinner with friends or at a party, try asking if anyone else is part of Avaaz. Chances are someone will be, and maybe you'll have a conversation that builds your hope. Because we can achieve a lot on our own, but if we come together and stick together, anything is possible.

With enormous appreciation for every lovely and committed person in this unique community,

Ricken and the whole Avaaz team

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Bloody Post Office ... and Building Societies, and Christmas!

I have always been a fan of UK's 'Building Societies' - in general - but in this case they have annoyed me!  In this day and age, wouldn't it be reasonable to expect to be able to transfer MY money from one of MY accounts to another of MY accounts quite quickly?  Within one country I think it should be more or less instantaneous, shouldn't it?

If it took a whole day that would be understandable due to bureaucracy and general banking greed, although not really acceptable.  But when it looks likely to take three weeks to get money from an instant access account into my bank's current account then that starts to annoy me.

Let me first praise my bank, First Direct, who have been unbelievably helpful in all my years with them.  They are the recipient of my frequent phone calls and their staff are unfailingly cheerful and helpful.  I can transfer my money to another person instantaneously, and without stress.

But the Building Societies seem not to have moved into the current century.  I'm trying to transfer money from two of them to my bank account for an important transaction at the end of the month, and for two different reasons this has been difficult, and at best annoying.

The first is a local company.  I have dealt with them for 26 years and on balance they have been excellent.  On requesting them to transfer money they very nicely explained that a direct transfer would cost me £25, but they could write me a cheque free of charge.  Given that the transaction is in the range of 5 figures I should have simply paid them the £25, but being an honorary Yorkshireman (wanting to save £25), I decided to post the cheque to my bank.  One week later it hasn't arrived.  How odd that the whole banking system is trying to move people away from writing cheques, and yet in this case I was encouraged to use one.

At this point the Post Office takes a lot of the blame.  Even considering that this is a busy time of year due to some sort of semi-religious festivals, one week is much too long for first class mail.  I could have delivered it by hand in less than three hours and for only £50 worth of fuel!  Christmas/Honecker mail is a nightmare for anyone who needs the mail service for something that is important and urgent.  It is clogged up by unimportant non-urgent Christmas nonsense!

But the Chelsea Building Society deserves special mention.  On (eventual) receipt of a clear first-class letter  (thanks again to the Post Office) requesting that they transfer the contents of one of their accounts to First Direct, with the address, sort code and account number clearly defined, they took it into their own minds to send a cheque.  No, not to the clearly defined bank, but to my own address.  I guess that will take a week.  [Small edit - it arrived in two days after all, but now needs to survive the post to my bank]  And then Christmas holidays and another week to get the cheque to the bank and then four working days to clear the cheque . . .

I want to scream!!!  Actually I have screamed at them, albeit in writing.  I expect that they will treat this request with the same contempt as the last one.

So I will just mention the Chelsea Building Society again.  This is a company that paid good interest on an account for many years, and then suddenly dropped the interest to virtually nothing without telling the account holder.  Companies like this deserve special mention for their services.

Meanwhile I blame myself for failing to start this process in motion a week or two earlier.  There I go again - "indulging in another bout of self-deprecation" as a friend tells me sometimes.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Science personality of the year!

Don't laugh.  I recently had to tolerate the oxymoronic 'Sports personality of the year' nonsense from the BBC - albeit in the next room.

And were there any personalities?  I don't wish to disparage the great sports people of the world, but being good at sport no more makes you a 'personality' than being a good newsreader, or indeed a good scientist. 

I'm bored by sport, and just standing in front of a crowd and thanking the rest of the team for their support doesn't make any difference to me.  I'm still bored.  Just jumping a little higher or longer, running a little faster, or diving a little more elegantly is not enough to make you into a personality.

Interestingly, I think the winner of the competition is a true personality.  Bradley Wiggins is actually interesting to listen to.  His interviews have been impressive.  But when I have observed this to friends they have questioned whether he had won it because of his personality.  Given that the person who came in third place was Andy Murray I have to admit that they have a point, but still it is worth celebrating a success for the BBC, even if it was accidental.

There are real personalities in the world.  Yes, we have to include some sports people in that category, but they have to compete with other real personalities, like Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett etc.  (Maybe I'm showing a little bias towards atheists here? Sorry.  Therefore I will include Jonathan Edwards who used to be a Christian and used to be a sportsman.)

Lots of people have heard of these famous sportsmen and women, and they all take their 'hobbies' very seriously, but that hardly excuses the BBC's implication that there are no personalities in science. They don't make programmes about science personalities, but only about their discoveries.  I personally feel that the other serious professions have been betrayed by the media.

Breaking a sporting record is indeed a great feat, but finding a treatment for a specific disease and having the stamina to get it through clinical trials is a greater feat.  Hundreds of other scientific projects are equally worthy, and any scientist will tell you that they know some real personalities.  The same will apply to economists, philosophers and even politicians!

Those who truly deserve our respect are the ones who do more than their own current profession.  To excel at their chosen sport and excel at their profession is rare indeed.

But why don't our (merely) rising scientists get as much public acclaim as our declining sportists?  Sportists are always young and by the time they are famous they are probably close to their peak.

Accomplished scientists should get even more credit! 

Monday, 17 December 2012

UK census 2011 - good news!

The statistical results are now available for the national census of the UK, taken last year.  And those results are interesting in many ways, but from the point of view of a secularist the most interesting thing is what they say about attitudes to religion.

It seems that the number of people with no religion has jumped to 25%, and in Wales it is even higher.  The Office of National Statistics page gives the highlights of this section of the census.  As usual though, one has to ask what spin is being put on any statistical report.

'The religion question' on the census was the only one that was not mandatory.  The reason for this was not at all clear, but it gave 7% of people the chance not to respond to it.  Why would they not respond?  It seems unlikely that they preferred not to claim a religion but more likely that they did not want to admit to their doubts.  This idea might be supported by the observation that 

Between 2001 and 2011  there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent). There were increases in the other main religious group categories, with the number of Muslims increasing the most (from 3.0 per cent to 4.8 per cent).

Norwich leads the way in atheism, with 42.5%.  I know that will disappoint at least one friend who likes to say that Brighton holds the record.  However, Brighton, with a disappointing 42.4% it will have to pull up its socks.  At least it has 9 years available to build up to a resounding victory in the next census.  To be fair to it, a larger proportion of the the Brighton population preferred not to answer the question, so it is possible that it still holds the lead in reality.

As you can imagine, the National Secular Society is not silent on the topic.  In Census shows huge drop in number of Christians in Britain they report on some of the results.  NSS president Terry Sanderson said: 

"Such an enormous reversal in the space of ten years is an indication of the huge upheaval there has been in religious attitudes in Britain.  It should serve as a warning to the churches that their increasingly conservative attitudes are not playing well with the public at large. It also calls into question the continued establishment of the Church of England whose claims to speak for the whole nation are now very hard to take seriously."

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Falkirk Wheel

This is a great bit of modern waterway engineering, designed to transport canal boats from a higher to a lower level in a single step.

The Falkirk Wheel is well worth a visit if you are in central Scotland.

Small note: yes I know that one of my labels on this blog post is "England's Waterways" when this is in Scotland, but I'm not going to make a new label just for one post!

Friday, 14 December 2012

Fusion Fuels part 5 - Tritium.

This is part of a series examining how the fuels for a fusion reactor are likely to be obtained.  In part 1, I described the Isotopes of hydrogen and named them.  In part 2, Mining deuterium, we saw how deuterium can be extracted from ordinary water, and brought up to a concentration of 20 to 25%, and in part 3 we saw how it can be 'vacuum distilled' to produce 'heavy water' with a purity of 99% deuterium (and a 1% impurity of protium).  Part 4 described how that water can be turned into deuterium gas by a process called electrolysis.

The other component of the fuel, namely tritium, is made by a completely different process. 

I mentioned previously that tritium is not found in nature in any significant quantities.  There is a tiny amount in the upper atmosphere where it is produced by high energy cosmic rays interacting with the gases that are present there.  Most of that tritium escapes into space, and the rest decays into 3He (which also then escapes).

It is true that there was a lot more tritium in the atmosphere in the past - particularly in the 1960s when USA and USSR were detonating hydrogen bombs and making a nuisance of themselves to the inhabitants of islands in the Pacific and in desert regions of USA and USSR.  Some people estimate that there may have been more than one tonne of tritium in the atmosphere at the time.  It is still a tiny quantity.

Tritium in air, peaked in 1963
Tritium in air, peaked in 1963

The surprising thing is that all of that tritium was man-made in the arms race, using nuclear fission reactors.  You can look this up for yourself if you like.  I won't dwell on it because it is not the way that tritium is expected to be produced for fusion reactors in the future and therefore I don't care about it very much, except to acknowledge that the tritium used for fusion at the moment comes from a Canadian plant at Darlington in Ontario.  There they run a process to remove the tritium from the cooling water of the CANDU reactors.  In most CANDU reactors, the tritium is an inconvenient by-product.  However, just a few years ago, South Korea proposed building more CANDU reactors specifically in order to make tritium for the ITER project.

The fusion programme has other plans for the long term though.  There is another way to breed tritium and it is one of the greatest benefits of fusion as a future power source.  In principle, you can make your own tritium in your fusion reactor, as long as you get the engineering right.  That means that you will not have to transport the one and only radioactive material that you need to make fusion work.  This is all due to a fortuitous bit of physics.  Since all the physics of the production of deuterium seems to go against us, perhaps it is about time that something went the right way!

In the process of nuclear fusion, the heavy isotopes of hydrogen are forced to combine at high temperature.  As they fuse together to create helium, they have one neutron to spare.  About 80% of the huge amount of nuclear energy released by the reaction is in the kinetic energy of this neutron, and the remainder is in the energy of the helium ion.  Neutrons are not constrained by magnetic fields, so they escape from the hot plasma in the reactor, travelling in all directions.  The doughnut shaped plasma will be surrounded by a 'blanket' which is designed to stop as many of these neutrons as possible and force them to give up their energy as heat.  The heat will generate steam, and the steam will drive turbines to produce electricity.

But the cunning part of the plan is that if this blanket contains a widely available and relatively cheap metal called lithium we get an additional benefit.  If you can slow the neutrons down and 'collect' them with lithium, the metallic element gets turned into two gaseous elements, tritium and helium.  Hey!  Tritium!  As if by magic, the fusion process produces part of its own fuel.  All you have to supply to the system is fresh lithium (and good technology).

Obviously there is an additional step to the process, to separate the tritium from the helium (which is easy) and from the cooling water, which is a little more complex.  However, these aspects of the process are similar to the methods described to separate deuterium from ordinary water.

Each phase in this process has been demonstrated to work, and the ITER tokamak will eventually include a test module to prove the process on an experimental scale.  Industrialisation of the whole process is just one of the steps required to make the concept of fusion power into reality, but it is already well beyond the science-fiction stage.

Now one question remains.  Is it worth all the energy that is used to make the fuel?  Do you get more energy back from nuclear fusion than you put into manufacturing of the fuel.

The answer is affirmative.  The cost of the deuterium is trivially small and the indications are that the processing of lithium ore and production of tritium will cost about the same as the fuel for a fossil-fuel power station.

Now we just need to build a full scale fusion reactor!

Read other articles in this series:
Fusion Fuels: Part 1 - The isotopes of hydrogen
Fusion Fuels: Part 2 - 'Mining' deuterium.
Fusion Fuels part 3 - Making 'heavy water'
Fusion fuels 4 - Electrolysis of heavy water

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Everything everywhere or nothing nowhere

Customer focus is not the order of the day for most mobile phone companies.  (Apologies for another UK-centric post, but I imagine this happens world-wide.)  T-Mobile and Orange seemed to have combined their business into a new one called Everything Everywhere - or Nothing Nowhere as I like to think of it.

During the last year, the cost of sending an SMS message has been increased by a factor of four, when it is perfectly obvious that the actual cost of sending data has dropped.  For that reason, I jumped ship a few months ago and joined another network called Giffgaff, whose charges have been much more reasonable.  So far it has been a much better service both for my phone and for my mobile internet dongle and I have been sufficiently pleased with them to transfer another family to them, with a third and fourth to come soon.

So I wanted to get the PAC code to transfer the third over while keeping the same phone number.  All I needed was 25 pence credit to pay for the call to customer service (plus probably the same again to call for a second time after being cut off because of a weak signal).  But you can only top up with a minimum of £5, which would annoy me.  Therefore I decided to pay the 25p by calling from my land line.

45 minutes later, after listening to highly irritating canned music which was almost certainly designed to persuade me to ring off, I got through to an actual person, gave them all the details that I had already entered using the keypad, then was transferred to a second person who wanted the same.  I might have been getting a little irritated by then.  So was it reasonable to be lectured with 'don't use that sort of language with me sir' for simply saying that I was quite pissed off?  I can't help but feel even more annoyed by this.  Furthermore, after making an abject apology to the smarmy git it appears that he had not been particularly offended by it - he told me so. 

So perhaps they are trained to try to make customers feel guilty too!

But at least I've got the PAC code!

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Tuesday, 11 December 2012


I saw this the other day.  It briefly attracted my attention, as it might attract yours (for an even shorter time).

12-12-12 The last repetitive date in our lifetimes.

But then I thought . . . this is true, but only if you ignore the small matter of two thousand before the last of the twelves.  Suddenly it becomes silly numerology!

And then again, I realised that this is a day when USA and the rest of the world can unite.  We are all writing the date in the same format for a change.  Whether the format is dd/mm/yy or mm/dd/yy doesn't matter.

It is not a unique event, but that's not a reason to avoid a celebration.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Saving the internet - freedom of speech

Here is another excellent campaign from Avaaz.

Let's all sign up to prevent an increase in governmental control of the internet, in the name of freedom of speech.

Avaaz - The World in Action
Avaaz - The World in Action
Here is a link to the campaign.  I hope you might join in by signing it, wherever you live.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Remain calm, Abdul

Just for entertainment I read this somewhere.  I'm sure it is just one of those internet memes!

A good friend has just been fired from his job with the 999 Emergency Call Centre in London

A man called Abdul phoned and said, "I'm depressed and lying on the
railway track waiting for the train to come, so I can finally meet Allah.

Apparently, "Remain calm and stay on the line" was the wrong response.

What should he have said?

Eurostar let down by partner?

As I tweeted last night (and with apologies to my non-UK readers who will find this post more than usually uninteresting)

Great service from @EurostarUK, but why do they consistently put my booked National Rail seat in an area prioritised for the disabled?

and then having realised that this was not the fault of Eurostar but of 'First Great Western' (which is a very odd name because there was a Great Western long long before this 'first' one).

Great service from @EurostarUK, but why do @FGW issue seat bookings with three digits when the seats only have two digits?

@FGW and @Burtshire both replied to me **with the former** asking whether I was confusing the coach letter with a number[**Corrected with apology to @Burtshire]

@Burtshire  No. Coach D seat 820 (which means 82 but has caused altercations) and is still marked as a seat to be given up for disabled @FGW

@FGW Thanks for replying - but Coach D (not a digit when I last checked) seat 820 (and yes that's a zero). That happens every time.

Eurostar did reply too.  This is their only mistake in the whole matter.

@plasma_engineer Hello, unfortunately at present the booking process on our website does not allow a choice of seating for domestic services

which smacks a little of abdication, and

@plasma_engineer It may be worth calling FGW on 08457 000125 to see if they are able to change the seating for you, subject to availability

Just how am I supposed to know in advance that my seat is one that is reserved for the disabled?  @FGW seems not to know, so how could I?  It would have been nicer to hear them say that they would take the matter up with their supplier.  However, I'm still a fan of Eurostar and a detractor of UK National rail in general.

And as I promised to @burtshire, here is a photo of the reservations.

First Great Western train seat reservation oddities, UK
First Great Western seat reservation oddities!

Although this by no means a matter of life or death, having got a seat reservation for the first or last 45 minutes of my journey I do rather take exception to the risk of not being able to use it.

Perhaps it shows something more subtle about the relationship between Eurostar and First Great Western.  Eurostar sells FGW/Underground tickets at a very favourable discount.  I can imagine FGW regarding these passengers as a lower class than their usual 'cattle class'.

And that really IS saying something!

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Things Christians say, part 41: You confuse Christianity with religion

A weekly series of responses to the things Christians say to atheists, based on the video reproduced here on 30th January 2012.  The aim is to tackle one every weekend, to give both a moderate, polite response to each question ('Piano'), followed by a more forceful rebuttal of the same question ('Forte'). 

You confuse Christianity with religion


I hope you will find it understandable that we might do that in the circumstances!



No! I think you confuse me with someone who is incapable of using a dictionary.

Last episode:  Eventually God (or Jesus) will touch your heart
Next week:   Who are you to question the almighty?

Graffiti in the heart of Paris

Seen on a wall in central Paris today, I was quite impressed by this graffiti!

Heart and lungs graffiti in Paris
Heart and lungs graffiti in Paris

Friday, 7 December 2012

Pullman's strangest book?

I have read some of the books written by the famous Oxford atheist Philip Pullman before.  His dark materials trilogy was eponymously dark and yet quite compelling.

However, a recently friend lent me a copy of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which has been described as 'provokingly bold'.  (Shouldn't that be 'provocatively bold'?)

I read it. It didn't take long.  Its 245 pages were filled with white space and blank pages abound at the end of chapters.  The words between the white spaces were rather disappointing.

When I started reading I found the style surprising.  This is not a book for children, and yet it is written in a style that seems almost patronising to adults.  I assumed that it must improve as it went on.

Well - it didn't.  It was a ridiculous version of the story of the gospels (of the New Testament) but it seemed to include themes from the other non-canonical gospels.  When I say ridiculous, I mean that it was even more ridiculous than the official gospels!

It tells the story of Jesus and his twin brother, 'Christ'.  A mysterious stranger appears to Christ from time to time, and we are left wondering whether he was an angel or a demon.  However, by the end, Christ was pleased that he would not see the stranger again. 

There are some cynical (but probably justifiable) suggestions about how good stories develop and often get better in the telling.  But apart from that I'm at a loss to explain what the book was meant to achieve.  Maybe I will look for some other reviews and write more about it.

You might infer that it was not my favourite book.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Aliens more believable than God!

Last week, the National Secular Society's newsletter reported that more Britons believe in aliens than believe in God.

A recent survey carried out by Opinion Matters for the makers of the new video game 'XCOM: Enemy Unknown' found that more people believe in aliens from other planets than believe in God. The survey of 1,359 UK adults found:
  • 52 percent believe UFO evidence has been covered up because widespread knowledge of their existence would threaten government stability.
  • 44 percent believe in God.
All statistics have to be taken with a pinch of salt, and I'm not sure whether this news is good or bad, or indeed what it says about my fellow Britons.  At first glance it sounds as though they are getting more sensible, but then you have to wonder about their lack of skeptical skills when it comes to conspiracy theories.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

'The Bloop' explained!

Of all the mysterious sounds of the sea, a noise recorded in 1997 by hydrophones under the Pacific has been a mystery ever since.

'The Bloop' was a low frequency sound that was 'romantically' attributed by some people to a large, unidentified and unknown sea creature.  (A creature that only talked once in the last 15 years!)

You can read more about it and other deep sea mystery sounds at this link, hear Brian Dunning's account of it on the Skeptoid podcast here, or hear a somewhat repetitive Youtube video of the event here.

But now we finally have an explanation for this sound which was loud enough to be heard 5000km from its source.  (Note that sound travels anomalously well under water, but that is still pretty surprising.)  It seems, according to an account of the event by NOAA  that it is consistent with the sound of an 'icequake' - cracking of a glacial shelf.  The sounds are propagated through the ocean in such a way that a bloop would be heard.  They say:

The broad spectrum sounds recorded in the summer of 1997 are consistent with icequakes generated by large icebergs as they crack and fracture. NOAA hydrophones deployed in the Scotia Sea detected numerous icequakes with spectrograms very similar to “Bloop”. The icequakes were used to acoustically track iceberg A53a as it disintegrated near South Georgia Island in early 2008. Icequakes are of sufficient amplitude to be detected on multiple sensors at a range of over 5000 km. Based on the arrival azimuth, the iceberg(s) generating “Bloop” most likely were between Bransfield Straits and the Ross Sea, or possibly at Cape Adare, a well know source of cryogenic signals.

In some ways it is a shame to spoil a good mystery, but if I took that attitude with everything then I would never have any feeling of satisfaction at work.

Old mysteries are still fun, even if you have an explanation!

Small note: I'm not sure that icebergs count as cryogenics!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Is islamophobia real?

I'm a little nervous of my admiration for some of the work of Pat Condell.  I don't agree with everything he says, particularly on the topic of Israel (which is one are where Islam has a reasonable excuse for feeling aggrieved at its land being given to another nation).  However, nor do I agree with his critics who say that he is a 'foaming-at -the-mouth bigot'.

Typically he puts his message across in a calm and reasonable manner.  The latest of his videos is about islamophobia (or its non-existence).

It is worth a few minutes of your time to hear what he says.

Then leave some comments to tell me whether you agree.

Monday, 3 December 2012

End of the world is already late

With all the discussion of the impending end of the world, at the end of the Mayan long count on 21st December, everyone seems to forget that it is already much too late.

Biblical accounts of the words of Jesus suggest that he predicted the coming of the Kingdom of God within the lifetime of the people who were listening to him.  The various accounts differ in detail, but all of them are now long past their sell-by date.

But let's look at what the bible says.  Was it that everyone there would see the coming of the Kingdom, or was it just some of them as suggested in Mark 9:1 (just before some nonsensical happenings on a mountain).

John 21:23 seems to suggest that it applies to only one man (who happened to be the author of the Gospel of John).  But when it became clear that none of the prophecies had come true, long after the last person in Jesus's audience must have died, the church began its long series of excuses.

2 Peter 3:4 ff shows how all that began.  We get all the 'one day is as a thousand years' argument.  The day will come, unexpected as a thief ... blah blah.

That doesn't really address the issue at all, does it?  'The thief' hasn't come in 2000 years.  I don't believe in 'the thief' any more than I believe in God or Jesus.

Why do Christians not see the absurdity?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Wet feet

Crossing the River Thames to go to work has been a bit of an issue this week.  A lot of rain caused the river to flood over the adjacent road.  Two bridges have been closed, with prominent signs saying "Road Closed".

Roads flooded in Oxfordshire - the Thames breaks its banks.
Roads flooded in Oxfordshire - the Thames breaks its banks.

This is the reason for the roads being closed.  The water is half a metre deep in places.  Cyclists and pedestrians can struggle past the water along the edge of the highway, but only at the risk of getting wet feet, or worse if they slip.  I chose this option rather than to get caught in traffic jams and tolerate a journey twice as long by car.

However, it is obvious that road signs do not apply to some BMW drivers**, whose gloriously engineered 'flying machines' are immune to the restrictions that most of us face on the roads.  This one was less immune than usual though.

Covering a BMW driver's embarrassment at being stranded in a flood!
Covering a BMW driver's embarrassment at being stranded in a flood!

I can't help but smile when I imagine the anonymous driver (now that I have smudged their registration plate) having to step out of their car on a frosty night, into water deeper than knee level.

**Small note:  Not all BMW drivers are like this.  One or two of my best friends drive these cars.

p.s.  Hello Liz!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Interested in religion

Why am I so actively interested in religion?  People ask me that, and then go on to tell me that Jesus will enter my heart, (or the equivalent nonsensical version in other religions).

Here is a short summary of the reasons why I am interested in religion(s).

1/  I have a strong feeling of being lied to for many years, and now I think it is time for the truth to be known.
2/  Religion is everywhere but achieves nothing - but you might not notice.
3/  Someone needs to speak about truth, reason and evidence.  Why not me?
4/  The bible is simply (and obviously) scientifically unsupportable.  If you disagree then I'm sure that I will have an opposing opinion, and you know that I welcome a good discussion in the comments.
5/  Not making sense.  It never did, even as a pre-teenager and it still doesn't.  Be honest - does it?
6/  Disappointment - speaking in tongues and healing really don't cut the mustard do they?  Such exciting ideas are simply not true.
7/  Defence by spouting nonsense - this is the technique adopted by theologians around the world.

Let's face it - religion is interesting for people who have been taught it, but only in the same way that schizophrenia is interesting to people who have been taught psychology!

Flying the flag

Many flags have to be flown the right way up, as mentioned in a previous post Distressed or 'in mourning'?

But did you know that only one country has a flag which is not the same on both sides.  Paraguay's flag has a distinct front and back (although it might be difficult to spot that from a distance when the flag is flapping in the wind).

Two sides of the flag of Paraguay

Two sides of the flag of Paraguay
Two sides of the flag of Paraguay

Wikipedia has more details at this link