Wednesday, 14 August 2013

No through road

This is an interesting take on graffiti on road signs.  I've posted some Parisian road sign graffiti before, but this is a new one on me.  No through road for mythical characters here!

No through road for mythical saviours, Jesus, crucified, graffiti, Paris
No through road for mythical saviours
Its interesting though.  When I see people wearing a cross around their necks I usually find myself wanting to ask what the T stands for.

Now I know!

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

More Parisian Graffiti

I have often featured interesting graffiti on Something Surprising.  Near the Pompidou Centre in Paris is this amazing face painted on a wall.  Is it graffiti or, given its location, art?

Graffiti or art - near the Pompidou Centre in Paris
Graffiti or art - near the Pompidou Centre in Paris

My feeling is that it is too good to be considered as modern art of the type favoured for modern art galleries.

I'll settle for calling it good graffiti.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Physics on the Metro

Have you ever spotted how the air moves on metro trains?

On ordinary trains with short carriages there is often a flow of air through the carriage as the train moves along.  It brings blessed relief on those hot summer days!

But something different happens on those trains that are open from one end to the other, and the effect depends strongly on the number of people on the train.

One of those long un-divided trains on Paris metro line 1
One of those long un-divided trains on Paris metro line 1

If the train is fairly empty, you get a strong rush of air from the front to the back as it accelerates.  Quite often the train accelerates in steps, and you get repeated breezes of different strengths, correlating well with the driver's actions.  Then as the train slows down, the air rushes to the front of the train.

This shows that the mass of air inside the train has to be pushed to get it to speed up and slow down.  The push comes from a pressure gradient which is set up as the train changes velocity.  That gradient is established by filling one end of the train with more air, increasing the local pressure.

I had spotted this happening on a journey on an empty train.  The following day on the same metro line I was expecting to observe the same effect.   However, it happened to a much less noticeable extent.  What was different?  The train was full of people standing.  That meant that the air flow was significantly better damped.

The effect is also much clearer if you sit near the middle of the train than it is at the ends - obviously.  After a week of observations I think this is good(ish) physics.

On the other hand . . . on another journey I watched a roller skater walking down stairs (very carefully) and then rolling along the platform.  As he slowed himself down he spread his feet wide apart, lowering his centre of gravity.  To stop himself he brought them sharply back together, lifting his whole body a few centimetres.  It appeared to me at first sight that he had converted his kinetic energy into potential energy in doing this - but on reflection that is not consistent with conservation of momentum.  This wasn't good physics after all.

Perhaps it was just a flourish in his performance after all.

Isn't physics fun?  It gets everywhere!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Hale and Hearty

Enjoying a visit to Paris, I like to spot words in French that have obviously migrated into English.

Eiffel Tower - just before it was evacuated on August 9th, 2013

This week's word is 'hâlé' (pronounced ah-lay in French), meaning bronzed or sunburnt.  I have no idea how to say the word in such a way as to distinguish it from the more common verb 'aller' meaning 'to go'.  I assume that context is king.

Surely is is the origin of the English word 'hale'.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Liberty - for the week

I'm away, enjoying a week of holiday.  Guess where I am.

Liberty, equality and fraternity in Paris
Liberty, equality and fraternity

It looks as though I might be in New York, but instead I find myself in Paris again, seeing some of the sites that I have never seen before, and visiting others, like this one, that I have seen from the train many times.

This is a 9m tall replica of the Statue of Liberty, and it can be found on the Isle des Cygnes in the middle of the River Seine.

Replica Statue of Liberty in Paris, on the Isle des Cygnes
Replica Statue of Liberty in Paris, on the Isle des Cygnes
Having walked the length of Isle des Cygnes I didn't see a single swan.

Did you know that is where we get the English word 'cygnet'?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Prince Rupert's legacy

Watching a TV programme recently (which is something that I rarely do) I was reminded of the incredible properties of glass.  Can you imagine a glass bulb that will not break when you hit it with a hammer, and yet will explode violently in the event of another tiny intervention.

If not, you will be amazed by Prince Rupert's Drops.  Wikipedia has a good article on the topic (as you would expect), but this video is also spell-binding and explanatory!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Inverse topiary

Cruising down the River Thames, near Reading, I found that the graffiti artists have an unusual technique.  They cut away the ivy on a railway embankment wall to leave their friendly message.

Topiary as graffiti
Topiary as graffiti

Saturday, 27 July 2013

BBC film crews

Having been somewhat involved with the workings of a BBC film crew yesterday, for a programme that will be hosted by Richard Hammond, I am left with a few observations about BBC film crews.

The staff all seemed to be polite, pleasant and reasonable people.  They even gave the impression of understanding what our technical staff were talking about - at least when they took the time to listen.  I was surprised to hear the producer asking one of his interviewees not to dumb it down so much - and this was for a science programme on the BBC.  Yes really!

I suppose this is not a proper science programme like Horizon.  Perhaps Sunday evening specials are allowed to present real science instead?

Another surprise was that they preferred to film in very low light, to the extent that most of the people who were trying to do a real job, operating a complex fusion machine, were complaining that they couldn't see what they were doing.  Most film crews from other TV stations including the independents can cope with the normal lighting conditions, but it will be interesting to see the difference when the programme comes out.  Perhaps it will be spectacularly better than average.

And yes - it is true that Hammond is not a tall man.

But the biggest surprise is that the film crew must have numbered at least a dozen people.  Like the last time I saw a BBC crew for a high profile programme in action, I wondered what most of them were supposed to be doing.  Not much, from all appearances!  Funded by the tax payer, it seems that they can afford to employ four or five times more staff than most other companies.

After all, these are times of austerity.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Thought-provoking video about Intelligent Design

What a thought provoking video about Intelligent Design, from The Thinking Atheist!

It ends up with this quote from Stephen Fry.

Stephen Fry on the subject of Intelligent Design
Stephen Fry on the subject of Intelligent Design

Something Surprising is back

After a break of a couple of weeks, a regular feed of posts will restart later this evening. 

Thanks for continuing to follow.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Another UK crisis - MPs pay

The UK Government has imposed a 1% limit on the increase of salary for public sector workers for the next three years, having already frozen pay for the last two years.  (At the same time thy increased pension contributions by 1.28% this year, leading to a net decrease in take-home pay while inflation is obviously raging.)

Some people find that outrageous.  Others consider it to be an fair and inevitable way of balancing the books.  But whichever camp you might be in, I suspect that we are almost all in agreement that it would be grossly unfair if Members of Parliament (MPs) are awarded any increase in salary higher than that.  And yet, this is what they tell us we should expect.  In fact they might be awarded an increase of more than 10%, because (at the second attempt) the independent body that reviews their salaries has deemed that they are underpaid.

Neglecting the fact that many of them have second and third paid jobs, along with fairly generous expenses allowances and long periods when Parliament is not sitting, which world is this independent panel living in?

Somehow, it appears that the government is powerless to prevent this inevitable increase.  Exactly why that might be the case is completely unclear to me.  In my view, the MPs should:
  • Do the job that they are paid for - full time, like the rest of us - and yes that sometimes means working late with little appreciation and for much less money than MPs already receive.
  • Not have additional salaried posts.
  • Definitely have their salary increases capped - as after all, they are public sector workers too.  
Its easy isn't it?  It is just like telling another public sector worker that they have achieved the highest level of achievement in their role which might give them a rise of a few percent in normal times, but that in spite of that their pay rise is capped at 1%.

Failing that, I can see the potential for one of the biggest protest marches ever seen in London.  I will be there, whatever else might be happening that day.

Will you?

Further comment:  38 Degrees is obviously lining itself up for a goo campaign on this topic.  Participate in their consultation by following this link.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Skeptical about Skeptoid - go for green instead!

The Skeptoid podcast has been one of my favourites for two or three years, and Brian Dunning's analyses of the topics that he covers generally have my trust.  One or two things might have influenced my views about Dunning recently, but setting aside accusations of fraud that have echoed around the skeptical community (if indeed it really is a singular community) in this week's episode I think he actually has a couple of things dangerously wrong.

He was talking about laser pointers.  Are they really dangerous?

Obviously the answer is that some of them are indeed a hazard, but I have to point out that his reasoning to determine which are safe is far from my own understanding of the topic, and advice from laser safety experts.

Dunning's approach was correct in pointing out that the human eye is more sensitive to green light than red, but his conclusion was the opposite of normal thinking.  The reason might be that he has incorrectly assumed that increased sensitivity (i.e. ability to perceive the smallest amounts of light) correlates with sensitivity to damage (which it does not).  The brightness of some green pointers is truly scary, but not all of them are actually dangerous.

Damage to the eye is caused by power, not by apparent brightness.  OK - you might have a coloured spot in your vision for longer if the light seems brighter, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you have damaged your retina.  On the other hand, infra-red lasers can easily blind you without seeming bright.  Indeed they can do their terrible damage invisibly.  (I work with people who operate IR lasers which would only be eye-safe at a distance of 20,000km by they way.)

In fact, the science in the above claims should be interpreted in this way.  Green pointers appear brighter than red pointers for the same power.  So a red 1 mW laser pointer seems surprisingly dim compared with a green pointer of the same power.  To compensate for this, people are tempted to buy higher power red pointers.  You might need tens of milliwatts to compete with 1 mW of green.  This is where the danger lies.

Brian Dunning's conclusion that you should never use a green pointer is misleading and potentially dangerous.  You should use green wherever possible, but just ensure that its 'peak output power' is less than 1 mW, not the 1 to 5 mW that Dunning recommended.

Then you can be certain that your audience's eyes will be safe.  You should still avoid shining the light direct into anyone's eyes though.

Small note:  There is a theoretical potential failure mode for green lasers, where they go to even higher power.  If you spot your pointer getting much brighter then you should get it tested.  In my own experience they seem to get dimmer with time, but this is only a matter of statistics (and perhaps ageing eyes?).

Saturday, 6 July 2013

New RDFRS newletter revealed

The Richard Dawkins Foundation(s) for Reason and Science (RDFRS) have released a newsletter, the first one being available here.  (As you might know, there are two RDFRSs.)

Being a fan of Richard Dawkins and his work (as many of you will have spotted a long time ago) I eagerly clicked the link to see what fascinating information it might contain.  Richard has such a good way of spotting interesting things and presenting them in accessible ways.  I thought there was a good chance that it would be another thing that I would subscribe to, but unlike many of the others that I almost dread having to read, this one was going to be something that I would be eager to see.

So - did it live up to my expectations?  Perhaps the existence of two separate but linked foundations, East and West of the Atlantic might make it difficult to choose the content.  There was quite a good article by Sean Faircloth who is a powerful speaker and writer, but apart from that there was a bit of advertising (which I accept as being necessary), mention of a new member of staff (yawn! who cares?) and a selection of other articles that failed to get my full attention.

All in all, I have to say that I found it surprisingly disappointing. 

Let's not give up on them too soon, as they might find their feet and decide which country they really want to talk to.  I don't really mind which one it is, as I do listen to a number of US-centric podcasts.  However, most of those give UK a greater degree of prominence than the first edition of this newsletter has done, from its American heartland.

Very little of Richard's flair and enthusiasm comes through just yet.  Please try harder.

Now if you want a really good newsletter, (which happens to be UK based), you could do worse than that of the National Secular Society, which you can find here.  I actually look forward to getting that one by e-mail every Friday.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Downloading consciousness?

Have you heard of the '2045 Project'?  I started to hear a few whispers about this fascinating and seemingly impossible idea recently.

Founded by a wealth Russian entrepreneur, Dmitry Itskov, in February 2011, the project aims to develop the technology required to download a human mind into a robot avatar, essentially extending life, perhaps as far as immortality.  By that time Itskov will be about 65 years old.

Interesting!  Apart from the obvious worry about choosing exactly the right moment to kill your real self and transfer your 'soul' (for want of a better word) into a machine, there must be no end of other moral implications.  Does the 'robot you' then have human rights?  Does it have the right to reproduce, and if so, what algorithms go into the production of the offspring.  Is there a way to make the mingling of computerised brainwaves sound like a romantic encounter, and if not, in what way could this being be described as being fully human?  And if the avatar offspring went through the terrible twos while it effectively inhabited an adult body, how would the parents cope?

I can't resist asking whether it forces God out of the picture too?  After all, which part of the new synthetic 'you' did God create?  Unlike the conventional type of 'intelligent design', the success of this project might demonstrate that ID is real.

If it happens in your lifetime you can decide for yourself.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Does Creation science have any convincing arguments?

Oxford Skeptics in the Pub hosted Peter Harrison this week.  He is based at St Andrews University (of which I am a graduate) so it was fun to have a chat with him.  His talk was about creationism.  As it said on the SITP site:

It’s easy to make fun of many creationist claims, but what are their strongest arguments?

Creationism often takes a lot of flak for the kind of wild claims made by hoards of ALL-CAPS creationists on blogs and YouTube comments. But of all the claims and arguments made by creationists, which are the most impressive? Do they pose a threat to creationism-denying scientific fields? Forget the usual tired canards. Peter has spent a year collaborating with top creationist organisations and groups to collate and bring to you their most powerful arguments yet…

So, I hear you asking whether any of the arguments were convincing.  He had asked them about both their evidence for creationism and in four of the five cases for evidence that the world is young (6000 to 10,000 years old).  The fifth organisation promotes old-earth crationism so it was not relevant in their case.

The organisations that he had challenged included Answers in Genesis and The Discovery Institute.  It seems that they have now ceased to cooperate with him after he shared his conclusions with them.  They didn't even appear to have used their best lines of evidence even while they were talking, but then again who is the best judge of that?

One thing did surprise me.  In his discussions with the 'Discoveroids', he had used the term 'creationist'.  I happen to listen to their podcast, ID The Future (which I decline to link to, as I have no desire to increase their Google ranking) on a regular basis.  They usually make a point that The Discovery Institute is there to promote 'Intelligent Design', and not creationism.  They say that there is a difference, although I have some doubts about that.

All in all, it was an entertaining evening with a great speaker.  It was only the second time that he has given that talk.  I hope he will get chance to use it many more times.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Wedge

About 20 years ago, the Discovery Institute, that ivory tower of 'intelligent design', was caught out. 

Yes really!

It was revealed that they had a document that defined the Wedge Strategy - with a 20 year target of convincing the world that there was some science in the (not even a theory of) 'intelligent design'.  Of course there isn't!  (If you provide some evidence to dispute that claim then I will be happy to consider it.)

21 years later, we are still waiting for success and Dembski et al are back-pedalling. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Fast trains or fusion?

The surprising thing is that someone else has finally noticed that we are not spending enough money on developing fusion as the power source of the future!

Andrew Steele wrote in the Guardian:

In among a raft of new infrastructure spending announced by the UK government in the wake of last week's spending review, it was revealed that the cost estimates for the HS2 high-speed train line had been revised significantly upward. According to the new projections, HS2 will be completed in 2033 at a total cost of £42.6bn for construction and £7.5bn for trains – a total of just over £50bn.

What is immediately striking about this figure is that it's about the same as estimates of how much it will cost to develop nuclear fusion to the point at which it could supply affordable electricity to the grid.

What is also strikingly missing is that the £50 billion for HS2 is being paid by the British taxpayer, whereas the $50 billion estimated for fusion could be shared by all the countries in the world.  That makes it much more affordable.

However, in general Steele gets the point.  Good for him!

Monday, 1 July 2013

The rights of man - more Thomas Paine

Last year I wrote about Thomas Paine, the first New Atheist, having just read his book 'The Age of Reason' which was decades ahead of its time when written in the 1790s.  I hadn't followed up the subject very much until this week I heard an interview on The Pod Delusion (episode 193) with actor Ian Ruskin (starting at time stamp 14:32).  Ruskin is putting on a one-man play about the life of Thomas Paine, and if I was in London (and not working that evening) I might have made the journey to Conway Hall.

I have often wondered where the concept of human rights came from.  The very idea that humans had irrevocable rights has only gained much traction in the last hundred years or so, even though there were hints of it in the previous century.  I have even quizzed a visiting human-rights lawyer on the topic - although I didn't actually get any useful information from her.

Hearing more about Paine's work I am beginning to realise that he played a very significant part in the development of human rights thinking.  He might not had been the originator of all the concepts that he wrote about, but by distilling them into a book called 'The Rights of Man' he certainly brought them to the attention of the people.

Ruskin says that Paine deliberately chose not to protect the commercial rights to his work and that by doing so it meant that the books and pamphlets were circulated much more widely than they otherwise would have been.  Although not exactly a pauper at the time of his death, he was certainly not a wealthy man either.

He can also be remembered for a quotation that is still relevant today.

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” 

The latter part certainly applies in UK at the moment.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Lennox's non-fairy tale?

Oxford University Professor, John Lennox mumbled some incoherent nonsense (it is reported, e.g. here and here, and much better here) at the 'National Prayer Breakfast'.  Presumably Lennox is quite good at mathematics.  If not, he would not be a professor at Oxford University.  Nevertheless, if the reports of the event are to be believed then he seems to grasp very little of logic.  Isn't that surprising?

Apparently he 'preached' that atheism was a "delusion" and a "fairy tale for those afraid of the light".

Can anyone explain to me how this can be true?  Surely atheism is the lack of all these religious fairy tales, not specifically the Christian fairy-tale that Lennox happens to like.

Perhaps Prof. Lennox has been an outspoken critic of "God Delusion" author Richard Dawkins, but if that is the only thing that makes him famous then perhaps he should be called 'a-famous'. 

As for blaming atheism for the "moral drift" in society, (as is reported), I would just point him to accounts of the activities of Roman Catholic Priests over recent years and indeed Muslim men who have married child brides over many centuries (collectively, at least).  Where is the moral drift now?  Has it been led by religious men, perchance?

Dismissing the common assumption that science and religion are not compatible, he said  "There is no necessary conflict between science and God, the real conflict is between world views, atheism and theism".

If not, why is he picking this particular fight? Moving on, we hear that:

"God is not the same kind of explanation as science is. 

Now . . . on this point we can agree.  One is a delusion and one is not. But then:

God is the explanation of why there is a universe at all in which science can be done."

Lennox might tell us this.  But after all, this is just a fairy story!

Isn't it?

Dr Lennox was addressing over 600 people at the Bible Society-sponsored National Prayer Breakfast at the Houses of Parliament.
As Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, Dr Lennox has frequently spoken out against modern-day atheism, calling Richard Dawkins 'wrong'.
He said that the new atheism is responsible for 'the moral drift' in today's society. And he added that science and religion are not opposed.
'There is no necessary conflict between science and God, the real conflict is between worldviews, atheism and theism,' he said.
'God is not the same kind of explanation as science is,' he added. 'God is the explanation of why there is a universe at all in which science can be done.'
He warned that, 'The playing field is not level since atheism has become so dominant ... and is often regarded as the default position in the media.'
The risk of this is, he said, that society would forget 'the contribution of Christianity to the moral foundations of our society'.
- See more at: University Professor John Lennox told over 600 people at the National Prayer Breakfast why he is not convinced by atheism.

The math professor told guests at the Bible Society-sponsored event that atheism was a "delusion" and a "fairy tale for those afraid of the light".

He urged Christians to have "the courage to create public space" for the discussion of "a biblical worldview", as he pointed to the example of Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English 400 years ago and would eventually be executed.

Dr Lennox, who has been an outspoken critic of "God Delusion" author Richard Dawkins, blamed new atheism for the "moral drift" in society.

He also dismissed the common assumption that science and religion are not compatible.

"There is no necessary conflict between science and God, the real conflict is between worldviews, atheism and theism," he said.

"God is not the same kind of explanation as science is. God is the explanation of why there is a universe at all in which science can be done."
Atheism is a 'delusion', a 'fairy tale for those afraid of the light'. That was the message from Prof John Lennox from Oxford University on Tuesday morning (25 June).
He also urged Christians to have 'the courage to create public space' for the discussion of 'a biblical worldview' in society - citing the example of Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English 400 years ago.
- See more at:
Dr Lennox was addressing over 600 people at the Bible Society-sponsored National Prayer Breakfast at the Houses of Parliament.
As Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, Dr Lennox has frequently spoken out against modern-day atheism, calling Richard Dawkins 'wrong'.
He said that the new atheism is responsible for 'the moral drift' in today's society. And he added that science and religion are not opposed.
'There is no necessary conflict between science and God, the real conflict is between worldviews, atheism and theism,' he said.
'God is not the same kind of explanation as science is,' he added. 'God is the explanation of why there is a universe at all in which science can be done.'
He warned that, 'The playing field is not level since atheism has become so dominant ... and is often regarded as the default position in the media.'
The risk of this is, he said, that society would forget 'the contribution of Christianity to the moral foundations of our society'.
- See more at:
Atheism is a 'delusion', a 'fairy tale for those afraid of the light'. That was the message from Prof John Lennox from Oxford University on Tuesday morning (25 June).
He also urged Christians to have 'the courage to create public space' for the discussion of 'a biblical worldview' in society - citing the example of Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English 400 years ago.
- See more at:
Atheism is a 'delusion', a 'fairy tale for those afraid of the light'. That was the message from Prof John Lennox from Oxford University on Tuesday morning (25 June).
He also urged Christians to have 'the courage to create public space' for the discussion of 'a biblical worldview' in society - citing the example of Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English 400 years ago.
- See more at:
Atheism is a 'delusion', a 'fairy tale for those afraid of the light'. That was the message from Prof John Lennox from Oxford University on Tuesday morning (25 June).
He also urged Christians to have 'the courage to create public space' for the discussion of 'a biblical worldview' in society - citing the example of Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English 400 years ago.
- See more at:

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Eating well in England

I ate very well in England, both last night and this lunch time.  However, the words of W Somerset Maugham come to mind:

"If you want to eat well in England, eat three breakfasts."

Friday, 28 June 2013

Right Royal Shame!

In this week's news we hear once again that the Queen is going to get a 5% pay rise next year, while everyone else working for the government has their increase capped at 1%.  This is on top of the 16% that she gained this year, as I mentioned in early April.

The excuse is that the royal estates are bringing in more income than they used to and that there is an agreement that the Queen gets a proportion of the income. Don't forget that she also got a boost to cover the extra costs associated with the jubilee last year, and she has been allowed to retain this year even without a jubilee to pay for.

Isn't it time for the country to put its collective foot down?  Of course that won't happen with our current barely-elected government, even though they must realise how unpopular the news has been.

Naturally royalists tell us what good value for money we get from the royal family, but with the further news that the Duke and Duchess of York's apartment is getting a £1 million makeover, I would ask how that case can possibly be defended.

Bring on the republic!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Taking rice cereusly

Yes that was a deliberate mis-spelling, and yes it was meant to sound like 'seriously'.

Why is it that we are warned not to reheat the leftovers from a Chinese takeaway on the following day?

I had always assumed that it was because of risks associated with the prawns or chicken ingredients, but I was surprised to find out recently that this is not the case.  Some rice is contaminated with a bacteria called Bacillus Cereus, and certain strains of it are harmful to humans.  The bacteria exists in the raw cereal in the form of spores which are activated by moisture during cooking.  If the cooking is not thorough enough, some survive and as the rice cools, they multiply they produce a toxin, cereulide, which gives us food poisoning.  That toxin is not broken down by further cooking.

I must admit that I'm not very keen on rice.  It tends to taste slightly bitter to me, although I do enjoy fried rice with my Chinese dishes.  Little did I know that fried rice is one of the most risky forms.  If the rice has been boiled insufficiently, then not refrigerated quickly but subsequently re-cooked then it is at its most dangerous!

I think I still trust my favourite Chinese takeaway place though.  I always enjoy the food that they cook.

See another interesting an informative article here.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Preaching to the choir

We often hear the accusation that we are preaching to the choir.

On last week's episode of The Pod Delusion (a great British podcast 'about interesting things') I heard an interview with singer Shelley Segal.  She said that she liked to think that she was singing with the choir when she spreads her rationalist messages.  I liked that, but I have a slightly different point of view.

I think that half the choir are probably atheists anyway, so they might appreciate,  from time to time, a different message in the sermons that they have to suffer!

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

JET - 30 years old, and still state-of-the-art!

Today is the 30th anniversary of the first day of operation of the Joint European Torus, JET, and it is still the most successful fusion device in the world.  That's both a great opportunity to celebrate and a tragedy at the same time

During two days of celebration various eminent speakers told stories of their experiences and shared anecdotes.  Paul-Henri Rebut, the father of the JET project spoke of the friendly rivalry between the JET team and their American competitors in Princeton who built the machine called TFTR.  He explained that there had been a wager relating to a specific milestone in the operation of the two machines.  It was agreed that the team that first achieved a plasma current of one million amps for one second would host the other team for a celebration meal.  The losing team would travel across the Atlantic and bring the wine.  As a Frenchman, Rebut was glad to have won the wager but regretted the consequential need to drink Californian wine!

Other speakers spoke of the fun of operating the JET facility (which is still true) and yet the responsibility for delivering results to compensate for the expenditure (which is also true).   At least twice it was claimed that JET is the oldest operating tokamak in the world, but that is assuredly untrue.  As they could easily discover at, this honour probably goes to a machine that is currently called GOLEM, in Prague, having been moved and renamed three times.  It was built in about 1963, under the name TM1 (with the M translating from Russian as "small".)

However, nobody could doubt that JET has been the most successful.

The successful life of JET is indeed worthy of celebration, and with good fortune it will run for several years to come.  However, real progress in fusion depends on many challenges in addition to the obvious technical issues.  One of them is the recruitment, training and retention of the next generation of 'fusioneers'.  Given that the 'industry joke' says that fusion is 30 years away and always has been, some might be reluctant to join the field.  (I have blogged about that topic before - with optimism, here and here).

One of the speakers reported that recruitment of brilliant young students is still not difficult but retaining their enthusiasm in a field that moves so slowly can be more challenging.  This is made worse by the lack of that friendly spirit of competition that drove progress in the 1980s.

The tragedy that I mentioned at the beginning is that 30 years ago fusion scientists had big plans to build a machine to take over from JET and push the research forwards.  They designed a bigger and better machine in a project called "NET".  This 'Next European Torus' was a machine big enough to prove the success of fusion technology.  In USA, Russia  and Japan similar large projects were being proposed at the same time, and politicians and bureaucrats managed to resist these ambitions in every case.  How sad. How tragic.

Instead of doing NET we got ITER and lost 20 years. 

Is there any hope of regaining some competition for the international project ITER?  Officially and diplomatically the answer has to be 'no'.

However, China has been training fusions scientist at the rate of 100 per year for at least a decade.  Should we worry about that or should we celebrate the likely source of competition from China?  Certainly they have the ambition to take things forward and they have built an impressive machine called EAST.  One way or another, Europe needs to take fusion much more seriously and face up to the investment.  Instead of spending the equivalent of a pint of milk per European per year, in the spirit of standardising on sensible units of measurement couldn't we at least push that to the equivalent of a litre of beer, if not cognac? After all, by comparison the photo-voltaic power industry last year alone had a turnover of around 100 billion Euros. This is big money and comes from the pockets of the taxpayers too.

Neither technology is the perfect solution but the world needs both (along with the rest of the power portfolio) if an energy crisis is to be avoided.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Action needed on FGM

Today, BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme briefly mentioned the problem of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  It interspersed this serious issue of child abuse in the name of Islam with trivial tales of someone high-wire walking across the Grand Canyon (or as it turned out, just across a tributary canyon).

That is shameful behaviour isn't it?

70 women go to the NHS every month for help relating to the medical problems caused by FGM, and this data only comes from the 6 of 15 specialist clinics that actually provided any data.  That might mean that the real figure is closer to 200 per month.
  • Is this 'religious practice' illegal in UK?  Yes of course!  It is barbarism dressed up as religion.
  • Are the authorities committing to its abolishment?  I suppose so.  They passed a law about it but that's as far as they went.
  • Have they prosecuted anyone in the 18 years since the law was last clarified?  Not a single one (in spite of the 70 crimes per month).
  • Is this the real face of Islamophobia?  I have no empirical evidence for the case, but it seems rather likely that people are afraid of being branded with this accusation.  Since they do have the data, why are they not acting to prosecute?
  • What does this say about how big brother is watching us?  He doesn't have equality foremost in his mind!
Here we begin to see the problem with labels.  Islam, the religion of perpetual offence, has a special power over us and brands us as Islamophobes very easily.  Civil and criminal law is diverted in UK.  It is not that all muslims are in agreement over these matters.  However, the extremists shelter behind the nice people and all of them are fellow muslims first and only after that do they split into their various warring sects.

I say that the law is the law and although I would be reluctant to support lawyers, they must be able to do their work within the framework of clear secular law.

Religious 'law' (whichever religion) must be outlawed!  It is only truly outlawed after legal proceedings have succeeded.

Related links (although I don't seem to find one related to Today's feature):
Female genital mutilation victim was 'aged just seven'
MPs urge more action on female genital mutilation

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Stuck on a sandbank!

Well - that was an 'interesting' day.  It started very well indeed but it soon got complicated.  Cruising up the River Thames, on an unusually wide stretch which is notoriously shallow at the edges, there were two rowing 'eights' coming down the river towards me.  There were fishermen on the left bank and with the rowing boats obviously demonstrating that they were 'less than expert', the best option seemed to be to go to the right.

Now, in retrospect, I know that was the wrong decision - and indeed 'less than expert' on my own behalf.  In addition to the above, there was a very strong wind blowing from the left.  It was an inconvenience that was waiting to happen - and caused me a great deal of embarrassment, along with the possibility of a huge bill from a rescue service - e.g. £300! 

I should have held a steady course up the middle of the channel - and certainly I will next time.  Powered boats might have to give way to manually propelled boats but after causing me a massive problem there was not a word of apology from them.  I wish I had sunk them both! 

After 5 hours on the sandbank and two failed attempts at towing, another (more competently crewed) narrowboat named 'Dragonfly' persisted for long enough - at least an hour - to help me, and subsequently and consequently got stuck themselves.  I felt very guilty about that of course.  By then I was getting free, but a third boat came along and pulled the second one out before I had chance to go to their rescue. 

I should mention that there was never any risk of injury, and the boat is unharmed.  Only my pride is injured.

All I had on board to thank my rescuers was a cheap (but cold) bottle of white wine and some cans of beer, but they seemed to accept them quite willingly.  It was the least that I could do in the circumstances.

5 hours on a sandbank and wading in water up to my waist wasn't entirely on the plan for the day!

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Protecting children

In UK news recently there has been a lot of fuss about a teacher running away to France with a 15 year old 'student' (or to translate to English, "15 year old student" = schoolchild).

There are several dichotomies here but I will focus on two.

  1. Students are students, but 15 year olds are school children and they should be protected to a greater degree.  I think the normal agreed age for adultdhood is 18 and that the teacher behaved inappropriately.   However  . . .
  2. In other cases, elderly muslim men marry 7 year old 'brides' and yet there are no prosecutions.
Is justice served well?

Friday, 21 June 2013

Beer, bacon and blasphemy

The Jesus and Mo cartoons vary in quality from good to brilliant.  This week's edition is near the top of the scale. 

Jesus and Mo on Denmark - the land of beer, bacon and blasphemy
Jesus and Mo on Denmark - the land of beer, bacon and blasphemy

Surprisingly rare

As my regular readers will have noticed, Thursday was one of those surprisingly rare days when I didn't get chance to post anything.  The only other time that it happened was due a technical fault, but this time I was simply detained by work until 1 a.m. 

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Use of social media

This week I received notification of changes to my conditions of employment. It seems that my HR [Human Remains?] department has finally realised that it is working in the 21st century, and 13 years too late they have issued guidance on the use of social media.  Most social media is currently banned by our firewall anyway, so I anticipate that this precedes a change in policy in that respect, but very few employees will have read the notice in any detail anyway, so who cares about that?

In suitably guarded terms they tell me how to be careful not expose the 'company' to public scrutiny.  In the following paragraph they list a few instances of what might be described as 'social media' and then follow that with a disclaimer that it is not an exclusive list.  For reference, I would say that their list was less non-exclusive, and more like negligent and lazy.  That's par for the course.  [And by saying that I probably risk dismissal in spite of my human right to free speech.  Am I an offender or a whistle-blower?  We all know how whistle-blowers get treated!]

Oddly enough, none of that seems surprising to me.  Now you can see why I have blogged pseudonymously for more than 2 years, and studiously avoided mentioning the name of my employer.

Incidentally, the same notice reminded me that I have no right to assume any confidentiality in my use of the internet from work.  Isn't that surprising?  In recent years I had always assumed that everything I type might be recorded in a database somewhere.  I never write blog posts from my work address - unlike many of my colleagues who do so at lunch time.

The company also claims that my use of mobile devices is subject to their control.  Perhaps they are pushing the boundaries there.  My use of my mobile devices inside or outside normal working hours is my business alone.  Working hours flex at their demand very freely, so I rather expect some reciprocity.

Failing an acknowledgement of that, all I can say there is 'dream on'.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


Sometimes we find that familiar words have surprising backgrounds.  Today was one of those times.

I know the word 'quarantine' in English, and the word 'quarante' (forty) in French.  Somehow I had never made the link.

Apparently the term quarantine comes from an old Venetian dialect word 'quaranta', which obviously comes from the same roots. 

It all started off with trying to avoid the consequences of the plague (or 'Black Death') in the 14th century.  The earliest quarantines were only for 30 days, but later they adopted 40 days as standard.

Hence quarantine!

Monday, 17 June 2013

Teaching the other controversy

People preach about 'teaching the controversy' in the debate about evolution, as if Intelligent Design were science.  Maybe there are questions about evolution by natural selection, but it is certain that Intelligent Design is not an alternative answer.

They like to teach the controversy and claim that the arguments of 'neo-darwinists' don't hold up to scrutiny.

Well does that matter or not?  ID's proponents claim that it is a science but does that hold up to scrutiny?  They claim that they start from the data.  That's nice, but science starts from the hypothesis and uses data from the real world to see whether it supports the science - not the other way round.

And although they deny it, Intelligent Design requires an Intelligent Designer, and we are being impolite if we ask Christians who that designer might have been.

So let's start from the data again - and ask what data shows that God (obviously the pseudonymous intelligent being who designed everything) exists.  Is there any data?  I doubt it.  After all, faith is more powerful than data.

Then we can move on to the real science again.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Dennett's Tools for Thinking

I find it very interesting and informative and in fact generally pleasurable to listen to philosopher, 'horseman of the apocalypse', and grand-fatherly gentleman Daniel C Dennett. 

He has a new book to sell, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, so we might have the enjoyment of hearing a lot of interviews.  This week I heard a good one, on the podacst Point of Inquiry.

It is a wide ranging discussion with host, Indre Viskontas, (direct link here) they mull over a wide range of interesting topics, including consciousness, the 'intentional stance' (which others call 'theory of mind'), the role of philosophy in today's world, and that old favourite, free-will.  The book gets a few mentions, but not in any sense is the interview a hard-sell.

If you have 45 minutes to spare, or can load it onto your MP3 to enjoy while you are doing something that doesn't need concentration, I recommend it highly.

Will I buy the book?  That is a different question entirely.  I would love to have time to understand Dennett's writings and have read a couple of his earlier books.  However, I have also failed to reach the end of a couple of others due to my own ability to concentrate and my preference for being active.  

Maybe I should wait for the paperback - or maybe that is where I went wrong previously as the writing gets too small.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Born of a woman

One small phrase from the bible has been the source of rumblings among scholars for nearly two milliennia.  Galatians 4:4, which refers to the birth of Jesus, is the problem.

"... born of woman, born under the Law"

Which phrase bothers you most?  Being born under the law doesn't have an immediately obvious meaning.  Apparently it means that Jesus was a Jew, but theologians get into all sorts of tangles about that.  Who can tell what the implications might be - and few of us would care anyway.  Theologians make their living by arguing about these things.

For me the first phrase was the interesting one.  Why would anyone bother to tell us how someone was born?  The involvement of his mother (when her virginity is not the point of interest) could hardly be a subject that anyone would ever wonder about. 

Or could it?

Perhaps this is a sign that some others believed that he had not been born in the usual way.  You might doubt this, but there is a potential culprit available in the person of Marcion.  (See Who was the Marcion that Hitch referred to so often)  Marcion taught that Jesus did not get born like the rest of us but that he was sent down from heaven.  Jesus still became human flesh, but he had nothing to do with the God of the Old Testament.  Given the unbelievability of the rest of the Jesus story I find that a perfectly consistent point of view, for what that is worth.

Marcionite thinking sheds a lot of light on the text of the bible (see Christianity's Albatross), as early Christians had to spend a lot of effort and time suppressing that particular heresy (along with all the others). 

The world would be very different if they had failed.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Swimming the Thames

Boating on the canals is quite different from boating on the River Thames.

The protocols for the locks are different.  Finding a free mooring on the river is much more difficult.  And the river is much wider and deeper.

But after nearly a week on the Thames the biggest surprise is to find people swimming.  You spot a couple of things bobbing about in the water, not far from the bank and you might wonder whether they are ducks or geese, even though they don't look quite right.

They turn out to be swimmers - and these swimmers are not unusual.  Apparently people swim the whole length of the river as a badge of honour.

People don't swim in the canals.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The sound of one hand clapping

Buddhists (I believe) use the expression 'the sound of one hand clapping' to represent something that is not possible, something transcendent that can be imagined but that cannot be achieved.  They think that it is a sound that is silent.

There is only one problem.

I can do it and it is not silent.  My father could do it, and I always remember when I was a boy, wondering how he could make it happen, when I couldn't do it myself.

When my hands got bigger I somehow realised that I could do it too, and I have gently made fun of my own children in the same way that my father did of me.  At last one of them can do it too - albeit quietly.  With practise he can carry the tradition to the next generation.

The recipe is to keep your fingers quite straight and close all four of them against your palm quite quickly.  Perhaps it helps to have long fingers, and my family seems to have the genes for that.

Try it . . . and refute a Zen Buddhist!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

How many pies for £5.6 million?

I see in the news today that Stephen 'too many pies' Hester (see here and here for history) has 'generously' agreed to give up his overpaid job in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).  Some interesting points arise.

  • RBS is/was Scottish - perhaps - and yet the debts are British?  Hmm!
  • Hester is a public servant in that over 80% of RBS is owned by the UK Government, and yet he is not subject to the rules that apply to other public servants.  It seems that the government can pay him what they want, whatever his levels of success - or otherwise.
  • Hester couldn't bring himself to commit to working for RBS for a few years more, after a potential privatisation and hence . . .
  • Hester generously agrees to give up his job, on the basis of a payment (eventually) of £5.6 million.
Given the choice of working for that (undeserved and obscene amount of) cash or accepting it for doing f**k all, what would you choose?

After all, how many pies could a corpulent t**t buy for that much money? 

Furthermore, how can governments create contracts that are so generous and yet trample on ordinary people - and still expect to be re-elected?

Small note:  T**t could stand for 'twit'

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

What if you are wrong? (Richard Dawkins with cartoon.)

This is a nicely drawn cartoon version of the famous answer that Richard Dawkins gave to someone who asked "What if you are wrong?".

Monday, 10 June 2013

Government-sponsored cruelty to animals

Here is another example of the spinelessness of the UK's barely elected government, and its indifference to animal rights along with human equality rights. 

The government has decided not to take the correct moral decision in this allegedly Christian country.  Instead they pander to the profits of religious minorities . . . for it is profit and commerce that counts for Cameron and his cronies . . . isn't it?  And halal and kosher butchers obviously need to make their profits.

Why is this decision stupid and wrong?  There are many reasons, but the following are obviously candidate reasons.
  • Animal rights
    • Surely we should avoid cruelty wherever possible
    • Lies about these animals not suffering are to be doubted
  • Religious rights
    • Christians have to follow the law
    • Secularists and atheists have to follow the law
    • Muslims are exempt and can use their cruel slaughter techniques
    • Jews are also exempt and can use their same-but-totally-different, cruel, slaughter techniques
  • Human rights
    • Why do secular abattoirs have to go to the extra expense of humane slaughter when religious abattoirs are permitted to avoid them?
    • Since halal and kosher meat is over-produced and distributed on the open market, why should I have to eat it and not have a right to know what I'm eating?
    • Since this meat is not labelled, what Quality Assurance is imposed?  Or are they exempt from QA too?  It wouldn't be a surprise . . . would it?
    • Are religious people to be trusted in a secular world anyway?  When did you ever hear of anyone 'lying for secularism'?

I think the government is just frightened of the likely response from religious minorities if it took a fair and just stance. In doing this, it discriminates against the majority.

But then again, if this was an effective democracy they would not be in government anyway.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Inside a hot air balloon

Have you ever flown in a hot air balloon?

If not, this view from the basket into the balloon with the burner ignited might be a surprising new sight for you.

hot air balloon, inside the canopy, burner ignited
Inside John's balloon - thanks to Mildred.
 At the very least, it is a pretty picture.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The bigger IF

The Archbishop of Westminster was leading a service this morning as part of the 'protests' in London called "The Big IF".  For some inexplicable reason, The Methodist Church allowed him to use Westminster Central Hall for this purpose.

Apparently he was preaching about tax avoidance and how it affects the poorest people of the world.  Suprisingly (??), the big companies that have subsidiaries in tax havens are somehow involved in the starvation of the people (whereas their own corrupt governments are not.

Now I care a lot about tax avoidance, whether it is by members of the UK Government or by big companies.  But there is one obvious organisation that avoids taxation wherever it goes, and indeed reclaims taxes at the expense of the rest of the citizens.  This organisation is (as Richard Dawkins has said) 'one of the greatest forces for evil in the world' and the Archbishop of Westminster is its representative.

Not only does that church augment its fabulous wealth at the expense of the rest of us, but it is responsible for the deaths of plenty of people too.  I need hardly mention the AIDS crisis or the failure to allow abortions to save the lives of the mothers.  Why stop there?  But I will.

The pot is calling the kettle black!

Friday, 7 June 2013

Brilliant people might not be the most productive

I used to report to a director, but via matrix management work for another utterly brilliant man.  When it came to detail, I felt like an intellectual-dwarf compared with either.  But looking at the situation in a different way I review it like this.

When I went to my director with a good idea I would come out of the meeting with an even better idea.

When I went to my day-to-day boss with an idea, I would return with three more ideas!  (None of them were mine but all were sensible.)

Both of them were brilliant men (and still are).  Neither of them had the talents of making a decision to do anything nor of making things happen, nor the talent of making people follow them.  I respect and like both of them in spite of those flaws.

After that I worked for someone who had none of the intellectual prowess of my previous bosses, and yet he seemed to be able to gather followers and lead the ordinary people in the direction that he required - whether it was for the company or for personal gain - whether the followers recognise that they were merely being used or not.

This sort of thing seems to have happened frustratingly often throughout my professional career.

So it seems to me to be clear that the most brilliant intellects have no chance of prevailing in the real world.  That probably means that a perfect world will never be achieved.  Incidentally, only one of the above - the one who I least respect - has children.

Is this happening the world over?  Does this make tomorrow's planned demonstrations 'The Big IF' in London a waste of time?  I won't be going, but I will certainly be writing about it.

The world is complicated isn't it?

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The person of the Holy Spirit

One of the great mysteries that makes Christianity seem hard to believe is the doctrine of the Trinity.  Somehow God exists as three persons and yet is only one God. 

This mysterious and strange set of affairs is perhaps most clearly set out in the 'Athanasian Creed' - the one that you have probably never heard of.  Most Western Christians accept this 'third' creed as an accurate statement of their beliefs, even if they do not use it regularly in worship, preferring the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed.  If you go to the Wikipedia page and read it you will probably understand why.  In its repetitive and multiply-redundant phraseology it tells us about the three persons of God - and if we have been brought up in a Christian culture it is very likely that we won't give much thought to the following question.

Who is 'the person' of the Holy Spirit?

Obviously we can understand the concept of Jesus as a person, even if we happen to have a view that he might have been a mythical person.  God, the father, is a little harder to envisage as the second person, in that he has no earthly form, except in a few Old Testament stories.

But the person of the Holy Spirit is something that is so familiar that we never question it - and yet so alien that we can't imagine it either.

Do you find that as paradoxical as me?

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Jack or Jill?

I have to do a little maintenance on a family laptop.  When I say 'maintenance', I suppose I really mean that it is major surgery, to replace the connector on the motherboard for the power lead.

Don't lose heart, I'm not going to get too technical.  I just want to muse on the etymology of technical jargon, and perhaps to make a little fun of it.

In locating the spare part that I need, I used the power of Ebay, naturally, and found the component at a very reasonable price.  Finding it was not difficult, but the description is "ASUS . . . Genuine DC Power Jack Socket Connector."  So why does this seem strange? 

To me, the jack is the plug that plugs into this socket connector, and you could read the description that way.  On the other hand, thinking of the many variants on the nursery rhyme about Jack and Jill you might think of it in a different way.

If the plug is a Jack, does that make the socket a Jill?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Crimes that the church defends

"I know of no crime that has not been defended by the church, in one form or other. 

The church is not a pioneer; it accepts a new truth, last of all, and only when denial has become useless.

Robert G. Ingersoll

Monday, 3 June 2013

Why can't theists just leave us alone?

As atheists we are often asked why we have to criticise religions.

That would be a good question if those religions did not intrude into our daily lives quite as much.

This link from The Thinking Atheist takes you to one of the best summaries of the situation that I have seen recently.  One short extract gives you an idea of the contents . . .

"Ask yourself. When's the last time an atheist rang your doorbell with the Good News of Humanism? How often do you find Richard Dawkins books in the dresser drawers of your hotel rooms? When was the last atheist temple erected in your neighborhood? Have you ever attended an atheist revival? Has atheism demanded 10% of your household income? How many dedicated atheist television channels come through your satellite dish? How many atheist verses were you instructed to memorize as a child? When's the last time someone thanked a FARMER (or even the cook) at the dinner table instead of God?"

Good points - I think you will agree.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

One rule for the rich

Today we have heard in the news that three members of the House of Lords are being investigated for alleged wrong-doings.  They might (or of course might not) have offered to accept payment for services relating to the business of government.  Of course that would have been illegal . . . (if indeed they had done it).

Two of them are just 'ordinary' Lords, presumably accustomed to being well rewarded for doing f**k all.  It might be understandable (but still unforgivable) that they had got into bad habits.

But the third surely has no excuse for failing to understand the law of the land properly, as he is a former senior policeman.  As the BBC web site says here . . .

Lord (Brian) Mackenzie, a former chief superintendent for Durham police and president of the Police Superintendents Association, said he could arrange parties for paying clients - including on the terrace of the House of Lords - after being asked if this was possible.

Lord Brian MacKenzie of Framwellgate: ''I have not broken any of the rules'' "There is a rule that you shouldn't host a reception in parliament where you have a pecuniary interest. I thought that's bloody nonsense. [Whereas to me that makes perfect sense, since I don't see why the Houses of Parliament should be confused with a Gentleman's Club]  Nonetheless... how would you get round that?

"I just say to a colleague who has nothing to do with it, 'would you host a function for me?'" he said. 

But Lord Mackenzie told the BBC he was "quite happy" that he had not broken the rules.

Yeah . . . right!  In the light of these allegations, do you suppose he might have behaved perfectly well when he was a copper?  A policeman breaking the law?  Surely not.  Perhaps we might begin to doubt the propaganda that we get about our perfect police, if we didn't already suspect that things were not perfectly in order.

Of course these three will escape any risk of a custodial sentence for their misdeeds.  Even if there is a theoretical risk, I expect they have friends - oh no, 'colleagues' - who can arrange things for them.

Meanwhile everyone else who works for the UK Government seems to be required to take training on corruption - as in avoiding it.  Do members of the House of Lords have to take this training?  Or do they do their training in their subsidised bar, advising each other about what they can get away with? 

It is beginning to seem that way isn't it?  This is the kind of thing that really raises the morale of public sector workers!

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Another well-defaced road-sign

It seems to be a tradition to deface No Entry signs in Europe's cities.  Does it happen in other parts of the world?  Paris seems to be the capital of this type of graffiti.

Parisienne graffiti - no entry.
Parisienne graffiti - no entry.

Very tastefully executed!

Friday, 31 May 2013

How to 'age' a fossil the fundie way!

I happened across this advice, thanks to a friend's Facebook page.  We wouldn't want to be led astray by science would we?

How to determine the Geological Age of a fossil - not like this!
How to determine the Geological Age of a fossil - not like this!

Strangely, some of the advice seems almost sensible, but I don't think I can agree with the whole of any of the five points except number 4.

But why do they specify that it is the 'Geological Age', not just 'the age', and why put "Age" in quotes like that?  If point 5 is true, then the age is well defined, but let's face it, it isn't true and we all know it, even though the fundies exhort us to believe all that nonsense about 'the flood'.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Times carries outrageous MMR headline

Seeing a copy of UK newspaper The Times today I was outraged to see the headline "Babies at risk from MMR jab timebomb".  After all the work that has been done to promote real science's findings about MMR, this headline sends exactly the wrong message.  It seems to be promoting the pseudo-science of the former-doctor Andrew Wakefield (who was struck off in 2010 for the damage that he has done to public health).

The Times seems to claim babies are at risk from MMR 2013!
The Times seems to claim that babies are at risk from MMR
When you read the actual article it says the opposite.  This apparent timebomb is not a risk from the MMR vaccination, but the risk to the next generation because of the lack of vaccinations in children who are now approaching child bearing age over the next few years.

Teenagers are rightly being exhorted to get vaccinated - but the headline will have have caused much more damage as it will have been read on news-stands across the country by many more people than bother to read the content.

I deplore this behaviour from a newspaper which is said to be reputable.

Bad show, The Times!

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Just a feather

Watch this amazing performance by Miyoko Shida Rigolo via Facebook (even if you don't have a Facebook account) and you will not regret the few minutes that you spend.  The haunting background music beautifully compliments the performance.

What a difference a feather makes - Miyoko Shida Rigolo's balancing act
What a difference a feather makes - Miyoko Shida Rigolo's balancing act
The metaphor of the feather maintaining the balance shouldn't escape our notice, but there is no need to take this as a lesson for anything in particular.  Just be amazed!

Watch to the very end.  I'm confident that it will surprise you pleasantly.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Do you reject jihad?

In posting this video I am not being anti-Islamic.  I might be pointing out that, however moderate and peaceful you are as an individual Muslim, Islam itself is not a religion of peace.

Pointing out that an 85 year-old woman was arrested merely for shouting outside a mosque (see here) whereas Anjem Chowdhry is allowed to preach hatred with impunity, wherever he goes, is a good start.   

Pat Condell asks an interesting question "Do you reject the Islamic doctrine of armed jihad?"

Good question.  Obviously I do reject it.

Small note:  Youtube tells me that only 301+ people have viewed that video.  That is an odd number, especially considering that 2300 people have 'liked' it so far.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Does an intelligent designer solve the ID problem?

Having been reading about the Cambrian Explosion which I mentioned recently, it might be a good time to contemplate the creation of information.

Can information be created without intelligent intervention?

Intelligent Design (ID) proponents claim that the existence of their 'intelligent designer' (who has no link with theology - honestly!) is implied by the diversity of new information created during the Cambrian Explosion.  Something intelligent must have interfered to make life blossom over that short period of 50 million years.  They can't think of any better explanations, so this has got to be the best one.  This idea comes from the Law of Conservation of Information.  That sounds scientific doesn't it, but as Wikipedia explains, it is not really a scientific law at all.  It is an invention of William Dembski, founded on a vaguely related topic by (real scientist)  Peter Medawar in his book The Limits of Science (1984).  Perhaps in the public mind it is also backed up by cherry-picked terminology from some very esoteric quantum mechanics.

Aside from the fact that their 'law' is just made up and that it is mathematically falsifiable, is their argument about information even reasonable?

To the first approximation, the answer has got to be NO!  Snowflakes have structure.  They happen to be created in a random sort of way but their crystal structure is certainly not free of information.  Similarly if you dissolve a lot of salt in hot water and then let the solution cool down, the salt will crystallise.  Surely this is information too - and it was definitely self-created.

Neither of those examples give information that is then read back and used to make a future action happen though, so in a sense they might not count.

Taking the opposite extreme, the creation of different forms of life, the question gets a little more complex.  Let's make the assumption - for the time being - that this new information did come from an intelligent designer in just the way that this blog post is new information created by me.  How did I develop the concept that I want to present, formulate it and publish it?

Obviously some measure of intelligence might have been involved for the latter two stages and I leave it to my intelligent readers to decide how much of it is demonstrated, but just invoking intelligence is not enough is it?  Aside from the fact that intelligence is a quantity that is notoriously hard to define and measure, intelligence in itself does not create new ideas.  Somewhere in the mind of a designer there has to be a 'spark' that starts off a thought process, leading to a train of thought.

Where does that spark itself come from?  Since I am not a dualist I cannot use my soul as an explanation of the source of inspiration.  Therefore I am left with the problem of finding an explanation for the information that has been conveyed by my own intelligence.

In other words, invoking an intelligent designer does not move us forward at all.  I think this condemns Intelligent Design to the realms of pseudo-science, if indeed it had not already managed to do that for itself in other ways.

Or perhaps the idea for this post came from the great Intelligent Designer in the sky?

Sunday, 26 May 2013

God so loved the world . . .

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16 (NIV)

Anyone who has grown up in a christian tradition can't help recognising those few words.  Our reaction to the words is a bit less predictable.  For me they used to have the comforting feeling of familiarity.  After that I started to wonder what they really meant.  Nowadays I find them quite risible - even pathetic.

Let's set aside the problem of the lack of evidence for an historical Jesus outside the (hardly un-biased) bible itself.  Don't even consider whether God exists, or which particular version of the Christian God he might be.  It doesn't matter.

What matters is the claim itself.  Omniscient God had made a mistake at the very beginning of the Old Testament, and through some totally inexplicable mechanism had contaminated humanity with something mysterious called 'Original Sin'.  Omnipotent God (the same person - although there are three of them in the one person of course) couldn't think of any way to fix this mistake other than to send his son (one of the three parts of himself) to Earth to be tortured and killed in some kind of scapegoat ritual.  He loved the world so much that he gave up his own son (one third of himself) for this reason.

But he didn't, did he?

If you think about it for a few moments, the very most charitable version of the story is that he lent his son (or part of himself) to the world for a few decades, then let him be killed for reasons that hardly make any sense and let him remain dead for a few days.  During that time he might have visited hell, but it is hardly likely that the devil was totally in control of that little interlude.  Then he resurrected him(self) and in due course whisked him(self) safely back up to heaven.

Being omniscient he knew all along that things were going to pan out this way.

So how much did God really love the world? 

Not as much as you would think!

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Perspectives on the Cambrian Explosion

I must have been listening to too much pro-ID propaganda!  (I have!)  The proponents of Intelligent Design put up a superb, almost-convincing, smoke-screen and one of their favourite topics is 'The Cambrian Explosion' and that Darwin himself had recognised this as a problem.  They claim that the increased rate of evolution in that period of a few tens of millions of years, about half a billion years ago, shows evidence of the presence of an intelligent designer.  This seems to be based on a claim that information cannot be created except by intelligence.  More on that topic soon! 

Of course sometimes they take that trouble to pretend that this is not a religious claim!  Honestly it isn't.  You can believe everything they say, including this claim.

Reading the Wikipdia article about The Cambrian Explosion this evening, I was reminded that conventional science is by no means short of ways to explain the phenomenon, including:
  • 'Large' animals of diverse types did exist before, and the evidence for them is growing steadily (in spite of the claims of ID's proponents)
  • There are some special layers called lagerstätten, which preserved soft body parts unusually well, and several of these were in the Cambrian period
  • Evolution was faster than 'normal' but not by more than a factor of ten or so, and there were other periods when 'explosions' happened, including the Devonian and Cretaceous
  • A sudden increase in the amount of calcium in the oceans might have been significant for the innovative production of bony body parts
  • The end of a previous ice age might also have mattered a lot.

All in all, the presence of an intelligent designer is not the only plausible explanation, and not even the most probable, for various reasons:
  • How long did this particular intelligent designer live, as the Cambrian explosion lasted for tens of millions of years? 
  • If it lived for that long, does that imply that it was God after all, or was it a family of shorter lived designers?
  • If it was God, why was he so busy for that short period before leaving things to themselves for 500 million years?  Only after that time did he complete his perfect world, where he created original sin and all the other bad things.
  • If it was God, how did he evolve anyway?  If you can't explain this then the problem has only been deferred, not solved.

Case for God not proven! I also note that I and D are the first two letters of an uncomplimentary five letter word.

Small note:  Obviously when Meyer's new book 'Darwin's Doubt' is released (at an exorbitant price from here, but only delivered within USA) we will learn the answers to all our doubts.  In the meantime we still have the opportunity to listen to the whining voice of Casey Luskin on the Discovery Institute's podcast ID The Future telling us that he has read it and that it explains everything beautifully.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Turning in their graves

This week on BBC Radio 4 a reporter was interviewing some of the people of Woolwich where there was a high profile murder of a serving soldier - allegedly by two young Muslim men.

The news story is far from funny, but one of the interviewees said something that made me hoot with laughter.

They claimed that our grandfathers fought for this country, and if they were alive now they would be turning in their graves.

Humour gets everywhere!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Atheists redeemed, but not yet saved

It's official!  Atheists have been redeemed by the death of Jesus and it is possible for us to be good people, according to a story in The Guardian.  Pope Francis has announced it!

Now don't get too carried away by this 'good news', if indeed it is a surprise to anyone who has actually thought about the subject at all.  As any good Catholic will tell you (if you can find one) redemption and salvation are not the same thing.  As Michelle Arnold says on Catholic Answers

" . . . redemption is collective and salvation is individual. By his passion, death, and resurrection, Christ redeemed humanity collectively from slavery to sin and from the debt of punishment mankind -- as a whole -- owed due to sin. Each and every person, Christian or non-Christian, is redeemed because he is a member of the human race.

Salvation is the application of redemption to individuals. Although a member of redeemed humanity, and therefore himself redeemed, a person can freely choose to deliberately reject the graces won for him by Christ and go to hell.

Obviously that makes perfect sense and wins an award from the Campaign for Clear English, but in spite of the religious babble you get the point.  Because of the mythical death of a fictional character, you are forgiven for the sins that you didn't commit and relieved of a debt that you apparently owed for inexplicable reasons, whether a believer or not.  But you are not yet forgiven for the ones that you have personally committed including those that you are even thinking of committing.

So the pope might seem to be giving some ground, but not enough for us atheists to get to heaven.  He implies that salvation might be achieved by being good, but even he doesn't have the authority to override the bible does he?  Good works alone will not get you to heaven.

Now he only has to work on one thing that is more important.  How can he get his own flock and their priests to start to be good!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Another Islamic attack?

Today there was an incident in Woolwich, London.  Some say that it was an islamic attack on a British soldier who was off-duty.  Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't.  Some say that it is what is happening in Syria every day, and they probably have a point. 

After all, the media can't even decide whether it was a machete attack or a knife attack, or whether the murderers were wielding a knife or a gun, or both.

But they looked a bit foreign and a bit Islamic!

The one thing that seems odd to me is that the Muslim Council of Britain apparently said in a statement: "This is a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam and we condemn this unreservedly.  Our thoughts are with the victim and his family."

Nice words, coming from a self appointed bunch of islamic clerics who have no right to claim to speak on behalf of anyone at all.  It must mean that they are feeling guilty about something.  One of the problems with Islam is that it has no hierarchy and no authorities who can speak for it.

Will we ever know the truth behind this incident or will BBC/government propaganda be the only thing we find out?

Incidentally . . . how many other murders happened in London today?  Why are they not newsworthy?