Thursday, 28 February 2013

Things Christians say, part 43: Bless the pope.

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'). 

God bless the pope


Admittedly not all Christians would like God to bless the retiring pope. But on balance I have even found that died-in-the-wool Protestants are more likely to support the pope that to support my view that he should be prosecuted for all the evil done in the name of his church.

Many would like him to have a long private retirement, in solemn prayer, forgiven for all his deeds.

I suppose he could be allowed solitude without living in luxury.  Justice might be better served it it could be arranged for him to be solitary in a prison cell for the rest of his days.

After all, he has a hotline to God, so he wouldn't be lonely.



There's an alternative point of view about Pope Benedict, of course.  Tim Minchin presented it in quite a forthright song - The Pope Song.  Follow the link if you want to hear it, but I should warn you that it contains bad language from the very beginning.  Alternatively this one is a slightly more entertaining and less polished performance. 

You might be offended by the repetition of disrespectful terms and tha amount of swearing.  Does it need to be so offensive?  Well I think it was done deliberately to make a strong and valid point.  As Minchin sings (towards the end of the song), if you find  him more offensive than the Catholic Church's tacit approval of the activities of many of its priests, then you are the one who is morally misguided!

Last episode: Who are you to question the almighty?
Next: All atheists are immoral

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Diderot, on theologians.

"Only a very bad theologian would confuse the certainty that follows revelation with the truths that are revealed. They are entirely different things." — Denis Diderot

How can we argue with that?  Christians tend to 'just know' things that they can't possibly know.

In my own case I am sometimes asked "how do you know that".   My usual 'off pat' answer is "native wit".  The truth lies somewhere between that humorous response and a degree in physics, a career in engineering and an enquiring mind which notices interesting things in the world around me.

However, the difference is that I only get that question when someone is surprised to find that I was right, and that is very different from the case of the theologians.

Nobody can tell whether theologians (or Christians) have access to some sort of special knowledge, but I think all of us can take a shrewd guess . . . using native wit!

Their claims are not falsifiable - and by some definitions they are therefore not science.  That might not matter to everyone . . .

. . . but it matters to me.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Catholic light switch

Catholic light switch
Catholic light switch
Given the latest news from the Catholic church, this almost seems appropriate.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Icy surprise in the hedge rows

Having mentioned one icy mystery last week, here is another that I have spotted in southern England this week.  We have had a spell of bright but cold weather - around freezing plus or minus a few degrees for a few days.

In the hedgerows by the roads, once in a while you find a surprising and spectacular patch of icicles like this

Icicles in the hedges in UK
Icicles in the hedges in UK

or this

Icicles in the hedges in UK
More icicles in the hedges in UK

and just a metre or two to each side the hedges are completely dry and free of ice.

It turns out that there is always a puddle of nearly-freezing water on the road and that it is constantly being splashed into the hedge by passing vehicles.  Some of it freezes and forms icicles, and the remains that drip off might form icicles on the ground.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Correcting the Ten Commandments

Correcting the Ten Commandments, Great Bedwyn, Stone Museum
Correcting the Ten Commandments
Attempting to visit the Stone Museum in Great Bedwyn today, I found this amusing plaque on the wall.

See the second line.  The notion of correcting the ten commandments seems to be a very good aspiration. The rest of the plaque is entertaining too.

I wonder what the commandments said after correction.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Saving Sophie

I was in Newbury (Berkshire, UK) this afternoon, looking (with a little dread) at the rate that the water was flowing on the Kennet and Avon Canal (and River Kennet).

Walking along the canal I saw this sight, which is the sort of thing that boaters never want to see.  The water flow had caught her helmsman unaware as he approached his mooring, and the boat was wedged across the canal.  I wondered whether I might be able to help.

Saving narrowboat Sophie Kennet Avon Newbury 2013
Saving Sophie - atheistic altruism at work!

But the tow path was closed to pedestrians . . . so I walked around in order to approach from the other direction, only to see this view and . . .

Saving narrowboat Sophie Kennet Avon Newbury 2013
Saving Sophie - some engineering assistance needed.

. . . to find it closed too.  Another helpful fellow and I decided to go the the rescue, along the closed tow path.

One hour later, with shoes full of water and trousers wet up to the knees, we had the situation in control.  I had not expected so much exercise this afternoon!

Next time someone asks that question "Have you done much boating?" the answer will be a confident "Plenty!"

Small note:  Have been looking on ebay this evening for a light-weight chain hoist.  I think it would be useful to keep one on the boat for 'interesting' situations like this!

Friday, 22 February 2013

Francesca Stravrakopoulou - Think Week

Of the events that I attended in Oxford Think Week, Saturday afternoon's talk by Professor Francesca Stravrakopoulou was the most interesting, comprehensible and entertaining.  (Peter Atkins was a close contender though!)

She explained how much she loved studying the bible.  As an atheist she claimed that anyone suggesting that the bible should only be studied by religious scholars was doing a disservice to it.

She started with an amusing tale about a conversation with her grandmother who told her that the classical demi-gods, the Greek heroes, were the offspring of a god and a human.  She said "Oh, like Jesus then?"  Apparently though, the suggestion that Jesus is a demi-god doesn't go down well with Christians, and this was the beginning of her rejection of Christianity and fascination with the bible as a human-written book.  After some years of study in Oxford in the minority position of being an atheist in a community of theologians she has risen to the position of Professor of Biblical Studies in Exeter.

From this position she was asked to host a short BBC series called The Bible's Buried Secrets, (e.g. here) which I remember enjoying.  The seemingly controversial claims of the series led to something of a furore.  The BBC was inundated with complaints that it was not appropriate for a series about the bible to be presented by an atheist.  She received a lot of personal hate mail which was rather disturbing, but on balance the 'love mail' was even more disturbing!  She has also been accused of being anti-semitic, anti Israeli, and more amusingly, 'really stupid' because she has read the bible and knows it well but apparently hasn't understood it.  I think she has understood it very well!

Worse still, some have said that she was 'too young-looking', complained about what she was wearing, that she was a woman and worst of all an atheist!  One fellow scholar claimed that she had 'betrayed the guild' and another said that she had 'discussed things on TV that should only be examined in the safety of the lecture theatre'.

She likes to show her students the core and difficult stuff in the bible, like the partly hidden presence of a wife of Yahweh, namely the goddess Asherah.  In particular she is interested in the tension between biblical views and historical realities.

For the remainder of the talk she moved on to the subject of Think Week's theme - namely 'Death'.

The concept of hell has only become so widely believed because of Christianity.  Before that time it was believed that you would go to the underworld and you would be united with the ancestors or 'gathered to the ancestors'.  The way that material remains were treated was important.  The very idea that the dead are unclean is a modern one.  In ancient times the period of decomposition was an important part of confirming your place in the underworld, and your bones would have been gathered into an ossuary some time after your death.

Furthermore, death was not regarded as breaking the bond with the living, and rituals were important to maintain this link.  Now we are increasingly segregating the living and dead and she teaches that this is completely different from the ways of ancient people.

In one special case, namely that of Jesus, his resurrection and the lack of a verifiable tomb to venerate diminishes the value of what it is to be human.

Summarising, she emphasised again that biblical texts are incredibly alien to modern eyes, but that, on the other hand, the bible and religions that gave rise to the bible are incredibly important to human society.

I suppose that last claim is a matter of opinion, but it is one that I can respect and not reject out of hand. 

All told, this was the best Think Week event that I attended.  How sad that the audience was only 29 people.  I for one am looking forward to any new TV series involving Francesca's fascinating insights into the bible.

BBC might resist controversy . . . 

Go to Channel 4!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Sex and Death

Another Oxford Think Week activity, on Saturday 16th February included a talk by Professor Beverly Clack about Sex and Death.  Before the talk started I wondered what the title might mean, and I was only there to be sociable while I was waiting for the event that I really wanted to attend later in the afternoon.  (It did not disappoint - see my next blog post.)  By the end of the talk I was left in the same state of confusion, but then again I'm only a sort of scientist.

She talked a lot about the Marquis de Sade and feminism, but for me it was not clear what her message might have been.

We had been invited to 'Pre-Read: “Sex and Death – Reappraisal of Human Mortality”, Polity Press, ISBN-13: 978-0745622798.'  I must admit that I hadn't felt compelled to do so.

From the back cover: For centuries people have debated the nature of the human self. Running beneath these various arguments lie three certainties – we are born, reproduce sexually [is this a certainty?], and die. The models of spirituality which dominate the Western tradition have claimed that it is possible to transcend these aspects of human physicality by ascribing to human beings alternative traits, such as consciousness, mind and reason. By locating the essence of human life outside its basic physical features, mortality itself has come to be viewed as a problem, for it appears to render human life both meaningless and absurd. Complex connections have then been made between the key features of life: sex is linked with death, and birth becomes the event that introduces the child to the world of decay – and ultimately to death itself.

Personally I see no link between sex and death but perhaps that just shows how I am depraved in some obscure way.  In fact, the suggestion that human life might be meaningless and absurd is far more believable to me.

One good thing that I can say is that she stuck to the theme of Think Week quite well.  The theme was 'Death'.  The talk was suitably morbid.

I had almost lost the will to live.

Small note:  I should have stayed in the kitchen to help with drying the cups and plates!  Sorry, but that was more fun!

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Richard Dawkins and Stephen Law - Think Week

On Friday 15th February as part of Oxford Think Week, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Law met on stage in the Sheldonian Theatre.

The discussion was generally an interesting revision of the sorts of things that I hear on scientific and skeptical podcasts, week in and week out, and I write about here.  A few of the audience were a little disappointed that there was nothing very new in it.

However, I can listen to these two men for a very long time without getting bored, and you have to admire their dedication to their cause.  They give up their time (and indeed money by sponsoring the event) in order to be visible to another audience - predominately of young people. 

Getting the message of rationalism and science out to the public takes a lot of effort and they show little sign of tiring.

As usual, the questions asked by the audience varied in quality.  Some were thinly veiled angry responses from a religious world-view that had clearly found itself on the back foot.  Others were more statements than questions in spite of the chair imploring people to keep their questions short.  Also as usual there were questions which were politely answered, but could have be met with simple advice to go and read a book.

Asked about objective morality and how one should address the competing requirements of different moral values we learned that RD claims to be a consequentialist.  SL agreed that he had got the description correct.  I doubt that the questioner felt satisfied with the answer that he got as he was clearly under the impression that he had deal the knock-out blow.

I for one thought it was the best answer available.

When the video of the event is posted I will link to it here.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Pecha Kucha

Last week a colleague introduced me to another new concept. It is a teaching technique (with a competitive element).

At the time he was presenting a module of a training course and he introduced the idea of 'pecha kucha', which apparently is Japanese for chit chat.  The idea is that you present your message in 20 'PowerPoint' slides and that the presentation is set up so that the slides advance automatically, once ever 20 seconds.  The whole thing is over in less than 6 minutes.

Apparently pecha kucha nights (PKN) are arranged for brave speakers to put across their point of view in a concise way, and some people develop an expertise in it.

I was looking forward to the training - but he said that he wasn't able to present it in that way after all.  :(  I have a suspicion that people get so close to their particular areas of expertise that it is difficult to present the items that matter to others without going into the detail that you need to be an expert yourself.

So . . . rising to the challenge I thought I might have a go at it and translated his detailed and knowledgeable training into an attempt to present the things that we really need to know.

I'm delighted to say that he approves.  Now I just need a chance to present it while he is there to answer the really difficult questions!

Monday, 18 February 2013

Swedish icy mystery

My friend and colleague, Tom, was visiting family in Sweden recently and on a forest walk he came across this remarkable and so far unexplained icy feature and photographed it.

Surprising sharp edge around a patch of ice.  Swedish icy mystery.
Surprising sharp edge around a patch of ice. 

At first glance it just looks like an icy puddle, but when you look more carefully it has some very peculiar and surprising features.

Closer view of the upstanding edge - Swedish icy mystery!
Closer view of the upstanding edge - Swedish icy mystery!

Tom described it as follows:

I have never seen or heard of anything even remotely like it before. I probably saw about a thousand other frozen puddles that week, and none of them had any unusual features at all.

Swedish icy mystery. Stalks of grass through the mysterious sharp ice feature.
Stalks of grass through the mysterious sharp ice feature.

It had snowed about 10-15cm some days before we got there and this had largely thawed by the time of this forest walk, after several days of the temperature being about -2°C overnight and 0 to +2°C during the day.

There are many deer in the forest, and a few dog walkers. Several other puddles showed evidence of the water level having gone down under the ice crust before refreezing. I now see that where some larger grass stalks had lain through the developing ice wall, presumably wiggling in the breeze, they have made round holes in the wall. The little ones are just frozen in position as I described the other day.

Swedish icy mystery. Another view - including a reed passing through a melted hole.
Another view - including a reed passing through a melted hole.
Perhaps the explanation for the large green reed having melted a hole is more related to it being a dark colour, and thus collecting more warmth from the sun, but how this sharp edge was formed is still a mystery.

So . . . are there any arctic explorers out there who have an explanation please?

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Where the pope will be hiding . . .

Following on from yesterday's post, apparently the pope is planning to hide himself away in that non-country called The Vatican, in order to avoid the risk of prosecution.  See this link.  It is a good read and it covers the main points quite thoroughly.

I'm glad that this concept demonstrates a small hint of contrition, but I don't think it goes far enough.

Looking at it another way, is this fair to the new pope?  Anglican priests who retire will always move to another parish, so that their successors can take charge without being influenced by a predecessor. 

Obviously former popes have different rules.  But then again they have different views of morality too. 

Now the question arises . . . does the non-country called The Vatican have an extradition treaty with any country in Europe?  If so, it should expect a phone call quite soon. 

If not, it doesn't deserve to be called a country, and the whole problem of the prosecution of its leading criminals is recursive.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Monopoly provides the answer to the question "What does a retired pope do next?"

In general terms this is a virtually meaningless question because most popes do not abdicate and retire.  No doubt it will be a while before we hear the real reason for the retirement of Pope Benedict, even if we ever find it out.  The Roman Catholic Church could hardly be say to be famous for its openness.

Like his brother, Pope Benedict has been accused of quite a number of misdemeanours during his professional life.  It is asserted that he has personally been responsible for covering up the nefarious child abuse activities of many Catholic priests.  Although it is not implied that he was actually involved in the rape of children, it would be regarded as a very serious crime in any civilised jurisdiction to take actions intended to impede the police in their investigation of crime.  And yet this is exactly what he has been accused of.  Aiding and abetting one criminal would be serious enough, but it if is true that Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith activities have been systematically confounding law enforcement then someone should take personal responsibility for it.  That someone should clearly be the head of the organisation.

Now that Ratzinger will no longer be acting as 'The Pope', and therefore no longer the head of state of that 'non-country' called 'The Vatican', one might hope that he is getting rather worried.

Please think about that and feel some satisfaction at my optimism.

His immunity to prosecution must surely have been rescinded along with the other responsibilities of the position.

Surely, just like that other notorious European tyrant Mladic, Ratzinger should be arrested and denied bail while his alleged crimes are thoroughly investigated and he is ultimately brought to trial. 

Therefore the answer to the question of his retirement plans should come directly from the Monopoly board!

Ratzinger - 1st March - Go to Jail. Go Directly.
Ratzinger - 1st March - Go to Jail. Go Directly.

Go to jail.  Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200 (or whatever currency or culture you prefer).

After all this is a man who should know more about morality than anyone else on Earth if the claims of his church are true.  If God really set the standards of objective morality, then the Vicar of Christ (and his older brother) should have been able to tell that it is immoral to shelter his fellow priests from justice (or whatever his older brother is accused of).

There is little evidence that they have grasped that concept yet.

Go to jail.

Update: 22:30.  This evening I attended an event in Oxford, where Stephen Law and Richard Dawkins were in discussion as part of 'Think Week'.  One of the questions from the audience was on exactly this topic.  RD has been involved in a previous discussion about an attempt to prosecute the pope and together with Christopher Hitchens had paid a top lawyer to look into the idea.  Sitting in the audience this evening and knowing that this post was scheduled I felt quite amused.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Peter Atkins talks about absolutely nothing

No really . . . he was talking about the absolute nothingness before the beginning of the universe, as part of Think Week in Oxford!  The talk was so popular that people had to be turned away from the door.  This event was held in a teaching room in the famous Ashmolean Museum

Atkins is of course a popular speaker and people expect to get good value from any talk that he gives and he did not disappoint.  This time he included a number of his usual (witty and pithy) atheistic comments but he was aiming to explain a possible view of the origin of the universe to a bewildered audience.

The point of the talk was to demonstrate that the creation of the universe from absolute nothingness might be open to scientific elucidation, contrary to the view that religion offers the only answers.  As he said, unlike religions, when different branches of science intermingle there is support rather than conflict.  He also re-stated his assertion (which I find very reasonable) that the 'why' questions should really be rephrased as portmanteaus of 'how' questions that science can answer.  When theologians claim that science can't answer the why questions, his reply is to shrug and say "So what? There is no valid question beginning with 'why'".  By asking how questions, we get rid of the need for omnipotent beings, and the supernatural has no place in science.

He went on to show some different models of families of universes, and mention that our notion of time might be far too naive.  Time might be circular but for today he wanted to assume that there really was an instant in time when the first universe came into being.  Following similar lines to Lawrence Krauss in his book A Universe from Nothing, Atkins went on to explain how the universe might look as though it is full of energy but in fact the positive energy, including that which exists as matter, is exactly balanced by the negative energy associated with gravitational attraction. When questioned about why gravitational energy is negative he used a nice analogy that I had never heard before.  Take two objects.  One distorts space-time to make a gravitational well, and the other rolls into the well to reach a lower energy state.  I like it!

Getting gradually deeper into the science of origins and carefully pointing out that he was not telling us that this is the answer, but only a possible answer, he went on to talk about conservation laws.  Taking as his first example, the law of conservation of energy might be inferred from the observation that the universe has no net energy.  If it came from nothing then the simplest explanation is that 'the nothing' had no energy, and that state has been preserved.  He invoked Noether's (first) theorem which states that any differentiable symmetry of the action of a physical system has a corresponding conservation law. In the case of the conservation of energy, the associated symmetry is the uniformity of time.  Similarly, conservation of momentum is associated with the uniformity of space, and angular momentum with the isotropy of space.  In fact almost all laws of physics probably imply the uniformity of the 'nothing' that was there before the universe, and he gave some examples of how the alternative to the physical laws would lead to virtual anarchy.

Concluding the first part of the talk he pointed out that at the creation almost nothing happened.  There is still nothing here, but it is a much more interesting form of nothing than it was before nothing happened.

The second part of the talk became much more abstract, getting into set theory and some other mathematics and without admitting where I lost the plot I'm not going to describe it in detail.  Someone was recording it, and if it is published on the web I will link to it so that you can listen for yourself.  My short summary of it is that time may be regarded as a dimension, but that it is a very special kind of dimension.  The idea that there is only one dimension of time (when there are three spatial dimensions) implies that you can't turn around in it.  (Eeek!  How?)

He then concluded that the whole point of his talk was to show us that science is not afraid to confront the concept of nothing at all, and that the properties of nothing at all can be discussed quite rationally.

In the Q&A there was a question about how (a) god (the creator) might not have been god at all, but that aliens might have seeded the Earth with life and having realised that it was all going wrong had gone away leaving no sign of their involvement.  Having tried to answer the question politely, the questioner persisted with a little rant about how he wasn't being taken seriously.  He refused to stop even when asked by the chairman. 

In his typical politely assertive way Atkins answered that if there was any evidence at all for that idea then it would definitely be worth considering, but that there isn't any evidence.  The questioner picked up his coat and left, much to the relief of all of us.

All in all, it was an entertaining evening with a great speaker and a great chance to meet some very interesting people, older friends and newer.  I will be attending more Think Week events, (although unfortunately not all of them).

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Why aren't ghosts naked?

We all know people who claim to have seen ghosts, even if those people are usually sensible enough not to have told you about what they have experienced.

But have you ever heard anyone claim that they have seen a naked ghost?  I'm left wondering how these disembodied spirits have some way of remembering what clothes their corporeal forms used to wear, and indeed how they choose from the wardrobe that must have changed throughout their lives.

You might argue that this is no stranger than the concept that the ghost's former self changed its appearance throughout its life, but that somehow the apparition has chosen a snapshot in time - presumably normally at the point of its final demise.

Maybe they keep the clothes that they wore at the same time.

Or maybe there are just no ghosts and the people who have the requisite imaginations to conjure up such an image in their minds have no trouble conjuring appropriate-looking attire as well.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Why are there no dragons?

For Darwin Day, it seems appropriate to write a post about evolutiion.

Evolution seems to have produced a wide range of surprising abilities.  In many cases the same ability has come about separately in different species at different times.

Sight seems to have evolved in tens of separate ways.  Many creatures share the optical band that humans are able to sense (around the part of the spectrum where the atmosphere has the lowest absorption), but other creatures have developed to use infra-red and ultra-violet.  Some are very sensitive to the polarisation of light and others like us are almost completely unaware of it.

Sonar seems also to have evolved in about four separate ways.  Even in mammals like whales and bats there is nothing in common between their organs to suggest common evolution.

More surprisingly, electricity has been co-opted by completely unrelated species of fish, and Bombardier beetles have even evolved ways of creating explosions by secreting fluids which are unstable together.

But what of things that seem never to have evolved?

No animal has naturally evolved radar.  Perhaps the other options are good enough for short distances but much cheaper in terms of energy.

But fire is another property that is noticeably and more surprisingly absent from the animal kingdom.  This is the stuff of legend, with fire-breathing dragons being common in folk-lore.  Nobody serious suggests that these creatures really lived, even though there are creatures that create fuel (as cattle create methane in large quantities) and as we have already seen, electricity is generated at the voltages needed to make sparks to ignite the fuel.  The potential was there.  So why are there no dragons?

Monday, 11 February 2013

Sunny brain, rainy brain

Elaine Fox made a presentation to Oxford Skeptics in the Pub last week, in a meeting attended by an unusually large number of people.  The theme of the talk was about whether optimism is good for us.

She began by reminding us that everyone is different.  Quoting William James, she said that every baby born into the world is inundated by "the blooming buzzing confusion of sounds", and it is remarkable how quickly they are able to focus on the ones that matter and ignore the sounds and sights that form the background to life.

She went on to tell us that some things are hard-wired into us, and that fear and pleasure play a large role in the workings of our brains.  In most people, fear takes priority over pleasure and she described the signal route from the amygdala to the pre-frontal cortex - the desire to eat lunch is over-ridden by the desire to avoid being lunch.  (I didn't know that we do not have one amygdala but two.)

In order to convince us that most people have an optimistic approach to life (which seems counter-intuitive to all of us, let alone a room full of skeptics) she read a few statements out and asked us to score our level of agreement.  See below**.  The room displayed a wide range of scores, but she was successful in demonstrating what she wanted. (This was not necessarily done in a completely scientific manner.  How were those statements chosen, and what do they actually mean in detail?)

Optimism is a complex combination of states.  It is not just a matter of happily expecting the best outcomes, but people who score high on optimism scales also take positive actions and persist longer to solve difficult problems.

She also pointed out another (perhaps obvious) point that our outlooks are not shaped by nature or nurture, but by the interaction between both.  The brain remains much more malleable throughout life than was understood only a few years ago.  As an example, she described how London taxi drivers who were studying for a test called 'The Knowledge' had been shown to have experienced a growth in the size of their hippocampus. 

Studies of different gene variants have shown correlation with subtle effects on brain chemistry.  Perhaps there is good science behind these claims.  We didn't really hear enough to be able to tell, and in some ways this was a pity, because it further confirms our bias that the science of the brain is still in its infancy.  Only be the highest standard of scientific method will that change quickly. 

The final topic was about therapeutic effects of cognitive bias modification.  She claimed that various studies showed health benefits from an optimistic bent.  Let's hope that this turns out to be true.  I have a strong feeling that I have heard opposite claims from other researchers, but that is not necessarily a threat to the advance of science.

All in all, it was an interesting evening in spite of a the projector being unable to display in colour.  Obviously it must have been the projector, not the Apple Mac that was being used for the presentation as nothing ever goes wrong with a Mac does it?  Ironic comments aside, the venue was a place that has recently been renamed "The Wig and Pen".  There are rumours that it wants to start to charge for use of the room as well as gaining the benefit of bringing 50 or 100 customers in.  All I can say to that is that they would need to improve the quality of the room.  A bar with one member of staff does not cope with the number of customers.  And one might expect that the toilets would have been cleaned, and that the taps on the sinks in the gents toilets (at least) might open in a more controlled and less explosive way.  I would vote to change venue.

Thanks as usual to the organisers, Heather and Alex.

**Small note
My transcription of the 6 statements:
1/ In uncertain times I usually expect the best.
2/ I enjoy my friends a lot.
3/ I would take off on a trip with no pre-plans.
4/ I don't get upset too easily.
5/ I get restless when I spend too much time at home.
6/ I count on good things happening to me.

Decide for yourselves whether these all reflect aspects of optimism.  Not everyone understands what they mean and how much we are expected to consider the implications.  Not everyone agrees that they reflect optimism as opposed to some other quantity - but then again none of the people I have asked are experts on the topic.  However, I was VERY pleased to score slightly higher than one of my friends who I consider to be highly optimistic, albeit much lower than another.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Entertaining anagrams

Once in a while you come across a really entertaining anagram.  20 years ago I found myself amused by the irony of the anagram of government minister Virginia Bottomley's name.  It seemed humorously plausible as it seemed believable that she might claim "I'm an evil tory bigot"!

Having survived the Conservative government of that time, (which led quite directly to 10 years of Labour government), there was a period when 'Apple Macintosh' developed 'laptop machines'.  There is a surprising synergy between those two sides of an anagram.

On the other hand sometimes you hear one that is appears humorously antithetic.  It would be very surprising to find that "Brittney Spears"
is on of those "Presbyterians".

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Polka-dot trees

Visiting Aix en Provence, I found that many of the trees have been wrapped in red fabric (with white spots).  Was this frost protection?

Aix-en-Provence, joining Marseille's year as City of Culture
Aix-en-Provence, joining Marseille's year as City of Culture

No, apparently Aix is joining in with Marseilles which is currently the European City of Culture. This photo was taken in the evening sun. It was 10 degrees C, which is warmer than it was at home.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Everyone's online

Apparently everyone is online . . . except me, as I will probably be at 35,000 feet on the way back from Marseilles to London as this post is published.  Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

Looks like everyone's online!
Looks like everyone's online!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

No rational person . . .

I can recommend the following debate, This House Believes that Organised Religion has no place in the 21st Century, although not necessarily for the reasons that you might expect.  You might know that I am a fan of Richard Dawkins, and originally it was the main reason that I watched the following video.  I wish that the proposal was true but didn't believe that they would win, but I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of a number of the other speakers.

The order of speakers was interesting.

Andrew Copson speaks a lot of good sense.  He introduced the debate with what was later described as a presumptuous speech.  I think that might have been a little harsh.

Retiring Archbishop Rowan Williams then gave a very well polished, aspirational sermon.  He is, after all, a professional speaker and I respect his style, even if not his beliefs.  Of the archbishops of the last century he is one of the two stars in my opinion.  William Temple was the other.  Did Williams produce a convincing argument?  I think not.  But did he carry the audience?  Certainly yes.

In response, Professor Richard Dawkins spoke in predictably rational terms and explained why truth matters.  He spoke well, but something about the way that he read his notes was less impressive than his usual performance.  It was rather scripted and didn't really come from the heart on this occasion.  But it was worth listening to his words, and I couldn't disagree with any of them.

Then Tariq Ramadan gave an irrational, taqiyyah-laden, rebuttal.  His message seemed to me to include:
  • You need me (is that a threat?)
  • You're being dogmatic (so what?)
  • We know more about humanity (how?)
  • I reject your criticism of my religion's attitude to women (and I reject that!)
  • You say religion is backwards looking (and would be right to do so)
  • We are better at talking about morality and ethics :)
  • And you should welcome me to the discussion.

Well - you should welcome ME to the discussion too, and I have as much right to claim that as you do - but it doesn't get me invited.

After some interesting questions from the audience - mostly non-theistic in their background - Dr Arif Ahmed delivered a crushing conclusion on behalf of the proposal.  (Starts at 1:10:30)  Responding to a question about what he would take as evidence he replied in two parts:
  1. A valid argument with true premises, from which the consequences follow, or
  2. Empirical evidence

Addressing another well spoken, although pompous heckler, who used the age old argument that correlation does not imply causation, he expertly quipped:

Nobody denies that correlation does not entail causation, but everybody who knows anything about it knows that correlation is evidence for causation, which is what I was claiming.

But in spite of being aspirationally righteous, the debate was always going to go to the opposition.  It might have been framed differently if it referred to the 22nd century instead of the 21st, but it is already too late to claim that religion has no place in the 21st century.  And the final speaker, Douglas Murray won the day.  Murray is an atheist and long-term opponent of the speakers on his own side, but still he joined with them to oppose the motion.

Having rightly dismissed Alain de Botton's ridiculous writings he went on to say about religion:

Is it true?  No!  But truth is like water.  It needs a vessel to carry it.

Like all analogies this it a little deceitful, but metaphorical presentations are always more convincing than things that are merely true.  As he said, no rational person can agree with the proposition - however much they may wish it were true.

And I will be loking out for interviews with Douglas Murray in future.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Emergency entrance!

How's your French?  I was surprised recently to pass the office of one of my Swiss colleagues and see this sign.

Entree de Secours - emergency entrance!
Entree de Secours - emergency entrance!

If you travel in Francophone countries at all you will probably have noticed signs saying 'Sortie de secours' - meaning 'Emergency Exit'.  So this sign for an emergency entrance is both humorous and delightful.  It suggests that if you need help you have come to the right place.

Small note:  The gentleman concerned in invariably helpful too.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Think of a fluid with no viscosity.  In other words it is perfectly runny and if you stir it to start it rotating in a beaker it will spin for ever.  Literally for ever! 

This same magical fluid can also climb up the walls of the beaker containing it, run over the top and down the outside, to drip off the bottom.  And to cap it all, it transfers heat perfectly well too.

Surely this fluid doesn't exist.

Well, surprisingly it does!  It was well studied by Jack Allen at The University of St Andrews.  It is called a 'superfluid' and the best known example of it is liquid helium (specifically helium 4 rather than the lighter isotope, helium 3).  'Normal' liquid helium has a boiling point 4.2 degrees above absolute zero, or as we describe that temperature on the kelvin scale it is at 4.2K.

However, if you cool this liquid to below 2.2K it changes into a new form.  It still looks like an ordinary colourless liquid (and yes it really is possible to photograph things that are this cold if you do it carefully)  but it now has the amazing properties described above.  The embedded video shows you enough that you might want to investigate the subject further.  I hope you will.

Thank goodness water doesn't have these properties.  Imagine if your nice hot cup of tea could escape from its cup and drip onto your legs.  Ouch!

Small note:  In memory of my friend Bob Mitchell who died last year.  Bob was a key member of the team of cryogenic experts who first filmed the effects of superfluidity for Jack Allen, at St Andrews University.  He also inspired the first part of my career, working with superconducting magnets and cryostats, and as luck would have it, he was the customer on my first cryogenic system installation .

Monday, 4 February 2013

Fill your tyres with nitrogen

Did you know that some people claim that there is a special benefit to be gained by filling your tyres with nitrogen instead of air?

Why could that be?

The gas inside a tyre is only there for one purpose - namely to keep the tyre from going flat (and specifically flat at the bottom as it is rare for a tyre to go flat at the top).  The right pressure ensures that the correct area of rubber is in contact with the road and takes up some of the vibration from the uneven surface. 

Air is 78% nitrogen already, and all but 1% of the remainder is oxygen, so what might be the advantage of going for a gas that you have to pay for instead of free air?

Nitrogen is very slightly lighter than air, so the 'moment of inertia' of the whole wheel might be reduced, but only by an unnoticeable amount.  Nitrogen is dry whereas air contains a little moisture which might condense into a tiny droplet or two of water.  So what?  Certainly corrosion of wheels isn't such a massive problem.  When did you last see a wheel rusted away from the inside.  Why could that possibly be worse than the constant attack of the atmosphere on the outside of the wheel?

Some claim that oxygen molecules are smaller than nitrogen so it diffuses more easily through the rubber allowing the pressure of the tyre to vary from optimal more quickly.  This is plain wrong.  Oxygen is bigger and will diffuse more slowly (albeit not much bigger and not much more slowly).

It is also plain wrong to claim that oxygen expands and contracts more if the tyre temperature changes.  Anyone claiming that is unaware of the 'gas laws' -  basic physics taught to 15 year-olds.

There must be only one explanation for the recommendation to use nitrogen in tyres.


Surely it just another way to extract money from the gullible.

Small note: Or have I missed something else?

And yes - we really do spell the word tyre with a y in UK English.  

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Contaminated by halal!

In the news this weekend, we hear that there is outrage that some of the supposedly 'halal' food provided to Muslim prisoners in the UK includes traces of pork.

Well . . . what might we all think about that?

First of all, since I'm paying for that food, to maintain a healthy and humane lifestyle for those who have been convicted of crimes serious enough to warrant imprisonment, I would like to know that it has not imposed additional costs in its production.  I would like to see this humanity extended to the animals who are involved in the process and as a matter of principle I object to being involved in deliberate cruelty to animals in order to satisfy the savage iron-age whims of a minority.

Secondly, call me insensitive, but I think the UK has bigger fish to fry than to worry about whether a trace quantity of pork is found in the food provided free to our prisoners.  It almost makes you wonder what real news is being hidden by this mock outrage.

After all, Muslims are specifically permitted to eat food that is not halal if their lives are at risk as a consequence of not eating it.  If they are in prison, their lives would certainly be affected if they were not being fed free of charge.  So it works one way when convenient, but not the other way whenever they have an opportunity to claim their status as victims.

I'm much more bothered about another outrage though.  I'm very concerned about my own ethically sourced food, produced in a way that is actually required by legislation to minimise the suffering of the animals that we eat.

There appears to be a good chance that my food is contaminated by meat that is classified as halal, because the barbaric Islamic practice of slaughter produces more meat than the halal market requires.  For some odd reason, Islamic slaughterhouses are not required to prove that all their produce goes into the Islamic market.   They can kill as many animals as their capacity allows and send it out to other markets willy-nilly.

This is the real outrage!  Halal slaughter should simply be banned in all civilised countries - NOW!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and Cleopatra were found dead in a locked room.  A broken bowl was found on the floor next to them.  Can you explain what might have happened?

This was the riddle posed to me this afternoon over a cup of tea by a friend in Oxford.  It is a test of our mastery of Theory of Knowledge, and I think I failed predictably.

Leave your attempts at an answer in the comments below.  I'll publish the solution in a day or two.


Update 3rd February.  See the answer in the comments below. Well done DS and indeed AK.

Friday, 1 February 2013