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 lagerst├Ątten, 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?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Distrust of sharia in Parliament

Why does my own MP (Member of Parliament) not speak out for justice like this?  If he does then I never hear about it.

Kris Hopkins MP has written a brilliant article in the Yorkshire Post, republished here via the National Secular Society.  As he says, referring to a recent BBC documentary . . .

"On seeing the programme's evidence, the chief crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in the North West said that he was disappointed, but not surprised. If the CPS is not surprised about such findings, why are we, as a Government, allowing such things to happen?"

Why indeed?

Surely the answer is that religion gets special treatment, whether it deserves it or not.  For what it is worth, it doesn't deserve it!

Monday, 20 May 2013

Plagiarising Douglas Adams

If you saw this book . . .

Douglas Adams plagiarised by David Wilkinson (or his publishers)
Douglas Adams plagiarised by David Wilkinson (or his publishers)
 . . . might you be tempted to think that it had been written by Douglas Adams? 

It has the same title as one of Adams' own works, it has a cover reminiscent of The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, and there is a reference to the number 42 in the notes on the front and back cover.

42 meditations??? 

It is such an obvious attempt to steal the intellectual property of the Douglas Adams estate that I'm surprised to find that it is still on the market.

On Amazon there is only one review (rating it at 4 stars) which amuses me.  The small notes are mine.

"David Wilkinson's book is an excellent series of short meditations. [I assure you - it isn't!]  Its one drawback is that to be fully understood, the reader needs to have a close acquaintance with popular culture [of the 80s!]. Some of the references to films and TV programmes were lost on this reader!" [Whereas . . . I would say that it needs a grounding in modern neuro-science to be fully understood!]

In the circumstances, being so detached from the whole point of the plagiarism, I can't see why that reader found it inspiring at all.  Personally I found the extracts that I read to be puerile and pathetic shams compared with the original works of Adams.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Only dead fish go with the flow

We are often exhorted to 'go with the flow'.  But as the name on the side of this narrowboat suggests . . .

Only dead fish go with the flow
Only dead fish go with the flow

. . . only dead fish go with the flow!

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Seven cygnets

Two weeks ago this pair of swans was aggressively defending their nest on the Caen Hill flight of locks at Devizes, and today the nest was empty.  Nearby these seven balls of fluff were exploring their environment, escorted by mum and dad.

Seven new cygnets for the Queen
Seven new cygnets for the Queen
Naturally, they belong to The Queen.  Exactly why this might be the case is not entirely clear to me.  She doesn't claim ownership of wild sparrows, after all.

Friday, 17 May 2013

A ticket to Avoncliff - and great service at "The Boatyard", Trowbridge.

Planning a rail journey I went to buy my ticket this morning.  Avoncliff is a small station near Bath, and it can't be common for people to want to travel from my home station to that specific location.  The man in the ticket office asked if I had bought one yesterday.  Apparently he hasn't sold one for months, and then there were two in two days.  Coincidences happen.

So I planned to get the 14:12 train, and was waiting on the platform for the train to Bath.  I had noticed the display saying that my train was on time, and one came into the platform at exactly the right time. Since there were no announcements and there was nobody to ask, I got on board.  By chance I heard a lady speaking on the phone, saying that she was on the train to Cardiff and would be home soon.  Alarm bells began to ring.  My train was not going to Cardiff due to the second coincidence of the day!  It had arrived at the right moment for my train but it was going to the wrong place.

Too late to get off, the only option was to change at Swindon to get onto my planned train!  It arrived in Bath too late for the connection, but the nice people there put me in a taxi without me even having to think of compaining.

I don't think the taxi driver would ever have found Avoncliff station.  He ended up on the wrong side of the river which in fact was where I wanted to be.  The road was definitely 'interesting', hilly and single track for a lot of the way.

So much for the efficiency of the railways in UK!  All things considered though, it was a good service.

The only thing was that I had already been on a tight schedule if everything had gone perfectly.  Setting off from Avoncliff on the boat I was keen to get to Trowbridge, a few miles away, to fill up with fuel.  "The Boatyard" is well known for selling fuel at rock-bottom prices and its always worth calling in there.  I made it with only minutes to spare and they had already started to lock up, but they very kindly filled my fuel tank with diesel - at only 80p per litre!  5p less than it was two weeks ago!

If you are on the Kennet and Avon Canal and need fuel, this is definitely the place to go.  I have already recommended it to two people, and no doubt I will tell everyone else I meet.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Test your grammar

Just a quick post tonight.

If you think you are good at grammar, try this test.  (Sorry if it doesn't work outside UK, but I think it will.)

I'm embarrassed to say that I only scored eight out of ten, but then again it is obvious that a devious mind produced two of the questions!

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The bite of the honey bee

Yes - I meant bite, not flight, and honey bee, not bumble bee.  But having misused the name of a famous piece of music for rhetorical purposes, here is a surprising (and interesting) bit of information about the familiar insects that are so important for our crop pollination.

You would think that we know nearly everything that there is to know about bees, but it seems that this is not the case.  Now we discover that bees bite and that the bites have a surprising role in the evolutionary struggle between the bees and their parasites.

This interesting information about bees came to my attention in the newsletter of the British Beekeeper's Association (BBKA).  This is not a journal that I have ever read before, but I happened across a well-written article in the February 2013 edition of the magazine. 

Even though the bite phenomenon had been recognised previously, it was not known that it is used to inject a natural anaesthetic called 2-heptanone (2-H).  When bees bite their enemies the 2-H temporarily paralyses the victim and this gives the colony the chance to eject the creature from the hive.  Bees actively use this method to fight the larvae of moths and the parasite varroa which is often heralded as bringing certain death to colonies of bees.

So it seems that bees do have a natural defence against enemies that are too small to sting.

It has been suggested that 2-H might even have a use as a new natural anaesthetic for humans too. Isn't nature amazing?

The BBKA magazine also gets another plaudit from me.  Unlike the article in the Daily Telegraph, the BBKA takes the trouble to reference the scientific paper on the subject by Dr Alexandros Papachristoforou, of the University of Thessaloniki in Greece.  You can find it on the free online, peer-reviewed, PLOS ONE web site at this link.  It gets technical, as all scientific papers ought to do, but the introduction and many other parts are written very clearly and accessibly.  Everyone would get something from the introduction.

Small note:  In the news in recent weeks, people of Europe, particularly UK, have heard a lot about the banning of various pesticides that are alleged to affect bee colonies.  I say 'alleged' because it seems to be a slightly controversial example of science being misused in a public campaign to obtain signatures to promote the passage of legislation.  Unlike many of the campaigns of organisations of 38 degrees, Avaaz and other such bodies, this one about neo-nicotinoids perhaps demonstrates that good science cannot always be applied through democracy.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Should psychics be prosecuted?

If psychics offer their services to the police in order to solve a mystery or a crime and it all goes horribly wrong, which party should be considered culpable?

From time to time we hear about cases where psychics seem to offer that vital clue that police needed in order to solve a difficult case.  Correlation does not always imply causation of course, but facts like this do not often convince a gullible public who are left thinking that 'there must be something in it'.

One recent case where a psychic's total failure has been revealed was that of the investigation of the disappearance of kidnap victim Amanda Berry about 10 years ago.  With the final escape of Amanda we now discover for certain that the psychic Sylvia Browne had (at least) made a mistake.  Her claim that Amanda was no longer in the land of the living has now been shown to be complete fabrication.  I seem to remember that there was a similar case in Bristol UK, just last year, resulting in a false accusation of an innocent man.

Now I wouldn't like to suggest that this particular failed psychic is necessarily using her fame to interfere malevolently with police investigation.  It is quite possible that she truly believes in her abilities (not that she is just using a high profile case like this as a publicity stunt to bring the punters in to see her stage performances.)  I have a friend who also believes that she has these abilities even though she is a scientist.  She realises that the evidence is not yet compelling enough to convince me. 

However, the simple belief in one's abilities is one matter, but when interfering in matters that are truly a matter of life and death, actions should surely carry a degree of responsibility.

No doubt Sylvia Browne's stage work carries the disclaimer "For entertainment purposes only" in small writing, for legal reasons.  So I wonder why her work with the police should not be treated in the same way - also for legal reasons.  Should a prosecution be initiated for supposed psychics who waste police time in this way?  I speak in general terms - not necessarily in this specific case, but surely YES.

On the other hand, are the police failing in their duty by even considering that a psychic might be able to help?  In my view, the answer is an emphatic YES.  Disciplinary action should be taken against the officers who have failed in their duty to the public by even entertaining the idea that this might be useful.  Naturally it might have been a media propaganda stunt on their behalf too, but this sort of thing is at best a smoke screen to placate the credible public.

It is time to stop tolerating interference with the due process of law.

Monday, 13 May 2013

My two 'spirit guides'

A dear friend told me today that I have invisible companionship.

This is not just one spirit guide, but two!  Apparently not everyone is blessed in this way, but it is far from unusual.  My friend claims to have more guides than me.

I find it genuinely interesting that I know people who believe in things that I can't recognise in the world.  My Christian friends know God through his son Jesus (in spite of all that nonsense about the Trinity which makes no real sense to anyone as far as I can tell).  My Islamic friends have faith in Allah and his prophet Mohamed (upon whom I wish no peace or blessing whatsoever).  At least Islam is a little less 'spooky', even though I find it more frightening in other ways.  And my own sister sees ghosts and has always been much more sensitive to the paranormal than I am.

I'm almost jealous of them.  It seems that I am missing this special, interesting, sixth sense.

I don't even believe that we have souls in this dualistic sense, so I find it very difficult to believe in ghosts or spirits.  But I am still fascinated by the idea.

As for these invisible companions who (apparently) know so much about me, very little has been revealed.  They don't have names and nothing is known of the lives that they no longer have.  Both are (or were?) male, which I find genuinely surprising since the minority of my close friends would want to claim that. 

Apparently one is mischievous and the other is 'a free spirit'.  What that happens to say about me is unclear.

What questions can I ask my friend to find out more about my guides?  Your input would be useful.  Please leave a comment if you can help.  I can already think of a few questions.
  • Have they chosen me of have I chosen them?
  • Do they like me?
  • Do they 'guide' anyone else?

Any more?

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Sharia still active in UK

Note that I didn't mention sharia 'law' because it is not law in UK.  And yet our barely-elected government is doing little to safeguard the rights of Muslims who find themselves subject to the rulings of these unelected 'councils'.

Leyton's pseudo-court - or 'sharia council'
Leyton's pseudo-court - or 'sharia council'

Read more at the site of the National Secular Society.  If you are outside UK you will have to adopt some subterfuge to watch the BBC programme that is linked by the NSS.

Friday, 10 May 2013

200W from The Earth

200 watts!  That is the amount of energy that the Earth/Sun system is emitting as gravitational energy as they orbit each other - according to Einstein's theories of relativity.

When I say they 'orbit each other' of course I meant that the Earth goes around the Sun and the Sun wobbles a bit.  (See more in the Wikipedia article about gravitational waves.)

You could run a few light bulbs on that much power, but that is all.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Dinner with believers

Inviting a group of 'believers' for dinner is always interesting.  This evening there were three visitors - all nice folks - invited by Mrs PE who is firmly on their side of the fence.

In these situations, it is only a matter of time before something triggers me into refuting a comment that they make to comfort each other.  This evening the first one related to the doubt that a non-believer could ever truly forgive.  The clinching comment was that the word 'forgiveness' has been misappropriated by the secular community.  This seemed to be an ideal opportunity to strike.

Armed with a good catalogue of stories about altruism among the great apes, and challenging my guest about the use of the term 'misappropriation', I gently but assertively suggested that it might be the other way round.  He did at least have the decency to admit that he didn't actually have any evidence for his original claim, and kept retreating into the refuge of semantics.  Fortunately his wife - sensible lady - then pounced on him too. 

A later discussion about the meaning of the term 'secularism' demonstrated that they regard it as a threat to Christianity too.  When will they learn that secularists are not attacking Christians but only defending the right of everyone not to be bullied by any particular religion?

Outnumbered four to one, I felt that I defended my position adequately, although not expertly.  It would be nice to imagine that something I said might sow the seeds of questioning and doubt, but I know it won't.

I'm sure they will come to dinner again.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

No - nothing surprising

Sorry - but today turned out to have nearly nothing surprising and for a blog of this name that is a bit frustrating.

The day had some nice points, at least one that was more disappointing and others that were frustrating.

My boat is now stranded in Bath.  You might wonder why that would be a problem.  Bath is a nice city isn't it?

However, it is because the visitor facilities for the River Avon are second to none in their paucity.  I can't get back to the canal until they manage to fix Lock 11 of the Kennet and Avon Canal, and nobody is giving any more news than that.

I have to go to move the boat on Friday, but there is nowhere to move it to.

This is an interesting paradox.  It seems that internet technology has not yet reached the Canal and River Trust.  Or maybe customer service is not their top priority?

CRT's reputation has been confirmed.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Kissing the Blarney Stone

Even before I realised that I was a skeptic, I thought the tradition of kissing the Blarney Stone was an example of the Irish getting their own back on the English - not to mention the other nationalities!

This is a view of my daughter trying to do it (a little while ago).

Kissing the Blarney Stone
Kissing the Blarney Stone
So tell me this.  If this is truly the 'other half of The Stone of Scone', why would anyone build it into the outside of an Irish castle?

It doesn't ring true to me, but I'm open to being corrected.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Bath to Bristol - by boat

What a glorious sight to wake up to . . .

Reflections in the River Avon, Bath.

and then to cruise down the Avon on a sunny day with a stop for lunch at a nice pub was even better.

Those who have met my boat will understand why I took the opportunity to show this picture of a pretty young lady at this point.

Name that b . . . beer!  Bath Ales finest.

Perhaps the highlight of the day was to cruise around the 'floating harbour' in Bristol.  It gets this name because ocean going ships can remain floating in this harbour, whatever the state of the tide.

SS Great Britain - Brunel's fine ship
SS Great Britain - Brunel's fine ship

And a bit too much sun - yes, in England - perhaps that is today's surprising concept!

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Approaching Bath

My boat is moored in Bath tonight.  The approach to the city along the Kennet and Avon can is quite enchanting.  I've moored on the River Avon, after a late evening visit to the famous weir by Poultney Bridge.  I had to find a mooring before it got really dark.

The famous weir in Bath, late in the evening

This might not be a surprise to you, but until very recently I never expected to see the view of this famous site from my own boat in the middle of the Avon!

The boat is moored in a place that is not entirely legitimate for a fit young fellow like me, but we'll move on tomorrow, very early in the morning.  I have very good reasons for needing to be moored somewhere accessible.  (Elderly mother on-board.)

Finding visitor moorings turned out to be more difficult than I expected.

Bristol tomorrow - I think!  Come and say hello.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

34 locks on the K&A!

The Kennet and Avon Canal crosses England from West to East, and it features one of the finest examples of canal engineering in the UK.  This is the Caen Hill flight of locks - 16 of them close together.

Looking down the famous Caen Hill flight, Devizes

Above and below the flight there are other locks, and today with an able crew I have cover 8 miles and negotiated 34 locks in total.  Half way down the flight my crew had to brave the attentions of nesting swans.

Nesting swans, Devizes
Fortunately they failed to break a man's arm as they are fabled to be able to do.  Some claim that they are able to do this just by looking at him!

Friday, 3 May 2013

Adam Rutherford at Oxford Skeptics

The speaker at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub this week was one of the best yet.  Adam Rutherford engaged an audience of about 60, speaking on the subject of 'Creation'.   The event was held in a new location, the St Aldate's Tavern.  A good choice, I must say!

When I say that he engaged the audience, he used wit and wisdom to answer questions and challenges in the most interesting round-about ways, and yet still managed to give a satisfactory answer.

There is no point trying to give an account of the talk that he gave.  I will just note a few of the things that I found surprising.
  • The family tree of Charles II of Spain, the last of the Hapsburgs, with all its inter-generational loops.
  • The Murchison meteorite, which contains traces of one of the four letters of the genetic code - one that we find it difficult to synthesise here on Earth.  (And yet the hypothesis of panspermia was rejected as non-scientific.  Apparently it is a nice idea but there is no evidence for it.)
  • That the Miller-Urey experiment was actually more successful than originally thought.  In fact, it produced all 20 essential amino acids - many more than there were able to identify at the time.
  • A definition of life - "Life is the opposite of decay"
  • GM cress which detects land mines by changing colour - and yet is not on the market due to an intellectual property dispute.
These and a few others were the highlights of the evening.  Congratulations to Heather for finding such a good speaker.

A great evening out!  If you get chance to see him you should take it.

Small note: Boo to Martin Robbins for trying to be more than an 'ordinary member' of the audience.  He wasn't a very interesting speaker when he was supposed to be the speaker, and he wasn't much better as a member of the audience.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

"The Fly"

At my place of work we have a system for reporting accidents and near misses, as do most places of work.  Sometimes people make informative and factual reports, with or without grammatical errors, but once in a while a modern classic gets into the system.

One such report went like the following paragraph.  I have edited it slightly but only to correct the punctuation and not to change the words or meaning.  In local folk-lore it is now known as "The Fly". 

[Our building] has a fly problem. Recently a large bug zapper has been installed. It's very impressive. Whilst waiting for a key exchange I observed several winged insects meet their end in the device. One in particular was most spectacular, lodging between the electrodes and catching fire as the miniature lightning bolts seared over its dancing carcass. Then its fried insides explosively outgassed through a weakness in its exoskeleton and the flaming body erupted from the grill. Clearing the insect collection plate it tumbled down under the force of gravity onto the paperwork beneath, still aflame. The solid paper sheets didn't have me launching out of the seat to beat them out, but had the remains landed in the tissue box I suspect it would be a different story.

Of course the author has to remain anonymous, but I credit him all the same. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Peter Boghossian links

One of the most interesting up-and-coming philosophers in the field of professional atheism is Peter Boghossian.  He speaks in a direct but generally non-confrontational way but there is no doubt what his views are on the subject of religion.  He says "I'm unwilling to apologise for how I interact with religious people."  And why should he need to apologise?  Generally he is polite to them and he is as entitled to express his views as they are to express theirs.  I've collected a few snippets from his talks and some links for you to follow when you have some time spare to learn.

I might be paraphrasing a little, as I took these notes a while ago.
  • Arguments, hate, strife, war, crime, discrimination and bigotry revolve around belief in a deity.  It is amazing that we are still debating whether God exists, and that the creation vs evolution debate continues.
  • The concept of hell is a psychological black hole.
  • Religion is a slave to contradictions, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, horrible science, poor maths, moral comments, erroneous geography, false prophecies, false heroes and human sacrifice.
  • Christians cannot understand what it is like not to believe in god.
  • We should replace belief with reason.  Beliefs are based on circumstances and things that have happened to us in the past.  We cannot use the word outside the supernatural or spiritual.
  • The idea of God existing goes against every fibre of my being.  We can't unlearn anything we have learnt about science.  How can it be good for anyone to believe in something that insists on enslaving the mind, that convicts people of thought-crimes, rapes our senses and regulates everything we do.
Here are links to some of his talks:

Faith is a Cognitive Sickness Nov 2011

"A lot of people are sick and tired of being held hostage to the delusions of others.  I'm one of those people."

Practical Strategies to Combat Faith a NEPA Freethought Society Podcast

You should always be open to the possibility that others know something that you don't know.  By being open to learning from them you are modelling a behaviour that you would like them to try too.  That is a fantastic strategy in small discussions.

The Good Atheist Podcast: Episode 169  About the need to redefine “Faith”.

Interview on the Malcontent's Gambit podcast

Another Youtube video

Interviewed on Freethought Radio episode 12th November 2012, starting at 21 minutes 25 seconds.  Listen, or download the episode.

And finally a previous post on Something Surprising.