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.