Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Progress for secularism

I was just enjoying a phone call with my mother who is a practising Anglican who lives in (fairly) rural Yorkshire. 

She told me how the vicar of her church is retiring in a month or two, and how his curate is off work with 'stress' and that he would not be applying to take over as vicar.

In my opinion you can't blame either of them for that. 

Meanwhile most of the neighbouring benefices are bereft of clergy.  Those who are there are not 'real' clergy but 'lay readers' and therefore they are not able to take communion services.

A few years ago I would have agreed that this was a tragedy.  English traditions are being swiftly eroded and the church is one of those traditions.

However, these days I'm covertly rejoicing about the idea of the impending demise of England's 'established church'.  I see this as good progress towards a secularist state.  That is to say that I don't begrudge anyone their religion but I have no desire to contribute towards it as a UK tax-payer.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Noah, Abraham and morality

An anonymous but interesting friend left a comment yesterday on my post "Things Christians Say, Part 5: Just go out and kill!".

They said:

It is also funny to note that both Noah and Abraham were mentioned as righteous before "god" revealed himself to them...so this righteousness preceded god visiting them and making himself known...that destroys the argument that knowing right and wrong are impossible without god, also god himself did not want Adam and Eve to know what right and wrong were, so he is clearly anti morality..

I like that way of thinking (even if not the punctuation). 

God doesn't seem entirely consistent in his approach.

I expect that there will be religious apologists who disagree.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Bridge of the immortals

Don't fall off!

This is another amazing thing from China.  Less scary than some other photos but you have to admire the surprisingly good engineering.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Narrowboat lawn

One of the many pleasures of living on a narrowboat on England's waterways is that the garden is provided free of charge.  Leafy rural England is all around you and although boats are not exactly maintenance-free, at least there is no need to mow the lawn.

Or is there?

I spotted this boat on the Kennet and Avon Canal recently.  The whole roof has been covered with turf.

A narrowboat with a lawn - best of both worlds?

One good thing about it is that there is no problem finding the water to keep it green.  If water is that short, then the lawn must be the least of your worries.  Another is that it keeps the heat of the summer sun at bay, maybe making life aboard a bit more comfortable.

But in the small space available in the boat you now have to keep a lawn-mower, or else spend a lot of time with a pair of scissors every week.  And I would be a little worried about corrosion of the roof, but I suppose that is a minor issue.

My boat will remain free of lawns!

Friday, 26 April 2013

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Libel Reform happening in UK! At last!

Today the UK's new Defamation Bill passed into law, subject to the anachronism of Royal Assent, which hopefully will happen within hours.

That's great news.  Politicians of all parties will no doubt line up to take credit for beginning the reform of our preposterous libel legislation, but in doing that they would be lying to us.

I believe that this is solely the result of concentrated people-power.

LibelReform.org has led the way and they are rightly proud of themselves for what they have achieved.  They mustered the votes of so many people that the (barely elected) Government just had to take notice of them.

You can read Libel Reform's  latest news here and their initial summary assessment here.

A big Well Done to Síle and Mike!  And a general Well Done to all of us who have signed petitions and stood up for justice and free speech!

It's a great start!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Just deport him!

Abu Qatada has managed another feat of hypocrisy.

This is a radical Islamist who took refuge in liberal Britain and then started to preach his hate speech on our streets.  Then he used human-rights legislation to protect himself.  This means the same human rights that he denies to half the human race - namely women.  Is it a matter of lying for Islam - or lying to protect himself using Islam as an excuse?

And liberal Britain has tolerated him for much too long.  Whatever legal niceties the higher courts may have used to save this 'poor victim' from deportation, if the barely-elected government had any metal it would just go ahead and hand him over to Jordan where he would stand trial.

This barely-elected government would gain the respect of a huge majority of the UK population.

Of course he would appeal.

He might posthumously win his case, but still justice would have been done.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Clarke's First Law

Today I was reminded of Arthur C Clarke's 'first law'.  Clarke was one of my favorite sci-fi authors as I grew up, and he is famous for having invented the idea of the geo-synchronous orbit.  We all rely on these satellites for communications these days.

Clarke maintained that three laws were enough for anyone - so he limited himself to this many.

His first law has often seemed right to me:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

See Clarke's three laws here

Monday, 22 April 2013

I feel like resigning . . .

I feel like resigning . . .

. . .  from public service because of what the UK Government is doing to the (already pitiful) pensions that we agreed - contractually

(but who said that you could trust the government?)

. . . and from the internet in general

following the revelations that Brian Dunning of skeptoid.com has pleaded (or plead) guilty of something called Wire Fraud.

Skeptoid has been one of my favourite podcasts for several years (even though I don't really like the tone of voice that he uses), and it is widely respected in the skeptical community.  Dunning's explanation is here and it sounds plausible.  Maybe he is now plea-bargaining, or maybe he's guilty.  Even using the tools of skepticism I can't decide what to think.

Now I'm being told to be skeptical about Skeptoid.  Should I detect a conspiracy here?

I think I will continue to listen to it until it ends.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

St George's day cometh

In a local competition the villagers are invited to compete.  Who can build the best dragon?

Thank goodness for St George!  Dragon in West Hagbourne, Oxon.

This one is quite spectacular!  I  wonder how many traffic accidents have been caused by this brilliant edifice.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Douglas Murray - who is he?

Recently I came across a character called Douglas Murray, who seems to speak in a style similar to that of the late Christopher Hitchins.

Has anyone encountered him before?  What are your opinions of him.  His views seem controversial with his audiences, but he is certainly a powerful and rational speaker in the few videos that I've found so far.

His credentials are enhanced by this Intelligence Squared debate where he works with Ayaan Hirsi Ali to debate "Islam is a religion of peace". 

(Ayaan and Douglas won decisively by the way.)

We might have a new Hitch in the making.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Baghdad Batteries

When do you think batteries were invented?  200 years ago or 2000?

I tend to believe in the former, but some claim that some Sumerian artifacts were used as batteries for gold plating of other artifacts, and that they were made about 250 BCE.

These are known as the Baghdad Batteries, or Parthian Batteries and you can see the Wikipedia article here.

I'm feeling skeptical!

This article seems to me to have a much better explanation of the findings.  Electricity then becomes a modern invention again.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The ancient 'Sweet Track'

No doubt there are many who make claims for other ancient structures, but I was surprised to find out recently that a scheduled monument in Somerset, southern England, might be the most ancient engineered road in the world.  It is called 'The Sweet Track'.  It seems that it was built over an even more ancient structure called 'The Post Track' (which must therefore have been more ancient, but let's not be too pedantic).

Of course it is only the most ancient until an earlier one is found, but it is still interesting to hear that an artefact in England can make this kind of claim.  I would have expected that there were more ancient structures in Mesopotamia or that region.

The Sweet Track is named after its discoverer, Ray Sweet who found it while digging peat in 1970.  It was built across the marshy Somerset Levels to make it easier to travel between settlements.  It has also been dated with surprising precision to one of two years, namely 3807 or 3806 BCE (presumably therefore by dendrochronology, although that is not clear).  200 tonnes of timber went into its 2000m length and it was probably prefabricated.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Discovery Institute's latest 'divine comedy'

It is not unusual for The Discovery Institute's podcast, ID the Future to be filled with pseudo-scientific nonsense (in the style that I mentioned a couple of days ago).  I loyally listen to laugh and to learn the arguments that the  neo-Creationists like to use (and what creative pejorative terms they propagate to describe real scientists).  The latest episode doesn't feature the always-offended voice of Casey Luskin who is the regular host, but it takes the form of an audio adaptation of a short novel called I, Charles Darwin by Nickell John Romjue.  You can read more about it here.

Judging by what we have heard in the first episode (which you can find here) it will be surprising if many people actually bother to listen to the whole of it, unless like me they do it to giggle at it!

In this risible novel Darwin finds himself resurrected and returned to present day London, where he has a wallet filled (and constantly re-filled) with magical pound notes!  Yes, notes!  And these notes are not mentioned just once but several times, so it isn't an error.  See the comment at the end if this doesn't seem strange to you!

We get all the usual time-travel nonsense about how surprised Darwin is to see the way we dress and travel, mixed in with a load of pseudo-scientific propaganda.   We have been told that he can make himself visible and invisible at will.  He has the memories of his previous life plus the instructions that he received from whoever sent him back to earth.  Presumably this was 'the intelligent designer' herself, but of course her identity is still being kept secret from us - just as it is in real life.

The unlikely and illogical tale is wrapped in a literary style that must be aimed at a pre-teenager.  The prose makes the Harry Potter novels (which I greatly enjoyed) seem to be written in quite advanced English.

Why would the Discoveroids lower their standards to this level, I wonder.  It must be another feeble attempt to corrupt the minds of the young!

Can't wait for the next exciting episode!

Small note: Pound notes have not been in use for nearly two decades and you would not be able to spend them in today's Britain, whether magical or not.  Since 1984, our lowest denomination in paper currency is the £5 note.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

I've been endorsed

A couple of years ago I joined LinkedIn and since then I have passively collected  nearly 200 contacts.  Unlike my Facebook friends, my LinkedIn contacts are (I think) exclusively made up of people who I have known and worked with.

That means that they ought to know me reasonably well and I would have expected that my range of skills (or lack thereof) would influence their views about me.

So I'm constantly surprised at the things that they endorse me for!

I could understand that I've convinced people that I know something about science and experimental physics (even though I feel far from expert).  I feel flattered to have had some endorsements for Public Speaking too, but I'm progressively baffled that others consider that I know anything useful about the rest.  I know a little basic Optics, my Computational Physics experience is limited to being reasonably capable of using Excel.  Spectroscopy and Simulations are way outside my comfort zone.  I once wrote a programme in Fortran (but I was still at school at the time), and when it comes to LaTex and IDL I can only say that I know what they are for.

But I have been generously endorsed for all of them. 

I appreciate the compliments, but it must be said that they don't add value to my profile.  And where are my endorsements for Engineering, Vacuum or Cryogenics, for Atheism, Skepticism (not Cynicism) or Islamophobia, or indeed for Lateral Thinking or Sense of Humour?  I hardly recognise my own 'reflection' that comes from the opinions of my friends and colleagues.

That's life!

I can't imagine that I'm unique in this respect.  I'd just caution everyone to take no notice of the supposed endorsements in LinkedIn.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Now that Cher's alive and well

The demise of Mrs Thatcher last week has resulted in trending of a new hash tag on Twitter.

#nowthatchersdead has caused a small stir among music fans though, and we are relieved to hear that Cher is not dead but that she is still alive and well!

As @rickygervais tweeted:

Some people are in a frenzy over the hashtag . It's "Now Thatcher's dead". Not, "Now that Cher's dead" JustSayin'

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Creationist science . . . or is it?

Over lunch last week I found myself in an interesting debate with a gentle and progressive Muslim friend and a gentle and polite Christian friend.  I'm hoping both of them will continue to debate in such an open way, and that our full and frank debate did not offend them.

I must write about part of the discussion.

It was about the battle between supporters of Intelligent Design (ID) and the supporters of the Theory of Evolution.  My Christian friend put the point that both sides accuse each other of 'not being scientific' and that they should drop this argument and move to the evidence.  When I complained that this was a reasonable point of view from the point of view of evolution he asked me how I would define science.

In my own amateur way I said that science was the process whereby someone develops an idea into a hypothesis which can then be compared with the evidence from the world around us, and as confidence was developed that there was a good level of agreement the hypothesis might develop into the status of a Theory.  Ultimately when the evidence is overwhelming then the Theory might reach the coveted state of becoming a Law.  (I should have added the question of falsifiability.)

He agreed.

I added that ID specifically doesn't do this.  It looks for evidence and then tries to fit a hypothesis to it retrospectively.  He disagreed.

So I asked him where the hypothesis for ID might be, and I was amazed to hear that his answer was that the bible is the hypothesis.

I pointed out that the bible is not exactly self-consistent and offered the evidence of the two versions of the creation story in Genesis and was told that they were not very different in the grand scheme of things.   I disagree about that.  See for yourself that the whole thing is in a different order in the second version. The first is Genesis 1:1-2:3, and the second is Genesis 2:4-25.)

So which of us is correct?
  • Can the bible be offered rationally as an hypothesis for Intelligent Design?
  • Does ID truly follow the scientific method or does it just try to use convenient parts of scientific methods to pick selective holes in evolution without offering a complete counter-proposal?
Thinking about the topic further since our discussion I would also ask:
  • Is ID falsifiable?  If the bible is its hypothesis then I would suggest that it is self-falsifying.
  • Which point of view indulges in more ad hominem attacks?  Evolutionists rarely call their opponents names (although sometimes the word creotards has come up in discussion) whereas the ID lobby never fails to use terms like 'Darwinist' (which they consider pejorative), 'neo-Darwinist' (which is clearly more so) and worse?
I maintain that ID is not science in the real sense of the word.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Being fair to the Thatchers

The final demise of Margaret Thatcher has been a hot topic for discussion this week.  Opinions are divided and there is little doubt that some are taking their celebrations to a ridiculous extreme.

However, having admitted that she might have been right about a few things, I noticed some people telling me that they were appalled by the way that she is being pilloried by press and people alike.  It was gently pointed out to me that Margaret Thatcher has a family, and that people are not being respectful to them.

But didn't she once say of her son Mark "Mark could sell snow to the Eskimos and sand to the Arabs"?  Of course she neglected to mention his ability to sell arms to the Saudis (of which, naturally, he was innocent anyway) or his inability to find his way through sand while pretending to be a rally driver.  The latter resulted in a large bill for the British tax payer and the former to considerable embarrassment and frustration for the same people (even though it didn't officially happen).  And to make up for it he now has the title 'Sir Mark', thanks to the beneficence of his parents.

Even his twin sister, Carol Thatcher, publicly disapproved of Sir Mark and she aspired to make her own way in the world as a journalist - an honourable profession if ever there was one!   This is a woman who referred to the tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as a 'golliwog'.  What a nice lady.

I'm sure Mrs Thatcher has some perfectly pleasant relatives as well, but her children don't get much sympathy from me.

So while I felt a measure of disinterest for protests against a state funeral and for the rise of a song about the death of a witch in the charts this week, that one comment about her family might have made me feel more radical than I did before.

But who cares about a bill of over 10 million pounds for a funeral when living, breathing, public servants are being treated so well (!!) by their employer! 

I care!

Can the UK government afford niceties like this? If so, why can't it care for its employees properly?

Being fair to the Thatchers would include provision of a nice prison cell and the withdrawal of a title and the burial of a cardboard coffin in a privatised municipal dump!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Converted by C.S. Lewis . . . and a waterfall

Francis Collins (of Human Genome Project fame) wasn't always a committed Christian, but in his later years he was converted. What could have caused such an event?

First he had read C.S. Lewis.  Personally I never liked the material that Lewis wrote specifically for children, but the stuff that he wrote for 'adults' is quite astounding.  I have quoted him sometimes before, e.g. here and here, and found some of his writing entirely risible and facile.

The particular passage that precipitated the conversion of chemist Francis Collins appears to have been this one:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—- on a level with the man who says He is a poached egg—- or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

I do agree with Lewis in one way.  I also believe that he was not a great human teacher . . . but for the reason that I doubt that he ever lived as described in the New Testament.

However, what was the context where this had such an effect?  It was the sight of a frozen waterfall.

"Lewis was right. I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ. "

How surprising that a a rational scientist turned his view of life over for a reason such as this!  Why did a waterfall lead him to this specific God when there were so many others to choose from?

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Cup of tea . . . and a hot-water bottle!

A couple of weeks ago I was showing some friends around Oxford.  It was a chilly day and we had no intention of sitting outside when we stopped at a well-known cafe for refreshments, but we all found this sign amusing.

Sit outdoors for tea in England - in winter!
Even with a hot water bottle and a blanket I don't think we would have enjoyed sitting for very long.  Anyway it was nice and warm indoors.

As the spring progresses things might change!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The fresh smell of the sea!

Cruising on the Kennet and Avon Canal with two neighbours who are chemists proved to be an educational experience.

I found that salt has no smell as its vapour pressure is too low.  (Secretly, I slightly doubt that it has no smell, but the logic of that physical quantity can't be denied.)  I foolishly ventured that you can smell the sea.

Of course we were almost as far from the sea as it is possible to get in England on this canal - and my question was immediately overturned, in stereo, with "that's the smell of di-methyl sulphide".  So it isn't salt.  It isn't ozone or 'fresh air' but it is a slightly toxic gas that gives the sea its nice smell

Apparently DMS is produced by bacteria and plankton in the sea.  It gives the sea that characteristic smell and it plays an important role in the formation of clouds over the sea too.

Having googled the topic when I got home I found this interesting article, written by Sanjida O'Connell in 2009.  It confirms what I had been told.

How educational!

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Surprisingly easy - replacing a broken screen on a Samsung phone!

This was one of this evening's useful practical tasks . . . to repair the broken screen on a Samsung Y phone which was dropped by a family member last weekend.  Tragedy!  The world had nearly ended.

I ordered a new LCD screen via Amazon on Sunday and it arrived on Tuesday.  This brilliant and useful video showed me how to install it . . .

. . . and it was even easier than the video made it appear.  Total cost less than £20 compared with a new phone at £90. 

I think it was 15 minutes well spent.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Thatcher was right after all

You might know me as a radical anti-Tory who regrets voting for Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in my first general election.  I don't feel proud of her legacy, but I should acknowledge that she got some things right.  Not many - but I acknowledge them.

She got a lot more wrong.  She sold off the country's assets for less than half their value - gas, water, and telephone networks and social housing were worth much more than her government accepted.  I can tell you for sure that she sold 'council houses' too cheaply.  I live in one of them to this day.  I bought it for £49,500 from the former tenant who had purchased it the previous year for £19,500.  Thatcher effectively empowered the owner of this house to make a profit of £30,000 at the expense of the tax payer.  That was fair wasn't it!

Her real downfall was the 'poll tax'.  It wasn't a stupid idea.  Of course households where more adults live should pay more than households with fewer adults.  It was just implemented in the most crass and ignorant way.  A couple with children suddenly found themselves paying nearly twice as much as they had paid in 'rates' - the previous local taxation system in UK.  Single pensioners who ought to have had a financial gain found that they were still paying the same as before.  Naturally that was going to get a reaction - and indeed it got an excessive reaction.  People died because of this.

I could go on, but you will be glad to hear that I won't.

What did she get right?
  • As the first ever British female prime minister I have to offer respect.
  • She stood up to Northern Irish terrorists (many of whom are now in the government in that province) and resisted their violence bravely.
  • I had forgotten this, but it turns out that she opposed apartheid in South Africa and yet maintained that Nelson Mandela had rightly been imprisoned as a terrorist.  I'm not prepared to change my view of this just because Thatcher agreed with me.
So I do not mourn her.  However the Tory Witch was not wrong on every subject.  I wish the same could be said for David Cameron - the current barely-elected prime minister.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Pat Condell - he has a point!

Pat Condell upsets even some of my non-religious friends.  One of them referred to him as 'foaming at the mouth'.  But I don't think that would be a fair description of his recent work, at least.

His latest video "I'm offended by Islam" seems to me to hit the spot.  I have a few Muslim friends who are nice people, but it has to be said that Muslims will never call other more radical Muslims to order in a very public and obvious way.

I played this to my 15 year-old son, who is not very chatty or humorous with his father at the moment.  I expect it is just his age, and I did have him captive for a short car journey so perhaps it was unfair to subject him to this, but I asked his opinion.  With a little smile he said "Well . . . he has a point . . . "

So listen for yourself.  Tell me how this is not a perfectly reasoned and intelligent view about Islam.  I don't think you can.

I hope my Islamic friends will defend their religion, but I'm almost sure that they can't either.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Things Christians say, part 48: How can there be goodness without a measure?

A (more-or-less) weekly series (although there was a pause for a while) 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'). 

How can there be goodness without a measure to judge it by?


The human mind is good at finding meaning in patterns of the world around us.  Sometimes we find meanings that are real and measurable.  Sometimes our meaning detector misfires and we get a false sense of what is true.

We see faces in the clouds or the trees.  Does that mean that someone has put those patterns there for us to see, or does it just imply that our imaginations are exceptionally active?

By the same token, just because Christians think that there must be a fixed objective morality defined by their God it doesn't mean that it is true.

Even if we accepted that some individual god had set things up this way, it has to be said that it is not overwhelmingly probably that the Christian God was the one.  After all he has plenty of competition from other extant deities, let alone the extinct ones.

In fact, on the evidence of the bible alone God manages to be inconsiderate, immoral, unreasonable, violent and cruel.  Do you really suggest that  we measure 'good' and 'evil' by such a yardstick?

Christians - when you say things like this you might not realise that it opens up a much bigger topic than you expected!



Doesn't the bible (Matthew 7:1) implore us not to judge?  If so, how would it help to have a measure?

And as French philosopher Michel Onfray says

" . . . good has no need of God, of heaven, or of any intelligible anchorage. It is sufficient unto itself and arises from an immanent necessity - proposing a set of rules, a code of conduct among men."  - - Atheist Manifesto page 56

Last episode: Atheists have no reason to live
Next:  You don't want God to cramp your lifestyle

Friday, 5 April 2013

Turn the other cheek

Another of the paradoxical teachings of Jesus today . . .

"Turn the other cheek" Christians are implored.  Whatever you do, don't fight back when you are assaulted by a fellow human.  Forgive them and move on - whether you're still standing or not, of course!

But the same doesn't apply to trees.  If a tree doesn't bear fruit, cut it down and burn it.

Is this as inconsistent as it seems?  It is hard to say, but perhaps the implication is that the tree is diseased and it should be treated in this way in order to prevent the disease spreading.

Or is there another explanation?

I long since stopped expecting the bible to be self-consistent though.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Is Martin Robbins skeptical enough?

Martin Robbins, blogger for the Guardian, spoke to a packed audience at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub this week.  It was not the usual venue (which has a great meeting room but no atmosphere), but a real pub called the Port Mahon in St Clements.  The down-side of this is that the room was long and narrow, filled with an audience of 50 or more, and if you were unlucky enough to be sitting near the back it was difficult to hear or see.  In fact many were not lucky enough to be sitting at all, but the atmosphere was friendly and nobody was complaining

Still, I got more than the gist of his string of anecdotes about quack medicine in Africa, with tales of Joseph Obi in Gambia, Jim "Bleachgate" Humble, Homeopaths without Borders, the 'Real Medicine Foundation', and Jeremy Sherr.

His source of information was a period of a month or so in Africa a couple of years ago.  He had been generously supported by The Wellcome Trust. He and his team were quite successful in their attempt to find quack 1st-world medics plying their trade, but he was keen to point out that some of their associates actually do good charitable work.

Perhaps I was most surprised by his message about skepticism.  He clearly demonstrates a skeptical attitude on a lot of topics, and yet he seems to doubt the value of skeptical blogging in the Western world.  He asks why more skeptics don't get out to Africa to see for themselves what is going on there and to try to do something about it.

And yet . . . he has just been there on a well funded mission and clearly managed to do nothing that is very useful.  Yes he brings back a message about quack medics practising their trade in African countries, but then tells us that nobody here will do anything about it, and that it might even be a bad thing if they did.

To me it is obvious why more skeptics do not go on these missions.  For a start there is no source of funding, whereas quack medicine funds itself.  Secondly, anyone who thought about it would understand that Western quack medicine is probably no more harmful than the indigenous quack medicine practised by witch doctors and shaman. I for one am not a fan of interfering in developing countries. 

If we have learnt anything in recent decades it is that well funded and well-intentioned charity often manage to do more harm than good. 

Amateur skeptics are hardly likely to achieve anything better are we?

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Sympathy for the queen?

In this week's news we hear that the barely elected UK Government has voted for a pay rise for our dear old queen.  Unlike the situation of virtually everyone else who works directly or indirectly for the government, her income rise is not capped at 1%, nor even at the 0% that we have had to tolerate for the last 2 years.

No no, the Queen is a special case, or so it seems.  Last year we gave her an extra million pounds to subsidise her for the Jubilee Celebrations, so this year presumably we would reduce her income accordingly.  That would only be fair wouldn't it.

But no - fairness is far from the thoughts of our government. They have generously and magnanimously given her an extra 16% on top of the extra million that she received last year.  It is not exactly clear how they settled on this amount but I doubt that many will feel sympathetic for anyone who has to get by on a mere £36.1 million for this year.

As the government says, we are all in it together! But as with everything else they say you have to invert the meaning of the sentence to get to the real truth.

Failed Tory leaders . . .

Iain Duncan Smith ('IDS') used to be leader of the Conservative Party.  He didn't last long.  He wasn't exactly inspirational.  In fact a dessicated slug would have been more inspiring.  Of course I am not a Tory supporter.  I actually have a conscience.

The current Tory leader (and Prime Minister - spit!) has aquiesced to IDS being the Work and Pensions Secretary.  Of course he knows little about work (as ordinary people experience it) or pensions, but why should that matter?  In that capacity he recently committed an interesting faux-pas where he claimed that he could live on £53 per week - just 3% of his current salary.

So anyone who shares my desire that he should honour that claim might like to sign a petition at change.org.  Let's embarrass him into proving that he could do it.  As they say:

This petition calls for Iain Duncan Smith, the current Work and Pensions Secretary, to prove his claim of being able to live on £7.57 a day, or £53 a week.
On Monday's Today Programme David Bennett, a market trader, said that after his housing benefit had been cut, he lives on £53 per week. The next interviewee was Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who was defending the changes. The interviewer then asked him if he could live on this amount. He replied: "If I had to, I would."

This petition calls on Iain Duncan Smith to live on this budget for at least one year. This would help realise the conservative party`s current mantra that "We are all in this together".

This would mean a 97% reduction in his current income, which is £1,581.02 a week or £225 a day after tax* [Source: The Telegraph]

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Monday, 1 April 2013

Unlinking the world's woes from atheism

I have been reading Michel Onfray's Atheist Manifesto, published 2005.  He has been described as "The French Richard Dawkins" but I think that description does justice to neither of the men.  Dawkins may be intolerant of religion, but Onfray attacks it head-on with the rhetoric of a priest giving a sermon. 

I came across this short passage (page 42) which addresses a topic that I covered recently in my series Things Christians Say.  It was a post called Atheists are responsible for all the world's ills,where I argued from the point of view that we atheists don't have time for such a daunting task.

"If the existence of God, independently of its Jewish, Christian, or Muslim form, had given us at least a little forewarning against hatred, lies, murder, rape, pillage, immorality, embezzlement, perjury, violence, contempt, swindling, false witness, depravity, pedophilia, infanticide, drunkenness, and perversion, we might not have seen atheists (since they are intrinsically creatures of vice) but rabbis, priests, imams, and with them their faithful, all their faithful (which amounts to a great many) doing good, excelling in virtue, setting an example, and proving to the godless and perverse that morality is on their side. Let their flocks scrupulously respect the Commandments and obey the dictates of the relevant suras, and thus neither lie nor pillage, neither rob nor rape, neither bear false witness nor murder—and still less plot terrorist attacks in Manhattan, launch punitive raids into the Gaza strip, or cover up the deeds of their pedophile priests. Then we would see the faithful converting their neighbours right, left, and centre through the example of their shining conduct. But instead . . .

"So let's have an end to this linkage of the world's woes to atheism."

Well said Michel Onfray!