Friday, 31 August 2012

Tim Minchin talks to Caitlin Moran

I've probably been living under a rock or something because I have never really come across Caitlin Moran before. I've just listened to Tim Minchin talk to Caitlin Moran on BBC Radio 4's "Chain Reaction" (it wasn't quite an interview!) and it was great!

It's only available on iPlayer for 5 more days and it's well worth a listen. (The previous episode in which Derren Brown interviewed Tim Minchin was pretty good too but I think that one's gone already. Perhaps it will reappear somewhere?)

She has some great things to say on a variety of topics including modern feminism and "ethical" free-range celebrity gossip. Although I'm not one, it really made me want to read How to be a Woman and, on the basis of this podcast, I would recommend that you do too! (It won an award and everything.)

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Olympic Highlghts V: Amazing human feats

It's a bit of a cliche to describe athletic performances as "superhuman" but, let's face it, some of them are just ridiculous. I know some people take issue at the fact that all this money goes into letting a few individuals train for their dream but I see it as comparable to investing in culture and the arts: it might not provide a direct tangible benefit to the economy but I still find it inspirational to see what humans are physically capable of if they push themselves. As the Paralympic events kick off today, I suspect that the biggest inspiration is yet to come.
(Part of me can't help thinking it might be even more entertaining if Greg Rutherford were to actually jump 70 Cadbury's Twirls, though!)

Starting the Paralympics with a Big Bang

Well, I enjoyed the Olympics Opening Ceremony but I think I may have enjoyed the Paralympics opening even more. Kicking off with Steven Hawking introducing the Big Bang and then celebrating science, rationalism and the universal declaration of Human Rights - I was sold. Even the old Higgs boson got a role in proceedings!

Perhaps it was the reduced pressure of knowing that the Olympics had already gone smoothly but the whole thing had a much more relaxed feel to it. (Or perhaps it was just me!)

It really picked up where the Olympics left off: progressive, forward-thinking and a celebration of modern Britain and modern humanity. I also very much liked the umbrella theme, although happily they proved not to be needed. Great stuff. Hard to think of anything bad to say about it, actually. (Happily, I don't intend to!)

It was good to see the Olympic cauldron get lit again too and it was just a beautiful the second time. The arrival into the stadium was perhaps more impressive - a Royal Marine flying in by zip wire from the tower next to the stadium. Having Britain's first paralympic gold medal winner light the cauldron was also a really nice touch, I thought.

Bring on the Games!

Olympic Highlights IV: the Volunteers


It would be wrong to have a set of posts of Olympic Highlights without mentioning the volunteers. I didn't attend any of the events myself but you had to be living in a cave not to see the impact they made. I'm not normally a fan of Alastair Campbell but I think his blog post from earlier in the month sums it up quite nicely: The volunteers are 70000 reasons why these Games are great – and they are changing Britain for the better. They were the embodiment of the multicultural and positive Britain that the Opening Ceremony set the stage for and, it should be pointed out, were not just made up of Brits.

The volunteers deservedly got a special section in the Closing Ceremony. Without them, the Games would not have been so awesome. It was lovely to see how much the athletes themselves appreciated their contribution. That paled next to the crowd's reaction to the mention the volunteers got during Seb Coe's closing speech, though. I have never felt so emotional about a(n apparently) spontaneous standing ovation before. Great stuff.

Stoneberg Reserve Pinotage Shiraz 2011

They say:
Stoneberg Reserve Pinotage-Shiraz has elegant, ripe flavours of plum and mixed spice, with dark chocolate aromas on the nose. The silky tannins linger on the tongue to make this an intense, enjoyable glass. Enjoy with cold meats and tapas dishes or with mature cheddar cheese.
Not too shabby with beef stir-fry or pasta either! One to look out for at the supermarket - I'm pretty sure this was one of my half-price £10/bottle -> £5/bottle bargains a while back and it's bound to come round again. (13.5% if Karen's reading!)

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Olympic Highlights III: the BBC pundits

If there is one slight reservation that I have going into tonight's Opening Ceremony (beyond the possibility of Boris Johnson representing Britain again), it's the fact that Paralympic TV coverage has gone to Channel 4. The BBC did such a good job that it's going to be hard to follow.
It's not just the fact that the coverage itself was awesome, although it was: at various points I was watching events on my iPhone or (on occasion) my computer at work as well as the 3 normal BBC channels and 24 x 24hour HD channels that were broadcasting sports of various kinds. I also warmed to many of the presenters and pundits. (Some annoyed me, it is true, but this is a highlights post!)

For some people, I suspect that Gary Lineker was an odd choice for one of the anchors but I actually thought it was very appropriate in the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play. Here is a man who, despite playing at the very highest level in three countries, maintaining a games:goals ratio of less than 2 at club and country, winning the 1986 World Cup Golden Boot (despite being cheated out of a semi-final place by that goal from Diego Maradona), winning the English Golden Boot three times (for three different clubs) and being the second-highest goalscorer for England of all time, never picked up a yellow or red card. He has his critics (who doesn't) but I thought he did a fine job and even followed him on Twitter for the duration of the Games. (He clearly got a genuine kick out of meeting the athletes and being there to see their achievements. I've stopped following now because it's all back to football and my Twitter feed is full enough already!)

Other notables for me were former jockey Claire Balding, who did a great job for all the equestrian events, John Amaechi covering the basketball, and Ian Thorpe given punditry for the swimming and general Aussie opinion. (In the true "Inspire a Generation" spirit, Ian Thorpe even managed to fit in an impromptu swimming lesson at Tooting Bec Lido before heading back Down Under.) Then, of course, there was Sir Steve Redgrave: Olympic legend and all-round top chap.
The stars of the show (athletes aside!) for me, though, were the Athletics team and, in particular, Michael Johnson. Not only was he the perfect straight-faced foil for the unabashed partisan British exuberance of Denise Lewis (also great) and Colin Jackson but he also seemed to know a lot about the sport. This was a man who had clearly done his homework but not so that he could come out with ridiculously irrelevant statistics like too many commentators; his comments were always informative and interesting.

One situation that particularly stood out for me was the short piece they did on the proverbial question of why black athletes dominate track events. I'm not going to go into the arguments about this here, other than to say that (a) there is a really nice post at Further Thoughts for the Day about this issue and (b) Michael Johnson also presented most the arguments covered in that post. I was impressed, anyway.

Fingers crossed that as the BBC pass on the torch of coverage to Channel 4, the latter are able to match the former's quality of coverage, even if the quantity of coverage escapes them.

Olympic Highlights II: The Royals

I'm something of a closet Royalist. I don't mean that I harbour suspicions regarding the sexual orientation of certain princes - it's none of my business - but rather that I have certain sympathy for the Windsors and think that, all things considered, they do a pretty good job. Until the Olympics came along, the recent Royal events (wedding and jubilee) are the closest we Brits have really got to having a proper national event.

There is also a small part of me that wonders whether we wouldn't be better off reinstating a Monarchy - if we could get rid of the "Divine Rights" aspect, at least. (A secular hereditary oligarchy, maybe?) Anyhoo... I'll save that one for another day.

With the Paralympics looming, this post is meant to be about the Olympics... and another one of the highlights for me was the British Royal family. (Partly, I suspect, because they kept the more embarrassing ones hidden from view!)

First, there was that moment during the Opening Ceremony when everyone turned to their neighbour and said "that's not her is it?" - or something similar. But it was the actual Queen! Sky-diving with James Bond! OK, so not actually sky-diving - and there was a bit of a daylight continuity issue - but, even so, respect to QEII for getting involved and not taking herself too seriously. Along with the torch, I think it was my favourite bit of the ceremony.


As well as the Queen, I was also very impressed with the Princes - particularly Harry. They appeared on the BBC and just seemed like very sensible, well-adjusted, human fellas. I know that Harry has had a bit of a rough time in the press lately - again, none of my business - but I'd be pretty happy to have him or his brother as King. They both seem to have their heads screwed on the right way - which is quite a wonder, all things considered.

I really liked the fact that he was the official Royal representative for the closing ceremony. What's more, having seen Harry's Arctic Heroes, I am also glad to hear that it will be "business as usual" for him at the Paralympics.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Atheism is not a club, a community or a movement

Today, I came across something that seemed very strange to me - a group of atheists over on Freethoughtblogs.com are creating (or have created?) a new "movement" called "Atheism+". In essence, it seems like a fairly sound premise underneath it - they would like an atheist community without a bunch of bigots spouting hateful comments. Fair enough. Perhaps I am missing something, though, but the solution to this seems to be to post somewhere else or - like Skeptic Blogs - start a new site where hateful commenters are not welcome. In contrast, trying to create some kind of super-atheism - "Atheism Plus" - that combines atheism with (as far as I can tell) liberal Humanism seems, well, somewhere between pointless and just plain wrong.

For one thing, Freethoughtblogs.com is not atheism. (I'm an atheist and until today I am not sure that I had ever spent any real time of FTB.) Calling something "Atheism+" as if you are trying to take atheism and make it better, as if it is yours to make better, makes me feel rather uncomfortable and slightly insulted. It also seems to miss/misunderstand a fundamental point about atheism.

Atheism is not a religion. It has no creed. It is not a club that you join. It is not a community and it is not a movement. Sure, there are atheist communities and atheist movements - plural - but that is not what atheism is. Clubs and "movements" that seem to be trying to redefine or own the word "atheism" are not helpful.

Atheism is a lack of belief in gods - particularly theistic gods. Everything else is up for grabs. Yes, atheists are more likely to be rational, skeptical, pro-secular and/or Humanist than religious folks but atheism in neither necessary nor sufficient for any of these things - and vice versa.

There are people who are atheists for irrational reasons. There are atheists who embrace other kinds of superstition. There are definitely atheists who oppose secularism and think that religion should be banished from, well, everywhere. There are sexist atheists, racist atheists and homophobic atheists. Unlike religion, atheism itself has nothing really to say on any of these things - it is the philosophical and political views of those atheists that determine these things. I do not want to be tarred with the same brush as other atheists just because we both happen not to believe in god. That may be the only thing we have in common.

That's not to say that atheism does not influence these things - it does. (Well, if you want it to - some people actually don't care and don't think about it. It does for me.) But I am fairly sure that atheism is a consequence of the underlying philosophy of atheists and not the cause. (At least, if you are being a proper skeptic/rationalist/materialist it should not be a cause.)

Perhaps the Atheist+ers (what do you call someone who has signed up to Atheism+?) would agree with that and say that's why it's Atheism plus - it has extra stuff. But that's just pointless. We already have Atheism+ with words like "liberal", "socialist", "Humanist" - or whatever else you need to describe your political, philosophical and/or moral stance on various issues. Just adding "plus" alone, makes no sense.

Although I agree with many, even most, of the liberal inclusive - Humanist - views of Atheism+ (although I am not 100% sure what they stand for), I do not consider these to be an inevitable consequence of, or necessary requirement for, atheism. I am also more that a little concerned by the rejection of Humanism by Atheism+ on the grounds that it is not atheist enough. Humanism has some room at the table for people with religious views. These are mostly secular Deists as far as I can tell but, either way, I fail to see how their presence is a bad thing if they otherwise hold (largely) the same ethical/moral views. The "echo box" criticism of online communities is a valid one and the smaller you make your box, the greater the risk of self-reinforcing superiority and bigotry. For all these reasons, I for one will not be calling myself an "Atheist+".

Monday, 27 August 2012

(Less than) 3 days to go!

And in other London news...

M&M's World... WTF?

Today, we had a day trip to London and experienced something very strange. All across the city, we spied people carrying yellow bags with M&M's on them as if they had been shopping in some form of M&M shop. Stranger still, it turned out that they had! They had all visited M&M's World, London. Described by World Chocolate Guide as "the largest candy store in the world", M&M's World London is 35,000 square feet of over-priced tat, spread over four stories.
The only thing that is a bigger mystery to me that the fact that someone thought a four-storey 35,000 square foot shop selling nothing but M&M's merchandise was exactly what London's Leicester Square was missing is the fact that loads of people were buying said merchandise. Even more bizarre, people were getting their photo taken at various points inside the shop as if they were visiting some kind of national monument.

It felt like a scene out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or something, where some kind of mind-controlling alien force is slowly taking over people one by one and soon we would be the only people left without a yellow bag full of M&M's in novelty-shaped boxes and slightly creepy soft toys of sweets in uniform.

Most annoying/strange of all, they didn't even seem to have a particularly massive range of M&M's. Sure, they had the regular M&M's in 24 different colours - great if you're decorating a cake or something - but we've been on the lookout for Mini M&M's (for decorating cup cakes) for a while and they didn't even stock them. Makes any claim to being "the largest candy store in the world" a bit weak, in my book. What they mean is "the largest candy-themed Merchandise store in the world". (Who even knew so many M&M's products existed?)

Still, at the end of the day, you have to have some grudging admiration for the Mars folk. Somehow, they have convinced the good people (tourists?) of London to advertise their candy and spend over the odds to do so. Pure Marketing Genius. (If you ever see me with a yellow M&M's bag, though, alert the authorities - the alien invasion is imminent!)

Sunday, 26 August 2012

The cursed cliff-hanger and the cost of Capitalism

For any CSI fans out there who have not yet seen the series finale of series 12 (the one with Ted Danson in it): don't! Not yet, at least. For, as with so many TV series these days, it ends on an irritating cliff-hanger that we have to wait who-knows-how-long to find out what happens.

Now, of course I know why they do this. They want you to watch the next series and what better way to suck you in than by leaving everything hanging and needing a resolution? Well, I'll tell them what better way... just make a good series that has engaging characters and plots, wraps up the pressing story lines in a satisfactory fashion and leaves enough open ends in long-running plots to make us want to watch more - like a good film leaving things open for a sequel. If you want to go for the suck-us-in suspense, then run some trailers before the series starts with some exciting hints of what is to come.

Ending a series after what is explicitly the first part of a two-part episode, on the other hand, is not good. Suspense and intrigue do not grow with time - quite the opposite in fact. The longer the wait, the less we end up caring. The emotional investment is diminished, not enhanced.

I am reminded of when I saw The Negotiator at the cinema. It was a good, engaging film and reached an exciting climax where one of the characters had a gun trained on another and we did not know if he was going to pull the trigger... and then the projector broke. The lights came on, the machine got fixed and fifteen or so minutes we got back to the action but, by then, the suspense was already dead. I was still interested to see what would happen but I cannot say that I really cared any more. And that was fifteen minutes, not fifteen weeks!

The chances are, we'll already know roughly what's going to happen before Series 13 even starts - the promotional footage or press releases of who's signed on for another season are bound to give it away. And another interesting plot will be ruined by the desire to make money. Actually, no. Not to make money - to make more money. It's nothing more or less than selling out - compromising your art for money.

And herein lies the problem with seeing Capitalism as the basis of "Western civilisation". The bottom line is always the bottom dollar. It seems increasingly unlikely that decisions for the public good will ever be made if they are not also the economically most sensible. I'm all in favour of competitive markets and personal finance but that doesn't mean that the rich should be able to do whatever they want nor that the ultimate worth of something is financial. There are things that you cannot put a price or value on - happiness, integrity, pride, education - and they sometimes mean that decisions should be made based on quality and not cost (or, in the case of TV, income). I think that The Olympic "Legacy" is a prime example of this.

And that is why I will always have a bit of socialism running through my veins. Sometimes, we all just need to suck it up and take one for the team - and sometimes we need protection from the fat cats that ruin it for the rest of us just to line their pockets. I just hope we get a government that feels the same way before the NHS and British Universities are ruined for good.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Is secularism good or bad?

There was an interesting article in the last edition of New Humanist magazine by Richard Smyth, "Down with Secularism", in which he argues that:
"It compromises democracy, it promotes and rewards hypocrisy and doublethink, it reflects a crippling failure of imagination on the part of its proponents and it’s founded on principles that are cynical, unempathetic and deeply un-humanist."

The argument seems to revolve around the fact, in a democracy, everything should be open for argument - including religion. Well, no argument there but I am not really sure that secularism stops arguments about religion, it just stops the state performing or endorsing - or stopping - certain activities because they are religious. Surely, the cornerstone of secularism is not to sweep religion under the carpet, it is to stop religious discrimination - negative or positive - in civil life.

He does make some good points and I suggest reading the article but I think the points he makes are not against secularism, they are against particular manifestations and misunderstandings that surround secularism.

Take abortion, for example. Richard writes:
"Perhaps the argument here is that a gay marriage or an abortion, say, is in some sense a personal matter, and nobody else’s business. If so, it’s an argument that crumbles as soon as you spin it around and take a look at it from the other side. If I believe that human life is sacred, then an abortion is essentially a murder. A woman has no more right to terminate her foetus than a mother has a right to strangle her three-year-old son. And a person who believes this has a moral obligation to prevent it wherever possible. The same goes for a person who believes that human society is being irreparably damaged by buggery and opiates (or whatever) – and the same goes, too, for a government.

It is deeply dismaying that so many liberals struggle with this basic empathetic step. Anti-abortion activists and their ilk are not (necessarily) evil or wicked or heartless. They’re just incorrect. They have made an error in reasoning. They have got their sums wrong. That’s all."
Well, I would agree with that. What I wouldn't agree with is the idea that secularism results in religious views on gay marriage and abortion from being rejected. They are not being rejected because they are religious. Yes, indeed, some of the individual opponents to "pro-life" organisations and religious homophobia may have a problem with them because they are derived from an irrational belief in what a certain deity likes and dislikes, but that does not mean that a secular society rejects those views because of that. Quite the opposite! That's what secular means, isn't it? The religious belief - or otherwise - of the proponents are immaterial, it is the actual outcome that is important.

If pro-life lobbyists can convince enough people that a blastocyst is a person, they have every right to get abortion banned as murder. But the crucial point is that the reason for that ban should be that the democratic choice of society is to side with that idea and make that choice. It should not be because Britain is a "Christian country" with a Christian monarch and bishops in the House of Lords that can force through Christian views despite being a minority position. (With so many children forced by circumstance to attend a Church of England school and bishops in the House of Lords, we are not secular enough in the UK, sadly.)

Quite recently, I did a course at work on "Equality and Diversity" and the principle of secularism strikes me as very similar to that of equality and diversity at work. No one should be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged because of their religion (or lack thereof). This does not mean that no one can ever ask for something for religious reasons (such as a feast day off work) and it does not mean that every religious request has to be pandered to and approved. It's about avoiding discrimination, not about eliminating religion.

The same goes for religion in society. If a religious practice - such a circumcision - is deemed to contravene the law or human rights as laid down by democratic society, it should most certainly not get a get-out-of-jail-free card just because it is religious. But, if a religious practice - such as keeping your head covered - does not constitute an actual problem it should certainly not be banned or discouraged just because it is religious either.

The confusion, I think, comes from the working definition of secularism that Richard Smyth is using. I disagree that:
The basic premise of secularism is that religion should be kept out of politics.
The basic premise of secularism is that religion and politics should be kept separate - it's a subtle but important distinction. Political decisions should not be made because they are religious but that does not mean that religiously-motivated views should not be aired - you just need to convince enough people that they are right before they are acted upon.

I also think that Richard Smyth might be touch a naive about religious views and how wrong they are. Another one of his criticisms is one of hypocrisy:
"The Princeton Professor of Religion Jeffrey Stout has pointed out that “some people in liberal societies hold religious views which will influence significantly the contribution they wish to make to public debates... But these [people] recognise quite pragmatically that their religious motivations and justifications are not shared by everyone else. So they present their views in ways which can be agreed with by people who do not share their religious perspective.” (The quotation is from Graeme Smith’s Short History of Secularism.)

That is, they practise hypocrisy and cant. And the secularist lobby is quite happy for them to do so."
I would disagree here. Although I think that all religion is ultimately irrational and faith-based, this does not extrapolate out to all of the individual positions and beliefs held by religious people. Indeed, one of the big arguments against Christian morality is that it depends very much on cherry-picking which bits of God's Law still apply - it is put through a modern rationalist filter, up to a point. So, stoning to death of disrespectful children is out. Homosexuality may be in or out depending on your interpretation but, generally, there is some (albeit often post hoc) rationalisation of why something is good or bad. Abortion is bad because it is murder, not because the Bible forbids it. (Not surprisingly, I don't think it is explicitly mentioned anywhere. It all comes down to interpretation of where life begins.) If you belief that God is good and God demands X then you also believe that X is good and look for reasons to support that belief. It is not hypocrisy to then pull out those reasons to try and convince someone else that you - and God - are right.

The fact that they have to come out with reasons other that "God said it" is a good thing. It opens debate, highlights issues and keeps the discussion real. Secularism avoids it becoming an argument of "God says" versus "No He didn't" or - worse - no argument at all because the earpiece of God makes all the rules.

Long live Secularism and making political decisions based on their merits not their source. And long live freedom to discuss, promote and oppose religious beliefs!

Friday, 24 August 2012

I'm an agnostic atheist - and I don't need faith for that

Following yesterday's assertions about needing "faith" to believe in the Higgs boson, today I read another article espousing the old chestnut that atheism is a position of faith. I've already laid out in brief why I consider my atheism to be neither faith nor a religion. I think it worth revisiting though because this particular piece nails what I perceive to be the common misunderstandings, albeit from the position of apparently holding those misunderstandings as a self-evident truth on which to base an argument.

In a piece entitled "Dear atheists...", Francis Spufford lays out his case for "mutual respect between believers and atheists" because we are all "wild romantic creatures" that "rush instead [of pragmatic agnosticism] to positions of faith on the subject [of God's existence]."

The problem is, as he lays out at the beginning of his piece, he bases his whole argument/appeal on an erroneous caricature of what an atheist actually is - or, at least what most atheists probably are. (There are a lot of convincing arguments that the current rise in self-reported atheism is at least partially due to more people being willing to call themselves atheists rather than the actually losing their faith.) Atheists are not necessarily not agnostics. Some may not even be adeists. We are atheists. We reject a theistic god even if we cannot ever know for certainty that no kind of possible god exists.

This is further compounded by the other common error among religious apologists - the argument of evidence: there cannot be evidence that god does not exists ergo we cannot know whether god exists (agnosticism) ergo it is equally likely that god exists as he doesn't ergo atheism is faith.

But agnosticism does not mean that it is equally likely that a god exists as it doesn't. And if we define "faith" as anything for which we do not have 100% certainty then essentially everything becomes faith and it becomes a useless term. Crucially, even if ultimate (dis)proof evades us, there is still legitimate evidence that one would expect to see if god existed, and the absence of that evidence makes a theist god's existence less likely - to the point of near certainty.

They are both arguments that are covered quite thoroughly (and most excellently) in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Francis Spufford obviously hasn't read it (or hasn't understood it) and says this:
"We believe there is a God. You believe there isn't one. Meanwhile, nobody knows, nobody can know, whether He exists or not, it not being a matter susceptible to proof or disproof. The most science can do is to demonstrate that God is not necessary as a physical explanation for anything, which is very much not the same thing as demonstrating that He isn't there. So the natural, neutral, temperate position would be a agnosticism: a calm, indifferent not-knowing."
I would agree with the last line - with the caveat that it depends exactly what you mean by "indifferent". This is a statement that sums up many atheists, including myself, when it comes to the objective question over any god's existence. I am indifferent to the existence of 1+ gods. What I am not indifferent to is people being encouraged to behave in particular ways on the basis of ideas about said god(s).

Science can actually do more that "demonstrate that God is not necessary as a physical explanation for anything". It can provide compelling evidence that God is not a physical explanation for something. If, in turn, god is expected to be a physical explanation for that something, voila, you have evidence against god. This is a similar question to whether science and religion are compatible. Just as certain types of religion are incompatible with science, certain types of god would be expected to produce visible evidence and the lack of that evidence is indeed disproof. For example, if you believe that your god has a human(ish) form, literally rides around on a cloud and hurls lightning bolts, we can test this. If you think they live at the top of a specific mountain, we should have evidence of that mountain and their abode. (It is interesting how the gods of fables are always so much more visible and interactive than modern deities.) For me, there is no evidence of any theist god and there should be if they existed.

Neither is there any evidence for a deist god. There can't be. Nor can there be any evidence against one. That does not, however, mean that my failure to believe in one is an act of faith. Were I to be insistent that there definitely was no deist god then, yes, I would be demonstrating faith. I have never met an atheist that would insist that. When it comes to deism, we are mostly agnostics. There is no contradiction. (And who really, honestly, cares if there is a god out there who does essentially nothing?)

Agnosticism does not mean, however, that you have no opinion on whether god exists, it just means that you think it is something that, ultimately, no one can know. That is, we can conceive of deities that would be impervious to detection. But not knowing with certainty is not the same as thinking that the two possibilites are equally likely. We can never know anything. We can, however, reach a certain level of certainty where the tiny amount of doubt is effectively zero. (Again Dawkins explains this well.) Perhaps atheism is an opinion rather than a belief? In my opinion, there is no god. I do not believe that there is a god. I'm not sure that is the same as actively believing there is no god - just that the kind of god there could be (in my opinion) is not worth considering as, for all practical purpose, they are the same as no god.

The important thing is that the necessary agnosticism regarding deism does not extrapolate to theism. We would not expect evidence of a deist god. We would expect evidence of a theist one - at least, all the popular theist ones that I know about. Yes, you can contrive reasons why a god would hide themselves or remain deliberately undetectable but (to me) it just seems so much more plausible and consistent that there is no god.

If I expect to see evidence that something existed and I see no evidence then it follows that I am not going to think it exists. I am not really sure how you can call that faith.

[Edit: This post originally included the statement that I was not an adeist. I don't actually think that's true, even though I am much more ambivalent about the matter (it still seems to contravene Physics as we know it) so I have since removed those claims.]

The Darkness are back! But I'd prefer a bit more lightness - this is NOT Spinal Tap!

I have a certain fondness for The Darkness. I have Permission to Land and love a couple of the songs, whilst enjoying the remainder. For me, though, they are always at their best with a twinkle in their eye and approaching a parody of a rock band.

Their new album, Hot Cakes, is undeniably The Darkness - it sounds like them from beginning to end - and it certainly has some good rock music on it. I can't help being a little disappointed, though. I can't take them seriously enough to fully engage with serious material - even if the words are serious, the sound is not! At the same time, however, they seem to take themselves too seriously to fully embrace the tight-trousered silliness that they excel at - and that made them famous.

I think the album can be summed up by the fact that my favourite song on it is a cover of "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" by Radiohead. It's a really good cover! In fact, it's an excellent cover: it isn't a copy - it sounds like The Darkness through and through - and it rivals the original in quality. But they didn't write it and Radiohead songs have never really been known for their levity.

Hopefully, for their next album, they can harness their enthusiasm and talent to some epic song-writing that is up to the task. (Perhaps a collaboration with someone possessing the song-writing genius of Tim Minchin?) In the meantime, I can recommend "Street Spirit" (and maybe "Living Each Day Blind") but not much else at this point. (Maybe they're "growers"?) If you fancy some tongue-in-cheek glam rock: get a copy of the soundtrack to This is Spinal Tap!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Is belief in the Higgs boson an act of faith?

There's a slightly odd piece in the Nature "World View" column today: "Sometimes science must give way to religion". It's about what role the Higgs boson can play "in providing a rational explanation for the Universe" and an argument that we need religion too. [Picture credit: boingboing.net.]

Ed Yong tweeted "I'm not anti-religion but this piece doesn't make it's case". I would have to agree with him and it seems rather muddled to me. Take the last two paragraphs, for example:
"Challenges to the cultural and political authority of science continue to rise from both ideological and religious directions. It is tempting to dismiss these as manifestations of ignorance or scientific illiteracy. But I believe instead that they help to show us why it will always be necessary to have ways of understanding our world beyond the scientifically rational.

I am an atheist, and I fully recognize science’s indispensable role in advancing human prospects in ways both abstract and tangible. Yet, whereas the Higgs discovery gives me no access to insight about the mystery of existence, a walk through the magnificent temples of Angkor offers a glimpse of the unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience."
The emphasis is mine. I have seen this and similar arguments before but they always seem to come down to this same point and I always have the same confusion/objection: how does "a glimpse of the unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience" constitute a "way of understanding our world"? It doesn't. It just points out and/or explores stuff we don't know or understand. (Yet?) And why do we need religion for this role? What about art? Poetry? Science Fiction? (Science Fiction beats religion hands down in my experience!)

The statement that really made me baulk was this one, though:
"For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality."
I have a similar issue with this as with the claim that Atheism requires faith and for similar reasons. I cannot follow the mathematics. (Well, I have never tried but I can take a good guess!) But then I am not sure that I can follow the mathematics necessary to engineer the MacBook I am now using, or to send Curiosity to Mars (and have it land safely!) or upteen other triumphs of modern science (especially if the word "quantum" is involved). But I don't need faith to believe that they are likely to be right, I just need trust. The Higgs is just an extension of that.

I trust that all these mathematically-able particle physicists are getting their sums right because they have another bunch of mathematically-able particle physicists looking over their shoulder and criticising their every move. I suspect that there are just as many people who were a bit disappointed at finding the Higgs as there were excited by it - some even touted it as the death of particle physics if memory serves me right.

There is a big difference between faith in the unknown/unseen on the basis of some kind of "ancient wisdom" and trusting in the efforts of numerous real people applying methodologies that have yielded numerous empirically falsified results. Does that make science infallible? No. Does that mean that the scientists claiming we have discovered the Higgs boson cannot be wrong? No. But there is a "relativity of wrong" in science that just isn't found in faith and, as far as I can tell, is missing from most religion too. That an atheist can imply otherwise - and in Nature of all places - beggars belief a little.

I'm not a subscriber to the school of thought that science and religion are necessarily incompatible, although I think it is vital in this context to define which religion before entering such a debate. I do, however, agree with the notion that religion does not provide "another way of knowing" and this article does nothing to convince me otherwise.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Olympic Highlights: Sportsmanship

One of the things that really struck me and impressed me a lot during the Olympics was the high degree of sportsmanship shown by the vast majority of competitors. There were a few exceptions, I know, but generally speaking there was a lot of clear admiration for fellow competitors. I was particularly impressed with the Brits in this respect. Of course, there is a massive ascertainment bias here - they were the vast majority of the athletes that were interviewed on British TV. By that same token, however, they should also have dominated my memories of bad sportsmanship and I don't really remember any. (The closest I can think of is Ben Ainslie getting annoyed at his "accusers".)

A particular stand-out moment that I remember that exemplified this was Tom Daley. His final dive put him in the gold medal position. The next diver to go was David Boudia from the USA. He had a more difficult dive as his last one and, sure enough, he nailed it and moved into gold spot. The camera pans across the audience and there is Tom Daley smiling and clapping with everyone else.

The other moment (among many) that stood out was the end of the Victoria Pendleton / Anna Meares rivalry. Although I missed the final race itself, I have seen some of the pictures and reports afterwards. As the Telegraph reported:
The two track foes embraced after Pendleton lost out in the gold medal contest.

Meares said: "Last night Victoria showed great sportsmanship. It would have been very difficult to have been beaten in front of a home crowd, especially one as patriotic and as loud as that.

"It [the embrace] happened so promptly after she was defeated that it was instant reaction and it showed the high-quality character and person that Victoria is.
I just hope that the over-paid and over-hyped members of this season's Premier League teams were watching and taking notes.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Olympic Fish

Olympic Fish
Something frivolous for the weekend to help fill the void until the Paralympics start.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Goodbye Olympics. You were awesome.


I have a confession to make. I enjoyed the closing ceremony. It was far from perfect. There were bits I didn't like. There were bits that made me cringe and want to hide behind the sofa. But, on the whole, I remember thinking it was a pretty good spectacle and filled the brief of a celebration with plenty of songs to "sing along too".

Since then, I've seen quite a lot moans and complaints about it. One article, which I won't link to because I don't want to promote it, went as far as describing the ceremony as dangerous because it so explicitly stuck two fingers up at the multicultural celebration of modern Britain that was the Opening Ceremony. Perhaps I am naive but I find it hard to interpret the event with such cynicism. What's more, I don't want to. The Olympics was up-lifting and buoyant and I'm not ready to come down to Earth with a jolt just yet. I don't want to go back to old moany Britain. I want to put on a Union Flag T-shirt and punch the air... metaphorically, at least.

I'm not going to pretend for a moment that the whole show was fantastic. Indeed, there was one moment - when the camera showed Boris Johnson "dad dancing" to the Spice Girls - that made me feel so embarrassed that I exclaimed "Oh no! The last two minutes have undone the whole Olympics!" But, I was joking. (Mostly!) A bit of "Mr Blue Sky" by E.L.O. and the Spice Girls were quickly forgotten. Besides, the Closing Ceremony wasn't for me, it was for everyone. There were probably just as many people watching who love the Spice Girls and don't like Muse as vice versa.

lennonSome of the other choices were a bit odd, it is true. I thought there was something slightly ironic about John Lennon singing "Imagine there's no countries" to the Olympic Games but then, maybe, I'm being too cynical. The song, at the end of the day, is about unity and a "brotherhood of man" - if that's not pro-multicultural, what is? And the giant face was pretty cool too.

I'd also be interested who decided to book Oasis without the talented one. But this was balanced out by the epic guitar solo of Anita Dobson Brian May. Elbow. Madness on the back of truck. Eric Idle (up to the uncomfortable Indian part). Take That (in their best "sans Robbie" configuration). The percussive brilliance of Stomp. Not to mention the wonderfully surreal Annie Lennox riding through the stadium on some kind of weird Gothic warship from the Apocalypse.

For me, though, the real star of the show (apart from the athletes and volunteers, who I will come to in a later post), was the stadium - and the lighting team. Although a bit gimmicky - and probably extravagantly expensive - the "pixels" were actually really cool.

I liked the way the stadium went Green and Gold for the Brazilians following the handover.

And I liked the way it ended up Red, White and Blue.

The bands (good and bad) - and the dancing (good and bad!) - are just memories by the morning but the stadium lives on to remind us that we held the Olympics in 2012 and it was awesome.

The Olympic legacy is what we make of it, not the Closing Ceremony. (Bring on the Paralympics!)

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Olympic Legacy - it's not all about the medals

Last week, the Telegraph website featured what struck me as a particularly vacuous piece of cynical journalism: "£4.6 million - the cost of an British Olympic medal". This piece annoyed me in so many ways, it's hard to know where to start. The essence of the piece - look how much we have spent per medal - is summed up by the title but it's worth having a look at what this cost translates to:
"Great Britain's impressive form at the Olympics follows a massive cash injection after London won its bid to host the Games. UK Sport's funding increased from £70 million for the 2004 Athens Games to £235 million for Beijing.

This year, it has received £264 million, largely from investment through the National Lottery."
I'm not sure about this last figure. There seems to be a bit of journalistic confusion about whether the £264 million is for one year or four years - the context (and comments) implied that it is actually £264 million over four years. A BBC article today, "Funding for Britain's Olympic sports extended to Rio 2016" has some slightly different values:
"Team GB's budget for the last four years was £313m. Providing lottery ticket sales hold up, the Rio pot will be similar."

"The level of funding from the National Lottery will be an estimated £87m per year, with around £40m coming from the Government."
Let's go with the highest value of these - £127 million per year - and put that sum in a bit of perspective.

According to a BBC article in May, "Premier League club wages climb to new highs":
"Total wages across the Premier League rose by £201m (14%), equivalent to more than 80% of the £241m increase in club revenues that season, to give a final salary bill of £1.6bn."
In other words, the total UK Sport's funding is approx. half the increase in revenue of Premier League football clubs and less than 10% of their salary bill. The same article also reports the top wage bills per club:

TOP PREMIER LEAGUE WAGE BILLS 2010-11

☐ Chelsea - £191m (up from £174m in 2009-10)
☐ Manchester City - £174m (£133m)
☐ Manchester United - £153m (£132m)
☐ Liverpool - £135m (£121m)
☐ Arsenal - £124m (£111m)
So, the top 4 clubs spend more on their team wages than UK Sport spends on everything. It doesn't look like quite such bad value for money now, does it?

The other thing, of course, is that the medal tally is surely one of the least important of all the outcomes of sports funding. The motto of the Games is, after all, "Inspire a Generation". As a number of people have pointed out - including previous multi-medal-winner Ian Thorpe, who was a (fantastic) pundit for the BBC - inspiring and encouraging young people to do more sport can be seen as an investment in the health of the nation. Obesity is a big problem in this country (ironically, thanks in part to some of the Olympic sponsors), and it's a no-brainer that a more active lifestyle will help. The Department of Health reports
"a significant burden on the NHS - direct costs caused by obesity are now estimated to be £5.1 billion per year."
And that's just the NHS. In other words, obesity annually costs the UK at least 40 times more than Olympic sports (ignoring the one-off costs of hosting the Games this time, of course).

Coming back to the Telegraph article, I think that one of the crucial things here is that the most inspirational athletes are not always the ones that win the medals. The athlete that comes eighth with a Personal Best and is (rightly) pleased at being eighth best in the world can be far more inspiring that the athlete that gets in a grump at coming second (and winning a medal) because they were expecting to win. Indeed, one thing that has impressed me about TeamGB is that we have had far more of the former that the latter. The pride of athletes like these - and proud family members such the now legendary Bert le Clos - certainly inspire me a lot more than the Usain Bolt's of this world. After all, not everyone can be Usain Bolt, but everyone can do their best and give their all.

Of course, the inspiration generated by sporting success does not stop at sport itself. I count myself among those who have been inspired and seen my cynicism thoroughly quashed - both at the Olympics itself but also the will and ability of Britain to make a good job of it.

In contrast to the Telegraph piece above, one of my favourite Olympics articles so far was an item in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland, "London 2012: we've glimpsed another kind of Britain, so let's fight for it" captures my own view of the Games quite nicely:
For we got a glimpse of another kind of Britain. A place which succeeds brilliantly, not least by drawing equally on all its talents, black and white, male and female. A place where money and profit are not the only values, exemplified by the 70,000 volunteers who made the Games work and showed the world a smiling face while they were at it. A place that reveres not achievement-free celebrity, but astonishing skill, granite determination and good grace, the land not of TOWIE but of Bradley Wiggins, Nicola Adams and Laura Trott. A place where patriotism is heartfelt, but of the soft and civic rather than naked and aggressive variety; a place that welcomes visitors from abroad and cheers louder for the Turkish woman who came last in a 3,000m steeplechase heat than it did for the winner.

This is the Britain we let ourselves see these past two weeks. It will slip from view as time passes, but we are not condemned to forget it. We don't have to be like the long-ago poet who once wrote: "Did you exist? Or did I dream a dream?"
Well said, Jonathan. I, for one, will try not to forget it.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Mac Links and Shortcuts

The biggest problem of moving from PC to Mac is that all the shortcuts are different. Maybe it's just because I have been a PC user for so many years but, generally, I find the PC shortcuts to be much more intuitive. For example, to take a screen grab to the clipboard on a PC you hit "Print Screen", on a Mac you press Command+Control+Shift+3. (Obviously, duh!)

The flip-spide is that hunting down the basic shortcuts reveals a host of other shortcuts of related functions. I am not sure if PCs have so many or not but here are the screen grab options from MacRumors:
  • Command-Shift-3: Take a screenshot of the screen, and save it as a file on the desktop
  • Command-Shift-4, then select an area: Take a screenshot of an area and save it as a file on the desktop
  • Command-Shift-4, then space, then click a window: Take a screenshot of a window and save it as a file on the desktop
  • Command-Control-Shift-3: Take a screenshot of the screen, and save it to the clipboard
  • Command-Control-Shift-4, then select an area: Take a screenshot of an area and save it to the clipboard
  • Command-Control-Shift-4, then space, then click a window: Take a screenshot of a window and save it to the clipboard
In Leopard and later, the following keys can be held down while selecting an area (via Command-Shift-4 or Command-Control-Shift-4):
  • Space, to lock the size of the selected region and instead move it when the mouse moves
  • Shift, to resize only one edge of the selected region
  • Option (Alt), to resize the selected region with its center as the anchor point
I've decided to start keeping track of the shortcuts (and links to lists of shortcuts) useful to me personally here. Although Google works pretty well, suggestions of good resources are welcome. Now, if only we could convince Apple and PC laptop manufacturers to come up with a universal standard for where to put the shift, function, control, alt and command keys, life for the shortcut-user would be good. (Of course, you would want the Apple command key where the windows control key lives.)

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Game of Drones: decline of a masterpiece

If, like me, you are a fan of the TV series "Game of Thrones" and if, like me, it made you want to rush out and buy the book, I have two things to say:

1. It is a fantastic book and one of the best I have read for some time. It is full of interesting characters, plot twists, and intrigue. It is really well written and hard to put down.

2. Don't start reading it!

I finally made it to the end of "A Dance with Dragons" a couple of weeks ago and it was great. Great to finally make it to the end, that is. It's just getting so boring.

Like I said, the first book is fantastic. The second book is good two. Characters develop. Plot lines are established. Interesting possibilities are set up. It's all looking good.

Then, it all starts to go a bit wrong and I am not really sure why. I can't quite work out whether George R. R. Martin buys into the "Epic" business a bit too much, sees the success of the series as a license to print money, or just loses control of the characters.

Either way, the books get longer and longer, the plot more and more convoluted, and I find myself caring less and less about the characters. Worse, more and more of the characters that I do care about either get killed off or sidelined and forgotten about or have all of their endeavours and previous plot twists ultimately lead to nought. Ironically, it actually reminds me of an American TV series - it starts well enough to get you invested and sucked it but then gets progressively more and more pedestrian as they try and find ways to string it out long enough to reach syndication.

I still hold out some hope that (a) Martin know where the series is going, and (b) it's not all going to be some big Matrix-style let down once we get the answers, but the last couple of books do not fill me with hope. Coming full circle, what hope I have actually lies with the TV series. This has already taken a few short-cuts to avoid some of the complexity and I cannot believe that a TV audience will have the patience for all the subplots that ultimately go nowhere and unnecessary back stories for minor characters that appear in the books.

I think Martin would have benefited from learning from (still) the master of the genre, Tolkien. A complex world full of myths, legends and history is a great thing but you do not need to visit it all in the same set of books. The Lord of the Rings works so well because we follow the fates of a handful of key characters against a vast backdrop - we don't also follow the individual stories of all the important characters that appear as part of that backdrop.

A Song of Fire and Ice does have some clear heroes and villains but there is such a disproportionately small amount of the text devoted to them, it's easy to forget. Flawed heroes are all well and good but you don't want so many flawed heroes, neutrals, and bad guys with redeeming features that it's no longer clear who you should be rooting for. Perhaps, the idea is to let you choose who you want to support but, for me, that's like reading history, not fantasy.

So, if you want to read some good fantasy, read Lord of the Rings. If you want to read A Song of Fire and Ice, my advice would be to wait until the last couple of books are written and we know whether the massive investment of time is actually worth it. There are still a few directions that I could see it might go in that would end on a high. In the meantime, you can just watch the TV series!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

There is no "Leader of the Free World"

Last Thursday, the BBC News magazine had an article entitled US election: How can it cost $6bn? It's an interesting piece, not least for seeing how people try to rationalise spending "more than the entire annual GDP of Malawi" on an election. (It's not just that America is bigger, they spend an order of magnitude more per head on the election than us Brits. (This is despite, as far as I can tell, having a much more restricted set of options - it's a two party system! How hard can it be?!))

That's not really what I want to rant about here, though. The thing that riles me is that oft-repeated and ill-founded superiority that many Americans seem to have:
Michael Toner has his own favourite analogy: "Americans last year spent over $7bn [£4.5bn] on potato chips - isn't the leader of the free world worth at least that?"
Ignoring the fact that perhaps is perhaps a poor reflection on how much Americans spend on potato chips rather than a good reflection on the cost of elections, (1) There is no such thing as the "Leader of the Free World" and (2) if there was I certainly wouldn't pick an American politician for the job.

I recognise that back in the Cold War days, things were a bit different. The "enemy" was the USSR and America probably really did lead the "Free World" in opposition. Today, however, the "enemy" (such as there is one) is not communism or terrorism - it is population growth and climate change. Where does the Heartland Institute and other fossil fuel lobbying organisations find most traction? Which country failed to ratify the Kyoto Treaty? America. Not the kind of leadership that I'm after, I'm afraid.

I am not saying that I think America is terrible and Britain or Europe is perfect. However, I am saying that Britain/Europe is easily as good as America in the "Free World" stakes and, in some arenas, a damn sight better. I am happy, for example, to live in a country where guns are heavily restricted, and where it is not legal to fire someone just because they are gay.

I'm not so happy with Britain's willingness to follow our American cousins into war, or the level of support and protection that the cult of Scientology gets here, or our terrible libel laws, but other (non-American) countries, happily, do much better on those counts. America is a great nation (in both senses) but it is not the great nation and non-Americans don't spend all their time wishing that they'd been born in the U.S.

Americans sometimes remind me of the medical students that I went to University with - they have been told that they are the greatest and the best so often that they cannot understand why anyone would not want to be like them. I probably could have done medicine if I'd wanted - I had the grades for it - but I didn't out of choice. I found Genetics more appealing. I didn't have the same choice about where I was born, clearly, but I am just as (or more) often thankful for being British rather than American than I am regretful that the opposite is true. (I do like American Football!) I find Britain (and several other countries) more appealing.

So, America, please stop calling your President the "Leader of the Free World". It's annoying, it's not true, and it's counter-productive if you are after respect.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

No place for Creationism in state-funded UK schools

It's been a pretty good couple of weeks for a Rationalist Geek. Nerds all over the world have enhanced enjoyment of the Olympics with the Nerdlympics. Human potential, ingenuity and achievement has been promoted by the BHA and embodied by the bold landing of the Curiosity Rover. Homeopathy is on the back foot in Britain. Continuing the theme, I am happy to (somewhat optimistically) report that the British government have confirmed that the Creationism has no place in a state-funded science class.

I'm far from convinced that there is any merit in the government plans for "free schools" and "academies" - indeed, there seems to be a lot of well-founded opposition to the plans - but there is at least one bit of good news that has come out of the recent concerns over approval for Free Schools to be run by Creationist groups. In a Guardian article from a couple of weeks ago, a Dept for Education spokeswoman is quoted as saying:
"It is absolutely not true that this free school will be able to teach creationism as scientific fact. No state school is permitted to do this. We have clear guidelines about what schools can and cannot teach. Any free school found to be contravening the guidelines will be in breach of their contract and will be subject to action by the department, including prohibiting them from operating."
Happily, this position has been confirmed and strengthened in a letter from Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) posted on the Glasgow Skeptics Facebook page in which he states (my emphasis):
There is no place for the teaching of creationism in Free Schools. The Free School application guidance is clear: creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas cannot be taught as valid scientific theories. Furthermore, teaching creationism in science lessons is forbidden by the legal agreement that sets out the conditions by which all Free Schools receive their funding. Should there be evidence of a breach of this clause we would take swift action which would be likely to result in the termination of that funding agreement. This would mean that the organisation no longer had any role in running the school with state funding.
Now, we just need to make sure that we hold him (and his successors) to that.

What I am not so sure about is what the situation is for "Independent schools". The implication is that schools without state funding are not bound by these conditions. If this is the case then perhaps state-funded Faith schools are not such a bad thing after all - if the alternative is Independent Faith schools, that is.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Nice one NASA (and Kudos, Curiosity!)

Today, I got up at 6.30 to watch the Mars Rover, Curiosity, come in to land on Mars. Despite it's terrifying landing strategy, Curiosity made it! I've got used to tension and seeing some celebrations over the last few days with the Olympics but watching the NASA control room on NASA TV as they received signals of progress was pretty emotional.

If ever there was something that epitomises why I choose to put my trust in the accomplishments of science and the ingenuity of mankind, this has got to be right up there. To be honest, I'm not sure what blows me away most - the fact that I live in a world where science and technology enables us to remotely land a robot on Mars, or the fact that I was able to sit in my dining room and watch it live on my iPad!

The tension mean that I was a bit slow on the screen grab, but here is a shot from just after they received the first actual picture from Mars - part of Curiosity's wheel. You can see it in the background.

Well done, NASA. Well done, America. Well done, science and engineering geeks!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

A great intro to Humanism by the BHA

Continuing this month's celebration of things that make me proud to be British, here is a lovely (and short) video by the British Humanist Association explaining (a) what Humanism is, and (b) why you don't need religion to have morals or to give life meaning.



I particularly like the quote from Richard Dawkins:"Science is the poetry of reality."

Hoping curiosity won't kill the Rover

In less than 36 hours, the Mars Curiosity Rover will touch down on Mars. Hopefully, it will touch down at the planned pace and not crash land. If you still haven't seen the animation of the landing manoeuvre, then do watch NASA's "seven minutes of terror" video. There are a whole bunch of versions of these kicking around from various news agencies etc. but I think the explanations in the original are the best and they really convey why they are calling it "seven minutes of terror"!

This is science that is way cooler than science fiction because it is (hopefully) really going to happen. I really hope it works. It'll be a nervous day in the NASA control room. As they point out in the video, the distance between Earth and Mars is such that when they first receive word that Curiosity has entered the Martian atmosphere, the rover will already have been on the surface - in one state or another - for seven minutes! Space is big - even our little corner of it.

I'd been hoping to embed the video here but it doesn't seem to be working. To be honest, though, you're better off going to the NASA website as there is plenty of other great Curiosity stuff to explore. (You can find out more about the Curiosity Rover in another NASA video, "The Science of Curiosity: Seeking Signs of Past Mars Habitability", for example.)

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The (lack of) evidence for Homeopathy

Yesterday, I mentioned the House of Commons Select Committee (Science and Technology Committee) Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy.

It's quite a long report, so I think it worth highlighting a few of the conclusions here:
54. We conclude that the principle of like-cures-like is theoretically weak. It fails to provide a credible physiological mode of action for homeopathic products. We note that this is the settled view of medical science.

61. We consider the notion that ultra-dilutions can maintain an imprint of substances previously dissolved in them to be scientifically implausible.

70. In our view, the systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that homeopathic products perform no better than placebos. The Government shares our interpretation of the evidence. We asked the Minister, Mike O'Brien, whether the Government had any credible evidence that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect and he responded: "the straight answer is no".

77. There has been enough testing of homeopathy and plenty of evidence showing that it is not efficacious. Competition for research funding is fierce and we cannot see how further research on the efficacy of homeopathy is justified in the face of competing priorities.

82. We do not doubt that homeopathy makes some patients feel better. However, patient satisfaction can occur through a placebo effect alone and therefore does not prove the efficacy of homeopathic interventions.

101. We agree with Professor Ernst and the RPSGB. For patient choice to be real choice, patients must be adequately informed to understand the implications of treatments. For homeopathy this would certainly require an explanation that homeopathy is a placebo. When this is not done, patient choice is meaningless. When it is done, the effectiveness of the placebo—that is, homeopathy—may be diminished. We argue that the provision of homeopathy on the NHS, in effect, diminishes, not increases, informed patient choice.

109. When the NHS funds homeopathy, it endorses it. Since the NHS Constitution explicitly gives people the right to expect that decisions on the funding of drugs and treatments are made "following a proper consideration of the evidence", patients may reasonably form the view that homeopathy is an evidence-based treatment.

Conclusions

110. The Government's position on homeopathy is confused. On the one hand, it accepts that homeopathy is a placebo treatment. This is an evidence-based view. On the other hand, it funds homeopathy on the NHS without taking a view on the ethics of providing placebo treatments. We argue that this undermines the relationship between NHS doctors and their patients, reduces real patient choice and puts patients' health at risk. The Government should stop allowing the funding of homeopathy on the NHS.

111. We conclude that placebos should not be routinely prescribed on the NHS. The funding of homeopathic hospitals—hospitals that specialise in the administration of placebos—should not continue, and NHS doctors should not refer patients to homeopaths.
I'm not sure whether the NHS still funds it but I am sure that it shouldn't. It appears, however, that BUPA are no do know is that BUPA no longer do, at least for its "bupa Select" cover. Point six on their notification for change states:
6. Complementary medicine practitioners, homeopathy
 We no longer provide cover for homeopathic treatment.
Homeopathy: there's nothing in it.

Friday, 3 August 2012

UK Homeopathic manufacturers might have to sell their sugar pills as... sugar pills!

If I had to draw up a top three list of irrational nonsense that makes me fear a little for the future of humanity, Homeopathy would probably be on that list. It embodies everything that is wrong about "woo" - disproven bunk supported by liars spouting pseudoscientific nonsense in order to extract money from the gullible, credulous and/or desperate.

It should be illegal to pretend that sugar pills or water are medicine. Happily, it turns out, it is! In a great Guardian piece yesterday - Homeopaths offer to rebrand products as 'confectionery' - "The Lay Scientist" Martin Robbins reports that:
Under current UK law*, it is an offence for a lay homeopath to supply or sell unlicensed homeopathic medicines for which they do not hold a certificate of registration from the MHRA. Unlicensed remedies can only supplied by those with prescribing rights - medical doctors or registered pharmacists - and then only after a face-to-face consultation with the patient. Since very few homeopathic products are licensed, this means a huge swathe of Big Sugar's products are, in theory at least, not legal.

*The Medicines (Homoeopathic Medicinal Products for Human Use) Regulations 1994, as amended in 2005.
Furthermore, under the Human Medical Regulations Act, there is an obligation to enforce this law if a complaint is made - and, thanks to Simon Singh and friends, complaints are being made! It's still not clear to me how much actual fallout from this there will be but it's definitely a step in the right direction.

Martin Robbins ends his piece with this great line:
"I've got no problem with people buying and selling homeopathic remedies for their aches and sniffles. Just don't pretend it's a real medicine, and don't persuade people it can treat dangerous diseases. Is that really so much to ask?"
I hope not, Martin. I really hope not.

(And in case you are under the impression that Homeopathy might be effective, read the House of Commons Select Committee (Science and Technology Committee) Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy.)

[Edit: I was obviously having a brain-dead moment when writing this and erroneously called Martin Robbins, Tim. Doh! Sorry, Martin.]

Olympic Pride - the great BBC!

On a day that is looking like it will result in a possibly unprecedented level of Olympic medal success for "Team GB" (it's amazing that does not grate with me any more!), I thought another post of Olympic Pride was in order. As with my previous Olympics post, this is not about pride in my nation's atheletes, though. Instead, I want to give a hat-tip to the BBC.

The IOC seem to have gone out of their way to commercialise the crap out of the Olympics, which caused a lot of irritation during the build up. It is also obvious from some of the forum comments that I have browsed that this is still a big problem for some people - particularly, I think, for those in America who have to put up with what sounds like awful TV coverage by NBC.

At times like this, I realise just how lucky I am to live in the UK. Not only do we not have any time zone problems (well, except having to work during the day!) but we also have the perfect antidote to IOC commercialisation: the BBC. 24 HD channels of Olympic coverage, subscription free and advert free. Fantastic stuff! Actually, it's really more than this as the 24 HD channels are in addition to the normal BBC channels.

Possibly for this reason, I am enjoying this Olympics a lot more that the last two. Beijing always seemed very distant and there is definitely something to be said for sport being live. I know that, in theory, highlights should be more exciting as they are edited to show you the more exciting bits but, for some reason, it never seems to work out that way (for me) for Olympic events. (Except maybe the football and hockey.) I think it is the drama of seeing the underdogs and the atheletes who get personal bests and are pleased with sixth place. In 2004, I was in Australia during the games, which meant that not only was there a time zone issue but the TV stations I had access to were only showing events featuring Australians. For these reasons, I am definitely enjoying the Games much more this time around.

The other factor, I think, is Twitter. Not only has monitoring Twitter allowed me to enjoy the Nerdlympics but it also turns out to be a great way of catching up with the excitement of the day's events. Because people (and BBC Sport) tweet things as they happen, you can really capture a sense of the excitement, even if you are catching up with events a few hours later due to chores such as having to go to work during the day. Dara O'Briain's discovery of volleyball has also been fun to see develop!

As an added bonus, due to the childish nature of my sense of humour - and the necessary brevity of tweets - the BBC Sport feed sometimes throws up some mental images that make me smile. Favourites so far are references to Rebecca Adlington starting defence of her "800m Olympic crown” (that's a big crown!) and, more recently (and disturbingly):
"Watch South Korea's Ki Bo Bae take women's individual archery gold in a dramatic sudden death shoot-out."
Are they allowed to do that?! It certainly would be dramatic!

So, well done BBC (and Dara O'Briain) and keep up the good work! Another tweet has just alerted me to how good the BBC Sport app is, so I'm off to check that out now!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Getting excited about evolution with the NHM Evolution App

One of the things that saddens me most about Creationism (apart from all the lies and indoctrination) is the way that it sometimes manages to suck my enthusiasm for evolution. I don't mean my conviction - I have never seen anything from the YEC or ID crowd that even comes close to making me think "hang on a minute..." - but more my sense of excitement and wonder at real Natural History. It blows all the Creation myths away. Then there is the fascination and intrigue of some of the remaining unanswered questions, such as what sparked the Cambrian explosion. (Again, not questions that challenge the evidence for evolution, but things that we currently do not have a good/complete consensus explanation for - the stuff that drives scientific enquiry.)

Happily, the Natural History Museum have come up with the perfect antidote in the form of the NHM Evolution iPad app, which was launched earlier this month. I've only just downloaded it, so I'll have to save a proper review for another day but my initial impressions are great. It's beautiful, informative, well designed and has got me excited about evolution all over again.

Browsing through the different Deep Time features - "Timeband", "Timeline", "Timeglobe" and "Events" - I find it impossible not to be overwhelmed by how much sense it all makes. I feel really sorry for people who are made to reject the beauty and literal awesomeness of the true history of the planet we live on and the creatures that have lived on it before us. If you have any interest in Natural History - and an iPad! - this looks like it will be £9.99 well spent!

An ironic fortune cookie: it's not what you know...

I felt the need to get out the office for lunch today and combat the resumption of bad weather, so I popped to one of the local Chinese restaurants (Chan's) for Singapore rice noodles. And very tasty they were too. I was slightly amused by my fortune cookie, though, working as I do at a University (where knowledge is held in somewhat high esteem):

If only this were true, all of our students that are surfing Facebook when they should be revising (or even listening to lectures!) would have much better marks! I am sure that who you know is important at times to get ahead in life but when it comes to trying to build - or contribute to - an accurate model of the world around you, I'm afraid that it's still what you know that counts.

(Sadly, one of the things the author of this "fortune" did not know, apparently, is how to use apostrophes. If only (s)he had known a copy editor...)