30 September 2010

Learn Arabic!


An excellent resource for learning real colloquial Arabic. Especially Levantine. Yes, I know I've mentioned it before, but another plug won't hurt...

Sent from my iPhone

29 September 2010

Show me the mummy!

Face of Takabuti (from BBC)
I don't think I blogged on this before, but the BBC recently re-ran the documentary "Show me the Mummy", featuring Takabuti, one of the most famous women in Belfast. She is the Ulster Museum's fascinating Egyptian mummy, dating from the 25th Dynasty in the 8th century BCE. Generations of visitors to the museum have got to know her, and in the BBC documentary, a team of experts piece together her life and death, as well as the story of how she ended up in Belfast as one of the star exhibits in the newly-refurbished Ulster Museum. She is well worth a visit, and very well preserved. Her sarcophagus is fantastic, and there are several other nice Egyptian exhibits, although some of the labelling is a tad inaccurate. The museum itself is one of Belfast's top attractions, and the redevelopment is amazing.

Beyond God and atheism: Why I am a 'possibilian' - New Scientist - New Scientist

Sounds like atheism to me, just under a different name. Someone should tell him... http://feeds.newscientist.com/c/749/f/10897/s/e295d87/l/0L0Snewscientist0N0Carticle0Cmg20A7277950B30A0A0Ebeyond0Egod0Eand0Eatheism0Ewhy0Ei0Eam0Ea0Epossibilian0Bhtml0DDCMP0FOTC0Erss0Gnsref0Fonline0Enews/story01.htm

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28 September 2010

Pure Indulgence?

Look, it's instant coffee. It's not too bad, but to merit "Pure Indulgence" it would need to be a MochaChocaLatte Nutmeg and Marshmallow Slurpskrieg with a flake and strawberry jam on top, served in a gold flagon in a bubbly bath by breathless nymphs.

27 September 2010

Terry Eagleton on Richard Dawkins [FAIL]

Terry Eagleton is some dude who fancies himself as a philosopher. This is what he actually wrote in a 2006 review of Dawkins' "The God Delusion":
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

Allow me to make a little tweak.
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Unicorns, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

There. Fixed it for ya, Terry!

26 September 2010

Why "Intelligent Design" is a load of old soap

In one of the comments on another of my scintillating posts, I have been not exacly *accused* of misrepresenting intelligent design (creationism in a cheap tuxedo), but the suggestion has at least been made that I have perhaps been using a definition that doesn't quite gel with what the beastie actually is.

So what IS "intelligent design"? What better place to find a definition than http://www.intelligentdesign.org ? It would seem a good place to look, and here is their definition:
Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system's components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.
OK - it's as clumsy a definition as you are ever likely to see. It's a "scientific research program"? And it's carried out by a bunch of johnnies who refer to themselves as "scientists, philosophers and engineers" and they seek evidence for design in nature. What kind of design? Oh - *intelligent* design of course. So it's an activity undertaken by some punters with a pre-defined search objective, i.e. to find design, rather than look at how things might have come about. If your critical thinking hackles are not starting to rise by now, they should.

But I get ahead of myself. What is the *definition* of ID? There it is up there - certain features of living organisms and the universe are "best explained" by an intelligent cause. So they're starting with their conclusion, and trying to make the data fit. Hey ho, that's fine. But there are some problems - not least of which is that there is no evidence for such an intelligent cause, and the history of explaining hard-to-explain phenomena by invoking an intelligent cause not otherwise in evidence has not been a happy one. Lightning, epilepsy, the apparent movements of celestial bodies etc. All perfectly natural, no pixies required.

So our doughty chaps have some examples, you might think? The Cambrian Radiation? No need to invoke intelligence there. Just biology. DNA? No evidence of intelligence - just evolution! The universe itself? Hardly. The invocation of the Fine Tuning argument as evidence for an intelligent cause is hardly convincing. So exactly what HAVE these people produced apart from comment pieces? Where is their research? Where are their papers published in the scientific literature? Where is the EVIDENCE for an intelligence having designed our universe and life within it?

It simply is not there. ID is a crock.

Of course the fact that ID is nonsense does not necessarily *disprove* the gods. But as a "research program" or "intellectual exercise" it is a dead duck, and has been comprehensively refuted by real scientists.

Happy Sunday!

First of all, thanks everyone for the vote of confidence in the new design template. I think it's nice, although I can't seem to alter the appearance of the comments log, so apologies if that is a bit less readable than I would like.

Secondly, happy Sunday! A lot of people go to church on Sunday - if that's your thing, enjoy (I am writing to the Prime Minister with proposals to statutorily require all churches to display a notice saying "For Entertainment Purposes Only" like they do with psychics). If you're fed up with church, do something more constructive instead. Go out on your bike (it's a nice day, but starting to feel a bit chillier). Or take a drive up the coast (Northern Ireland, for my international visitors, has one of the most spectacular coastal drives in Europe - forget the South of France or Southern California - try North Antrim instead). Or wrap up warm and go for a walk in the Mourne Mountains. Or just chill and potter around in your garden and get ready to grow some bear-repelling courgettes next year.

Or if all that relaxation is too much for you, have three kids and spend every waking moment running around after them, getting yapped at and whinged at and shouted at and breaking up fights and fixing things they've broken etc etc.

And if you live on the Carrick side of Greenisland Station Road, remember that tomorrow is grey bin day.

24 September 2010

Lisburn City Council take note!

No creationism or "intelligent design" to be taught as science in British schools. End of.

You never know when you might need one...

My wife was complaining this year that every time I went out to the garden I would return with arms full of courgettes. So we've had courgettes with pretty much every meal for the past three months, and she's sick of 'em. But now I can tell her that they have many more uses than simply as a foodstuff. You can use them to battle off bears! See? I would hesitate to make claims that are too grandiose, but we haven't seen any bears around here lately, so they must be working.

20 September 2010

Irrefutable proof of Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design is the theory that certain features of biological organisms are so complex that they cannot be explained by mere evolution, and instead, therefore, were designed by an intelligent being, therefore God therefore Jesus. So far it has been ripped to shreds by scientists, and its fans, known affectionately as "cdesign proponentsists", have made a miserable and bedraggled bunch of intellectual washouts.

But no more!

Who can forget the hit Channel 4 show "Inside Nature's Giants", where the dissection of a giraffe showed the circuitous and ridiculously un-intelligent route taken by the giraffe's recurrent laryngeal nerve? Yet Mister Dawkins smartypants will be laughing on the other side of his face when he reads this, because the giraffe's neck is the ULTIMATE example of Intelligent Design and divine Fine Tuning.

It is very simple. If the giraffe's head was even ONE THOUSANDTH of a MILLIMETRE further away from its body, its neck would be TOO SHORT and its head would simply fall off!

Therefore it is clear that an intelligent designer must have perfectly FINE TUNED the length of the giraffe's neck to match the distance of the head from the body PRECISELY. If the neck is 2 metres long, and a thousandth of a millimetre is therefore half a MILLIONTH of the distance involved - the chance of EVOLUTION doing this by CHANCE is therefore less than one in TWO MILLION.

And when you consider that this is the case for EVERY giraffe, and indeed every creature on the planet with a neck, the chances are even smaller, which means that evolution cannot explain it!

Therefore God Therefore Jesus.

Thank you.

19 September 2010

Chow down on some sin, baby!

Things have come to a pretty pass when religious practice is regarded as sensible, but generally this only applies when it is contrasted with something even more bizarre. So Presbyterians cod themselves that because they're not as wacky as Mormons (for instance), they must be pretty much OK. It's the Billy Goat Gruff approach to religion, which I think I'm going to have to blog about over at the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist at some point.

Anyway, back in 1906, over a century ago, the last Sin Eater was buried. No, not Sinnita, but a SIN EATER. Richard Munslow was paid to eat bread and wine over the corpse of a deceased person, in the wacky belief that sins could be transferred to another, and thereby atonement made, and the soul of the deceased could enter heaven.

What a load of superstitious cobblers!

Entirely like the wacky belief that sins can be transferred to another, and thereby atonement made, as in the death of Jesus the Nazarene. So who is calling whom wacky? This is the thing about belief-based religions - the defect is in the thought processes, not the particular beliefs themselves. In that respect, the Billy Goat Gruffs are all pretty similar.

18 September 2010

Holy shit - well held, that man!


A four year old boy was playing on an escalator in a shopping centre in Turkey before being carried to the top and falling off. Fortunately, a sharp-eyed retailer spotted the impending disaster, and caught the wee chap as he fell from something like thirty feet.

The lesson here? Look out for each other, folks. Sometimes it can make all the difference.

The footage of the incident is startling. Happily no-one was hurt.

I'm Spartacus!

Oh noes - it's a fake pope! How will we tell the difference?

15 September 2010

What hope for the pope?

...when he is surrounded by morons such as Cardinal Walter Kasper? Walter recently described arriving in the UK at Heathrow airport as like landing in a "Third World" country. In what has to rank as one of the most inept excuses in history, a Vatican spokesperson claimed this was because of the UK's multiculturalism. In other words, Walter wasn't referring to the bustling frenetic activity of the airport, he was simply being racist. Which makes it OK then.

He also seems to be perturbed that the UK is in the grip of a "new and aggressive atheism." Well, I've got news for you, Wally: YES IT IS.

Sure, there is still a lot of rampant simpleton superstition around - witness the fawning dignitaries queuing up to dribble platitudes over Walter's boss. Not as many as the ticketmeisters had hoped for, but a fair few of them all the same.

Yep, the UK is certainly becoming a more secular society, and the traditional deference displayed to the agents of various myth-pushing institutions is disappearing. Years ago, Walter could have come out with his crazy mush and no-one would have said anything, but this is a new era, and people are not afraid to tell him where to stick it. Or his boss. So three cheers for rampant secularism! It gives him the freedom to say what he wants, the imams to say what they want, and Richard Dawkins to say what he wants. If that causes Walter a problem, that's too bad. That's the way we do things nowadays in this third world backwater.

12 September 2010

Brian's back! Wonders of the Solar System

[Image copyright BBC]
Professor Brian Cox has come to be (deservedly) one of the most prominent media scientists over the past wee while. For those of you who missed the excellent "Wonders of the Solar System" first time around, it's back on BBC iPlayer (and BBC2 on Sunday evenings). Brian's enthusiasm is highly infectious, and his wee jaunts across the planet make you feel that you're travelling there yourself. Enjoy!

Applying bioinformatics to the bible

As I think everyone knows (or should know), the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark as one of their sources, plus some other material. Over at Irreducible Complexity (a great blog), Ian has an analysis of shared material across the synoptic gospels (as they are called), and I've commented on this before. At the time it struck me that a powerful way of analysing this material might be to approach it from the bioinformatic angle, and use the dot-plot technique to compare the source material.

Well, it's been done! John Lee (working at MIT at the time) has compared the gospels of Mark and Luke using this technique, and it makes for mighty interesting reading. Here's part of the skinny (excuse the clumsy screen grab!).
So what you're seeing is Mark on the X axis and Luke on the Y, and the dots indicate regions of high similarity shared between the gospels. See those diagonal lines? They indicate regions of very high similarity, and in fact show where Luke has derived his material virtually entirely from Mark (or ur-Mark or a slightly younger neo-Mark).

Now, I reckon you could do this for all the gospels, or even the whole bible. It would be interesting to see what would be thrown up, although I doubt it'll tell us much that we don't already know. For more information on what we do already know (pre dot-plot of course), I would strongly recommend Robin Lane Fox's excellent resource "The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible". If you can read that and remain an inerrantist, there is something VERY wrong with your brain. Or you don't really care about the truth.


A recent story about a large whale skeleton found in the Thames reminded me of this bad boy that normally sits in my study. My dad found this and several other bones on a beach in Donegal several years ago. This bone is the atlas, the first cervical vertebra. Those big ovals either side are the articular surfaces that interface with the base of the skull. The spinal cord goes down the big hole in the middle.

11 September 2010

Belated Shana Tova...

Yep, sorry folks - to all my Jewish friends, a very belated welcome to the New Year! I hope it's a good one, and you guys (and all my Palestinian friends too), sort that mess out, will you? Please?
Have a look at what these guys are doing: http://www.ameinu.net/
Picture from Ameinu.net

Faith Schools Menace - no question mark.

The UDA target Richard Dawkins
I've finally got round to watching Richard Dawkins' programme "Faith Schools Menace" on Channel 4. It's really rather good, and quite persuasive. I would probably class myself among those who thinks Richard writes better than he presents or interviews, but I thought this was a good demonstration of the disasters we are setting ourselves up for if we allow religions to control the education of our children.
I still don't think Richard quite "gets" Northern Ireland; the majority of the State schools are really very secular, although this can't be said for the Catholic Maintained Sector. Furthermore, the divisions in our society don't stem so much from the educational sector as from the home environment. That said, it is crazy that so many people insist that their children have segregated education, and the spokesmen from the Orange Order and the Catholic Maintained Sector were positively sinister. Choices in education are, apparently, a fundamental parental human right - and the children don't matter at all. That seems to be the message.
Children do need to be educated together; they do need to learn about religions other than those of their parents. Perhaps then more of them will realise that religion itself, generically, is false. That we owe no allegiance to mythical space pixies and messiahs, but to each other.
May that day roll on.

01 September 2010

Terraforming Earth

Looking for a home
Earth is a nice planet. In comparison to any others we know about. Yet many environments are rather hostile, and knowing how to change that could provide us with the secrets to making places like Mars habitable for humans - or even how to avert some of the ecological disasters here on Earth. PZ has a post on the Pleistocene "re-wilding" of areas of the Mid-West US, together with reintroduction of megafauna, such as cloned or re-bred mammoths. Cool as that might be (and I would love to see the mammoths return, oh yes), it's not a solution to the problem of building real complex ecosystems.

Yet, on Ascension Island in the Atlantic, a largely barren cinder, a legacy of the truly great minds of Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and others continues to take shape - an artificial ecosystem that is being primed with plants, and largely left to just get on with the job of bootstrapping itself. The BBC reports that over the past 150 years, cloud forest has become established on the highest peak of Ascension, involving purely imported species, shipped in over the decades by the Royal Navy. And it seems to be working - an ecosystem is steadily emerging from the barren wilderness and finding its own way of sustaining itself.

And this is making people turn their thoughts to Mars, the desert planet. Could something similar be done there? I will admit that as a small boy I used to think about this sort of thing. After watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos", I imagined shipping millions of little clear plastic containers to Mars, loaded with seeds, nutrient and anti-freeze, to germinate, eventually break their containers, and start populating the barren red wastelands with greenery. Liberate the water, heat and thicken the atmosphere, and turn the desert to jungle.

Now, small boys know even less about ecosystems than the adults they turn into (I think - that may be a contentious point), and nowadays I can see a few obstacles to that. Such as the sheer tenuousness of the Martian atmosphere, and the great difficulties anticipated in getting plants to bloom.

But to heck with Mars - we should be doing more on EARTH, and this is where PZ hits the nail on the head. We need to return vast tracts of the surface of our planet to a proper wilderness state. Not a managed wilderness - but a proper wilderness, devoid of people. We (I would suggest) need to get used to the idea that we humans can live on our part, and let the other part act as our Gaian reservoir, our buffer. Not build roads or railways through it, not use it as eco-tourist destinations, but just leave it the heck alone - let evolution get on with the job.

Then we can put our cloned mammoths in the zoo, and we might even be able to squeeze a bit more time out of our civilisation before the whole project goes tits up.