28 November 2010

Relief of Amenhotep III - first attempt

OK, I'm no artist. I started this a couple of years ago, got fed up, left it unfinished and distressed it a bit. Still, I'm happy enough with it as a first effort. It does make me respect the Egyptian sculptors more, though.

We're going to Mars, and we ain't coming back...

Over at the Journal of Cosmology, they have a whole issue dedicated to getting humans on Mars - a fine and laudable goal. Mars is a funky wee planet, and although its atmosphere is extremely tenuous, the surface temperatures forbidding, and a fair bit smaller than Earth, it is at least sufficiently Earth-like for us to consider the possibilities of setting up shop there until we get it properly terraformed (should that be possible).
One problem is that sending astronauts there involves getting them back again - effectively you have to put in place on Mars, from Earth, the infrastructure to launch a mission to Earth. That is a rather tall order.
Step in Paul Davies (Arizona State University, renowned cosmologist, all round good bloke and great thinker, even if he is a little fluffy round the edges on the whole "god" issue) and Dirk Schulze-Makuck (Washington State University, with whom I am less familiar) are proposing that the initial missions should be one-way, with the explicit goal of establishing a foothold for a future self-sustaining Mars-based civilisation. They would be able to carry out a great deal of ground-based research, construction (using materials shipped from Earth), fuel generation, materials development etc, and essentially set the scene for further larger-scale missions.
Of course the disadvantages would be that you would never see Earth and your family ever again (apart from over the data-link with several minutes' delay, or via a telescope), and you wouldn't have access to many healthcare resources, and your lifespan might be reduced as a result. But if such a mission were to be proposed, I don't think they would be lacking in volunteers, and some of them might even make the psych profile. One possibility is to send up veteran astronauts - like in the movie Space Cowboys - because Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Cooper are expendable, should anything go wrong... And the older chaps have the life experience and Right Stuff to make it work. No Zimmer frames on Mars, though.
Would you volunteer?

26 November 2010

A proposal for peace in the Middle East?

How do we put the wheels back on this thing?
The son of assassinated former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin has put forward an "Israeli Peace Initiative" proposal in an effort to stimulate the sputtering dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians on the creation of a two-state solution to the ongoing instability in the region. Here is the article in Ha'aretz - what do you think?
Personally, I love Israel and I love Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt (but I've never been to Syria - I hope to go some day), and the prospect of these countries all being at peace with the addition of a free Palestine would be fantastic. Would Israel be able to deliver on the IPI? Would this plan address the concerns of the Palestinians? Would the wider Middle East and Muslim world accept this as a step towards rapprochement with the West? Would this enhance security in the region, or destabilise it further by focusing attention on Iran?

These are difficult questions, but one thing is very certain - the status quo does nothing for Israel, and instead makes its long term survival questionable, and also means it is a rather poor beacon for democracy in the region. The IPI deserves careful consideration as a possible route to a stronger and more relevant Israel and Palestine.

[Hat-tip to Ameinu]

25 November 2010

Michael Behe in Belfast

I had other plans, so didn't go to hear Michael Behe, the "Intelligent Design Theorist" speak at a church in Belfast last night. If you recall, Mike is the chap whose blithe assertions that evolutionary theory could not explain "irreducible complexity" caused such mirth at the 2005 Kitzmiller trial in the USA. He lost the battle in 2005, and the whole comcept of irreducible complexity as a barrier to evolution has been repeatedly and comprehensively debunked - evolution is a complexity generating algorithm, you could say - irreducible complexity is an expected outcome of the process. More recently Mike has been touting the notion that certain multiple changes in genes need to occur simultaneously to avoid the immediate death of an organism, but likewise, not only has he not made his case, he appears unable or unwilling to explain how standard evolutionary theory has a problem with these - instead, like other religious apologists for "Intelligent Design", he prefers a straw man version of evolution lifted pretty much straight out of creationist apologetic tracts.

Still, it's interesting to note that a Catholic who accepts the Earth is 4.67 billion years old and that humans and chimps do in fact have a common ancestor has been invited to preach at the Crescent Church in Belfast. Time was when such a phenomenon would have been regarded as impossible. Maybe miracles do happen.

So did anyone go to hear him? Has he changed his tune? Has he any actual goods this time?

24 November 2010

Egyptology apps for the Apple iPhone

Horus helps Hunefer with the niceties of the Afterlife.
So I love my iPhone, and it loves me. I wish to spice up our relationship a little, so what could be better than trying out an Egyptology app? Except it turns out that there aren't many. There is a hieroglyphic dictionary which I will try out and review in due course, but I have tried the "Book of the Dead" app from the British Museum. And it's actually rather nice - you get a scrollable papyrus (unfortunately not zoomable) of Hunefer's amazing Book of the Dead - the exhibition is currently on in the BM, and you can see how the Egyptians conceptualised the journey through the underworld to the Field of Reeds. It's a bit limited, and I think most people will get through it in 5 minutes, even with minimal Egyptological training.

Have any of you found good apps or software for Egyptological use? There are some Egypt-themed games out there which look pretty rubbish to be honest, but I'm thinking of stuff for actual Egypt-related work & education - raise up the next generation of scribes!

21 November 2010

18 November 2010

Homeopathy - just give it up, dipsticks.

Why this post? Well, like Ian over at Irreducible Complexity, I'm starting to get a bit irritated by these comment bot thingies that post inane "hey dude, great post on ur blog. V interesting. Should be more pictures of Taiwanese frog-wrestlers" guff, and then link to some commercial product or a page displaying flexible ladies in varied topological orientations.

But today I got one for some homeopathic website. Now, one might think that the fewer of these, the better, but really. Homeopathy. Your medicine gets stronger the more you dilute it (and succuss it by hitting it off your DFS leatherette sofa). Indeed, it's so dilute, there isn't even a single molecule of the "remedy" (what a silly word) left in the solution. So no matter what the label says, it's JUST WATER.

Ah, says "Doctor" Woomeister, water has *memory*, and can remember what was originally in it.

Like arse it can.

Look, homeopathy is cretinous rubbish; I do not say that because I "scientifically" know that it *can't* work - I say it because it *doesn't* work. There is nothing in those sugar pills or water drops that has any effect on any disease process that would not similarly be effected by a regular drop of sugar or water given by the same deluded "therapist" who happened to believe (and convince the gullible sap of a patient they have with them) that it is the Real Deal. The data are in; homie loses.

OK? So if you want to pretend that homeopathy is worth more than a derisory fart, first establish that there is an effect to explain in the first place. Then we can dance; until then, don't bother to complain about these meanie scientists who poo-poo your woo, because you ain't got *nothing*.

And stop spamming the world's silly blogs with your dopey ads. It's tiresome.

14 November 2010

Was Adam a real person?

"I'm bringing sexy back."
And is that even a real question? I mean, seriously, is there anyone alive in 2010 who thinks that it is meaningful to consider the historicity of a completely mythical person? We all know that humans evolved from a population of African apes, and there is really no controversy over this, other than in areas of where the population was based, the size of the population, and the various factors that supplied the evolutionary pressures (and the sequence thereof) that led to Us. The basic concept of human evolution as a branch of the Great Apes is scientifically secure. Obviously this means that we can assign pre-scientific stories of human origins to the category of myth, and indeed the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible is indeed a book of origins myths, hence the name "Genesis". History, genetics, archaeology, paleontology - all have long since comprehensively proven that Genesis is NOT a record of how the world got to be the way it is.

However, bizarrely, some people still cling to the bonkers notion that this is a history book, and that we need to take it literally. People like my old mentor Norman Nevin. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I like and admire Norman a great deal, but this creationism business is simply crazy talk. Far from adducing scientific evidence to support his strange contention that Adam was historical, Norman engages in some jaw-droppingly poor arguments. It is standard creationist fare, and if you really want to see it ripped to shreds, head over to the British Society for Science Education. This has to stop; it is becoming embarrassing.

Blinking cursor of death

You may have noticed a drop-off of activity lately - there is a Reason. My normally-reliable Samsung laptop has resorted to flashing a small blinking cursor at me when I try to boot up, and I can't access either my Windows 7 installation nor my Ubuntu Linux. What's more, I can't even routinely access the System Restore function, so things are pretty bad.
I live-booted from a Linux CD that I have, and that at least gives me access to the files, so they're all backed up. I'm currently running a system restore that I was able to access via the SuperGrub rescue disk that you can download, but that is not a particularly tasty piece of software, and I'm a little dubious that it's going to work. Basically, I think there is a good chance that the beastie is totally banjaxed, and I'm going to have to see if I can get a hold of a fresh Windows 7 install disk and repartition and reformat the entire hard drive and start from scratch.
So there we go - that's an exciting story, isn't it?
Anyone else ever have this, and am I doing the right thing?

And you know, boys & girls, sometimes our lives are a bit like that...

05 November 2010

Thor hammered!

Over at Aardvarchaeology (one of my favourite blogs - I'm lashing the praise around like smarties today, eh?), Martin has an excellent post on the legacy of Mr Con-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl. Now there is no doubt that Thor could navigate and sail some very rickety and interesting contraptions, but he had some very strange (and since completely debunked) ideas about what all this meant. The peopling of Polynesia from South America? Forget it. Pyramids in Egypt being connected to the Pyramids in the New World? Utter nonsense.

Anyway, you know I'm a sceptic already - go and give Martin some love, won't you?

Misuse of Bayes' Theorem to back up silly things

Over at Common Sense Atheism (one of my favourite blogs, recent posts notwithstanding), the redoubtable and really very clever Mr Luke Muehlausen has recently interviewed the Christian philosopher Lydia McGrew. A while back, Lydia and Tim McGrew (her husband) wrote an article in which they purported to use the mathematical theorem first derived by Bayes to weigh the evidence in favour of the resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene, in an attempt to show that it was extraordinarily *likely* to have occurred.

Regular readers of my blogarooney will have to peel their eyebrows from the ceiling, because given the stories we have in the bible, it does not at first glance appear possible that the McGrews could say such a thing. Yet that is what they argue, and they use a lot of fancy-looking mathematical footwork to show that to be the case.

Gadzooks! (I hear you cry). How in heck can they do that with some very contradictory passages that were only written down several decades after the death of Jesus the Nazarene by people who never even met him, and were not present at the supposed resurrection? And you would be right. At least part of the answer to that question lies in this statement from their article:
Our argument will proceed on the assumption that we have a substantially accurate text of
the four gospels, Acts, and several of the undisputed Pauline epistles (most significantly
Galatians and I Corinthians); that the gospels were written, if not by the authors whose names
they now bear, at least by disciples of Jesus or people who knew those disciples – people who
knew at first hand the details of his life and teaching or people who spoke with those
eyewitnesses – and that the narratives, at least where not explicitly asserting the occurrence of a
miracle, deserve as much credence as similarly attested documents would be accorded if they
reported strictly secular matters.

Now just hang on there a minute, my good man and lady - you are proceeding on some mighty questionable assumptions there! We actually have very very little evidence on which to base such a strong conclusion, and when you take these stories, such as they are, together, it is not at all clear what sort of resurrection we are talking about. At the very best, it seems that the body of Jesus the Nazarene might have gone missing, and in the cognitive dissonance, confusion and grief that followed, certain vulnerable folks claimed to have seen visions of him, and concluded that in some sense he had been "raised" from the dead. That we can make a connection between this sorry state of affairs and an *actual* miraculous resurrection seems rather hopeless.

But why do the McGrews do this? Why do they need to front-load their argument with such a contentious and unsupportable set of assumptions? The answer, it would seem, is that it helps buttress their argument and avoid the sorts of Bayes factors that undermine their conclusions, as long as they declare them and neutralise them up front, rather than factoring them into the argument.

And what constitutes a "similarly attested document"? The external attestation of pretty much anything reported in the gospels is nil (even leaving aside the fact that Matthew and Luke grabbed most of their narrative from the pre-existing gospel of Mark, plus other sources). It's all rather suspicious.

But there is a wider malaise at work here - ever since the dolorous Richard Swinburne let rip his own foray into Bayesian territory, some Theistic Christian apologists (not to be confused with the growing ranks of Atheistic Christians) have leapt on Bayes like squirrels on a Snickers to try to use its seemingly arcane powers of mathematical robustness to splint the legs of their teetering sacred cows, and try to bamboozle poor philosophers (who really have trouble dealing with mathsy things) into thinking that the arguments for ancient imaginary space pixies are a lot stronger than they actually are. But Bayes' Theorem is a wonderful little tool - we use it in Genetics all the time, and it is a common feature of many risk estimation algorithms and programmes. Do not try to fool Bayes - Bayes will find you out!

So things are not going well for the paper so far. In a future post I will proceed a little further into this curious article to see if any nuggets gleam from within the vein, and maybe explain a little more about the remarkable Bayes' Theorem as we go.

Spoiler alert: I will destroy Swinburne and the McGrews in the process, and show beyond reasonable doubt that the resurrection did not, in fact, occur. Sorry to give the game away so early! You're drooling already - I can tell!

02 November 2010

My new favouritest website

is http://www.27bslash6.com. Dr Brambo introduced me to it, and I have been sniggering like a naughty schoolboy all evening. Stop it, Dr Brambo, stop it!

What to do with Jesus when the aliens arrive?

"Is there anyone out there?" was the title of today's lunchtime lecture at St Bartholomew's Church on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast. The lecture was given by the Rector, Dr Ron Elsdon. Ron is a good guy with a keen mind and a love for the quirky. A fully qualified geologist, he has no truck with creationists (which means that he is in my good books), and indeed one of his previous lectures was entitled "Rescuing Genesis from the Creationists", in which he took the view (as most people with anything between their ears at all do) that creationism is bad theology as well as bad science.

Full credit to Ron, he played this one with a very straight bat. There is no longer any doubt that there are likely to be many many places in the Universe where life could exist - the extremes under which life can quite happily frolic on our own wee planet demonstrate that the survivable zone is so wide that even in our own solar system there are several areas where life can survive. It is a different question whether those areas would be suitable for life to arise in the first place, and then evolve, but it seems that Goldilocks is a lot less fastidious than we used to think. So much for "fine tuning".

A lot hinges on the infamous Drake Equation (of which I am not a big fan), which is supposed to help us estimate how many civilisations our galaxy might contain, but produces answers so wildly dependent on guesses pre-loaded at the get-go that you might as well just look up and pick a number, any number. Cosmologist Paul Davies reckons that intelligent life is part of a self-organising complexifying principle in the universe; Ron contrasted this with a "random" view of evolution; I didn't quite get the drift of this - no-one thinks evolution is *random* - natural selection imposes a direction, but that direction is local and small-scale. It's only when we look back over large periods of time that we see the journey.

Has u aksepted Jebus into ur heart?
But what of the theological implications? This is where I need to be charitable - in my view, the discovery of alien intelligence (or its discovery of us, yeah?) will hammer the bejibblets out of "rational" theology. It probably won't affect people's belief, because that's not based on reason anyway. But it will cause a serious problem for some theological standpoints, and slap it up them if they can't cope. Ron is not worried, and I think he's right. They're either there or they're not - why should that matter to human religion? Heck, Father Joe Coyne, former Vatican Astronomer, says he'll baptise Zorgon (presumably if Zorgon wants to, and isn't a methane-based lifeform to whom liquid water would be perilous - maybe he could be baptised with liquid nitrogen or something).

Anyway, we'll keep waiting for ET to get our number, and when/if he/she/it does, we'll just have to deal with it. Unless they are cosmic Jehovah's Witnesses or some such. Imagine that knock on the door...

01 November 2010

Northern Lights

I've just finished reading (for the first time) Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights", the first part of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. I have had this book recommended to me many times, and I love Pullman's writing, ever since "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ", but I've only just got down to actually reading it. Pullman creates a strangely alien-yet-familiar universe in which people have daemons, animaliform companions, roughly analogous to a soul - a core part of their being. The book was made into a movie, "The Golden Compass", which although it apparently did OK at the box office, wasn't supposed to have been great.

Anyway, forget the movie - just read the book. It is absolutely fantastic, as Lyra Belacqua (the wild-child heroine) and her daemon Pantalaimon race across an alternative Northern Europe to confront an enormous evil and to uncover the mysteries of Dust. I'm just about to start the sequel, "The Subtle Knife", and am looking forward to it enormously. It's all there - loyalty, intrigue, betrayal, philosophy, religion, heresy. A real gem.