Monday 17 December 2007

Sir Arthur at 90 (repost from other blog)

I'm occasionally asked why I write science fiction.

The answer is, because of this man:

Happy birthday Sir Arthur!

Sunday 9 December 2007

Covering all bases: trying out Linux - part 1 (repost from other blog)

How can I possibly hold my head up as a certified computer nerd without knowledge of the third most popular computer operating system (and incidentally the one that runs most of the internet)?

I've had goes with Linux before, but each time it was a half-hearted affair, and by no means entirely successful. Nevertheless, I decided it was time to give Linux a fair trial, and by 'fair' I'm referring to the the fact that my previous attempts were on redundant hardware that wasn't up to the job.

In recent years the computer marketplace has changed. It's now possible to buy a basic PC, without monitor or OS, for under £250. But 'basic' is a relative term. This £250 PC has a 64-bit dual-core processor, 2 GB of system RAM and a 250 GB serial ATA hard disk - computing power that would have cost between five and ten times as much a mere five years ago.

So, I bought one. I already had a suitable monitor (a 19" widescreen LCD), and I'd downloaded the operating system in readiness for the 'experiment'.

And the OS? The word is, apparently, 'Ubuntu'. You can go to the website and download a CD image file, which you then use to make a boot CD. There are comprehensive instructions on the site if you don't know how to do this - it's not difficult (and if you use a Mac it is ridiculously easy). You can then use the CD to try out Ubuntu Linux on any PC (or even an Intel Mac, apparently) without messing with your hard drive. Then, if you wish, you can install it. That's when the fun starts.

The process worked well enough. I had to be careful adjusting the display settings (several of my attempts resulted in the disappearance of the mouse cursor), but I found that ignoring the 'test' mode and rebooting worked fine. Next on the list was connecting to the internet. Firefox is pre-installed, but because of the way my home network is set up I had to adjust the network settings to a static IP address and enter DNS addresses to make it work.

I gave up on the printer. I've no doubt that connecting a USB or parallel printer would be a doddle, but I have a print-server on my network that was extremely difficult to set up for my Macs, so I wasn't surprised to find the Linux set-up a little opaque. That's something I'll need to come back to.

Ubuntu Linux also comes with OpenOffice 2.3 pre-installed, though I did notice that it wouldn't read some of my ancient StarWriter documents, despite the fact that my PC version of OpenOffice (version 2.0) has no trouble with them. It's probably a simple matter of installing the correct filters.

One important thing I discovered, pretty much by chance, is that Ubuntu Linux does not, by default, check for updates. There are preferences you have to change to allow it to update itself - once I did this, it downloaded and installed about 40 updates.

One last gem I'll mention in this initial part of the saga - I needed to copy a DVD (home produced - not copy-protected). I put the disc in the drive, and found that if I right-clicked on the desktop icon there was an option to copy the disc. This was a breeze - it made an image, then prompted for a blank disc, and burnt the copy. This will definitely be my preferred method for making DVD copies in the future. No third-party software required - not even any need to launch another app.

So far, I'm impressed.

Saturday 24 November 2007

Heated debate: global warming - does it matter?

Probably no controversial subject involves more vested interest than that of global climate change. I've seen the (subsequently discredited) Channel 4 TV programme "The Great Global Warming Swindle" and I also have in my ever-increasing 'to read' pile the special issue of Skeptical Inquirer on global warming, as well as the issue of New Scientist covering the subject.

Then I read Stephen Fry's blog entry on the subject (impressing me enough to send a link to Josh Timonen at Stephen Fry's approach is of one who does not have the facts, but nevertheless is prepared to act on probabilities. His reference to Pascal's Wager was particularly neat. And one of the commenters, milkyman, posted a link to a video, which I embed below:

There's also a follow-up video (plus related videos on other aspects of the controversy):

Sunday 14 October 2007

How long before Richard Dawkins appears in Hell?

Last Wednesday's episode of Old Harry's Game on BBC Radio 4 almost features Professor Richard Dawkins as a character - but he's there in spirit, as it were.

The episode (number 3 of 6) is currently available on the BBC's 'listen again' service:

Info for this episode is here:

Here's a 5-minute (mp3) clip of the relevant section (the link takes you to RapidShare, from where you can download the file):

(Edith is in Hell after being murdered by person or persons unknown. She's struck a deal with Satan - she will write his biography in return for him finding out who murdered her. As the clip begins, she's doing a bit of background research.)

Monday 1 October 2007

Baptist minister converts to Judaism, says "Thank God for atheists"

Chris Miller's "Unquiet Desperation" is an occasional podcast on eclectic subjects. Recently he aired an interview with an old friend of his, Bill Carter, who converted from Southern Baptist to Judaism. In Chris's words:
  • There are endless tales out there about folks who have converted to Christianity from some other religion, but you rarely hear about someone converting away from Christianity, unless it’s to atheism. In this episode of Unquiet Desperation, we meet Bill Carter, and old friend who has, after much thought and soul searching, converted from Christianity to Judaism. He tells us about his thought process, his reasons for doing so, and how his life has changed because of his conversion.
In the last five minutes of this 80 minute interview Bill Carter makes an odd comment, "Thank God for atheists," using a strangely incongruous example of giving help to a homeless street-person. It's almost a direct inverse of the "atheists have no basis for morality" argument.

Unquiet Desperation:

Audio here (83'42", 76.6 MB).

Friday 28 September 2007

What is it with spammers? (repost from other blog)

Am I missing something here?

I get lots of spam. Most of it is efficiently filtered out by Gmail, but nonetheless I do check it regularly, just in case some false positives get caught.

But I'm at a loss to understand what the spammers are hoping to achieve. They appear to go to great lengths to defeat my spam filters. Why? Do they think I'll reward their ingenuity by buying stuff I don't need? Don't they realise why I have spam filters? Because I don't want their stuff!

Here's my advice. I offer it free, gratis, and for nothing.

Make your subject header actually relevant to the content of your email. Don't use obfuscation in the body of the email (such as peculiar graphics, or unconventional spelling). Use an honest email address.

This way I can easily trash your email if it's not relevant to me, my wants or needs. But it also makes it easy for me to identify if I may actually desire to do business with you - because your email will not have been consigned to my junk folder.

You never know - you might actually get more business this way.

Denial in action: "Acupuncture works"

A recent report (see Bad Science for full details) shows that acupuncture is no more effective than a placebo. This, however, didn't prevent a representative of 'complementary' medicine claiming that the report showed that acupuncture 'works'.

Nothing much unusual here, you might suppose. But David Tredinnick made his claims in the face of the placebo evidence, on BBC radio. Ben Goldacre related the facts of the case to Eddie Mair, on the BBC's PM programme, and David Tredinnick completely ignored the central point of the report - that acupuncture is a load of hooey.

Audio of the PM programme here:
Clip starts at about 37 minutes. (This link will probably expire by next Tuesday.)

Download RealPlayer here

Edit: Ben Goldacre's Bad Science podcast now has the clip available for download (also includes some of the mail responses to the broadcast):

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Light relief - a YouTube selection

Just thought I'd gather together a couple of favourites, plus a new find:

Pat Condell

George Carlin (warning: strong language)

Marcus Brigstocke

Monday 13 August 2007

My latest appearance... (repost from other blog)

'Appearance' in the title of this post is metaphorical - you can't see me, but you can hear me reading Stephen Gaskell's story "Everyone Carries a Shadow" in the 50th episode of Pseudopod, the weekly horror podcast.

I enjoy reading for other people, especially short stories, but I appreciate that my voice is only appropriate for some. This is my third reading for Pseudopod, and I'll be interested in the reaction this story garners. My previous two readings were Michael Stone's "Sacred Skin" and Eugie Foster's "Oranges, Lemons and Thou Beside Me" - both of which were extremely creepy (the Foster was also highly disturbing).

I've also read in the past for Pseudopod's elder sibling Escape Pod, my first being Scott Janssens' flash story "Paradox", and subsequently a two-hander with Tee Morris, "Are You Ready For the End of the World?" by Danny Adams. But the story I had most fun with was Steve Eley's "The Malcontent" which he asked me to read for Escape Pod's 50th episode.

(I like stories that operate on more than one level, and "The Malcontent" was one of those - lots of fun, but with deeper meaning evident as the story progressed.)

I've also read for The Time Traveller Show, and for its offshoot Wonder Audio, whose stories are now available for purchase from Audible and iTunes.

And in a fit of enthusiasm I read three chapters of Jules Verne's A Journey to the Interior of the Earth and one chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, both for LibriVox.

Tuesday 31 July 2007

We'll try this...

Not sure about this, but I'm willing to give it a go. Click on the 'A' above to find out about the OUT Campaign.

Monday 30 July 2007

Fizzle? It didn't! (repost from other blog)

Last Saturday evening BBC1 aired the finale of Jekyll, and what was briefly hinted at in the penultimate of six instalments came to its complex conclusion. This clever, sophisticated and funny series must be a landmark for British speculative TV drama. Not since Channel Four's Ultraviolet, written by Joe Ahearne and broadcast in 1998 has the traditional horror genre been given serious science-fictional treatment on British TV.

Quite what happens next I've no idea. We have the Jackman twins - that could be another story, but it looks like this one is over.

Or is it?

(Previous witterings here and here.)

Friday 27 July 2007

The Wikipedia Story (repost from other blog)

Clive Anderson investigated Wikipedia earlier this week on BBC Radio 4: The Wikipedia Story

He dealt with the usual criticisms ("it can't be relied on; how do we know the expertise of those who edit pages; it's easily vandalised, etc") with the typically incisive mind of a lawyer, and at the same time engendered enthusiasm for what is undoubtedly a laudable project. He visited the UK branch of Britannica to get a view from the establishment side of the encyclopaedia business, and he even elicited a sound-bite or two from renowned internet doomsayer Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur and whose broadcast comments reeked of sour grapes.

The radio programme is available as an audio stream here (I don't know for how long - but it will shortly be released as a podcast*):

Download RealPlayer here

Anderson and his interviewees emphasised the essential point about Wikipedia and Web 2.0 - that there is no way this is going to be like a traditional encyclopaedia, nor should it be. We now live in a different information age. By all means trot down to your local library and heft a massive tome from the shelf in order to find out what you want to know. Meanwhile those of us with more pressing knowledge-needs can log on, check out, cross reference and be on to the next item before the traditional researchers have located their bicycle clips.

*UPDATE: The stream and podcast are no longer available, but you can download the mp3 from RapidShare here:

Sunday 15 July 2007

Saturday evenings are still fun (repost from other blog)

Doctor Who has finished on BBC 1 for the time being (until the Christmas Special with Kylie Minogue), so Saturday evenings are now focussed on James Nesbitt's bravura performance in Jekyll. This series, now up to episode 4, has edged further from the surreal melodramatics of the opening episodes into out-and-out science fiction. And pretty good sci fi it's turning out to be, if you don't mind your suspension of disbelief being stretched spider-web thin.

Nesbitt, Gina Bellman and Denis Lawson are a joy to watch, as if they're fully aware this isn't meant to be classical drama and have decided to run with its absurdities for all they're worth. Some great lines too: "You have my husband in a box!" Stating the obvious, but said out loud it does emphasise the craziness of the whole premise.

This week we were treated to some sizeable chunks of flashback, when we saw how Dr Jackman first became aware of his peculiar disorder, at about the same time he first met his wife-to-be. It's greatly to writer Steven Moffat's credit that these scenes were convincing and sympathetic, despite being in a different style from the rest of the production so far.

Jekyll is huge fun, and not to be missed.

Sunday 8 July 2007

What's up with those Scots?

I finally found time to listen to a short audio clip from BBC Radio Scotland -- a programme called "Sally on Sunday" that was linked from a couple of weeks ago.

Sally Magnusson talked with Gordon Graham, Alister McGrath and Alistair Noble about Intelligent Design. Unfortunately the audio clip is no longer available (the BBC's 'listen again' service is only for seven days, though there are exceptions), but I was able to listen because I had streamed the audio to my hard disk.

I posted a comment, and invited people over here.

Tuesday 26 June 2007

Significant new media ... or pointless bloggery? (repost from other blog)

Andrew Keen has published (using 'old media') a book about the evils of new media: The Cult of the Amateur. Naturally he wants to promote it on the Today Programme:

Click here for streaming audio
(the relevant piece is at 21'09" into this 26'22" clip)*

Download RealPlayer here

Sorry, Mr Keen, the new media is here to stay. It has its faults, just like old media, but your bleating about 'authority' and 'editors' won't make it go away. It's the lack of the old kind of regulation that makes the new media so attractive to its users.

(More later, when I've had time to collate my thoughts on this important subject.)

Now that I've listened to the clip again, and had time to consider, here's my take (note that I've not read Mr Keen's book):

Historically, people have been less likely to question the authority of the old media than they are to question the authority of the new media. Now, they are savvy enough to know that just because something is on a web page doesn't necessarily mean it's true.

When people read stuff on blogs, or MySpace, or wherever, they know it has no built-in authority and will interpret what they read accordingly. Youngsters growing up with the new media are fully aware that they are free to create stuff themselves, and they are also aware of how much authority they themselves have in doing so (that is, none at all) so they are naturally inclined to question what they read.

As a result of this default mode of questioning, they're likely to apply the same critical thinking to all media, new and old -- which can only be a good thing.

If you ask people whether they believe everything they read in a traditionally printed newspaper, they'll likely say, "No, of course not." But until recently if you questioned what someone was telling you about a reported event, they're likely to have told you, "It's true, I read it in the Daily Such-&-Such."

Wikipedia is often brought up as an example of how the internet shouldn't be trusted, but Wikipedia's self-correcting mechanism ensures that its information is mostly reliable. Not completely, but mostly reliable. Just like Britannica, as a December 2005 report has shown.

One of Andrew Keen's objections to the new media is that it has 'zero value'. By which I suspect he means it's free, and therefore worthless. Aside from any frustrations he might have with being unable to monetize his own internet-based efforts, this is a particularly blinkered view. Something is only worth what you pay for it? Hard cash or you're not interested? Tell that to Google. Tell that to Scott Sigler.

Web 2.0 is not, as Brian Appleyard incorrectly states in this clip, to do with interactivity -- we had that to some degree in Web 1.0 -- it's mainly to do with the separation of form from content, which is what makes the creation of web-content so easy for the non-technical user. Web 2.0 is facilitating a medium that allows people to make themselves heard -- to communicate, to create, to think. Long may it continue.

*UPDATE: If the streaming audio is unavailable, download the mp3 of the clip from RapidShare here:

Monday 25 June 2007

One justice away...

This is really scary.

Edward Tabash gave this speech to members of the Center For Inquiry during a recent cruise in the Galapagos.


Here's the Q&A session:

I hadn't realised that the separation of church and state in America was so precarious. If the US becomes a theocracy in just a matter of months, what hope do we have of avoiding global holy war?

Sunday 24 June 2007

Only two episodes in and we're already way over the top (repost from other blog)

James Nesbitt is having great fun on BBC 1 at 9 pm Saturdays, in a completely over-the-top performance as Dr. Jackman -- a modern day Dr. Jekyll. It's a case of split personality, with extra features. For instance, when the good doctor changes into Mr. Hyde (yes, the villain chooses that name) he has enormous, not to say superhuman strength and incredible agility. And being set in modern times, the story incorporates a good deal of modern technology. But just when you think something is about to be explained, something else occurs to let you know that nothing is even remotely simple. Secrets abound, concerning almost every character in the story, so you really don't know where you are.

This series has the advantage of being written by Steven Moffat, who wrote the recent, very spooky Doctor Who episode Blink, as well as previous Who episodes, notably last year's wonderful The Girl in the Fireplace.

We've seen two episodes of Jekyll out of six, and so far it's been a roller-coaster of manic, gory fun. I hope it doesn't just fizzle out.

(As a companion piece to Jekyll, BBC Four has shown a one-off documentary, Ian Rankin Investigates: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which relates how Robert Louis Stevenson came to write the original.)

The four ages of sand and the alpha male monkey

Jason Rennie of The Sci Phi Show podcast recently posted a recording of an off-the-cuff talk given by Douglas Adams at the Digital Biota 2 conference in 1998. The talk was called "Is there an Artificial God?" and you can find it, along with Jason's introduction, here. The audio is a little hard to hear, but Jason also linked to Biota's transcription of Adams' talk.

Using his "four ages of sand" structure Adams explored how the first notions of a supreme being might have arisen as part of human evolution, and how an artificial god might not be such a bad idea. Well worth a listen/read for his typically skewed but insightful take on such things.

Not content with alerting us to this gem, however, Jason went on to devote two subsequent episodes of The Sci Phi Show to a discussion of Adams' talk with Matt Arnold (who recently co-hosted Jason's podcast) and linked to Matt's explanation of the Alpha Male Monkey concept, which they discussed in the show.

Engaging stuff -- I recommend it.

Friday 15 June 2007

Repost: Patrick McLean's The Seanachai: "Blame Abraham"

Here's another repost from my other blog, this one from August 2006.

Reposted from:

I've been a fan of The Seanachai for quite some time. Patrick McLean's short podcasts are little gems of mastery -- beautifully written, expertly delivered and flawlessly produced. Mostly he does serialized fiction; I particularly enjoyed his story about the man who shot his guitar.

But occasionally Patrick does a one-off commentary, and his latest, "Blame Abraham" cuts right through all the nonsense, spin and partisan hype surrounding the current Middle-Eastern crisis.

Listen to it. And then share it.

I feel cheated (repost from other blog)

This may or may not be fair, but nevertheless I feel cheated.

I have subscribed to "Locus: the magazine of the science fiction & fantasy field" for several years. The magazine is sent to me from beyond the pond, by sea mail. Consequently I get each issue weeks after its publication date, but at a reasonable rate -- a rate further reduced by subscribing for two years at a time.

And then this turns up in my inbox:
Dear International Subscriber,

We value you as a subscriber and hope you are enjoying your magazine subscription. Earlier this year, the US Postal Service announced they would be raising their rates. With this rate increase came major unannounced changes to their entire International rate structure. International surface mail (sea mail) and international periodicals mail were discontinued. Without those two mailing services, we can only fulfill subscriptions by airmail.

These changes affect your subscription and all of our other international surface mail subscribers. We will be converting all our surface mail subscriptions to airmail. Current Canadian and Mexican subscribers will lose one issue from their periodical rate subscriptions. Our current International surface mail subscribers will receive two airmail issues for every three remaining surface mail issues. If you have any questions, or would prefer to receive a refund of the remaining balance on your subscription, please let us know. Our rates will be going up for first class Canadian subscribers on July 1, 2007. If you renew before then, you will get the old rates.

We are sorry to have to make these changes, we hope you understand why the conversion is necessary, and we thank you for your continued support.

I don't know. I agreed to pay for two years in advance on the understanding that I was securing 24 issues at the then current rate. I appreciate that Locus could not have foreseen the end of sea mail. But suppose there's a hike in the cost of paper, or printing, or another increase in airmail postage -- will they feel able to charge me for those as well, on my current subscription? If so, what's the point of paying two years (or more) in advance?

I haven't done the sums, but I hope the offer of cancellation doesn't mean I'll have paid more for the issues I've already received than I originally agreed to.

Not that I will necessarily opt for cancellation. As I say, I haven't done the sums.

Monday 11 June 2007

Let them down gently

James Randi's latest Swift commentary has this piece about Street Light Interference:

It reminded me of something I read recently while browsing the JREF forums, concerning an applicant for the million dollar challenge:

Marcus Tisdale, a 19-year-old student, applied for the challenge in January 2006, claiming that he could control street lights "by paranormal or otherwise unknown circumstances."

What struck me about the email exchange was not the claim itself, or the conviction of the applicant that he was able to do this thing, but the sensitivity with which Kramer dealt with the application: "Perhaps the answer you seek is simpler than the one you have imagined."

Occam's Razor, yet again.

Saturday 9 June 2007

Potter's witchcraft - a threat after all?

I used to think that the Christian outcry against Harry Potter was just plain silly. I've said as much online. More recently though, I've come to the conclusion that Christians are right to be concerned. J K Rowling's blockbuster series could indeed be a serious threat to religious belief. Children who read about Harry's exploits may eventually come to realise that the events depicted have about as much basis in fact as those in certain other books they are being asked to take seriously.

So perhaps the religious uprising against Harry Potter should be welcomed. At least it should prompt people to think about what they are being told to believe.

My own prompting for this post was this article at Guardian Unlimited:

"Teaching assistant quit in protest at Harry Potter",,2098322,00.html

Friday 8 June 2007

Who are the lucky ones? (repost from other blog)

We are. That is, those of us lucky enough to be within broadcast reception range of BBC1 television at 7:10 on Saturday evening.

I've waxed ecstatic previously on this blog about the spin-off series Torchwood, and now I can do the same about its 'parent', Doctor Who.

Doctor Who? Kid's programme, innit? Maybe so, but it has all the ingredients of ideal family viewing -- something for the kids, something for the grown-ups. The latest series (number three of the 'reincarnated' version), with David Tennant really getting into his stride as the Doctor, and Freema Agyeman in her first series as his not-so-ditsy companion, has shown us some impressive spectacles, including the strangely art deco Daleks in a decidedly art deco New York, as well as the Bard of Avon in mischievous mode.

But the zenith of series three so far for me has been the two-parter that concluded last week: "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood". Scripted by novelist Paul Cornell (who adapted his Doctor Who book Human Nature), these two episodes reveal characterization to a much greater depth than previously seen, and reinforce the notion that I've always felt about great science fiction -- that it tells us more about how we live our lives in the present, than how we might live in the future. Not that this particular story was about the future, despite the tantalizing glimpses of times that might have come to pass for some of the characters.

The Doctor is being pursued by the Family of Blood -- a group in search of a Time Lord for its own nefarious purposes -- and the only way he can evade detection is to become completely human. And he does so in a pre-First-World-War English public school, leaving Martha to look after not only herself, but his own Time-Lordly essence. When, at the beginning, he asks her if she trusts him, he's really asking himself if he trusts her.

Despite its historical setting, this story exhibits well-known SF tropes, such as an invisible space-ship, time travel (of course) and (hooray!) ray guns. (Or should that be hooray guns...?)

I'll not risk spoilers here, as I know that there are people not as lucky as those of us in the British Isles; impoverished souls who have yet to relish these episodes, condemned to wait until their local TV networks deign to show the latest series, and therefore reduced to squinting disjointedly at blocky YouTube fragments, or ploughing through online directories purporting not actually to host anything at all (apart from dubious thumbnail images that predominate in an excess of exposed skin).

For those less fortunate, but willing to search, may I suggest that entering such terms as "Doctor Who Human Nature Family of Blood" will harvest a veritable torrent of results.

Oh my, you have a treat in store.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan reads from his book Pale Blue Dot

Church to impose 'rule book' of beliefs

This from the Sunday Telegraph (2007JUN03):

The bishops' paper warns that in order to preserve the unity of the Church, those who do not conform to a more prescriptive statement of faith will be "forced out".

I appreciate that this is probably the Telegraph's journalistic interpretation, but it still left me wondering about the logic of trying to counter disunity by ... enforcing disunity.

And anyway, doesn't the Church of England already have a 'rule book'? (I think King James had something to do with it....)

Saturday 2 June 2007

Apple TV: useful at last? (repost from other blog)

Steve Jobs gave tantalizing glimpses of some Apple related things, and remained tight-lipped about others, in this interview with Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal's D Conference (via Podcasting News).

The stuff about Apple TV is what interests me. To date I've remained unconvinced that Apple TV would be useful to me (see my previous rant here). But now that Apple TV is offering YouTube browsing, I hope that this signals further developments that might make it more useful to me. Apple have announced a fatter version of Apple TV with a 160 GB hard disk, so this does seem likely.

But what I need to know, before even considering buying one of these, either fat or thin, is this: will the Apple TV work with a monitor rather than a widescreen TV? I can't justify the purchase of a widescreen TV, but I do have a 19" widescreen computer monitor with a DVI input. This works with my Panasonic DVR using an adapter cable (HDMI to DVI) and it works with my MacBook using the same cable plus Apple's adapter. It seems reasonable to suppose that this set-up would work with Apple TV, but I don't know.


The Bill O'Reilly Delusion

A few seconds into this clip I couldn't believe my ears. The interview with Richard Dawkins that O'Reilly refers to is the one I linked to here.

Direct link to YouTube video:

No, Bill, you didn't 'beat' Dawkins, and if you honestly think you did then you weren't listening to what he said.

Scotland on the way to theocracy?

BBC Radio 4 Today (Thursday, May 31):

"The head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Patrick O'Brien, will today warn Catholic politicians they can't remain full members of the church if they support abortion. We speak to the Bishop of Paisley."

Piece starts 18'18" into the clip (duration approx 4'10")

Download RealPlayer here

We don't have separation of Church and State here in Britain, so I suppose this kind of thing is to be expected.

Creation Museum

BBC Radio 4 Today (Thursday, May 31):

"If you want to see a reconstruction of Noah's Ark - complete with boarding dinosaurs - then head to the American state of Kentucky to a newly-opened museum devoted to creationism, the belief in the literal truth of the biblical account of how life came to exist."
Piece starts 18'52" into the clip (duration approx 4'32")

Download RealPlayer here

It couldn't happen here in Britain . . . could it?

Redefining meaning?

There's an argument that says that without God, life has no meaning. Some of us actually embrace this as a great liberation. If life has no meaning we are free to imbue it with any meaning we wish. This, however, doesn't satisfy those whose faith demands meaning imposed from above. If you deny that life has intrinsic meaning, they say, and maintain that meaning imposed by God is a myth, inventing meaning in its place is surely equally mythical.

For me, this misunderstands the kind of thing that 'meaning' -- in this context -- is. Meaning in life is not, as some would have it, a kind of goal, or purpose, or ideal end target. To say that life has meaning does not necessarily imbue it with externally imposed direction or intention, and neither does inventing your own meaning. Life just is. What you do with it is your affair.

Meaning in life is not so much a property that it possesses, more a declaration of those who live it.

In a hypothetical conversation between three umpires about strikes in baseball, Umpire 1 says, "I call 'em as they are." Umpire 2 says, "I call 'em as I see 'em." Umpire 3 says "They ain't nothin' till I call 'em." This illustrates the difference between attempting to perceive something that's already there, and acknowledging that some properties don't actually exist at all. Umpire 3 is not claiming flawless perception of objective reality as Umpire 1 is, nor is he admitting imperfect perception of reality, as Umpire 2 is. Umpire 3 is saying that this particular reality doesn't exist until he says it does. That, after all, is his job.

(Incidentally I put some of this worldview speculation into my very first published short story, "The Journey of Jonathan Cave" -- initially published on line at Alien Q, subsequently read on my podcast The Rev Up Review, then re-recorded for publication in Mur Lafferty's audio anthology Voices: New Media Fiction, available for free at

The concept of 'meaning' in life is a bit like the concept of evolution. Saying 'survival of the fittest' is not to say that the overall grand purpose of evolution is to weed out those less fit. Evolution doesn't have a grand purpose. It just is. If it does tend to weed out those less fit to survive and reproduce in prevailing environmental conditions, this says nothing about whether it's a good or bad thing. Morality doesn't come into it. It's simply the way the mechanism of evolution works.

Your life has no meaning until you say it does. That's your job.

Tuesday 29 May 2007

Redefining faith

You thought faith was defined as 'belief without evidence'? Think again...

According to JP Holding in a recent interview with Jason Rennie of The Sci Phi Show podcast, faith is actually more like 'loyalty':

Audio here: (about 19 minutes)

It's easy to counter arguments if you simply redefine the terms...

Jason interviewed PZ Myers recently as well, and they talked briefly about The God Delusion. I wouldn't recommend it as the audio quality is abysmal (poor phone line?). But if you're still curious, have a good pair of ears and a quiet place to listen, the audio is here:

Sunday 27 May 2007

My problem with God

Since my rejection of the God Hypothesis -- at age 14 or 15 -- I had, and still have, one major problem with the whole business of religion (and Christianity in particular, but that's probably because I was brought up Anglican).

My mother wanted me to be confirmed as a member of the Church of England. I had in previous years shown signs of a religious turn of mind, though I don't think her insistence that I went to Sunday School had much to do with that. Mum has herself been a Sunday School teacher, and so I was sent to the Sunday School at our local Methodist church, which took place after the church service. We were an Anglican family, but my parents didn't like the local Anglican church as it was too 'high'. It was also farther away.

I don't think Sunday School had any effect on me whatever. I can remember only three things about it. The first, and most lasting, is that there was an older boy in the group whose presence there seemed quite incongruous, as he was an obnoxious bully.

The second thing I remember was a temporary teacher we had one Sunday who, after the 'lesson' (of which, naturally, I remember not a thing) he attempted to be 'matey' with us by asking if we'd been watching anything good on 'telly' -- a slang word for TV that my parents abhorred. I remember being quite shocked (yes, I was that prissy back then).

The third memory is of an actual lesson. Maybe because it was in the form of allegory the lesson has stuck with me. It was a story about some crabs, who went to special classes every Sunday to learn how to walk forwards instead of sideways. With practice these crabs became quite good at walking forwards. But their teacher discovered that during the rest of each week they continued to walk sideways, only walking forwards during their Sunday lessons, and she admonished them for not taking their new expertise into their everyday lives.

And that's it. With some suitable prodding I could perhaps remember something else about my Sunday School classes (which seemed to go on for years and years), but for now that's all I can recall. Eventually I stopped going. I don't remember what prompted the end of my attendance.

It was much later that my mother suggested I be confirmed, which caused me to voice the doubts that had surfaced gradually since I stopped going to Sunday School. Nevertheless I agreed to attend 'catechism class' one-on-one with our local vicar.

It became fairly clear to me during my confirmation classes that my doubts about the existence of an all-powerful, all-seeing, invisible supreme being who could hear my thoughts were not going to be refuted by anything the vicar was likely to say to me. The clincher was his woolly-minded agreement to confirm me even after I told him that nothing he had said to me or given me to read had lessened my doubts. I politely declined his offer.

But I wanted to believe. The vicar's inability to provide a sound reason (such as, for instance, evidence) for belief in God left me with the conviction that clerics were not best placed to provide rational arguments and I should look to philosophy. So I read Descartes. He seemed to be promising a reasoned proof of the existence of God, and I was quite impressed by his methodology. His argument, however, stank. And so I moved on. But every 'proof' I encountered from then on was no such thing, only making me surer than ever that the whole God-thing was a man-made artefact conjured out of an understandable fear of the unknown.

I'd thought about the question a great deal. I'd done some research. I considered that I'd given the God Hypothesis a fair hearing, and it had failed to deliver. That, I thought, was the end of it.

But it wasn't. There remained this one problem. I don't pretend to be a great philosophical thinker. My research wasn't exhaustive. So I don't consider that I've covered every aspect of whether or not God exists. But I do consider that I investigated the question sufficiently enough to come to a conclusion, a conclusion with sufficient probability of being correct -- of being true.

The problem that remains is this. With moderate thinking and rudimentary research I came to a conclusion that I think anyone would come to if they had done the same. Yet millions continue to believe (or at least say they believe) in the existence of God. Not only that, but they also subscribe to some very specific and often idiotic notions about this supposed deity. Just look at scripture and you'll find some very weird things. Which scripture you look at doesn't really matter, but that brings me to the next absurdity. Which particular set of idiotic notions do you subscribe to if you're of a religious bent? They can't all be right, because they patently contradict each other.

It's not just the millions of believers that cause me concern, it's also the smaller number among my family, acquaintances and colleagues. They appear to hold beliefs about the nature of existence, the nature of the universe, the nature of physical reality, that are fundamental to how one conducts oneself in life. How can you expect to have a rational conversation -- about anything -- with someone who believes things that are so obviously irrational?

I do wonder how many professed Anglicans actually believe in the personal God of the Bible. I even wonder if Archbishop Rowan Williams believes in the personal God of the Bible. As the established church, the Church of England seems to me such a watered-down version of faith -- as if those who write 'C of E' on their census forms have less conviction than those who write 'Jedi Knight'.

There's not much chance of finding out, either. 'Faith' in England is seen as a personal matter, not to be discussed in polite society (except maybe on Sunday, at church, and then only on special dispensation, with a kind of hesitant apology). And yet the established church pervades UK society, nonetheless. Tune in to the BBC's Today Programme on Radio 4 every weekday and you'll hear Thought For The Day, which more often than not is an irrelevant collection of platitudes laced with the arrant nonsense of some kind of professed faith.

I'm glad we're at last seeing some attempt to expose the irrational aspects of faith. The publication of Richard Dawkins' bestseller The God Delusion has brought media attention to those who do not believe in God, and it has given discussion of atheism much-needed perceived legitimacy. Such discussion in the UK has generally been fairly mild, in comparison to some truly awful TV discussions in the US that you can find on YouTube -- especially those broadcast on Fox. Cringe-making for other reasons is this brief interview of Richard Dawkins by Bill O'Reilly of Fox News:

Direct link to YouTube video:

Professor Dawkins does well not to grab his interviewer warmly by the throat in an attempt to throttle some sense into him.

(One of the things I find particularly annoying about debates between atheists and theists -- especially the evangelical Christian kind of theists -- is the evangelists' fall-back position. After unsuccessfully attempting to debate atheists using various invalid arguments, such as the Argument from Personal Experience, or the Argument from Design, the evangelist will say something like this: "All you need to do is accept the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Saviour -- then you will be given all the proof you need." It's a sort of trap. Accept something without evidence. Believe it. Then you will be given proof. But of course at that stage you're already a believer. What need have you of proof? That is the very definition of faith. It's also a delusion.)

Tuesday 22 May 2007

Theological truth is too deep for the likes of us

From a week ago (this is a bit of 'catch up' to help initiate the new blog):

Thought for the Day for 17 May on BBC Radio 4 was another example of 'theology being too intellectually demanding for popular criticism.' The Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney, starts off with a self-deprecating anecdote, but by the end of this abstruse three minutes and fifteen seconds it's clear that he reveres theology as the ultimate intellectual endeavour.
(Thought for the Day starts about 16'50" in.)

Download RealPlayer here, or read the transcript, from which the following is excerpted:
What about the sort of truth that's less about accuracy and more about the call to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more. Faith, for me at least, is so much more about this order of truth, than the question of whether my opinions are merely correct.
He seems to be saying, "What about the sort of truth that...isn't true?"
Which is why I think the best theology is always pausing and stuttering, always not quite able to express itself, always mounting unsuccessful raids on the unspeakable.
Quite. I think I get it now: theology is about the kind of truth that transcends 'mere' correctness -- the kind of truth that doesn't actually have to be true. Fine, just don't expect to have a rational discussion about it any time soon. (I've got this pinhead here, and according to what I can see through my magnifying glass I'm an angel short....)

Repost: "Another Out" (from the forum)

It's been a few months since I discovered, but it didn't take me long to add the site to my newsreader, and not much longer to register for the discussion forum (though to be honest I haven't been very active there). But I did make a 'new visitor' post, and was delighted with the welcome I found. For anyone reading the posts here at Evil Burnee who is curious how I came to my present position on the issue of faith, I can do no better than repost my first message (from 17 December 2006) on the forum.

Reposted from:

After years of silent scepticism (mostly out of 'respect' for close family members who profess religious belief in varying degrees) I've become more and more appalled by what is perpetrated throughout the world in the name of faith.

Though I was brought up as 'Anglican' I harboured doubts about the whole business of God and faith, until it became time for me to be 'confirmed'. For me this was rather late, at age 14 or 15 (I don't remember exactly when), but I was doing physics and chemistry at school, and was aware of some incompatibility with what I was being asked to believe. But I dutifully went each week to our local vicar for one-on-one 'catechism classes' -- with the result that each week I became more and more confirmed in my belief that it was all bunk. Our vicar was patient with me, and attempted to answer my queries and counter my doubts. But it was clear to me by then that I could not in all honesty declare a belief I didn't have.

So I consider my confirmation classes a success -- in convincing me that my doubts were legitimate, and freeing me from the skygod's oppression. From then on I was happy to apply reason and logic to any of life's problems, without recourse to a supernatural overseer. But it was a private matter; I saw no reason to declare my rejection of unquestioning faith. Those who know me are aware of my thinking on this, but I don't tout it around.

I wonder just how many of us -- closet atheists -- there are.

I watched Jonathan Miller's TV series A Brief History of Unbelief when it was first broadcast, but only recently have I been able to see the second part of Richard Dawkins' Root of All Evil? I was aware of Dawkins' views (I remember seeing the broadcast of his Richard Dimbleby lecture, and cringing as he talked of spoon-benders while the camera cut to another Dimbleby in the audience), and I shared the unease others have expressed at his 'militancy'.

I'm now about two thirds through The God Delusion, and I now see that what I thought of as militancy is actually a healthy disrespect for blind faith, and I agree that from holy wars to religious schools, it's time to make our views known, to counter the tacit assumptions about the 'sanctity' of religious belief.

My awareness that there was any kind of organised collection of like-minded people in this sphere came when I discovered Derek & Swoopy's Skepticality podcast. Now I also listen each week to the Point of Inquiry podcast, and have recently subscribed to Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines.

Coming across The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has been the latest discovery in a refreshingly eye-opening journey.

A theory with the intelligence designed out

Reposted from:

While many of us in Britain have looked on in horrified fascination at the Intelligent Design debate currently in full swing in America, we may have become a little complacent that something like it is unlikely to happen here. But slowly, insidiously, it is happening here. Supporters of Intelligent Design are attempting to have Intelligent Design taught in UK school science classes. Search around a bit and you'll find plenty of evidence for this (though none for the theory itself).

I maintain that Intelligent Design -- as promulgated by such organisations as the dishonestly-named Truth in Science -- isn't actually a theory. Any argument that attempts to 'explain' observed phenomena by invoking a supernatural entity, about which we can know nothing, isn't explaining anything.

The ID-ists' arguments, when challenged by those who back evolution as a science-based or evidence-based theory, seem to be a combination of the following:
  1. "You say ID is based on faith, but so is evolution. Evolution is based on assumptions about 'the unobservable past', and is therefore not scientific -- not susceptible to observation and experiment."
  2. "You say that ID cannot admit of evidence because a theory that is faith-based springs from the pre-supposition that there is a creator/designer. But evolution is based on the pre-supposition that there isn't a designer."
These arguments appear to be attempts to place ID on an equal footing with evolutionary theory. But is seems to me that in order to assess the equality of these views one must look at the reasons for the respective pre-suppositions (if you accept that they are pre-suppositions).

On what basis can one 'pre-suppose' that
  1. there is a creator, or
  2. there is no creator?
(Note that these are mutually exclusive.)

Even if you find no evidence for a creator, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But as Richard Dawkins lucidly demonstrates in The God Delusion, the existence of a creator is extremely improbable.

The ID-ists' tactics more often than not are to try to turn the evolutionist argument back on the evolutionists, without actually answering any of the evolutionists' criticisms. It's a tactic that can be effective -- until recognised, when it becomes obviously transparent.

This table-turning is likely to happen to the argument about 'Middle World' perceptions, which explains why so much of modern scientific thinking seems to go against common sense. An ID-ist's attempt at refutation might go something like this: "Just as our middle world perception cannot comprehend the very large or the very small, it also cannot comprehend the very transcendence of the other-worldly -- such as God. A rational approach to theism, therefore, is simply not valid."

The very large and the very small, however, are susceptible to rational analysis, whatever our common-sense perceptions tell us, whereas the transcendence of a creator is not, remaining an assertion of faith, without evidence.

Intelligent Design isn't a theory -- it's an intellectual cop-out.

Time to stand up and be counted

Okay. I appreciate that some people don't care to read about politics and/or religion, especially if they're expecting some geeky tech-rant. So that's why I've split off my posts about belief, or the lack thereof. You can still find my opinions on technology and other stuff over at, but anything to do with crazee fundees, creationism, secular humanism, scepticism (British English will pervade here, note) and rationality will appear on this new blog, to be known as Evil Burnee (because, you know, I'll surely roast in hell).

I shan't remove any of my previous posts on these subjects from witteringon, but I will repost them here.

Saturday 12 May 2007

Never thought I'd see the day... (repost from other blog)

I've read the UK edition of Computer Shopper from the very first issue, when it came on saddle-stapled newsprint and cost only 50p. Since the passing of all those fondly remembered home computers such as the ubiquitous BBC Micro and Sinclair Spectrum, and the not-so-ubiquitous Oric, Memotech and (one for the uber-geeks) Jupiter Ace, Shopper became -- and has remained -- PC-centric.

So it was with surprise bordering on disbelief that I spied this page of buying advice in the latest (July 2007) issue:

Look at that recommended PC in the bottom right-hand corner. If you think your eyes are deceiving you, here's a blow-up:

Yes, it's a Mac.

Monday 23 April 2007

This tech stuff is too hard (repost from other blog)

I use three computers on a regular basis. My PC is a full-tower monster with two hard disk drives and two DVD rewriters. It's not new, and over the past few months it's been giving me grief (other than the usual...). But that didn't matter too much, as I've been enjoying using my MacBook since last June. I also have a G4 Mac mini, which was my introduction to OS X and the modern Mac. (I've had a second-hand MacPlus for a few years, complete with maxed-out RAM -- all four megabytes of it -- and the legendary programmer's switch, just to prove my genuine geekness.)

I have only one printer in use, an Epson Stylus Photo R300, and until last weekend it was connected to the PC. But as I said, the PC has been giving me grief -- refusing to boot until the box had been powered up for five minutes or so, and even then shutting down a second or two after turning on. Sometimes it didn't shut down, but just sat there shouting at me (yes, really, the damn thing actually spoke -- something about CPU test failure). Other times it would begin its boot-up sequence but then stop with an 'overclocking failure'. This I could cope with, simply going into the BIOS settings and immediately saving and exiting -- it would then boot up okay.

But as you can imagine, this was getting to be a pain, especially when I wanted to print something. The PC is on my home network, and that's how I printed stuff from the Macs. Recently the PC has refused to boot up at all, and I've had to wait until the next day. I had already done some research to establish what the problem was, and had decided that the most likely culprit was the power supply. My PC has a good ASUS motherboard and a decent graphics card, but the manufacturer really skimped on some other components. The keyboard and mouse were utterly repellent. I replaced the keyboard within a week and the mouse within a month. It seems the PSU was a similarly cheap unit, and replacing it with a Jeantech 600W unit completely solved the boot-up problems.

So I could again print relatively easily from anywhere on the network using the shared printer connected to the PC. But if the PC wasn't on, I had to wait for XP to start before anything appeared on paper. I had already looked at print servers some time ago, and nothing seemed suitable (or reasonably priced) until I noticed that Linksys made a USB Print Server with a 4-port Ethernet switch, which looked like a good deal. I read some reviews on Amazon and elsewhere that made me think twice -- especially the point about the status monitor not working, which would mean you could run out of ink and not know which one of the six cartridges to change. I then found the manual on the Linksys website, in which it was pointed out that it's in the nature of network printing that two-way communication with the printer is lost -- it's not specific to Linksys.

During the course of my deliberations the printer did run out of ink when I was printing from the MacBook, and I realised that because the R300 has a small LCD status screen, the software status monitor isn't strictly necessary.

I decided to risk the purchase of the print server, given its price. It installed okay, using the supplied setup CD on the PC, and it worked fine printing from the PC.

There's no Mac software provided, but how hard can it be? Answer: very hard.

Following Apple's guidelines for installing a network printer did not work. The best I could get was page after page of Postscript commands. Other times I ended up with page after page of garbage. Trawling various forum posts, and the aforementioned Amazon reviews again, led me to believe that very few users had managed to make this thing -- the Linksys PSUS4 USB PrintServer -- work with Macintosh.

However -- and this is the purpose of this post -- I did get it to work, from both the MacBook and the G4 Mac mini, and here's how to do it:

It shouldn't be necessary to use the Linksys setup CD, as the PrintServer has a web interface accessible from a browser, but I'm assuming your setup is similar to mine (Windows XP PC and Macintosh OS X Version 10.4.9 on a home network using a wireless ADSL router). Here's what to do:
  1. Install the PrintServer according to the Linksys instructions, using the supplied setup CD on the PC.
  2. Using the Linksys utility change the PrintServer to static IP addressing, choosing a suitable address within the subnet.
  3. On the Mac, open the Print & Fax system preferences pane.
  4. Click the '+' button to add a printer.
  5. At the top of the Printer Browser window, click 'IP Printer'.
  6. In Protocol, select 'Line Printer Daemon - LPD'.
  7. In Address, type in the static IP address you chose for the PrintServer, such as ''. While you type, the Printer Browser will verify that you have typed a valid address.
  8. In Queue, type 'lpd'.
  9. You'll find that the IP address has been entered into the Name field. You can change this to something more meaningful.
  10. Location can be left blank.
  11. In Print Using, select the make of your printer from the list, then select the actual model of your printer from the model list, and click 'Add'.
  12. Close the Printer Setup Utility.
(I'm not certain all the above steps are absolutely necessary, but they worked for me.)

You should now have the network printer on the list when you next want to print something from the Mac. For me, this has worked on both the MacBook (Intel) and the Mac mini (G4 PowerPC). I can't vouch for any other set-up, but reading the tales of woe in the Amazon reviews has prompted me to make this post, to show that it can be done.

Saturday 3 March 2007

Tech, TV, Apple, DivX (repost from other blog)

I was fascinated when Steve Jobs announced the Apple TV. I like the idea of watching on TV media that has so far been confined to my computer.

There appear, however, to be a number of snags.
  • First, my TV is an old Toshiba 4:3 CRT with SCART and phono sockets. No way would the Apple TV interface to it without an expensive conversion box of some kind. But what about a widescreen LCD computer monitor? -- these can be quite cheap, even with a DVI input, and Apple are already selling reasonably priced HDMI-to-DVI cables. That might work. Maybe.
  • Second, some of the media I'd like to watch on my TV is intended for Windows Media Player, and I've installed various codecs into QuickTime so that I can watch this stuff on my MacBook. Couldn't I install these codecs on the Apple TV's internal hard disk? Highly unlikely. (I could transcode the files so that they play in standard QuickTime, but the idea is to make them easier to watch, not more difficult.)
But I've found a way to watch .avi files on my old Tosh TV.

Last week I bought from a local Argos Extra store, for £29.99, a Bush DVD2054DIVX DVD-player. So far it's played every .avi file I've tried in it, and I also found on the web a remote-hack to convert it to multi-region. It not only plays all my region 1 and region 2 DVDs, and my .avi files (whether on CD-R or DVD-R), but also mp3s and jpegs.

The 2054 is not listed in the current Argos catalogue or on the website. I went to the store to buy the 2051, which has an entirely different, compact form-factor. The 2054, however, is the conventional width, and fits better with other equipment. They told me when I paid that it might have 'some cosmetic differences.'

"Fine," I said, "as long as it does DivX."