Friday 31 July 2009

Burnee Links for Friday

Burnee!The Case for God: What Religion Really Means by Karen Armstrong review | Non-fiction book reviews - Times Online

Torchwood’s John Barrowman bashes bishop over homophobic remarks - Freethinker

State of Protest - Rational Activism at Work
Congress, on Monday July 13, 2009, passed what’s been nicknamed the “Critique Bill.” It’s currently before President Obama, and there is no indication that he will veto the controversial bill. The bill, officially titled the “Artistic Expression Protection Act,” would make it illegal to criticize works of art…
That's pretty scary, but it gets worse:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown of England, on the other hand, expressed dismay that the bill was not inclusive enough to be effective. “Generations from now,” he said, “they will look back upon this day not as a positive precedent, but, instead, as an embarrassment. Imagine having to pass a new law each and every time one can imagine a particular person’s point of view could be offended. That’s incredibly inefficient and a waste of resources, and England would have no such thing.”

When asked what he meant by that, the Prime Minister shrugged and responded, “Our government will be foregoing the tedium and needling of individual, overly-specific instances of offense, and will be, instead, covering all potential offenses with a blanket law protecting everyone’s right not to be offended, not just artists.”3 His statement substantiated recent rumors that Britain was on the verge of passing yet another set of surveillance-style laws meant to protect its citizens from themselves.

BHA - Humanists welcome new hope for 'Thought for the Day'
I'll believe it when I see it. The BBC would have to perform a complete about face to allow a non-religious viewpoint on TftD (see this post for more).

New hope for an end to religious monopoly on Thought for the Day | National Secular Society (As above, see this post for more.)

Discovery Space: Twisted Physics: In Praise of Insignificance
Jennifer Ouelette blogs about her TAM 7 experience

Sam Harris on Collins' appointment : Pharyngula

Camp faithless: Is Britain's first atheist summer camp harmless fun or should we be worried? | Mail Online (Yes, it's harmless fun. No, we shouldn't be worried.)

The Huffington Post is crazy about your health | Salon

“We are more possible than you can powerfully imagine” – Bad Science

Why You Should Lie To Your Children | Friendly Atheist by Hemant Mehta

Monday 27 July 2009

Thoughts on the Thunderf00t - Ray Comfort discussion

After some ignominious shenanigans concerning his (surely not serious) request for a $100,000 honorarium (payable to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, no less), Ray Comfort took up Thunderf00t's offer of a recorded discussion. Here is the result - 90 minutes of YouTube video well worth watching.

(via The Atheist Blogger, from whom I also nicked the playlist embed code)

Some random thoughts after viewing:

Ray Comfort doesn't understand evolution - this is clear from his failure to engage in the basic concepts. He says he doesn't believe evolution is true (elsewhere he repeatedly describes it as "a fairy tale for grownups"), but if he doesn't understand it he's attacking a straw man - whatever he thinks evolution is, rather than what it actually is.

Given what he's said (and published), this isn't surprising, but it raises an interesting parallel with his own reasons for believing in God. During his discussion with Thunderf00t he mentioned that there was much in the Bible that he didn't understand until he accepted Jesus Christ into his heart as his personal Saviour. Relative to this he's previously stated that the evidence for the existence of God is available to everyone - all they need to do is do as he did: open their hearts to the Lord.

Atheists who have honestly tried this route, without the promised revelation, are told they're obviously doing it wrong. This is a self-fulfilling/defeating prophecy - just like the mediaeval dunking stool used to test witches. Any suspected witch who uses her craft to survive the test is proven guilty and shall not be suffered to live. If she drowns she was clearly innocent - no powers, no witch, and she will be set free to live her life in peace, unmolested. Unfortunately she's already dead.

With most atheists the "you're doing it wrong!" excuse understandably won't wash - it's a "heads I win/tails you lose" kind of reasoning.

Ray's argument in this part of the discussion also seemed equivalent (though with less sophistication) to the reasons given by theologians who object to Richard Dawkins' refutation of "simplistic" theism. A theologian will claim (with suitable snootiness) that the religion Dawkins attacks is "not my religion", and will then expound on some abstruse and intensely personal - but most importantly incomprehensible - faith (usually with profligate redefinition of terms), to the extent that the only other person who could share it is God. PZ Myers satirised this style of theology in his Courtier's Reply.

One could argue, however, that atheistic objections to theology are similar to creationists' simplistic objections to evolution. We complain that the likes of Ray Comfort have no real grasp of the principles of evolution, though they decry it as fictional. Conversely, many a theologian has complained that Richard Dawkins has no real grasp of theology, while at the same time he decries the subject as vacuous.

Of course, there is a crucial difference between the two disciplines. Evolution (by random genetic mutation and natural selection) is documented science that makes predictions (such as what we should expect to find in the fossil record) and so far its principles have not been disproved. In fact, each new discovery whether in genetics, paleontology or any other evolution-related field, has further confirmed evolutionary theory, to the extent that it is as near to a scientific fact as the theory of gravity. Theology, on the other hand, appears to be entirely made up. Theologians of a particular creed may agree on a core set of theological principles, but these result from consensus only, and cannot be falsified. This would be all fine and dandy for literary criticism, but for telling us anything at all about the real world, or the people in it, it's useless.

UPDATE 2009-08-02: A good summary of the discussion here:
Angry Astronomer: Ray Comfort vs. Thunderf00t

Saturday 25 July 2009

Maplin Electronics selling quack medical devices?

I popped down to my local Maplin Electronics store today. I needed a few odds and ends in the electronics line, and found them quickly, but as I usually do I allowed time to browse around the store for anything particularly interesting. I did find a Freeview PVR that apparently records to external USB drives, which I thought was neat, though expensive at about £50 (considering it comes without storage). But that's by the by.

While browsing I noticed something on display called an "eye massager". I didn't pay it much attention, though I did wonder if it physically touched your eyes in some way, or simply showed you some soothing pictures. Then I forgot about it.

I don't go to the Maplin shop very often, so I picked up a copy of their Spring/Summer 2009 catalogue as it usually contains lots of useful info on all kinds of electronics-related stuff. Back home I continued my browsing, but this time in more detailed, printed form. And what did I find on page 529, in the Health section of the catalogue?

The Eye Massager is also on the Maplin website, and I reproduce the entry for this device below:
Product Features
  • Ideal for users of computers, long distance drivers, equipment operators and students and office users alike
  • Helps ease tired eyes, including swollen, sore, dry and over-sensitive eyes
  • Aids sleep by relaxing the brain and the eyes to induce a state of deep relaxation
  • Music therapy by listening to the soothing sounds of nature
  • Improves poor circulation around the eyes
  • Various operation states, including anti-clockwise/clockwise movement, gentle, intermediate and strong effect and wave effect
  • Timer function allows you to set the required workout time
  • Intensity adjustment adjusts the vibration

Eye strain is common with people who use a computer for long periods of time, when reading, long-distance drivers and when concentrating, which can lead to headaches or even migraines. It makes you feels tired, lethargic and reduces concentration.

Using this eye massager regularly can ease the problems above, making your eyes feel rejuvinated and ready for the hours ahead.

Now, here’s the science behind it all. Magnetic field, in the form of physical energy, when applied on special acupuncture points, can activate the function of the cell, enlarge the blood capillary and raise the level of oxygen supply, improving the nutrition state of tissues of cells, and balance the self-disciplined nerves.

Applying the above theory, and combining the curing theory of channel acupuncture in traditional Chinese medicine, this product uses both the magnetic acupuncture and mechanical acupuncture to activate the important acupuncture points around the eyes and harmonise the blood, thus improving the adjustment functions of the eye muscles and the eye nerves.

The state of relaxtion is further enhanced through musical therapy as you listen to the soothing sounds of nature for a complete stimulating sensation.

Powered by 2 x AA batteries, supplied

Bulk Prices Quantity Price including VAT :
1 £17.99
10 £15.83
Notice the paragraph beginning, "Now, here's the science behind it all." This paragraph and the one after contain some of the most nonsensical woo-woo pseudoscience I've ever come across. It has been shown beyond any scientific doubt that acupuncture doesn't work - its effects are no more beneficial than the effects of placebo. I am not a doctor, but "self-disciplined nerves"? "Harmonise the blood"? Harmonise with what?

Maplin's website has a FAQ section in the description of their products, and someone named Mick has asked one:

Q- Will these eye massagers relieve a migraine too? - Mick

Answer- This would depend upon the type of migrane you had and the severity but yes this should work.

Pardon me for being sceptical, but isn't this a little irresponsible? There's no disclaimer on the page (web or print) regarding the medical qualifications of the person answering the question. Maybe the type of migraine that the eye massager will relieve is the type that is susceptible to placebo. But considering the popular interpretation of "migraine" is that of a severe, throbbing headache accompanied by nausea and disturbed vision, I doubt the device would have any effect at all.

Nevertheless, I'm willing to be proved completely wrong on this. If anyone has references to decent quality clinical trials, studies or surveys that show that this eye massager is anything other than electronic snake oil, please post them in the comments.

(One last point to ponder: if the device was as effective as Maplin claim, I'd expect it to cost more than £17.99.)

Monday 20 July 2009

Moon-hoaxer on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

BBC Radio Four's Today Programme this morning had a five-minute segment on what has become known as the "moon hoax". There are some people who don't believe that NASA sent men to the moon; they maintain that it was all a hoax, a massive special effect set on a sound stage somewhere.
"On the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, Marcus Allen, the British publisher of Nexus - a magazine which deals with the paranormal - and Professor Martin Ward, Head of physics at Durham University, discuss the conspiracy theories that have plagued this event."

Interesting to hear Marcus Allen, the moon-landing denier, maintain his denial about the specific things he raised (the excellent quality of the photographs taken by the astronauts in extremes of temperature, and the fact that their film wasn't fogged by radiation). Even after Martin Ward debunked those two "anomalies" with obvious ease, Allen stated, "You can dismiss the radiation, you can dismiss the temperature - these things still exist. Photographic film is affected by radiation."

At the beginning of this segment Allen said he hadn't seen the evidence for the moon-landings. Prof. Ward, in response to his specific points, presented the evidence, but the moon-landing denier refused to hear it.

If the BBC's flash player doesn't work for you, download the 1.2 Mb 5'06" mp3 from RapidShare:

Sunday 19 July 2009

Dr. Michael Schmidt-Salomon at Conway Hall

The BHA continues to make available videos of the talks given at the July June 6 one-day conference at Conway Hall, "Darwin, Humanism and Science". Here, Dr. Michael Schmidt-Salomon of Germany's Giordano-Bruno Foundation addresses the moral objections to evolution.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

A secular Thought for the Day? - I'll believe it when I see it

The BBC Trust is apparently considering calls for Thought for the Day to include non-religious speakers, and this morning the call was discussed on Today, the programme on which TftD airs:
"Christina Rees, a member of the Church of England's General Synod, and AC Grayling, a philosopher and atheist, discuss the future of Thought."
Christina Rees perpetuates the misunderstanding that godless people have nothing to offer in commentary on the ethical aspects of current affairs. She also seems to think that the call for TftD to be opened up to secular speakers is a call for theists to be excluded from the slot. What we are complaining about is that TftD is monopolised by theists, when there are equally valid non-theist viewpoints that are entirely appropriate for this brief segment of the Today Programme. It's called "Thought for the Day", not "Religious Thought for the Day", so I think our protests are valid.

The argument isn't new - it comes up every six months or so, is chucked around a bit, and then forgotten until the next time. I'll be very surprised if the BBC does an about face on this.

If the flash player doesn't work for you, download the mp3 from RapidShare:
(2.6 Mb, 5'34")


Perhaps there's hope after all. Check out this post by the National Secular Society:
New hope for an end to religious monopoly on Thought for the Day | National Secular Society

Tuesday 14 July 2009

James Williams at Conway Hall

Here's another of the talks given at the BHA's Darwin, Humanism & Science one-day conference I attended at Conway Hall on 6th June:

James Williams is doing essential work. Check out this recent Mail Online article, then read the comments the editors selected. There are obviously some out-and-out creationists in that group, but most of them appear to be from the United States.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Science is mocked: the presupposition of supernature

One of the recurring points of disagreement in intelligent atheist/theist debates is the presupposition regarding supernatural occurrences. Theists often say that the atheist is biased against supernatural occurrences because he or she does not believe they can happen, and is therefore ruling out the existence of God a priori - because God, by the most commonly accepted definition, would be a supernatural being capable of performing supernatural actions.

Conversely, the theist who believes in miracles is explicitly including the possibility of supernatural occurrences, and therefore (the argument goes) is actually more open-minded - ready to accept the claims of science and the claims of supernatural action.

But how does this work in practice? Is it reasonable for the atheist to rule out supernature? What if we accept that supernatural effects may, from time to time, occur - are these effects, occurrences, "miracles", bound by any laws, natural or otherwise? They are certainly not bound by the laws of science. If we accept miracles, where do we look to determine when and where they may or may not occur? It seems that miracles could only be bound by the whim of a supernatural being, who may or may not have written down (or caused to have been written down) some holy scripture in which these somewhat arbitrary whims are spelled out.

Personally, I don't believe in miracles. I've not personally seen any compelling evidence for miracles, and my understanding of the world I live in suggests to me that miracles are occurrences that by definition can't happen. Any investigation into what can and can't happen in any given set of circumstances must by definition give due consideration to what is possible, and by implication, what is impossible. If an investigation doesn't rule out supernatural occurrences, then in effect nothing whatever is ruled out. On what basis, therefore, can such an investigation proceed? This is a rhetorical question - I contend that in such circumstances no meaningful investigation can be carried out. For that reason I consider it justifiable to rule out supernatural occurrences, and if as a result I'm accused of making an a priori exclusion, I can only reply "guilty as charged."

In a discussion of the evidence for, say, the Resurrection of Christ, the arguments about who saw the empty tomb, or who conversed with Jesus after his death, become irrelevant, because if the Resurrection is true, all bets are off - anything is possible, and science is mocked. God could have implanted fake memories into people's brains, or performed any number of impossible actions - feats well within the capabilities of a supernatural being whose powers are essentially undefined, but which include the power to raise someone from the dead.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Burnee links for Sunday

A Lapsed Atheist Repeatedly Gets It Wrong | Friendly Atheist by Hemant Mehta

The god mob : Pharyngula

Atheism - Creation Ministries International
Much as I'm reluctant to be the cause of increased "Google juice" for a creationist website (that's why I'm using the "rel=nofollow" html tag with the above link) this very long article dated 11 June 2009 at Creation Ministries International, simply entitled "Atheism", is a comprehensive run-down of arguments for and against god-belief. It's highly biased - as you'd expect - but surprisingly useful to have all the fallacies and flawed arguments in one place.

Chiropractic evidence: The curious case of the missing study « Richard Wiseman’s Blog
A perfect illustration (in Richard Wiseman's typically non-judgmental but nonetheless quietly damning style) of why the woo artists can't be trusted when they talk about "evidence".

Why Do Atheists Have to Talk About Atheism? | | AlterNet

Salvation at the end of a television show - Hurriet DailyNews

Back 'cures', a brave scientist and an epic court battle: How Britain's libel laws are threatening free speech | Mail Online
The Daily Mail is famous for its campaigns - I'm reliably informed that this one is closely tied to the paper's abhorrence of bad verdicts from incompetent judges.

The curse of religion | AC Grayling | Comment is free |

Teach primary children evolution so they don't mistake Fred Flintstone for scientific fact | Mail Online
The gist of this article mirrors the general thrust of the lecture James Williams gave during the BHA's recent Darwin, Humanism & Science one-day conference at Conway Hall.
[UPDATE 2009-07-06: If you don't think creationism is a problem, just take look at some of the comments on the Mail article....]

The lure of Linux (repost from other blog)

I've had my MacBook for just over three years. Its AppleCare has now expired, though in the last six months I've been glad I shelled out the extra £200 for the cover. I ordered the MacBook a mere two weeks after Apple announced it (you can read about that elsewhere on this blog), and once it arrived I used it heavily ever since - it has become my main machine.

The MacBook has not been without problems. The WiFi sensitivity was phenomenal when I first used it, but over the months it deteriorated to the point where it became a serious pain, and I resorted to using powerline adaptors at home, while at work I had to shift the laptop around my office in order to connect to the wireless router downstairs.

Early on the MacBook suffered from the well-documented random shutdown problem, though this was relatively shortlived, being cured by a firmware update. The battery became unreliable, shutting off at about 20% without warning. This sounds in retrospect like a catalogue of serious defects, but unlike other technologies I'm used to, the MacBook didn't fail catastrophically. Rather, it exhibited that preferable mode of failure known as "graceful degradation" - most of what happened to it could be got around (such as by using powerline adapters instead of WiFi as mentioned above, or use of the mains power supply instead of the battery).

The last straw, however, was a defective touch-pad, which admittedly could have been got around by using a mouse. But by that time the cumulative problems, and the fact that less than six months of my AppleCare cover remained, prompted me to take the laptop in to be fixed. This was relatively painless, although it required two trips to the local (20 miles away) Apple Store. Repairs took about three days, and included a new battery and new top plate (keyboard and touch-pad). Although when I took the laptop in I was unable to demonstrate the poor WiFi performance (which typically reduced when it had been in use for 30 minutes or more) the WiFi seemed much improved after I got it back.

On the whole I was pleased with my AppleCare experience, even when the MacBook's WiFi did fail catastrophically a few months later, leaving me only days to get it fixed under warranty. In fact the laptop was out of warranty by the time I picked it up after it was fitted with a new Airport card.

Now, more than a month later, I'm typing this on a fully functioning first-generation MacBook that I've enjoyed using for over three years. When I bought it I expected it to be trashed by now; I knew it would get heavy use, and a three-year life-span for a laptop computer in constant use is pretty good.

What, however, has any of this to do with the title of this post, "The lure of Linux"?

Even though three years ago I switched from being a PC user who occasionally used a Mac, to a Mac user who occasionally used a PC, I've never nailed my colours wholeheartedly to any single platform. I have a cheap desktop PC that I intended to use as a dedicated Linux box but truth be told, it's not had much use. The problems with my MacBook, however, prompted me to consider what I would do when I eventually had to get it fixed. How would I connect away from home? I've also been conscious that the MacBook is not a cheap item - I'm wary of taking it anywhere where its security might be in doubt. And that's how I came to investigate netbooks - cheap and small notebook computers that allow computing and connecting on the move. I thought one of these would be the ideal portable backup solution.

I read reviews, and settled on the Acer Aspire One, which came in several configurations: Windows XP, or Linux, both with either a 120 Gb hard disk or 8 Gb solid state disk. Fortunately the cheapest option was also my preferred option: Linux, with a 120 Gb hard disk. I resolved to try out the supplied operating system, Linpus Lite (a version of Fedora Linux), on the understanding that I could replace it with the latest version of Ubuntu if I didn't like the supplied OS, in the knowledge that other people had successfully installed Ubuntu on the Aspire One.

Linpus Lite was indeed not to my liking, not least because I couldn't get it to see any of my network shares, and was reduced to shuffling files using a USB thumb drive (or by emailing them to myself!) - the Aspire One has no removable drive. So I downloaded and installed the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which worked well and allowed me to use the applications I'm used to: OpenOffice (I use NeoOffice on the MacBook), Firefox 3 with the indispensable Google Toolbar and the other Firefox plugins I'm used to, Thunderbird to access my Gmail using IMAP, Skype, VLC. I was even able to use iPlayer Downloader once I'd figured out how to install Ruby. This setup didn't work right away - there were some tweaks I had to perform in order to get the WiFi working in the first place, but these were documented in detail in the Ubuntu Wiki.

But the one thing I could not make work was YouTube. I tried all sorts of fixes, different plugins, but nothing worked, and I resigned myself to not having Flash Video working on my netbook.

So, it (mostly) worked - sufficiently for use as a mobile backup, though there are a couple of things that irk me about the Aspire One. A minor point is that the keyboard is small, so I tend to mistype frequently (though this may improve with extended use). The other is more critical, in that the battery life is poor - two hours if you're lucky. I understand that there is a higher capacity battery module available for the Aspire One, though I haven't seen it.

I read recently that there was a new version of Ubuntu available, and knowing that I would shortly be once again without my MacBook I decided to upgrade the OS on the Aspire One. The Netbook Remix version was available only from the Ubuntu site, rather than via BitTorrent, which I'd used in the past, so I had to wait a while for it to download (it was nearly a gigabyte), and the image was only available for booting from a USB memory drive, so I had to find out how to make a bootable USB drive, which, after several false starts, I did on the Mac mini using a Terminal window. A clean installation of Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope went smoothly on the Aspire One (I'd already backed up the little data I kept on it) and I then set up the various apps. And this time I decided to use the Ubuntu Package Manager to install the Adobe Flash Plugin. This (version 10) went without a hitch, and I was not a little surprised to find that I was now able to view Flash Video. A quick check over at YouTube confirmed that all was in perfect working order.

Linux becomes more capable with each version, incorporating ideas from both Mac and PC. Ubuntu Linux will make PDFs of anything that can be printed, in much the same way as you can on any Mac. The previous version of Ubuntu on the Aspire One would not mount a USB drive partition if it was in Mac format, though unlike my Windows PC it could actually see it. The latest version of Ubuntu will not only mount the Mac partition but read it as well.

It may be true that Ubuntu is not suited to the computer novice - Linux seems to require a certain willingness to customise, to get down and dirty with the OS, that novices may be rightly reluctant to do. But it's no longer true (if it ever was) that Linux is a second class operating system. In principle it can do anything that Windows or OS X can do; the limitations are in the apps written for it, and many of the independent, open source and freeware software houses are increasingly including Linux versions. Linux is what most of the internet runs on, and it's the operating system running many digital video recorders and other consumer electronics devices.

Linux is a version of Unix - and what's underneath that silky smooth Macintosh OS X? Unix. All we need now is a Linux version of iTunes.