Monday, 28 February 2011

I respect your religion!

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."
H L Mencken

He also said "People say we need religion when what they really mean is we need police".  

I would say that we need a police force with a little more humility.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Oxford Think Week - Education

Samantha Stein's talk about the educational ideology of Camp Quest UK drew a slightly smaller audience than the others I have attended this week, but was nonetheless interesting and very well presented.

She asked why she had had to wait until she was 19 to learn 'the scientific method'.  As she said, the combination of the scientific method, critical thinking and philosophy would help anyone in their search for facts.  These skills would help you to distinguish fact from fallacy while browsing the internet.

And yet schools concentrate on fact-based learning rather than learning to understand.

Even in a Physics degree course I'm not sure I learned about the scientific method.  I picked it up somewhere in my 30s and 40s.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Oxford Think Week - Consiousness

A gentleman in the audience began his question with "Speaking as a geologist, your arguments are largely incomprehensible to me . . ." and I can only agree with him.

The most incomprehensible arguments came from Raymond Tallis who tried to persuade us that neuro-science will never be able to explain conciousness.  Although he was an erudite speaker, looking through my notes I find almost nothing to say except that I think I prefer Daniel Dennett's well reasoned views on the same topic.  Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" was quite challenging, but this speaker was impossible (in the nicest possible way).

The other side of the argument was presented by David Papineau.  At least I could grasp the basics of what he was talking about!  He believes that there is a chain of causation relating to consciousness.  The fact that we want to know why a certain brain activity feels as it does (e.g. the feeling that something is red) just shows that it is hard to rid ourselves of dualism (separating the mind from the brain).  He argued that there is no such separation.  Non-dualists don't even need to ask why certain brain processes give rise to conciousness.  They just are the feelings.

Now it is quite possible that I got all of that completely wrong.  Still, wearing my Fusion sweatshirt I got the chance to evangelise fusion to a bright young physicist.  The evening was not totally wasted.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Oxford Think Week's disappointment now celebrated!

This evening's event in Oxford Think Week was somewhat challenging to my own inadequate consciousness.  As someone said, I wished we had had Prof. Peter Atkins there tonight!  More on that tomorrow.

But the good news!  Tuesday evening's disappointment has been largely mitigated by the team from "The Pod Delusion".  Thanks guys!  The discussion between Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling is now available at the web site for The Pod Delusion - one of my favorite podcasts.  It was fascinating to listen to it and decide for myself how successful this 'experiment' might be. 

Several people had told me that it was a 'bit of a love-in', with RD and ACG agreeing with each other on everything, and with the audience there just to 'worship' them.  They told me that they would have liked to hear some other points of view.  They told me that it was a bit like a religious experience except that the two preachers were atheists.  (Yes honestly someone said that!)  They were preaching to the choir.

My take on that is substantially and radically different.  I thought it was a really good way to hear the considered, consistent and complementary views of two great thinkers without the clamour of non-existent controversy.  As non-religious people, surely we have a right to a discussion that is not contaminated by supernatural mumbo-jumbo.  Christians go to church and agree with each other every Sunday.  We should have a chance to do it too, and religious apologists have no right to be offended about that even if it is a public event (like most church services).

I'm not saying that we should start to take offence at the insistence of religious people to interrupt our serious contemplation.  I'm just claiming that we have a right to enjoy  rational thought together sometimes, free of the rantings of religious apologists.

Let's have more like this - please??

Think Week goes from strength to strength

Oxford Think Week's evening event for Thursday was a surprisingly entertaining discussion between Professor Peter Atkins (Chemistry) and Professor Steven Law (Philosophy).  Can Science Alone answer our questions?

This was far from the dry debate that it could have been if we had not been so fortunate.  It was the most interesting, thought provoking and entertaining event I had attended since . . . well . . . Wednesday!  This week is a veritable feast.  If I try to keep this post short, do not take that as a lack of enthusiasm but more a sign of typing induced stress!  (Or maybe it is a lack of intellectual stamina?  But in saying that I think of the words of a friend who tells me sometimes that I am "indulging in another bout of self-deprecation".  And although English is not her first language I would trust her as a proof reader any day!)

Professor Atkins was clear from the outset.  There are three ways of acquiring knowledge:
  • Reading ancient texts (Religion)
  • Thinking (Philosophy)
  • Experimenting (Science)

Theologians obfuscate, nobody else is quite sure what Philosophers do (but it tends to end up in circular arguments), and Scientists illuminate.  But we have to distinguish real questions from empty questions.  Science can't yet answer all questions but that doesn't mean that it never will, and the progress of the last 100 years has been amazing compared with 10,000 years using the other two approaches.

Professor Law started by saying that he was a great admirer of the empirical sciences.  He regards them as a great tool, and possibly the only tool we have.  He thought that some questions were impossible to address in principal, but that didn't mean that they were off-limits. He had the impression that the majority of scientists were not so wedded to the idea of scientism and gave a few examples of questions that were conceptual rather than scientific.  (One was the example of Galileo's thought experiment about dropping a heavy and a light ball and deciding which would fall faster, and how that would be affected if they were joined together.)  He wanted to separate the 'is' questions from the 'ought' questions and suggested that you cannot logically get an 'is' out of an 'ought'.

I expect I am showing my slight bias by commenting that although he might have convinced some members of the audience (about 100 interesting people) he failed totally to convince his opponent.  For example, just because the answer is intuitively obvious, it does not mean that the result of an experiment will not surprise you.

Another big question, "Why was the universe created?" might not be a sensible question because it pre-supposes purpose.  Perhaps we should ask How instead of Why?

Obviously there is no conclusion, but I think I land on the side of scientism and enjoyed the journey.  What a wonderful evening with an opportunity to meet people I have admired from afar, and to look suitably foolish in front to them.  (I wish I had told Richard Dawkins how big an effect 'The God Delusion' has had on my life, and that I only read it because our vicar recommended it to my wife (who remains thoroughly Christian)!  Ho hum.  Maybe next time.)

As usual - failed to be concise in this post!  Whoops.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Royal Bank insanity - and we put up with it!!

Too many surprising things are happening this week, but I can't stop myself on a few topics.  I'm easily exceeding my normal daily quota of one surprise!  This evening's earlier post was scheduled and I just forgot to reschedule it!  Never mind.

Today's news about the Royal Bank of Scotland making a loss of a 'mere' £1.13 billion comes as something of a surprise.  Even I can tell them how to reduce that loss to about £63 million at a stroke.  Wasn't it only about two weeks ago that RBS promised not to pay out more than £950 million in bonuses to its staff?

Well, as a government employee, taxpayer (and therefore shareholder in RBS), and normal person with a little common sense, I say that we need some better bankers who will return a profit for us.  Paying bonuses for this poor performance is simply encouraging failure.  When the bank makes a profit again it can pay bonuses.  Meanwhile the money is OURS.

The 1 million other people employed by the government will get no incentives - what makes RBS so special?

Trying to see the bright side . . . I think they might be in the same mindset as the now defunct Panam airline, who are said to have been the only state airline never to make a loss.  They made a negative profit!

Epicurean Impotence or Malevolence?

I'm not a classicist, but I like a couple of quotations from the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus.

"If god is willing to stop evil but unable, he is not omnipotent. If he is able but not willing he is malevolent. If he is neither able nor willing then why call him god?"

I wonder what the religionist argument against this could be?  It seems hard to find a good answer without invoking the old chestnut that 'God works in mysterious ways'.  One quote I found said "You know, it's a valid argument in the sense that you can't expect every person to know the same living God as we do, nor is there an understanding of how he functions."  Yes - that's quite clear then.

Epicurus also had a rather cheerful approach to death - one that I find quite reassuring.

"Why should I fear death? If I am death is not. If death is I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do."

More Paula Kirby

More on the topic of Paula Kirby's visit to Oxford yesterday evening.  (I promise not to go on about it for ever!)  I had the pleasure of a short chat with her during the interval and we discussed why it was so interesting to keep talking about faith after we had lost that faith.  Maybe I will grow out of it in the end, but not yet, and Paula clearly hasn't either.

Paula's big question is one that fascinates me too.  What is it about people that makes them susceptible to belief in God?  Certainly it is not a question of intelligence.  We agreed that we both know people who are intellectual giants but who still maintain a faith in the supernatural.  Indeed what is it that makes it possible for an individual to hold both views in one lifetime, and to hold those views very strongly?

I asked her in the 'Question and Answer' session how she had taken the big step from ('just') losing faith to wanting to stand and talk about it in public.  I empathised with her reply that she likes to have an audience and indeed I enjoy that myself (as long as it is on a topic that I know well).  I love to have the opportunity to speak to a group of visitors at work and to evangelise about Fusion research.  I have not yet had the chance to evangelise atheism.

But on further questioning how the opportunity to become such a well known public figure arose, I was interested that it was at least partly through her contributions to  Richard Dawkins wrote to her saying that he enjoyed her writing, and opportunities gradually opened up after that.  You could see the obvious delight on her face as she explained "Just imagine! I'm getting fan mail from my favorite author!"

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Oxford Think Week rescued - Paula Kirby

This evening's event more than made up for the disappointment of yesterday!  Much more!  I ventured to the Oxford Skeptics in the Pub event for a talk by one of the most incisive atheist writers, fully aware of the possibility of disappointment.  I'm delighted to be able to say that Paula Kirby did not disappoint in any way, (in spite of twice being introduced as Sheila).

In front of an audience containing a brave group of Christians among a larger number of secularists, she clearly delighted in telling a moving story of becoming a committed Christian as an adult, and then becoming an atheist a few years later.  I can hardly attempt to emulate her by trying to distill the key facts from an argument and present them clearly and concisely, without leaving any doubt about my views.  However - here goes!

Before describing how she lost her faith (or won freedom from faith) she wanted to explain how she became a Christian.  The story was moving and rather personal, and left us in no doubt of her full commitment.  For 6 years her religion was completely central to her life, with a significant spiritual encounter that she now rationalises in a different way.

Then she went on to observe how Christians often describe their conversion as having a weight lifted from their shoulders, and to assure us that although she had experienced that, the relief of becoming an atheist was an even greater pleasure.  Even in the totalitarian North Korea, people's thoughts are private.  But somehow God invades even your private thoughts, and it is such a relief to lose the feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder all the time.

The words of the Apostle's Creed seemed to be the tipping point in her de-conversion.  [How many times have I said them and questioned what they really mean?]   "He descended into Hell . . . " was the first sticking point that made her start to examine the whole of the rest of her faith with a critical eye, ultimately drawing up a list of things she believed about christianity along with a list of things that others believed just as strongly.  Realising that the two lists could never be compatible she reasoned that perhaps neither was true, and that if christianity was not true then she didn't want it, however comforting it might be.

As she said "Take away 'God did it' and you have a whole new exciting world".  Not only was she not sitting on the fence, but there was actually no fence to sit on!

This short summary does no justice to a delightful evening full of intelligent humour.  I would be surprised if my admiration was not shared by the vast majority of the audience.  To conclude, I found her views on the afterlife (in response to an audience question) resonated with my own.  She had found herself unusual among Christians in that she never really wanted eternal life.  It is reassuring to hear that I'm not alone in that!

Think Week has been rescued.  Thank you Paula.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Not Think Week's finest hour!

So much for the idea of being able to watch the Dawkins/Grayling discussion on Ustream tonight!  I had a premonition that it would be impossible to watch it after the 700 tickets for the event went in 7 minutes.  Something told me that the online webcast might be fairly popular.

It was an interesting exercise in people watching though.  I was on the site in good time waiting for something to happen.  The scheduled start time of 8.10 p.m. came and went and up to that time there were only 4 people logged in to 'the crowd' as it calls it.

At last!! It said that the show 'should now be live'.  Hmm. 

I can imagine the same idea went through the mind of a lot of others, one of whom was chatting to me about it via Google.  Do I need to set up an account and log in?  So in a hurry, you go through the saga of giving away your deepest secrets, then bottle out.  Wait a few minutes and notice that a few more are in the crowd. Maybe they are watching it and I'm sitting here missing out.

So . . . reluctantly I had another go, set up the account that I will probably never use again and went back to the ThinkWeek page, along with 22 other crowd members, just in time to get "Owing to unforseen technical problems it is not currently possible to webcast this event."

Its tempting to complain that this could not possibly have been 'unforeseen'.  In fact, yes - I do complain about that.  I just feel terribly disappointed.  Half an hour later I can tell that there are at least 21 other disappointed people waiting patiently in case it comes live after all.  21 is the tip of the iceberg though.

Think about Politics - Towards a Secular State

In UK we have an 'established church' and Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords, unelected and (by many) unwanted.  This first evening of Oxford Think Week was a discussion between an interesting panel of people.

Ronan McCrae introduced Monday's event with a talk aimed at promoting the idea of a secular state for the benefit of everyone, including the religious.  The idea that certain religious beliefs override liberal democratic rights might be ok if you are from that religion, but not if you are not.  Secularism is not the same as atheism or humanism, but it is simply the separation of faith from law.  It does respect religious beliefs and protects them, but it requires recognition of the fact that religion does promote controversy.  Even within the major faiths there is controversy, and there is no widely accepted 'true Christianity' or 'true Islam'.  The use of public money to promote any faith is not acceptable to secularism, and the constraints that are put on state funded faith schools to do the business of the state by teaching a standard curriculum (at least officially) are probably not acceptable to those schools either.  He summarised by mentioning the secularising influence of European history, and pointed out the dangers if community views were allowed to break down due to the idealogical influences of many different religions.  In the questions later, he quipped that secularism is an arrangement that we can live with pending the arrival of the second coming!

Baroness Shreela Flather, a Hindu atheist as she explained, has gone some way to restore my confidence in the House of Lords - although in a discussion with her at the end she told me that she feels that she is very much in the minority in that respect.  She pointed out that there is no single ideal solution and that even in secular states religious power play is a serious matter.  I liked the way she explained that as an atheist she felt free, and that a weight had been lifted from her.  (I feel the same way.)  She pointed out that religion can be a force for good or for VERY bad.  She admired English Common Law, especially in that it is based much more on common sense than on Christianity.  She spoke well on the topic of human rights and particularly on women's rights, and how they are badly eroded in religious communities world-wide.

Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli then described how prayer is all around us and that it is difficult to break out of it.  The non-religious tend to substitute religious ceremonies with secular ceremonies that mimic what they are trying to get away from.  Perhaps we should adopt a different approach entirely?  We shy away from being evangelical secularists.  How are we going to untangle the religious infrastructure?  Certainly we have to think in the long term.

Martin Horwood, Lib Dem MP for Cheltenham told some entertaining anecdotes about his attempt to have a secular Hindu wedding to his wife.  He went on to point out that religions are not timeless truths, so it is not surprising that there are gradations within the faiths.  He believes that describing modern day Islamic extremists as representing 'Medieval Islam' is not correct, because medieval Islam was really very tolerant.  (His attitude to Islam seemed generally to be rather un-critical.  Thank goodness other members of the panel were there to disagree with him and point out the dangers of Islamic influences.)  He did present an interesting idea for elections to the upper house when it is reformed.  The idea that interest groups could set up non-geographical constituencies and that people could use their one vote either for a group or geographically seemed sensible.  He made several disapproving comments about the approach that Richard Dawkins takes, in my opinion incorrectly accusing him of conflating atheism and secularism, and of course mentioning the word 'strident', as people so often do.  I would say that the mood of the audience was not in favour of this opinion.

An interesting evening!  All the speakers agreed that if you want to make a difference in the world you should join a political party.  If like me, you would find it hard to stomach being a member of any of the political parties you have the option to set up a campaign to lobby your MP, r set up a petition via a web site such as 38 degrees.  Unsurprisingly they find it more effective if several different versions of a letter are used, rather than a single boiler-plate letter sent by many different people.  And don't forget to write to the House of Lords - they feel left out!

This evening's event is an armchair discussion between Dawkins and Grayling.  Can't wait!

Oxford Think Week started

The first event of Oxford Think Week was tonight.  I made the pilgrimage to Corpus Christi College (the one with the moon dial on the sundial) and was one of about 50 people there.  Guided to the 'new auditorium', I was surprised to find that 'new' didn't mean 1450 AD!).  Hopefully I will write more about the event soon.  It reminded me why I am not a graduate of Oxford University.  Some of the questions from the students were brilliant and a little difficult to comprehend (although perhaps a little rambling - but they are young!).  Presumably they understood their own questions, because the panel answered them.

An interesting event anyway!  I was most delighted by Baroness Shreela Flather who is a Hindu atheist - and yes, you can be one, as she explained.

Tomorrow evening is the big event.  Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling.  Sold out (700 tickets), but I should feel honoured to have a ticket for the 'overflow room'.  Those who can't be there can see it via Ustream.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Norwegian Wood

The Norwegians had a unit of length called a 'tomme' or 'thomla' based like the inch on the length of a man's thumb.  However, being 26.1mm, the tomme was 3% longer than an imperial inch (25.4mm) and the reason is not due to error.

There has historically been a large trade in timber between Norway and UK. When wood dries it contracts by 3%, so if it is cut to 4 by 2 tommes it ends up as dry timber at 4 by 2 inches.

Of course the millimetre has taken over now in both countries, and spoiled a good bit of history, but not spoiled a good story.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The great 'Hitch'!

"What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

Christopher Hitchens. 

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Omniscient God?

Karen Owens' nice little rhyme summarises a fundamental problem about prayer:

Can omniscient God who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change his future mind?

Thanks to Richard Dawkins', The God Delusion, p 96 footnote for this lovely little nugget.

Of course there is a religious answer along the lines that "He can change but that He won't, because He already anticipated that it would all happen this way and He took account of it in advance."  (Maybe the pronoun should have been "She" throughout the last sentence?)

So it seems that all the suffering in the World is due to God's intentional cruelty.  Of course, this is evident throughout the Old Testament and indeed resulted in the death of his own son, so we should not be too surprised by this.

It seems that suffering is not just an accident that can be blamed on 'free will' after all.  Since he knew that someone was going to pray about it and already took that into account, one can only interpret that as predestination.  Therefore the alleged 'free will' that is often used by Christians as the excuse and explanation for suffering is not really there at all.  

What's the point of trying to argue using logic?  I feel a parallel with Douglas Adams' Babel Fish, but only realised that after writing the above.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Lack of miracles at Lourdes?

Since pilgrims have been going to Lourdes it is claimed that 65 people have been miraculously cured out of an estimated 100 million visitors. Three of these were patients suffering from cancer.

Compare this with the estimates for spontaneous remission of cases of cancer. 1 person in 10,000 to 100,000 will just get better for no known reason.  (Maybe someone prayed extra hard for them?  Or maybe they just got better.)

Even with the most conservative assumptions about the proportion of Lourdes pilgrims who would be suffering from cancer, it seems that the number of remissions is far below the rate of spontaneous remission.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Lunar Lunacy

Full moon again.  Two more to go before Easter, which I am sure you know is the Sunday after the full moon after the vernal equinox.  Remember that for the next time someone asks you when Easter is this year!  It usually gets a laugh.

There is a popular urban myth that around the time of full moon hospital emergency departments are inundated with additional cases and that the outcome of major surgery is much less likely to be successful. Indeed, the term 'lunacy' is derived from this belief.

Presumably such an effect would arise from the same mechanism as the other known effects of the moon on Earth which are entirely tidal. The range of the tides is higher at full and new moon, when the Sun, Moon and Earth all line up, and this is observed as and called 'spring tides'. Spring tides have nothing to do with the season, as they happen twice every month, but the highest and lowest spring tides of the year are around the vernal (spring) and autumnal equinoxes.

The strange thing is that the alleged effects on people only occur at full moon and not at new moon.

So is it true? Or are people's observations of strange events just a case of 'confirmation bias' where they happen to notice that the moon is full when some other notable event happens. On other occasions the moon is less obvious in the sky and they don't make a link to a moon that is slightly more or less gibbous than yesterday. The subject has been extensively studied and no correlation has been found.

Of course this is not a great surprise as the gravitational (tidal) forces from the moon are incredibly small. A mother holding her baby has a gravitational effect on the baby 10 million times greater than that of the moon on the baby.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The soul

The Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints was set up by Joseph Smith who found some indecipherable inscribed gold plates in up-state New York, and then discovered some magical spectacles which allowed him to transcribe the plates into the "Book of Mormon".

The book bears a striking resemblance to the Judeo/Christian Bible but allows and forbids a few different things. Until 1975 the Mormon Church still taught that black people don't have souls. (God thoughtfully revealed to them that it was wrong only the day before the US law changed on this matter.)

Of course the irony of it is that perhaps they were right and that none of us have souls. Studies of consciousness suggest that the concept of 'the soul' is perhaps only a pious hope.

British biology exam??

Jerry Coyne's Evolution is True blog gives the disturbing news that a British biology exam for 16 year-olds appears to give/allow a politically correct but scientifically incorrect answer.  (Screams!!)


Cindy was quite right in her comment on my last post.  Thank you Cindy.  Enoch, father of the much more famous Methuselah, also apparently didn't die.  (Genesis 5:21-24).  At the age of 365 years he was 'taken away' by God.

All I can say in my own defence is that we don't know whether Enoch was bald or not.

Methuselah lived to the grand old age of 969. 

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Elishah and baldness!

It is said** that only one person in the Old Testament did not die. Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind without the usual inconvenience and discomfort. (II Kings 2:11.) His acolyte, Elishah made a special request that he should receive a double portion of Elijah's spirit, and was granted it having seen his teacher taken away.

Presumably self-effacement and tolerance were not two of Elijah's good qualities then, because a very short time later when Elishah visited Bethel (II Kings 2:22) he found himself being mocked by children because he was bald. Being a broad-shouldered prophet one might have expected that he would be used to worse than that, but his reaction suggests not.

Personally I find it not too difficult to cope with being teased for the same characteristic, but he cursed the children and two 'she bears' came out of the woods and killed 42 of them.

God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

** p.s As Cindy correctly pointed out in her comment Enoch was the other person in the OT who did not die.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Fusion funding

The UK (nearly public-owned) bank RBS announced magnanimously last week that it would restrict the payment of staff bonuses to just £950m this year.

Is there any sanity in this world?  They're the bastards who got us into this mess and the government is just going to let them get away with this while gradually penalising the honest hard working million people who work in 'proper' jobs on behalf of the public. 

And £1 billion per year is about equivalent to a tax saving of 1 p in the pound for the other 60 million people in the UK who are now suffering the consequences, due to the recklessness of these bankers.

Or to look at it another way - why is it that big technical projects like ITER are said to be 'expensive'?  At least its aim is to provide a technique to ensure a secure energy supply for future generations.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Quotations from Mark Twain

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he'd learned in seven years." - Mark Twain

My 18 year old son at least understood this. That's promising.

"Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon." - Mark Twain

My father-in-law could have learned something from this.

"Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." - Mark Twain

My 16 year old daughter probably wouldn't agree with this.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Darwin's Birthday

Isn't it interesting that discussions about the truth of Evolution so often reach the ridiculous argument that Evolution does not explain the creation of life.  Of course it doesn't actually attempt to do that.  The start of life is called Abiogenesis, not Evolution.

It is Charles Darwin's two hundred and second birthday today.  Why not celebrate it with a visit to Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne's blog.

I find it amazing how I have become so interested in Darwin's work during the course of my recovery from Christianity, and one of the best and clearest books that I have read on the subject is Richard Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth". 

Friday, 11 February 2011

Just a birthday message!

Not Darwin's birthday.  That is tomorrow.
Published at 11 minutes to 11 on 11/2/11.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Rapture Index

When Christ comes back to Earth at the end of time (which of course we all know is going to happen soon) Christians will be gathered up to meet him in The Rapture.  So when will it happen?

The Rapture Index  does not exactly answer this question.  However apparently it gathers together a number of related end time components into a cohesive indicator, and the other is to standardize those components to eliminate the wide variance that currently exists with prophecy reporting. 

As of 31st January the Rapture Index was at 174.  You might ask yourself what this means, but the site kindly explains that if the index is over 160 you should fasten your seat belts. 

It all falls down when you ask how they know this?  Well apparently the answer lies in 1 Thessalonians, if you choose to interpret chapter 4 verses 15-17.  (My father-in-law seemed keen that the first word spoken by each of his grandchildren would be Thessalonians but as far as I know he failed to influence them enough.)  

How do they know that the bible is true?  Easy - the bible tells you so.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Creation myths for all

It is tempting to assume that all Creationists believe in similar origin stories, but no. The two creationists I know are both rational and lovely people, but I just don't agree with their points of view and they both seem surprisingly patient with mine (touch wood).  I long ago realised that my demand for extraordinary evidence to back up extraordinary claims is not shared by all intelligent people.

The Talk Origins Archive has a great page summarising the similarities and differences between opposing views on the subject.  The What is Creationism page contains a surprising range of options.

Sticking to the Jewish/Christian creation myth in Genesis (as it is the one that I know best) it is interesting to note that it is not even logically self-consistent from a scientific point of view. 

Day 1:  Day and night were created (but not the Sun and the Moon). 

[So how is day defined?]

Day 4:  The Sun and Moon are created, one to govern the day, [obviously the sun], and the other to govern the night [obviously not the Moon as that can be seen just as often in the day as in the night].

But the idea of Day Age Creationism leads us to a further doubt.  You may have heard of it even if you have not bothered to find out about the details.  Each literal 'day' happened in the order described in Genesis, but took thousands or even millions of years.  It illustrates that there was something that is - at best - unscientific at work.

Day 3:  All the plants were created, and it seems that since they were created before the sun they did not need its light and warmth to prosper - unlike today's plants.

At least in the literal 6 day creation story these plants might have survived for a day without light . . . but in the Day Age version?  Not very likely!  Ask a gardener.

Neither of my friendly creationists are of the Day Age kind.  I suspect both will have more sympathy with Day Age than with my own skeptical views though.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Ghosts or publicity?

In a remarkable story from the Thorpe Park theme park, (South West London), it seems that (those notoriously sensitive) 'construction workers' are being spooked by ghostly events and a major new ride called "Storm Surge" is being moved to a different location.

"Someone was looking over my shoulder" says a worker.  Was it the foreman?

Of course all the newspapers have a different sensational spin on the story.  Just to choose one, here is a link to The Independent.  I haven't yet seen an article from The Guardian which tends to have a slightly more skeptical viewpoint.

Isn't it amazing how the theme park is taking great care not to deny it.  The power of publicity is to set a story running and then know when to start to deny it.  The time is not right!  That helps prolong the publicity if timed right.

"Staff reports of eerie goings-on shot up and the only physical change in the park, at that time, was the beginning of ground preparation work for the new ride. " says a director.  "Director" is often a term for someone who was once good at their job but has lost touch with reality and if you believe the newspapers (which I don't - ever) that would be an appropriate description!  Anyway, perhaps they should have been on the lookout for 'non-physical changes', in these unusual circumstances!)

Under the international quality standard of ISO 9001 I suppose these eerie goings on would be recorded in . . . erm . . . a 'register of eerie-goings-on'?  I have noticed these in several companies so far.  (Believe that if you will.)  Presumably at some anticipated threshhold of eeriness they have planned to start changing their business plan, and instructed their civil engineers accordingly. 

I probably won't be going on Storm Surge, but its not because of the ghosts!  A headless monk illusion might tempt me though.

Monday, 7 February 2011

National Sick Day

It was reported on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme this morning that in UK the first Monday in February is the day when the largest number of workers take a day off 'sick'.  Various reasons were suggested  (without a shred of evidence).

Anecdote or statistics, true or false, I couldn't help smiling when one of my staff e-mailed to say that he would not be at work today.

Not feeling too bad myself!

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Homeopathy - the Randi way

The Amazing James Randi of the JREF says it like it is about Homeopathy and offers an amazing million dollars to anyone who can prove that it works! 

Its 10:23 Challenge weekend 2011!  The challenge will culminate on February 6th at the QED conference in Manchester, where 300 protesters will participate the largest ever single demonstration against homeopathy.

Wish someone had told me about this a few years ago!

Of course 10:23 comes from Avagadro's number.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

A clash of names!

Just discovered to my (slight) horror that :
a/  Google still doesn't find me here and
b/  It now does find someone else's blog with the same name

I'm sure I checked for that before settling on the name, but the other Something Surprising is at a different address and I think it will be fairly obvious to my loyal readers that it isn't me.

Hopefully the two of us can live with each other.  After all it seems that we are quits. It seems that I have the address and she was here first, and whichever way it happened we can both feel reassured that imitation is the best form of flattery.

Friday, 4 February 2011

i before e except after c

The difficulty of spelling English words containing i and e is clarified by this simple rule. Isn't it?

In fact is has been estimated that there are 923 exceptions to this rule and have i before e after a c. About 21 times more words break the rule than obey it.

Another version of the rule seems to be much more reliable, and rarely seems to fail. Try "i before e except after c, but only if it rhymes with key".

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Dreadful National stereotypes

The following is sometimes attributed to John Cleese, but reading between the lines I would say that the author is more likely to be American.  (Of course this is only based on my own thoughts about national stereotypes.)  Whatever the source, I found it hilarious and the anonymous author deserves a pat on the back.  Thanks to Liz for sending it to me.

Working on a site that has security guards I am often amused to observe the sign at the gate which declares our 'security state'.  The lowest possible state is "Heightened".  "Heightened from what?" I ask myself.

Response to terrorism threats

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have therefore raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved." Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated," or even "A Bit Cross." The English have not been "A Bit Cross" since "The Blitz" in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from "Tiresome" to "A Bloody Nuisance." The last time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

The Scots have raised their threat level from "Pissed Off" to "Let's get the Bastards." They don't have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide." The only two higher levels in France are "Collaborate" and "Surrender." The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France's white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country's military capability.

Italy has increased the alert level from "Shout Loudly and Excitedly" to "Elaborate Military Posturing." Two more levels remain: "Ineffective Combat Operations" and "Change Sides."   The Germans have increased their alert state from "Disdainful Arrogance" to "Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs." They also have two higher levels: "Invade a Neighbour" and "Lose."

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels .

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from "No worries" to "She'll be alright, Mate." Two more escalation levels remain: "Crikey! I think we'll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!" and "The barbie is cancelled." So far no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Ask a hard question!

Richard Feynman once said "Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt."

And we like it that way don't we?  Ask me a hard question and I will learn something about what I thought I knew already.

Feynman also warned  "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool".

After all - most of us know people who see ghosts (or fairies, or Jesus).  I certainly do, and I like those people very much.  We all get fooled by magic tricks (and usually enjoy it). 

Feynman also counselled that "Science is what we have learned to keep from fooling ourselves.

That is where it gets a bit more difficult.  After all, I delude myself that someone might want to read what I am blogging about.  :)

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Sock juice

"Now there's lovely", one of my Welsh colleagues said to himself with feeling, as he walked away with a nice hot cup of tea.

I wish I could find such delight in something so . . . unexciting.

Meanwhile, at least I managed not to tell him what a friend in France told me.  English tea is known by some people as "jus de chaussette".  Sock juice!