Wednesday, 30 November 2011

'Sheriff of Nottingham Tax'

UK will possibly descend into a day of chaos on 30th November as up to 2 million public sector workers go on strike over planned changes to their pension schemes.  The level of that chaos will, no doubt, be the subject of considerable spin from both government and union propaganda.

We are told that the government cannot afford to pay the pensions that it has promised to its employees.   That sounds plausible.

We are told that the pensions are 'gold plated' but they neglect to mention that over the last 10 or 20 years the annual pay settlements have been slightly reduced year on year in recognition of the value of a public sector pension and that it would be typical of this barely elected administration to steal from the poor to pay the rich.  Its a sort of Sheriff of Nottingham Tax, not the usually discussed Robin Hood Tax that many would like to see implemented.

We are also told that public sector workers are paid more highly than their private sector equivalents, but they neglect to mention that these overpaid workers are generally more highly qualified too.  In contrast, MPs are much more 'highly paid', are allowed to have second (third and nth) jobs while they are being paid handsomely to be public servants, and their qualification is often merely rhetorical.

We also note that the freeze in pay is resulting in a steady brain drain.  I know one young, well-qualified engineer who is leaving his public-sector organisation for a 30% pay rise.  (Yes yes, its anecdotal evidence, but I guarantee that it is not surprising to any of his colleagues.)  It has also achieved the aim of reducing headcount and is seen t be seeding private sector companies with highly qualified people, so the government wins anyway.  It is just that the work will not be done, but who will care?

But for now . . .  just in the spirit of fairness, let's assume that the crisis that was CREATED by bankers and regulators really has made it impossible to afford the commitments that the government had made to its loyal (and less loyal) employees.  If we can't afford everything I wonder whether there are any other areas that might offer cuts - perhaps before the pension cuts.

I guarantee that you will not agree with all of the following list of items that we seem to have no trouble affording.  I have heard negative comments from several treasured friends who disapprove of the strike.  However, I would be very surprised if there aren't several that you could happily disapprove of:
  • MPs truly gold plated pensions - a full pension for MPs who have put in service of only 5 years (and who will no-doubt be directors of companies until their dying day in addition to their income from the public purse).  There is no suggestion of savings on this exorbitant spending.
  • Second houses for MPs, (which of course are justified), but the problem is that when these houses are sold for a profit the tax payer sees none of the proceeds.
  • Replacing Trident - which we would never use (or would we?)
  • 'Adventures' in Iraq, Afghanistan (and wherever is next - possibly Iran?), pretending that the UK is somehow the world's policeman, and a bigger target for terrorism.
  • Bombing Libya - a sovereign country, admittedly ruled by a despot but why does the UK taxpayer have to pay for the ordnance to undermine it?  And what right do 'we' have to depose that particular government and risk whatever is coming next?
  • Spurious benefits (including free further-education, free prescriptions etc) to the people of 'remote parts' of UK but not to the people of England.
  • Increasing overseas aid - including nearly £1 billion in aid to two nuclear powers for some incomprehensible reason.
  • Bonuses paid to the bankers who caused the problems in the first place.
  • Allowing tax avoidance by the highest paid people in the country who hide behind the veil of tax havens where their wives are citizens etc.  You and I couldn't get away with that, but for Osborne and his cronies it appears to be mandatory.  This could bring in a tidy £25 billion per year according to the best estimates.
  • Sale of the 'profitable' part of a nationalised bank, Northern Rock, for a price that is unbelievably low.  Meanwhile the tax payer remains burdened by £20 billion of debt from the rest of the same organisation.
  • Tax benefits to the churches, including to the Roman Catholic Church which is one of the wealthiest organisations in the world.  Many argue that it causes some of the greatest harm in the world (e.g. by its teachings about AIDS).
  • The 2012 Olympics - for which private funding has not been forthcoming to the extent that the government expected.  Well isn't that a surprise?

Meanwhile - by the end of 30th November, the government propaganda wing (including the BBC) will be busy spinning tales of the loss to the economy and putting the blame on the public sector workers.

I know that most people who do not work in the public sector are not in favour of the strike and many are in favour of the cuts.  But I just ask you to consider whether this is fair in the light of the outrageous list above? 

Your comments are awaited.  When you do comment perhaps you could just say how many of the 12 points above you could live without.

In my case it is probably 10.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

'Real' Militant Atheism

This is another guest appearance by an reader of Something Surprising to celebrate the first 50,000 page views, comes from USA with permission for publication here.


You can call it "militant atheism" and say Christians and other theists are being persecuted when we start burning, torturing, imprisoning, and mutilating theists for their beliefs.


Thanks to Shay Chandler for this  Facebook post which she has kindly agreed that I can publish here.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Free and open internet indeed!

Is is just me, or do messages like this one really irritate you too?

Somehow as a UK resident I am forbidden from seeing interesting material that the rest of the world is permitted to see, but after 20th February (presumably 2012) it will be alright for me to watch it.

Meanwhile, US residents often can't see material created by the BBC, and I am sure the same happens world-wide.


Sunday, 27 November 2011

Irreducible complexity explained with a mousetrap

This nice short video explains one of the faults in the concept of irreducible complexity - a concept used by creationists to 'explain' why evolution doesn't work.

The idea that the mousetrap is no use with any single one of its parts missing is examined.  Creationists often use the mousetrap as an example of a machine that must have been designed as a complete machine - not evolved from a simpler machine.  Of course it was designed that way!  Its a machine!

This is an analogy of course, and as I explained recently, analogies are useful teaching aids but they do not really explain anything about the truth.

However, extending this particular analogy as a tool for real learning, the truth is that a mousetrap-like device has other uses. 

Evolution cares little for intentions and cares a lot about opportunity.  The mousetrap idea explains perfectly how seemingly impossible features arise from one useful feature which accidentally becomes useful in another way.

Hoisted by your own petard?

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Textual criticism of DNA - proof of evolution!

Textual criticism and computational stylistics are often offered as a way of determining the consistency of biblical documents.  By comparing the nuances and the statistics of the text, it is possible to form a view about the reliability of the documents.  In the case of the bible it is - of course - reliable and authentic.  Or so we are assured.

Can the same techniques be used to confirm the consistency of the Theory of Evolution by studying the 'test' of the genes?

In fact the answer is an emphatic yes!  Furthermore the vocabulary of the genes is simpler than the text in the bible.  Unlike ancient Hebrew that was written without vowels (thus obscuring the meaning in some cases) the language of genes is written in only four 'letters'.  This should mean that textual criticism should be much more reliable in genetics than it is in conventional text.

Geneticists use a different term, 'sequencing' for their literary equivalent of studying DNA. Using this technique they can determine which species had common ancestors.  This comparison is not an analogy - as all analogies are wrong at some level - it is simply an identical use of the logic of the human mind to analyse a problem.

The similarities include:
1/  Using techniques of recognising strings (genes in DNA or phrases in text)
2/  Comparing the strings and making assumptions that those that have common features are related in some form of family tree
3/  Attempting to work back to some sort of original.
4/  Accepting the possibility of horizontal transfer (of genes in 'lower' living things or 'corrections' to newer texts based on one or more older texts)
5/  Acknowledgement that the very earliest copies might never be accessible using these techniques (the earliest texts of the New Testament being 2nd century, but the reach of DNA going back millions of years)

There are some differences, all of which point to this being a much more reliable technique for DNA than for the bible:
1/  In evolution of all the higher eukaryotes (after the propensity for horizontal gene transfer has diminished) there are clear and unambiguous branches, whereas in biblical texts the horizontal transfer continues to muddy the waters in even the 'highest' forms of the bible.
2/  The DNA comparisons are not as open to the 'interpretation' of 'scholars' (who happen to disagree with each other frequently), but display a highly demonstrable bifurcating nature in the higher animals.
3/  In spite of millions of years of replication, DNA provides this accuracy.  Over only the first 200 years the bible had evolved into many forms, guaranteeing imprecision.  Somehow these early forms are referred to as 'witnesses'.
4/  The existence of previous versions of the stories (e.g. Krishna, Mithra, Horus, Asherah and El, Gilgamesh, Hamurabi to name a few) has no equivalent in DNA.  DNA has generally branched in very precise ways.

For some reason, many Christians believe in the imprecise speculation of textual criticism but reject the precisely observable fact of evolution.  This is interesting as both are based on identical techniques.

This is part of the reason that I consider the bible to be little more than a collection of stories.   I accept it as part of the record of verbal traditions from the very earliest times that humans were able to tell each other stories, and many of those stories are much more ancient than the Old Testament.

Friday, 25 November 2011

'Mind' is not a noun!

Listening to episode 62 of Dr Ginger Campbell's interesting Brain Science Podcast I was fascinated to hear discussions about the implications of claims that we are just controlled by our neurons.

Some religious people who feel a need to invoke the concept of a soul (and a god) have suggested that if we are just machines then we could argue that we do not have personal responsibility for our own actions.  Our free will is possibly in question.  (Of course our free will is probably in question for other reasons too.)

An interesting response has been offered by Warren Brown (neuroscientist) and Nancy Murphy (philosopher) in their book Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will.  Their idea involves the importance of feedback.  Our experience of the world and our ability to interact with it at all, relies entirely on feedback from all our senses.  Without this feedback we learn nothing and effectively our brain is useless if it is isolated in this way.  It would never understand the world around it. 

As an example, it is known that if you get people to wear spectacles which reverse the image that their eyes see, they are able to adapt the actions of their bodies within a few days.  In other words, they compensate, and the brain's internal workings exhibit ' plasticity'.  But - this adaptation occurs only if they are free to interact with the world that they see reversed.  If they wear the spectacles but are prevented from interacting with their surroundings by touch, they do not learn to adapt.

The sci-fi concept of the 'brain in a jar' could never be realised and the concept of the mind residing in the brain alone then becomes conceptual nonsense.  In fact, they argue that the word 'mind' is not a noun at all, but a verb.  The mind is not a thing but a description of whether we care (or mind) about things.

They have been careful to stress that their book is not about theology, but the implications of their work for the existence of the soul can hardly be ignored.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Browser wars - and Microsoft is losing!

Recently one of my most loyal readers told me that she had swapped from Internet Explorer to Google Chrome due to some sort of problem with Facebook.  She told me that people were leaving IE in droves, and as one who left it a few years ago I wondered whether I could see the evidence for this.

So I decided to trawl through the Google Analytics record (for another site that I administer) as Something Surprising has only been running for 10 months.  This graph is on the basis of 20,000 visits from around the world.

As she had said, Internet Explorer is losing the battle (blue line in the graph).  On balance, Chrome (red) is winning, and Firefox (yellow) is pretty much holding its own after a bit of a fight with Chrome a few months ago.

Is this a result of global legislation about competitiveness or is it due to the power of Google?  I would suggest that it might be a bit of both.  Many people would formerly have had no notion that there were other browsers.  Nowadays in Europe at least they have been forced to consider other options - and the bigger they are, the harder they fall.  Chrome has attractive features and I can understand people liking it. 

For me, the cross-platform nature of Firefox means that I can use the same browser at home as I do at work, and share bookmarks between desktop and laptop with very little effort.

Small note:  This is a small study and might not be representative of the whole of the internet.  My statistics are poor but the consistent trends suggest that they are not inaccurate.

Smaller note:  Other browsers are available for Macs and other unusual operating systems (like Ubuntu which I use).  That is why the percentages do not add up to 100%.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

'Proof' by analogy

How often do people use analogies in arguments and debates?  Analogies can be used as a powerful tool for teaching but they are unhelpful as a tool to prove anything.

When I am trying to explain something technical, to visitors at work I use analogies.  Usually I find that these analogies give the visitors the comforting feeling that they understand a little bit of a very technical topic.  They go away and tell people how exciting the science is and I'm sure that they evangelise on behalf of scientific progress in their communities.

If I did not use analogies to explain things, but actually used the detailed theory of the application of  engineering and physics, there would be negative consequences.  For one thing, I wouldn't be able to do it.  I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the techniques that we use, but only at a superficial level.  I understand a few pockets of the technology with a greater knowledge, (even if not at world expert level).  But when it comes to a detailed expertise on most of the systems I would rapidly get lost.  I simply don't know enough to be able to explain things in technical detail.

This makes it look like a win-win situation to use analogy.  I almost never get a question that I can't answer by analogy, and even experts from other world leading facilities in the same field are usually so impressed with the sheer quantity of impressive equipment that they do not ask anything challenging.  There is an explanation for this of course.  These visiting experts know their own fields well enough that they recognise what they see, and other areas of the technology they tend to ask the same sort of questions as anyone else.

Analogies work in this context, as a teaching aid.

But . . . as a method of choosing how to do something, analogies are often dangerous.  I suspect this explains the hostility that some of my colleagues have to the use of analogy.  This is typical in high technology.  The true experts are often not the best communicators, and they fail to understand how the separate skill of communicating their work to the public is best done.

Religious apologists use analogy too, and I wonder whether they realise that it is dangerous for them to base their lives on such a flimsy line of reasoning.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

2000 years is not long enough . . .

. . . to come up with a statement of faith.  Surely St Peter's Free-Church in Dundee could have come up with something obvious about believing in Jesus, not just 'Content to follow'.

Thanks to Paula Kirby for putting this on Facebook!  As I said - it is very bloggable!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Quite A Night At The Erawan, in 1967

This is a transcription of an oft-reprinted, highly-entertaining, music review which appeared in the Bangkok Post on Saturday 27 May, 1967 under the title:

It was Quite A Night At The Erawan

The recital last evening in the chamber music room of the Erawan Hotel by U.S. Pianist Myron Kropp, the first appearance of Mr. Kropp in Bangkok, can only be described by this reviewer and those who witnessed Mr. Kropp's performance as one of the most interesting experiences in a very long time.

There was a bit of disorder at the outset when the ushers, apparently brought in from the dining room, had some trouble placing late concert goers in their proper sets.

The audience eventually was seated and a hush fell over the room as Mr. Kropp appeared from the right of the stage, attired in black formal evening-wear with a small white poppy in his lapel. With sparse, sandy hair, a sallow complexion and a deceptively frail looking frame, the man who has re-popularized Johann Sebastian Bach approached the Baldwin Concert Grand, bowed to the audience and placed himself upon the stool.

Bench preferred

It might be appropriate to insert at this juncture that many pianists, including Mr. Kropp, prefer a bench, maintaining that on a screw-type stool, they sometimes find themselves turning sideways during a particularly expressive strain. There was a slight delay, in fact, as Mr Kropp left the stage briefly, apparently in search of a bench, but returned when informed that there was none.

As I have mentioned on several other occasions, the Baldwin Concert Grand, while basically a fine instrument, needs constant attention, particularly in a climate such as Bangkok. This is even more true when the instrument is as old as the one provided in the chamber music room of the Erawan Hotel. In this humidity, the felts which separate the white keys from the black tend to swell, causing an occasional key to stick, which apparently was the case last evening with the D in the second octave.

During the "raging storm" section of the D-Minor Toccata and Fugue, Mr. Kropp must be complimented for putting up with the awkward D. However, by the time the "storm" was past and he had gotten into the Prelude and Fugue in D Major, in which the second octave D plays a major role, Mr. Kropp's patience was wearing thin.

Some who attended the performance later questioned whether the awkward key justified some of the language which was heard coming from the stage.

However, one member of the audience, who had sent his children out of the room by the midway point of the fugue, had a valid point when he commented over the music and extemporaneous remarks of Mr. Kropp that the workman who had greased the stool might have done better to use some of the grease on the second octave D.

Indeed, Mr. Kropp's stool had more than enough grease and during one passage in which the music and lyrics were both particularly violent, Mr. Kropp was turned completely around. Whereas before his remarks had been aimed largely at the piano and were therefore somewhat muted, to his surprise and that of those in the chamber music room he found himself addressing himself directly to the audience.

But such things do happen, and the person who began to laugh deserves to be severely reprimanded for this undignified behavior. Unfortunately, laughter is contagious, and by the time it had subsided and the audience had regained its composure Mr. Kropp appeared somewhat shaken. Nevertheless, he swiveled himself back into position facing the piano and, leaving the D Major Fugue unfinished, commenced on the Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor.

Why the concert grand piano's G key in the third octave chose that particular time to begin sticking I hesitate to guess. However, it is certainly safe to say that Mr. Kropp himself did nothing to help matters when he began using his feet to kick the lower portion of the piano instead of operating the pedals as is generally done.

A Gasp

Possibly it was this jarring or the un-Bach-like hammering to which the sticking keyboard was being subjected. Something caused the right front leg of the piano to buckle slightly inward, leaving the entire instrument listing at approximately a 35-degree angle from that which is normal. A gasp went up from the audience, for if the piano had actually fallen several of Mr. Kropp's toes if not both his feet, would surely have been broken.

It was with a sigh of relief therefore, that the audience saw Mr. Kropp slowly rise from his stool and leave the stage. A few men in the back of the room began clapping and when Mr. Kropp reappeared a moment later it seemed he was responding to the ovation. Apparently, however, he had left to get a red-handled fire ax which was hung back stage in case of fire, for that was what was in his hand.

My first reaction at seeing Mr. Kropp begin to chop at the left leg of the grand piano was that he was attempting to make it tilt at the same angle as the right leg and thereby correct the list. However, when the weakened legs finally collapsed altogether with a great crash and Mr. Kropp continued to chop, it became obvious to all that he had no intention of going on with the concert.

The ushers, who had heard the snapping of piano wires and splintering of sounding board from the dining room, came rushing in and, with the help of the hotel manager, two Indian watchmen and a passing police corporal, finally succeeded in disarming Mr. Kropp and dragging him off the stage.

by Kenneth Langbell

Small note:  The 'Erawan' in the title is a venue named after a popular tourist attraction in Bangkok, the Erawan Shrine.

My copy of this article came from a professor of theoretical physics, who sometimes used to entertain his students in tutorials by extracting copies of amusing items from a loose-leaf bundle that he kept on a shelf behind his desk.  I didn't understand much of the physics taught by Professor R B Dingle (of the Dingle Temperature 'fame' - so famous that there is no page on Wikipedia about it!) but I admired him as a great character.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Another surprising piano performance

Just a variation on a theme for today, and a piece of music that I'm sure I recognise from hearing it on a steam powered fairground organ.

Courtesy of the Dublin International Piano Competition.

Fun with a piano . . . and 12 pianists!

Browsing Youtube this afternoon for piano performances starring more than a single pianist I came across many wonderful videos including this delightful one.

The music is Albert Lavignac's Sischka Galop-Marche à 12, but the performance is as great as the music itself!  You can find their page on Facebook and surprisingly few people have liked it so far.  Why not join the select few?

Tomorrow I will touch on a report of another remarkable recital performance . . . albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum!

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Fiji – a Land of Striking Contrasts

A guest post by Martin S Pribble

This, the first of the guest appearances by other readers of Something Surprising to celebrate the first 50,000 page views, comes from the other side of the world, written especially for publication here.


If you read my blog regularly you’d know that I recently took a trip to the paradise that is the Fijian islands. For the first 5 nights we spent our time inside a walled compound that was fortified enough to keep out marauding hordes of zombies. Most of the people who were staying at that resort were Australian bogans, people who think that a holiday in a foreign destination should consist of drinking piña coladas by the pool and NEVER leaving the resort. Luckily we had gone to Fiji for a friend’s wedding, so our immediate group was friends and family who I love and who don’t fit that stereotype. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World”, where the rich and privileged exist inside the walled compound while the poor “savages” carry on their existences outside. I apologise to Fiji on behalf of Australia, we are not all like that.

Outside the zombie-proof compound was a very different world from the sterile and Disney-esque fire-twirling performances by well oiled and buff Fijian men in grass skirts. It was a land of contrasts, some which I totally understand, and others that I find perplexing indeed.

Fiji is a place of intense beauty and lush green vegetation, and has a particularly high annual rainfall, yet for many of the outer isles, water is scarce and many of these islands suffer regularly from drought. While there can be huge downpours in Nadi, only 50 km away in The Yasawa islands they may only see the far off clouds. In 2009 a cyclone hit the main island of Viti Levu and washed away bridges, roads and people, yet the outer islands only received moderate storms. Water water everywhere, and yet…

For the most part the people live in poverty. Fiji is a 3rd world country, and an average salary is about $100 a week, only 10% of the annual average wage of an Australian. Their homes suffer the double-pronged attack of humidity and poverty, which makes upkeep quite difficult. Despite these squalid living conditions, where the people share their living quarters with livestock, there is a “pride of place” to these dwellings, many painted in bright colours among the cyclone-wire fences and wandering goats. And despite not having much, there is a tradition in Fiji, if someone passes your house, you must offer them food, or to share in the meal you are preparing. No matter how poor these people seem, they are rich in hospitality.

The fact that tourism is their main source of employment serves them well; not only is Fiji a beautiful environment, with perfect weather and clean clear oceans, but the people and their attitudes toward westerners is authentically one of caring. A Fijian will go a long way to please a tourist, putting themselves out much more than would any of their western counterparts. On thing that struck a note with me though was the recognition that beneath the hospitality and care there seemed to exist a resentment toward many of the holiday makers. Of course the Fijian people recognise that the tourists are necessary for both their employment and their economy, but I couldn’t help but feel that they look at tourists with a sense of distaste with the way that the holidaymakers conducted themselves. Watching the majority of folk at the first resort we stayed at, I can understand why this is.

Part of their rich cultural heritage is a particularly violent past, one where warriors and chiefs alike would seek out opponents and kill then eat their bodies as a way to humiliate them in defeat, yet today the people of Fiji are some of the most caring and welcoming people I have ever met. Despite this welcoming and caring nature, in Fiji there exists a strong class divide between the native Fijians and the Fijian born people of Indian descent; Indo-Fijian people are not allowed to own land, and many of the homeless people in Fiji’s cities of Nadi and Suva are of Indian descent. For the greater part of the last 100 years, the government of Fiji was mostly Indian, acting on behalf of the English Commonwealth, and at that time the Indians were the ruling class. Since the military coups of the last several decades, all this has changed. Fiji is now run by it’s military. Typically a military government means that a country is holding onto order by tenterhooks, bringing in the military as a last resort measure to pull a it back from the brink of self-destruction. Often a military government can mean strict social measures, limiting the choices of its citizenry and committing violations to a population’s freedom. Not so in Fiji. Under the military government, Fiji is now spending millions on upgrading its roads, by way of a contract with a Malaysian country which hires a lot of local people to do the work for them. Also their old-age pension has trebled in value, and crime had plummeted, especially crime against tourists. This is very different from the military regimes we have seen in the rest of the world.

While the cannibalistic past of the Fijian islands is historical and documented fact, the remembrances the of these times and the deeds done during them is both revered and shunned. The nostalgia is tainted with shame, as if the people feel both a need to hold onto their cultural past, and yet to hide it under the rug. One of the main tourist items in Fiji is replica fighting weapons, specialised for inflicting particular damage to the opponents. You can’t walk 50 feet in tourist areas and not see a “back-breaker” or a “neck-breaker” in the tourist areas, and the stories told to the tourists are of fierce man-eating savages with no regard for life. The stories do seem exaggerated, however they are retellings of the way the Fijians used to live, and the embellishment is meant to give the tourists a little jolt. I’m not sure however that this intention is met, with the “theme park” tourists instead seeing this as an affirmation of just how “civilized” they are. What is surprising is that the people of Fiji attribute the end of cannibalistic practices to the introduction of Christianity instead of the irresistible push for normalization by an increasingly industrialized and global used world. This has become accepted as fact rather than the propaganda spun by the church that it actually is. Fijian people will talk proudly about the warrior past, but also dismiss it by saying “We are not like that anymore”, as if the shame that religion has brought to them reduces the significance of these deeds. The “wild west” history of Fiji has now become a tool for religion to contrast against as if to say “See how we fixed these people?”

Once I saw these conflicting contrasts in Fiji, it allowed me to deal with the people on a much more personal level, one where I felt compassion for their situation, and empathy for their plight. I am hoping that in time people who travel to destinations such as Fiji will take some time to look around them, to see not only what is happening but ask also ask why, and then maybe they would understand more about the world and its people. Through this kind of understanding of others, we have a better appreciation of how we can move forward as a global society, rather than just pushing the rich forward.


Many thanks to Martin S Pribble for supporting Something Surprising in many ways, and for bringing an Australian viewpoint to our attention here.  You can read his regular posts on his own blog at and follow him on twitter @MartinPribble

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Code of Hamurabi - and the law

Some people claim that the 10 Commandments should be the basis of the whole of the law.  I have touched on this before (here and here) and I dispute that claim because only three of the commandments seem to be present in the laws of most 'Christian' countries.

Some people also claim that the amazing thing about the biblical Israelites was that they thought completely differently from the tribes living in the surrounding regions at the time, and that this remarkable 'fact' shows how God had revealed himself to them exclusively.

Other people who take notice of the evidence from archaeology (particularly c. 1780 BCE) might have observed the wisdom contained in the Code of Hamurabi, which seems to be a significant historical step in the development of laws and justice.

Of its 282 laws, one of them seems particularly modern - and indeed particularly relevant.  It appears to impose obligations on an official; this provision establishes that a judge who reaches an incorrect decision is to be fined and removed from the bench permanently.

Good.  Let's adopt this in UK law!  Let's implement it too!  (Did I ever mention this before?)

It might be worth mentioning that this ancient statement of the law was literally written in stone; stones which have actually been found.  It also pre-dates the Old Testament by centuries.

It might also be worth mentioning that these laws, including the concept of 'an eye for and eye' were the work of a race of people who the mortal enemy of the writers of the Old Testament.  It seems hardly surprising that they didn't credit the previous authors in the bible.

The Babylonians got a bad press in the bible!  Why don't we ever hear the truth about them?  (I secretly suspect that the BBC must be involved in some way, and the UK government must have an aversion to Babylonians.)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Jesus, The failed Hypothesis?

Quoting Victor Stenger from his interesting new book, God, The Failed Hypothesis:

Many people say they believe because of the many eyewitnesses who said they saw Jesus walking after he was supposed to be dead!  However, that testimony is only recorded in the bible, second hand, and years after the fact.  Eyewitness testimony recorded on the spot would still be open to question two thousand years after the fact.  Eyewitness testimony recorded decades later is hardly extraordinary evidence.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Literal truth of the bible

If the statements [the bible] contains concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extrabiblical records, by ancient documents recovered through archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth, then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. In other words, if the biblical record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested.

These are the words of Gleason L. Archer, taken from his Encyclopedia of Bible difficulties, and you might expect that they had come from the mouth of a confirmed atheist.

In actual fact Archer was a defender of the idea of biblical inerrancy and this large tome was intended to disprove the idea that it contains the obvious inconsistencies that we can all see for ourselves.

And yet . . . in contrast . . . the infallibility approach followed by the Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches avoids many of the pitfalls of inerrancy by holding that the Bible is without error only in matters essential to salvation, and that guidance is necessary for the correct interpretation of apparent inconsistencies.

Shifting sands!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Was Christianity invented by Constantine?

Yesterday I explored how the science of memory could have affected the origins of Christianity, because the bible was not committed to writing for decades after the alleged events occurred.

I also mentioned that I consider that sort of distortion of the truth to be accidental and not meant to mislead people deliberately.

However . . .

Some people do think that Christianity had a more sinister origin, as is described in this article from the Beyond ALL Religion blog, in a post called How Christianity was invented. which begins:

Christianity is a copycat religion created by Emperor Constantine (for political purposes) based upon a myth (The Persian savior god Mithra, crucified 600 B.C. ?  400 B.C.?), which was based on other similar myths, all the way back to Chrishna of India (a mythical god that some claim was “crucified” around 1200 B.C.). There were 16 mythical crucifixions before Christ. The belief in the crucifixion of Gods was prevalent in various oriental or heathen countries long prior to the reported crucifixion of Christ.  Of the 16 crucifixions, most were born of a virgin and about half of them on December 25th.     Read on.

I'm interested to hear convincing arguments against the facts that have been presented there, as they appear to be quite compelling to me.  Just seeing Chrishna spelt that way seemed to add to the story - although I am sure that is not convincing and rational evidence.

See some related posts from Something Surprising:

Monday, 14 November 2011

The role of memory

I can't remember what started my interest in this but . . .

. . . research into the science of memory has some interesting implications for the way the world seems to us.  It might also have implications about the claims that the New Testament is a true account of the life of Jesus, since by anyone's estimation it wasn't written down for decades after the events are claimed to have happened.

You might wonder what could possibly be the link.  Neuroscience is clearly a complex topic and experimental results are no doubt inconsistent at times, but I have been reading about some interesting research that has been going on for a couple of decades.

In experiments that I am too squeamish to describe, it has been discovered that a drug called 'muscimol' can actually inhibit the formation of memories. Muscimol is apparently a gamma-aminobutyric acid (GAMA) agonist - in other words it interferes with neural activity.  If the drug is administered to certain areas of the brain before an 'event', it can prevent rats from learning to be frightened of a musical tone.  On the other hand, administering the same drug after the learning event has no effect on the memory formation at all.

Although a long way from anything that is relevant to humans this finding is interesting in itself.  But it has an even more interesting aspect.

If the same drug is administered when a memory is recalled it actually seems to wipe the memory.  The implications of these findings could be very interesting, since they support other theories about memory.  It seems that memories are not stored and recalled in the same was as a computer retrieves files, immutable and permanent.  Instead, every time you remember something, your brain interprets it in the light of everything that has happened to you in the meantime, modifies the memory accordingly and then saves it again for the next time. 

There is also a lot of evidence that the memories that you consider to be the strongest are in fact the most unreliable.

Do you recognise this in your own experience?  I think I do.  When I tell the story of an event the first time I'm certain that it is less interesting than when I tell it for the fifth time.  Its not that I am making up the story or deliberately embellishing it.  But as time goes on, responding to the questions that people ask me about the story I know that I see different aspects and different perspectives.  I report the order of events slightly more interestingly in order to make it clearer to listeners.

Now anyone who reads this blog regularly will have spotted where I am heading to with this line of reasoning! 

I am increasingly skeptical about the historical truth of the accounts of the life of Jesus and it is obvious that there was a long period of time for people to 'improve' the story before it was finally committed to paper.  Some will claim that the oral tradition was stronger in days before people were literate, but that argument really doesn't fit with the evidence does it?  Even the four gospels that were chosen for inclusion in the New Testament are highly inconsistent, and the other deprecated gospels obviously make the differences even more obvious.

I think this neatly describes how the story of Jesus was innocently modified over the first few decades.  It doesn't need any of the deliberate machinations that are suggested by other commentators. More about those in the next post.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Learning from Dawkins' 'The Magic of Reality'

Richard Dawkins' new book, "The Magic of Reality" arrived by post the day after the publication date, delivered efficiently from Amazon at a price which I found almost embarrassing low.  It is a beautifully illustrated, weighty hardback volume which immediately impressed me with the quality of its production.  Pressures of daily life prevented me from starting it immediately, but at last I have read it and I think I have learned a lesson that is far from the one that I expected.

I should say at the outset that I am a fan of Richard Dawkins and almost all the work he has ever done.  (I'm even quietly on his side in the recent Rebecca Watson incident but I rarely admit it!)  My own escape from the (albeit relatively harmless) superstition of the Church of England occurred thanks to him, with the unwitting assistance of the local vicar who proposed that The God Delusion would be good Lent reading.  On the two occasions that I have met him I have been impressed by his engaging nature.  He was not strident as he is often portrayed and he was not looking over my shoulder for someone more important to speak to, as some well known people have done in the past.

Having said that, my views of Dawkins are not shared by all of my family, colleagues or friends.  Many have their own reasons for distrusting him, but I think it comes down to just two in the end.  One is that some of them perceive that he meddles in topics that are not in his own field of expertise.  The other is that many people feel threatened by his incisive questions.  I find myself frequently questioning their use of the word 'strident' to describe Dawkins, knowing that it has become one of the 'in-jokes' of the rational-thinking community.  I often suggest that they read Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris if they want to see evidence of a slightly more controversial approach.

After reading The Greatest Show on Earth last year, and enjoying every single page, learning a great deal about evolution, I suppose disappointment was the last thing I expected from The Magic of Reality.  Of course the book is aimed at young people - from 12 to 100 as he has put it sometimes.  I fit neatly into that age bracket.  There is an old adage that 'there is nothing that we like to hear more than the things we already know', and I read the book with that expectation.  I did see some new things as I had hoped, and I saw a large amount of familiar material.  I think that any inquiring teenager could learn a lot from the book if (big IF!, I say in my curmudgeonly way) they are prepared to think about what it is saying and to ask questions.  It would not necessarily inform the uninquiring quite as much, but anyone who read it would find it difficult to put it down without learning to look at reality in a slightly different way.  From tiny acorns do mighty oak trees grow.

But by now, you will have inferred that there is a 'but' coming'  There is.  But is is not an altogether unhelpful 'but'.

My own background is in the physical sciences, and I have personally enjoyed the challenges of public outreach on a small scale.  I love to have an audience and frequently enjoy the challenge of explaining the high complexity of the large facility where I work to anyone who will listen.  Audiences vary from unexcited school groups (mainly interested in impressing each other on a day out), through university groups (slightly interested in technology), societies of adults who are not specialists in science but have chosen to learn about it, to groups who have specialised knowledge of our field of research.  I find that the use of analogies is a powerful teaching tool at all levels, and in my own field I have developed a feel for the ones that work best for a spectrum of different people.  You might not realise it, but often I find that experts are accompanied by their partners who know almost nothing about science.  My aim is to ensure that everyone goes away knowing a little more than they knew when they arrived.

Does The Magic of Reality achieve this?  I think the answer is yes, but here is the 'but'.  I found that the explanations of some of the things that I know best were just slightly off the mark.  Initially I felt slightly irritated by the errors, but then I realised that there is something that I should learn from that feeling.  Here is one example.  On page 115 he says:

"If you stood right on the Arctic Circle on midsummer day . . .  you'd see the sun skim along the southern horizon at midnight  but never actually set.  Then it would loop around to its highest position (not very high) at midday."

This is a nice story, but it is just slightly wrong in the important details.  For a start, the sun would skim the northern horizon in this way, not the southern horizon.  The day before and the day after, it would attempt to set at the most northerly point on the horizon, and the further from midsummer, the further south is the point where it sets.  By mid day on this mid summer day it would get to its highest point in the year, at about 47 degrees above the horizon - quite high but not very high, I agree.

Now of course I am being picky.  I already know how hard it is to communicate science to experts and others.  What I failed to expect was that I was unexpectedly finding myself in the same position as some theologians!

any aspect of the topic, and that this actually matters!  It helped me to understand how some of my religious friends have read these criticisms of their beliefs and how they could therefore question everything else that he says.

My own example is analogous to theirs.  It was a technical error in a field that is not his own.  In fairness he often repeats in the book that some areas of science are beyond his understanding - being too self-effacing (I'm sure).    This particular technical error does not lead me to doubt his other work.  Far from it.  All I do as a consequence is to read other arguments with more care.  Just being made to wonder whether to believe the things we read is one of the fundamental skills in science, and we all have to take care not to fall for the fallacy of 'the argument from authority'

I wonder how future discussions with 'Dawkins detractors' will go in the light of this learning.  I can only imagine that it will strengthen my arguments and lead me to encourage them to question the whole of their areas of expertise and decide in an unbiased way whether they spot the same as I have observed.  That is, that a few errors in publication of a significant work do not necessarily indicate that everything else is wrong.  The best insights into our own areas of expertise often come from the most naive questions.

I ask the readers whether they have any tools that might be relevant in the light of what you have just read.  Comments are welcome.  I expect some of you can find some technical or logical errors in this post - and I probably deserve it if you delight in pointing them out!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

50,000 thanks

This week Something Surprising has passed the milestone of 50,000 page views in its short life of 10 months.  I know that some readers pop in and then vanish again without a second glance, but I also appreciate the band of followers who read regularly and comment here or on Facebook, Reddit or Twitter.  (As for StumbleUpon, I am still finding it totally bewildering!)

As a small way of saying 'Thanks' to the audience of regular readers of Something Surprising, I would like to offer an opportunity for any of you to write a post which will be attributed accordingly. 

Obviously it would be nice if it was about something slightly surprising, but I think we all come across surprising things every single day.  Equally obviously, it can be controversial but not illegal or defamatory, but all you budding writers out there should have no trouble with that.

If you would like to use it as a chance to advertise your own blog or a cause that you care about just let me know. 

Go on!  Give it a try!

If you don't already have a blog you might even find that you like it!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Authentic fish and chips

Traditionally the English 'fish and chips' (** see etymological note at the end) consists of battered fish (usually cod or haddock), chips and 'mushy peas'.  The whole meal can be bought in a 'fish and chip shop' - where the fish and chips are deep fried.  Delicious, but possibly unhealthy - especially for the poor fish!

Until not very long ago the meal used to be wrapped in greaseproof paper, which was then wrapped in newspaper - a cheaply available and convenient thermal insulator.  This kept the meal hot for long enough to take it home.

Sadly the tradition has gone due to the modern preoccupation with hygiene and the wastefulness that goes with the comparative affluence of today's world.  Now we recycle the newspaper and use fresh new paper to wrap the meal.  What a waste! 

I never heard of anyone poisoned by a newspaper.  Not even by the Daily Mail!

Enjoying an evening meal at a local hostelry, the Wainwright Inn at Chapel Stile, the fish and chips arrived on a plate like this, complete with mushy peas and tartar sauce.

The meal was delicious.  I couldn't help smiling to myself and wondering what ridiculous hoops the chef had to jump through to prove that this copy of the Financial Times was not contravening the food hygiene regulations!

See a post from last March - The Peace of Cod

Small etymological note:  The English use of the word 'chips' is preferred here.   I'll translate for other English speakers around the world.  Chips = French Fries (at least broadly speaking, although these English fries tend to be a bit thicker than the French ones).

Another small note, almost unrelated:  On buying salmon in a shop, the customer asked whether it was wild.  The assistant replied "Wild?  It wasn't just wild - it was absolutely furious!"

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Frenetic Kinetics

I defy you not to smile at some of this!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Feynman's 'shaft passer' in reality

Reading Richard Feynman's autobiographical "Surely you're joking Mr Feynman", I came across a story of an engineer who had designed a complex train of gears for a 'mechanical computer', and in drawing it he had accidentally arranged for one shaft to pass between the spokes of another wheel.  Obviously this would prevent the wheel from turning.

The foreman shared his old-fashioned engineering 'wisdom' by telling the designer that he needed to specify 'shaft passers' on the spokes.

This is all very well on paper, and suprisingly enough conceptual designs do exist, but such a machine would be far from reliable.  However, Feynman goes on to describe a similar device that was used on German sea mines in both world wars (apparently).  These mines would float to close to the water surface, and they would be tethered to the sea bed.

Mine sweepers would try to detect the mines by dragging a cable along the sea bed, presumably between two boats.  If the cable met the anchor cable of the mine it would pull the mine sideways and tend to stop the mine sweepers or cut the mine's anchor cable so that it floated to the the surface.  Either way, they could detect and destroy the mine.

However, you have to admire the cunning German engineers who invented this device.

It allow the minesweeper's cable to pass safely through the anchor cable un-noticed.  Clever eh?  I wonder how many minesweeper skippers got into terrible trouble for failing to find mines which destroyed ships passing through the cleared area before the reason was discovered.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The entropy of the soul?

One of the standard pseudo-scientific arguments against evolution is that order can not come from chaos.  Well - of course this is not true as I described in a post a few months ago, Order from Chaos.  It is indeed true that the entropy of a closed system like the entire universe increases whenever any process occurs, but the entropy of an open system like the earth, which receives all its energy from the Sun, can rise or fall by 'exporting' its entropy.

But just for the moment let us set that aside and evaluate the argument that entropy forbids the production of order from chaos.  Inspired by a post from one of my more outspoken friends, Rosa Rubicondior, in What is Life, I wondered about the entropy of the soul and left a comment to that effect.

You neglected to mention the moment when the soul is injected into certain special life-forms, and whether the soul increases or decreases entropy.

I would argue that the introduction of a soul would decrease entropy so much more than the simpler soul-less forms of life, giving their bodies a non-random purpose in life, that all the creationist arguments about entropy become nonsense.

(Oh no - they were nonsense already! Entropy only increases in closed systems and the earth is not closed because the sun supplies the energy that is needed to reverse entropy locally.) 

 Any comments from you creationists and pseudo-physicists out there?

Small note - thanks to this site for the image

Monday, 7 November 2011

By far most scholars . . .

"By far, most biblical scholars hold that the historical account of the life of Jesus is true."  I have often been told this when I have questioned the evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

I actually question whether there is sufficient historical evidence for the claim that he lived and died in the way described in the New Testament and have written about some of my reasons before (here and here).  But I am assured that there are over 20,000 fragments of documents that consistently describe the story.

I rather doubt this statement - although not the number as much as the claimed consistency.  After all, even the documents that are most plainly visible to scholars and non-scholars alike - namely the gospels - are not mutually consistent.  As an example you can see a recent post by Rosa Rubicondior about the way that the story of the resurrection is treated in the four gospels - Jesus is risen and pigs can fly!

Similarly Dan Barker of FFRF long ago issued a challenge to anyone who can give an account of the Easter story that is consistent with all four gospels, and nobody has succeeded in meeting that challenge.  And if people are not even able to make sense of what is surely the most important part of the story, surely we have the right to ask how likely the rest of the story is to be true.

But still most biblical scholars agree!

I'm curious that the people who use this argument sometimes fail to realise the inconsistency in their own reasoning.

After all, by far the majority of biologists are completely confident of the evidence for the literal truth of the theory of evolution.

Somehow the argument is not so powerful in this direction if you happen to be a creationist.  Why not?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

How to beat William Lane Craig!

Opinions may be divided about the outcome of the debate between William Lane Craig and Stephen Law on 21st October 2011, particularly about whether it really contributes in a meaningful way to the debate about whether God (with a big G) exists.

But surely nobody can deny that Law managed to use the conventional debate format very expertly, giving Craig one of the greatest challenges he has ever faced.  This is the first time that I thought I had detected signs of nervousness from one of the world's most formidable debaters, as he realised that his plan of campaign was not going to work in the way he expected.  It seems to me that he recognised the quality of his opponent quite early!

Even the Church of England's publication 'The Church Times' has acknowledged that Craig's performance was far from sparkling, and they questioned why he had not used another line of argument that had worked well against a a previous opponent.  I feel certain that it would not have made any difference.  Of course they neglected to acknowledge Law's debating skill, but of course nobody would pretend that they were commenting on the skill of debating.  They were defending the point of view that they could never be expected to abandon, whatever happened in the context of a formal debate.

In my opinion Stephen Law out-performed even the great Christopher Hitchens in his demolition of Craig, very carefully avoiding being drawn into the onslaught of illogical nonsense as has happened to so many before him.  He simply dismissed the Cosmological Argument neatly as the nonsense that most people recognise it to be!

In the Q&A at the end he observed:

"What so often happens in these debates is that people, atheists, allow them to be sucked into detailed conversations about exactly what is wrong with the cosmological argument, and lose sight of the larger structure of the argument.  Even if it is true that there is such a creator, there is abundant evidence that it is not an all powerful all-good god."

For me, that was the strategy that worked best for him.  He addressed Craig's other two arguments about objective morality and the evidence for the resurrection politely and firmly by making a good logical case that the existence of an evil god could no more be disproved than the existence of Craig's good God.

Sadly I was not able to attend in person, but the appearance of the audio on Youtube has given us all the opportunity to hear a worthy performance.

Small note:  Wasn't it funny that Craig had some difficulty in understanding some of Law's typically English figures of speech and had to ask for them to be repeated.

Another note (not so small): Here's a link to Stephen Law's blog about the event.

and a link about WLC's campaign in the Oxford area

Related posts:
Why would an atheist want to hear William Lane Craig speak?
William Lane Craig to visit
Probably no Dawkins
By far most scholars . . . 

Normal service resumes

This week's posts have been 'refreshingly uncontroversial', I have been told.

Don't worry, normal service resumes very shortly.  :)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The deepest lake in the Lake District

The deepest body of water in England is in the Lake District, over 220 feet at its deepest point (thanks to @Hilary for the correction of my units)

A tranquil walk around the south west corner of this lake finds you on a difficult path along the bottom of some of the largest scree slopes in the country.  Although made up of quite large rocks, as you walk along it is not difficult to tread on something that moves.

The bigger rocks that move make a distinctive sound, which then echoes through the local scree in an eerie way.  But these slopes have been here for centuries and it is tempting to feel that the puny footsteps of people are not gong to disturb the rocks in any significant way.

But once in a while you step onto and area that moves under your feet, sliding down towards the water.  Meeting a young family who were just starting to walk along the scree in the opposite direction I stopped for a chat and took care to warn the children not to stand on the special 'key stone' - the one that will make the whole lot tumble down!  (Was that child abuse?)

From this vantage point on the screes, looking across the lake to a point 2 miles walk away, I could almost see the parked car containing two teenagers who 'bottled out' before getting to the exciting part of the walk!  They missed another of the finest landscapes in England - but to their credit, at least they did get to the top of Helvellyn earlier in the week.

As a puzzle to conclude my 'Week in the Lakes' would anyone like to hazard a guess at the name of the deepest lake in the Lake District?

I might return to a few more posts about the a week in The Lakes.  Whenever you spot one you will know that it has been a busy week!

Small note: @Derby Skeptic is banned from answering the puzzle for 3 days to give everyone else a chance to join in!

Friday, 4 November 2011

View from the top!

The 'top of England' is the peak of Scafell Pike (pronounced Score-fell by the way).  I had been up the mountain twice before, both times starting from Wasdale Head.  You climb from close to sea level to the peak at 978m in less than 3 miles.

This time I selected a different, slightly longer, route from the top of Borrowdale and the majority of the walk was very pleasant, with excellent views of the surrounding countryside.  As the top was getting closer it seemed that a great panorama would be visible, as it had been earlier in the week.

However, on arrival after the nasty scramble up loose rocks that 'welcomes' every visitor to the mountain peak, the clouds descended and an icy wind made it very uncomfortable and this is the view that greeted me!

Did I ever mention how much I like Helvellyn in comparison?  At least on the top of Helvellyn you don't get the option for international phone calls from your mobile phone! 

However, the walk down from Scafell was lightened by the company of two New Zealanders  who hadn't heard all my old stories!

Small note: Sore knees resulted from this walk due to the uneven nature of the terrain and general wear and tear I suppose.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Love of steam - S Y Gondola

I've always loved steam engines, ever since Thomas the Tank Engine first came into my life.  Usually these are in the form of railway locomotives or traction engines, but a recent appreciation for steam yachts was unexpectedly satisfied last week.

I thought it might have happened earlier in the week, when booking a ticket on a 'steamer' on Windermere, to travel half the length of the lake from Ambleside to Bowness.  Looking forward to a ride on a classic vessel, I was terribly disappointed to find that there was no steam in this 'steamer'.  Had I been on my own I would have gone back to the ticket office and made a strong case for a refund of my fare.  It is simply outrageous to sell tickets at that price on 'steamers' and justify it simply by the use of 'single quotes'.  The Trade Descriptions Act surely has something to say on the matter.

However, the week was rescued by an 'encounter' with the Steam Yacht Gondola on Coniston Water.  (My use of single quotes here is intentional and not at all disingenuous!)  The hull of this classic craft is indeed reminiscent of the shape of a Venetian gondola, and I was in two minds about whether to spend another £10 each to ride on her . . . at least until she arrived at the quayside.  Then it became inevitable!

If you have never seen a steam yacht in action you have missed one of life's little pleasures.  The quiet power is something quite different from what you would normally associate with a steam locomotive.  There is just a gentle chuffing sound from the chimney.  And you don't have to tolerate the sound of a throbbing diesel engine making the decks vibrate in complaint either.

This is a steam engine with a silencer in the exhaust system to enhance passenger comfort by eliminating the roar of the exhaust. 

How do I know that?  Well of course any engineer has to examine a steam engine when he sees one, even if he does have sympathy for the poor fellow who had obviously answered answered the same ones many times before.  (See the small note at the end if you want the technical details!)  But after that a lively technical conversation ensued about steam in general, steam launches in particular, and later branching out to some chat about similarities with nuclear fusion engineering!

The whole encounter with the Gondola and her crew was one that I will not forget.  I hardly noticed the beautiful scenery around the lake.

Living near the River Thames which is quite famous for its steam launches my mind wanders to the possibility of buying one.  (But sssshhhhh . . . don't tell anyone!)

Small notes:
My technical questions, the answers and some comments from me!
Q.  What is that wood-lagged box in the exhaust between the cylinders and the chimney?  
A.  Its a silencer.
Comment:  Neat!  Passenger comfort really is being taken seriously!
Q.  Is it unusual to use injectors instead of crosshead driven mechanical pumps to put water into the boiler?
A.  [Something along the lines of] Why would you use a crosshead pump?
Comment: I took that to mean that its not unusual.  The SY Gondola had two injectors by the way, and the boiler was manufactured by the Furness Railway Company and looked exactly like  locomotive boiler.
Q.  Isn't it unusual on a boat not to have a condenser in the exhaust?
A.  [Something along the lines of] why would you need a condenser when there is so much clean water all around us?
Comment: The purpose of the question was not really to investigate saving of water, but more along the lines of the two possible philosophies for steam engines.  One is to use a low pressure boiler and to get an extra pressure drop across the engine by condensing the steam - much as in the cooling towers of a power station.  The other - adopted on Gondola - is to use a high pressure boiler and to use the flow of exhaust steam to create a flow of air to draw the fire better.  Both approaches improve efficiency but in different ways.  

I didn't need to ask more about the components as I recognised them all, but familiarity does not always prevent appreciation of the finer points of the art of steam.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

On mobile communications . . .

I might have mentioned earlier in the week that the mobile phone network was not very good in Cumbria, and how I found myself connected to the network of the Isle of Man at one point.  Considering the number of visitors to the region - which must number in the millions each year - I think the poor service is unforgivable, as indeed is the quality of many of the road surfaces.

But this technical problem brought a moment of humour.

While walking around Wast Water we met a lady who had been trying to get in touch with her husband who was walking in the nearby mountains.

Wasdale Screes
She acknowledged that was no phone signal, but she exclaimed that she was surprised that a text message would not send anyway!

It reminded me of the mobile phone story in the post last month 'Will we ever know?'

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Look mummy! Baby Swans!

Taking the opportunity for a photo of the very domesticated 'wildlife' on the shore of Windermere, I was surprised to see quite a number of adult swans but none of the 'ugly ducklings' of our childhood stories.

Those of you who are not in the UK might not know the folk story about the ugly grey duckling who thinks nobody will love him.  He hides away from everyone, but when he emerges he finds that he has turned into a magnificent white swan and that everyone now admires him.  It turns out that he was not a duckling at all but a cygnet.

Where the Bowness cygnets are hiding is a mystery that I do not plan to dwell upon, but I was amused by the collection of birds that were around.  In between the beautiful white swans were some equally pretty white doves.  It reminded me of an event many years ago where I heard a small toddler point at a similar scene and call out

"Look mummy!  Baby swans!"

He obviously hadn't been listening to the story about the ugly duckling.