Saturday, August 21, 2010


Madly busy at the moment. With four papers, there's very little time to anything once I finish (a) my assignments and (b) procrastinating. Especially scary is the prospect of needing to finish my first lab report by the end of the week. I've never actually done a lab report before!

Then after this last week of term, I'm in Napier for the week, for the Level 2 Academy, where we'll be refereeing the secondary schoolboys. I'll be working hard physically rather than academically there. A week after that is over, I'm running my first ever half-marathon, which is a similarly frightening prospect.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


A blind man walks;
to where, he cannot know.

In the dark, his foot hits something: a step.
He trips, we laugh.
The fool; he should be more careful.

On the ground, he feels around him.
He feels another step,
above the first.
And now he’s on his feet,
He climbs it.

Where to now? He finds another step up,
and another, and another, and many more.
Blindly, he climbs the staircase.

And now he’s come a long way,
blind, in the dark.
The next step is in the wrong place;
he trips – what a clumsy oaf he is.
We laugh.

As he lands, his blindfold slips off:
he can see.
Nobody will ever again see as his virgin eyes do.

He’s come so far;
He's approaching the clouds.
Above him, the staircase fades into mist –
– where does it lead?

Up he goes,
into the heavens.

He is still climbing,
he has come so far.
The clouds have yet to stop,
he cannot see far ahead.

But he’s seen so much,
that the blind,
on the ground,
those fools,
those oafs,
may cease to laugh.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


The Cure are just wonderful... and the album Disintegration is freaking brilliant.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Draw Muhammad Day

Let's open this with Thunderf00t:

Just over a week ago, Swedish artist Lars Vilks gave a lecture on free speech. Vilks had gained infamy as one of the 12 cartoonists who drew depictions of the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad, in 2007. The lecture theatre was packed with Muslims, and as he showed a film about Islam and homosexuality, they attacked him:

A few days later, arsonists attempted to burn his house down. Fortunately he was not home, and the attempt was unsuccessful.

That video underscores the clash between the cultures. On one side, we have civilisation - a man making his point with words. On the other side we have savagery - I don't like what you're saying, so I'm going to stop you however I can.

Freedom of religion is an important thing, it really is. But it's not unconditional: you cannot impose your religion on others, and it doesn't take precedence over other freedoms, such as freedom of speech. It may be a little rude to draw Muhammad, but it absolutely must be our right to do so. Blasphemy cannot be a crime in a modern society.

Remember also, the final words of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, as he lay dying on the street after being shot by an Islamic lunatic. "Can't we just talk?"

I'm not much of an artist, but I drew a little something on MS Paint for today. It's called "Muhhamad, Prophet of Islam." Blasphemy is a victimless crime. Those who take offence at blasphemy are victims of their own indoctrination, not of someone's words. I will not submit to someone else's beliefs; and as long as there are many people in the world who would actively try to force their beliefs on artists, the media, and entire nations, I shall blaspheme against their beliefs. Here is my ridiculously poorly drawn Muhammad:

Happy Draw Muhammad day.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Utterly, utterly wonderful

Reddit links to a book review from the New York Times. Usually, Reddit is very fast at new stories, but they're actually 150 years late on this one. It's a review for Darwin's The Origin of Species, and it's utterly, utterly wonderful.

Just read it!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Freaking scary

The all caps in the title is utterly, utterly justified.

Two income, families, huh? See what happens? (Credit for that little quip goes to someone on Reddit)

Monday, April 19, 2010

A typically feeble defence of religion

A Christchurch minister, Rev Martin Stewart, wrote this piece in the opinion pages.

There's nothing particularly wrong with anything he says. Clearly, Rev Stewart represents a perfectly respectable, moderate church. Evolution doesn't contradict Creation, he says. Very nice, and all that.

But, for a piece titled "What's right with the church," he doesn't say very much about what's right with the church. These two (consecutive) paragraphs vaguely mention things:

Despite the flaws, the church is still among us. Sometimes strong and often weak, the church is still here. Indeed, the story of most of our communities is also a story of the contribution the church has made to the social cohesiveness of our neighbourhoods: child and youth activities supporting young people as they find their way in life; quiet but generous acts of kindness towards those struggling with life; the provision of a framework for understanding who we are and what it means to be a good neighbour; a means of marking the special transition times in life - birth, marriage, and death; a place for the very real spiritual impulses within us to find form and meaning; and sometimes a prophetic word to jolt us out of our comfort zones.

I'm part of a proud church tradition that fosters things like good education, caring for people who struggle, and helping elderly people negotiate their last years with dignity. Armed with a lively thinking faith, I have constantly been encouraged to do something with all that I have been given - a call to heed the two-sided teachings of Jesus and the great Jewish tradition - to love God and to lovingly serve my neighbours.

The first paragraph is basically factual. Churches undoubtedly have had a major influence in our societies - because a great deal of people have gone to them. They have marked births, deaths, marriages, because such ceremonies have been done by churches. This says nothing about "what's right with the church" - it is simply the function which churches have served. (And less so in modern times. At least the last two weddings, and the only funeral, I have been to, weren't in churches. We don't actually need churches for these things.)

The second paragraph - again, it's mostly factual. Churches have been involved in education. Whip-dee-doo! That doesn't mean they have to be, or they are better at it than anyone else. This, and caring for the disabled and elderly, are things that have historically been associated with religion - because historically, the good people who have set up such institutions have, like most people in what was after all a religious society - believed that religion is the source of morality. Then there's a vague spiel about Jesus and God and all that whatever.

There's very little of an argument, just a bunch of things we already know. Religion is involved with these things. Nobody is denying that, it is clear to anyone that a lot of schools are religious. What is being said is that religion has done a bad job of it - molesting children it's been educating, and the like.

It's a very, very, insubstantial defence of religion. (A good chunk of it, is directed not to the critics, but back to the flock: "Amid the noise and clatter that criticises and dismisses, I want to express a few words of gratitude to the people of our churches. Good on you! Keep at it! Don't lose heart!"

I have two more comments to make about this feeble argument.

1) The fact that most Christians are moderate excuses nothing. Nobody, I repeat, nobody, thinks that "all Christians must be paedophile loop-fruits, with wacky ideas who don't live on planet reality like the rest of us." I agree that "most Christian people they are kind of normal - even average." The problem is that these normal Christians are merely embarrassed by the excesses of their religion, and the issue is uncomfortable. This is not good enough. History shows a million instances of large swathes of a population embarrassed by the excesses of their bretheren - large swathes of Germans under Hitler were uncomfortable with what went on, plenty of white Americans in the southern states of the U.S. disliked the racism in their society. But just because most Germans weren't Hitlers, and many white Americans were uncomfortable with segregation, does not excuse the huge flaws in those societies. The heroes were the people who stood up and said, this is wrong, often risking their lives. By the same token, good, moderate Christians are not standing up enough to say, this is wrong. (And nobody's life is at stake in any scenario here)

This is the reason that Dawkins, Hitchens, and such are being heard with regards to the abuse scandal. They speak loud, but proud atheists are vastly outnumbered by proud Catholics. The voices of atheism speaking out on the scandals in the Catholic Church should be outnumbered, outshouted, by the collective outrage of good, moderate, Catholics. I have seen one story about an outraged Catholic priest in America. Where are the rest?

Enough timidity. The appropriate response to this is vocal anger. These are probably among the worst crimes mainstream religion has committed in the West in the last century. The timid, defensive response of moderate Christianity is ammunition for atheism - better ammunition than the crimes themselves (after all, Christianity admits the existence of sin anyway, it can perhaps at the very least somewhat rationalize the crimes).

2) Christians are average? This is a largely unrelated point, but there's something the Reverend said in his meaningless waffle that was a bit weird.

They [most Christian people] try to be good and do good - but are usually pretty average at doing that when it comes down to it.

 Well that's a bit stupid, then isn't it? I always thought that morality was, allegedly, something that only makes sense with regards to religion. Hence you'd expect religious people to be a bit gooder than the heathens. But apparently, Christians are just ordinary people - just average at trying to do good and doing good. Makes it all seem a bit pointless. So what we could say is, purely on account of things said by this religious apologist, extremist religion is bad, and moderate religion is pointless.

Looks like atheism is a good choice, then.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I don't respect your views

I have been very busy lately. The exchange of emails between me and Shoe Clinic finished with this:

Thanks for your feedback.

I respect your own personal  views with regard to Power Balance but from my own personal experience I have no negative thoughts on them.

From the people who wear the product or who decide to try it I believe it is their choice to make their own decision.

Kindest Regards

I'm not going to send a reply, because I have nothing polite left to say. All I have left to say, is something that I will write down here, to vent.

If you ever, for any reason, disagree with me, people, I don't want you to say "I respect your views," like the feeble-minded nobody who wrote that email above. I don't care if you respect my views. I care whether you agree with me or not. If you agree with my views, great, let's drink, or whatever. If you don't, then tell me that I am wrong! Explain it! Argue it! Or, if you can't be bothered, like this guy can't be, then tell me that you're not interested, or totally ignore me, or whatever. Just, please, don't be so patronising as to tell me you respect my view. I am not interested.

And the chances are, I don't respect your view. Your view that plastic bracelets affect the functioning of the human body is WRONG. Your view that ghosts are real is WRONG. Your view that you have a personal relationship with Jesus is WRONG. See, look, I don't even have enough respect for your view there, if you believe one of those, to say "I think your view that you have a personal relationship with Jesus is WRONG." I have no respect for nonsense.

The only respect I have here, is respect for your right to hold these WRONG views. Intellectual freedom is something I hold in high regard - the "marketplace of ideas" and so on. I respect your right to believe anything - but unless I agree with you, I will not respect your choice to do so. I am not sorry.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Courses so far

We've just finished our third week of courses, so we're about a quarter of the way through most of the lectures. I must report on how it's going...

Firstly, physics is tough. We're only doing classical mechanics for the first third, so there's no brand-new ideas (not until next year when we do Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics). It's all stock-standard Newtonian stuff, but it is mathematically very intense. We've been throwing around partial derivatives and differential equations right from the outset, and now that we've moved onto energy, there's some decent vector calculus to go with it. I've found the workshops very challenging. I need to actually make more of an effort in them to ask for help if I'm struggling; otherwise I'm not making use of them. Need to improve in that department..

Electronics is ok. Neil Thomson is a fantastic lecturer; the course is quite practical in nature (far less abstract than maths or physics papers; and it has labs!) So far we've done digital electronics, which I really enjoyed, and now we're doing circuit theory.

Calculus has been surprisingly, and pleasantly, easy so far. It's all multivariate stuff; so far we've explored partial differentiation in a bit of detail. There's nothing startling about it really, it all follows pretty easily from the single variable stuff.

Finally, discrete maths is the paper that's really just a spare paper; however I've enjoyed it so far. We started with counting stuff, really much the same as we did last year for the discrete part of algebra; then we did propositional logic. This was much the same as what we did in Critical Thinking (PHIL105) last year, except being treated from a mathematician's perspective. Now we're doing set theory.

I think the main thing that stands out so far, though, is that the most difficult mathematics we are doing isn't in maths, but in physics. Vector calculus is a third year maths paper, and yet we are doing it within three weeks of starting second year physics. All I can say is, what the hell, maths department? Do we really need to be waiting till second year to even do partial derivatives? I could have learned that straight after high school. If multivariate calculus is going to be 200 level, you really need to make it clear: anyone who can pass high school calculus with ease should skip 100 level calculus. Algebra, maybe less so, skip to MATH103 algebra (the algebra half of MATH170) would have been good advice for me. You need to give this advice really, really strongly - emphasize it. (I say this going only on what we've done so far. Maybe it will get harder, and my opinion will change.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lawrence Krauss

... will be giving public lectures on Monday and Tuesday. Monday's talk is "Science, Non-Science, and Nonsense: From Aliens to Creationism." Tuesday's talk is "An Atom From Dunedin."

I look forward very much to both. Lawrence Krauss is very good.

See for more details. (This link will only work while it is current).

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I will not judge this reply by its appalling paragraphing and misuse of "there"

Dear Jack,

Thanks for your email about Power Balance. 

We saw the product at a Trade Expo Show in New York last year and like you where very  sceptical at the beginning.

Do go on...

I have read all the positive and negative feedback on the product that is available.
When we saw the Bands in the USA we sort out people over there who were wearing them as well as  the owners of stores in the US who sold them
and discussed the ins and outs of the product with them.
Finally  we decided to purchase 30 and do our own trials as simple as they maybe so that we could decide ourselves if we thought
the bands did anything for us or not ..
(1) So let's see... to find out if it worked, the only people you asked were those who were already selling it? Did you talk to the store owners who didn't sell it? Who was there presenting the case against it?
(2) And your methodology was...?

Over a 4 month period we had people in a variety of different sports from Golf to Surfing to top level  Rugby players wear the
Bands and give us there feedback.
Very scientific. "Here take this. It'll make you feel more balanced." "Oh cool, I'll try it out, I hope it works." Four months later "I reckon it does kind of make a difference."

Yeah." Give half of the people fake, but identical in appearance, ones, where the person conducting the trial does not know which ones are which, and then if you get a positive result you might be onto something.

Of the 30 people involved of which I was one every person came back very positive and said they would continue to wear
them and believed the product had benefits to them. Most have recommended them to their friends because they believe the product is of benefit
to them.
The Golfers and Surfers just raved about the product and both had major improvement in their chosen sport.

If, as seems to be true here, the golfers were among the most positive about it... that's extremely consistent with the "placebo effect" - seeing as golf is a confidence sport (I imagine surfing would be too). Believing that you have better balance gives you confidence - and with confidence, you play well!

I have instructed our staff to make sure they tell people who are interested in buying the product that there is  as much negative as there is positive feedback out there on them and it is up to each individual person to test the product and decide if they believe that the product is of benefit to them.

Kindest Regards...

That's not good enough, unless you are also telling them that there is no scientific evidence that it works, and that the product description is undoubtedly utter nonsense.

Anyway, I'll send in a reply to the email this evening.

EDIT: My reply:

[the guy's name]

Do you have any evidence that the effect of these bracelets is anything other than the placebo effect?
It is all very well and good to say that people report a difference, but in sport confidence is a massive factor, and the mere belief that a bracelet might improve blood flow (or whatever it claims) could very easily give people the confidence to push themselves a little further. Studies on magnetic therapy conclude, every time, that the effects of it can be explained by the placebo effect. It is easy to test this; all that is needed is identical in appearance, non "magnetic" bracelets. Give (say) ten magnetic bracelets to ten people (selected at random from twenty), and ten non-magnetic bracelets to other ten, and ask each group whether they notice a difference. If there turned out to be a significant difference, then further research could be carried out on larger groups, by researchers. My point is, if the bracelets actually do something, you'd be able to find proper evidence for it - and it would be revolutionary. Sadly, I suspect evidence would have been found by now if there was any.
Short of that, you cannot claim that there is any evidence that these bracelets work. The product description is still nonsense; it still makes a complete mockery of physics and chemistry.
Consumers who buy this product are still not being informed even when you tell them that there is "equal negative and positive feedback." For them to actually be informed, they would have to be told that the only plausible reason that it might work is the same reason why we might offer to "kiss it better" when our children hurt themselves very slightly. (Would it be right to sell "kisses better" on the street to small children for five dollars each?) Short of that, selling this product is preying - consciously or not, (I don't think that you're quite aware of it) - upon the gullible and the credulous. This is still deeply unethical.
Regards, Jack

Monday, March 8, 2010

"When Power Balance comes in contact with the body's energy field, it resonates at a low-level frequency that improves the flow of energy throughout the body and helps regulate its static energy."

One of the hallmarks of total, utter, woo, is sentences such as the title. If you can't understand what's wrong with that title, then ... well ... put it this way. I'm betting you can't understand what it's on about. Take my word that I don't have a clue either. Further, take my word that not a single scientist in the world would understand it, because it makes no sense. It's part of the description of a product called "Power Balance Wristbands."

POWER BALANCE bracelets contain two Mylar Hologram's which are embedded with frequencies that react with your body's electro-magnetic field.

When the static POWER BALANCE Hologram comes in contact with your body's energy field, it begins to resonate in accordance with each individual's biological energy system, creating a harmonic loop that optimizes your energy field.

This maintains maximum energy flow while it clears the pathways so the electro-chemical exchange functions like the well-tuned generator it was designed to be!

This results in immediate improved balanceincreased core strengthgreater flexibility, increased range of motion and overall well-being

How Does Power Balance Work?

When Power Balance comes in contact with the body's energy field, it resonates at a low-level frequency that improves the flow of energy throughout the body and helps regulate its static energy. 

Like a tuning fork, Power Balance creates cellular harmony that allows you to perform at your optimum level.  The high density Disk acts much like a switch, resonating within your system and turning on your energy field while it clears the pathways so the electro-chemical exchange functions like the well-tuned generator it was designed to be. 

Energy Balance & Systemic Harmony Are the Keys

Optimal health and peak performance occur when your body maintains ionic balance (the exchange between negative and positive charges) and free flowing energy pathways (harmony) at the optimum frequency

The Power Balance silicone wristband comes equipped with two, visible Power Balance holograms. The 3mm thick wristband is made from 100% Surgical Grade Silicone that is extremely durable , featuring a 40% stretch feature for extra stretch over the hands. It is built to last.

Is Power Balance safe for everyone to use?

Yes. Research conducted by Yale University Professor & Independent Laboratories

Obviously this isn't a unique product - this sort of thing pops up all over the place. None the less, it's definitely worth a complaint. My brother was brief and vicious:

The "power balance wristbands" (as retrieved from are a pseuodoscientific hoax and it is a disgrace that a respectable company such as The Shoe Clinic should take advantage of peoples gullibility by selling them a piece of plastic at an inflated price on the basis of a pseudoscientific bombardment of misapplied chemistry and physics principles. This sort of product is highly unethical and you should distance yourself from it

I wasted even more time with my complaint, which I directed straight to head office;

To the manager

I am concerned to learn that your store is selling the product "Power Balance Wristbands." My brother has submitted feedback on this; I would like to complain slightly more directly.

The product is clearly a sham. A clear effort is made in the product description to make it sound scientific; scientific buzzwords such as "resonate, electro-chemical exchange, energy field, frequency, energy flow, biological energy system, ionic balance, energy pathways" and so on. However, the explanation is completely empty; the words simply make it sound impressive (it always sounds impressive when people talk about energy fields. On closer inspection,  for example, if you search Wikipedia for "energy fields," (I am a physics student; I have never studied or heard any physicist talk about energy fields) you get to a page talking about spiritual and alternative medicine, not a technical science page that you might expect. This clearly reveals, then, that the effort the writer of the description goes to to make the wristbands sound scientific is misleading, because this product is not based on any of the sciences it wantonly abuses - physics, chemistry, biology - but is an "alternative medicine."

Although the scientific principles the product description scratches the surface of are clearly totally mis-used, this does not fully address what the most important question clearly is: does it work? The description claims, firstly, that the product causes "improved balance, increased core strength, greater flexibility, increased range of motion and overall well-being."  This claim receives no support - it's not even a "studies have shown the product creates improved balance..."

So, there is no science behind the product, and the best evidence that it works is a link to an article in a surfing magazine, which turns out to be an interview with a company representative - not an "independent review" as your page claims (please change that. it is false and deceptive).  The sad truth is, thousands of products like this turn up, and they do get tested, and not a single one has been shown to work. The only effect they have is the placebo effect - people are influenced by their belief that they work. I'm not sure how much the wristbands cost, but unless they are exceptionally cheap they are too expensive for a placebo.

Products such as this should not be sold. They are useless and deceptive, and are bought by the gullible and the credulous. I suspect that the only crime your store's management is guilty of with regards to this product is the same gullibility and ignorance - but to sell this product in the knowledge that it does nothing would be deeply unethical, and I urge you to remove it from your shelves and demand a refund from your suppliers.

With regards, Jack Cowie

So I'm looking forward to receiving a reply full of corporate-speak.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ghosts for sale!

That's right, on TradeMe! In good old Christchurch! The bidding is past $1000, and it doesn't close till Monday...

Captured ghosts from our house

Captured by an exorsist from a spiritualist church

one spirit we believe is a man by the name of Les Graham, managed to track down a photo. He died in the house in the 1920's.
Exorsist believes this spirit likes to make himself known and spook people. but he is not a very strong spirit.

The other spirit came from when me and my partner stupidly did an Oujia Board. We believe it is a little girl who likes to move things and turn things on and off. Exorsist says she is VERY strong and if left will get stronger.

We have had no activity since they were bottled on July 15th 2009 . So i believe they are in the bottles.

They are bottled with holy water as aparantly the water dulls the spirits energy, sort of puts them to sleep.

To revive the spirit, i have been told that you pour into a little dish and let it evaporate into your house.

I just want to get rid of them as they scare me. But someone might like these to play with.

So if you like ghosts, heres two real ones!

 Looking down the questions and answers... good grief. Sounds like the seller has been in the paper, on the radio.... riding high, floating on sea of gullibility. I asked a question of my own, a very polite enquiry (there's plenty of people not being polite; I'm not totally against occasional rudeness, but diplomacy is needed when they can easily ignore rudeness; I would prefer my comment to be read and absorbed, and preferably replied to) about whether the seller has heard of confirmation bias.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I am aware that I need to give an update about how I'm going now I'm away from family and friends in Christchurch. I shall post it here, because, hey, it's my blog, that's vaguely what this is for.

 Well, I've been in Dunedin a few weeks now, and the flat is going, running smoothly. My room is still a total mess (I have one set of drawers, which fit most of the clothes I wear often, and none of the rest. The rest are in plastic bags, strewn around the floor. One of these days, I intend to give it all a sort out. The rest of the flat is more organised!

Anyway... uni started on Monday. My schedule this year consists of four maths papers, three physics papers, and an electronics paper - basically the standard 2nd year physics course with an extra maths paper (Discrete) added because I enjoyed the discrete maths we did in first year (which means I have a full 2nd year maths schedule too).

Our flat, henceforward to be referred to as Islington Manor (which I christened it on account of no-one else thinking of anything) is a long way from uni, but the Science II building is on the near side of the uni to us, exactly 20 minutes' walk, which frankly isn't that bad, and I walk through the Gardens every day so it's a nice walk too (after the Gardens we get a daily tour of good old Castle Street).

The current plan for the future is pretty straightforward: go to lectures, knuckle down and make sure I understand what we're being taught. I want to be able to keep my fitness stable, and not be too cold (feeling it already some nights. We will definitely need to use the heat pump some time this year...

And because I like being arbitrarily negative and complaining about things, here is a list of 10 things that are annoying me at the moment:

1) I can't find my keys
2) Our fridge is too small
3) Our oven is too old
4) My window doesn't open
5) Mornings are freezing at this end of the house
6) My doorhandle is crap
7) I lost my favourite hoody at the uni
8) Textbooks are a pain in the posterier, especially when I have three for PHSI231
9) People's heads got in my way in Calculus today (even though I am tall); I must find a seat at the front of the classroom next time.
10) Fussy eaters. Sigh.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The sinister voice of Richard Dawkins...

It really is sinister. New Symphony of Science song out.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Some people complain; NZ Bus fold

A few months ago it was announced that New Zealand would have an "atheist bus" campaign, as other places in the world have. Well, they say all publicity is good publicity, and if that is true then the opponents of the campaign have helped it by complaining enough for NZ Bus to decide they won't allow the ads after all. Very conveniently, this gets the campaign back in the news (an appearance from the thoroughly mediocre spokesman on Breakfast; on,in newspapers...)

I don't know about the legality of this, and so I won't say much about that. What I will say is that, when the campaign was first announced, the same utterly mediocre spokesman was on Sunrise, where he ummed and ahhed around a question which plenty of people would think - "do we really need this in New Zealand? Religion's not that big here anyway." The fact that this campaign has been blocked demonstrates that, yes, we do need this in New Zealand. For the majority of New Zealanders, religion is an irrelevance; but there are enough for whom it isn't; people who are so pious and dogmatic about religion that they somehow get offended by a simple, plain statement that there are people who disagree with them. It really shouldn't be a surprise - look at Family First, remember Destiny Church's "Enough is Enough" march (in fact, just remember the Destiny Church, and you'll realise that, yes, the forces of fundamentalism are there, and they taking a stand against equality and freedom). Not to mention, down at Union Lawn at the Uni here, where about a fifth of the stands are for various campus Christian groups (I have already got given a Gideon's Bible!)

No, religion in New Zealand isn't quite as all-pervading as in America, but it is there, the full spectrum from the largely inoffensive Anglicans (who are helping sell my old textbooks this week), all the way through to the sexism and homophobia of the Destiny Church - and every level in between. There are people trapped in the cycle of the fundamentalist religions, and they barely realise that there are people who identify as atheists. Those people will sit up and notice when they see a sign saying "There's probably no God." They already have, before the signs have even gone up! That's why they complained, and the fact that they complained is evidence that, yes, the target audience is out there, somewhere.

I just finished reading a book, Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It's her memoir, of growing up in fundamentalist Islam in Somalia and breaking free, to become a controversial Dutch politician. One moment in the book really stood out - when she a teenager, talking to a boy she quite liked. She finds out that, not only was he not a Muslim, but he didn't believe in anything at all - he was an atheist. This is shocking, and she knows straight away that it is over with him - but what really stands out is that she didn't know there was such a thing. Eventually, she becomes one herself, because she asks questions. There is great ignorance among the religious about what exists outside of religion. People need to have the seed planted, not so much to turn them into atheists, nice though that would be, but just so that they are informed, so that they know such a thing exists. I have nothing against the fact that some people do, and will, make the choice to believe in weird religious ideas - that is what should happen. What offends me is that many people don't know it's a choice - they are slaves to their beliefs.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Dunedin... quick update

So, I'm now officially in Dunedin, settling into the flat. We don't have internet yet, hopefully we'll get that soon; the flat is going to be cold in the winter but I'll survive, cos I'm tough. It's already starting to feel like home, though it's quite a mess in my room because I don't have any drawers yet. Big game of football this Sunday, National Men's Youth League (me the man in the middle!) at Carisbrook. Yikes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book "review": The Mind of God

I got this book for Christmas, and I feel I should briefly discuss my thoughts regarding it. It's reasonably old (1992), not that well known. The title refers to the famous finish to Hawking's A Brief History of Time:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would truly know the mind of God.

The Mind of God is written to be a "scientific search for the meaning of the universe." Davies spends a fair amount of time talking about religion; as would be expected from the title; he is not particularly critical or uncritical of it, merely interested; religion is after all very important, historically at least, in the search for meaning in the universe. He would be described as pantheistic or deistic; so basically he is sympathetic to religious ideas so long as they are kept abstract and un-dogmatic.

I found Davies' writing strange; it seems paradoxically personal and impersonal. He lays out certain ideas, makes most of them seem plausible, and then, if he has one, tells you what his opinion is without ever justifying why that opinion is better than the alternatives. Hence it is a tentative book - which was what I expected.

Ultimately, there's one argument Davies is making: his final sentence is "We are truly meant to be here. I don't think he's argued very strongly for it; all he has done throughout the book is taken a look at certain aspects of science and carved a very rough path towards this conclusion. He provides no compulsion for why one should actually follow such a path - all he has said is that it seems to be there.

According to the blurb, he is "seeking to provide a glimpse at the meaning of it all." I don't believe he comes close to achieving this. The core argument is more that such a meaning exists at all, rather than that is is X or Y or whatever; the most that could be said is that he speculates a little on where one might look to "glimpse at the meaning of it all."

Look, it's an interesting read. There's some quality writing in here, and the ideas presented are interesting. I enjoyed it; but I would say that one definitely should not expect too much out of it. There's little real substance to it; it is a collection of interesting ideas lightly strung together (with the occasional bit of solid science) into a plausible but not overly convincing argument for an abstract philosophical idea. That is all, really. Three stars, perhaps.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ignorance kills

People have all sorts of diverse opinions. That's how it's supposed to be; this is what democracy is about. The marketplace of ideas.

But not all opinions are equally valid. Some opinions are wrong, and dangerously so. People put great importance on their opinions, people are stubborn. Or, alternatively, some people don't have an opinion at all. They just don't care.

A combination of people clinging to pre-formed opinions and desperately trying to rationalise them so as to sell their ignorance to others, and other people just plain not giving a toss, means that there are some places, even in the First World, where vaccination rates are not high enough. Diseases that should barely exist anymore do, because of a lack of herd immunity in populations.

It kills people. A baby in Australia, Dana Elizabeth McCaffery, would have turned one today. But not enough people in her area were vaccinated against whooping cough. She was too young to be vaccinated. She was a month old. Her parents are now fighting for the vaccination cause, and won an emotion-laden award at the Australian Skeptic's Convention last year for their bravery.

Whooping cough is not pretty; I know, I've had it, as did my brother and sister (at the same time). Fortunately, we were old enough. The coughing sounded, and felt, just awful; my mother described it as sounding like we were dying. I cannot imagine how bad it would sound when your one month old old baby girl is battling for her life in hospital.

Ignorance kills. It's that simple. When a person chooses not to receive a vaccination, they aren't just putting themselves at danger (that is their own problem). They are putting other people in danger. Listen to the doctors and the scientists when they say vaccinations work, they are professionals. Get angry at the ignorant fools who are against vaccination. Vaccination is a moral obligation.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Oh how I want to be there...

Christchurch Skeptics 10:23 overdose.

But apparently we're supposed to be running up Rapaki track on Saturday morning...

I hold out hope that we can go up Rapaki extra early so that we can get to this?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

P.Z. Myers is interviewed by

I've been a big fan of reddit since I discovered it. Reddit has done an interview with P.Z Myers, in which he answers questions that the reddit community submitted and voted on, on topics relating to science, atheism and pseudosciences, academia, and such topics. I found it a very good interview; P.Z. is very articulate and very level headed. I must try and read Pharangula in his actual voice!

Friday, January 22, 2010

I crack myself up

I know it's bad form to laugh at your own jokes... but I can't help it. It's a mash-up of some xkcd comics.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I've been finding the news coming in from Haiti rather harrowing - I struggled with watching the news last night. An entire nation, already very poor, has been utterly decimated. Maybe my memory is faulty, but I don't remember anything worse in my life than this in terms of natural disasters.

If you want to donate towards the aid effort, and you're a committed secularist, you can donate through Non-Believers Giving Aid, which has been set up by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The money goes to Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Vote with your credit card and help demonstrate that morality does not consist of following dogmatically asserted rules - it consists of showing simple empathy for other human people because, heck, civilisation would not exist if we were incapable of that.

I was planning to give $20. I got two lotto tickets for my birthday, and I checked them today. Guess what? Haiti won $67 more out of them.

And, if you think I'm a jerk for saying that I donated and how much I donated, perhaps you're right. But if I make one friend of mine give money they were going to spend on themselves, it's worth it. There is no rule saying that charity should be a private affair, and there shouldn't be one. If I'm a jerk for this post, then I'll wear that badge with pride.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hubble 3D

This looks startlingly awesome. I want!

(via the Bad Astronomer, who apparently makes an appearence)

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Lying Professor

This is quite awesome. A finance professor, in order to make his students pay attention, told his students in the first lecture of the year that he would, on purpose, tell a lie in every lecture, to keep the students on their toes...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Greeks were quite good, actually

It's easy to be surprised by how advanced the ancients were. For example, around 300BC, Aristarchus proposed that the sun, rather than the Earth, was at the centre of the known universe. It took about 1800 years for the idea to be raised again, by Copernicus.

X-rays and advanced photography have uncovered the true complexity of the mysterious Antikythera mechanism, a device so astonishing that its discovery is like finding a functional Buick in medieval Europe.

Using nothing but an ingenious system of gears, the mechanism could be used to predict the month, day and hour of an eclipse, and even accounted for leap years. It could also predict the positions of the sun and moon against the zodiac, and has a gear train that turns a black and white stone to show the moon's phase on a given date. It is possible that it could also show the astronomical positions of the planets known to the ancients: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

It is sad that so many achievements of the ancients were lost for so long; imagine the artifacts and writings that no longer exist at all. Imagine how much we are missing; imagine where humanity would be if they had never been lost to start with.

(thanks to Reddit)

Friday, January 8, 2010

The plumbing doesn't help with the cucumbers anymore

Mike links to Sleeping Talkin' Man. Sleep-talking has never been so funny*.

Just briefly, I had a great birthday today, lots of people wishing me happy birthday and so on. I am now the proud owner of a wok of my own, so dammit, I'm going to cook stir fries a fair amount this year. Mike and I had dinner at Bahn Thai with a few friends, it was thoroughly nice. I am also the proud owner of a shot glass chess set, and... yeah. I'm scared too.

And, nine days! Nine days!

*As far as I know.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Symphony of Science - The Unbroken Thread

A fourth Symphony of Science song has been released. It has a life theme, so Sagan is joined by David Attenborough (the voice! the voice!) and Jane Goodall. Enjoy.


Now, I would like to preface this by saying: this is me thinking aloud, this is me wondering, this is me stretching my limits.

Faith. The word. Some smart-ass once said, and it is often repeated "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." If that's the definition of faith then it's an awful, awful concept - self deception. The usual definition that a religious type will give when you ask them what faith might be more like "believing something in the absence of actual evidence for it." It basically seems to be "there's no proof, so I'm allowed to believe it."

That is, perhaps, an ineloquent definition, but never mind. It's not what I'm wanting to talk about. It is something which I can make little sense of, and I think that's because there is no sense in it. If there is sense in the idea of faith - and that is what I am wondering aloud here - it does not lie in the narrow religious/mystical excuse for believing without evidence. There are times when we use the word "faith" and it makes sense.

This is, I guess, taking a little inspiration from Sam Harris. In the final chapter of The End of Faith, Harris discusses spirituality. He argues that spirituality is an idea that has been hijacked by the dogma of religion and the supernatural; that spirituality can be rational. He says:

The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil's masterpiece.

My issue, and that quote that I just found from Wikipedia illustrates it perfectly, is that faith doesn't fit on that second list. I am sorry, Mr Harris, your book is fantastic, I agree with what you say, but I cannot see the word faith as a negative word. Yes, the meaning that it takes in that religious context - the meaning that you are discussing, blind, unconditional faith - is awful, but the word faith, just like the word spirituality, means more to us than that.

I got thinking - and this is where this whole post comes from - about the word "faithful" as a description of a husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend etc. In this context, it means sticking with, loving, a person. We are faithful not only to our partners, but to our families and our friends. Faith is sort of like loyalty or trust perhaps; but somehow those words are too empty and cold. Faith is what allows us to have long term relationships with our loved ones, it gets us through the bad times when they annoy us, allowing us to reach the good times when we see again how beautiful or funny they are. I cannot think of a better word to describe all this than "faith."

It is easy to see why we'd have this faith. It helps us stay stable. There's clear advantages to stability in our relationships. The idea can be expanded beyond relationships. We have faith in ourselves - our abilities and character - it's the optimism that, yes, I can go out and face the world today. This faith in one's self might lead to, for example, a scientist having faith in, and thus trying very hard to defend, his pet theory, even though he sees that it faces severe difficulties.

That last point - the faith the scientist has in his pet theory - is an important idea. By now a religious reader might well be protesting (although this may be optimism on my part) that this is exactly the same as religious faith. I agree that it is. I have more to say on it. Consider the scientist and his pet theory. His faith can clearly only go so far before it becomes stubbornness. Or the lovers - it's all right to have a little faith when your partner's a bit moody or something, but if your partner is beating you regularly, maybe what's stopping you from leaving them is fear rather than faith. Faith can take you so far, but there is a point at which it stops being faith and becomes something bad.

And so, this conception of faith, it is a sort of optimism. It is an optimism that you attach to your thinking, about people, ideas, yourself, basically an optimism that allows you to think you're right just that little bit more than you really are. I said that it was similar to "loyalty" and "trust," but that those words didn't seem right; perhaps it is loyalty with optimism tagged on, or loyalty and trust with optimism.

Directing my attention back at religion: faith is a poor justification for your beliefs and definitely no reason for anybody else to join you in them. If someone asks that scientist with his pet theory "Why do you think your theory is so good?" the answer "because I have faith in my idea," although it may be true, does not help; the asker of the question can probably see that already, they want actual reasons, evidence or whatever. And if the question is "Why should I believe your theory?" the answer "Faith" is even worse; the questioner wants evidence, reasons. Faith does not answer the question.

I do not feel that I have been redefining the word "faith" here in the way some words are deliberately redefined ("gay" for example). I believe that what I have been saying is what faith actually already means. It is a positive word, a positive idea. Faith is the force that holds us back just that little bit from making changes we cannot easily go back on. It allows us to investigate ideas thoroughly, giving us every chance to find subtle insights, and when it is not enough - when we give up our pet scientific theory, when we lose our religion, when we split from our lover - it is the fact that we have had faith, that we have given it every chance it had , that our decision was thought out and not hasty - that gives us confidence that our decision was, indeed, correct.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

Very much enjoyed it, although possibly it helps that I haven't read the books. Still need to see Avatar. That is all.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sharing a few things

Now, allow me to take the opportunity to share a few links. Firstly, a few blogs I follow:

Pharyngula is the exceptionally popular blog of Minnesota biology professor P.Z.Myers. P.Z. is famed as an outspoken and vicious critic of all kinds of quackery, especially (as he is a biologist) creationism. He offers no olive leaf to the moderate religious folk, either, and is utterly scathing to the non-religious types who think we should tread carefully where religion is concerned. He deserves his popularity; he is fantastic, and I thoroughly recommend his blog.

Starts With a Bang is the blog of Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist. Ethan mostly posts about what's happening in physics and astronomy. I've learned a fair amount from him, he is good at explaining things.

Finally, Bad Astronomy is the blog of Phil Plait, "astronomer, lecturer, and author." Phil is infectiously enthusiastic about astronomy. He is also a noted sceptic, his biggest opponent being anti-vaccination types.

That's blogs; now I just want to link to a couple of YouTube videos that I liked. Firstly, Tim Minchin. I only discovered him a few weeks ago, and it would be fair to say I fell in love. He is a comedic musician. Probably his best song is his Christmas song, "White Wine in the Sun" which starts funny and then becomes quite sentimental -and the lyrics reverberate with me, because I have a sister on the other side of the world right now.

Secondly, this is a wonderful video. It's called "Instruction Manual For Life," and I'll let it do the talking.

Thirdly, if you haven't seen/heard Symphony of Science, you're missing out. A guy called John Boswell has created some autotuned songs from certain science documentaries such as Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Most of them have Sagan, other scientists such as Hawking, Tyson, Feynman, and Dawkins make appearances. His page is here. I'll link to the first video on YouTube, "A Glorious Dawn," featuring Sagan and with an appearance from Hawking.

That's all for now.

The "Grand Opening"

Ok, well welcome to my blog. Just quickly, I'll talk about what I'm aiming to do here:

I'm not aiming to be too ambitious or anything. I'll occasionally write something long, but I also intend to use it just to submit links to things I liked, things I find interesting and so on. I'll mostly keep it reasonably brief, and I will update as often or as rarely as I feel.

The main subjects of the blog, I guess, will be the following three: science, scepticism, and me. Yes, that's right. Me, me, me, me.

So without further ado, I hereby cut the ribbon and all that. Welcome, enjoy.

P.S. The name "Jack's Page" is not neccesarily permanent.