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.