Thursday, 28 August 2008

Think Different

Still thinking about the fate of our (possibly) more talented neanderthal cousins, I don't think I used one of the best metaphors which was, almost literally, under my nose. It is a truth universally acknowledged among those who care about such things, that early versions of the Windows OS which I'm using at this moment were way behind what Apple were doing in terms of user-friendly user interfaces back in the '90s. For your average non-techie user, the choice should have been a no-brainer. But Microsoft eventually triumphed, not because its system was was easier to use or technically superior, but due to Microsoft's foresight in dealing with software licenses, which meant that there was just way more stuff to run on PCs than Macs. In this way, the PCs simply out bred the Macs. The neanderthals - don't think dumb, think different.

Talking of thinking different, something which isn't new but is new to me. The Danish software company Specialisterne is employing people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder to improve the quality of its software testing. Instead of seeing difference as a problem, the company is harnessing the special skills of people with ASD -("motivation, focus, persistence, precision and the ability to follow instructions") with, according to the radio interview which alerted me to this story, considerable success. The company are apparently looking to start up an operation in Glasgow. More about this splendid organisation here.

Sadly there are some people who think different but not - in my humble opinion - in a good way. After recently writing a few complimentary things about what religion can inspire people to do, I came across a deeply depressing article in the Guardian which reminded me why I'm definitely not religious. The article was written in defence of the Shi'ite practice of self-flagellation, a form of devotion to the memory of Imam Hussein, the Prophet's grandson
(in case you missed the case, a man was recently found guilty of child cruelty after forcing two boys to beat themselves during such a ceremony). It's the sort of activity which would be laughed at if anybody outside a "faith community" indulged in it. Yet, according to the writer, the spectacle is

keenly watched by onlookers, children and adults alike, who, though they have seen it all before, continue to be mesmerised by the sheer spectacle of it – the display

I'm not a fan of Max Mosley and his antics, but at least he didn't take kids along to share in his unconventional jollies. But it seems that any activity, however bonkers is OK if it's an expression of faith, and the warping of young minds with such nonsense seems to be a parental right of the Godly. Dreadful.

It's a a crazy old world out there, sure enough. Like the man said:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

My perfect cousin

Back to the blog after a Bank Holiday spent visiting family and I find that more distant relatives have been in the news. There's been a trend in more recent years to rehabilitate our evolutionary cousins the neanderthals from their original "nasty brutal and short" image, but the general assumption still seems to be that they died out and we survived because they were in some way inferior - maybe their brains, although on average bigger than ours, were less highly convoluted. Perhaps the anatomy of their vocal tract, not preserved directly, but inferred from their skeletal structure didn't permit the range of complex language sounds produced by Homo Sapiens. Whatever it was, we're here and they're not, ergo we were better in some significant way.

Interestingly the latest piece of research on the stone tools produced by the neanderthals and by humans just like us living at the same time, suggests that they may not have been out competed at all. Their stone technology, argue the authors, was every bit as good as ours, perhaps even a little better. Why, then, did they perish when we survived? The theory is that they just happened to be a small group of folk, living in the challenging, marginal environment of ice age Eurasia. The conditions were against their population expanding, whereas modern-type humans coming out of the tropics, lived in a more benign environment and were simply able to out breed them, even though they may technologically and intellectually have had the edge.

It's an intriguing theory. It may, of course be dead wrong, but it's not unusual to find that being in the right place at the right time can count for more than actually being better. We think of life and nature as a quest for perfection and our culture, from the Olympic Games to advertising encourages us to think that being the best is all that counts. But in real life, good enough and on time often beats a more efficient solution which can't be made to work, or doesn't have the right resources behind it. Think about the VHS v Betamax videotape format war, which many feel was won by the technically inferior product - or even the emd of the Second World War, when the Nazis' sophisticated rockets, jets and Tiger tanks counted for nothing against the allies' almost endless supply of workaday kit such as Sherman and T-34 tanks.

So, just maybe, we are actually the second-best species of humans on the planet - the really bright guys hung on until 25,000 years ago but got wiped out by the challenge of maintaining a viable population in an extreme and hostile environment. Unlike Kevin in the Undertones' famous song, our perfect cousins just didn't survive to prosper, be envied and, presumably, excel on University Challenge.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

In the news

Considering the extravagant displays of poor sportsmanship to be seen in any number of Premiership and international football matches, I'd have thought that Usain "Lightning" Bolt's celebrations after his astonishing and effortless-looking sprint victories might be excused. Jacques Rogge doesn't seem to think so. Then again, there are a few pointed words for M Rogge here - and quite right, too, IMHO.

Elsewhere in the news, the Russian show of force in Georgia continues. The con incidence of the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring may be just chance, or maybe it's a sign that Czarist, Communist or Capitalist, the huge autocracy at the heart of Eastern Europe has always put its faith in the strong man and feared the "virus of freedom".

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Alexander The Possibly Quite Good

I see that the Alexander Technique has received a positive write up in the British Medical Journal. Despite my scorn for "complementary" and "alternative" quackery, I'm quite prepared to give the Alexander Technique the time of day - there's nothing ostensibly risible about the benefits of good posture/movement and not damaging your body by putting it under unnecessary strain - any workplace training video in manual handling demonstrates what damage you can do by, for example, lifting things incorrectly. The converse, positively getting into good habits of posture and movement could well have benefits. After all, we're not talking way out crazy stuff about crystals, auras, healing energies or homeopathic infinitesimals.

So, just to prove that, although sceptical about unproven treatments, I'm not completely closed-minded, the picture above is of a group of people on an Alexander Technique Course in Spain a little while back - a group including yours truly.

I don't know if it really works or not, but it felt good and there might be something in it - the jury's out at the moment but whereas I'd be truly astounded if someone produced convincing proof for the benefits of homeopathy or crystal healing it wouldn't amaze me if the Alexander Technique had real benefits beyond the placebo. Not yet Alexander the Great, but interesting territory on the edge of conventional therapy, as opposed to the wilderness way beyond reason....

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


Loads of stuff to do and little time to blog ATM, so here's a real oldie, but one which always makes me smile - as does this one, featuring an ex-Goodie and of Springwatch guru...

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Smart cookies

The discovery of cookery may have been a necessary step in the creation of all subsequent human culture, it says here. Highly speculative, but food for thought...

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Religion - Devil's advocate

Religion, especially the organised variety, doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. But does it have anything going for it? On the face of it, yes. It's been the inspiration behind some of humanity's great works of architecture and art. From the surreal mud mosques of Mali to William Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus, works dedicated to the glory of religion can astonish and move even a crusty old humanist like me. The cathedrals of medieval Europe, the gilded pagodas of the Far East, the gospel music of the American Deep South, the geometrical marvels of Islamic architecture, Milton's Paradise Lost, Nkosi Sikeleli Africa, the Parthenon; it's a list which could go on and on.

As important, maybe more so, is the sense of community and fellowship which people can experience at their church, temple, mosque, whatever. In our self-centred, atomised western world, this valuable feeling of community isn't something to be lightly dismissed. In a country where you probably live miles from your family and hardly know your neighbours, a sense of belonging would be a valuable addition to many people's lives and religious congregations often provide that. Furthermore, there are plenty of religious people are just genuinely nice people - perhaps being socialised by a strong community can make them so.

So, what's not to like?

Well, my problem is with truth. As most religions believe themselves to be in possession of a very special truth - The Truth - this should be, along with humility, one of religion's Unique Selling Points. The trouble is that if you can't accept that central truth, then by definition you don't have faith and aren't religious - and that's where I am. There have always been a few who questioned the claims of religion, but in the last couple of centuries, the evidence that the creation myths of the world's religions aren't truthful accounts of what actually happened has become overwhelming.

Speaking as someone from a culture where Christianity has been the dominant faith, obviously Darwin V Genesis has been the big match. It isn't the triumph of Darwin alone which conflicts with the narratives of Christianity. Think about the size and age of the universe, according to the best estimates patiently put together by generations of scientists. The Universe of the Bible was a large place, but of comprehensible size and old, but of an age which could be grasped in terms of the generations of men and women. Within that framework, it would be possible to believe in an earth that was at the centre of the universe and in a God whose chief concern was his earthly creation. Now that we know that the size of all human civilization is an almost dimensionless point in great gulfs of time and space, it would seem a tad presumptuous to postulate a God who created everything and yet keeps us under his special care. In the words of Arthur C Clarke, "if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods."

As if that wasn't enough, there have been generations of pesky Biblical scholars, picking apart our sacred texts, pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions, suggesting that Gospel Truth ain't necessarily ... well ... true. In fact the documents have all the hallmarks of texts written amended and developed by fallible humans rather than direct dictation from on high.

Some religionists - often the more "liberal" and sophisticated ones, don't have a problem reconciling all of this with faith. The bits which have been thrown into doubt or dis proven are, they say, beautiful metaphors. The bits which are currently un-provable or un-dis-provable are, they say the real Truth. I almost prefer the wilful blindness of Biblical literalists, determined to ignore any contrary evidence to the literal truth of Genesis to this level of intellectual dishonesty.

So, although there are many things which religious people have, which I actually admire, the central tenet of their religion is the sticking point, along with all the accompanying baggage of faith trumping observation, empirical inquiry, questioning or anything else which isn't literally a prejudice (pre-judging an issue in the absence of evidence). It's a bit like the placebo effect - good things can happen though believing alone, but that doesn't actually make what you believe in true. In fact, I did a bit of a sneaky thing in including the Parthenon in my list of religiously-inspired architecture - although religious people find it hard to accept dismissal of their own spiritual beliefs, they find it quite easy to dismiss those of past believers, whose beliefs, presumably just as deeply held, are no longer in fashion. To quote Arthur C Clarke again, "No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor — but they have few followers now".

Along with many religious people I believe that there is more to life than our society's current obsessions with making money, shopping and celebrity. But whatever that "more" is, I don't think it's the sugar pill of religion.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Galloping Gertie

Learning the hard way - amazing old footage of the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge here.

Monday, 11 August 2008


Almost certainly yes, but Arthur would have been amused by this.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Tutor and tutorial

Goodness me, but I'm tired. Passed Cardington again last night on the way to see the flying proms at Shuttleworth, a flying display with light classical music, courtesy of the Guildford Symphony Orchestra and fireworks to finish. Enjoyed it, but it would have been even better without the high winds and driving rain, which kept a lot of the planes on the ground and all of the audience wet and shivering. Still, Dunkirk spirit and all that.

One of the planes which did manage to make it into the air was the venerable Avro Tutor, as featured in this YouTube vid (it's currently wearing the rather snazzy silver colour scheme with red and white sunbursts on the wings, rather than the yellow shown in the hanger shots).

Whilst there, I was asked about the origin of the roundels worn by British military aircraft. It would have taken too long to explain in the cold and wet, but it is an interesting story. Strangely enough, the origins of the symbol can be traced back to the French revolution - this Wikipedia article on the cockade sheds some light on the prehistory of military aircraft markings, whilst this interesting blog entry brings the story up to date.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Humble pie

I saw a sign in the back window of somebody's car today which I liked very much. "Caution" it said "I drive just like you."

As I've commented before, we're all more fallible than we'd like to admit, so I rather appreciated the refreshing humility of the sign. Humility's not a very fashionable virtue - in fact it seems to have had rather an image problem ever since Uriah Heep, which is a shame since we humans are imperfect creatures who we could use some occasionally.

The only people who consistently talk up humility these days seem to be the religious. Humility, as clerics of all religions like to say is almost a Unique Selling Point for faith. Politicians, business people, scientists, journalists, salespeople, they tell us, are constantly bombarding us with arrogant certainties, but only religion can offer the wisdom of true humility. A sales pitch which could easily win me over ... if it wasn't such utter brain-sapping nonsense.

The "humble" people of God are, let's not forget, those with absolute certainty that they are in possession of The Ultimate Answer To The Question of Life, The Universe and Everything. These are the people who not only know, without a shadow of a doubt, that God exists, but exactly what He wants those of us in this microscopic corner of His creation to do with our lives; some of them know exactly what He wants us to eat, who we should sleep with, how much of our time we should spend praising Him (because, despite the fact that he's omnipotent and omniscient, He apparently suffers from low self-esteem and needs a lot of support and positive feedback) and what punishments will, or should be meted out in this world or the next for disrespecting Him (whatever other attributes He possesses, His followers certainly seem to think He has self-esteem issues coming out of His ears).

Me, I'm on the side of those who still have the humility to doubt, reflect and think - the sort of people you don't see too often in pulpits.

That was part 2 of an occasional series about the problems I have with religion...

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Not singing from the same hymn sheet

I'm a pretty irreligious sort of guy. Sometimes, more God-fearing folk wonder why this is so and wonder, rhetorically why I have such a "problem" with religion (generally, like jesting Pilate, they will not stay for an answer).

Well, I freely admit that my problem is that I just don't get it. We've just had a couple of headlines which illustrate why I can't get my head round the religious world-view. Here in Britain, leaked letters from the Archbishop of Canterbury, show that he'd previously written that "an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness". The Archbish has more recently been in the news for trying to appease conservative Muslims by suggesting that elements of Sharia Law should be incorporated into the British legal system and for trying to appease conservative evangelical anti-gay Christians in the Anglican communion, who'd been upset by the consecration of an openly gay Bishop in the USA, so the revaluation that he may have held liberal views on homosexuality in the past is seen as embarrassing in some circles.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia (a relatively "Liberal" Muslim country), the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been charged with sodomy. Even consensual sodomy is considered such a serious matter in Malaysia that it can attract a prison term of up to 20 years.

God, the creator of everything which is, is apparently very concerned about what consenting adults do in private. Or maybe not, if you talk to the archbishop of Canterbury. Or then again, he might have changed his mind about that one (I did say he, not He, for He is infallable, obviously).

Although His representatives apparently worship the same being, they seem very confused about what He wants for us. He either wants gay people to be punished or loved, depending on who you talk to. Or maybe both, depending on what day of the week it is when you talk to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Sort that one out through inter-faith dialogue, suckers.

Or maybe in the wacky world of theology, where three can be one and a million angels may (or may not) be able to sit on the head or a pin such contradictions can be resolved through the process known in politics as doublethink. But in my world none of it seems to make much sense and His robed representative will have to try a lot harder if they really want to be taken seriously by those of us not indoctrinated into religion from childhood.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

On top of the world

This map will be of great interest to those in high latitudes thinking about potential sources of oil, gas and minerals, not to mention potential ice-free trade routes, now the ice cap seems to be melting. An addition to the wealth of nations or yet another thing to fight over? Time will tell. In the meanwhile there's more background here.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008


Following my recent post featuring the R101, this seems somehow appropriate....

Monday, 4 August 2008

I thought BMI was an airline...

According to yet another report about flabby kids "research shows that most parents of overweight or obese children think that their child is a healthy weight". I'm relatively new to this parenting lark and I can be (as my partner often points out) rather unobservant at times, but I can't imagine being so distracted that I wouldn't notice if my own child was becoming clinically obese. It makes you wonder what goes through some people's minds...

We never thought of our Johnny as "very overweight". He did spend a lot of time his bedroom, mind ... never came out, come to think of it . We thought he was in there playing computer games or something, like teenagers do, 'til; the health visitor told us he'd too got big to squeeze out though the door...


My radical two step obesity plan would be:

1) Occasionally look at your child.

2) If the child looks huge, feed them on something which isn't sugary crap and take them for a walk occasionally. Or, better still, get them hopping around like maniacs in a dark, sweaty, airless club to some old trance track, played at a volume of 11 or so. This one would do splendidly - sorry about the cheesy vid. Heads up to Wallace and Gromit - the moon isn't really made of cheese, but Ecuador, apparently, is.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Everything you know is wrong

Having read a little science fiction, I'm familiar with fictional characters discovering that the reality they thought they were experiencing was in fact an illusion and finding themselves in a very different reality. The experience must be disconcerting, to say the least, but you have to experience that sort of disorientation for yourself to appreciate just how disturbing it is.

We've all (I imagine) had those Proustian moments when some taste or smell brings a memory of things past vividly back to life. Yesterday, just for a brief moment, I had a Philip K Dick moment. This was scarier than a Proustian moment and didn't include tea and cake. I was driving through Milton Keynes just about to negotiate one of the many roundabouts for which our local conurbation is justly famous, when I noticed a smell. Faint at first, it quickly grew in intensity - it was the odour of whatever disinfectant gives hospitals their distinctive and unmistakable smell. Why I got a sudden and intense whiff of this on an urban road, I don't know - maybe some fell off or leaked out of the back of a van, maybe someone had just cleaned up at the site of an accident or spillage, maybe it was even some sort of olfactory hallucination triggered by I don't know what. Whatever the reason, real or not, for a short period, I was driving along experiencing the concentrated smell of a hospital ward.

The smell was so strong that for a moment I was overtaken by a frightening thought - maybe I wasn't actually driving along at all. Maybe I'd just been involved in a road accident and was lying in a hospital ward remembering my last moments of consciousness before the accident...

A second or so later, the smell faded and I continued my journey to meet my partner and son at a "teddy bear's picnic" event organised by his nursery, a trip which was completely uneventful apart from the torrential downpour which started when I reached my destination. But for just one second there, I was really shaken, overtaken by the thought that what had seemed like solid, commonplace reality a moment before was a memory, an illusion and I was somewhere else entirely, waking up to a new and frightening reality. Maybe, in some alternate world in an infinite number of alternate worlds another version of me, as real as the one sitting here at this computer keyboard is waking up to precisely that frightening reality. The possibility that this is true is neither more or less than it was before, but the plight of the character who finds that "everything you know is wrong" seems more real today.

It would certainly give an added edge to re-reading one of my favourite science fiction novels, Quarantine, by Greg Egan (recommended to me by the entity known as Meridian, who recently upgraded our PC by giving the little calculating demon inside three shredded wheats and adding a shiny silver case and blue LEDs ... mmm ... blue LEDs ....). Quarantine starts off in appropriately Blade Runner-ish territory with a mid-21st century Chandleresque private eye taking on a puzzling missing person case. In the future of Quarantine, the new technology isn't android replicants (which, like the android replica in Hawkwind's Spirit of the Age are, always playing up) but neural modifications which allow people to modify their own realities. But just when you've got your head round that one it turns out that the real mystery at the heart of the book involves the nature of reality at a far more fundamental level. It's hard sci-fi at its best, recommended to anyone who wants to have their mind well and truly blown. Even if the universe turns out not to be the way it is in Quarantine, the very possibility that it could be is one of those things which would make your head explode if you thought about it for too long. Which is why I'm going to crack open another cold beer, just in case I get tempted to think too hard about it.