Archive for November, 2009

Protect the Internet

November 26, 2009 Leave a comment

I love the internet. It gives me quick, convenient access to any information I need, plus it allows me to distribute the information that I want to share with others. Perhaps the most important characteristic which allows this to happen is that the ‘net is not controlled by big corporations like so many other aspects of our lives are.

That’s why it worries me when there is a hint of these corporations interfering with the efficient operation of the internnet just so that they can extend their control or increase their profits. Its hard to imagine two companies more evil and disgusting than News Corp and Microsoft so I dread to think what kind of abomination would result if they cooperated in a search/news system like those currently being proposed.

Rupert Murdoch has said he is sick of Google being freely able to provide access to his content. Why? Isn’t the whole idea of news content to be accessed by as many people as possible? What’s the point of news if its not read, and then there’s the exposure the advertising on those pages gets as well. You would almost think that Google should be charging him for delivering readers, not the other way around.

Most experts seem to think the idea of removing News Corp sites from the Google search index is suicide. I certianly hope so because it would be great to see News Corp die and it would be even better if it was as a result of corporate ignorance and greed not being able to cope with a new way of doing things.

One option being presented is removing News Corp sites form Google and allowing only Microsoft’s Bing to access them… for a fee of course. That would mean that you would need to use Bing to make sure that News Corp content was included in your search so more people might use Bing in preference to Google.

This is typical of Microsoft’s dirty tricks they have used in the past. They can’t compete on merit so they do some backroom deals with some equally unprincipaled partners to force people into using their products. To be fair at this point I should say that Bing is actually OK. I can’t see a reason to use it but it isn’t actually virtually unusable like most Microsoft products (Windows, Word, etc).

Of course it might backfire. People might continue to use Google so they will find other company’s content and just keep away from News Corp sites. That way Murdoch will be worse off than he was before. That’s what most people think will happen and that’s what I hope does happen.

The whole idea of compromising the internet’s openness is contrary to all the principles which have made it the useful tool it is today. If this move succeeds it will probably mean others will follow and that will be the beginning of the decline of the ‘net in general. If it fails then it will most likely warn other companies off from doing the same thing.

So it must fail just to protect the integrity of the Internet. If NewsCrop also fails that’s another benefit (other, more principled, organisations will fill the gap) and if Murdoch is exposed as the evil, greedy scumbag he is then that’s just another bonus as well!

Another Bigot

November 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Why are so many Christians and conservatives of various types so bigoted? Why are they so totally convinced that they are right and everyone else is wrong? Its a very dangerous attitude for anyone to have and its made worse by the fact that Christianity and conservatism have so many just plain bad beliefs which are in need of more examination and criticism rather than less.

According to the dictionary a bigot is someone who is obstinately convinced of the superiority or correctness of his own opinions and prejudiced against those who hold different opinions. This fits perfectly with a friend who I have been debating with recently who has been distributing misleading (and often just plain wrong) information against Muslims.

He makes the same old claims which have never stood up to any scrutiny in the past: western countries being based on Christianity, Muslims being incapable of being citizens of a modern democracy because of their extreme beliefs, the superiority of the Christian worldview, and the political right being more in touch with reality than the left.

Its all garbage. Modern democracies are based on Greek ideas, not Christian. When western civilisation was more based on Christianity we had a period of history called the Dark Ages. Has everyone forgotten this? Democracy isn’t a strong theme in the Bible but it is a feature of Greek philosophical thought. If we did base our culture on the Bible we would live in a very confused, backward, and unfair society. Why would we want that?

Muslims extremists probably cannot fit in to a modern society but the vast majority of moderates can. I am not a great supporter of the Islamic religion (or political system) but I do realise that it is believed by a significant proportion of the world’s population. Just rejecting it and refusing to try to find a compromise solution seems to be more likely to create conflict and that may be what some conservatives want, but they will usually not admit it.

Christianity has been responsible for more deaths, misery, and repression than any other belief system I can think of. Look at history: murdering people with opposing religious views, persecuting and murdering intellectuals who disagreed with them, the crusades, the extermination of Jews, witch burning, the inquisitions, religious warfare, and modern genocide. No other belief system comes close to being as evil as Christianity so they have no right to claim the moral high ground in any way.

I agree that the extreme left are pretty loony but so are the extreme right. Rejecting any idea just because it originates from a liberal perspective is just plain ignorant. Many conservatives refuse to accept compromise and seem to have no perspective on political beliefs apart from their own form of extremism. Rejecting alternative ideas out of habit rather than for good reason is no way to improve any political situation.

Its just the intensity of the hate that many of these people exhibit which worries me. I have several fundamentalist Christian friends and the sort of stuff I hear from them, and their associates who have similar beliefs, is just sickening. It really destroys the notion that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness and tolerance.

There’s probably no hope that conservatives will ever look at the world in a fair and objective way and see that there perspective isn’t really the only one which is worth considering. Cherry picking the evidence and ignoring inconvenient facts will always convince them that their imaginary world is real. The only hope for a better world is for the decline of religion to continue and for future generations to be a bit more moderate in their political beliefs.

Thoughts of an Old Fart

November 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Yesterday was my fiftieth birthday. Yes, those of you who follow my blog now know that I am what many people have referred to as an “old fart”. But is 50 really that old today? I don’t think so, at least not in my case. But I do know some people who are a similar age and act like they really are old farts and I know a few who are older and don’t act that way at all.

Working in the IT industry helps, of course, because I am usually already involved in the latest tech trends before much younger people even find out they exist: blogging, podcasting, social networks, and Twitter would be examples. On the other hand my teenage son and daughter claim the stuff I put on Facebook is far too serious – they tend to use the word “lame”!

I think it is important to act the way that is natural for you and avoid as many social norms as possible. Who really wants to do things the same way as everyone else? Certainly not me. Naturally there are many social rules which are only sensible to follow, and the same applies to laws and regulations.

But I reserve the right to ignore any norm, rule, regulation or law which I disagree with. I do understand that if I break laws I might have to face the consequences but I won’t necessarily agree that what I did was wrong. Anyone who thinks that the law is automatically right is not only limiting themselves but they’re also not doing society a favour in the long term.

I have always been interested in debating controversial subjects (at least since my time as a student at university) but I have toned down my rhetoric a bit since I was younger. Yes, what I present in this blog is definitely less extreme than what I used to believe! I don’t think that’s a mellowing process associated with getting older, its a realisation that there are no black and white issues and there is always an argument which can be presented for both sides of any issue.

Actually I usually associate mellowing with ageing but when I think about it I realise that most of the people who have the most extreme and inflexible views are people who are older than me. At least that seems to be the trend with the people I debate. That could be because people usually become more conservative with age, and I tend to debate conservatives.

But what is it about conservatives which so often leads me to debate them? It generally gets back to their inflexibility and inability to cope with new trends. The most common topics I debate are global warming, liberal politics, religious flexibility and the value and accuracy of science versus other world views.

Few people would say we are 100% certain that global warming is happening just the way the scientific consensus thinks but that is certainly the safest view to take and is very likely to be close to the actual facts. So why do conservatives refuse to see this? Its because they were brought up in an environment where exploiting the environment was considered a noble thing (of course, “exploit” might not have been the word they used). Things have changed, and with very good reason, but conservatives haven’t.

Liberal politics is a bit less objective because its almost impossible to get unbiased and clear data on the outcome of various political interventions, but at the very least people should be prepared to compromise on this. But not the conservatives. Anything that is to the left of where they stand is communism! And Barack Obama is a socialist! Are they for real?

I think the data indicates that religion is on the way out as the major social and political influence in the world. It has already happened in Europe and has started in America. The third world is where most of the growth is now coming from but that will follow the other regions eventually. Its clear that no one religion has a special place in the world now but I do agree with the conservatives that we should be careful in giving certain religions (you know which one I mean) special benefits in an attempt at fairness. Giving a religious group special privileges when they demand them has nothing to do with fairness.

The rejection of science can be quite annoying. The same people who deny certain areas of science (creationists, new age medicine proponents, and global warming deniers are examples) seem to be happy enough to accept it in less controversial areas. Do creationists really think that scientists could get evolution wrong but still get the physics theories used in modern computing and communications (which the creationists use to distribute their lies) right? That doesn’t really make sense.

So that’s a few thoughts from an old 50 year old skepticism and science blogger. If I look at the classic skeptic James Randi who is now over 80 and still doing brilliant skeptical work I figure I’ve got a few years left yet!


November 18, 2009 2 comments

Most people are inspired by something. It can be a belief system or a place or a person. I think you can tell a lot about a person by asking them what they find inspirational. So what kinds of things do people find an inspiration? Sometimes its a popular figure like a sportsperson or an entertainer, sometimes its a religious thing, and sometimes its a more technical or intellectual thing or person.

So what is it for me? Probably the thing that inspires me most is the awesome vastness and subtlety of the universe. There are also some people I find inspiring and one of them would be Carl Sagan. If you have never heard of him, he was a professor of astronomy and space science and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He also served as an advisor and consultant to NASA, and played a major role in the establishment of SETI projects. As an author he won a Pulitzer Prize and was most famous as a science communicator especially for a television series (produced in 1980) called “Cosmos”.

Sagan died at the relatively young age of 62 in 1996 and is missed by both science enthusiasts and skeptics (because he was also famous for his skepticism). I was pleased to see that November 7 was set aside as the first annual Carl Sagan day. Unfortunately I only found out about this after the event or I’m sure I would have done something special that day, like watch some favourite scenes from Cosmos.

The thing I liked about Sagan was the way he made astronomy and cosmology interesting and approachable without dumbing them down too much. Very few others have done this as well as he did. At the time his efforts were a bit controversial because some of his fellow scientists didn’t think popularising science was a worthy activity but in many ways he helped make the subject the acceptable discipline it is today. Many universities now have specific programs aimed at increasing the public understanding of science. Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous person in this role as the of Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.

Sagan made some perceptive quotes during his career. Here are a few I found on the internet (although I’m not sure that all of them were totally original)…

As a skeptic I love this one: “the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” So when I laugh at creationists its not because they are misunderstood geniuses, its really because they are amusing clowns! (see my blog entry “Laughing at Catholics” from 2009-11-13 for more on this).

Another which can be applied nicely to religious people as well as believers in other paranormal and superstitious beliefs is: “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” Me too!

Sagan also noticed the poor standard of scientific literacy in American society: “I can find in my undergraduate classes, bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star.” And I know people at the university I work at that don’t know what a day or year is (as far as their astronomical origin is concerned).

Reinforcing this idea he said: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology” which lead to: “We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” This hasn’t improved much since he originally said it either.

He was aware that pure facts by themselves are useless though: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.” Great advances in science have been the result of great imagination (Einstein being the greatest example) but these can’t be just random junk, like homoeopathy for example. Imagination is fine but the result of imaginative ideas must be testable and fit the facts.

I don’t think he was the first to make this observation: “The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.” Of course, the anthropic principle might contradict this, but one day I think we will find why there are aspects of the universe which seem to be strangely conducive to the appearance of life.

Even if there are factors in the universe which seem to me friendly to life its still obvious that life isn’t really a significant part of the universe as a whole: “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

And finally, a thought which sums it all up for true science fanatics: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Blogging the Bible

November 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Whenever I criticise the Bible I feel a little bit unsure of myself. The Bible is supposedly the greatest book ever written and the people who should know it the best (Christians) are adamant that it has no errors. Yet I see a book which is clumsily written, self contradictory, internally and externally inconsistent, and represents a very mixed approach to morality (at best).

So there seems to be a lot of disagreement and as a true skeptic and rationalist I naturally have to consider the possibility that its me who is missing something. But maybe not. Last week I briefly debated the consistency of the Bible with a fundamentalist and he didn’t even know about the problems I was mentioning and certainly didn’t have any answers. I have encountered this a lot in the past – even though I’m an atheist I know more about some aspects of the Bible than the believers!

But what about Biblical experts? It seems that real Bible scholars (I don’t mean religious leaders here, I mean true scholars) recognise the problems. The two descriptions of creation in Genesis, for example, clearly discredit the whole story. But believers insist they are just two variations on the same story. Apparently scholars recognise the two stories come from completely different authors and times (the first one was written last) so that fairly well disposes of the “two variations” defence.

I recently listened to a podcast where David Plotz was interviewed. He is a journalist (and Jew) who wrote an extensive blog called “Blogging the Bible” where he read and commented on the whole Bible. I was interested in his opinion as a Jew on the Old Testament in particular and I wasn’t disappointed (I should say here that Plotz is a cultural Jew which means he had a Jewish upbringing and accepts the Jewish culture without necessarily literally believing all the theology.)

So reading through the blog it seems that Plotz notices the same problems as I do. For example he mentions the inconsistencies such as the two creation stories in Genesis. He notices the arbitrary morality such as God protecting Cain after he killed his brother (what’s that all about?) And he notes the jealous overuse of power by God for no well documented reason when he kills almost everything on Earth with the Flood.

We can see that these stories clearly aren’t true, because they are inconsistent, disagree with plain observed facts, and blatantly borrow from the myths of earlier religions. But even if they were true what would it tell us? That God is a jealous, evil bully. He applies his own laws inconsistently, is unclear about what those laws even are, and cannot even be trusted to do what he says.

An interesting point that Plotz mentioned is the difference between Jewish and Christian attitudes to theology. Because the Jewish god is so unreasonable it was common for Jews to formulate debates against him (there are examples in the Bible) but Christians don’t have that need because their god is supposedly good (although that’s highly debatable). Plotz jokes that this might be why there are so many good Jewish lawyers but I would suggest that maybe it goes beyond that and might partly explain why Jews are so over-represented in many areas, such as science and art, as well.

Compare the questioning, skeptical attitude of Jews with the unthinking ignorance of fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. Its no wonder those groups are so under-represented in so many areas of achievement.

So I’m going to read through the rest of “Blogging the Bible” and some of the sites which try to counter his criticisms. Next time I debate with a creationist I will know even more about their holy book and will be able to destroy them even more completely. Debating with creationists – its hardly even a challenge any more!

Laughing at Catholics

November 13, 2009 Leave a comment

Its just too easy to pick on the silly beliefs of various religious groups and have a good laugh at their expense. If you look at it logically about 90% of the mythology that most Christians believe is just obvious drivel. I mean with the Old Testament its blatant: all of the main stories there are almost certainly untrue (note that I’d never say that its 100% certain the flood didn’t occur, for example, but its really close to that). With the New Testament its a bit less certain but even there the mythology: the life of Christ, the crucifixion, the Trinity, all seem like drivel when you objectively check the facts.

And more recent events don’t exactly add to the credibility of the church. Historically, it was always a puzzle to Christians why their churches were struck by lightning when the brothel next door was spared. And just this year Catholics must have wondered about the efficacy of their holy water because I see in a news item that churches in Italy are installing “automatic holy water dispensers” to reduce the risk of catching swine flu from the people dipping their hands into an open font.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Catholic theology but I really would have though that holy water would have had sufficient positive properties that it would have prevented the spread of diseases. Or maybe its only vampires and werewolves that it works against. Yes that makes more sense. We would expect a belief based on childish nonsense to be effective against the imaginary hazards of a fantasy world.

If you really want a good laugh ask a Catholic to explain the Trinity to you. Honestly it makes more sense to ask someone to explain the mythology around Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings. At least those more modern fantasies are more internally consistent and contain more logic than the silly Christian stuff.

Its obvious why this has happened. Christianity is a pure invention based on little, if any, real facts and history. It has borrowed mythology (the virgin birth, the resurrection, monotheism, etc) from other religions and tried to incorporate it into its own stories. Its had people write books many years after the events (assuming they happened at all) and embellish them with their own extra bits (the star of Bethlehem, the supernatural events around the death of Jesus invented by John – assuming he even existed of course). Its had various councils and other committees make political decisions in picking and choosing what is part of the story and what isn’t. And finally the religion has splintered into thousands of pieces because no one can decide which stories are true and which aren’t. Here’s a hint guys: they’re all crap!

Its easy to pick on the oldest and biggest church an criticise it. But there are plenty of other pitifully stupid but amusing stories other churches believe: speaking in tongues (what a laugh), rejecting evolution (so funny its almost sad) and the pitiful succession of end of world events which just fail to materialise (I wonder what they say after the countdown is complete and the world just carries on regardless, sounds like a Monty Python sketch: “OK, right, has the world ended yet…”).

So its fun to laugh at Catholics but don’t forget to take the opportunity to laugh at fundamentalists, Pentecostals, Mormons (also known as morons) and Jehovahs’ Witnesses (also known as witless). Religion is the greatest comedy show going if you just give it the disrespect it really deserves!

Green Ideology

November 12, 2009 Leave a comment

I recently listened to a podcast featuring Brian Turner, a prominent New Zealand poet and environmentalist. He was celebrating the decision of the environment court not to allow an energy company to go ahead with building a wind farm in a remote location in Central Otago. I tend to have a fairly “green” political focus although I’m certainly not an extremist in any way, but wind farms are are a subject that I’m a bit uncertain about.

Most environmentalists would say they want to see renewable energy production being used where possible, so why have so many fought against wind farms? In this case it was because they would spoil the look of the desolate and isolated Central Otago landscape and I agree that they would do that, but is that a compromise which is necessary to reduce our reliance on non-renewable and carbon producing technologies like coal?

Many environmentalists (including Turner) say we should be finding ways to reduce our reliance on energy instead of just trying to make more and that is a fair point. But that is easier to say than do. To reduce the amount of electricity we use for heating, for example, requires a lot of cost and significant amounts of resources to be used to produce and install insulation and to install more energy efficient heating systems. Its not as easy as saying we should use less energy and that magically happening.

So the problem with some environmental campaigns is that they spend a lot of time saying what we shouldn’t do but not much time saying what we should. Environmentalist don’t want wind farms because they spoil the appearance of the environment, they don’t like hydro for the same reason, they don’t want polluting technologies like coal, and they certainly don’t want nuclear. There really isn’t anything left apart from the rather vague idea that we should be managing our existing energy more efficiently. That’s actually not very helpful.

I often have to defend green ideas from the attacks of my more right-wing opponents but that is difficult when many people with green tendencies can be as fixed in their ideas and as unwilling to compromise as those on the right.

I have generally kept away from membership of any political organisation. At one time I was a financial member of GreenPeace but I cannot agree with many of their ideas which are too much based around almost theological views rather than facts. I agree with protecting the environment, fisheries, native species, etc from exploitation but I can’t see why we shouldn’t explore technologies such as genetic engineering and nuclear power to help achieve those goals.

From a purely economic perspective it doesn’t make sense to litter our landscape with wind farms. Tourism is very important to us and why would anyone come here just to see more of what they have at home. Particularly in Central Otago where there is that strong sense of primordial isolation it would be unfortunate to have technology spoiling it.

If we can generate power in other ways or achieve significant efficiencies to avoid the need for new generation then that’s good. I would also like to see more wind farms in less environmentally important locations, especially nearer the cities they will be providing power for. Like everything its all about compromise. I just hope the green side of the political spectrum can show the common sense and flexibility they often criticise the other side for lacking.