Archive for March, 2010

iPhone Notes

March 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The iPhone has become very popular but I have noticed that there are two types of iPhone user: one, the people who use it to its full capability; and two, those who just use it like an expensive phone. Of course, as a serious iPhone user and connoisseur of fine technology I think it’s a waste when people don’t use high-tech toys to their full capabilities.

So there are two things you can do to make the most of your iPhone. The first is to make use of the capabilities it has built in, and the second is to install some apps (an app is an application or program which runs on the iPhone) and get extra functionality that way.

It’s surprising how many people don’t use the audio capabilities of their iPhone. When it was released Apple said it was the best iPod they had ever created. That’s right, the iPhone is a very good iPod and I think everyone should use that function. I’m not saying everyone should walk around listening to music all day (although that’s not a bad idea for many) but their are other ways to make use of the audio abilities: podcasts, lectures, and audio books, for example.

I think that everyone could benefit from subscribing to some podcasts which fit into their interests or professional expertise. I certainly find podcasts are an essential way to keep up with some of the details in areas which interest me, such as: computers, technology, science, skepticism, philosophy, and general news. There are so many podcasts that I think everyone should find something they can use.

Photos are another area where I think the phone is useful. It’s easy to synchronise an iPhoto library with a phone and I find that having my photo collection with me at all times can be quite useful. The screen is just big enough to make it suitable for displaying photos without being too big to always have with me.

Using the calendar and address book is more common because that’s a traditional function of smart phones but anyone who hasn’t got their calendar synchronised with their computer should do that. It works well through Apple’s MobileMe service but corporate Exchange servers also work OK.

All of the above can be done with little effort using the functionality built in to the phone. To extend that there are plenty of iPhone apps. Actually “plenty” doesn’t really begin to describe it because there are so many that it’s difficult to sort through them and find the ones which are genuinely useful!

The iPhone is a closed platform which means Apple controls all of the programs that can be run on it. That’s bad because they can block stuff they don’t like and it sometimes delays availability of new stuff but it’s also good because there is a quality check on new programs and a single place where they can be found (that is the iTunes app store).

So, unless you have “jailbroken” your phone you will need an account on the iTunes store to get apps. Many apps are free but you still need this account set up even if you aren’t intending to buy anything. Note that this account can also be used to buy other media such as music from the store.

The biggest problem with the app store is that there is just so much there. That’s a nice problem to have I guess, but it makes downloading a good starting set of apps difficult. So I have come to the rescue and am going to recommend a few of the more useful ones I own! Some of these are free and others may be paid (usually only 1 to 10 dollars) and I really can’t remember which I paid for now but I hope this isn’t too inconvenient.

AppBox Pro is a useful multi-purpose utility which replaces many other small single-purpose apps. I find this useful because it reduces the amount of clutter on my screen. Here’s some of its more useful functions: currency conversion, date calculations, a flashlight, a level, loan calculator, ruler, translator, unit converter, and many others.

Air Sharing makes it easy to transfer files from a computer to a phone over a wifi network. Once the files are on the phone it also makes it easy to view them. It supports formats like Word, PDF, text, JPEG, etc.

AroundMe uses the iPhone’s GPS to locate useful businesses and facilities around you. For example you could ask for the nearest coffee shop and it will list them in order of proximity plus provide a map and directions to get there.

Dictionary (actually I have two apps called Dictionary) is a dictionary which includes a thesaurus and pronunciation. It’s very handy for looking up definitions anywhere and is much faster than using a paper dictionary.

Evernote allows you to take photos of stuff that interests you and store it “in the cloud” so you can access it from your phone of computer later. Information can be tagged and classified for easy access. You can store a smaller number of items for free or pay for greater capacity.

Facebook is the official app used to access the popular Facebook social web site. It’s really well designed and makes it easy to make new posts (including photos) and read your friend’s posts as well.

Google Earth is the iPhone version of the well known program. It’s nice to use because you can move around the world using gestures (for example using the pinch gesture to zoom in and out).

Shazam is a neat technology demonstration and one which is also useful. It will listen to any music and tell you what it is as well as displaying the album artwork and offering various ways to download it (legally).

Starmap is currently my favourite astronomy app. It displays a map of the night sky for any location on Earth at any time so I find it useful to plan observing sessions and identify objects I may have forgotten.

Tweetie is currently my favourite Twitter iPhone app. The problem here is that there are so many good ones it’s hard to choose. Anyway I find it really easy to use just to tweet my latest activities, including photos which can be easily taken with the iPhone’s camera.

WordMaster is useful if you do crosswords and other word puzzles. It will look through hundreds of thousands of words in a second and give a list of matches. It has really helped with solving some puzzles which dictionaries and dedicated electronic dictionaries have failed on.

The iPhone doesn’t have a built-in FM receiver but WunderRadio allows you to tune in to thousands of internet radio stations from all over the world. It works really well but you do have to be careful of streaming too much information if you have a limit on your cell data.

So that is about a third of the general apps I have installed on my phone (about 4 pages of them). I also have one page of utilities and two pages of games but I might leave a description of them for another blog entry. By the way, I wrote this on my Mac laptop because entering a lot of text is one thing I just can’t do efficiently on the phone!

Categories: computers Tags: , , , ,


March 27, 2010 Leave a comment

There is often an asymmetry in the public debates over science and other reality-based subject areas. By that I mean that one side has to stick to a set of rules which limit its ability to attack the opposition and the other side enjoys free rein to say whatever they want. Look at the climate change “debate” as an example: the science side (those who agree with the consensus that climate change is real) have to stick to well proved science and the smallest deviations from this are severely criticised. But the other side (the denialists) can use political opinion, cherry picked evidence, discredited theories and any other form of misinformation which suits their purposes.

It’s not just in climate change of course. No discussion of professional lying would be complete without a reference to creationists. They are the original organised professional liars and have shown everyone else how to do it. And the other obvious parallel is the tobacco industry propaganda campaign against the dangers of smoking. That was very similar campaign and the motivation (for greater profit no matter what the consequences on the majority of people) was the same.

But if the tactics these groups employ are so transparently dishonest why do they enjoy quite significant levels of support? It’s simple really: they tell people what they want to hear and those people want to be deceived. That idea may sound rather ridiculous but it’s basically true. There is no, or very little, debate amongst people who understand the subjects involved and are prepared to give the evidence rational and fair treatment. It’s the ignorant and the biased groups in society who create the “debate” (and I use the word debate in inverted commas because it’s not a real debate at all).

The asymmetry argument was used in a recent interview I heard with Michael Mann who is a well known climate scientists and has been involved with several controversies, especially the “hockey stick” graph and “Climategate”. He claimed the science side has maintained its decorum while the opposition fights in the gutter, is well funded and well organised, and many of the attacks are organised by groups (such as fossil fuel industry) who have a lot to lose if climate change is taken seriously.

I know it sounds like a conspiracy theory but remember that not all conspiracies are untrue. The vast majority of them are but some aren’t. It seems that this one isn’t because memos from the fossil fuel industry on strategies to combat the science were found and publicised by the mainstream media in the early 2000s.

So what are these unfair strategies that the opponents of climate change science use? First, I should emphasise that there are a few people who have genuine concerns about the validity of climate science. But they are very rare and the vast majority object for political, economic, or religious reasons. None of these reasons are valid. Science is based on verifiable fact and the only way to credibly dispute science is to use more science. There’s almost no credible science which contradicts the consensus held by the majority of expert in this area.

One of the most effective ways the deniers attack the science is to find minor points of uncertainty or even minor errors in the science and escalate these out of all proportion and suggest they invalidate the science overall. The error in the IPCC report suggesting Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 is an example. Why is that not particularly valid as a way to attack climate science? First, it’s one small point in a huge (3000 page) report; second, it’s a point which doesn’t come from the science but from the associated bureaucracy (the IPCC); third, no climate science depends on glaciers melting for its validity; and fourth, the glaciers are melting but just not that quickly.

The more intelligent and knowledgeable members of the denial community must know all these points yet they continue to use this method of attack. That’s just fundamentally dishonest and shows how deeply disingenuous the deniers really are.

Another tactic commonly used is to pay political advocates to influence policy, both in government and in sources of relevant information. There are cases Mann cited where very poorly researched scientific papers have been published because of pressure on editorial boards. These papers have been discredited by the scientific establishment but the fact that they exist at all can be used for its propaganda value by the denialists. And the cases where reports were “adjusted” by biased people in the Bush administration are well documented.

IP addresses of commenters on blogs have been traced to political activist organisations. That’s OK because everyone has the right to comment, but it should be understood that these comments come from organisations which are committed to denying climate change no matter what the facts say and they have a financial commitment to that view.

But deniers are forced into using tactics like these because they have already lost the real scientific debate. They have few real facts on their side so they must resort to misinformation and outright lies. Remember that their target audience doesn’t really care if the information they are fed is true or not because they are approaching the subject from a political perspective, not a scientific one.

Most people would have no problem with engaging in a political debate on the subject. But they should start by admitting that the science says climate change is happening and that humans are almost certainly the cause. From there they can go on to whether we should try to prevent it getting worse or try to mitigate the effects, or if we are going to intervene how should that happen and should the rich countries bear more of the burden than the poor. These are fair political questions but pretending the problem doesn’t exist is just totally counterproductive.

It’s rare to hear an interview with a scientist where genuine resentment is so obviously expressed. Mann was just totally surprised and baffled about how people could be taken in by such obvious nonsense. Yet he shouldn’t have been. The majority of people in the world believe in some sort of rubbish: religion, new-age spiritualism, UFOs, government conspiracies, the list goes on. Maybe working in an environment where rationality rules protects most scientists from the blatant nonsense that people (like myself) who have an interest in the paranormal experience.

It’s obvious that climate scientists are being pressured by self-interested groups around the world. This really is a global conspiracy and one which could be far more dangerous to the world as a whole than any imaginary conspiracy from the past!

Goodbye God

March 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Why would an atheist want to see the end of God? As I’ve said on many occasions in the past, I don’t hate God – how could I when I don’t think he exists? But I’ve thought about this a bit more and I have decided that yes, I do think he exists and I do hate him. I don’t think there’s a supernatural personal god of course but I do think there’s an imaginary construct which humans have created to serve various purposes and it’s that god that I dislike.

So I think it’s time for God to die. He has outlived his usefulness (if he ever had any) and it’s time to move on. It’s unrealistic to think the death of god will be a quick process because he exists like a mind virus in so many people’s thoughts, but I think it will happen. I guess it will be a slow, painful death. Oh dear, poor God!

Many atheists, rationalists and skeptics (in other words members of what we often refer to as the free thought community) have noted the recent rise in prominence of atheism and anti-religious figures (note that atheism and anti-religiosity aren’t the same thing). And judging by the shrill cries of complaint from the community of believers I think they might be starting to feel the pressure too.

It’s their own fault. The Catholic Church seems to be doing everything to make it one of the most despised organisations on the planet thanks to it’s idiotic leadership and constant revelations (I love that word in this context) of perverted behaviour. And the attempts of the equally repulsive fundamentalists to push their outdated views on everyone else has gained them a lot of enemies too.

Maybe the internet is a biased source but in most of the debates and commentaries I see the atheist side seems to be better represented, both in numbers and in skill and knowledge. Of course there are still the crazy web sites like “Answers in Genesis” which spread lies and misinformation and allow no comments or corrections, but these tend to be on the periphery rather than being central to most people’s internet experience (naturally that isn’t the case for creationists),

Perhaps the major trend being seen is the refusal of an increasing number of critics to take an accommodationist approach to this subject. Previously many people (Carl Sagan and Stephen Gould being two good examples) who strongly supported science would avoid criticism of religion even though it was clearly an opponent of science in many cases. That’s not happening any more. Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and many others are all high profile critics of religion.

I’ve listened to a few interesting podcasts and interviews on theology and philosophy recently and it surprises me how otherwise intelligent people just switch off their logical minds when it comes to religion. In every case they start with the idea that a god exists and twist the facts to fit. Even when they reach the point that their beliefs are obviously incorrect or contradictory they just continue trying to force god belief in to fitting the facts.

Great minds such as Newton, Descartes, Calvin and Francis Collins today all suffer from this. They were perfectly capable of analysing and understanding other subjects but when it comes to God their arguments suddenly make as much sense as a five year old trying to justify belief in the Easter Bunny. It’s pathetic and embarrassing.

Belief in a god isn’t always bad, of course. Sometimes it is a useful delusion and can help people who are otherwise incapable of managing socially or psychologically. But I don’t think it’s a good thing on balance. God should stay in his place: as a useful imaginary device which people can use for their own amusement and benefit. But he has escaped his role as servant and has become the master. He controls the same people who created and perpetuated him and they in turn try to control the rest of us.

And just the general illogical silly way that believers think can be dangerous too. It’s not coincidental that there is a link between belief in creationism and global warming denial. Both are anti-intellectual, rebellious against reason, and make no sense when looked at reasonably.

So it must stop. God must die, or at least go back into his cage until he is required to perform some menial task for a believer. Goodbye God.

Everything’s Good

March 22, 2010 3 comments

A view I have advocated often in this blog is that capitalism isn’t the best economic system for our modern society. The issue became more prominent to me recently when I heard that the amount spent on advertising tobacco in the US is greater than what is spent on the space program. I’m not totally sure this is true because I have found conflicting information on the topic but it seems likely that there are huge amounts spent by the private sector for various frivolous purposes.

And then there was the economic crisis which was primarily caused by private financial organisations engaging in ridiculous and meaningless deals designed entirely to make money without contributing anything of any real value to society. And to add insult to injury the incompetent, greedy bankers involved continued to be paid huge bonuses, presumably financed from government handouts.

I’ve heard defenders of the system say that businesses and business people deserve the money they have because they are successful. But they define successful as making more money and they say they make the money because they’re successful. It’s another circular argument like the types of logic used by creationists and other groups who haven’t really thought through their beliefs carefully enough.

We are facing many problems today and there doesn’t seem to be much progress being made in solving them. It’s not that they can’t be solved, it’s more that the people with the most money don’t want to solve them. There’s plenty of food to feed everyone for example, but the wasteful capitalist food production and distribution system doesn’t work to distribute it fairly.

And we have problems with energy production and global climate change but there’s not enough people researching new energy production technologies. Not only that but less people are training for science and technology careers because it’s a lot easier to get a job in commerce and you get paid a lot better there.

So the wrong behaviour is rewarded and potentially more beneficial actions are stifled. Capitalism really doesn’t work but what’s the alternative? People quite correctly point out that alternatives such as Soviet Russia failed so that doesn’t seem to be a viable option. But there are other options. I’m not totally sure what they are but I think the first step is to admit that we need to look for them. Pretending that everything’s good while things really get worse just isn’t good enough.

Greater Good?

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Being acquitted on charges of destruction of government property because the accused believed they were acting to prevent other’s suffering is an interesting precedent. It happened here in New Zealand when three protestors who destroyed a plastic cover over a US spy satellite dish were acquitted of the charges by a jury.

It has happened in other countries where protestors have also been let off, or given reduced sentences, after performing actions motivated by what hey believe is achieving the greater good. Damaging spy bases and fighter aircraft is one thing but there is a limit to how far this can be taken. In the US an anti-abortion campaigner was convicted by a judge of murdering an abortion doctor after using a similar defence.

I’m actually quite surprised with this result, although I think that jury trials might be a bit of a lottery in many ways. I think its important that there is freedom to protest against this sort of activity and the fact that it was a US base and our current government is dedicated to closer alignment with the US makes it even more critical.

Maybe it was the fact that the three people all came from “respectable” backgrounds that helped: one was a teacher, another a Dominican friar, and the last a farmer. If they had been students or unemployed I suspect the outcome might have been different!

Its actually quite difficult to see how damaging a spy base dish could lead to direct reduction in suffering of others. The connection is surely rather obscure which makes the acquittal even more bizarre.

In fact, I don’t think people should be able to go around breaking the law and not face any consequences. For a start that makes the protest action less meaningful and it also encourages disingenuous use of the excuse of protest by people who just want to carry out an unlawful act.

So I think these people should have been found guilty but only faced a light sentence. That way there would have been less justification for avoiding punishment of future acts of destruction (which might not be so positively motivated) and also the protestors would have made a greater sacrifice for their cause.

A poll on the “Stuff” web site shows most New Zealanders agree: 23% thought the “greater good” defence should be allowed and 77% thought it shouldn’t. The total of votes (when I got this data) was 7610.

This isn’t really going to make any difference to the US running a secret base in our country with few requirements of accountability. The base is still operating and doing things we know nothing about. Maybe the information it gathers does lead to significant suffering but we would never know.

On the other hand this is a symbolic gesture and one that the conservative government here probably would have liked to have seen punished. The fact that the “Waihopai Three” got off the charges at least is a sign that there are some forms of protest that can succeed even against the greatest country on the planet.

Categories: news Tags: , , , ,

The Eerie Silence

March 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Where is everyone? It’s a big universe sure, but we’ve been looking for 50 years now and still there’s no real sign that intelligent life might exist in other parts of the universe.

It’s not as if we are continually finding reasons that life shouldn’t exist – it’s quite the opposite: new discoveries on other planets and moons inside our solar system, observations of planets orbiting other stars, and discoveries of weird extremophile life forms on Earth all make it look like life should be fairly common. And if life is fairly common then you might expect that intelligent life would arise fairly frequently too.

Of course, there’s a lot of doubt and speculation in what I said above but I have never really heard anyone make a good argument for life being rare and the same applies (to a lesser extent) for arguments against the appearance of intelligence.

I read an article featuring Paul Davies, a physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist who has just completed a book titled “The Eerie Silence”. He’s the director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, the co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, and the chairman of the SETI Post-Detection Task Group, so he’s one of the best qualified SETI experts. He’s suggesting a broader approach to the search.

There have been two interesting radio signals in the 50 years SETI researchers have been looking. One, known as the “Wow” signal, was 72-second pulse detected in 1977; and another, known as Lorimer’s pulse, lasted just a half-millisecond. That’s not very impressive for all the effort put in and all the processing power available with the latest computer analysis.

I should mention at this point that I have been involved with the SETI@Home project for 10 years now and my computers have performed a million trillion calculations in that time. All for nothing. Note: In case you don’t know, the SETI@Home project involves people using their computers to analyse data provided by the University of Berkeley who collect it from a radio telescope. The computers look for unusual signals which might indicate technology created by an alien intelligence.

There are other areas of controversial science where experiments have provided no credible positive results over even longer periods of time. For example, ESP, homeopathy, and UFOs. So does that mean that the search for intelligence is just another crazy fringe pseudoscience? I don’t think so because those other experiments should have found an effect if it existed but SETI is really like looking for a needle in a haystack, except the haystack is the whole universe and we don’t know what the needle looks like!

And SETI researchers admit they have no positive results. Compare that with many paranormal investigators who cherry pick the facts, change the standards of evidence, and redefine the scientific method to get the results they want.

After so long you might think that SETI researchers might be just about ready to give up but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Collecting and analysing the data provides scientific results beyond the original purpose of SETI, and negative results are important in themselves anyway.

Then there’s just the thought that life might exist elsewhere in the universe. Many people have claimed this would be the greatest discovery ever. I think they could be right although I suspect the average person might be underwhelmed by the discovery of anomalous radio signals. It’s not quite the same as a visit from a mighty alien space ship as is often portrayed in science fiction stories!

So the eerie silence continues but I think it will be broken in the next 50 years. There are so many new ways to look for life – better radio signal analysis; investigation of Mars, Europa, and Titan; observation of extra-solar planets – that I’m fairly sure something will be found.

Bible in Schools Revisited

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

I just listened to a Radio New Zealand podcast which discussed the future of teaching religion in New Zealand schools. Its a subject I have mentioned here a couple of times in the past, including in the entry “Bible in Schools” which attracted a record (for this blog) 87 comments!

In that entry I said that I supported the Bible (and other aspects of Christianity) being taught in New Zealand schools because kids tended to be able to see when the material they were being taught wasn’t necessarily 100% accurate. I also said I would have liked to have seen other religions being taught as well.

My thoughts on this subject have hardened somewhat. In fact I don’t think the Bible should be taught in schools any longer. I do think that religion should be taught and stories from the Bible should be discussed in the context of their literary merit and their possible application to morality but I wouldn’t want to see Bible stores being presented as if they really happened (except in the rare case when they are accepted as real history but I can’t even think of any that I would put in that category).

According to current legislation New Zealand schools should reflect the wishes and world views of the community they exist in. This may be the law but I don’t think its a very good idea because it means that kids could be disadvantaged if they live in a community with a silly world view (such as creationism or other forms of superstition).

Schools should be presenting a view which reflects the values of the country as a whole and should try to avoid world views which are immoral or irrelevant. Of course the opposite view also has some merit: that schools should offer some variety and not just parrot whatever the current form of political correctness dictates. Maybe there’s room for a compromise there.

The podcast mentioned the case of Christian propaganda in schools causing great confusion to some pupils. I personally think its immoral to tell young kids that Jesus is the King of the World. That’s just stupid but the parent can’t tell their kids that without causing conflict between what the teacher and what the parent is saying.

It is usually possible to opt out of religious material being presented at schools. Why is that? Its not possible to opt out of other subjects. Also, religious education is only possible by exploiting a loophole in the law where the school is technically closed while the instruction takes place. Don’t these factors indicate that this isn’t instruction at all but a form of disinformation?

I do agree that education about Christianity is important because a lot of New Zealand’s history, culture, law, art, and politics cannot be understood without that background. But that education should follow the history and politics of Christianity and stay away from unsubstantiated nonsense like Jesus being the King of anything.

And other religions and philosophy in general should also be covered, including the history of Islam. Maybe if other religions were better understood there might be less conflict between the world’s belief systems. Or to take a more cynical view: if you see Islam as the enemy its even more important to understand their motivations!

Different groups have wildly different ideas on what form religious education should take but there was one anecdote mentioned in the podcast which we need to do something about. A fairly senior student told his teacher that he didn’t know why we celebrate Easter. He had never heard the Christian crucifixion story at all.

I think the crucifixion story is basically fiction but we should still know that it exists. And we should also know that it originally came from pagan fertility celebrations before that. Those are important social historical aspects of our society.

Another issue is morality. Many Christians insist that morality cannot exist without religion. I would disagree and say that it is actually difficult for it to exist with religion, but either way I think morality and ethics are important subjects. So I think more philosophy should be taught and that would naturally branch into theology on occasions.

Its possible to talk about religion sensibly and I have no objection to most of the discussion being about Christianity because I freely admit its the most important religion here by far. But the history and morality of Christianity is one thing, making silly statements like “Jesus is the King of the World” is just totally unacceptable!