Archive for May, 2010

Playing God

May 28, 2010 Leave a comment

There has been a lot of controversy and excitement recently over the development of a “synthetic genome” by Craig Venter’s group of researchers. Many people seem outraged that they have dared to “play god”. They say that as if it’s a bad thing but I would say that’s what science is all about.

Of course I don’t mean that literally because there is no good reason to think there is a god but what I do mean is that science should try to gain the abilities that are traditionally associated with gods. On the other hand, some of the actions attributed to gods in the past may not be what we should strive for: death, destruction, and immature behaviour are some of the negative aspects of gods. I’m thinking more of the more positive god-like attributes such as creativity.

So what has Venter’s group actually achieved? Well there is a lot of misinformation and flashy headlines going around which I think are very misleading. Basically they have succeeded in developing the first living cell which is controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. The DNA was created by machine from a computer program and injected into an already living cell from a different species.

All of the machinery of the cell already existed but the new DNA will cause that cell to replicate and those cells will have been “created” by the synthetic DNA. From what I understand most of the DNA is a sequence from an existing species (a different one from the cell) but that has been modified and the researchers can create any DNA sequence they want.

So what’s the point? Is this some sort of Frankenstein-like act entirely designed to show how clever the scientists are and to create a potential risk with no hope of a positive outcome?

Of course not. All science is good and this would be even if had no practical purpose. But the ability to create a living cell with a DNA sequence specified by machine is potentially revolutionary. For a start it can be used to decide which parts of the sequence code for what because sections can be removed or changed easily. So it will lead to a much better understanding of how DNA sequences are translated into working proteins and how these function in biological processes.

And it means that entirely new life forms will be able to be created which might solve many of the greatest problems we have today: problems like energy generation and making spare body parts and designing new medical processes.

Naturally there have been many groups who are worried about the future of this technology. I call it the “Frankenstein syndrome”. People naturally assume that technologies they don’t understand and which seem to be “unnatural” must be dangerous. I agree that any technology can be dangerous and biological engineering certainly needs to be used carefully, but the potential advantages are so huge that it should take far more than just a vague general concern about genetic manipulation to halt the research.

It would be interesting to know if some of the objectors would change their mind if the technology was about to develop a cure for a disease they were likely to die from, for example. That might not be the case directly but in the long term it is likely to be true. Eventually most people will get a disease which this technology could fix. The problem is that the time gap between initial research and practical applications can be quite long and most people don’t cope well with any process which takes longer than a few months.

Maybe if scientists were really playing god they could do the whole job in 7 days (including the well earned rest at the end) but their abilities aren’t quite that divine just yet!

Really, Really Sick

May 22, 2010 26 comments

I have varying reactions to the people I debate controversial topics (especially religion) with. Sometimes I feel contempt because I realise they are deliberately lying to support a view they know is untrue, sometimes I feel annoyance because I think the person isn’t making the effort to inform themselves about a subject, and sometimes I feel sympathy because I realise someone has completely lost touch with reality and their delusions have reached the point of being a genuine psychological problem.

You guessed it. Recently I have debated someone who, in my opinion, really needs help from a professional. His beliefs are so deluded, so sick, and so sad, that it’s not just a matter of him being ignorant, or misinformed, or intolerant – he is genuinely psychologically damaged. Whether these problems lead him to the particular beliefs he now has or whether the problem occurred as result of these beliefs I’m not sure.

I should say at this point that I’m not a professional psychologist or psychiatrist. I do have an undergrad degree in psychology but I’m not pretending that makes me qualified to make a diagnosis – that’s why I suggested he get professional help. Maybe that would reveal there is no problem but I don’t think so.

I want to share some of the emails we have exchanged recently to show the thought processes he (and many other extreme conservative Christians) have. I don’t usually do this without permission but I’m only using representative parts and there will be no way to know who they other person is, so here it is…

Here’s his opening paragraph which was supposed to answer the question of why god allows bad things to happen to good people (you know, the old classic question): “you are not innocent owen, nor am i, nor is anyone. its not the case that you have sinned, you have never done anything but sin. you are a self righteous, arrogant, abomination.”

Many people would find that rather insulting. Calling someone an “abomination” seems rather extreme! But you can see where this sort of thing is heading – it explains any evil act this particular god commits because we are unworthy of fair treatment. One thing bothers me though (and should worry my opponent too): why did his god create such abominations? Couldn’t he do any better?

Making people feel inferior and unworthy is a classic control technique. Slaves are taught they are only allowed to exist because of the generosity of their masters. It’s obvious to me why Christianity encourages this sort of attitude – it’s a form of mind control.

In answer to why his god’s love is expressed in such odd ways (death, suffering, disease, war, famine, etc) he replied with this: “gee… again you rant with no understanding at all, you still cant understand that this is a true Love God offers.”

So his god’s true love consists of suffering and death. Gee, thanks.

He continues: “The fact is that owen you dont deserve you next breath, and it is by Gods grace that he allows you another day as you live in rebellion to him constantly. those people God killed were just like you owen, murderers, fornicators, adulterers, liers, theives, sexual abominations in His sight…” [By the way, please excuse the fact that this person is barely literate]

So I don’t deserve to live according to his god. That seems a bit harsh. Why create humans if they don’t deserve to live? And I can assure you that I am not a murderer, fornicator, adulterer, liar, or a thief. And I don’t think I’m a “sexual abomination” either, whatever that is. But you can see how this is starting to demonstrate a psychotic tendency because having such strong revulsion for your fellow humans (and yourself) isn’t healthy.

But now the real truth behind the rant is revealed: “living and rebeling against Him and everything God has said since the beginning. Hating God in their hearts, pushing Him from their thoughts (even willing to deny His exsistance (hint,hint)). God has and is just in His actions, the fact is you deserve the same!! and the fact that He doesnt kill you owen does not make God unjust for killing people in times past, God hates sin and in early times he punished it severly because it literally shettered the chance of our survival. diseases are the result of our own filthiness and sin” [Oh no, “literally shettered” – that sounds bad!]

Wow! Just wow. It just gets sicker and sicker. But you can see why the church has encouraged this way of thinking. It’s all about discouraging rebellion against the authority of the church (they say it’s against god, of course). How sad and disgusting is that? You can see why I feel a bit sorry for this church’s victims.

There’s more of the same (which I won’t torture you with), then later he goes on to this: “You are so influenced by the world you live in owen, someone tells you what to wear, what to drive, what is cool, where to go, how to act.”

I’ve never met this person in real life and there’s no way he could possibly know these things and they are completely untrue. Everyone is influenced by the society they live in to some extent but I have a reputation of being a “free spirit” and not someone who blindly follows trends. And anyway, I would rather be influenced by the world I live in than by a fantasy world which doesn’t exist.

The rant continues: “Media tells you how to relate to fellow man, adultery, fornication, lies, coveteousness, blasphemy, pridefulness, deceitfuless, slanderous, gossip are just some of the lies we love to hear. you fall right into the lie owen and love it and you do not even know it. you are just the result of your society and what it has sold you. A fish does not know it is wet………..”

Again with the fornication! I have no idea why he would think I am unusually interested in that particular sin, or any of the others (apart from blasphemy, of course). I actually try to avoid most of the sins mentioned in the Bible because they are basic rules for living which work in human societies. I don’t follow them because they are in the Bible of course, I avoid them because they make sense and they are part of many cultures and philosophies and they certainly didn’t originate in Christianity.

Finally, he gives one last piece of advice: “repent.”

Does he really think I would submit to the disgusting, despicable abomination of a religion (see I can use those words too) he follows? Even if I thought his sick, childish god existed I would never submit to him. Some things are right and some things are just wrong. What this guy believes is as wrong as anything can be.

Marcus Aurelius

May 17, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m currently involved in a minor debate with a Christian regarding the behaviour of his god. I found a web site which listed all the millions of people the traditional Christian god has killed (at least according to the Old Testament) and, when it’s seen in the context of the population of the world at the time, I would say he is the worst mass murderer of all time.

My opponent countered by saying that the general level of theological analysis at the site was rather poor, which is true to some extent, but these stories are either true or they aren’t! Well, of course, most of them are complete fantasy, as is his god, but he has to believe them because he (foolishly) thinks the Bible is inerrant.

So why would anyone worship a god who consistently demonstrates jealousy, inconsistency, murderous rage, and childish petulance? He’s a pathetic god and totally unworthy of anyone’s respect. Anyone who worshipped such a god out of fear is no better than the type of person who followed Hitler or Stalin because they were scared of them! In fact they’re a lot worse because the certainty of punishment as a result of defying Stalin is far greater than defying this pathetic god. When was the last time he actually smote anyone anyway!

I found a quote today which summarises the advice I would give to anyone who wants guidance on the best way to live his life. It equally applies to people who don’t think a god exists and to those who think one does. It doesn’t apply to those who blindly accept the idiotic dogma of a fundamentalist church however.

The quote is from Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who advised: “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Of course there is one huge hole in this particular philosophy. That is who decides what a “good life” actually is? Is it one based on charity, or hard work, or piety, or hedonism? To different people all of these would seem like the best way to achieve a “good life”.

My answer to this objection is that most people know what a good life actually is and they would probably agree with a high degree of consistency, even across cultures, if external influences such as religious and political propaganda was kept to a minimum.

The principles of a good life would be to have fun, to be creative, to help your friends and family, and to contribute to society as a whole. Sure there are sociopaths and other deviants who wouldn’t follow these ideals and there are people who have been so warped by their politics or religion that they might disagree, but I think the basic ideas still apply.

If there really is a god out there who demands unspeaking obedience and an arbitrary obligation to abandon what people naturally know is right, then that god really isn’t worth taking too much notice of. The blind fools who take their god’s warped message so seriously that they kill out of obedience to him really would be a lot better off to listen to Marcus Aurelius. Ignore religion and do what you know is really right.

In the unlikely event that there really is a god I know one thing with virtual certainty: he bears no similarity whatsoever to the pitifully childish ideas associated with the world’s major religions. The real god would feel very sad that the inventors of those religions got it so wrong. And I’m sure he would appreciate those who follow Marcus Aurelius’ ideas far more than those invented by a committee of the early church founders of whatever organised religion you might choose.

Flush Flash

May 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The battle between Apple and Adobe over Flash continues. Apple won’t allow Flash onto its devices such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad (although it does work on the Mac) and Adobe claim it’s a widely used technology which Apple gadget users should have access to. So who is right? Actually both are right and both are wrong.

I am a web developer myself (amongst many other things) but I have never felt the need to use Flash in my web sites and web-based databases. One of the reasons for that is that Flash is usually used in situations where it shouldn’t be: as a container for video or for annoying animations for example. Another reason is that it’s just so inefficient, buggy and unreliable.

I know Flash developers who have commented about the numerous workarounds necessary to make their Flash apps work. I also know that I can tell when my laptop is running Flash without even looking because it starts getting hotter! And if my web browser crashes for any reason you can almost guarantee Flash is involved somewhere! I know the Mac version is worse than the PC version but the situation is only slightly better there.

So it would be nice if I could avoid Flash, On the other hand it is a very widely used technology and, although it’s generally accepted that it isn’t a good technology, it is one which is important – at least until HTML5 becomes a viable alternative.

So should Apple stop its users from using Flash by banning it on their devices? As I implied above, the answer can be yes or no. Apple make no secret that their devices are a closed, tightly controlled environment and they reserve the right to ban inferior applications and technologies (like Flash certainly is). But you could also say that they should be more pragmatic and allow Flash to exist until it’s no longer necessary.

But will it ever become unnecessary if there is no pressure from companies like Apple to reduce its use? Maybe not. There are plenty of other poor but functional technologies out there enjoying great popularity – Microsoft Office would be number one! Maybe Apple are indulging in some of their famous “social engineering” and using their influence to try to make the Internet a better place for everyone.

That’s a very arrogant attitude but they’ve done it before and it has resulted in a positive outcome for its users in the end (admittedly after some initial anguish). Apple eliminated floppy disks, serial ports, and modems from their computers years before the PC world did. And the eradication of those technologies has been good for everyone. We now have flash drives, USB and Firewire, and broadband instead.

I’m not saying those changes wouldn’t have happened anyway – after all, Apple only have a small share of the desktop market – but it surely influenced the speed of the change.

I do find one claim Apple have made to be somewhat odd though. Steve jobs has derided Flash on the basis it is proprietary technology. Considering Apple are the “kings” of the closed system that is somewhat hypocritical. Or maybe it isn’t. Having a closed device which utilises standards and doesn’t affect other technologies is one thing but Adobe have created something with Flash that affects everyone who uses the Web. It’s a far more basic part of the Internet infrastructure than a device like the iPhone.

So Flash is the sort of technology which should be open. In fact it has probably got to the point where even opening it as open source wouldn’t help because I suspect it would need to be rewritten completely to make it reliable and fast enough for use on modern devices. And if you’re going to start again wouldn’t it be better to start with HTML5 instead?

So while I agree Apple’s “bully tactics” are a bit extreme I think they’re doing the right thing for the long term good of the Internet. Whether they’re doing that for self-centered or altruistic reasons doesn’t really matter. It’s time to flush Flash!

Attack the Action

May 12, 2010 10 comments

I was recently involved in an email conversation with a conservative, fundamentalist Christian (well against someone like that it was, somewhat inevitably, more an argument than a conversation) where I defended the sort of groups they traditionally attack. Specifically this time it was the opponents of Israel in Lebanon. My opposition basically claimed Israel had no blame at all for the conflict there and that all the blame should be placed on Lebanon.

It’s ridiculous of course, because no conflict is ever 100% caused by one side. There is always blame on both sides and no group ever acts with total morality – not even Israel!

I concluded my email by saying that I despise fundamentalist Muslims but that I equally despise fundamentalists of other types, such as fundamentalist Christians. I realised after sending the email that I had more-or-less said I hated him because that’s effectively what saying I despise fundies really means.

And I realised that wasn’t really what I meant. I don’t hate him at all and I don’t hate any other fundies (of any type) I have met. I do hate the belief system they have but that’s a totally different thing. It’s a basic law of fair debating: attack the idea not the person. Attacking the person generally equates to an ad hominem attack and, although I think it’s OK to point out a person’s past history of fake beliefs or other relevant attributes, that should not be a major part of a debate. The facts are what really matter.

Actually I’ll take the idea even further. Its best not to attack what people believe but what they do. If someone has silly beliefs but still acts like a moral person then they are still a good person. There are several church groups who do good charitable work. Sure they have silly beliefs but they act positively and that’s more important.

Unfortunately there is often a link between silly beliefs and behaving badly. Surprisingly (perhaps) many fundamentalist Christians actually don’t follow the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ teaching very well. They aren’t very charitable, or forgiving, or understanding. So I might dislike them for that but in some ways it’s not their fault. They are trapped by their silly beliefs so again it gets back to despising the idea rather than the person.

Maybe it’s too easy to find a belief system to explain anyone’s bad behaviour but I’ve never met anyone yet who is genuinely inherently evil. Maybe I’ve just been lucky!

Who Do You Trust?

May 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Who do you trust? Various people seem to have varying degrees of trust for different institutions and professional groups and those trust levels often don’t seem to make a lot of sense. I have been thinking about this issue recently because of a podcast and the reported results of a survey held in the US.

The odd thing is that many people don’t trust the people they should and vice versa. For example, there are a large group of people who do trust practitioners of quack medicine and the celebrities who support them instead of medical professionals and the scientists who support them.

Does that make sense? Not really. Sure, I agree that there is some sense in being suspicious of the motives of the big corporations who manufacture drugs but in comparison to someone with no training and no backup from real objective evidence they seem quite trustworthy.

It’s bad enough that people threaten their own health by using quack remedies but it’s worse when they endanger their families and even their communities through their ignorance of the facts. The most obvious example is vaccination which is rejected by a bunch of crazies around the world – especially in the US – because they think the vaccines cause autism.

It has made no difference that the mercury-based preservative (which was actually safe) has been removed from most vaccines and the autism rate has continued to rise – they still won’t vaccinate their kids. So the children who aren’t vaccinated are at risk and if enough refuse vaccination those who can’t be treated for genuine reasons are also put at risk because of loss of herd immunity.

Many people also distrust politicians and I will agree there are good reasons to be distrustful of them but I think it goes beyond what’s reasonable. Most politicians act the way we would expect. For example, if the person is a conservative and they carry out traditional conservative actions when in power then we shouldn’t really be surprised, so what’s the problem?

And what about religious leaders? I now a lot of them are motivated by good intentions but they are trapped by their world view so they aren’t really the most trustworthy. And many aren’t motivated by good intentions at all. They are motivated by greed, or the need to extend the control of their institution, or to proselytise, or worse!

So who can be trusted? Well no one really, but there are certain groups who should start from a position of greater distrust: quacks, corporate leaders, politicians, etc; and others who should start with a level of trust above average: scientists, computer consultants/programmers (just joking), medical professionals, etc.

No one deserves total trust and no one should be completely distrusted either. The facts are all that matters. Anti-vaccination groups and other crazies should remember that.