Archive for January, 2014

Atheists vs Believers

January 27, 2014 3 comments

In another entry in this blog I am debating a religious person regarding the problem of evil, that is: why does god allow bad things to happen to good people. At least, that’s what I thought we were debating because he seems to consistently divert the thread into other issues.

A point he has tried to make a lot in various discussions is that my opinion is just as biased as his because he has the perspective that god is involved where I deny that possibility. He thinks that I offer non-religious explanations for things because I am an atheist therefore I must reject any possibility of the supernatural being an explanation.

Not really…

1. Being an atheist rarely means that you have decided for sure that god doesn’t exist (maybe some atheists think this but I’ve never met one). It usually means that you think the evidence for god (and other aspects of the supernatural) are insufficient at this time. If there was real evidence a god did exist it would be great. Just imagine how fascinating that would be as a subject of study!

On the other hand I often hear religious people say they are absolutely certain that god does exist (and not just any god, it’s always their particular god) and that nothing would convince them they are wrong. Clearly they are the ones who are close-minded on the subject. And yes, I know there are some believers who at least claim to leave room for doubt but I think most of them are being a bit dishonest about this (including to themselves).

2. The most prized attributes for an atheist are skepticism and a scientific approach to looking at questions. These have been used by science and philosophy to tackle the big questions for many years. They may not have answered every question but at least they show us honestly where no answer yet exists.

But if there is one word which I see associated with religion most it is “faith”. This is highly valued by many religions an it’s obvious why. Without faith people could not accept the religion’s doctrines. But faith can’t be used to discover anything new or to confirm or reject any idea of truth. With faith the conclusion has already been reached before the process is even applied. It’s a deeply dishonest approach to truth.

3. Is atheism just another belief system with all the built-in biases that the others have? And if it is does that mean it is no better at discovering the truth than anything else? Does it mean that atheist are prevented from examining perfectly reasonable supernatural explanations for phenomena?

Well no. As I said above, atheists don’t generally reject the supernatural completely. If some sort of intelligence was shown to be guiding evolution, for example, that would be something worthy of study, even if it might lead to a conclusion which might be labelled as “supernatural”.

So atheism is the rejection of built-in belief systems. It doesn’t reject religious explanations because it is too narrow-minded, it rejects them because they should be rejected. It is the believers who accept the religious explanation too easily. Just remember that there are hundreds of mutually contradictory religious explanations for many phenomena. This is a clear indication that religions accept ideas which fit what they want to believe far too easily.

4. Atheism has very little emotional and social content. It’s unusual for atheists to meet and reinforce each other’s beliefs. It’s unusual for atheist to get all emotional about how great their worldview is.

Religious people commonly meet and tell each other how great their god, or saviour, or whatever other character they might happen to believe in, is. They sing, pray, recite pledges, and read old books over and over. It’s almost like they need that constant reinforcement to maintain their beliefs because they are so weak.

5. In fact atheism doesn’t really exist. Someone who doesn’t believe in a god doesn’t do that because he has a doctrine which forces him to. He doesn’t do it because that’s just what his group does. He just doesn’t belong to any of the groups with those (mutually contradictory and incompatible) beliefs.

As the well-known quote goes: everyone is an atheist about most religions, atheists just take it one step further. So the Pope, for example, is an atheist towards about 30,000 types of Christianity alone, but for some bizarre reason he doesn’t include Catholicism in that list of rejected doctrines – no doubt primarily because of faith! But if he had been born in India instead of a country with a Catholic heritage he would probably be atheistic towards every form of Christianity, including Catholicism, and accept Hinduism.

I’m not saying religion is all bad, because many people enjoy the social, emotional, traditional, and narrative aspects of it. But I am saying it isn’t true… at least that’s what current evidence strongly indicates!

Future Tech Today

January 23, 2014 1 comment

In my previous blog entry I ridiculed the pathetic efforts at predicting the future from psychics. There is no real doubt about it, psychics have no special powers and this is shown from their terrible results as well as the experiments done on psychic phenomena which show no consistent positive results.

So no one can predict complex phenomena in the future except by guessing, mainly because of the consequences of chaos theory. But not everyone’s guess is as good (or as bad) as everyone else’s. Some people are quite good at it although there are many infamous examples of esteemed experts making a complete mess of predicting the future (read my blog entry “They Got It Wrong” from 2013-07-11 for examples).

I recently read an article which listed some predictions made 50 years ago by famous classic science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, about an imagined “World Fair 2014”. So let’s have a look at some of them…

He said “By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colours that will change at the touch of a push button”. While panels aren’t common we are certainly in the middle of a revolution in lighting technology and coloured lights which can be set from a smartphone are easily available. My favourite application of this is an iPhone app which sets the lighting colour to replicate conditions of different planets the user is exploring on the phone.

About robots (a favourite subject of his science fiction) he said: “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.” That is very true. Specialised robots are common in manufacturing and robotic devices (automated vacuum cleaners for example) are beginning to improve but still need a bit of work before they become accepted in the average house.

Some technologies don’t work out the way we think. For example: “The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes.” He is right that cordless devices are quite common now, but battery technology is still a problem and radioisotopes do not appear to be a technology which will be widely accepted for this purpose.

Nuclear power isn’t a complete loss though. He predicted that an “…experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014.” This is basically true. Fusion power is still in the experimental stage but inevitably it will be the main power source in the more distant future, and maybe other nuclear technologies, like thorium reactors, might be used first.

Here’s my advice to anyone planning on predicting future tech: forget about flying cars! Asimov made this mistake with similar technology: “Jets of compressed air will also lift land vehicles off the highways, which, among other things, will minimize paving problems. Smooth earth or level lawns will do as well as pavements. Bridges will also be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets”. Yeah, the amount of energy required is a bit of a problem there and that type of vehicle is never likely to be common.

He did a lot better with predictions of self-driving cars though: “Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with ‘robot-brains’. Vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver”. That technology already exists and is even legal in some states. It isn’t yet perfected but it does seem that the prediction of “much effort” being put into it is absolutely right.

Regarding communications: “Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.” This technology is common and has been widely used for several years now.

Unfortunately another communications technology he mentions hasn’t been necessary: “For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies”. No doubt someone writing in the 1960s would be horrified to see how space exploration has been neglected in the 50 years since then. Of course, if there was a Moon colony I’m sure communications with it would be fairly easy.

Finally he makes some predictions regarding population growth (which were quite accurate), life expectancy (also accurate), birth control (accurate in most places), as well as education trends towards programming and proficiency in binary (programming not so much although any decent programmer will be good at binary, of course!)

So Asimov’s predictions are a bit of a mixed bag but I would say he is about half right, which isn’t bad for looking 50 years into the future. He did concentrate on technology rather than many of the mundane subjects the psychics often specialise in, I know, but even if you look at the psychics’ one year tech predictions compared with Asimov’s 50 year predictions it’s obvious that using actual knowledge and logic beats psychic abilities every time!

I Predict Failure!

January 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Now that we are moving into a new year it is time to do what all good skeptics do at this time: have a look at how accurate the psychics were with their predictions for last year. Before I do I should say that I know that people who support pseudoscientific nonsense like psychics will probably find a few lucky guesses or sufficiently vague predictions which were true and conveniently ignore the vast number which were false. I am more interested in the interesting predictions which would be unlikely to be true by chance alone (without the need for any paranormal ability). So let’s get started…

Here’s one by LaMont Hamilton which would be a remarkable success if it was true: “A mind-to-mind telepathic telecommunication device will be developed for the mentally ill to help people communicate better.” Yeah, I don’t remember hearing about that one and if it did exist it would be quite exciting, I think.

Let’s try an easier prediction for the same person: “Prince William and Kate will have a baby girl, whom many will believe is the reincarnation of Princess Diana.” Well he had a (roughly) 50/50 chance of getting this one right and he was still wrong! Epic fail, I would say, without even getting started on the reincarnation stuff!

Let’s try another psychic, Vicki Monroe, trying a prediction which might be a reasonable guess anyway: “Congress will deal with gun control: Automatic weapons and high-powered rifles, semi-automatics that belong in war zones will be removed, and only used in situations where they are absolutely necessary.” Yeah well, we all wish they had, and with all the problems with guns in American last year we might have thought they would… but they didn’t.

Let’s give her a second chance. Most people would be able to pick a few of the winners at the Academy Awards, right? Wrong: “Expect an upset at the Academy Awards: Bradley Cooper for best actor over Daniel Day Lewis. Sally Field for best actress. Lincoln for best picture and Quentin Tarantino for best director.” Best actor: wrong, best actress: wrong, best picture: wrong, best director: wrong. I could have done better than that and I hardly watch movies and certainly don’t claim special powers!

Nikki, “Psychic to the Stars”, claimed great success in 2012 (after the event, of course) so what about last year? Here’s the first part of her rather alarming list: “A fire and explosion at a subway in New York City kills many. [Don’t remember that] A chemical attack on the United States. [Don’t think so] Another cruise ship breaks in half. [No] Another Super Storm like Sandy hitting the USA, Canada and Europe. [What! All three? That’s a big storm!] Nuclear attack on New York. [Maybe we just didn’t notice] A huge earthquake in the Caribbean. [Not this year] Cuba and Puerto Rico becoming part of the USA. [What?] A weather satellite will come crashing into a building. [No]” Another total failure!

Here’s some predictions from some clown called Sidney Friedman, who claims 71% accuracy. This one sounded interesting: “Apple announces and releases a mini iPhone geared toward children and also under-served populations around the world. Apple finally launches a smart TV.” Well maybe the iPhone 5C could be the “mini iPhone” but it’s the same size as other iPhones although it is cheaper. As for the smart TV… no.

And another tech related prediction from him: “In spite of negative reviews and a shaky launch, Windows 8 sees excellent signs of catching on.” Well that’s a good guess and it’s hard to say exactly what “excellent signs” might really mean, but when I Google “Windows 8 adoption rate” I get a whole pile of negative news.

So really these people are a joke. Why anyone would take psychics seriously is just incomprehensible. In my next blog entry I will list some future predictions from a true visionary, just to show that it is possible using knowledge and intelligence, not fake psychic abilities!

Important Tech 2

January 18, 2014 Leave a comment

In my last blog entry I listed and discussed Walt Mossberg’s first 6 most important products of the last 20 years, so I will complete that today with the second 6 from 2004 to 2010 (I guess nothing else important has happened since then).

7. Facebook from 2004.

Continuing the trend of previous entries (and it really has been a universal rule rather than a trend) Facebook wasn’t the first product of its kind, or even necessarily the best, but it is the one which made the difference and has lead to the vast social internet of today.

For many people the use of Facebook makes up their main interaction with the internet. I personally think they are missing out on a lot of stuff which is much better (I use Facebook but find it tedious and awkward), but whatever I think over a billion people now disagree!

8. Twitter from 2006

I usually create an account on all new internet services soon after they become available, just to see if they are useful. I did that in the early days of Twitter but either I just didn’t get it, or the content at that time was just too undeveloped.

But that has certainly changed now, although a lot of people still don’t get it. I now use Twitter a lot and find it quite useful. Like many similar services it’s really a mater of using it appropriately: following the right people and spending an appropriate amount of time reading their tweets.

9. The iPhone from 2007.

Wow! Has anything in recent times revolutionised technology as much as the iPhone? Just before it was released I had a very expensive top-model Sony phone which had every feature imaginable – in fact far more than the original iPhone – but I didn’t use any of them because they were just horribly implemented and unreliable. To be fair, at the time data on cell networks was also slow and expensive.

Now the iPhone is the one thing I always have with me and of all my gadgets (and I have a lot of them) it is probably my favourite. It really is a stunning technological achievement, packing an incredible array of functionality, a beautifully elegant user interface, and good battery life, into a surprisingly small and light case.

I agree some Android phones also have impressive features but they lack the elegant user interface and balanced design, and anyway, they only exist because Apple showed them how to do it with the iPhone.

10. Android from 2008.

As I said above, the best Android phones are excellent devices even though I rate the Apple iOS devices (iPhone and iPad) as better devices overall, especially in terms of use. But Android is a bit like Windows for mobile devices (because let’s face it, Microsoft has failed miserably in this area) in some ways, and more like Linux (being free and open) in others.

Android is already used on more smartphones than any other system (including Apple’s iOS) and will probably eventually do the same on tablets (currently the iPad is way out in front). That doesn’t mean it’s better in any way of course, just that it’s cheap and easily available. But as Microsoft found with Windows being used on so many PCs: being cheap and available isn’t a bad combination!

11. The MacBook Air from 2008.

The original MacBook Air was a very elegant device although it had some limitations in performance (the current models are much better) but it did show how a super-compact laptop should be designed and it set the standard.

Again Apple took an existing product category, stripped away all the useless gimmicks, and delivered a device that was actually usable.

12. The iPad from 2010.

At the time the iPad was released tablets as a product category were going nowhere and again it took Apple to show everyone else how to do it by including what was needed, taking out what wasn’t needed, and most importantly making a device which was totally intuitive and fun to use.

I got an iPad before they were even released here and recently got an iPad Air (again before they were officially released) and I love it. it is hard to describe what Apple does that no one else seems to be able to do quite the same but whatever it is they did it again with the iPad!


So that’s it. Those are Mossberg’s picks from 20 years of (computer) technology. I think he has chosen fairly well although I might debate some of them (I’m thinking mainly of the Palm Pilot and Twitter).

One interesting point appeared in every case: the first product in a category was never the eventual winner. Sometimes it really is better to wait a bit longer until things can be done properly instead of just trying to be first.

And it is interesting to see that Microsoft products only appear once in the list (Windows 95), Google products twice (Google Search and Android), but Apple stuff appears no less than 5 times (the Newton, the iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air, and the iPad). I think that shows that Apple really is the company which makes technology work!

Important Tech 1

January 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Well-known Wall Street Journal technology writer, Walt Mossberg, recently retired and wrote his final article, and he appropriately chose the 12 most important technology products of the last 20 years as the subject. Of course I am interested in tech and especially “consumer gadgets” so I thought I should comment. Here’s the list…

1. The Apple Newton MessagePad from 1993.

I was one of the few owners of a MessagePad (in fact I had 2 plus one of it’s close cousin, the eMate, all of which I still have and which still worked last time I checked). The Newton was a product ahead of its time, in fact many people joked it came to Apple from the future through a time warp!

The problem was that it was too ahead of its time. The original device was too slow and the handwriting recognition (which it used for text input) was too unreliable. By the time the newest models were available which fixed these issues it had already apparently become unsuccessful and Steve Jobs killed the project when he returned to Apple.

However the Newton was an amazing device in terms of both its hardware and operating system (which was years ahead of anything else in terms of its object oriented nature) and it really deserves recognition as a great product.

2. The Netscape Navigator web browser from 1995.

Back in the day, in the early days of the internet (yes, I was there) Navigator was the preferred browser. Unfortunately it was destroyed by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer not necessarily because IE was better (although it was a fairly good product at the time) but because Microsoft bundled their browser with new PCs and people usually didn’t bother to change from the default.

There is no doubt that Navigator was the first stable browser with a good set of features, such as Javascript which was originally created by Netscape. Considering how important the web is today that must make it an important product in the recent history of computer tech.

3. Windows 95 from 1995.

Looking back Windows 95 was a terrible product but what was there to compare it to at the time? MSDOS, Windows 3 or Mac OS 7.5 were the other options. Clearly the Mac OS was a better system but it also suffered from unexplained and frequent crashes and various other issues at the time, so Windows shouldn’t be judged too harshly.

And Windows 95 was the first realistic effort at getting the PC platform onto a modern, graphical interface like the Mac had been using for over 10 years. Looking at the dominance of Windows today (in terms of use if not innovation and usability) clearly Windows 95 was a very important product. Yeah, those are about all the positive things I can say about a Microsoft product so I’ll stop now!

4. The Palm Pilot from 1997.

The Palm Pilot was so much less a technological powerhouse than the earlier handheld PDA, the Newton, but perhaps because it was so much more modest it was more successful. It was the first successful PDA (personal digital assistant) which is a product category which has now been taken over by smart phones and tablets, but it did show that people wanted devices like this and that the failure of the Newton wasn’t an indication that this type of device was unwanted.

5. Google Search from 1998.

It is almost impossible to imagine what life would be like without the internet. And the most successful service of the internet is the world wide web, and surely its success is largely due to how things can be found so quickly and easily thanks mainly to Google. Sure, there have been and still are other search engines out there but Google Search is by far the most successful, both in terms of how many people use it and how good it is.

One thing I appreciate about this service is how simple it is on the surface. The user types something and presses a button, and then all the magic happens behind the scenes usually resulting in the required information coming up near the top of the results in under a second.

6. The iPod from 2001.

The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player but it was the first well-designed, easy to use device. It became important for two reasons: first, it started the digital music revolution after earlier devices had limited success, and second it established Apple as a company which didn’t just do computers and that ultimately lead to the iTunes store, iPhone, and other products.

Well I’m half way through the list now and this blog entry is already long enough. I’ll do the second half (2004-2010) in a future blog entry.

A Different Fantasy

January 11, 2014 Leave a comment

This morning I was visited by a couple of religious nuts (two “old grannies” as it happens) who presented me with some church propaganda. I didn’t get a chance to talk to them, but if I had, I would have destroyed their silly beliefs with a dazzling display of religious and scientific knowledge, flawless logic, and pure intellect… well, at least that’s the way I would see it!

Some people are critical of me when I argue with apparently kind religious types but why shouldn’t I? They are the ones who have visited me and attempted to convert me to their childish and sick vision of reality. And it’s not surprising when I don’t just believe everything they say and point out where they are wrong that they can get just a little bit nasty. And when I demonstrate a greater knowledge of their religion that what they do they generally retreat and never return!

So these people may seem superficially to be well-meaning but they aren’t really. If they were members of a political party trying to gather new members would we be as generous? I don’t think so. And what’s the difference? There is none that I can see.

But to get back to the subject at hand. These people were from the Jehovah’s Witless [deliberate typo] Church and they were distributing a pamphlet titled “Will suffering ever end?”. My initial reaction might be “yes, when people like you go away and leave the rest of us alone” but that is rather trite so I should look at the subject more seriously.

The material they left contained a whole bunch of rather loosely translated Bible quotes, as if quoting from the Bible would convince anyone who wasn’t already hooked into that particular fantasy world! I mean really, if I quoted Darwin would they just automatically believe me? Can’t they see that many of us think the Bible is little more than a book of sometimes amusing, sometimes interesting, and sometimes disturbing myths? And quoting Bible verses to prove that the Bible is true seems rather circular.

The general message of the pamphlet seemed to be that God doesn’t like all the bad things which are happening but they’re not his fault. And things will get better in the future and he “will wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain” (that also sounds like the unsubstantiated rhetoric we get from some political parties).

I always thought the bad things were because of the free will God gave us. Does that mean in order to make things better we need to give up free will? And if God can make things so much better in the future why has he waited so long? Oddly enough those issues aren’t discussed at all except to refer to some Bible verses (Romans 5:12 and 2 Peter 3:9) which contain the usual meaningless drivel.

Naturally, when you look at it logically, none of this makes sense, just like the story line of any other fairy tale doesn’t make sense. Next time the JWs visit I’ll just say I’m reading a different fantasy story at the moment, maybe I’ll re-read some Tolkien like the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion (actually, not the Silmarillion, because it’s even more boring than the Bible!)

Truth Claims

January 8, 2014 Leave a comment

There is a series of steps which scientists generally go through when they are discovering new things about the real world. You might call it “the scientific process” or you might just call it “common sense”. It involves creating a hypothesis to explain a phenomenon, thinking of a way to test that hypothesis which minimises possible errors and baises, publishing the methodology and results, checking the outcome against what was expected, deciding whether the hypothesis is supported or rejected and possibly modifying it, having other experts repeat the experiment, eventually accepting the hypothesis as a theory if it passes enough tests, and continually checking even accepted theories against new evidence.

As I said, this is really just common sense as much as anything particularly deep or complex. Anyone can invent a potential explanation for something but without testing it to see if it is true there is really little point. And unless the test is clear and unbiased and can be repeated by anyone with sufficient expertise then it is flawed because the developer of the original hypothesis might have a conscious or unconscious bias towards it.

I would challenge anyone whether they support science or not to formulate a better way to establish what is real and what isn’t. Actually, it’s really quite simple: there is no better way. But if that’s the case, why do so few non-scientists use this methodology as a basis for their claims about reality? There are two reasons: First, they are too lazy, ignorant, or unskilled; and second, they don’t actually want to know the truth, they just want their idea to be accepted.

So now that all the introductory ranting has been set aside, let’s move on to some specific examples…

1. Alternative medicine. There are thousands of different herbal and other “natural” remedies available but very few of them have ever been properly tested. It’s like the supporter of the remedy has created the hypothesis that the herb has some sort of effect but has never bothered testing it. They get stuck at the first step. And in the unlikely event they have done some testing it’s usually anecdotal and totally biased. When thorough testing is done (usually by scientists rather than natural remedy proponents) the results are almost always negative. After looking at the facts I am convinced that 90% (maybe 99%) of natural remedies do nothing useful.

2. Other traditional and alternative treatments. The same applies to homeopathy (a ridiculous initial hypothesis with no scientific basis, very little credible testing, and many negative results) which is undoubtedly ineffective. And I am increasingly thinking that acupuncture is the same. This has had more of a mixed history of results but the overall conclusion seems to be that it does nothing.

3. ESP, psychics, water divining, etc. These things are easy to test but again the proponents of them mainly have failed to do any. Yet when scientific testing is done the results are again mostly negative. Occasionally an anomalous result occurs but disappears when the experiment is repeated (having other experts repeat experiments usually eliminates subtle errors and biases). So it’s clear that none of this stuff is real despite the fact that many people think it is.

4. Religion (yes that had to be on my list of targets, didn’t it). Most religious people don’t even try to support their ideas using any sort of rigorous methodology. They seem to be happy with faith, which is really just a way of saying that they believe something (and it could be anything because if you have faith anything can be true) for no good reason at all. But again, when real scientific results negate the faith-based ideas they just go into denial.

So what’s the real problem here? It’s that none of these ideas have been tested, or if they have been tested the results have been ignored. And that’s OK, as long as you don’t make a truth claim.

You can use natural remedies but don’t expect to get better, and never encourage anyone to use them instead of real treatments. You can use homeopathy and acupuncture but any positive outcome will be because of placebo, and again they are not an alternative to actual treatment. If you want to believe in psychics that’s fine, but don’t try to do anything useful with the results, such as solving crimes or finding missing people. And believe whatever religion you like, but what you believe isn’t true so don’t expect to use your fantasy to affect social policy.

If you do want to use these for anything serious do the testing first and show they’re true. Just refer to the methodology at the beginning of this post.