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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Things I believe (but Cannot prove).

Given enough time we will know everything that can be known. Nothing is beyond us.

We as individuals (and as a species) are not here for any purpose. We’re animals who have evolved self-awareness. Nothing more.

The Universe is basically purposeless & uncaring. It is a great machine. Nothing more.

Life is common in the Universe and will emerge on any planet (and possibly elsewhere) if conditions allow it to.

We are not alone. We will find intelligent life in the Galaxy, or it will find us.

There is no soul. Nothing survives us after death.

There are no Gods or Demons. We will eventually outgrow such childish beliefs – though I expect that it will take some considerable time.

We have Free Will – but only up to a point.

There is no fate.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Why I don’t believe in God.

Sadie Lou has set me a challenge – to actually show my reasoned argument for my non-belief in God. So here goes with a bit of background first:

I grew up in a non-believing household so had nobody to teach me to believe in God from an early age. Being the people they are, my parents (despite being Catholics themselves) sent me to Church of England schools all my life where religion was very much a side issue – so I only picked up the barest of religious education from my school days. I was exposed to the stories, both from the Old and New Testament, but they never really meant much to me. So for the first half of my life I admit that I was largely ignorant about the whole idea of God.

The stories in the Bible have always been just that to me – stories, myths and morality tales. It was certainly not anything to ‘believe’ in, nothing to be part of or to change my life for. It was an old book considered by many to be important. But it was still just a book. I never considered it to be of any relevance to me.

I never needed to fill gaps in my knowledge or in human knowledge with anything else other than ignorance. I never felt that there was anything wrong with saying “I/we don’t know – yet”. I’m not sure if you could describe it as an ‘instinct’ as such but I’ve never felt the need to add extra layers of complications to things. To me I automatically assume a natural explanation. I never thought that God or angels or anything else supernatural for that matter moved the planets, or made the tides work or the wind blow. I never assumed that life was somehow ‘designed’ by an actual ‘designer’ even before I learnt about evolution and the rest of science. God, to me, was never part of the equation. Like Laplace, I never had a need of that hypothesis.

Can I actually prove beyond reasonable doubt that God does not exist? No, I can’t – at least not here and not now, though maybe someday.

Why then don’t I believe in Him?

I see no need for Him to exist. He is not a necessary/needed part of the Universe.
Everything that exists either has a natural explanation or will have – I see no God in the ‘gaps’.
There’s the classic ‘Problem of Evil’ issue. How can a loving God preside over a place like Earth? (This question really confounds me).
As far as I can tell there is no single piece of evidence to point to the existence of God, none that I have come across myself or any convincing argument provided by people who actually believe in Him. To make myself clear, I don’t mean insufficient evidence I mean NONE.
The Bible certainly isn’t proof of any kind. It’s an old book written, edited and compiled by many people about during the last 2 millennia. It’s the history, mythology & morality tales of a mainly illiterate desert people in the Middle East. There are many such works from all over the world. Why is the Bible the ‘right’ one? That just doesn’t make sense.

Taking all of the above – Why should I believe in God? Why should I even entertain the possibility of His existence? Is absence of proof a proof of absence? No it isn’t. But how much lack of proof do we need to consider the existence of something to be so unlikely as to, in effect, not exist? I think I have enough lack of proof.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Christians urged to welcome civil partnerships.

The Anglican organisation Affirming Catholicism has published today a booklet calling on the Church to welcome civil partnerships as a pastoral opportunity and a means of listening to the experience of lesbian and gay Christians. Civil partnerships are being flagged as a way out of the ‘catch 22’ which faces many gay Christians whose relationships are criticised for being unstable while - at the same time - the Church fails to offer any support which might help couples stay together.

In a foreword to the booklet, the Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, thanks God for the legislation which came into effect in England and Wales on 21 December 2005. He says that same-sex couples who commit their lives to each other ‘are expressing the deepest and most godlike instinct in human nature’. Acknowledging that many in the Church have yet to recognise this, he nonetheless believes that civil partnerships will help to change attitudes.

"We know that the road to full and equal acceptance of gay relationships throughout the world will be long and hard, but we can rejoice that in this country the partnership law is a very big step along it" he said. Another booklet by Dr Jeffrey John’s booklet entitled ‘Permanent, Faithful, Stable: Christian Same-Sex partnerships’ was published by Affirming Catholicism in 1993 and updated in 2001. It placed biblical teaching on homosexuality in its historical context and called for contemporary Church practice to develop and accord loving, committed and sexually faithful same-sex relationships the same value and significance as Christian marriage.

Canon Nerissa Jones, MBE, the Chair of Trustees for Affirming Catholicism said: "The period of listening and reception to which Anglicans are committed can’t happen on a purely theoretical level. It must also be about the lived experience of lesbian and gay Christians who need to feel safe enough to tell their stories. We believe that civil partnership can help give that security and that local clergy should offer prayer and support for couples."

The policy of the Church of England, as stated by the House of Bishops is that, while there could be no authorised liturgy to bless same-sex couples until there was consensus on Church teaching, parish priests should nonetheless respond sensitively and pastorally to gay couples seeking blessings. The publication calls for an end to the perceived double standard at the heart of current Church teaching which accepts gay relationships between lay people but bans sexually active homosexual women and men from the priesthood.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Britons unconvinced on evolution

From the BBC.

More than half the British population does not accept the theory of evolution, according to a survey. Furthermore, more than 40% of those questioned believe that creationism or intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons. The survey was conducted by Ipsos MORI for the BBC's Horizon series.

Its latest programme, A War on Science, looks into the attempt to introduce intelligent design into science classes in the US. Over 2000 participants took part in the survey, and were asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life:

22% chose creationism
17% opted for intelligent design
48% selected evolution theory
and the rest did not know.

Intelligent design is the concept that certain features of living things are so complex that their existence is better explained by an "intelligent process" than natural selection. Andrew Cohen, editor of Horizon, commented: "I think that this poll represents our first introduction to the British public's views on this issue. "Most people would have expected the public to go for evolution theory, but it seems there are lots of people who appear to believe in an alternative theory for life's origins."

When given a choice of three theories, people were asked which ones they would like to see taught in science lessons in British schools:

44% said creationism should be included
41% intelligent design
69% wanted evolution as part of the science curriculum.

Participants over 55 were more likely to choose evolution over other groups, while those under 25 were most likely to opt for intelligent design. "This really says something about the role of science education in this country and begs us to question how we are teaching evolutionary theory," Andrew Cohen added.

Well, you could’ve knocked my over with a feather when I read this recently. My emotions went from shock to sadness and then to anger. I really think we need some kind of investigation into science education in this country. Something has gone SERIOUSLY wrong.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Rightwing Group Offers Students $100 to Spy on Professors

by Dan Glaister January 19, 2006 - The Guardian

It is the sort of invitation any poverty-stricken student would find hard to resist. "Do you have a professor who just can't stop talking about President Bush, about the war in Iraq, about the Republican party, or any other ideological issue that has nothing to do with the class subject matter? If you help ... expose the professor, we'll pay you for your work."

For full notes, a tape recording and a copy of all teaching materials, students at the University of California Los Angeles are being offered $100 (£57) - the tape recorder is provided free of charge - by an alumni group. Lecture notes without a tape recording net $50, and even non-attendance at the class while providing copies of the teaching materials is worth $10.

But the initiative has prompted concerns that the group, the brainchild of a former leader of the college's Republicans, is a witch-hunt. Several targeted professors have complained, figures associated with the group have distanced themselves from the project and the college is studying whether the sale of notes infringes copyright and contravenes regulations. The Bruin Alumni Association's single registered member is Andrew Jones, a 24-year-old former student who gained some notoriety while at the university for staging an "affirmative action bake sale" at which ethnic minority students were offered discounts on pastries. His latest project has academics worrying about moves by rightwing groups to counter what they perceive to be a leftist bias at many colleges.

The group's website, uclaprofs.com, lists 31 professors whose classes it considers worthy of scrutiny. The professors teach classes in history, African-American studies, politics, and Chicano studies. Their supposed radicalism is indicated on the site by a rating system of black fists. The organisation denies on the website that it is conducting a vendetta against those with differing political views. "We are concerned solely with indoctrination, one-sided presentation of ideological controversies and unprofessional classroom behaviour, no matter where it falls on the ideological spectrum."

But in another posting, it is clear just where on the spectrum the group thinks the bias might fall. "One aspect of this radicalisation, outlined here, is an unholy alliance between anti-war professors, radical Muslim students and a pliant administration. Working together, they have made UCLA a major organizing center for opposition to the war on terror."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Books @ my Bedside: The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first Century by Robert Cooper

Folks who like their global political analysis presented in snippy sound-bite form can hurry along to the Carvilles and Coulters and find plenty of reading material. Robert Cooper's The Breaking of Nations is designed for those who appreciate the complex tapestry of security issues and international affairs.

The present-day world, posits Cooper, is divided into three types of nations: pre-modern (often third world and politically unstable), modern and post-modern. While the present-day Europe Union exists as a post-modern model, with each country relying on others to facilitate prosperity, most other large nations, including, for the moment, the United States, are stuck in a merely modern capacity, still viewing foreign policy as essentially a way of keeping enemies at bay and maintaining the status quo. As terrorism grows more powerful and the "pre-modern" world more unstable, sophisticated weaponry becomes more readily available to terrorist organisations. It then falls to the enlightened "post-modern" countries to intervene militarily, taking a pre-emptive approach when necessary, to contain threats, root out bad guys and defend the world. With this scenario in mind, Cooper urges EU members to increase their military capability to better measure up to the status and power of the American military forces. But as technology makes weapons of mass destruction more readily available around the planet, a more aggressive diplomatic strategy, Cooper says, is crucial to effectively dealing with the build up of weaponry and he presents five "maxims" to illustrate how such a diplomacy should be organised. While Cooper cogently presents his vision of where the world is and where the powerful nations need to take it, he also acknowledges the vagaries of a shifting world and as such presents The Breaking of Nations more as a rumination on complex issues than a ready-made solution.

I found it difficult to put this book down, turn the light off and go to sleep. It was just so damned readable. Robert Cooper certainly knows his international politics and knows how to present the subject in an informative, intelligent and sobering way. If you want to have a glimpse of the worlds political future and find out how we’re likely to get there then read this book.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Post-Christendom debate ignited by Cardinal welcomed

13/01/06

A debate ignited by controversial comments made by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has been welcomed by Christian leaders. Cardinal Keith O'Brien caused controversy by telling other faiths that they needed to realise they live in a Christian country. He also said Scotland should be "re-Christianised". Scotland's most senior Catholic, appointed cardinal in 2003, insisted the country's "core faith" was Christianity.

The remarks, to be broadcast in a radio interview this Sunday, were condemned as "obnoxious" by the Hindu Temple in Glasgow, and criticised by the Muslim Council of Britain for "showing impatience with other faiths". However, the leader of some of Scotland's evangelical Christians said he "welcomed the debate" raised by the 67-year-old cardinal. Mike Parker, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance Scotland, said: "Talking too much about Jesus is not our biggest problem in Scotland; a lot of Christians keep it quiet. "A lot of our friends from other faiths don't keep it quiet. That's why I'm glad of the conversation."

Freddy Gray, deputy editor of the Catholic Herald newspaper, said he believed Catholics would be "delighted" by the Cardinal's remarks. He said: "Too often we compromise the Catholic Church for the sake of other faiths." The Cardinal's remarks for Christian leaders raise a number of important questions.

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the religious thinktank Ekklesia, who has just finished the third in a series of books looking at the changing relationship between religion and culture said; "The Cardinal's comments raise all sorts of important questions. Many would see the historical influence of the Christian religion upon Scotland in negative as well as positive terms, and so the prospect of "re-Christianisation" will set alarm bells ringing for many. Others will point out that often the historical Christian influence through power and special privilege has been at odds with a Christian message of equality and justice" he continued. "Given the post-Christendom context in which we all now live, it is inadvisable to pursue the language and approaches of Christendom with the language of "re-Christianisation" implies."

Morag Mylne, of the Church of Scotland, said: "The Church and other faiths have an interest in, and a concern about, the way in which parts of society show a lack of understanding about the place of faith. We share that concern." The cardinal's remarks were defended by MSP Michael Matheson, the SNP's culture spokesman. He said: "A major part of Cardinal O'Brien's role is to spread Christianity. It is reasonable for the leader of Scotland's Catholics to call upon Christians within the country to take greater recognition of their heritage."

However, Dr Mona Siddiqui, head of the department of theology and religious studies at Glasgow University, suggested the Church faced a struggle in its battle to revitalise Christianity. She said: "The concern for many Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church, is how to make religion a vibrant, living reality in people's lives."

So, should we be thinking about a ‘re-Christianisation’ of the UK? Is such a thing even possible? Or should everyone just accept that we live in a post-Christian multi-faith society that might well see the collapse of the various Christian faiths in not too many generations?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Government backs down on faith schools discrimination

16/01/06

The British government has backed down on proposals in its Equality Bill which would have allowed faith schools to discriminate by excluding pupils or 'subject[ing] them to any other detriment' on the grounds of their religion or belief. Alan Johnson, secretary of state for the Department of Trade and Industry, is proposing an amendment to remove this provision at the Commons Report stage of the Bill today. The change of position is being seen as a victory by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights and by the British Humanist Association (BHA), which lobbied against these provisions with the support of a range of parliamentarians.

The reversal will also be welcomed by those in Britain’s faith communities who wish to see a level playing field in public education and an end to discrimination. The BHA says that this is the latest in a series of “welcome climb-downs” by the government over the powers of faith schools since the Bill was first introduced in the House of Lords in 2005. Initially, part two of the Equality Bill also exempted faith schools from new duties not to harass pupils, but after lobbying this provision was removed.

At the time, education secretary Ruth Kelly, a Roman Catholic, commented: “We recognised [that] we went too far in exempting faith schools from the harassment as well as the discrimination provisions of the Bill.” Ms Kelly, who has been associated with the secretive religious movement Opus Dei, is presently in hot water over the number of registered sex offenders teaching in schools in England and Wales, and her own role in one contested case. Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association, says that she recognizes that “some exemptions are needed to protect the legitimate activities of religion and belief bodies, but in the interests of human rights and equality, they should be as narrowly drawn as possible.”

In particular, recent opinion polls have demonstrated the public unpopularity of religiously and culturally segregated schooling. But the government’s Bill outlawing religion and belief discrimination in other walks of life avoids this issue, and prime minister Tony Blair has pushed hard for schools run by religious groups – sometimes very narrow ones – to have a key role in Labour’s controversial education reform platform. The question of admissions, where discrimination will remain lawful, is a particularly contentious one. The heads of the large faith communities in the UK all back religiously based schools and say that they can form part of a mix of options in a plural society.

But on a TV programme last year Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, and Tom Butler, Anglican Bishop of Southwark, both admitted that they would be unhappy with Christian children attending a Muslim school. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also said that he needed to reflect on the consequences of segregating Jewish children or removing them from mixed schools – the likelihood that children from Muslim and other backgrounds would grow up without first-hand knowledge of the Jewish experience. The BHA says that rightly outlawing discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief in other areas of life while simultaneously encouraging it in schools makes no sense. This is a view supported by teachers’ unions and by the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia.
The Last things we learnt in 2005.

From the BBC

1. The UK's first mobile phone call was made 20 years ago this year, when Ernie Wise rang the Vodafone head office, which was then above a curry shop in Newbury.

2. Mohammed is now one of the 20 most popular names for boys born in England and Wales.

3. While it's an offence to drop litter on the pavement, it's not an offence to throw it over someone's garden wall.

4. An average record shop needs to sell at least two copies of a CD per year to make it worth stocking, according to Wired magazine.

5. Nicole Kidman is scared of butterflies. "I jump out of planes, I could be covered in cockroaches, I do all sorts of things, but I just don't like the feel of butterflies' bodies," she says.

6. WD-40 dissolves cocaine - it has been used by a pub landlord to prevent drug-taking in his pub's toilets.

7. Baboons can tell the difference between English and French. Zoo keepers at Port Lympne wild animal park in Kent are having to learn French to communicate with the baboons which had been transferred from Paris zoo.

8. Devout Orthodox Jews are three times as likely to jaywalk as other people, according to an Israeli survey reported in the New Scientist. The researchers say it's possibly because religious people have less fear of death.

9. The energy used to build an average Victorian terrace house would be enough to send a car round the Earth five times, says English Heritage.

10. Humans can be born suffering from a rare condition known as "sirenomelia" or "mermaid syndrome", in which the legs are fused together to resemble the tail of a fish.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

U.S. Obtains Internet Users' Search Records

Friday, January 20, 2006 excerpted from the Los Angeles Times

Joseph Menn and Chris Gaither

SAN FRANCISCO — Federal investigators have obtained potentially billions of Internet search requests made by users of major websites run by Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc., raising concerns about how the massive data trove will be used. The information turned over to Justice Department lawyers reveals a week's worth of online queries from millions of Americans — the Internet Age equivalent of eavesdropping on their inner monologues. The subpoenaed data could, for example, include how many times people searched online for "apple pie recipes," "movie tickets 90012" or even "bomb instructions."

The Internet companies said Thursday that the information did not violate their users' privacy because the data did not include names or computer addresses. The disclosure nonetheless alarmed civil liberties advocates, who fear that the government could seek more detailed information later. A Justice Department spokesman said the government was not interested in ferreting out names — only in search trends as part of its efforts to regulate online pornography. But the search-engine subpoenas come amid broader concerns over how much information the government collects and how the data are used.

Congress is debating an extension of the Patriot Act, which dramatically expanded the government's ability to obtain private data. And congressional hearings are expected soon on the legality of a National Security Agency program to track communications by U.S. citizens without prior court approval. Privacy advocates said the opportunity to peruse search queries provided an unprecedented glimpse into people's private thoughts and habits. Virtually unknown a decade ago, search engines rapidly have become an integral part of daily life.

Search engines maintain "a massive database that reaches into the most intimate details of your life: what you search for, what you read, what worries you, what you enjoy," said Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's critical to protect the privacy of this information so people feel free to use modern tools to find information without the fear of Big Brother looking over their shoulder." The issue came to light this week only when Google Inc., the most-used Internet search engine, fought its subpoena. AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo also had been subpoenaed. Government lawyers filed a brief in U.S. District Court in San Jose seeking to force Google to comply.

I wonder how long it will be before Governments demand a webcam in every home & copies of our house & car keys. Or have I just given them an idea? Duh!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Appeal for emergency Government funding to support churches

The Bishop of London has said that some of England's oldest churches are in such disrepair that they will close without an emergency cash injection of £60 million. The Rt Rev Richard Chartres yesterday urged the Government to increase grants to repair and maintain "some of our most medieval jewels", reports the Daily Telegraph.

As churches struggle with declining congregations they face an annual repair bill estimated at £120 million, with a backlog of repairs totalling £373 million. The bishop said: "There is a real question whether the achievements of the tens of thousands of volunteers who help to maintain our churches are sustainable. "If no extra money is forthcoming we will see a spate of church closures and losses to whole communities of buildings that cannot be sustained.

"The Church of England is responsible for 45 per cent of the Grade I listed buildings in the country and it is time that the Government recognised the vital role played by local churches in communities across the country." Bishop Chartres will present a paper to the General Synod next month outlining the crisis facing the Church of England as a result of a fall in repair grants from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Bishop compared the £26 million grant it has received this year to spend on its 13,000 listed churches with the £23.1 million grant the Arts Council gives to the Royal Opera House alone.

He called on the Government to recognise that the role of churches today went far beyond the worshipping community. Besides benefiting Christians, they were a venue for mother and child groups, judo classes, amateur dramatics and food fairs. "In rural areas, the church building can often be the only one available for community use when schools, shops, pubs have gone," he said. "The potential of church buildings to help deliver essential services in rural areas is only starting to be realised." The Church of England has long said that the Government's role in maintaining churches falls far short of the levels provided in other European countries. In the absence of sufficient Government funding, historic churches seek money from donations, campaigns and bodies such as English Heritage.

English Heritage said it was committed to securing the future of historic churches and was conducting research to identify ways to raise congregation numbers. A spokesman said: "We agree that the £26 million per year available for repairs to listed places of worship under the joint English Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund places of worship scheme is not enough but this is currently the limit of our funds for this repair scheme. "The results of this research will enable us to identify how best to keep our parish churches alive and thriving and help us to make a cast iron case to the Government for greater financial support." The story in the newspaper accompanies an editorial which suggests that the maintenance of church fabric is "too much of a job for the established Church."

"The Government must take this burden upon itself, for the sake of the nation, to save these incomparable landmarks of its culture" the paper says. The Church of England has assets and land worth over £4 billion, which others say the church should sell in order to raise funds to support its creaking infrastructure. However the church has recently found itself in hot water over the proposed sale of some of the housing that it owns.

Well, that’s certainly an indication of the state of religion (at least in the Church of England) in this country. Although it cannot fail to warm my heart I do find myself slightly disturbed by the idea that often beautiful pieces of architecture are falling so far into disrepair.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

St Andrews researcher questions belief in hell

From The Guardian

Donald MacLeod Monday December 5, 2005

Fire and brimstone sermons are less likely to thunder from Scottish pulpits these days, but a third of the clergy still believe in the existence of hell, according to a survey published this week. A clear majority of ministers and priests of different denominations believe in judgment day and one in five say the damned will suffer eternal physical torment. Eric Stoddart, a lecturer in practical theology at St Andrews University, surveyed 750 randomly selected clergy and found that 37% believed in hell, although this was more marked in the Highlands and Western Isles, where conservative, Presbyterian congregations predominate.

"The doctrine of hell is downplayed by most of today's churches even by those who still believe in it. It isn't viewed as very politically correct even by a new generation of more theologically conservative ministers," said Dr Stoddart, who commented that there was a conspiracy of silence on the subject. The anonymous postal survey of clergy from Baptist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist and Scottish Episcopalian churches, as well as the Church of Scotland, other Presbyterians and the Salvation Army, posed questions directly related to the fate of "the lost". A majority believed that there would be a judgment day at which we will be separated into "the saved" and "the lost", who will be eternally separated from God. One third of the clergy surveyed believe that this separation will involve 'eternal mental anguish in hell', while a fifth believe that such a fate includes eternal physical torment.

Dr Stoddart explained: "The fire and brimstone of the past may largely have been extinguished, but the beliefs that many Scottish clergy hold concerning the potential horrors that await 'the lost' continue to be dark and foreboding. "All will not be well, if that majority of Scotland's clergy are to be believed."

Dr Stoddart is interested in how belief in hell affects everyday life and is keen to hear from ordinary Christians as well. He said: "I'm interested in how people handle their belief in hell. If you believe (or are told you should believe) your grandmother is going to hell because she is not a Christian, how do you deal with that? Do you dehumanise her or psychologically distance yourself in order to accept her fate? How is it possible to go about daily life while believing that a loved-one has entered eternal suffering? When most hell-believing Christians are likely to encounter the death of 'non-Christian' loved-ones it is striking that it is a subject rarely tackled. No one talks about this aspect. There is something of a conspiracy of silence."

The study also found that clergy did not necessarily follow their particular 'official' doctrine, with members of the same church in opposite sides of the country holding opposing beliefs. Reasons for going to hell vary from lack of Christian beliefs to drinking alcohol or engaging in 'unnatural' sexual activities. Dr Stoddart continued: "Christians in Lanarkshire may be shocked to think that a 'good Christian' minister in Aberdeen does not believe in hell's physical torments. But what the survey did find was broad support for the notion of a judgment day, in which God divides the lost from the saved. While universal salvation in which all are united with God is popular in some clerical and academic circles, it is not the belief shared by most clergy in Scotland. The God of most of Scotland's ministers is one who divides."

I always thought of Hell as a badly written horror story to frighten children, then again I always thought that Heaven was a very badly written fantasy to make children be good….

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Finger Length Predicts Aggression in Men

[As requested by Foilwoman]

From LiveScience

Without pointing any fingers, a new study suggests a way to take the measure of tough characters. The research, done at the University of Alberta and announced Wednesday, found a connection between the length of the male index finger relative to the ring finger and the tendency to be aggressive. No such connection was found in women.

Scientists have known for more than a century that the finger-length ratio differs between men and women. Recently, scientists found a connection between finger lengths and the amount of testosterone that a foetus was exposed to in the womb: the shorter the index finger relative to the ring finger, the higher the amount of prenatal testosterone. The new study found such a foetus is more likely to be a physically aggressive adult, according to Peter Hurd and his graduate student Allison Bailey.

Hurd says he first thought the idea was "a pile of hooey," but he changed his mind when he saw the data, which is published in the March issue of the journal Biological Psychology. While the study finds a connection, finger ratios only predict behaviour a small percentage of the time, the researcher’s caution. The research was based on surveys and hand measurements of 300 undergrads at the university. Other studies have shown that culture and upbringing affect tendencies toward violence. Exposure to violent television has also been linked to violent behaviour later in life. Hurd says the new study supports other research that suggests biology plays a role.

"More than anything, I think the findings reinforce and underline that a large part of our personalities and our traits are determined while we're still in the womb," Hurd said. The connection was found only with physically aggressive behaviour, not with verbal aggression or other forms of hostility. A 2003 report in Chemical & Engineering News, a weekly newsmagazine published by the American Chemical Society, said "flawed brain chemistry, brain damage, genetic defects, an unhealthy psychological environment" all contribute to violent behaviour. Another study by Hurd, to be published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, find that men with more feminine finger ratios are more prone to depression. "Finger lengths explain about 5 percent of the variation in these personality measures, so research like this won't allow you to draw conclusions about specific people. For example, you wouldn't want to screen people for certain jobs based on their finger lengths," Hurd said. "But finger length can you tell you a little bit about where personality comes from, and that's what we are continuing to explore." Hurd plans to measure the digits of hockey players next.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Army Orders Soldiers to Shed Dragon Skin or Lose SGLI Death Benefits

Excerpts by Nathaniel R. Helms - Soldiers for the Truth. Saturday 14 January 2006

Two deploying soldiers and a concerned mother reported Friday afternoon that the US Army appears to be singling out soldiers who have purchased Pinnacle's Dragon Skin Body Armor for special treatment. The soldiers, who are currently staging for combat operations from a secret location, reported that their commander told them if they were wearing Pinnacle Dragon Skin and were killed their beneficiaries might not receive the death benefits from their $400,000 SGLI life insurance policies. The soldiers were ordered to leave their privately purchased body armor at home or face the possibility of both losing their life insurance benefit and facing disciplinary action.

The soldiers asked for anonymity because they are concerned they will face retaliation for going public with the Army's apparently new directive. At the sources' requests DefenseWatch has also agreed not to reveal the unit at which the incident occurred for operational security reasons. On Saturday morning a soldier affected by the order reported to DefenseWatch that the directive specified that "all" commercially available body armor was prohibited. The soldier said the order came down Friday morning from Headquarters, United States Special Operations Command (HQ, USSOCOM), located at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. It arrived unexpectedly while his unit was preparing to deploy on combat operations. The soldier said the order was deeply disturbing to many of the men who had used their own money to purchase Dragon Skin because it will affect both their mobility and ballistic protection. "We have to be able to move. It (Dragon Skin) is heavy, but it is made so we have mobility and the best ballistic protection out there. This is crazy. And they are threatening us with our benefits if we don't comply." he said.

Recently Dragon Skin became an item of contention between proponents of the Interceptor OTV body armor generally issued to all service members deploying in combat theaters and its growing legion of critics. Critics of the Interceptor OTV system say it is ineffective and inferior to Dragon Skin, as well as several other commercially available body armor systems on the market. Last week DefenseWatch released a secret Marine Corps report that determined that 80% of the 401 Marines killed in Iraq between April 2004 and June 2005 might have been saved if the Interceptor OTV body armor they were wearing was more effective. The Army has declined to comment on the report because doing so could aid the enemy, an Army spokesman has repeatedly said.

Yesterday the DoD released a news story through the Armed Forces News Service that quoted Maj. Gen. Steven Speaks, the Army's director of force development, who countered critical media reports by denying that the US military is behind the curve in providing appropriate force protection gear for troops deployed to Iraq and elsewhere in the global war against terrorism. The effort to improve body armor "has been a programmatic effort in the case of the Army that has gone on with great intensity for the last five months," he noted. Speaks' assessment contradicts earlier Army, Marine and DoD statements that indicated as late as last week that the Army was certain there was nothing wrong with Interceptor OTV body armor and that it was and remains the "best body armor in the world."

One of the soldiers who lost his coveted Dragon Skin is a veteran operator. He reported that his commander expressed deep regret upon issuing his orders directing him to leave his Dragon Skin body armor behind. The commander reportedly told his subordinates that he "had no choice because the orders came from very high up" and had to be enforced, the soldier said. Another soldier's story was corroborated by his mother, who helped defray the $6,000 cost of buying the Dragon Skin, she said. The mother of the soldier, who hails from the Providence, Rhode Island area, said she helped pay for the Dragon Skin as a Christmas present because her son told her it was "so much better" than the Interceptor OTV they expected to be issued when arriving in country for a combat tour. "He didn't want to use that other stuff," she said. "He told me that if anything happened to him I am supposed to raise hell."

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Pacifist `Threat'

Excerpts from the Hartford Courant (Connecticut) Monday, January 16, 2006

Disclosure Of Recent Government Surveillance Of Quaker Activities Doesn't Surprise Members

by Francis Grandy Taylor

A group of Quakers who were protesting military recruitment efforts at a Florida high school recently learned their meeting was included on a secret Pentagon database of "suspicious incidents." When that news broke last month, it had a familiar ring for many American Quakers. "With the restriction of civil liberties goes surveillance," says Don Weinholtz, a Quaker who lives in Windsor. "It just seems to be a very unfortunate natural course of events."

Quaker groups and members have come under government surveillance and infiltration at various times in history, from the McCarthy era to Vietnam. The pacifist church was in the forefront of protest in the run-up to the Iraq war and since then has worked to counter military recruitment efforts in high schools. "There are points in time where it is just a bedrock matter of faith that Quakers feel they must step forward," says Weinholtz, a member of the Hartford Quaker Meeting.

Last month, NBC News broke the story that the meeting of Quakers in Lake Worth, Fla., was one of about 1,500 allegedly suspicious incidents included in the Defense Department's secret TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) reporting system. Recent reports have said Quaker activities in Ohio and Vermont also may have been scrutinized under the program. The database obtained by NBC showed that the Pentagon also had labeled as "threats" counter-military recruiting protests and other planned demonstrations around the country, including one at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

A Defense Department spokesman said last week that the TALON program is intended to deal with suspicious activity and threats to national security before an attack occurs. "Unfiltered" information in the database can come from law enforcement, counter-intelligence or even concerned citizens, he said. The information then becomes a "dot" that could later be connected to other "dots" to identify a possible terrorist attack plot in its early stages. The information is shared with law enforcement, intelligence and other government security agencies and analyzed. The spokesman, who declined to be identified by name, said information that does not belong in the database is not deleted but is instead placed in an oversight file after a period of time.

Peter Goselin, an attorney for the Connecticut chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said Thursday that a number of peace organizations are considering joining together to file mass Freedom of Information requests of the state and federal government to determine if lawful political protest is under surveillance here. "Over the last couple of months, there have been a number of disclosures concerning improper and illegal surveillance actions by everything from the [National Security Agency] and the [Defense Department] to the New York Police Department," Goselin said. "These activities would be a violation of political or religious freedom."
More things we learnt in 2005.

From the BBC.

11. One in 10 Europeans is allegedly conceived in an Ikea bed.

12. Until the 1940s rhubarb was a vegetable. It became a fruit when US customs officials, baffled by the foreign food, decided it should be classified according to the way it was eaten.

13. Prince Charles broke with an 80-year tradition by giving Camilla Parker Bowles a wedding ring fashioned from Cornish gold, instead of the nugget of Welsh gold that has provided rings for all royal brides and grooms since 1923.

14. It's possible for a human to blow up balloons via the ear. A 55-year-old factory worker from China reportedly discovered 20 years ago that air leaked from his ears, and he can now inflate balloons and blow out candles.

15. Lionesses like their males to be deep brunettes.

16. The London borough of Westminster has an average of 20 pieces of chewing gum for every square metre of pavement.

17. Bosses at Madame Tussauds spent £10,000 separating the models of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston when they separated. It was the first time the museum had two people's waxworks joined together.

18. If all the Smarties eaten in one year were laid end to end it would equal almost 63,380 miles, more than two-and-a-half times around the Earth's equator.

19. The = sign was invented by 16th Century Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde, who was fed up with writing "is equal to" in his equations. He chose the two lines because "noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle".

20. The Queen has never been on a computer, she told Bill Gates as she awarded him an honorary knighthood.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Blogger Buys Presidential Candidate's Call List

by Frank Main - Friday, January 13, 2006 by the Chicago Sun Times

One of the nation's top political bloggers purchased the cell phone records of former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark on Thursday to demonstrate the growing privacy concerns highlighted in a Chicago Sun-Times story last week. John Aravosis, publisher of AMERICAblog.com, said he bought Clark's records for $89.95 from celltolls.com. Aravosis said he obtained a list of 100 calls made on Clark's cell phone over three days in November -- no questions asked. Aravosis, whose liberal blog is critical of the Bush administration, said he called Clark's cell phone Thursday to make sure the former NATO supreme commander was informed Aravosis bought his records. Aravosis did not publish the numbers on his blog.

"I am not doing this to be mean, I am doing this to help people," Aravosis said. "I supported [Clark's] campaign when he was running in the beginning. "This shows nobody's records are untouchable. . . . Wouldn't it be interesting to know who [Sun-Times columnist] Bob Novak was calling in the month that [CIA agent] Valerie Plame's name came out? How about [U.S. Attorney] Patrick Fitzgerald's phone calls?" Clark said legal remedies are needed to stop companies from selling telephone records.

"When I learned today that my phone records were purchased for less than a hundred dollars I joined millions of Americans who worry about the invasion of their privacy that seems to be the growing price of technology," Clark said. "People should be able to trust that their privacy is being respected and protected by everyone from the government to our internet and mobile phone service providers. Clearly, this is not the case." Clark urged consumers to contact their senators to urge passage of a law to order the Federal Trade Commission to "restore integrity to the system and give people back a reasonable degree of privacy."

Personally I’m stunned by this story. It seems that in the USA its money that talks. How can a company justify selling that sort of information? What other details are available for “less than a hundred dollars”? What ever happened to privacy? Is it happening (or going to happen) over here too?

Friday, January 13, 2006

UK among most secular nations.

From the BBC.

A survey of people's religious beliefs in 10 countries suggests the UK is among the most secular nations in the world. Ten thousand people were questioned in the poll by research company ICM for the BBC programme ‘What The World Thinks Of God’. More than a quarter of Britons thought the world would be more peaceful with nobody believing in God, but very few people in other countries agreed. The survey found the highest levels of belief in some of the world's poorer countries, but also in the world's richest, America.

The countries polled were the US, UK, Israel, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Nigeria, Russia, Mexico and Lebanon. The interviews were carried out in January 2004. The programme producers said: "Overall, the results of our poll show that levels of belief and religious activity in the UK are consistently lower than in most of the other countries polled. "Only Russia and South Korea produced results similar to the UK. The highest levels of belief are found in the poorer nations of Nigeria, India and Indonesia. "However, the US also stands out in contrast with the UK. The US is the richest nation polled and yet has a very high level of belief." Those willing to die for their God, or their beliefs, included more than 90% in Indonesia and Nigeria, and 71% in Lebanon and the US.

Among Israelis only 37% were willing to take this ultimate step, and only 19% of Britons, 29% of whom said the world would be more peaceful without beliefs in God. Very few people in other countries agreed with this. Israel and the UK showed a similar temperament when asked another question. On who was to blame for much of the trouble in the world, 37% of Britons and 33% of Israelis said it was people of other religions. In most of the countries covered, well over 80% said they believed in God or a higher power. In Nigeria the figure was 100% and in the US 91%, with the UK scoring lowest at 67%.

In Nigeria, Indonesia and Lebanon more than 90% of people said their God was the only true God. In Israel the figure was 70%, but it fell to 31% among Britons. In Nigeria 91% of people said they regularly attended a religious service, contrasting with 21% in the UK and only 7% of Russians. The average across the 10 countries was 46%. In most countries well over 80% of the sample agreed that a belief in God or a higher power made people better human beings, with only 56% agreeing in the UK, by far the lowest figure. The subject of prayer found 95% of Nigerians and 67% in the US claiming to pray regularly. Those saying they never prayed included 29% of Israelis and 25% of Britons. But across the entire sample, almost 30% of all atheists surveyed said they sometimes prayed.

The Muslim Council of Britain said there had been "a quite clear erosion of the sense of the sacred" in the UK. Spokesperson Inayat Bunglawala said: "Religion, or Christianity especially, is certainly seen as more and more fair game, as a target to be lampooned, satirised. "In Islam there is a difference, a clear sense of the sacred. You just cannot trivialise issues to do with God and death. "These are serious issues in all our lives and ridiculing those concepts has perhaps made religion seem almost an optional extra, if you like.

Interesting... as much as surveys and statistics can tell us anything that is. What I find most confusing is the statement that "almost 30% of all atheists surveyed said they sometimes prayed" - if they're atheists.. then exactly who did they pray to. Makes me wonder.....
More things we learnt in 2005.

From the BBC.

21. One person in four has had their identity stolen or knows someone who has.

22. The length of a man's fingers can reveal how physically aggressive he is, scientists say.

23. In America it's possible to subpoena a dog.

24. The 71m packets of biscuits sold annually by United Biscuits, owner of McVitie's, generate 127.8 tonnes of crumbs.

25. Nelson probably had a broad Norfolk accent.

26. One in four people does not know 192, the old number for directory inquiries in the UK, has been abolished.

27. Only in France and California are under 18s banned from using sunbeds.

28. The British buy the most compact discs in the world - an average of 3.2 per year, compared to 2.8 in the US and 2.1 in France.

29. When faced with danger, the octopus can wrap six of its legs around its head to disguise itself as a fallen coconut shell and escape by walking backwards on the other two legs, scientists discovered.

30. There are an estimated 1,000 people in the UK in a persistent vegetative state.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Two thirds oppose state aided faith schools.

Matthew Taylor, education correspondent

The Guardian Tuesday August 23, 2005

Faith schools, a central plank of the government's education reforms designed to increase parental choice, are opposed by almost two thirds of the public. A Guardian/ICM poll published today shows that most respondents are against ministers' plans to increase the number of religious schools amid growing anxiety about their impact on social cohesion.

The survey reveals that following last month's terror attacks, the majority of the public are uneasy about the proposals, with 64% agreeing that "the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind". The government is due to publish proposals in the autumn which will make it easier for independent schools, including Islamic, Christian and Jewish institutions, to opt into the state sector, accessing millions of pounds in funding. The Department for Education and Skills has already given the Association of Muslim Schools £100,000 to make the transition smoother for more of the 120 independent Islamic schools.

There are currently around 7,000 faith schools in England, 600 secondary and 6,400 primary. The vast majority [6,955] are Christian, with 36 Jewish, five Muslim and two Sikh schools. At the moment the schools must meet stringent criteria including teaching the national curriculum and have buildings "which are fit for purpose" before they are accepted into the state system, but this process is being reviewed. Earlier this year the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, criticised Islamic schools, saying they posed a challenge to the coherence of British society. In a speech to the Hansard society, Mr Bell said that "traditional Islamic education does not entirely fit pupils for their lives as Muslims in modern Britain". But last night the Association of Muslim Schools said faith schools "turned out rounded citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism."

The Guardian/ICM poll found that a quarter of respondents felt faith schools were an important part of the education system and that if Christian and Jewish schools had state backing, the government should also fund Muslim schools. Eight per cent said that Christian and Jewish schools should be funded but not Muslim schools. Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society, said the two thirds opposed to government funding for faith schools reflected the public's unease about the growing influence of religious organisations in education.

Personally I don’t think we should have any faith-based schools – and most certainly not any paid for with public money. I also find it strange that we have such institutions in what appears to be one of the most secular societies in the world. Finally I can’t help thinking that we would be better off without them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Chimps with everything: a ridiculous war

By Cristina Odone in The Times

It sounds so innocuous. Of Pandas and People has a whimsical, almost Disneyesque ring to it, a soft-toy tome for children curious about the rich variety of species found in nature. To its critics, though, Pandas, the result of a collaboration between the American authors Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon, is the wrong-headed and downright wicked textbook of intelligent design (ID) theory. ID claims that organisms are the products of an “intelligent design” conceived by a nameless “intelligent agent”. There is no mention of the G-word in ID, and, unlike creationism, it does not teach that our world is divine in origin, or even created in seven days; but for scientists and most educationists, Pandas and its counterparts are guilty of trying to tear up the principles of biology and drag scientific inquiry back to the Dark Ages.

When a US federal court ruled recently that Pandas and other ID works do not belong in the science curriculum of publicly funded schools, it delivered a Christmas present to cheer the Scroogiest of scientists. Corks popped in labs from Seattle to Saratoga. Yet the argument about ID is a strange one. For a start, there is plenty of room for intelligent design outside the science curriculum, as part of the study of philosophy, religion or the history of ideas.

But ID’s supporters aren’t satisfied with their theory being studied as an interesting intellectual blind alley; they want it taught as a scientific alternative. Evolution, they say, is just a theory, so let’s consider other theories too. That fundamentally misunderstands scientific language: evolution was a theory when Darwin first posited it; now it is as well rooted as, say, quantum physics. Further elaboration of it is desirable and necessary; but trying to think up a new theory is likely to be futile, and certainly not worth wasting science lessons on. Intelligent design offers little comfort to the strongest opponents of evolution: the many Americans who believe that the Bible is literally true. God (or someone) may have nudged the evolutionary process, ID argues, but it does not support the claim that He created the world in a week. Moreover, ID is a very selective nibble at the scientific worldview. For a Christian who believes in the literal truth of the Bible, cosmology is just as threatening as evolution, showing beyond all reasonable doubt (albeit not to unreasonable doubters) that the Universe is billions of years old, not created in 4,004BC.

It is easy to feel smug about this over here, where we resolved this issue (we think) more than a century ago. In this country, the compartmentalisation of God and faith has a longer history and has been far more strictly enforced than in America. The price for such secularism is that believers often feel like pariahs; the prize, that no child in a state school will ever learn that the world was made in six days and that woman came from man’s rib.

And yet . . . Christian evangelicals may not be as numerous here as in America, but they are rich and well organised. Like their American counterparts, they are determined to proclaim the truth of the Bible, and to contest what they see as the humiliating evolutionary theory that connects humans, made in God’s own image, to a chimp or, further back, a slimeball. So believers here too are choosing, unwisely, to stand their ground on evolution, largely in protest against the idea that the Bible and faith have nothing to say in explaining the world and its ways.

Ultimately, intelligent design’s attempt to rewrite the principles of biology is as futile as an attempt to create Christian mathematics, or Islamic physics. It would be far better for believers to pitch their tents on a battlefield where the enemy is on weak ground: to take a seasonal example, what, for example, is meant by “peace on earth and goodwill to all men”. Believers, of all stripes, have an answer. The secularists struggle.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Gene breakthrough By Chris Taylor

From CNNNN

GENEVA - In what’s being hailed as a biotech breakthrough, gay scientists claim to have isolated the Christian gene.

According to reports, homosexual geneticists have spent years attempting to isolate the gene that renders people Christian. As members of the Pink Tiger Research Institute, they’re hoping to isolate the cause of Christianity altogether within the next decade. Dr Gary Delaney claims gay scientists have already prevented rats from being born Christian. “And hopefully,” says Dr Delaney, “humans will follow.”

Many Christians object to the findings, claiming their belief is not genetically determined. Mr Ben Heppell, a. practising Christian says, “Look, Christianity is a lifestyle choice. It’s perfectly natural.” But Pink Tiger claims the controversial religion is part of people’s DNA they say, Christianity can be inherited, just like baldness. “The way they dress, the way they talk, they way they exhibit themselves in public” explains Dr Delaney. “We now know that being Christian is actually not their fault.”

Scientists say that until a method is found to remove the Christian gene, gay scientists will continue counselling local Christians to make positive changes to their lifestyle and values. Parents of Christians, like Anne and Chris Mills, welcome the news with relief. “We always worried that if we’d done something different, our child would not have ended up a Christian” says Mrs Mills. “But now we know he didn’t have a choice.”

Now, thanks to the work of Pink Tiger, there is a choice, which is good for Christians everywhere.

Thanks to my good friend CQ for pointing me to this SPOOF news story. I found it so funny I nearly fell off my chair. Enjoy.
More things we learnt in 2005.

From the BBC.

31. Train passengers in the UK waited a total of 11.5m minutes in 2004 for delayed services.

32. "Restaurant" is the most mis-spelled word in search engines.

33. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho has only been in an English pub once, to buy his wife cigarettes.

34. The Little Britain wheelchair sketch with Lou and Andy was inspired by Lou Reed and Andy Warhol.

35. The name Lego came from two Danish words "leg godt", meaning "play well". It also means "I put together" in Latin.

36. The average employee spends 14 working days a year on personal e-mails, phone calls and web browsing, outside official breaks, according to employment analysts Captor.

37. Cyclist Lance Armstrong's heart is almost a third larger than the average man's.

38. Nasa boss Michael Griffin has seven university degrees: a bachelor's degree, a PhD, and five masters degrees.

39. Australians host barbecues at polling stations on general election days.

40. An average Briton will spend £1,537,380 during his or her lifetime, a survey from insurer Prudential suggests.
The Death of Freedom

by John Pilger excerpted from the New Statesman

On Christmas Eve, I dropped in on Brian Haw, whose hunched, pacing figure was just visible through the freezing fog. For four and a half years, Brian has camped in Parliament Square with a graphic display of photographs that show the terror and suffering imposed on Iraqi children by British policies. The effectiveness of his action was demonstrated last April when the Blair government banned any expression of opposition within a kilometre of parliament. The high court subsequently ruled that, because his presence preceded the ban, Brian was an exception. Day after day, night after night, season upon season, he remains a beacon, illuminating the great crime of Iraq and the cowardice of the House of Commons. As we talked, two women brought him a Christmas meal and mulled wine. They thanked him, shook his hand and hurried on. He had never seen them before. "That's typical of the public," he said. A man in a pinstriped suit and tie emerged from the fog, carrying a small wreath. "I intend to place this at the Cenotaph and read out the names of the dead in Iraq," he said to Brian, who cautioned him: "You'll spend the night in the cells, mate." We watched him stride off and lay his wreath. His head bowed, he appeared to be whispering. Thirty years ago, I watched dissidents do something similar outside the walls of the Kremlin.

As the night had covered him, he was lucky. On December 7th, Maya Evans, a vegan chef aged 25, was convicted of breaching the new Serious Organized Crime and Police Act by reading aloud at the Cenotaph the names of 97 British soldiers killed in Iraq. So serious was her crime that it required 14 policemen in two vans to arrest her. She was fined and given a criminal record for the rest of her life.

Eighty-year-old John Catt served with the RAF in the Second World War. Last September, he was stopped by police in Brighton for wearing an "offensive" T-shirt which suggested that Bush and Blair be tried for war crimes. He was arrested under the Terrorism Act and handcuffed, with his arms held behind his back. The official record of the arrest says the "purpose" of searching him was "terrorism" and the "grounds for intervention" were "carrying placard and T-shirt with anti-Blair info". He is awaiting trial.

Between 11 September 2001 and 30 September 2005, 895 people in total were arrested under the Terrorism Act. Only 23 have been convicted of offences covered by the act. As for real terrorists, the identities of two of the 7 July bombers, including the suspected mastermind, were known to MI5, yet nothing was done. And Blair wants to give the security services more power. Having helped to devastate Iraq, he is now killing freedom in his own country.

Read more here: http://www.newstatesman.com/200601090004

So, we now live in a country where you can be arrested on TERRORISM charges for wearing a political T-Shirt? Is that what we want? Is that how we fight to so-called ‘War on Terror’? Is that how we protect our freedoms? Or is that how we sleepwalk day by day into Totalitarianism? How long before elections are suspended ‘for the duration of the present crisis’? This is a sad and troubled time for democracy and freedom.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Books @ my Bedside: Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder

Review by Steven Wu.

Sophie's World is a curious book. It is, at its core, a much-simplified but well-written exposition of the history of Western philosophy, covering many of the major thinkers and providing capsule summaries of their major thoughts. But such a description fails to capture all the tricks that Gaarder pulls with this book, for Sophie's World is also a book within a book within a book, a meditation on the free will of fictional characters, a mystery, and a political manifesto.

The chief strength of Gaarder's presentation of philosophy is his ability to draw connections between the different philosophers. So, for instance, Gaarder will trace a line of thought that begins with Aristotle and journeys through Aquinas and many of the more modern philosophers, or he will show that the Existentialists are concerned with issues that the early Christian theologists were also concerned with. In doing so, Gaarder showcases philosophy as a process, one that builds off previous ideas and presents new ones on top of them. Suddenly Marx begins to make sense against his Hegelian background, Simon de Beauvoir starts sounding reasonable against her Existentialist background, and Aquinas's project becomes clear, especially in relation to the Church's relationship to history at the time. Gaarder also provides ample space for Eastern philosophy, pointing out, for example, the parallels between the Buddha and (of all people) David Hume.

Strangely as I have been actively ‘truthseeking’ for some time now it’s only recently that I’ve been turned on to philosophy. This book helped me in that process. It’s a highly readable and enjoyable account of Western philosophy as seen through the eyes of a child being led through the history of ideas by a mysterious stranger. Things get rather weird from time to time as the ‘characters’ in the book take on lives of their own but it’s a great way to get a basic grounding in philosophical thought. Well worth the effort.
More things we learnt in 2005.

From the BBC.

41. Tactically, the best Monopoly properties to buy are the orange ones: Vine Street, Marlborough Street and Bow Street.

42. Britain's smallest church, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, opens just once a year. It measures 4m by 3.6m and has one pew.

43. The spiciness of sauces is measured in Scoville Units.

44. Rubber gloves could save you from lightning.

45. C3PO and R2D2 do not speak to each other off-camera because the actors don't get on.

46. Driving at 159mph - reached by the police driver cleared of speeding - it would take nearly a third of a mile to stop.

47. Liverpool has 42 cranes redeveloping the city centre.

48. A quarter of the world's clematis come from one Guernsey nursery, where production will top 4.5m plants this year alone.

49. Tim Henman has a tennis court at his new home in Oxfordshire which he has never used.

50. Only 36% of the world's newspapers are tabloid.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Dawkins to Attack Religion On Channel 4

From the National Secular Society

NSS Honorary Associate Professor Richard Dawkins will launch an all-out attack on religion in a two-part programme for Channel 4 this month. The Root of All Evil (a title Richard says he wouldn’t have chosen) will be broadcast on January 9th (“The God Delusion”) and 16th (“The Virus of Faith”) at 8pm.

This strongly opinionated series, which is sure to create a stink among the faithful, accuses Christianity, Islam and Judaism of beliefs that defy science, of mental and child abuse, and of stunting the mind’s capacity for understanding. He examines how fundamentalism across all three religions has risen, in particular focusing on the rise of the neo-conservative evangelism in the US — today’s only Superpower — and what this means to the future of our world. The programme also takes a humorous look at the more bizarre expressions of religious fervour, like a vision of the Virgin in a grilled-cheese sandwich, or the Rapture Ready movement of America, that believes Armageddon is on its way, any day now. A powerful and timely documentary.

The Catholic journalist Cristina Odone has already had a fit of the vapours over the programme in her column in the Observer. She wrote: “The separation of Church and State was supposed to deal with the scientific illiteracy of religious teachings about geo-centricity and the Garden of Eden. But this separation has done little to deal with the religious illiteracy of secular scientists; it should be noted that while Richard Dawkins is invited to parade his ignorance about religious belief on our screens, as he will do in The Root of All Evil, no similarly incisive theologian gets airtime to denounce the secularist moral vacuum. Despite what Professor Dawkins says in his purple polemics, the Christian worldview today accommodates scientific progress. Most Christians in Britain do accept evolution; though the majority of American Christians do not. They recognise, too, that when we speak of mankind and of our Universe, we must contend with more than one dimension. Along with the spiritual, there is also the physical. Different rules apply to each sphere, and different authorities govern them.”

In an interview in the Radio Times, Dawkins is asked: “If there was no religion, where would that leave morality?” He replies: “If your only reason to be good is that you’re frightened of the great CCTV in the sky watching your every move, it doesn’t say much for you as a person. There is something ancient about the impulse to morality, a strong empathic tendency in the human mind, with clear Darwinian roots. This genetic empathy came first – religion climbed on the back of it.”
God of the Gaps

By Mark Thomas

Until just a couple of hundred years ago, most people thought that a god or gods controlled everything. Why did the wind blow? Why was there lightning and thunder? Why did the sun, moon, and stars apparently go around the Earth? Why did someone get sick and die? Why did anything happen? Well, obviously, God did it. If a person doesn’t know how something works or why something happened, they can say, “God did it.” This is known as the “god of the gaps”, or the “argument from ignorance”, and it is at the heart of the conflict between science and religion. Science looks for natural causes, while religion looks for supernatural causes. Science is steadily winning, because as we understand more and more about the Universe, the gap where God might function grows smaller and smaller. Every time we learn more, God has less room to operate. When we learned what caused the sun to apparently move across the sky, there was no need for the Greek god Helios and his chariot. When we understood what caused lightning, there was no need for the Greek god Zeus, the Roman god Jupiter, or the Norse god Thor

In fact, the understanding of lightning was one of the first areas of battle between science and the Christian religion. When Ben Franklin discovered that lightning was just a big electric spark, he invented the lightning rod. It was enormously successful at preventing buildings from being struck by lightning. However, this caused a bit of a problem for the church leaders; should they trust in their god to prevent lightning strikes on their churches, or should they use these new lightning rods? Up until then, lightning hit churches much more frequently than other, more “deserving” buildings — such as taverns or houses of ill repute. “Why was that?” they might have wondered. Could it be that churches had spires and were taller, or was it SATAN and his WITCHES? … Actually, that is what they often believed, and many a supposed witch was executed for having caused the destruction of a church. When they started putting lightning rods on churches, witch killings stopped soon thereafter. However, the obvious fact is that they were putting their trust in science and lightning rods, not religion and prayer.

Galileo and others started something big — empirical science. Through science, we have come to a good understanding of the workings of the world and Universe around us. The weather, lightning, thunder, the planets and stars, disease, and life itself all function based on fairly well understood principles. God doesn’t control them; the physical properties of matter and energy do. This principle is at the centre of naturalism — the idea that only matter and energy exist, and they have properties that are repeatable, understandable, and quantifiable. We take this idea so for granted, that we typically don’t realize that it is based on several articles of faith. This faith, however, is quite different from religious faith. This faith is based on past experience and results.

It is the faith that:

There is an external world that exists independently of our minds. There are understandable, quantifiable, natural laws that describe how things happen in this world. These natural laws won’t change when we’re not looking; the Universe isn’t totally chaotic.

So far, this faith has been well founded, as shown by the amazing accomplishments of modern science, engineering and medicine.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Speaking of Cartoons.........


I've seen this on a few Blogs recently (most recently on Atheist Jew's Blog - not to be confused with Jewish Atheist) & thought it was howl out loud funny. So I printed it off & have it on my wall @ work and now here too. I hope it makes you laugh.

Encourage young scepticism

by Claire Rayner

I used to try very hard to be a believer. I wanted to believe there was a tooth fairy, that father Christmas really was a down-the-chimney mystery, that there were fairies at the bottom of the garden and that adults told the truth, but I never managed it.

I must have been a tiresome child with whom to deal, because I argued so much. I'm told that I perfected the extremely infuriating use of the word 'why' before I learned to say 'shan't!' and I have a vivid memory of being stingingly smacked at infant school because, when a teacher told me that 'Jesus would cry if I was naughty', I asked how he would know if I was naughty. And when she told me it was because he watched all of us all the time, I remarked that he must be very rude if he watched people in the lavatory and anyway, I'd see him watching if he did, and kick him for it. (That was what we'd been told to do if any of the little boys in our playground came spying on us in the lavs, I thought she'd understand that. But she didn't. . . .)

I rather think the belief business finally bit the dust for me after that experience at age five. I was labelled as a troublemaker from them on; because the walloping made me so angry, I told her there wasn't any Jesus anyway and she'd made it all up just like they'd made it up about Father Christmas. I don't for a moment think that I was an unusual child. I think the majority of children are natural sceptics. Watch them watching conjurors and you'll se the brightest of them trying to look under the silk scarves and boxes and other tricksy bits to see how it’s done. It takes a very deft magician indeed to really fool children; that's why the successful ones are those who make jokes and allow the children to laugh. They forgive the pretence of magic in exchange for the fun.

The trouble is that all these children go on to be bullied into irrational belief. It used to amaze me, as I got older and reached the level of school where they taught us physics and chemistry that the selfsame teachers who taught us the rules of scientific evidence, of the way experiments had to be repeatable to be true; of the way mathematics provided incontrovertible evidence of so many of the laws of nature, could stand in daily school prayers with hands folded and eyes closed, praying to a supernatural totally unproven being. Weird or what? Even weirder was the way they too were enraged and punitive if a pupil said that Darwin had proved that the Bible was nonsense.

The thing I found most difficult, I have to say, was feeling such an outsider. All the other people in my form were believers, swallowing grown up duplicity in large lumps, reading newspaper horoscopes eagerly, telling fortunes with tarot cards and such like and it was lonely thinking differently. So I used to pretend to believe in the same things they did, until a Walt Whitman poem encountered in an English class this time rather than in good old science, brought me up short again. In Song of Myself he says - ' I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contained. They do not bow down and worship one of their own kind -'. That one really did get to me. It not only confirmed my disbelief in supernatural gods (what was Jesus but a man, after all?) it also made me a Republican. But that's another story. Anyway, after that poem came into my life, I stopped trying to be Humpty Dumpty who could, Lewis Carroll said, believe two impossible things before breakfast, and settled for being the form outsider. It might be lonely, but it wasn't too bad. After all, Walt Whitman sort of agreed with me . . . .

As time went on, and I left school behind me to get a real education, borrowing the likes of Thomas Paine and John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, I at last discovered that there were other real live people and not just dead poets and philosophers who thought like me, and that I wasn't a weirdo after all. From then on, the struggle to be a believer disappeared into the other horrors of childhood memories, there to cease to be of any trouble at all. I was a real live grown up at last and refusal to share others' illusions/delusions no longer marked me out as weird at best, despicable at worst.

Cool story or what?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

What is Evolution?

by Laurence Moran

Most non-scientists seem to be quite confused about precise definitions of biological evolution. Such confusion is due in large part to the inability of scientists to communicate effectively to the general public and also to confusion among scientists themselves about how to define such an important term. When discussing evolution it is important to distinguish between the existence of evolution and various theories about the mechanism of evolution. And when referring to the existence of evolution it is important to have a clear definition in mind. What exactly do biologists mean when they say that they have observed evolution or that humans and chimps have evolved from a common ancestor?

One of the most respected evolutionary biologists has defined biological evolution as follows:

"In the broadest sense, evolution is merely change, and so is all-pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest proto-organism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions."

Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986

It is important to note that biological evolution refers to populations and not to individuals and that the changes must be passed on to the next generation. In practice this means that “Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations”. One can quibble about the accuracy of such a definition but it also conveys the essence of what evolution really is. When biologists say that they have observed evolution, they mean that they have detected a change in the frequency of genes in a population. (Often the genetic change is inferred from phenotypic changes that are heritable.) When biologists say that humans and chimps have evolved from a common ancestor they mean that there have been successive heritable changes in the two separated populations since they became isolated.

Unfortunately the common definitions of evolution outside of the scientific community are different. For example, in the Oxford Concise Science Dictionary we find the following definition:

"evolution: The gradual process by which the present diversity of plant and animal life arose from the earliest and most primitive organisms, which is believed to have been continuing for the past 3000 million years."

This is inexcusable for a dictionary of science. Not only does this definition exclude prokaryotes, protozoa, and fungi, but it specifically includes a term "gradual process" which should not be part of the definition. More importantly the definition seems to refer more to the history of evolution than to evolution itself. Using this definition it is possible to debate whether evolution is still occurring, but the definition provides no easy way of distinguishing evolution from other processes. For example, is the increase in height among Caucasians over the past several hundred years an example of evolution? Are the colour changes in the peppered moth population examples of evolution? This is not a scientific definition.

Standard dictionaries are even worse:

"evolution: ...the doctrine according to which higher forms of life have gradually arisen out of lower.." – Chambers

"evolution: ...the development of a species, organism, or organ from its original or primitive state to its present or specialized state; phylogeny or ontogeny" - Webster's

These definitions are simply wrong. Unfortunately it is common for non-scientists to enter into a discussion about evolution with such a definition in mind. This often leads to fruitless debate since the experts are thinking about evolution from a different perspective.

Is this the nub of the present problem? That different people are using different (often wrong) definitions of evolution? Sometimes it does seem that way.
Yet more things we learnt in 2005.

From the BBC.

51. Parking wardens walk about 15 miles a day.

52. You're 10 times more likely to be bitten by a human than a rat.

53. It takes 75kg of raw materials to make a mobile phone.

54. Deep Throat is reportedly the most profitable film ever. It was made for $25,000 (£13,700) and has grossed more than $600m.

55. Antony Worrall-Thompson swam the English Channel in his youth.

56. The Pyruvate Scale measures pungency in onions and garlic. It's named for the acid in onions which makes cooks cry when cutting them.

57. The man who was the voice of one of the original Daleks, Roy Skelton, also did the voices for George and Zippy in Rainbow.

58. The average guest at a Buckingham Palace garden party scoffs 14 cakes, sandwiches, scones and ice-cream, according to royal accounts.

59. Oliver Twist is very popular in China, where its title is translated as Foggy City Orphan.

60. Newborn dolphins and killer whales don't sleep for a month, according to research carried out by University of California.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

'Home alone' deaths for thousands

From the BBC.

Thousands of people die miserable deaths alone, uncared for and in poverty, figures suggest. A study by Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow found around 60 people a week die alone without the support of friends and family. The figures, from a survey of 182 English councils, also show men were two-and-a-half times more likely to die on their own than women. It is estimated that 3.5 million people aged over 65 live alone in the UK.

Local authorities have to carry out funerals for people who die alone, without any friends or family who would otherwise finance and make the arrangements. The Lib Dem research found that the 182 councils carried out 11,004 such funerals between 2000 and 2004. Projecting these figures for the 266 councils responsible for arranging these funerals suggested there were around 16,083 such deaths during this period. Almost three-quarters (72%) of the funerals were for men - compared to 28% for women. The Lib Dems said that this trend was the same over the five years for which they collected data.

The report - Dying Alone: Assessing isolation, loneliness and poverty - found women who died alone were likely to be between the ages of 75 and 80 - almost 10 years older than men. It said that although the figures represented only a "snapshot" of provision across England, they painted "a stark picture of isolation, loneliness and in many cases impoverishment". The Lib Dems are calling for a more concerted approach to tackling isolation, particularly in the elderly. Mr Burstow, a member of the Commons Health Committee, said: "These figures are a sobering reminder that thousands of older people across the country not only live, but also die alone, uncared for and often in poverty. It is an indictment of society that too many people are left to fade away, unable to make ends meet and lonely on the fringe of our communities. We all have a responsibility to look out and care for vulnerable neighbours, friends and relatives, not just at this time of year."

A Department of Health spokesperson said there had been substantial funding increases for social services, and investment in schemes to help vulnerable people live independently in recent years. Between 1998 and 2003 there had been an increase of 44% in the number of households receiving intensive home care. In addition, the Commission for Social Care Inspection had been given powers to monitor quality and standards of care provided by all agencies providing personal care for people in their own home. The spokesperson said: "We are doing a great deal to ensure the elderly receive the care and support they need to live safely in their own homes."

Is dying alone one of the prices we pay for modern society jealous of its privacy or an unforgivable indictment of an uncaring world?

Monday, January 02, 2006

More things we learnt in 2005

From the BBC.

61. You can bet on your own death.

62. MPs use communal hairbrushes in the washrooms of the Houses of Parliament.

63. It takes less energy to import a tomato from Spain than to grow them in this country because of the artificial heat needed, according to Defra.

64. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's home number is listed by directory inquiries.

65. Actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, created the Klingon language that was used in the movies, and which Shakespeare plays were subsequently translated into.

66. The hotter it is, the more difficult it is for aeroplanes to take off. Air passengers in Nevada, where temperatures have reached 120F, have been told they can't fly.

67. Giant squid eat each other - especially during sex.

68. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold one copy every minute since its 1969 publication.

69. First-born children are less creative but more stable, while last-born are more promiscuous, says US research.

70. Reebok, which is being bought by Adidas, traces its history back more than 100 years to Bolton.
Galileo and Empirical Science

By Mark Thomas.

Around 1600, Galileo had a new idea for his culture. He decided to do something that now seems like common sense — to actually test the idea of what we now call gravity. He reasoned that two weights held together would fall at the same rate as one weight. Then he did experiments to test the idea. And, not surprisingly to us, it was true! This was the start of modern empirical science, and our collective understanding of the Universe hasn’t been the same since. “Empirical” is a word that I'll be using a lot. It refers to ideas that are capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment. Empirical evidence is not simply one type of evidence, but rather it is the only evidence that we can rely on, because it is reproducible. Empirical evidence is the basis for physical science.

Galileo also took the new invention of the telescope, refined it, and used it to look at the night sky. He was astounded. On the moon he could see mountains and valleys. It wasn’t just some strange heavenly object; it was probably made out of the same stuff as Earth. In 1609 Galileo looked at Jupiter, and discovered that it had four moons. If moons orbited Jupiter, then not everything orbited the Earth, as the Catholic Church taught at the time. Astronomy made more sense if the theories of Copernicus were true, and the Earth and planets orbited the sun. After writing a book about this, Galileo was called to Rome in 1633 by the Catholic Church’s Inquisition, and told to recant his heretical ideas.

This was no “simple request” by the Church. Just 33 years before, the Inquisition had executed Galileo’s friend Giordano Bruno. Have you heard of him? In 1600, the Christian authorities in Rome took him out of the dungeon he had been in for eight years, drove a nail through his tongue, tied him to a metal post, put wood and some of his books under his feet, and burned him to death. Bruno’s crime was writing ideas that the Catholic leaders didn’t like — there might be other worlds with other intelligent beings on them, Jesus didn’t possess god-like power, and souls can’t go to heaven. For these heretical ideas, the Catholic Church punished this brilliant thinker with a slow, agonizing death.

Galileo knew what he was up against. For the crime of heresy the Inquisition could put him in a dungeon, torture or even execute him — as it had done to Bruno. So, after a long trial, this proud 70-year-old man obediently got on his knees and recanted. But even after recanting, he was still sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. The Catholic Church officially condemned heliocentrism 31 years later, when Pope Alexander VII banned all books that affirmed the earth’s motion. But, even as powerful as the Church was, they could not hold back the tidal wave of scientific discovery, and the Church eventually lost its battle over our view of the Universe. It only took them over three hundred years to admit it. In 1992, after 12 years of deliberations, they grudgingly noted that Galileo had been right in supporting the theories of Copernicus. But no such admission has been made for Bruno; his writings are still on the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts, and Pope John Paul II refused to even apologize for the Catholic Church's torture killing of Bruno.

Could this sort of ‘oversight’ of Science by Religion happen again? Would we like to live in a world where the religious view of the Universe could not be challenged by Science? Do we really want to turn the clock back 400 years? It could get rather toasty for Free Thinkers...