About Me

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

Friday, October 27, 2006

Tiny fossils reveal inner secrets

By Jonathan Fildes for BBC News

Friday, 13 October 2006

The exact moment when a 550 million year old cell began to divide has been captured in an exquisite 3-D image. The picture is one of a series taken by researchers examining ancient fossil embryos from Guizhou Province, China. The specimens, described in the journal Science, are the oldest known examples of fossil embryos, and shed light on the early evolution of complex life. Scientists used an advanced X-ray technique to peer inside the balls of cells to reveal the structures inside. "We have been able to tease apart every structure, geological or biological," said Professor Phil Donoghue of the University of Bristol in the UK and one of the team who worked on the 162 pristine specimens.

The tiny fossils are part of the Doushantuo Formation in South China, a limestone bed deposited between 635 and 551 million years ago that contains layers composed almost entirely of fossil embryos. The team behind the research believe the fossils are the developing offspring of extremely primitive sponge-like creatures.

To resolve the delicate internal structures, the scientists used a technique known as microfocus x-ray computed tomography (microCT). The method allowed the team to construct 3-D images of the tiny fossils. Computer software was then used to analyse individual cells. "We digitally extracted each cell from the embryos and then looked inside the cells," said Shuhai Xiao of Virginia Tech University in the US. Inside, the team found kidney-shaped structures which they believe could be nuclei or other subcellular components. "It is amazing that such delicate biological structures can be preserved in such an ancient deposit," said Professor Xiao. In some four-celled embryos, each cell had two of the kidney-shaped structures, suggesting they were caught in the process of splitting prior to cell division.

Although the bed is packed full of the tiny fossils, the team has been unable to find any adult specimens. Previous research has suggested that the embryos were the product of complex animals, the ancestors of modern organisms. If true, this would suggest that complex multi-cellular life got started much earlier than previously thought, prior to the "Cambrian Explosion" 542 million years ago. At this time, fossils record a dramatic change in animal diversity with many of today's modern groups suddenly making an appearance. Some researchers believe that the Cambrian Explosion marked the emergence of modern animal life. Although complex animals had started evolving before 542 million years ago their development accelerated at this point. Others maintain that complex animals lived long before this event and that the period just marks a time of exceptional fossil preservation. The Doushantuo formation is important because it gives a window into the time leading up to the Cambrian and the new analysis goes some way towards resolving the dispute.

Using the microCT technique to analyse late stage embryos, with up to 1,000 cells, the team was able to gain insights into the creature that produced them. Although the cells show some modern traits they crucially lack others. "Even in these late-stage embryos there is no evidence of the formation of a tissue layer," said Dr Donoghue. "You would expect to see that in modern embryos, even those of sponges." The team believes the cells probably came from extremely simple creatures. "They would have developed into sponge-like creatures, but more primitive," said Dr. Donoghue. If right, this means that the Cambrian Explosion theory for the origin of complex animal life would still stand "This work provides a constraint on when advanced groups evolved," Dr Donoghue said.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

From the Web.

A woman has a close male friend. This means that he is probably interested in her, which is why he hangs around so much. She sees him strictly as a friend. This always starts out with, you're a great guy, but I don't like you in that way. This is roughly the equivalent for the guy of going to a job interview and the company saying, You have a great resume, you have all the qualifications we are looking for, but we're not going to hire you. We will, however, use your resume as the basis for comparison for all other applicants. But, we're going to hire somebody who is far less qualified and is probably an alcoholic. And if he doesn't work out, we'll hire somebody else, but still not you. In fact, we will never hire you. But we will call you from time to time to complain about the person that we hired.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Who Are the Real Terrorists?

By Bob Burnett for Huffington Post

August 24, 2006

President Bush's Monday press conference made two things clear: He's not about to withdraw troops from Iraq, and he's locked into a definition of "terrorist" so general that it's meaningless and, therefore, dangerous. It's time to reconsider: Who are the terrorists: Why are we fighting them? How can we defeat them?

Bush began his "war on terror" with a deliberately vague definition of America's new enemy: a "terrorist" was any group the Administration attached that label to. On 9/20/01 the President said, "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated."

Bush's "war" initially centered on Al Qaeda. The U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan. In the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly James Fallows persuasively argues that Al Qaeda has, for the most part, been defeated. He suggests that it's time to declare "victory" in the war on terror, because the U.S. has diminished the effectiveness of Al Qaeda: "Their command structure is gone, their Afghan sanctuary is gone, their financial and communications networks have been hit hard." He notes there has been "a shift from a coherent Al-Qaeda Central to a global proliferation of 'self-starter' terrorist groups." Rather than stay focused on Al Qaeda, and their malignant offspring, Bush expanded the scope of his "war." In the 2002 State-of-the-Union address, he denounced Iraq and Syria as state "sponsors" of terrorism. Implied there could be terrorist states.

Subsequently, the Administration convinced Congress and much of the American public that his war on terror necessitated an invasion of Iraq. Bush conflated Al-Qaeda-trained Iraq-based terrorists, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, members of Iraq's Baath party, any Iraqi who resisted the occupation, "insurgents", and, ultimately, Sunni Muslims. Bush confused those who fight the U.S. because we are occupying their country -- "resistance" fighters -- with those who are operatives of Al Qaeda and have pledged to destroy America. In his press conference, Bush referred to them all as "terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy." Anyone who opposes the occupation is a "terrorist." Fallows' Atlantic Monthly article argues that the war in Iraq has greatly hampered Bush's war on terror: "The war in Iraq advanced the jihadist cause because it generates a steady supply of Islamic victims, or martyrs; because it seems to prove Osama bin Laden's contention that America lusts to occupy Islam's sacred sites, abuse Muslim people, and steal Muslim resources; and because it raises the tantalizing possibility that humble Muslim insurgents, with cheap, primitive weapons, can once more hobble and ultimately destroy a superpower..." Nonetheless, Bush stubbornly defends the occupation: "We leave before the mission is done, the terrorists will follow us here."

In his 2002 speech, Bush defined "Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Jaish-i-Mohammed" as terrorist organizations. Of these, only "Jaish-i-Mohammed" has direct links to Al Qaeda. "Islamic Jihad" is an umbrella term used by groups in Egypt, Iran, and Syria among others. Hamas and Hezbollah are resistance groups in Palestine and Lebanon, respectively. Whether they deserve the label "terrorist" is debatable. In 1988, the U.S. deemed Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Nonetheless, the group has little in common with Al Qaeda. Professor Stephen Zunes argues that Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shiite socio-political organization. Where Al Qaeda is Sunni and stateless, Hezbollah is part of Lebanese society -- holding fourteen seats in Lebanon's National Assembly. Where Al Qaeda has repeatedly threatened the United States, Hezbollah has not. Where Al Qaeda has a long history of terrorist attacks, Hezbollah does not -- Zunes notes that the U.S. accuses Hezbollah of two bombings of Jewish targets in Argentina, attacks most independent experts do not attribute to Hezbollah. Nonetheless, in his news conference Bush referred to Hezbollah as "terrorists” and blamed them for the recent war in Lebanon.

Bush's muddled definition of "terrorist" has had four chilling consequences: It's shifted attention away the eradication of Al Qaeda. It's largely ignored the threat posed by a secondary wave of 'self-starter' terrorist groups; those spawned by the ideology of Al Qaeda. Bush's sloppy thinking produced the debacle in Iraq and led to a mindset where the Administration labels any Middle Eastern "resistance fighter" as a terrorist. Finally, the White House's sweeping, ideological driven definition of terrorist led the Administration to condemn Hamas and Hezbollah, lump them with Al Qaeda; an action that contributed to Israel's decision to invade Palestine and South Lebanon. American foreign policy needs a fresh start. Rather than continue the Bush approach -- define a terrorist group as anyone we don't like -- it makes more sense to be pragmatic. Let's begin with a more focused definition: A "terrorist" organization is Al Qaeda, or any group that adopts Al Qaeda' objectives and advocates attacks on the U.S. mainland or U.S. citizens. The first step towards real security is for America to be clear about who our enemies are.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Poster Time.
Police play down spy planes idea

From The BBC.

15 October 2006

Police have played down reports that spy planes could be flown high above the streets of Merseyside as a way to fight anti-social behaviour. Merseyside Police's new anti-social behaviour (ASB) task force is exploring a number of technology-driven ideas. But while the use of surveillance drones is among them, they would be a "long way off", police said. The squad's aim is to use any criminal of civil law available to help curb anti-social behaviour. A spokesperson for Merseyside Police said: "The idea of the drone is a long way off, but it is about exploring all technological possibilities to support our war on crime and anti-social behaviour.

"What we have got here and now is a new task force using all legislation available to it, to stop the misery of anti-social behaviour, which is something that affects communities up and down the country." The force said its ASB taskforce, launched last week, was the first of its kind in the UK. The 137-strong squad features officers from all policing disciplines together with fire officers and lawyers. Powers include seizing uninsured cars, evicting criminal families and issuing Asbos (Anti-social behaviour orders). It plans to utilise the latest law enforcement technology, including automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), CCTV "head-cams" and metal-detecting gloves.

There will also be low-level surveillance and other methods of intelligence-gathering. Senior officers have described the new initiative as an "Al Capone" approach to so-called yob behaviour. Chris Case, group manager of Merseyside Fire Service, said drones were just one of the ideas being considered. "It is just one thing we are looking at. It has been used to great effect in the US," he said. "This 'Al Capone' approach is driving it. We will have many, many legal means to tackle this problem. We have a host of powers. It is a new alternative approach, where nothing is being ruled out. Anti-social behaviour is a problem all over the UK. I wouldn't say Merseyside is any better or worse than any other urban area."

[So now that police spy planes have been officially denied I guess its time to watch the skies and be afraid… very afraid.]

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Just Finished Reading: The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (How our Animal heritage affects the way we live) by Jared Diamond

Though a little ‘old’ for a science book (even a pop science one) with a publication date of 1991 this was still both an interesting and informative introduction to Anthropology. Jared Diamond has a very easy writing style which enables him to get across the kind of information he needs to make his points.

We humans are the Third Chimpanzee of the books title and Diamond goes to great pains to show that we are, in many respects, just another animal, just another ape. But, as he rightly points out, we have many arguably unique features which separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Things like language, art, agriculture and genocide. Diamond certainly doesn’t shy aware from the less savoury aspects of being human, indeed he devotes the final part of his book discussing and trying to understand just why we are such a destructive species. I most certainly agree with him that we are largely our own worst enemy but also agree that we can, if we so choose, rise above our animal heritage and stop the damage we do to our planet and ourselves on a daily basis.

Anyone who has an interest in human nature and wants to know more about why we are how we are could do a lot worse than starting with this book. Though a bit dated it still provides lots of food for thought and opens avenues to be explored further in more modern texts. The conclusion should be viewed as more sobering than depressing. Knowing our darker side and our less than glowing history as a species well enough is the first step towards doing something about it. I look forward to reading his other works.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Common Misconceptions About Atheists and Atheism

By David Gleeson for the American Chronicle

August 10, 2006

After watching Morgan Spurlock's "30 Days" episode on FX last night, about an atheist mother who agrees to live with a wealthy Christian family for a month, it became painfully obvious to me that most people have glaring misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist, and about atheism in general. In this article, I'd like to highlight some of the most common errors and offer a level-headed response to these misunderstandings.

Atheism is the belief that no gods exist.

This statement's ubiquity is exceeded only by its utter falseness; not only is it misleading, but it is the complete opposite of the truth. The word 'atheism' comes from the Greek prefix 'a', meaning without, and 'theist', meaning having a belief in a supernatural deity. Atheism, therefore, literally means "without theistic belief". Atheism does not positively assert anything; rather, it is a statement of withheld belief. Atheists, therefore, do not positively assert that gods do not exist. Atheists simply withhold belief in said gods because the evidence is not sufficient to warrant the belief. This is not to say that there isn't sufficient reason to believe that certain gods do not exist. There is. But to categorically deny the existence of all gods would require a leap of faith that is anathema to a true atheist. Atheism requires no such leap.

Atheism requires just as much faith as theism.

This misconception arises because of the misunderstanding of the term 'atheism', as described above. If atheism were indeed a positive assertion that no gods exist, then this criticism would be valid. After all, it would take just as much faith to claim that no gods exist as it would to claim that one god or many gods exist. But atheism makes no such claim. Atheism, as noted above, is nothing but withheld belief. It does not take faith to have a non-belief. If I don't believe that Elvis is still alive, I am not practicing an anti-Elvis faith. If I withhold belief in Santa Claus, I am not a member of a Santa-less church. When an atheist says, "I don't believe in the Christian God", she is merely saying that the evidence for belief is insufficient. It is the same type of withheld belief that a Christian practices with regard to the beliefs of Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians.

Atheists' lives are meaningless and devoid of hope and purpose.

This is nothing but the believer projecting his own feelings onto the atheist about how his life might be different in the absence of God. It says nothing about the true feelings of atheists. Atheists' lives are not tied up in the remote possibility of an afterlife. My life is meaningful, simply, because it is meaningful to me and to those who love me. My life has purpose every time I strive toward a worthy goal. I do not need the promise of an afterlife to find meaning and purpose in this life. Indeed, my life is more precious and more meaningful simply because I know it is short and fleeting. Because I expect no eternal reward or damnation after death, I treat each day as a gift. Compare this to the thought processes of an Islamic fundamentalist, who is willing to give up his earthly life for the promise of eternal bliss in the arms of 72 sex-starved virgins. Whose life has more hope and meaning and purpose, I wonder?

Atheists have no morals because they reject belief in an eternal moral-giver (i.e. God).

When you think about it, this is a preposterous statement. Ethics and morals, after all, preceded Jesus by thousands of years. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, while inspiring, was basically just a rehash of the same Golden Rule that had been around for three milliennia. But let's look at the issue a little more critically. If God is the source of all morals, then God, presumably, could change the rules at any time. Since no one is writing new Bibles or talking to God behind burning bushes, how are we to know what's right now, today? What's to stop God from deciding that moral behavior now includes the option of intentionally starving millions of innocent children, and then demonstrating this new morality by inflicting famine on the world's poorest nations? How would we ever know right from wrong under such circumstances? Doesn't this lead to the same sort of moral relativism that theists accuse atheists of practicing? If, on the other hand, moral laws are independent of God, then humans are free to discover those laws on their own. Either way, it seems God is unnecessary with regard to moral behavior. Atheists simply follow the moral agenda that has been refined by the evolution of advanced civilizations over the past few centuries. We've learned how to be nice to each other. It's not that hard, really.

Atheists must have had a bad childhood experience to cause them to give up on religion and hate God.

Some atheists may have had such experiences, but I can assure you this is not the case in most situations. For me and for most atheists, the journey from belief to non-belief is simply a gradual process of discovery that eventually leads to God/gods becoming unnecessary. I don't need God to explain the origin or evolution of life on Earth; evolution provides a naturalistic and awe-inspiring explanation that's backed by mountains of evidence. I don't need God to comfort me against the fear of death and the unknown; I do not fear death. I don't need God to account for human selfishness or altruism; my understanding of human nature accomplishes that. In short, as my knowledge has increased, the gaps that God may have filled have become progressively smaller, to the point that God is no longer necessary. I am no more angry at "God" than Christians are angry at the gods of Mount Olympus. Christians simply have no investment in the belief in said gods; they lose nothing by rejecting them. The same is true for me and "God".

In summary, then, an atheist rejects belief in God or gods because the evidence does not compel such belief. This does not lead to a lonely and terrifying universe; in fact, it gives life more meaning and more purpose. Atheists aren't angry and resentful; they are thoughtful and caring and respectful of the inherent dignity in all of us. They deserve none of the vitriol that is constantly leveled at them.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Just Finished Reading: The Occult Tradition – From the Renaissance to the Present Day by David S Katz

Touching briefly on subjects as various as Gothic literature, Spiritualism and Secret Societies David Katz bolts through 500 years of Occult thought in just 200 pages. Needless to say the analysis of the various traditions within the Occult is rather fleeting. Katz does draw out some interesting threads though spending some time on the relationship between science, especially in subjects such as psychology and anthropology, and Occult thinking which are fairly surprising. Also surprising (at least to me) was the inclusion of Mormonism and present day Christian Fundamentalism within the Occult world view.

This was a disappointing and in some ways a rather boring book. Katz did a reasonable job drawing the attention of the reader to quite a few of the Occult highlights over the last half millennium but his remit was far too large for such a brief book. At best this was a brief introduction to the Occult tradition sometimes consisting of lists of names, dates and books published. It would have been far better if the author had narrowed his scope a bit and attempted more analysis of why these people believed and acted as they did. That is what disappointed me most about this volume. Not a total waste of time and money but certainly not the best book I’ve read on the subject.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

It’s all part of The Plan….. Right?

I’ve been thinking lately about Gods Plan and, rather inevitably, I have a few questions about it. But first, for the sake of argument I’m going to assume that God exists and that He does indeed have a Plan – otherwise this is going to be a very short post!

Anyway….. The Plan. The first thing that comes to mind is just what exactly is covered by The Plan? Is everything that happens part of it? Is every falling sparrow part of the overall Plan or are some things outside of the Planning process? For example is the fact that I’m a vegetarian part of the Divine Plan? Or that I’m particularly fond of the colour Blue? Or are such things just too trivial to be part of Gods Plan for us all? If some things are part of the plan and some things are not then how can we tell the difference?

Are we indeed all part of Gods Plan? Are some people more involved with the Plan than others? Are some people not part of the Great Plan at all? If so, then how do we (or they) tell the difference? If you feel that you’re part of Gods Plan does that mean you are? Does that feeling of being involved come from God or from yourself? Are people who don’t believe in God part of Gods Plan? Is it then part of Gods Plan that I’m an Atheist? If so, then a person’s belief (or lack of) is beyond criticism by believers in The Plan and any kind of religious discrimination or violence is against Gods design – unless of course such conflict is part of The Plan. But how would we tell the difference?

As an Atheist am I in opposition to Gods Plan? Is such a thing even possible? Using our God given Free Will can we choose not to be part of The Plan? Would that make any difference? Is it possible to oppose The Plan in such a way that it could be delayed or even derailed? Can an individual or group of people upset Gods planning to that degree? If Gods Plan is inevitable no matter what we do then what has happened to Free Will? Is it just the choice between accepting God or rejecting Him? Is that the limit of our freedom? That’s not exactly what I would call Free Will, never mind the consequences of the ‘choice – exercise you ‘Free’ Will in a way that God doesn’t want you to and you burn in Hell forever. Use your ‘Free’ Will to do exactly as God tells you to and you get to go to Heaven. That’s an interesting interpretation of the words Free and Choice.

Of course we’re not exactly clear just what Gods Plan actually is. After all He moves in ‘Mysterious Ways’ and all that. But whatever The Plan is its going to be worth it, Right? I mean look at all the death and suffering in the world so far. Presumably, as it’s all part of Gods Plan, the deaths of countless millions of (largely) innocent people must be leading to something truly amazing if they are to be justified, Right? I mean if someone came forward to the United Nations with a Plan to create an Earthly utopia that required the painful deaths of 10 million children to achieve it we’d call Him a lunatic or a monster wouldn’t we? So what kind of result is worth all of the wars, disasters and atrocities we’ve witnessed during our recorded history? After all they where all part of Gods Plan, Right?

So many questions. Is it any wonder I’m an Atheist?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Air passengers 'could be tagged'

By Rebecca Morelle for BBC News

Electronically tagging passengers at airports could help the fight against terrorism, scientists have said. The prototype technology is to be tested at an airport in Hungary, and could, if successful, become a reality "in two years". The work is being carried out at a new research centre, based at University College London, set up to find technological solutions to crime. Other projects include scanners for explosives and dirty bomb radiation. Dr Paul Brennan, an electrical engineer, is leading the tagging project, known as Optag.

He said: "The basic idea is that airports could be fitted with a network of combined panoramic cameras and RFID (radio frequency ID) tag readers, which would monitor the movements of people around the various terminal buildings." The plan, he said, would be for each passenger to be issued with a tag at check-in. He said: "In our system, the location can be detected to an accuracy of 1m, and video and tag data could be merged to give a powerful surveillance capability."

The tags do not store any data, but emit a signal containing a unique ID which could be cross-referenced with passenger identification information. In the future, added Dr Brennan, this could incorporate biometric data. The project still needs to overcome some hurdles, such as finding a way of ensuring the tags cannot be switched between passengers or removed without notification. The issue of infringement of civil liberties will also be key. But potentially, said Dr Brennan, the tags could aid security by allowing airports to track the movement patterns of passengers deemed to be suspicious and prevent them from entering restricted areas.

It could also aid airports by helping evacuation in case of a fire, rapidly locating children, and finding passengers who are late to arrive at the gate. The "proof of concept" of the system is about to be tested at Debrecen airport in Hungary. If successful, claimed Dr Brennan, it could be available elsewhere within two years. The new centre will also be investigating a range of other airport security tools. Professor Robert Speller has been developing scanners to detect explosives and drugs. The devices could be used at airports or other ports of entry.

The scanners work by firing an x-ray at an item and then detecting how light particles called photons are scattered. Different materials, he said, produce unique patterns of photon scattering, and this can be used to identify whether an explosive or type of drug is present. The scanners, he said, could be incorporated into the machines being used by airports to scan bags. He is also developing a prototype "Compton camera". This portable device, he said, could be used if a suspected dirty bomb had been exploded. It is able to detect if any radiation is present, and if so, its precise location. He said it would help the emergency services identify dangerous areas, and would aid the possible clear-up operation. The UCL Centre for Security and Crime Science, which opens on Friday, works across many different areas in science and is investigating a number of security and crime issues. Professor Gloria Laycock, director of the centre, said: "Security is a major issue in today's society and can take many forms. "We've got rising crime across the developing world, and that has been linked to rising opportunities for crime. The most effective means of tackling this is by tackling those opportunities. Science and technology can help us to do this."

[Here we go again. Security ‘fears’ are being used as an excuse to spy on people going about their own business. Why don’t we just cut through the bullshit and permanently electronically tag or tattoo barcodes on everyone so they can be monitored 24/7 wherever they are? That seems to be the way we’re going so why not just cut to the chase and get it done? I’m sure we’d all feel SO much safer and I’m confident that all kinds of crimes would be eliminated over night. It could be an instant Utopia!]

Sunday, October 15, 2006

My Favourite Music: August and Everything After by the Counting Crows

I was introduced to the Counting Crows by a good friend of mine who was going through a very emotional split with his girlfriend. We both fell in love with the sound of the lead singer’s (Adam Duritz) voice and the bands musical style. I like most types of music but I particularly like songs that tell stories – and that’s certainly a strong point of the Crows. Its actually quite difficult to get across what music is like by writing about it, you really have to listen to it. If, however, you do want to try out this band then August (their first album) is a very good place to start. Unfortunately – in a way – we enjoyed it so much that their second album Recovering the Satellites was an initial disappointment which only grew on us slowly. The follow up This Desert Life was, we thought, a return to form. Disappointingly, after seeing them perform on TV both for MTV and VH1 the follow up CDs actually cut a great deal of the between song chat that makes such programs a joy to watch and listen to. I guess I’ll have to buy the DVDs.

Being such fans my friend and I longed to see them live. So far we’ve seen them during the 2000 Glastonbury Festival where they wowed us with a wonderful but far too short set and we saw them again at the Cardiff International Arena for over two hours of fantastic entertainment. If you like mellow, thoughtful, heartfelt and beautiful music then check out the Counting Crows.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

America Struggles With Its Own Evangelical Taliban

by Pierre Tristam for the Daytona Beach News-Journal

August 1, 2006

At this late stage of the Bush rapture, American evangelism is a lot like the Exxon Valdez: Massive, sloshing with oily energy and not a little drunk on its power as it steers through hazards of its own designs. The moment evangelicals began tearing down the church-state wall, the rubble became their shoals. The wreck will be ugly. It will take years to mend because, as one of their own, Minnesota's Rev. Gregory Boyd, recently put it: "Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn't bloody and barbaric. That's why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state." Meanwhile, too much damage is being done by policies keyed to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" not to have lasting consequences abroad and at home.

The wreck's effects abroad are spreading. Remember William Boykin, the Army lieutenant-general who went around Christian congregations after Sept. 11, telling them how he knew that "my" God "was bigger than his" (one of Osama's lieutenants), "that my God was a real God, and his was an idol"? Instead of being relegated to sorting junk mail in a Pentagon basement, Boykin was promoted to undersecretary of defense for intelligence -- including the supervision of prison interrogations. It's "his" God against the jihadis now in Iraq and Afghanistan, and apparently "his" God against the Constitution or the Geneva Conventions.

The evangelical assault on secular values at home is no less dangerous than its Islamic variant. It's a difference of degrees, not substance. The difference is hard to see when evangelicals eagerly thump for blood-letting abroad or stage-manage it like Boykin and his crusading commander-in-chief do. John Hagee is a Texas evangelical and leader of that hybrid known as the Christian Zionist movement. He commands a huge following and the ear of politicians, Bush among them. Earlier this month Hagee led a rally of 3,500 evangelicals at a Washington hotel, where he called Israel's attacks on Lebanon a "miracle of God" and proof that Israel was doing God's work. Hagee was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying that for Israel to show restraint would violate "God's foreign policy statement" toward Jews. Bush sent Hagee a message of praise for "spreading the hope of God's love and the universal gift of freedom."

When he's not thumping for Israel, Hagee raises money for Republican causes and beats war drums in line with his clash-of-civilizations thesis. "This is a religious war that Islam cannot -- and must not -- win," he wrote in a recent book. He also sees the United States heading toward a nuclear confrontation with Iran, itself a fulfillment of a joyful promise: "The end of the world as we know it is rapidly approaching," he writes. "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad -- the best is yet to be." In other words, war is a good thing, rapturous and necessary and sealed with a kiss from God, as the world edges toward Armageddon. The Bush presidency is that evangelical view's self-fulfilling prophesy. Militants for Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban speak the very same language. Only the roles are reversed.

Gregory Boyd, author of those words in the first paragraph about every Christian theocracy's sorry history, is the sort of evangelical who wants to prevent a complete wreck. His profile appeared in the Sunday New York Times, yang to Hagee's Journal yin three days earlier. Boyd wants evangelicals out of politics, out of cheering for war and turning politics and patriotism into "idolatry." "America wasn't founded as a theocracy. America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies," he tells his Minnesota congregation. Boyd, writes The Times, "lambasted the 'hypocrisy and pettiness' of Christians who focus on 'sexual issues' like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson's breast-revealing performance," as well as the claim the evangelicals alone know the right values. "All good, decent people want good and order and justice," he says. "Just don't slap the label 'Christian' on it."

Boyd and Hagee are the good cop and bad cop of American evangelism as it pulpits its way to 50 million congregants and beyond. The bad cop is winning right now. It's always easier to destroy than build. We should know. Boyd and Hagee have their twins all over the world of Islam, where theocratic thumping is the regressive rule. There, too, the likes of Hagee are winning. But that's not our battle. It's Islam's to resolve, if it can. Our battle is with our own domestic Taliban, if it doesn't sink us on those shoals first.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Poster Time.
Jelly sparks security alert

From Ananova

A pile of jelly left by a road has sparked a major terrorist alert in Germany.

Hikers called the police after spotting the "flabby red, orange and green substance" and fearing it was toxic waste. The area at Halle, near Leipzig, was sealed while experts trained in biological and chemical warfare and wearing special suits and gas masks moved to examine the substance.

Samples were taken but the mystery was solved before the results were returned after a policeman heard a wedding had taken place a short while before, and questioned the newly married couple. The groom confessed that there had been a jelly fight the day before and that lots of the jelly had probably ended up on the road.

[It would seem that future terrorists can cut back on the time consuming business of bomb making and instead enjoy the delights of making jelly. I wonder what moulds/colours they would use to produce the biggest alerts.]

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Has Science Found God?

by Victor J. Stenger

From Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1

A Universe Fine-Tuned for Life

In recent years, the notion that the laws of physics are "fine-tuned" for the existence of life has caught the fancy of believing scientists and theologians alike. Indeed, probably no idea has received more attention in the latest discussions on religion and science. The fine-tuning argument rests on a series of scientific facts called the "anthropic coincidences." Basically, they say that if the universe had appeared with slight variations in the values of its fundamental constants, that universe would not have produced the elements, such as carbon and oxygen, and other conditions necessary for life. The fine-tuning argument assumes only one form of life is possible. But many different forms of life might still be possible with different laws and constants of physics. The main requirement seems to be that stars live long enough to produce the elements needed for life and allow time for the complex, nonlinear systems we call life to evolve. I have made some calculations in which I randomly vary the values of the physical constants by many orders of magnitude and look at the universes that would exist under those circumstances. I find that almost all combinations lead to universes, albeit some strange ones, with stars that live a billion years or more. Life of some kind would be likely in most of these possible universes.

The God of the Equations

A second, related line of argument is found in the recent dialogues. The equations of mathematics and physics are claimed to provide evidence for a Platonic order to the universe that transcends the universe of our observations. Recent trends in Christian theology and its rapprochement with science have moved Christianity closer to a position where a deity is to be found in the order of nature as a creative entity transcending space, time, and matter responsible for that order. Indeed, the modern Western theological notion of God is probably closer to Plato's Form of the Good than the white-bearded Jehovah/Zeus on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the beardless Jesus/Apollo on the wall. And here is where some scientists and theologians currently seem to find a common ground - in the idea that ultimate reality is not to be found in the quarks, atoms, rocks, trees, planets, and stars of experience and observation. Rather, reality exists in the mathematical perfection of the symbols and equations of physics. The deity then coexists with these equations in some realm or mathematical perfection beyond human observation. This God is knowable, not by his or her physical appearance before us but by its presence as that Platonic reality. We all exist in the "mind of God."

Past logical disputes over the existence of God were largely confined to philosophers and theologians. This type of purely logical discourse, in which little reference is made to observations, is largely disdained by scientists - believers and nonbelievers alike. Premise-Keeper scientists claim they are going beyond the traditional theological arguments, that they see direct evidence for intelligent design in their observations and equations. As Paul Davies has put it: "The very fact that the universe is creative, and that the laws have permitted complex structures to emerge and develop to the point of consciousness - in other words, that the universe has organized its own self-awareness - is for me powerful evidence that there is `something going on' behind it all. The impression of design is overwhelming." Note the use of "evidence" rather than "proof" in this quotation. Still, a Platonic God need not have anything to do with the God of the Bible, nor any other imagined deity, abstract or personal. And the equations need not actually represent a transcendent deity. True that Platonist physicists view quantum fields and space-time metric tensors as "more real" than quarks and electrons. Materialist physicists, by contrast, think that quarks and electrons are more real than metric tensors or fields of any kind, these simply being human inventions. But the majority from both camps do not view either of these possible realities as deities. They do not see that a "miracle" was necessary for the universe and life to exist.

Still Seeking the God of the Gaps

This illustrates why the claimed convergence of science and religion does not hold up under scrutiny. Look at history. Science has always explained observations in terms of natural (that is, nonsupernatural) phenomena. Religion has always proposed supernatural explanations to fill those gaps where science provided no natural explanations, or simply remained silent. Only one domain of existence has ever been occupied in either case - the domain of human observations. The shamans in ancient forests taught that "spirits" caused rocks to roll down a hill - until Newton said it was gravity. Priests taught that "God" created humans in his own image, until Darwin said evolution created us in the image of apes. And now we have this new breed of scientist-theologian arguing yet again that just because science cannot explain this, that, or the other thing, then we still have room for God. We cannot explain why the constants of nature have the curious values they have, so maybe God made them so. We cannot explain the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics," so maybe God invented mathematics. Maybe. But is this modern God of the gaps any more plausible than the God of the shamans and priests? Maybe one day science will fill in these gaps without the premise of God.

[I think that the Anthropic Principle is wrong headed. It looks at the Universe and sees structure, order & design and says: ‘Look how the Universe has been designed for us to live in’. What believers in the Principle fail to see is that the Universe was not designed for us, but that we are ‘designed’ for it. The Universe is about 15 Billion Years old whilst life on Earth began about 3 Billion Years ago. Over that time life adapted itself through Natural Selection to fit the Universe it found itself in. If the Universal Constants had been different either there would have been no life here or it would be of a rather different kind. Maybe in such a Universe the “Slime Creatures from planet Zerg” would be expressing amazement at how the Universe was clearly designed for them. Unfortunately they would be just as wrong as some humans are.]

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Just Finished Reading: F.R.E.E. Fall by Mel Odom

The Year is 2024. In the Indonesian country of Melaka the discovery of ancient scrolls produces an explosion of advanced technology the like of which has never been seen before. But when a military coup overthrows the Melakan government the technology becomes a threat to an already fractured world. A team of mercenaries (the F.R.E.E Lancers) are hired to retake Melaka before the ancient weaponry can be fully understood and activated. It’s only a matter of who can get there first.

This was very much light reading. As the sequel to F.R.E.E Lancers I pretty much knew what to expect and Mel Odom pretty much delivered. This was sort of a cross between the cyberpunk of William Gibson mixed in with a large dose of X-Men altered humanity. There’s plenty of action between two dimensional Good guys and Bad guys with all the expected verbal quips, gun play and high kicks. Odom doesn’t really ‘do’ characterisation very well but the rest of the book was entertaining enough. In no way mind expanding this was definitely SF-lite. Fun, but throw away fun. Recommended if you’re stuck anywhere for a few days with nothing else to read.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Blix Says U.S. Impedes Efforts to Curb A-Arms

by Warren Hoge for the New York Times

June 2, 2006

UNITED NATIONS — Hans Blix, the former chief United Nations weapons inspector, said today that American unwillingness to cooperate in international arms agreements was undermining the effectiveness of efforts to curb nuclear weapons. Saying it was essential that Washington act to end the stagnation of arms limitation, Mr. Blix said: "If it takes the lead, the world is likely to follow. If it does not take the lead, there could be more nuclear tests and new nuclear arms races." Mr. Blix, who left his arms inspection post in 2003 shortly after the invasion of Iraq, made his comments in the introduction to a 225-page report by a Swedish-financed international commission, delivered today to the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan. The panel, with Mr. Blix as chairman and members from more than a dozen countries, listed 60 recommendations for nuclear disarmament.

It concluded that treaty-based disarmament was being set back by "an increased U.S. skepticism regarding the effectiveness of international institutions and instruments, coupled with a drive for freedom of action to maintain an absolute global superiority in weaponry and means of their delivery." Mr. Blix, 77, a Swedish constitutional lawyer and the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997, was disparaged by the Bush administration for failing to turn up weapons of mass destruction during the three years he headed up the United Nations inspection team in Iraq. The report drew a direct link between the rise of individual action and the decline of cooperation. "Over the past decade, there has been a serious and dangerous loss of momentum and direction in disarmament and non-proliferation efforts," it said. "Treaty-making and implementation have stalled, and, as a new wave of proliferation has threatened, unilateral enforcement action has been increasingly advocated."

The commission urged all countries to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and called on nuclear states to reduce their arsenals and stop producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium for more nuclear weapons. The United States has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and in 2001 it withdrew from the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty. "While the reaction of most states to the treaty violations was to strengthen and develop the existing treaties and institutions," Mr. Blix said, "the U.S., the sole superpower, has looked more to its own military power for remedies." One result, he said, was that "the nuclear weapons states no longer seem to take their commitment to nuclear disarmament seriously."

The commission said there were 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with 12,000 of them deployed — numbers it labeled "extraordinarily and alarmingly high." Mr. Blix said he feared the number of nuclear weapons would rise because of efforts to develop more sophisticated new weapons and place them in space. He said he also feared an American-proposed missile shield would bring about countermeasures by Russia and China. The commission said nuclear weapons should ultimately be banned the way biological and chemical weapons were. "Weapons of mass destruction cannot be uninvented," the report said. "But they can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons already have been, and their use made unthinkable."

It identified as "two loud wake-up calls" the breakdown of the United Nations conference a year ago on the future of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the failure of last fall's United Nations summit meeting of heads of state to include a mention of weapons of mass destruction — a lapse that Mr. Annan described at the time as a "disgrace." The commission said nuclear weapons ought to be taken off high-alert status because of the risk of launching by error and called on countries to pledge no first use, including in cases considered preemptive or preventative.It also called for declaring certain regions to be free of unconventional weapons — "particularly and most urgently in the Middle East."

[This is kind of ironic after the recent news coming out of North Korea, don’t you think? The main problem with nukes is that the more people who have them – or are suspected to have them – the more people who will want them to prevent being strong armed into things. To make the world a safer place we must move to eliminating all nuclear devices from everyone’s arsenals. If we can outlaw biological weapons we should be able to greatly diminish the number of nuclear weapons on the planet.]

Sunday, October 08, 2006

From my good friend BionicDwarf.

The Volvo Estate (pictured above) has cast aside its boring image - by being voted the best car for having sex in the back seat.It turns out the car has actually seen more action than any other - largely thanks to the extra space, according to a new survey. And there was a boost for the white van man with the multi-purpose Mercedes Benz Sprinter Van in second place. The survey of 4,000 people for yesinsurance.co.uk put the VW Camper van in third place, the BMW 3 Series Saloon in fourth and the Ford Escort in fifth.

According the pollsters, some 68% of people have had sex in a car and one in 10 say they had even got fruity while driving. Six per cent said they had damaged their vehicles while getting busy - but only one in 100 of these were bold enough to claim on their insurance.

A yesinsurance.co.uk spokesman said: "It would seem that space is the most important issue for couples who want to enjoy themselves."Meanwhile, another survey found that more than a million motorists think about sex rather than the road ahead. Research from car insurer More Than found one in five drivers admit to concentrating behind the wheel less than 75% of the time, with 1.2 million thinking mostly about sex. For 3.2 million drivers work was the main focus and for 2 million more it was family issues that dominated.

[I wonder how many people who admitted to having sex in the back of a Volvo also admitted to owning the car? Very few I imagine!]
My Favourite Movies: The Incredibles.

I am a big fan of animation so it is no surprise that I was totally delighted with this movie. To be honest though I was slightly apprehensive after being so disappointed with Finding Nemo which, I thought, was trite and boring. However, Pixar certainly hit all my buttons with their next outing.

If you haven’t seen The Incredibles (and you really don’t need kids to see movies like this – honest) its story revolves around superheroes who have been forcibly retired into the community. A particular family group headed by Mr Incredible & his wife Elastagirl become involved in a plot hatched by a super wanna-be to destroy the city. There is MUCH more going on than this brief synopsis suggests but I really don’t want to give too much away.

Apart from being technically brilliant and often laugh out loud funny this is actually a good movie in its own right. The writers obviously have a deep affection for spy movies and, from the look and feel of it, especially James Bond. It’s dramatic whilst at the same time sending up the whole spy super-baddie genre gloriously. The ‘acting’ is outstanding and the voice work a delight. Even the ‘kids’ are brilliant – and normally I really don’t like kids in movies. As the kid from across the street says, this movie is totally wicked. Watch it with your kids and give the whole family a treat.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

U.S. Wages War on a Concept

by Robert Sprackland for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

August 11, 2006

On Sept. 11, 2001, religious fanatics hijacked four commercial jets and crashed them in the most egregious acts of war against the United States' mainland since the British burned Washington, D.C., in 1814. No perpetrator was an Iraqi, but the White House had decided Iraq was a locus of anti-American terrorism. While journalists dutifully presented each administration justification against Saddam Hussein, the lynchpin of condemnation became the effervescent weapons of mass destruction.

The administration has drawn lines between nations that are "with us, or with the terrorists." An Axis of Evil was defined, in which one nation was invaded and cast into a civil war, while two others hastened to develop nuclear weapons capabilities. Afghanistan was occupied, Iran joined the Axis and all hell broke out in the Middle East as Israel slammed at Hezbollah. And still there are claims that all is still hopeful on the roadmap to peace. How can there be any progress in a war in which there are no contiguous elements? The U.S. is not waging war against Iraq, or Baathists, or even Muslims. It is not fighting a place or entity but a concept -- "terrorism." What enemy can be more of a phantom, impossible to kill or contain, than an idea? That is why dictators so enjoy a good book burning -- books contain ideas.

The government, when queried about when troops will come home and the war will end, repetitively answers "we will stay the course until we defeat terrorists." Yet the methods employed to attack terrorists provides precisely the feeding ground to produce their replacements. Worse, the largely artificial lines of nationhood drawn in the sands of the Middle East quickly blow away in the hot winds of fanatical Islam. Terrorists do not wear a national uniform, but come dressed as civilians. Wars against ideas never achieve victory. China may have overthrown its 2,200-year tradition of emperors, but it is still an empire led by a hereditary aristocracy; the United States failed miserably in its wars against drugs, poverty and alcohol, but admitted defeat only when it repealed Prohibition. And although the Third Reich is a memory, Nazism is still among us. Were the goal of World War II to destroy the Nazis, it would still be fought today.

So I ask the president: How will we know when we have defeated terrorism? If it is outlawed by all the Middle Eastern nations, it will still exist, as do slavery and drug dealers. What will it take to recall U.S. troops, admit that this is a foe that armies are not meant to fight, and that the idea of fighting "terrorism" is as poor an idea as any that led to the debacle ongoing in the Middle East? Regarding troops, Tennyson eloquently wrote: "Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do & die." Those of us at home must hold government accountable and demand to know why. It may not be the most important way to support the troops, but after three years of war it certainly seems we should get answers. Question one is "How do you defeat a phantom menace?"

Friday, October 06, 2006

Poster Time.
Just Finished Reading: The God of Chaos by Tom Bradby

The year is 1942 and Cairo is about to fall to the advance of Rommell’s panzers. As the British army gets ready to fight a decisive battle of World War Two ex-New York cop Joe Quinn finds himself involved in a labyrinthine murder case where nothing and no one is as they appear. Any idea of certainty falls away in the face of enemies in the desert and of traitors on the Home Front. Who you trust can quite easily determine if you live or die in city where everything is up for grabs as the panic sets in.

I only picked this up recently on spec in a 3 for 2 sale. I wasn’t disappointed. Whilst a bit of a departure for me I do find myself presently drawn more and more to historical novels. I found God of Chaos a little too long though at just under 500 pages and felt that it could have been at least 100 pages shorter without losing any of the storyline. However, I was very impressed by Bradby’s characterisation and by his sense of time and place. He certainly made me believe I was in Cairo of that era. The plot was fairly convoluted and even after 200 pages I wasn’t quite certain what was going on. This wasn’t a problem though as I was intrigued as to where it was all going to lead. I did manage to work out some of what was happening but missed a few vital clues that on reflection I should’ve picked up on.

This is Bradby’s 5th book and I’m going to get his earlier works probably in the New Year. He writes a clear well presented mystery and manages to keep enough back to make you want to turn that next page. Recommended for mystery, espionage or historical fiction buffs.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

War is a road to nowhere, argues Archbishop

From Ekklesia 24/08/06

In one of the most outspoken statements against violence yet heard from a senior figure in England’s established church, Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu has declared that war solves nothing in the long run, and contradicts God’s love embodied in Jesus. Dr Sentamu was preaching earlier this week at York Minster, following a seven-day vigil for Middle East Peace. Britain’s first black archbishop set up tent in his Cathedral, shaved his head, was anointed with oil, and went on a water-and-glucose only fast.

In his sermon, circulated by World Faith News and reproduced on the Ekklesia website, Dr Sentamu said he had been “humbled by the thousands of people - of faith and of no faith - who have supported me over the past seven days with their presence, prayers and solidarity. I have always known that violence is not on and after seven days of fasting and praying I am more persuaded than ever that wars and violence cannot lead to a long lasting solution,” he explained. “Hate cannot defeat hate; the only way to overcome an enemy is to make them a friend.”

The Archbishop said that “[i]n our peacemaking efforts the real problem is not one of re-inventing the wheel. The danger is re-inventing the flat tyre. This kills.” He went on: “God's voice is to be heard in the voice of an eight-year-old Lebanese girl, injured and orphaned who had lost her eye in an air strike and in the voice of an eighty-five year old Israeli woman, sick, poor and unable to move out of reach of the Katusha rockets.”

Responding to questions posed to faith by the terrible events in the Lebanon, he declared: “Where is God? Surely God is being violated with those who are damaged by the consequences of violence and being diminished with those who enact it.” Archbishop Rowan Williams has also spoken out against the idea that violence saves, and has said that the voices of the victims and the wounded are the ones that should shape our human and political responses. The Christian churches have traditionally been divided between pacifists (a minority) and those who pursue the limiting ethic of a ‘just war’.

But the fresh options of conflict transformation, active peacemaking and radical non-violence have been growing in Christian circles lately. Guardian newspaper commentator and religious affairs journalist Stephen Bates commented on Ekklesia several months ago that the official teaching of many churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, had moved closer to the wholesale rejection of violence in recent years. There has also been growing theological criticism of ‘the myth of redemptive violence’ that has grown out of deformed religiosity and assumed mainstream cultural significance in so-called secular societies. After the Iraq kidnap crisis, in which four Christian peacemakers were held hostage (and one eventually killed) the ISP Peacenik was created to encourage cooperation between people of faith and those of ‘good faith’ in the common quest for just peace.

[War is a really stupid way to try and solve anything. When will we learn that simple fact?]

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

WMDs in Slow Motion

by Mary Robinson for the Guardian

July 11, 2006

Last week, Pyongyang test-fired seven missiles in defiance of international opposition. The response has been justifiably high, but far less attention has been given to an equally dangerous threat to security around the world - the spread of small arms. The UN small arms review conference, which ended last Friday, was aimed at advancing international efforts to control the small arms trade. Small arms may get less press attention than other weapons, but they are no less deadly. Kofi Annan has described them as weapons of mass destruction in slow motion, and with good reason: small arms kill more people every year than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together.

The small arms trade is not subject to a comprehensive global agreement. Instead, there is a patchwork of national export laws, which unscrupulous arms dealers can easily circumvent. As a result, small arms fall into the wrong hands every day. During the two-week conference most governments said that they supported an agreement to control sales, but instead of fighting to secure a deal that would protect the millions of people worldwide living in daily fear of armed violence, they stood by while the conference was scuppered. It collapsed without agreement after a small number of countries, most prominently the US, blocked key issues.

In the first week of the conference, a group of countries led by Kenya and Britain proposed a set of guidelines for small arms sales based on international human rights and humanitarian law. These principles would have prevented weapons from being sold if there was a risk they could be used to kill or terrorise innocent people. The proposal was not a radical one. Five years ago, governments met for the first time to address the problem of small arms violence and agreed they should regulate sales in line with their existing responsibilities under international law. This proposal merely elaborated what those responsibilities were under human rights and humanitarian law.

Because the conference agreement had to be approved by all 192 countries attending, any government was able to veto any part of it. Cuba, India, Iran, Israel and Pakistan all opposed global controls. And while the US had said at the beginning of the conference that it would consider controls, it objected to so many parts of the draft that it in effect blocked agreement of the entire document. Even before the final collapse, a handful of states succeeded in blocking the crucial proposal for controls and in removing references to human rights and humanitarian law. They made it clear they saw small arms control solely as a national security issue.

The link between the uncontrolled small arms trade and human rights abuses could not be clearer on the ground. I have seen it myself many times - for example when I visited Rwanda just after the 1994 genocide. There, supplies of small arms allowed the Hutu militia to take an estimated 800,000 lives while the world stood by. A resolution is likely to be put forward at the UN general assembly in October for governments to start negotiations on an international arms trade treaty, which could be based on states' existing responsibilities under human rights and humanitarian law. Several governments have indicated they want a resolution to start work on such a legally binding instrument. Governments must not let the setback of the review conference stop them winning the battle against the unregulated trade of small arms.

[Personally I would have thought that a world with fewer small arms would be a safer and happier place. Why is it then that countries could and do oppose any kind of restrictions on arms sales?]

Monday, October 02, 2006

Francis Bacon, Original Sin, and the Millennium.

From Austin Cline for About.Com

England and the Enlightenment played important roles in the development of technology as material means to spiritual ends. Soteriology (study of salvation) and eschatology (study of end-times) were common preoccupations in learned circles. Most educated men took very seriously the prophecy of Daniel that "many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased" as a sign that The End was close. (Daniel 12:4) Their attempts to increase knowledge about the world and improve human technology was not part of a dispassionate program to simply learn about the world, but instead to be active in millennarian expectations of Apocalypse. Technology played a key role in this as the means by which humans regained mastery over the natural world which was promised in Genesis but which humanity lost in the Fall. As historian Charles Webster observes, "The Puritans genuinely thought that each step in the conquest of nature represented a move towards the millennial condition."

An important figure in the development of modern Western science is Francis Bacon. But for Bacon, science meant primarily technology and mechanical arts - not for any esoteric purpose but for utilitarian goals. One interest of his was that the Antichrist not be in sole possession of technological tools in the coming apocalyptic battles. He wrote that: Antichrist will use these means freely and effectively, in order that he may crush and confound the power of this world... the Church should consider employment of these inventions because of future perils in the times of Antichrist which with the grace of God it would be easy to meet, if prelates and princes promoted study and investigated the secrets of nature.

Bacon also believed, like others, that technological know-how was an original birthright of humanity which had simply been lost in the Fall. Writing in his Opus Majus, he suggested the contemporary gaps in human understanding stem directly from Original Sin: "Owing to original sin and the particular sins of the individual, part of the image has been damaged, for reason is blind, memory is weak, and the will depraved." So for Francis Bacon, one of the early lights of scientific rationalism, the pursuit of knowledge and technology had three reasons: First, so that the benefits of technology would not be the sole province of the Antichrist; second, in order to regain power and knowledge lost after the Fall in Eden; and third, in order to overcome current individual sins and achieve spiritual perfection.

Bacon's successors in English science followed him very closely in these goals. As Margaret Jacob notes: "Almost every important seventeenth century English scientist or promoter of science from Robert Boyle to Isaac Newton believed in the approaching millennium." Accompanying this was the desire to recover the original Adamic perfection and knowledge lost with the Fall. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 for the purpose of improving general knowledge and practical knowledge - its Fellows worked at experimental inquiries and the mechanical arts. Philosophically and scientifically, the founders were strongly influenced by Francis Bacon. John Wilkins, for example, claimed in The Beauty of Providence that the advancement of scientific knowledge would allow humanity to recover from the Fall.

Robert Hooke wrote that the Royal Society existed "to attempt the recovery of such allowable arts and inventions as are lost." Thomas Sprat was certain that science was the prefect way to establish "man's redemption." Robert Boyle thought that scientists had a special relationship with God - that they were "born the priest of nature" and that they would ultimately "have a far greater knowledge of God's wonderful universe than Adam himself could have had." The Freemasons are a direct outgrowth and excellent example of this. In Masonic writings, God is identified very specifically as a practitioner of mechanical arts, most often as the "Great Architect" who had "the Liberal Sciences, particularly Geometry, written on his Heart." Members are encouraged to practice the same scientific arts not only to reclaim lost Adamic knowledge but also to become more God-like. Freemasonry was a means to redemption and perfection through the cultivation of science and technology.

A particular legacy of Freemasonry for the rest of society is the development of engineering as a profession by Freemasons in England. August Comte wrote of the role engineers would play in humanity's reclamation of Eden: "the establishment of the class of engineers... will, without doubt, constitute the direct and necessary instrument of coalition between men of science and industrialists, by which alone the new social order can commence." Comte suggested that they, the new priesthood, imitate priests and monks by renouncing pleasures of the flesh. At this point it is worth noting that in the Genesis account, the Fall occurs when Adam and Eve eat fruit of knowledge - knowledge of good and evil. So it is ironic that we find scientists promoting an increase in knowledge in the pursuit of regaining the lost perfection. It isn't a complete contradiction, but it is a conflict which I have not seen resolved.

[Interesting, I thought. I wonder how science & technology would have developed without the prompting of Christianity?]

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Poster Time.
Many would 'want to live to 100'

From the BBC.

Friday, 22 September 2006

Many Britons would give up favourite things, including sex, to reach 100 years of age, a poll suggests. Some 40% said they would give up sex - half of women and a third of men - 39% food and drinks and 42% travel. But the BUPA survey of 1,003 people found 94% would not give up the company of family and friends and three quarters would not sacrifice money. People cited being there for family and seeing grandchildren grow up as the main reasons for wanting to reach 100.

The poll, carried out by Mori for BUPA, also revealed half thought scientists should continue to keep trying to prolong people's lifespans, while 45% thought it was everyone's duty to live as long as possible. But the point at which people thought old age was reached differed between age groups. The 16 to 24-year-old aged group see it as starting at 61, while those over 75 said it kicked in at 71. However, people did acknowledge they were concerned about how society would cope with an ageing population. The over 80s population is predicted to double to 5m by 2031, according to the Office of National Statistics.

A third said society would struggle to support a growing number of elderly, while nine out of 10 said the current healthcare system would have to change. BUPA medical director Dr Andrew Vallance-Owen said: "Britain is facing an ageing time bomb with major challenges presented by retirement, the desire to live longer and the increasing burden of caring for older people. "However, the question has to be asked can society cope?" Angela Mawle, of the Public Health Association, said: "I think what we can take from this is that it shows people do want to live a longer, healthier life. They want to change their habits, but their actions do not always mirror this. What society needs is a little help in becoming healthier by cutting back on unhealthy food and drink."

[Would you like to live to 100 or beyond? Is there anything you’d give up to make it to that age?]