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

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My Favourite Movies: Kelly’s Heroes.

Yes, I know, I know. It’s another old war film with Clint Eastwood - but what a film! You can’t help but like it, well, OK… I can’t help but like it.

Just think about it for a moment or two. Here we have a Second World War film made in 1970 – and made in such a way that it felt just like 1970 during the whole movie. They certainly had the tanks and the guns of the period but the music, the attitudes, the speech patterns and the entire feel of the movie was contemporary. It’s just such a great clash of times and cultures – which makes the whole thing doubly funny.

I mean, just look at the plot. Its post D-Day and the Allied forces are slowly making their way towards Germany when Kelly (played superbly by Eastwood) stumbles upon the location of a bank full of German gold. Putting together a plan and a team to acquire the gold accidentally results in a breakout from Allied lines into occupied territory exploited by American forces to shorten the war.

The movie is chock full of wonderful moments not least of which is the performance by Donald Sutherland as the tank commander ‘Oddball’. I just loved the idea of a mobile hippy commune in the middle of a battle zone and the idea of filling shells full of paint because the explosions look cool is just… well… cool!

A seriously funny and upbeat film. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Why do Skeptics doubt the existence of God?

From: Why I Am a Skeptic about Religious Claims

By Paul Kurtz

First, because the skeptical inquirer does not find the traditional concept of God as "transcendent," "omnipotent," "omnipresent," or "omnibeneficent" to be coherent, intelligible, or meaningful. To postulate a transcendent being who is incomprehensible to the human mind (as theologians maintain) does not explain the world that we encounter. How can we say that such an indefinable being exists, if we do not know in what sense that being is said to exist? How are we to understand a God that exists outside space and time and that transcends our capacity to comprehend his essence? Theists have postulated an unknowable "X." But if his content is unfathomable, then he is little more than an empty, speculative abstraction. Thus, the skeptic in religion presents semantic objections to God language, charging that it is unintelligible and lacks any clear referent.A popular argument adduced for the existence of this unknowable entity is that he is the first cause, but we can ask of anyone who postulates this, "What is the cause of this first cause?" To say that he is uncaused only pushes our ignorance back one step. To step outside the physical universe is to assume an answer by a leap of faith.

Nor does the claim that the universe manifests Intelligent Design (ID) explain the facts of conflict, the struggle for survival, and the inescapable tragedy, evil, pain, and suffering that is encountered in the world of sentient beings. Regularities and chaos do not necessarily indicate design. The argument from design is reminiscent of Aristotle's teleological argument that there are purposes or ends in nature. But we can find no evidence for purpose in nature. Even if we were to find what appears to be design in the universe, this does not imply a designer for whose existence there is insufficient evidence. The evolutionary hypothesis provides a more parsimonious explanation of the origins of species. The changes in species through time are better accounted for by chance mutations, differential reproduction, natural selection, and adaptation, rather than by design. Moreover, vestigial features such as the human appendix, tailbone, and male breasts and nipples hardly suggest adequate design; the same is true for vestigial organs in other species. Thus, the doctrine of creation is hardly supported in empirical terms. Another version of the Intelligent Design argument is the so-called fine-tuning argument. Its proponents maintain that there is a unique combination of "physical constants" in the universe that possess the only values capable of sustaining life, especially sentient organic systems. This they attribute to a designer God. But this, too, is inadequate. First because millions of species are extinct; the alleged "fine-tuning" did nothing to ensure their survival. Second, great numbers of human beings have been extinguished by natural causes such as diseases and disasters. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that suddenly killed over two hundred thousand innocent men, women, and children was due to a shift in tectonic plates. This hardly indicates fine tuning-after all, this tragedy could have been avoided had a supposed fine tuner troubled to correct defects in the surface strata of the planet. A close variant of the fine-tuning argument is the so-called anthropic principle, which is simply a form of anthropomorphism; that is, it reads into nature the fondest hopes and wishes of believers, which are then imposed upon the universe. But if we are to do this, should we not also attribute the errors and mistakes encountered in nature to the designer?

Related to this, of course, is the classical problem of evil. If an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibeneficent God is responsible for the world as we know it, then how to explain evil? Surely, humans cannot be held responsible for a massive flood or plague, for example; we can explain such calamities only by inferring that God is malevolent, because he knew of, yet permitted, terrible destructive events to occur-or by suggesting that God is impotent to prevent evil. This would also suggest an unintelligent, deficient, or faulty designer.

Part II soon.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Why be shy about our radical past?

Tristram Hunt for The Observer

Sunday May 21, 2006

'I tell you, sir, you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you.' True to his word, on 17 May 1649, Oliver Cromwell had the ringleaders of the Leveller revolt marched out of Burford church in Oxfordshire and executed. These disgruntled Civil War soldiers had demanded political as well as religious rights and Cromwell was having none of it. Yesterday, I joined Tony Benn and a large crowd in the Cotswolds to commemorate these martyrs to democracy. Organised by the Workers' Educational Association, the Levellers' Day festival remains one of the few living monuments to Britain's hidden heritage of democracy. But why does Burford hold such a lonely place in our history calendar? Why are we still so shy of our radical past?

Last week saw a welter of commentary on Education Minister Bill Rammell's call for teaching 'British values' in schools. The left took it as a cue for more historical self-flagellation; the right for cultural triumphalism. Yet, disappointingly, what Rammell had, in fact, urged was the anodyne incorporation of 'modern British cultural and social history into the citizenship curriculum'. What he should have demanded is a vigorous exploration of our democratic heritage in schools and communities alike. Democracy has many fathers, but in its modern, Western variety, the British contribution is marked. From the Magna Carta to the Levellers' 'Agreement of the People' to the Chartists and Pan-African Conference, the British experience went on to influence democracy around the world. The US Declaration of Independence was partly born from the democratic ideals of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.

Yet the difference between us and them is that French and American officialdom nurtures its political heritage. Bastille Day, the Fourth of July holiday, even the veneration given to their written constitutions, point to a public culture which reveres and renews its democratic legacy. In Britain, we are close to amnesiac about the individuals who crafted our political freedoms. Most of our major cities are replete with statues to generals, dukes and royals, but not to our democratic heroes. Outside his home town of Thetford, the great democrat agitator Thomas Paine is barely remembered. Our democratic sites are equally neglected. The Houses of Parliament contains the most pitiful account of its role in the development of democracy. Shamefully, the Magna Carta site at Runnymede has had to be paid for with American funds.

This contempt for our democratic past cannot be excused by an unwritten constitution. For, as historian Linda Colley has rightly pointed out, constitutional documents, from the Treaty of Union to the Catholic emancipation acts right up to the devolution acts of 1998, all exist in the archives. The challenge is to get them out into the public sphere. And, with them, the stories of struggle, triumph and disappointment they contain: the untold lives of Chartists, suffragettes and anti-colonial campaigners. For the history of democracy is far more than just the story of the ballot; it is also about the growth of public reasoning, a free press and liberal tolerance. This is the legacy which should be highlighted in our schools and museums. It does not have to be a Whiggish narrative of ever- broadening freedom, nor yet a Marxist account of aristocratic and imperial intransigence. Rather, a complex, conflicting, yet ultimately progressive history of the ebb and flow of democracy and the people who made it happen. If we lose this cultural memory of democracy, if we turn Levellers' Day from a living history into a museum piece, then it will be no surprise if the trip to the polling booth becomes ever more unpopular.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Poster Time.

Rather graphic I know. But somewhat timely with US soldiers being accused of 'execution style' killing of civilians recently. War certainly is Hell.

My Favourite Places: Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral is an Anglican cathedral located in Salisbury, United Kingdom. The cathedral boasts the tallest church spire in the UK, the largest cloister in England, and one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta.

Building commenced when the bishopric was moved to Salisbury from Old Sarum in 1220 during the tenure of Richard Poore. Due to the high water table in the new location, the cathedral was built on only four feet of foundations, and by 1258 the nave, transepts and choir were complete. The west front was ready by 1265. The cloisters and chapter house were completed around 1280. Because the cathedral was built in only 38 years, Salisbury Cathedral has a single consistent architectural style, Early English Gothic.

The only major sections of the cathedral built later were the tower and spire, which at 404 feet (123 metres) dominated the skyline from 1320. While the spire is the cathedral's most impressive feature, it has also proved to be troublesome. Together with the tower, it added 6,397 tons (6,500 tonnes) to the weight of the building and but for the addition of buttresses, bracing arches and iron ties over the succeeding centuries, it would have suffered the fate of spires on other great ecclesiastical buildings (such as Malmesbury Abbey) and fallen down; instead, Salisbury is the tallest surviving pre-1400 spire in the world. To this day the large supporting pillars at the corners of the spire are seen to bend inwards under the strain. The addition of tie beams above the crossing led to a false ceiling being installed below the lantern stage of the tower.

Significant changes to the cathedral were made by the architect James Wyatt in 1790, including replacement of the original choir screen and demolition of the bell tower which stood about 320 feet (100 metres) north west of the main building. Salisbury is one of only three English cathedrals to lack a ring of bells, the others being Norwich Cathedral and Ely Cathedral.

[The above from Wikipedia].

This is a wonderful place and I recommend it to anyone visiting the area. It truly dominates the skyline and can be seen from miles away. It must have been truly awe inspiring when it was first completed. So far I’ve only vistied it twice (or maybe three times) but intend to revisit the place soon – now that it appears to have stopped raining for a while. It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I like churches but most were built with the intention of making a deep impact on their visitors and I’m certainly not imune from that. In fact I make a point of visiting places of worship wherever I am.
War on Terror ‘Undermining Human Rights’

By Sarah Witt for the Financial Times

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Governments and international institutions have turned a blind eye to massive human rights violations and “sacrificed principles in the name of the war on terror,” Amnesty International said on Tuesday. In its annual report, the London-based human rights watchdog said the security agenda of the powerful and privileged had diverted the world’s attention from serious human rights crises elsewhere.

Criticising western governments, Irene Khan, Amnesty’s secretary general, said: “When the UK remains muted on arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in Guantánamo, when the US ignores prohibition on torture, when European governments are mute about their record on renditions, racism or refugees, they undermine their own moral authority to champion human rights elsewhere in the world.“ While the report covers the past twelve months, the British government has recently called on the US to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre, which Prime Minister Tony Blair branded an “anomaly”.

The United Nations also came in for censure. According to the report the UN had failed to monitor the human rights performance of China and Russia “allowing their political and economic interests to prevail over human rights concerns domestically or internationally. Those who bear the greatest responsibility for safeguarding global security in the Security Council proved in 2005 to be the most willing to paralyse the Council and prevent it from taking effective action on human rights,“ Ms Khan said. Amnesty said attacks by armed groups reached new levels of brutality and intensity in 2005 but insisted the perpetrators should be brought to justice through fair trial, not torture or secret detention. The “war on terror” was failing, the report claimed, and would continue to fail “unless human rights and human security are given precedence over narrow security interests.”

The 288-page document said torture and ill-treatment was reported in 104 of the 150 countries covered by the survey, despite the fact that 141 countries were party to the UN convention against torture and other ill-treatment. Highlighting the continuing conflict in Darfur, which she described as “staggering in scale”, Ms Khan said the UN and the African Union’s “feeble action” had fallen “pathetically short” of what was needed. There had been 13 Security Council resolutions on Darfur but the number of UN peacekeepers deployed there was zero. 2.2m people had been displaced by the conflict and an estimated 285,000 killed by starvation, disease and violence.

The report also scrutinised America’s continued use of Guantánamo Bay to hold detainees without trial. Amnesty said 759 people had been held at the camp in Cuba since January 2002, including at least two juveniles, yet none of the prisoners had been convicted of a criminal offence. In an otherwise damning overview of international human rights, Amnesty saw some signs of progress. It hailed the first-ever indictments from the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Uganda. It also welcomed the fact that in the past year powerful governments had been “called to account by their courts and public institutions.”

It cited the UK, where the High Court rejected the government’s plan to use evidence extracted under torture in other countries and investigations by the Council of Europe and the European parliament into European involvement in the US-led “renditions” - unlawful transfer of prisoners to countries where they would be at risk of torture. Other grounds for optimism were the falling number of overall global conflicts in places like Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone; the crowds that turned out to urge the G8 to “Make poverty history” and the “outpouring of support” from ordinary people to the victims of natural disasters.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Da Vinci code nun 'not genuine'

By Ben Davies for the BBC.

Friday, 26 May 2006

A woman who led protests against the Da Vinci Code dressed in a habit is not a real nun, says the Catholic Church. Sister Mary Michael appeared in the world's media denouncing the controversial book as "blasphemy". The Catholic Church says Sister Mary is not "canonically recognised" even if she does do "good works". She was connected to the Carmelites but left and is now a "maverick" and a "one-woman order", a spokesman told the BBC News website. Sister Mary Michael hit the headlines in August 2005 after she mounted a prayer vigil outside Lincoln Cathedral while the Da Vinci Code was filmed there. Though she had not read the book by Dan Brown at the time, she was pictured kneeling outside the Anglican Minster which was paid £100,000 to allow filming to take place.

The story revolves around the theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and their descendants survive today. The blockbuster has caused outrage among many Christian organisations, including senior officials at the Vatican. Having read the book and then "thrown it in the bin", Sister Mary Michael took her protest to Cannes earlier this month where the film was first shown. Asked about her status as a nun, Sister Mary Michael said: "I am attached to the Carmelites and that's it." But the spokesman for the Nottingham diocese in which she lives, Rev Philip McBrien, said: "Her connection with the Carmelites ended a long time ago. She has never been professed by our bishops and she doesn't belong to any recognised order. She has no official connection with any order or any of the parishes. She's a one-off, a maverick. She dresses more nun-like than any nuns I know." When these comments were put to Sister Mary Michael she acknowledged her life was "unusual" but insisted she is "still officially a nun".

"The bishop knows all about me, he knows why I wear my habit and so on. It is unusual, I can say no more. I can't even understand it myself but I've never done anything underhand - I can't with this personality. I am Our lady, sister of peace and mercy and I am attached to the Carmelites and you can just put it there and that's what I am."

After three and a half years in a closed Carmelite order Sister Mary Michael left, but decided to continue wearing a habit similar to what she had worn when a nun - albeit modified according to her own design. Nottingham diocese's Monsignor Thomas McGovern said: "It's very much a personal vocation as far as she's concerned. I would say even if not officially recognised she is doing a lot of good work." Sister Mary Michael, 61, says all she has been doing with her Da Vinci Code protests is standing up for the truth. "I am standing up for what every Catholic should believe in the true body, blood, soul and divinity of our lord."

Friday, May 26, 2006

Global faith gathering tackles religious roots of terror

From Ekklesia - 01/05/06

Faith leaders from across the globe met at Georgetown University in Washington DC last week – the first time the annual interfaith forum initiated 20 years ago by Pope John Paul II has been held in the United States. The aim of the two-day International Prayer for Peace was not to draft policies, but to foster greater ties and communication between the major religions in an increasingly globalized world. This year's panel discussions included a focus on the role of religion in combatting AIDS, poverty and genocide, and in resolving conflict.

Religiously motivated terrorism was also a central theme because of the 9/11 attacks, suicide bombings, the activities of militants and the so-called ‘war on terror’. The event featured 100 speakers from many different faith communities, including Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Mennonites, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Shintoists _ as well as charity groups, academics, journalists and diplomats. Imam Warith D. Mohammed said those who perpetrate terror for religious purposes "have no light. They have no understanding, they can't see, so they are striking out in the dark."

Pope John Paul II, who frequently reached out to other faiths, held the first meeting in October 1986 when he gathered with leaders from the world religions in Assisi, Italy, to pray, fast and hold a "World Day of Prayer for Peace." Several warring states and insurgent groups in such places as Lebanon and Nicaragua heeded his call for a 24-hour truce that day. "He knew the more we could get on the same page, the same place, the same relation to a God that loves us all, the more powerful our prayers would be," said Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as he welcomed the gathering of 500 persons to Georgetown.

Organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a lay Catholic group based in Rome, the meetings have traditionally been held in Italian and other European cities. Last year, the meeting was in Lyon, France. The Community is associated with the base Christian movement, but it has also attracted the attention and admiration of denominational leaders such as Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the world’s 77 million Anglicans. US undersecretary of state Karen Hughes also spoke at the interfaith peace meeting. She said that it was a misuse of religion to use it to justify terror and insurgency. But she had nothing to say about state violence or the legitimation of war as an instrument of policy by many of President Bush’s allies on the religious right.
My Favourite Music: Argus by Wishbone Ash.

I first heard this album many, many years ago, probably not long after it was first released in April of 1972. I’m fairly confident that my school friend Robert Rowlands (you out there somewhere Rob?) played it – and others – during time spent at his house playing darts or cards or whatever pre-teens did in those days.

Anyway, this album always brings back memories of those days. I had recently moved to a new town (with my parents) and had started a new school. Everything was new, including the music I was listening to.

Maybe I’m getting old (and therefore nostalgic) because recently I’ve started collecting music from that by-gone era. This particular digitally remastered CD was a gift from my good friend CQ.

My favourite track? Track 3 – Blowin’ Free which is quite wonderful and very 1970’s.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Live Loudly and Fiercely ... Apathy Is Not a Choice"

May 19, 2006 - CommonDreams.org

Below is the address given by 'University Medalist' Lane Rettig at the Commencement Convocation at the University of California at Berkeley, May 10, 2006.

I would like to extend my own message of congratulations to all of my fellow graduates, with whom I have struggled, learned, and grown these past five years. When I arrived in Berkeley, the world was a different place. Three weeks into my first semester, everything changed. Early on that Tuesday morning in September 2001, I watched my home, the city where I was born and raised, come tumbling down before my eyes. It was a terrifying way to start college. A couple of years later, I had another terrifying experience when I visited Hiroshima, Japan, and witnessed firsthand the results of the terror and destruction wrought upon its people by my own country. I met a number of atomic bomb survivors, including an elderly couple who recounted to me the events of that day, August 6, 1945. When I told the man that I was an American, he smiled at me and told me he was glad that I had come to Hiroshima, to learn the truth of what had happened. He told me that it was my duty to make sure it never happened again.

This speech is dedicated to the people who lost their lives in Hiroshima, and, in the words of a former University Medalist, "to the 3,000 souls whose heinous deaths on September 11th were penetrating indications of an even more heinous foreign policy." This speech is dedicated to all of the people throughout history who have needlessly lost their lives as a result of ignorance, selfishness and greed on the part of their fellow man. Yasuraka ni nemutte kudasai. May your souls rest in peace. It is the duty of those of us who have been blessed with life to go on living, but not just to live quietly. It is our duty to live loudly and fiercely, to prevent the human events and decisions which caused Hiroshima, Cambodia, September 11th, and Iraq, and which continue to threaten millions of innocent souls around the world. It is equally our duty to recognize our failings in helping those who have so much less than we do. To graduate from a great university such as ours and fail to gain compassion for your fellow man would be a great failure indeed.

Getting an education is about gaining the tools we need to succeed in life. The greatest tool that I've gained from my time here is perspective, the desire to learn from people different from myself and to attempt to see the world through their eyes. The greatest lesson I've learned is that, in this democracy, apathy is not a choice. To choose to remain silent in the face of the atrocities being committed in the name of this country - in all of our names - is to condone those acts. Indifference kills more people than bombs do. If you don't believe me, ask the people of Rwanda.

Our time at Berkeley has given us the knowledge we need to change the world - not through violence, but intelligently, peacefully. When confronted by adversity, we have two options: we can choose to react out of ignorance, fear, and hate. Or we can choose the path of understanding and compassion. Understanding is clearly the more difficult choice, but the world of the 21st century will not be built through the war and destruction of the previous century. I ask of you always to choose the second path, to try to understand, even in the face of great adversity, this beautiful multicolored world. I ask of you to try to see things from the eyes of your fellow man, rather than through your television set. I ask of you to go out and see the world, not just on television and in magazines, not just from tourist hotels and fancy restaurants, but from the ground, through the eyes of the real people who lead real lives just like we do.

I know that I've asked a lot of you, but I have just one more request: for tolerance, generosity, and compassion. Have pride in our great country, but recognize that we're not alone in the world. I think one of my computer science professors, Brian Harvey, put it best when he said that loving your country "doesn't mean that you have to be contemptuous of the rest of the world. Don't think that terrorism is OK if it's committed by U.S. soldiers, that extremist Islam is any worse than extremist Christianity." And never forget that this great country was founded and built by immigrants. I've never forgotten what the man I met in Hiroshima told me: "It's your duty to make sure that it never happens again." I intend to do that. But I can't do it alone.

Thank you.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bush's Faith Worries Albright

From Reuters

Monday, May 22, 2006

LONDON - U.S. President George W. Bush has alienated Muslims around the world by using absolutist Christian rhetoric to discuss foreign policy issues, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says.

"I worked for two presidents who were men of faith, and they did not make their religious views part of American policy," she said, referring to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Democrats and Christians. "President Bush's certitude about what he believes in, and the division between good and evil, is, I think, different," said Albright, who has just published a book on religion and world affairs. "The absolute truth is what makes Bush so worrying to some of us." Bush, a Republican, has openly acknowledged his Christian faith informs his decisions as president. He says, for example, that he prayed to God for guidance before invading Iraq.

Some Muslims have accused him of waging a crusade against Islam, comparable with those of the Middle Ages. The White House says it has nothing against Islam, but against those who commit terrorist atrocities in its name. But Albright says Bush's religious absolutism has made U.S. foreign policy "more rigid and more difficult for other countries to accept." In her book, "The Mighty and the Almighty," Albright recalls how Bush, while he was governor of Texas, told Christians he believed God wanted him to be president. She quotes from his speech to his party convention of 2004, when he told Republicans: "We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. Some of his language is really quite over the top," Albright told Reuters on Sunday during a trip to London to promote her book. "When he says 'God is on our side', it's very different from (former U.S. President Abraham) Lincoln saying 'We have to be on God's side.'"

The 69-year-old, who worked for Carter in the late 1970s and was Clinton's secretary of state from 1997-2001, says the war in Iraq "may eventually rank among the worst foreign policy disasters in U.S. history." She describes it as arguably worse than the Vietnam War -- not in terms of the number of people killed but because the Middle East is a more volatile region than southeast Asia. She also bemoaned "the growing influence of Iran" in the region and warned sectarian violence between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims could escalate into an all-out ‘Arab-Persian conflict.’ "We should not be contributing to what is a long historical struggle between the Sunni and Shia," she said.

Asked about her own beliefs, Albright said she had "a very confused religious background." Born and raised a Roman Catholic in Czechoslovakia, Britain and then the United States, she converted to Anglicanism when she married and only later in life discovered she had Jewish roots. It is this legacy which makes her wary of any religion which claims a monopoly on truth, she said. These days, she describes herself as "an Episcopalian (U.S. Anglican) with a Catholic background", recalling how she used to pray to the Virgin Mary as a child and still does. "I know I believe in God but I have doubts, and doubt is part of faith," she said.

Monday, May 22, 2006

My favourite Movies: Where Eagles Dare.

I LOVE this movie. I know it’s cheesy but I seriously love it. I can remember seeing it with my Dad back in 1968. The opening sequence stayed with me for years afterwards – the soft drumming getting louder and louder until the Junkers JU-52 transport plane fills the screen and we are catapulted straight into the middle of the story. We quickly learn the nature of the mission ahead for the disparate group of Allied heroes yet it soon becomes apparent that all is not what it seems. Classic wartime drama with more twists and turns than a spiral staircase!

As a big fan of both Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton I was not disappointed with their roles and acting. Burton was superb as the weather beaten Major in charge of the team and Eastwood played the American outsider to the hilt. I particularly liked Eastwood’s scene on the stairwell where he waits patiently for the German soldiers before casually gunning them down. Then of course there is the wonderful bus chase and the cable car fight to name but two more adrenaline pumping scenes.

Sure the plot has some glaring historical inaccuracies – most notably the use of a Bell 47 helicopter a year before the first prototype flew – but I could care less. It was just such a fun and exciting film. I was overawed by it as a child and it still has a special place in my heart decades later.

I keep meaning to read the book so I could compare notes. If its still in print I’ll just have to do that.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Perpetual Surveillance Society

By George Monbiot for AlterNet.

February 23, 2006.

It received just a few column inches in a couple of papers, but the story I read last week looks to me like a glimpse of the future. A company in Ohio called CityWatcher has implanted radio transmitters into the arms of two of its workers. The implants ensure that only they can enter the strongroom. Apparently it is "the first known case in which U.S. workers have been tagged electronically as a way of identifying them." The transmitters are tiny (about the size of a grain of rice), cheap ($150 and falling fast), safe and stable. Without being maintained or replaced, they can identify someone for many years. They are injected, with a local anesthetic, into the upper arm. They require no power source, as they become active only when scanned. There are no technical barriers to their wider deployment. The company that makes these "radio frequency identification tags," the VeriChip Corp., says they "combine access control with the location and protection of individuals." The chips can also be implanted in hospital patients, especially children and people who are mentally incapacitated. When doctors want to know who they are and what their medical history is, they simply scan them in. This, apparently, is "an empowering option to affected individuals." For a while a school in California toyed with the idea of implanting the chips in all its pupils.

A tag like this has a maximum range of a few meters. But another implantable device emits a signal that allows someone to be found or tracked by satellite. The patent notice says it can be used to locate the victims of kidnapping, or people lost in the wilderness. There are, in other words, plenty of legitimate uses for implanted chips. This is why they bother me. A technology whose widespread deployment, if attempted now, would be greeted with horror, will gradually become unremarkable. As this happens, its purpose will begin to creep.

At first the tags will be more widely used for workers with special security clearance. No one will be forced to wear one; no one will object. Then hospitals -- and a few in the United States are already doing this -- will start scanning their unconscious or incoherent patients to see whether or not they have a tag. Insurance companies might start to demand that vulnerable people are chipped. The armed forces will discover that they are more useful than dog tags for identifying injured soldiers or for tracking troops who are lost or have been captured by the enemy. Prisons will soon come to the same conclusion. Then sweatshops in developing countries will begin to catch on. Already the overseers seek to control their workers to the second, determining when they clock in, when they visit the toilet, even the number of hand movements they perform. A chip makes all this easier. The workers will not be forced to have them, any more than they are forced to have sex with their bosses, but if they don't accept the conditions, they don't get the job. After that, it surely won't be long before asylum seekers are confronted with a similar choice: You don't have to accept an implant, but if you refuse, you can't stay in the country.

I think it will probably stop there. I don't believe that you or I, or most comfortable, mentally competent people will be forced to wear a tag. But it will become an increasingly acceptable means of tracking and identifying people who could be a danger to themselves, or who could be at risk of sudden illness or disappearance, or who are otherwise hard for companies or governments to control. They will, on the whole, be people whose political voice is muted. As it is with all such intrusions on our privacy, it won't be easy to put your finger on exactly what's wrong with this technology. It won't really amount to a new form of control, as all the people who accept the implants will already be subject to monitoring or tracking of one kind or another. It will always be voluntary, at least to the extent that anything the state or our employers want us to do is voluntary. But there is something utterly revolting about it. It is another means by which the barriers between ourselves and the state, ourselves and the corporation, ourselves and the machine are broken down. In that tiny capsule we find the paradox of 21st century capitalism: A political system that celebrates choice, autonomy and individualism above all other virtues demands that choice, autonomy and individualism are perpetually suppressed.

While implanted chips will not lead to the mass scanning of the population, another use of the same technology quite possibly will. At the end of last month, a leaked letter from Andy Burnham, Britain's Home Office minister, revealed that the identity cards for which we will involuntarily volunteer will contain radio frequency identification chips. This will allow the authorities to read the cards with a scanner. I propose that as the technology improves, the police will be able to scan a crowd and (assuming everyone is carrying his voluntary-compulsory ID card) produce a list of people in it. I further propose that it will take only a year or two for this to seem reasonable. Already we have become used to the police filming demonstrations for the same purpose. When they started doing it, about 10 years ago, it caused outrage. It gave us the impression that by protesting we became suspects. But now we don't even notice them, not even to the extent of waving and shouting, "Hello, Mum." Like every other intrusion on our privacy, they have become normal.

I also propose that the mass scanning these identification chips will allow will be assisted by another kind of surveillance technology. Last week, campaigners in west Wales obtained a letter sent by the Welsh Development Agency to Ceredigion County Council. It revealed that the agency, with the help of the European Union, is setting up an industrial estate outside Aberystwyth. Its purpose is the "market acceleration" of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). With the help of companies such as Bae Systems, Rolls Royce and our new friend Qinetiq, the agency hopes to find the best way of encouraging the "routine operation of UAV systems UK-wide." Ceredigion council's website lists various functions of the UAVs, of which the first is "law enforcement."

So the police won't even have to be there. Someone sitting in a control room could fly a tiny drone (some of them are just a few inches across) equipped with a receiver over the heads of a crowd and, with the help of our new identity cards, determine who's there. It sounds quite mad, just as the idea of biometric identity cards in the United Kingdom once did. All these new technologies somehow contrive to seem both wildly implausible and entirely likely. There will be no dramatic developments. We will not step out of our homes one morning to discover that the state, or our boss, or our insurance company, knows everything about us. But, if the muted response to the ID card is anything to go by, we will gradually submit, in the name of our own protection, to the demands of the machine. And it will not then require a tyrannical new government to deprive us of our freedom. Step by voluntary step, we will have given it up already.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Monkeys 'string words together'

From the BBC.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

The first evidence monkeys can string "words" together to communicate in a similar way to humans, has been found. Putty-nosed monkeys in West Africa share the human ability to combine different sounds to mean different things, according to researchers. Scientists from St Andrews University found the creatures, in Nigeria's Gashaka Gumti National Park, used two main call types to warn of predators. But a particular sequence of calls also appeared to mean something else. The scientists identified two call types - "pyows" and "hacks" - to alert each other of danger - but found a string of pyows warned of a loitering leopard, while a burst of hacks indicated a hovering eagle.

A sentence made up of several pyows, followed by a few hacks, told the group to move to safer ground. Dr Kate Arnold, a primate psychologist, discovered the phenomena by playing variations of the calls back to the monkeys to see how they behaved. It showed they could encode fresh information by combining two existing calls, rather than creating a new sound, she said. "These calls were not produced randomly and a number of distinct patterns emerged," she said.

"The pyow-hack sequence means something like 'let's go' whereas the pyows by themselves have multiple functions and the hacks are generally used as alarm calls. This is the first good example of animal calls being combined in meaningful ways. The implications of this research are that primates, at least, may be able to ignore the usual relationship between an individual call and any meaning that it might convey under certain circumstances." The research has been carried out over the past three years, and is being published in the scientific journal Nature.
Cartoon Time.

Friday, May 19, 2006

British, US Spying Draws Us Closer to Orwell's Big Brother

by T.J. Rodgers for the San Jose Mercury News (California)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

My waking thought on Christmas Day was that George Orwell's vision of Big Brother was no longer a hypothetical possibility but an actual near-term threat. That realization was synthesized from two news events, one here and one in Britain. In Britain, the government recently decided to deploy global positioning system (GPS) technology to track every vehicle in the U.K. every minute of the day. Just as GPS sensors are mandated for use in every cell phone in the near future in the United States (for our safety, of course), Britain will mandate the use of a GPS sensor in every car. ``Has Reginald White arrived at the grocery store yet?'' will become a question answerable by the security division of Britain's DMV. The British government promises safeguards to prevent spying on ordinary citizens, but who will follow up on those promises? In the United States, President Bush is acting under apparently self-granted powers to ``authorize'' the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on Americans -- of course, only on Americans threatening terrorist acts.

In an act of high integrity, one of the judges of the secret court that grants Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act search warrants resigned, citing the fact that Bush was now bypassing even that minimal civil rights guarantee by directly authorizing NSA spying on U.S. citizens. One can only imagine that this troublesome judge will be replaced with one more friendly to the administration. With only the need to combine two real-world technologies for spying and tracking, the vision of 1984 -- once just a dark philosophical concept -- becomes an engineering project. The president and those to whom he delegates his authority can now authorize government spooks to listen to us in our homes and on our cell phones. When we are not home, they can track us in our automobiles. The system could be airtight and could be used to control our actions.

It's simple enough for most Silicon Valley companies to create a chip to detect a valid GPS signal and disable an automobile's ignition system to prevent citizens from the ``unauthorized use'' of their own vehicles. The final move into the totality of 1984 requires only a bit of philosophical drift, as exemplified by J. Edgar Hoover's directive to spy on the Rev. Martin Luther King because he was a subversive. If Bush's latest acts are left unchallenged, the government will become bolder at spying on whomever it wants and secretly jailing those it deems a threat to national security -- all with no troublesome warrants or messy public trials. In this environment, acts other than terrorism will certainly be put on the subversive activities list, all in the name of protecting our freedom.

Why should law-abiding citizens fear these trends? Because the government cannot be trusted. I don't trust President Bush to honor my rights, nor did I trust President Clinton, who was caught with secret FBI files on his political enemies. It's not that I'm unpatriotic. The founders of our country did not trust any government -- either that of George III or an uncontrolled democracy. That's why we have the Bill of Rights to protect American citizens from their own government -- by demanding, for example, that ``Congress shall make no law abridging the right of free speech.'' Our property is also protected from illegal search and seizure, and we are not to be put in jail without knowing the charges against us or having the right to confront our accusers in a public trial. Secret courts are inconsistent with the Bill of Rights, the defining document of American freedom.

What's the worst thing that Al-Qaida can do to America? We have probably already seen it. Of course, the government can talk about bigger things, like the use of weapons of mass destruction, to justify its use of totalitarian tactics. I would much rather live as a free man under the highly improbable threat of another significant Al-Qaida attack than I would as a serf, spied on by an oppressive government that can jail me secretly, without charges. If the Patriot Act defines the term ``patriot,'' then I am certainly not one. By far, our own government is a bigger threat to our freedom than any possible menace posed by Al-Qaida.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

When Explaining is Explaining Away

by Tom Flynn from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 4.

Critics accuse secular humanists of reductionism, of assuming too hastily that mundane physical explanations explain away the need for mystery. Yet a sufficiently powerful explanation will explain some mysteries away. For example, once one truly understands the idea of living on a rotating planet, ancient notions of the sun circling the Earth lose all force despite our naïve experience of its east-to-west procession through the sky. A firm grasp of evolutionary theory dispels the need to posit a cosmic designer. Today, brain research is providing mundane explanations for phenomena that many relied on to demonstrate the existence of the supernatural.

“Religious experience” or “mystical experience” is an altered state of consciousness in which one’s perceived relationship to the world shifts profoundly. One may feel oceanic oneness with the universe, or an eerie sense of encountering some exalted Other. Like out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences, mystical experience is valid in the very limited sense that some people genuinely have the experience. But it’s subjective - a trick the brain plays on us, not an experience of anything real in the world.

New technologies that image blood flow and electrical activity in the conscious brain show how the trick is played. Recent studies reveal the mechanics of religious experience so fully that little room for mystery remains. University of Pennsylvania neurologist Andrew B. Newberg imaged the brains of meditating Tibetan Buddhist adepts. He found more activity in the frontal lobe, associated with concentration, and less in the parietal lobe that is thought to generate our sense of the body’s orientation in space. Result: an intensely “real” sensation of passing outside the physical world—and a powerful, purely physical explanation for the sensation of oneness with the cosmos. What about encounter experiences? Michael Persinger, a Laurentian University neuroscientist, fits volunteers with a helmet that swirls weak electromagnetic fields into their temporal lobes. About 80 percent clearly experience a numinous Other; most interpret it in religious terms. Persinger draws the conclusion any atheist would: “Religion is a property of the brain, only the brain, and has little to do with what’s out there.”

Others disagree, Newberg for one. His book triggered a spring flood of media attention, including a Newsweek cover story. To Newberg, the fact that religious experience has specific brain mechanisms is actually a sign that God exists: humans are hard-wired for religion because God gave us this avenue by which to experience him. University of Kansas psychologist Daniel Batson agrees. He scoffs at reductionism: “To say the brain produces religion is like saying a piano produces music.”

Such arguments share an underlying desperation. The faithful yearn to cling to God, or spirituality, or the oneness of being while accommodating scientific findings that scour the foundations out from under those beliefs. As Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy admitted to the Washington Post, brain research into religious experience “reinforces atheistic assumptions and makes religion appear useless. If you can explain religious experience purely as a brain phenomenon, you don’t need the assumption of the existence of God.” Hear, hear. Religious experience hasn’t merely been explained. It’s on the threshold of being explained away, if that hasn’t already occurred—a development secular humanists should welcome. Believers will go on spinning rationalizations, trying to reconcile ancient mystical ideas with research findings that make them unnecessary. They’ll probably generate a few more best-sellers along the way. But I can’t help thinking that on some level, the Andrew Newbergs of the world already know they’ve lost.
Poster Time.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

But what if no one's out there at all?

Robin McKie, science editor for The Observer

Sunday May 7, 2006

Despite 40 years of effort, it has yet to produce a single result. Millions of pounds have been spent and thousands of man-hours expended, yet SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, remains the great unfulfilled hope of modern astronomy. On Friday, at the Royal Astronomical Society, scientists will reassess their prospects of finding aliens in our galaxy. They will gather at a special meeting to explain current programmes and outline a series of projects aimed at finding out whether or not we are alone. 'Twenty years ago, scientists were confident there were at least a million alien civilisations in our galaxy,' said the meeting's organiser, Dr Ian Morison of Jodrell Bank Observatory. 'No one thinks there can be anything like that number now.'

Scientists' failure to hear ET's call accounts for some of this loss of optimism. For 40 years, radio astronomers have trained their telescopes at stars to try to pick up a single 'Hello, I'm here' signal. Earth's own growing ecological woes have also led astronomers to fear that civilisations, if they do emerge, may be extinguishing themselves in very short timespans. 'I am sure life exists on other worlds,' said Morison. 'But it may be rather primitive. Few other worlds may have the right conditions for complex organisms to evolve as they have on Earth.' For example, our moon keeps our planet spinning in a stable manner while our sun does not have wild fluctuations in radiation output. On other worlds, battered by radiation bursts and crashing comets, life may be so disrupted that it has remained rooted at the level of amoebas and primitive pond life. This is known as the 'aliens are scum' scenario.

However, such dwindling hopes have only sharpened astronomers' appetites and at this week's meeting scientists will highlight new methods. One idea - to be outlined by Dr Ian Crawford of Birkbeck College, London - involves using NASA's next manned missions to the moon to search its surface for space debris from alien civilisations. 'We are not talking about digging up monoliths like those in 2001: A Space Odyssey,' he said. 'The idea is to look for microscopic fragments of alien spacecraft.' Russian scientists have calculated that a civilisation capable of space travel would produce massive amounts of debris, like the space junk - old rocket boosters, lens caps dropped by astronauts - that is building up around Earth today. This alien detritus, which would include microscopic particles shorn from spacecraft, could have drifted across space for billion of years, eventually becoming embedded on our moon and ready for astronauts to dig them up. Crawford proposed the idea to NASA at a special meeting on lunar science earlier this month. But this is not the only new concept on offer. Paul Horowitz, of Harvard University, will describe how his team has started surveying the sky for signs of interstellar Morse code. 'We used to think alien civilisations would say "hello" by sending radio signals,' he said. 'However, we have realised they could also do it by beaming out laser pulses, so we have built a telescope that can monitor sections of the sky to pick up these flashes. We have studied 100,000 stars in the last two weeks, but have seen nothing.'

At the same time, Paul Allen - one of the founders of Microsoft - has backed the construction of an array of several hundred radio telescopes in California in a bid to intensify the traditional search for electronic messages from alien civilisations. 'If anyone is beaming signals at us anywhere in our neighbourhood of the galaxy we will pick it up,' added Morison. The trouble with this method is that it will only succeed if aliens are deliberately advertising their existence to the galaxy. Although they may be transmitting radio and TV broadcasts to themselves, these would not be powerful enough to be detected on other worlds. But why would aliens want to announce their presence, some astronomers ask? 'If researchers on Earth wanted to try that sort of thing, they would have to go to their governments and ask for millions of pounds just to send signals into space without knowing if there was anyone out there to pick them up,' added Morison. 'We wouldn't get very far. I am pretty sure of that. So we will just have to hope our alien counterparts have fared a little better with their paymasters.'
Cartoon Time.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Big Brother is Watching.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 by the Oakland Tribune


IT took 21 years longer than expected, but the future has finally arrived. And we don't like it. Not one bit. We are fighting a war with no end to create a peace with no defined victory. We occupy a foreign land that doesn't want us, while at home our civil liberties are discounted. We are told that it's better not to know what our government is doing in our name, for security purposes. Meanwhile, our government is becoming omnipresent, spying on us whenever it deems it necessary. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. George Orwell was right after all.

In 1949, Orwell penned "1984," a dark, futuristic satire in which the totalitarian government used indoctrination, propaganda and fear to enforce order and conformity. Orwell wrote his book as a cautionary tale to underscore the insidious danger of slowly eroded individual liberties. His Thought Police may not yet be on the march, but it's not hyperbole to point out the eerie parallels with today's America. In America today, Big Brother is watching. He's watching because President Bush told him to. Shortly after 9/11, Bush secretly authorized warrantless wiretaps on U.S. citizens making or receiving international calls and e-mails.

When it comes to fighting terror, Bush is totalitarian — remember, you're either with us or against us. Trust me to get it right, he says. Debate on the law is not only not needed, it's evil. "An open debate about the law would say to the enemy, 'Here's what we're going to do.'" Bush said recently. "The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy." Then there's the Patriot Act, also created in the days immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. The Senate and House of Representatives voted Thursday to extend the law by a month. President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales insist it's an indispensable tool in the war on terror and want it extended permanently. "I'm as concerned about the privacy of American citizens as anyone, but we cannot allow libraries and use of libraries to become safe havens for terrorists," Gonzales said in July, defending one of the act's most controversial provisions. Remember, too, that we invaded Iraq primarily because we were told Saddam Hussein was an immediate threat with his weapons of mass destruction. Now the Bush administration acknowledges that wasn't so, but insists there were (are?) other reasons to invade. History is malleable.

Orwell wrote of war without end; we're told the war on terror will last decades at least. Orwell wrote of a dumbed-down "Newspeak," and who could argue that our national discourse hasn't slumped? Orwell's "Ministry of Love" tortured dissidents real or imagined; our government decries Iraq's secret torture prisons while arguing over whether to ban torture. Meanwhile, we maintain our own secret CIA prisons. Bush is unapologetic. The president believes he has the legal authority to spy on American citizens without a warrant, and he plans to continue to reauthorize the program "for so long as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill American citizens." But when the enemy is poorly defined, who determines when the threat is over? In this case, the same government that secretly taps our phones. Turns out the truth is no stranger than fiction. We think it's time for Congress to heed the warning of George Orwell.

Monday, May 15, 2006

When it's a sin not to use a condom

Cristina Odone for The Observer

Sunday May 7, 2006

A Dominican priest I knew once told me that he had not heard a Catholic confess to using contraception since 1969. This was not because no one was on the pill, using condoms or the IUD, but because no one considered it a sin any longer. Now, there is fevered speculation that a forthcoming Vatican document will do away with the ban on condoms. Even the most optimistic Vatican watchers recognise that the church is only ready to allow the use of condoms in very specific circumstances - i.e. when the primary aim of the condom is not birth control, but disease control. Even so, a public volte-face on the subject would be revolutionary.

My friend the priest had served parishioners in London and Liverpool, not Khartoum and Kampala. In Africa, Catholics still invest their church with the kind of moral authority it has not enjoyed in the West since the Middle Ages. They've been saying no to all manner of birth control as a matter of course; their church says so. When the late Pope John Paul II continued his opposition to the use of condoms and saw no reason to make an exception of Aids-ridden Africa, liberal Catholics in the West were horrified; but Catholics in Africa saw the ban as the logical consequence of the church's promotion of conjugal sex with a view to procreation. Lifting the ban would not just free African Catholics to protect themselves. It would give a sign to the world's one billion Catholics that their moral instinct counts, by taking responsibility for their actions, deciding what steps to take according to how they will affect others.

Flexing your ethical muscle can be done without rosary, breviary or cilice. When Mr and Mrs McCarthy in Leeds decide to practise birth control because they cannot afford another child, or because Mrs McCarthy's health would be at risk, they are making a moral judgment. Someone - the unwanted baby, the exhausted mother, the poverty-ridden family - will suffer as a result of having sex without precautions, no matter how wonderful a new life can be. And the single man who uses a condom to make sure his past couplings do not put a new partner at risk may not be acting as a good Catholic boy should, but he is showing moral consideration.

The distinction between the religious and moral can be very clear. There are plenty of religious people whose behaviour is amoral and plenty of moral people who are not religious. By finally lifting a ban on condom use, the church will blur, in at least one area of our life, that distinction, although Mr and Mrs McCarthy probably knew all along that the condom was no bar to holy deeds and the rosary no insurance against evil ones.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Chief Rabbi calls for religious UN

From Ekklesia - 20/03/06

The Chief Rabbi of Israel has called for the formation of a "United Nations of religious groups". Rabbi Yona Metzger was addressing the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace in Seville, Spain. He called for the creation of a world body with representatives from the major religious groups. Many of the Imams and Rabbis, who number in excess of 150 and are among the most influential Jewish and Moslem leaders in the world, say the world is in crisis and it is time they acted to restore justice, respect and peace. The delegates have made it very clear that now is the time for concrete initiatives.

At the opening ceremony on Sunday Rabbi Yona Metzger said his idea of a "United Nations of religious groups" could "bring a bridge between religions to help the bridge of the diplomatic way". That plan has broad support from key participants like Frederico Major, the co-president of the Alliance for Civilisations, the lobby group for international conflict resolution, supported by the United Nations and initiated by Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The speeches at this conference rather than using polite, diplomatic language have at times been brutally direct. When the Rabbi Metzger harangued mainstream Muslims for not standing up to Osama bin Laden, Islamic leaders nodded in agreement. Both Muslim and Jewish leaders have shown a preparedness to take criticism. There have also been strong expressions of opposition to any killing in the name of religion.

At the end of the opening ceremony, the Muslim delegation sang an oration to the Prophet Mohammed before resuming discussions about the ideas they plan to present to their Jewish counterparts. The religious leaders have three days to come up with a manifesto that aims to convert their words into actions. The aims of the Second Congress are to promote encounter and dialogue between Jewish and Muslim religious leaders in order to build trust and confidence for developing common projects in seeking common good. It also seeks to create an opportunity for religious leaders to use their influence in conflict resolution in various regions of the world. The First Congress, held in Brussels in January 2005, was an historic milestone in Jewish-Muslim dialogue. The meetings are an initiative of Hommes de Parole, a Paris-based organization dedicated to humanitarian efforts and conflict resolution.

Joining the Jewish and Muslim leaders are several Christians.
Poster Time.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


The question:

You wake up in hospital, next to a world famous violinist connected to you with various tubes. You've been kidnapped by the Music Appreciation Society. Aware of the maestro's impending death, they hooked you up to the violinist. If you stay connected, he will be totally cured in nine months. You are unlikely to suffer harm. No one else can save him. Do you have an obligation to stay connected?

The results:

25 percent said Yes, 75 percent said No of 57,779 votes cast.

The blurb: by Daniel Sokol (NOT by me)

As expected, most of you believe it's morally acceptable to disconnect yourself, but a significant minority think otherwise. It would be interesting to find out how you selected your answer. Is there a duty to save the violinist? Does he have a right to life that would be violated by disconnection, or does he just have a right not to be killed? Is unplugging yourself killing him or letting him die, and does it actually matter morally which it is? I suspect many will say that you are not killing him, but letting him die. For some people, this is how Thomson's case differs from abortion. When you abort a foetus, you are not just letting the foetus die. There is usually an intention to kill the foetus, whereas there's no intention to kill the violinist. Those who remain connected need to confront the following issue: as I write, thousands are dying of preventable diseases in Sudan. The World Health Organization says that funds are urgently required. You could save some of them, just like the maestro, by giving up far less than nine months. Does consistency require you to make some personal sacrifice to others whose lives could also be saved by your actions?
A few good Quotes:

"I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." ~ Susan B. Anthony

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." ~ Galileo Galilei

"I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion is anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it." ~ Bertrand Russell

Friday, May 12, 2006

Bush Shuns Patriot Act Requirement

by Charlie Savage for the Boston Globe - March 24, 2006

WASHINGTON - When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers.

The bill contained several oversight provisions intended to make sure the FBI did not abuse the special terrorism-related powers to search homes and secretly seize papers. The provisions require Justice Department officials to keep closer track of how often the FBI uses the new powers and in what type of situations. Under the law, the administration would have to provide the information to Congress by certain dates. Bush signed the bill with fanfare at a White House ceremony March 9, calling it ''a piece of legislation that's vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people." But after the reporters and guests had left, the White House quietly issued a ''signing statement," an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law. In the statement, Bush said that he did not consider himself bound to tell Congress how the Patriot Act powers were being used and that, despite the law's requirements, he could withhold the information if he decided that disclosure would ''impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties."

Bush wrote: ''The executive branch shall construe the provisions . . . that call for furnishing information to entities outside the executive branch . . . in a manner consistent with the president's constitutional authority to supervise the unitary executive branch and to withhold information . . . " The statement represented the latest in a string of high-profile instances in which Bush has cited his constitutional authority to bypass a law. After The New York Times disclosed in December that Bush had authorized the military to conduct electronic surveillance of Americans' international phone calls and e-mails without obtaining warrants, as required by law, Bush said his wartime powers gave him the right to ignore the warrant law.

And when Congress passed a law forbidding the torture of any detainee in US custody, Bush signed the bill but issued a signing statement declaring that he could bypass the law if he believed using harsh interrogation techniques was necessary to protect national security. Past presidents occasionally used such signing statements to describe their interpretations of laws, but Bush has expanded the practice. He has also been more assertive in claiming the authority to override provisions he thinks intrude on his power, legal scholars said. Bush's expansive claims of the power to bypass laws have provoked increased grumbling in Congress. Members of both parties have pointed out that the Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to write the laws and the executive branch the duty to ''faithfully execute" them. Several senators have proposed bills to bring the warrantless surveillance program under the law. One Democrat, Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, has gone so far as to propose censuring Bush, saying he has broken the wiretapping law. Bush's signing statement on the USA Patriot Act nearly went unnoticed.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, inserted a statement into the record of the Senate Judiciary Committee objecting to Bush's interpretation of the Patriot Act, but neither the signing statement nor Leahy's objection received coverage from in the mainstream news media, Leahy's office said. Yesterday, Leahy said Bush's assertion that he could ignore the new provisions of the Patriot Act -- provisions that were the subject of intense negotiations in Congress -- represented ''nothing short of a radical effort to manipulate the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law. The president's signing statements are not the law, and Congress should not allow them to be the last word," Leahy said in a prepared statement. ''The president's constitutional duty is to faithfully execute the laws as written by the Congress, not cherry-pick the laws he decides he wants to follow. It is our duty to ensure, by means of congressional oversight, that he does so."

The White House dismissed Leahy's concerns, saying Bush's signing statement was simply ''very standard language" that is ''used consistently with provisions like these where legislation is requiring reports from the executive branch or where disclosure of information is going to be required. The signing statement makes clear that the president will faithfully execute the law in a manner that is consistent with the Constitution," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. ''The president has welcomed at least seven Inspector General reports on the Patriot Act since it was first passed, and there has not been one verified abuse of civil liberties using the Patriot Act." David Golove, a New York University law professor who specializes in executive power issues, said the statement may simply be ''bluster" and does not necessarily mean that the administration will conceal information about its use of the Patriot Act. But, he said, the statement illustrates the administration's ''mind-bogglingly expansive conception" of executive power, and its low regard for legislative power. ''On the one hand, they deny that Congress even has the authority to pass laws on these subjects like torture and eavesdropping, and in addition to that, they say that Congress is not even entitled to get information about anything to do with the war on terrorism," Golove said.
Cartoon Time.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

India Catholics target Da Vinci

By Monica Chadha BBC News, Mumbai

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Roman Catholics in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) are taking part in worldwide protests against the release of the movie, The Da Vinci Code. Hundreds of members of a Catholic group gathered outside a convent school in the Indian financial capital to protest against its release next week. They say the film is an attack on their faith, and have warned of stronger protests if their demands are not met. Catholics say they want the protest to draw the attention of the authorities. “Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) activists will go on a fast unto death if the government fails to take action against anti-Christian movies," CSF general secretary Joseph Dias told the BBC.

He said the Christian community has been tolerant in relation to the book-release of the Dan Brown epic, but an audio-visual medium would have a more serious and a more lasting impact. "You can't make fiction on a religious figure. Tempers are already running quite high and there's no way of saying what could happen if the movie is released," he said. A press release issued by the CSF says: "The Da Vinci Code is offensive as it hit certain basic foundations of the religion." The group says it has also collected thousands of signatures for a petition calling on President APJ Abdul Kalam to ban the film. The CSF has also called for the banning of a second film, Tickle My Funny Bone, which chronicles the life of a "sexy nun".

In The Da Vinci Code, Mr Brown explores the premise that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and produced children, whose descendants are alive today. It is a premise that has been strongly contested by parts of the Roman Catholic church. Catholic groups around the world have labelled the film as "offensive" and urged followers to boycott it. The film's Indian distributors, Sony Pictures, were not available for comment. This is the second such protest by a group in the city. On Tuesday, about 100-odd demonstrators from the Christian community gathered outside a church in a western suburb and burnt pages of the novel to protest against the release of the film. It is estimated that there are about 18m Roman Catholics in India, with 500,000 living in Mumbai. The Christian community comprises about 2% of India's population of over one billion.

The film will be released worldwide on 19 May.
Poster Time.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Bishop criticises use of fear to push through police reforms

From Ekklesia - 05/04/06

An Anglican Bishop has suggested a "state of fear and anxiety" after terrorist attacks is being used to push through major changes in the security services. The Bishop of Shrewsbury said that the fear of terrorism was being used to justify "all sorts of radical changes" in the police forces as well as in the law, but this is challenging long held freedoms. His comments came as he criticised plans to merge West Mercia Police with three neighbours. The Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith was speaking at St George's Church, Telford, in front of senior members of the legal and criminal justice system, reports the BBC.

He said: "One of the surprising and yet unmistakable features of our present age is fear." The bishop added: "Our grandparents lived through two world wars under threat of invasion. They lived at a time when there was no state pension or no National Health Service, and when to have cancer was an automatic death sentence. In comparison with them we enjoy unparalleled levels of security and support. And yet we live in a state of fear and anxiety."

West Mercia is an unwilling partner in a plan to merge it with West Midlands, Warwickshire and Staffordshire forces. The other three services are more keen on the plan put forward by Home Secretary Charles Clarke. The bishop went on to say: "I do not wish to trivialise the tragedy of the July bombings. If you lost a loved one in a terrorist attack it is the most awful and devastating experience. But we do need to keep this in perspective. In 2004 around 3300 people died in road accidents, just under 3,900 people died in accidents in the home and in 2005, 37 people died in terrorist incidents in London. Yet the fear of terrorism is being used to justify all sorts of radical changes in the police forces, in the law and it is also challenging some of our long held freedoms."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

If I was a 'Southpark' character....

Thanks to Sadie Lou for this fun idea. Visit her Blog (Sadico Junction) for the link to the character creation website. Also check out the other characters created by Laura & dbackdad on their Blogs... It's nice not to be 'serious' for 5 minutes!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Moral Dilemmas

[I came across this recently on one of my many trawls through my favourite websites and thought it might be interesting to discuss it further. A series of Moral Dilemmas where proposed and people were asked to give their answers and reasons. I’ll post the ‘official’ results after any comments have died down.]

Dilemma Number 1:


You wake up in hospital, next to a world famous violinist connected to you with various tubes. You've been kidnapped by the Music Appreciation Society. Aware of the maestro's impending death, they hooked you up to the violinist. If you stay connected, he will be totally cured in nine months. You are unlikely to suffer harm. No one else can save him. Do you have an obligation to stay connected?

[For me the answer is clear. I would have no obligation to stay connected to the violinist.

Why? - Because I would be there against my will. People should be treated as Ends and not as a Means to an End – no matter what the consequences. People should not be used or valued for what they can provide for others but should be valued for what they are. The consequences of treating people as Means and not Ends could also lead to all kinds of ‘justified’ actions including slave labour and the farming of organs.

The unlikelihood of suffering further harm (over and above being kidnapped and deprived of liberty for nine months) is not an issue, nor is the alleged fact that no one else can save the violinist. If the Music Appreciation Society had hired you to perform the same act and you had agreed to the conditions then the Moral Dilemma is much reduced. However, it is still possible to change your mind at some point during the nine months of ‘treatment’ and withdraw your co-operation. You would probably be in breach of a contractual obligation, but not a moral one.

What do you think?]

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Catholics form Da Vinci film team

From the BBC.

Saturday, 6 May 2006

Leading UK Catholics and members of Opus Dei have formed a group to respond to the negative impact the Da Vinci Code film is expected to bring. The Da Vinci Code Response Group, which also includes a Benedictine abbot and two priests, has condemned Dan Brown's book as "fiction trading as fact". The group criticised its "damaging and grotesque" account of their faith. The comments come just weeks before the film version of the novel, starring Tom Hanks, is due to be released.

The book, which has sold 40 millions copies worldwide, has been attacked for portraying the Catholic Church as a shadowy organisation that has spent 2,000 years covering up Christ's bloodline. The response group is being co-ordinated by Austen Ivereigh, the director for public affairs of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. In a statement the group said: "We believe the Da Vinci Code is fun and harmless in so far as it is treated as fiction. We do not believe in condemnations, boycotts or protests. Prickliness on the part of Christians leads us into the trap laid by Dan Brown - that the church is on the defensive because it is engaged in a cover-up. But we are also exasperated that many people without a good understanding of the Catholic Church and its history have been understandably deceived by Dan Brown's claim that the Da Vinci Code is based on facts and respectable theories. That deception is likely to be reinforced by the film because images are much more powerful than words."

Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic group with 86,000 members worldwide, are particularly angry about their order being portrayed as murderous and power-crazed. The organisation has arranged special information evenings in London for the public and has asked Sony Pictures, which produced the new film, to include a caption explaining the film is fiction. Sony has previously declined to reveal whether the film would carry such a disclaimer. Opus Dei's communications director Jack Valero said he believed it was important to make it clear. "The book is obviously trying to present fictional things as factual, and trying to deceive people in that way," he said. "That's why Opus Dei asked for a disclaimer at the beginning of the film just to say this is pure fiction, and then that's fine, you can say what you like. But if you're trying to get people to believe it's fact when in fact it's fiction, then that's cheating really."

The film will premiere on 17 May at the Cannes Film Festival before going on general release worldwide on 19 May.
Poster Time.

Some years ago I was at the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) festival in Reading with friends. It was a baking hot weekend of reasonable music and questionable food and a priority for just about everyone was water. Luckily we had camped a few hundred meters from a standpipe and we took turns lugging large plastic bottles of water from pipe to tent.

During one of my chores I was standing in line, waiting my turn, when a wasp descended from a brilliant blue sky and settled on the pipe ahead of me. Immediately a small group of girls started screaming in unison: Kill it, Kill it….!

I couldn’t help speaking up for the poor creature. Leave it alone I said. It’s just as hot and thirsty as the rest of us and just wants something to drink. Sure enough the insect gulped some water from the running tap, cleaned its antennae and flew off into the heated air. See, I said, no need to kill it. The line moved on and we all got the water we needed.

It got me thinking. Why is it, I wonder, that the default setting for humans when we meet something we either don’t understand or are fearful off is to kill it? The wasp, in this case, was harming no one and more than likely posed no threat. Yet the children in front of me and probably some of the adults too would have preferred it dead.

I’m sure that this ‘default setting’ probably helped our species to become so dominant on this planet. But if we look at what such an attitude has produced its clear to see that killing anything without a good reason threatens us all. The question is: Are we, as a species, capable of stopping the killing? To be honest I don’t think we are. I think that killing is probably ‘hardwired’ into our natures – after all it is one of the things that we do really well. We have pushed and continue to push many of our fellow creatures to extinction though few realise that our own survival is not exactly assured. We are more than capable of ending our dominion over the Earth either deliberately or by accident. However, maybe if we stopped killing most of the things that cross our paths we would increase our chances of survival too.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Cartoon Time.
FBI Investigated 3,501 People Without Warrants

by Mark Sherman for the Associated Press

Saturday, April 29, 2006

WASHINGTON - The FBI secretly sought information last year on 3,501 U.S. citizens and legal residents from their banks and credit card, telephone and Internet companies without a court's approval, the Justice Department said Friday. It was the first time the Bush administration has publicly disclosed how often it uses the administrative subpoena known as a National Security Letter, which allows the executive branch of government to obtain records about people in terrorism and espionage investigations without a judge's approval or a grand jury subpoena.

Friday's disclosure was mandated as part of the renewal of the Patriot Act, the administration's sweeping anti-terror law. The FBI delivered a total of 9,254 NSLs relating to 3,501 people in 2005, according to a report submitted late Friday to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. In some cases, the bureau demanded information about one person from several companies. The numbers from previous years remain classified, officials said. The department also reported it received a secret court's approval for 155 warrants to examine business records last year under a Patriot Act provision that includes library records. However, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said the department has never used the provision to ask for library records.

The number was a significant jump over past use of the warrant for business records. A year ago, Gonzales told Congress there had been 35 warrants approved between November 2003 and April 2005. The spike is expected to be temporary, however, because the Patriot Act renewal that President Bush signed in March made it easier for authorities to obtain subscriber information on telephone numbers captured through certain wiretaps. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the same panel that signs off on applications for business records warrants, also approved 2,072 special warrants last year for secret wiretaps and searches of suspected terrorists and spies. The record number is more than twice as many as were issued in 2000, the last full year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The FBI security letters have been the subject of legal battles in two federal courts because, until the Patriot Act changes, recipients were barred from telling anyone about them. Ann Beeson, the associate legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the report to Congress "confirms our fear all along that National Security Letters are being used to get the records of thousands of innocent Americans without court approval." The number disclosed Friday excludes requests for subscriber information, an exception written into the law. It was unclear how many FBI letters were not counted for that reason.

Friday, May 05, 2006

'Cloaking device' idea proposed

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

The cloaking devices that are used to render spacecraft invisible in Star Trek might just work in reality, two mathematicians have claimed. They have outlined their concept in a research paper published in one of the UK Royal Society's scientific journals. Nicolae Nicorovici and Graeme Milton propose that placing certain objects close to a material called a superlens could make them appear to vanish. It would rely on an effect known as "anomalous localised resonance". However, the authors have so far only done the maths to verify that the concept could work. Building such a device would undoubtedly pose a significant challenge.

Cloaking devices are a form of stealth technology much favoured by Star Trek baddies such as the Romulans and Klingons. The complex mathematical phenomenon outlined by Milton and Nicorovici closes the gap a little between science fiction and fact. The phenomenon is analogous to a tuning fork (which rings with a single sound frequency) being placed next to a wine glass. The wine glass will start to ring with the same frequency; it resonates. The cloaking effect would exploit a resonance with light waves rather than sound waves. The concept is at such a primitive stage that scientists are talking only at the moment of being able to cloak particles of dust - not spaceships. In this example, an illuminated speck of dust would scatter light at frequencies that induce a strong, finely tuned resonance in a cloaking material placed very close by. The resonance effectively cancels out the light bouncing off the speck of dust, rendering the dust particle invisible. One way to construct a cloaking device is to use a superlens, made of recently discovered materials that force light to behave in unusual ways.

Professor Sir John Pendry, of Imperial College London, who helped pioneer superlenses, said: "If the speck of dust is close enough it induces a very aggressive response in the cloaking material which essentially acts back on the speck of dust and forces it to stop shining. "Even though light is hitting the speck of dust, scattering of the light is prevented by the cloak which is in close proximity," he told the BBC News website. The authors of the paper argue that the cloak needn't just work with a speck of dust, but could also apply to larger objects. But they admit the cloaking effect works only at certain frequencies of light, so that some objects placed near the cloak might only partially disappear. "I believe their claims about the speck of dust and a certain class of objects. In the paper, they do give an instance about a particular shape of material they can't cloak. So they can't cloak everything," said Professor Pendry. "Nevertheless, it's a very neat idea to get this aggressive response from the material to stop tiny things emitting light." The Imperial College physicist agreed this particular concept had potential military uses: "Providing the specks of dust are within the cloaked area, the effect will happen. A cloak that only fits one particular set of circumstances is very restrictive - you can't redesign the furniture without redesigning the cloak."

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Church acts against Da Vinci film

From the BBC.

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

The Anglican Church in the city of Sydney is to show its own video in 250 cinemas to coincide with the release of The Da Vinci Code film. It will tell "the truth about Jesus", according to church officials, who are concerned that the film will "mislead people about the truth". The 20-second trailer depicts Jesus's reaction to the book's claim that the church lied about a secret bloodline. The Dan Brown novel explores the theme that Jesus has living descendants. The trailer tells cinema-goers about a special website which challenges the truth about the theories in The Da Vinci Code. The book has sold more than 40 million copies. The film, which stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou, will be released around the world on 19 May.

Bishop Robert Forsyth, chairman of Anglican Media Sydney, said: "We are not afraid of the film. We are not seeking to discourage people from seeing it. But we are well aware of the power popular films have in filling the information void about Jesus.”

“The concept for the cinema advert was to engage with the same questions raised by The Da Vinci Code, but then also ask how Jesus himself might respond to these claims," said church spokesman Allan Dowthwaite. The video is also intended as a publicity campaign for the church, with the aim of encouraging at least 10% of the city's population to become active church-goers by 2012.

Last month, a giant poster advertising the Da Vinci Code film was removed from scaffolding covering a church in Rome following complaints. The rector of St Pantaleo said the poster advertised "something that is against Christ and against the church". Catholic group Opus Dei, portrayed as murderous and power-crazed in the best-selling novel, has asked for a disclaimer to be put in the film. But studio Sony has insisted that the movie is a work of fiction and is "not meant to criticise any group, religious or otherwise", a spokesman said in February.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Colour vision evolved to spot our blushes

Roxanne Khamsi for New Scientist

10 February 2006

Colour vision may have evolved in primates to help them pick up on changes in blood and oxygen concentrations beneath the skin’s surface, giving access to emotional cues, a new analysis proposes. Previously research has suggested that primates – the only mammals with the ability to see in colour – evolved this facility to spot ripe fruits or nutritional leaves.

The new analysis compared variations in skin colour change with the colour sensitivities of primate vision cells. These cells, known as cones, sit in the retina of the eye and allow primates to discriminate colour. Charting the receptivity of these cells was no small task. “Basically, careful retinal neurophysiologists and psychophysicists spent untold numbers of hours measuring how sensitive each cone is to each wavelength of light,” says Mark Changizi at Caltech in Pasadena, California, US. Changizi, who led the new study, and his colleagues built on this previous research by analysing how different primates’ cone cells might pick up on shifting blood oxygen levels, which show through the skin.

In general, skin with veins underlying it has a high concentration of blood with little oxygen – deoxygenated blood. This skin, as a result, often appears greenish blue. Blood loaded up with oxygen appears red, by contrast, and reddens the skin above it. The colour changes depend on whether the blood protein haemoglobin, which shuttles oxygen around the body, is carrying oxygen or not. Changizi and colleagues charted how haemoglobin’s colour varied with or without oxygen. They found that the difference was most evident at around the light wavelengths of 540 and 560 nanometres. The team also discovered that the cone cells most sensitive to these wavelengths belonged to primates with the most advanced colour vision, such as humans and gorillas.

“The relationship is pretty good. They’re really well correlated,” says colour vision expert Shozo Yokoyama of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, US. The results of the analysis suggest that primate vision may have evolved to pick up on these physiological changes below the skin’s surface. In other words, our eyes may have evolved partly to pick up on cues such as blushing. Changizi also notes that the study found primates with more advanced colour vision tend to be bare faced: “Much more recently, evolutionarily speaking, some primates evolved the ability to see these spectral modulations of the skin, and there was probably a co-evolution between fur-loss on the face or rump.”