Archives for: "January 2008"

BBC Watchdog loses the plot over psychics

So I was half watching Watchdog yesterday, and a caught the presenter mention something about proving things about psychics, which sparked my interest.

Somebody sent them in some amulet to heal his aura, whatever that is. To which Nick Campbell said:

"If anyone tries to charge you for this sort of thing, psychic or not, they saw you coming"

That's a pretty crappy attitude to have. You could say the same thing about anything, if you gave a company money for a ticket you never got, they saw you coming. If you gave some company money for product X that doesn't work, they saw you coming. A significant part of the population are way too susceptible to this sort of woo woo, and it should not just be brushed aside.

You're supposed to be in favour of the consumer, no matter if they're handing their money over to so-called psychics with false claims or some greedy company or dodgy individuals.

So I did a bit of searching to see if there was any reason for this just popping up, and as it turns out on last week's episode they did a piece investigating some psychic whackjob who claims to do something or other and charges you thousands of pounds for the privilege.

After the piece was over it went back to the studio where Julia Bradbury said...

"Because of course there are genuine psychics out there"

*Bangs head on the desk*. WHAT?

"Because of course there are genuine psychics out there"

She was speaking to some bloke from the Office of Fair Trading, who strongly emphasised that every investigation they've done has revealed no genuine psychics.

Honestly what the hell.

So anyway, after watching yesterday's episode again to catch what Nick Campbell said, apparently they had a few letters from viewers stating that they think all psychics are "at it", he went on to say:

Proving the authenticity or otherwise of all psychics is slightly outside our area of expertise.

What do I think is going on here? Their legal team are scared of being sued. There have been many cases across Western Europe over the last few years of psychics using the threat of legal action to silence their critics. When it has gone to court, because the legal system so heavily supports the claimant in cases of slander or libel there is a real danger of the defendant actually losing. There was a case in Belgium or the Netherlands a couple of years back where one of Europe's first sceptical societies was ordered to take out a full-page newspaper advert saying that some psychic was actually genuine, simply because they couldn't afford to fight the case and as such disproving the claimants accusation. I'm not sure what happened, but I'd hope they'd close their doors before ever doing such a thing.

This is because here the burden of evidence in slander and libel cases is placed upon the defendant. Instead of in most other areas of law where the burden of evidence is placed upon the claimant.

In the United States you never see this happening, because the burden of evidence is placed where it belongs. It should be up to the psychics to prove they are psychic. Not the defendant to prove a negative (which is impossible).

Three things need to happen:

  • We need to change the law so the burden of evidence is correctly placed upon the claimant.
  • Watchdog also need to stop pussy footing around worrying that they'll upset the woo woo crowd.
  • All psychics, or any other practitioners of nonsense should be arrested and charged with fraud.

Julia Bradbury's bio on the BBC website mentions she's done lifestyle shows, great, the plague of television. And mentions she's coped with John Travolta (Scientology nutjob) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (right-wing Republican asshole). That's a lot of whacky stuff to fit in just one paragraph, maybe there is somebody better for the job out there.

Oh wait, one last thing I'd like to see happen as I've said before, put the BBC under the control of Patrick Moore, Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough. The BBC needs to raise its game, it needs to stop the dumbing down of its science shows and get rid of every ounce of woo woo in the rest of its programming.

Questions for "Evolutionists"

Update: This is part of a fairly long series now, click here for the full list of articles in this series.

Questions for Evolutionists, whatever an evolutionist is, from Mr Kent Hovind. I'll just go and find a biologist to tackle his attempt at disproving evolution by natural selection.

Oh wait hang on...

1. Where did the space for the universe come from?

That sounds like a cosmology question Kent. The universe doesn't displace anything, and as such requires no space. The universe creates its own space, which it is still doing at an increasing rate even today.

2. Where did matter come from?

The matter condensed out of the energy of the Big Bang, after inflation the matter in the universe was a mix of quarks and gluons. At 1.0 × 10-6 seconds after the Big Bang they formed protons and neutrons.

3. Where did the laws of the universe come from (gravity, inertia, etc.)?

The laws of nature are inherit to the universe, they were created at the Big Bang.

4. How did matter get so perfectly organized?

I don't accept the premise that matter is perfectly organised.

5. Where did the energy come from to do all the organizing?

Actually it was the energy of the Big Bang that kept atoms from forming, the temperature and density of the universe had to decrease before quarks and gluons could form baryons (protons and neutrons). They were literally too energetic whizzing around too fast for the nuclear forces to have any impact.

More of his silly questions to come at a later date, maybe he could get onto biology.

Photograph of Mars

So last night, after constructing a new holder for my 3x barlow lens out of cardboard I decided to have a bash imaging Mars. The rolled up bit of paper I had used for my images of Saturn and the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle, had failed.

This is the result, almost 2000 frames.

Mars

Must say I am a bit disappointed - perhaps I need to make a few modifications to my rolled up cardboard adapter, it could do with being about 5mm shorter just so I can make sure it is in focus. The only real details visible on Mars are in the southern hemisphere. I should try and take some images when some more interesting features are visible.

More nonsense from the Catholic church

So the Catholic church is on the move to try and shoot down the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which will come before parliament later this year.

Normally I wouldn't be too bothered about them up to their usual ideological agenda stuff - after all if I went after them on every single little thing they do, I'd be spending every waking minute on it. But they've stepped over the line on this.

I'm talking about this little document. This nonsense has been spread to their followers over the last couple of weeks.

Hybrids: The Bill will allow scientists to create embryos that are half human, half animal. For example, from the egg of a woman and the sperm from an animal. To do this would be a radical violation of human dignity.

Trying to conjure up images of half human half animal babies being born. Yeah right, and the world is flat.

What the scientists actually want do is quite different. For example an egg from an animal will be taken, its genetic information removed, and a human cell will be implanted, this will create embryonic stem cells, genetically identical to the person who's cell was implanted. There's no animal genes involved.

None of these may be implanted into a woman, and they must be destroyed within 14 days, or at the first signs of development of a nervous system.

Of course all of what they say is pretty meaningless, after all we are animals. May be half-human half-cow would be more appropriate, hey like my Tauren!

They go on to say this:

How Future Decisions are Made: At present, decisions are made by an unelected and unrepresentative body. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority appears to exclude people who cherish human life from conception.

Exclude people who cherish human life from conception? Wait, I know what you mean! You mean its those evil scientists doing their own thing. Once again this is the church trying to interfere in science - they even try and play the dictatorship card. You've done enough meddling in our schools as it is, why are you trying to get your fifthly hands into the science lab?

The answer is simple, to destroy science. They're upset at the progress that has been made over the last 300 years, they're upset they can't burn people alive for saying the Earth goes around the Sun any more.

What do I think? Let the scientists do the science. Science must be free of all external ideologies for it to perform to the best of its abilities. Scientists should decide what research they do, and be free to do it.

The church should not be stopping them from perusing areas of research they believe will be fruitful, neither should any other organisation - not even the government. Scientists believe it or not are human beings too, and they can make judgement on what they believe is right or wrong just like the next person.

Then they use the abortion card.

The Bill may be used as a vehicle to make abortion more common.

Abortions need to be free and easier to get. Although they like to use the pro-life slogan, and they've been banging their drums on this issue lately, trying to get the 24 weeks reduced. Ultimately this is about the rights of the woman to control what's going on in their body. I of course recognise the collection of cells has the potential to become a human being - which is why I don't think termination should be allowed up until birth, 24 weeks is a fine cut off point.

The fact they mention abortion seems to me like they're desperate to drum up support from the Catholics who are bright enough not to fall for their half-human half-animal nonsense.

One bishop commented in New Scientist:

If people are unhappy about genetically modified tomatoes, they should be made aware of proposals in the bill to allow the creation of genetically modified human embryos!

There's two reasons why people are opposed to genetically modified tomatoes, they're either new-age woo woo fans who think anything to do with science is tainted, or they're ignorant. Oh wait, that's only one reason.

We've been genetically modifying food for thousands of years. Virtually everything we eat is not in its "natural" (whatever that means) state. Using modern technology just allows us a finer level of control over it, instead of breeding different varieties and hoping some of the offspring have the traits we want.

I'm all for genetically modified human embryos if it means future generations won't have to deal with all the genetic faults we've inherited, all the diseases and the death we have to deal with. If we can create cures for Parkinson's disease and other crippling disorders science, and those people suffering shouldn't have the door slammed on them just because its against a religious ideology.

Just in the last few months science has made some amazing breakthroughs, growing organs - virtually from scratch, tailor made for whoever the organ is for to reduce the risk of rejection, using their own progenitor cells. We're quite literally in the middle of a revolution in medicine, to the point where many believe there are people alive today who will live for several hundred years.

The sooner we get religion stripped out of science and all public affairs the better, you only need to look to Africa to see the damage religious propaganda has on things like the spread of HIV.

What Windows 7 won't look like

Across the internet are increasing numbers of fake Windows 7 screenshots.  Some of them are utterly insane, and obviously fake.

win7a

The one above would certainly be hard to get used to, where the hell is the Start Menu?  Instead everybody is going to be clicking on a clock all the time.  At least the one below looks nicer, but is still obviously fake, why would Microsoft put the Start button in the middle of the Taskbar, that just makes it harder to click on as you actually have to aim the mouse more carefully instead of just quickly moving it down to the bottom-left of the screen like you do at the moment.  Virtual desktops is a nice addition - but I don't see Microsoft bundling this power toy in with Windows itself anytime soon.

win7b

The truth of the matter is Windows 7 won't look much different than Windows Vista, it certainly won't totally change the way users operate a computer like some of these screenshots seem to show. The build numbers also make it clear these are fake, Windows 7 will be higher than 6001.

Making a computer usable - Dell Inspiron 1720

So my sister got a new laptop a week or two ago. I of course have the job of sorting it out, of which I'm only to happy to oblige. In the end she went for a Dell Inspiron 1720.

It has Windows Vista Home Premium on it, which is somewhat annoying as I have to actually work at the machine instead of being able to use Remote Desktop - track pads always make my fingers hurt after a while, luckily I've had a wireless mouse sat unused for about a year here, so what better way to try that out.

This is the first machine pre-loaded with Windows Vista I've got my hands on, my LE1700 came with Windows XP which was promptly replaced with Windows Vista, but typically higher-end machines aimed more at the corporate and health markets don't come with as much bloat installed - this is what I wanted to check out for myself, to see how bad things had got.

This is the machine next to my Motion LE1700 Tablet PC, it is not what I'd call a portable machine.

Motion LE1700 and Dell Inspiron 1720

Anyway, first boot was horrendous. The worst I've come across since the pre-historic Windows XP laptop I sorted out for a friend a few months ago. It took about a minute longer than it should.

Upon login you get greeted with a pile of crap. The Windows Vista Welcome Center opens as I would expect, along with some Dell window, and some update thing from McAfee.

Now the point of the Welcome Center is to put a stop to this, OEMs can put their own links and things in the Welcome Center. It is easy to use, attractively laid out and best of all easy to work out how to get rid of it, after opening the second time it has a check box you can tick to send it away never to bother you again.

Not the Dell application which loaded, it was slow, looked ugly and who knows how to stop it from loading all the time, several reboots later it would still open for no reason, seemingly randomly.

My first job however was to wipe out what I thought was slowing the machine down and screwing up my attempts to connect to a network. The McAfee Security Suite, almost as evil as Norton. That was done quite easily, luckily it wasn't Norton or I'd be trying to do it for about 20 minutes.

The next boot was much better there were no apparent long pauses like before, one screen flowed into the next like it should. The network then all hooked up like it should, I got the Windows Home Server connector software installed and connected properly - once I was finished I backed the whole machine up over the network so I can quickly restore the machine to my factory settings.

As this is my sisters machine I did install some anti-virus software, AVG Free on the box, which is more intrusive than I would like when it is updating but it'll have to do, this box, unlike my others, she'll have admin rights over and who knows what she'll install. I left the firewall and anti-spyware in Windows' hands - frankly they work without screwing everything up like so much 3rd party software.

Google Desktop was also installed on the system, this also went rather quickly, I don't need a replacement for Search, the Windows one works better. I also don't need a replacement for the Sidebar, the Windows one works better.

There were two other things installed which were on my hit list, something called Dell MediaDirect which looked like a cheap knock-off of Windows Media Center. Yes it was very much a cheap knock-off, it was crap.

There were also about a dozen Roxio programs listed in Add/Remove Programs. One of these was evil - it placed an icon on the system tray, which apparently was sharing my media, as well as the usual CD/DVD writing software etc. This was blown off the system.

A few Windows Live programs were installed, Messenger, Mail, Photo Gallery. I also removed Works which came with the machine and replaced it with Office. Finally it was done. We have a machine that works.

Oh wait hang on, Dell changed Internet Explorer's title so it says "Provided by Dell", I just had to rip that out of the system. OK done, almost.

There's also a few Dell logos throughout the system I haven't worked out how to remove, there's one in System Properties which is annoying - it's so big it makes the horizontal scroll bar show up, forcing you to make the window bigger or scroll around.

The display also wasn't configured properly, the gamma was set way too high and washed the colours out too much, once that was adjusted in the graphics card options the display looked a lot better.

There are a few applications that were pre-installed that I've allowed to continue to exist, Dell's web cam software, and the weird track pad software which let's you use scroll windows quickly using the track pad.

What really bugs me is the amount of software installed that does things the system already does better.

  • Dell MediaDirect - Inferior knock-off of Windows Media Center.
  • Google Desktop Sidebar - Inferior version of Windows Sidebar.
  • Roxio media sharing stuff - Inferior version of uPnP sharing provided by WMP11.
  • McAfee firewall and anti-spyware. Inferior versions of the Windows Firewall and Windows Defender.

Pack it in. Stop paying OEMs to bundle your junkware with computers, if people want your stuff they'll install it themselves. When you buy a computer it should come with the operating system, and perhaps a few select additions, like Office. It should not come with dozens of programs which slow the machine down and duplicate existing functionality.

Mystery image of 'life on Mars'

That's a headline of a recent article on BBC News covering this early image from the Spirit rover.

Spirit photo of Mars

An image of a mysterious shape on the surface of Mars, taken by Nasa spacecraft Spirit, has reignited the debate about life on the Red Planet.

A magnified version of the picture, posted on the internet, appears to some to show what resembles a human form among a crop of rocks.

It goes on to say...

When the robotic rover set down on 24 January 2004, its images disappointed space-watchers hoping for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Now they appear convinced that this image provides the evidence they have been trawling Nasa's photo files for.

The blown-up image seems to resemble a figure striding among the Martian rocks.

The internet has been abuzz with postings offering theories.

One said it was a garden gnome, another that it was the Virgin Mary.

A third suggested Bigfoot, the hairy bipedal mountain beast that appears in various guises in a number of legends around the world.

But the consensus seemed to be that it bore a striking resemblance to the Little Mermaid statue in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

Now I know this is being treated as a fluff piece, but come on this is the BBC, not the Sun. No sane person in the world expected either rovers to photograph life walking around on the Martian surface.

This is an example of pareidolia and nothing more. When we see the human-shape in context with the rest of the image. We can clearly see it is only about a metre from the rover, making it much smaller than what the images thrown around in the media imply. Also we should keep in mind that these photographs are taken through different filters and then merged to create a final image, this photo would be composed from at least three different photographs across perhaps as much as a minute in time, and in that time as we clearly see the object has not been walking around.

The best evidence of ancient life, or any life for that matter, on Mars is in this image, taken under high magnification it shows a bacteria-like structure in a meteorite from Mars.

The BBC should try reporting real science.

An image of a mysterious shape on the surface of Mars, taken by Nasa spacecraft Spirit, has reignited the debate about life on the Red Planet.

Debate, what debate? The real debate is on if the bacteria-like structure in meteorite fragment ALH84001 is actually evidence for Martian life or not. Not if one of the early photos from Spirit showing a rock a couple of inches tall that looks like it has a head and an arm is life or not, there's no debate there at all, every rational person knows exactly what it is, a rock and too much pattern recognition going on in our brains.

Social networking websites "romanticising" suicide?

According to MP Madeleine Moon at least, who will raise the issues with the police following several suicides.

From the BBC article:

Mrs Moon said she was growing increasingly worried by the appearance of so-called "memory walls" on networking sites like Bebo, where members leave messages to mark the death of a friend.

I fail to see how that is a problem, or how it promotes suicide in any way. I've used this blog to post messages remembering the deaths of people I look up to. Suicide is beside the point, the messages would be left if they had hanged themselves or if they had died in a car accident or from natural causes.

I'm particularly concerned about this false romanticism of the memory wall that seems to have set up on Bebo giving some sort of romantic idea of suicide and not conveying the huge tragedy and wasted lives that we are looking at here

Me? I say we should ban Romeo and Juliet. I'm confident if you do a study you'll find teenagers more likely to commit suicide after being forced to read that then using Bebo or other social networking tools to keep in contact with their friends. I also think Romeo and Juliet romanticises suicide orders of magnitude more than people leaving their respects on a website.

"The worrying part about internet sites is it is a virtual world - it isn't a real world," she said. "The things that happen there don't necessarily demonstrate the consequences.

Internet sites aren't a "virtual world". World of WarCraft is a virtual world, you have a character in the world and you can do things in the world, a world simulated on computers. A social networking website is like a notice board - just because the data is encoded and sent down a phone line doesn't mean it isn't real, heck using the same logic you could argue a newspaper is a virtual world as the same methods are used to create a newspaper. It's nonsense.

Instead of blaming what you don't understand, why not look at the causes in the real world that make people commit suicide, things like growing inequality within a society.

Against the anti-nuclear bandwagon

The left has taken a very anti-nuclear stance on how to develop Britain's electricity supply going forward.

A lot of this comes from misconceptions about nuclear power. Typically when one mentions you're in favour of a new generation of nuclear power stations you're instantly met with some nonsense about 500,000 deaths thanks to Chernobyl.

Firstly that argument is a complete non-sequitur. Modern reactors, and even Britain's existing nuclear reactors cannot fail in such a manner as one of the reactors at Chernobyl did in 1986. 85% of France's electricity is generated by way of nuclear power, and they've had no major incidents, proving that it is a reliable and safe means of power.

Secondly, the statement is factually incorrect, the number of deaths directly resulting from the meltdown stands at 56. Mostly workers at the plant, clean-up personal and firefighters, although 9 of which were children who died from thyroid cancer. More people die on Britain's roads every week.

Statistically one would expect from the dosage of radiation that out of the 600,000 people around the fallout areas an additional 4,000 people, and 5,000 from the 6 million people in the nearby areas would have a reduced life expectency. About how many die on Britain's roads in 3 years.

The next thing they talk about is the nuclear waste being a health hazard for millions of years to come. This also is no longer relevant, in old power stations it is true that a by-product was nuclear materials with an extremely long half-life however these materials were deliberately produced to use in nuclear weapons. Modern reactors can re-process a lot more nuclear waste leaving much less unused, and what little is unused has a much shorter half-life.

Wind power is the big alternative in Britain, after all we do have a lot of breezy days. However to get realistic we would have to cover a colossal amount of space with wind turbines to be able to reliably make a significant contribution to the country's energy supply. The environment impact I would argue would be far greater than building a new generation of nuclear power stations.

We also need to look long-term, we may only need to use fission reactors for a few more decades to come, progress with fusion is steady but forthcoming and with additional funding faster progress could be made, is it worth digging up half the country and building wind turbines to power us for a few decades? When we could just build nuclear power stations on existing sites, and replace them with fusion reactors when the time comes.

Don't get me wrong, I think wind is a great idea for maybe 20-30% of the country's total energy supply, but I don't think it can be used as the base of the country's energy supply, a modern economy requires a rock solid electricity grid, with enough energy to meet demands, and that is not achievable with wind power. If anything the government should be accelerating its timetable for building new nuclear power stations.

At last the socialist Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown has at last revealed his socialist side.

If the prospects for the least fortunate are to be as great as they can be, then they must have the final say—and that requires a massive and irreversible shift of power to working people, a framework of free universal welfare services controlled by the people who use them.

But socialism will have to be won also at the point of production—the production of needs, ideas and particularly of goods and services. And that demands ending the power of a minority through ownership and control to direct the energies of all other members of our society.

The market can no longer be seen as the efficient allocator of resources and indeed that the productive forces within our economy have outstripped the capacity of the market.

The more automation there is, the greater is the need to deal with the social consequences by increased public expenditure; yet the more the government raises in taxation, the more urgent is the need for more automation. Thus, increasingly, the private control of industry has become a hindrance to the further unfolding of the social forces of production.

What has often been cited as an irresoluble clash in socialist theory between regulating material production according to human needs and the principle of eliminating the exploitative domination of man over man can only be met through producers controlling the organisation of the production process.

In a society which is both mature and complex, where the total social and economic processes are geared to maintaining the production of goods and services (and the reproduction of the conditions of production), then the transition to socialism must be made by the majority of people themselves and a socialist society must be created within the womb of existing society and prefigured in the movements for democracy at the grass roots.

Fantastic stuff, I can't disagree with any of that. So when are we going to get this project under way Gordon?

Oh wait hang on, this was something he wrote back in 1975! Great, so what was it that turned you into a Thatcherite-neo-liberal-capitalist fan Gordon? Was it those big fat MP paychecks or something else?

Hat tip to Susan.

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