Archives for: "March 2008"

A little quiet in the blogosphere

Nick points out things are a bit quiet lately, both on his blog and elsewhere. I was actually thinking the same thing the other day as I looked at how many blog posts I had done this month compared to this time last year.

This was before I did the little flurry of posts today, however I've got several long and in-depth posts which have been on the go for quite a while which I haven't had time to get finished, perhaps I'm suffering from a little bit of the Mondays. These blog posts include......

/insert drum roll

How Venezuela is an example to the world! Yup that sounds interesting, It's about half written and I started it 13 months ago. Stay tuned for at least a couple of years for that at the rate I'm working on it.

An article about the conspiracy mindset, how once you fall into the trap everything becomes evidence of a conspiracy and so on, largely seems to be an American fascination, covering the Moon Hoax nonsense, JFK assassination nonsense etc.

An article explaining that Planet X, Niburu, Vulcan or Nemesis is not about to swing into the inner solar system and destroy the Earth. Although the Nemesis stuff (a brown dwarf companion star to our Sun on an orbit of tens or hundreds of millions of years), is feasible - minus of course its going to kill us argument (if it exists its probably about a light year away at the moment). It was originally put forward by geologists to explain a semi-regular pattern in mass extinction events. What's really interesting is we may of already discovered it, the trouble is we don't know the distance and motions of all the stars, particularly things like brown dwarfs. Perhaps I could get some funding to do research into the probability of this planet existing based upon the existing data we have (the funding can go on a new telescope and help plug the hole in my seemingly increasing money haemorrhaging situation). Heck may be just some funding to do supernova surveys - at least a lot of that can be automated. Yeah as this paragraph implies it is a pretty big topic.

Two articles on a semi related note. One on that I expect we'll find evidence of alien life within 20 years. We've got projects under way using space telescopes, which we should have the results from in 2 to 3 years, I'm confident these projects will show a significant number of stars have terrestrial planets. That will give the Darwin infra-red telescope which hopefully will launch in 5-7 years hundreds, if not thousands of targets to look at. All we need to do is find oxygen which will be a strong indicator that life is present. Oxygen will naturally bind with other atoms forming H2O, CO2 etc. Free oxygen can only exist if it is being constantly replenished, aka by life. There's also places like Europa and Enceladus within our solar system look quite promising, but we could share a common ancestor with them, so in that case it won't really be alien. Finding another Genesis will shake the world.

The other topic was on simulating the human brain, this I think we could of done in 30 years. Amazing research has already been done simulating one hemisphere of a mouse brain, which very well modelled the activity in an actual mouse brain. I think this is important because once we can pull this off, it'll be like dropping an atom bomb on the dualists. The materialist model of the brain, although fitting with every prediction and observation. Still won't convince those who think there needs to be a ghost hiding in the brain somewhere, and that a physical brain alone cannot lead to conciousness despite the obvious evidence that it is. Simulated human brains - with no ghosts, will demolish dualism in everybody but the most ideologically committed.

I'd like to do a rant against pop-psychologist Tanya Byron's stupid conclusions regarding video game ratings too, but if that doesn't get done soon it'll be too late. Maybe tomorrow, time permitting.

Mac OS X cracked inside of 2 minutes - Vista & Ubuntu stand firm

I can't say I'm honestly surprised judging on how crappy Apple's record is at patching vulnerabilities over the last few years. Windows Vista has consistently out performed all other major operating systems in this regard and Microsoft have spent a considerable sum on improving their development process in regard to security.

So anyway at the PWN to OWN contest held over the last three days crackers have been competing for a $10,000, and $5,000 prize. Their task was to crack a computer, there were three computers all running different operating systems. One running Mac OS X.5 (Leopard), one running Ubuntu 7.10 and one running Windows Vista SP1.

The first day was limited only to attacks over the network. All three machines survived.

The second day, the participants were allowed to open web pages, or e-mails. Mac OS X was compromised inside of two minutes.

Both Ubuntu and Windows Vista survived the day, and now the crackers can request that the judges allow "popular" 3rd party software onto the machines. As of this moment I believe both machines are still standing.

Both Linux and Windows have their fair share of crappy 3rd software, but I think Linux generally has more privilege escalation exploits, so we'll have to see how it goes.

So anyway, the next time some smug Apple fanboy comes up to you and goes on about security, politely remind them that they are full of it. And also consider reporting Apple to advertising regulators over their utterly misleading and down right false adverts.

Leninism and Marxism

I'm slowly getting through my e-mail, anyway I had a question e-mailed to me a few days ago from a chap called Nathan.

Could you please make a list of differences between leninism and marxism i cant find one anywhereand you seem to know alot, it would be greatly appreciated.

This is one of those questions you can ask 10 different socialists and get 10 different answers, unfortunately there is no such thing as the Communist Check-list, where everything is neatly divided up and we can just quickly run down and decide what is what.

I've already written a bit on this topic on the request of one of my readers, but it looks like Nathan is after a more direct answer and so I will try to be brief which I know will simply and overlook many concepts.

Marxism I suppose could be summed up as a broad set of ideas on how capitalism works, on how working people must liberate themselves from capitalism and on how history is driven, namely through class struggle.

Lenin, in my opinion brought forward two key additions.

1) Updates on how capitalism functions, from 1900 onwards, through imperialism, what he called the highest stage of capitalism. Where the imperialist countries maintain their control of, and exploitation of 3rd world countries by owning their means of production, allowing them to buy off a layer of workers in their own countries to attempt to offset revolution. Like so many aspects of Marxism, it is truer today then when it was written.

2) How in police states and under-developed countries like Russia at the time, the final act in a revolution needs to be led by a dedicated group of activists in a relatively small party.

Time and time again throughout history even in developed countries we've seen the working class led to the top of a hill by a social-bourgeois party, only to be led back down once the leaders are either brought off, or chicken out. A dedicated revolutionary party should help take them the extra step.

3) Some would also include Trotsky's work on making revolution in 3rd world countries by the small number of workers leading the peasantry to take power, and then carrying out the reforms that would of taken place in a democratic, developed country themselves, instead of sitting back and waiting for the capitalists to struggle to do them - if ever. Which essentially the Bolshevik Party adopted in the middle of 1917.

A lot of people would chuck all of that under Marxism, after all Marxism is a body of ideas and many people have contributed to it. Marxism-Leninism has I believe been widely misused by Stalinists and Maoists for their own nationalistic agendas, completely opposite to the internationalism of Marx and Lenin.

I also recommend having a look at the FAQ on YfIS.

How the market really works

Hat tip to Socialist Appeal.

Naked eye gamma ray burst

So a few days ago there were reports in the news of a gamma ray burst visible with the naked eye. Unfortunately I wasn't able to see it, I was clouded up pretty bad down here.

Let me say that again, last week it was possible to see a gamma ray burst with the naked eye.

This explosion was 7.5 BILLION light years away. To put that in perspective, the most distant object visible with the naked eye usually is the Andromeda galaxy at 2.2 million lights years distance, this explosion happened about 3500 times further away. Half way to the edge of the visible universe.

The GRB reached magnitude +5.8, equivalent to some of the faintest stars you can see at night and would of remained visible for about 30 seconds.

Incredible is the only word to describe it, a handful of lucky non-cloud covered people could of seen an explosion that happened before the Earth or the Sun had even formed.

I'm reminded of a quote by Phil Plait:

Why do I do this, why do I fight creationists? You know why? Because their God is too small. 6000 years, are you kidding me?

He's right the real universe is far beyond any work of fiction, any mythology. And of course Carl Sagan:

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth.

Bronze age and Roman-era mythology in parliament

We desperately need the separation of church and state in this country. As I previously wrote about in January those indoctrinated into a religious ideology are up to their usual tricks trying to shoot down, or water down the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

I don't have time to go into all the details here, so I refer you to my previous post on the issue.

We've got Des Browne, Ruth Kelly, and Paul Murphy all Roman Catholics blabbering on about saving embryos (read babies), I suppose secretly they all want to ban abortion as well, persecute homo-sexuals and stone to death anybody who tempts them to another god, or anybody who works on a Sunday (it's all in the good book).

This is an absolute disgrace all three should resign. We've got people dying from diseases which we can, and will cure if the chains placed upon science are lifted. Yet they're more worried about a genocidal, blood thirsty and sadomasochistic cook book of stories put together over a thousand years. What's really barking mad is they seem to believe this cook book is the inspired word of god, if that's true god is a really unpleasant character.

When exactly was the Enlightenment again?

Well I'm waiting for the Church of Scientology to get involved in parliament, maybe demand equal rights for the souls of their dead alien friends who got trapped on Earth during the interstellar war thing with Xenu and co. Gotta respect those sacred religious texts right?

Parliament should be a place of rationality, reason and evidence. Not a place where ancient mythology can influence. Hopefully Gordon Brown sticks to his guns and gets this bill through - heck maybe he could demolish all of Tony's creationism schools while he's at it. Sorry Tony Blair but you can keep your Noah's Flood in your Bible and out of my science books.

What makes us evolve, answering a creationist

I had a few comments from creationists left on my blog lately. One from somebody who identified themselves as '?':

i have a question...how did creatures change from generation to generation to be better suited for their environments? i mean, if i moved to (i don't know) africa, and i had kids with an another person with my skin color, the color wouldn't change in my great grand children to make them better suited for their environments. it's called mating with another type of your own species, not evolution right?

To start off I'll briefly talk about how variation comes about. If the first self-replicating molecule could create perfect copies of itself, there would be no evolution, the world would be full of clones of that original molecule. Evolution by natural selection requires variation for it to act upon. Originally all that variation came about by mutations, either errors copying the DNA (or RNA), or by damage from cosmic rays. If the changes were advantageous the mutation would spread throughout the population. Around 1-1.5 billion years ago another tool to increase the variation evolved sexual reproduction, no longer did life descended from those cells create clones of themselves, instead they would re-combine their DNA with that of another, ensuring that children are not clones of the parent. This variation also provided something else for natural selection to act upon.

Darker skin evolved in humans in Africa around 1.5 million years ago, back in the time of Homo ergaster, as we began to lose our hair. At some point mutations happened in a gene (or genes) which darkened our skin, this may of been gradual or happened in a single mutation. This mutation was beneficial because it better protected the body from ultra-violent radiation (previously our hair protected us against it), and alas it spread throughout the population.

Around 40000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to move north into Europe. At this point another mutation happened, we know it was a change in a single nucleotide, out of 3.1 billion which make up our DNA. This produced a pale skinned individual. Further north we required less protection from UV radiation so maintaining our dark skin became less important, but this also had a benefit, it increased the amount of vitamin D that Europeans who carried this mutation produced. Some lines of evidence such as cave paintings suggest some Europeans could of been dark skinned up until just 13000 years ago, today however 99% of Europeans carry the mutation.

The original question set up a premise that the skin of their descendants would not darken from living in Africa. Obviously it is impossible to predict random mutations in the future, and the selective value of dark or light skin is less than it used to be before we invented sun block and had better diets. But if the climate of Africa remained the same, and if you could stop your descendants from mating outside of your family (both of which aren't realistic in practice) the skin of your descendants would almost certainly darken. We've seen skin colour changes happen multiple times independently in human populations in the past, and they will undoubtedly happen in the future.

Given enough time if you could prevent your descendants from breeding with the rest of Homo sapiens they would eventually form a new species, enough mutations would of happened in each population, and as no changes would be passed back and forth between the two groups eventually they'd no longer be compatible, of course this could take anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years for the differences to gradually build up.

Take our friend Su Kong, if the Earth went into a major ice age in the late 19th century and the rest of us were freezing to death around him (presumably we'd have to forget how to make hats too) his descendants could well make up Homo thefuture while Homo sapiens are strewn across a thin layer of dirt - so much for the species made in god's image!

Changes in our genes happen over time, and natural selection will act upon them.

it just doesn't make sense to me. i mean, all you have to do is think about evolution and it just doesnt make sense. u can't just scratch the surface. and also

Once you understand evolution it makes perfect sense, you develop an understanding, a real understanding of how life on Earth is so diverse, you see the interconnectedness of all life, how we are all descended from a four billion year old self-replicating molecule and you see that nothing is stationary and things are constantly changing.

how has evolution been scientifically proven? the only facts ive ever seen have DISPROVEN it.

I've never seen facts that disprove it, in fact everything has gone evolution's way, if genetics worked differently evolution could of been falsified etc. If anybody finds fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian that'll put a sizeable hole in the evolution by natural selection boat. If you're reading creationist sources, of which I am familiar, well let's just say somebody who spends their time studying the bible instead of the world probably isn't in a position to know a lot about the world.

False advertising from Apple

So Apple announced 'The world's thinnest laptop' a couple of months ago now. After a few minutes on Google however it looks like it isn't.

The Sony Vaio X505 released back in 2004 comes pretty close at 20.8mm which a lot of people used in comparisons with the Macbook Air, which comes in at 19.4mm.

However both of those are beaten out by the ten year old Pedion, built by Mitsiubishi and Hewlett-Packard which is only 18.4mm thick. Sharp however beat out the Pedion with their Actius PC-MM10, which is only 13.7mm thick. It wouldn't surprise me if there are a dozen other laptops out there that are thinner either.

What makes Apple think they can get away with such blatant false advertising?

But then of course Apple should put their efforts into creating a machine which weighs less and has better battery life, you know, work on the two most important features that a mobile computer needs to have, instead of wasting time trying to save a mm at the expense of functionality and then spinning off plenty of false advertising about it.

Internet Explorer 8 Beta 1 released!

Microsoft have just released Internet Explorer 8 Beta 1! You can download it from here.

Seems solid so far, you can tell it to Emulate IE7 if you need a website that won't work correctly in IE8 at the moment. As IE8 will now be using standards mode by default it'll probably effect a great many websites (even the back end of the blogs here doesn't work properly in standards mode IE8), so they'll need to be updated, or use the following to tell IE8 to render in IE7 mode:

meta http-equiv="X-UA-Compatible" content="IE=7" /

Which must be placed at the top of the head of the document.

A few new features too, one I'm looking into is WebSlices, which are sort of like RSS Feeds, I'll see if I can put together something on the forums that will make use of them.

I'll probably be posting up more thoughts over the next few days, I'd recommend everybody who toys with any web development to start using this ASAP and updating their websites so by the time it goes final the whole world won't break from IE behaving in a more standards-compliant way.