Tuesday, 31 March 2009

If Atheists Ruled The World

Arguing online with believers has become something of a hobby for me, so in the interests of balance I would like to present this video which nicely distils some their better arguments. It gets a bit racy, so may be NSFW.

For the believers out there, think of this as a primer on how to argue with those evil atheists.

And if you see them smirking as you offer these pearls of wisdom, it just means you’re getting through.

[ Thanks to Jack for the tip. ]

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Curious Case of the Pope and Dr Green

Pope Benedict’s recent comment on condom usage in Africa has sparked a firestorm of comment and counter-comment.

Liberals have accused the Vatican of promoting their religious dogma over public health. Catholics and their apologists have responded that the Pope was right: research shows distributing condoms just make things worse.

In their latest salvo, apologists have pointed to Dr. Edward C. Green, a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Their claim is that he agrees with the Pope.

This comes from a recent interview with Dr. Green, conducted by Christianity Today’s Tim Morgan:

Morgan: Is Pope Benedict being criticized unfairly for his comments about HIV and condoms?
Dr. Green: This is hard for a liberal like me to admit, but yes, it's unfair because in fact, the best evidence we have supports his comments — at least his major comments, the ones I have seen.

It’s not quite the ringing endorsement apologists would like to pretend it is. And if we look closer at what Dr. Green actually thinks, it’s obvious that his views are being conveniently twisted by the Catholic PR machine into something they’re not.

In today’s Washington Post, Dr. Green makes his position clear:

In Uganda's early, largely home-grown AIDS program, which began in 1986, the focus was on "Sticking to One Partner" or "Zero Grazing" (which meant remaining faithful within a polygamous marriage) and "Loving Faithfully." These simple messages worked.

Don't misunderstand me; I am not anti-condom. All people should have full access to condoms, and condoms should always be a backup strategy for those who will not or cannot remain in a mutually faithful relationship.

There are two separate issues at play here.

On one side we have a debate about the efficacy of disease control methods in Africa. There, Dr. Green’s research has shown that promoting both monogamy and condom usage has been the most effective method of slowing the spread of HIV/AIDS, particularly in Uganda. In this 2003 paper, Dr. Green details why this has been a more effective solution than relying on condom distribution alone.

On the other side, we have the Vatican and their moral view that condoms should never be used. When Pope Benedict made his comment, this was what he was promoting.

Here’s the point: the Vatican’s view has nothing to do with the condom’s efficacy in disease control. It’s Catholic church dogma wholly relating to their opinions on appropriate sexual behaviour and their moral opposition to contraception.

Pointing out Dr. Green’s “support” for the Pope is an attempt to bolster this dogmatic position, but any suggestion that the Vatican’s view is based on any kind of science is laughable.

The fact remains that availability of condoms and appropriate education on how to use them is a cornerstone of HIV/AIDS control programs.

The Pope’s implication that availability of condoms makes things worse is at best incredibly irresponsible, and at worst an evil and cynical attempt to promote religious dogma at the expense of public health.

This is a debate about disease control and nothing more. Dr. Green’s research, the research of others working in the field and the science behind are all that’s important.

The moral position of the Pope and the religious dogma of the Catholic Church are utterly irrelevant.

Friday, 20 March 2009


A new study has revealed that people with strong religious beliefs will fight death more strongly than non-believers.

Researchers followed 345 patients with terminal cancer up until their deaths. Those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to receive intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion.

Speaking as an ex-Christian, I completely understand this. Despite the myth, religion is no comfort when it comes to thoughts of mortality.

Never was death more terrifying to me than when it was accompanied with belief in a poorly-defined afterlife and the spectre of Judgement Day.

Although few will admit it, every devout religious believer fears death. And not in spite of their religious belief, but because of it.

They fear they will not have done enough good works, even though how much is “enough” is never made clear.

They fear being damned for their little sexual peccadilloes.

And they all harbour the uncomfortable feeling that they might, just might, have picked the wrong religion.

Once you break it down to specific faiths, the fear gets even more specific.

Evangelical Christians fear being left behind, standing and watching as the Rapture takes the faithful up to heaven. Catholics fear eternity in the fires of hell. Sikhs fear reincarnation as a fly or tapeworm. Muslims fear their Judgement Day.

But for the atheist, death holds no such terror.

As the late, great Mark Twain once said:

"I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest of inconvenience from it."

Now that’s comforting.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Cyborgs are Among Us

TheSixMillionDollarMan When the Terminators arrive they will not descend as an alien force upon an unsuspecting public.

The first cyborgs will arrive with a whimper, not a bang.

We will welcome them, not fear them. We will accept them into our lives.

We will do this because we will be them. And they will be us.

The change will come by degrees. In fact, it has already begun.

Our doctors routinely replace bones and joints with with metal and plastic and carbon fibre. Our paralympic athletes achieve extraordinary physical feats with biomechanical prosthetics. Our soldiers wear movement-enhancing armour and have instant communications projected directly into their vision.

This week we’ve had two notable examples hitting the papers: a filmmaker replacing one eye with a camera, and a programmer replacing his finger with a USB drive.

Interesting, but these are hardly quantum leaps towards our cybernetic future. They’re just the next steps down the road.

Gentlemen, we already have the technology.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Pope Benedict is a Dangerous Lunatic

In his first visit to Africa today, the Pope said these words:

“AIDS is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”

It must be true because he’s infallible, right. Right?

This is a perfect illustration of so many things.

. . . the fact that so many of our religious “leaders” are more interested in maintaining their moral authority than helping people.

. . . that religion is far from innocuous and has the power to cause real and genuine harm in our world.

. . . why it’s so important to keep religion out of politics.

But most of all, it throws into sharp relief the fact that the Catholic church is nothing more than a dangerous relic of a bygone age. With this one unconscionable statement, the Pope has damned his faith and his followers to the trashcan of history.

This is just cause for every Catholic in the world to denounce their leader as a misanthropic lunatic and demand his resignation. If they fail to do this, then the necessary response from rational thinking people worldwide is clear.

We must declare that the Catholic Church is no longer worthy of any political or social influence.

We must declare that its priests and cardinals are never again to be considered authorities on any matters of morality or ethics.

We must call on our governments to withdraw funding from Catholic churches, schools and organisations.

And finally, we must demand that this pompous and sanctimonious dipshit known as the Pope Benedict XVI, who has proven himself to be dangerously out of touch with reality, should immediately and without further delay pull his ignorant fucking head in.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Get Your Galileoscope

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. It’s 400 years since Galileo produced the telescope he would use to change the face of modern science.

To celebrate, the International Astronomical Union is spreading the astronomical joy with the Galileoscope . . . a high quality, ultra-cheap telescope similar to the one used by Galileo himself.


From the website:

You can see the celestial wonders that Galileo Galilei first glimpsed 400 years ago . . . lunar craters and mountains, four moons circling Jupiter, the phases of Venus, Saturn's rings, and countless stars invisible to the unaided eye.

At only US$15 each you can buy one for yourself or donate one to a school.

An appreciation of the night sky is so often the first step to a deeper appreciation of science, so let’s get these out there!

Monday, 16 March 2009

Mathematical Proof of Republican Ignorance

This time they’ve gone too far.

On Thursday, 10 Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against an official (but non-binding) resolution declaring today, March 14, 2009 (3/14/09) as Pi day.

You can read the whole sad story here.

Screwing up the world economy is one thing, but really. This is just a travesty.

It’s nothing more than a Luddite knee-capping of a noble attempt to bring an awareness of Math to the Masses.

What do we expect though, from the crowd that gave us eight years of anti-science medievalism and Sarah Palin?

Never mind. It’ll always be Pi day in our hearts.


Sunday, 15 March 2009

Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism!

In the UK there’s a growing problem with measles outbreaks.

This is traceable to the fraudulent work of Dr Andrew Wakefield and his attempt to manufacture a link between autism and the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine. Even after being thoroughly debunked, this “vaccines cause autism” nonsense is still out there and has caused a huge drop-off in the rates of child vaccination.

It’s shaping up to be a serious public health issue, largely because of the media coverage given to the likes of misguided souls like Jeni Barnett and Jenny McCarthy.

But it’s just possible that the tide is beginning to turn.

Some real science has finally had some decent broadcast coverage. Enter Dr Ben Goldacre, who made the facts clear in this great piece on ITV1.

Yay for real science!

Saturday, 14 March 2009


Watchmen SmileyArriving more than twenty years after the famed graphic novel and beleaguered by cries that it is inherently unfilmable, we finally have the much-anticipated Watchmen film.

And I’m a little ashamed to admit I’ve not read the novel.

I would offer the defence that I chose to see the film first, but the prosecution would counter that I only became aware of the novel once talk of the film had begun. And then I would be screwed.

What I will say is that as it stands, this is an excellent film.

In a densely-packed story of all-too-human superheroes, we get to see the social consequences of state-sponsored vigilantism, just how much getting around in an costume fighting crime can fuck you up, and all set in an alternate 1985 where Nixon is still President,

WatchmenThat only one of the eponymous Watchmen is actually a superhero is a brilliant device. This has always been (sticking to the DC universe) the difference between Superman and Batman: while Supes is an alien with real powers, Batman’s just a rich dude with a lot of cool gadgets.

Watchmen shows us that in reality, the idea of them working together in some sort of Justice League is ridiculous.

The superman’s inherent inhumanity will eventually crystallise as apathy, and the gadget guy will be unmasked as one pathetically seeking acceptance (an nice idea explored recently in The Dark Knight).

And so it is here: mutual mistrust eventually blows them apart. And set against the background of 1980s nuclear paranoia, the potential for destruction is made very metaphorically clear.

4.5 out of 5

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Rolling the Roads

A nice little piece today from Age scribe Matthew McLean to solve Melbourne’s public transport woes:

They shall construct above-ground, domed corridors, each complete with lanes of non-stop conveyor belts. The corridors will be minimalist but comfortable in design, the roofs fitted with solar panels to power the belts.

Stations will be dismantled. Passengers can mount and dismount at will, with the speed set at a gentle 25 km/h in the CBD, increasing to 40 km/h in the suburbs. Padding will be placed beside the conveyor belts to cushion people's landings. Those laughable blue documents known as "timetables" will be stacked higher than the Eureka Tower, and a massive bonfire will ensue.

It’s a great idea, but hardly original. Heinlein came up with this almost 70 years ago in his short story masterpiece “The Roads Must Roll”.

Now I’m all for giving our cities a retro-future look, and moving walkways are a staple of that particular genre. They’re right up there with jetpacks and robot butlers and silver jumpsuits.

We might want to be careful about this one, though. In Heinlein’s story, this particular idea didn’t turn out so well.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Casually Corporate

Suits are optional at my workplace. The dress code is the somewhat ambiguous ‘corporate casual’.

As far as I can tell this means (for men) to wear something approximating a suit, but the tie is optional and it doesn’t really matter if your jacket doesn’t match.

For lazy people like me it’s a bonanza. I can spend that extra two minutes saved by not putting on a tie every morning doing something constructive. Like sleeping in for an extra two minutes.

However, circumstances sometimes call for a more formal mode of dress. Like meeting with clients. Or going to job interviews.

Actually, that’s a bit of a running gag. If someone turns up wearing a tie who normally doesn’t, that’s the first question: “job interview then?”

(Admittedly it’s become slightly less amusing in these fraught and redundancy-laden times).

But over the last couple of days I’ve had my own reason to be donning the tie and matching jacket. We’re seeking a replacement for one of my team who rudely found a better job more in keeping with his career goals a few weeks ago.

So I’m sitting in a room, playing serious manager-type, and asking the same inane questions of candidates over and over again.

“Why are you interested in this role?”

“What is your previous experience?”

“Can you tell me about a time when . . . (insert difficult professional dilemma here).”

And when colleagues see me in the suit and tie and say “job interview then?” . . . I say yes.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Staring at the Suns

Kepler atop Delta II RocketNASA’s Kepler mission is set to launch in just under six hours.

Kepler is armed with a 95-megapixel camera, but it won’t be taking spectacular images of distant galaxies.

Missions like Cassini (which a few days ago threw back some awesome photos of a small moon embedded in one of Saturn’s rings) have been all abut the pretty pictures. But Kepler is all about the science.

All Kepler will be doing is staring at a patch of sky about the size of your outstretched hand. And it’ll stare at it for three-and-a-half years, looking for tiny dips in the brightness of stars.

Kepler (Concept)If these are repeated periodically (which is why such a long staring time is required) then it might indicate the passage of a planet between us and the star.

This is the next step in our search for exoplanets.

Specifically, we’re looking for Earth-like planets in the habitable zone (also known as the ‘Goldilocks’ zone: not too hot, not too cold, but juuuust right) around distant stars.

Why do this? Because it will help to solve one of the most profound problems ever posed and yet unanswered.

We genuinely don’t know how likely or unlikely our life on this planet really is.  The results of the Kepler mission will put some hard data behind this investigation.

It’s a big step on the way to answering the question: are we all alone out here?

Monday, 2 March 2009


If a person claims to have a magical power, and then that power is shown to be indistinguishable from a simple sleight of hand, then that is sufficient to show the power is not magical.

In fact, if any apparently supernatural event is shown to be indistinguishable from an event with a natural origin, it is sufficient to show that the event is not supernatural.

Why then is religion, which is indistinguishable from a man-made system of myths and dictated laws, considered by so many to be supernatural and divine?


Sunday, 1 March 2009

Dead Pool 2009 – February Update

Celebrity Dead Pool now has its own blog!
Find it at Celebrity Dead Pool 

We’re now two months into 2009 and while we’re yet to see any movement in the scoreboard, it’s been another interesting month.

On the 3rd American graphic designer Ben Blank passed away at the age of 87. You know when a newsreader has a graphic over their shoulder representing the story? Yeah. Well this guy invented that. Seriously.

TI-2511And while we’re talking obscure technological references on the 4th Mark Shepherd, chairman of Texas Instruments, passed away at the age of 86. (Note that he should not be confused with Mark Sheppard, the actor who played Badger on Firefly and Romo Lampkin on Battlestar Galactica. As far as I’m aware he’s fine).

Brian Naylor The 7th, which has since been dubbed Black Saturday, saw the worst Australian bushfires in living memory. The fires claimed the lives of over 200 people, including actor Reg Evans at 80 and and legendary newsreader Brian Naylor at 78.

Also on the 7th we farewelled scientist Jack Cover, inventor of the Taser. There’s probably a joke in there, but it would probably be in poor taste. So I won’t.

The 16th saw the death of of Dorothy Bridges, wife of the late Lloyd and mother of actors Beau and Jeff.

Socks On the 20th we had not one, but two famous animal deaths, with Australian racehorse Fine Cotton (of the infamous Fine Cotton Scandal) shuffled off to the glue factory at 31, and former First Cat Socks Clinton sent off to greet the great Ceiling Cat at the age of 19.

The 20th also saw the death of Irish author Christopher Nolan. Again, he should not to be confused with the UK-born director of The Dark Knight, who is also probably fine. As far as I know.

Philip José Farmer And finally on the 25th we farewelled science fiction author Philip José Farmer at the age of 91. Farmer was a writer with a prolific output and a man who knew better than to let the niceties of grammar and sentence structure get in the way of telling a rip-snorting story.


And that wraps it up for February. Keep watching those obituary columns and stay tuned for next month’s update.