Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Awful Poo Lady strikes again

Gillian McKeith (or someone tweeting as her) went bananas.

In other news, the unaccredited correspondence school she got her PhD from has closed. (Has anybody else's irony meter suddenly evaporated on reading criticism of quackery in the Huffington Post?)

Update: David Naylor sums up the moral from this on how to use social media.

Farewell to Martin Gardner

One of my all time heroes died, yet I could not find words adequate enough to pay tribute to him. Phil Plait wrote eloquently about his life and influence, as have James Randi and Richard Dawkins. Scientific American, which he wrote for for a quarter of a century also paid tribute with three of his puzzles.

Anthony Barcellos posted a multi-party interview with Martin Gardner. Ben Goldacre also paid tribute, as well as noticing what has changed since Martin started writing about pseudoscience.

P Z Myers paid tribute, as did PodBlack Cat, the Quantum Pontiff, Gathering 4 Gardner, Selva at the Scientific Indian and Evolutionblog.

Reading these, I realise that Martin Gardner had an extraordinary influence through his writings - he taught people about mathematics, skepticism and critical thinking. He showed that joy could be had in exploring mathematics and that there was beauty in it. He was no Gradgrind, but a quiet, shy, gentleman with a love of conjouring.

The influence I can trace in my own life: Science: Good, Bad and Bogus was one of the first works that interested me in skepticism (the other being The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - Solved by Larry Kushe). I looked for more of Martins' books and gathered a collection of his books - mainly columns from Scientific American - over the years. (Somehow, I didn't start reading Scientific American until after his columns ended.)

His explanation of a tic-tac-toe machine that learned was a revelation. (It was an analogue machine, made of matchboxes, other pieces of cardboard and coloured beads.) This sparked an interest in artificial intelligence that, combined with an interest in puzzles, probably interested me in computers to the extent that I make a living programming them.

Martin Gardner taught people all over the world, sparking curiosity and encouraging them to ask questions.

Vale, Martin. You were one of our greatest teachers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Homer Simpson is article of the day on English-language Wikipedia twenty years to the day the first full-length episode was broadcast.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New UK Space Agency

The UK will have a new space agency, though the model has yet to be decided.

Why Human Rights Matter

61 years ago today the United Nations General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Slightly over three years earlier, the Allies had liberated Europe, including the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau.

Nowadays, it's not unusual to hear someone mocking human rights legislation, perhaps agreeing with Gene Hunt that "Human rights are for human beings". Certainly it's sickening to see a criminal who's gamed the system to get off scott-free or with a light sentence, but we must be beware getting rid of something we only miss when it's gone.

Even without genocide there are the horrors of the industrial school system in Ireland (which was seen as a system for reforming children with criminal pasts - only 6% were in the system for that reason), the migration of children to Australia, (many were told their families were dead) and human trafficking, such as that carried out by snakeheads (those who died in the Morcambe Bay disaster had been trafficked.

But the truth is that any one of us has the capacity to behave barbarically - either deliberately out of prejudice, pettiness or unaware as those who thought the industrial schools were doing good. We can all help or harm - try to keep an open mind, understand how society works - both our own and others and try to strengthen transparency, accountability and democracy.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Mental reservation

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics."

George Orwell, Politics and the English language

In yesterdays' publication of the Murphy Report there is an interesting phrase: mental reservation

Cardinal Connell explained the concept
of mental reservation to the Commission
in the following way:

Well, the general teaching about mental reservation
is that you are not permitted to tell a lie. On the
other hand, you may be put in a position where
you have to answer, and there may be circumstances
in which you can use an ambiguous expression
realising that the person who you are talking
to will accept an untrue version of whatever it
may be - permitting that to happen, not willing
that it happened, that would be lying. It really
is a matter of trying to deal with extraordinarily
difficult matters that may arise in social relations
where people may ask questions that you simply
cannot answer. Everybody knows that this kind
of thing is liable to happen. So, mental reservation
is, in a sense, a way of answering without lying.

Murphy Report, Part 2, section 58.20

In plain English - lying. I'm not going to argue that nobody should ever lie, we all know there are times when a lie can save someone's life or save them from a beating. What's really disturbing is that this fancy phrase involves lying to yourself about what you're doing - it makes your thinking muddy so that you don't even realise you're lying.

It's a lot like Newspeak. The scary thing
is that is for real - this was a doctrine of the Catholic Church that enabled abuse to happen.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The 64th anniversary

On 6 August 1945 the US military dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing approximately 140,000.

The morality of this has been debated ever since, with one side claiming more lives would be lost in an invasion of Japan. (Why a demonstration in sight of the Japanese mainland wasn't an option puzzles me.)

The debate will probably continue.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Down with this sort of thing

Dermot Ahern has managed to make a holy show of himself. (Now I'll have offended the Dermotologists, who will no doubt accuse me of blasphemy.)

Dermot Aherns' explanation didn't convince Padraig Reilly who pointed out, quite reasonably, that as there is already a referendum for the Lisbon Treaty this year, why not have the referendum on blasphemy on the same day?

The creators of Father Ted back a challenge and they've parodied opponents to blasphemy before.

Stephen Fry has condemned it too.

From the legal angle: Eoin O'Dell argues it clashes with the Constitution while Pure Hearsay disagrees.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

40 years ago today

At 02:39 UTC 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong opened the hatch on the Eagle lander, began his descent at 02:51. He deployed the Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly and activated a TV camera by pulling on a D-ring. At 02:56 he set his left foot on the surface of the Moon.
That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.

Buzz Aldrin joined him and described the view as
Magnificent desolation.