Saturday, June 21, 2008

UK Papers report utter crap - no-one surprised

Terry Pratchett is a brilliant author. While some may read this and disagree, I would like to gently make the point that I'm the one writing this and you can bugger off. He has stated many times during his career how he is an atheist, and "blames god for not existing" and he was recently diagnosed with Alzheimers. If you've read any of his novels he takes the idea of gods and puts it in its proper place of comedy and ridicule. But recently my attention was drawn by Moogs to an article in the Times about TP finding god, and he asked what I thought about it. I'll admit, my first reaction was unfavourable.

I mean, the temerity of the man - how dare he! But after a few seconds I calmed down and wondered if it was indeed true - it didn't really go with everything else he has said about religion. So I did a wee bit of research, read the article on Times Online and did a search for any other bits of info surrounding TP and his conversion to god bothering. What did I find? Not much - the article points to an "unexplained experience" he had when he was first diagnosed with Alzheimers.

“I’m certainly not a man of faith, but as I was rushing down the stairs one day . . . it was very strange. And I say this reluctantly, because I am trying to deal with this situation in as hardheaded a way as I can. I suddenly knew that everything was okay, that what I was doing was right, and I didn’t know why.”

"It was a thought that all the right things are happening in the circumstances; and I thought, ‘Well, that’s all right then.’ I don’t actually believe in anyone who could have put that in my head – unless it was my dad, and he’s been dead a few years.”

“It is just possible that once you have got past all the gods that we have created with big beards and many human traits, just beyond all that, on the other side of physics, there just may be the ordered structure from which everything flows.

“That is both a kind of philosophy and totally useless – it doesn’t take you anywhere. But it fills a hole.”

Ok, time to get the deconstruction stick out.

The first point to make is that all of these statements have been made in different interviews. He said some of it an interview as reported on Times Online, and in another interview in the News Review. Two separate interviews, probably about two completely different things, and bad quote mining = stupid Times Online article.

Secondly, he doesn't ever say "I've found god, I'm off to bash some bibles". The headline for the piece in Times Online was "Alzheimers leads atheist Terry Pratchett to appreciate God", and in the Telegraph it was "Terry Pratchett hints he may have found God". No he doesn't - he says he had an unexplained experience. The closest he comes to saying god is "I'm not a man of faith". So does this mean every time someone proclaims that they are not of faith, they actually are? What sort of bizarre and twisted logic is that?

And thirdly, the phrase "unexplained experience" does not mean god. Nor does it mean the flying spaghetti monster, or Ramadama Ding Dong had anything to do with it either. In fact, usually when people use the word "unexplained" people immediately leap into the UFO category, and its surprising they didn't this time. He says that he felt "everything was ok" and that "all the right things are happening in the circumstances". So what he's saying is that he felt at peace with himself at that particular time, and happy with the way things are going. I see no god in that. I feel happy frequently, and at peace with my decisions in life - but at no time do I interpret a divine hand in my life. Just because everything is going your way, does not mean some benevolent beardy weirdy sky god has his eye on you.

Its a load of bollocks in my opinion - a sloppy peice of journalism created by some nancy in between his sessions at the boozer. And the other papers have just copied it verbatim because its mildly interesting, and they can't be bothered checking the facts. What rubbish.

As an aside, even if this were accurate (and I have no way of verifying this unless TP decides to respond to my email) who cares? I don't care if he suddenly clutches at the rosary, and heads down to the local guilt merchants for a session in "all the things he's done bad". That's his prerogative. It has no bearing on my opinion of him as a writer and I will continue to buy his books until they stop becoming good books to read. I hope he continues to write for many years to come, and his "embuggerance" of an illness goes into recession, or is cured (no thanks to the NHS). Sure, it would be disappointing to see someone with a serious brain disease succumb to religion, but again - who am I to say what he should believe in?

I think the best indicator of the veracity of these articles is something he said during the interview :

“Faith in what? If I get pushed in this corner, I believe in the same God that Einstein did. Einstein was a clever bloke."

And what did Einstein have to say on the subject?

If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
Albert Einstein, 1954, from Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Princeton University Press

Alien statue to scare the crap out of mom.

I want one. I want 4. Can you imagine having these things loitering around the dark corners of your house, ready to scare the flying crap out of people? Brilliant. Its 7 foot 7 inches tall, steel, foam, latex and resin model on a 4 x 2 foot base. The cost is a bit prohibitive (US$5200 + shipping), but money is no object when it comes to art like this. Check out the home site over at Monster Galaxy.

See more pictures after the jump

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why don't you ever see the headline "Psychic Wins Lottery"?

Its not really that surprising to someone like me that we don't see the headline "Psychic wins dickloads of cash!", apart from the fact that your average editor probably wouldn't go with the adverb "dickloads". I was asked recently whether or not I believed in unmapped potential in the human brain, to which I answered "yes - especially in mine if the teachers in my school days are to believed", but I knew that was not the point they were getting at. Do we have the ability to predict the future, speak to each other over great distances using only our minds, or find my bloody car keys?
Absolutely! But not in the way you may be thinking.

My economics teacher many years ago was very fond of the saying "There's no such thing as a free lunch", as I'm sure many Economics teachers are. I've found that particular piece of advice more relevant in everyday life than anything else he ever said. Probably because it's the only thing I can ever remember him saying, but that's not important right now. My point is that you can apply that epithet to absolutely everything - all rewards require effort or payment in some form to be acquired. We work to gain money to pay bills and buy things we want. We cut firewood to stay warm. We throw water at the neighbour’s cat to stop it crapping on the lawn.

This does not however stop us yearning for the ability to get that easy money. "Wouldn't it be neat if" and "I wish I could" are always the beginning's to sentences of dreaming and fantasy. And dreaming and fantasy is squarely where psychic ability lies. It’s the mental equivalent of a free lunch - no real effort for big return. Speaking to the dead, moving objects by thinking about it, reading events yet to occur and speaking to others across large distances without talking. Wouldn't it be cool if we could do these things? Sure, but if wishes were doughnuts I'd be Homer Simpson. These things are all highly improbable, and all the current scientific testing and data tells us that its not possible for a human to perform any feats of psychic ability any more than it can produce a 20 kilowatt laser out of its butt.

Most of the psychic abilities that people profess to hold in high regard (a 2005 Gallup Poll indicated that 41% of Americans believe in ESP) are all ways of getting answers without any hard work. Can we find out what happened to a person without searching every square inch of ground between here and Timbuktu? Can I find out what my mother thought of me before she died without months of intensive therapy to realise I just need to let her go? Can I make the remote control come to me without me getting off my fat ass? I think most people want to believe in psychic abilities because it’s an easy way out, and people love easy answers. When was the last time a majority of people were satisfied with an answer to a question that was complex and convoluted? People like simple and straightforward, and much like religion, psychic abilities fill that niche in our psyche. How did that happen? God\psychic ability did it. Michael Shermer says “Most of us, most of the time, want certainty, want to control our environment, and want nice, neat, simple explanations...We must always work to suppress our need to be absolutely certain and in total control and our tendency to seek the simple and effortless solution to a problem. Now and then the solutions may be simple, but usually they are not.” 1

But I reckon there is a way we can have our cake and eat it too, and it won’t be through a bunch of scam artists, phone operators or tinfoil hat wearing new-agers. It’ll be science baby, and its not too far off neither.

With modern mobile telephony, we pretty much have this one now anyway. You can with the press of a few buttons speak to virtually anyone in the world, or with the appropriate routing, anyone on the moon as well. We already have the ability to communicate via phone without speaking and the next step is of course to have this technology implanted in our body. By the time they get to that stage, computing power will be so compact that we won’t just be talking, but we’ll be doing business and other important things like sharing pr0n.

Combine the ability to voice commands without speaking, and small robot army’s of either specific function robots, or multipurpose nanotech, we can do pretty much anything. Sound a bit farfetched? We are making leaps and bounds in nanotech, and not too far off we will be able to perform the smallest operations by programming these nanobots to do the job for us. The ability to affect objects physically with our brain power is something we can do now with remote manipulation of robots. Remove the joystick and console, and wire it directly to our brain and you have in essence the basics of telekinesis. Also why get the remote to float across the room when you can change the channel by thinking about it?

Speaking to the dead
We can already, but not it a conversational “Yo deadhead - hows it hanging?” kind of way. Advances in forensics and medicine allow us to interrogate the dead to get information specific to their life and their death. Every year we expand the techniques for extracting information from the dead, and we increase the reference material to which we refer to when deciphering that information. While we may never get the answer out of the corpse about what they thought of our Sharon, we can tell if it was indeed our Sharon that had a hand in their death.
I know that people want answers from the dead more as a reminder of who they were when they were alive, and to delay the realisation that they are gone forever. But today’s advances in digital recording technology also make it virtually impossible for anyone to be truly gone forever. Everyone leaves an imprint in this digital world through home video, television, cell phone cameras, YouTube, Google Video and many other shared mediums.

Predicting the Future

The more we know about the past, the better we can predict the future. That does not mean we won’t make the same mistakes, and it will never be foolproof, but what is? Tell me one thing in this universe that involves human decision, that will 100% reliably, every single time a coconut, never fail always be correct? With faster computing power and more and more accurate modelling programs we can predict outcomes faster and more accurate than ever before. This allows us to look to the short or long term and make decisions based upon our projections for the future.

It all sounds very next century I know, but most of the technology or techniques are currently available or in development at the time of writing this post. The biggest problem people have is not that its available, or that we as a species can accomplish these technological marvels, but that its based on hard work. And that’s why, for a while at least, psychics and seers will be able to fleece the unsuspecting mark by selling them the dream of easy answers. Until technology reaches the point where it overtakes these charlatans and delivers the ability to accomplish these feats without “magic”, they’ll be sniffing round the fringes for a while yet.

1 - from Michael Shermers book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002) p59

It's Official - Ice Found on Mars

The Mars Phoenix lander has done what it was sent to Mars for. It had found solid evidence of ice on the red planet. The lander dug a small trench which revealed a white shiny substance. This has been up for much debate over the last week as to whether or not it was ice or salt. But it looks like it is probably ice.

Mars has a different atmospheric pressure than here on Earth, that being the case liquid water can not exist. What happens is that when ice is exposed to the atmosphere it literally turns straight to gas, skipping the liquid stage, this is called sublimation. NASA has just announced that the patch of white shiny stuff they found has started to vanish, this can only mean that sublimation is taking place. The only real thing left for Phoenix to do now of find evidence of organic compounds that lead to life.
This is a major discovery, we now have evidence that water existed on Mars and is still there in ice form.
Phoenix Principal Investigator Peter Smith of the University of Arizona said:
"It must be ice, these little clumps completely disappearing over the course of a few days, that is perfect evidence that it's ice. There had been some question whether the bright material was salt. Salt can't do that."
That's not bad going, the craft has only been there for 24 days. It was day 20 when the hole was dug and 4 days later they an ounce that they have found ice.

Needless to say that the discovery has come at an interesting time. The US Presidential candidates have been announced and who knows what is in store for NASA and space exploration. Hopefully this will encourage the new President to re-examine the current policies and throw a bit more money their way.

This is another nail in the coffin of intelligent design or creationism (whatever its called). I see a future that many have predicted, seas on Mars and colonists walking the land breathing the air. Start terraforming now I say.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Death star invades my body, and I'm not happy.

Its that time of year again. Winter has spread its dusky wings across our Land of the Long White Cloud, causing all who dwell within to cry "Ah shit - flu season". Yes, that picture to the left is not Darth's Hangout, nor the Emperors Crib - its a 3D representation of the dreaded flu virus (see more at And the little bastard got me this year. So since I was forced to spend the last few days, and the next few as well, getting to know it so intimately, I figured I'd check out what makes this virus unique - does the rep live up to the hype?

Its a pretty fearsome idea really, that something as small as a virus, be it influenza or other, can lay an organism such as ourselves to waste. We can't see it, we can't predict its arrival and nothing we can do can protect us from its onslaught. It has the ability to put a severe dent in the worlds population, and can mutate at such a rate that standard vaccination programmes will never control it to the extent that vaccination inhibits other diseases.

Lets look at the score board Miss Ford
It's been with us from the very beginning, and dare I say it, it'll be there at the end too. The first recorded case of the flu was roughly 2400 years ago by our man Hippocrates, and we have never looked back. Every year between 40,000 to 50,000 New Zealanders report to the doctor with its symptoms (1-1.5% of pop), and every year between 30 and 100 Kiwis die from it, although generally from secondary complications such as pneumonia, rather than the virus itself. The flu was at its worst during the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic when the infection rate rose to 50% globally, and current estimates say killed 50-100 million people. In the first 25 weeks of the pandemic it killed 25 million people. Contrast that with HIV\AIDS which has killed 25 million in 25 years.

But whats yours dad?
Theres several different strains, and you've probably all heard of H5N1 (bird flu) which was bandied around in the last couple of years as being the next big global killer. Luckily for us, it never happened, as it never mutated into a very effective transmitter between humans, and those who caught it were typically in extremely close contact with birds. But what's with the H's and N's? The H and the number stand for which one of several known types of the protein hemagglutinin, an antigenic glycoprotein found on the surface of the influenza viruses. It is responsible for binding the virus to the cell that is being infected. The N stands for the number of the known types of the protein neuraminidase and thats a glycoside hydrolase enzyme. It is frequently found as an antigenic glycoprotein and is found on the surface of the Influenza virus. They use these two markers to type the strain of influenza virus, along with other information to make it more specific, such as first species its found in, the different species of flu virus (A, B or C) and even the country of origin.

"I say we roll them in there and nerve gas the whole fucking nest"
After the Spanish flu pandemic, successive pandemics have had smaller footprints in terms of deaths and cases reported. This has been put down to better response with antibiotics to control secondary infections in the post Spanish Flu years. These days we also have vaccinations (up yours Jim Carrey!) to help us fight the good fight, thanks to the US Army who after losing thousands of men in the first world war, developed a vaccine for use in the 1940's. That has continued on to today where we have Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere vaccine that is updated every year with the most prevalent strains. It is seen here in NZ as the injection of the dead virus strains that we can get for free if we are in the high risk categories and some employers pay for it if they are nice.

The best defence is a good offence
The best way to avoid the flu is, well, luck I suppose. There's no real way to avoid the little bastard, but you can lessen the odds. The virus is more predominant in winter, and although there's a few good hypothesis's no-ones exactly sure why. So during winter, be extra vigilant about your personal hygiene. Stay away from people in the 2nd and 3rd day of infection as they are at their peak of infection, and stay infectious for up to 10 days. Its an airborne and contact virus so when you cough and sneeze (if you've caught the blighter), save others by doing it into a snot-rag or tissue. Children are more infective that adults, giving off the virus up to 2 days before exhibiting symptoms and remaining infectious for up to 2 weeks after.

Your best bet is to take to the hills and live in a cabin for a few months every year. But remember, birds and other animals such as pigs carry the flu, so if its a choice of living in a hut being a vegan for months at a time, or flu for 10 days, I'll take the flu thanks.

So bugger all you can do about it really. Grin (or grimace) and bear it. Stock up on tissues, lemons and DVD's, and prepare to endure a visit from your favourite friend - the Flu.

More info check the following :

MOH Website - Ministry of Health NZ
Wikipedia - for more information that you'll ever understand
Facts and figures for New Zealand - lots of up to the week reports on how the flu and other diseases are progressing in NZ.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Best News in Ages – Top Gear is BACK.

That’s right, I just found out that Top Gear is back on our screens this week; well it is if you live in England. For those of us that live outside the homeland we have to find other ways to keep up-to-date. But that is beside the point. The point is that we will have the gang back, Jeremy will no doubt be power sliding flash cars shouting “power”, the Hamster will be polishing his teeth and James May will be going slow.

Top gear is undoubtedly the best show on TV, it is funny, dangerous, intelligent, stupid and outrageous all at once. Even members of the fairer sex like the show (probably has something to do with Richard Hammond), my wife finds it funny. The 1st episode of season 11 is on BBC2 on June 22 and will feature a Ferrari F430 Scuderia.

On related news Jalopnik just announced that BBC America have cast the presenters of the US version of Top Gear which will be produced by NBC. They are Adam Carolla who is know for been on the Manshow with Jimmy Kimmel, Tanner Frost who apparently is a well known rally driver and drift racer, and a chap called Eric Stromer who is a TV construction type guy. I have to say that I am cynical about this as half the reason that the British version works is because they are all former journalists or radio personalities that have an unbridled passion for the motorcar but mostly because they are all seriously good mates. I don’t know, maybe it will take a while for the US team to gel and become popular. It will be interesting to see who the guests in the reasonably priced car will be, what with being in the US where most of the famous people in the world hang out.
Jay Leno pulled out of the project saying "it would be impossible to re-create or live up to the standards of the British show."
No word yet as to when the US version will air, only to say that the pilot is currently being filmed.
Top Gear Season 11 trailers (click the link and then select from the options)
Trailer 1
Trailer 2
Bloopers and Uncut.

RIP Stan Winston. 1946-2008

This is sad news. Stan Winston has passed away at the age of 62 after a 7 year battle with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer. Winston had a prolific career in the special effects arena and created many icons of modern cinema. He regularly worked with the likes of James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton and was directly responsible for the practical effects in films such as the Terminator, Aliens and Jurassic Park.

Winston won four Oscars in a career that spanned over 40 years. The Visual effects Oscar went to Winston and his team for Aliens, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and he also won one for makeup for Batman Returns.
It was Stan Winston that gave the Predator the classic facial mandibles and enabled James Cameron to recognise the monster puppet that was used to bring the Alien Queen to life.
Close friend Arnold Schwarzenegger had this to say:

"The entertainment industry has lost a genius, and I lost one of my best friends with the death Sunday night of Stan Winston. Stan's work and four Oscars speak for themselves and will live on forever. What will live forever in my heart is the way that Stan loved everyone and treated each of his friends like they were family."
The film industry has truly lost a great person with a great imagination. Few people have influenced the design of films like Stan and he will be sorely missed.

RIP Stan Winston. 1946-2008

The Happening, and why it sucks balls

M. Night Shyamalan's latest flick has hit the screens and apparently nearly everyone thinks its crap. Check out the reviews its getting at Rotten Tomatoes where they think "People drop dead; remain more animated than Wahlberg". Not surprising really - all his movies except the 6th Sense have sucked in my opinion. The latest claim is that his new flick The Happening is a bare faced proponent of Intelligent Design, that lovely religious movement trying to cram the Bible into everyone's science class. But is it?

I'll go on record as saying I've never seen this movie, and I never will. M. Night Shyamalan's ability at writing good screenplays has degraded to such an extent that the endings are no longer unpredictable and subtle, but are more likened to the end to a torturous session on the toilet after 3 solid days of eating bran. His last three films Signs, The Village and Lady in the Water have all been differing degrees of awful - so much so that I ignored Lady in the Water completely after reading a synopsis.

His latest foray in movie crappiness, the Happening, is according to some people a thinly veiled attempt at endorsing ID. But is this all that surprising? It a well know fact that MNS is down with the g.o.d. and a quick look over his past films shows the themes and motivations behind all his screenplays and what they all have in common.

Praying with Anger (1992) - young man returns to home country, finds god and stops riot by preaching.

Wide Awake (1998) - 10 year old boy seeks God, has crisis of faith, finds god again.

The Sixth Sense (1999) - boy sees ghosts, Bruce Willis tries to help him sort out his life. Surprising lack of god.

Unbreakable (2000) - Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson talk a lot, and find out they are super heroes. god had nothing to do with it.

Signs (2002) - In a return to form, MNS has fellow god botherer Mel Gibson as a priest in a crisis of faith save his farm from invading aliens by believing in god.

The Village (2004) - people in olde village terrorised by boogie man (just a man in a suit, much like christianity) find out they are living in big olde theme park because of all the godlessness in the world.

Lady in the Water (2006) - MNS takes peyote, loses his freaking mind and makes a weird film about story monsters coming alive. god does not appear in this film, all though was originally on the billing, and replaced at later stage by nargles from Harry Potter. Kills film critic in movie in vain hope that life imitates art.

The Happening (2008) - MNS hires fellow god botherer Marky Mark to be a science teacher who spouts crap like "evolution is just a theory", and "spontaneous evolution". Turns out everyone is dying in the film because god is mad at us, so he makes the plants turn bad.

Oh well, lets hope he "see's the light" so to speak and makes a better movie next time. I'm not holding my breath.