Category Archives: Life

Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics

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Thoughts on Dr Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics:

http://westminster.skepticsinthepub.org/Event.aspx/1099/Being-suspicious-about-the-Skeptics

He is a great speaker. It’s easy to see why he rose to the position of Canon of St Pauls.

His talk was roughly based around the idea that an evidence-based approach was not helpful in the case of romantic love.

He needs to spend some quality time with the works of Karl Popper on the nature of evidence and the scientific method. Descartes is all very well but there has actually been significant work done since then.

Othello is interesting, but as a work of fiction he doesn’t even rise to the status of anecdote. If you are trying to convince a room full of skeptics that evidence-based reasoning isn’t always helpful it would be nice if you presented some .. I don’t know .. evidence?

Love was repeatedly conflated with monogamy. With a group as diverse as the Westiminster Skeptics I bet not everyone would agree with that assertion. Except the assertion was never even properly made. Giles repeatedly admitted that he refused to define what Love even was. If we can’t even define the limits of what we are talking about then no useful discussion can occur.

It was a very good talk and the resulting discussion was one of the feistiest I’ve heard at #westskep but ultimately his refusal to define what he wanted to talk about moved him towards the usual kind of clumsy apologetics we’ve all heard before. A sort of loosely philosophical brand of special pleading.

This episode brought to you by the letter ‘beer’ and the number ‘too damn late’.

Great River Race

I found out the other day that something called the Great River Race was setting off from the Millwall Slipway which is only walking distance from my house. So on Saturday afternoon I wandered over shortly before the start to see what was going on.
When I first got there teams were still ferrying their boats across Westferry Road to slipway.
Boat Crossing
The staging area above the slipway was packed with teams and boats of all different kinds.
P1010028
These Hawaiian Outriggers are some of the fastest boats in the race according to last years results.
P1010032
Lots of boats beach on the tiny shoreline while they are waiting for their start time. Different classes of boats start in different batches.
Beached
Although getting up and down to the shore is quite a fearsome climb.
Climbing
I knew very little about the race before I turned up so I was surprised by the variety of boats and crews on display. For example, apparently this is a Cornish Pilot Gig:
Young Bristol
and this is a Dragonboat.
Fearsome Creature
There were crews from abroad like these chaps from Rotterdam,
Port of Rotterdam
and local crews like Sisterhood from Hounslow.
Sisterhood
And even some heavy metal fans.
Heavy Metal Fans
By the time I left the only crew still waiting to launch were the Row2Recovery crew in their Transatlantic Four.
P1010064
You can find the rest of my photos from the afternoon on my flickr account.

Westminster Skeptics: The Revolution Will Be Digitized

After being in London for nearly a year I’ve finally managed to make it to a Westminster Skeptics in the Pub meeting. I was rewarded with an entertaining and thought-provoking talk by crusading journalist Heather Brooke. Based on her new book it focused on journalism in the digital age with examples from the MPs expenses scandal and the on-going saga of WikiLeaks. The spirited Q&A that followed brought up a whole load of issues.

The key things that jumped out at me (in no particular order):

If we believe as a society that journalism is important for holding the powers that be to account, how are we going to pay for it? I have to say that I occasionally feel guilty about not subscribing to a daily newspaper, but then I remember that I really don’t want to pay for sports reporters and alternative health correspondents. What’s worse is that I’m an absolute news junky, so how does a news organisation turn someone like me into a customer? I have no answers here.

Something that came up a few times was the idea of journalists as filterers and synthesisers of information. The way way this was being described made me think of Librarians. This isn’t an insult, as a former denizen of academia I have had occasional dealings with real librarians; like Dragons they are of fearsome aspect, capable of deep magic and to be treated with the utmost respect. My gut feeling is that the real difference between a Librarian/Curator and a Journalist is narrative.

The issue of releasing redacted vs complete source material was circled around a few times. The whole business of redacted material bothers me quite a lot. Back when I had peripheral involvement in some medical data projects the topic of anonymisation of patient data was discussed quite a lot. If you anonymise clinical data properly you are allowed to store it for research purposes on networks that don’t meet the same security standards as the clinical network. The reason I mention this is that some research has been done on how much anonymous data you need before you can start identifying individuals. As I recall it needs rather less data that most people suppose. This makes makes the appropriate redaction of source material a difficult process. I’ll have to see if I can track down the papers I dimly remember on this subjects.

Which sadly brings us to the final question of the evening. Reading a book in an hour standing up in Waterstones and not buying it is not an indication of your intellectual prowess it’s an indication that you are an arse. Also, if you are going to insult the speaker please try to articulate an actual question. Accusations of hypocrisy, and mentioning that Julian Assange tried to kiss the speaker do not a cogent argument make.

Right, it’s a school night. I must be off. Looking forward very much to the next Westminster Skeptics.

This post brought to you by beer.

#edited for spelling and links

Willing to pay for sync?

Matt Assay had an interesting post up on the Register today about Amazon’s kindle store outselling Apple’s ibooks. His thesis is that this is driven by the fact that Amazon has a much larger range of titles and that kindle will run and sync across lots of platforms.

It’s sometimes said that people won’t pay for sync, and that they don’t value choice. Kindle’s ebook sales compared to Apple’s iBook sales suggests otherwise. Syncing across different devices matters. Choice matters. The proof is in the sales figures.

Even given the weasel words and spin that are customarily embodied by corporate sales figures, I’m willing to believe that Amazon are selling a lot of more ebooks than apple. However I’m not entirely convinced that sync is the reason for that. Mr Assay’s assertion about the reasons for this difference in sales really amounts to a hypothesis. I am a happy Kindle user, and while I only represent a sample size of one, let’s see if my experience supports this hypothesis.

I finally jumped aboard the Kindle store when Amazon released the Kindle App for Android. I’d been waiting for the paperback release of The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross (I am a huge Stross fan). The reason I don’t buy hardbacks is because I just don’t have that much space to dedicate to one book in my tiny flat. Much as I’d like my own Library it’s not going to happen in this lifetime. So the availability of kindle on a device I already owned together with a kindle version of a book I really wanted to read sold me on the idea. At this point I figured the worst that could happen is I’d waste a few dollars if the reading experience wasn’t that great.

Reading on the small screen of my HTC Hero was remarkably easy; I devoured the book in a couple of sittings. Over the next few months I bought more books and enjoyed the fact that I didn’t have to buy yet another bookcase. I finally gave in and bought a Kindle this year so that I could take more books on holiday with me than I normally do, since the battery on the Kindle would last all week whereas my phone would barely last a day.

I almost never read the same book on both devices. The sync functionality goes unused. So let’s see how Mr Assay’s hypothesis does against my experience.

1) Kindle ebooks can be read on a lot of different platforms.

Check. It was Kindle’s availability on Android that first got me hooked. At this point I wasn’t ready to invest in a hardware Kindle and I sure as hell wasn’t going to buy an iPad just to read books on. If I’d been an iphone user maybe the story would have been different.

2) Range of available titles.

Check. A specific book I really wanted was available, the fact that they had that title it was pushed me past my reluctance to spend money.

3) Synch between different devices.

Nope. I really don’t use it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s there, but it played no part in my decision to buy or continue to buy Kindle ebooks.

There is also another aspect of the Kindle store that wasn’t mentioned that I think is very important. Amazon believe in making it as easy as possible for you to give them money. UK credit cards have always worked in the amazon.com store, which is where I first bought Kindle ebooks from. When the UK store became supported in the Android Kindle app Amazon made it very easy to transfer your account from the US store to the UK store. This has never caused a problem and all the books I bought from the US Kindle store still work just fine. My Kindle has never warned me about the maximum number of Kindles I can connect to my Kindle account before I become de-authorised.

I always get that feeling that Amazon is more interested in selling you stuff. Whereas Apple is interested in selling you things; the stuff is just there to entice you to buy the things that the stuff runs on.

A Little Piece Of History

I received the item below in the post this week. And it has made me super happy.
CP-1 Graphite Fragment

The reason that the arrival of this unassuming chunk of grey material made me so gleeful is its history. I’m a bit of a nerd about nuclear power which is an obsession that’s currently slightly less acceptable than fox hunting. The history of nuclear reactors (artificial ones at least) started in a sports stadium in Chicago in 1942. A team lead by Enrico Fermi demonstrated that you could control a fission chain-reaction in a safe manner. The reactor they built was called Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1) since it was literally a pile of graphite blocks, some of which also contained pellets of uranium. All modern reactors, including those that provide the UK with a fifth of it’s electricity, are direct descendants of that first reactor in Chicago.

Recently the CP-1 site was being remediated and a number of original graphite blocks were found. One of these blocks was sliced up into small pieces to be sold for charity. Because I follow a lot of nuclear power folks on the Internet I saw the announcement and a few weeks later I now have a piece of the worlds first nuclear reactor sitting on my bookshelf.

In a pleasing piece of symmetry while most modern nuclear reactor are water-moderated the one closest to me (which probably supplies part of the electricity I use) is Dungeness which is graphite-moderated just like CP-1.

TAM London Day One

The Amazing Meeting London (TAMLondon) kicked off today. My day started off at the back of a queue outside the Mermaid Theater in Blackfriars. Things started off badly for me as I spent most of my queuing time on my trusty Nokia E71 logged into Merlin removing a recalcitrant compute node from the job scheduling system.

All of TAM takes place in the main auditorium of the Mermaid which comfortably seats all ~600 delegates. First up on stage was Brian Cox to talk about the Large Hadron Collider and the scientific questions it is designed to answer. Although what his talk was really about was politician’s tin ear for the fundamental goals of basic science. This lead to a brief (but thoroughly deserved) shoeing for the shambolic STFC. Whenever I listen to Brian Cox I feel like I understand particle physics. This feeling usual lasts as long as it takes me to forget what a lepton is (i.e not very long).

Jon Ronson gave an entertaining account of his adventure at Bohemian Grove and some anecdotes about the people in his book The Men Who Stare at Goats. If you have read his books and seen his documentaries you probably know most of this already. This was lots of fun, but could have done with more David Icke reptile anecdotes.

Simon Singh rounded off the morning session with an update on his progress in the libel suit that the British Chiropracters Association brought against him. He outlined the gross unfairness of the English Libel system pointing out that not only is the burden of proof on the defendant, but it is 140 times more expensive to defend a libel suit in England that it is in most of the rest of Europe. The rapturous reception Singh recieved from the TAMLondon crowd shows that many skeptics share his disgust with English Libel law. As an added bonus superstar legal-blogger Jack Of Kent spoke from the audience.

Lunch was nice and I took the opportunity to wander around St Pauls. I lived in London for six and half years and managed never to visit it.

The glamorous Ariane Sherine lead off the afternoon session with a behind the scenes look at the Atheist Bus Campaign. This might have been usefully subtitled ‘Accidental Atheist Activism’. This section brought up the usual skeptics vs atheists debate which passed without rancor.
Ben Goldacre’s barnstorming presentation on the failures of science journalism was the highlight of the day for me. In particular Goldacre’s Law: ‘There is no piece of fuckwittery so stupid that I can’t find at least one Doctor or PhD to defend it to the death’. It almost goes without saying that Goldacre holds the current TAMLondon record for most profanities in a single presentation. This Brigstockian performance was punctuated by vehement applause from the audience on several occasions.

As a special treat James Randi joined us by skype. While I was disappointed that Randi couldn’t be here in person I’m glad he is listening to his physicians. Hearing Randi reminisce about the highlights of his career was a pleasure.

Drawing proceedings to a close Phil Plait presented Simon Singh with a JREF award in recognition of his on-going legal battle with the BCA.

Now that day one is at an end I must mention Richard Wiseman’s MC’ing, which has been a delight throughout. He is a genuinely funny stage presence and I was nearly in tears with laughter during his ‘teatowel into chicken’ trick.

TAMLondon day one has been more fun a barrel full of monkeys. My only wish is that tomorrow there will be a copy of ’59 seconds’ left so that I can purchase it and read it on the train back to Cardiff.

Election Predictions

After perusing ukpollingreport it looks to me like the 4th seat in the Welsh region will be a straight fight between the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Given that my dislike of xenophobes is stronger than my dislike of anti-nuclear policies it looks like I’ll be voting LibDem tomorrow.

I think the seats will go down like this in Wales:

  1. Conservative
  2. Labour
  3. Plaid Cymru
  4. UKIP

In descending order of their share of the vote. Although obviously I hope that the 4th seat doesn’t go to UKIP.

A Tour of the Minor Parties 6 – UK Independence Party

I found Nigel Farage’s performance on Question Time last week to be horrifyingly entertaining. Personally, I can’t get past the idea that UKIP were specifically formulated to appeal to Daily Mail readers.

Web Presence

I’ll give this one a big “meh”. Distinctly functional, but underwhelming. In contrast the Welsh UKIP site is nearly as horrid as the SLP’s was.

I found the single most annoying part of the site was that all their detailed policy proposals were in the form of PDFs. Bad on so many levels. Dear UKIP stop doing this now.

Another failing is the almost complete lack of any personal presence by their candidates. I could find out who the candidates are, but very little about them.

Policies

UKIP provide a handy summary from which I shall select an unrepresentative sample.

UKIP will leave the political EU and trade globally and freely.

You’ll trade “freely”? Really? I’m not sure that word means what you think it means.

We will freeze immigration for five years…

I thought so. You see this free trade thing, it involves the free movement of labour as well as goods. You can’t be for free trade and against immigration, it doesn’t make sense.

The UK would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights

Who needs those pesky Human Rights?

We will radically reform the working of the NHS with an Insurance Fund, whilst upholding the ‘free at the point of care’ principles.

I’d have to see the details of this but it doesn’t sound immediately batty. However, I would suggest that any healthcare system that is free at the point of delivery is going to be expensive.

We will take 4.5 million people out of tax with a simple Flat Tax (with National Insurance) starting at £10,000. We will scrap Inheritance Tax, not just reform it and cut corporation taxes.

The regressive nature of a flat tax aside; how are you going to afford an NHS free at the point of delivery with all this tax-cutting?

All joking aside the thing I dislike the most about these policies is their strident, and faintly racist, advocacy of closed borders. I don’t want to live in a world were I can’t choose to go and live and work in another country. The world is almost entirely better off for immigration. To take a trivial example the NHS (which UKIP is apparently a fan of) would fall apart without the thousands of foreign doctors and nurses it employs. Should we deport all of them. I mean some of them aren’t even white.

European Policies

Like a lot of the anti-european parties UKIP does a good job of articulating it’s specific policies for the European election.

The only people who should decide who can come to live, work and settle in Britain should be the British people themselves.

Yes, I think you made this point earlier. It’s just as tiresome now.

…we should not be focussing on the insular regional trading blocs, but opening our arms to trade with the rest of the world, starting with the Commonwealth.

I wasn’t aware of any huge barriers to trade with Australia and New Zealand, other than them being on the opposite side of the planet. While Europe is right next door.

Not Mental

I choose to characterise them as eccentric, possibly dangerously so.

Summary

Never in a million years would I vote for this bunch of xenophobic, mercantilists.

As an amusing side note, Nigel Farage has recently been lionising the Euroskeptic President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus. Mr Klaus happens to be a real free marketeer of the Austrian school. You can bet he doesn’t agree with UKIP’s economic policies.

A Tour of the Minor Parties 5 – Jury Team

After a lovely sunny weekend break from blogging it’s time to get back to the grindstone and continue my series of posts about the various small parties of the upcoming European elections.

I first became aware of Jury Team when I heard that Esther Rantzen had joined them and was standing as a candidate. Well I have to admit that put me off them from the start. However it did get me to look at their website where I found out that they were founded by former Director General of the Conservative Party, Paul Judge (he claims the name of the party isn’t a joke about his surname); and that independent MP Dr Richard Taylor and former independent MP Martin Bell were also joining. This made them a lot more credible in my eyes. While I have a fondness for ideologues there is something to be said for a party founded by people with a bit of practical political experience.

Web Presence

Pretty good overall. Not as appealing visually as the Green Party website, but featuring the same wholehearted embrace of social media. The local candidates have short sections showing every sign of having been written by the candidates themselves.

Policies

This is where we run into a bit of a problem because Jury Team isn’t a political party in the traditional sense. Apart from a basic set of principles every candidate has to sign up to, they don’t have policies as such. Indeed one of Jury Team’s proposals is the abolition of the party whip, so even if they did have policies there would be no guarantee that an individual MP would vote for them.

However I would like to point out item 1 of the candidate agreement.

I agree not to support any policies discriminating on the basis of race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, disability or religious or other belief.

That already puts them head and shoulders above a number of other parties I could mention.

The party of independents concept has the added complication that in a regional list system like the current election you could be putting an X next to four candidates with radically different ideologies. However for practical purposes they are unlikely to get more than one MEP so I really only need to consider the candidate at the top of the list. Which in this case is Paul Sabanskis. He also has his own site at www.pjsmep.eu

The first thing to mention is that the wonderful votematch.co.uk puts me in pretty close alignment with Mr Sabanskis’s views. In his own words:

Wales needs strong representation within the UK, and within Europe, so that areas can gain access to funding that is designed to help economies transform from being resource-led (e.g. coal / steel) to taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet Age. I especially would like to see greater advantage being taken of environmentally sensitive technology, as this would be a great way of regenerating former mining communities.

While the phrases like “environmentally sensitive” always worry me votematch says that he is pro-nuclear which leads me to believe that he is fairly pragmatic.

Zero tolerance on crime, with harsh punishments for repeat offenders.

Well that sounds pretty illiberal to my ears, but it would depend on what this actually meant in practise. Mainly because we’ve heard zero-tolerance from a number of politicians, none of whom have actually implemented it.

One thing that he says that did make me happy is this:

I have an open mind on most issues and prefer to act based on the facts and evidence.

European Policies

Jury Team have a list of core proposals most of which revolve around reforming the nitty-gritty of Westminster parliamentary procedure. Without wading into the details it seems that they boil down to various fairly sensible ways of increasing parliamentary oversight and pruning back the power of the executive. If this sensibility transferred to the European Parliament then I would consider that to be a good thing.

Mr Sabanskis addresses a couple of European issues himself.

Scrap the CAP which is wasteful.

The CAP in this instance being the Common Agricultural Policy. It is indeed a horrifically wasteful policy so I’m in full agreement with him here.

I believe we should have a proper debate about our role in Europe with facts rather than scaremongering and when promised a referendum, we should have one, not excuses and hair-splitting.

I couldn’t argue with that.

Not Mental

Mr Sabanskis is quite outspoken and has a tendency to resort to “x should be banned”, rather than taking a more nuanced approach to policy. That being said I would hate to conflate strong opinions with being a nutter.

As a whole the Jury Team proposals are almost boringly reasonable.

Summary

I like the idea of more independent politicians and have a lot of sympathy with the idea that political parties are kind of a bad idea in and of themselves. The European Parliament could do with more politicians who have signed up to the principles of transparency and oversight.

I might take a punt on Jury Team despite the obvious irony of an anti-corruption party started by a man who lost a Libel case over the allegation of party donation fraud.