Friday, June 27, 2008

smooth as a [censored]

Baby's bottom in censorship row

Asda refused to print a baby's bum on a photo-cake for fear of pornographic connotations.

Mind you, I wouldn't want to eat the bit of icing with the baby's bottom on it...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

ancient tabloid frenzy

Western Paradise Gazette, 26th Ipip 6250

Queen Isis in single mother row
IT HAS BEEN exclusively revealed today that Isis, queen of the gods and throne of the heavens, brunette mother of one, is bringing up her child alone. The government of the Kingdom of the West is said to be in crisis, as this undermines their policy of tax breaks for married couples. Social services were considering taking Horus (5) into care.

A spokesbeing for the government said, "We are concerned about the absence of a positive male role model for the boy. His uncle Set is currently standing trial for murder, and Isis has been seen to be accompanied by Sekhmet, who is known to have had violent episodes, and Ishtar Kilili, who was last week arrested for soliciting."

Iduna was said to be reconsidering her policy of golden apples for all deities, citing the possible decline in the economy if golden apples were given to everyone regardless of their contribution to society. The share price of ambrosia has also declined sharply in response to this news; there was panic-buying of shares in Stork Transit, Inc.

Queen Isis, still in mourning for her dead husband Osiris (dismembered in a bizarre fertility ritual, allegedly by Set) declined to give an interview. Her lawyer, Thoth, read a prepared statement, saying only, "There's nothing magical about fathers."

Breaking news...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Snow Crash

I am currently reading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (written in 1992). In the first ten or so chapters, he managed to predict Second Life, World of Warcraft, Google Earth, and people being disillusioned with online social interactions because they are less real than face-to-face interactions. According to Wikipedia, one Google Earth co-founder claimed that Google Earth was modeled after Snow Crash, while another co-founder said it was inspired by Powers of Ten.

He also independently coined the use of the word 'avatar' for an online persona (although somebody was already using it in a virtual reality program called Habitat that he didn't know about when he was writing it). I am pretty impressed with this. Mind you, it says in the acknowledgements that he is a programmer himself and had read the Apple Macintosh user interface development guidelines, so I guess that gave him a head-start in predicting stuff. Of course the political situation in the book is different to current reality, but still entirely plausible.

If you haven't read Snow Crash, I highly recommend it. It makes William Gibson look like an amateur. It's also really well-written.

Friday, June 20, 2008

When psychics turn bad

This is a very scary story.

A woman has an autistic 11 year old daughter and cannot afford special care for her, so she takes her to a public school. The mother was recently called in to the school due to a horrific claim: her daughter was being abused. This claim was being told to her by the principal, the vice-principal, and the girl’s teacher, mind you, so the mother was rightly very upset.

The problem: this claim was being put forth by the teacher’s assistant… because a psychic told her.

» Read more (on Bad Astronomy blog)

It's very worrying that anyone would take "evidence" from a psychic without any other corroborating evidence. If the whole thing had been started off by the child having bruises, and then a psychic got involved, that might not be quite so bad, but it would still be bad. Shades of the Salem Witch Trials...

It also reminds me of the cunning folk of the 17th century who saved their own skins by denouncing old ladies as witches. Similar things have been going on in India recently, where a village wizard type person denounced a "witch", who was then horribly killed.

As a person who is both sceptical and open-minded, I would not entirely dismiss the possibility of precognition; however I am well aware that it is likely to be inaccurate, and (even if it does work) only to predict events extrapolated from the current state of affairs. So I would never ever use alleged precognition as the sole basis for a decision.

In Pagan circles (usually polytheists and reconstructionists) an experience that is purely personal and un-corroborated is known as a UPG (unverified personal gnosis), thus making a clear distinction between intuition and empirical evidence.

Also, if a Pagan has a vision or a weird experience, they will often be aware that it might have been just a hallucination or some random stuff from their subconscious, and yet still find the experience valuable in symbolic terms; yeah yeah, so it might have been a deity communicating with you, or it might have been your subconscious; but the content of the "message" is more important than the source - and if the "message" is telling you to do something bad, like denouncing people as child abusers with no evidence at all, then don't listen to the message. Simple really.

arts graduates

Dawkins is wrong, wrong, wrong. The enemy of science is not religion, it's arts graduates. (Well actually it's probably corporate greed, but today it's arts graduates.)

On the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, there was an item about the acquisition of an important meteorite by the Natural History Museum. One of the presenters said they didn't know the difference between a comet and a meteor, and everyone else in the studio said that they didn't either. If they had said they didn't know the difference between a meteor and a meteorite, that would have been fair enough. Or even if they had been embarrassed about not knowing - but no, they were quite pleased with themselves!

I expect they would laugh at people who didn't know the difference between, say, Cézanne and Monet; but they seem to think it's fine not to understand a fairly basic piece of science. Nor is this a one-off incident; similar things have happened several times on the Today programme (like the time someone felt the need to point out that the Earth orbits the Sun).

It's simple really - a comet is a big ball of dirt and ice which has an elliptical orbit around the sun, which acquires a tail and a coma due to the ice melting as it gets closer to the sun; and a meteor is a shooting star (a small piece of space debris, often a fragment of asteroid) that has a decaying orbit and gets caught in the Earth's gravitational field and burns up on entry to the atmosphere.

Balador checked that the above was correct by going to a helpful NASA FAQ page, which has a neat little table:
Asteroid A relatively small, inactive, rocky body orbiting the Sun.
Comet A relatively small, at times active, object whose ices can vaporize in sunlight forming an atmosphere (coma) of dust and gas and, sometimes, a tail of dust and/or gas.
Meteoroid A small particle from a comet or asteroid orbiting the Sun.
Meteor The light phenomena which results when a meteoroid enters the Earth's atmosphere and vaporizes; a shooting star.
Meteorite A meteoroid that survives its passage through the Earth's atmosphere and lands upon the Earth's surface.