Month: September 2013

A bit of wolf action

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It may surprise you to hear I don’t watch many wildlife documentaries. I’ve just never gravitated to them.

However, when one is on, I do get into it. Such was the case last night, and I got a large dose of wolves, brown bears, seals and salmon in northern Alaska; the latter two in various states of disrepair, as the former two tore into them.

I’m not going to talk about it – it just reminded me of my own adventure in Denali National Park in Alaska some 3 years ago now. On the bus through the park, I got some outstanding (if I do say so myself) footage of a wolf sneaking up on some unsuspecting Dall sheep, and thought is was worth posting.

As all this unfolded, about 2 or 3 buses backed up, and our guide said this was a very rare sight (the stalking wolf, not the backed up buses).

The video starts out with the sheep just browsing on the hillside, as they do. Off to the left, a wolf is crouching, weighing up its options. Or just resting, I don’t know, I’m not an expert.

The wolf decides a front-on assault is not on because it’s still too far away. So he takes an alternate route – he comes out of the foliage, towards the road and right past our bus, to try to get a better vantage point. Again he weighs up his options, and then… well, you just have to watch what happens.

You’ll hear some commentary – most of it is our guide, me, and mrs rationalbrain who is freaking out on behalf of the Dall sheep.


Chiropractic and babies – really say NO

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It was only a matter of time before the statistics caught up with them.

As a followup to my article last year urging you to resist the temptation to have your neck ‘adjusted’ by chiropractor, here is a current article on the perils of such treatments. An infant’s neck was broken, and with doctors saying:

Another few millimetres and there would have been a devastating spinal cord injury and the baby would have either died or had severe neurological impairment with quadriplegia. Everybody was very nervous about this little baby.

This one is noteworthy because a. the patient is so young, and b. this is one of the few ‘adverse’ events that are publicised as a result of the child needing hospitalisation (for real medical treatment) after the ‘adjustment’. As pointed out in my earlier article, there are large number of transient effects which chiropractors don’t consider ‘adverse’, but should be cause for concern and expose patients to unnecessary risks.

The article quotes the president of the Chiropractors Association of Australia, Laurie Tassell, as saying: “chiropractic is as safe for children as it is for adults” – which is not much comfort, since in the case of spinal manipulation it’s a danger to adults too.

The real worry is that chiropractors are using this bogus treatment for more than just mechanical issues – all sorts of ailments such as colic, ear infections, asthma, reflux, constipation and so on, with absolutely no evidence of any beneficial outcomes. And don’t get me started on chiropractors replacing vaccinations with their own treatments. All this just multiplies the opportunity for needless spinal manipulations.

In this measured and thorough report by Harriet Hall on a recent systematic study into chiropractic adverse events, her conclusion was as follows:

The bottom line: chiropractic manipulations, especially neck manipulations, carry a small risk of serious consequences, a large risk of minor adverse effects; and, depending on the indication, there is little or no evidence that they are effective.

Really, stay away from these self-deluded charlatans, and especially keep your children away from them.

Climate Commission – An act of vandalism

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There’s only one word for it – vandalism.

As if to reinforce his anti-intellectual approach to anything vaguely resembling science, technology or social progress, our new PM (did we really do that?) has just killed off the Climate Commission, whose mission was to sift the science and provide the government and public with up to date information.

So, not only is the new government intent on dismantling any real action on climate, they have now done the equivalent of putting their fingers in their ears and chanting ‘la la la’. No only don’t they have a clue, but they don’t want to have a clue, almost as if it might be taken as a sign of weakness to actually respond to the real world rather than defend their ideology to the death.

Morons; what else can you say about people who, on behalf of a whole nation, willfully shun facts in favour of beliefs?

Speaking of morons, the those pesky climate skeptics (sorry, I meant liars) are at it again. This time, trying the further their ends by spreading more doubt, and creating an alternative to the IPCC, called the NIPCC. The NIPCC is funded by  the Heartland Institute, about which I’ve written before, for example here, here and here. Here’s an excellent article by Michael Brown of Monash University providing more background on these charlatans, as well as providing a dinner-table guide to the current status of global warming.

Happily, following the demise of the Climate Commission, there has been sufficient groundswell on this matter for Tim Flannery (formerly Chief Commissioner) to resurrect the organisation as the Climate Council, to be funded privately. Seemingly overnight, a new site was created for the purpose, and is already taking donations.

If you are at all interested in supporting this organisation, at least go there and register, watch the video, and perhaps even donate.

Technology becomes art

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Here’s an interesting bit of ‘art’, which relies on a heap of technology to produce some fascinating visuals.

Watch on a  big screen if you can.


Book Review – Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris

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lettertoachristiannationYou know how much I love a good chat about religion, right?

Well, this book really hit the sweet spot for me. Although I’ve heard quite a bit about Sam Harris, I haven’t actually read many of his publications. But now I’m hooked.

This is a small book, written in the style of a letter from Harris to a Christian reader, which makes for an engaging style.

The thing I enjoyed most about Harris’ approach to this was his no-nonsense, reality-based challenge to all things religious. By this I mean that he didn’t sugar-coat his points – there was no accommodationist nonsense; no sparing the feelings of those who may be challenged by the discussion. It very much reads as if Harris has just come down from Mars, surveyed the landscape, and given a critique of human beings and their approach to life.

From the outset, he addresses the morality question, and here Christianity comes in for some ridicule on the basis of comparison to other religions. He uses as an example the Indian religion of Jainism, whose central message is “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being”. Harris says:

Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible…..How then can you argue that the Bible provides the clearest statement of morality the world has ever seen?.

He also points out the circular reasoning employed by the religious, who use their own moral intuitions to ‘authenticate the wisdom of the Bible”, while then going on to claim that human beings “cannot possibly rely upon our own moral intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend on the prescriptions of the Bible“.

From morality in general, Harris then moves into specific examples – such as the Catholic stance on abortion and stem cell research. Harris’ approach to this and other issues is perhaps best illustrated by a selection of quotes, which nicely sum up his approach and position.

On abortion:

Of course, the Church’s position on abortion takes no more notice of the details of biology than it does of the reality of human suffering. It has been estimated that 50% of all human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion, usually without a woman ever realising she was pregnant…There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgement: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.

On being an atheist:

In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No on ever needs to identify himself as  a ‘non-astrologer’, or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

On the Church’s project to review doctrine regarding the fate of un-baptised babies in limbo:

Can we even conceive of a project more intellectually forlorn than this? Just imagine what these deliberations must be like. Is there the slightest possibility that someone will present evidence indicating the eternal fate of unbaptised children after death? How can any educated person thing this anything but a hilarious, terrifying and unconscionable waste of time? When one considers the fact that this is the very institution that has produced and sheltered and elite army of child-molesters, the whole enterprise beings to exude a truly diabolical aura of misspent human energy.

On faith itself:

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possible be certain about.

And the arrogance implicit in that faith:

One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be appreciated in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for the humility, while condemning scientists and other non-believers for the intellectual arrogance. There is in fact no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance that that of a religious believer: the creator of the universe takes an interest in me, approves of me, loves me, and will reward me after my death..everyone who disagrees with me will spend an eternity in hell.

On the stark contradictions presented by religious belief:

The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: in the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise.

On the authors of the Bible:

…where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food.

And finally, his exasperated closing remarks to the fictitious pen-pal:

Non-believers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well – by your denial of tangible reality, but the suffering your create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God. This letter has been an expression of that amazement – and, perhaps, of a little hope.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for an honest, clear and easy to understand exposition of the major arguments against personal and institutional religion.

Politics – just this once, I promise

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I have made it a rule to not comment on politics, except of course as it affects the topics I’m discussing at the time. Regular readers will recall well-crafted adjectives such as ‘right-wing nut jobs’ etc, when talking about climate change for example.

One of the reasons for keeping politics out of things is that it is antithetical to rational thinking. It is simply not a rational process. For all the plaudits lavished on democracy good grief does it have some flaws. But as they say, it’s probably the best we’ve got, and sure beats the hell out of a feudal system for example.

But I’ve weakened. It’s not just that Australia has just elected it’s very own George W . Bush (let the gaffe-counting commence). It’s mainly that the process was so tortuous this time around. Right-wingers will say that it’s because the outgoing government was so dysfunctional for so long. There is some measure of truth to this – their leadership hijinks were just tedious. But this alone is not the reason. Indeed the Labour government got plenty of nation-building going (see, I’m even using political terms!). But for me it was the incessant prattle by both the opposition and the media that really did my head in, to use the psychologist-approved term.

That ‘prattle’ largely consisted of dumbed-down slogans, repeated ad nauseam by the opposition (Stop the boats! Axe the tax!), and then re-tweeted, so to speak, by the media. To me it’s the same phenomenon as happens with, for example, climate denialists – because the situation is actually quite complex, short, pithy slogans can penetrate and are hard to easily refute. This is why atheists tend to avoid debating theologians – the latter are armed with loads of quotes which cannot easily be refuted by another simple quote. It’s the FUD approach – sow seeds of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, and the masses will come with you. Historically the tobacco industry did this effectively for many years – using doubt as the main weapon.

So we now have our very own climate-denialist as PM, famously quoted as saying ‘climate change is crap’. Oh boy. First order of business – dismantle carbon pricing mechanisms, and replace it with so-called ‘Direct Action’, which as I understand it will consist primarily of paying off polluters to, well, not pollute as much. This position is clearly a political expedient, since of all policy positions, carbon pricing is the most consistent with right-wing, free-market approaches, while their adopted approach is socialism writ large. And to top it all off, just today we read that an MP who is an avowed climate change skeptic, Dennis Jensen, has put his hand up to be Minister for Science. He is quoted as saying “It was wrong to accept the view of the 97 per cent of climate scientists who agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely caused by human activities, because “the argument of consensus . . . is a flawed argument”. And if that doesn’t tell you enough, then he also said: “The colourful Englishman, Lord Christopher Monckton, who toured Australia to debunk the “bogus science” of global warming, was closer to the mark“, and, “Most of the stuff [Lord Monckton] says is entirely reasonable”. Again, Oh boy.

The other peculiarity about this election is the rise of the so-called micro-parties in the Senate, as a result of our archaic preference voting system. How ironic is that the people complaining about it are the politicians. Guys, you set it up! What’s even more laughable is the now new government poking fun at some of the potential new senators, basically describing them as the lunatic fringe. All I can say is Bill Heffernan and Barnaby Joyce.  Pot calling kettle black.

Climate change is crap. No conscience vote on gay marriage. Catholic views on women’s reproductive rights and ‘traditional family values’. Fanning the embers of xenophobia. Copper for broadband, not fibre. Australia, all ahead full, warp factor 9 – destination, the 1950’s.

And if I hear one more word on what the people of fucking Western Sydney or fucking Queensland want or think, I’m going to scream.


Book Review: The Edge of Physics

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edge of physicsThose of you who are non-technical should not be put off by the title of this book, which conjures images of arcane equations and theories.

It is in fact a travelogue – a writer’s journey around the globe to visit sites at which the most extreme science is being done, and in the process, explains the background of the science for the layman. The science he investigates is all about understanding our universe, from the origins of that universe, down the structure of the very small.

And very entertaining it is.

Mind you, some familiarity with the ‘big questions’ in physics won’t go astray – in fact the author provides as appendices brief synopses of the standard model of particle physics, and the standard model of cosmology (i.e. the big bang). Incredibly, he does this in just two pages each.

By assembling these stories into one book, the author places a strong focus on how big science needs to be to answer the really big questions. While theoretical physicists can sit with a pencil and paper to do their work, the experimentalists (and engineers who, of course, rule) need to get out and build stuff to test theories.

They build radio telescopes that span continents. They build optical telescopes that require immense structures to support and adjust them. They adapt cubic kilometers of clean ice at the South Pole to build a detector capable of catching fleeting particles from the edge of the known universe, in the hope of testing theories of the very origins of the universe. They deliver sensitive instruments to specific points in our solar system (Lagrange points – low energy parking spots) to probe the structure of the early universe, and they build huge underground tunnels in the shape of a ring to smash up particles and probe their constituents in an effort to determine, amongst other things, why stuff has mass.

I found this book engaging, with the stories of the author’s discoveries well told. Some parts do get a bit technical, but it’s easy to skip over those if you’re not interested, and instead focus on big picture.

Give it a try.

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