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Archive for July 2007

top gear heads south

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The BBC TV show Top Gear has recently come in for some major criticism over a new “special”: a trip to the North Pole. The criticism has revolved around the environmental impact of driving three cars to the North Pole, especially if they leave their customary trail of parts behind them. If you haven’t seen the show, and don’t want to know what happened before you do, stop reading now: there are spoilers coming.

I’m prepared to overlook the environmental concerns, for the simple reason that the show is unlikely to inspire many more such jaunts: it was expensive, complex, and hardly easy on anyone involved, even those in the three cars. I came away with a general impression of “we did this, so you don’t have to, and we even got it on HD Video”.

After many scrapes, including one that required several parts and left a pool of diesel on the ice, the car with Clarkson and May got to the North Pole first, before Hammond’s dog sled (which he wasn’t driving). The truck needed a backup team of Icelanders to help them, who pulled off tricks such as re-inflating a tyre with a bottle of butane and a lighter. That’s alright, then isn’t it? It’s just TV, right? Not so fast.

I’m hardly a Geographic geek, but the shot of the truck arriving at the North Pole raised more questions. They showed the truck’s GPS screen hitting the mark: N78˚35’7” W104˚11’9”. The North Pole is at N90 latitude, of course, and all the Longitudes at once. What’s the difference? According to the Great Circle Mapper, the difference is 792 miles, or 1275 kilometers. You can see the positions on a map, here.

A-ha, I hear you saying: they must have gone to Magnetic North, then? Yes, I thought of that, but it still doesn’t add up: throughout the program, they always referred to the North Pole: no mention of the word “magnetic” that I can recall, though I could be wrong about that. There’s another problem: they didn’t actually go the North Magnetic Pole.

The latest coordinates I can find for the location of the North Magnetic Pole are those from 2005, which were estimated at 82.7°’N 114°4’W. This is quite a long way from the show’s “North Pole” location: 307 miles, to be exact, according to another Great Circle Map. To be fair, however, the North Magnetic Pole has been near the location they used in the show: in 1994, according to the this map and other historical figures I looked up.

How does that compare to how far they actually went? They started at Resolute, in Nunavut, which is at 74°41’40.27″N 94°50’23.64″W. I know they didn’t go in a straight line, but if they had, another Great Circle Map tells me how far the crow flew: 308 miles.

In other words: their trip to the North Pole took them almost exactly halfway to the North Magnetic Pole. Come on, Jeremy: care to talk your way out of this one? If you were following the 2007 Polar Race route, you didn’t say anything about that…  🙄

Written by brian t

July 25, 2007 at 11:12 pm

more atheist answers

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The following is in response to a post on the Friendly Atheist blog, asking for short-and-sweet answers to common questions about atheists.

  • Why do you not believe in God?

God-with-a-G means the Judeo-Christian God, I assume. I don’t believe in that “version” for the same reason I don’t believe in any of the others: no evidence for it that stands on its own merits, just “testimony” from fallible people.

  • Where do your morals come from?

I don’t like the term “morals” at all: it reeks of prescriptive and proscriptive instructions, handed down from “authority”. I prefer to think in terms of “ethics”, sets of rules agreed on by a society of peers: doctors, lawyers, or… people.

  • What is the meaning of life?

I think actions have the meanings you put in to them (the intentions behind them), and your life is the sum of your actions. In other words: a complex mess, just like life.

  • Is atheism a religion?

About the only thing all atheists have in common is a lack of belief: they don’t necessarily share any other positive beliefs, or agree on anything else. That’s a “no”, then.

  • If you don’t pray, what do you do during troubling times?

Talk to people who can help. I sorted out my philosophical positions on most things years ago, and that “armour” proved its usefulness when I was handed something real to worry about: I felt no need to turn to faith.

  • Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?

I don’t think so: it only leads to resentment and reactionary thinking. You can lead a horse to water, and all that, but you can also lead by example: be a good person, and tell the truth about yourself if asked.

  • Weren’t some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?

You can find plenty of evidence that Hitler was not an atheist, such as his statement about “doing God’s work” by trying to wipe out the Jewish race. Stalin is a more complex example: if you believe Khruschev’s “Secret Speech”, Stalin thought he was a god, and the Party was his Church.

  • How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?

Because people tend to do what’s easiest? If they are taught to believe from a young age, and live surrounded by fellow believers, what reason do they have to “swim against the stream”?

  • Why does the universe exist?

“Why” is a human question: we want to know the reasons why things happen. It doesn’t mean that such reasons actually exist, or that “Why?” is a valid question to ask about the natural world. Does the universe care about our questions?

  • How did life originate?

At this time I don’t believe anyone knows for sure: it was a very long time ago, so the evidence (if any is left) will be hard to find. Which does not mean that any religion has the Answer: that’s a “God of the Gaps” argument.

  • Is all religion harmful?

I’m not qualified to talk about all religion, so I wouldn’t want to make any sweeping statements of that sort. What I do know is that much of the apparent good is not actually that good, in a wider context e.g. Mother Theresa, religious charities failing to spread the Safe Sex message.

  • What’s so bad about religious moderates?

As people, I think they’re just people like me – this is not about who they are, but I have a problem with some things they do. Teaching children it’s OK to live their lives by “fairy tales” that have no evidence to back them, on the word of “authority”, is a grave disservice to the next generation of critical thinkers. They serve as “enablers” of religious extremism, much as friends and family of alcoholics can serve as “enablers” by buying the drinks.

  • Is there anything redeeming about religion?

Religion has, at various historical times, provided essential services we would now expect from government. Laws, infrastructure, even “public health” (e.g. “don’t eat pork” when it was dangerous). It also provided a sense of community, something that atheists not really able to do successfully, yet. (We ask too many questions!)

  • What if you’re wrong about God (and He does exist)?

If I ever meet up with one or more gods, I will have some harsh questions. Such as: “what the bleep were you thinking?”, or “where the bleep were you when your people needed you?” A god that just sat back and watched this planet gets no respect from me.

  • Shouldn’t all religious beliefs be respected?

Certainly, as long as lack of belief is also respected. There should be no coercion, on any level, from anyone. Mandatory prayer, using my money to fund religious organisations, granting religion freedom from criticism… all forms of coercion. Basically, any intrusion of any particular religion, into an area it is not wanted, is a form of coercion, in my opinion.

  • Are atheists smarter than theists?

It depends on what “smart” means. I think that atheists have done more thinking about the issues, but whether that’s “smart” or not is a “value judgement” I have doubts about. It could be that religious belief confers a long-term evolutionary advantage, which would be hard to argue against. See also Idiocracy.

  • How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?

That doesn’t sound hard at all: a real person, walking around 2000 years ago, saying things, perhaps performing magic tricks, is not a deal-breaker. Asking us to accept claims of supernatural powers is a problem, especially considering what we know about the history of the Church: a committee assembled an agreed version of events, based on written accounts, and included the supernatural claims that gave that Church its legitimacy.

  • Would the world be better off without any religion?

Hard to say: maybe in the future, if people move that way of their own accord. My “no coercion” principle works both ways: actions have reactions, and even if I had the authority to take away someone’s religion, I would have no control over their beliefs.

  • What happens when we die?

If I have a say in the matter, I hope I can feed a tree. A pear tree, specifically. I like pears. 8)

Written by brian t

July 20, 2007 at 10:07 pm

Posted in atheism, religion

24% evil, 76% good

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This site is certified 24% EVIL by the Gematriculator This site is certified 76% GOOD by the Gematriculator

No, it’s not real: the Gematriculator is a spoof Numerology analyser for web pages or text. Well, if this says good things about the site, I can’t take much of the credit: it’s analysing the underlying HTML code too, and most of that is generated by wordpress.com and the Theme I use.

My two years of pill-popping have started: so far I have three bottles of capsules from America, complete with Federal warning labels, each with about a month’s supply of… a lot, a little, or nothing. The capsules are the smallest I’ve ever seen, so small it’s hard to imagine anyone having trouble taking them. Since I have to take one a day, I’ve set up alarm reminders, which means I won’t be forgetting to take my vitamins, either.

I spent most of the day just sitting around, and was able to write a few thousand words of… well, that’s for another day. There was no internet access, so no normal work was possible, but I could take coffee breaks. The worst parts of yesterday’s hospital visit were the ECG exams. (Electrocardiogram, also known as EKG.) I had one in the morning, before the first dose of medicine, and another later in the evening.

If you know about the ECG, you might be asking: what’s the problem? It’s quick, non-invasive, and all you need to do is lie still. Well, all that is true, but in my case the problem is preparation. I’m male, so I don’t get the luxury of modesty: I’m lying on a trolley with my shirt off, while everyone and their sister walks past, or pokes their noses in to say Hi! to the nurse. A pretty female nurse, who has to repeatedly reattach electrodes that refuse to stick to my hairy chest. It took alcohol swabs, surgical tape, and a threat to break out the razor and shaving cream, before they held still long enough for a minute’s data.

What I said before about being patient number one turned out to be untrue: I was the first going in, true, but the last going out with a bottle of pills. Well, not quite the last, because I made a new friend yesterday: Cathy, who stayed a little longer than me, and whom I will hopefully see again, on my next visit in two weeks’ time. After the first hour, during which we both failed to present any symptoms whatsoever, we went out for lunch. We also hung out during the day – but not while she was having her ECG: she, at least, got to enjoy a little modesty.

Written by brian t

July 20, 2007 at 7:32 pm

re-basing

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Since I moved to Ireland, just in time for the Millennium celebrations, I haven’t quite settled here. I’ve considered my move temporary, one that might be reversed at any time. I have even kept a couple of UK credit card accounts open, with small credit balances costing me nothing, in case I moved back there.

I must write and close those accounts: this year, for the first time since moving to Ireland, I’m making a commitment of sorts to living here. More than one commitment, actually: at the beginning of September I will be starting a three-year university course, but this week I start a two-year drug trial. Neither of these commitments are irrevocably tied to Ireland, strictly speaking, since they could be continued in another country, but such a move is not in my plans.

The FTY720 (fingolimod) drug trial is a go; the drug company (Novartis) thinks I’m a match, but asked me back for an additional MRI last Friday, since they thought too much time had elapsed since the last one. That takes my tally of spins in Tesla’s tumble-dryer up to four. This time I asked for extra padding behind my head, which made the experience much less painful than before.

The first dose of the drug (real or placebo) will be this coming Thursday: a day of mostly sitting around, so I’ll have the Tablet PC with me. If there’s an Internet connection, I may be able to get some office work done: if not, I have offline writing I can do more on, and I’ll carry a book or two.

I’ve been warned that there’s a small chance that I will be admitted to hospital as a patient, so I can be observed overnight: I suppose that depends on how many beds are free, in one of the biggest and busiest hospitals in Ireland. The chances of this happening will be increased for the same reason I’ve experienced delays and repeat tests: in this current study I am patient number one, the one they are testing all the procedures on.

If I survive that I have a detailed two-year schedule to follow, currently on paper with dates that I need to enter in to my work computer. From there it will be synchronised to my phone, so that I’ll be reminded. Twelve medical examinations will include six eye scans (OCTs), six lung tests (PFTs), and three more MRI scans.

Hey, it could be worse… I could be paying for all this.

Written by brian t

July 16, 2007 at 12:00 am

one sad ending

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I had high hopes for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I really did. The previous series by creator Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, is at the top of my favourite TV show list, even surviving Sorkin’s departure, lasting a full seven seasons. Studio 60, on the other hand, was cancelled after just one season. As with The West Wing, Ireland is not far behind the USA; there, the last episode went out about ten days ago, while I’ve just seen the penultimate episode here. The following might be considered a “spoiler”, so stop reading if you expect to see it later.

There is still one episode after tonight’s episode K&R Part III, and I’ll watch it, but it’s over for me. It was refreshing to see a Christian character on a prime time show who was not some holier-than-thou stereotype, the character of Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson). With Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) in surgery after pre-natal complications, and Danny Tripp frantic in the hospital waiting room (Bradley Whitford, another West Wing veteran), the show was already treading uncomfortably close to soap.

That was only half the drama, because the brother of show star Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) is being held hostage in Afghanistan, and the press are camped on the studio doorstep, prompting colleague Simon Stiles to launch a Quixotic rant in their direction, and almost lose his job as a result.

Enough drama? Not quite: in this episode, the aforementioned Harriet pushed the “no atheists in foxholes” button I had hoped the show was canny enough to avoid. Danny is tearing out what remains of his hair, as Jordan suffers complications of her complications. What does Harriet do? She offers to “teach him how to pray”.

Why do I find this offensive? It’s a modern Hollywood cliché: treating religion as a “down home” value, something “real” in comparison to the “glamour” of modern life. It encourages the kind of religiously-intrusive behaviour I’ve seen for myself: preying on people in their time of need, offering delusional comfort and a distraction from their immediate concerns.

And Lo! Jordan doesn’t, well, “cross the Jordan”. She pulls through, and all is right with the world. To me, this was Studio 60’s Jump The Shark moment. If you follow the link, you’ll see how many other reasons other have to say it Jumped, but for me, that was it. I just cast my vote against “Harriet”.

Written by brian t

July 11, 2007 at 10:45 pm

Posted in atheism, humour, television

belated independence

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We’re almost at the end of the day after Independence Day, and I’m finally getting the opportunity to sit down and write a little about my own Independence Day, 2007. I’m not American, but I had one, nevertheless.

July 4, 2007, was the day I started quitting my job, at a major IT company. I say “started” because I haven’t actually resigned yet: it’s too soon for that. I need to give four weeks’ notice; I gave eight weeks of actual working time, or ten weeks if you factor in holidays that I won’t be taking. What I did was inform my manager that I was leaving, with the rest of the team here being told soon afterwards.

Where am I going? Not another job, at least not yet: in early September I will start full-time study at University College Dublin (UCD). The course is Structural Engineering with Architecture, straddling two disciplines. A lot of mathematics, a lot of looking at the “designed environment”, some graphic design, even some materials and construction.

I thought it was a good all-rounder course: while I enjoy architecture and design, I have no illusions of becoming an Architect with a capital A; it would take a certain level of Arrogance that I don’t have or want (I hope). More details to follow as I get them.

That is not the only change around here: not long after the meeting where I made the announcement, a former colleague of ours came calling. He still works for the same company, but in a different area, and he needed a place to stay for a few days, possibly longer. He’s not Irish, but married an Irish lady, whom (he says) is no longer a Lady. As a result, my place is now his “halfway house” on his way to the divorce courts and out of the country. Good thing I have that spare bedroom.

The last change will take the next eight weeks to engineer: the end of this blog. The reasons are complex, and will be the subject of further entries, but the most straightforward is that this blog is out of step with the way things are done today. Blogging is no longer an end in itself, but a means to an end: an end that I have little interest in achieving.

Written by brian t

July 5, 2007 at 11:51 pm

Posted in blogging, life, study, web 2.0, work

early rainy

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For the last couple of weeks I’ve not had as much sleep as I should. There’s nothing in particular keeping me awake; I was simply not getting tired until after 1am, despite getting up at 7am every weekday. Even on weekends, when I could sleep as long as I could wish, I’ve been awake around 8am. It’s probably related to Daylight Savings time, since it’s still bright at 11pm, at this time of year.

After that happened again on Saturday, I decided to take some drastic action to mark the middle of the year. I’ve been up for 34 hours now, with the help of coffee, and took a very-early-morning trip in to Dublin with my camera. Two cameras, actually: I’ve got my old film Pentax going again, though if I get anything off the three-year-old roll of black-and-white currently in there, it might be somewhat avant-garde.

I walked through the Grand Canal Docks area, snapping buildings when it wasn’t raining; there was so little colour in the shots that it wasn’t worth keeping. The first picture above is of a low tunnel under the DART line, with some flash to bring out the texture of the spiralling bricks; the other is a new apartment block under construction. This building is so narrow and skeletal that I would not want to live in it, even if I could afford the extortionate price tag.

On my first-ever visit to Dublin in 1999, I had an “encounter” with a foul-mouthed six-year-old, who followed me down a street cursing and threatening to get his brother. Though Grand Canal Docks is a very upmarket area, it is close to some very downmarket areas, and I “met” two local teenagers this morning. One of them might well have been that same kid from 1999, eight years older: the two of them were drunk or stoned, barking incomprehensible vitriol in my general direction. As a parting shot, as a security patrol came in to view, they finished by throwing a couple of aerosol cans at me. They appeared to be cans of shaving gel, leading me to wonder if they were the latest trend in solvent abuse. Ah, the kids of today – aren’t they precious? Wankers. 🙄

I was back home shortly after 7am, so additional anti-sleep measures were necessary: cola, a couple of hours of Guild Wars in the morning, and in the afternoon, a movie on TV that I’d never seen before, but fit the “stay awake” bill very nicely. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle is, when you get down to it, a two-hour-long music video. Spotting the bloopers was part of the fun: I mean, could three women really throw themselves ten feet into the air, through glass windows? One of them was carrying a full-grown man, who must have weighed the same as her plus half as much again.

My last cup of coffee was after 3pm, and should have worn off by 9pm, meaning that I can look forward to 8-10 solid hours of sleep tonight. If that means I’m getting up earlier, it will be only temporary unless I set my alarm; without a regular wake-up time, I’ll be up later every day.

Today’s big music news is the Princess Diana Memorial Concert, which did not sound at all promising, but passing through the channels now there was one pleasant surprise: Roger Hodgson, by himself, has got the whole of Wembley Stadium singing Supertramp songs. “Well, this is cosy, innt?” 8)

Written by brian t

July 1, 2007 at 6:12 pm

Posted in dublin, ireland, photography