Links for September 1st

British plan to tackle asteroids

A team of British scientists are developing plans for a spacecraft that could stop large asteroids from destroying the Earth.

The 10 tonne “gravity tractor” would deflect any orbiting rocks years before any potential collision could happen.

The device, which would rely on the force of gravity, is being developed by Stevenage space company, EADS Astrium.

However the idea is still in its early stages and the company admits a prototype has not yet been made.

Merciless

What bugs me is the complete lack of comprehension of the quality of mercy that seems to have crept over the US political class this century.

Even if Al Megrahi is a mass-murderer, the fact remains that he is dying. It is long-standing policy in Scotland to exercise the prerogative of mercy when possible; in general, if an imprisoned criminal is terminally ill, a request for release (for hospice care, basically) is usually granted unless they are believed to be a danger to the public.

That’s because the justice system isn’t solely about punishment. It’s about respect for the greater good of society, which is better served by rehabilitation and reconcilliation than by revenge. We do not make ourselves better people by exercising a gruesome revenge on the bodies of our vanquished foes. Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Minister, did exactly the right thing in sending Al Megrahi home to die.

Why I love Britain’s socialized healthcare system

My eldest daughter had a rough first week. Born after 22 hours of hard labor, her pink skin proceeded to turn an alarming shade of yellow on the second day of her life. It was a bad case of jaundice. She would need to be placed in an incubator, whose ultraviolet light would hopefully clear up the condition. If not, a transfusion would be required. My exhausted wife and I watched in numb horror as our child was encased in the clear plastic box that was to become her crib for the next seven days. What we had hoped would be a straightforward delivery had turned into a nightmare.

Homo religious

Did humans evolve to be religious and believe in God? In the most general sense, yes we did. Here’s what happened.

Long long ago, in an environment far far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. And as a social primate species we also evolved social organizations designed to promote group cohesiveness and enforce moral rules.

The enlightenment’s operating system

Bill Thompson has been using Unix for a quarter-century – and doesn’t plan to stop now.

WHO warns against homeopathy use

People with conditions such as HIV, TB and malaria should not rely on homeopathic treatments, the World Health Organization has warned.

It was responding to calls from young researchers who fear the promotion of homeopathy in the developing world could put people’s lives at risk.

The group Voice of Young Science Network has written to health ministers to set out the WHO view.

WHO TB experts said homeopathy had “no place” in treatment of the disease.

To be fair, homeopathy has no place in the treatment of <em>any</em> disease

Downloading is not enough

Young people’s attitudes to music may be too complicated and fast-changing to measure, says Bill Thompson

6 Reasons to Jailbreak Your iPhone | Gadget Lab | Wired.com

Hacking your iPhone to run unofficial, third-party apps may seem unnecessary since Apple hosts its own App Store. But the corporation’s recently enforced prohibitions on some apps, such as the banning of Google Voice, are reviving the incentive for customers to jailbreak their iPhones once again.

5 Tips for Raising Your Girl Geek | GeekDad | Wired.com

As geek parents, we often have rosy colored notions about our children growing up. We actually want them to be geeks. From the earliest of ages we dress them in WoW gear, teach them to quote Star Wars and wonder when is too early to start reading The Hobbit. We nurture them in the way of the Geek, hoping that, when the time comes for them to choose their path, they won’t stray far.

But being a geek kid isn’t easy; and being a geek girl might even be harder. Here are some things to keep in mind if you are raising a geek girl that might help her–and you–get through the school years.

Links for March 30th

Women told: ‘You have dishonoured your family, please kill yourself’

When Elif’s father told her she had to kill herself in order to spare him from a prison sentence for her murder, she considered it long and hard. “I loved my father so much, I was ready to commit suicide for him even though I hadn’t done anything wrong,” the 18-year-old said. “But I just couldn’t go through with it. I love life too much.”

All Elif had done was simply decline the offer of an arranged marriage with an older man, telling her parents she wanted to continue her education. That act of disobedience was seen as bringing dishonour on her whole family – a crime punishable by death.

10 Admin Plugins for your site

Are you starting up a new site or just looking to enhance your existing site? If so, here are my 10 top Admin plugins that are worth a look at.

AC Grayling politely rebukes an attempt to reconcile religion and science

In our current issue, AC Grayling reviews Questions of Truth by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, a collection of essays that claims to address 51 “Questions About God, Science and Belief”. Suffice to say, Grayling wasn’t a fan (one star was awarded in the print magazine).

Polkinghorne is a particle physicist-turned-theologian who won the Templeton Prize (which rewards attempts to reconcile religion and science) in 2002, while Nicholas Beale is a former student of Polkinghorne who, while he describes himself as a “social philosopher/management consultant” in real life, manages Polkinghorne’s website and blogs about religion and science in his spare time.

On top of dissecting the text itself, at the end of his review Grayling outlined his problem with the fact that the book was receiving a launch at the Royal Society

Common sense on pregnancy advice

[…]condom adverts will be able to be shown on all channels before the watershed, and pregnancy advisory services, including those who can help with abortion, will also be free to advertise on TV.

So teenagers, who are most in need of this kind of advice, will be more likely to see it advertised on TV. Common sense, don’t you think?

Major cyber spy network uncovered

An electronic spy network, based mainly in China, has infiltrated computers from government offices around the world, Canadian researchers say.

They said the network had infiltrated 1,295 computers in 103 countries.

They included computers belonging to foreign ministries and embassies and those linked with the Dalai Lama – Tibet’s spiritual leader.

There is no conclusive evidence China’s government was behind it, researchers say. Beijing also denied involvement.

Religious people aren’t necessarily stupid…and atheists aren’t necessarily smart

Intelligent people who are indoctrinated into a faith can build marvelously intricate palaces of rationalization atop the shoddy vapor of their beliefs about gods and the supernatural; what scientists and atheists must do is build their logic on top of a more solid basis of empirical evidence and relentless self-examination. The difference isn’t their ability to reason, it is what they are reasoning about.

Death Opens Doors on Group

Members of One Mind Ministries drew little notice in the working-class Baltimore neighborhood where they lived in a nondescript brick rowhouse.

But inside, prosecutors say, horrors were unfolding: Answering to a leader called Queen Antoinette, they denied a 16-month-old boy food and water because he did not say “Amen” at mealtimes. After he died, they prayed over his body for days, expecting a resurrection, then packed it into a suitcase with mothballs. They left it in a shed in Philadelphia, where it remained for a year before detectives found it last spring.

‘Most religious leaders are fools’

The author and playwright Hanif Kureishi was born in London in 1954. He is the author of The Buddha of Suburbia, Intimacy and Something to Tell You. His first play, Soaking the Heat, was staged in 1976, and My Beautiful Laundrette , for which he wrote the screenplay, was released in 1985.

He was appointed CBE in 2007, for services to literature and drama. Here he briefly tells BBC News his thoughts about religion.

Archbishop voices concerns to BBC

The Archbishop of Canterbury has urged the BBC not to neglect Christians in its religious programming.

Dr Rowan Williams voiced his concern to the corporation’s director general Mark Thompson in a private meeting at Lambeth Palace.

The archbishop is said to be concerned at a decline in religious programming on the BBC World Service.

Evolution study focuses on snail

Members of the public across Europe are being asked to look in their gardens or local green spaces for banded snails as part of a UK-led evolutionary study.

The Open University says its Evolution MegaLab will be one of the largest evolutionary studies ever undertaken.

Scientists believe the research could show how the creatures have evolved in the past 40 years to reflect changes in temperature and their predators.

10 ways to get a really good sleep

One in five of the population has less than seven hours sleep a night, according to research from the Future Foundation for the health campaign Sleep Well Live Well. Many of these tired souls reported feeling stressed and unhappy.

But how about looking at the question from another direction? If insufficient or disrupted sleep is bad for our health – then what would be the ingredients of a really good night’s sleep? What makes a perfect sleep?

Dr Adrian Williams of the Sleep Disorders Centre at St Thomas’s Hospital in London sets out a few ground rules.

Hidden clue to composer’s passion

The French composer, Maurice Ravel may have left a hidden message – a woman’s name – inside his work.

A sequence of three notes occurring repeatedly through his work spell out the name of a famous Parisian socialite says Professor of Music, David Lamaze.

He argues that the notes, E, B, A in musical notation, or “Mi-Si-La” in the French doh-re-mi scale, refer to Misia Sert, a close friend of Ravel’s.

A heartless faith

Irving Feldkamp is the father of two and grandfather of five who were killed in that accident; he lost a shocking great swath of his family in that one sad afternoon. Irving Feldkamp is also the owner of Family Planning Associates — a chain of clinics that also does abortions.

You can guess what segment of the Christian community I’m about to highlight.

Choke back your gag reflex and read this hideous, evil article on Christian Newswire. Some moral cretin named Gingi Edmonds wrote a wretched story on this tragedy that makes it sound like divine retribution on Mr Feldkamp.

Pope ‘distorting condom science’

One of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, the Lancet, has accused Pope Benedict XVI of distorting science in his remarks on condom use.

It said the Pope’s recent comments that condoms exacerbated the problem of HIV/Aids were wildly inaccurate and could have devastating consequences.

The Pope had said the “cruel epidemic” should be tackled through abstinence and fidelity rather than condom use.

Links for March 17th

Minister won’t confirm belief in evolution

Canada’s science minister, the man at the centre of the controversy over federal funding cuts to researchers, won’t say if he believes in evolution.

“I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Pope says condoms are not the solution to Aids – they make it worse

The Pope courted further controversy on his first trip to Africa today by declaring that condoms were not a solution to the Aids epidemic – but were instead part of the problem.

In his first public comments on condom use, the pontiff told reporters en route to Cameroon that Aids “is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems”.

Ten Things You Don’t Know About Pluto

Pity poor Pluto.

Sure, it reigned as the last planet in the solar system for more than 70 years, but then it was stripped of that title by the International Astronomical Union in a manner so profoundly dumb that I’m still wondering what they were thinking. I do think that the definition of planet can be debated, and that Pluto plays its part, but the IAU really screwed the pooch with the way they did it.

Whether you call Pluto a planet, an iceball, or an animated dog, it’s still a very interesting object. And today, March 13, 2009, marks the 79th anniversary of the announcement of Pluto to the world (and in Illinois it’s officially Pluto Day), so what better time to talk about it?

Four pioneering web innovations

UK web firms are out in force at South by South West Interactive, hoping to raise their profile, find new investment and new partners. Here are four companies flying the flag for UK digital innovation.

Introduction to CalDAV Support – Google Calendar Help

With CalDAV support in Google Calendar, you’ll be able to view and edit your Google Calendar events directly in other calendar applications, such as Apple iCal or Mozilla Sunbird. Any changes you make in other calendar applications will automatically appear in Google Calendar the next time you sign in (and vice versa). If you use other calendar applications while offline, changes you make will be saved and updated in Google Calendar when you get back online.

Where do Satan et al. publish, anyway?

[…]this is an actual abstract for a paper given at the 2004 Baramin Study Group conference. Just try to read it without laughing out loud.

Darwin’s Five Bridges: The Open University Annual Lecture 2008

Professor Richard Dawkins’ lecture, presented to an invited audience at the Natural History Museum, will investigate if Darwin was the most revolutionary scientist ever, and examine the evolutionary theories of his contemporaries.

Richard Dawkins suggests that there are four “bridges to evolutionary understanding” and illustrates this with four claimants to the discovery of natural selection: Edward Blyth, Patrick Matthew, Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin.

The fifth bridge of evolutionary understanding is identified as modern genetics – which he terms digital Darwinism.

Vatican backs abortion row bishop

A senior Vatican cleric has defended the excommunication in Brazil of the mother and doctors of a young girl who had an abortion with their help.

The nine-year-old had conceived twins after alleged abuse by her stepfather.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told Italian paper La Stampa that the twins “had the right to live” and attacks on Brazil’s Catholic Church were unfair.

Links for February 18th

  • Novelist Pratchett becomes a Sir -

    Author Terry Pratchett has been knighted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace for services to literature.

    Sir Terry, 60, was named in the New Year Honours list.

  • Wonder twins telescope sees star’s dying gasps -

    500 light years away, the star T Leporis is dying.

    It used to be much like the Sun, but the store of nuclear fuel in its core is running out. Due to the nuclear processes going on deep inside it, its energy production has vastly increased, blasting out thousands of times the energy it did when it was a stable star. The outer layers of the star absorb this energy, and, like a hot air balloon, expand hugely. Even though it is now far, far brighter than it used to be, the expansion actually cools the star’s surface. It has become a bloated, swollen red giant.

  • Not safe for work: the git that keeps on giving -

    Remember: if you steal a man’s fish, you’ll make him hungry for a day, but steal his nets and you’ll keep him hungry for a lifetime.

  • 50 Mobile phone apps to change your life -

    If you’ve recently got a new phone for Christmas, be it an iPhone, G1, Nokia or a spiffy BlackBerry, we bet you didn’t know it could change your life.

    Download any of these apps and become more efficient, thinner, fitter and better at saving on the go, so you’ve still got time to sit around in your pants whenever you feel like it.

  • Maybe Facebook should just offer a loyalty card instead -

    Facebook has more than 150 million users. You would think that that must be valuable. The problem that “social networking” sites are throwing up, though, is that while you might have a lot of users, how do they ever become something that’s actually valuable?

  • New law making it an offence to photograph a policeman should worry us all -

    More than 300 photographers descended on New Scotland Yard this morning to protest about a new law that could criminalise anyone taking a photograph of a police officer. Section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act, which came into force today, permits the arrest of anyone taking photographs of the police, the armed forces, or the intelligence services which are “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. Now a policeman might not be your first choice of subject but this should concern us all.

  • Babies’ gestures partly explain link between wealth and vocabulary -

    Babies can say volume without saying a single word. They can wave good-bye, point at things to indicate an interest or shake their heads to mean “No”. These gestures may be very simple, but they are a sign of things to come. Year-old toddlers who use more gestures tend to have more expansive vocabularies several years later. And this link between early gesturing and future linguistic ability may partially explain by children from poorer families tend to have smaller vocabularies than those from richer ones.

  • Creationists are still denying Darwin -

    The fundamental ideas behind the theory of evolution have been scientific gospel for decades – and yet creationists refuse to go the way of the dinosaurs. Who exactly are they? And just what do they believe?

  • Facebook ‘withdraws’ data changes -

    The founder of Facebook says the social network will return to its previous terms of service regarding user data.

    In a blog post Mark Zuckerberg said the move was temporary “while we resolve the issues that people have raised”.

    Users had complained after new terms of service seemed to suggest Facebook would retain personal data even if someone deleted their account.

  • Westboro Baptist Church justifies UK picket -

    This is the full text of the Telegraph’s correspondence with the Westboro Baptist Church, about its plan to stage a picket in Britain for the first time. The church has threatened to demonstrate outside the staging of anti-homophobia play The Laramie Project at a school theatre in Basingstoke, Hampshire on Friday.

Links for February 12th

  • Appreciating evolution on Darwin’s 200th birthday -
    Today marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and later this year will see the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.

  • Millions ‘opt for DIY dentistry’ -

    Millions of people in England have resorted to DIY dentistry, a survey by consumer magazine Which? suggests.

    The poll, of 2,631 adults, found 8% had tried to fix their own dental problems – and a similar number knew somebody who had tried.

    Of those who admitted trying the DIY approach, one in four had tried to pull out a tooth using pliers.

  • Charles Darwin: a Fulcrum Appreciation -
    February 12th 2009 sees the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. Along with Isaac Newton he was one of the greatest British scientists, though his science is still controversial. To some he was a great scientist and to others the devil incarnate!

    A religious perspective on the work of Charles Darwin

  • Russian and US satellites collide -
    US and Russian communications satellites have collided in space in the first such reported accident.

    A satellite owned by the US company Iridium hit a defunct Russian satellite at high speed nearly 780km (485 miles) over Siberia on Tuesday, Nasa said.

  • ‘Heat the Hornet’ by Richard Dawkins -
    How can you say that evolution is “true”? Isn’t that just your opinion, of no more value than anybody else’s? Isn’t every view entitled to equal “respect”? Maybe so where the issue is one of, say, musical taste or political judgement. But when it is a matter of scientific fact? Unfortunately, scientists do receive such relativistic protests when they dare to claim that something is factually true in the real world. Given the title of Jerry Coyne’s book, this is a distraction that I must deal with.

  • In pictures: Stamps honour Darwin -
    A series of stamps is to go on sale commemorating the British scientist Charles Darwin, 150 years after the publication of his seminal work on evolutionary theory – On the Origin of the Species.

Links for February 11th

Evolutionary gems

A lot of people don’t seem to “get” evolution, especially those that can’t (or won’t) let those pesky scientists interfere with their religious thinking.

Thankfully Nature Magazine has created a handy PDF document that sets out 15 reasons why evolution is the most important biological process ever discovered.

It’s really interesting and clears up a lot of misconceptions about evolutionary theory. Take a look.

Found via Bad Astronomy