Links for May 19th

Unpleasant Medicine

I think it’s significant that there’s no consensus on the larger-scale significance of environmental threats; indeed, our responses are severely polarized, as if these are debatable matters of opinion rather than ones with quantifiable facts attached.

Eyjafjallajoekull can potentially continue to erupt for years, massively disrupting long haul travel across the North Atlantic (especially if Katla follows its historic behaviour pattern and blows up after the smaller Eyjafjallajoekull eruption).

But there’s a tension between the two available responses — look for alternatives to lots of people and cargo flying through the affected air corridors, or change the tolerated level of atmospheric particles through which flight is permitted — and partisans of one approach or the other seem loath to discuss compromise.

Ronnie James Dio: An Appreciation |

As a teenage metal head I may have spent more time listening to Ronnie James Dio, who died today from cancer, than any other singer. This is partly because he was in so many darn bands—including Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and Dio—but mostly due to the fact that he was just a terrific frontman with an operatic control of his vocal instrument that few have ever matched. There are many people who only know the man from his fondness for flashing “the Devil’s horns” or his cameo in the 2006 Tenacious D movie The Pick of Destiny. However, to a certain section of the metal-loving fraternity, Ronnie James Dio really is a legend.

How Britannia came to rule the waves – Science, News – The Independent

Hero worship at the expense of historical accuracy? Surely not. It has been portrayed as the story of the lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his day despite the hindering efforts of those ranged against him, saving thousands of lives.

On the one side was John Harrison, the self-taught clockmaker from a humble Yorkshire background. On the other, the 18th Century’s wealthy elite charged with the task of presiding over the problem of longitude – the knotty task of working out how far west or east a ship has sailed.

Harrison’s story has been the subject of a best-selling book and an award-winning film but science historians believe that the true account of how the problem of longitude was solved has yet to be told.

Roger Scruton – Gloom merchant

The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a wilful ignorance of history. It also depends upon a wilful ignorance of oneself – a refusal to recognise the extent to which selfishness and calculation reside in the heart even of our most generous emotions, awaiting their chance. Those who invest their hopes in the moral improvement of humankind are therefore in a precarious position: at any moment the veil of illusion might be swept away, revealing the bare truth of the human condition. Either they defend themselves against this possibility with artful intellectual ploys, or they give way, in the moment of truth, to a paroxysm of disappointment and misanthropy. Both of these do violence to our nature. The first condemns us to the life of unreason; the second to the life of contempt. Human beings may not be as good as the shallow optimists pretend; but nor are they as bad as the prophets and curmudgeons have painted them.

Johann Hari: Welcome to Cameron land – Johann Hari, Commentators – The Independent

David Cameron cites Hammersmith and Fulham council as a ‘model’ of compassionate conservatism. So what can the actions of Tory councillors here tell us about how the party would behave in government?

The real reason why Steve Jobs hates Flash

I’ve got a theory, and it’s this: Steve Jobs believes he’s gambling Apple’s future — the future of a corporation with a market cap well over US $200Bn — on an all-or-nothing push into a new market. HP have woken up and smelled the forest fire, two or three years late; Microsoft are mired in a tar pit, unable to grasp that the inferno heading towards them is going to burn down the entire ecosystem in which they exist. There is the smell of panic in the air, and here’s why …

Why Cory Doctorow is wrong about the iPad

BLOGGING IN RESPONSE to somebody else’s blog is not usually my style, but Cory Doctorow’s anti-iPad rant on BoingBoing is so well written that it demands active disagreement.

Essentially, Cory doesn’t like the iPad because it’s a closed platform. He takes several different common objections and twists them (in an intelligent way, not a stupid Peter Mandelson way) to support this view. But it is, ultimately, just a view, not an argument.

Sunday Sacrilege: The silliest story ever told

It’s Easter. Once again, the masses will gawp in awe at a bizarre and unbelievable story…because it is such a good example of how religion will piggy-back on our cognitive biases.

You all know the Easter story: a god turns into a man, gets tortured and killed, rises from the dead, and somehow this act makes us all better. It’s a tale best left unexamined, because it makes no sense. We are supposed to wallow in an emotional thrill that taps deep into our social consciousness, not think about what the story actually says.

Apple’s iPad is a touch of genius

It strikes you when you first touch an iPad. The form just feels good, not too lightweight or heavy, nor too thin or thick. It’s sensual. It’s tactile. And that moment is a good way to spot a first-timer, too, as I observed with a few test subjects. The dead giveaway for an iPad n00b is a pause, a few breaths before hitting the “on” switch, just letting it rest against the skin.

Flick the switch and the novelty hits. Just as the iPhone, Palm Pré and Android phones scratched an itch we didn’t know we had—somewhere between cellphone and notebook—the iPad hits a completely new pleasure spot. The display is large enough to make the experience of apps and games on smaller screens stale. Typography is crisp, images gem-like, and the speed brisk thanks to Apple’s A4 chip and solid state storage. […]this is a greater leap into a new user experience than the sum of its parts suggests.

Lifesaving, safe vaccines

WHILE THERE are many debatable issues in the autism world, vaccines are no longer among them. This is a blessing for parents, children, and pediatricians. The real tragedy of the suggestion that vaccines cause autism is that millions of research dollars have been diverted to disprove a relationship that never existed to begin with

A number of large studies, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, have failed to find a link between vaccines and autism. But this is an issue that doesn’t want to die, so pediatricians like me end up spending time reassuring parents that we truly have their children’s best interests at heart when we immunize them, that we are not in the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry, and we read the literature with a healthy dose of skepticism.

I’m not the messiah, says food activist – but his many worshippers do not believe him

The trouble started when Raj Patel appeared on American TV to plug his latest book, an analysis of the financial crisis called The Value of Nothing.

The London-born author, 37, thought his slot on comedy talkshow The Colbert Report went well enough: the host made a few jokes, Patel talked a little about his work and then, job done, he went back to his home in San Francisco.

Shortly afterwards, however, things took a strange turn. Over the course of a couple of days, cryptic messages started filling his inbox.


Links for February 17th

King Tut Was Disabled, Malarial, and Inbred, DNA Shows

King Tut may be seen as the golden boy of ancient Egypt today, but during his reign, Tutankhamun wasn’t exactly a strapping sun god.

Instead, a new DNA study says, King Tut was a frail pharaoh, beset by malaria and a bone disorder—and possibly compromised by his newly discovered incestuous origins.

The report is the first DNA study ever conducted with ancient Egyptian royal mummies. It apparently solves several mysteries surrounding King Tut, including how he died and who his parents were.

“He was not a very strong pharaoh. He was not riding the chariots,” said study team member Carsten Pusch, a geneticist at Germany’s University of Tübingen. “Picture instead a frail, weak boy who had a bit of a club foot and who needed a cane to walk.”

How to compete with iPad

Dear Potential iPad Competitors,

We’ve all seen the media furore about the iPad, and we know that this day has been coming for a long time. There’s something natural and seductive about the idea of a tablet computer. Something to do with the form factor, portability, implied intuitiveness and non-computery quality of the thing. It’s straight out of Star Trek, and a lot of people want one in their lives.

I’m a little worried about you, though. Your usual tactic is to simply copy the industrial design of the most successful product, reduce the price, then adopt a pump and dump strategy until your next quarterly financials. That’s fine in itself; that’s how business works. I just think you’re misinterpreting both why people are excited about the iPad (even if they don’t realise it), and what exactly you need to copy. I think you might be on a dead-end track without even realising it.

Bragg in banker bonuses protest

Musician Billy Bragg has taken his protest against excessive bonuses for RBS bosses to Edinburgh, the home of the bank.

He is calling on Chancellor Alistair Darling to cap bonuses for chiefs at the bailed-out bank to £25,000.

The campaign currently has 30,000 online supporters.

Bragg is refusing to pay tax on his earnings until the limit is imposed. He delivered a speech at RBS’ former headquarters in St Andrew’s Square.

Christian TV presenter reads out Star Wars plot as story of salvation

An email prankster tricked the host of a Christian TV show into reading out the plots of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Star Wars in the belief they were stories of personal salvation.

Links for July 6th

Coffee ‘may reverse Alzheimer’s’

Drinking five cups of coffee a day could reverse memory problems seen in Alzheimer’s disease, US scientists say.

The Florida research, carried out on mice, also suggested caffeine hampered the production of the protein plaques which are the hallmark of the disease.

Previous research has also suggested a protective effect from caffeine.

Historic Bible pages put online

About 800 pages of the earliest surviving Christian Bible have been recovered and put on the internet.

Visitors to the website can now see images of more than half of the 1,600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus manuscript.

Fragments of the 4th Century document – written in Greek on parchment leaves – have been worked on by institutions in the UK, Germany, Egypt and Russia.

Experts say it is “a window into the development of early Christianity”.

The truth at Last, in which Paul Carr is reminded that, while comment is free, facts can be a real pain in the arse

It all started on Friday when a story appeared on Techcrunch concerning music recommendation service Back in February, Techcrunch ran a story alleging that had passed listening (or “scrobbling”) data to the RIAA, the trade body representing American music labels. The story came from an anonymous source close to CBS who, apparently, was subsequently fired (leaving them slightly less close to CBS).

Love at no sight

In a looks-obsessed world, are blind people immune to appearances when they fall in love? As a new film looks at how sight-impaired people find romance, Damon Rose who is blind, says you don’t have to be sighted to be shallow

Couple’s 81st wedding anniversary

Britain’s longest living married couple have celebrated their 81st wedding anniversary.

Frank and Anita Milford, who live together in a nursing home in Plymouth, Devon, exchanged vows on 26 May, 1928.

Frank is 101 and Anita will be 101 next month.

I’m an atheist, OK?

Disagreement over the definition of atheist and agnostic has cluttered up various threads here, scattering confusion in its wake like a muckspreader in autumn.

The cause of the confusion is that atheists and theists have different definitions of the words agnostic and atheist, and adamantly refuse to accept the validity of each other’s definitions.

Here is a short form of the definitions from the two separate points of view.

Theist version: An atheist is certain there is no God, an agnostic is not certain.

Atheist version: An atheist believes there is no God, an agnostic doesn’t know.

The two versions are only subtly different, but a great deal of hot air has been expended on this difference.

When the new becomes old

Even the new gets old – and that includes the Internet, says regular columnist Bill Thompson

Irish church knew abuse ‘endemic’

An inquiry into child abuse at Catholic institutions in Ireland has found church leaders knew that sexual abuse was “endemic” in boys’ institutions.

It also found physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of institutions.

Schools were run “in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff”.

Reznor takes a byte out of Apple

Apple has reversed a decision blocking a Nine Inch Nails (NIN) iPhone app.

The application – nin: access – was rejected last week on the grounds it had “offensive or obscene content”.

Nin: access allows users to access streamed music and video content from the NIN homepage, including a song called The Downward Spiral.

The band’s frontman, Trent Reznor, accused Apple of double standards – the song could be bought on iTunes – and a few days later Apple relented.

Web tool ‘as important as Google’

A web tool that “could be as important as Google”, according to some experts, has been shown off to the public.

Wolfram Alpha is the brainchild of British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram.

The free program aims to answer questions directly, rather than display web pages in response to a query like a search engine.

The “computational knowledge engine”, as the technology is known, will be available to the public from the middle of May this year.

Surveillance fears for the UK

The UK is risking sliding unwittingly into a police state because of the growing use of surveillance technology, says security guru Phil Zimmerman.

“When you live in that society and it changes incrementally over time you are less likely to notice the changes,” he told the BBC. “But if you come from outside the picture as it stands is more abruptly visible as something wrong.”

Agency denies internet spy plans

The UK’s electronic intelligence agency has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement to deny it will track all UK internet and online phone use.

Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) said it was developing tracking technology but “only acts when it is necessary” and “does not spy at will”.

The denial follows the home secretary scrapping plans for a single government database for all communications.

Links for April 7th

The amorality of the faithful

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a columnist who, to my mind, represents the very worst of religious dogma. He often writes about “morality”, bemoaning the horrid state of godlessness, but his morality is little more than the rote obedience of the dogmatically orthodox. His usual complaint is that atheism removes the moral compass provided by a god — that one can believe that any arbitrary thing is good if you’re an atheist.

Handy Tweaks To Make GIMP Replace Photoshop

GIMP was never designed to replace Photoshop, yet with every release, it comes a little closer to being able to do so. It can be used to author graphics, create logos and edit photos, as well as make short animations (using GAP). Despite these features, the open-source app is a foreign world for many users switching from Photoshop. Familiar tools are missing, menus are laid out differently and tasks must be accomplished in unknown ways.

In this article, we list eight tweaks to make GIMP a more serious Photoshop replacement option.

Microsoft’s recession-era ploy to get you to buy a PC instead of a Mac

One surefire way of inciting violence among techies is to wonder idly whether Apple computers are really worth their inflated price tags. Mac devotees are sensitive about this subject: Tell a Mac-head that you can’t understand why anyone would pay $1,300 for a MacBook when a comparable Dell sells for $900 and you might as well be calling him a vain fool. Who wants to be regarded as paying for style over substance? Then try suggesting to your Windows-loving pal that there’s more to choosing a computer than looking for the lowest price. What about ease of use, long-term value, and the sheer pleasure of using a Mac? Now you’re calling your Windows friend a cheapskate. Either way, you’re asking for a black eye—or, at least, a three-hour earful about why price should or shouldn’t matter in your next computer purchase.

Dave Gorman: Re: Cycling…

Since announcing the tour I’ve been inundated with questions and advice. All of which is lovely… but I’m really not very well equipped to deal with much, if any of it.

A lot of people don’t seem to believe me when I say that there’s no real plan in place. It was an idea for a bike ride. Then I added in the idea of doing a gig every night. Then the gigs were booked. Then we announced the tour. But that’s it. That’s all I know. I haven’t mapped out any particular routes.

Robo-scientist’s first findings

Scientists have created an ideal colleague – a robot that performs hundreds of repetitive experiments.

The robot, called Adam, is the first machine to have independently “discovered new scientific knowledge”.

It has already identified the role of several genes in yeast cells, and is able to plan further experiments to test its own hypotheses.

The creeping fungus of religion in government

A recent court decision went against the Bush administration, and also reveals some of the contemptible influence peddling that went on in that gathering of scoundrels. The subject was birth control, in particular Plan B and other forms of emergency contraception, and as many of you know, the Bushite regime dragged its feet with ridiculous deliberation in allowing the FDA to approve these forms of contraception, and effectively blocked them from public access. By hook and crook, by cheating and deception, and by lying to the people, as this court decision affirms. This is why we fight the inclusion of religion in government: it poisons everything.

Bookmarks for March 2nd through March 4th

  • Technology designed to ‘attack’ us | Platform – Open University

    In a talk at The Open University on Thursday 26 February, Canadian activist, blogger and science fiction author Cory Doctorow stated that technology needs to stop enslaving us and instead start working for us.

    In his talk, which was hosted by the Centre for Research in Computing and was entitled ‘Freedom and technology: who’s the master?’, he pointed out that everyday objects and services, such as laptops and mobile phones, Oyster cards and ID cards – have been designed to ‘attack us’. In other words, they have been designed to stay open in order to capture data about us, therefore making us vulnerable to attack – rather than working for us and keeping us safe from attack.

  • 7 reasons why Apple should make a netbook

    The economy’s tanking, everybody’s broke and even high-end brands are feeling the pinch. Apple, we’re told, is the BMW of tech – but even BMW is finding it hard to sell its stuff.

    In computing, netbooks are a rare spot of good news in an otherwise bleak market. So should Apple make one?

  • Ten Things You Don’t Know About the Sun

    It’s a vast, mighty, seething cauldron of energy, and even though solar astronomers have studied it for centuries, there’s a lot about the Sun that’s still not understand. And if they don’t get it, then I’m pretty sure that you’re unaware of one or two things about it too. I’m fuzzy on one or two (or a thousand) things about it myself.

    So here’s my list of stuff you may not grok about our nearest star.

  • I hate Jenny McCarthy – Opinions

    Model/actress/“mother-warrior” Jenny McCarthy has spent the past several years doing her level best to convince new parents not to have their children vaccinated. To be fair, evaluating medical information using nothing but Jenny McCarthy’s brain must be a little like running an Olympic wind-sprint while dead, but excuses are meaningless; as I’ll note in a moment, the consequences of her intellectual dishonesty are simply far too high to forgive.

  • Was it a kind of bad dream?

    Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes, the biggest UK hit of 1979, entered the singles chart for the first time 30 years ago on Tuesday.

    Entering the lower reaches of the chart initially, the song, written by British composer Mike Batt for animated rabbit fantasy film Watership Down, eventually reached number one on 14 April.

    The song famously features in the darkly psychedelic film after character Hazel escapes death after being shot by a farmer.

  • Muse get classical on fifth album

    Muse’s new studio album could see them move away from their traditional rock sound to create a more “orchestral”, classical offering.

    Frontman Matt Bellamy said: “There’s some really brilliant songs coming out, some of our best material I think.”

    The follow-up to 2006’s Black Holes And Revelations is expected later this year coinciding with an Autumn tour.

  • WordPress Gallery Tutorial

    I’ve seen a lot of people who use WordPress asking how to create a gallery similar to the one on Matt Mullenweg’s website ( using nothing but core WordPress functionality. Fortunately, it’s much easier than it looks and with just a few simple steps you can have a gallery of albums and images up an running in no time

  • ‘I thank the universe for the good stuff’

    Writer and actress Meera Syal has starred in Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42, and has published two novels, Anita and Me and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee.

    The actress, who was born near Wolverhampton in 1963, has spoken to BBC News about religion and spirituality.