Okay, one more time

So, I like to think of myself as a bit of a smart-arse. I know a little about quite a lot, and quite a lot about, well mainly guitars to be honest, but other stuff too. I like to think I’m a fairly competent chemist, being as it’s my job, though I’ve never been formally tutored in the subject beyond GCSE level (for our American cousins, that’s whatever grade you are when you’re 16).

But basically, I have a glossy, surface level knowledge about pretty much most things, and this is mostly born of my dislike of nightclubs leading me to spend many a drunken evening trawling through Wikipedia, on topics ranging from Astrophysics to Zoology, from Actors to… Zoologists, and from American politics to… uhm… zoological politics? The point I’m trying to make, apart from that there are a serious lack of fields of knowledge beginning with the letter Z, is that I have curiosity in spades but lack the to actually turn it into a full-blown knowledge of a subject. If I ever need to know anything about, say, Zoology in any detail, I would ask my cousin, who has a degree in the subject.

And that is the beauty of the diversity of academia. We have experts. Experts know everything about one thing. And the people like me who are content to know a little about everything can, in full confidence, defer all the hard work to them, knowing that their colleagues will appropriately scrutinize their work to ensure it meets the criteria of vaild scientific (in the case of Zoology) research – that is, it’s falsifiable (but not yet falsified) and repeatable, and reported with integrity.

The reason I bring this up is this. I met someone the other day. I say “met”, it was more of a bar-side 5 minute chit chat in which I lacked sufficient cajones to respond with the outrage that I actually experienced, deep down inside.

He was an Evolution Denier. I have enough perspective to understand that Evolution denial is nowhere near serious enough to be realistically compared to Holocaust denial, but in the heat of the moment, I felt almost as outraged by the former as I would have been were it the latter. I’ve covered this subject before, and regular readers (I flatter myself – I’ve not posted frequently or numerically nearly enough to consider myself to have any regular readers other than myself, when I endlessly self-criticise before I post these) will know where I stand on the subject. But the kicker is about to unveil itself.

This guy wasn’t even religious! I mean, I can understand – and when I say understand, I mean tollerate – and when I say tollerate, I mean do my best to ignore – evolution denial in a bid to validate supersition, but this guy was completely comfortable with the idea of a universe that is 13.8 billion years old and an earth that is 4.5 million years old.

And here was his thing: “Yeah, well, there are gaps in the fossil record…”

I’m paraphrasing, mostly because I was pissed and can’t remember what he actually said. But I was astonished.

So here it is folks, on the line for you all, clear as (I hope) a lovely summer sky: WE DON’T EVEN NEED THE FOSSIL RECORD TO PROVE EVOLUTION AS A FACT. It’s just a bonus. Evolution, to my mind, can be proved beyond any reasonable doubt just by looking at species distribution, or by looking at DNA sequencing, or JUST by looking at this video: http://youtu.be/dK3O6KYPmEw

There is SO MUCH evidence for evolution. It is abundant. You could remove 99% of everything we’ve ever used to prove evolution and there’d still be enough facts left to prove it. And in spite of the theory being over a century old, there has never been a single datum that goes against it. It would only take one datum to destroy the theory completely. A fibula from a modern domestic cat found next to a T-Rex tooth would disprove the whole thing. If a fragment of genetic code unique to dingos were found in a European Wolf, we’d have to start from scratch.

The burden of proof argument is a sound one. It is something I like to think that I stick to rigorously. So we evolutionists are putting forward the notion that evolution is a fact. And we (I say we, I of course mean the really clever people who do the research, I’m just the angry shouty man getting mad at idiots) have supplied the required quantity and quality of proof of our claims, and then continued on to deliver more and more and more. It’s at this point even the most cynical of you must be starting to say, “well alright, there’s clearly SOMETHING to this idea…”

This isn’t quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is hard to wrap your head around. As the famous Feymann quote goes, “If you think you understand Quantum theory, then you don’t understand Quantum theory”. No, evolution is elegant and beautiful chiefly because it is at it’s core so simple. Creatures change. If the change is good, the change survives in that species. If it’s bad, it dies out. It’s so simple, and it’s so provable, and it’s so very, very obviously TRUE.

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Complaint

Over the weekend, something happened for the first time. I felt compelled to write a letter of complaint.

I’m not trying to claim that I don’t like a good whinge. In fact I tend to complain a lot. It’s just that I’m rarely irritated enough by anything as to want to make that complaint a public and official one.

But on Friday evening, BBC2 made a last minute decision to pull the billed episode of QI from the schedule, replacing it with a very recently aired episode. My troubles with this are twofold.

Trouble the first is something of a minor gripe, but if a TV channel decides it is going to remove a new episode of a series and replace it with a re-run, for whatever reason, why did they have to re-run such a recent episode? Run an old one, the contents of which I have mostly forgotten!

Trouble the second, and the real heart of the matter, is the reason for the decision (for which I had to do some not inconsiderable rooting around the internet). Some back-story is required, so if you’re a follower of lazy, sensationalist news reporting here in the UK, feel free to skip to the last couple of paragraphs.

Not too long ago (just after the public sector strike of November 30th) journalist, TV presenter and professional arse Jeremy Clarkson appeared on The One Show, and said a couple of things that caused a stir. The second thing he said (don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything, I’m doing it in this order on purpose) was something about people who commit suicide by throwing themselves under trains. This comment could quite well have been quite insulting and offensive. Indeed, the presenters of the programme felt the need to apologise for it, but for all the will in the world I cannot find a clip or transcript of it anywhere on the internet. I suppose all the people it offended just threw themselves under a train.

The first thing he said has been cluttering up the news for days now. You all must know what I mean:

“Frankly, I’d have [the strikers] all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families.”

But that isn’t what he said. Any more than you could claim I believed in God from this article. Has nobody in the news heard of context!? What he actually said is this.

As I’m sure you can see, the truncated quotation does initially appear to be the words of, frankly, a cunt. But when you see the whole transcript, it’s clearly just a piece of satire – Clarkson himself points this out:

Matt Baker: Well, on that note of balancing an opinion, of course those are Jeremy’s views.

Alex Jones: Only Jeremy’s views.

Jeremy Clarkson: They’re not. I’ve just given two views for you.”

Am I the only one who sees that? “They’re not.” He’s saying it right there, directly. They are not his views. He was just making a joke. A joke that might be close to the bone for some, but that’s what he does. It’s what he’s renowned for. And much like Bill Grundy, the interviewers on The One Show asked Clarkson a question to which they knew his answer would be inflammatory. They even introduced him as someone who holds offensive, unbalanced and controversial views. What did they expect? What did they think he was going to say?

So, back to my letter of complaint. Where was I?

BBC2 made the decision to pull QI from our screens on Friday because that particular episode – reportedly featuring no offensive comments, unpleasant remarks, nasty asides and definitely nothing about the strikes (it was filmed in summer) – because Jeremy Clarkson was a panellist. That’s it. Due to a coincidence of scheduling, that episode, filmed months in advance, was booted by the Beeb because someone on it had since said something extrapolated by the tabloid media into something that might be construed as offensive about an event that, at the time of filming, hadn’t even been planned.

The BBC have painted themselves cowards in my eyes. They should not stand back and do nothing, pissing themselves at the thought of a little media interest. They should defend Clarkson’s right to express his views in a public forum when asked a direct question about them, and asked by the BBC themselves no less. They should remind viewers that they have the option, if they disapprove of Clarkson, not to watch the TV when he is on it. His name is next to the show in the Radio Times. And they should allow the petty whines of a couple of thousand people ruin Friday evenings for me and the millions of other people that watch QI every week!

I was so irritated I sent the BBC a petty complaint. Hypocrisy? Me?

Children

Anyone who read my previous post would be forgiven for believing that I don’t believe there’s a purpose to life. This is not the case. Okay, when I say purpose, I’m not referring to a poetic, meaning-of-life, deity-imbued purpose. But we are here for a reason, and that reason is at once simple and incredibly complicated: procreation.
There is a good reason we enjoy sex. It’s evolution’s way of encouraging us to breed. The adrenaline pumps. Those endorphins hit. Sex is a cacophony of chemical delights for our nervous system. Because human psychology is a complex beast, the stimuli that get us going can be anything, and occasionally that can lead to inappropriate, unseemly and even immoral sexual desires and activity, but happily most people have a fairly healthy sexual appetite. Sex is much like food in this respect.
I’ve been lucky enough over the past couple of years, both from a personal and a scientific perspective, to have the chance to watch a child grow up. I’ve known my godson Reuben since he was but a twinkle in his father’s eye, and I’ve watched him (somewhat indirectly for the first 9 months, obviously) grow from a single cell into a happy, giggling little boy of 2 and a bit years. To say that it is a miracle to behold would be both insulting to the process of multicellular development and a gross misunderstanding of what constitutes a miracle, but it does seem an oddly apt word to use.
Take the human eye. Well, any creature’s eye really, but seeing as I’m talking about watching Reuben develop, and I assume we’re taking it as read that he’s human, take the human eye. It is a very complicated piece of kit. Its very existence is fantastic (there’s a book called Life Assending by Nick Lane that describes the process of its evolution far more eloquently than I could hope to) but to have the chance to watch a human eye gain focus and control is an honour all in and of itself. But this is just one little part of the parcel of watching children grow up.
Until the day I die I will always be astonished with the ease with which a child’s brain learns. The speed with which they can absorb, process, assimilate and interpret data they’ve never come across before is truly incredible. The other day a 4 year old schooled me on the subject of 3D shapes. I was very impressed. I don’t remember doing 3D shapes in school until I was 7 or 8.
It is difficult to not be amazed and perplexed by children growing up. It is a privilege to behold. Maybe miracle is the right term after all. Just, not including the God bit…

Creation

Today I want to talk to you about God. (I’ll pause incase you want to gasp).
I am not a man of faith. I have no belief in any God or gods, and I have no belief in any supernatural phenomena. I am an empiricist. I take a notion to be the truth once there is proof for it. And there is no proof for God. There is no proof for psychics, or fairies, or astrology, or fortune tellers, or voodoo, or homeopathy, or the invisible pink unicorn. To paraphrase the great Tim Minchin, if anyone can show me one example in the history of the world of any of the above being proved under reasonable experimental conditions, I will drop dead of shock.
But if a person chooses to believe in the mystic or the spiritual or the religious, fine. Really, go ahead, fill your boots. As long as you extend me the same courtesy, believe whatever you like. I will mock you of course, but feel free to mock me in return, in your own misguided, ridiculous way.
With one proviso.
I hate creationism. And unlike the catholic church and its position on homosexuality (hate the sin, love the sinner) I hate creationists too. The whole thing deeply offends me.
It’s one thing to assume (incorrectly, because it is demonstrably possible without him) that God facilities the evolutionary process. Or that he lit the fuse on the big bang. But it is another thing entirely to fly in the face of irrefutable evidence and claim the earth is only 4000 years old and exsists now exactly as it was then. There were civilisations that have left records that stretch further back than that, one of them being Judaism, from which all western religions evolved.
The people who follow such bullshit dogma are pissing on hundreds of years of hard scientific graft, and are abusing (or sometimes flat out not using) the one thing that sets us apart from the animals – our fantastic intellect. If you have made the conscious decision to completely reject half a century of hard fact in favour of some asinine fantasy about a magical zombie space Jew, you aren’t deserved of a mind.
Young earth creationists and young earth creationism have long been held as the bane of the scientific intelligentsia. To me though, they’re worse than that. To me they are an insult to everything it means to be human, to everything that has existed, exsists today or ever will exsist, everywhere, ever, and they are a personal insult to every free thinking human being on the planet.
I like to think if there was a God, he would agree with me.

L’espirit d’escalier

I have something of an admission of guilt to articulate. I have just noticed that the username I chose for this blog, “thehumanwikipedia”, has been spelt wrong. I’m not too proud to admit this was almost entirely probably my own fault. But it does rub me up entirely the wrong way when such indelible errors are made, especially when I made them. Especially so when the error calls into question the very nature of the idea the erroneously-spelled username was initially trying to portray, in this case that I am bookish, smart and worldly. Especially when the original spelling of Wikipedia should really be Wikipædia if the Americans (and I’m referring to you, Jimmy Wales) weren’t so insistent upon buggering up the English language, but that is a gripe for another time.
Public apologies aside, isn’t it just typical though? I must have spelled wikipedia properly innumerable times when visiting it on the www, but the one time it matters how I spell it, or at least that I notice I’ve messed up, inevitably it goes wrong. Alright, fine, if you insist upon pedantry, I got it wrong.
It’s part of a wider phenomenon that we humans suffer I think. Our mouths (or in my case typing fingers) tend to go at a speed that leaves our brains sometimes wondering what in God’s name just happened. This is what leads us to accidentally insult our bosses, get into fights with drunkards or have sex with your best friend’s girlfriend. Remember, it’s not an excuse, it’s just an explanation.
When our brains go slower than other peoples’ mouths, we encounter what the French quite poetically refer to as l’espirit d’escalier, or “staircase wit”. This refers to the joke that you think of on the stairs on your way out of someone’s house that would have been hilarious in response to that thing that Moreen said about Arthur’s knee four hours ago. I like this phrase. I like it so much that I wrote this whole blog just to mention the phrase.
Sorry to have wasted your time.

A tech-quiem

Technology eh?

In today’s fast paced world it’s easy to ignore little gadgetry miracles that make our lives so simple today. It’s easy to vent spleen and fury every time your wireless router drops your high-speed fibre-optic broadband connection for the second time this month, or you haven’t quite got enough signal on your 3G, dual-core, high definition smartphone to stream the latest YouTube clip of a cat playing Greensleeves.

I’m not an old man. I’m 22. I can scarcely remember a time before mobile phones, before Windows 95. But as I type this on a laptop that cost a fraction over £400, with a thousand times the processing power of the entire mission control base that put Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon, I can’t help but be struck by how far we’ve come.

Created in 1966, the Apollo Guidance Computer that successfully took the 9 Apollo missions to the moon and back, was at the time one of the most sophisticated pieces of gadgetry that the human race had ever conjured. Using a 2.048 MHz crystal oscillator for a processor and a ROM bank totalling  122 bytes, it took those famous astronauts on that 500,000 mile round trip.

Two years later, Intel released the 4004 microprocessor, the first commercial unit of its kind and the basis for all modern microprocessors. This, by degrees, and through the hard labours of thousands of brilliant men, led us via the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, to the high def, high speed high-life that we all take for granted today.

Dreamers created our world. People in the mid seventies invented the microchip to further the human spirit of exploration. I personally think we should show more gratitude in the way we use technology these days. Would those dreamers have bothered if they had known we’d just use it for porn and piano-playing pets?