Friday, December 28, 2007

My Predictions for 2008

It's that time of year when all kinds of bat-shit insane people psychics, prophets and soothsayers come out of the woodwork making all sorts of psychic predictions about the coming year. Some of them come true. Most of them don't.

Making general and vague predictions is easy. In the interests of proving that no psychic powers are necessary to make a list of predictions with a relatively high hit-rate, I will employ my modest intellect, general knowledge and Wikipedia to produce twenty two predictions for the year 2008 CE (as per the Gregorian Calendar).

A year from now, I'll come back to these predictions and we'll make a tally of how many I got right. We can then compare my score to that of a psychic (or more than one) and see how I perform relative to them. I don't have a particular psychic in mind, so if you'd like to suggest some, please leave a comment.

When it comes to the nasty ones I hope I'll be wrong, but I don't expect to be.

1. The winner of the United States presidential election will be a tall, good-looking man. Or will at least be the tallest and/or best-looking of the available candidates. He will be a Church-going Christian.
2. Scientists will make startling new discoveries about Dark Matter and/or Dark Energy that will threaten to overturn our understanding of the cosmos.
3. The South-East coastal regions of the United States will be lashed by several severe storms during the summer.
4. Many people will be left homeless and some will be killed in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and parts of Mozambique in the first quarter of the year as a result of floods.
5. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people will die in natural disasters (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or tsunami) in the Pacific regions and parts of the Middle-East.
6. Danie Krugel will not acknowledge our challenge.
7. Astronomers will discover many new exoplanets and identify several new places where life might exist.
8. I will complete my 29th trip around the sun.
9. The petrol price will increase substantially after the oil price increases.
10.The petrol price will increase substantially after the oil price decreases.
11. The petrol price will increase substantially after the Rand/Dollar exchange rate improves.
12. The petrol price will increase substantially after the exchange rate worsens.
13. A prominent South African government official will be accused of fraud or misappropriation of funds, but those accusations will disappear and never result in formal charges.
14. A formerly obscure website will suddenly become very popular, prompting "experts" to claim that it will drastically change the way we communicate or do business.
15. It will not substantially affect the way we communicate or do business.
16. The South African Reserve Bank will increase the prime lending rate.
17. It will be revealed that Iran was never attempting to produce nuclear weapons. This will not prevent President Bush from claiming that Iran is a major threat.
18. A number of people will be trampled to death by a crowd in Saudi Arabia in the last weeks of the year.
19. Israel will engage in violent encounters with its neighbours. There will be casualties on both sides, but Israel will report that they have fewer than the other side.
20. The flying car will not be released to the consumer market.
21. A woman in either North Africa or the Middle East will be treated to unfathomable cruelty after breaking an oppressive and misogynistic law. She will then be pardoned after significant international pressure is exerted on her government. The law will not be changed.
22. The world as we know it will not end.

There you have it. Stay away from those bad places, or be careful if you can't avoid them. Have a safe and pleasant 2008!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gareth Cliff Gets Away With Blasphemy

Not really.

The BCCSA has ruled that Cliff's statements were neither blasphemous nor offensive enough to justify censure if you actually paid attention to what he said.

Even if his statements were blasphemous or offensive, does he not still have the right to say them? Doesn't the same law that protects the Christians' and Muslims' right to attend their religious services and preach their religious doctrine in public also protect Cliff's right to spout Atheistic rhetoric on the radio?

Letter to Danie Krugel

I have just sent Danie Krugel the following email:

Greetings Danie

My name is Owen Swart, and I represent an organisation called the USS Dauntless. We are a Star Trek fan club based in Johannesburg, but we have members and affiliates in a number of countries around the world.

The USS Dauntless is interested in pursuing social and scientific goals that will bring society closer to the utopian ideal as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry and depicted in the Star Trek television series and feature films. It's therefore very exciting to us whenever a new technology is developed that may help us with our mission.

As you may be aware, in Star Trek the characters employ an array of futuristic technologies in their mission of discovery and exploration. One of those technologies is a portable scanning device called a Tricorder.

The Tricorder has a variety of scanning capabilities, suitable for any number of possible applications. One of the applications it has is to track and locate specific individuals over long distances by searching for their DNA.

Based on our analysis of media reports, that is precisely what your machine seems to be capable of. As a result, we are very excited at the prospect of being able to employ such a device in real life.

We would like to offer our free assistance to you in the form of a controlled, double-blind test to see if the machine works as described.

We propose that we provide you with DNA samples of a number of volunteers. After using your machine to accurately determine the locations of the individual volunteers to within a reasonable margin of error (that we can agree upon beforehand), we will know how accurate the machine is.

We ask for no remuneration for this test. It is enough for us to be involved in the process of creating such a wonderful new technology, the repercussions of which are, no doubt, as apparent to you as they are to us.

We eagerly anticipate your response.

Yours in Trek.

Captain Owen Swart
Commanding Officer
USS Dauntless NCC-74214

I also sent off some press releases. We'll see if he responds.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Megawatt Park in the dark : Mail & Guardian Online

Megawatt Park in the dark : Mail & Guardian Online

LOL! Excellent.

Atheism in Star Trek

I received this article on the STARFLEET News Service feed this morning.

Although I agree with the general idea of what the author is trying to say, I feel it necessary to clarify his description of Star Trek as "atheist".

First of all, I don't know if Gene Roddenberry (The Great Bird of the Galaxy himself) was actually an atheist. I'm not aware of any statement he made either confirming or denying this. Although I don't think it's unlikely. He was a communist, of sorts, and therefore of a considerably secular bent. Atheism, secularism and communism are often found together.

That being said, it should also be noted that although The Great Bird did invent Star Trek, and retained considerable creative control over the first two seasons of the Original Series, the first six feature films and the first few seasons of The Next Generation, he was actually involved in creating less than half the sum total of all Star Trek. And even then, he wasn't responsible for every creative decision made under his command. Roddenberry was, by all accounts, a team player who took a lot of input from the experts he surrounded himself with.

Taking all of that into account, it's probably quite a fair comment to suggest that overall, Star Trek has a pretty atheistic (or at least non-theistic) message. Despite several references in the Original Series to the "real God" or the "one God", presumably put in place in order to appease the conservative Christians of the day, most of the characters are atheists or agnostics.

In every case when we encounter a god or gods in Star Trek, the being in question turns out to be just another life-form, or in some cases a sophisticated computer. One episode, Who Watches the Watchers, even deals with Captain Picard becoming the object of a newly formed religion amongst a community of primitive aliens.

Some of the characters in Star Trek are religious despite the knowledge that the objects of their adoration are not divine.

Most notably are the highly religious Bajorans whose gods, The Prophets, turn out to be a community of non-linear, non-corporeal aliens living inside a nearby wormhole. Despite this discovery, the Bajorans continue to practice their religion, praying to and worshipping these life-forms who are only peripherally aware of their existence.

Commander Chakotay, a Native American descendent, practices his religious rituals in full knowledge of the science behind his trance-like states and hallucinations. This doesn't seem to stop him.

I don't think it's fair, however, to claim that Captain Kirk killed God. This statement is obviously referring to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. In this film, a crazed Vulcan hijacks the Enterprise and takes its crew on a trip to the centre of the galaxy, where he believes is the place that creation began. Although the rest of the crew and passengers appear convinced, and even Kirk goes along with the whole thing, it's never clearly stated that the place is Eden, and the being encountered there is God.

Rather, I feel that the conversation between Kirk and the "God" entity confirms that the being in question is yet another alien life-form, who only pretends to be God. We've seen at least one other character like this in Star Trek: the alien Ardra posed as an evil deity in the TNG episode Devil's Due. Also the manifestation in which the being presents itself (as a large, glowing, translucent head) is also shown in another episode, also close to the "centre of the galaxy". Although it's never stated explicitly, I think it's quite obvious that the "God" Kirk killed was a rogue Cytherian who contacted Sybok by means of a mind-altering probe.

The Star Trek universe is thick with god-like beings (Q, Douwds, Metrons, Organians, Olympians, Prophets, Pah Wraiths, Sporocystians and so on), none of whom are actually the God of Earth's monotheistic faiths.

It could be argued that Star Trek just never examines that god, or that Star Trek maintains he doesn't exist. Either way, I don't think there is enough concrete evidence in Star Trek canon to be able to make a conclusive call in either direction.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Some disturbing trends

I am a monkey. Sort of. As such, I have a brain specially evolved for pattern recognition.

My monkey-brain, like yours, is so good at seeing patterns that we often see patterns where none exist. This is a malfunction that leads to all sorts of difficulties, like belief in the supernatural. But it seems to help us more often than it harms us, so it's probably not too bad a deal.

Lately my monkey brain has been picking up some things that appear to be patterns. When I project those patterns to their logical conclusions, they worry me.

This will be the first in a sort of series of posts in which I examine these patterns, point out where I detected them, and discuss why they concern me.

The first such trend is particularly topical at the moment. It's probably too early to consider it a pattern at all, but if the next event turns out the way I predict it will, I will start to worry.

I first detected it a few weeks ago, when Deon Maas, a columnist for a local newspaper, was fired after writing a somewhat objective article about Satanism.

From what I understand, the sequence of events was as follows:
  1. A young goth got into a fight with her neighbors.
  2. The neighbours, apparently not familiar with goth culture, tipped off the police about suspicious activity in her flat.
  3. The police performed a search of the premises, found illicit substances and arrested the girl. The police also found a lot of goth paraphernalia (black clothes, candles, defaced Bibles and so on) in her home, indicating that she is probably a practising Satanist.
  4. The police are now investigating her, not only for possession of illegal substances, but also for "Satanism" as if Satanism itself is a crime.
  5. Maas wrote a column in defense of the girl, trying to make the point that Satanists are as entitled to practice their religion as anyone else is, provided they don't commit a crime in doing so (he got some fact wrong, claiming that Satanists are devil worshippers, as opposed to Atheists, but this was an ancillary point in his article)
  6. The newspaper, after having printed his column, received a plague of protests from their readership. They decided to let Maas go in favour of not losing their readership.

Now, this is a pretty complicated issue, with various sub-issues clustered together.

Firstly, why would the police charge this girl with "Satanism"? I have only Maas' word on this fact, but since he was fired rather than issuing a retraction, I take it he's pretty certain of his facts in this case. I'll provisionally assume that he got that part right. The SAPS has, supposedly, one of the most sophisticated and experienced occult units in the world. Surely they would know that real Satanists are almost always good, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who wouldn't hurt a fly.

It's only teenagers who practice the church's idea of what Satanism is in order to rebel against their religious upbringings that actually do illegal things... nasty things. This isn't real Satanism. Surely the SAPS would know that? If they did know that, then it seems unlikely that the story is accurate. Or somehow it is a crime to practice Satanism - a clear violation of her constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Assuming the story is accurate, and practising Satanism is a crime, that worries me big time. It means that the laws of the land are incompatible and contradictory. The enforcement of any given law would then rest on the personal ideology of the police officers, lawyers and judges involved in the case. That troubles me.

The next issue is that of personal responsibility. Maas wrote the article, but presumably it would have had to be approved by one of the newspaper's editors before being printed. Maas himself should have taken personal responsibility for the content of the article until he submitted it to the editor. The decision would have rested on the editor's shoulders whether or not to actually print it, not so? Therefore, if there was a negative response from the readership, it should have been the editor, not Maas, whose head should have rolled. But I digress.

I understand that a newspaper is a business, and they are entitled to take any steps within the law in order to ensure they they continue to make a profit. But why would their first step be to fire the guy? Should they not have stepped up and defended his journalistic integrity? Should they not have attempted to set the record straight, educated their audience and explained the fact that Maas has the right to say what he thinks, especially within the context of an editorial?

Another issue is the readers who complained to begin with. Of course they have the right to complain about something they find offensive, but does no-one see value in doing a little research before signing a petition? Are these people so blind to their own actions that they honestly can't see the inherent hypocrisy of their actions?

Those readers, almost exclusively Christians, no doubt, go to church every week and read out of the same book that issues directive after directive, ordering them to spill the blood of infidels, convert the heathens at the end of a sword, and slay those who will not believe. Satanists are worse than Christians how exactly?

It boils down to this: those Christians are so sensitive about their religious convictions that they will stop at nothing, ruin as many lives as necessary, to make sure that nobody offends their delicate sensibilities.

This pattern has repeated itself again this week. Gareth Cliff, 5fm presenter, made a flippant comment about Mohammed the Bear on his show which prompted a complaint from a listener. He then retorted to the listener, being dismissive of her religious faith and now faces possible censure by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

I don't pretend to defend Gareth Cliff. I don't like his show, I don't like his style of presentation, and I don't agree with the way he handled the situation. But, I recognise his right to say whatever he wants as long as it doesn't harm anyone. How did what he said harm anybody? Has he gone and ruined Islam for everyone now? Has his petty little tirade injured anyone in any tangible way? No.

Before I'm accused of being hypocritical, I also support the listener's right to complain about his statements. 5fm is owned by SABC, our state broadcaster. If Cliff, as a representative of our state, makes comments that someone finds offensive then of course they should complain. Whether anyone should take that complaint seriously or not is another matter altogether, and that is what I am waiting to see.

If the BCC decides that Cliff should indeed be censured for his statements, then it is clear that they are not in favour of our constitutional right to freedom of speech. What he said was silly, childish and rude, but it was not hate speech. It didn't incite anyone to violence, and it didn't cause anyone any lasting damage.

Maas is a victim, and I predict that Cliff will be a victim of our society's obsession with political correctness, and pandering to the religious as if religion is the only aspect of our culture that is beyond reproach and hard-hitting public discourse.

The pattern here that concerns me is that the religious, who should be gradually losing their stranglehold over our society after the fall of the Dutch Reformed Church's theocratic rule under Apartheid, seem to be gaining momentum. Somehow our allegedly secular state is trying harder and harder to pander to the religious instead of defending the rights of those legitimately entitled to them.

I can foresee a hypothetical situation in which I might be put in this position. I might do something to offend a religious person, and that person would be able to visit unjust retribution upon me, and be allowed to do so because they are religious and I am not. The constitution is supposed to protect us all equally, not to favour certain people over others as a result of their particular ideological beliefs.

This is why I am worried about this trend: the religious people are being treated as higher-class citizens. As soon as that sort of thing happens, oppression follows.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Gareth Cliff faces BCC tribunal for blasphemy « moonflake

I'm not a Gareth Cliff fan, but this whole thing is ridiculous.

Gareth Cliff faces BCC tribunal for blasphemy « moonflake

Quote for the day: "Because if the religious deserve any kind of respect, it’s the same respect you would give to the clinically insane." - Moonflake

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Bridge to SciOps: Report!

There’s a new sceptical kid on the South African block, and it’s me! ...and some other guys.

As my regular readers will no doubt be aware, I am something of a Star Trek fanatic, to the extent that I have founded my own Star Trek fan club (now defunct) and currently serve as a chapter president of another Star Trek fan club, The USS Dauntless, as well as a member of the board of directors of its parent organisation, STARFLEET International (SFI).

Although I’ve self-identified as a Trekkie far longer than I have done as a sceptic, for me the two are linked.

Although I always enjoyed Star Trek, I became a serious Trekkie around the time I discovered the Internet: about ten years ago. I was captivated by the sheer depth of it. The more I learned, the more I found there was to learn. So I delved into it, poring over books, trawling the bowels of the web, and I have emerged, as a butterfly from a cocoon, one of the most knowledgeable Trekkies I know. And I know many.

As part of my exploration of Star Trek, I developed a fondness for science. Again, this wasn’t new. As a little boy I was captivated by books on space exploration, which is probably one of the reasons I enjoyed Star Trek so much. I remember watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos over and over again, trying to absorb it all, but not really possessing the necessary understanding to parse it.

After being subjected to the sheer irrelevance of the high-school science curriculum, I lost interest in all things scientific. But that didn’t last long. Thanks to Star Trek I regained by interest in how the world worked.

In order to really appreciate the depth of the Star Trek experience, it required that I get to know an awful lot of science… beyond the silly experiments in high-school and onto the really interesting stuff: relativity, quantum physics, evolution, sociology, linguistics and any number of other disciplines were brought into the fray.

The more I got to know Star Trek the more enamoured I became by science. I inevitably discovered the sceptical movement and the value of critical thinking: a discovery that has inspired me even more than my initial discovery of Star Trek.

But I’m still a Trekkie, and now a sceptic. It took me a while, but I’ve finally figured out how to combine the two. Two weeks ago I announced on the USS Dauntless mailing list that I was forming a new team: Special Scientific Operations (SciOps). The SciOps team’s mission is:

To perform investigations, publicise results, promote critical thinking and generally support and advance the scientific imperative within its community and the on the Internet.
Some of you will be aware that there are already some sceptical organisations in South Africa. The South African Sceptics and Sceptics South Africa are both excellent groups, but their respective missions appear to be more along the lines of creating a sceptics’ community and publicising the sceptics’ perspective to the general public. Both are valuable and necessary.

But I think there’s a need for a group that will get its hands dirty and actually perform scientific investigations into claims of the paranormal, rather than sitting around talking about investigations performed by others. SciOps will be that group.

Since STARFLEET is based on the fictional Starfleet (the scientific and exploratory service of the United Federation of Planets, as depicted in Star Trek, of course) it stands to reason that we should be actively involved in the advancement of science and its companion, scepticism. And what makes it even more exciting is that it can be done in the name of Star Trek, furthering the SFI mission of pursuing “Gene’s Dream ”.

I’m looking forward to being more than just an armchair scientist and vocal sceptic, and actually getting involved in the real thing. Furthermore, I invite you all to join us in our mission!

LifeWave part III: Things get strange

As I mentioned in my previous post on my battle against LifeWave, I have submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa. There was some correspondence back and forth in order to establish exactly what the details of my complaint were, but it has now been scheduled for investigation. That means we should hear a result in the next few weeks. These things take time.

In the mean-time, however, I have been receiving some correspondence from a Gordon Compson, who identifies himself as an "Independent LifeWave Consultant". I haven't responded to him privately since the only place he could have found me was through this blog. I decided that even though he was clearly too cowardly to leave a public comment on my blog itself, I would respond to his messages here, for all of you to see.

The first email I received was as follows:
Sure there are skeptics... I was too until I tried them, maybe you should too!
That scam site has been running since we's amazing what the drug companies will do to shoot us down & keep people from trying us.
We're getting lots of the Asian market now because that understand the technology more than the US. I'm in NY and have Malaysian down line using the patches because I helped one girl sleep better by sending her some samples! Video Search Results - Lifewave - AOL Video
Send me your address & I'll send you some info that will set your mind free if they work or not.
Gordon Compson Independent Lifewave consultant ...

Okay, let's do it one line at a time:

Sure there are skeptics... I was too until I tried them, maybe you should too!
Gordon, I have absolutely no reason to believe that you have experienced any positive effects from using the Nanopatch. Even if you had furnished me with the details of your anecdote, it would still be an anecdote. Anecdote does not equal evidence.

That scam site has been running since we's amazing what the drug companies will do to shoot us down & keep people from trying us.

What scam site? YouTube? My blog? Note the thinly veiled conspiracy theory he sneaked in there.

If the drug companies really thought you posed any threat to them, they would have bought LifeWave out, or reverse-engineered your devices and released their own versions. The drug companies aren't interested in you, Gordon. Nor should they be.

Dealing with your kind of idiocy shouldn't be the responsibility of the real scientists who have important work to do, but rather the sceptics and consumer protection organisations - like me, JREF, the ASASA and USS Dauntless SciOps.

We're getting lots of the Asian market now because that understand the technology more than the US. I'm in NY and have Malaysian down line using the patches because I helped one girl sleep better by sending her some samples!
It's fascinating that you are selling your scam products in Asia. Of course I have no way of verifying that, and you haven't provided any proof of it. Also, you will notice that I live in neither Asia nor the United States. So your Appeal to Authority (the logical fallacy you have committed here) falls a little flat.

Also, it doesn't matter how many people buy it. Billions of people buy cigarettes every day. Does that mean they're good for you? What matters is data. Give us the data, and we might believe you.

Here's something interesting. You used the term "down line" and call yourself an "Independent consultant". That sounds like MLM terminology to me. So you are using a scam to perpetuate another? Nothing new: scam products often can't cut it in the open market, so they must rely on the viral marketing techniques employed by pyramid schemes.

Who is the little girl you helped? What is her name? Where are the clinical results of the study you performed? Where are the results of all the other little girls you have similarly helped using the same technique? More to the point, what about all the other people who have not been helped in any way by using your product? What is the success/failure rate?
Send me your address & I'll send you some info that will set your mind free if they work or not.
I'll not send you my address, Gordon. That doesn't seem to have prevented you from sending me emails though. This website provides a perfectly good forum for this discussion. If you really can "set my mind free", you can do it here.

Gordon sent me two more emails that were even less coherent than the one above, providing lists of links to more anecdotal accounts, marketing videos clearly produced by LifeWave themselves and some people claiming to be reformed sceptics. I may reproduce them here at some point, but I trust I've made my point: I am unconvinced and unimpressed.

You'll need to do better than that, Gordon.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Golden Compass: Narnia for Atheists

Sounds like this fantasy film (the first of a trilogy) is aimed squarely at competing with the Narnia series.

Having been written by an atheist/agnostic, Phillip Pullman, and allegedly carrying an anti-Christian message it is causing quite a stir in the religious community. This is to be expected.

My Irony-O-Meter nearly popped a sprocket when I saw this.

[Bishop Rubin] Phillip said he was saddened because the film was aimed at children, saying this was cowardly.
As opposed to what exactly? Teaching children from birth that if they don't follow the difficult and even impossible laws laid down by an invisible man in the sky, they will suffer indescribable torment for infinite time. That seems much better.

The Golden Compass is a fantasy movie. I can't imagine it carrying an atheistic message any stronger than the pro-Christian message carried by C.S. Lewis' Narnia series... which wasn't very strong.

Even though I would love to see more children's entertainment with an agnostic or atheist bent, I don't expect the Golden Compass to be as controversial as I would like. I don't expect it will do any more damage to the theists' systematic indoctrination of the young and feeble-minded than Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings have done.

On the plus side, my interest in seeing this movie has risen from 0 to 1.3 on a scale of 10.