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January 5, 2008

Happy New Year (5/1/2008)
That about says it all. If your particular culture doesn't see the new year in on January 1 then you can have this one as a freebie and you can consider yourself lucky because you get to celebrate twice. Last year wasn't the best ever for my family and me, but we are looking forward to much goodness in the year ahead. We might even actually get around to that move out of the city that we have been promising ourselves for some time. We had held off for a while to allow global warming to raise sea levels enough to give Ratbag Castle a water frontage, but that's taking too long. In any case, an ornithologist has told me that once the waves start encroaching on the estate the peacocks will face serious competition from seagulls. I have also been told that llamas have an unexplained but irresistible urge to swim in large bodies of water and the herd could face a serious threat from the sharks which infest any salt water in contact with the Australian continent. Cody the Religion Hating Dog likes the idea of having seagulls to chase because the llamas kick him, the Komodo dragons can be very nasty if disturbed and the peacocks are used to him and don't run away any more, but he doesn't have a vote. (One of the criteria for selection of a country town, along with good broadband connection and a friendly pub, is a source of Baptists for Cody to bark at.)

If people insist on giving me Christmas presents I usually ask that they give me books or music (although no fewer than two people gave me bottles of Jim Beam whiskey - I obviously need an image reassignment somewhere). I am right now listening to La Scala by Keith Jarrett, and a very pleasant experience that is too (even without a shot of JB). Her Majesty gave me a book about sex named . You can stop thinking what you are thinking immediately, because it is by biologist Niles Eldredge and has the subtitle "Rethinking sex and the selfish gene". It presents a well-argued case against some of the ideas proposed by Richard Dawkins. One of the ways in which science differs from woowoo and pseudoscience is that highly-qualified and respected scientists like Dawkins and Eldredge can have differing views about something (in this case the mechanisms of evolution) without causing the universe to implode. Creationists (and medical quacks, and climate change deniers, and holocaust deniers, and ...) love disputes like this because they rely on the false dichotomy logical fallacy - if there is dispute between and among scientists about something then something else must be the true answer. People who can think (or who choose to think, which might not be the same thing) can see that disagreement about details is not disagreement about principles.

I also received a couple of useful appliances for Christmas. One was a coffee grinder which doubles as one of these:

See more Close to Home here

Speaking of false dichotomies ... (5/1/2008)
In an Internet forum a person claiming to be a Christian disagreed with someone by saying "The only man to walk out of his grave after being dead for 3 days says you're wrong". I am always impressed by the lack of knowledge of the Bible demonstrated by true believers, so I asked him who he was talking about. It can't be Jesus, because he died on Friday and was resurrected sometime before dawn on Sunday. That might be "on the third day" but that is not the same as "3 days", and there is no mention in the Bible of him walking out of the grave. And it's not Lazarus either, because "he had lain in the grave four days already" before Jesus arrived at his tomb.

The true believer and Bible expert responded with two crushing and irrefutable arguments:

  1. Jesus was dead for three days, these days being 3pm Friday to 6pm Friday, 6pm Friday to 6pm Saturday, 6pm Saturday to some time on Sunday morning.
  2. Because it couldn't be Lazarus the only possibility was that it must have been Jesus.

At that point I gave up the conversation with the idiot. I have enough of a problem dealing with people who take holy books literally without wasting time with people who rely on what the books don't say.

A great night out. For some. (5/1/2008)
In Someone with talentmy home town of Sydney, the hot act performing a show tonight is Brian Wilson (and I can't be there - grrrr!!). A bit north in Queensland it is John Edward. There are some similarities and differences between the two performers. Everyone was invited to see Brian Wilson for an entry price of "free". Skeptics like me were specifically invited to see John Edward for an entry price of $90. Both will be entertaining the audience with memories. In Brian's case it is memories of when we were young and great music was being written. (And before you start, great music is still being written but I am "of a certain age".) John Edward will be entertaining the audience with memories of the late Steve Irwin and dead relatives of other people in the audience. The difference is that Brian will not be pretending to sing and play, and he will not be pretending that anyone other than him is responsible for the words uttered on stage. Edward will be pretending to talk to dead people and will be pretending that the messages he delivers are coming from those dead people. One is a performer who mightn't be as good as he used to be but who will present an honest show highlighting his impressive creative talent. The other is a fraud who will do a poor imitation of a magic act and claim that he has super powers. The crowds in Sydney's domain tonight might be a bit uncomfortable in the rain, but if they had paid a thousand dollars and Brian Wilson only performed Good Vibrations they would have had far better value for money than anyone who paid as little as one cent to see Edward do his mediocre tricks.

See more good stuff at The Funny Times

Crikey! No Steve! (6/1/2008)
In a surprising update to the story above, John Edward was not able to contact the spirit of the late Steve Irwin, despite performing in the Crocoseum amphitheatre at Steve's Australian Zoo. The 4,500 people who had paid $90 each must have been disappointed (especially the ones who dressed in khaki shorts for the occasion), but the excuse given by Terri Irwin was that it didn't matter because Steve is all around the place anyway. Well, if his spirit permeates the place, why couldn't Edward talk to him? You and I (and Edward) know the answer to that.

I had predicted that Edward would not be dumb enough to try to get away with a channelling of Irwin in front of an audience of fans and I was right. My suggestion that the Crocoseum should have been renamed the Crock o' Shit for the night was also prescient, but I didn't have to be even as psychic as John Edward to predict that the night would be a farce.

Could there be some hope? (5/1/2008)
My state government has moved to control the quackery industry and make them more accountable:

Tough penalties flagged for alternative health industry

The New South Wales Government says a new code of conduct will help stamp out unethical behaviour in the alternative health industry.

The draft code, to be introduced today, will cover all unregistered medical practitioners, including counsellors, massage therapists and naturopaths.

Health Minister Reba Meagher says the code of conduct will bring a greater level of accountability to the state's health care workers.

"The introduction of a code of conduct will require unregistered medical practitioners to conduct themselves in an ethical and honest manner," she said.

"If they fall short of that, the HCCC [Health Care Complaints Commission] will be able to take action against them, which may include precluding that practitioner from operating."

Ms Meagher says conditions could also be placed on unethical practitioners under the code.

The draft code will be finalised in February.

Unfortunately, I fear that this will have the same effect as previous attempts to clean up the quackery industry, and the code of conduct and the definitions of "ethical and honest manner" will be left to the industry itself to define. As an example of how this might work, I've had representatives of the official industry body representing homeopaths tell me that if I asked nicely (and quietly) they would tell me where to get homeopathic vaccines despite laws existing at the time making such idiocies illegal. When an attempt was made by a previous Health Minister to clean up the swamp the reaction from the industry was to close ranks, attack the messenger and deny any possibility of any quack doing anything wrong. I try to be optimistic, but I expect that a year from now I will still be able to buy the same lies and useless products from the same people who are deceiving the public now. Adding a deodorant to a cesspit might make it smell better but it doesn't change the contents.

January 12, 2008

It's not just the Golden Globes (12/1/2008)
This is the season for cancelling or postponing award ceremonies, so I thought that I would join in the spirit of the times and postpone the 2007 Millenium Awards announcements until next week. I can't blame a writers' strike (although as an old bolshie unionist from way back I probably shouldn't cross a picket line) because the way staffing is at the RatbagsDotCom Empire the writers don't have any management to negotiate with if they go on strike and they are unlikely to get any more money if they strike anyway so why bother? The reason for the postponement is a combination of carelessness, security and invisibility. The carelessness was not noticing an email from the web hosting organisation advising that all passwords needed to be changed for the servers. The security aspect was when all the passwords expired and I couldn't access the servers to update things and gather certain information that I needed. The invisibility was the state of the tech support people who didn't respond to emails or answer their phones on Saturday. Slackness all round is all I can say, but the search for a scapegoat is proving a little difficult. And embarrassing.

I've been OUTed (12/1/2008)
You may remember that some time back there was an attempt to unify rational thinkers under the name The Brights. While I fully supported the concept and even modestly declared myself to be a Bright, I was always uncomfortable with the name. It was just too easy for the opponents of clear thinking to say "So you think that you are cleverer than us?", using the common meaning of the word "bright", and the conversation was immediately derailed and became one of semantics and insult trading instead of communication. While insulting people can often be useful or even necessary (and even I have been accused of it on occasions), the implied insult in the name meant that The Brights were doomed from the start as an effective force against woowoo and superstition. Comparisons with the way that homosexuals had adopted and changed the meanings of the words "gay" and "queer" were made, but the word "gay" never had to carry the baggage that "bright" did. Put another way, straight people could hardly be offended by being excluded from the set of people who called themselves "queer".

Another attempt is being made to present a united front, but this time the intentions are limited. We keep hearing about how many religious people there are, but the number and visibility of non-religious people is a mystery. Sure, we non-believers can take comfort from the results of the latest Australian census which showed that "No religion" was a very quickly growing category indeed, but some people think that this is not enough so the OUT campaign has been launched. Borrowing again from the gay rights movement, this is a campaign for people to declare themselves out as atheists. It is much more focussed than The Brights and doesn't allow the other side to divert the conversation by saying "You're just a bunch of disguised atheists pretending to be something else". There can be no disguise or misunderstanding when someone says "I am an atheist". I'm prepared to say it: I'm out, I'm proud, I am an atheist. See - it's easy if you try. Read about the OUT campaign here.

Anecdote time: When I was speaking as part of the Easter debate organised by the Springwood Winmalee Anglican Church a very strange thing happened. There were three people on stage (the moderator and the two speakers) and as far as I knew everybody else was in the body of the auditorium. Nobody was at the back of the stage. At one point I announced "I am an atheist" and this was immediately followed by a loud crashing noise from behind the stage. It was something I would have loved to have arranged, but I had nothing to do with it and neither apparently did anybody else. No explanation could be found. I can see why people can be encouraged to convert when strange and unexplained things happen.

And Tom's out. Well, a book about him is. (12/1/2008)
When Tom Cruise was married to Nicole Kidman he held the position of Australia's National Son-In-Law (a title now carried by Prince Frederick of Denmark). Even though both Tom and Nic have moved on to new spouses (both with first names starting with "K" - a coincidence?) there is still interest in the country in the activities and life of this former aristocrat. It was rather surprising then to hear that two of the largest chains of bookshops in the country, Dymocks and Angus & Robertsons, have refused to stock a new biography of Tom Cruise by Andrew Morton. It couldn't have been because they don't like the author because his biography of Princess Diana sold in Australia like beer at the cricket, and both organisations have denied that their decisions were influenced by any religious organisation identified with Tom (although representatives of at least one religious group quite closely identified with Tom have stated how pleased they are that the book won't be available to Australians). It's a mystery. To help everyone out I have decided to risk the wrath of religious organisations and offer for sale here.

Good news for children, bad news for liars (12/1/2008)
Two important findings about autism were announced within a week. One was yet another study of an enormous number of children which again showed that there is no association between mercury in vaccines and autism. The other was research suggesting that a positive identification had been made of at least one genetic indicator or trigger for autism. I might have more to say about this in the next few weeks, but in the meantime I am enormously enjoying the feeling of Schadenfreude produced by watching anti-vaccination liars spin around in puddles of mouth foam. Each utterance from them is more rabid than the last, and lies, ad hominems and non sequiturs fill the air like confetti. They really hate the idea that kids aren't being harmed, and the real crooks among them are appalled at the idea that parents might stop wasting money on bogus treatments for autism.

New Richard Dawkins DVDs (12/1/2008)
Some new DVDs by Richard Dawkins will be released in Australia in February (almost but not quite on Charles Darwin's birthday). Reviews and more details will be available here shortly. Adding to The Root of All Evil? are Enemies of Reason (a look at uncritical thinking in general), uncut versions of the interviews used in TRoAE, and Rational Thought, a boxed set of all three. Anticipate! Enjoy!

Prediction time (12/1/2008)
January is the traditional time for making predictions, and what better tool is there for predicting the future than astrology. I have always been skeptical of the claims of astrologers (apparently skepticism is a well-known trait of people born on the cusp of Libra and Virgo) and it seems that this skepticism is shared by a few people who write books. To celebrate the predicting season I have added some books about astrology to the Millenium Bookshop:

I'm not sure what this means (12/1/2008)

January 26, 2008

Disruption to life (26/1/2008)
Yet again I have to announce a postponement of the announcement of the 2007 Millenium Awards. I am in the process of taking my real-life business out into the wilds as a precursor to fleeing the rat race with the family. This involves some travel into the foreign country of small towns, farmers, graziers and infrequent public transport. Much of last week was spent driving long distances to talk to local government officials and look in estate agents' windows. I have now rented a place to use as a base and once I have moved in and installed all the essentials of life on this list in front of me I might be able to actually schedule my time a little better. For the next few weeks updates to this site will be a little sporadic, but unfortunately real life and paying the bills sometimes get in the way.

The only problem is the speed of Internet access, but at least it is available. For practical purposes I wanted a wireless connection that I can use through my laptop computer, because I will be moving over quite a wide area as I travel to different towns. There are four providers of wireless broadband in Australia. One managed to tell me (after two weeks of trying for an answer) that they don't have any mobile phone service in Grenfell at all, one has phone service but offers a data service in metropolitan areas only, one will provide me with 5 gigabytes of traffic per month for $50 although the very fast network won't be there for some months, and my preferred supplier (who provides all my home and office telephone services as well as my cable broadband in the office) can provide a faster service for $115 per month for 3 gigabytes, but make that $700 for 5 gigabytes for a valid comparison. I believe the expression is "no brainer". (In a wonderful example of coincidence, my regular supplier rang me a couple of days after I had signed up with the alternative broadband carrier. It was a social call to ask if I had any problems with the service. I told the caller that everything was very satisfactory but I was now dealing with someone else for one service I needed. When I told him that a price difference of $650 each month was a significant contributing factor to my decision he promised to make a note of this and pass it on to the marketing people. Somehow I can't see them offering to match the price.)

Disgusting hexaploid grassThere is actually one other small problem, and it is directly related to the sort of things that generally concern The Millenium Project. I will be moving into an area with an economy based on wheat, oil seeds and wool. In all cases the industry is based on, wait for it, a Genetically Modified Organism!! You can't tell me that all those chromosomes in the wheat seeds are natural (what sort of a word is polyploidy, anyway?), I know that canola has had its genome rearranged and there is nothing quite like a merino sheep in the natural world. (You know you are in the country when the real estate agent has signs in the shop offering stud rams for sale as well as houses.) What will happen? Will I be exposed to the dreaded flounder genes that the anti-GM people keep telling me about and will this make both my eyes move to the same side of my head? Will genes from frankensheep cross over into the kangaroo population and create woolly jumpers? If I don't wash my car before coming back to Sydney will the canola pollen on it misceginate with the flora in my garden and make the weeds resistant to Roundup? It's all too terrifying to think about.

Then there's the country music. I suppose I could get a big hat and some fancy tooled boots and learn a few different chord progressions for the guitar plus practise some slide, but I draw the line at line dancing. If God had meant us to go boot scootin' he wouldn't have given us eyes to watch it.

Schadenfreude and Karma - a great combination (26/1/2008)
I mentioned a few weeks ago that my mobile phone was stolen and the alleged thief's mother had threatened me with gangs of baseball bat wielding thugs for "putting shit" on her son. This week a friend of my daughter saw the thief displaying evidence that he was no longer an alleged thief - the idiot was still carrying the phone around. The friend-in-law offered to buy the phone (payment being a comprehensive gonad stomping) but the thief said that he had a better customer lined up. This customer was a local marijuana distributor who liked the idea of having an expensive looking Palm Treo with all those buttons, so money changed hands and the dealer was now the new owner. The fun started when the dealer put a SIM card into the phone and found that the handset had been blocked from service everywhere in the world. Apparently he is not happy about this situation and has indicated that some leg-breaking might be suitable retaliation for selling him a dud. The thief has left town. I hope he comes back, because I would pay to see the revenge being implemented.

Speaking of paying ... (26/1/2008)

The 911 Truthers will be coming to Sydney in March for a conference. They have booked a theatre at the Powerhouse Museum, so I expect that shortly after the event we will be seeing stories starting "It was announced at the Powerhouse Museum today that ..." and going on to tell us how the Jews and the Illuminati conspired with the New York Fire Brigade and the attendant on the gate of the Pentagon staff parking garage to blow up the World Trade Center using a mixture of Norwegian North Sea crude oil and ammonium nitrate illegally seized by the FBI from Timothy McVeigh's garden shed. Or something like that.

Details are a little scanty at present, but you can book now at the special price of only $128. As this represents 1,280,000% of the price I would be prepared to pay and we don't have 1c coins any more, it looks like I will have to find something else to do that weekend. The gutters are full of leaves and my sock drawer is a mess so I guess there will be no shortage of things to do.

Astrology update (26/1/2008)
The following apology appeared in the Corrections notice on page 2 of the January 22 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald:

Due to a publishing error, star signs that appeared in News Review on January 12 were those for January 19. Those published on January 19 were correct for the date.

I am really annoyed about this, because it means that the lotto numbers I used for the first week were really the winning ones for the second week and therefore I wasted my money. At least now I know why I didn't win.

Something else was unforeseen (26/1/2008)
I recently showed a sign outside a church which suggested that the signmaker was a little confused about the message to be transmitted. I have found another example of a very mixed religious message. I'm not sure what the creators of this religiously inspired light switch were thinking, but even as a non-believer I find it slightly disturbing. (I tried to buy one on eBay but the only Jesus-related switch plate there said "Jesus rocks" and had a picture of Jesus playing the guitar.)

At first I thought the switch (or even the image) might be a hoax or something made to give gratuitous offence to Christians, but I found a discussion of the switch on a blog and one of the participants said that his very religious parents had actually had one installed in his bedroom and it glowed in the dark! It seems bizarre that anyone could not look at this and see the obvious problem, but I know that there are believers out there who will unquestioningly accept almost anything and seem blinded to inconsistencies and incongruities. I found another switch plate being sold by a religious supplies store which had the switch in a similar position and the slogan "Jesus: Turn Him on", so perhaps subtlety and ambiguity aren't well-accepted concepts in the religious artefact world.

I would be quite happy to find that this thing is a hoax, so if you know anything please let me know. There are times when religious believers have to be confronted and even ridiculed, but I have always been opposed to ridicule for ridicule's sake. Of course, if they do it to themselves ... .

Do no harm (26/1/2008)
I am constantly bombarded by people telling me how deadly real medicine is and how harmless quackery and anti-medicine is. My mailbox lately has been seeing a lot of correspondence about a trial in Pekin, Illinois, in which a woman, Karen McCarron, is being tried for killing her daughter. The child was autistic and the mother came to the belief that she had caused her daughter's autism by going against the wishes of God and having Katie vaccinated. This guilt led to severe depression which was managed by medication. The anti-psychiatrists then got into the mother's ear and she stopped taking the drugs. Result - one dead three-year-old.

Sometimes I wish I believed in Heaven and Hell, because then I would know the respective places where Katherine McCarron and the people who lied to her mother would be spending eternity.

Cruise News (26/1/2008)
The Church of Scientology has been fighting a running battle over the last couple of weeks with people who have been posting a video to various video sharing sites. It shows Tom Cruise explaining what it means to be a Scientologist and the benefits that the cult can bring to mankind. I was unaware until I saw it that, as an example, the only person who can provide assistance at a traffic accident is a Scientologist. I was also intrigued at the idea that outsiders, or "spectators", can be dismissed as worthless. The cult has been demanding that sites like YouTube remove the video because it violates copyright, but in a delicious piece of irony Danny Elfman, the composer of the music looping behind Tom, has started legal action because the cult forgot to ask permission to use his copyrighted work.

If you thought that Tom's couch-leaping performance with Oprah was creepy, wait until you see this. Tom has turned the amps up beyond 11.

Note: This is just one of the many copies of the video on YouTube. You would think that by now the cult would have learned the Sorcerer's Apprentice lesson - keep chopping and you just get more clones. Also, I tried to load the video up to GodTube but it seems that I was thwarted as it wasn't available for public viewing 24 hours later. Could it be that the people who want you to Broadcast Him are even more susceptible to threats than the outfit where you Broadcast Yourself?

A death (26/1/2008)
It has been impossible to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television news around my place this week without hearing the name Heath Ledger. His death hasn't just driven the media cult of celebrity to heights of frenzy not seen since Britney Spears' underwear was not seen, but has also triggered outbursts of lunacy from some of the other usual suspects. (This was not too surprising, as Ledger died on the day of a full moon.) First out of the blocks were the 911 Truthers, who knew for certain that he was murdered because he was about to reveal the truth about September 11, 2001. Why an Australian actor who wasn't in New York at the time might know something was not explained, but I am prepared to predict that similar claims will be made about any celebrity who dies in New York at any time. (I am going to suggest that John Lennon was murdered because he was about to write a song about the very early planning stages of the attack. He had joined the conspiracy in order to get revenge for the years when he was denied entry to the USA because of a conviction for marijuana possession.)

Then I turned on my television to see the awe-inspiring sight of the Reverend Fred Phelps sentencing all Australians to eternity in hell because one of us dared to act in a fictional work which contained scenes of homosexual activity. Fred has promised to picket Heath Ledger's funeral, but I have two messages for Fred: Perth is a long way from Topeka, and Australians might be a lot less tolerant of his idiocy than the folks at home.

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