Sunday, 20 January 2008

Lookey Likey Threesome

Murray Hewitt from Flight of the Conchords, Faramir from Gondor & Nigel Lythgoe from Pop Idol. They even sound a bit similar. And you've never seen any two of them in the same room together have you? No. And that says it all.

Coward praised for bravery!

Well, as far as I know that wasn't the real headline, but I think it would have been a better one.

As you might already know, a Boeing 777 crash-landed at Heathrow on Thursday.

Luckily there was no loss of life, and for this our thanks should go to the inaptly-named co-pilot Senior First Officer John Coward, who managed to bring the plane down safely.

Incidentally, some have suggested that those on the plane were "touched by God", which of course is nonsense; if God had got involved then He could have simply averted the engine failure which caused the crash in the first place...but there's always someone who'll thank God for, essentially, causing a nasty accident but having the good grace to allow at least a few of those involved to "miraculously survive".

To help us gain a better understanding of what happened, the BBC provided its website-viewers with what is perhaps the least meaningful info-graphic ever produced outside of The Onion's offices.

Here it is:

Now, one of the dangerous things about coming in below the normal landing trajectory is the risk of hitting buildings or the landing fence (indeed, the BBC article quotes Mr Coward as saying "I didn't think we'd clear the fence at first").

Obviously Mr Coward hadn't seen the BBC's infographic.... if he had, he'd have got the impression that the fence and nearby buildings weren't a problem. But then, the BBC graphic features an angle 10-15 times greater than the actual one, thus giving a somewhat inaccurate appearance of coming down well above the ground-based obstacles.

Also, if the graphic gives the suggestion that the engine problem ocurred about 5 plane-lengths away from the airport (when it was actually 2 miles) and also gives the impression that 183m is about 3 times longer than 305m. Which, as the mathematicians amongst you will know, it isn't.

In defence of the Beeb's graphic, it does point out that it is not to scale, and it does show what a 3 degree angle really looks like. But with every single particular of the diagram being wrong, you have to wonder what the point of it is.

Once we accept that the angles, distances, heights of buildings and the size of the plane are all wrong relative to one another, all we can really take from the graphic is that the plane came down to the ground.

Which to be honest, we could probably have deduced without a picture!

But anyway, pedantic whinging about the picture aside, the main thing is that everyone got out alive, the worst injury being a broken leg. And when you've got a lump of metal weighing half a million pounds coming down without its engines doing their bit, that's a pretty damn good result!

Three cheers for the Coward!

Saturday, 12 January 2008

In the beginning.....

Following on from a debate I had some time ago, in relation to alternative medicine (see my "Life Energy" rant) I tried to summarise the materialist view of the universe, to try and explain the reasoning behind my objection to use of the term "life energy".

It was written as a stream of consciousness and not researched or planned, so it is far from rigorous, but I think it works well enough as a rough outline, despite its many flaws. Here it is for your viewing pleasure.... I hope you're sitting comfortably, this is a long one ;-)

In the Beginning there was the Universe. Before that time didn’t exist so “before that” doesn’t have any meaning. The universe consisted of simple rules, and energy which obeyed them (indeed the rules and the energy are the same thing in a sense, each can only exist with the other and each is only defined in terms of the other).

This is physics, the rules on which our universe is based. Before physics, there was metaphysics, which would explain why these particular rules came to be rather than different rules, perhaps the rules of physics are the organised structures that came about from some lower-level recursion.
(Ok, reading this bit back, it sounds like BS even to myself ;-) )

These rules were (and are) very simple, and so at the start, the energy was arranged simply. Over time, these rules caused the energy to become more complex….just as the simple rule in the Recursion example (this refers to an example in one of the Science of Discworld books, and to the "Game of Life" simulation that we had been discussing) develops into extremely complex yet seemingly orderly patterns when the results are viewed from a massively macroscopic viewpoint.

As the complexity increased, larger scale patterns emerged. Viewed from sufficient distance, these patterns were what we identify as superstrings. These continued to interact with one another following the same original rules, causing further increases in complexity, perhaps giving us the sub-atomic particles, and then these interacted together, adding another level of complexity, and becoming perhaps atomic particles.

As more time passed, these interacted further, still following the same simple rules but now on a massively more complex scale – the interactions of interactions of interactions (and so on). The simple rules at this stage (this level of recursion) are, at our current best guess, visible as the “forces” in modern physics – gravity, magnetism, “weak force” and “strong force”.

These forces are merely expressions of the underlying simpler rules at the atomic level. Atoms are merely expressions of the original energy after it has obeyed the original rules recursively to reach such a level of complexity where the pattern we call atoms emerged.

Once atoms (all hydrogen at this point) emerged, they interacted, again due to only the original simple rules but followed recursively, clumping together to form stars, whereupon the gravity (itself just a manifestation of the original rule zoomed out recursively to the atomic scale of things) caused them to fuse.

Fusion gave rise to further complexity and other elements were formed. All of this has happened simply due to energy following the original simple rules, but on successively more and more complex levels (more levels of recursion).

Each level of recursion adds more complexity, and each increase in complexity allows more complex interactions. In this sense, it’s a “self-driving” process. Complexity spawns further complexity. Following just the same rules, over and over again, leads to ever-increasing complexity, with apparently orderly patterns at higher and higher levels. The original rules cause complexity to spring from simple beginnings, and that complexity increases recursively.

At this point, we now have lots of different patterns at a scale we call atomic. We now have all the different elements. These complex things can now engage in interactions of a correspondingly further degree of complexity. Physics itself, the simple rules, has taken us from simplicity right through to Chemistry.

Further application of physics will take us from Chemistry to Biology, and Biology takes us all the way to Consciousness, where thoughts themselves can be recursive.

Chemicals interact together, and eventually, as time passes, chemical structures can form that just so happen to interact with other chemical structures in such a way as to copy themselves.

This triggers yet another level of complexity, another level of recursion, as these replicators interact together and with their surroundings. We’ve got to this point just from the same rules of physics applied again and again and again, recursively. Interactions of interactions of interactions of interactions.

At the scale of the replicators, natural selection occurs – replicators that replicate well become more numerous, not for any external reason but simply because they replicate well. Natural selection, itself just a manifestation of the original rules, then drives further increases in complexity and we get the development of cells, and then the interactions of cells with each other and their surroundings results in multi-cellular things coming into existence, which again interact and interactions between these increasingly complex entities can produce even more complex entities.

Natural selection takes these complex entities through more levels of complexity, and has caused some entities to develop a mental model of the world that includes itself, recursion again. This is consciousness, we can think not only thoughts, but thoughts about thoughts, and thoughts about thoughts about thoughts.

This consciousness is just a result of the original simple rules applied again and again and again over time, at each level of recursion the rules are being applied to a successively more complex universe.

There is no definite point where we go from “not alive” to “alive”, people argue various definitions, but it seems that really there is no cut-off point, it’s a continuous scale rather than a discrete one.

Therefore what we generally call “life” is just a result of the original simple rules.

There is no specific point when “life” becomes life, and no new force, no unique force in any meaningful sense.

There is no “life energy”, there is only the original energy manifest in more and more complex forms on successively higher scales of recursion.

Perhaps, to put some arbitrary labels on the scale of complexity, we could imagine the following as the results of the recursion of the fundamental, simple rules of physics:

Energy – superstrings – subatomic particles (at this scale the rules are manifest as the four forces known to physics but they are working on trying to find out what the rules are at a more fundamental level) – atomic particles – chemicals – replicators – cells – multi-celled life – consciousness.

(this is also partly why I don’t think its meangful to separate the material "physical" universe and the immaterial "energy" universe, as this distinction seems somewhat artificial when you consider things on the single continuous scale above)

More complex things can interact in more complex ways, leading to the possibility of even more complex things, leading to even more complex interactions. This is the closest comparison I can think of to the “driving force” you mentioned, other than at the higher level of complexity in life, when natural selection is a better way to describe the “driving force”.
(This "driving force" was a term he used to describe what moved living things, the mysterious "something" possessed by a living creature but not present in a dead one)

Energy and life (let alone consciousness) are far apart on the scale. To talk of “life energy” is meaningless, life is just a particular manifestation of energy after recursive following of the basic rules. There’s no difference between the energy in a human to the energy in a rock, it’s the same energy.

At the level of a spider, it makes no sense to say that some “energy” disappears from the spider when it dies, as energy is far far down the scale. The difference between a living spider and a dead one is on a level of complexity far above “energy”.

The difference is that the massively complex structure of chemical interactions is disrupted and can no longer function in that self-sustaining, reproducing way we call “life”. There is no “category change” though, no mysterious “life energy” has departed from the spider, the energy is all still there, but has lost part of its organised complexity. As a result, it slides down the scale again and the spider is no longer a spider it is just chemicals (without the complex chemical interactions between components it breaks down physically breaks down). What has been lost is complexity and organisation, not energy.

The ultimate goal of physics is to identify the original simple rules that started this whole process. If they ever find those, physics is done. Then it would be time for metaphysics to investigate where those rules came from, and why they were as they happened to be rather than something else

The End

Thursday, 10 January 2008

If men had periods....

..they'd use these:

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Tell me about the Big Bang!

Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist and atheist, received the following letter today from someone in Massachusetts.

As he's doubtless had more than a few such letters to respond to, he opened it out to members of his forum to formulate a response.

The original letter reads as follows:

Dear Darwin's Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist Friend:

I have a bit of a problem trying to understand the Big Bang which resulted in the formation of our Universe.
I wonder if you could consult with your fellow atheist, Philip Pullman (whom I understand is a fellow Professor at Oxford University -- ) and explain how the Big Bang resulted in a magnificently complicated but orderly Universe, instead of the largest pile of rubble imaginable.

Lawrence McNeil

PS If Oxford University offers a course which might be entitled The Wisdom of Atheism I would be interested in taking it over the internet.

Here's how I'd respond if the letter was passed to me to handle:

Dear Lawrence,

Before you attempt to get your head around the formation of the universe, there are a few less grand things you need to understand first.

Firstly, the scientists who specialise in this area are called cosmologists, so for the best explanation you should really direct your query to one of them.

Philip Pullman is not a Professor at Oxford University, although he did study there (he got a third-class BA in English). He is not a cosmologist, he is a writer, mostly of fiction.

Richard Dawkins is not a cosmologist either. He is an ethologist and evolutionary biologist.

Whilst both these men could, I'm sure, give you a good summary account of the "Big Bang" model of the universe, you would really be better contacting a cosmologist.

Or reading a book.

Perhaps you've had a bad experience with books in the past, and certainly some of the books that purport to explain the universe and how we came to take our place within it contain many contradictions and don't really add up.

The Bible is one widely read example of such a book, and in all honesty I find myself unable to recommend it as a good starting point for anyone wanting to understand how our universe came to be the way it is today.

But not all books are like this - some are genuinely interesting, clear and to the point, and explain today's understanding of how the universe was formed with minimal technical jargon.I recommend you have a read of Bang! The Complete History of the Universe.

Once you've read that, if it doesn't satisfy you, it should at least give you a better understanding and therefore a basis for formulating more specific questions on details you want more information about.

I wish you the best of luck on your journey towards understanding!

yours sincerely,


"Life Energy" isn't real

Polly Toynbee has written a great article titled Quackery and superstition - available soon on the NHS

"A sharp line has to be drawn between fact and fiction when it comes to spending public funds on alternative therapies".

The full article is available at:,,2236975,00.html

It is being discussed on here:

As part of this, I had a little rant about those alternative practices that dabble in pseudo-scientific use of the word energy, usually in the phrase "life energy":

Any practice that claims to manipulate, channel or balance "life energy" should be forced to demonstrate the existence of that energy. If it can't, it should be closed down.

We actually know a fair bit about energy, so if they are going to use the term they should use it properly.

I want to know what process converts, for example, chemical energy into this "life energy", what the efficiency of the conversion is etc.

If you practice a system of medicine that works but for which we don't have working explanation of how it works, don't just make up an explanation by bending terms around until they have no meaning.

As far as I'm concerned, suggesting there's a whole type of energy that exists only in relation to living beings is either arrogance or delusion.

Living things are, from our highly biased point of view, amazing and wonderful things, but to the universe, we're just utterly insignificant specks of highly localised ordered complexity. We are a result of the standard rules of physics.

To suggest that when life came into existence, it bought with it a new type of energy into the universe is surely madness....Spaaaarta!

Sunday, 6 January 2008

That's gonna really bug me....

You know that feeling when inability to recall some random piece of trivia threatens to drive you mad....when you can't concentrate on anything else until you find out the answer to that random question that some random conversation threw up?

The answer is always on the tip of your tongue, but your brain can't quite find it.

Of course you do. It happened to all of us at least once.

It can happen at any time. You're at work talking to some colleagues over a tepid cup of vending-machine coffee. The conversation drifts to 80s kids tv shows (this is almost inevitable for people between 25 and 35).

Soon enough, it meanders over to Thundercats. Happy days eh, sitting on the sofa after a day at school, then that rocking theme tune pumps from the tv directly into the pleasure centres of your young brain.....feel the magic, hear the roar....Thundercats are loose!

And that Cheetarah....she must have been the "Thundercat's 'ho'" from the theme song.

Mumm-ra was cool, able to change from bandaged mummy to some bizarre smurf-skinned psychotic WWF wannabe just by shouting out that he was Mumm-Ra...the ever LIVIIIIIING!

But he didn't have to fight all the Thundercats alone of course, that would be unfair. He had some henchmen, lead by an humanoid frog called Slithe. Another was called Monkian.

But what was that third one know, the reddish one, kinda looked like a humanoid rat? Ohshit

You can picture him, so can your colleagues, but for the life of you, you can't get his name out of the dusty backroom of your mind. It drives you mad, and for the rest of the day, you're almost oblivious to your surroundings as you run the question through your head again and again. And again. You ask around the office, but no joy.

Later, once you're home, you phone Dave. Dave will know. He loved Thundercats, and he's great in pub quizzes. But Dave doesn't know either, and now he's infected with the bug too...another victim who won't be able to sleep until the name of that mystery Thundercats villain is dredged up from the depths of someone's 80s memories.

It can drag on for weeks. Productivity at work begins to suffer. Your girlfriend is always asking why you're so withdrawn and irritable lately. But you can't admit the sounds silly when you say it out loud....what would she think of you if she knew the reason you'd been borderline psychotic for the last fortnight was that you couldn't remember the name of the third mutant in an 80s kids tv show?

Eventually, you're down the pub with some mates and again, inevitably, the conversation drifts to Thundercats. You mention that you've not slept in weeks 'cos not knowing the name of that damn character has been bugging you, gnawing at your mind until it's in tatters.

"That was Jackalman wasn't it?" says one of your friends, as if it was just a minor point. YES!

It clicks, your brain recognises the answer as being the Truth, and slumps down into a blissful state, relaxing for the first time in nearly a month. Nirvana is nothing compared to the pleasure of relief that surges through you, a feeling of exaltation greater than any drug can offer.

Another question that caused this kind of mental anguish for me was:

What were the original flavours of Monster munch? You know...the ones from back in the days where they had puppet monsters licking monster munch from trees.

But that was 5 years ago. Today, with Google and Wikipedia now being so close to omniscient as makes no difference, we can find out the answers to pretty much any question that bugs us instantly. Just type it in, and the answer is in front of you in milliseconds.

No more do we have to suffer for a month until the answer crops up - that suffering has gone, and gone with it is that immeasurable pleasure of relief when you finally found out.

And you know what? That really bugs me.

Saturday, 5 January 2008


It's not fair that catz get all the LOL meme action. So here's one I made earlier.

Top x whatevers

As I sit watching Kerrang's "Top 100 Air Guitar Songs" something miraculous has happened.

I've seen the future. And it's recursive.

Almost every program on tv seems to be a "Top 50" or "Top 100". This is genius on the part of the shadowy people who choose what gets put out on tv..... not only is it cheap (no expensive new content to produce), but it forces us feeble-minded tv users to keep watching...after all, once you've started, you've gotta keep watching to find out what's number one right?
Yes, you have.
Because not knowing will, for no sane reason, bug you for the rest of your life.

But how does all this relate to the future? Well - it's simple. The amount of existing content isn't growing, barely anything new seems to have been made since some time around the year 2000. We're just getting it all recycled and fed back to us again.

But you can only repeat the same "Top 100" shows so many times, so what's next?


While today's tv bods have all the content from the last 20 odd years to blend into countless insipid "Top 100"s, the tv bods of 2020 will have nothing but 20 years of "Top 100" shows to play with.

Which means, and you heard it here first, tv is going to go recursive.

In just a few years, we're going to be sitting in front of stuff like "MTVs Top 50 Top 100s of the 2010s".

And there's nothing we can do to escape it. Suddenly global warming is the least of our worries.

January Sales

I've just been to the city centre to experience the January Sales.

If you enjoy pushing your way through crowds of people who teeter around confusedly, as if they were giant fleshy bowling pins that had just been struck by a bowling ball (i.e. you - the only thing that seems to have a particular direction it wants to go), you'd have loved it!

But I suppose that in the minds of each of those pins THEY are the bowling ball.

As an additional bonus, despite the "70% Off" signs, bargains were notable only by their absence.

The miscellaneous tat left in the shops will be hard to shift even if they offer to pay people 10% of the price to take it away.

On the plus side though, this is one of the few types of shopping where you get to come home with the same amount of money in your wallet as you had when you set out, so its not all bad.

Brooker speaks the Truth

I was reading Dawn of the Dumb today, a collection of Charlie Brooker's inspired rantings from his Guardian column.

Here's a quote which is all true:

"it won't be long before we see crazed terrorists scampering through the streets toting AK-47s, drilling pedestrians to sausagemeat with big beatific grins on their faces. Well where's the challenge in that, you pussies? It's far too one-sided. Obviously, harbouring belief in any kind of religion whatsoever betrays a crushing lack of imagination, but really, that's pathetic - like stamping on ants"

You can dip yourself further into Mr Brooker's bile-stream here:,,1862488,00.html#article_continue

All True and 100% FACT

A place for my ramblings and rantings to be deposited, a "thought-sewer" for my brainly excreta. But nice and shiny and flush with web 2.0 tossery, rather than the actual fecal matter you'd get in a real sewer.

And everything I say is 100% FACT. Unless it isn't.