Monthly Archives: July 2009

It’s P***ing Down at Camp Quest


British Summer Time (Again!)

British Summer Time (Again!)

Maybe there is a God and (s)he(it) has not taken kindly to Camp Quest, UK because it is absolutely chucking it down, cats and dogs, in Bruton, Somerset at the moment. What was it the Met Office predicted back in April? – Oh yes  I remember “a barbeque summer.”

Anyway, my littlest (we call Ez) is there and I am afraid when I pick her up on Friday that she will have trench foot. Still she seemed to be having a lot of fun yesterday as we watched her on the National BBC News when they ran an item on every news slot.

Camp Quest raised a few eyebrows yesterday and got the rumour-mongering going. I swear to the GSM in the sky, that they introduced it as Richard Dawkin’s athiest camp where children are taught to hate religion and sit around the campfire singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Purleease!

First, Dawkins has nothing to do with it personally. It was set up by a couple of grad students following the model of Camp  Quest in the US. They got a one-off (small) check from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. It is a humanist camp that teaches critical thinking and if that just so happens to be an approach that challenges religion so be it. And the bit about singing imagine was a typical Daily Mail snipe in an earlier article that has been taken as gospel by the BBC producers. It’s true. Journalists are lazy and can’t be bothered to check sources or facts.

Anyway, Little Ez and I appeared on the same edition of the local BBC new programme “Points West” last night which was weird. She was there again pushing another child through a giant cats craddle on the videotape shot at the camp and me in the sunny gardens behind BBC Bristol, interviewed later on as an “expert” (Ha!) on developmental psychology (I never told them that my youngest was at the camp). I said that if Camp Quest is teaching critical thinking to young children then bully for them, because the students we get coming through the doors to University haven’t been taught these skills at school.

Oh, by the way, it wasn’t my idea to send Little Ez to Camp Quest…. she found out about it and pestered me to go.I just hope she doesn’t dissolve by Friday.


Filed under atheism, In the News

Jacko’s Essence to Become Diamonds


Jacko is set to become a diamond

Jacko is set to become a diamond

Well it was only a matter of time before someone would get round to producing Michael Jackson relics. That company LifeGem that I have told you about before is set to make artificial diamonds from strands of MJ’s hair.

The bitter irony which seems to have escaped the company is that the hair they have obtained comes from the incident when MJ’s hair caught fire in 1984 on the set of  a Pepsi commercial he was filming. This accident left him with major burns and no doubt contributed to his use and dependence on painkillers – a dependence that would later kill him (assuming the conspiracy theorists have got the murder explanation wrong).

Jacko’s hair will be carbonized and turned into about 10 diamonds. In 2007, a lock of Beethoven’s hair was similarly turned into a diamond that sold for $200,000 so I guess LifeGem will make a small killing. The king of pop will become a relic.

Thanks to Konrad for alerting me to this one.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News, Weird Story of the Week

When Humans and Dogs Collide

They say that many dog owners look like their pets. Dr. Lance Workman from Bath Spa University (just up the road from me) tested this out with a study to see if people could match 70 dog owners to their breed of dog. Apparently the hit rate was well above chance between 50-60% compared to 33% (I guess that will be choose one photograph from three then!).

Spot the dog

Spot the dog


We also have a tendency to attribute human qualities to non-human beings. This video made for the Athens Olympics shows what happens when anthropomorphism and human assimilation collide.


Filed under Essentialism, Weird Story of the Week

MSc in Woo

I was handed a prospectus for Schumacher College in Dartington when I gave a talk on supernatural beliefs at the Literary Festival there last week. Judging by the picturesque cottages in the glorious Devonshire countryside, I was reminded of Enid Blyton novels and wrongly assumed that the area had a sense of wealthy middle-class conservatism. But I was wrong. After Glastonbury, the epicentre for New Ageism in the West of England, is apparently nearby Totnes.

This may explain the content of some courses offered by Schumacher College. I was particularly drawn to the Masters Degree in Holistic Science (MSc) as this was the first course of its kind and is accredited in partnership with the University of Plymouth. The residential course integrates qualitative and quantitative approaches and explores methodologies that go beyond reductionism in understanding the dynamics of whole systems, from individual organisms to organisations and eco-systems to the Earth. This all sounds great but I wondered about the scientific rigour of the content. Also it seems expensive at £11,465 for home students and £14,105, for a one year course. Still I expect there should be some demand for this.

I have to be careful about slating a university-accredited graduate science degree but when it has contributions from astrologers and morphic resonance theorists, I guess I will leave it up to Ben Goldacre to investigate… now where did I put his email?


Filed under Research

Pagan Police-What next?


Lord Summerisle invoking the burning of Sgt Howie

Lord Summerisle invoking the burning of Sgt Howie

There is something very appropriate about a policeman being devoutly religious. It sort of goes with the territory. After all, the stern uncompromising opposition to personal liberty and freedom that is central to many religions seems to resonate with the firm hand of the law. Remember Sgt Howie and his demise in the British classic horror movie, “The Wicker Man,” chosen specifically by the pagans for his Calvinistic beliefs to be sacrificed as being pure – (the US remake never understood this critical aspect of the original plot!). So it was somewhat of a shock to discover that some modern policemen are pagans. This week we learn, that the UK Home Office have agreed that police officers who worship paganism are entitled to the same level of recognition as religions and given the same rights to religious holidays.  This means that they get halloween and the summer solstice off as religious holidays. PC Andy Pardy, a leading Pagan officer, has forced the Home Office to recognise paganism as a religion. “A leading Pagan officer”!!!!!! WTF….

Sometimes I feel that the world has gone mad. That I could be arrested for a breach of the peace by categorically denying someone else’s religion by a civil servant employed by Her Majesty’s Government who thinks it’s fine to dance naked on Halloween and worship Earth Gods, just beggars belief.

On the other hand, I guess its as much a religion as the great flying spaghetti monster in the sky.


Filed under In the News, Weird Story of the Week

SciFoo Frenzy


"Follow the Yellow Brick Road"

"Follow the Yellow Brick Road"

I just got back from SciFoo (Science camp for Friends Of O‘Reilly) held at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. It was an invite-only for 200 scientists, thinkers, writers and geeks to get together and brainstorm. It started on Friday evening when we were dropped off at the Googleplex and followed the yellow brick road to registration (Yes it really was yellow brick).

We were photographed, asked to say 5 things about ourselves and then nominate 3 others for the meeting next year. Then we just ate and introduced ourselves to the otherwise strange faces around us. Not that all were strangers. If you are the founder of O’Reilly Media (Tim O’Reilly) or co-founder of Google and worth billions (Larry Page) or one of the few psychologists ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize (Daniel Kahneman) or simply that annoying science guy (Bill Nye), then you were off to a good recognition start. Bjork was supposed to be there but once again, she dissed me and did not make an appearance. (This is the last chance I give her!). 

The rest of us just milled about until we had the introduction from Larry Page about what the meeting was about and the etiquette of photographing Google headquarters and delegates. Then it was a free-for-all as we all rushed forward to sign up to give talks in a frenzied squash. Some of the talks were grim and surprisingly dull whereas others were really quite impressive. I even bumped into some old faces and heard the latest from Devi Patel and his study of the amazing dancing Cockatoo, “Snowball.” Devi has a paper in Current Biology where he shows that Snowball can adjust his dancing to different tempos and even “mash” it up when the beat gets too fast. Check this out –

Meanwhile my presentation went fine but the main plus for me was when Anne Triesman and Daniel Kahneman complimented me. Daniel said my talk was “fun.”Hoping that some genius will rub off on me!

Hoping that some genius will rub off on me!

I’ll take that in the best possible way.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News, Research

So Really I am Skeptic

A number of interviewers and commentators have noted that I made a sweeping statement in “SuperSense”  that skeptics were  unlikely to read such a book. In retrospect this was a daft thing to say and I must admit that I have found the skeptical community a much more welcoming bunch than I had anticipated. In fact, I think that my assumption that the ‘woo-woo’ crowd would buy the book was grossly wide of the mark.

As I said in an earlier post, the Skeptics in the Pub bunch were a fine group of people with hardly any grumpy, middled-aged men amongst them. I am delighted to join their ranks and call myself a skeptic too. So it was particularly gratifying to be invited onto the illustrious editorial advisory board of “The Skeptic Magazine” by the editor Chris French.  I would list the names of the others on the board but it would be such a crass example of name-dropping but I am sure that both Derren and I are happy to be asked to join.


Filed under General Thoughts

I’m Off to SciFoo Tomorrow

I am one of the chosen…. or mistaken. I am off to SciFoo at GooglePlex to schmooze with the über smart. I expect I’ll be groveling at the feet of the mighty (couple of Nobel prizes winners are going). I’ll report back next week. I plan to bounce on techno bouncy castles all weekend, wear open-toe sandels and geeky Hawaiian shirts!800px-Google_Campus2_cropped


Filed under General Thoughts

Michael Jackson’s Brain Is Missing

The world just witnessed the memorial concert to Michael Jackson at the Staples Centre. I am sorry to say it, but I know some of you were thinking, “Was the golden coffin shaped like an office stapler?” Ok sick jokes aside, we all know that the man (not “Man-Child’ purleeease….)  was one of the most talented, innovative and frankly amazing performers of his generation. 

But would the congregation have been so reverential to the corpse in the golden coffin if they had known that the casket had all the last remains of Michael Jackson minus his brain. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but then of course I am by even raising the issue, but we have some strange notions when it comes to talent, brains and soul.

The pathology investigation is incomplete and the scientists need to find out what killed the superstar. So Michael will be buried minus his brain (for the moment). I don’t know how many times I have heard that someone  is a musical/sporting/ political (delete as appropriate) genius because of their brain. As far as neuroscientists are considered, we are our brain. You can almost transplant any other part of your your body and remain almost the same individual but without your brain, then you do not exist. 

Does that mean there may be another memorial for the burial of Micheal’s more important organ or will it be tossed in the incinerator? Having a second memorial would challenge people’s intuitions about the mind, the body and of course, identity. Where is Michael?

Of course, we could just plastinate the brain and visit it in awe for the amazing entertainment it once produced. I would prefer this last option as a reminder to the consummate truth that we are only meat machines (regards to Marvin Minsky).

But if you really need to believe that Michael has not left then take comfort that he has decided to spend his time in a tree stump in Stockton, CA (though some neighbors thinks it looks like Jesus).


Thanks to Laurie Santos for the lead.

UPDATE: Well, I never thought the Mirror would stoop to such humor but after a lengthy discussion of why brains are removed and how they are processed in these sorts of cases, the article ends with the following factoid about MJ

“- MICHAEL Jackson starred as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, the 1978 musical version of  The Wizard of Oz – playing the character without a brain opposite Diana Ross as Dorothy.”

Way to go Mirror!


Filed under In the News, Weird Story of the Week

Witchcraft at Wormwood

St-Th-r-se-of-Lisieux-001As far as saints go, St Thérèse of Lisieux seems a little bit lame. St Thérèse, who died in 1897 from tuberculosis at the age of 24, is known as the Little Flower of Jesus. She apparently prayed for the conversion of a triple murderer who refused to confess but just before he was guillotined, he grabbed a crucifix from a priest and starting kissing it. That’ll be the miracle then, I guess. 

The Roman Catholic Church has decided to send her relics on a tour of Cathedrals round the UK so that the devout can kiss the box that contain her bones as they pray. Frankly, if that’s what lights your candle so be it. But I am more concerned by the report that some of her relics are to be taken into space in 2011 by the US astronaut Ronald Garan. I thought Charles Simonyi urinating on the Russian Cosmonaut launch bus for luck was bad enough. Transporting St Thérèse’s bones into space doesn’t seem appropriate as part of a scientific expedition. What if the bones are cursed? I mean she didn’t exactly stop the guy getting his head chopped off and her bones failed to avert the war in Iraq when they were taken there in 2002. I mean really, relics in space?

Anyway, the dean of Northampton Cathedral Canon Udris said of  Thérèse,  “One of her characteristics was to break down walls. ”

That could be handy as her bones are due to visit Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs in October.


Filed under In the News, supernatural, Weird Story of the Week