Monthly Archives: December 2009

New York Ghosts of Christmas Past

I just got back from New York where I spent an incredible time spending – you can’t really avoid it in the Big Apple – it’s so expensive and you feel obliged to tip anything that moves. I guess I’ll be paying this one off on plastic for some time but I think it was worth it. While there, I undertook two pilgrimages – one to The Dakota apartment block where John Lennon was gunned down in the street

Outside the Dakota, New York, Christmas Day

on Dec 8th  in 1980 – (Like all of the those flashbulb memories, I vividly remember when I heard the news). I went on Christmas morning- no presents to unwrap and the streets were empty. The security guard outside the exclusive building, huddled in his little copper booth, was not in a particularly festive mood – I guess he gets asked the same dumb question all the time and after all, he was sitting freezing on Christmas morning outside a block of some of the most sumptuous real estate that only the seriously-rich can afford. So I snapped my shot of the spot, and then headed over across the road to a corner of central park now known forever as “Strawberry Fields.”

The Mosaic Shrine in Strawberry Fields

The “Imagine” mosaic in tribute of Lennon has now become a tourist attraction and has taken on something of a shrine-type status. I don’t believe in ghosts but it is surprising how easily one’s thoughts turn to imagining Lennon strolling around the park having trodden the very same paths. I guess that’s what fame and adulation creates. New York has always been jammed packed with the famous, but only a few of those of personal significance conjure of the ghosts of Christmas past.

What Was is No Longer

So it was off to 315 Bowery street down near the Village to what was once, the hottest music venue in town, CBGBs. This is where The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie and just about every band that was part of my youth got started. Its heyday was in the the late 70’s and early eighties but it survived up until about 2 years ago when it finally closed down and became an extremely trendy John Varvatos boutique.

CBGBs Today is the now a branch of John Varvatos

Part of the Original CBGB

To their credit, or business savvy, they have maintained the punk interior, replete with memorabilia and a stage set-up with full drum kit and  guitars just daring you to pogo around the shop. They have kept the toilet area almost completely unaltered. I dread to think what went on there…

Anyway, I was never here in its heyday and probably just as well as I guess the transformation from a punk haven into an up market mens boutique would be difficult to swallow. So what did I do? Did I sneak a quick gob on the floor? Are you kidding?? Varvatos had a sale going and I managed to pick up a tidy jacket that was half price. I can hear Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee turning in their graves.


Filed under General Thoughts

What A Lovely Christmas Tune!

Well that time of year has come round again. The snow has fallen, the lights on the Christmas tree beckon, and all around little faces beam with good cheer. Every year we celebrate traditions – mistletoe, yule logs, and of course the Christmas hit single. In recent years, this has been predictably a manufactured piece of pap from Simon Cowell’s latest winner from”The X Factor.” Except this year, it looks like the public have had enough of being led by the nose on what counts as the number 1 single. Here is what may be the beginning of the end of the worst period of media control by a single individual. Ladies and gentleman, Rage Against the Machine.

If that is not your cup of tea then you could always go for the more melodic and witty masterpiece by the brilliant Australian maestro Tim Minchin…such a great guy.

Now, if only we can take on  Murdoch.


Filed under In the News

Human Voodoo Doll?

This one really beggars belief! A two-year-old Brazilian boy was admitted to hospital with 50 sewing needles inserted into him. The boy who lives with his mother and step-father is apparently not in any immediate danger but the needles have been inserted close to vital organs making their removal difficult. The mother has no explanation but the finger has been pointed and the boy’s stepfather with the accusation that  it is something to do with black magic. The family clearly live in poverty and once again we are reminded that the most vulnerable always seem to suffer when people turn to ritual.

I hope that this story turns out to be a fake as we discovered with the one about the Peruvian gang last month who were reported as killing victims for their body fat to be sold to the cosmetics industry, but somehow this xray seems pretty convincing that this poor child has been used as a human pin cushion. Whether it is superstitious ritual remains to be determined. Merry Christmas


Filed under In the News, supernatural

Dorchester Evening

Senior Dignitaries of Dorchester Rotary Club

I was in Dorcherster, England last night giving the last of my public lectures on SuperSense – yes that’s right – I’m done with that shtick and thinking of new projects and greener pastures for the coming year. It was a cracking turn out of about 400 most elderly people.  It was co-sponsored by the local Rotary Club (could not have been more courteous) who took lots of photographs of me shaking hands with local dignitaries.. I guess they don’t get that many celebrities in Dorchester…;)… Midway, an elderly gentleman “took a turn” and had to be taken out so I hope it wasn’t my cannibal stories. I even had to modify my smutty jokes and discussion of absorbing youth through essential sex. Oh well, the audience bought a decent number of books to sign and they genuinely seemed to enjoy my act.

The Wessex Hotel where they put me up was very fine but obviously catered for the more senior citizens – still it was nice to have a four-poster bed. But what caught my eye on the way up to my room, were the local tourist brochures. Dorchester was hosting the “World Renowned Tutankhamun Exhibition”and there was also a unique museum dedicated to the Chinese “Terracotta Warriors.” Maybe I had misjudged sleepy Dorchester! I would have time to visit these magnificent museums in the morning.

However, when I went to check booking online I found out that although King Tut’s was a “spectacular unforgettable experience – spanning time itself,” it turns out that everything in it was reproduction. And the Terracotta Warriors Museum housed treasures that had been replicated in China – NOT TO BE MISSED! Needless to say, I didn’t bother going. But why? Why do we value the authentic and reject the reproduction? Well, if you have been following the blog or have read the book,  you know the answer by now. No wonder they were delighted to see a real-live lecturer. Anyway, thank you Dorchester.


Filed under book publicity

Woo Begins in the Womb

Are you a bit girly?

Did you know that the ratio of length of your ring finger to your index finger is a marker for the amount of testosterone you were exposed to as a foetus? Testosterone is part of the process that turns little girls into little boys (that’s one of the reasons that men have nipples!). In males the ring finger is typically longer than the index finger and the larger that ratio, the more butch you are. It also turns out that the more butch you are, the less likely you are to believe in the supernatural.

recent study of  over a thousand Austrian men and women found that  a correlation between the digit ration and supernatural belief. Martin Voracek, a psychologist at the University of Vienna, found that the ratio of length of the ring finger to the index finger predicted belief. Voracek found that “higher feminized” digit ratio in men correlated with stronger paranormal and superstitious beliefs, even when controlled for age, education, adult height and weight, and birth length and weight. Shorter feminized digit ratios in women correlated with more superstitious beliefs, as did a woman’s lighter weight at birth. So it would appear that there is some biological basis for individual differences in supernatural beliefs as I have pointed out in SuperSense.

When I wrote a guest article for the Skepchik Blog, about why there are more female believers in woo, I got slammed down by a whole bunch of naysayers, (especially one sarky commentator) claiming that it was all to do with environment. Well, of course, there is usually some role of environment but if you haven’t figured by now, there is a little bit of the nativist about me.


Filed under Research, supernatural

Shaking the Dead Hand of Plato

Last month I had the honour to chair Richard Dawkins when he gave a talk in Bristol about his new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” We exchanged respective signed copies of our books and I have been slowly working my way through his though I have to say I have not yet finished – a million writing deadlines of my own to complete.

But I did want to write a post on the opening to Chapter 2 entitled, “Dogs, Cows and Cabbages.” In it Dawkins, asks the question, “Why is it so difficult for people to accept natural selection,” and he gives the answer, that when I read it,   knocked me off my seat – essentialism. If you have not read SuperSense, a large proportion of it addresses this notion that we believe the world is inhabited by essences and that this explains many supernatural beliefs and practices. So you can imagine how gratifying it was to see it pop up in Dawkins’ latest book where he calls its influence, “the dead hand of Plato.”

However, if I had researched SuperSense more thoroughly I would have discovered that essentialism is also the answer given by Ernst Mayr for why people have a problem with natural selection. Mayr points out that since the time of Plato, people have assumed that there is a true identity to reality that cannot necessarily been seen directly. It’s like there is an ideal form for all the things we detect in the world. So there is an essential dog, an essential tree and so forth. All the variation we experience in the world is interpreted as some deviation from an ideal form – a form that is essential. But such a viewpoint is inconsistent with continual change and evolution. Origins of species through natural selection does not fit with the Platonic view and this is a point that I made in the book. You don’t have to teach children this. They naturally assume that all species are essentially different from each other and that’s why they have a problem with accepting Darwin.

Of course, I go further than Dawkins and Mayr in my theory. Essentialism is not just a belief about true identity. It manifests as a supernatural force that can contaminate reality. There is essential evil, essential goodness, essential youth, and indeed I would argue that we essentialize those things we consider unique such as individuals. I argue that an individual’s essence can contaminate an inanimate object or possession – maybe even a signed book. This is one reason why some people don’t want to touch or wear the killer’s cardigan. It also explains why we find the notions of duplication, genetic modification and all manner of procedures that violate the integrity of the individual as abhorrent. We are not necessarily aware of this way of thinking and as I have been at pains to point out, it may operate intuitively, but I think that every child born is still shaking the dead hand of Plato.


Filed under Research

Noah’s Ark Zoo Runs Aground

Back in January, I blogged about Michael Shermer’s visit to the creationist zoo in Somerset, Noah’s Ark. We had a fun day trying to make sense of the owner, Anthony Bush’s warped sense of reality. “Yes, of course God created all the animals but not in 10,000 years- that would be nonsense. No, he did it in 100,000 years!” proclaimed Anthony, adding, “We not like those crazy literal creationists you have in America.”

Well, today the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) expelled Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm for bringing the association into disrepute. Sadly, it was not for blatant pseudoscience and misleading the thousands of children who visit the zoo every year. Turns out that Anthony has been a bit naughty. He has been running an illegal breeding programme for endangered species and was exposed by an undercover BBC reporting team that showed he had even buried a tiger at the zoo, contravening health and safety as well as animal care legislation. Anthony Bush’s excuse was that all he had done was treat it as if a pet had died.

I doubt whether expulsion from BIAZA will have any major effect on the zoo; especially if schools are prepared to send children to Noah’s Ark for educational visits. When we were there, Anthony showed us the new educational centre they were completing. Still, he might think twice about burying the elephant in the sand pit. Like most creationists who ignore the overwhelming evidence for evolution, sadly Anthony has already buried his own head there.


Filed under In the News

How To Make A Killing With the Woo Bomb Detector

Take a good, hard look Mr McCormick – That’s not rust in the water.

I don’t usually feel like getting on a soapbox about woo because for the most part, it is harmless belief and we are all a bit susceptible to strange beliefs. However, when those beliefs have devastating consequences for others then it is time to shout out. I wrote about the witch-burnings and albino murders in Africa, but now I return to something a little closer to home.

A couple of weeks ago, a number of us (bad astronomer,  Ben Goldacreblogged about the British company selling bomb detecting devices to Iraq that appears to be nothing more than simply a divining rod. The company, ATSC is registered in Yeovil, Somerset. (That’s my neck of the woods). ATSC’s managing director Jim McCormick, a former police officer, invented the detectors a decade ago. The “ADE651 device” costs around £35,000 ($60k). It appears to be a telescopic car aerial attached to a black box. Inside there is a plastic card that is supposed to be ready programmed with an electromagnetic ‘resonance’ of what needs to be detected. It is claimed to be based on the principles of nuclear quadrupole resonance but from what I understand that would require generating a magnetic field and sending out a strong pulse – something that seems to be absent in the ADE651 – its powered by body energy! Even if it does use NQR then it seems highly implausible that it can work from an airplane 3 miles up as claimed in the product details. Still, they have already sold an unbelievable £51 million’s worth to Iraq.

Not surprisingly, when a guard and a driver for The New York Times investigating this story, both licensed to carry firearms, drove through nine police checkpoints that were using the device, none of the checkpoint guards detected the two AK-47 rifles and ammunition inside the vehicle. Later, it even failed to detect a grenade and pistol in plain view on the table of the General in charge of the checkpoint, who replied that the operators needed more training.

Mr Jim McCormick, who generally does not return calls, is reported as saying, “We have been dealing with doubters for ten years. One of the problems we have is that the machine does look a little primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.”

Flashing lights? That will make it work then and ready for the festive period. Something for the kids maybe?

Take a good hard look at the pictures Jim McCormick. These are from the largest suicide car bomb since 2007 that took place in Baghdad back in October this year. I only just discovered that the two cars involved passed through a checkpoint equipped with the ADE651. If this is true, then I don’t think a few fairy lights will make the difference.

Techowiz has been particularly vocal in this issue with a whole blog dedicated to exposing ATSC . You might want to look at the response from Jim McCormick. I think this issue is too important to be reduced to a war of words and name calling. Rather, I think this company and its claims needs to be checked out. It is bad enough that we de-stabilized Iraq, but worse if we knowingly allowed unscrupulous businesses to exploit the naive.

If it turns out that ATSC have really developed technology to discover these devices then I think a Queen’s medal for technology is in order. But if it turns out that it is nothing more than divining, then it has to be stopped.

I have contacted David Laws who is the Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil, where ATSC Ltd is registered to look into this mater. You might want to drop him a line if you feel as strongly as I do.


Filed under General Thoughts