Monthly Archives: March 2011

Thou Shalt Not Make Robots

I read with interest an article from Wired magazine that the Japanese are more accepting of robots because they don’t suffer from the Judeo-Christian guilt or fear associated with making idols, according to Jean-Claude Heudin, an AI expert from the Institute of Multimedia in Paris. He argues that because the bible explicitly states “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20),  we have a guilt complex about creating human-like things. Similarly, the argument runs that only God can create humans and robots represent a violation of that belief. In contrast, traditional Japanese religions are more polytheist so there is no monopoly on creation. It has a whiff of truth about it but I don’t really buy it. What do you think?


Filed under General Thoughts

The Extinction of Religion?

We have the census coming up this weekend in the UK where every household has to return information that gives a snapshot of the society. Included amongst the various demographics is the inevitable religion question. It is likely that there will be another increase in the percentage of “no religion” responses given the various polls indicating that the UK is moving towards greater secularity.

A paper just out has even mathematically modeled the decline of religion based on the census data from nine other countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland). The main author has concluded in a interview with the BBC that religion in these countries will become extinct, in the same way that indigenous languages die out when there is competition between different social groups.

No doubt this will be music to the ears of many but then, should we really be that surprised? The history of civilization is littered with the corpses of dead religions. The difference is that those deaths were at the hands of other religions whereas the modern era has science as an alternative way of viewing the universe. I hope so.

That said, there is no box on the census to address beliefs in supernatural phenomena which shows no signs of a decline with remarkable consistency over the past 20 years in the UK alone. I expect that many who tick the “no religion” box still have their beliefs.

At the danger of sounding like a broken record, religions come and go, but beliefs in supernatural possibilities are very stubborn. This is the SuperSense that religions have capitalized so well on over the centuries. It remains to be seen whether all religions will eventually go extinct – I strongly doubt it but I am pretty sure that beliefs in phenomena and forces, that have no evidential basis, will be with us so long as there are brains that are trip-wired to seeing significance where there is none.


Filed under atheism, In the News, Research

Cognitive Enhancers or Bad Eggs?

"I think this egg is off"

I was at Prof Barbara Saharkian’s lecture on cognitive enhancement a few weeks back where she talked about the growing use of drugs to improve academic performance. Apparently the situation is epidemic on US campuses where approximately 16% of students are taking these clinical drugs to help them cram for exams or do all-nighters to complete assignments. She presented evidence where drugs such as Ritalin, originally intended for the treatment of ADHD, have been shown to improve performance on a number of cognitive tasks.

Modafinil, originally designed for the treatment of narcolepsy, is one of the latest growing trends of cognitive enhancing drugs. The market for  Modafinil is estimated to be worth £700m per annum alone with approximately 90% destined for “off- label” or non-clinical use.  According to Saharkian, she found that a number of her US colleagues privately admitted to taking Modafinil when traveling to give lectures as it is very good for overcoming jetlag.

Access to cognitive enhancers is fairly restricted in the UK but there is always the internet. The trouble of course, is that many of these drugs are manufactured in the Far East which has notoriously lax attitudes to quality control. It is simply dangerous to buy your drugs online. In the past, they have been found to contain a variety of toxins.

There again, China also has  more natural ways of maintaining concentration. For example, you may want to try spring eggs hard boiled in children’s urine that have been prepared in Dongyang, Zhejiang province, eastern China, for thousands of years and now culture officials want to take it worldwide.

“The urine is gathered from local schools and the very best comes from boys under 10 years old. They pee in buckets and we collect it fresh every day,” chef Lu Ming explained.  He continued, “Then the eggs are boiled in the wee, first with their shells on and then with them off for a day and a night before they’re ready to be eaten.” The eggs are regarded as delicious and healthy because they help concentration when feeling sluggish or sleepy.

I have a conference coming up in a couple of weeks where I would like to be alert and attentive. But somehow, I think I will not be relying on any Chinese remedies – natural or not.


Filed under Research, Weird Story of the Week

Skin Deep

Wish I Had a Body Like That

There is something deeply disturbing about these two images. I guess the idea of wearing another person’s skin is reminiscent of “Buffalo Bill” from “The Silence of the Lambs” who kidnapped women and then skinned them so that he could make a female suit.

This hoodie comes complete with a tattoo but I think you would still have to have a reasonable body to look good in it. Actually, strike that, I don’t think anyone can look reasonably good wearing another’s skin.

The other image is also a bit weird. These are a set of designer shoes that have been commissioned by the Cheltenham Horse Race Meeting which is currently underway just up the road from Bristol. They look like some part of a pantomine outfit. For those non-Brit followers, we have this peculiar stage form where people dress up as horses and cows.

Seriously, Would You Wear These?

Anyway, outside of panto, I think dressing like an animal is strange. I guess the hypocrisy I am voicing is that I don’t think there is anything amiss about wearing animal skin.  Leather, is of course, just another skin but like many aspects of the human animal relationship, we prefer not to be reminded too much of where it came from.


Filed under In the News, Weird Story of the Week

What a Twit I Am

The Real Helen Mirren

Today something very unusual happened. Dame Helen Mirren started to follow me. I wasn’t walking down the road in London or Los Angeles where the Oscar-winning actress spends most or her time. Rather I was seated at my kitchen table, in my Somerset barn looking at my Twitter account as I usually do and saw that @HelenMirren_DBE was now following me. Or at least I thought she was. Of course, I can’t be sure that it is her, because it is so easy to be anyone you want in the virtual world.

In fact with only 200 or so followers, I expect it is someone known as a “troll.” Trolls are individuals who take delight in disrupting communication by posting offensive comments or pretending to be someone else. I expect my Helen Mirren is a troll but for one moment my heart skipped a beat as I thought that my adolescent crush was taking an interest in me.

There used to be a trivia game called “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” where one had to identify how any actor could be linked by their film roles to the actor Kevin Bacon. I think that Twitter is becoming like a souped up version of that where anyone can be connected to anyone online by their twitter following.

There is also something very accessible about Twitter in that anyone can follow their heroes. I think this creates an interesting social phenomenon where we feel an intimacy with others who we would never have the opportunity to meet normally. But this also creates problems. I have noted how strangers feel that they are on familiar basis with those they follow. Not so very different from celebrity stalkers who are deluded in thinking that they share a life with their victims. I will be writing about this further in my forthcoming book, “The Self Illusion,” but for the moment I wanted to share my delusion that a great British actress would bother with a lowly like me.


Filed under book publicity, General Thoughts

I Have a Sneaker Suspicion:Update

Locations of the first five feet found

Last week there was a report of another foot washed up on Canada’s BC coastline. This brings the total of severed feet to 11. The fact that the only remains are just feet is peculiar enough, but what is more bizarre is that most have all been found inside running shoes or sneakers as they say way out West.

The first foot, discovered in August 2007 on Jedediah Island, northeast of Nanaimo, is the only one to be identified belonging to a man who committed suicide but the other feet remain a mystery.

Some speculated that these feet where the remnants of the victims of the 2004 tsunami, others think that they come from Asian human traffickers, but both accounts have been squashed by oceanographers who have shown that the currents indicate that the feet originated from along the West coast.

Others think that there must be a serial killer with a foot obsession, but forensics indicate that the feet were not hacked off but had separated naturally from the rest of the body in the water. But there are no corresponding reports of missing people from the West coast.

I think the feet must come from decomposing bodies and because they are encased in running shoes, they are mostly protected from natural elements and have the buoyancy to enable them to float to shore. But who do they belong to?

In the case of the foot washed up last week, we now have an answer. It turns out that the remains where not human but animal. A local man did not want his dog playing with the bone that he found on a beach and so placed it in the running shoe.

I am sure that there will be a perfectly reasonable explanation for these discoveries but so long as feet in sneakers keep washing up Canada’s shores, I guess this story is just going to run and run.

What’s your theory?

UPDATE: Following the devastating Japanese tsunami, we know learn that there are 15,000 bodies that are still missing and are thought to have been swept out into the Pacific. According to this report, we can expect more feet in sneakers to arrive on the West Coast of the USA, somewhere around 3 years from now. Gosh. How horrific.


Filed under General Thoughts

What to Do If You See a Ghost

With the launch of Richard Wiseman’s excellent new book, “Paranormality,” there is alot of talk about ghosts in the media at the moment. As most you probably know, we scientists don’t give much credence to reports of ghosts. More often than not, peoples’ experiences are simply due to their hypervigilance in situations where any ambiguous event can be reinterpreted as a ghost. And of course, there are always the pranksters who take delight in fooling the gullible.

But what should you do if you think you have seen a ghost. This video showing how unsuspecting Koreans resp0nd to the sight of a “Ring” type of ghost, ends with exactly what you should do.

I am sure that Richard would also suggest that you test out the physics of any apparition you may encounter. I, on the other hand, had better get on with writing my own book, “The Self Illusion,” which argues that our selves may not even exist. Now that is going to take a lot more persuading than belief in ghosts.


Filed under book publicity, General Thoughts, supernatural

Rendlesham Incident – here we go again

It was only yesterday, that I was doing a piece for the Discovery Channel explaining that people’s testimony is not science, many people want to believe the unbelievable, you can’t prove the non-existence as a logical fallacy and of course, David Hume’s classic (later attributed to Carl Sagan) “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I was asked if beliefs will ever go away in the modern era and I replied, probably not. Once you have gotten rid of one crazy belief, along comes another. It’s almost as if people need their to be mysteries in the world that not be explained.

Today we learn of another set of papers released and one particular UFO sighting that has all the hallmarks that makes this one likely to run and run. There were credible witness and better still, there is conspiracy. Intelligence papers on a reported UFO sighting known as the “Rendlesham incident” have gone missing from the National Archives according to the BBC website. Clearly the authorities have something to hide. It is Mully and Sculder all over again.

The incident in 1980 relates to reports from a group of servicemen who said they saw strange lights in the trees near the RAF Woodbridge base – at that time being used by the US Air Force.  Upon investigation, they reported finding marks on the ground and damage to  the vegetation.

The BBC article goes on to describe other examples of UFO sightings from credible witnesses. I am sure they are and I can believe that they believe what they saw. But credible or not, for alien spaceships to travel light years that would take many generations of a human lifespan to travel from beyond our solar system, only to play catch me if you can with the local life forms in a cheeky “now you see” intergalactic game is more incredible than the credible witnesses. I am not saying that it is impossible, just highly implausible and plain daft.


Filed under General Thoughts, In the News