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Archive for June, 2015

Religion, Black Holes and Education

SpaceI note there is a small push to get the movie “Interstellar” into UK schools, the basis for this being that the special effects were science-driven and as it turns out, apparently represent some of the best visualisations of what it might be like near a black hole.

The basis of the movie is simple enough – a few years into the future, we are running out of resources and nature is fighting back (a popular theme, the idea that nature is right and we are wrong – something I find a little silly being as the best nature could manage for most of time was a bunch of rocks and until we started understand nature we rarely lived past 50).

In the movie, mankind is doomed, our only hope being to colonise other worlds and the only way to do that being to use a black hole as a stepping stone to get to these very far away places. The movie focuses on various aspects of relativity, so that compared to those on the ship approaching the black hole with it’s massive gravitational pull, those back home are ageing much more rapidly. They also attempt to show visually what might happen if you approach the event horizon of a black hole (though I was always led to believe that the first thing would be you were ripped to bits). The imagery is staggering but more importantly this is as near to accurate as we know how to make it, simplifying an otherwise complicated subject sufficiently for keep it both educational and VERY entertaining.

While this is to be applauded, frankly for those of us brought up in a science-friendly environment, the leap to understanding all of this is relatively straightforward and quite exciting. Indeed part of the fun is picking flaws in the movie.

However to someone who does not have that educational background (self-taught in my case – my parents and teachers did a good job of making me want to know more), it is likely that the movie represents a lot of flashing lights, decent acting and not a lot more.

One of the big problems of science versus religion is that the latter takes almost no effort whereas the former can take a lot of effort. Simple answers are “comforting” and science at the extremes rarely provides simple answers. Attempts to explain modern science to school-kids will ultimately fail unless the teachers involved actually understand the science AND are able to relay this to the layman enthusiastically – skills which don’t always go together. Once someone becomes a teenager, if their early up-bringing and schooling didn’t give them analytical skills, attempts then to teach modern concepts in science are almost guaranteed to be doomed to failure.

I was brought up in a world if Richard Attenborough, Tomorrow’s World and Science fiction which often turned to science fact, constantly learning something new. People on my watch list include Brian Cox, Elon Musk, Craig Venter… I’m interested in world-changing projects like Oneweb and the world at Cern

What of those who spent their youth reciting a book, over and over almost to the exclusion of everything else? How will their thoughts contribute?

Is I get older and hopefully wiser it is becoming increasingly obvious that organised religion today is bad, VERY bad. Children are like sponges – if you tell them that fighting for the fatherland is good – they’ll suck it up. If you tell them it will be ok if they blow themselves to bits, they’ll suck it up. In countless historical examples we see how easy it is to set children off on the wrong path. There is an unparalleled responsibility put on adults to ensure that children are presented (in as balanced a way as possible) with interesting facts and our best guesses as to how everything works and ensure they understand the difference between fact, theory and fiction – yet what actually happens? In most of the world, parents and society fall over backwards to imprint their brand of religion on their children and this is just PLAIN WRONG.

Here’s a heretical thought for the future: Scrap religious education as such and take another approach. Let’s called it “Origin studies” for the sake of argument. We all want to know where we came from and where we are going (yes even those who don’t believe in fairies). Was there a beginning? Will there be and end and where do we fit in the middle? How do we define “purpose”?

Such a scheme starts with government determination (which likely won’t happen) and suitable qualified teachers (which likely won’t happen)… begin with the simple stuff… explain that in early times, people with almost no knowledge of the world and absolutely no knowledge of the universe, in order to give meaning to lives and to try to explain the unexplainable, came up with the idea of god. Explain WHY we have a tendency to form competing groups at every opportunity and how useful that was for early survival and how absolutely destructive it is today. Are those views and lifestyles still relevant? Explain that hundreds if not thousands of gods which people used to believe in have fallen by the wayside – and that there are a few left which millions of people still believe in – mostly incompatible – explain also that by and large those world regions with the highest belief levels have the poorest education – study the relationships between physical and psychological well-being, belief and education.

Then go on firstly with very simply explanations and a heavy dose of imagery, how science is filling in the gaps, giving us the opportunity to look again at those belief systems with fresh eyes and actual knowledge. Explain that it is important to split science into two areas – information which started as theory and became fact, ideas that are still theory and simple observations. For example, evolution is not just a theory, it is a well proven fact. Black holes not so long ago were theory, today they have been observed but our PRACTICAL experience of them remains low. Explain that the idea of the multiverse is just one unproven theory among many and explain WHY we have these competing theories. Explain also that leaving new discoveries to others is no good – we are all capable of contributing ideas and should not be frightened to do so.

The universe is expanding and APPEARS, extrapolating backwards to have come from a point. Is that a fact or are there alternatives? If it is a fact, what of before the big bang – or indeed is that the wrong question?

When the child becomes an adult, the sky will be the limit for them – they can then choose what to believe in, create their own beliefs and likely contribute to our collective understanding. For myself I have a mental model of how most things work but thanks to my up-bringing that model can change with time – I’m quite happy to look at new information with a view to getting a fresh perspective. Those blighted by religion from youth often cannot and will not see beyond what they were originally taught and indeed many do not even have the ability to question or have been taught that there are things you should not question, to which my response is “Bollocks” yet those beliefs are so strong that in some parts of the world they will still kill to enforce those beliefs on others. See examples where atheists (or those with competing religions) are attacked or even killed for daring not to share the same invisible friends as others. The analytical skills of some people have been utterly crippled and perhaps they wish to inflict this on others.

If we owe anything to the future it is to provide the upcoming generations with the skills to evolve and expand and not to cripple them with our own inadequate visions of how everything works or even the widely held, pathetic belief that we should not or cannot understand because “we are not worthy”. Time is running out for us to understand the world well enough to preserve it – and “praying” just won’t save us.

Science has answers for many things – yet many of those answers are full of gaps merely due to lack of time and effort. Collectively we can reduce those gaps. When all the gaps in our knowledge are gone, if such a thing is possible, perhaps then we will become the gods some people believe exist. Or… we can go the way of the dinosaur.

The Summer of 2015 and a new Phone

Lots going on right now…

izmir[4]After what seems like a lifetime as IT Director and National IT Chairman of the FSB, I’ve decided to give it a miss. The reasons aren’t simple and include changes in the FSB itself – it is simply not the organisation I joined. Every year for the past 14 years, I’ve re-applied for the post and have never been opposed.

I’ve had a rarely- equalled freedom to take things in the direction I’ve wanted IT to go with unqualified support from the other directors. This year, the job role and authority changed, in my view in the wrong direction and when it came to putting in the papers I just could not bring myself to doing it. At the time, I didn’t know if anyone else was going for the role as this was handled externally. I wrote in to decline and left it at that.

GibraltarI’ve only just found out that in fact someone did go for it – so perhaps it’s as well I stepped down – keeps my unopposed record intact if nothing else. Hah!

Dell Tech ThinktankThe role has been great fun and has helped me travel to Microsoft’s HQ in the USA, UK and Brussels, Google’s European and Irish offices and the Dell Thinktank in Amsterdam to name but a few. I’ve made friends with the EU ESBA team and travelled with them to Brussels, Ireland, Izmir and meetings at the top of the rock in Gibraltar where I’ve met with Gibraltar luminaries and learned so much about the place (as well as discovering what a pain the Spanish are being over there).

Would-beI’ve vice-chaired a multi-national EU team representing many nations, I’ve met Prime Ministers (and would-be Prime Ministers)  and countless ministers, been to Numbr 10 and the House of Commons many times, I’ve met stars of stage and screen, visited the various offices of Microsoft, Dell, Google and so much more – and now it is time for a break.

And so we’re planning a long summer in Spain, something we should have done a long time ago because Britain is NEVER going to have a fine summer whereas it is odds-on that when we stop over there until autumn, we’re unlikely to see more than a couple of days of heavy rain. Lovely.

BrusselsBut first, having just finished (more or less) work on Hollyberry Cottage which is now occupied through to the autumn, we’re working on Willow Cottage with a view to clearing the place out in the next few weeks (to rent as it happens) before we head off to the sun complete with cats. I am, accordingly, covered in paint.

Google - Peter McAvoyMeanwhile the change has prompted me to look at phones! My last contract phone was the excellent Samsung S4 and I had planned to move onto the S6, but recently, two things happened to the phone – firstly the chrome started to come away from the front a little and secondly, being someone who uses LOTS of apps, I found myself running out of internal memory (even though the Samsung can use external memory for Apps (I have a lot)– they still eat up a good chunk of the internal and limited memory) and having seen that Samsung are not entirely invincible I decided to have a look around, concentrating on features rather than name.

ToyahIt just so happened that a good and knowledgeable friend of mine had been trying out a Chinese phone and I asked him how the new phone was going – he replied saying that it was so good he’d bought more of them! I decided to investigate. I sold the Samsung to a friend who will love it…  and sent off my order for the new phone.

Now, in order to do this justice, you really are going to have to turn a blind eye to the name of the phone.. it’s called a Zopo (Mind you, even some of the big names sound silly – did you know that LG were originally called “Lucky Goldstar”). Yes, Zopo sounds like a cigarette lighter… but once you get past that, lets’ see why this might be a good phone or indeed, an excellent phone.

ThinktankThe model Z999 Pro Lion Heart is big, bigger than the S4 and the new HTC, but just as thin. It has two SIM sockets – rather handy for, erm, travelling to Spain! It also supports external microSD and it just so happens I have a fast 64GB microSim. It has 3GB of RAM – three times earlier phones… and finally it has 32GB of internal Flash memory – and to power all of that, an octal processor! My DESKTOP has an octal processor!!

ZopoWith an HD screen who’s pixels are so small as to be utterly invisible, rendering text as good to the eye as a quality magazine and with superb colour rendering, this phone was off to a good start but here’s the thing – it is cheap enough to buy – hence I’m on a SIM-ONLY contract with THREE (I stayed with them for two reasons – firstly you can use your minutes overseas and even some data overseas and secondly, they have a little app that allows the phone to work where there is no signal as long as you have WIFI. I also have a 3 BOX that sits in the window sill and does the same thing  – gone are the days of having to drive up the hill to use the phone.

The Z999 is powerful, great looking and cheap – it does not have infra-red which was a shame (most phone don’t but the Samsung S4 and 5 do) but there are ways around that. It does however have a VERY sensitive GPS which unlike many phones, works indoors a treat. It also has Bluetooth, NFC, an FM radio, compass and all the other sensors and features (gesture recognition etc.) you’d nowadays expect with a top phone.

It came (very unusually) with a screensaver already fitted to the glass and a spare included. The camera is a particularly sensitive 14Mpx job and contrary to various articles it does have HDR.

Battery life is not stunning but then it isn’t with any of the top-end phones so I’ve ordered a rather large solar charger to take to Spain with me. I finished the long process of installing satnav maps for Britain and Spain – and then on a trip to Manchester I took some pics to check out the claims of it being better than the Samsung camera – I would say YES. Up to now I am VERY pleased with the phone.