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Friday, 9 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie

An article online in Slate, Europe's confused debate about Islam and Terrorism, flags up several matters which neither the liberal left, nor the extreme right are addressing, or, if they are, it is only to obfuscate. It is not as if the problem of extremism is unforeseen, there have been warnings of the rise in it for at least the last forty years. But the political classes have refused to address many of the issues, and even encouraged some. When they pushed 'multi-culturalism' down our throats we were told it was to combat 'intolerance' and 'religious prejudice'. In the face of evidence that the 'intolerance' was daily being promoted by certain 'radical' preachers, no action was taken, on the grounds that to do so would infringe their 'right' to express an opinion.

Anyone else expressing similarly abhorrent 'opinions' about the ideology these preachers pushed could expect to receive a visit from the Police and to be vilified in the pages of the Guardian, the Mirror and several other left or liberal newspapers, went unremarked. Now faced with the reality of having created, or helped create, the monster, the Right seek to label all Muslims as extremists, and the Left, to deny that Islam has anything to do with it.

The massive drive in the western democracies to embrace 'multi-culty' and 'secularise' the 'state', has created something of a vacuum morally, culturally and spiritually. It is NOT matched by any similar willingness to embrace anyone else's views, customs, religion or any other 'cultural' matter from any other group in any of the countries outside of the 'liberal' West. The aggressive secularising campaigners add to the problem. I regularly read aggressive statements from atheists trumpetting the belief that 'Christianity is dying' or that 'unbelievers will soon outnumber believers'. Most of them fail to even consider the impact of demographics, with Europe and North America - 100 years ago representing 20% of the world population - now only 8% of the world population, and falling to 6% by 2020, we, and the 'atheist' movers, are a very small group within the worlds major religions.

Nor do they appreciate that the present 'Islamic extremism' actually has its roots in the aggressive 'secularisation' policies of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, and in the Egyptian and other governments of the 1950s and 60s. Those policies effectively placed the Islamic 'Scholars' or leaders of Islam under the control, and in the pay, of the governments concerned. Once the trust of the people in the government was lost, as it was fairly rapidly, so the influence of the 'scholars' diminished.

Step forward the back street Mullah. Let him set up his 'religious school' and start brainwashing children. Let him become the administrator of Sharia Law and the 'interpreter' of the Quran and the Hadiths, and the journey into fundamentalism is well under way. Both Turkey and Egypt attempted to control or suppress these 'unofficial' schools and teachers, without success. Throw in the Cold war with both sides supporting various extremist factions - and the mess we see before us isn't going to go away anytime soon. Compound that with the much welcomed (by the liberal western intellectuals) 'Arab Spring' - and turn loose the dogs of war in every society as rival fundamentalist 'Islamic' groups fight for control of the religion and the world.

Two days ago two young Muslim men stormed into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered twelve people. Their motive was, they said, to stop the defamation of 'The Prophet'. The problem is, they have now provoked a backlash against Muslims, the vast majority of whom, though they may not like people poking fun at their Prophet or their faith, understand that in western countries this is permitted. I would suggest that the vast majority of Christians don't like some of the smeers and obscene portrayals of Christ, but I am not aware of any Christian taking 'direct action' over such so-called 'art'.

There are, no doubt, many reasons young Muslim men, in particular, feel alienated in Europe. Not least, I would suspect, because they often don't want to 'fit in'. They are told, usually by contacts from their 'old' countries (though many are born, educated and raised in a European country, often being third generation) that things are so much better when a man can beat his wife, or exercise control over his sisters, that they genuinely believe they are being 'held back' by our liberal values. As the infamous Mullah, Choudary has told the USA Today news, Muslims 'reject' our freedom of choice.

While I suspect he is speaking for himself and his radical followers in that statement it serves very well to highlight why men and boys like him do embrace extremism. It would be well to remember that 'Islam' actually means 'Submission'. Submission means giving up choices and rights ...

Our political classes are doing us and the Muslims among us, no favours by continuing to ignore and tolerate 'hate speech' being propagated by the likes of Choudary. They do us no favours by continuing to promote division instead of integration, and they certainly do no one any favours by encouraging the promotion of Islam by the suppression of Christianity on the grounds that it 'offends' a small and obnoxious minority.

We are all Charlie. We are all threatened by this growing cancer in Islam, but it cannot be dealt with by force or violence. It is a battle that must be won by winning hearts and minds, and that means a lot less rhetoric, much more engagement, and less encouraging the fostering of alien 'cultures'. Continuing down this road will lead only to ever increasing threats, less tolerance and many, many more 'Charlies'.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Models and Prediction

An article on the blog Watts Up With That today entitled "Climate Skepticism The Show Me State" raises some interesting points about the different approaches to 'predictions' arising from 'Climate Models'. A friend, and colleague of my wife, is a highly qualified astro-physicist. He is also a 'builder' of computer models, a lot of his current work being in using computer modelling to test conclusions reached by examining 'hard' evidence of certain events. If you want to make him angry, just suggest that any such 'model' can 'predict' anything. Why?

The simple truth is that any such 'model' contains a number of 'assumptions' - best guesses based on what the modeller thinks is valid when data is either not obtainable, or is considered to be not variable. Thus, in my own discipline - fire - there are a number of mathematical computer models that are used to try and gauge smoke output, heat output and fire spread. They are most useful, in my experience, after a fire, when I can 'model' what actually happened with 'live' data and observations. That is what Sebastian does, and does incredibly well. Just don't ask him to use his model to 'predict' how a fire will behave in a building where he has to make a whole lot of guesses about the fire load, heat output and ventilation. You'll very likely get a very blunt answer.

The problem is that even the best 'model' is a gross oversimplification of the real world. There are simply too many variables to be modelled on even the biggest and best 'super computer' at present. Typically, once again using 'fire' as an example, the reason any 'prediction' is so difficult is that any given fire will change its behaviour if one varies almost any of the 'constant' parameters. Those who, like me, have seen lots of fires in structures will know what I mean. In any experimental burn this can be demonstrated if one sets up identical rooms with identical fire loads and arrangements. Simply opening a different window, or changing the direction of the airflow in some way can completely alter the behaviour of the fire. And that is just one small room with clearly defined boundaries and a whole slew of 'known' data.

Now move into the world of climate modelling. For one thing, the models are trying to replicate a massive, and very chaotic system. To make it worse, they are doing so with an almost impossible number of 'unknowns' that they try to compensate for by assuming 'constancy' or by excluding altogether. Typically, there are huge rows over what is termed 'feedback' when it comes to measuring how much heat is being absorbed or reflected back into space. In a 'fire' model, researchers are able to measure this rather exactly, after all we are working in a confined 'box' and can put instruments to measure radiation from the ceiling, the walls and other features. We're not 'guessing', we can measure it. In a Climate Model, this data is often not 'measured' uniformly, or it is simply guessed. Often where something is 'measured' (usually by comparing satellite data and doing some adding, subtracting and averaging) it is an 'average' of a chaotic picture, and therefore, at best, can be described as a snapshot of a moment in time.

Perhaps the best example I can use here is to look at Boyles and Charles Laws. Simple as it may sound, the relationship between pressure, temperature and volume has a huge impact on the behaviour of a fire in any 'confined' or contained space. The Law itself appears simple -
P = Pressure
V = Volume
T = Temperature

As those familiar with this relationship will know, changing any one of the three causes a change in the others. So, if one has a fixed volume, increasing the temperature will increase the pressure. If that can be relieved by allowing the 'volume' to vent (as when a window is opened), some of the heat will be lost. But, if the heat gain exceeds the loss through the venting, then the pressure will continue to rise. Now the problem with this is that 'feedback' element ... In a fire, it can, as I said, be measured, but the Earth's atmosphere is a different situation, and the measurements are, quite literally, all over the place. So, in order to put them into a 'model' and make some sense of it, the data is 'smoothed' (introducing another 'unknown'), then 'averaged' and massaged to fit.

Having taken the trouble to look at some of the raw data, and what, from that is fed into a 'model', all I can say is that the 'smoothed' data doesn't actually look anything like the original. 

Which is why I'm with Sebastian. Predictions based on 'Models' are, at best unreliable. At worst, they are so badly manipulated and massaged they'd tell you anything you told them to. That is where the credibility gap becomes a chasm. Perhaps it is time the 'scientists' and their supporters relying on this, took a step back and, like Dr Judith Curry, admitted that there are huge uncertainties and massive gaps in our understanding of what is, after all, a massively complex and chaotic system we have only the barest understanding of at present.

I guess that puts me firmly in the 'Show Me' camp.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Simply Complex ...

A recent copy of Scientific American contained an article concerning the latest astronomical research on the search for ‘habitable planets’ which might be suitable for ‘life’ or which might, some day, be an alternative home for humanity. It raised the point that our sun is already past ‘middle age’ for stars of its size and type, and entering (or perhaps already in) its first decay phase. Why is that of interest? After all, we are reasonably certain we have something like 7 or more billion years before it actually ‘dies’. 

Turns out, we may have a lot less than that. The problem is that, as it ages, the sun is getting hotter, which means that the ‘sweet zone’ in which our planet sits, is actually migrating outward toward Mars. Already our planet, once thought to be safely in the centre of that sweet zone, is perilously close to the inner edge of it. Which means, in a mere half million years, our oceans will have boiled away, life will be all but extinct in any present form, and the atmosphere will be largely acidic, toxic and probably hot enough to flash water to steam. 

Other articles discussing the drift of continents, volcanism, oceanic circulation, climate change (or not) and quantum physics all convince me that scientists seem to love to do their thing in splendid isolation and with complete disregard for anything in any other field which may impact on theirs. Thus, ‘Climate Scientists’ ignore geologists providing reliable and well proven data concerning historic warm and cold periods. Information from glaciologists is also ignored, unless it accords with the ‘warming’ narrative. As for anything the astronomers say, well that’s ignored as well. 

Into this rich mix of conflicting signals and messages - made even more complex by politicians running with the bits that suit their agendas, and the masses of terminally blinkered ‘laymen’ who refuse to see anything that counters, conflicts or refutes their favoured ideology/beliefs - the quantum physicists, anti-religionists and the media and you rapidly move to a situation where the last thing anyone listens to is ‘reason’. It becomes a scrum, a slanging match of competing ideas, evidence, and argument, and, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it so eloquently, ‘the truth is not in it’. Or perhaps it is, but it is neither as simple as each competing ‘science’ claims, nor as ‘logical’ as their various adherents think.

One of the great misconceptions in the ‘media’ and thus the wider public, is the difference between ‘theory’, ‘hypothesis’ and ‘reality’. A ‘theory’ is something that has been conclusively established, by observation, by hard evidence and by repeated re-examination, experiment and confirmation from numerous sources and vast amounts of research. Thus, the theory of Tectonics, is established by measurement, examination of rock samples, observation of subduction and eduction zones and by evidence gathered from analysis of the chemistry of rocks, gases from volcanoes and so on. Climate Change, on the other hand is still in the hypothesis category, simply because the ‘hard’ proof is proving elusive, and while there is historic and geological evidence to prove that climate changes, what is not ‘proved’ or agreed is what causes it. The media, and here I include the Internet, conflates everything, so any ‘new’ paper that catches the attention is trumpeted as ‘proof’ or ‘conclusive’ when often it is anything but.

And then there is astro-physics and quantum physics. Both branches of mathematics, and both heavily reliant on mathematical models to test and ‘prove’ their theories. Their ‘hard’ evidence comes from telescopes, satellites, photographs, the lander on Mars and now the ESA satellite and lander on a comet, and the Large Hadron Collider. These are the branches of science that always put me in mind of the Wizards in Sir Terry Pratchett’s books. More particularly in the group that inhabit the High Energy Magic building at Unseen University, and who probably wouldn’t recognise ‘reality’ if it attacked them. Thus one can marvel at the paper produced recently by a group of quantum physicists that ‘proved’ (using computer models) that out entire universe is a hologram. 

Quantum Physicists marvel at the fact that some of their (modelled) particles apparently defy Newtonian Physics, and some may even defy Einstein’s theory of Relativity. According to them our universe is a 3-D projection originating in a 4-D Universe, itself a projection from a 5-D Universe, etc., etc., and presumably ours ‘projects’ a 2-D Universe somewhere, and that … These are the guys who get super excited when they can smash an atom and find bits they’ve never seen, which cannot possibly be seen, and which can only exist independently for moments of time we can’t even begin to measure (though I’m sure someone has named them). Sometimes reading about the ‘latest’ revelation in this field, or in genetics and other ‘microscope’ or ‘modelling’ branches of science, one gets the impression that the writers are standing so close to their subject, and so focused on the minutiae, they cannot see the larger world, and sometimes the reality, around them. 

Science is exciting, it is informing us of wonders even our most recent forebears couldn’t have imagined, and it is both exciting and terrifying. Exciting because we are, to abuse a phrase from a more famous author, we are catching glimpses of the Divine, but it is terrifying for the same reason because some of what we are now seeing defies logic, or raises so many more questions we cannot yet answer it suggests we may be better off not poking a stick into these things.

Returning to the American Scientist article briefly, the finding that the sun has got hotter, and the ‘sweet zone’ is migrating past us, it raises a serious question about Climate Change. If, as is now predicted, in less than 500,000 years, we will be sitting on a nearly barren lump of rock being scorched by a slowly swelling and overheating sun, precisely how will we protect ourselves and maintain ‘life’? The answer in the article, is that our survival depends on migrating away from here before that date, yet it seems that no one is interested in that option. There does not seem to be a single body (and as far as I’m concerned the UN would be the worst possible body to do it) that is looking at anything longer than the next five, ten, fifty or hundred years, and all of them are doing so from purely the perspective of ‘how do we keep the voters sweet, the money flowing, and stay in control’.

As I said at the outset, none of the sciences seem to put their data together and see the bigger picture, or indeed, consider what another discipline can tell them that may mean adjusting their own hypotheses. The response when one suggests it (even as a lowly ‘fire investigator’ looking at a complex fire event with ‘specialists’ and ‘experts’ from other scientific disciplines) is, “Ah, outside my field. Not relevant.” So I read in various places that the Tera tons of ice covering the Antarctic continent ‘will be gone in less than a hundred years’ and that the Arctic will be ‘ice free’ within ten, twenty, … take your pick. All claims made by scientists and activists whose purview is restricted to the evidence of their own particular discipline/ideological beliefs and ignoring records from ice cores and geologists that there may be a cycle to this. There is outright denial in some quarters of the fact that in the period 900 - 1200 AD, the Greenland islanders kept cattle, something that is impossible today.

We are constantly told that storms and floods are a result of climate change, yet any engineer will argue that more paving, more roof surface and building in flood plains will all result in greater flow of water into rivers, faster, and more dangerously than even fifty years ago. We are told sea levels are ‘rising’ in places like Manhattan, yet a geologist will tell you that the weight of the buildings etc., on the island is depressing the crust beneath the island, so it is a moot point as to whether the sea level is rising, or the land sinking. We have the same effect in Southern Britain where the land is sinking and Scotland rising slowly as a result of the crust adjusting from no longer being covered by almost a mile thick ice sheet.

The one thing in the universe everyone seems to agree on (except perhaps the adherents to some of the new ‘religions’ of ‘science’ and ‘climate’ who are experts at neither) is that everything is in a constant state of change. Nothing is static, so instead of, as some campaign so passionately for, trying to arrest change, we need to find more efficient ways to adapt. We need to rein in our explosive expansion of the human population and stabilise it - something we can change - and we need to find more ways of co-operating instead of competing.

Isaac Asimov once declared that if humanity is to survive, and to expand into interstellar space successfully, all nations must pool their resources and their expertise. Only then can the full human potential be realised. Only then can we successfully escape the confines of a dying planet and, perhaps, the consequences of our present hubris.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015


Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day we remember the visit, recounted in St Luke's Gospel, of the visit of the 'wisemen from the East' to Bethlehem. It marks the end of the Christmas festival and the beginning of the season of Epiphany, and something more. It marks the revelation of the Christ child to a wider audience than simply the Jewish people.

The 'wise men' represent the world population, and whether they were kings, astrologers, wandering mystics or anything else, is irrelevant. They came to Bethlehem, bearing gifts on our behalf. They saw, they spoke to Mary and Joseph, and went quietly home to await events. They and their story are significant simply because of who they came to represent - us.

This is one reason why, for the Orthodox Churches, 'Christmas' is celebrated at the Epiphany, and not on the 25th December. Perhaps something we should all attempt to recapture and reinstall in our frenzied world of fairy tales, reindeer, jolly old chaps with sleighs full of gifts and shop chains all dependent on turning the celebration of the birth of Christ into a feeding frenzy of profit to balance their books.

The gifts mentioned all have an allegoric significance - Gold represents the wealth of the world. Frankincense represents the offerings given in the Temple, which only the Priests could offer and then only to God, and Myhr is the embalming spice used to prepare the dead for burial. The gifts are the foretelling of what is to come for this babe in Bethlehem. St John says, 'He came to His own, and His own knew Him not.' The wise men from the East brought him the gifts, the offerings of the world, and while He would be rejected by His own people, they 'knew' Him and accepted Him.

That is the significance of their story as told in Matthew.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Service Interruption ...

I have been exceptionally busy over the last six or seven weeks, which has not left a lot of time for blogging. Hopefully now things are returning, slowly, to a more even keel, I hope to resume something like a 'normal service'.

Belatedly let me wish any remaining readers a very successful and happy year for 2015. I hope you all had a fabulous Christmas and my Jewish friends enjoyed Hannukah.

Peace be with you all.