Skeptobot has had a make over.

Thanks again to the wonderful advice of Dr Ashen I've given the site a little spruce up, with a lovely banner knocked up by the wise one merely as a proof of concept, but I think it's lovely so I'm using it. Hopefully the new template is easier to read - let me know if you don't like it. Also I'm testing whether this still works in people's RSS feeds and so on, as you may have noticed I've successfully hidden the 'blogspot' from the site's address. 

Let me know if you have any problems. 

And to make up for all the house keeping updates here is a picture of  the Phoenix Lander in the process of Landing on Mars, as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

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Humanity, being awesome, yesterday.

Humanity sent a piece of moving metal and plastic through the solar system whilst getting another piece of metal and plastic to watch. We are awesome.

Expanding the Brand: launches! (& Wand update)

Oh what a day! Thanks to the advice of the wonderful Dr Ashen, Skeptobot has gone all Web 1.0 by getting it's very own web address. Now you can use the very professional sounding to come and visit the site. But don't worry it's still hosted on blogger so the wonderful feelings of doubt, mistrust and apathy that comes with seeing the 'blogspot' bar remain in full force. 

This is all part of the slow process to turn to Skeptobot into the UK's premier site about God and Science and that. And to make me a squillionaire.

In other news, the Oyster Wand hasn't been forgotten - I've just been busy. Progress has been made though as I have been given this:

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A Sonic Bloody Screwdriver - from Doctor Fucking Who.

Which should tide me over till I find a suitable wand. It's not going to get the ladies flocking the same way a magic wand would, but if I ever need to impress children and/or adults who should know better then I'm all set. Talking of which it is extremely difficult to find a wand that a) doesn't look shit, or b) is thick enough to be useful.  

Oh and all these shenanigans almost got me on the TV. Which is nice.

15 year old calls Scientology a Cult: Footbullets and Police Shenanigans

Meant to cover this as it happened but I've been far too busy, so here's a quick overview of Scientology's latest footbullet. And a wonderful example of why "the kids today" are awesome.

May 10th: 15 year old EpicNoseGuy (ENG) goes to the London protests against scientology as part of Anonymous. (If you don't know who they are, here is an explanation). Unfortunately I couldn't make this protest, so I don't know first hand what happened. But, as covered in the Guardian ENG gets stopped by the police for this sign:

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Now, ENG seems very awesome. The old media can't understand "The Kids" today unless they are hooded thugs, so the idea of political, opinionated, knowledgeable teenagers who communicate and play out their actions on the world stage of the internet are not typically represented in the media today. Which makes this quote from the Guardian is doubly delicious.

A policewoman later read him section five of the Public Order Act and "strongly advised" him to remove the sign. The section prohibits signs which have representations or words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.

The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a "cult" which was "corrupt, sinister and dangerous".

After the exchange, a policewoman handed him a court summons and removed his sign.
How beautiful is the part I bolded? Fucking phenomenal. And the moment they took the sign of him, Anonymous won.

Scientology is a cult, and regardless even if it wasn't calling it a cult isn't hate speech. These new laws against religious hate speech are worrying indeed.

Why did the Police stop him? 

There is actually more to this than meets the eye, it's a bit long winded but follow me on this one. Firstly it is important to point out that 1)  Two police forces cover the protests, In the morning City of London (CoL) police at the Scientology HQ and when Anonymous move over to the Scientology "shop" on Tottencourt Road later in the day, The Metropolitan police (Met) take over. 2) The protesters have an extremely good relationship with the Police. I've typically seen than secretly laughing at Anonymous' light hearted protesting, and I've only heard them say nice things about them, one remarking that Anonymous are the only protesters he's ever covered that tidy up before they leave.

Now, It was CoL that served ENG. And they said this:
"City of London police had received complaints about demonstrators using the words 'cult' and 'Scientology kills' during protests against the Church of Scientology.

"Following advice from the Crown Prosecution Service some demonstrators were warned verbally and in writing that their signs breached section five of the Public Order Act.

"One demonstrator continued to display a placard despite police warnings and was reported for an offence under section five. A file on the case will go to the CPS."
So the City of London Police followed advice from the CPS? Ok, so what did they?
A CPS spokesman said no specific advice was given to police regarding the boy's placard.

"In April, prior to this demonstration, as part of our normal working relationship we gave the City of London police general advice on the law around demonstrations and religiously aggravated crime in particular.

"We did not advise on this specific case prior to the summons being issued – which the police can do without reference to us – but if we receive a file we will review it in the normal way according to the code for crown prosecutors."
Now that doesn't fit does it? They gave general advice, and didn't advise of the use of the word cult. A term the European Court of Justice has used to describe Scientology.

So then, why might CoL's treatment of the protesters be so different to the Mets treatment (who have happily allowed signs with the C-word every month since February)?

Might it be due to the fact that The City of London Chief Superintendent, Kevin Hurley topened the head quarters? Could it be the thousands of pounds of gifts Scientology has made to the CoL and its' officers?

As psychiatrist Mark Salter says:
"They are a cult who are trying to maximise their influence by putting feelers out and using spin to make contacts and network in quite dangerous ways."

Now this is only my opinion on what I think happened, but it seems to me that Scientology has a number of high up members of the CoL who've they befriended with gifts. They've realised that the protests weren't going away, so they decided to fall back on their old strategies of suing thoe who criticise them. But they've realised that when they do this, the whole internet lights up in outrage and they shoot themselves in the foot. This *footbullet* does more damage to them than the original protester could ever hope to do.

So they thought that if they could convince the CoL that this was hate speech they could push any backlash onto the Police when the police did something about it.

And to a certain extent they succeeded. But they've achieved a massive footbullet in that they've managed to galvanise the Anonymous movement. It was getting bored, and attendance was dropping. But then they pushed for this and put anonymous on the BBC news, and all over the net. For example they've giving a youtube video advertising the next June protest over 2,000 diggs and 30,000 views.

By kicking the internet you only get it's interest.

Sleep walking towards Big Brother - Every email and phone call and internet session recorded.

Ministers are to consider plans for a database of electronic information holding details of every phone call and e-mail sent in the UK, it has emerged. - BBC

Read that again, and let it sink in. It's a quote from the BBC whilst The Times adds that "time spent on the internet" will also be recorded.

I once counted that 57 cameras record me on my travel to work (I was very bored) whilst my oyster card/wand tracks tracks me too. The Government being able to trace my every movement has resulted in them also being able to solve 3% of street crime. I've not decided what my views on CCTV cameras are - but at the cost of billions they are, at the very least, an ineffective weapon.

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This doesn't make me feel more secure.

If this new bill goes through once I've been recorded almost 60 times I'll sit at my computer and every email I send and phonecall I make and even every time I turn on my browser will all be recorded too. All added to the database. Before I clock out, head home and get filmed 57 more times.

Or maybe I'll go shopping in one of the shopping centres that use your mobile to triangulate where you are at any given moment and how long you stay and which shops you go to and how often you visit (there is 1 in Portsmouth, with 3 more planned).

On their own you could probably convince me that each one of these is harmless, but this data will naturally converge, copy, intwine and leak. That's what data does.

In my mind this IT bill would be the tipping point that makes the UK an Orwellian police state. Don't get me wrong, A benevolent and just Police state, but one all the same. And once we have that all we need is a maybe two or three decades to pass and a dick to be elected and we will have given him the power to control us. I know that sounds needlessly fanciful, over the top and paranoid. And I know I might seem like a crank for saying this. I don't want to give that impression, but I think our generation are the only ones to really understand the power the IT revolution has to free us - or chain us. And as an astronomer and a scientist, I'm naturally inclined to think about things on long time scales. I don't think we'll walk into 1984 tomorrow, but we do need to get this all straight now, at the dawn of the IT revolution. Rather then wait till it first goes wrong.

We need to be very careful.

But even if your not a pragmatic, paranoid person like myself, then the fact that the Government recently demonstrated how little they understand this modern world by losing 25 million names, addresses, dates of birth, National Insurance numbers and bank details coupled with AOL's search records fuck up (where purely anonymous search records were released - and consequently used to identify numerous people) and you must realise how dangerous this is.

The time for just being disappointed on the internet has past. Don't just moan on some forum, it's time we kicked up a fuss. If you don't like this I strongly recommend you to go to Write to Them, pop in your postcode, and send your MP an email telling him so. It will only take a few minutes and it's all from within your browser.

Why not watch Taking Liberties? Why not look into seeing if you agree with NO2ID, and then, if you do, support them.

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How it used to be.

Dispatches: In God's Name (and a proper response)

Just watched this and I think I've got a little sick in my mouth.

As Christianity becomes smaller and more marginalised in the UK a certain core of it becomes more and more extreme to in an attempt to preserve itself. We have to hope that the mainstream, reasonable UK Christians will fight strongly against this ridiculous shit and kick up a fuss. And if they don't then shame on them. Seriously, we've creationism in UK schools, homophobes and pro-life lobbyists manipulating Judges and bills and all the while they are hiding the fact they think the world is "about 4000" years old. That and Jerry Springer the Opera haters Christian voice were in the show, holding meetings where they ask God to push back the floods of evil (aka Islam). And their leader saying that "Allah is Satan." 

This is 'the-shit-we-laugh-at-America-for' on our doorstep.

Half the time I think the proper response is to carefully and politely deconstruct their arguments and promote reality, but I'm starting to think that we need to talk to them on their level. For example when a Creationist disproved evolution by demonstrating that you never find new life when you open a jar of peanut butter, I wrote a response about statistics and the Urey Miller experiment

But maybe I should have done this:

I wonder, if this was the only kind of response Creationists could get would they be doing better or worse?

TED Sunday #005: Paul Ewald on whether we can domesticate germs?

I'm really looking forward to this one. Domesticating Germs for our own benefit! Could we exploit evolution to encourage diseases to evolve to mildness. I've always been of the view that if we don't play God, who will. We just need to be very smart, and very careful.

It's important to point out that I'm doing a PhD in Astrophysics so I'm not qualified to comment on the legitimacy of this.

Thanks again Roger for suggesting this talk

The media's 'Silly Season' begins: Aliens and Jesus and the Nibiru invasion.

As the sun is coming out so the collective media's mind turns to mush. As the stories they deem 'silly' are pushed to the front. Often they can take a trival look at something really quite important, or aggrandise a piece of nonsense into a 'serious; piece.

Today, you've probably noticed Aliens (and Jesus) are everywhere. Here's my favourite 3 stories today:

1) The Vatican believes life could exist on other planets

Peoples opinions of the existence of Aliens can be plotted as a Bell Curve. The edges of which are full of awesome, crazy people. People who really, really believe in aliens end up like number 3 in this list (which you must watch). The people who really, really don't never seem to have an understanding of the scale of the universe we are in (With 10^11 stars in the average Galaxy, and about 10^11 Galaxies we've a lot of roll's of the dice).

The BBC is running a story about how Vatican says aliens could exist. And they are being really rather sensible about it. This is the kind of Religious viewpoint Scientists should be debating, not Nut Job Creationists or The Pope's favourite Exorcist. I have a lot of sympathy for the Vatican Observatory it is stuck in a strange place between the fields of religion and as such has an important role to play. Even if they do get stuck debating whether aliens will have 'original sin' sticking to them thanks to a metaphorical woman eating a metaphorical apple a while back.

What's even better is according to the BBC

To strengthen its scientific credentials, the Vatican is organising a conference next year to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the author of the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin.
The Creationists in the USA love the Pope, so hopefully this can help stem the coming of the second dark ages by another month or so..

2) A bunch of British UFO files have been released
This happens quite often actually, and each time you can be sure that Nick Pope will pop up out of the woodwork and pop onto every media show to talk about how he used to work for the MoD on UFOs. It's been a while since I properly kept in touch with the UFO scene (as a kid my love of the paranormal is what turned me into a scientist and skeptic) - but as far as I can remember Nick Pope has an excellent ability to tailor the ridiculousness of what he says to the audience that are listening.

Still most of the stories don't make it clear where you can get access to all these files. So if you want to see for yourself the data is here. I haven't looked at it myself yet - but I'm sure there will be some entertaining stuff in there.

3) In less than 8 hours the world will end - Nibiru invasion, Masons and CERN.
OK not quite in the mainstream media, but I can't resist. The cranks thinking that the LHC will kill us all are amazing. With less than 8 hours till apocolypse this guy is the best I've seen. Seriously even if you only watch the first two minutes you be so convinced that you'll want to give up your Mason's card.

I was going to talk about all the best bits he says, but there are too many classics too mention. He's amazing. Nibiru is my new favourite place. This is the best example of Poe's Law I've seen this year.

Thanks to Gia for sending it in.

TED Sunday #004: Brian Cox on the LHC

After a short break, this week we've got Brian Cox talking about the LHC. Mainly to tie in with this post, and so wind up this guy up a little.

Brian Cox was in D:ream, but has managed to get past that mistake, and it's left him rather media savvy, which often makes Physicists a little wary and judgemental and jump on all their little mistakes - which is A Bad Thing. Fair play to the guy, we need more people like him. A wonderful talk.

Thanks to Roger for suggesting this talk.

Time-lapse Vid of Dissolving an Oyster Card in acetone (aka nail varnish)

Disclaimer: Just to cover my back, be aware that TFL probably won't like you doing this. So get permission first etc.

I'm pretty certain that ever since BoingBoing featured Chris Woebken dissolving an oyster card to get at its juicy inner workings (a RFID chip stuck to a loop of wire, fact fans) geeks across London have been attempting it.

As such I'm rather late to the party on this one. The rather splendid SciencePunk beat me too it with this grand attempt codenamed Operation Ladybird. Nevertheless I knew I must attempt this epic journey too.

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What you will need

If you want to play along this is your shopping list:

1) ~ 400ml of Nail Varnish Remover - I bought 2 bottles of Boots own brand at 99p each. I could probably have got by with one.
2) An oyster card - I bought a prepay one for £3, though I got a funny look when I didn't want to top it up there and then.
3) A jar big enough to contain the oyster card - I bought a jar of beetroot (urgh) for 72p.

Total Cost: £5.70

It's simple enough process, fill the jar with the nail varnish remover, dump the oyster card in it. Put the top back on and wait for a few hours. Brilliantly, I picked up bunch of PS2 eyetoy cameras on clearance (£1.99 each from Gamestation) which means I now own a webcam! (Aside: they can be turned into pretty good webcams once you've installed macam, and they appear to be quite easy to break apart so I'm turning one into an infrared camera next). So I'm proud to present Skeptobot's first ever youtube video. Time-lapse footage of my Oyster Card dissolving.

Notes on the vid: I've never used a webcam/youtube/imovie before so sorry for the quality. The smudge on the card that appears about half way in is from when I poked it with a pencil, and the paint on the pencil stripped off. It's best to keep checking the card, first it will get soft, then after about 90 mins it folded over and I was able to peel off the first layer of the card, exposing one side of the chip. Then I cut the centre of the card out with scissors (so there was less plastic for the acetone to work on). I put these pieces next to the jar, and I was quite suprisied when the time-lapse showed them wobbling about.

Then after another half hour or so, the other side of the plastic loosened enough to peel that away exposing the intact chip and antenna. Nail Varnish Remover takes longer that SciencePunks miltary grade stuff but I think a more dilute source of acetone is more effective than SciencePunks military grade stuff.

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The chip itself
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The chip still attached to the loop of wire acting as it's antenna

So tomorrow morning I'll attempt to use this naked oyster card to journey to work. If I'm successful (and not arrested for terrorism) I'll have to decide what my new oyster card will be. So far I'm thinking either stitching it into my watch, or wrapping it around a magic wand (though that might kill the signal).

UPDATE - It still works!
This is how the oyster card currently looks (I've put it back inside it's wallet to keep it safe and so I don't look too weird):
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And this is how it still works!

The magic wand draws closer...

CERN has impeccable comedic taste: Chris Morris, Kevin Eldon and Simon Munnary

So the people at CERN have been inviting the best comedians in the UK to come and have a look around. The ingenious bastards. How did I miss this? I always get a little giddy when I see my interests collide (geddit?).

You can listen to Chris "Brass Eye" Morris talking about THE HIGGS FUCKING BOSON here. Look I've a picture for your unbelieving eyes:

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How awesome is that? Answer: very awesome.

But there's more! They've also had the excellent Simon Munnary and Kevin Eldon round too. Listen to the podcast here and watch them potter around below:

There is a lot to be said for this kind of public outreach especially when it's via such excellent, excellent people. I would go as far as to say that there is a strong and unexplored link between alternative British comedy  and the appreciation of science. A link that has yet to be utilised...

And if by some ridiculous chance you don't know who these comedians I'm talking about are, then you sicken me. Make me like you again by buying Chris Morris' Brass Eye - a massively important satire on TV news. But not until you've got the wonderful Simon Munnary's 'Hello' an indie produced Stand Up DVD of outstanding quality from the absolute legends that are Go Faster Stripe. I love GFS, they are doing a massively important job at preserving Stand Up thats too important and intelligent and niche to be picked up by mainstream media. And whilst I'm sure you recognise The Actor Kevin Eldon from every good comedy show of the last two decades (Jam, Spaced, Fist of Fun, This Morning With Richard Not Judy & Brass Eye are but a tiny selection of his work) I'm doubting you will have listened to his brilliant audio monologues SPEAKERS. Available to download free from Resonance FM.

So did the boomerang work in space?

Remember this? Takao Doi wanted to know if boomerangs work in zero g. Because wanting to know stuff like that is what makes humanity great. So he went and got Yasuhiro Togai, a world boomerang champion, to teach him how to throw a paper boomerang. Then he went into space and tested it.

So did it work? Watch and find out.

I'm a little disappointed it was a three-pronged boomerang, but that can't be helped as they turn tighter, and you're not exactly kicking it for space up there (geddit?). Truly awesome stuff.