Thursday, 27 November 2008

Jesus vs. The Beatles

In one of my earliest posts last year I noted that some folks had claimed to have gone and found the coffin of Jesus, and that film-maker James Cameron had made rather bizarre comparisons to the Beatles. It brought to mind John Lennon's comments, made back in 1966 at the height of Beatlemania, that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

Last week a Vatican newspaper finally forgave Lennon for his remarks. It's good that it only took them over 40 years to forgive him. Christianity in action.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Can dogs tell the time?

Dogs are remarkable creatures. To realise this, you only have to watch one cleaning his own... well, you know what I'm talking about. But can dogs tell the time?

The reason I ask relates to a rather long story surrounding a small dog, called Jaytee, who was apparently able to reliably predict when his owner would return home by going to wait for her by the window in his flat (well, it wasn't "his" flat, it was the flat of his owner's parents). The seemingly impressive thing about it was that the moment he went to go and wait by the window coincided with the moment that his owner, Pam, began to return home. Pam might have been at work or shopping in town several miles away, but as soon as she headed for home Jaytee would go to the window to wait for her to return home. Jaytee's amazing "psychic" ability was even caught on camera by an Austrian television crew. They filmed what Jaytee was doing at home at the same time as filming his owner Pam in the town centre a few miles away. A split screen showed Pam and Jaytee side by side. About six seconds after the TV presenter (or researcher/producer type person) tells Pam that they are about to head home, Jaytee gets up from where he was lying (by the feet of Pam's mum who was sat on the sofa) and meanders over to the window! I think the Austrian TV clip dates from around 1994, and in the mid-late 1990's it was shown a fair old bit on various TV programmes. When it was shown on The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna, we were told "he does it every time Pam goes out!". So maybe Jaytee really was psychic! Maybe all dogs, indeed all animals, are psychic?

One of the problems with jumping to such conclusions from just one short film clip is that there could be other explanations for what we saw. Most notably, we were only shown what Jaytee was doing at the moment that Pam begins to return home. What was he doing during all the other time that his owner was out? Does he spend all the time up to that point snuggled up to Pam's mum's feet? Once he has gone to the window to begin waiting for Pam, does he stay there until she arrives home? Both of these things are kind of implied by the short clip, but we would need to see a record of his behaviour for the entire time that Pam is out to come to this conclusion. I'm not sure if anyone has ever actually looked at the rest of the Austrian film to discover what Jaytee is doing at these other times.

That aside, the researcher who did most of the research with Jaytee is Dr Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist by training. In his book Seven Experiments That Could Change The World, Rupert suggested that dog-owners could quite easily test the notion that dogs (or at least their dogs) are able to reliably predict when their owners are to return home (something that many dog-owners report to be the case) by conducting simple experiments. For example, the owner could vary the times and means by which they would return home to determine whether this influenced their dog's ability to predict their homecoming. One person to have a go at doing this was Pam Smart, a woman living in Ramsbottom in Lancashire, with her pet terrier Jaytee. Her parents (with whom she typically left Jaytee when she went out) had noticed for some time that Jaytee appeared to reliably predict when Pam would arrive home by going to wait for her by the porch window of their ground floor flat (next door to Pam's own flat). After seeing an article about Sheldrake's research and his interest in dog's who seem to know when their owners are returning home, Pam conducted a few of her own experiments by returning home at different times and by different means. Jaytee seemed to still know when Pam was heading home by taking up his place by the window at the appropriate time. Rupert Sheldrake went on to conduct his own experiments with Jaytee and, as we have seen, eventually the folks at an Austrian television company showed up and recorded Jaytee's uncanny abilities.

All this led to sceptical psychologist Richard Wiseman carrying out his own investigation of Jaytee. And this is where I come in. At the time, I was working as Richard's research assistant while I was studying for my PhD. Rupert visited us at the University of Hertfordshire to look at our experimental set up to investigate the feeling of being stared at (another one of Rupert's seven potentially world-changing experiments). I remember saying to Richard, "Just don't let's get involved with the psychic dog!".

Next thing I know we're driving up to Ramsbottom to conduct our own experiments with Pam and Jaytee. Good to know that my opinion counts for something!

And who says science can't be glamorous?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Galaxy Song

I don't know why it's taken this long to link to this clip from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, but here you go. Helps put things into perspective...

Friday, 14 November 2008

Fat, bald and Jewish

Alexei Sayle seems to be popping up here and there on the telly again, nearly 30 years after he surfaced as the first compere of the Comedy Store in London and became one of the leading lights of the 'alternative' comedy circuit. He's done a fair bit since then, including presenting a few TV series, writing a few novels, and pissing off the people of Liverpool.

All that aside, I still remember a couple of his one-liners that date from his TV series Stuff:
My ambition is to have more money than sense. I've got £8 so I'm half way there.
And the brilliant:
Is it fat, bald, and Jewish in here, or is it me?

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
The kicker is in the final line. Knowing the difference. When I mentioned the Serenity Prayer at the Skeptics in the Pub earlier this year, a guy in the audience shouted out that the prayer is used at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. I looked over to see who had called out and saw him stood at the bar next to three empty pint glasses. I doubt he's still a member.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


Here's the trailer for the Wisdom Project movie. Keep an eye out for the chimp woman.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Chimp woman

I recently came across something called the Wisdom Project on the Apple website. It was a project led by filmmaker and photographer Andrew Zuckerman in which he photographed and interviewed 51 famous people who were over 65 about life, etc. The famous names included for example Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Billy Connolly, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford. The interviews are edited into an hour long film.

As I was watching the trailer for the film the other day with a friend, one of the talking heads that appeared was Dr Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall is a reknowned primatologist, anthropologist, and conservationist. For almost 50 years she has studied the behaviour of chimpanzees, having arrived at the Gombe National Park in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1960, where she established the Gombe Stream Research Centre. She was one of the first people to observe chimpanzees using tools, something that had hithertoo been considered to be a uniquely huma trait. In 1977 the Jane Goodall Institute was set up with a mission statement to "advance the power of individuals to take informed and compassionate action to improve the environment for all living things". In 2002, Jane Goodall became a UN "Messenger of Peace", and in 2003 she was a made a Dame of the British Empire.

As soon as she appeared on the Wisdom Project trailer, my friend noted, "Isn't she the chimp woman?". Half a century's dedicated service to research, education and conservation encapsulated in just two words: chimp woman. At first, I thought that's hardly fair is it? To simply refer to her as the "chimp woman" after all she's done. But then I thought quite the opposite. If you get to the point where you have been so successful at what you've done in your life that someone can just immediately recognise you as the chimp woman then you must have done something right.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Happy Birthday!

My son, Ross, turned 4 today... Happy Birthday Ross!

Ross is a particularly amazing little boy. He was born 11 weeks prematurely and has had plenty of medical issues to deal with in his short life so far. He spent the first 5 months of his life in hospital, and is still on oxygen now. Ross is also autistic (or at least he "scores on the autistic spectrum") which effectively means he doesn't seem to understand language. He is blind in one eye and is very short sighted in the other. Oh, and he hardly eats.

The most amazing thing about Ross? He seems to be one of the happiest little boys I know. He's often laughing to himself (about what I have no idea!) and jumps up and down or does a little dance when watching a favourite DVD or listening to music he likes. He's in his own little world, but he seems to like it there.

I don't know if he'll understand it's his birthday today. And I don't know if he'll ever be able to read this, but happy birthday Ross! We love you to bits.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

There's probably no God...

Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. Not my words. The words on the side of the atheist bus:

It would seem that there is a campaign to get atheist advertisements on the sides of bendy buses in London. And the world's favourite atheist, Prof Richard Dawkins, will match all donations made to the campaign. Or rather he'd match all donations up to £5,500. The campaign has been hugely successful... they reached that target within hours. At the time of writing, the total raised so far is over £115,000! You too can donate money by visiting