Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett

Cover of "Breaking the Spell: Religion as...

Cover via Amazon

I am more than a bit disappointed with Breaking the Spell (my first Dennett apart from an essay or two). I found myself plodding through the book, at times wondering if I should bother to finish it. I persevered, but it never seemed to find its feet. He is “preaching to the converted”, in a general sense, but I don’t think my reaction was just down to that.

It is tediously wordy. Dennett takes a long time to deal with some of the “obstructions” to the main philosophical investigation, for which he asks the reader’s forbearance, or suggests they jump ahead to where the meat is. I believe it would have been more engaging to take a top-down approach, pose the big questions and then take tangents to clarify any supporting details.

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Blown Away by Soda Bread!

I’m just blown away by soda bread! I’ve been making it for several months now, and it’s hard to find a reason to go back to yeast-leavened bread other than for a bit of variety. Variety is great, but so is having a quick, reliable recipe for everyday use. Soda bread is now our household staple, baked about once a week. It’s delicious, cheap, easy and only takes about ten minutes to prepare – three quarters of an hour from start to finish, including the washing up!

My soda breadI’m talking about the traditional style of soda bread, which is plain and simple, although you can add various other ingredients if you like: nuts, seeds, fruit, oils, etc.. Traditional soda bread has just four ingredients: flour, salt, sodium bicarbonate and buttermilk. And it doesn’t even need the buttermilk, just something acidic. If you’d like to make your own bread, but could never be bothered with all the kneeding and waiting for the dough to rise, read on – soda bread doesn’t, er, need any of that.

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A Critique of “The Truth About Organic Farming” by Christie Wilcox

I was reading an article at Yakaru’s excellent blog, Spirituality is No Excuse, when I stumbled into a discussion about organic farming with someone who commented there. Woody seemed – I thought – to lump together “organic fanatics” with “Ufology nuts” and other types of woo, and I, being a bit of a tree-hugger, saw an opportunity to look at organic agriculture more critically than I have before and challenge this. Woody was pretty cool about it. He suggested I read an article by Christie Wilcox at Nutrition Wonderland, supposedly busting some myths about organic food – that it’s any healthier or better for the environment than conventional food – and he said he’d do some research as well. This is the way all of us should approach knowledge, testing our current beliefs and understandings through critical thinking, research and discussion. I have changed my views on some big issues over the years doing this, but so far have remained in favour generally of organic principles and organic food, although I’m fairly sure there will be downsides and bad examples of organic practices.

Anyway, my reply to Woody’s reply was getting too long to be appropriate in Yakaru’s comments, so I decided to turn it into a blog post instead. I address here mainly Christie’s article, which provides a focus for my thoughts about organic and conventional farming generally. Continue reading

Posted in Environment, Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Understand Evolution, Enjoy the Games of Life

Author’s Note: Since publication, the Stellar Alchemy website has closed, and the program 3DVCE is no longer (apparently) under development. I’ve posted a copy of the latest version (AFAIK) as a zip file you can download from here. Log in with the username guest@lettersquash and the password lettersquash, click on “Program Share”, then “3DVCE Files”.

The zip file latest3Devolution can be downloaded (just click on it and save it to your system) and extracted to any convenient directory on your computer. Then navigate to the subdirectory …/bin/ and run the file creatures.exe. (I haven’t been able to find the User Agreement, but I believe it’s open source – please let me know if you know different.)

3-Dimensional Virtual Creature Evolution

There’s an alien in my PC. In fact there’s a whole race of them in there…and what’s more, they’re evolving. There’s no need for alarm, though, they’re just virtual creatures. I’m running a neat little stand-alone program called 3DVCE (3-Dimensional Virtual Creature Evolution) from Lee Graham at Stellar Alchemy. I was looking for some new games to download for the duller moments over Christmas and meandered into the strange and beautiful world of virtual evolution. It’s a world that is itself growing and evolving fast – there’s a lot more available now than the last time I looked a few years ago. There are many different ways of approaching the subject. 3DVCE shows a virtual world, some land underneath a day or night sky, on which a strange “creature” is moving. The creature is made up of jointed pieces, each a rectangular block that can move in relation to its neighbours. At first, the shape and movement appear quite random, and within certain limits they are, but in time, without any intervention from an intelligent user, just by following elementary rules, this will evolve into something that looks much more lifelike in both appearance and, most startling of all, behaviour. There’s a whole Zoo of these critters being collected from enthusiasts, like this one:

I often wonder what more the scientific world can do to educate people about evolution, and I’m often saddened by the number of people out there who either disbelieve evolutionary theory altogether or underestimate its wider significance.  Continue reading

Posted in Culture, Philosophy, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Charcoal Camping Stove: Field Test

I went for a couple of nights wild camping last week and took my charcoal stove, after making a few more adjustments. I swapped back to the original stove can with a big opening, so that it could be used as a wood stove as well if necessary. I then put a second grate in it just above the door level, on which to put the layer of charcoal, and, at the last minute, cut an inch or so off the top of the stove can. All of this meant I had a neat little wood-burning hobo stove, or that same wood could be used to light charcoal on the level above for a cleaner longer burn with less hassle, and the kettle, suspended on its cradle from the upper “chimney can” would be closer to the heat source in either case. There was a risk that this shortening of the whole would reduce the updraught through it, but I thought it would be a better net result. Continue reading

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Charcoal Camp Stove: Update

I made a few alterations to my “pocket charcoal chimney”, and also tried it with natural charcoal instead of briquettes.

I haven’t really described the making of the stove, not that it’s very different from a million others. I guess it might be useful to give a complete how-to sometime, but I’d rather tweak a bit more yet to get it better.

Mk II Stove with wire mesh grate removed

Mk II stove with wire mesh grate

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Backpacker’s Water Filter

I’m getting into the upcycling lark. Here’s how I made myself a camping water filter from a Brita (TM) filter cartridge and a pop bottle.

Gravity-fed Lightweight Water Filter

Now, it’s not as high-tech as the backpacking filters where you pump the water through a ceramic element, but it’s got some serious advantages, not least that it’s a fraction of the weight and costs virtually nothing. Continue reading

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My Pocket Charcoal Chimney

Yeehar! I think I’ve finally cracked it! The weeks of thinking and design and testing and buying and taking back to the shop and nearly setting the house on fire are finally over! Not only that, I think I may have just broken new ground in the hotly-contested (ouch, sorry) field of backpacker’s lightweight camping stove. Probably not, but my first hour or so googling and youtubing didn’t turn up anyone else doing what I just did this afternoon. One or two doing it badly, of course, and one very nice man making a tediously long pig’s ear of it, but…

It’s a good job I had a success today, because I was getting pissed off with the whole affair. Continue reading

Posted in Backpacking, Environment, Hobbies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Not Looking at Nothing: The Motorcycle Lifesaver

I read a funny comment on a forum the other day. I was googling to find out if and when I should do hand signals on my module 2 (the on-road part of the motorcycle test), and somebody said the most important one to remember is extending the middle finger straight up when you fail. Thankfully, I didn’t need it. I passed with three minor faults. Continue reading

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Cycle-camping trip: Sneck Yate Bank, North Yorkshire Moors

Camping beside the Cleveland Way near Sneck Yate. My adapted racing bike and Terra Nova Competition one-person tent.

Camping beside the Cleveland Way near Sneck Yate Bank. My adapted racing bike and Terra Nova Competition one-person tent.

I suppose I really ought to begin this with an apology to the owner of this lovely piece of ground, not that you’re likely to read my blog – you’re probably far too busy trying to eke out a living working the land – but if you do…sorry. I didn’t ask your permission to camp the night. I didn’t know where to find you, and anyway I was far too exhausted to try. Continue reading

Posted in Cycle-camping | 21 Comments