Friday, April 29, 2005

Planning applications

What's it all about, then? A friend can't get an application passed because work is "not in keeping" with the local area - when most houses in the street have already had the work done. Meanwhile, near us ....

We live in a road which consists of large-ish three bedroom semis and detached houses, with quite large gardens. Two adjoining plots were bought by developers, who submitted an application to build a completely unfeasible number of houses - about 25 houses and flats, I think it was, with nowhere near enough parking, tiny gardens, and overlooking all the adjoining properties (presumably part of the game plan is to get people so fed up that they move out - the stub of road that they are planning stops abruptly at the end of the development, quite ready to stretch out along the back of the existing houses). Unsurprisingly, this application was rejected - local neighbours made the point that the existing infrastructure wasn't set up to deal with the extra homes, there weren't enough parking spaces to cope with the number of families, the properties weren't in keeping with the area and they overlooked neighbours.

So a new application was submitted, for an unfeasible number of properties that was slightly smaller than the previous unfeasible number. Residents wrote in again, and the application was rejected again. So the developers appealed to the Secretary of State. And the plans were accepted.

So what price community involvement when decisions are just going to be overriden by central government? Where are the people from central government asking about the suitability of the development? Or is it simply the case that in the drive to build the hundreds of thousands of new homes that we are told are needed in the Southeast, local objections are simply going to be steamrollered? ITWSBT.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

UKIP says

Stop paying the £30m a day to Brussels and instead, immediately increase state pensions by £25 per week.

Exile says: This is really the main purpose of UKIP - to break away from the EU. This is a populist measure, and sounds great - after all, who wouldn't rather give money to pensioners than to a faceless bureaucracy? However, the UK benefits substantially by being part of the EU - that £25 per week to pensioners affordable immediately would be at the cost of substantial economic benefits lost in the coming years.

scrap political correctness so people can speak their mind

Exile says: I am no friend of political correctness, but it is part of the culture, now - if anybody thinks that it will disappear simply by electing different MP's, they have another think coming.

cut crime with zero tolerance, effective deterrents and more disciplined prisons

Exile says: Cut crime - how? Zero tolerance of what? If the risk of life imprisonment isn't an effective deterrent, then what would be? Presumably the death penalty - see the last bullet point. Is crime lower in states that have the death penalty? This is just sound-biting.

give matrons full authority for hospital hygiene

Exile says: We have seen a proliferation of management in the health service - money has been poured into new initiatives - foundation hospitals, Agenda for Change. Loads of extra resources for relatively little benefit. Both UKIP and the Conservatives say - "Put back that level of line management - that will make a difference." It might do. But you have to realise that the nature of nursing has changed in the last 30 years. People used to become nurses because they cared about people - it was a vocation. These days, caring about people isn't considered to be enough - you have to be career minded - you get a degree in nursing; you have to have continual professional development. The senior nurses now aren't necessarily people who have many years of experience of caring for people, and have a semi-intuitive feel for how to make a ward work based on that experience - which is presumably the sort of thing that you need in a matron. And to start selecting people for that role would require overturning much that has been set up in the last 15 years. That may be good - but it isn't the easy, cheap solution that UKIP and the Conservatives think it is.

let the people decide on moral issues like capital punishment and genetics through binding referendums

Exile says: a few problems here. Firstly, and pedantically, it ought to be "referenda", but even journalists say that, so hardly a big issue. Secondly, presumably the moral issue that they would like to consider the electorate's view on is genetic engineering. It would have been nice if somebody who knew what they were talking about could have been involved in drafting the leaflet. And would it really be wise to allow people who think "genetics" is the moral issue to make the decision on it? Thirdly, is a majority decision always a right one? Or a wise one? It may sound elitist, but isn't it appropriate for people who have thought through an issue and its implications to make decisions, rather than people who get their political opinions direct from a tabloid newspaper front cover?

If you want this sort of representative democracy, then start with the things that could make a difference - scrap political parties (see below!). Alternatives are possible to our political system - but "letting the people decide" difficult cases isn't likely to be for the best.

Monday, April 25, 2005

A poem for the business traveller

This poem dates back a few years. It represents what I guess is the universal experience of the business traveller who has better things to do with his time than sit in a hotel. For the record, it was inspired by what was the Hospitality Inn (now the Thistle) in Cambridge Street, Glasgow. They now have a Thompson's Directory as well.

Hotel Room

Someone tried so hard to make me fe
el at home in this concrete box. Co
mfortable furniture carefully colou
r-coordinated. Pictures with no con
text drawing attention to the aesth
etically sterile walls. A Gideon Bi
ble and a phone directory to read.
Complimentary tea, coffee and shamp
oo. But no voices apart from murmur
s through the walls and stirrings i
n the street seven floors below. On
e other voice would make a differen
ce, but that isn't free.

It costs 23p
including VAT
per unit.

23p per unit would be good value for a hotel phone these days.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Privileged Planet - interchange

I hadn't realised that blogger only allows 300 characters in comments - a feature that greatly restricts the potential for interchange!! I can't see that this is configurable; however, since I had the following comments on an earlier post, I am (with the commenter's permission) including them as a separate post. (See this link, or just scroll down!)

Mmmmm....interesting thoughts. Firstly, instead of the tautological anthropic inevitability argument, wouldn't atheists point to the stars and argue that given the enormous amount of planets in the universe, it is no surprise that at least one planet that we know of has these ideal conditions for life?
"Privileged planet" argues that, given the number of factors that are now linked with habitability, the number of likely suitable planets present in the 100,000,000,000 or so stars in our galaxy is still small - well less than 1. That's why people have drifted towards anthropic arguments again, or other mechanisms that make life more likely (self organisation, multi-verse instead of universe etc).

Secondly, if God exists, an internally coherent world (evidence of evolution included) makes very good sense. However, this presupposes the idea of 'general revelation'. I've not explored this concept before but how well does it sit with the other forms of revelation as witnessed in the OT and then with the life of Jesus? Is it consistent with the sort of intervention seen in the Old Testament and with the existence of miracles too?
Those are big questions, and probably (theologically) require an overview of much of the Bible to come to coherent answers. I'm happy to do that - but not at 11.10pm!!! :-)

Finally, isn't the 'eternal power' mentioned in Romans 1 just the age-old cliche for 'proving' God's existence: 'isn't the world amazing, it must have been designed'? (i.e. a clumsy attempt at theological proof for the existence of God)
Um, I think most of the supposed "proofs" for the existence of God (the Thomist [?] Five Ways [?]) don't really stack up as proofs in the formal, logical sense. Paul the apostle doesn't try to prove the existence of God - he says that people actually know God is there, but they suppress what they know to be true. In terms of relating this to arguments from design - from a theological perspective, people argue against "intelligent" design because they are trying to repress what they know to be true. From a scientific perspective, even Dawkins agrees that design is apparent - he simlpy believes that it is possible to explain the appearance of design from natural causes. The ID movement is trying to demonstrate that natural causes aren't able to generate what exists - and that the best explanation (which isn't a formal proof, but a scientific hypothesis) is that an external, intelligent agent is required. This applies not only to irreducible complexity of life, but the link between habitability and observability, and the cosmic fine tuning. Anti-ID people say that it is not a scientific hypothesis, because invoking an external agent is by definition not science.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bless the Child

I'm not in the habit of recommending horror films, but then this isn't really a recommendation, and I'm not sure that "Bless the Child" is really a horror film ....

The premise is that a satanic cult wants to use a young girl to - well, kind of be a new power in the cult. Unlike Omen (which I saw bits of a long time ago, and which most of the reviews relate the film to) the girl is a force for good - in other words, from the perspective of the film, "God is working through her" in a kind of supernatural way.

The superpower/supernatural stuff is generally superstitious twaddle. But there were a couple of things that caught my attention, and meant I saw the film through to the end.

There was the intervention of "angels" who actually looked like normal people - but who would do something that made a difference - and then disappear ("entertaining angels unawares"). There was the fact that the six year old girl was put in a horrible situation of being pushed to decide between good and evil, and despite the awful threats that accompanied it, chose good (preventing somebody from killing themselves) - well, I suppose that was inevitable, but it was nice to see genuine moral choices having to be made. There was the fact that this film was presented in a world in which good and evil were real - unlike the "postmodern" world in which good and evil are thought to be arbitrary and relative. There was the comment made about many new-age cults that although many of the adherents don't believe there is anything sinister about them, the message (that you can write your own rules) is in fact profoundly anti-Christian. There was the fact that, whereas Christians are normally portrayed in such films as being ineffectual do-gooders who come up with the wrong solutions, the Christians in this film - generally Catholic, inevitable I guess as they are the people the world most recognises as Christians (which included the FBI agent! A Christian role-model in a secular job!!) were realistic and their prayer portrayed as effective - and in fact it was the child's guardian who, by refusing to let them help in the way they wanted to, seemed to consistently be risking the child.

So lots to discuss - if you can put up with the general scariness and preposterousness of the rest of the plot.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

I was in a hotel in East Brussels when the new Pope was elected. The bells were rung in some local church - noteworthy, as in all the times I've stayed here, I don't think I have heard church bells ringing - and certainly not heard prolonged ringing. So when I noticed it, I guessed what had happened.

The news was being covered on a range of the European channels; BBC News 24 was the one I found first that was speaking in English. It didn't make much difference, really. All the stations had pictures of St Peter's Square and the streets surrounding it filling up, and nervous journalists wondering whether they would be able to understand the Latin announcements when they were made (in actual fact, when it came to it, I think BBC News 24 didn't even attempt to translate the Latin live, only the Italian bits - perhaps the risk of making a mistake was too great) - and also nervously wondering how much of a gap between the proclamation of the decision (by smoke and bells in St. Peter's) and the announcement there would be. The end of the wait was signalled, to the relief of the presenters, by the arrival of some mafia-types from behind the red curtain to prepare the ground for the announcements.

Since the last conclave, the world has changed immensely. Think back to the late 70's - before the end of the Iron Curtain - before Reagan and Gorbachev - before the Falklands War. Live TV transmissions from abroad would have been unusual - more normal would have been a voice over a (noisy) phone line accompanied by a library photo, if I remember right. Now, inevitably, the whole thing was a great media occasion. The commentators remarked that the rapid filling of St Peter's Square with tens of thousands of people from the surrounding area (in the rush hour, let's face it) was indicative of the impact that John Paul II had had - I think it is more likely to be the case that, in large measure, people have more of a sense now of what a media event can be like, and wanted to be a part of it. Whatever, the square and its surrounds were pretty full by the time the scarlet-robed herald announced news of great joy - words that are associated in the Bible with the arrival of God's chosen King.

And it was the widely tipped contender - the Cardinal formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger from Germany, now to be known as Benedict XVI (come on, BBC 24 - even I could hack that amount of Latin!!). His homilies at the time of John Paul II's funeral and prior to the conclave were considered greatly significant by the media commentators, and evidently the cardinals were happy to move in the direction that he was indicating, and rapidly (on the fourth vote, on the second day) elected him.

So, what's good about all this? Well, the Catholic church, as suggested by the pre-conclave homily, still believes in absolute truth. That doesn't mean promoting division and discord - I intend to review Jonathan Sacks' book The Dignity of Difference shortly - a very interesting book lent by a friend - people proclaiming belief in absolute truth can still call for tolerance and peace, it seems. However, it does mean belief in something real in a world in which relativism is the prevailing mood. The lot of Christians of all persuasions would be harder if the Catholic church forsook this understanding of the nature of truth.

Also, the people in St Peter's Square were addressed as "brothers and sisters", not "children". Christian leaders are part of the flock, as well as leading it. Let's hope that this attitude prevails in the work of Benedict XVI as well as his first words.

What's not right? Well, it isn't possible to have church tradition being co-authoritative with Scripture - one of the issues that led Ratzinger's compatriot Martin Luther to break with the Catholic church. If they are supposedly co-authoritative, then one will override the other - and what happens is that the authority of the church overrides the authority of Scripture. So the church says that Mary remained a virgin; Scripture says that Jesus had brothers and sisters. The church says that the bread and wine physically become the body and blood of Christ; this is a distortion of what Scripture says. The church said that the earth was at the centre of the universe; Scripture didn't claim to make scientific statements. But in all cases the church wins - and yet, if the Bible is God's word, should the church be able to trump it?

Also, the ultimate shepherd of the church isn't the Pope - it's Christ. Peter was not given Christ's authority over the church - as is perfectly apparent in the New Testament epistles. So the idea of apostolic succession from Peter and thence from Christ is not Biblical - again, the authority of the church overcalling that of the Bible.

There are other issues as well. As in Luther's day, the Catholic church shouldn't be written off. But it still needs reformation - there are many distortions and errors in its teaching.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Haldane's Dilemma

Haldane’s Dilemma is a paradox that relates to evolutionary theory. Let me try and explain as best I can ....

Imagine you have a population of 10000 weebles. A new, beneficial mutation occurs in one, which means that it has a selective advantage. This mutation is obviously not present in all of the generation in which it first appears – in fact it is only present in one organism. But offspring of that organism which have this mutation will have a selective advantage, so more of the next generation will have the mutation, and more of the following one ... and so on, until the presence of this mutation becomes a mark of weebles – a characteristic of the species. It is possible to work out how many generations exactly this “fixing” of characteristics would take, based on the number of offspring and the population size.

Now, evolution is supposed to work through mutation and natural selection. Take the example of a hypothetical creature that is an ancestor of both modern chimpanzees and humans. There are (let’s say) 100,000 differences in DNA bases between chimpanzees and humans. So Haldane’s Dilemma argues (in its strongest form) that each of these differences has to be “fixed” in the population; each taking some significant number of generations; and that the staggering number of generations required to fix this total number of DNA bases basically means that geological timescales are way too short. Those aren’t exact – or even probably approximate! - numbers but hopefully you get a sense of the argument.

Evolutionists don’t regard Haldane’s Dilemma as an issue – see here for evolutionist commentary. However, Walter ReMine, who wrote The Biotic Message does not think the issues have been addressed – see the ARN bulletin board for a (long!) discussion of the issue, from both those who think it is an issue and those who think it isn’t.

As far as I can see, there are several problems. First, although evolutionists say you can fix more than one DNA base at once, and this gets evolution done at a faster rate than fixing one at a time, I’m not convinced that this could be an effective mechanism for macro-evolution – I think I need to look at this being modelled mathematically if I am to be convinced.

Second, almost all examples of evolution that seem to be quoted in papers (that I have seen) are modifications of existing functionality. Ultimately new functionality has to appear from somewhere – RNA polymerase didn’t presumably appear as a consequence of modifications to Cytochrome C. Whilst a new protein doesn’t have to be completely specified to have functionality, it has to have some level of specification. Where is the “testing ground” for new proteins? And what proportion of random new proteins have to be thrown away before useful ones can be found? And how does an organism fund this testing?

Thirdly, a modification to an organism would have to be pretty darn good to have a definite impact on the survival of the organism. Look at the range of genetically heritable differences that are considered normal for human beings. Do they really affect survival in a positive sense? If changes give advantages of the level of a couple of percent, then random events in the life of the organism are much more likely to dominate survival chances. You can see “survival of the fittest” a lot better in its negative sense – genetic changes that drastically reduce the chances of an organism’s survival will wipe out a line. But that’s not an engine of evolution – it won’t get you from monkey to man, let alone from prokaryote to eukaryote.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Privileged Planet theology

The thesis of "The Privileged Planet" is that, far from being "a small blue-green planet orbiting an unremarkable star in the outer reaches of the Milky Way" - or however Douglas Adams put it - there are various characteristics of Earth which make it exceedingly remarkable in terms of how well it is suited to complex life. No big deal, an atheist would say - that's just anthropic inevitability - if so, we may not find life elsewhere, but if Earth wasn't remarkable in that way, then we wouldn't be here to know about it.

Where they go from there, though, is to point out that the same factors that make Earth highly suited to intelligent life are also those that make it a highly suitable platform for observing the universe. Thus a clear oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere allows us to see beyond the atmosphere; it is also a good (perhaps the only) mixture for complex life. Being where we are in the galaxy allows us to see not only deep space and extra-galactic objects, it also provides a mineral-rich region in which life can exist but doesn't lead to us being bombarded by high levels of radiation from the centre of a galaxy.

As with "design" of organisms, it isn't the case that it is impossible to conceive of a better environment in which some observations could be made - but our location is probably optimum both from the point of view of survivability and observation. They also touch on cosmic fine-tuning.

Since the book is a science book, the authors don't explore any theological implications of this. What I am wondering is: ignoring for a minute whether Genesis corresponds to a historical account, what would a universe created by a (truly omniscient, omnipotent) God be like? Surely it would have to be internally coherent at just about all levels - as though it makes sense according to its own rules - like the universe we see? I have no philosophical or logical framework to hang this on, but my hunch is that an internally coherent universe (apparently working according to its own rules) that turns out to be incredibly improbable (cosmic fine-tuning) is not only required for the existence of life, and for life to be able to observe the nature of the universe in which it is, but is (ultimately) also the only way in which a god who was external to the universe and involved in creating it could signal its presence to the life without intervening directly - general revelation. Is this the ultimate significance of the "eternal power" talked about that signals the presence of God to humans in Romans 1?

I'm not sure I have expressed clearly the idea that is floating around my brain somewhere - I will try and tease it out more fully if I can sit down and think at some stage.

Incidentally, a quick plug for Wikipedia, referenced above - an open-source encyclopaedia.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Pointless search of the day

In Google: "Exile GROGGS PF101" - search the web

Did you mean: exile groggs fp101

No standard web pages containing all your search terms were found.

Okay, then. "Exile GROGGS FP101" - search the web.

Your search - exile groggs fp101 - did not match any documents.


Googlewhacking - the idea is, hit Google with an unlikely combination of two words, and try and get just one page hit across the whole of the Internet. Google currently knows about 8 billion pages. Does the size of the Internet mean that the number of googlewhacks will gradually be diminishing? Or does the increasing size mean that words that ought never (on any statistical basis) appear on a webpage together will crop up at a rate that balances the loss? Do we need a googlewhack cosmological constant? ITWSBT.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Like Civ II? You'll love this!

SuperPower 2 is a newish "god-sim" game - I saw it in a shop for the first time yesterday and bought it. It allows you to take political/economic/military control of any country in the United Nations; to set your own gameplay objectives; to be as reasonable or unreasonable as you like (want to declare minority languages illegal? No problem. Want to change the political system? What sort would you like? Want to buy your struggling Third World country four squadrons of front-line fighters? ... well, you get the idea.). The writers have provided support (!!!! Can you imagine Microsoft doing this?!) for you to produce your own modifications - at the level of data, or at the level of a game. And yes, you can apparently play across the internet - though I have only just started exploring it.

Two small negatives. First - a 64MB graphics card (128MB recommended) just to have a spinning globe running whilst you play (most of the actual play relates to data not flashy graphics)? A bit gratuitous, I think. Second, the only start date (without modification) is currently 2001. Some others would be nice.

Otherwise - well, just remember you have other things you need to do as well.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Epistemology, ontology and FTL travel

On the blogsite ID: The future, Jay Richards is using these terms to talk about the effect of special relativity. He has received a lot of scathing comment - I suspect more because he is a proponent of ID than out of any serious attempt to engage with the issues.

I understand where he is coming from. This isn't a scientific comment, but probably just a reflection of something that I am uneasy about because it hasn't been taught me clearly. Faster than light travel is impossible we are told, because nothing can travel faster than light; light defines the shape of the universe; and if you travel faster than light you would therefore be in two places at once.

But let's suppose you could travel faster than light. Suppose I manage to travel instantaneously to a fictional planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, and look back towards Earth through an infeasibly powerful telescope. I would be able to see myself doing the things I was doing four years ago - this is "Einsteinian"/"epistemological" time, and the argument is that because nothing travels faster than light, and light defines the shape of the universe, I would therefore be in two places at once. But I think this is a circular objection by definition, as far as I can tell - I wouldn't be able to communicate with myself four years ago - because if I then instantaneously travelled back, my "ontological"/"real" time would have moved on, and I wouldn't be four years ago any more. Similarly, if I were to beam back to earth television signals of Alpha Centauri, they wouldn't get there until four years had passed - by which time, according to earth's "ontological"/"real" time, I would already have left for Alpha Centauri.

In other words, I think the sense of this is that there is an "epistemological" line of time - which relates to the fact that communication doesn't take place above the speed of light (I can only look backwards to where I was/something else is at the speed of light). There is also an "ontological" line of time - that is, if I look 13 thousand million light years away, I am looking at what happened 13 thousand million years ago at that point in space - but that the age of the universe there now is not 2 thousand million years, it is the same as it is here - even though there's no way for us to know what it is like there now (other than our Copernican assumption, which is that it is similar to how it is here now). That isn't nonsense - there are many aspects of relativity that are counterintuitive, but to argue that there are parts of the universe "ontologically" "now" that are younger than we are is silly - epistemologically they are, yes - which is how we can find out about the early universe - but that doesn't mean that their "real" age is less than ours - it just means we can't know about what they are like now whilst communcation is limited to the speed of light.


Friday, April 08, 2005

Dodgy theology in old songs

1) "God holds the key to all unknown, and I am glad. If someone else should have the key, or if he trusted it to me, I might be sad."

... for which read, "it would be a complete cosmic disaster."

2) (Sorry, Dave Heddle) "You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart." That way lies existentialism - Christ doesn't only live because I "feel" that he lives "deep down inside". How did the disciples know that he (Jesus) lived? Well, Jesus met them, so that could have been enough. Instead, however, when he spoke to them, he focused on the fact that the Scriptures said that he would suffer and die, and enter into his glory. (Luke 24:27,44) Why? Because future Christians would not meet the risen Christ. So how are they (we) to know? Because the Scriptures say so.

So, you ask me how I know he lives? Because it was necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory - and because the gospels record that was what happened to Jesus.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Padova - una citta chiusa

(Scusi - don't know whether "chiuso" declines with gender or not ...)

Our objectives with regard to visiting Padua were based around the fact that it was where Galileo had lived. Since both of us have science backgrounds, we understand some of the significance of the change of worldview that followed Galileo's confirmation of the Copernican model of the universe. So we wanted to see where Galileo had made his observations, and also where he lived, if possible. However, we only had a guidebook for Venice, a European road atlas and an Avis map of Italy, so our knowledge of the local geography was pretty sketchy.

We arrived there at about 11 - we found a car park in the northeast of the city, close to the station. The attendant spoke to me in English before I even had the chance to say, "Salve" - I suppose I don't look particularly latin.... From the car park, we walked towards the nearest shops. We found a map attached to a lamp-post - surrounded by bikes. We peered over the top of the bikes to try and work out where was where on the map. A local - who, judging from his immaculate English, may have actually been a British resident - parked his bike in the mass of bikes, and apologised that they were making the map inaccessible - "We have nowhere else to park them." He pointed south, and said that was the way to the centre of the town, and there were more maps in that direction.

So we headed that way - across a bridge, past a statue of Marco Polo (thanks to Civilization II, inextricably linked in my mind with the ability to talk to all the other nations), past a pleasant looking park and some unexplained ruins, to the pedestrianised area. We bought a map, and discovered that there was an observatory south of the town centre, and although no house of Galileo was marked, there was a via Galileo Galilei, which might be worth investigating from the point of view of where Galileo lived.

We walked around for a bit, enjoying the usual crop of old buildings that attract no attention in Italy but which would attract swarms of people selling cheap plastic souvenirs in England. I discovered the batteries in my camera needed replacing. I tried a tabachi first. I pointed to some AA batteries the assistant had displayed in the counter, and asked if he had any. "No, all gone," he said. His grasp of existential properties of non-sentient objects was obviously more subtle than mine, so rather than getting stuck into a philosophical discussion, I said, "va bene" and left the shop. An audio/TV shop proved no better - plenty of batteries, but no AA ones. Fortunately, there was a supermarket nearby, and I managed to choose and pay for some before anybody was able to think of a reason to stop me buying them.

We walked south in the pedestrianised area towards the duomo. It was huge - it looked comfortably large enough to double as an indoor football stadium. However, it was closed. We walked round the mews, particularly peaceful around the back away from the piazza, apart from the psychotic teenage scooter drivers that shot past every 20 seconds.

We were getting close to the observatory, but we were also some way from the car, and I didn't want to overdo the walking on the way back. So we headed back to the car - pausing only for the daily gelati. We then drove south, marvelling at the uselessness of a street map which doesn't show one way streets.

Eventually, we managed to find somewhere to park close to the observatory (see below). It was in a delightful setting - close to the river, with a magnolia in full bloom in the grounds. It was also closed. Well, nearly. The gate was openable, and we walked in to look around. It was generally deserted, with the exception of a security person in reception, who told us that it was closed every day except Saturday and Sunday. So we wandered around, looking at the bits that we thought we could get away with looking at and not risk being thrown out, wondering whether or not to go and talk to the astrophysics department next door and appeal to their fraternity and love of children to see whether we couldn't get a guided tour.

We decided against it, and instead decided to drive to v. Galileo Galilei. We drove past a large, open area with statues and another unfeasibly large church, through various streets, and ended up back at the observatory. So we drove past the open area again, through some more streets that I think were supposedly only for authorised vehicles (not that anybody seemed terribly bothered by us being there), and eventually came to the conclusion that we couldn't get to v. Galileo Galilei from the west.

So we drove past the open area again, this time aiming well east of our target, but still found ourselves being turned away. Eventually, we parked again, and walked there. Sure enough, when we got there, we discovered that it had indeed been where Galileo had lived. There didn't, however, seem to be anything there that even could be opened - just a sign pointing at a house with a plaque on it. I suppose it's not that surprising - Darwin's room at Christ's College, Cambridge is just another student room. But, if you change people's view of the universe, don't expect much fuss to be made.

We decided that the children were going to bed too late, and that a change from the late Italian dinner would be a good idea. We had seen what looked like a shopping mall on the drive into town, so on the way out, we looked for it, in the hope of finding a plastic, MSG-full syntho-meal. We didn't find it. Instead, we found the industrial area, and explored it for 20 minutes, trying to find a way out. Oh well, I suppose it was better for us to eat real food.

Galileo's house in Padua Posted by Hello

The observatory in Padua Posted by Hello

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Italian mountains Posted by Hello

Subtle roads in the Italian mountains .... Posted by Hello

Italian mountains

The Italian Alps/Dolomites are beautiful, and surprisingly close to the Venice area. The tourist office at Treviso said it would take about 90 minutes to get there - within twenty minutes of getting onto the Autostrada, the mountains were starting to emerge from the haze, and sure enough, we were well surrounded by the peaks within 90 minutes.

We didn't manage to get to any of the skiing areas - they were another 40 km North, apparently - though even where we were, two hours north of Venice, there was snow on the peaks at the end of March (see above). One of the really striking things was the lack of subtlety about the roads and the engineering solutions in general. The motorways ran up through one valley on stilts that must have been over a hundred metres high. Several tunnels on the road were over a kilometre long. "Well, there goes the neighbourhood ....". However, this part of Italy is pretty industrial, judging from the number of industrial areas - wood and quarrying? - so a good infrastructure probably had a high priority relative to picturesqueness.

In general, the autostrada system seems to work better than the UK motorway system. Because of the toll system, perhaps people only use it if they are going somewhere in particular - whereas motorways in the UK are just another (relatively efficient) part of the road network - so tend to get as clogged up as the other roads. However, the tolls weren't excessive - Treviso to the end of the autostrada in the mountains was just over 3 Euros; Mestre to Padua was about 1.5 Euros.

Thoughts on Treviso

The centre of Treviso is the walled town; as seems to be common in Italian cities, it is largely pedestrianised. Probably a good thing - it's a bit of a nightmare to cross the city by car, and having all those cars ploughing through the centre wouldn't have done much for the town.

The citizens of Treviso seem to be largely ignorant of the fact that they are living in an archaeological goldmine. You only have to lift your eyes above the level of the ground floor to see old, gradually fading murals and designs (see below).

The cathedral (duomo) is more accessible than many seem to be - it is open to the public when there isn't a mass on. Again, its walls tell of vast amounts of history . The crypt (pay 0.30 Euros to switch the lights on - even I'm prepared to contribute that much to the funds of the Catholic church) dates back around 1000 years; I think the paintings go back around 700 - well back into the medieval era.

There is a lovely, placid river that flows along the southeastern edge of the city (see below). We had parked south of town and walked from the east to the south along the bank, watching small waterfowl diving for fish, and looking a little enviously at the flats that overlooked the river.

Old paintings above shops in the street in Treviso Posted by Hello

The river in Treviso Posted by Hello

Monday, April 04, 2005

Terri Schiavo

Vast amounts of words have been written relating to this case. The following are the apparent facts that shape my opinions on it, and my opinions themselves - though it is all pretty irrelevant now.

In the past, her husband pursued a case for compensation, for the cost of supporting her for the rest of her life. He was awarded $300,000; she was awarded $700,000. Who stands to benefit if she dies? He does - he gets the other $700,000. If this settlement was based on her life being supported, then doesn't that imply that if her life doesn't continue, then any balance of the settlement ought to be forfeit?

The husband is now in another relationship, and has two children by that relationship. Natural enough, of course, but if this is the case, then Terri and her husband are effectively separated - is he the right person then to decide what is in her best interests? Does he in any case have the right (as was reported) to deny her parents access to her?

Although she was in a coma, she was not being kept alive by machinery - her body was keeping itself alive. I understand she could even take nutrition by mouth, although it was more convenient to feed her intravenously.

By removing this tube, and denying her nutrition by other means, she was effectively starved to death.

If these are the facts, then I'm not surprised at people's indignation, and that Terri's husband is now living in fear of his life - though two wrongs don't make a right. But none of us should ultimately be afraid of people. They can only kill the body. They cannot kill the soul. The only one you should fear is the one who can destroy the body and the soul in hell.

See also this and this.

A typical Venetian street scene Posted by Hello

Venice - a few clues

It's always an "interesting" experience being in a culture where you don't understand what people are saying, and that was our experience in Venice and NE Italy last week (hence the few day's silence).

Venice is a beautiful city - as were Padua and Treviso. But it is also an incredibly efficient machine for getting money off tourists. The quality of souvenirs, as with many places, varies from the excellent and beautiful to the truly naff. All sorts of places like to compare themselves to glamorous other places - Hamburg describes itself as the Venice of the North, for example - but how about less glamorous comparisons? How about Venice, the Atlantic City of Italy? Venice, the Blackpool of Southern Europe? Only joking .... Anyway, a few thoughts ....

1) Public transport is a cost effective way of getting to Venice city. However, if you arrive in your own car, there are various options.

a) Park in the car park at Tronchetto. This is some way from the city centre - actually the far side of the port. The price is 18 Euros per part of 24 hour period. Of more interest is the fact that you will be steered in the direction of a motorised taxi by a well organised team of men in the car park. This isn't a great problem - we were charged 30 Euros for the five of us to travel one-way from Tronchetto to St Mark's Square. However, for 40 Euros, we could have bought 24 hour tickets for the vaporetti - the water buses. If rather than walking back out of the Tronchetto car park the way we arrived, we'd gone to the other end of the car park - where the cashier was - and kept walking, we'd have arrived at the vaporetti stop, and could have missed this mild "sting".

b) Park at the landside end of the bridge. There are various car parks here; we were charged under 8 Euros to park until 8 pm, and then 25 Euros for the five of us to travel return to Tre Archi, at the edge of Venice city, and on the vaporetto lines.

c) Park in Piazza le Roma. This is 19 Euros per 24 hours - but you don't then have to worry about getting to the city centre.

2)The closer you are to St Mark's Square, the more you pay for just about everything. Also, if you sit outside anywhere in Venice, you will pay more for food and drink. We were charged 14 Euros (about £10) for two cokes and two caffe latte's.

3) Although the vaporetti are very efficient and a pleasant way to get around, there are some real oddities in the system, and having a timetable helps, if one of the kiosks is prepared to part with one. For example, when we wanted to get back to Tronchetto from St Mark's Square, we discovered that there was a gap from about 5 pm until the Night bus service started - about 6 hours. So we had to traipse back over to Rialto to get a different one.

Niblings - nieces and nephews

"Changing the language, one word at a time."

Following a programme on Radio 4 last night (Word of Mouth - aaah! passim A World in Your Ear - aaah!) I am happy to endorse the suggestion that the word "niblings" be used to mean "nieces and nephews".