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Sticky: A Sceptical Anthology

Some favourite sceptical quotations, accumulated over the years

Index of authors cited
Allen Anon Austen Baldwin Bierce Borrow Bradley Broad Butler Campbell Carroll Coward Crisp Critchley Dalai Lama Darwin Dawkins Deacon Dennett Dickens Dodds Ehrenreich Epicurus Feynman Fortey Frayn Goldstein Greaves Grimwood Hawkes Hobbes Holmes Hume Huxley Jefferson Johnson Jones Kaminer Laski Lawrence Lovelock Lucas MacNeice Magee McGinn Mencken Miller Montaigne Mornar Murdoch Oppenheimer Osmond Parfit Putin Ridley Russell Sagan Sapolsky Searle Schopenhauer Seneca Shakespeare Skinner Sontag Storr Stove Strawson Sutherland Swift Voltaire Warburton Wegner Woolf Xenophanes

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Sticky: Becoming mobile-friendly

There's currently a lot of excitement among web designers about Google's announcement that they will penalise sites that don't work well on mobile devices. I've decided I need to comply with this although with less than total enthusiasm. Nearly all my pages now meet Google's new criteria (the only exception is my cycling pictures.)

The disadvantage of the change is that if you read my pages on a desktop or laptop the lines will be long (unless you adjust the width of your browser, of course). Perhaps I should have alternatives for people who are using those devices, though that would mean more complication and difficulty in maintaining both alternatives. And the variety of ways that web pages can be viewed has increased enormously, so it isn't possible to cater for all of them. Probably it's no longer a good idea to specify the width of one's lines as I did previously.

I'd be grateful for feedback on this.
1 Comment
Last modified on 2015-08-15 16:13

Book review: How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

This is a book about evolutionary psychology, which Pinker explains at the outset as follows.

The evolutionary psychology of this book is in one sense a straightforward extension of biology, focused on one organ, the mind, of one species,Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.

The view outlined here includes a number of ideas: that the mind is a set of modules whose organisation is genetic, that it is an adaptation designed by natural selection, and that the goal of natural selection is to propagate genes. But Pinker cautions us that none of these ideas should be pushed too far. Each of them contributes part of the explanation but none gives us the whole story. Read more

Book review: A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman

This is a memoir but not an autobiography because, as Paxman explains at the outset, he does not say anything about his family: 'what they choose to disclose about themselves is up to them.' The first three chapters describe his early upbringing and education. He went first to a preparatory school and then to a minor public school, Malvern College. He was not greatly impressed by either of these institutions, which he saw as designed to foster class prejudices in those who attended them, but in the end he got an Exhibition (minor scholarship) at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he read English and edited the student newspaper Varsity . Read more

Firefox: error_net_inadequate_security

I kept getting this error code when trying to connect to various sites such as YouTube and Wikepedia with Firefox 50.1.0 on OpenBSD. The solution wasn't easy to find but eventually I did so at

In brief I do this:

(1) In a new tab, type or paste about:config in the address bar and press Enter/Return.

(2) In the search box above the list, type or paste http2 and pause while the list is filtered

(3) Double-click the network.http.spdy.enabled.http2 preference to switch it from true to false

Book review: Yoga Body, by Mark Singleton

Yoga is becoming ever more popular in countries outside India and it is claimed to have all kinds of mental and physical benefits. It is also widely believed to be an ancient practice and this is an important part of its appeal for some. But Singleton presents a wealth of evidence to show that modern yoga, with its emphasis on postures (asanas), is not rooted in ancient traditions (whatever these may have been) but instead owes a lot to Western gymnastics and other physical culture techniques. Yoga has also been cross-fertilised with Indian nationalism and New Age spirituality. Read more

Unanswerable question on Mastermind

In yesterday's "Mastermind" the competitor who eventually won the contest was asked: What Greek term is used in the gospels as a translation of Golgotha, meaning the place of the skull? She replied "Calvary", which was taken to be correct.

Although the gospels were written in Greek, "Calvary" is Latin not Greek. So the question was unanswerable. If I'd been in the contestant's place I wouldn't have known what to say.

Derek Parfit dies

I learnt this morning that the philosopher Derek Parfit died on 1 January. His book Reasons and Persons knocked me sideways when I first encountered it. It will take me the rest of my life to absorb the ideas it contains, or begin to. To do so fully would require a radical reconstruction in the whole way I think.

From my review:

It seems to be a basic human characteristic to speculate on the characters and motives of people we know (and, increasingly nowadays, people we don't know who are in the public eye). We also readily make judgements. To all this activity we bring a set of largely implicit assumptions about the nature of personality and the motives of our behaviour. In his long book, Parfit makes a detailed analysis of both of these things and comes to some surprising conclusions - conclusions which, he believes, can considerably alter the way we think of such important matters as the prospect of our own death. "I believe that most of us have false beliefs about our own nature, and our identity over time, and that, when we see the truth, we ought to change some of our beliefs about what we have reason to do."

Book review: Oxygen, by Nick Lane

Why does our planet have an atmosphere containing about 21 per cent oxygen and why do we depend critically on this fact to keep alive? It's not just that we breathe it; if there were no oxygen we would probably have no oceans and we would be bathed in lethal ultraviolet light. The fact that our nearest neighbours, Venus and Mars, have no oceans today may be because they never harboured oxygen-producing organisms. The Earth did, and this made all the difference.

That much is true, but the story is more complicated than this. Until recently the prevailing wisdom was that when oxygen appeared, thanks to photosynthesis by certain bacteria (cyanobacteria), it was toxic to most forms of life and this caused a mass extinction, an 'oxygen holocaust'. But some bacteria were able to adapt to oxygen and eventually to use it to produce energy, and the evolution of complex life was the result. Read more

Evolutionary aspects of cancer - Mel Greaves

On my book reviews page there is a review of Cancer: The Evolutionary Legacy by Mel Greaves. Anyone who is interested in this important topic should see Greaves's lecture to an audience of biologists published in 2013.

Greaves is Professor of Cell Biology at the Institute of Cell Biology in London. Two important messages emerge from his lecture. One is that the fundamental importance of Darwninian evolution for our understanding of disease in general and cancer in particular is still not fully recognised, and the other - which is a consequence of the first - is that much of the research in cancer treaement at present is missing the real point and is unlikely to provide a lot of benefit. The research effort needs to be directed differently. We also need to do more to achieve early treatment and improve prevention, both of which are achievable right now. The treatment of more advanced cancers is likely always to be difficult.