Sunday, November 6, 2011

Carl Sagan - A few links worth perusing

The first five awe-inspiring minutes of Carl Sagan's award-winning Cosmos series.

Carl Sagan reading the now-legendary Pale Blue Dot passage from the book of the same name.

Carl Sagan on the Tonight Show hosted by John Denver, standing in for Johnny Carson; classic Carl Sagan.

The Demon Haunted World: The classic work on critical and skeptical thinking. It's a lifechanger.

Carl Sagan interviewed by Ted Turner circa 1989. This is part 1 of a 5 part series on YouTube, Carl Sagan at his best in describing our common humanity, space, the benefits of scientific literacy and the fragility of our  world. Classic Sagan - time very well spent.

Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit: The classic tool for critical thinking and detecting fallacious and/or fraudulent arguments, and a lot of other resources.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Fix for iTunes Store hanging at "Accessing iTunes Store"

Just found this, hope it helps someone :)

FYI: I'm running iTunes 10.5 on Windows 7 (64 bit), but apparently this works on Mac OS may be due to upgrading o 10.5 last week, but I'm not certain that's what caused it. Anyway, on to the fix!


when you do anything in  iTunes Store, itunes seems to hang showing "Accessing iTunes Store" in the banner.


  • Open iTunes - go to the top bar, click the 'Store' drop down menu
  • Then click 'De-authorise this Computer'
  • Enter your password
  • Close & relaunch iTunes
  • Click 'Store' again then click 'Re-authorise this Computer
  • Enter password

et voila, the store should work properly again!


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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Paris Airshow 2011 Photos

Afterburners, Giant Airliners And......Sunburn: A Day At The Paris Airshow

It's been six years since I last went to the Paris Airshow, so when France24 announced on Twitter that they were giving tickets in exchange for tweets, I was in like flynn. And so it was on a sunny Friday morning I find myself on the RER B heading out to Le Bourget. Not too crowded, but still there was a 45 minute wait for the free shuttle to the airport.....I remembered it as not being too far a walk and arrived at the entrance in about 20 minutes. After checking in on Foursquare (of course) I pull out my camera and away we go. First stop: Ariane 5,  dominating the Le Bourget skyline. I took a couple of snaps of the engines for old times sake (I have tons from previous visits, but why not?). Then off to see the Americans. A little light this year - no Navy or Army aircraft, but the Air force F15E, F16, C130, C5, C17 and Marine Corps AH1Z and UH1Y still made for nice viewing. I had an interesting talk with a Marine Corps mechanic who told me that the AH1Z is brand new; declared combat-ready only in September 2010 and hasn't yet been on the ground. Interestingly, both the AH1Z and UH1Y share 84% of the same components making maintenance a lot easier. The mechanic also said (in true jarhead style) that the Army's AH-64 Apaches have a big problem with launching Sidewinders but, ahem, the Marine Corps AH1Z has no such issues.....Semper Fi :)

I dropped in to the ESA exhibit before the flight demos and saw a presentation on the joint ESA-NASA Cassini-Huygens mission (incidentally, it's still ongoing, click here for more info). The speaker paraphrased Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot when talking about this photo of Earth through the rings of Saturn ; The video on the Huygens probe landing on Titan was wonderful.

And after spending what seemed like an hour trying to get a sandwich at the Paul stand (more like 15 minutes, but still) it's flight time!!

I can't hep but let slip a big goofy grin when I hear screaming jet engines and see full afterburners flaming......yep: military high performance jets. In the air today was the Dassult Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F16. Even after seeing lots of this, I'm still blown away when I see 30-40 tonnes of metal flitting around the sky like a bat.....awesome.

The French Air Force display team, La Patrouille de France, put on a beautiful display, as alway. 

There was an interesting demo by a Russian Altair amphibious aircraft configured as a firefighter - pretty cool to see it dumping twelve tonnes of water in two seconds!

And then there's the A380 - the biggest commercial airliner in service today. I saw its first public display flight here 6 years ago and it's still a wonder to watch in the air....just goes to show that airliners can put up with a LOT more than their daily grind. It's simply amazing to see it float around like a bubble in the small airspace available above Le Bourget for displays, a testament to both the engineering skills required to build it and the skills of the display pilots.

All in all: I took a truckload of photos (some of which can be viewed here), got a dose of howling jet engines and a little sunburned - a great day :)


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Friday, June 3, 2011

Why I'm Not Concerned About Cell Phone Radiation

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), recently published a report warning that there might be an elevated risk of certain types of brain tumour in heavy cell phone users. I was surprised to say the least, given that I've previously referenced the WHO as an authority when the swine flu vaccine scaremongering was at its peak a couple of years back. Personally, I'm pretty confident that my cell phone isn't going to kill me unless I walk under a bus while tweeting. Let me explain, using a little biology, physics and common sense.
Cancers happen when an otherwise healthy cell is reprogrammed by a genetic mutation to behave as a cancerous cell. This mutation can occur either by chemical interaction or by EM radiation. The effecting agent is described as a mutagenic agent. EM radiation does this by dislodging electrons in a chromosome which ionise the molecule, allowing it to accept other atoms or molecules which in turn induce a mutation in the chromosome, sometimes leading to cancer. In this case, the effecting agent is described as a carcinogenic agent. (Note: These mutation mechanisms have been around since life first arose on Earth and are fundamental to evolution; they are NOT a result of our technology running amok.)
The IARC claim is that there is a link between cellphone radiation and two types of brain cancer. For this to happen, cellphone radiation would need to be able to ionise the DNA molecule in order to introduce a mutation. This requires a certain amount of energy that cellphone radiation simply doesn't carry. It is non-ionising radiation. To understand more about this, let's take a look at what we mean when we talk about electromagnetic radiation. Below is the electromagnetic spectrum, the range of electromagnetic radiation from longwave radio through visible light all the way up to gamma rays, increasing in energy from right to left. As the frequency of the light increases, the energy it carries also increases.  

How do we know this? (Bear with me here, we'll get to cellphones shortly!) Albert Einstein won a Nobel Prize for discovering the Photoelectric Effect which, essentially, says that light above a certain frequency falling on a metal induces a current. This happens because the energy in the light's photons is sufficient to cause electrons in the metal to move. He showed that red light won't induce a current, but blue light will. Max Planck later found a relationship between the frequency of light and the energy of its photons. As we can see above, red light has a frequency of 700nm (7*10^ -7m), blue light 400nm (4*10^ -7m). It's clear from Planck's discovery that blue light is more energetic than red.  
Now, back to cellphones. Where does this radiation figure on the spectrum? Look at where red light is on the spectrum. Go below it, you find Infra-red, then below it again you find the microwave region,  a range of wavelengths from as long as one meter to as short as one millimeter, or equivalently, with frequencies between 300 MHz (0.3 GHz) and 300 GHz. Cellphones typically operate in the low end of the microwave region, overlapping with the high end of UHF radio frequencies, usually below 2Ghz. Obviously, this is well below the level of ionising radiation, which is beyond the UV region of the spectrum, in x-ray and gamma-ray territory. It can't be carcinogenic.
So why all the hoopla from the WHO? The IARC report states the following results:

The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited  among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate  to draw conclusions for other types of cancers. The evidence from the occupational and environmental exposures mentioned above was similarly judged inadequate. The Working Group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10‐year period).

'Limited evidence of carcinogenicity': A positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer for which a causal interpretation is considered by the Working Group to be credible, but chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence. 

'Inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity': The available studies are of insufficient quality, consistency or statistical power to permit a conclusion regarding the presence or absence of a causal association between exposure and cancer, or no data on cancer in humans are available. "

What does this mean then? A correlation has been observed, but as skeptics are fond of saying, correlation does not equal causation. It would appear the IARC are playing the "let's keep an eye on this just in case" card. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing new here. Might there be an issue? Maybe. But it's unlikely. Cellphones have been in mass consumption for over 15 years now and there doesn't appear to be any increase in brain tumours, according to studies done in several countries. I'll be here waiting for the evidence, and if it comes I'll be the first to change my mind. 

Some links:
A list of other items in the same "2B Possibly Carcinogenic" category:
PZ Meyers on the IARC report:
Phil Plait weighs in:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Fukushima Vs Chernobyl - A Fair Comparison? Some Resources To Learn More

There's been a lot of fearmongering about the Fukushima incident, comparing it to (or its being "worse" than) the Chernobyl incident. Make no mistake, it is a very serious situation, and warrants careful attention. But with words like catastrophe, radiation & radioactivity being bandied about with reckless abandon, there's a lot of unnecessary anxiety out there. These words have a lot of emotional baggage attached to them, and tend to cause irrational overreaction.Time for some reason. For starters, look at this:Sources and distribution of average radiation exposure to the wo

Sources and distribution of average radiation exposure to the world population

(Source: WHO:

That's a lot of natural radiation! What is radiation though? And how does it relate to radioactivity? Further below are some resources I found useful in trying to get a grip on all this. In a nutshell:

  • radiation is and always has been around us;
  • the danger is all about the dose received over time;
  • comparisons to Chernobyl are not helpful, and even that event, the worst nuclear accident in history, doesn't appear to have had the health impact we have been led to believe it had;

The links below are a good starting point to help you learn about the differences between the Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents; hopefully you'll also find out what the following mean:

  • Radiation, the different kinds and their effects on health; 
  • Radioactivity, how it's measured and what is meant by "half-life".
  • Radiation dose

These concepts aren't beyond anyone of average intelligence. You don't need a physics degree to get an understanding of the basics (I certainly don't have one!) but once you have a grasp of these ideas, the situation seems less frightening. And that can only be a good thing.

Links: - IAEA's daily updates on the Fukushima situation: - Comparison of Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents - Overview of the Chernobyl incident. - WHO followup of Chernobyl health impact - a very useful diagram charting relative doses from almost none (bananas!) to fatal, short term massive doses. - MIT's Nuclear Science Engineering website, chock full of useful information on nuclear physics and technology. -What is radiation? A good introduction. - WHO on ionizing radiation - WHO on natural and manmade radiation

Various articles:


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Friday, January 7, 2011

A Thought Experiment - The Case For A Cheap, Dumb-Terminal Google Tablet

Gmail. Google Calendar. Google Documents. Google Chrome. In terms of functionality, do these sound familiar? These are the basic requirements for most modern office (home or otherwise) workers: email, calendar, word processor\spreadsheet\slideshow apps, and internet browser. What's missing? An operating system.

Of course in these days of cloud computing, an OS on a local hard disk is somewhat passé. So right now we we have our Google Accounts to keep all of the above in one place. But it's a little cumbersome. You still need a local computer with its own OS. Or do you?

Imagine a dumb terminal, a Google netbook or a future, Google tablet if you will, that connects securely to a virtual Google desktop environment. All you need is a boot process that runs a citrix-type client from a small flash drive. Kick it up, log into your Google account and you're online, in a virtual Google environment. You surf the internet using Chrome and instead of your office suite of applications you have Gmail, Google Documents, Google Calendar. You don't need to backup your device: if it gets stolen, lost or otherwise destroyed, your data is still safe online. On the downside, you need a reliable internet connection, and you don't have much control over the local device, but that hasn't stopped the iPad from selling. Maybe allow for an offline mode in more expensive models?

These could be cheap, $100 laptop-type devices that we've heard about, or they could be flashy status symbol devices like the ipad. I think trying to compete with the iPad would be a foolish move even for Google, so I'll go with the low end, low maintenance device.

Anyway, just a few thoughts on what I think Google might do in the next year to 18 months. Let's see what happens.

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Response to Another Astrologer

Here's a reponse I got from my last post, complete with a reading (!). Again, my reponses are in blue with the original message in black.


Thanks for your response. Here are my thoughts in blue below. 

I must start out talking about astrology to a skeptic. Astrology is a branch of Metaphysics explained here Similar to but different to philosophy and psychology. It has been in existence over 5000 years. Astrology became more refined when Ptolemy AD 90-168 came along. Ptolemy was a Psychologist, Geographer, Mathmetician, Astronomer and finally Astrologer. He was educated in Babylon which is now Iraq/Iran where all the best educated astrologers were along with astronomers.

To summarize his approach to what is now modern day western astrology: Inspiration and insight came to him during his numerous observations as astronomer, pscyhologist,geographer&mathmetician. He correlated cycles of planets & moon to emotional and external events happening to individuals including himself he had observed on a daily basis. He was numbers oriented which lead him to the refining of the everday "transits" (predictions). He took the person's natal chart which described specific personality traits and saw how transits would affect that individual. That's called the Law of Precedence. Basically a person's nature and what they have usually done before is the basis of the Law of Precedence. So personality is based solely on date of birth? And never changes? What about mental illness or brain injury? Or simply life experience? What about twins? We all know twins that have completely different personalities, life experiences and levels of success in life. Indeed there are twins where one  dies at an early age and the other goes on to a ripe old age. 

It is up to the modern day Astrologer to interpret someone's chart accurately. An astrologer first looks at the personality traits decribed in the natal chart to see what they're capable of. Then an astrologer looks at the Progressed Chart to see the progressed moon to see what distinct emotional changes or experiences they're experiencing. Then look to the transits starting with Pluto going inwards to the moon aspects. Pluto aspects take 2 years to experience down to the moon aspect which lasts 2 hours. Interpeting the transits or predictions all depends on the personality of the person. That's how astrology works. So it's predictable? The sun, moon, planets and stars are absolutely, 100% predictable. Does that mean that we can extrapolate into the future to see what's going to happen? Why not just plot out someone's life & say "here you are....this will be your life" ? Has this been done? What were the results?

Now, looking at your chart the part that makes me see the skeptic in you is your Mercury oppose Saturn. That shows you're suspicious by nature since communication wasn't used well in your family growing up. Thus, the skeptic in you grew. I'm not suspicious by nature, in fact I'm quite gullible which is why skepticism is so appealing to me. Otherwise I'd probably believe everything that came my way! I'm not so much  "I don't agree so you're wrong", I'm more "show me your evidence". I was a huge believer in extraterrestrial visitations, area 51, reincarnation etc until I opened Carl Sagan's "The Demon Haunted World" in 1996. Those were the roots of my skeptic nature; I always loved science, especially astronomy, but the scientific method wasn't something that was taught very well when I was at school. For the last 15 years

Plus you have 5 planets in Sagittarius. Sagittarius wants truth and honesty and education at all costs. -don't we all (well, except for Sarah Palin ;-P ) ? A very general statement that can apply to a huge number of people. Cast your net wide, you're sure to catch something as people tend to remember the hits & forget the misses. 

1 other aspect seems to pop out at me and that's your moon square Neptune which indicates you don't like others confronting you, but to protect yourself you tend to confront other first before they confront you. -again, a general statement. I'm non-confrontational as a rule. I tend to try to pre-empt situations before they become conflicts, not people. But again, this could be a hit for many, many people. 

Finally your moon conjunct Jupiter loves truth, education and can be optimistic, but given your skeptic/pessimistic nature you tend to fluctuate between the two. -everyone fluctuates between optimism & pessimism, even the most extreme cases of's normal human nature. 

Another aspect in your chart that doesn't relate to the skeptic part too much is your Venus oppose Saturn. It shows you feel you need to be responsible for everyone and everything which is usually learned by a parent. -again, vague enough to hit home for many people. 

Finally another aspect not related to the skeptic in you is Venus square Pluto. You tend to go for underdogs and do all the work in a relationship. -it's a cliché: everyone loves an underdog! All the work in a relationship? Nope, far from it. I would say my partner does more than I do, to my chagrin......

What I see here is a collection of general statements that, in a face to face meeting, would provide information for further development. If I were a believer, or even if I just wanted to do this for fun, I might be surprised at the "accuracy" of some of these statements.  I could dig around and find ways to make everything fit with even the most tenuous of links. As it happens, if I stand back and apply reason and logic, I see nothing more than a series of questions designed to elicit a response to provide further information for development. 

My views on astrology are based on the following: Science as a process has proven its reliability to demonstrate how the world works. Astrology is completely incompatible with the known, well-tested and well understood fundamental laws of the universe. If an astrologer (or anyone for that matter) were to make a very specific prediction for 2011 - (exact date, time, event, location) with precise unmistakable details, I'd sit up and take notice. That would be VERY interesting. But it hasn't happened yet, and after almost 2000 years in existence, that's not a good sign. 

Astrology is generally benign, except when used as the only resource when making important decisions. It scares me to think that French President Mitterand and Ronald Reagan, amongst others, consulted astrologers during their presidencies. The problem for me is the magical thinking that goes along with pseudoscience in general. "Well, I don't know how it works, but it works" is all well and good, but is anyone looking to find out how it works? Matthew gave the example of aspirin; we used it even though we didn't know how it worked...yes, but now we DO know how it works. It was studied and it had an underlying logic that corresponds with what we know from chemistry and biology. Compare this with homeopathy that, like astrology, has no known mechanism to explain how it works. In fact it DOESN'T work and any perceived effects are, for the most part, a combination of the placebo effect and regression to the mean. For astrology, the perceived effects are principally caused by the Barnum effect, the fallacy of sunken investment, and a willingness to believe. 

So, it was brief in interpretting your chart,but I want to show you how it works.

I've been busy writing alot in the last few days, so haven't kept up with your dialogue with the other astrologers, but I thought I'd give you a to the point explanation of astrology and including your chart to finish it up.

I hope I've been concise and to the point for you. I don't like to ramble on forever and prefer succinct comments. I hope to hear from you soon.

Posted via email from John's posterous

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Astrology Discussion on Twitter

I got into a chat on twitter with an astrologer last week. Long story. Anyway, during the following night, one of her aquaintances sent a whole bunch of tweets as a followup to our discussion, so I thought I'd blog my response instead of a tedious twitter back and forth. Feel free to discuss in the comments! Oh, and apologies for the delay in responding, it's been a hectic few days...but then, you already know that :)

First: Check out this video, it's a classic:
Richard Feynman on what science is:

In Black below are the tweets I received overnight, in blue, my responses. I was originally going to post a single piece, but figured it would be interesting to see the original tweets also.

Science is "Flick the switch, light goes on." Faith is "I hope the Power Co. didn't cut me off - ok
I don't have to have "faith" in astrology, because it observably and repeatedly works.... who's observing, and under what conditions? If we're only taking your word for it, then I'm sorry - not good enough. 
And I know there's little "scientific" evidence for it. -like.....magic, then, no?
Of course they used to pack wounds with cow dung before anyone heard of "penecillin"
 ...and not understanding hydrogen fusion never stop the Sun from shining.
Most skeptical arguments seem to boil down to "I haven't seen any proof that fits my worldview." -no, the view is that if there's sound evidence to support the claim, I'll change my mind AND my worldview.

In other words, Sagan's "Extraordinary proof (etc)" statement may be true, but it also mentally sets
the bar pf "proof" as high as you want it to be. -it should be high. The more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the proof required. If we accept astrology as valid, it means that the fundamental laws of nature as we understand them today are completely wrong. These laws have been challenged again and again, and any predictions made using them have been verified and replicated the world over. 

Consider all the many, many, many studies -
about the effectiveness of antidepressants. Antidepressants are a crap shoot, but since we like
to think of the psyche as being the result of chemistry, we want to use chemistry to change it
Billions in research, and the best antidepressants can do is about 60% effectiveness -not aware of this, but I'm sure it's more complicated than a sweeping general statement like that. At a guess, I'd say efficient marketing by manufacturers, incorrect prescriptions to people that don't actually need antidepressants etc. More of a business ethics problem than a scientific one, IMHO. But then again, I don't have the whole story and I'm sure it's VERY complex. 

 But when I as an astrologer come up with 8 or 9 out of 10 predictions right, a skeptic starts with
"The Forer Effect" or "The Barnum Effect" or the "well, that's not how planets work" argument. - these are well documented phenomena. When you say you're "right" - based on what kind of prediction? Specific like "you'll slip on the stairs at work at 2.30pm on March 23rd, but it'll be only a mild sprain) Or vague like "there'll be big changes in 2011" , ie Barnum-type cold-readings? Who decides you're right, you or the client? Under what conditions? 

We've stopped throwing virgins into volcanoes, yet the "superstition" of astrology persists.
Now that just couldn't be because maybe astrology works or something. Noooooo. :) -correct :) 

Every argument I've heard against astrology can be applied to any branch of psychology. -Confusing pop psychology with clinical psychology and psychotherapy. Work by Skinner, Pavlov, and Milgram are among the best known examples of predictive, peer reviewed studies that stand up to the test of time. Psychotherapy doesn't have a lot of fans in the hard sciences as there are problems regarding falsifiability. 

Do I understand the mechanism by which astrology works? Hell no. -does anyone? So why are there no astrological research university departments to discover how it works? Surely uncovering the mechanism of astrology, if there is one, would be a monumental discovery. Einstein, Newton, Feynman, Dirac, Fermi: so long, farewell. Countless Nobel prizes await the discoverers of such a mechanism. I may not understand how every part of a car works, but I can find someone who does. If I want to, I can go all the way up to the engineers that designed it using the cumulative results of centuries of scientific research. 

But peasants packing wounds with cow dung weren't microbiologists either
 ...they just saved lives. Is that "scientific"? Well, they observed results...
 ...and (surprise!) found they were repeatable. No lab involved, but still "scientific." -not sure about the facts of cowdung, but the process is sound. Hypothesis, experiment, replicate. Science is not a body of knowledge, it's a process. The knowledge changes, and in fact does when new evidence contradicts previous observation. The process is to get past the human factor. Ego, error, sloppiness, and fraud can all slip in. Peer review is designed to catch this. It's not perfect (nothing involving humans is!), but in the long run it works. The fact that I'm typing this on a computer that could've run the entire Apollo Program is testament to that, as is the Apollo Program itself. 

Meanwhile, billions of $ pouring into "String Theory," and many careers built on it
So where are all the correct predictions made by String Theory"? Anyone...? Anyone...? -String theory is controversial even in the scientific community. It makes plausible claims but at this moment in time, they are untestable experimentally. Because of this, some physicists claim it's more like philosophy than science. I have no opinion; it's completely over my head, although I did enjoy the Elegant Universe! In the meantime, in mainstream science, astronomers have discovered planets outside our solar system (any incidence for astrology, by the way?) we've rendezvous'd with comets (how do they figure into horoscopes?), the Cassini mission has spent years studying the Saturn system, New Horizons will get to Pluto in a few years, and Messenger will get to Mercurian orbit in March of this year. In the 20th century we discovered that we live in a galaxy, one of billions, in a universe far bigger and older than any of our ancient ancestors could possibly have fathomed. We discovered that the anomalies in Mercury's orbit (precession of perihelion) was due to relativistic effects and can be explained by General Relativity. What advances has astrology made in the last century? Where are the predictions made by Astrology?

Astrology should have nothing to fear from science, any more than any other pursuit
Sadly, most of the skeptics I hear seem to use the "scientific worldview" as the club
they use to dismiss anything that doesn't suit their preconceptions. In other words, they
Make Science their Dogma, and (paradoxically) become as benighted as those they like
to feel superior to. No surprise, really: skeptics are humans too. Humans do that.
But if Science is a controlled, logical search for the truth, I like to think it DOES
apply to Astrology. It *should*. It's just that I rarely if ever see it applied.

This "scientific worldview" that you seem to lament created the world we live in today. The computers we work on, the cars we drive, the medicine we take, the clothes we wear, our telephones, food, longevity. It's true that some skeptics get on their high horses about views inconsistent with science. I know, I'm sometimes one of them. But the scientific method has gotten humanity this far. It's improved our lives (at least in first world countries; geopolitics is another matter altogether) immeasurably in the last century. Imagine our great-grandparents hearing of today's world: mother and child will most likely survive childbirth; all of your children will most likely live to adulthood. You'll most likely live to at least your mid-seventies. We can speak with anyone, anywhere in the world instantaneously. We can get anywhere in the world within 2 days. The body of knowledge we call science changes regularly as new discoveries overturn old ones. The "scientific worldview" means that if you present me with evidence for a claim, I'll listen to it and I'll sincerely evaluate it. If it's convincing, then I'll change my mind. Simple as that. 

Here's a previous post of mine on astrology.

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