Category Archives: Religion

Interesting links

I’ve been remiss in updating lately, mostly because I’ve been embroiled in yet another personal programming project. So here are a few of the more interesting articles I’ve read recently to tide you over:

  • Probably due to the dysfunction exhibited by the U.S. government over the past year, libertarians have recently been abuzz about creating new countries of their own from scratch, Ayn Rand-style. The most impressive projects are the sea-steading ones of course that so eerily mimic the underwater city of Rapture from the BioShock games, but these are pipe dreams with not much chance of coming to fruition. Surprisingly, the most realistic of these initiatives is Honduras’ attempt to create a Hong Kong-style charter city which would be autonomous from the host country. Even Honduran police and the court system will not have authority in the designated zones as they will outsourced to the private sector and the courts of Mauritius respectively. The Economist has the details.
  • So Kim Jong Il died last month and the North Korea population promptly exploded into an orgy of mass grieving. This short article from MSNBC offers a few tantalizing glimpses of how this works in the hermit kingdom, which includes people being punished for not participating in organized mourning sessions or even not being seen to cry in a genuine manner.
  • By now everyone has heard of the cruise ship that sank off the coast of Italy and the idiot captain whose latest claim that he accidentally fell into the lifeboat and thus didn’t mean to intentionally abandon ship. But do you wonder what happens next to that ship? Do they let it sink? Do they try to refloat it? Well, this amazing feature from Wired covers an international team of experts who specialize in just this sort of thing, traveling all around to refloat capsized ships or just salvage what can be saved. They’re paid big bucks but their company earns money only if they succeed as their contracts are based on a percentage of the value recovered and as the article makes it painfully clear, theirs is a mortally dangerous job. The article is so good it could be made into a summer blockbuster, highly recommended.
  • Finally, on a more light-hearted note, I’m sure what with the Wikipedia blackout and all, everyone knows about SOPA and how it’s supposed to help with copyright violation, i.e. IP piracy. In a move that combines the futility of fighting against file sharing and the ridiculousness of organized religion, Sweden has officially recognized the Church of Kopimism as a religious organization. This church was founded in 2010 and upholds the right to file-share as a sacred tenet. Its religious symbols are CTRL+C and CTRL+V, i.e. copy-paste. PCMag has the story.

Interesting links

I’m leaving on holiday to Taiwan soon and will be leaving my job after that. This means that this blog will probably be updated only intermittently while I’m a in transition phase. In the meantime, here are a few links to some of the most interesting things I’ve read recently.

  • As everyone knows by now, the Rapture did not in fact arrive on schedule. Or perhaps it did but no one, including the folks from Family Radio International who so hyped up the event, was judged worthy. The station’s owner and preacher Harold Camping has since come out with a statement claiming that he’d made a mistake. May 21st was merely the spiritual Judgment Day during which God evaluated everyone’s souls. But the judgment will actually be executed only on October 21st, five months from now, triggering the end of the world.
  • Thankfully Malaysian high schools are nothing like the hellholes that public US high schools seem to be but thanks to American shows and movies, we have a decent idea of what they’re like. One aspect of the US high school experience is how students are segregated into different groups that are organized into a hierarchy that revolves around popularity. This extended essay examines why nerds in school, who are consistently found to be smarter than their peers, are consistently among the least popular students and comes up with some interesting insights.
  • Many vegetarians don’t eat meat because of the perceived moral issues involved in killing an animal for food. What if meat no longer had to obtained by butchering animals? What if you could simply grow the meat in a test-tube? This article looks at how meat could be grown by immersing stem cell samples in nutrient-filled petri dishes, and then moving them into scaffolding platforms to get them to grow into muscle tissue. If this gets off the ground, not only will it dispense with the moral issue of eating animals, it will also be a far cheaper and more environmentally friendly way to farm the meat that we so crave.
  • When I mentioned on QT3 that Ted Chiang had never published a novel, a fellow fan was quick to correct me. Actually, it’s more like a novella than a novel, but you can judge for yourself since The Lifecycle of Software Objects is now freely available to be read online. To be honest I find it to be the weakest of Chiang’s works I’ve read and it’s really more of an essay presenting many different insights and ideas about conscious software as pets and children than a novel. The central thesis is that you can’t create an artificial intelligence by writing an algorithm and running it iteratively until it reaches sentience. Instead, you need to nurture it just as you would a pet or a child, patiently teaching it and allowing it to have a variety of different life experiences to enable it to grow.
  • Finally, just for Malaysians, here is a link to the latest report on house price indices for Malaysia, updated for the first quarter of 2011. Some very tentative conclusions are that overall house prices in Malaysia are still increasing and especially prices for terrace houses in the Klang Valley are still holding up. But prices for high-rises in the Klang Valley is stagnant and has dropped for Malaysia as a whole. Condo prices in Penang in particular seem to be dropped significantly and the index has dropped to 2009 levels. This is especially illuminating since I’ve heard many people complain about very low occupation rates for condos in Penang despite the high prices. As always, a single quarter’s worth of data is not proof of a developing trend and should be taken with the usual grain of salt.

Interesting links for further reading

Due to a combination of various factors including illness, an unexpected holiday and an abnormally slow Internet connection, I have been remiss in writing new posts this week. Here are a few links to some interesting items to tide you over:

  • China’s State Administration of Radio, Film & Television has effectively banned all plots involving time travel from films. The stated reasons are that such stories treat history frivolously and disrespectfully and time-travel itself is unrealistic bad science. The suspected real reason is that China does not want people to compare the society that they have now with living conditions in the past. I’d also hazard that China feels uncomfortable about exploring “what if” historical scenarios. Additional fun fact: the Hearts of Iron games are also banned in China because it depicts places like Tibet, Shaanxi, Yunan etc. as independent states.
  • Iphone and ipad users should be careful. Apparently Apple has been secretly tracking the movement of users of the devices. The devices seem to automatically log its geographic position together with a timestamp at irregular intervals and save the data to an internal file without asking permission from owners or telling them that it is doing so. As many Internet pundits have noted, if you’ve been having an affair or lying to your employer about where you have been, a look at the file will reveal all your secrets.
  • In the latest of many pages on the sins of the Catholic church, an investigative reporter has written a new book alleging that thousands of Vatican-based priests have illicit sexual relationships. The book tells stories of priests having families complete with children in secret, of paid sex with escorts and of gay priests partying in nightclubs in Rome. It also cites research alleging that up to a quarter of Catholic priests in the US are involved in heterosexual relationships with women. My take: it’s not the sex that is offensive, it is the hypocrisy that rankles.
  • Finally, I recently learned that Ted Chiang has a short story available for reading online. Exhalation was apparently made available for free when it was nominated for the Hugo Award for 2009. It won incidentally. It’s a fantastic story that successfully paints a picture of strange society of alien within just a few succinct paragraphs. Ted Chiang is probably my favorite writer of short science-fiction right now ever since Greg Egan’s quality dropped in the 2000s. My favorite story of his however is still Story of Your Life which examines free will from the perspective that language determines thought.

The disputed origins of Yoga

As much as I would like to write something about the ongoing events in Japan, events are developing too quickly to really write anything intelligent about it. The situation with their nuclear reactors could really go anywhere at the moment. Obviously, I hope that things go well. The Japanese sure could use a break.

Instead, here’s a link to an article disputing the Hindu origins of yoga. It has since evoked a great deal of controversy and ignited a significant debate over the issue. Considering how popular yoga is in Malaysia now and how it has stirred some debate over here as well as to whether or not it is a religious practice, I thought it would make for interesting reading.

Part of the article is a reaction against the “Take Back Yoga” campaign in the United States by the Hindu American Foundation who are upset that the modern practice of yoga is, more and more, shorn of its Hindu elements. In response, the author roughly makes the following points:

  1. Yoga, as it is popularly practiced and known throughout the world, is really just the physical component of yoga, hatha yoga. This style is extremely popular in India as well and has little spiritual or meditational content.
  2. This form of yoga is not really that old after all. The author claims that it was born in the late 19th or early 20th century as a form of exercise during the Hindu Renaissance that incorporated Western ideas of science, evolution, health and physical fitness.
  3. Effectively the techniques were drawn from drills, gymnastics and boidy-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England and the United States and then grafted together with the Yoga Sutras. In particular, the author traces the teachings to physical yoga to a school based at the Jaganmohan Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore in the early 20th century. In the 19080s, a Swedish yoga student found in the library of the Palace of Mysore a book entitled Sritattvanidhi that illustrates many of the techniques of modern yoga but also included rope techniques practiced by Indian wrestlers and traditional Indian gymnastics. It may also have drawn from exercises developed by a Dane and introduced to India by the British in the early 20th century. The palace at that time was certainly equipped with a Western-style gymnasium including wall ropes and props.
  4. Finally, the author claims that it is impossible to trace the ancient origins of most yoga sutras. Some yoga teachers claim that the sutras exist in some texts that now no longer exist. Others claim that a particular text contains some of these sutras yet other scholars cannot find them. One prominent yoga teacher claims that he traces his teachings to a text that dates from over a thousand years ago but now no longer exists. He knows of it because the ghost of an ancestor dictated it to him while he was in a trance.

Obviously, all of this is strongly disputed by opposing parties and the magazine even hosts a rebuttal by another author who fiercely disputes these conclusions.


Any review that I could possibly write about this film must pale in comparison to Gordon Cameron’s excellent post on his blog Picture’s Up, so I’ll just link it. Some observations of my own:

  • The characterization and pacing feel a bit off. The slave Davus’ conflicted loyalties don’t seem very convincing at all. He clearly adores Hypatia and has a talent for science, but is attracted towards the egalitarianism of Christianity. But how does that drive him to bloodlust? He just seems far too enthusiastic about the sacking of the library than the situation warrants.
  • Similarly the flash forward to several years later feels clumsy. Suddenly we see that Orestes, who was happy to grab a sword to kill Christians, is now the Prefect and has been baptized himself. It would have been more believable if the film had previously established him as being ambitious and willing to go along with the tide for political gain. As it stands, it’s odd how he seems to think of himself as a genuine Christian even in private.
  • My wife totally caught how the filmmakers had chosen to garb the Christians in black robes and generally look and act like the stereotypical Muslim terrorists of our time. This is something that Marginal Revolution picked up on this too.
  • Some reviewers have claimed that the film is a condemnation of all fundamentalism rather than Christianity specifically but I can’t think of a single sympathetic Christian in the film. At least the Pagans were shown to respect knowledge and seem generally more civilized and orderly, even if they started the violence first. Plus, of course, even Hypatia clearly thought that owning slaves was perfectly normal. But the Christians are just a hateful bunch throughout. Even when Davus is handing out bread at the church, the beggars look like greedy locusts who eagerly take whatever is offered and eat it without so much as a word of thanks or a moment of appreciation. Then there’s Davus’ questioning of whether the Christians should consider forgiving their enemies and the rebuke he gets in response.
  • My wife says that Synesius is totally evil at the end and I agree. His brand of evil is certainly more scary than that of Cyril. The latter is just the typical religious demagogue. It’s not even clear that Cyril is passionate about Christ. He just seems interested in power. Synesius however seems to genuinely think of himself as being a good friend to both Orestes and Hypatia, and believes that wholehearted acceptance of Christ is what’s best for them, regardless of what they actually want or believe in. He’s scary because there’s no reasoning with him. Cyril at least could probably be cowed with sufficient application of temporal power.
  • Gordon Cameron thinks that the truest emotion the film evokes is frustration about how easily such valuable progress in human knowledge can be lost. While the film tries to play up that angle, especially obvious with the scenes of Hypatia and her colleagues desperately trying to save as many priceless manuscripts as they can before the mob, I don’t think this is what really rings out to me. After all, Hypatia didn’t seem to work very hard to ensure that her own insights would be recorded for posterity. Instead, the strongest emotional reaction I had was the fearful power of mob rule and how it utterly ignores reason and facts. The frustration that I felt was not so much the loss of knowledge but the downfall of civilization and the end of what seemed to be peaceful and orderly lives for so many.

Anyway I’m glad I watched this film but then as I’m one of those militant atheist types. Setting this aside, I don’t think I could say that this is a very good film. It’s a good subject matter and it’s shot beautifully enough but it’s too handles too many things too awkwardly. It does make for a wonderful film to troll Christians with, if I could ever convince one to watch it with me.

More corruption in the Catholic church

If Pope Benedict XVI has been praying for a break from the endless criticisms against the Catholic church, it looks like he’s out of luck. Today’s news is about his statement condemning what he calls the deplorable actions of Belgian police who raided a cathedral in the country as part of their ongoing investigations on sexual abuse by Catholic priests. What’s especially shocking about this statement is his insistence that the Catholic church be allowed autonomy to investigate the sexual abuse allegations on their own.

So far, so bad but there’s nothing particularly new in all this. What’s more interesting is this extended expose published last week in Der Spiegel about a more conventional kind of corruption in the church’s organization in Germany. From the article:

The Catholic Church in Germany, already struggling to cope with the sex abuse scandal, has been hit by revelations of theft, opaque accounting and extravagance. While the grassroots faithful are being forced to make cutbacks, some bishops enjoy the trappings of the church’s considerable hidden wealth.

Shortly before Pentecost, Pastor S. received an unexpected early morning visit, not from the Holy Ghost, but from the police.

For the authorities, the words of the Gospel of Luke came true on that morning: He who seeks finds. More than €131,000 ($158,000) were hidden in various places in the rooms of the Catholic priest, tucked in between his laundry or attached to the bottom of drawers. The reverend was arrested on the spot. After several weeks in custody, Hans S., 76, is now back at the monastery, waiting for his trial.

And lo and behold, the proliferation of cash may have been even more miraculous than initially assumed. The public prosecutor’s office in the southern city of Würzburg now estimates that S. may have embezzled up to €1.5 million from collections and other church funds. The members of his flock in a wine-growing village in the northern Bavarian region of Franconia are stunned. They had blindly trusted their shepherd, who always seemed so humble and modest.

The Catholic Church is currently being shaken by a number of financial scandals, not only in Franconia but also in Augsburg, another Bavarian city, where Bishop Walter Mixa’s dip into funds from a foundation that runs children’s homes recently made headlines.

More than €40 million have gone missing in the Diocese of Magdeburg in eastern Germany, €5 million have disappeared in Limburg near Frankfurt, and it was recently discovered that a senior priest in the Diocese of Münster had 30 secret bank accounts. And while parishes throughout Germany are cutting jobs and funds for community work, many bishops are still living on the high horse. A brand-new residence? An ostentatious home for their retirement? Restoration of a Marian column to the tune of €120,000? None of these expenditures presents a problem to high-ranking church officials from Trier in the west to Passau in the southeastern corner of Bavaria, whose coffers are brimming with cash.

The behavior of the church is this regard is precisely the same as what one would expect to see from corrupt government officials: insistence that church accounts are secret and spending is totally at the discretion of church officials, refusal to open up the books to independent auditors, extravagant spending on residences for clerics while maintaining that all this is for the good of the church and even keeping large sums of money in cash instead of in a bank account. As the article notes, all this is made even more painful as the parishioners who actually use the church’s services face austerity cutbacks.

Extra chuckles at how the church continues to benefit from such frivolities as free firewood and altar wine due to centuries-old treaties between the church and the state that lawmakers in Germany never bothered to review and probably know nothing about.

Saudi Arabia: breastfeeding for adult men is encouraged

This news goes straight into the “you can’t make this shit up” category. It appears that Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia have recently issued a fatwa advocating that women should breastfeed milk to their close male colleagues and acquaintances. The reasoning? Islamic law in the kingdom strictly forbids unrelated men and women from mingling. However, a rule states that once a man takes milk from the breast of a woman, he would then be considered a relative and they therefore are allowed to socialize with one another. She wouldn’t even need to be veiled in his presence as his status as a relative means that he is not a potential mate.

The clerics are apparently in disagreement over whether or not it is necessary to feed the man milk directly from the woman’s breast or if just collecting the milk in a glass will do. Understandably, women in the country are upset and advocates of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia point to this as yet another piece of evidence of how out of touch the Muslim clerics (who are all of course, male) are with how women actually think and feel.