Pope Benedict XVI recently got in the news again when he cancelled a speech he was due to give at the La Sapienza University in Rome due to protests by professors and students. The protesters objected to having a prominent religious leader giving a speech in a secular and public institution and referenced a previous speech made by the Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which he seemed to defend the Inquisition’s verdict against Galileo in 1303, probably the most well-known case of science being persecuted by religion in history.
As far as I can tell, the rector of the university was willing to offer both parties space to voice their respective views, but the Pope decided to cancel instead, which as physicist Marcello Cini, one of the leaders of the protest, noted, was a very smart public relations move on the Pope’s part. The mainstream news coverage of the event sympathizes heavily with the Pope and the popular angle is that the Pope was denied freedom of speech by anti-religious scientists. But from my point of view, it looks like the Pope was willing to speak only if he were the only one allowed to speak, so who’s he to play the freedom of speech card?
I spotted this picture over at the Quartertothree forums and you can see a larger version of the photo here. The picture speaks for itself and it is seriously freaking me out. I thought at first this must be a digitally manipulated photo or something but people are saying that it is completely plausible. Someone please tell me that this is not actually possible!
Now, I have long been nonplussed by Isaac’s Alchemical research, but as years have gone by I have perceived that he would achieve a similar triumph by finding a single common underlying explanation for phænomena that we think of as diverse, and unrelated: free will, God’s presence in the Universe, miracles, and the transmutation of chymical elements. Counched in the willfully obscure jargon of the Alchemists, this cause, or principle, or whatever one wants to call it, is known as the Philosopher’s Stone, or other terms such as the Philosophic Mercury, the Vital Agent, the Latent or Subtile Spirit, the Secret Fire, the Material Soul of Matter, the Invisible Habitant, the Body of Light, the Seed, the Seminal Virtue.
– Neal Stephenson in The System of the World
For a book written by Neal Stephenson, I had a hard time getting into Quicksilver, the first book of his Baroque Cycle. This is astonishing because of how much I enjoyed and how quickly I devoured his earlier books, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Quicksilver and its subsequent volumes The Confusion and The System of the World, appear at first glance to be a different beast entirely. For one thing, the events chronicled in the novel take place from roughly the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century. For another, real historical figures from the period in question play a central role in the story and while most of the exploits described in the novel are fictional, they are skillfully interleaved with real historical events. For these reasons, ever since the publication of the first volume, debate has raged amongst fans and readers on whether or not it even constitutes science-fiction.
Continue reading Books: The Baroque Cycle
Monsters’ Den is a newish, free to play, flash-based game that replicates an old-fashioned party-based dungeon-crawler. You control a party of four characters out of a total of five different classes and take them through multiple levels of a dungeon, killing monsters and getting loot. Each character has detailed statistics and different skills, which you get to upgrade every time you descend to a lower level of the dungeon.
The thing about Monster’s Den is that despite its simplicity, it has a surprising amount of depth. Do you customize your warrior to be a sword-and-shield tank or give him a huge two-handed warhammer to go to town with? Do you play your mage in the traditional way of staying in the back and flinging spells or have him front and center with protective spells and a magic-enhanced sword? With a loot-colouration scheme that seems lifted straight from World of Warcraft (green, blue and purple items with a decent variety of different bonuses), savable games and plenty of abilities to experiment with and enemies to fight, it can be pretty addictive. My only complaints are that the default difficulty is perhaps a little too easy and there aren’t enough different classes to play around with.
Between this and the flash version of Portal, it’s amazing to see how far flash games have come. They make a good argument that 2D games aren’t dead and that good gameplay can overcome skimpy graphics.
The Telegraph recently published an extract of an interesting new book by Damian Thompson on what he calls counterknowledge: wacky ideas and theories that are unsupported by empirical evidence, but are believed by many, and thanks to modern telecommunications technology and the internet, are flourishing as never before. Some of the examples cited include: the conspiracy theory that the Bush administration planned and executed the 9/11 terrorist attacks; that the plot of the popular novel The Da Vinci Code in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene sired a dynasty of Merovingian kings is true, and that the Catholic Church knows about this and is covering it up; and the fatwa issued by Islamic leaders in northern Nigeria stating that the polio vaccine is really part of a U.S. plot to sterilize Muslims.
In many cases, you might think that the theories spouted by these cranks are harmless enough, except that sometimes they’re so widely believed that they cause serious harm, such as the spread of polio caused by parents who now refuse to vaccinate their infants. And when even a minister in President Sarkozy’s new French government, Christine Boutin, remarks that it is possible that Bush might have something to do with the 9/11 attacks, you realize that this isn’t a problem that’s confined to poor countries or uneducated people. I can think of plenty of other examples such as South African president Thabo Mbeki’s reluctance to believe that the HIV virus is the cause of AIDS; the formerly popular idea that the 1969 moon landing was faked in a movie studio; and, yes, even Chinese beliefs in qi, feng shui and any number of other superstitions.
As the extract notes, there are a number of reasons why such beliefs can take hold including encouragement by Left-wing multiculturalists who insist that minorities have the right to believe in things that are patently untrue and postmodern philosophers, again usually Left-wing, who insist that science and technology are products of Western culture and are not objectively true. In the developing world, opposition to Western science is seen as opposition to the political, intellectual and scientific elite of the Western world and a way of upholding the dignity and validity of their respective cultures.
In response to the conspiracy-minded, I refer to the now familiar quote by Robert J. Hanlon: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” As my recent viewing of a particular South Park episode indicated, believing that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 attacks means ascribing an almost superhuman level of competence to President Bush and his officials. As for those who argue that science is a cultural phenomenon that is inherently Western and therefore not objective, I say that reason, logic and the scientific method are the best tools that humanity has to discover the truth and they belong to all mankind. As Ayn Rand would say, our reason is the very thing that makes all of us human. Only a fool would deprive himself of science’s benefits just because someone else got it right first.
Some pictures of Hakchai, previously already mentioned in this blog, and his new friend, Lucky. Hakchai and Lohwong were the only two dogs that we kept from a litter of puppies by Rainbow. Rainbow was herself originally owned by one of our local Solomon Islander employees, but after he resigned for medical reasons, he left Rainbow here and I kind of adopted her. She’s a mongrel, and still a little wild. She’s a pretty small dog, but she loves chasing and killing things smaller than her, like birds, chickens and kittens.
Hakchai was wounded in a car accident when he was a puppy, so one of his rear legs is really weak. This means he can’t jump, so when he gets excited instead of jumping around, he just kinds of claws people’s feet instead, which can be painful. He’s also a really, really timid and submissive dog. When he was a puppy, as soon as anyone yelled or even glared at him, he’d curl up on his back and pee in submission. This means he’s totally useless as a guard dog, but also means that he’s perfectly harmless. He does make a lot of strange noises and howls sometimes. My wife says he likes to sing.
Continue reading Hakchai and Lucky
This story was spread around a few days ago and got digged. It really is a bit of a non-story though, since it’s based on a Time magazine story that’s dated 7th December 1970. It concerns a case in which a pair of parents in the United States, one an atheist and the other a pantheist, was denied the right to adopt a baby because a judge ruled that since the parents did not believe in a Supreme Being, it would be tantamount to unduly influencing the child and depriving her of the freedom to worship as she sees fit. In any case, as far as I can tell, that ruling was overturned in 1971 in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to deny adoption solely on the basis of lack of belief in any religion.
Still, raising this old story did serve to raise public consciousness for a few days about atheists’ rights as the story made the rounds on the internet and on public radio talk shows in the US. Personally, I’ve long found that religious people tend not to accord atheists the same personal belief space that they automatically give to believers of other religions. For example, a Christian instinctively knows that it would be rude to even so much as utter a praise to Jesus in the presence of a Muslim or a Buddhist, but no such consideration is ever afforded to atheists. Yet as a recent special report in The Economist noted, if atheism were considered a religion, it would be the fourth largest religion worldwide.
This is of course because religious people tend to believe that atheists don’t really take their atheism seriously and so are ripe for conversion. This might be true for many atheists and, perhaps even truer for self-proclaimed agnostics, but at the same time, from my observations, many of the religious don’t take their own religious belief particularly seriously either, being religious only as a form of social networking or as taking the path of least resistance.
But for me at least and for others I hope, atheism is a conscious, rational and carefully thought out choice and I dare say that I have spent more time and effort on researching the basis of my beliefs than many religious have spent on theirs. That I think is something that ought to be respected. So if you religiously inclined yourself, keep that in mind the next time you hear someone profess to be an atheist.