Sunday, December 26, 2010

Atheist Misconceptions About Christianity: Christianity Sunk My Roman Battleship

While those of us who are atheists are inclined to be skeptical of religious claims, I submit that it is also important, for the sake of intellectual honesty, to shine that same light of skepticism on arguments and statements put forth by atheists about religion that themselves are ignorant and wrong.

Over the years, one of the claims I have seen repeatedly parroted by fellow atheists about Christianity is that it caused the Roman Empire to fall and was thus responsible for the Dark Ages. But is this really true?

On the surface it would seem so. The Roman Empire achieved the height of its power and territorial extent under pagan emperors during the better part of the 2nd century CE, when Christians formed a largely insignificant minority. Flash forward to the 4th century, and the increase in the numbers of Christians and the increasingly official status of Christianity as the state religion seems to go hand in hand with the decline of the empire. Important events that mark this decline are the Battle of Adrianople in 378, in which the Emperor Valens was killed in battle against the Goths, and the sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths. 66 years later, the Empire came to an end in the West, and as the popular story goes, Western Europe remained mired in ignorance, superstition and backwardness for centuries thereafter.

One popular site among atheists that espouses this view is Jesus Never Existed, which declares that “The Church expropriated the resources – both human and material – which might have defended Roman civilization. While an indolent army of clerics lived on the state, the impoverished legions degenerated into a peasant militia.” The picture painted by the site is one of a Western Europe in which Christianity turned the populace into a collection of ignorant retards, a sort of Idiocracy for the Middle Ages. Take a closer look though, and we see that this is not the case at all.

Jesus Never Existed undermines its own case by admitting that “[t]he empire had almost collapsed during the 3rd century because of military rebellions” during what is called by historians “The Crisis of the Third Century.” From the Wikpedia entry: “By late 274, the Roman Empire was reunited into a single entity, and the frontier troops were back in place. More than a century passed before Rome again lost military ascendancy over its external enemies. However, dozens of formerly thriving cities, especially in the Western Empire, had been ruined, their populations dispersed, and with the breakdown of the economic system, could not be rebuilt.” In other words, the Empire had suffered a near breakdown that had nothing to do with Christianity.

But if one wants to insist that the end of the Western Roman Empire is the fault of Christianity, then that same person has to explain why the Eastern Roman Empire also did not collapse in the 5th century. The Eastern half of the Empire had a larger Christian population than the Western half and for a longer period of time. While paganism had declined greatly in the West by the early 5th century, its influence must have still been strong enough that Augustine felt compelled to write The City of God in part as a rebuke to pagan claims that the sack of Rome in 410 was a punishment for abandoning the pagan gods.

The Eastern Empire did have two important things in its favor. It had a larger population than the Western Empire and it was also wealthier. During the 4th century, rough population estimates have some 22 million people in the Western Empire and about 34 million in the Eastern Empire. The East also had a greater number of cities with large populations.

The Eastern Empire experienced greater military pressure than the Western Empire during the late Empire period without collapsing, even though the catastrophic defeat at Adrianople in 378 took place in the Eastern Empire and the Gothic invaders for a time formed a state within a state in Eastern territory. In the mid-fifth century, Attila the Hun repeatedly ravaged the Balkans, and at one point camped outside of Constantinople itself, before turning his attention to the West. Furthermore, the Eastern Empire had to face a threat that the West did not, for it shared its frontiers with the Persian Sassanid Empire, which was the only other superpower in the region. The Eastern Empire and the Sassanids sparred frequently throughout the 6th century, culminating into a decades long war that raged from the late 6th into the early decades of the 7th century.

Therefore, at least from a military standpoint, it is absurd to blame the rise of Christianity for the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, unless one wants to seriously argue that the emperor Valens would have defeated the Goths at Adrianople in 378 if he were a pagan. However, numerous pagan Roman emperors had been defeated and/or killed in battle against barbarian invaders and Persian armies prior to Adrianople. Valens lost at Adrianople because of bad decisions that had nothing to do with his or his army’s religious beliefs.

If one wants to blame Christianity for the collapse of the Western Empire, then shouldn’t equal credit be given to Christianity for the success of the Eastern Emperor Justinian’s campaigns to recover significant portions of the former Western Empire? Likewise, do we blame Christianity for the defeats suffered by the Eastern Empire at the hands of the invading Arab Muslim armies a century later?

The spread of Christianity did not cause the Roman Empire to “fall”, contrary to the notion held by many critics of the religion. Rather, the growth of the religion can be seen as a symptom of the empire’s decline as the empire’s inhabitants sought spiritual refuge in a world that had, to them, turned upside down in the wake of civil wars, barbarian invasions and a breakdown of the social order.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Temporary Hiatus

Now that has ceased to function, the blog links in my side bar have disappeared. I am gradually restoring and revising my blog rolls and hope to be back in action very soon.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Intolerance In Indonesia

Having blogged about and expressing my support for the proposed Cordoba House near the former World Trade Center site in downtown Manhattan, I read with interest the developing story of a similar situation taking place in Indonesia. Only this time, the roles of majority and minority religions have changed.

From this BBC article:

For the last few weeks, a group of Christians have been holding their Sunday prayer services on an empty plot of land - resulting in violent clashes between them and the majority Muslims.

The Christians say the land belongs to them, and they were given permission by the local government to pray here.

Violence has already broken out
over this matter.

Rev. Luspida Simandjuntak, and a church elder, Hasian Lumbantoruan Sihombing, were attacked as they, along with HKBP worshippers, were on their way to a Sunday service at the church’s construction site at Ciketing village. Building plans a were halted following protests from residents and hardline groups.

As with the Cordoba House project, also known as Park51, there have been calls for the Christians to move to another location in the hopes of putting a stop to further Muslim attacks.

In response, "[t]he church’s spokesman, Judianto Simandjuntak, said the congregation would continue holding their services at the current location in Ciketing."

We will remain in Ciketing because we have the constitutional right to perform religious services.”

The already tense situation has the potential to get uglier. The BBC reporter who wrote the article linked to above interviewed "Khairul Fuad, a long-time resident,... a devout Muslim [but of course, right?], and a family man."

The article quotes him as saying, "The land belong to us, and the majority of the people who live around it are Muslims. There was a rumour that to get that land, those Christians didn't tell the people they wanted to build a place of worship." Switch Muslims and Christians and what does that remind you of?

More menacing are the words of Murhali Barda, described as the local leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders' Front.

"There is no problem with praying. But when they are there with a mission to build a place of worship, it is unacceptable," he told me as he showed me around Bekasi's oldest mosque.

"If we start calling for Holy War, it doesn't matter if we live or die," he said, smiling. "If there is violence that results from this, then the Christians only have themselves to blame

It wouldn't surprise me if this story is starting to make the rounds of the wingnut echo chamber here in the United States. I can almost here them declaring "You see, we're supposed to bend over for a mosque at Ground Zero and the Muslims are attacking Christians for wanting to have a church in a Muslim country!"

If so, I would say they have it backwards. One of the points I raised in my post on the Cordoba House is that letting it be built near the World Trade Center can give us the moral standing to forcefully condemn the lack of reciprocity in Muslim majority countries. Allowing the intolerant to prevail in our own country emboldens the intolerant elsewhere. It also plays into something I have observed among religious believers, which is the zero-sum mentality they have with regard to other religions. Allow members of Religion B to openly worship, and somehow it is seen as a loss by members of Religion A.

Furthermore, for those here in the United States who might try to use the situation in Indonesia as justification for opposing the Cordoba House, they would do well to notice that there are Indonesians of all faiths, including Muslims, who condemn the behavior of the militant Muslims.

From the same BBC article:

The problems in Bekasi have caught the attention of the entire nation.

In Jakarta, Indonesians of different faiths joined forces, raising their voices in unison in support of a more secular Indonesia.

The constitution guarantees the rights of citizens to practise their religion freely.

The protesters say they want their government to take action and uphold the principles of this country

Nevertheless, the Indonesian government could probably use a little more prodding to give it some backbone in cracking down on the militants. There is always the temptation to give in to the militants in the hope that it will appease them, but as the shopworn argument goes, appeasing them will only embolden them further. Here is the link to the Indonesian Embassy in the United States. Tell them, politely, of course, that the principle of religious freedom should be upheld.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I Desecrated The Book of Mormon

With all the hoopla recently over some kook pastor in Florida with a congregation not much bigger than an overcrowded kindergarten classroom in New York City who threatened to burn a pile of Qurans on September 11, I had forgotten that I had desecrated another religion's holy book.

I recall writing in another post that I have been noticing that the Book of Mormon has been appearing with increasing frequency in hotel and motel rooms across America and throughout the world alongside the Gideon Bibles. I took a copy of the Book of Mormon from a hotel I stayed at in Hong Kong several years ago, which I still haven't gotten around to reading yet.

Last month, my family and I spent four nights at the Marriott on the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls. When we got settled in our room, I noticed the Book of Mormon sitting on top of the night table between our beds. I promptly tossed it into the trash bin, where over the next few days it got buried underneath juice boxes, wrappers and other assorted flotsam and jetsam before the pail was emptied by the cleaning staff. It's probably in a landfill somewhere by now, slowly decaying from the elements and whatever icky stuff from the trash piled above it might be oozing and leaking down onto it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Warning: The Practice of Islam Is Hazardous To Your Health

While perusing the English language daily The Jakarta Post, I came across this article about the large numbers of vehicular accidents in Indonesia during the Idul Fitri holiday.

National Police deputy chief for operations Insp. Gen. Soenarko said Thursday there had been 743 traffic accidents from Sept. 3 to Sept. 8 nationwide, killing 144 people and wounding 579 others. Most of the victims were holidaymakers riding motorcycles, Soenarko added.

During the Idul Fitri exodus last year there were 1,646 traffic accidents across the country, claiming 702 lives and injuring 2,556 others.

But that is not the only Muslim holiday that has proven consistently fatal to adherents of the Islamic faith. Another is the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of the faith, which all able-bodied Muslims are expected to undertake at least once in their lives. Recent years have witnessed a number of mass casualty events at Islam's holiest site.

In 2004: The stampede, during a peak event of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, lasted about a half-hour, Saudi officials said. There were 244 dead and hundreds of other worshippers injured, some critically, Hajj Minister Iyad Madani said.

In 2006: Thousands of Muslim pilgrims rushing to complete a symbolic stoning ritual during the hajj tripped over luggage Thursday, causing a crush in which up to 400 people were killed despite Saudi attempts to prevent stampedes that have plagued the annual event.

Saudi officials estimated that 400 people were killed. More than 1,000 people were injured, said Dr. Abbasi with the Saudi Red Crescent.

[That] year's hajj was also marred by the collapse of a Mecca hotel on January 5, where 76 pilgrims were killed. The reason for the hotel collapse remains unknown. The latest disaster is expected to prompt the Saudis to enforce stricter controls, in order to do a better job of ensuring the safety of the millions of the faithful who arrive for the Hajj each year.

Call me skeptical, but I have a hard time believing that a particular religion is true when the mere practice of that religion proves to be so deadly to its followers.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Who Are You Calling A Parasite, Rabbi Lapin?

By way of Crooks and Liars, I watched the clip below from a recent episode of Glenn Beck's television program.

What a way to smear an entire segment of the American people, rabbi. Simply by virtue of going to church or synagogue once a week, tens of millions of other Americans are better people than I or any other atheist American?

But if you want to talk about parasites on a society, Rabbi Lapin would perhaps do better to focus on a growing segment of the population of Israel, Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

This article from The Jewish Daily Forward gives a good summary of the demographic dilemma faced by Israel.

Under a rule enacted at the time of Israel’s founding, draft-age men are excused from serving if they are engaged in full-time Torah study at a recognized academy through age 40. The rule has the dual effect of removing yeshiva students from both the military and the work force. The more Haredim, experience shows, the fewer potential soldiers, and the fewer taxpayers.

When the exemption was first approved in 1948, it involved barely 400 men. Four decades later, in 1992, the Torah-study exemption was granted to 5% of that year’s conscription-age cohort of 18-year-olds. This year, 2007, the proportion reached 11%. In 2019, the exempted yeshiva students are projected to top 23% of the cohort, which is the proportion of Haredi students among this year’s first graders — the most straightforward predictor.

Nonreligious exemptions have declined in recent years, but Torah exemptions have soared. The main reason is fertility: The Haredi community averages 7.6 children per woman, roughly triple the rate for the population as a whole, according to the Israel government’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

But even peace will not solve the problem of Haredi men removed from the work force by their prolonged yeshiva studies. At present, just 30% of Haredi men participate in the work force. Almost half the Haredi population lives below the official poverty line. As the Haredi share of the population grows, pressure will mount on the tax rolls, the welfare system and inter-communal tolerance and civility

A prime example of this lack of tolerance and civility happened this past June as per this article from the BBC:

Police said 120,000 Ashkenazi Jews rallied in Jerusalem and near Tel Aviv.

They turned out to support parents who refused to let their girls share classrooms with Jewish pupils of Sephardic or Middle Eastern descent.

The Ashkenazi parents, who are of European descent, want segregated classrooms because they say Sephardi families are not religious enough.

"There is a set of rules [in the ultra-Orthodox community]. We don't want televisions in the home, there are rules of modesty, we are against the internet," Mr Litzman was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.

"I don't want my daughter to be educated with a girl who has a TV at home

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is a mental disorder.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

World To End on October 21, 2011

Well, that's what it says in this tract put out by the eBible Fellowship that I found taped to one of the support pillars underneath the elevated tracks at the Hicksville train station this past Wednesday. How can we be sure that the world will come to an end on October 21, 2011? Because it says so in the Bible! And the author of the tract declares that "The Bible is the Word of God! Everything the Bible declares has the full authority of God Himself."

For openers, I guess this puts a damper on Barack Obama's chances of being re-elected in 2012.

But before the world ends on October 21, 2011, the pamphlet declares that we will first experience Judgment Day on May 21, 2011. This might be what that taxi driver was referring to on that February morning in 2009 when my family and I were being driven to JFK Airport for our vacation in Puerto Rico.

And what will happen on Judgment Day? It will set in motion a five-month period in which a "period of horrible torment will begin for all of the inhabitants of the earth." Gee, I thought the period of torment would start this coming November if the Republicans capture majorities in both houses of Congress.

On May 21, 2011, "God will raise up all of the dead that have ever died from their graves." No mention about people who were cremated or eaten by alligators or sharks. "Earthquakes will ravage the whole world as the earth will no longer conceal its dead." Wow, talk about bringing out your dead!

"People who died as saved individuals will experience the resurrection of their bodies and immediately leave this world to be forever with the Lord." If God abides in a non-physical environment, then why would a resurrection of physical bodies be necessary?

"Those who die unsaved will be raised up as well, but only to have their lifeless bodies scattered about the face of all the earth. Death will be everywhere." Again, what if I am cremated and my ashes scattered before May 21, 2011?

I have to say, I just love that whoever is putting out this tract is so absolutely confident as to cite specific dates in the near future when these apocalyptic events will supposedly occur. I would love to see what these people will have to say when they wake up on October 22, 2011 and the world will still be here.

The pamphlet contains other amusing and interesting information. Most Young Earth Creationists cite a roughly 6,000 year old Earth. However, the folks at the eBible Fellowship set the Creation in 11,013 B.C., with the demise of the Earth predicted "13,023 years from creation."

And how can we know this to be true? Because "[t]he genealogies of the book of Genesis... can be shown to be a precise calendar of the history of mankind in this world. The Bible 's calendar of history is completely accurate and trustworthy." After all, "[s]ince this Bible calendar is given by God in His Word, it can be trusted wholeheartedly." Gotta love that circular reasoning.

What always cracks me up about these End Times people is their belief that our little speck of a planet in one galaxy in a universe filled with billions of galaxies is some kind of central battlefield in a cosmic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. The human origins of their belief systems is betrayed by the geocentric bias inherent in their theology. A being that creates a universe filled, as previously mentioned, with billions of galaxies that themselves contain untold billions of planets orbiting their own stars operates according to an Earth based calendar system measured in Earth days, Earth months, and Earth years. And of course, nothing preoccupies this immensely powerful and intelligent being more than the mundane affairs of the human inhabitants of this one planet during a tiny sliver of time on a timescale of billions of years.

Anyway, mark your calendar for my blog post on May 22, 2011 when I write about the Judgment Day that never happened.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Cordoba House Blues

Posting has been light here lately. There's a lot of things I wanted to write about, but either couldn't find the time or just was unable bring myself to sit down and type away at my keyboard.

One of the hot topics in the NYC area right now, and which has gotten a lot of attention nationwide, if not worldwide, is the so called "Ground Zero Mosque." As someone who lives near and works in Manhattan, and who knew people who died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, this is a subject that is personal to me.

But before I could write about this in an informed way, I felt it was important that I went to see for myself the World Trade Center site and the location of the proposed Muslim community center and mosque two blocks away on Park Place. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to do so, as I was going to downtown Manhattan to see a showing of an independent film that featured one of my friends from high school. I decided to take the No. 2 subway line down to Chambers Street before heading to the theater.

From Chambers Street, I walked south for five blocks down West Broadway, passing Park Place along the way. The site of the former Twin Towers is still cordoned off with a chain link fence, with most of the fencing covered, making views of the ground difficult. I took the picture below through one of the openings.

I then headed north up Church Street. I took the shot below from the corner of Church and Vesey Street, the latter of which runs from east to west on the north side of the WTC site.

The next shot is on Church Street between Vesey and Barclay Street, with the Federal Office Building to my left.

Below is the intersection of Church Street and Park Place. To reach the section of Park Place that will house the proposed community center, one must turn to the left.

Below is the 51 Park Place building, which is to form part of the Cordoba House. It is located on the north side of Park Place between Church Street and West Broadway. One thing that should be noted is that while the World Trade Center site is very close by, it is not visible from this location. On the south side of Park Place directly opposite is a large building, and the next block down, between Barclay and Vesey is the imposing Federal Office Building.

On one side of the proposed center is this Amish Market, which is on the corner of Park Place and West Broadway.

In order to be able to see the WTC site, one has to stand on the corner of Park and West Broadway looking south.

Now I know some people have put out snarky proposals like opening gay bars or strip joints next to or across the street from the proposed Cordoba House. However, as the (blurry) photo below shows, there already is a bar called the Dakota Roadhouse that stands next to the proposed center. So, if the Cordoba House, or Park51, does eventually come to fruition, pious Muslims coming and going will have to pass by an establishment that serves alcohol.

But it gets even better than that. The next block north after Park Place, on the north side of Murray Street, is a "gentlemen's" club called New York Dolls. If Cordoba House will have a rear entrance on the south side on Murray Street, Muslim men leaving their prayer services will find themselves facing the temptations of the flesh.

Now, onto the matter at hand. What do I think about the proposed community center and mosque? As an atheist and someone who knew or was acquainted with people who died at the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, it would be easy to reflexively bash Cordoba House. But while I think all religion is basically superstitious nonsense, as an atheist, I also understand that an important barometer for any nation is how well it treats its minority populations, including religious minorities. I can cynically join with some American Christians in condemning a Muslim center near the World Trade Center while knowing that some of those very same Christians view me as un-American because I am an atheist. I'm sorry, but I just can't do that.

As I wrote in a post recently about proposals in some countries to ban the wearing of the veil, often what we think about certain issues says a lot about us and how we choose to view them. Some opponents of the community center/mosque claim that it is a symbol of Muslim conquest because it is being built close to the site of buildings that were destroyed by Muslim terrorists who believed they were carrying out the will of Allah. But in order for that to be true, one would have to provide evidence that the organizers behind the center provide moral, physical and/or financial support to al-Qaida. Absent that, why choose to frame the issue in this way?

One can certainly ask the developers of the center why they chose the location. Here is what Sharif El-Gamal, a Manhattan developer and owner of the property has to say:

"Prior to purchasing our current facility at 45 Park Place, there were two mosques in lower Manhattan, although Park51 is not affiliated with either of these mosques. One was Masjid Farah, which could fit a maximum of approximately 65 people, and had to hold three or four separate prayer services on Fridays just to fit the crowds.

The second mosque, at Warren Street, accommodated about 1,500 worshippers during Friday prayers - people had been praying on sidewalks because they had no room. They lost their space around May 2009. We made the move to buy 45 Park Place in July 2009 in part to offset the loss of this space. Currently, our space at 45 Park Place, accommodates around 450 people every Friday. We are also easily accessible from many different parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, which was an important consideration

Warren Street is four blocks north of the World Trade Center site. So, until May of 2009, over a thousand Muslims had been praying at a mosque on Fridays a mere four blocks from "Ground Zero" and apparently nobody noticed or cared. But somehow, the prospect of Muslims gathering to pray two blocks away from the WTC constitutes some kind of national crisis.

Lest anyone forget, some of the people who perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11 were themselves Muslims. You can look them up on any list of the victims. To name a few, there's Shabbir Ahmed, who was a waiter at Windows on the World. Tariq Amanullah was a vice president at Fiduciary Trust International. Mohammed Salahuddin Chowdhury, also a waiter at Windows on the World. Mohamed Jawara, a security guard. Khalid M. Shahid, a systems administrator at Cantor Fitzgerald. Mohammed Shajahan, a computer administrator at Marsh & McLennan. There are others, but I believe I made my point.

Another argument thrown out by opponents of the center is that Saudi Arabia, which contains within its borders the Muslim holy city of Mecca, does not permit churches or synagogues. But as Jon Stewart said on the Daily Show, "Is that going to be our standard now? Saudi Arabia?" To be fair, it is a legitimate issue that Saudi Arabia should permit people of all faiths to worhip freely in that desert kingdom. But by permitting Cordoba House to be built so close to the World Trade Center site, doesn't that give us the moral highground to condemn lack of religious freedom in some Muslim majority countries?

As I wrote above, one measure of a nation's worth is how it treats its religious minorities. Since we find ourselves locked in a conflict with jihadist terrorists, an important part of winning that conflict is to win the hearts and minds, or at the very least, not incur the hostility of, the majority of Muslim people who form the sea in which the terrorists swim. How we treat our own Muslim-American population is an important component of winning this conflict. I fear that when a number of our politicians whip up hysteria over Cordoba House, along with opposition to mosques and Muslim community centers in other parts of the country, it damages our moral authority. Furthermore, if we are to treat Muslim-Americans as part of some vast, mindless Orc horde who just want to kill us, we can create a self-fulfilling prophecy as numbers of them conclude that America will never accept them. Why should Muslim-American citizens and legal residents, a large number of whom are African-Americans who have ancestors in this country going back several centuries, be tarred with the same brush as foreign jihadi terrorists?

One thing I have noticed from my readings of history is that nations that whip up hatred towards their religious minorities do so when they are in decline or suffer a loss of confidence. A society that embraces tolerance and pluralism is a confident and strong society. If we capitulate to the Sarah Palins and the Newt Gingriches and the other fearmongers, I believe it will show that we are weak and fearful.

Would I have preferred that the Cordoba House not be at Park Place? Yeah, I guess so. But if they own the property and they received the approval of the local community board and the zoning authorities, then it doesn't matter what I think. And if Cordoba House finally gets built and opens its doors, I think I'll celebrate the occasion with a beer at the Dakota Roadhouse.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Imagine If He Was An Illegal Alien From Mexico

A totally not-racist Israeli Arab-Christian* citizen and legal US resident was arrested at an Atlanta airport on suspicion of having stabbed 18 people, 15 of whom were black, with 5 of the victims dead.

My favorite line from the linked article comes from the suspect's mom.

"Elias, my son, is a religious, God-fearing man who always assists anyone who needs help."

* Updated to clarify that the suspect is not Jewish, as merely identifying him as an Israeli citizen might erroneously imply that he is Jewish.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Catholic Curse of the Philippines - The Origin

A popular object of religious ridicule for a lot of us atheist bloggers is the annual Good Friday ritual in the Philippines wherein a number of extremely devout Filipino Catholics have themselves crucified in imitation of what they believe to be the sufferings of Jesus Christ.

I did a post last year on this topic, when Australian television personality Jonathan Safran participated in the crucifixion ritual in the Philippine village of Kapitangan and then found himself in trouble when the villagers learned that Safran had himself filmed undergoing the ordeal for a television comedy.

As I have remarked in previous posts, a lot of Filipinos are hard core in their Catholicism. It is quite common to see a small area of the house set aside for displaying all kinds of religious paraphernalia such as pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as well as candles and other such items. When Filipinos buy a new home, they have a priest perform a house blessing ceremony. In my wife's hometown of Tagbilaran on the island of Bohol, nearly all the jeepneys and tricycles have religious themed stickers or signs on their backs.

So, how did things end up this way?

Recently, I read a book about the voyage of the Portuguese navigator Magellan, who in the service of King Charles of Spain, attempted to sail west to reach the Spice Islands. The book, Over The Edge Of The World by Lawrence Bergreen, is well written and worth a read. When I read the following passage on page 43, describing the Spanish city of Seville, from whence so many of Spain's expeditions departed, I immediately thought of the Filipino crucifixion rituals:

[Seville] was also a city of faith, the home of the third largest church in the world, after Saint Peter's in Rome and Saint Paul's in London...The flame of the Catholic faith burned most brightly in Seville during Semana Santa, Holy Week, lasting from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, when solemn, almost frightening processions of religious penitents coursed through the city's narrow, winding streets and capacious squares. The penitents walked barefoot over the sharp stones and splinters embedded in the streets, bearing a wooden cross, their feet bleeding, displaying their wounds in emulation.

So, it seems, one can draw a line through time and space, from the village of Kapitangan in the Philippines to the 16th century city of Seville in Spain.

The Atheist Skydiver

This past Sunday, I did something I had been interested in doing for quite some time now but never really made the effort. I went skydiving, or more specifically, tandem skydiving.

In what is a good example of how opening oneself to new experiences paves the way for other opportunities, my scuba diving trip to Belize last summer made it possible, as my roommate Sam on the Belize trip organized the skydiving trip and sent me an invitation that I was all too happy to accept.

We did our skydives at an outfit called Skydive Long Island out in Calverton on the east end of Long Island. There were twelve of us in our group in all. Since the planes could only take four customers at a time, we were split into three groups of four.

The first group consisted of myself, Sam, his girlfriend Diana, and his friend Chris. We each paid to have our jumps shot on video. Because my video guy was delayed for some reason, my instructor and I were the last to get on the plane which meant that I would have to be the first in our group to jump.

So, our small plane took off, with the four of us each getting hooked up to our tandem instructors. There was one seat for one of the videographers, with the other three crammed into the space at the back of the plane. When we got to jumping altitude, about 13,500 feet, the door was opened. My videographer asked me for any last remarks and then climbed out onto the side of the plane to film my exit.

Because of my height, I had to walk hunched over, taking small steps because I had to keep pace with my instructor who was hooked up behind me. I smiled at the video camera as the wind blasted by us. Then, peering down at the ground so far below us, I found myself really facing for the first time the reality of jumping out of an airplane. For a brief moment I paused and then out and down we went.

Freefalling is such an absolutely incredible and terrifying experience. You feel the rush of the cold air as you find yourself plummeting at 120 miles per hour, causing your cheeks to ripple. After what may have been 2o seconds, the videographer came into position in front of us, which meant giving the obligatory thumbs up and okay signs. Then the instructor signaled and the videographer veered off as our parachute deployed and we came to a sudden, wrenching stop, with the harnass unhelpfully digging into my groin. I watched as the videographer sped away and rapidly descended towards the ground so that he could be in position to film my landing.

It was then that I had the chance to really take in and admire the views of the Long Island Sound and the land below me. The instructor asked me if I liked roller coasters, to which I responded in the affirmative, whereupon he caused us to go into a rapid spin. It was fun, albeit slightly nauseating. He repeated the experience for me again about a minute later, and then we gently descended to the grassy field that ran parallel to the landing strip.

When we touched down on the ground, I had this feeling of tremendous elation and if given the option, I would have gladly gotten on the next plane up and jumped again. I felt this strange sense of empowerment in having put myself through a genuinely frightening and potentially very dangerous experience and coming through it unscathed.

Just prior to the jump, the videographer pointed the camera at me and asked me if I had any last words. I had intended to look directly in the camera and declare "There is no god!" But I balked, if only because I did not know the religious beliefs, if any, of the videographer and the instructor in whose life I placed my hands. Plus, I thought, the last thing I needed was the instructor possibly trying to mess with me by telling me the parachute wouldn't open while freefalling just to see if I would cry out "Oh God! Please don't let me die!"

So, I decided to keep my godlessness to myself. But I experienced the terror of freefalling without calling on any deity to protect me. And I look forward to my next jump.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hiking The Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail - Part 2

This past Father's Day we didn't really have anything special planned after we got home from taking the kids to see Marmaduke, so I figured I would take advantage of the sunny weather in the early evening to go for a solitary hike.

Last year, I had hiked a section of the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail between Jericho Turnpike up to just shy of Stillwell Woods in Syosset. This time, I wanted to tackle a different part of the trail. I settled on entering the trail at Old Bethpage Road, with the goal of going as far north as the Northern State Parkway and then turning onto a loop trail called the Parkway Tower Loop Trail and use it to swing back south before rejoining the Greenbelt Trail on Washington Avenue in Plainview.

The section of trail at Old Bethpage Road is a flat, narrow strip that was originally slated to be part of a northward extension of the Bethpage State Parkway some years ago. There are very few trees and the vegetation consists of bushes and tall plants. As a novice birder, I paused a few times to listen to the cacophony of bird calls. There were a lot of gray catbirds and some red wing black birds, to name a few. This stretch of the trail, as well as presumably the section further south towards Haypath Road into Bethpage State Park, is very easy and would be ideal for young children as well.

The trail leads out to Old Country Road near an entrance road to some buildings owned by the county of Nassau. Crossing north on Old Country Road, the trail picks up again near a bus stop kiosk. In this section, trees begin to predominate and the ground rises slowly. The tree cover increases the further north you go, causing a concomitant decrease in the sunlight.

After about five minutes or so, I noticed a side trail that ran off to the right, and in the distance, a tree with what looked like some kind of tree house on it. I decided to take a closer look. The tree had some wood planking on it in a couple of sections, and between two large limbs some green chain link fence had been fastened into a hammock. On the ground a few feet from the tree was a car seat. Scattered on the ground around the tree were water bottles and cans of ice tea. I would guess that the site is used as a hangout by students from either the Plainview High School or the Mattlin Middle School, as both were close by. Given the absence of beer cans or bottles, it was more likely a haunt for middle school students. I decided to name the tree "The Party Tree" and returned to the main trail to continue my northward journey.

The trail continued a few minutes longer before reaching Washington Avenue. To rejoin the trail, one has to cross Washinton Avenue and then turn right and walk underneath the Long Island Expressway overpass until coming on an opening in the chain link fence on the left side.

This portion of the trail was very hilly, with lots of rises and dips. It can be a bit strenuous and for parents who want to bring children with them on nature walks, I would not recommend this section for kids under the age of 12. The tree cover here was even greater than the previous section. For those interested in birdwatching, this part of the trail was Blue Jay country. The air was filled with their screeching "jay!" and I saw quite a number of them flying around high in the tree tops. At one point, up ahead, I spied some larger bird that I could not identify swoop down amongst the trees and then it appeared to be chased out by a squadron of Blue Jays who seemed determined to defend their territory from other avian intruders.

As I continued further north, I knew from consulting the map in the book I carried with me, Hiking Long Island by Lee McAllister, that I would soon reach the Northern State Parkway. I started looking for signs to point me to the Parkway Tower Loop Trail. As the Northern State Parkway came into view, I continued to look for the trail marker without success. I stood there, baffled for a moment, not sure of what to do. I decided to turn around and head back and perhaps I might spot the trail marker heading in the reverse direction, and if I didn't, I would just go back the way I had come.

Well, my strategy worked. I didn't see the trail marker, but I spotted what looked like a trail. It was overgrown with grass, but it was clearly a trail. I still didn't see a trail marker, but I decided that this had to be the Parkway Tower Loop Trail and forged ahead. Very soon, the grass cover ended, and the trail became rocky. But as I continued along, I got the sense that this trail was not being maintained at all, as certain parts were overgrown or had tree limbs lying across it. Here and there a tree would me marked with a white rectangle with a blue circle inside it, which was the sign for the trail.

The Northern State Parkway was to my left, and to my right were the backyards of houses that were on Harvard Road. I could even see some people in their backyards and for a moment I felt a little awkward tramping along in the woods in my hiking gear. After about ten minutes, the trail turned south and led into a small field. A little bit further on and I was back on Washington Avenue again. I crossed over to the other side and walked past the St. Margaret Episcopal Church and cemetary. The sun was beginning to set, and while there was still daylight, I knew I did not have much time before it got dark.

After the cemetary, there was a strip of woods again. I saw a trail marker, but I could not discern any trail. On the other side of the trees was a road that led into the Kaplan Center. I walked down the road trying to see if I could figure out where the trail continued but had no luck. I had no choice but to walk south on Washington Road past the Long Island Expressway and head back south on the Greenbelt Trail. I probably walked nearly a mile before I got there.

With the darkness beginning to descend, I picked up my pace. I had my water bottle in my waistpack and secured it by closing the zipper on it. However, periodically, the zippler loosened and I would have to re-zip it.

As the last light faded away, I crossed Old Country Road and was on the last leg of the trip back. At this point, I noticed how eerily quiet it had become in contrast to the noisy bird calls that predominated earlier. I was relieved knowing that I was almost back at my car when I suddenly became aware that something was wrong. I looked down at my waistpack and saw that my water bottle was gone. I had a feeling that it must have just fallen out and I walked back a few steps to look for it, but it was very nearly pitch black, and I had no chance of finding the bottle, which was blue.

There was nothing more I could do but go back to my car and see if I had a flashlight. I did, but it didn't work. Still, I didn't like the idea of leaving my bottle on the trail. For one, I didn't want to have to buy a new one. Second, I hate littering and loathed the prospect of littering the trail. So, I decided to go home, grab a flashlight, and return. When I told my wife about it when I got home, she said "Just forget about it." But I couldn't. I grabbed a flashlight, as well as a glow stick in the event that the batteries died on the flashlight, and drove back to where I had begun my hike several hours earlier.

It was now about 9:30 and well past sundown. As I shined my flashlight ahead of me as I retraced my steps, I felt like I was in The Blair Witch Project. To my disappointment, I did not find the water bottle where I thought I had dropped it. The last I had remembered seeing it was when I took a few sips of water by the LIE overpass before getting on the trail at Washington Avenue. I did not relish the thought of walking that far again. I pressed on, crossing Old Country Road, going on another five minutes or so. I decided against continuing on to Washington Avenue and hoped that I had already passed the point where I had lost the bottle. Besides, since I had dropped the bottle on the way back to the car, I had a better chance of spotting it on the return journey.

As I crossed Old Country Road again, I caught something on the other side of the street by the curb in my flashlight beam. Walking towards it with my light shined on it, I was pleased to see that it was indeed my water bottle. I did not see it when I was retracing my steps earlier, because it was obscured by the curb. But going in the other direction, I was in a position to see it clearly. Tired and soaked with sweat, I gladly made my way back to my car, drove home, and took a much needed shower.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Don't Get It

The June/July 2010 issuse of Free Inquiry has an article by a Christopher diCarlo titled "We Are All African." Unfortunately, the issue does not seem to be up yet on the Free Inquiry website, so I cannot link to the article itself.

The main thrust of diCarlo's article is that the common African ancestry of all humanity can serve as a means of promoting human unity today. Since "we are all African," he writes repeatedly, "we are all humbled," "we are equal," "We are all exactly the same."

That's all well and good, of course, though I have my doubts that it really gets us anywhere.

The problem I have with the article though is where diCarlo references a book by a Steve Olsen titled Mapping Human History. According to diCarlo, "Olsen has calculated that we have to go back in time only 2,000 to 5,000 years to find someone who could count every person on Earth today as a direct descendant. If we go back just a little further, 5,000 to 7,000 years, every person is a direct ancestor to the over 6 billion people alive today (unless their line of descendancy died out)."

Now maybe I am overlooking something, but I just don't see how this is possible. If the ancestors of the Australian aborigines arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago or the ancestors of Native Americans reached the Americas some 12,000 years ago, then how can a person who lived in Egypt some 5,000 to 7,000 years ago be the ancestor of all humanity? Since anatomically modern humans first began to migrate out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, it would seem to me that the ancestor of all modern humans would have to have lived more than 60,000 years ago. If anyone reading this could shed some light on this paradox, please feel free to enlighten me.

While I agree with diCarlo's sentiments about promoting a common humanity as a means of overcoming racism and xenophobia, I can't help but think that some humans left Africa some 60,000 years ago because they were either forced out or they were trying to get away from other people with whom they did not get along with very well.

Toilet Talk

It seems every year, as summer approaches, we receive flyers in the mail from our local elected officials or read columns in our local Pennysaver type weekly publications informing us of the importance of using less water and providing us with a laundry list of suggestions, like this one.

One of the statistics thrown at us is that 25% of our indoor water use comes from flushing the toilet. Every time we flush the toilet, we are using about 3 to 4 gallons of water. When you factor in a family of 4 in a home, with each person flushing the toilet about twice a day, that's anywhere between 24 to 32 gallons of fresh water. Most of us take this for granted, which is amazing when you consider that in some parts of the developing world, people have to walk for miles to obtain water from wells and trudge it back to their homes.

I have several things I do on occasion that I guess are not deemed as proper for suggestion on these lists of ways you can reduce toilet water use. In my house, we only have one bathroom for four people. Inevitably, there come times wherein one of us is sitting on the toilet doing a bombing run and someone else needs to take a wicked piss. For instances where I or my son are the ones who have to urinate when there is another occupant on the toilet, the solution seems fairly simple to me, pee in the bathtub.

Due to anatomical differences, it is of course easier for males than females to do it by directing the urine stream towards the shower drain. Once that's done, a short burst of water from the tub faucet does away with any traces of the offending substance. Of course, both genders can urinate in the tub while taking a shower, where aim is no longer really a factor.

Another unconventional thing I do sometimes is simply pee in a cup and pour the contents in my compost pile in the backyard. Thankfully I don't seem to be the only one who does it. Besides reducing the need to flush one's toilet, pouring urine into a compost pile is beneficial because the urine contains phosporous, which is an important fertilizing component.

You will likely never see these ideas listed on any official list of things you can do to conserve water, as they are probably seen as being outside of the mainstream (pun intended). But if water conservation is important, and my suggestions do help to reduce water usage, then the hell with polite convention, I'm putting it out there in the public domain.

For some reason, we take certain ways of doing things so much for granted that the idea of doing things differently is seen as bizarre or beyond the pale, even if an honest examination of the evidence clearly demonstrates their benefit. Several weeks ago, Bill Maher had on his program John Fund of The Wall Street Journal. Fund is from the pro-business/libertarian wing of the Republican Party rather than the socially conservative wing. At one point on Maher's show, Fund was complaining that government is too big and does too much, and specifically mentioned government regulations on how much water a toilet uses when it is flushed.

Given how much water we use on a daily basis from flushing the toilet and the fact that some parts of the country suffer from chronic shortages, it absolutely makes sense to regulate how many gallons of water are used per flush. I know some people will complain that if you reduce the numer of gallons per flush, you will just end up having to flush the toilet more often when you have just taken a massive shit. But more often than not, it is not the crap itself that causes the toilet to clog or be ineffective, it's the amount of toilet paper you use to wipe your ass that causes the problem.

"Tommykey, are you seriously suggesting that we don't use toilet paper?"

In short, well, yes! I don't use toilet paper anymore. I use baby wipes. Instead of putting them in the toilet, I put them in the garbage pail. Since I've been doing that, I can't really recall having any problems with the toilet clogging up on me. By eliminating the problem of clogging or having to do multiple flushes, I am helping to reduce water use further. Unfortunately, my wife and kids are currently not on board with this, so I am the only one in the house who does this. But I like to think that every little bit helps. And hopefully, down the road, I will be able to convince one or all of the rest of the family to follow suit.

There are steps one can take even beyond my modest suggestions to reduce water consumption. For instance, waterless composting toilets, such as this one by Envirolet, have been on the market for a few years. There are even waterless urinals for restrooms, such as offered by this company, which is appropriately named, well, Waterless.

NOMA Indeed

Came across this article on Yahoo which discusses the possibility that "[a]n obscure compound known as pyrophosphite could have been a source of energy that allowed the first life on Earth to form."

The article has a comments section, and naturally it has resulted in a lot of "God fearin'" people to come crawling out of the woodwork.

My personal favorite attributes it all to "Man's misguided attempt (under the influence of Satan) to explain away the Creator. God is not mocked. Science used to be the study of God's creation, but it has been abused and has become it's own religion to the unbelieving- the Antichrist campaign. Without God, man feels free to sin without conviction and conscience. For the Love for the Lord has waxed cold..."

Another commenter adds "No, evolution is a convenient excuse for sinning. No maker=no responsibilty. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." I really feel sorry for you nonbelievers."

I already dispensed with that "we're atheists because we want to sin without responsibility" canard here.

One thoughtful commentator (and presumably a theist) does make an attempt to bridge the differences between the science and Biblical literalist camp:

"Those of faith and those who are agnostic or atheists, are all sharing the same world. The Bible tells us to love each other, including those with whom we disagree. That is a good concept regardless of your belief system. I don't need to agree with someone to offer them a hand up, and I don't need to agree with them to accept their hand up, either. We need to stop the pointless and petty bickering over ideology and realize that we are all here, and we can work together towards a common good regardless of what we believe in. Hey, we all need food, shelter, clothes, etc., don't we?"

Admirable sentiments, with which I largely agree. However, in the paragraph above that, this commenter wrote:

"Also understand that there is no conflict between religion and science. There is nothing in the Bible (I don't know about other religious texts) that contradicts anything science has discovered, and there is nothing that science has discovered that contradicts the Bible. If you believe there is conflict, you are not understanding either the Bible or science. Or both."

As limited as my scientific knowledge is, it is my undestanding that science does contradict the Biblical account of Genesis, or at least a literal interpretation of it. For example, Genesis has the Earth existing before the sun around which it orbits. Science tells us that planets are the byproducts of star formation, which means that the Earth could not have been created before the sun. These are two mutually incompatible claims. See, I didn't even have to touch on evolution!

Anyway, if anyone is interested in stirring the pot and rile some fundies, click on the link to the article above and join the fray!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

On Banning The Veil

First things though, apologies for the lack of posting lately. I just haven't had the time to write, and when I did, I just could not seem to push myself to do it, even though I had a number of topics that were of interest to me. But anyway, here I am.

Unfortunately, due to my recent inactivity, I am a bit behind the curve in writing about proposals to ban the practice of Muslim women veiling their faces in public in countries such as Belgium and France. However, since I had already collected information from various points of view on the subject, I figure I might as well get it done and posted already.

The impetus for wanting to do write about this subject came from reading
this post at Daylight Atheism by Sarah Braasch, who is an occasional contributor to that blog. Sarah makes her stance on the issue very plain:

"I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France. And, I would support a public burqa ban in the United States. In fact, I would support a global public burqa ban.

It is beyond ludicrous to think that any society can maintain a liberal constitutional democracy with its electorate walking around in public with their identities wholly obscured. You first have to claim your humanity before you can claim your human rights. You first have to claim your citizenship before you can claim your civil rights. This is not possible without claiming one's identity. Identity is power. Why do you think misogynists impose the burqa upon women? To render them powerless.

I'll admit it: I hate the burqa and the niqab. I hate everything it represents. The oppression of women. The demonization of female sexuality

In the May 29th-June 4th 2010 issue of The Economist, a letter-to-the-editor by an Elizabeth Purdam of the UK echoes the same sentiments as Sarah's:

"[W]earing the purely and simply to do with the subjugation of women. It is about control and possession. It is overt and aggressive sexism and it is a disgrace that it is tolerated at all. We should no more tolerate the wearing of the burqa in public than we permit nakedness."

But while it may indeed be in some instances that the niqab (which is the correct term for the veiled attire worn by some Muslim women in Europe, which is distinguished from the burqa in that it does not cover the entire face but rather has a slit that reveals the wearers eyes) is imposed on Muslim women as a form of subjugation, that is not necessarily always the case.

a post I wrote before on this topic, I opined that "I find the idea of Muslim women wearing veils in our society to be a provocative act. The veil serves not only as a physical barrier, but a psychological barrier as well. It is as if the Muslim woman views the rest of us as some kind of contamination to be kept at bay."

On the other hand, I also recognized the possibility that for a Muslim woman, "wearing a veil from her perspective is in its own way a feminist act. It is an expression of her individuality and her right to deal with our society on her own terms."

In this, I am reminded of a passage from Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book Infidel, which I have mentioned before, wherein she wrote of her feelings when she began to wear Muslim robes during her time in Kenya, "It made me feel powerful: underneath this screen lay a previously unsuspected, but potentially lethal, femininity. I was unique: very few people walked about like that those days in Nairobi. Weirdly, it made me feel like an individual. It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim. All those other girls with their little white headscarves were children, hypocrites. I was a star of God. When I spread out my hands I felt like I could fly."

Another thing that unsettles me about the veil is that has the effect of dehumanizing the wearer in my eyes. Rather than seeing a living, breathing human female, I see a thing. Those of you who remember the largely forgotten 1979 Disney sci-fi film The Black Hole may recall that the protagonists discover the long-lost space vessel Cygnus, with seemingly only one human survivor left aboard, Dr. Reinhardt. His only company is the fearsome red robot Maximilian and large numbers of human shaped robots whom Reinhardt has garbed in monastic looking robes and tinted masks. As time goes by, the protagonists discover that these robed servants are not robots but are in fact the surviving members of the original crew who have been lobotomized by Reinhardt to be his obedient servants. My theory about why Reinhardt had their faces hidden behind the tinted masks was that in doing so, he could make himself forget that they were human beings so as not to trouble his conscience about what he had done to them. So much of what makes us human to one another is being able to see each other's faces. Hide that face behind a veil, along with virtually the rest of the body, and that person becomes, well, less than human.

But while seeing a Muslim women wearing a veil in public bothers me on a visceral level, as it clearly does to so many other people, is that a sufficient justification to support banning such an attire? When encountering a Muslim woman garbed in such attire, we tend to project our assumptions on to her about why she is dressed that way, while her actual motivation for dressing in such a fashion might be something else entirely. What we think about the veil says more about us, I should think, then it does about the women who wear it.

Cycads, a Malaysian feminist blogger, turns the issue of female subjugation on its head. European societies that want to ban the niqab or the burqa are actually the ones attempting to subjugate the woman who wears it. In
this post, she writes, "The ban on the full-face veil in Belgium seems like the easiest thing to mete out as far as unconstitutional legislations are concerned. Out of about 215 women who wear either the niqab or burqa in the country, many belong to immigrant communities, many are hard done by multiple forms of discrimination already in addition to being economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented. Penalising them is like flicking away ants or beating someone when they’re already down."

In its May 15 issue, The Economist devoted both a leader and a full article on the push for a ban on the veil in various European countries. The magazine
considers the arguments in favor of the ban but does not find them convincing:

"Europeans’ hostility to the burqa is understandable. It doesn’t just deprive them of the beauty of women’s faces; it offends the secularism that goes deep in European—and especially French—culture. Its spread goes hand in hand with the growth of a fundamentalist version of Islam some of whose proponents have attacked the secular societies they live in; and, at a time when those societies feel under threat, the burqa makes it harder for police to identify security risks.

[T]he three arguments for a ban—security, sexual equality and secularism—do not stand up. On security, women can be required to lift their veils if necessary. On sexual equality, women would be better protected by the enforcement of existing laws against domestic violence than by the enactment of new laws forcing them to dress in a way that may be against their will. On secularism, even if Europeans would prefer not to have others’ religiosity paraded on the streets, the tolerance that Westerners claim to value requires them to put up with it

In the same May 29th issue in which the aforementioned letter of Elizabeth Purdam appeared in response to the May 15 article, another letter was published that was written by a Mohsin Zaidi of Brussels, Belgium. Zaidi writes "There is little distinction between a country that forces women to wear the burqa and a country that forces them not to wear it. Although the former is more easy to categorise as going against our Western notions of equality and secularism, the latter just as readily violates those fundamental principles."

As I wrote above, I admit I am troubled when I see Muslim women wearing veils in public here in the United States on occasion. But I believe that in the interest of fairness, I do need to be mindful of my personal prejudices. Thus, at least for the time being, I tend to find myself leaning towards the position advocated by Mohsin Zaidi. A woman should not be forced to wear a burqa or a niqab if she does not want to. Likewise, she should not be forced not to wear one just because I do not like the fact that she may voluntarily want to wear it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Weekend Funnies - Kramer's Karate Class

Sorry, I've been an absentee blogger lately. Hope to remedy that soon. Meanwhile, here's a great clip from a Seinfeld episode wherein Kramer takes up karate and soon dominates the dojo.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Musical Dinosaur

Having lived for 40 years now as a suburban Long Islander, I reflect a lot now on what has changed in my life over the years, particularly in how changes in technology have altered our consumer landscape.

It used to be that one of my guilty pleasures would be to go to a record store and spend anywhere from $50 to $100 on music CDs. One of my favorite early haunts was Uncle Phil's on Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown, which specialized in heavy metal. After Uncle Phil's closed, and my musical tastes expanded, I would make the trip every few months to the Tower Records store at the Country Glen shopping center at the intersection of Glen Cove Road and Old Country Road in Carle Place. I remember my first time there being astonished at the tremendous selection they had. By the end of the 1990's, I had probably amassed over a hundred CDs.

Then one day, I can't remember when, I was in the Country Glen shopping center for reasons I don't recall, when I noticed something. Tower Records was gone. This Wikipedia article offers some background:

Tower Records entered bankruptcy for the first time in 2004. Factors cited were the heavy debt incurred during its aggressive expansion in the 1990s, growing competition from mass discounters, and internet piracy. Mismanagement, managerial incompetence, and crippling restrictions from the first bankruptcy deal also contributed to Tower's demise.

Bummer, I thought. However, by that time, I was living in Plainview, and there was The Wiz just around the block from me at Woodbury Plaza. Granted, it didn't have anywhere near the selection of Tower Records. But it was within walking distance, and because it was owned by Cablevision, I could pay my cable bill there as well. Then, after maybe a year or so had passed by, Cablevision closed The Wiz. There had been a music store in Woodbury Plaza as well, the name of which I can't remember, but it also closed down, though I didn't lament its passing as its prices were too expensive anyway.

Soon I found myself limited to buying my CDs from Best Buy or bookstores like Barnes & Noble or Borders. The music industry was changing, as more and more people purchased songs online and downloading them to their MP3 players. Consequently, music store chains vanished from the suburban landscape.

While I am not a technophobe, I have always been rather conservative when it comes to new technology. There are some people who are constantly on the lookout for the latest gadgets. But when it came to music, I never really got into CD burning and all that. I don't own an iPod, though my wife has one along with an iTunes account. I do buy songs on it and listen to them on my computer when I am at home, but I still buy CDs occasionally (and grumble at the difficulty in removing the security tape from them!) and play some of them on my computer at work. I even still have and continue to listen every now and then to the first CD I ever bought, Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse of Reason, which I purchased in the summer of 1988.

So yeah, I've been slow to adapt to how technology has changed the way we purchase and listen to music, though I am sure one day I will eventually going all digital. But it is not just the music industry that has been impacted by technological change, as I will discuss in future posts.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

God Loves Barack Obama and Hates Chile

As many of you may know by know, the nation of Chile suffered a terrible earthquake today. From this AP article:

One of the largest earthquakes ever recorded tore apart houses, bridges and highways in central Chile on Saturday and sent a tsunami racing halfway around the world. Chileans near the epicenter were tossed about as if shaken by a giant, and the head of the emergency agency said authorities believed at least 300 people were dead.

The largest earthquake ever recorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. The magnitude-9.5 quake killed 1,655 people and left 2 million homeless. It caused a tsunami that killed people in Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines and caused damage along the west coast of the United States

There were fears that today's earthquake would also trigger a deadly tsunami across the Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands.

With a rapt world watching the drama unfold on live television, a tsunami raced across a quarter of the globe on Saturday and set off fears of a repeat of the carnage that caught the world off guard in Asia in 2004.

By the time the tsunami hit Hawaii — a full 16 hours after the quake — officials had already spent the morning ringing emergency sirens, blaring warnings from airplanes and ordering residents to higher ground.

"We dodged a bullet," said Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii

Now, since a lot of religious nut jobs like Pat Robertson like to claim that natural disasters, like the recent earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti, are signs of God's wrath, then according to their "logic", two things should be obvious, God loves Barack Obama and hates Chile.

First, the evidence that God loves Barack Obama.

Exhibit A: The earthquake that struck Chile in 1960 and killed over 1,600 people caused a tsunami that killed people in Hawaii. Barack Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961. Evidently, God caused the earthquake and tsunami to happen before the future president was born so that no harm would come to him.

Exhibit B: The tsunami caused by today's earthquake in Chile did not strike Hawaii. Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and is currently president. God knew that if Hawaii was severely damaged by a tsunami while Barack Obama was president, people like Pat Robertson would interpret it as a sign from God that God was angry with President Obama.

Second, God hates Chile. Since Chile is prone to such powerful earthquakes, God must be angry with Chile about something. But what could it be?

Abortion? Nope, according to this Wikipedia article, "The Chilean abortion law is considered one of the most restrictive in the world."

Gay rights? It doesn't look promising. Again, from Wikipedia:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons in Chile may face legal challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Both male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in Chile, but same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples are not eligible for the same legal protections available to opposite-sex married couples.

Although homosexuality was legalized in 1998 in Chile, several court rulings within the last decade demonstrate discriminatory policy. In Chile the current law against sodomy states that the age of consent for homosexuals is set at 18, whereas the age of consent for heterosexual sex is lower at 12

Below are some excerpts from an ex-pat's personal anecdotes on encountering homophobia in Chile's capital of Santiago.

Today in English class in downtown Santiago, I mentioned that Manchester was celebrating Gay Pride. One of my students immediately responded, “I don’t like gays”. She told me that she’d seen a similar parade in Canada and that she hadn’t liked it because there were too many lesbians there. She thought that lesbians were women who “made the decision to be lesbian because they wanted to be fashionable or because they were too ugly to get a man." She said this without shame or without thinking for a moment that anyone might have a different opinion. She was a young, educated woman who firmly believed that homosexual was not something you were, but rather something you decided to be.

It wasn’t the first time I’d come across such blatant homophobia. I recently went out for some drinks with a group of young Chilean university students. During the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I had gay friends. “So you’re gay then?” “No, I just have gay friends”. This took a while to sink in. I talked about Manchester and the fact that gay marriage and gay adoption was accepted in England. The same girl chipped in, “Oh, but gay parents have gay babies”. I asked her how, with that logic, straight parents had gay children, but she didn’t answer. Perhaps she was the daughter of the taxi driver who, during my first month in the city, pointed out two guys together and told me that there weren’t men, they were ‘gays’. Worse still, on the computer terminal in the staff room at work, I was blocked from reading an article on the internet about Germain Greer because it contained the words ‘gay rights’.

So, if it is not abortion or gay rights, what could be the cause of God's beef with Chile? Two words: Michelle Bachelet. Besides being the current president of Chile, Ms. Bachelet is "a pediatrician and epidemiologist with studies in military strategy—served as Health Minister and Defense Minister under President Ricardo Lagos. She is a separated mother of three and a self-described agnostic."

Could God be punishing Chile because He hates Michelle Bachelet?

Exhibit A: Michelle Bachelet was born on September 29, 1951. Therefore, she was alive when the 1960 earthquake devastated Chile.

Exhibit B: Michelle Bachelet is separated from her husband and is an agnostic.

Exhibit C: Her presidential term ends this coming March 10. If God wasn't mad at Michelle Bachelet, the earthquake would not have happened before the end of her presidency.

So, the next time you encounter a Christian who speaks ill of President Obama, remember this post and tell the Obama bashing Christian that he or she is gravely mistaken. God loves Barack Obama. Therefore, to be against Obama is to be against God.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Belize Trip - Friday, August 7, 2009: Back On Dry Land

This was our last full day in Belize. There were two dives scheduled for the morning at a site called Amberhead at Turneffe, one at 6 a.m. and the other at 8 a.m. I decided to pass on the last two dives and decided to get an early start on packing for our departure the next morning.

After the morning's dives were done, everyone rinsed out and hung their gear up to dry on the sun deck at the top of the ship. I took the picture above of the wetsuits and BCDs hanging from the bar to capture that sense of finality that the trip was winding down and our diving was at an end.

But while there would be no more scuba diving for us, it did not mean that the fun was over. Marnie, the First Mate of the Sundancer II, informed us of several land excursion options that we could choose from later that afternoon after we had docked in Belize City. I and four others, Sam, Tara, Jeff and Josh, opted for the Cave Tubing trip.

We left around 1 p.m. The drive itself took over an hour into the interior of Belize. At several spots along the road, we were surprised to see groups of rifle toting men in camouflage standing around. One spot in particular was where the road crossed over a river or canal, and we speculated they might be Belizean military or police on the lookout for boats bringing in drugs. Later on, the road became pockmarked with potholes, and our driver had to execute a number of movements to go around them. Finally, we reached our destination.

After meeting our guide, we were issued our tubes, and then trekked for about 30 minutes or so through the jungle to get to the river where our tubing adventure would begin. Our guide was emphatic that we avoid touching any of the trees, as some were poisonous, and others had spikes that could puncture our tubes.

At last we reached the point in the river where we would begin our journey. It was an open part of the river, maybe about 50 yards, sandwiched between two caves.

It didn't take long before were immersed in darkness, with only the flashlights strapped to our heads to help us find our way and the current of the river gently pulling us along.

The picture above I took myself just by holding my camera in front of me.

For the first half of the trip we had the cave all to ourselves. In the beginning, we let out a lot of whoops and calls to hear them echo back at us. There were not many formations of interest, owing to the fact, our guide informed us, that during times of heavy rain, the level of the water would rise all the way to the ceiling of the cave.

After about a half hour, we saw light up ahead and the sounds of lots of people, especially children, yelling and laughing as they would jump into the river. It was a large group of people, fellow Americans, I think, who had paused at an area where there was open sky again. As we passed them by, our guide warned us that the rapids were up ahead and to lift our butts up so that they would not get cut by the rocks. At this point we started to move faster as we moved into the next cave.

Unfortunately, the solitude we had enjoyed during the first half was not to last, as the pack of noisy people we had just passed evidently decided to continue on as well. Not long after we entered the second cave, we looked back to see them entering the cave, the shouts and laughter of the children echoing around us. We even had trouble hearing our own guide, who was ahead of us. I joked that it would be great if we had blow guns so that we could puncture their tubes and leave them stranded behind us.

Eventually though, perhaps owing to our fewer numbers, we were able to distance ourselves from our noisy pursuers. Unlike the first section, the second section had a lot of interesting formations. I took pictures of some of them, but because of the dark they did not turn all that well. After a short while, we could begin to hear the roar of the waterfall the guide had told us about. He explained to us that it was in a different chamber, so while the roar became deafening as we got closer, we were not able to see the water fall.

A few minutes after that, we were on the last leg of the journey as we could see the mouth of the cave ahead. The guide drew our attention to the bats in the ceiling above us. I tried to get a picture of them, but to my misfortune, I got caught in a current that diverted me away from them. Finally, I gave up trying to get a picture, put my camera back in the dry bag, and used my hands as paddles to catch up to the rest of the group, who had already stepped out of the water.

The guide took the picture of us below and then we hiked back to meet up with our driver for our return to the Sundancer.

All in all, it was an enjoyable experience, apart from the interlude with the noisy people, not to mention that it was a great way to beat the tropical heat.