Saturday, April 25, 2009

Need a new tenugui...

Hokay, updates been a little slow lately. Apologies to anyone who actually derives any entertainment from reading my wee corner of teh intertoobs. Been inundating myself in books, Jap studies and kendo* lately, and will continue to do so for a bit longer.

Kendo feels GOOD. Even for those brief instants where I get bopped on the head and the tip of the bamboo blade hits the soft bit of my helmet and makes me see stars. It's like a flash of enlightenment! But seriously, I've gotta keep my damn chin up - I've still got use for those brain cells.

Anyhoo, saw this and thought of Ben Goldacre. I mean, seriously, having the words 'miracle', 'diet' and 'pill' in the headline reeks of cheap sensationalism. Check this out:

"It works by absorbing about 25 per cent of the fat from food, thereby preventing it being turned into extra pounds by the body."

Made by GlaxoSmithKline, too. Big pharma + weight loss miracle pill? I don't like the look of it one bit, and eagerly await Goldacre's eventual unmasking of yet another big pharma attempt to grab quick profits off the gullible masses.

Speaking of Goldacre, do check out his site. One of the chapters of his brilliant book, Bad Science is up for grabs. Not available in the hardback edition, because he was being sued for said chapter at the time. Yep, it's that good. Go grabbit. And be careful what your multivitamin supplements claim...

In other news, here's how to get out of bed, get dressed, have breakfast and get your ass out the door in less than 5 minutes:

There's some damn good tricks there. I like his necktie kung fu. And I'm really going to have to try putting on trousers without using my hands at some point, preferably when no-one's looking.

That's it from me for now. Today's a kendo day, and in a couple of hours, I'll be off to go shout very loudly and hit people with sticks, hurrah!

* And broken my first sword for the year...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Here's 2,000 Euros. **** my wife, please.

Read on...

Strangest lawsuit ever?

Tue Apr 21 01:28PM

I see a lot of strange news stories in this job and this one, which was featured recently in a German newspaper, is up there with the strangest.

A judge in Stuttgart, Germany, is currently trying to decide on a lawsuit in which a man hired his neighbour to impregnate his wife.

It gets weirder.

Demetrius Soupolos, 29, and his former beauty queen wife, Traute, were very keen to have a child together, but Demetrius was sterile so they began to seek out other possible options.

The option the couple eventually decided on was to hire their neighbour Frank Maus, 34, to impregnate Traute.

Maus, who was already married with two children agreed to do the job for the fee of €2,000. For three evenings a week for the next six months, a total of 72 different times, Maus tried to impregnate Traute.

When his own wife objected, Maus explained that he was "only doing it for the money."

After the unsuccessful six-month period Soupolos insisted that Maus take a medical examination. The doctor concluded that Maus was also sterile, which forced his wife into admitting that their two children did not belong to him.

Soupolos is now suing Maus in an effort to get his money back. Maus' argument is that he did not guarantee conception, only that he would try his hardest.

2,000 Euros, you say? Ex-beauty queen, you say??? Oi, tell you what, I'd like to "try my hardest", too! No charge!!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Just couldn't read this with a straight face...

From BBC News' website:

Condoms 'too big' for Indian men - A survey of more than 1,000 men in India has concluded that condoms made according to international sizes are too large for a majority of Indian men.

Full story here.

In all fairness, I'm pretty confident that if China carried out a similar study and had the same findings, they wouldn't have the balls to make such findings public*. And, as was pointed out in the article, India's population is pretty clear evidence that size is not an issue in making more babies...

* Especially if there's any truth to what Ben Goldacre points out about Chinese medical journals...

On getting someone else to stare into the Abyss

I've had a healthy respect and awe for science ever since I was able to utter the word 'science'. In nigh 3 decades on this Earth, I've come to know enough of it's history and methods to understand that the universe holds far more wonders than any human could possibly imagine, and that science is the only (reliable) way to uncovering these wonders.

Now, it took many years and no small amount of books in various fields to build up my present understanding. A MSci in Physics certainly didn't hurt, and, after a hell of a lot more reading after receiving my degree, I'm very much accustomed to living this life based on logic and evidence.

In every theist I've encountered, religion is truly a crutch. God is thanked for every good thing that happens in this life, and every bad thing (including, of course, conversations with people like me) is a test of faith. Prayers are made, regardless of known success rates or lack thereof. Life and death are accepted with a certain kind of shallow forebearance, as they continue to tell themselves that loved ones long since past their expiry date are "in a better place"*.

All these little lies they tell themselves, just to draw a pretty pink curtain between them and the abyss of existential angst. They want, with all their hearts, to believe that there's a point to it all, that beyond the cold touch of death, someone will love them. Anyone acquainted with a smidgeon of history or philosophy** (or the finances of the Vatican) is well aware how such desires can be twisted to suit the purposes of those who seek power over others. But that is not the focus of this entry.

What I'd like to call your attention to is the more down-to-earth breed of believer. I suppose we atheists would call them 'moderates' - you know, the quiet ones who just try hard to live well and do the right thing, and are generally either sensible enough or just brainwashed to ignore the more insane parts of whatever scripture they happen to be following. And what I think about whenever I meet such people is:

How does one remove the parasite without injuring the host?

A situation not unlike this comes to mind:

Assume for a moment that I've just had a long talk with one of these moderates and struck a killing blow to her faith and the whole system of self-supporting myths in her head comes tumbling down. What then? Many of the moderates I encounter are scientifically illiterate working professionals who, over the course of their lives, filled in pretty much all the gaps in their knowledge with God. I have likened religion to a crutch, and, in the cases of many adherents I meet, the crutch has been in use for so long, I really don't know anymore if they can do without it.

*Somewhere around here I had about 3 paragraphs of what I felt was rather good stuff. Then Windows decided to install some updates and restart and send what I thought were some fairly inspired words right down the crapper. What follows is my heartbroken and hamfisted attempt to recreate what was lost.*

How could I possibly impart my solution to my existential angst in it's entirety to a former adherent? It seems to me like trying to fill a dump truck with a teaspoon! I have no simple solution, and the answer that I am ultimately satisfied with is a large array of interconnected truths I have come to realize over many years. Like a sword forged with my own hands, my answer is mine alone, and I cannot quite share it in it's entirety with anyone else even if I wanted to, simply because I am me, and no one else is.

What I suppose I can try to do is lay out some of the basics. I could say something about the ways of empiricism, which are simple enough. I could state with great confidence that our minds are immensely powerful, yet so very limited, and try as we might, we may only ever take a small sip out of a boundless sea of information. I could try to point out that life is both utterly meaningless and singularly significant. Your mind makes it as important as you choose to make it. By the very same token, our very existence is both with and without purpose, miraculous, yet inevitable. Such attributes are simply constructs of the human mind, illusions that we choose to make real, like good, evil, justice, duty...

All these little truths I mention are woven together to form the core of the mental (spiritual?) machinery that keeps me running. None will stand alone by themselves. All have thus far held up under scrutiny to my satisfaction for nigh 30 years, where many other "truths" have since withered away.

So how can I go up to one of the innumerable vapid, consumerist believers that populate our planet, kill their god in front of their face, and fill the yawning void left behind? To break through wall after wall of denial, hubris and ignorance to tear down the delusion is one thing, but it seems to me to be insufficient to leave it at that. It seems to me that among the more insidious side effects of the theist delusion is a lingering scorn for intellectual pursuits. This is a problem which I sense has not quite been addressed adequately by the atheist camp, though not for lack of effort.

I can't claim to have a solution, but I write this now to lay out what I can of the problem as I percieve it. The modern atheist is stuck with either preaching to the crowd or, at best, winning over those who are already wavering in their faith. The die-hard faithful will forever hate us, and, by association, anything even vaguely related to science, but they are not an issue, being as they are the dim end of the bell curve. What I'm interested in is the bulk of believers, who just quietly get on with it, the ones you don't see in the papers, the ones who, ultimately, must be turned in order for religion to finally be put in its proper place.

* And, as George Carlin points out, not for an instant do they entertain the possibility that dead loved ones may well have been doing the wrong thing all their lives and hence ended up in, say, Niflheim or wading through serpents in the Sanzu River.

** And I mean philosophy, not metaphysical mucking about.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Religulous and the atheist's dilemma

I just managed to get my grubby paws on Bill Maher's Religulous and to be honest, my opinion of it is... meh.

I have to state up front that (as anyone who's read my longer posts would know) I've been atheist for quite a while, so, really, there's nothing new in Religulous that I haven't seen stated before in far greater depth by the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Krauss, Harris, Hitchens, Sagan, etc, etc, etc. Bill Maher tackles the problem as a stand-up comedian would, and this isn't a bad thing! Most of the more famous stand-up comedians are tremendously intelligent, articulate, witty people and, of course, they reach out to a far wider audience than the more intellectual breed of atheist, who tend to be demonized by insecure anti-intellectualists as stuffy, soulless old boffins with a tenuous grip on reality.

Religulous tackles the theistic delusion in a very Socratic manner, with Maher going up to various believers and simply asking them those fiddly little questions that would usually cause cognitive dissonance in sane people but draw a peculiar breed of blank stare from believers. e.g.:

- What was the Holocaust? Why was that good? (Re: God's Divine Plan)

- What do you think it says about religion and how serious it is if you can be a minister when you're 10? (Re: Teddy Pendergrass, in an interview with "Dr" Jeremiah Cummings)

- Why isn't the Virgin Birth mentioned in 2 out of the 4 gospels?

And of course the matter of evolution did turn up, together with a quick tour of Ken Ham's Creation Museum. With a model of Protoceratops, with a saddle and a diorama featuring Velociraptors and Brontosauri frolicking with Mowgli-esque children. Lovely. Keep an eye out for the anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew (wtf??). Crazy as a sack of rats...

I think I'm being fair in saying that Maher does not paint these people as fools but simply asks honest, important questions and then leaves these people to show us how profoundly stupid they are. One's a US senator, mind you. And of course, he's got to be funny, he's a comedian, it's what he does. So the whole movie is peppered with cute little clips here and there to grab a couple of laughs and drive a point home.

There was nothing new in Religulous for anyone who has read any works by the 4 Horsemen. No interesting new refutations, no rebuttals to the usual Creationist silliness, no serious dissection of theology or anything of the sort. What Religulous does is highlight the absurdity the religion leads to and the dangers of allowing it to permeate through so much of our* society. A US SENATOR, for crying out loud! And he's a Democrat!

Maher concludes the movie with a brief statement that could be summarized as follows: The only sensible position towards the big questions is militant agnosticism - I don't know, and you don't either**. Theism is simply delusional and dangerous. And though he doesn't explicitly say so, he does lean towards the empiricist stance, i.e. evidence first.

So, while Religulous didn't really have anything to directly offer grumpy atheists like me apart from a couple of good laughs, it did have me thinking about the atheist's struggle, that is, the matter of actually communicating the message. Our foundation is reason. The theist's foundation is faith. In my dealings with theists whom I know personally, there is a yawning void in their minds where reason goes in and... nothing happens. You'll get back blank stares and empty platitudes, sometimes anger, mostly denial. They are ignorant and they LOVE IT. They take tremendous pride in proclaiming their unwavering, whole-hearted belief in something for which there is no evidence whatsoever. In fact, the less evidence there is, the purer their faith.

How does one combat this? If you were to present evidence that undermined, say, Newton's Laws of Motion, and the evidence held up under scientific scrutiny, then GREAT! Bye-bye Newton, hello special relativity. Our perception of the world changes, and we're stronger for it.

But when you subject religion to the same kind of intellectual rigour required of any of the sciences, it all falls apart spectacularly. And the believer takes such pride in ignoring this. How does one have a rational conversation with such people? How does one help these people to free their minds? What works, exactly?

We know from bitter experience that Reason is spurned as heresy. Is Maher's approach any more efficacious? I would suspect that pointing out the absurdity of religion would simply make theists withdraw further into their shell. And, naturally, they love to portray themselves as victims. "Stop oppressing me for my beliefs!", they cry, to which the exasperated atheist throws up his hands and says "Why should I? Your beliefs are pretty fucking stupid and detrimental to the well-being of our species and look, here's why..." And here's the bit where the believer sticks his fingers in his ears and retorts, "Ican'thearyoulalalalalala!"

It just wears me down a bit, logging in to Facebook and seeing, oh, some couple I barely know (yes, I sometimes add people I don't know just for Mob Wars, too) all happy-happy joy-joy over baptising their baby, the poor little sot. Or some otherwise sensible, working adult, happily proclaiming she's just been inducted into the Catholic faith. *facepalm*

Sometimes, it really feels like building a sandcastle with a pair of tweezers and hearing the tide rolling in. It's a very ugly piece of math - the cancer of religion spreads quickly, and the cure is reason, but it is slow, and sometimes doesn't work at all. Ain't hard to see where this leads.

But, fuck it. If there's one irrationality I will allow myself to draw from the tenets of Bushido and watching way, way too many Akira Kurosawa movies, it is this: Though the battle appears to be lost, I will stand firm. I will speak and write and reason against the taint wherever I can, because in this instance, endeavour is its own reward. And sod knows, there's few enough of us as it is...

P.S. :- 10-q, daemun, for your feedback. Will try to get back to it at some point. And you're a bit wrong about Malaysia leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. It has, in fact, nigh killed my tastebuds outright, such is the horror of seeing past the bullshit and into the truth of the festering, pus-filled, gangrenous wound on this Earth that is Malaysia. But hey, it could be worse... *nods in direction of violent neighbours to the north* Come see the pretty beaches and jungles while they last!

* And by "our" I mean humans as a whole.

** An interesting take on militant agnosticism can be found in Buck Godot, where the Slag-Blah priests, rather than not believing in anything, opt to believe in
everything, with each religion gaining absolute dominance for one day each year, meaning that a Slag-Blah year is 7,823 days long.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Borders Malaysia fail

Snapped this pic in a newly opened Borders. Apparently, in Malaysia, Malay is a foreign language:

Oh, how rare it is to tag a blog entry with both "Malaysia" and "fun stuff"...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Quick thought on Capitalism

Just recording a little something that just popped into my head so I can come back to it later:

Would capitalism work in a closed system (i.e. assume a nation with no external trade at all) with zero population growth and total abolition of interest? And by no interest I really mean NO interest whatsoever, none of that Islamic banking pussyfooting about the issue by calling interest something else, mind you.

I think about sustainability a lot, and it seems to me that the first serious step towards sustainability would be to halt population growth. If we're going to get everybody to achieve a reasonable standard of living, it would make things a hell of a lot easier if there weren't more mouths to feed with each passing day, no?

Anyway, I'm-a leave this here for now. Hope I remember to come back to this...

Just can't agree with RPK on this one...

It's not often that I find myself in disagreement with RPK. It's even rarer that I find myself in total opposition to one of his articles. Today's the first time in a long, long time. My gripe? I wish he'd stop fucking about mixing religion into his political commentary.

It is nonsensical to judge a politician's conduct based on theology. The kind of people who seek to seize power for themselves most certainly do not have the same take on religion as the sheeple. In the subtle art of government, religion is merely a tool. If you want a populace of stupid, unquestioning sheep, nothing does the job like a good, heavy injection of religion. When you want to get the masses to do something and hide your true motives, play the religion card, and the faithful will do what they do best, believe and follow blindly. Deus vult and all that.

That article is like trying to fix a broken down car by painting it a different colour. It addresses none of the important issues, and in fact makes things worse by diverting attention away from them and getting the particularly verbose breed of idiot to stop and point and bray like donkeys in heat to offer their unbelievably inane commentary. Here's a sample:

"As humans we are all prone to sin. When humans are GOD fearing they will try not to sin or repent when a sin has been committed. GODless people sin & continue sinning because they don't believe there is a GOD or that anything will happen to them despite all the sinning. SATAN the antiGOD is very happy with this group of people because they all will belong to him."

Well done, indeed. Your pastor must be very proud of you. Moron. Here's another lovely product of the Malaysian education system:

"Being a christian does'nt mean being a wimp and got walk all over, it means doing the right thing according to God's teaching. Obtaining forgiveness for christians is conditional to repentance. This is possible because by God's grace we are saved, through Jesus deadth on the cross, which is a Gift, it has been given to us Free, but, the key word is repentance."

And another:

"It's not the God choose the caliph for Malaysian, it's devils with Double Keris choice! We should never expect any sweet from this representative of devil.

If Anwar Ibrahim be the PM, then I will say it's the God choice. Why? Have u heard Najib talk about Rakyat's difficult? He just ask the Rakyat don't talk about Altantuya and let him be the PM first!"

You'd think the kind of people who comment on a website offering political commentary would be familiar with the concept of proofreading. Anyway, I'm done venting for now.

Frankly, I think RPK can do a lot better than waste time and effort on such theistic silliness. I'm disappointed by this article, and nauseated by the quality of comments.