Sunday, February 28, 2010

No games, so lets bomb Iran

There is a bizarre op-ed piece in the NYT today. It is written by Efraim Karsh of King's College London. It starts off fine, making the claim that Islamic world is not a single bloc. It uses the boycott by Arab countries of Islamic games held in Iran as the starting point:

A mundane achievement, perhaps, but it’s one that’s beyond the grasp of the Islamic world. The Islamic Solidarity Games, the Olympics of the Muslim world, which were to be held in Iran in April, have been called off by the Arab states because Tehran inscribed “Persian Gulf” on the tournament’s official logo and medals.

It’s a small but telling controversy. It puts the lie to the idea of the Islamic world as a bloc united by religious values that are hostile to the West.
Yes, the boycott over "Persian Gulf" is quite idiotic, but the point about diversity of point-of-views is appreciated. For our research project on understanding Muslims responses to biological evolution, we have also been stressing on the diversity of countries - and the fact that there is no single Islamic viewpoint on the matter. So I completely appreciate this part of the article. Then Efraim picks on several historical examples to make his point. For example:
Even during the Crusades, the supposed height of the “clash of civilizations,” Christian and Muslim rulers freely collaborated across the religious divide, often finding themselves aligned with members of the rival religion against their co-religionists. While the legendary Saladin himself was busy eradicating the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, for example, he was closely aligned with the Byzantine Empire, the foremost representative of Christendom’s claim to universalism.
Unless one has been fed a black & white history, it is not really news that wars form strange alliances, where political and economical factors often outweigh any ideological components. In fact, the example of the Crusades is far more appropriate for the Christian world - after all the call for the Crusades was given by a Pope. [Or for that matter, in the Thirty Years' War between Protestants and Catholics, France - a predominantly Catholic country, sided with the Protestants...]. So fine - there is no Islamic bloc. But what is Efraim's main point?

So, if the Muslim bloc is just as fractious as any other group of seemingly aligned nations, what does it mean for United States policy in the Islamic world?

For one, it should give us more impetus to take a harder line with Iran. Just as the Muslim governments couldn’t muster the minimum sense of commonality for holding an all-Islamic sports tournament, so they would be unlikely to rush to Iran’s aid in the event of sanctions, or even a military strike.

Huh?! Really. So this makes it okay for a military strike against Iran?? (by the way, who is "us" here in the paragraph above? Isn't he in London? As far as I can tell, Efraim is not a US citizen). Not that I'm a fan of the current Iranian regime, but this is utter nonsense. Even after setting all the moral, ethical issues and the impracticality of strikes disabling Iran's nuclear program aside (all of which this idiotic article fails to mention), most analysts talk about Iranian retaliation against American interests in Iraq, where Iran has substantial influence, and worldwide. This is in addition to a reaction by Hezbullah and Hamas. The reaction of Arab states has never been a serious factor. However, an attack on Iran will bolster the view that the US is going after Muslim countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran). And remember, Iran has not attacked the US.

And what does he say about the Israel-Palestinian issue:
As for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the idea that bringing peace between the two parties will bring about a flowering of cooperation in the region and take away one of Al Qaeda’s primary gripes against the West totally misreads history and present-day politics. Muslim states threaten Israel’s existence not so much out of concern for the Palestinians, but rather as part of a holy war to prevent the loss of a part of the House of Islam.
Wait a minute. Suddenly the whole Muslim world has become an "Islamic bloc" again! What about Israel's relations with Egypt and Turkey - some key players in the Muslim world? But don't these examples support the first part of his article? Ah - but it is so much easier to ignore counter-examples. While we are at it, I don't know what Malaysia or Indonesia think about Israel? Or for that matter, Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan? These are also Muslim states. By the way, a criticism of this Efraim article does not mean that those Muslim states that do not recognize Israel are correct (and are outright moronic when they call for the destruction of Israel). Yes, two sides can both be idiotic at the same time.

Okay, Mr Efraim. Bring it home. Reiterate your key point:
In these circumstances, one can only welcome the latest changes in the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy, which combine a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear subterfuge with a less imperious approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s two-track plan — discussion with Tehran while at the same time lining up meaningful sanctions — is fine as far as it goes. But a military strike must remain a serious option: there is no peaceful way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, stemming as they do from its imperialist brand of national-Islamism.

Read this idiotic article here. For a much saner view on Iran's nuclear program, check out these two articles by Roger Cohen - also writing in the NYT: An Ordinary Israel and The US-Iranian Triangle.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chimps/bonobos and humans: Primate relations on Radiolab

Thanks to a snow storm, I'm stuck at the airport in Erie, PA. Its a small airport - but at least they provide free wi-fi. So on this snowy day, check out this riveting and touching episode of Radiolab titled, Lucy. Although much of the focus is on our primate cousins, I was struck by the incredible efforts of some of the homosapiens involved here (just to be sure, the most disappointing component is also associated with this species of upright apes). Also, there is an interesting depiction of Lucy as being stranded in between species. Absolutely wonderful episode - though be prepared to also shed a tear or two. There are three parts to the episode, and all are very good. Here are the details:

Lucy

Our hour begins with a tale from Dr. Barbara Smuts. She recounts a classic bully story, but with a twist: her bully was a chimp.

Next up: the haunting epic of Lucy the chimpanzee. When Lucy was only two days old, she was adopted by psychologist Dr. Maurice K. Temerlin and his wife Jane. The Temerlins wondered, if given the right environment, how human could Lucy become? We hear from Lucy's language tutor, Dr. Roger Fouts, Lucy's caretaker and eventual friend, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and Mr. Temerlin himself... or his words anyway, read by radio host David Garland. And writer Charles Siebert helps us to make sense of Lucy's story. Check out this slideshow of Lucy's life, including the photo snapped as Janis and Lucy hugged in Gambia:

Lucy from Radiolab on Vimeo.

Lucy, the epilogue

After the experiments and after the press, what happened to Lucy? Janis Carter tells us firsthand how it ended.

Kanzi

Though the Lucy experiment would largely be called a failure, could there be a way to re-do it... but better? Producer Soren Wheeler visits The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, to meet Kanzi the bonobo. Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh uses lessons learned from her time with Lucy in her current research with great apes, and Bill Fields explains the basics of bonobo-human communication, and ruminates on the differences between bonobo culture and our own, as illustrated by a swift and painful bite to his hand.

Okay - I'm a bit skeptical of bonobo English - nevertheless this is tantalizing. Furthermore, it is incredible that Kanzi apologized after 8 months!

On the other side, the story of Lucy also reminded me of the case of pet chimpanzee who mauled a woman in Stamford, Connecticut last year. Also check out here about the trauma of officer who shot the chimp.

While we are looking at chimp communication, also check out this sci-fi story by Robert Silverberg, The Pope of the Chimps (I had also linked to it a few years ago for another post: Chimps can count).

Okay, I couldn't resist. I had to find a reason to put this parody of Werner Herzog (you will appreciate it more if you have seen Werner Herzog documentaries, such as the brilliant film from 2005, Grizzly Man). Here is Werner Herzog reads Curious George:


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Capricology: Week 4 - Extra-terrestrial kitsch

Here is the continuation of the dialogue over science, technology, and the sacred in the television series, Caprica at ReligionDispatches. Check out earlier episode discussions here.

Below is a teaser for the Week 4 discussion (I did not participate in the discussion this week). I'm fascinated by the details picked by the panelists - especially the discussion over a bobbleheaded bull on the dashboard of a Tauron's car. However, like Anthea's comment below, my favorite part was the dance scene between Zoe and her "admirer". The expression on her face getting lost in music was priceless - and does more than anything else to establish the humanity of the Cylon precursor and a disjunction with its menacing exterior.
Capricology: Week 4 - Extra-terrestrial Kitsch
Among other clues to this sci-fi opera, our Caprica watchers took particular note of a bobbleheaded bull on the dashboard of a Tauron killer. What can we learn from the possibility that Capricans can be as kitsch-obsessed, cigarette-addicted, and as reckless with civil liberties as earthlings can be?
Henry Jenkins:
Caprica seems to walk a thin line between trying to deal with the alienness of its various cultures in a matter-of-fact way—dropping casual references to the legalization of drugs, the corporate ownership of the Internet, the Tauron’s moral obligation to seek revenge, or the sleeping and sexual habits of polyamorous couples—and touching on hot button issues which are very much of our time and place, such as the recurring exploration of how societies respond to the persistent threat of terrorism, the tendency to blame social problems on teens’ relations to new technology and popular culture, or the media strategies by which public figures seek to extract themselves from scandals (hard to watch those scenes without comparing them with Tiger Woods’ press conference this week).

The first invites us to read science fiction as speculative fiction—asking what if questions, considering alternative social norms and cultural practices, and imagining how these differences would impact other aspects of our everyday lives. The second invites us to read science fiction as allegory—with the characters and situations reflecting more or less directly our culture and its values. The first teaches us what it would be like to live in another world while the second can teach us something about what it is like to live in our own. The temptation is to overstate one side or the other: to go for radical difference which is not recognizable to a contemporary Terran viewer or to go for such clear match-ups between characters and their real world referents that it becomes a kind of agit-prop. So far, Caprica is walking that line pretty well.

My favorite background detail this week was the bobble-headed bull which sits on the dashboard of Uncle Sam’s car—which seems like such a banal marker of cultural identity compared to the mystique being created week by week around his tattoos. Here, I am reminded of Erica Rand’s The Ellis Island Snow Globe, which describes the commodification of history of immigration to the United States.

Diane Winston:

Henry: I saw that bobble-headed bull too. I saw it and stared, surprised (disappointed? relieved?) that Capricans liked kitsch as much as 21st-century earthlings do. Watching “Gravedancing,” I also wondered why so many Capricans smoke. Is one of the twelve colonies a tobacco plantation? What about the health risks? (Or do they puff on something different than we do?) And when can we see the cigarette packaging? Caprica must have its own Mad Men designing all those great looking signs, ads, and interiors.
...
We’ve touched on Caprica’s mash-up of sci-fi and soap opera—which speaks to Henry’s observations about worlds we can learn from versus the world we live in—but I like that about the series. I like being disoriented by the bobble-headed bull, first because it comes from my world and then because it means something different on Caprica. I felt similarly when Baxter chided the “destructo God” in the sky. The distance/no-distance between Caprica’s God and our own gave me pause.

Anthea Butler:

This week, the most titillation I received from Caprica was the foursome at Sister’s house waking up in the morning and flipping over to switch to other partners! That was my last moment of fun, unfortunately. I’m tempted to quote a phrase from BSG: “Everything has happened before and will happen again.” Why? Because I’ve have seen this show in composites of other shows. I am not quite sure about the “film noir” feel of Caprica. It’s a cross between a 1930s pre-code movie and Metropolis. The cops, the smoking, the old-fashioned cars; I thought Caprica was supposed to be technologically savvy, not a cross between the future and the past. What does this say about its inhabitants—and the show’s creator?

I agree with Diane, this week seems to be a placeholder for something to come, but in the process, I did not learn much. To be fair though, this week’s plot revolved around moral themes: love, unforgiveness, and forgiveness. What struck me as especially poignant was the scene with Zoe and her “admirer” having a dance together. The idea of her seeing herself as lithe and rhythmic, and the juxtaposition of the Robot doing moves that looked a bit like Tai Chi were funny and touching. The scene for me evoked the unsettledness of seeing Zoe as a tripartite being, one that is very engaging as a human, but as a robot, unwieldy and foreign.

Read the full discussion here.

Related Posts:
Capricology: Week 3 - Apotheosis Anyone?
Capricology: Week 2 - The Soul of a Robot

Capricology: The Pilot Episode - Television, Tech, and the Sacred

also:
The Purple Interview: Faith, Hope, Science, and Caprica

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Anti-evolution nonsense - this time in Israel

Israel didn't want to be left behind in the department of creationism and global warming denialism (yes - the two often go hand-in-hand in the West. For example, see the rantings of the Disco. Institute and Uncommon Descent). It joined the anti-science party with a splash:
The Education Ministry's chief scientist sparked a furor among environmental activists and scholars Saturday with remarks questioning the reliability of evolution and global warming theory. The comments from Dr. Gavriel Avital, the latest in a series of written and oral statements casting doubts on the fundamental tenets of modern science, led several environmentalists to call for his dismissal.

"If textbooks state explicitly that human beings' origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don't believe the evolutionary account is correct," Avital said yesterday.

"There are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else. Part of my responsibility, in light of my position with the Education Ministry, is to examine textbooks and curricula," he said. "If they keep writing in textbooks that the Earth is growing warmer because of carbon dioxide emissions, I'll insist that isn't the case."
And of course, there is nothing new in his motivations for rejecting evolution:
Prior to his appointment, Avital said in a video interview with Machon Meir, a religious-Zionist Jewish studies institute, "Another scientific field that is problematic is biology, or life and environmental sciences. When your doctrine is based on Darwin's theory of evolution and its implications, you are standing on unreliable foundations - that is, there is no God, there was only something primeval, and then there are certain random developments which led to the apex of all creation, the human being.

"Today I am pleased that more and more scientists engaged in pure science, rather than being employed in the name of an ideology, are reaching the conclusion that the world must have a master. Nothing is given to chance," he said. "These are my opinions and I won't deny them just because I was appointed to an Education Ministry position."
Perhaps Avitel's anti-evolution rantings may lead to a widespread acceptance of evolution in the Muslim wold :) . But I'm curious if this anti-evolution and anti-global warming nexus will also form amongst Muslim conservatives. If this happens, Fox News will probably get stuck in a loop - deciding how to deal with Muslims who share the crazy ideals of the various commentators on the Fox News. Now that will definitely make Glenn Beck cry. However, so far, I have not heard any climate change denialism in the Muslim world - but it will be good to keep an eye on that.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Medieval Islamic Astronomy: A public talk at Penn State Erie

I will be giving a public talk on Medieval Islamic Astronomy at Penn State Erie at 7:30pm on Thursday, February 25th. If you are in the area and are interested in the topic, come on over. This is part of Astronomy Open House organized by the School of Science. Weather permitting, they usually have public observing after the lecture at the Mehalso Observatory. See here for more information.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ignore the Toblerone: The Reasonable British reponse to UFO claims

Here is a NYT article about the recently released British Ministry of Defense's (MoD) response to claims of UFO sightings. What is odd is that the article is almost taking a mocking tone regarding the fact that MoD pretty much ignored such claims. There is a better article in the Guardian that reserves its mocking for the claims - and not the MoD reaction. Hmm...I'm perplexed by the tone of the article. But it will provide a good discussion material for the Alien class I'm teaching this semester: Aliens - Close Encounters of a Multi-Disciplinary Kind (syllabus here - pdf). In any case, here are some bits from the article:

If you’ve ever been kidnapped by aliens from outer space, don’t complain to the British Ministry of Defense.

“Abduction is a criminal offense and as such is a matter for the civil police to handle,” the ministry advised a constituent from Lancashire. “The police can only investigate allegations of abduction if there is evidence to suggest that such a crime has taken place. As to date, the M.O.D. is not aware of any evidence which might substantiate the existence of extraterrestrial life forms, the matter of abduction by ‘aliens’ remains a nonissue as far as the M.O.D. is concerned.”

On Thursday, the British National Archives released thousands of pages of the government’s classically understated responses to sightings of flying saucers and other unidentified flying objects (which, a summary explains, some experts prefer to call “unidentified aerial phenomena” which “does not imply the existence of an ‘object’ of extraterrestrial origin”).

In one case, when local farmers reported seeing a mysterious disc-shaped object on the grounds of an electronic signals monitoring base operated jointly with the United States, the ministry issued this unequivocal and straight-faced denial: “No U.F.O./flying saucer has landed in the vicinity of Menwith Hill and the base had no connection with U.F.O. research.”

In the records, there is also a letter written by Sagan in 1996 asking the government to declassify its records regarding crop circles. Anyone who has read The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark would know that Sagan is not coming from believer's perspective, rather that it would help debunk the crop circle phenomenon. But the NYT article sandwiches the Sagan line in between two UFO stories:

That has not stopped people from reporting them. A Birmingham man saw a triangular one (they generally range in shape from traditional saucers to elongated cigars and Toblerone chocolate bars) hovering over his backyard. It left a “silky white substance,” which he collected in a jar, on his tree tops.

In 1996, the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote a letter asking whether the government was involved in a cover-up of crop circles.

Strange rotating red, blue, green and white flashing lights seen by police officers in the English towns of Boston and Skegness and also detected on radar turned out to be nothing more unusual than bright stars and “a ‘permanent echo’ created by a tall church spire in the Lincolnshire Wolds.”

Read the NYT article here.

The Guardian article takes a more appropriate starting point:

Reports of flying Toblerones, close encounters of the second kind, and ­attempted alien abductions in the latest batch of UFO files released today by the Ministry of Defence demonstrate that the British public's appetite for matters extraterrestrial shows no sign of abating.

More than 650 reports of UFO sightings reached the MoD last year – the highest for 31 years – before it took the decision to close its UFO desk, known as Air Secretariat 2A1, in December.

The latest files released at the National Archives cover the period from 1994 to 2000 when sightings were running at 200 to 300 a year. The MoD intends to make public the files for the last 10 years by the end of 2011.

The files show that most reports are filed by "overzealous ufologists", and for the first time officials have released files based on reports from those they call "persistent correspondents".
And they also mention Sagan's letter:

However the files also include a 1996 letter from the cosmologist Carl Sagan to the MoD asking for official comment on the then widespread conspiracy theories about their alleged role in debunking the crop circles phenonemon.

Alongside the ufologists, many of the reports are simple sightings by members of the public. A West Lothian electrician said he had spotted a "Toblerone shaped" UFO hovering over a field and included a quick on-the-spot sketch.

A UFO sighted by the Boston and Skegness police was captured on film and reported to the coastguard, who alerted ships in the North Sea, where a crew saw more UFOs. The investigation which followed suggested the lights were the planet Venus rising.

Damn you, planet Venus! Why do you have to be so bright??

Okay, so here is an even more amusing story of the formation of crop circles from last year:

Australian wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around "as high as a kite", a government official has said.

Lara Giddings, the attorney general for the island state of Tasmania, said the kangaroo-like marsupials were getting into poppy fields grown for medicine.

She was reporting to a parliamentary hearing on security for poppy crops.

Australia supplies about 50% of the world's legally-grown opium used to make morphine and other painkillers.

"The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles," Lara Giddings told the hearing.

"Then they crash," she added. "We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high."

Case closed. And the Wallabies are also happy. Read the full story here.

Friday, February 19, 2010

An article on morality and atheism in a Pakistani newspaper

This is more in the category of kudos: it is not that often that we see an article (more accurately an oped piece by a regular columnist) in a Pakistani newspaper mentioning atheism in a positive light (or at least not in a negative language). True, this mention is in Dawn - an English language daily with relatively liberal tendencies, but still its great to see such a perspective even brought up. Also, he may be ignoring some of the nuances in using religiosity and corruption indices for the whole countries, nevertheless I'm glad that he is making this point. [For a more detailed analysis of why some countries are more religious than others, check out this post and this article by our friend Tom Rees at Epiphenom].

Here is Irfan Hussain in yesterday's Dawn, Morality and Atheism:
Many have condemned modern Western civilization for its ‘godless’ ways, pointing to widespread cohabitation between men and women, men and men, and women and women. Alcoholism, nudity and drug-abuse are also frequently cited.

All these lifestyle choices are mentioned in arguments over the superiority of Eastern religions and societies. Yet the firm belief in religion and an afterlife in our part of the world do not necessarily translate into better societies.

In the Transparency International table for global perceptions of corruption for 2009, there is not a single Muslim country in the twenty most honest states. However, seven Muslim countries figure among the ten most corrupt states.

Interestingly, Sweden, the most godless state in Europe, comes in at joint third with Singapore as the least corrupt country in the world.

There is an argument that corruption is a function of poverty, and once societies have acquired a measure of economic well-being, they tend to become more honest and accountable. While there is some truth to this assertion, how to explain the fact that Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world, is listed as 63rd by TI?

And Kuwait comes in at 68. Clearly, then, there is little direct linkage between religion and morality.

Nevertheless, billions around the world continue to believe deeply in the faith they have grown up in. They derive comfort from following the belief system of their forefathers, and most of them have never felt the need to question it.

Indeed, the poor obtain solace for their wretched condition with the promise of compensation in the afterlife. And the rich in our part of the world try and assuage their guilt by giving alms generously, thereby hoping to buy a place in heaven. If only they would pay their taxes with the same zeal, we might be able to make a better world in this life.

In religiously inclined societies like Pakistan, we are fond of criticising Western materialism, while holding up our supposed spirituality as being superior.

Even the millions of Muslims who have chosen to migrate to the West make the same assertion. However, I have not noticed any of these people denying themselves the conveniences and the advantages of these same ‘materialistic’ societies. And frankly, I do not see too much evidence of our vaunted ‘spirituality’ in our behaviour or attitudes.
Read the full article here. As far as the arguments for morality without religion, check out Marc Hauser and Peter Singer here (pdf), Frans de Waal here, and Theodore Schick Jr. here. You can also check out this short segment (less than 4 minutes) from a Marc Hauser talk:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Off-topic: Khomeini - a poet?

Just last week I was having a discussion with a friend about Ghalib and the influence of Persian poetry. So it was amusing to read an article yesterday that mentioned a poem by Ayatollah Khomeini (yes, the original Ayatollah). In fact, the tenor of Khomeini's poem is not that different from what Ghalib had been writing in the 19th century. The article talks about couple of his other writings, but then here is the bit about his poem (tip from 3quarksdaily):
Finally, my desperate quest for more Khomeini led me to this singular, solitary poem, originally published in the New Republic in 1989, just as the Ayatollah was demanding death for Rushdie and poised to take the great leap into eternity himself. This was what I was really interested in – something that would reveal a side of Khomeini unknown to those of us in the west; a more tender aspect of the bearded, reactionary theocrat.

And what a poem! If the first two lines are startling:

I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.

Then what follows a few lines down is absolutely amazing:

Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.

The whole thing ends with a repudiation of Islam in favour of the "tavern's idol".

Even allowing for the fact that the Ayatollah is utilising a poetic persona, the poem is remarkable: free thinking, even heretical. And yet … according to Khomeini's Arabic translator, professor Muhammad Ala al-Din Mansur, of Cairo University, the apparently secular tone is misleading:

Imam Khomeini's poetry was exclusively a means for the manifestation of his mystical and numinous thoughts while praying to God and reflecting on the mysteries of the creation.

And sure enough, I soon found an essay online in which the critic revealed that everything in the poem is something else, and nothing is what it appears to be. Bummer.
I don't know. I won't be too quick to jump on an alternative interpretation. It is the ambiguity that often gives poetry its power. Read the full article here.

In any case, here is the full poem as published in NYT in 1989:
I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.
Delivered from self, I beat the drum of ''I am the Real!''
Like Hallaj, I became a customer for the top of the gallows.
Heartache for the beloved has thrown so many sparks into my soul
That I have been driven to despair and become the talk of the bazaar!
Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
I have torn off the garb of asceticism and hypocrisy,
Putting on the cloak of the tavern-haunting shaykh and becoming aware.
The city preacher has so tormented me with his advice
That I have sought aid from the breath of the wine-drenched profligate.
Leave me alone to remember the idol-temple,
I who have been awakened by the hand of the tavern's idol.
(see here for more info on the Hallaj reference in the 4th line)

May be Khomeini and Ghalib would have had much to talk about (on life and poetry - but not on politics). Here is one of Ghalib's couplets:
ye masaail-e-tasawwuf, ye tera bayaan 'Ghalib'!
this mysticism, these statements of yours Ghalib
tujhe ham walee samajhate, jo na baada_khwaar hota
you would be a saint, if only you were not inebriated

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Faith and the issue of blood transfusion

The issue of faith and medical treatments is a complicated one. It is clearly wrong when parents refuse to provide medical treatment to their children because of their faith. However, it gets complicated with adults who refuse treatment. After all, it is their life and they have the ultimate say about their own treatment. Washington Post today has an article about a 36-year old Peruvian immigrant mother, Maribel Perez, who has struggled balancing her faith as a Jehovah's Witness and the blood transfusion she needs for her lung transplant.

There are several interesting bits in here: a) Maribel's view that she may be trading a few more years here on Earth in exchange for an eternal condemnation. Should one believe in this equation is a separate question, but if one does, like Maribel, then you can appreciate her struggle in making this decision. She also believes that God would punish her in this life also for going through with the blood transfusion, b) Her husband, her mother, and many of her friends clearly want her to go through with the lung transplant. But to make their case, they also use a religious argument - that God would want her to live longer for her kids, c) The members of her Jehovah's Witness congregation, who want her to refuse transfusion. In many ways, this is the group that is least affected by her death - and only gains for her steadfast refusal of transfusion, d) On top of all this, there is also an issue of the expenses of post-transplant care, and here, a tightly knit religious community would have been of help, but unfortunately, the Jehovah's Witnesses, take the opposite route.

Good, bad - these are complicated issue. I have the point of view that faith should not play a role in medical decisions, but I appreciated the complexity offered here in the article. Here are some of the details, starting with her initial refusal for transfusion:

So it was nothing less than shattering when, miraculously, a few weeks ago, one of the world's largest lung-transplant programs, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, agreed to take her, and Perez said no.

Her reason had nothing to do with breath. It was because of blood.

Perez had become a Jehovah's Witness. The religion teaches that blood is sacred, the seat of one's soul, and that in the Bible, God specifically prohibits the consumption of blood, whether by mouth or through veins in a transfusion. Many Jehovah's Witnesses carry cards explaining that in an emergency they are not to receive blood and that no medical practitioner will be held liable if they die as a result.

"What's more important: five, six, 10 or 20 more years on Earth? Or living forever?" asked David Valdez, a Jehovah's Witness minister at the Kingdom Hall in Alexandria, where Perez worshiped. Breaking God's law on blood, Valdez explained, could condemn one to an eternity of nothingness.

On Jan. 7, after one of many visits from fellow Jehovah's Witnesses, Perez told her husband, Lorenzo, that she had signed a medical directive refusing a blood transfusion. Hearing that, he said, was like being slammed in the chest. "I had been fighting so hard for so long to keep her alive, I felt betrayed," he said in Spanish. "I was so angry. It was like I didn't know her anymore." His wife had chosen to die.

Without a transplant, as her doctor, Leslie Kingslow, explained, Perez has about a 50 percent chance of living an additional 18 to 24 months. Less if she contracts another infection. The two childhood bouts of inexpertly treated tuberculosis that so scarred her lungs also make hers a high-risk surgery that would almost certainly require a transfusion; without one, no transplant center would take her as a patient.

In a panic, Lorenzo called out to his wife's army of guardians. They descended upon her like avenging angels. How could she sign something like this? The Witnesses could be wrong, they pleaded; other faiths interpret the Bible differently. When that failed to move her, they called her a hypocrite. Told her that she had wasted so many people's time and faith. Then they softened. How could she leave her two children after struggling so mightily to stay with them? How could a loving God want her to choose death?

Perez, dressed in hospital socks and flannel pajamas festooned with pink teacups, sat on the side of a twin bed, her head bowed, her eyes locked onto the bare wood floor. When she spoke, it was in a faint whisper. "Mi relación con Dios es más importante que todo," was all she said. My relationship with God is more important than anything.

But we should also appreciate her own struggle with the decision and the fact that she also found solace in the same religion that was also coming in the way of her treatment:

After she signed the directive refusing transfusions, Perez was in torment, she said. She knew she was signing away her last chance at life.

She curled into herself on the single bed in the room she shares with her 12-year-old daughter. She blew out short streams of breath to calm herself. She couldn't sleep.
God had resurrected her, lifting her from deathbeds and despair. Was it really His will that she now give up and die?

Perez was raised Catholic, but a neighbor who was a Jehovah's Witness impressed her with his knowledge of the Bible. Two years ago, she began attending services and Bible study classes. Lorenzo went a few times, but it wasn't for him. Still, he was happy that his fragile wife had found a place of solace. What no one understood, she explained later, was that in her darkest hours, when she lay dying in the hospice, and throughout that long, lonely year at Specialty Hospital, the word of God was the only thing that sustained her. Twice, she'd thought of ripping out the life-sustaining tubes that tethered her to the wall. Her belief in God stayed her hand.
She wanted desperately to do what He wanted.
    And then we have the different groups of people with different stakes in her well being and in her ultimate decision:

    That weekend, her mother called from Peru and begged her to change her mind and have the operation. Her doctors called. Her sister, a nurse, chimed in from Italy. Her sister-in-law reminded her of another relative, a Jehovah's Witness who refused a transfusion and died, leaving two toddlers behind.

    Fellow Witnesses continued to visit and urged her to stay strong, assuring her that just as soldiers die on the battlefield to defend their country, sometimes Jehovah's Witnesses die to protect the integrity of God's law. Lorenzo barred the Witnesses from the house, told the children they could no longer be part of the congregation and threatened that if Perez continued to refuse the transfusion, their marriage of 19 years would be over.

    Her children, schooled by the Jehovah's Witnesses, told her they'd be sad if she died but were proud of her for following her faith.

    Perez feared less for her eternal life than that God would punish her by taking her life if she went ahead with the transplant. "I was worried God wouldn't let me live after the operation," she said. Three days later, Perez told Lorenzo she'd changed her mind.

    "I began to think how much I loved my children, these marvelous gifts from God," she explained, gulping for air as tears rolled down her face. "God loves. He does not demand that we follow rules. The rules are ours." Her heart told her that God wanted her to choose life.

    Perez no longer talks to Jehovah's Witnesses, nor they to her. It is hard, she said. They are like her family. But the religion "disfellowships," or excommunicates, members who disobey its teachings. Contacted by a reporter and asked about Perez, a member of her congregation said, "She is not a Jehovah's Witness," and hung up.

    Ouch. Jehovah's Witnesses do not come out looking good from this story. But these issues are not limited to Jehovah's Witnesses. For example, I knew someone (a Muslim) who refused to have any medicine or treatment that had any derivatives from alcohol. I have also posted before about the Followers of Christ Church who refuse to have any medical care for themselves and for their kids, or the case of the rise of polio in many areas where the polio vaccine is considered as an "infidel vaccine" (see here and here).

    Read the full article here.

    Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    Left-behind pets and the Antichrist

    I'm glad that there are always people out there who keep us entertained. Not just that, they are also making sure that the left-behind pets after the Rapture, will end up in good hands:
    If you believe in the Rapture and you're a pet owner, Bart Centre may have the answer to your prayers.

    Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that the retired real estate executive in New Hampshire has started the "Eternal Earth-Bound Pets" business that will pair left-behind pooches and felines with atheists who don't think the Rapture will ever happen.

    "If you love your pets, I can't understand how you could not consider this,'' he said.

    Wait. But not everyone buys into this idea - not because of its inherent craziness, but because of its trust in atheists.

    But the magazine notes that everyone isn't crazy about the idea.

    Said Todd Strandberg, founder of the Web site raptureready.com: "A lot of persons are concerned about their pets, but I don't know if they should necessarily trust atheists to take care of them."

    Hmm...Todd has a point. After all, the real fun will only begin when all the party-poopers are gone. But then we also have to be worried about the Antichrist also (by the way, is the arrival of the Antichrist before or after the Rapture?). It seems that some people are cleverly "marking the beast" by using microchips - and the Virginia House of Delegates will have none of it:

    The Virgina House of Delegates on Wednesday approved a measure that could protect Virginia residents from overbearing employers, and possibly the apocalypse.

    The law would make it illegal to implant an identification or tracking device into a person's body without their written consent. As the use of implanted microchips becomes more common -- people use them to track pets and could possibly use them for purposes such as securing one's medical history -- lawmakers are starting to address concerns. Some are concerned their use among humans would lead to a lack of privacy or abuse from employers. Others, the Washington Post reports, are also concerned the use of microchips could be the "mark of the beast" -- or the coming of the antichrist.

    "My understanding -- I'm not a theologian -- but there's a prophecy in the Bible that says you'll have to receive a mark, or you can neither buy nor sell things in end times," Del. Mark L. Cole, the bill's sponsor, told the Post. "Some people think these computer chips might be that mark."

    Cole reportedly said that he primarily sponsored the bill because of the privacy issues.

    "I just think you should have the right to control your own body," he said.

    Yet some fundamentalist Christians see more serious concerns in the Book of Revelation in the Bible, which reads, "He causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name."
    There you have it folks. Some of your elected representatives are hard at work keeping the apocalypse at bay. Read the full story here (tip from Laura Sizer).

    What?? Irtiqa on Facebook?

    Oh c'mon - it was bound to happen one day. So, now if you desire so, you can get Irtiqa updates on Facebook - and you can sign up as a fan of the blog (hmm...like a "friend of the court" brief?). This should make a certain Cognitive Science librarian happy (see an earlier post about the Science Online conference here). What's next: Blogging with with less than 140 characters?

    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Guest Post: Face-Veiling, National Identity, and Higher Education - Part 2

    This is a guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see part 1 of this article here and his earlier posts here and here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

    Face-Veiling, National Identity, and Higher Education
    Part 2 – The case of Egypt

    (read part 1 here)

    As I mentioned in Part 1, the practice of face-veiling exploded in many Muslim countries only in the past decade or so. In most countries like Egypt, women traditionally covered their hair, though not always so stringently, but hardly ever their faces. In fact, even today most religious scholars will say that the Islamic dress “norm” is for a woman NOT to cover her face and hands. A very small minority of Muslim jurists say the contrary, and those usually come from the ultra-conservative branch of Islam, the fundamentalist Salafi/Wahabi school stemming out of Saudi Arabia.

    In Egypt, the moderate religious establishment, largely represented by Mohammad Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar (the preeminent institution of learning and law in the Sunni Muslim world), has been feeling the growth of salafism. More dangerously, because they represent the official establishment, these scholars have felt paralyzed and mute, for few people really follow their orientation or even listen to them.

    Then, last October, the occasion presented itself for Sheikh Tantawi to strike back. As he was touring one of the primary religious schools under his institution’s (Al-Azhar’s) authority, he entered a girls classroom and found a twelve-year old child with her face covered. He asked her, dismissively: “what is this you’re doing to yourself? Take it off!” The girl reluctantly did, and the Sheikh, it was widely reported in the press, looked at her and said “and you’re not even pretty; what if you had been?...”

    Within a few days, as the controversy erupted and he had to explain and justify his views in interviews, he vowed to get the scientific committee of Al-Azhar to issue a ruling forbidding girls from wearing the niqab (the face veil) in classrooms. This was then followed shortly by the Ministry of Higher Education issuing a decree forbidding face-veiled students from taking exams and from entering university dorms and residences. The exam ban was justified by the large risk of cheating (other students, including men, sitting for girls; wearing earphones; etc.); the prohibited entry to the dorms was justified on security grounds (terrorists or rapists coming in). Dozens of complaints were filed, and soon the (higher) Administrative Court rejected the second ban (entry to residences), claiming that wearing a face veil is a guaranteed freedom.

    As to the exam problem, and while waiting for the Administrative Court to similarly dismiss the ban, girls started to wear flu masks. Still they were denied entry to the examination rooms, which prompted more filed complaints… until late January when the higher court decreed that the measure was unacceptable as it violates the girls’ right to education.

    A compromise seems to have been reached – for now – with the courts upholding the girls’ freedom of veiling their faces wherever they went, including during exams, while the girls accepted to reveal their faces to female officials upon entering examination halls or residences.

    Al-Azhar, however, still insists that niqab is non-Islamic, and that in female-only environments such as a girls school or classroom, the face veils will not be allowed. Indeed, in one of his interviews, Sheikh Tantawi argued that most classical scholars do not require women to cover their faces in the presence of men; moreover, there are no scholars in Islam who require women to cover their heads, arms, and other parts of their bodies in the presence of women. Tantawi has decreed that female lecturers must not cover their faces when teaching girls-only classes…

    Outside observers, especially in the west, may be surprised at the pettiness of such controversies in today’s Muslim society, but for those of us living within it, the question goes far beyond niqab, burqa, hijab, and dress codes. Not only does this affect school environments (and I have not even commented on the segregation of sexes in classrooms at various levels and different Muslim societies), it goes to the question of women’s rights, the behavior of men and women in public, and most importantly the influence of Muslim scholars, with the conservatives currently gaining the ascendency in many places and very fast!

    Sunday, February 14, 2010

    The Value of the Pale Blue Dot Image

    On Friday I had a post about the golden record on Voyager spacecrafts, and it generated some questions about its scientific value (see comments here). And the answer to that is, well, the record is more about looking at humans and the Earth as a whole, rather than about achieving some "pure" scientific goals. So on a related note, this week is also the 2oth anniversary of the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth (listen to the NPR story here about 6mins long). Again, is there a scientific value to that? Not that much. However, it is so much more than that and we should all be glad that NASA decided to finally snap this image. Also, check out this gallery of Views of Earth from the Middle Ages to the Space Age.

    What made this image special? Here is Sagan himself talking about the Pale Blue Dot image:

    Friday, February 12, 2010

    An interstellar love story...

    Okay, well not exactly. But here is an excellent short piece by Radiolab about the creation of the golden record for Voyager spacecrafts, containing a sampling of sounds and images of the world. But then there is also a love story in here - and its signatures are embedded in the record itself.

    Listen to the story here (it is about 7 minutes long).

    Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan in 1977

    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    A flipbook history of pretty much everything

    This is very cool! (tip badastronomy)
    My guess is that this is done by a guy...Just a hunch.

    Guest Post: Face-Veiling, National Identity, and Higher Education - Part 1

    This is a guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here and here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

    Face-Veiling, National Identity, and Higher Education

    Part 1 – France and the west

    The issue of “face-veiling”, that is a Muslim woman covering all or most of her face (in addition to her hair and the rest of her body), has exploded in the past few months from Canada to Egypt, but particularly – for now – in France. Why in France and why now, and what’s the situation in Canada, Italy, and the rest of the West? We’ll get to that shortly. I’ll discuss the situation in Egypt in Part 2 of this contribution, both because the Egyptian context is largely different from that of western countries and because it is directly related to what concerns us here, mainly, higher education. (This issue doesn’t have much to do with science, at least for now, but it is relevant to this blog through the higher-education connection…)

    But before we get to those socio-political contexts, I need to sort out the terms that are so commonly used nowadays and which may confuse the outside observers. In France, the whole controversy revolves around “burqa” (which is the full head cover, just slightly transparent for the woman to see); in Egypt, it’s about “niqab” (which leaves only a narrow slit for the eyes); and digging just a bit, one will find references to “jilbab” (full-body cover, including the hands, but not necessarily the face), “hijab” (the “normal” Islamic cover, which leaves the face and hands uncovered), and many other variations in names and style, reflecting the ethnic, cultural, and level of conservatism of the Muslim person or society.

    Now, I should immediately note that over the past decade or so, I have witnessed an explosion in the numbers of women deciding to veil their faces in places that had no such tradition, e.g. Egypt, not to mention France and other European countries. Previous to that, from the seventies and until the nineties, the “normal” Islamic covering (leaving the face and hands “open”) had slowly become the norm, even in countries that had become largely secular (at least officially), e.g. Turkey and Tunisia. The reasons for such major sociological shifts are probably being studied by experts with more depth than I could provide here, but I think that in addition to the general religious (and especially Islamic) resurgence of greater observance, one must “credit” (or blame) the Saudis, who exported their brand of Islam with money or resources in the form of books, trained Imams and preachers, religious schools and built mosques, etc… We may come back to this hugely important issue some other time.

    Now, in France, the emergence of this trend, although small in numbers (face-veiling women are estimated at between 300 and 2,000 out of some 3 million Muslim women), occurred at the same time as the country was veering to the right (with the election of Sarkozy, the right’s dominance of the Parliament for many years now, and the spectacular rise of the far right, though lately it has dimmed a bit) – leading to the expected clash.

    In 2004 France voted a law forbidding girls from wearing their headscarves to the classrooms, and in 2009 an official debate was started around “national identity” (led by the Minister of Immigration), which quickly degenerated into a discussion of “burqa”. A parliamentary panel was formed to issue recommendations on whether to ban the wearing of the “burqa”, and pro and con voices shouted from both sides of the fence, including Catholics and Jews who oppose such a proposed ban and Muslims who favor it, and Socialists mostly abhorring the practice but seeing a ban as counterproductive, if not unconstitutional.

    What are the arguments of each side? Those calling for the ban see the “burqa” as a sign of oppression of the women wearing it, mostly implying that it’s the Muslim men (husbands, fathers) who impose it upon the women (Sarkozy referred to it as “a sign of submission, a sign of corruption”). This was countered by several face-veiling women appearing on TV shows and in documentaries explaining that not only have they done that on their full free will, but that many of them are French converts who are not even married. Still others add that it is just not concordant with the cultural “values” of the French society, which any citizen or resident must accept and abide by, as such values are transformed into rules or laws. (A year ago, the application of a fully veiled woman was rejected because “she was not sufficiently assimilated into French society.”) In general, there is a feeling that allowing this trend to go unopposed would just give ground to the latent fundamentalism that’s lurking within the Muslim community.

    On the other side, the opposers of the ban see it as – paradoxically – a limitation of women’s freedom, the freedom to cover from (and even shut themselves off of) society instead of being sexually “liberated” (in the sense of wearing as little as they want and going by the sexual norms of the society). Furthermore, the defenders of the right to wear the “burqa” believe it is counterproductive to ban the practice, and that it is much better to educate by opening a dialogue.

    The latest developments: in late January the parliamentary panel submitted its recommendations to the prime minister, calling for a ban in public places (schools, hospitals, administrations, and public transports) – at least in a first phase. In early February, a man’s application for citizenship was denied for his having declared that he would not allow his wife to go out with her face uncovered.

    This debate and these developments will undoubtedly have repercussions in other western countries. In Italy, the Minister of Equal Opportunities has declared that she favors a similar ban as the coming French one. But just like in France, although the public is largely in favor (around 70 % supporting a ban), some lawmakers and public figures are strongly against. One leftist senator said that while she sees the burqa as “a prison and a form of male dominance”, she thinks “it’s wrong to ban it… because it would not help emancipate women.” In Canada, a judge recently ruled that a Muslim woman had to take off her face veil while giving testimony in a court trial.

    We will surely be hearing much more such discussion of Islamic covering in various corners of the globe. In Part 2, I will describe the latest situation in Egypt and how issues of higher education have gotten entangled in this debate. Stay tuned.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Constructing transcendence via parietal cortex

    Not religious? May be it is because of your fully functional parietal cortex (please do take it with the caveat that there are no specialized modules for God or anti-God feelings, rather, we are talking about the construction of specific experiences). Here is an interesting study that looked at the religious experiences of brain cancer patients before and after the surgical removal of their tumor:
    People of many religious faiths share the belief that there is a reality that transcends their personal experience. Now, a study with brain cancer patients hints at brain regions that may regulate this aspect of spiritual thinking. The researchers found that some patients who had surgery to remove part of the parietal cortex became more prone to "self transcendence."
    ...
    In the new study, psychologist Cosimo Urgesi of the University of Udine in Italy and colleagues took a different approach, asking 88 brain cancer patients to fill out a widely used personality questionnaire before and after surgery to remove their tumors. One section of the test measures "self transcendence." It asks respondents, for example, about their tendency to become so absorbed in an activity that they lose track of time and place and whether they feel a strong spiritual connection with other people or with nature.
    And this is what they found:

    Patients with malignant tumors in posterior brain regions, including the temporal and parietal cortex, scored higher on the self-transcendence scale on average than did those with tumors in the frontal cortex, Urgesi and colleagues report today in Neuron. Moreover, these posterior tumor patients exhibited even higher self-transcendence scores after surgery. Additional analysis suggested that patients who had lost certain areas of the posterior parietal cortex were the most likely to show increases in self-transcendence. The researchers conclude that these regions normally inhibit transcendent thinking and that the damage caused by the tumor and the surgery weakens this inhibition. The researchers saw no postsurgical change in self-transcendence in the patients with frontal lobe tumors or in a group of meningioma patients, whose tumors in the membranes enveloping the brain could be removed without damaging the organ itself.

    These posterior parietal brain regions have been implicated in providing awareness of the body's position and location in space, notes Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Damage to this area may disrupt that sense and make it easier to transcend the reality of the here and now, Davidson suggests.

    Uffe Schjødt, a psychologist at Aarhus University in Denmark adds that he and others have found that some of the same regions become active during prayer and meditation. But he says the authors missed a golden opportunity by not conducting more detailed interviews with the patients after their surgeries. "The study does not tell us anything about religiosity, religious practices, or mystical experiences post-surgery, which is a shame."

    The study does leave many questions unanswered, but it's an encouraging step nonetheless, says Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "Sometimes people are quite skeptical about combining spirituality and religion with neuroscience," he says. "This is one of the few things I've read that gives the hope that some of these questions might be tractable."

    Read the full story here.

    Tuesday, February 09, 2010

    Capricology: Week 3 - Apotheosis, Anyone?

    Here is the continuation of the dialogue over science, technology, and the sacred in the television series, Caprica at ReligionDispatches. Check out earlier discussions over the pilot here and week 2 here.

    Below is a teaser for the Week 3 discussion. You can find the full discussion here (warning: yes, yes, there are lots of plot spoilers).

    Capricology: Apotheosis, Anyone?
    More on the sci-fi TV show that imagines monotheists rebelling against a polytheist society, speculates about the nature of the human soul, and asks, “Can you be free if you’re not real?”
    Diane Winston:

    Caprica’s media, not unlike our own, thrives on spectacle and disaster. A terrorist bombing, whose alleged teenage perpetrator is the scion of a rich, privileged family, is spectacularly disastrous. The news story spills into sports, financial, and talk shows with the not-so-hidden subtext of retribution. The perception that a wrong needs to be righted plays out on the Buccaneers’ sports field, the stock market, and Backtalk with Baxter. But the reality of the tragedy remains hidden and no one—not the police, nor the reporters nor the families involved—seems interested in sussing it out. In each instance, using, pursuing, or bowing to perceptions is the more pragmatic course.

    Overall it’s another bad week for Daniel. He’s not only harassed by the media, but he’s undone by his few unmediated bouts with reality. Daniel heads to the boxing ring for a few rounds as a pummeling machine. But when he’s waylaid by Sam Adama, he can’t land a connecting blow. It’s also a bad time for Tamara. Unaware that reality has become, for her, a perception—she seeks escape from virtuality. I’m not sure if she’ll up sacrificed or apotheosized, but she seems to be the avatar for the rest of us.

    Henry Jenkins:

    Diane asks about the representations of the news media in this week’s episode. The media blitz on this episode is by far the most interesting element this week. The train bombing and the Graystone family involvement are “media events”—that is, real-world dramas become the focus of a range of different stories that the culture wants to tell about themselves. I am struck by the image of zapping across channels and finding the story played out as news, crime, sports, business, and entertainment/media news; a phenomenon we’ve seen around countless news items in the age of cable and the internet. My mentor, John Fiske, argued that the stories which emerge in this transmedia space are stories that point to core fault-lines in our culture, which allow us to talk about contradictory expectations about class, race, gender, generation, sexuality, and especially about power.

    So, I wonder if we could use the news stories to help figure out what are the fault-lines in the society being constructed on Caprica. We already have hints at ethnic differences (if we can use such terms to refer to contrasting planets), religious differences, and class differences.
    Anthea Butler:

    Confession is also prominent in the story line of Sister Clarice. She wants to be Lacy’s confessor, but Lacy (rightfully) doesn’t trust sister Clarice. Lacy squirms her way out of Sister’s clutches, but can’t manage to escape Zoe. Zoe, after having to endure her parents having a frak right in front of her (this is the definitive nightmare for most of us, young, or old!), has figured out how to appear to Lacy as her “avatar” human self, rather than the one ton, six-foot-tall Cylon prototype that her essence is trapped in. She’s also managed to access Adama’s daughter Tamara, and takes Tamara along to Club V with her and Lacy. The decision to let Tamara go off on her own in Club V without Lacy and Zoe will definitely have some interesting ramifications, since she does not seem to be aware of her “avatar” status, and still thinks she’s human—even though she can’t feel her heart beating.

    Sister Clarice, meanwhile, uses the holoband to go into a virtual place to enter what looks like a Catholic confessional to have a discussion with someone “behind the screen.” Here’s where things get interesting, religiously. Clarice’s claim that Zoe is going to be the apotheosis was interesting from a religious point of view. “Apotheosis” in its most basic definition means making someone human “divine.” In the world of Caprica, who knows what apotheosis means. Even the figure behind the screen says to Clarice: “Not everyone shares in your view of apotheosis.”

    Salman Hameed:

    It is the virtual world, however, that continues to fascinate me. I found it amusing that the copy of Zoe's avatar is not only establishing its own identity independent of its creator, Zoe, but it is also capable of emotionally blackmailing Lacy into moving its robot body to Gemenon. But what about Tamara's avatar? She doesn't have a heartbeat, doesn't know how she got there, and most importantly, she doesn't know that there is no longer a real Tamara. She does want to escape — but where will she go? It is Lacy (of the three avatars, the only one with a human body in the outside world) that is left to wonder, "Can you be free if you are not real"? It will be fascinating to see what the writers do with Tamara's avatar. Lost and without a real Tamara out there, she will rely on other imaginations to forge her identity. I suspect she will be apotheosized rather than sacrificed, and will probably end up as a rival to Zoe (mimicking Adama-Graystone family rivalry in the virtual world).

    As far as we are concerned, it's becoming increasingly difficult to escape the virtual world even if we are real.

    Read the full discussion here.

    Related Posts:
    Capricology: Week 2 - The Soul of a Robot

    Capricology: The Pilot Episode - Television, Tech, and the Sacred

    also:
    The Purple Interview: Faith, Hope, Science, and Caprica

    Monday, February 08, 2010

    An unwilling deity

    This is the thing: One has to be prepared for any role in life. But it seems that Raj Patel is resisting assuming his obvious role as the deity for a New Age religious sect, Share International (may be Raj anticipates some stiff competition from Mr. Deity):

    “It is absurd to be put in this position, when I’m just some bloke,” Mr. Patel said.

    A native of London now living on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, Mr. Patel suddenly finds himself an unlikely object of worship, proclaimed the messiah Maitreya by followers of the New Age religious sect Share International.

    He was raised as a Hindu and had never heard of the group. He has no desire for deification. But he may not have a choice.

    Mr. Patel’s journey from ordinary person to unwilling lord is a case of having the wrong résumé at the wrong moment in history. For this is a time when human yearning to find a magical cure for the world’s woes can be harnessed to the digital age’s instant access to a vast treasure-trove of personal information.

    I have known Mr. Patel for four years — he keeps an office down the hall from mine. He is charming, and as a graduate of Oxford, Cornell University and the London School of Economics, he is considered brilliant, although he is self-effacing. He readily admits to being imperfectly human.

    Aha. A perfect cover for any deity (didn't Sagan spend a lot of his time at Cornell??). Well, its not that easy to fool these guys:

    People began to believe otherwise on Jan. 14 in London when Benjamin Creme, the leader of Share International, who is also known as the Master, proclaimed the arrival of Maitreya. The name of the deity has Buddhist roots, but in 1972, Mr. Creme prophesied the coming Maitreya as a messiah for all faiths called the World Teacher.

    Mr. Creme did not name the messiah, but he revealed clues that led his devotees to fire up their search engines on a digital scavenger hunt that would lead them to The One.

    About this time Mr. Patel was publicizing his new economics book, “The Value of Nothing.” With blogging, biographies and talk show appearances, the details of his life and views permeated the Internet ether. Crowds packed his readings, his book debuted on the New York Times best-seller list, and he appeared on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.

    The Maitreya clues — his age (supposed to be born in 1972; Mr. Patel was), life experiences (supposed to have traveled from India to London in 1977; Mr. Patel was taken on a vacation there with his parents that year) race (supposed to be dark-skinned; Mr. Patel is Indian) and philosophies — all pointed to him. Some believe Maitreya will have a stutter. When Mr. Patel tripped over a few words when talking with Mr. Colbert, it was the final sign.

    Yes, even gods tremble in front of Colbert (isn't he the uber-deity?). But of course the biggest sign that he is indeed the deity is the fact that he keeps saying that he is not:

    Mr. Patel has emphatically and publicly denied being Maitreya. Bad move. According to the predictions, “Maitreya will neither confirm, or will fail to confirm, he is Maitreya,” said Cher Gilmore, a spokeswoman for Share International.

    Ms. Gilmore said Mr. Creme would not say if he believed Mr. Patel was the messiah.

    Ben Shoucair, 24, a college student from Detroit, does not need more convincing. He said he saw Mr. Patel in a dream, and then was stunned to find a YouTube video and discover his vision was real. Last week, Mr. Shoucair and his father spent $990 on last-minute tickets to fly to San Francisco to be in Mr. Patel’s presence at a book promotion.

    Reached by phone this week, Mr. Shoucair said meeting Mr. Patel had made him “happy.” He said the Maitreya evidence was irrefutable. “It puts it all on Raj Patel at this time in history.”

    Mr. Shoucair seemed amazed when told that Mr. Patel did not believe he was the messiah and had never heard of Mr. Creme. “See how deep the spiritual world is,” Mr. Shoucair said.

    Mr. Patel said of their pilgrimage: “It broke my heart. They’d flown all the way from Detroit.”
    ...
    “It’s incredibly flattering, just for an instant,” Mr. Patel said of his unwanted status. “And then you realize what it means. People are looking for better times. Almost anything now will qualify as a portent of different times.”

    Read the full story here (yes, in NYT).

    p.s. If need be, here is an Indian sociology professor at UMass-Amherst that may also be a good candidate.

    Update (Feb 9): Of course, I totally forgot about Life of Brian (thanks to Ian for reminding me). Here is the relevant clip: