Monday, April 28, 2014

Here is the second episode of "Your Inner Fish"

by Salman Hameed

I know I know Cosmos is going on these days, and its last episode about stellar lives and deaths was excellent. But you should definitely check out the recently concluded 3-part series, Your Inner Fish (here is the link to the PBS site where you can watch all three episodes, and here is an earlier post about the first episode). I have embedded here the second episode titled, Your Inner Reptile. You should watch the full episode, but check out the spectacular bit about the yolk-less egg in humans (pregnant women), starting about 9 minutes into the show. What an excellent way to connect with our reptilian cousins. I also like the overall use of animations in the show (I think Cosmos is over-doing it), which are both elegant and useful. In any case, here is the second episode:

Your Inner Fish -episode 2 - Your Inner Reptile by costello74

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Carl Sagan's daughter on lessons about life and death

by Salman Hameed

In Carl Sagan's last book, Billions and Billions, he had an amazingly powerful article titled In the Valley of Shadows. He wrote the article when the doctors had told him that he had 3-months to live. And yet, the chapter is honest about his desire to have an afterlife and the reason why he might think otherwise. But ultimately, it is about the celebration of the life we have. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the piece:
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
Sagan already knew that the book's final editing will be done by his wife, Ann Druyan. This is what she had to say about his death in the Afterward of the book:
Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever.
Now their daughter, Sasha Sagan, has a wonderful article in the new issue of New York Magazine. Here she recounts of her father's explanation of death - a subject indeed difficult to address with children:
After days at elementary school, I came home to immersive tutorials on skeptical
thought and secular history lessons of the universe, one dinner table conversation at a time. My parents would patiently entertain an endless series of "why?" questions, never meeting a single one with a “because I said so” or “that’s just how it is.” Each query was met with a thoughtful, and honest, response — even the ones for which there are no answers.

One day when I was still very young, I asked my father about his parents. I knew my maternal grandparents intimately, but I wanted to know why I had never met his parents.
“Because they died,” he said wistfully.
“Will you ever see them again?” I asked.
He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.
Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.
And then again, there is a message of hope and celebration of life: 

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way. 
My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.

All of this doesn't mean that there is no sense of loss or grief when one loses someone so close. This is a sentiment that is present all too clearly in the article itself. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see a life through this cosmic perspective.

Read the full article here

Saturday, April 19, 2014

This is fantastic! Here is the first episode of "Your Inner Fish"

by Salman Hameed

When it comes to science documentaries, all of the attention is currently focused on the new Cosmos. This is good. But in all this, people might be missing a superb series on PBS called Your Inner Fish. It is based on the excellent book of the same title, and the show is hosted by its author, Neil Shubin. What I like about the show is that there is an enormous emphasis on "how" we know what we know about evolution. Shubin is well known for his discovery of a flat-headed fish named Tiktaalik which is considered to be the transitionary animal from water to land. The first episode talks it and that whole segment is very well done. But I loved the bit about the study of chickens eggs to understand how our limbs might have formed (it starts about 35 minutes into the first episode, but you should watch the full episode anyways). This is absolutely riveting stuff! Here is the first episode (the embedded video is on Youtube - but for folks in Pakistan, where Youtube is still banned, you can go and watch the videos here):

The second episode focused on "Your Inner Reptile". I will embed it when it is available. It also had an excellent segment on egg yolks (didn't know that humans have the egg part, but the genes that regulate the yolk are no longer functioning) and another fantastic one on our skins and its reptilian origins. You can watch the full episode on the PBS website. But here is a short segment from episode 2 that talks about the way smaller bones from reptilian jaws were later accommodated into mammalian ears. Fascinating stuff!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Public astronomy flourishing in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

I have posted many times about astronomy in Pakistan (see links below), which I think is maturing nicely. There still aren't that many professional astronomers, but the amateur astronomy scene seems to have attained a critical mass. I know that there are active groups both in Lahore and Karachi, and there is growing interest in Islamabad as well. I don't know when is a good time, but may be they should think about forming a national body (Pakistan Astronomical Society?) that can coordinate astronomy outreach, facilitate annual or bi-annual gatherings, and can even launch some systematic observing projects. While there have been many efforts to build professional telescopes as well, the formation of such an organization may also streamline that process. In balance, there is a downside as well. Some of the wonderful energy that is driving the current astronomy scene may get diverted into dealing with organizational matters of the more boring side. I think the formation of a larger umbrella organization will have benefits in the long run - unless it gets mired into pointless bureaucracy.

In any case, here are some wonderful pictures from a public event in Lahore held on April 12th (you can see more images from Umair Asim's website here):

And they are not wasting their time during the day either. Here are some pictures from March 25th:

Here is a trip to Lahore Grammar School on February 22nd:

And here is a spectacular image from Umair Asim's solar telescope:

Not to be left behind, Karachi Amateurs Astronomers Society (KAAS) also held public functions in the last couple of weeks. Here are some pictures:

And from an event on April 6th: 

Recently, Dawn newspaper provided a wonderful photographic essay on one of KAAS's observing excursions. I will here add only two photographs, but you should check all of these out here:

Related posts:
Astronomy catching on in Pakistan
Pakistani Astronomers Shine During the International Year of Astronomy
Another Astrofest by Khwarizmi Science Society
More Astronomy News from Pakistan
International Year of Astronomy in Pakistan

Monday, April 14, 2014

Video: Quasicrystals in Medieval Islamic Architecture

by Salman Hameed

Back in 2007 I had posted about the discovery of a particularly complex mathematical pattern (quasi-crystalline Penrose patterns) in 15th century tiles in Isfahan, Iran (see Islamic Tiles and Modern Mathematics). Actually the discovery is indeed quite stunning!

Here is a lecture on this topic by one of the original authors of the study, Peter Lu (tip from 3quarksdaily):

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A look at the anti-vaccination movements in the US and in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excellent article that looks at the deeply problematic anti-vaccination movement in the US (yes, measles is back and the cases are on the rise in the US) and the physical attacks in Pakistan on polio vaccination teams: Someone should introduce anti-vaxxers to children with polio in Pakistan (full disclosure: the article is by my nephew):
The argument of these so-called “anti-vaxxers” is simple: vaccinations in infancy can cause autism and auto-immune diseases, so you shouldn’t vaccinate your children. That argument is also very wrong. The link between vaccines and autism has been disproved repeatedly, and studies continue to reiterate their safety and effectiveness. 
Most anti-vaxxers are unmoved by the research. And as measles cases mount around the country, I’m reminded of another disease, similarly resuscitated from the brink of eradication by ignorance and paranoia, although under very different circumstances. 
Ten years ago, Pakistan was poised to become the next country to eliminate polio, the devastating paralytic illness that crippled millions of children around the world throughout the 20th century. An aggressive immunization campaign powered by the World Health Organization and thousands of local citizens had reduced polio cases globally from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to just a few hundred in the early 2000s. 
But as conflict enveloped the region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, paranoia came with it. Rumors and conspiracy theories about the vaccine, once only the territory of the most superstitious extremes of society, gained volume and attention: the vaccine was a Western formula to sterilize our children, the vaccination would infect our children with other diseases, the vaccine’s ingredients were against Islam.
While the focus often goes on a simplistic "Muslim opposition to polio" (for example biologist Jerry Coyne often sees religion as the sole cause), what is important is to not only point out the complex set of reasons that have led to polio opposition in Pakistan, but also the tremendous bravery and sacrifices of those individuals (many of the them also Muslims - and also from Pakistan) who are risking everything to eradicate polio in Pakistan. Here is Mustafa again:
Still, as those barriers to eradication arose in Pakistan, the WHO and its Pakistani partners continued their work. They launched campaigns to educate local authorities about the polio vaccine. They gathered religious leaders to dispel rumors of the vaccine being anti-Islamic. The vaccination program was steadily put back on track—only 49 cases of polio were recorded in 2011, when the government declared the disease a national emergency to be wiped out within two years. 
In Pakistan, though, it was never enough just to beat back superstition. The Taliban, who had previously enforced a vaccination ban in the Swat Valley in 2008 and 2009, combined anti-vaccine paranoia with outrage over drone strikes and a CIA-sponsored fake hepatitis B vaccine drive to impose a blanket ban on polio vaccinations in Waziristan and Taliban-controlled districts of Karachi. In December 2012, they began targeting health workers for assassination. 
Dozens of health workers and police officers protecting them have now been killed in bomb blasts and machine gun attacks around the country, a campaign of violence without precedent as a challenge to global health. Two weeks ago, a lady health worker named Salma Farooqi, who was kidnapped at gunpoint from her home in a suburb of Peshawar, was found dead. “The body was taken to a hospital where doctors said it bore bullet injuries and marks of torture,” Dawn reported. “The woman had been hit by rifle butts and knives.”
This last paragraph is heartbreaking and shows the viciousness of the Taliban campaign. Nevertheless, as Mustafa points out, the roots of anti-vaccination movements in both Pakistan and in the US lie in a rejection of reason:
And as this vital battle against disease and ignorance rages on half a world away, armchair anti-vaxxers in New York and D.C. and Kansas and California continue their defiance of science and reason, fighting, in effect, to bring disease back into the world. I wonder how many of them realize that their rhetoric is a reworking of the same kind of superstition that kindled the Taliban’s ban. And I wonder—if they were to meet a child crippled by polio or parents who wanted to protect their children but could not, would that change their minds?
Read the full article here.

Related posts: 
An Obama apology may save polio campaign in Pakistan
Pakistan's polio eradication problem
Polio may be the winner between the Taliban and the CIA
Is there ever a justification for a fake vaccination program? 
Between fatwas and polio
Anti-vaccination idiocy at a Texas megachurch

Friday, April 11, 2014

A multiverse suggestion from the 13th century?

by Salman Hameed

It is generally a good practice to be highly skeptical of people claiming to find ideas from modern science in literature written centuries or millennia before. However, here is an interesting inter-The Ordered Universe Project, that deserves more attention. It deals with a 13th century treatise, De Luce (On Light), by English scholar Robert Grosseteste (1170-1253 CE). What is interesting in Grosseteste's work is his idea that the same physical laws govern both the Earth and the heavens - something that went against the accepted wisdom of the time. Here is a bit from Nature:
disciplinary project,
De Luce (On Light), written in 1225 in Latin and dense with mathematical thinking, explores the nature of matter and the cosmos. Four centuries before Isaac Newton proposed gravity and seven centuries before the Big Bang theory, Grosseteste describes the birth of the Universe in an explosion and the crystallization of matter to form stars and planets in a set of nested spheres around Earth. 
To our knowledge, De Luce is the first attempt to describe the heavens and Earth using a single set of physical laws. Implying, probably unrealized by its author, a family of ordered universes in an ocean of disordered ones, the physics resembles the modern 'multiverse' concept. 
Grosseteste's treatise was translated and interpreted by us as part of an interdisciplinary
project led by Durham University, UK, that includes Latinists, philologists, medieval historians, physicists and cosmologists (see Our experience shows how science and humanities scholars working together can gain fresh perspectives in both fields. And Grosseteste's thesis demonstrates how advanced natural philosophy was in the thirteenth century — it was no dark age.

By the late twelfth century, Aristotle's observation-oriented science had burst afresh onto the European scene, transmitted in a long series of cross-cultural translations from Greek to Arabic to Latin. Great questions arose in the minds of scholars such as Grosseteste, Averroes (in Cordoba) and Gerard of Cremona (in Toledo). What is colour? What is light? How does the rainbow appear? How was the cosmos formed? We should not underestimate the imaginative work needed to conceive that these questions were, in principle, answerable. 
Grosseteste (c.1175–1253) rose from obscure Anglo–Norman origins to become a respected theologian and Bishop of Lincoln. He was one of the first in northern Europe to read the newly translated scientific works of Aristotle, attempting to take forward the big questions of what we can know about the natural world (ontology) and how we know it (epistemology). The late thirteenth-century philosopher Roger Bacon called him “the greatest mathematician” of his time. Grosseteste's work on optical physics influenced mathematicians and natural philosophers for generations, notably in Oxford during the fourteenth century and in Prague during the fifteenth.
The authors provide several examples of Grosseteste's work dealing with science. However, the most interesting one deals with something that looks like an idea for the Big Bang. But I think here we also have to be very careful. Remember, that Grosseteste is working in a geocentric universe - and a universe that is dominated by planets that are visible to the naked eye (separate spheres for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and yes, the Moon and the Sun). Here is the bit about the Big Bang:
The third remarkable ingredient of De Luce to modern eyes is its universal canvas: it suggests that the same physics of light and matter that explains the solidity of ordinary objects can be applied to the cosmos as a whole. An initial explosion of a primordial sort of light, lux, according to Grosseteste, expands the Universe into an enormous sphere, thinning matter as it goes. This sounds, to a twenty-first-century reader, like the Big Bang. 
Then Grosseteste makes an assumption: matter possesses a minimum density at which it becomes 'perfected' into a sort of crystalline form. Today, we would call this a phase transition. The perfection occurs first at the thinnest outer edge of the cosmos, which crystallizes into the outermost sphere of the medieval cosmos. This perfect matter radiates inward another sort of light, lumen, which is able to push matter by its radiative force, piling it up in front and rarefying it behind. An analogous process in today's physics is the inward propagation of shock waves in a supernova explosion. 
Like a sonata returning to its theme, that finite ratio of infinite sums reappears, this time as a 'quantization condition' — a rule that permits only discrete solutions such as the energy levels in atoms — that limits matter to a finite number of spheres. Grosseteste needed to account for nine perfect spheres in the medieval geocentric cosmos: the 'firmament', the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. By requiring that the density is doubled in the second sphere and tripled in the third, and so on, a nested set of spheres results. 
In an impressive final stroke of unification, he postulates that towards the centre of the cosmos, the remaining unperfected matter becomes so dense and the inwardly radiating lumen so weak, that no further perfection transitions are possible. He thus accounts for the Aristotelian distinction between the perfect heavens and the imperfect Earth and atmosphere. 
To our knowledge, De Luce is the first worked example showing that a single set of physical laws might account for the very different structures of the heavens and Earth, hundreds of years before Newton's 1687 appeal to gravity to unite the falling of objects on Earth with the orbiting of the Moon. Our translation has also cleared up a misconception in some previous studies that the light in Grosseteste's treatise travelled both inwards and outwards.
This is an interesting work. You can read the Nature article here (you may need subscription to access it). 

Friday, April 04, 2014

Bunch of Postdoctoral Positions in Science & Religion at Coventry University

by Salman Hameed

If you are looking for a postdoctoral position in science & religion, check out this fantastic opportunity at Coventry University. There are also some opportunities for doctoral studies as well. All of this is part of an interesting and promising project. I have worked (and still working) with some of the individuals spearheading the project, and I think this will be a great learning experience for both predocs and postdocs.

Here is the announcement with links to individual positions:
Full-Time, Permanent Research Associate, Three-Year Research Assistant, and PhD Studentship Posts in Social Science and Humanities study of Science and Religion.  
We are looking to recruit four full-time permanent contract postdoctoral research associate posts to work on the 'Clash Narratives in Context: Uncovering the Social and Cultural Drivers of Contemporary Science vs. Religion Debates' project within the newly created University Research Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. We welcome applications from experienced, enthusiastic and creative humanities and social science early career researchers.  
This large scale multidisciplinary project will build an empirical and theoretical understanding of what social and cultural factors have driven, and are currently driving, the narrative in the public domain that there is a necessary clash between religious belief and belonging and acceptance of evolutionary science. It will employ four intersecting approaches: qualitative social science field research; oral history, historical and media discourse analysis; social psychology experimental research; and a large scale quantitative survey of public perceptions, attitudes and identity formation in the UK and Canada.
 Post 1: Qualitative Social Sciences Research Associate 
Post 2: History, Philosophy or Social Studies of Science Research Associate 
Post 3: Social/Experimental or Psychology Postdoctoral Research Associate 
Post 4: Quantitative social studies Postdoctoral Research Associate  
Closing date: 28th April 2014Interviews: 6th-9th May 2014 We are looking to recruit an experienced three-year research assistant to assist with the overall delivery, communication and management of the project. 
Post 5: Project Research Assistant  
Closing date: 28th April 2014Interviews: 6th-9th May 2014  
We are also looking to recruit two PhD studentships exploring contemporary debates surrounding ‘science and religion’ by undertaking relevant research in: 
PhD 1: Social Sciences/Humanities; 
PhD 2: Social/Experimental Psychology.  
Closing date: 25 April 2014.Interviews in May 2014.  
In addition the university will offer two competitive two-year postdoctoral follow on research positions dependent on the successful submission of PhD thesis within three years/by September 2017 to enable successful PhD students to be retained and develop further as early career professionals in this field of research.  
Coventry University will lead this 3-year research project funded by the Templeton Religion Trust in partnership with York University (Canada) and National Life Stories at the British Library and British Science Association. The research team is led by Principal Investigators Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker (Coventry) and Prof. Bernard Lightman (York, Canada), and Co-Investigators Dr Carola Leicht (Coventry) and Dr Rebecca Catto (Coventry). The project will commence 1st October 2014. 
Applicants should apply online, making explicit reference to how they meet the person specification provided.  Specific questions can be directed to Dr Fern Elsdon-Baker by email only (

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Just for giggles, Saudi Arabia considers spreading atheism as an act of terror

by Salman Hameed

Here is the headline from the Independent (and many other news papers and websites): "Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents". My immediate thought was that well Saudi Arabia indeed has the potential to pass this kind of law in the 21st century. Heck, women still can't drive there and people have been executed and/or placed on death-row for much less charges (for example, see earlier posts here and here). But on the other hand, newspapers, especially in the UK (but elsewhere as well) are also capable of exaggerating issues concerning Muslims and sensationalizing utterings of any obscure Muslim cleric they can find. So what is the deal here? Well, lets say that both groups (Saudis on one hand, and a sensationphilic media on the other) have stayed true to their form.

Here is how the Independent story started:
Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
This - if true is indeed crazy and awful. But this is not true (as accurately pointed out by Mufta's Muftic Musings). A little down the same Independent article, it says this:
Yet last month further regulations were issued by the Saudi interior ministry, identifying a broad list of groups which the government considers to be terrorist organisations - including the Muslim Brotherhood. 
Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based".
Okay - so the headline and the opening lines of the article were clearly an exaggeration, and it is the spreading of atheism that is considered terrorism. Whoa!? I mean exaggeration was quite bad but then equating "calling for atheism" as terrorism isn't exactly the most enlightened of thinking. What kind of a terror does it cause? How many instances of such "terror" have been experienced by Saudi Arabia?

I doubt that there are that many open atheists in Saudi Arabia, let alone those that are "calling for atheism" (though there are some- see an article link below). However, this a throwaway crowd-pleaser to be included in the new provisions, and it gives the authorities one more way to execute dissenters (charges of sorcery have already been used for executions).

While in this instance there is some truth to the headline, use your skeptical goggles for much of the news stories about Muslims these days.

In the mean time, there indeed were couple of news stories about atheism in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Here is a BBC news story that covers atheists in Egypt (about 3 minutes in length):

And here is an article from Al-Monitor that includes some quotes from Saudi atheists, Gulf Atheism in the Age of Social Media. The article does cite a poll on religion/atheism, but I don't know its reliability (even though it's name is Gallup - it is not the same as Gallup poll):

Although accurate figures on the number of atheists in the Gulf are nearly impossible to come by, a 2012 poll by WIN-Gallup International titled “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” published a surprising number of self-professed Saudi atheists. The researchers found that up to 5% of the Saudi respondents declared themselves to be atheist, a figure comparable to the United States and parts of Europe.

I would go with Pew survey results that show a high level of religiosity (Saudi Arabia was not included in the Pew survey, but I can imagine that it would be in the way upper 90s). This does't mean that there are no atheists - but that those that are willing to say so in anonymous polls are still negligibly small in most of the Arab world (Egypt is at 100% - even though we know that there are vocal atheists there):

You can find the Pew Forum report here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Back to earth and a short story about a heavenly corporation

by Salman Hameed

Posts are back. I was away on a break and then it took me a bit to catch-up on things. And yes, I was away to a warmer place (Hawai'i - the Big Island) to escape from the awful winter that that we have been having here in Massachusetts (though today was  finally a bit nice) and I did not want to come back.

Now that I'm back, check out this picture from the trip below. I took it in early afternoon when it was uncharacteristically cloudy but it was just starting to clear-up. Then there was this interesting rainbow pattern that appeared at the edge of the clouds way out on the horizon (this is not a traditional rainbow). A portal to another dimension? :)

Also, the temperature of the water was just perfect on the beaches. So to compensate for this and perhaps to keep visitors from becoming too complacent, there is this sign as you enter Hapuna Beach State Park:

Unfortunately, the picture didn't come out cleanly. But it says:

Former Military Training Area. 
Unexploded Ordinance (UKO) May be Present.

[a scary grenade sign]


So much for a relaxing day at the beach.

So to get back into things, check out this witty and creative short story from Nature titled Market Forces by Ian Stewart. Here is the beginning of the story:
When Andrew Gordon was crossing the railway lines and failed to notice the approaching InterCity express, he didn't have time to think about death. But if there had been time, he would, as an atheist, have thought: “This is the end.” 
Clearly it wasn't. 
He found himself standing in an eerie, luminous landscape. A narrow path wound its way through banked clouds to an elaborate gateway, where a figure in gleaming white robes waited. He wore a halo. Short stubby wings sprouted from his shoulders. 
This may require a rethink. “Saint Peter?” 
“Security pass, please, sir.” 
Andrew managed a shaky “Sorry, I don't have a pass.” 
“Ah. New soul in the Cloud.” The man cocked his head, as if listening. “Gordon, Andrew Donald? 15 Wysteria Way, Dorridge?” Andrew nodded. “We don't always get notified, you see. Omniscience is all very well, but ... too much information. Accident, was it?” 
“No idea. Never saw it.” 
Another cock of the head. “Train. 10:43 from Wolverhampton. Running late. Hard luck.” 
Something here wasn't right. “You are Saint Peter? These are the pearly gates?” 
The man shook his head. “You're thinking of the previous administration, son. We don't do sainthood any more.” 
“But — your halo. Wings.” 
“Retro look. This month's promotional initiative from Marketing. This is the Security Entrance, and I'm Pete the Security Guard. We don't let any old riff-raff in.” 
“Only true believers? I have a horrible feeling —” 
“Belief? No, that's obsolete. What matters now is added value on your soul.” 
“I always thought souls were a mistaken reification of patterns of brain activity. You mean I really do have a soul?” 
“It's more a case of your soul has got you.” Seeing Andrew's baffled stare the guard added, “You're a Christian atheist, that's your problem.” 
“I'm not a Christian!” 
“No, but the God you don't believe in is the Christian God.” 
Andrew bristled. “I don't believe in any gods.” He looked sheepish. “Well, I didn't.” 
“Sure. But the main one you disbelieved in was the one your culture tried to get you to believe in. That coloured your expectations for the afterlife that you also don't believe in. Not total nonsense, but ... anyway, omnipotent or not, the Old Man adopted a new business model. He's now CEO, Chairman and CFO of Paradise Group. Holy Trinity, right? The afterlife is now a business, not a public service. The archangels have become the board of directors; archbishops and the Pope are relationship managers down in the Mundane. We had to let the cherubim and seraphim go, of course.” 
“What about Hell?” 
“Hades Inc.? Our main competitor before Belle's new strategic vision.” Seeing Andrew's puzzlement, he added: “Belle Z. Bubb, Hades' former Director of Human Resources, now CEO, Chair, CFO and Director of Inferno Technology as well.” 
“The Devil is female?” 
“Belle's not exactly — look, there's no glass floor any more.” 
“You mean glass ceiling,” Andrew said in reflex. 
“No, I don't,” said Pete, looking down through the clouds. “Where were we? Oh, yeah, souls. A soul isn't a thing, Andy. It's a spiritual instrument. An option on you, realized at death. Could be a call option, could be a put option.” 
“Sorry, I don't understand the jargon.” 
“Call option gives the right to buy at a set price; put option gives the right to insist that the other party buys.” 
“What caused the changes?” 
“Lack of regulatory oversight, lavish bonuses, loss of stakeholder power, loss of employee power, third deadly sin ...” He leaned closer to whisper in Andrew's ear. “Actually, mate, I reckon the new corporate structure's worse than the old ways. Dodgy accounting, perverse incentives. Most trade now is in derivatives. Conduct Default Swaps, Innocence Rate Caps ... not enough actual souls to justify the bonuses, you see. So the whole enterprise is built on sand, to quote the Chairman. A few years ago both companies nearly went belly-up because they'd accumulated a speculative bubble in CDOs.”
Ah - read the rest of the story here