25 February 2012

Burning Qurans and Irrational Reactions

Long ago German poet Heinrich Heine said “When books are burned in the end people will be burned too”. This had always seemed an apt quote to me, as it helps highlight the nefarious connection between the burning of books, and the inevitable going after of the people whose views are expressed within. But it was only recently that a Hitchens article informed me that this was actually first describing something we are seeing again in the news; the burning of the Quran.
Local sanitation workers from the Afghan city of Kabul were removing waste from the air base north of there when they discovered some partially burnt copies of the Quran. Apparently the books had been confiscated from a detention centre’s library after Taliban prisoners were suspected of using them to pass messages to each other. The books had inadvertently been disposed of incorrectly, and wound up in an incinerator.
U.S. officials on the scene were quick to apologise for this, and assure the local government that not only was this not intentional, but that it would be investigated, and steps taken to ensure such a mistake would not happen again.
NATO commander General John Allen had this to say of the incident:
"When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them. The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities,"
, and:
"We are thoroughly investigating the incident and are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure you, I promise you, this was not intentional in any way."
A very quick and overtly anxious apology for a seemingly innocent mistake. You can sense the fact that there is little doubt that such a thing will bring about a violent response.
It is odd that we live in the third millennium, hundreds of years after the enlightenment, and yet we can still count upon violent and murderous reactions from not only the desecration of a mere book, but also any instances of its accidental destruction. Exemplifying this tacit acceptance of Muslim overreaction, the President of the United States also went out of his way to send a letter to his Afghan counterpart, apologising for the incident.
The Associated Press reports the letter from Obama expressing "deep regret for the reported incident", with the president then going further to state that "The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible".
In a response to the events, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai remarked that the American officer responsible for the partial smouldering acted "out of ignorance and with poor understanding" with regard to the Qurans importance, but his government has nevertheless put forth an official demand that there be a public trial and punishment for those involved.
NATO has agreed to a trial, and assured that such things will not happen again in the future, though one wonders if this will be enough to placate the Afghan government. After all, there is a tacit acceptance of the fact that this was not intentional in the President Karzai’s remarks, yet the steadfast demand of punishment for those involved seems a bit sinister to me. After all, what form of trial and punishment under American principles could result in a satisfying outcome for the Afghan people?
Speaking of the Afghan reaction, it is important to realise what has happened in response to this discovery of partially burnt books; after all it is not merely a diplomatic affair, and the easily inflamed muslin sensibilities I mentioned earlier have again been quick to take offense wherever they find it. Over the past few days protests have erupted across the Afghanistan countryside, and Taliban officials have made their all too common call for blood. A statement from a Taliban spokesman named Zabiullah Mujahid was spread via email calling for the Afghan people to  "kill them (Westerners), beat them and capture them to give them a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Koran again".
Though the effectiveness of this teaching method is quite dubious, the call to arms has nevertheless achieved its effect on members of the Afghan population, including an incident where a man wearing an Afghan military uniform opened fire on two NATO at a military base in Khogyani in eastern Nangarhar province, killing them both.
Honestly as much as the Taliban likes to present themselves as a pious Muslim group, any cursory look at their credentials and past actions soon takes them down a peg as people able to criticise the American military’s accidental destruction of these books. The Taliban regularly attacks not only western troops in their country; but also their fellow countrymen. There is no way you can tell me that in their campaign of indiscriminate bombing and murder, they too have not been responsible for the destruction of a few Qurans as literary collateral damage.
In total eleven people have died so far at the hands of these protestors, none of which had anything to do with the accidental burning of Qurans. It’s such a terrible loss of life, and writing this now I still find it hard to accept these events as really taking place in the age we live in. People being killed because a book was burned; it sadly proves Heinrich Heine quote to be all too true.
The shear irrationality of the response is striking. Angry crowds can be seen roaming the streets of Afghan towns, black smoke billowing into the sky behind them as they chant “Death to America" and "Die, die, foreigners".
But again, as hard as it seems to reconcile these facts with the way we believe the world should be, a quick look at the past few years in Afghanistan shows us that sadly this is all but the norm over there.
Let’s not forget that last year the intentional burning of a Quran 12,000km away in the United States caused a similar response in this oh so offendable portion of the Afghan public. 12 people were killed then when a mob stormed a United Nations office, and a further 12 protestors were killed in other demonstrations across the country.
Going back even further, in 2005 after rumours of a Koran being desecrated in Guantanamo Bay were promulgated, riots and spates of indiscriminate killing left at least 17 people dead. And this time it was just rumours!
At least back then the Afghan president was quick to denounce the violence, and himself pointed out that a library set alight by fanatics in Jalalabad had contained over 200 copies of the ‘holy’ text, yet there is never any retaliation for the loss of these tomes.
An article in the New York Times captured the irrational nature of these frenzied protests. It reports that in one town subjected to various violent protests and shootings, interviewed townspeople “were sometimes confused about details, but they were convinced that Americans had done something terrible against their religion”.
That such a fury can be whipped up in a population based on spurious claims, distant benign events, and accidental actions, is a very worrying thing. Stories of protests turning into mobs, and Taliban agents fanning the flames of hatred, are only possible when we afford things in the real world a divine status, and put their importance above such earthly affairs as human life and dignity.
The sight of these partially burned book can whip up a frenzy of violence and denunciation toward ‘westerners’, yet pictures of young Afghan girls whose faces have been melted away through vicious acid attacks produce no similar outrage against the Taliban agents responsible.
There will be a trial soon of the people at the American base who some would say are responsible for this incident, but no doubt the outcome will do little to placate those incensed by the past day’s events. There is simply no way that you would be able to apply any form of rational secular justice on whoever is held responsible that would be considered acceptable by those who believe their books to be written by a god, and whose desecration demands a far more earthly punishment.
Even if you are willing to concede that there should be a punishment given to those who wilfully desecrate objects of religious importance to other people (and I don’t think such a concession should be made, provided there is no destruction of private property), this case provides a clear example of not only an accidental or improper destruction of religious materials; but also one that was intended to be done privately, so that no anguish or offense was the intended result.
Those who resort to violence in order to force their religious views onto others should be looked upon with derision, and those who inflict this most foul tool upon innocents, and do so indiscriminately in the name of their god, should be afforded no place in modern society.

And that is the end of my surprisingly long rant.
MM

22 February 2012

Wednesdays Words 4 - On Open Minds

For today’s Wednesdays Words, you get three quotes for the price of one. Which would be a good deal were it not for the fact these things are free anyway.
This was the quote found in my weekly offerings which spurred on increase:
“A great many open minds should be closed for repairs” – Toledo Blade
It reminded me of this quote:
"The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it." - Terry Pratchett
And in turn, this quote, whose origins aren’t quite certain, but who most people mistakenly attribute to Richard Dawkins, after he quoted it in his book, and tv show:
“By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.”
Quotes such as this, and many others concerning open minds and freedom of thought, have been finding a lot of purchase the past decade due to the New Atheism movement, and more importantly the staunch totalitarian opposition they find in religion.
Religion runs afoul of the open mind because it has what it believes to be a monopoly on truth, and an aversion to the alternative thinking that open minds can foster.
But what do we mean by an ‘open mind’, and just how open should they be? As the above quotes attest, there are problems with open minds being too open. But perhaps what we mean here isn’t such a simplistic view of the open mind.
Rather than thinking of an open mind as a room with an open doorway, free for anyone or anything to enter, I would like to think of an open mind as still having a studious guard at the door. The guard of reason, who filters through the riff-raff of religion and superstition, after they fail to present the appropriate identification.
An open mind should be thought of as a retronym for a closed mind, not as a description in itself. It is a strike back against the idea that there is a closed system; a set of what is right to think about, and what is wrong.
An open mind is open to ideas in that it is open to consider them, much like how a single person is open to advances by potential partners; it doesn’t mean that any new idea that swaggers along will be let in.
On the other hand, we can see a bit of sharpness to the other edge of this sword and need to be wary. After all even the most open minded proponent of reason and logic will have to concede that there should be some form of thing essentially closed for debate. After all to seek to have reason as the defining filter of what enters the open mind, you would have to put this form of rational analysis beyond contestation. Sure you could argue that such a system is demonstrably reliable, and philosophically persuasive, however then you have only effectively moved your crutch back onto the reliability of these methods. The question of whether such logic and reason are known to be true, or if we are just relying on a form of inference and experimental history to show this is so, still remains open.
When forming our own personal philosophies, there are a few ways we can go about it. As in the past it seems that these days many people find it easier to defer their responsibilities in this regard, and simply outsource their philosophical development and standards off to an external source, such as religion. However as I am an atheist I prefer what I believe is the more pragmatic (though also perhaps more taxing) method of having an open mind, and putting in the effort of manning the door with reason; a hopefully unbiased arbiter who is less likely to indulge those selling divine revelation or personal experience to get inside your mind.
At the end of the day, I am not denying that there are a great deal of religious people out there who are very open minded. However somewhere in one’s mind, there must be a seed of unmovable thought which we build our thoughts and values upon; some axiom which we use to define what we are and what we believe. In this case I believe that it is best to set this kernel in tune with the rational concepts of reason, scepticism and logic, rather than faith, obedience and submission.

And that’s my rant for the day. I don’t know how coherent it is, but perhaps now that I have opened my comments up so that anyone can reply I will get some interesting rejoinders.
Well, what do you all think; are open minds good, or bad, or a bit in the middle? Click on the comments link below to let me know.
MM

21 February 2012

Thoughts on the Homeland Finale

Spoiler alert: Read no further if you haven’t seen the final episode of Homeland, or indeed any of the middle ones; I have a rave in me that needs to get out!

================================

Last night’s Homeland finale was everything I wanted it to be and more.
Brilliant acting on the part of all my favourite characters. Brody was as ambiguous as ever, but this episode at least gave us a lot more of a look inside his mind, and at his conflicted nature. I can't recall any show recently that managed to evoke as much intensity as the suspenseful moment when Brody was preparing himself to flick the switch.
Photobucket
As the episode progressed I was swinging back and forth regarding my feelings toward Brody the character; about what I thought he was going to do, if he would survive, and then when the big moment came, how he would get out. My wife suffers the brunt of this as I voice my every concern, theory and hope as the show goes on, just in case I end up being right later (I like to have confirmation). Though in this respect Lizzie is far better at predicting shows than I.
Photobucket
Fuck this shit indeed
Carrie was really going crazy in this episode, and Claire Danes' acting had you believing the fine line she was walking on between driven passion and downright insanity. The best thing about this show is that you don’t really know what is going on, and that at any point it seems like it could go either way.
We finally now have insight into Brody and who he is, though it was left ambiguous most of the season. The best part is we know his whole story, and what he was prepared to do, but then were surprised by his last minute reversal, so now we just have to ponder what he will do next.
Conversely we have the opposite situation with Carrie now, as everyone else looks at her tipping between reality and insanity, whereas we know she is one of the few characters with a definite road she is traveling on (she knows the truth, or at least suspects it; but everyone else doubts her).
Who wouldn't trust that face?
My favourite character in this show has to be Saul however, and in this episode he truly shone. We learned early on in the series that he was willing to do a bit of blackmail on the side if it lead to apprehending the bad guys, and this episode brought that side back to bear. However unlike the other duplicitous characters in the show you actually believe that Saul is working for the greater good. He is willing to blackmail to get around some hurdles in the beginning, but now he is blackmailing one of the ‘bad guys’ to try and get to the truth. A truth he uncovers, and then has to agonise over whether or not to make public.
On the other hand you have the Vice President and the other ‘conspirators’ who take to heart the fact that they are working for the greater good, and seem all the more blinded by this assurance, and thus willing to commit atrocities that they feel are fully justified. Hell, the Vice President even seeks to remove himself completely from blame after bombing children! You really see why Brody would despise these people so much (if not for the unfortunate fact that he doesn’t know how truly complicit they were in Issa’s death).
But Saul, I have to commend him and the actor Mandy Patinkin. His character has gone through a lot, and still manages to stick by those in need. Sure he set the bodyguards on Carrie when he thought she was nuts, but it seemed to be more of a compassionate move than a mere dismissal of her part in his life. This is all the more evident by the fact that he continued Carrie’s quest in her absence.
Photobucket
The great moment where he realised the extent of Carrie's problems
Mandy really brings this character to life, albeit in a quiet and brooding manner. You get the feeling that Saul is always deeply in-tune with whatever he is dealing with, to the detriment of his own personal life.
Oh, and what was the deal with the lie detector thing halfway through the series? Was he responsible for the blade? I really don’t want him to be the mole, unless the shows writers can do an equally good job of explaining these motivations as they did with Brody's; which I think would be damn near impossible.
Speaking of the mole, I like how nothing was revealed here yet. There is going to be a second series, and though this really does feel like a nice ending, it only appears thus if you know there will be further resolution; otherwise you would just feel jilted.
Another character I was happy with in last nights show was the daughter Dana. I remember earlier in the series liking the way she was portrayed. There was something different about her, true she had the standard teenage girl lines and motivations, but it was less two dimensional than most other teenage offerings in dramas. After all you can expect a level of stereotype with these things, as teenagers as a group generally do have defining qualities. But too often a show will rely only on these quirks, and leave true characterisation for the grown ups.
To watch Dana dealing with her fathers suspicious behaviour in the previous episode, and couple them with her discovery of Brody in the midst of a late night Muslim prayer, really made me want her to do more as the finale progressed. And I was not disappointed!
She knew something was up, but didn’t quite know what. She was worried about her dad, and suspicious of what was going on, but wasn’t willing to believe the worst about him. I don’t know how much we are supposed to believe that she truly knew her dads motivations that day, but the way she handled the phone call; forcing her dad to connect, and to promise things without merely pushing her questions aside with platitudes, was actually quite brilliant.
Then there were the characters I didn't like, but that nevertheless formed a part of the show. There were those you weren't meant to like, and those that I think I just didn't like.
I will start with the purposefully dislikable.
The Vice president. What a douche.
I remember thinking this early on, that he seems like a douche, and a bit of a prick. But as this episode went on, I just started to dislike him more and more to the point where part of me was actively wanting Brody to blow the fucker sky high! He had shown in previous episodes how self-centred he was, and how willingly he put his needs before others, and their safety behind his own machinations for power. He was willing to circumvent proper protocols by effectively bribing Estes with promised future promotions.
Then as the icing on the ‘hate cake’, we are privy to a discussion in some clandestine war room where the VP orders a school to be bombed, regardless of the inevitable human casualties.
What a prickhole.
Must be odd to be an actor that can play smarmy so well..
Speaking of Estes, he is purposely unlikable character number two. We discovered in this episode that not only does he thwart Carrie's investigation because of personal feelings toward her, and seek to further his career at the expense of doing his current job. But he was also instrumental in the reason for Abu Nazir's current plot, and withheld useful information to save his and the Vice Presidents futures. It was a pleasure to see Saul rip into him in the end, but he slimed his way out yet again, and no doubt will annoy me next season too.
Just look at him, and his grey suit.
Now, the characters I found unlikable, but that weren't necessarily meant to be.
The wife. I was glad that her character didn't have much to do in this episode, as I really haven’t grown to like her that much. Though at the end of the last episode I was feeling for her, if only for the fact that I thought Brody would most likely be leaving them again soon, though on a much more permanent level.
And then there is Walker. The boring robot sniper terrorist Walker. He was too evil, too snarly, and in this episode I found him speaking with a bit too much of a ‘street dawg’ accent. I was glad when Brody put a bullet in his head, because his character had no real sufficient motivation, which given the whole ‘American soldier turned into a terrorist’ storyline, is something you really need.
"I'm a terrorist because............ Grrrrr America and such" - Generic bad guy
But as great as the finale was, my favourite line still comes from episode #10?#, and was delivered by the Saudi diplomat the CIA was hoping to blackmail onto their side via the threat of exposing his homosexuality to the world. What was that line? Only this bit of unexpected brilliance:
“Thats right, I suck cock; and I love it. Yummy, yummy, yummy!”

Delivered with flair, realism, and humour.

Needless to say I am eager for the next season to start, and have a while to wait till it does. Luckily a new Game of Thrones is around the corner.......

Chopstick Reflections

Around the close of last year I wrote a draft post of my Top 11 of 2011, however I never finished off the list and it subsequently fell by the wayside as the New Year progressed. However I have now decided to cannibalise the lengthy post into a series of Reflections to put up here.
Here is the first one, about me and chopsticks.

Chopsticks
I know it isn’t much to brag about, but I can now use chopsticks.
This was a more personal thing on my list of last year’s top eleven, as it really just deals with me, and what I am taking as a personal victory.
Using chopsticks is something I am disproportionally happy about. I had for years given up on making those two sticks of wood get food into my mouth, but this year with a little perseverance, along with the amazing learning tool that is the internet, I was able to finally conquer the first new eating utensil added to my arsenal since the inclusion of steak knives back when I was a child.
But perhaps a little background. I am going to China sometime in the future with my family, and am extremely excited at finally crossing that border from one country into another (and possibly over many more). My parents will be paying for a portion of the trip as a sort of ‘spend your inheritance’ deal, where they are lucky enough to experience this journey with us, rather than the traditional option, i.e. post-mortem.
Wanting to make the best of this experience, I decided to do a few things to prepare for my journey to the Middle Kingdom. The top two entries on my list of China preparation tasks are ‘Learn Some Basic Mandarin’ and ‘Learn to use chopsticks’. Naturally I focused on the later first, as the former seems a lot less likely to happen.
I found the above image on an internet site that gave me a nice and simple instruction on how to hold the chopsticks, and from then on it was just a matter of practise. My wife often makes some great little stir-fry’s, so I was not bereft of chances to hone my skills at home. Combine this with my recent discovery of Mr. Rice in Sturt Street, with their fantastic Mongolian beef, and I was well on my way to chopstick proficiency.
Surprisingly, after many failed attempts in my childhood, I was happy to see that I actually caught on quite quickly. Being rather proud of myself, I even forced my mum to furnish one of our meals at her place with chopsticks so that, like the child I secretly still am inside, I could boast of my new skills and receive some maternal praise.
I have no caption or reasoning for this image beyond its awesomeness
I think it was a lot easier learning this time around because I looked up my lesson plan, rather than trying to learn by imitating those around me, as I had as a child. Looking around now, you will be hard pressed to find two people using the same chopstick grip, so I think eliminating this variance made things a whole lot simpler.
Indeed because this was something I truly sucked at as a child, I now find myself doing it as often as I can in public, and looking on in dismay as no one manages to notice my adept hands skilfully wielding their chopsticks.
Evidently my own personal pride at having learnt this feat fails to overcome the fact that eating with chopsticks is not really much of a social accomplishment.
Yes, I am proud of doing what a small child can. Take your pleasures where you find them
But what the hell, I resolved to fill this blog with things that are not only inherently significant and interesting on their own, but which are also personally relevant. And this I think is a perfect example of a more subjective win for me.

20 February 2012

Internet Funnies

If there is anything that might top the easy access of information as my main love of the internet, it would have to be the fact that it exposes you to just how freaking hilarious mankind can be. Stroll through any center on the internet that allows commenting and discussion and I bet more than once you will find a little comedy gem slipped in there by some anonymous or obscure user.
Here is a nice little comment I stumbled upon years ago when I was looking at an Instructable for building a small origami box (this one I believe). I remember saving the image, and its discovery on an old USB was the catalyst for this mini post.




Brilliant!


16 February 2012

Cockpits and Curiosity

 “I wonder why they call it a cockpit?”
That was the question put to me by a friend the other night. There were a few attempts at a jocular answer, but we didn’t take it very far as we were ourselves in the midst of battle; situated in our own virtual cockpits in Battlefield 3.
But the question stuck with me, and I had to find the answer. Luckily the Internet was there to serve as my guide into this words etymology, so I soon had an answer; and it seemed an answer worth sharing.
As with many English words, the history of ‘cockpit’ goes back further than you would think, and comes from an origin that is at the same time odd, but somewhat logical. After all what is the first thing you think of when you look at the word objectively? It’s made up of cock, and pit; and that’s precisely what the word described back when it was coined 1580, as a translation from Chinese; a pit that cocks fight in.
Now this might present some odd images when you consider the cockpits of today, but the world had a few slight twists in meaning before it arrived where we find it in the dictionary today.
Right between cockle and cockroach.
I have never seen a true cockfight, only dramatisations on shows like Seinfeld, Family Guy, Samurai Jack and others; and this is a fact I am quite glad of. I would be happy if I never saw one from this day on, and the rest of the planet shared in my moratorium, as I hear they are a dreadful thing to watch if you are a person with a scrap of humanity.
On the lighter side; I am surprised how many quality shows I am able to reference here 
But despite my inexperience with these spectacles in person, I know enough about the bouts to understand why by the 1700’s the term cockpit had evolved to describe not only the bloody arenas where fowl battled to the death, but also any scene of combat.
It originally found purchase in naval lingo as the name for the area below decks on a man-o-war where the wounded were evacuated during battle. Two hundred years later the word would again be appropriated by a group of military pioneers, this time as aviators in World War I used it to describe the cramped places these men conducted their portion of the war effort from. Since then the name has stuck, and thanks to the commercialisation of air travel and its place within the everyman’s sphere of knowledge, the word cockpit is now a part of the common vocabulary.
"That's the way to fight a war. Tasty tuck, soft beds and a uniform so smart it's got a PhD from Cambridge" -  Lord Flashheart
Just goes to show you that even the most mundane of things can lead to some pretty interesting revelations now that we live in the age of instant information.
Hope this tickled your trivia bone just a tad. If it did, rest assured there will be scads more to come on this blog in the future.
Hmmmm, I wonder where the word scads came from.........
MM

It's crazy like a fool, eddy eddy cool!

NASA has a brilliant feed I subscribe to over at their Earth Observatory that provides regular updates from a couple of their imaging satellites.
The below image is courtesy of the Terra – MODIS satellite, and looks so cool that I thought I would share it with you all.
It depicts an eddy off the tip of South Africa that has stirred up a bevy of nutrients from the ocean floor, and precipitated a large phytoplankton bloom. This is the brilliant swirl of discolouration that stands out from the rest of the ocean surface.
It’s amazing to see these massive phenomena and then realise that they are caused by some of the world’s smallest plants. To get a bit of perspective, if this bloom was superimposed over Victoria, it would cover Ballarat, Geelong and most of Melbourne! Pretty impressive for something comprised of individuals, that aren’t even visible with the naked eye.
Note: this is not the plankton I am referring to here; these guys are plants, and the food of zooplankton like the Plankton pictured above
These mini plant factories are prodigious little things too, and are responsible for half of all the oxygen generated by plant life on planet earth; so we should be thankful such blooms are common occurrences.
For a bit more perspective, here is the full image from the site, showing its position off the coast of Africa, and for those of you who know your geography; it will also give an example of the scale of the thing.
Pretty awesome stuff.
MM

P.s. I must dedicate this post to my wonderful wife, who insisted that I use the above title after I jokingly mentioned it.

15 February 2012

Wednesdays Words – Week 3

“The average, healthy, well adjusted adult gets up at seven-thirty in the morning feeling just plain terrible” – Jean Kerr
I am not a morning person. I like the morning only in the sense that I naturally stay up till around 2a.m. before that voice inside my head informs me that I should probably go to bed. But the thing is, the voice I hear isn’t my inner weariness trying to overrun the part of me that wants to stay awake. I am not tired at these times. No the voice is simply the part of me that knows I live in a world geared towards those who are morning people, and the fact that these are generally those in charge of the working world (of which I am begrudgingly a part).
The morning I like is dark, not light. It’s at the end of my waking day, not the start. It’s populated by weird shows and foreign SBS films, not beaming out those crappy ‘morning shows’ that seem to want to straddle the line between news, commercial, and brain numbing inanity (but more often than not they only succeed in the last criteria).
I remember years ago during my uni days I would ponder the different Mathews that formed the gestalt entity I identify as myself. There was Drunk Mathew, Uni Mathew, Study Mathew, Morning Mathew...... the list went on. Generally Drunk Mathew had the best time; he all but killed Morning Mathew for a few years, and was the bane of Uni Mathew, who often found himself late, unprepared, and feeling a bit too seedy for a day of lectures.
A point worth noticing however is that Morning Mathew is a reluctant addition to this whole menagerie, he is a social construct; a forced part of my psyche. If I were the true lord and master of my life, morning Mathew wouldn’t exist. He would reside in a limbo, only coming back into existence when some undue force awoke me from my slumber.
This is the reason why for this Wednesdays Words, I picked the above quote from Jean Kerr, a person who I know next to nothing about, save the fact she was a playwright, and lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Scranton, Pennsylvania; home of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company
I chose it because I feel terrible in the mornings. Not terrible in any physiological sense, I just don’t want to be up; don’t want to be conscious.
However these days I have a new variable in my mornings, one that adds a more ambiguous quality to my waking experience.
I have a family.
I have a wife and a son who are both a lot more comfortable in the a.m. than I am. So more often than not Morning Mathew will now be pulled into existence, even on the weekends, when his son enters the room, and coaxes him out of bed. My wife too is always eager for me to forsake my world of slumber for the promised delights of the waking world.
But it isn’t all bad. Sure Morning Mathew doesn’t like this, and his temper is generally a bit shorter than Laidback Mathew. But there is a new guy on the scene now; Family Mathew. Luckily for us Mathews as a whole, Family Mathew has wrought by far the most positive elements in my life, and he is here to stay.
So though I may find myself up hours ahead of when I would ideally like to be, it is finally for a good enough reason. I am up having a family breakfast, watching cartoons with my son, or eating out at a cafe with my wife. I am keen to get out and watch my son’s karate classes, or go for a roadtrip with the family to buy some antique tools or whatnot from some obscure country town. Or just to relax at home doing nothing, but doing it with good company (not to mention the days when my wife bribes me out of bed with pancakes and waffles, mmmmm).
These benefits are enough to outweigh the negatives of missing my extra hours of sleep, and placate me as a whole, so I can shut out Morning Mathews objections for the time being.

Well that’s my Wednesdays Words done, a tad off topic this week, but these quotes aren’t always the most inspirational, and as it is just meant to be a catalyst for more writing, I guess it has done its duty.
Until next time dear reader.
MM

14 February 2012

It’s not just hearts that break on St Valentines Day



I am not really one for Valentine’s Day. The idea of a scheduled day for expressing love toward ones significant other seems somewhat against the point to me, and consequentially I was not going to make any Valentine’s Day related post. But then as usual I read something that got my mind ticking along, and before you knew it, I had a rant on the way.
It was this article over at io9, 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Love and Sex that started it all; this line in particular jumped out at me (no pun intended):
"We had this patient who suffered penile fracture after running across the room and trying to penetrate his wife with a flying leap," he says.
The ‘he’ in this case was Hunter Wessells — chair of the urology department at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and he is talking about "[Penile fracture] a severe form of bending injury to the erect penis that occurs when a membrane called the tunica albuginea tears". Apparently then blood fills areas that it isn’t meant to, and you are left with painful swelling and bruising. Ouch!
But enough about that, I am only including the quote because it spurred me on in writing this post (and because it creates a pretty amusing mental image). You have to admit, the man must have had some gusto. And though perhaps this doesn't embody the more loving parts of Valentine’s Day, it nevertheless was the catalyst for the rest of this post.
All I can say is I hope the guy had some form of costume on when they dragged him to the emergency room.
"Holy fractured penis Batman!"
Anyhow, onto the rest of the post:
Saint Valentine's Day, as the name hints, is a celebration rooted in religious steeping. There are a lot of holidays that try and force their religiosity on us, but I can’t claim that it is my atheism that makes me averse to this Saint centered holiday, as one of my favourite days of the year likewise takes its name from an esteemed Catholic of old.

There are 14 Saint Valentines (the Catholics are nothing if not thorough in their application of religion en masse), but the one most often associated with the holiday was a Roman priest martyred (cf. killed) during the reign of Claudius II. What had he done during this time to enrage the then Emperor, but to also instill himself as the name of a holiday based on love?
Marrying Christians.
You see back then it was the Christians who were being persecuted and refused marriage; something you think they would have learnt from by now. The emperor was against marriage for young men in general, because he figured married men would be less willing to serve in his army. So combine the fact that Valentine was helping out Christians (a crime in itself), and marrying people under the Empires nose, and you begin to understand why he was soon put to death.
While in prison, the ever pious Valentine even tried to convert the Emperor, who was likewise trying to convert him! It wasn't much of a competition in the end, with the Emperor being offended by the others efforts (an offended religious person; who would have thought it?), and as a result having Valentine beaten with clubs, stoned and beheaded.
Perfect fodder for a day celebrating love yes?
But there are much more interesting facts about Valentines Day from around the world that don't necessarily involve gruesome murder, for instance:

It is a public holiday in Mexico.
In Slovenia the traditional day of love is March 12, the Saint Gregory's day, which I love solely for its dispassionate sound.
Guatemala isn't as willing to commit, and simply calls it Affection Day. While Latveria celebrate it as ‘Just Good Friends’ day, though don’t quote me on that one.
The most depressing of all the worlds traditions I read about has to be Korea’s. It starts off good; on the 14th of February men are given chocolate by women, so I am up for that. Then on March 14th, men reciprocate by giving non-chocolate candy to the women, in what is called White Day. But then, to add insult to what would have hoped to have been private injury, April 14th is called ‘Black Day’, and those who did not receive anything on Valentine’s Day, or White Day, “go to a Korean restaurant to eat black noodles (자장면 jajangmyeon) and "mourn" their single life”!!
Nothing helps you cheer up about your single life more than drab black noodles
After reading up a bit on Valentine’s Day, and how it is expressed across the globe, I have to say that the cynics, who often bemoan the commercialisation of this ‘holiday’, are pretty on the ball in this case. It’s obvious that Valentine’s Day is latched on to by the flower, chocolates and greeting card industry, but in many cases this is the sole reason for the holiday’s existence. Many cultures have a love related day, and many western ones derive this from some sort of religious origin and custom dating back to the days of Chaucer. But many more, such as those in Japan, Denmark and Norway were forced into the native culture by florist organisations, and chocolate company executives.
This has been so successful in Japan that Japanese chocolate companies now make half their annual sales during this time of the year!
Japanese ladies may seem a bit jilted, as due to a typo from one of these executives back when they were fabricating this special day, it was perceived that the custom should be only for women to give chocolates to men. However don't feel too bad for the Japanese female population, as those crafty execs also managed to institute a ‘White day’, or ‘Reply Day’ on March 14th, where men are expected to return the favour to those women who gave them chocolate, but the return gifts are expected to be at least two or three times more valuable than the gifts received on Valentine's Day.
The obverse situation to all this lovey stuff is of course found in Saudi Arabia where the ‘cheer police’ not only ban the holiday for its Christian origins, but also warn local store owners not to stock any red items on that day. How lovely.
I suppose it is better than in Malaysia where last year over 100 couples were arrested on Valentines Day simply for being together (and perhaps wanting to have sex), while the Deputy Prime Minister remarked on how celebrating romantic love was "not suitable" for Muslims.

At the end of the day there is no real harm in having a day set aside for celebrating romantic love. And hell, it might even spur on those less likely to express this stuff daily to their loved ones. But honestly I find the stuff above, the changes through history, and the differing perspectives of the world, far more interesting than boxes of chocolates and soon to die flowers.

Tata for now.
MM

13 February 2012

My Thoughts on Religion as a Child Weren’t That Childish

I have been reading a lot of ‘Why I am an atheist’ posts from various people over at PZ Myers blog Pharyngula, and thought it would be interesting to tackle my own. However I found my explanation for why I am an atheist somewhat less interesting (I am an atheist, and always have been), and slowly my post turned into yet another rant. This one involved some of my early thoughts regarding religion when I was a child, and how my early version of atheism treated religion when it was thrust upon me.
I hope it is entertaining in some way for you dear reader, so please, enjoy:

========================================

I have been an atheist for as long as I can remember. I am not one of those atheists who have a nice story of discovering their atheism, or conjunctly losing their religious faith. I can’t really explain how I became an atheist, only point out that at some point along the way, I realised that I was one.
I remember attending religious education classes in primary school, I don’t recall what age I was, or why I was in religious education at a public school at all (I assume my parents could have opted out, but chose not to for some reason); but I do remember the stark differences I noticed between real classes, and what was essentially story time, with unconvincing, and un-entertaining stories.
Like when Jesus cursed a tree. That's right; a tree. A worthy foe for the son of a god
The god stuff never gelled for me, and I remember sneakily voicing this fact to my fellow students in a hushed tone.
“I don’t think this god stuff is real” I would whisper.
Many of my mates didn’t either, but there didn’t really seem to be any room for questioning the truth of these classes; we just undertook them. Indoctrination after all is only really a one way process.
I do remember one of my early reasoned arguments as to why I didn’t think that the particular religion I was being exposed to at school was the ‘right one’. Being an avid reader and watcher of documentaries as a child, I was vaguely aware of the history of western civilisation’s conquest of other nations and peoples. I knew about Inca gold, and conquistadors; about Native American Indians, and Australian aboriginals.
Thus it seemed to me at an early age that there was a conspicuous lack of verification from any of these newly encountered peoples, regarding the ultimate nature of the universe. Each group appeared to have their own guesses, and Christianity only seemed to flow from country to country with the power and influence of its current believers (or at the tip of their divine sword).
"Behold; my rational arguments for believing in Jesus!"
What would have convinced me was the arrival of Cortez to an unknown land, but one replete with Christ worshipers (or at least a form of proto-Jew still waiting to hear of the messiah’s arrival). When civilisations meet, there are generally common facts that they will be able to confirm with one another.
Have you heard of Mars, the fire planet?Yes we have, but we call him something else, and believe it is a wandering beast.
Fair enough. Not really the same answer and perhaps a charge of blasphemy if someone was zealous enough; but nonetheless a general agreement on the physical facts. Mars is up there, looks a bit reddish, occasionally moves in retrograde motions et cetera. The notion of a god however, is never so similar.
Have you heard of Jesus of Nazareth, your eternal saviour?
No I have not. But if you sacrifice a young girl to 
Tezcatlipoca, I am sure he will enlighten us.
Sure people might like to point out that most, if not all, of these civilisations nevertheless had concepts of supernatural beings in common. However if you look at the nature of these disparate deities you will see they are far too different, and often outright contradictory, to be different interpretations of the same fact.
In order for a semblance of credibility to be attributed toward the Christian explanation for the universe, and mans place within it, there would need to be interpretations which though they may differ, at least bare more than a passing resemblance to one another.
But of course, this is never the case. Some religions have similar stories to others, but inevitably, they are always within walking distance, or perhaps hiking, trading or sailing distance from each other. We would expect the Egyptian mythology to have similar characters to Greek ones. I am not in the least surprised that the religion of the Carthaginian Empire bears a resemblance to the Phoenician one because if you chanced to look at it, I would bet their cultures also share similarities.
Pictured: Carthaginians. (And if you think that was a stretch to get Gladiator in there, then you forget you are dealing with a man who had his son named Harrison Maximus Gunn Morton)
However when you look at it rationally, there is an obvious excuse for this lack of knowledge being spread around the globe, namely that it isn’t true. The Christian on the other hand must explain why, for some reason, their almighty god decided that rather than appear in one of the more advanced civilisationsof the day, it was better to confine himself to a small portion of the Arabian Peninsula.
One might then seek to get away with this lack of independent Christians throughout the world, and explain it away by pointing out a Bible passage that commands Christians to do their best to spread the word (a task I might add that surely could have been better achieved if Christ had lived in China, or perhaps if the almighty god itself had helped out distributing his leaflets). In this sense the lack of confirmation from other lands is acceptable, as the almighty predicted this occurrence, and took account for it in the decree to prosthelytise.
Ignoring the fact that this seems quite an inefficient and demonstrably unsuccessful way of spreading ultimate truth, the avid apologist would still have to account for the fact that these isolated pockets of other religions seem to have wildly different origin stories than those prevalent in the middle east. The Hindu people believe that the earth was created by a cosmic egg being split, while the early Finns will tell you about how the world was created when a beautiful teal landed on the primordial waters and laid seven eggs, one of which would become the earth. It’s not like they are just a bit out; they are way out (though both are at least ova related).
However, don’t count out those persistent Christian apologists yet, because thousands of years of cultural evolution have made quite a slippery beast of their originally desert dwelling religion.
Ask a learned Christian about the question of different cultures and languages, and you will no doubt be presented with the Tower of Babel as the panacea for all rational thought on the subject.
For those not in the know, the tower of Babel is a Biblical story whereby man got quite cocky with himself, and decided to build a tower so high, that they could reach heaven. God, seeing that and being caught quite off guard, decided to thwart mans attempt to jump the queue (he is the arch-conservative after all), and scattered them upon the face of the earth. To add insult to injury God moved to hinder mankind further by confusing his language, remarking “Come, let us go down and confound their speech”.
Considering the modest height of it, God must be incensed at the Burj Khalifa
This is supposed to explain the profusion of differing languages across the globe, but is woefully inaccurate and childish when compared to the linguistic analysis we have about the development of humanlanguages. Not to mention the odd way that this god talks, which is either to himself, or some bizarre combination of first and third person narrative (he is after all three gods in one I suppose).
So here we have a story trying to explain the different languages and cultures across the earth. However it fails to really address the question, as though it would be true that two peoples unable to communicate will develop differently; it doesn’t then follow that they will drastically change their religious views accordingly. I find it hard to believe that the Mayans developed their rich mythology and religious practises from a primitive version of Christianity, or that the fortelling of Ragnarök has merely resulted from inexact interpretations of Christian eschatology.
This smacks of a form of linguistic elitism, whereby those who follow the Bible must assume that the only group of people who managed to ‘get it right’, were those who spoke their own favoured language.
Nor does this biblical explanation take into account mankind’s adroit ability to learn other languages! Surely two groups of people living nearby would not give up so quickly upon realising they speak a different language. It is this kind of fairytale explaining that not only fails to capture the truth of the world, but also sets up our kid’s minds for failure in the future, when real life explanations cannot be counted upon to be so childish.
Though I am still partial to invoking Thor as the explanation for thunder...
Now, whether the Christian believes this story as literal or as merely metaphorical is another matter.
But, I don’t want to turn this post into a rant too focused on these particular arguments against the Christian religion. Rather I just want to highlight the fact that this was an influential argument that I came up with all by myself whilst in primary school. It isn’t really that technical, nor was it planted in my head by any overwhelmingly atheist or secular influence; it’s just what I believed to be the rational outcome after learning about humanity’s history on this earth.
As time went by, and my atheistic roots grew ever deeper, I would amass a bevy of additional arguments against the religious myths and assertions thrown my way. But I always remembered this particular set of reasoning that allowed me to come up with my own theory of what they world would be like if these religious claims were true, and why the facts that I knew about the world negated this null hypothesis.
It was my first example of what is now a long tradition of atheism setting me free.
I can only hope that by arming my son with similar tools of the mind, he too will be able to see through the false claims of religions, and observe the fundamental inconsistencies within. The world may be a bit of a harsh reality to face at first, especially with these religions tailor making their ontology to be more attractive to susceptible human minds. But I think there is a much more satisfactory existence to be had in accepting the truth regardless of the outcome, because surely there is more virtue in such a thing, than there is in the alternative (i.e. comfort in untruth).
I am a firm believer in the art of quoting other people, if only because of the modest fact that pretty much anything I say can and has been said better by more qualified people before me. So as I am wont to do, I shall end this post with a couple of quotes from my arsenal.
“The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it” – George Santayana
“I cannot believe — and I say this with all the emphasis of which I am capable — that there can ever be any good excuse for refusing to face the evidence in favour of something unwelcome. It is not by delusion, however exalted, that mankind can prosper, but only by unswerving courage in the pursuit of truth” - Bertrand Russell
Cheers.
MM

12 February 2012

February

February is definitely the weirdest month of the year. Its the only variable month; the only month that never (at least nowadays) has the standard 30, or 31, days. As a result, this mucks up that useful rhyme that helps us remember how long a month is. Or you can just use this handy tool:

It is also the month most often mispronounced, with the initial ‘r’ causing a lot of trouble. There is something called the dissimilation effect, which explains the fact that having two ‘r’s so close together in a word causes us to drop the pronunciation of one of them as we speak (think of surprise, or particular for instance). This is why we sometimes hear February being called ‘Febuary’, like its January neighbour.
Incidentally both these months share name roots with two ancient Roman gods; January Being Janus (that’s right, the god of doors), and February being Februu. Though actually the god Februu was named after a purification ceremony that took place at that time of the year. I find it interesting that the Romans explicitly named their gods after things that already existed, such as festivals, or concepts. Seems a much more human way of making a religion.
Janus also had two faces, one to look back and the other forward; which makes sense as the first month of the year I suppose. Looking back at the previous year, looking forward to the new year.
Anyhow, odd though February may be, looking into its history actually helps explain why our calendar looks the way it does today, and solves a little quirk involving the months names that used to annoy me as a child.
Way back prior to 713 BCE, before Jesus was invented, the Roman calendar was based on the lunar cycle, so that every month had around 30/31 days. It was a ten month calendar, with roughly each month being named in the Roman fashion for its position throughout the year. Hence back then the fifth month was called Quintilis (literally Latin for fifth), and the sixth was Sextilis (later to become August, the best month), ‘sept’ for seven made September, ‘oct’ for eight: October, and so on up to December.
I remember noticing this as a kid and being confused as to why the numbering order was out of sync with the months place in the year.
Well it turns out that back when this roman lunar calendar was being used, there were only ten months in a year, and they were named and set out as such:
Martius (31 days), Aprilis (30 days), Maius (31 days), Iunius (30 days), Quintilis (31 days), Sextilis (30 days), September (30 days), October (31 days), November (30 days), December (30 days).
The more astute of readers might have noticed that this leaves us with a year only 304 days long. It turns out that the Romans didn’t consider the winter season as having any months at all, and so when the month of December came to an end, the calendar simply stopped and waited until the winter season broke, and Martius (March) could begin.
Then King of Rome, Numa Pompilius, put a stop to this practise by adding in two 26 day months at the end of the year; and here is where we find the beginning of January, and February.
Around two-hundred and sixty years later the start of the year was moved from March to January, and the length of the months altered so that January began to resemble a more normal month, while February was doomed to forever be the odd month out, accounting for the sloppy ellipse our planet makes around the sun each year (why didnt the gods just make a more evenly divided circuit of the sun?).
And so February moved from being a disjointed time of the year, to the end of the year, and now to its current spot as the second month of the year. It started off as no days, was born with 26 days, fluctuated for a while from 23, to 27 and even 30 days before settling on its four year oscillation from 28 to 29 days.
On a leap year it is the only month that ends on the same day of the week that it began, which just has to be true, because it’s on Wikipedia.
Though it is named after a ritual that we no longer practice, perhaps we should think ourselves lucky that February didn’t retain its old English name of Solmonath, which described it as the mud month, or the curious Kale-monath, which proclaimed it the month of cabbage.
Cabbage; great for Chow Mein, not so great for naming months after.
There are languages whose names for February stem from nicer etymologies, such as the Finnish name helmikuu. This translates to the month of the pearl, and describes the frozen droplets that form on trees around that time of year in Finland. The Polish and Ukrainian languages likewise refer to the obvious season properties in that region, where they call February Luty or лютий, meaning the month of ice or hard frost.
Luckily us English speakers from the southern hemisphere can focus on our defunct Roman ritual based month, instead of having to reside in a month named after cold, when the time of year can be anything but.

February also has some interesting anniversaries in it:
National No-Bathroom Month [sic] (whatever that means) 
Groundhog Day: February 2 
Abraham Lincoln's birthday: February 12 (More importantly Darwin Day, as the great naturalist was born on the same day in history as the great emancipator) 
Liberation Day (Kuwait) February 26 (Really?) 
National Wear Red Day………..
I for one celebrated Groundhog Day with a re-watch of the Bill Murray classic.
"I would love to stay here and talk with you... But I'm not going to ......." - Phil Connors
And with that I end my little post on the shortest month of the year; I hope it was in some way enlightening for you.
Cheers.
MM

11 February 2012

My Domesticated Palate

My wife, son and I recently attended a family dinner for my mother-in-laws birthday. The main event of the night was a lobster based meal, prepared in advance (drawn and quartered in a manner that would impress the English executioners of old) and to the fervent delights of many of the nights attendees.
Alas poor Lobsterheart, you suffer the same fate as William Wallace.
As my wife and I (and consequentially now our son) are ardent opponents of sea foods, we did not take part in the culinary ordeal.
It is quite a thing to watch from the outside as people who are accustomed to it commence taking apart a lobster. The viscera on display, the crunch of exoskeletons, the sucking of innards, the dead eyes of the creature on display and themselves under threat of being devoured; it is a scene more accustomed to narration by David Attenborough than to be witnessed at a dinner table.
Pictured: David Attenborough, not pictured: acceptable human food
We are evidently much more at ease leaving the face and general form of an animal on display so long as its place on the evolutionary tree is sufficiently to the left of us mammals.
My own dislike for any foods pulled unwillingly from the water can trace its genesis back to my mother, who is deathly allergic to any such foods. This is quite unfortunate for my dad, who loves most of what the sea has to offer, from fish and octopi, to squid and lobsters.
As such growing up in this household of opposing tastes was an interesting experience, where every once in a while my dad was either banished to the outdoors where he and my sister would have a seafood smorgasbord, or else my mother and I would be relegated to some other corner of the house, while the dining room was filled with various marine feasts.
And I don’t care what you say, seafood has quite an intrusive, and unpleasant odour. I don’t think my dislike of this smell can be pinned solely on my dislike for the food, as there is something slightly rotten about the smell in general; something all too easily associated with a particularly dirty beach.
Above: How seafood smells to me
But the main reason I bring this up dear reader is because I had an interesting epiphany about my eating habits as I sat at that table watching carapace being crushed with glee.
I only eat domesticated animals.
Bear in mind that I am not being inclusive of the whole set here; that is to say, I don’t eat all domesticated animals (though I do hear that dog is especially delicious). I just mean that all of the animals that I do eat appear to be of the domesticated variety. Cow, pig, sheep, chicken, turkey; these are all species forged by man from their wild ancestors.
Wild Turkey.... I prefer a nice scotch.
But if you look at the nature of seafood, and the creatures on the menu, you will seldom find anything that can be genuinely called domesticated.
What’s that you say? There are lobster farms. Well yes, you are correct (gold star), but animals can be farmed without being domesticated. Domestication involves artificial selection by humans that results in a genetic change of the population; so that the new animals are fundamentally different from those at the beginning. Animals can be farmed without this selection process influencing the population, and this is what is done with fish, lobsters et cetera.
I mentioned earlier the fact that seafood is generally displayed in a lot more confronting way that its terrestrial counterpart, with heads on display, superfluous body parts remaining unbutchered, and sometime the whole animal remaining on your plate. Now, one of the more obvious properties of an animal domesticated for food is the enlarging of these eatable areas, and the general ‘softening’ or the rest of the animal. Thus we can hack off steaks, and chicken fillets with ease, but perhaps a fish, or lobster are less advantaged by the fact that their physiological structure has not been altered by the thousands of years of animal husbandry that turned the beastly Auroch, into the manageably corpulent Friesian.
I busted out my MS Paint skills to give this comparison of the Auroch's size to that of a modern cow.
Evidently the barrier of water between us and our fishy prey is enough to hold off mans domesticating advances. Sure nowadays we do have fish farms, and a couple of domesticate fish varieties, but these things have a long way to go before they can match the variety and specialisation of our more celebrated domestications.
So I was very interested when I came to note this property of my eating habits. Previously I had maintained that I would only eat an animal that swam solely to escape the water; an animal which if thrown in the water, would not feel at home.
Now I have a slightly better basis to explain my eating habits; I don’t eat wild animals.
This is more likely than not a by-product of my aversion to eating meat at a philosophical level, but my inability to stop eating meat at a “it just tastes so damn good” level.
But what the hell, I am willing to take this explanation at face value, and deal with the further implications another day.

MM