Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Friday, January 29, 2010

if the earth had rings like saturn

An animation by Roy Prol:

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

is guilt a religious emotion?

Stephen Asma recently heard a sermon at the bathroom sink:

Recently while I was brushing my teeth, my 6-year-old son scolded me for running the water too long. He severely reprimanded me, and at the end of his censure asked me, with real outrage, "Don't you love the earth?" And lately he has taken up the energy cause, scampering virtuously around the house turning off lights, even while I'm using them. He seems as stressed and anxious about the sins of environmentalism as I was about masturbation in the days of my Roman Catholic childhood.

And it's not just the younger generation that's gotten the green religion:

Not too long ago, at a party, a friend confessed in a group conversation that he didn't really recycle. It was as if his casual comment had sucked the air out of the room—I think the CD player even skipped. He suddenly became a pariah. A heretic had been detected among the orthodox flock. During the indignant tongue-lashing that followed, people's faces twisted with moral outrage.

I won't argue that there are many people who react this way about environmental issues. But is it really accurate to imply that this behavoir is "religious"?

According to Asma, the answer is yes. There are solid psychological reasons why:

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first to notice that religious emotions, like guilt and indignation, are still with us, even if we're not religious. He claimed that we were living in a post-Christian world—the church no longer dominates political and economic life—but we, as a culture, are still dominated by Judeo-Christian values.

Asma compares Christianity with the pre-Christian world:

For the pagans, honor and pride were valued, but for the Christians it is meekness and humility; for the pagans it was public shame, for Christians, private guilt; for pagans there was a celebration of hierarchy, with superior and inferior people, but for Christians there is egalitarianism; and for pagans there was more emphasis on justice, while for Christians there is emphasis on mercy (turning the other cheek).

Fair enough. However, in the very next sentence Asma claims:

Underneath all these values, according to Nietzsche, is a kind of psychology—one dominated by resentment and guilt.

There are certainly churches that lean heavily in this direction. Many ex-Christians cite this as a factor in their leaving the faith. But to suggest that resentment and guilt are dominant factors in the formation of religious values, it seems to me, goes too far.

At some level Asma seems to recognize it too:

All this internalized self-loathing is the cost we pay for being civilized. In a very well-organized society that protects the interests of many, we have to refrain daily from our natural instincts. We have to repress our own selfish, aggressive urges all the time, and we are so accustomed to it as adults that we don't always notice it.

It is our well-organized (and, I might add, pluralistic) society that forces us to repress our instincts and leaves us with a sense of guilt. It is our culture that teaches us to take turns as children, so that as grownups we will wait in line at the coffee shop. Without these cultural values:

I wouldn't bother to line up in a queue, but would just storm the counter (as I regularly witnessed people doing when I lived in China) and muscle people out of my way.

So as Westerners become less religious, they become less guilt-stricken, right? Not so, says Asma:

Feeling unworthy is still a large part of Western religious culture, but many people, especially in multicultural urban centers, are less religious.…Now the secular world still has to make sense out of its own invisible, psychological drama—in particular, its feelings of guilt and indignation. Environmentalism, as a substitute for religion, has come to the rescue.

Now I don't doubt that this is factual. Many people in Western societies do feel guilt and indignation about environmental issues. But the mere fact that people can get so worked up about secular causes—doesn't that just point to the conclusion that these emotions are not inherently religious?

In the era of Christendom, when church and state were so intertwined that the same people were often in leadership positions of both, it was easy to confuse cultural values and religious values. But today, as Western society becomes more secular, we have an opportunity to tear apart the tangled web of values that have been passed down to us in the name of cultural Christianity.

Now this is only tangential to Asma's point. He doesn't want to see environmentalism turn into "one more humorless religion". I agree with him there.

But I think we can go further. Christianity should not be a religion of self-loathing and indignation. Certainly, we have the doctrine of sin. But more powerful than sin is the grace of God. Salvation doesn't just mean providing a free "get out of hell" card to a bunch of people undeserving of it. Salvation is supposed to transform us into the type of people God wanted us to be in the first place. Jesus became one of us so we could become more like God.

With grace like that, who needs guilt?

Labels: , ,

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Bosco Peters is concerned:

I think the word “orthodox” might be in trouble. Let’s try and save it from losing its meaning.

I am seeing a lot of people calling themselves “orthodox” Christians and using the term to put down others as “unorthodox”, “heterodox”. But actually I don’t think these particular people should be allowed to use the term “orthodox” – as they are changing its meaning (and hence emptying its meaning IMO).

These self-proclaimed "orthodox" Christians, according to Bosco, are better described as "homodox," a term meaning, "of the same opinion."

Many people who are misusing, abusing the term “orthodox” are in fact not orthodox at all, they are homodox (let me preempt the comment now: it does not mean worshipping gays ) They want everyone to think exactly like them (yes, often particularly about gays). Orthodox can cope with diversity, do not need everyone to agree about everything, celebrate diversity, honour difference: In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas. (In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.)

Above all else, says Bosco, the term "orthodox" refers to "right worship":

If you call yourself orthodox, at the very least it should mean that most Christians for the first 1500 years or so of Christian history should be able to walk into your worship and pretty much feel at home.

See the full post.

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 21, 2010

panama palindromes

A palindrome is a word, phrase, or sentence in which the letters are identical whether read forward or backward.

For example:

  • kayak

  • rotator

  • Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.

  • A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!

In 1983, Jim Saxe realized that he could add a cat to that last one:

A man, a plan, a cat, a canal; Panama?

Two Guys soon extended the list even further. Guy Jacobson produced:

A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal--Panama!

and Guy Steele offered:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal--Panama!

By the following year, Dan Hoey had extended the palindrome to 540 words, using what he termed "a fairly simple-minded program" and the Unix spelling dictionary:

A man, a plan, a caret, a ban, a myriad, a sum, a lac, a liar, a hoop, a pint, a catalpa, a gas, an oil, a bird, a yell, a vat, a caw, a pax, a wag, a tax, a nay, a ram, a cap, a yam, a gay, a tsar, a wall, a car, a luger, a ward, a bin, a woman, a vassal, a wolf, a tuna, a nit, a pall, a fret, a watt, a bay, a daub, a tan, a cab, a datum, a gall, a hat, a fag, a zap, a say, a jaw, a lay, a wet, a gallop, a tug, a trot, a trap, a tram, a torr, a caper, a top, a tonk, a toll, a ball, a fair, a sax, a minim, a tenor, a bass, a passer, a capital, a rut, an amen, a ted, a cabal, a tang, a sun, an ass, a maw, a sag, a jam, a dam, a sub, a salt, an axon, a sail, an ad, a wadi, a radian, a room, a rood, a rip, a tad, a pariah, a revel, a reel, a reed, a pool, a plug, a pin, a peek, a parabola, a dog, a pat, a cud, a nu, a fan, a pal, a rum, a nod, an eta, a lag, an eel, a batik, a mug, a mot, a nap, a maxim, a mood, a leek, a grub, a gob, a gel, a drab, a citadel, a total, a cedar, a tap, a gag, a rat, a manor, a bar, a gal, a cola, a pap, a yaw, a tab, a raj, a gab, a nag, a pagan, a bag, a jar, a bat, a way, a papa, a local, a gar, a baron, a mat, a rag, a gap, a tar, a decal, a tot, a led, a tic, a bard, a leg, a bog, a burg, a keel, a doom, a mix, a map, an atom, a gum, a kit, a baleen, a gala, a ten, a don, a mural, a pan, a faun, a ducat, a pagoda, a lob, a rap, a keep, a nip, a gulp, a loop, a deer, a leer, a lever, a hair, a pad, a tapir, a door, a moor, an aid, a raid, a wad, an alias, an ox, an atlas, a bus, a madam, a jag, a saw, a mass, an anus, a gnat, a lab, a cadet, an em, a natural, a tip, a caress, a pass, a baronet, a minimax, a sari, a fall, a ballot, a knot, a pot, a rep, a carrot, a mart, a part, a tort, a gut, a poll, a gateway, a law, a jay, a sap, a zag, a fat, a hall, a gamut, a dab, a can, a tabu, a day, a batt, a waterfall, a patina, a nut, a flow, a lass, a van, a mow, a nib, a draw, a regular, a call, a war, a stay, a gam, a yap, a cam, a ray, an ax, a tag, a wax, a paw, a cat, a valley, a drib, a lion, a saga, a plat, a catnip, a pooh, a rail, a calamus, a dairyman, a bater, a canal--Panama.

Hoey opined, "With a better word list and a smarter program I'm sure the palindrome could be ten times as long."

Years later, in honor of the palindromic date/time of two minutes after 8 PM on the 20th of February, 2002, at (i.e. 20:02 20/02 2002, or in the U.S., 20:02 02/20 2002) Peter Norvig decided to try to create the world's longest palindrome. On finding Hoey's website, he took up the challenge to find a palindromic sentence ten times as long as Hoey's. Using this program, Norvig created a palindrome beginning with:

A man, a plan, a caddy, Ore, Lee, tsuba, Thaine, a lair,

ending with:

Hell, a burial, Aeniah, Tabu, Steele, Roydd, a canal, Panama.

and containing 15,139 words in all.

Norvig offered this commentary:

Maybe I'm biased, but I think the palindrome starts out quite strong. "A man, a plan, a caddy" is the basic premise of another fine piece of storytelling. Unfortunately, things go downhill from there rather quickly. It contains truths, but it does not have a plot. It has Putnam, but no logic; Tesla, but no electricity; Pareto, but no optimality; Ebert, but no thumbs up. It has an ensemble cast including Tim Allen, Ed Harris and Al Pacino, but they lack character development. It has Sinatra and Pink, but it doesn't sing. It has Monet and Goya, but no artistry. It has Slovak, Inuit, Creek, and Italian, but it's all Greek to me. It has exotic locations like Bali, Maui, Uranus, and Canada, but it jumps around needlessly. It has Occam, but it is the antithesis of his maxim "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem." If you tried to read the whole thing, you'd get to "a yawn" and stop. Or you might be overcome by the jargon, such as PETN, ILGWU, PROM, UNESCO, and MYOB. Most serendipitous of all is that Steele, who collected several shorter versions of the Panama oeuvre in a book about a Lisp, shows up in the very last line. Steele and some others have some comments. You can read the results from top to bottom (if you don't get bored) or you can start in the middle; the letter "y" in "Moray".

I don't know. While I find this interesting on an academic level, I think the palindrome loses something when it becomes too long. Though these lengthy palindromes are grammatically correct, they don't convey any real meaning. What makes "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!" interesting is not just that the letters are reversible, but that it offers commentary on a historical event. What do you think?

Labels: ,

Monday, January 18, 2010

on the Haiti earthquake and pact with the devil

No, Mr. Robertson, the nation of Haiti did not make a pact with the devil.

I don't suppose you are interested in the historical details, Mr. Robertson. An ideological defense of your prosperity theology is too important to let mere facts get in the way.

So to explain why the earthquake hit Haiti and not the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island, you invented a story of how the Dominican Republic prospers. Actually it's the fourth poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with 42% of the population living in poverty, an unemployment rate of 14%, an inflation rate of more than 10%, and an infant mortality rate of 25 per 1000 births.

Then you passed along the unfounded gossip about how the Haitians supposedly made a pact with the devil to throw off the bonds of French oppression. Because the devil cares so much about oppressed peoples? I must admit, there are nuances of prosperity theology that escape my understanding.

And no, Mr. Robertson, the earthquake is not a blessing in disguise for the Haitian people. It's never a blessing for anyone when a natural disaster destroys their homes and kills their loved ones. The least we can do is stop passing judgment and offer whatever help we are able.

The Bread for the World website has a list of organizations providing aid right now.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, January 17, 2010

science tricks for parties

These are really cool effects, and the tricks all are self-working:

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

on reducing global carbon emissions

Rachel Smokler and Gary Houser are no fans of carbon cap and trade. They outline their objections in an opinion piece for

There are two leading theories on how best to compel a reduction of global carbon emissions. The direct approach would be to levy a tax on carbon emissions. The idea behind this is to set a minimum price for pollution. Some progressives see a carbon tax as an opportunity to shift the tax burden or to increase revenues without raising income taxes.

A cap and trade system relies on market forces to reduce emissions. Every corporation whose factories emit carbon waste (essentially, every corporation) is assigned an emissions cap — an amount of carbon it is allowed to release into the air in a year. The company receives permits for this amount of carbon. A company that reduces emissions below its cap is allowed to sell the excess permits to companies that aren't able to reach their caps.

Unlike a carbon tax, a cap and trade system allows companies to profit from good environmental stewardship. This appears to be Smokler and Houser's first objection to carbon markets:

Many of these people, representing some of the most powerful institutions and industries in the world, will get together this week to see just how (and how much) they can squeeze out of the Earth's impending woes. On January 12th and 13th - within the conference rooms of the Embassy Suites Hotel in New York City - the Second Annual Carbon Summit will convene, bringing together representatives from industry, finance, government, and the corporate environmental groups.

Inside the summit, these monied interests will be enthusiastically discussing how to best take advantage of the emerging carbon markets.

I am just shocked, shocked to learn that representatives of for-profit institutions would gather to talk about making money. Who could have imagined such a scene?

But Smokler and Houser have a much more serious objection to cap and trade:

Unfortunately, theory and practice in carbon markets simply do not jive. We have plenty of evidence that marketing carbon doesn't work to reduce emissions.

Their evidence, though, is not so plentiful as they suggest.

The EU experiment with a carbon trade system has been soundly declared a failure.

Well, yes, it has been declared a failure — by advocates of carbon taxes. When the system was introduced in 2005 officials weren't sure at what level to set the emissions caps, so they started with a level that should have been achievable by most companies. Unfortunately, since most companies finished the first year under their limits, they were not able to sell the excess carbon permits as they expected.

What's more, between 2005 and 2007, more than half of the participating nations saw a net increase in their emissions. The caps were so permissive that companies were able to release more carbon and still meet their quotas. During these two years, the E.U. as a whole increased its emissions by nearly 2 percent.

Meanwhile, global emissions increased by more than 3% each year during this span, about 6.7% over the two years. Compared to the rest of the world, the EU under the cap and trade system exhibited much better restraint on emissions increases.

Compared to the status quo, then, cap and trade can't be considered a failure in carbon reduction. And compared to a carbon tax, a cap and trade system offers the tangible benefit of having been implemented.

Nonetheless, Smokler and Houser favor the tax. Yet the strongest argument they can muster is:

The issue of justice is central to the opposition to carbon markets. Protestors on the streets in Copenhagen called for "climate justice now" and "system change not climate change". With the gross inequities that leave billions starving in dire poverty, while a small portion of humanity gobbles resources and spews greenhouse gases, it seems unlikely that marketing carbon will resolve the problems. The power structures that have created those inequities, and made such a mess of our planet must be challenged if we are to have a chance at a liveable future. We will have to address the roots of the problem.

Granted, carbon cap and trade will not solve the problems of global inequality. But what it can do is give us a non-punative way to enforce reductions in global emissions. It will leave us with an economy that is strong enough that we will have resources for tackling other problems. Overturning the existing power structures would likely lead to greater poverty all around.

Nontheless, Smokler and Houser are optimistic about the prospects for a carbon tax:

We cannot spend, or consume, or manipulate our way out of this mess; We must take account of our behavior and make the radical shifts that the problem demands. As you will see exhibited again this week in New York, there is increasingly more wisdom, knowledge, and maturity outside on the cold streets than exhibited in the warm conference rooms of the world.

But don't hold your breath. A poll by the Pew Reserach Center in October showed that 1/3 of all U.S. residents don't even acknowledge the world is getting warmer. Don't look for radical shifts of behavior here. If carbon tax advocates join climate deniers in sinking cap and trade legislation, we'll have no mechanism for curbing carbon emissions. And if we don't cut emissions soon, we're going to have a host of other problems demanding our attention.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, January 10, 2010

shoplifting as a christian virtue

Father Tim Jones, parish priest at St Lawrence and St Hilda in York in Britain, has made international headlines by seeming to advocate shoplifting in a recent sermon:

My advice in these circumstances, when people have been let down so very badly by the rest of society, is that they should not hurt anybody, and cope as best they can. The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people – family, friends, neighbours, strangers. Others are tempted towards prostitution, a nightmare world of degradation and abuse for all concerned. Others are tempted towards suicide.

Instead, I would rather that they shoplift. My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift.

Now why would a Christian priest urge people to shoplift? Are there any circumstances that could possibly justify this criminal action? Is Father Jones suggesting that stealing is OK?

I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither. I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need, for any longer than they need.

Now it's beginning to sound downright marxist. Is Father Jones advocating, in a roundabout way, a brand of socialism?

No, actually, because the sermon is not really about shoplifting. It is grounded in the Magnificat, the song of Mary in the early part of Luke's gospel.

The recurrent theme of Mary's song is the faithful love of God towards his children, no matter how lowly, despised or lacking they may be. The phrases of her song are drawn almost entirely from the grateful pleading of the forlorn in Old Testament prophetic literature. It is a song which has done a huge amount to reinforce the Christian commitment to the poor and needy of society in every age.

But "commitment to the poor and needy of society" has always been easier to talk about than to put into practice. And that's what led Father Jones to make such a controversial declaration.

What advice should one give, for example, to an ex prisoner who was released in mid-November with a release grant of less than £50 and a crisis loan, also of less than £50, who applies immediately for benefits but is, with less than a week to go before Christmas, still to receive any financial support?

His advice, as we saw above, would be for them to take the things they need. It's not good advice, especially to someone with a criminal record. But what are the alternatives?

One might tell them to see their social worker, but they are on a waiting list for a social worker. Tell them to see their probation officer, perhaps, but the probation officer can only enquire of the benefits agency, and be told that benefits will eventually be forthcoming. One might tell them to get a job, but it is at the very best of times extremely difficult for an ex prisoner to find work, and these are not the best of times for anyone trying to find a job.

None of these options will provide food, clothing, or shelter. But a return to jail would, and so shoplifting begins to look more attractive.

There are, of course, ways to get the basic necessities without stealing:

They could perhaps get cereal and toast every morning from a local charity. Then could perhaps apply, and see if they are eligible for some limited help from the Salvation Army or other such body.

But such charity often has the unintended consequence of creating dependence. And that cuts to the heart of the gospel message. Jesus said he came to "bring good news to the poor," to "proclaim release to the captives," to "let the oppressed go free." But having to go to a shelter for cereal every morning is not freedom, and it is certainly not good news.

If a society cannot offer a better alternative than this to its most vulnerable citizens, it has failed. And that, ultimately, is Father Jones' point when he says the best option for the poor is shoplifting:

Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift. The observation that shoplifting is the best option that some people are left with is a grim indictment of who we are. Rather, this is a call for our society no longer to treat its most vulnerable people with indifference and contempt.

Again, the gospel message confronts us with harsh reality. Do we believe Christ died for sinners? Or are some people beyond his ability to redeem? In the sermon, preached the Sunday before Christmas, Father Jones urged his congregation:

Prepare for the coming of Christ, for Christmas is almost upon us. But don't let your preparations be limited to tinsel and turkey, crackers, fairy lights and chocolates. Prepare for Christ by singing his mother's song, and taking her words to heart. Don't just sing about lifting up the lowly: help with the lifting!

It's a message we all need to take seriously.

Here's the full transcript of the sermon.

hat tip: PamBG

Labels: ,