Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Everything that is wrong...

I am not trying to exclude my Western friends from this posting, but it may not be something that you relate to. Unfortunately, blogspot does not allow me to selectively modify the recipients for particular posts. So feel free to ignore this post.

I simply had to reply to this strange posting on blogspot by Arun, whom I found in the Pharyngula comments section for a post. His post really reflects everything that is wrong in modern India today with its inordinate emphasis on religion (despite its propounded status of a 'secular state').

I am going to put that post in here in its entirety, so that my discerning readers can see it for themselves.
From Arun's Musings
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Tirupathi Declaration
According to Swami Dayananda Saraswatiji there are far too many powerful people, even in India, in whose mental landscape there is no place for Hindus, and that unless Hindus act, Hinduism is finished. These forces include the Communists and the current ruling parties in India.

My comment - part of the problem is that secularism in India applies not to Hinduism - the government does not have any right to interfere in minority institutions, but runs and milks the manifold Hindu religious establishments.

Anyway, here is his declaration, and he hopes it catches the spirit of the people like the Quit India, 1942.

July 15, 2006

We Hindus assembled here declare
that we do not support, directly or indirectly,
any group, institution, religion, media,
or political force, which preaches, practices
or works against Hindu Dharma
in this country.

We appeal to all the Hindus
in this country and elsewhere
to subscribe to and support
this declaration,
the Tirupathi Declaration.

We want all the Hindu religious endowments
to be managed by Hindu bodies,
and not by the government.
We want the secular government
to release all religious endowments
from its hold.

This was my reply to him:

From your use of the honorific 'ji' after the name of Dayananda Saraswati, I suspect that you subscribe to that school of thought (or lack thereof). I cannot, of course, presume to teach you what is right and wrong. I can only say, and say it with pride, that Hinduism, the oldest religion/philosophy in the world, shall go on despite the weak-minded ramblings of Dayananda Saraswati and his ilk. The so-called Tirupathi Declaration is meant only to stir up a communal frenzy of the type seen more often in the Middle East or your esteemed neighbor. All sane and intelligent Indians should criticize it to the harshest possible extent.

Arun, do you know about the root of the word 'Dharma' (for that matter, does Dayanand Saraswati?)? It comes from 'Yah Dhaaranam Kritwaah' (what holds you together). Yes, it is an intensely personal experience, a communion with God, something not to be bandied about in public by the likes of Dayanand Saraswati.

I would not endeavor to preach here. But in your spare time, please try to look up, either in a book or in the internet, the origins of Hindu dharma, which long predates Dayanand Saraswati. You would notice terms like Advaita, Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita and so forth. The Advaita school of thought is one of the earliest Hindu philosophies, that declares the oneness of God. I don't know if you can really comprehend the enormity of it, but it really tells you that the one God is everywhere, from the smallest particles inside the atom, to the largest expanse of the universe; God is in everything, living and non-living, and in everyone, Hindu, non-Hindu, believer, non-believer. Do you realize that, Arun? God is in ALL of us, there is a spark of God in all of us, and all our lives we spend trying to realize that spark, in the end trying to merge with the universal God.

How do we, as Hindus, try to realize that spark, Arun? By trying to follow the basic tenets of any religion in the world, 'do unto others as you would have others do unto you', by striving to help others unconditionally, working towards eliminating the ills of mankind, poverty, disease, greed, and lack of education. This is how we are supposed to realize God, not by making incendiary statements, prosetylization, intolerance and general idiocy.

Do you really want to know what is wrong with India today? It is contained in the term 'religious establishment'. When purport of something as personal as religion is subverted into making establishments, be it Hindu or otherwise, it is bound to create confusion galore, for all establishments would essentially reflect the thoughts, ideas and even political aspirations of individuals. God, sadly, has no place in that!!

I hope you see the light, if not today, perhaps someday.

Unforunately, the Government of India has quite forgotten what is meant by a secular state, "a state with no state religion and in which the state is officially neutral in matters of religion, neither supporting nor opposing any particular religious beliefs or practices", a principle that is enshrined in the Constitution of India.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The incomparable Chuck...

Darwin - yeah, the evolution guy! Not much given to reading biographies, I had so long missed out on knowing more about Charles Darwin. Of course, Darwin and his theory of evolution doesn't have to wait for my introduction in a humble blog. My discovery of Darwin, the man and the tireless scientist, began recently. I started with a Wikipedia entry on Charles Darwin, and read on and on, going through the linkouts. I marvelled anew at the importance of his contribution to modern biology, as well as his continued dedication to science post The Origin of Species.

Darwin had taken up work on habits of worms. According to contemporary accounts, around 1881, he devoted himself "to worm experiments which included Darwin shining different colours of lights at them at night, his sons playing different musical instruments to them, different scents and kinds of food. Other stimuli were ignored, but a bright white light or a touch of breath would make them bolt "like rabbits" into their burrows. They appeared to "enjoy the pleasure of eating" showing "eagerness for certain kinds of food", sexual passion was "strong enough to overcome... their dread of light", and he saw "a trace of social feeling" in their way of "crawling over each other's bodies". Experiments showed that they dragged leaves into their burrows narrow end first, having somehow got a "notion, however rude, of the shape of an object", maybe by "touching it in many places" with a sense like "a man... born blind and deaf" and a rudimentary intelligence."

As we know, Science progresses on the premises of continuous observation and evaluation of its principles. Therefore, theories are often challenged by fresh experimentation and observation. Recently, Kelly Dorgan, a PhD student at the University of Maine, has challenged a century old theory, propounded by Darwin, about how worms move. The Popular Science magazine, in a recent issue, reports that "the work has quickly established her as an authority on the world underground."

According to the PopSci article, Darwin did not believe that the ground could yield on all sides to a worm nosing through soil. He thought that worms swallowed a path through the earth, which scientists later considered an extraordinarily inefficient means of movement. But since worms are very difficult to observe, biologists did not have a good idea about the mechanics of this motion. Dorgan's patient work has shed definitive light on this problem.

Using a method known as photoelastic stress analysis, which employs an elaborate setup of polarized light and camera filters to measure the stress placed on an object, and a seawater-gelatin mixture that had the physical properties of marine sediment, Dorgan put in a worm and filmed it burrowing. By studying the stress fields around the worms, she discovered that they actually launch their mouths inside out like a wedge to pry open the mud. Then they ease into the space opened by the crack. To keep moving, they just keep leveraging the crack. In engineering terms, this is known as crack propagation, and Dorgan’s studies suggest that it costs the worms much less energy than having to ingest every inch of mud in their path. Her finding has changed scientists’ understanding of the entire underground ecosystem: apparently, burrowers such as clams, sea urchins and even growing root tips are really living levers.

Kelly Dorgan, 26, is one of the Brilliant 10 awardees of 2006 by the Popular Science magazine.

To finish with a little bit more on my discovery of Darwin: I first met Charles Darwin in my junior high-school biology class, the man with the long white beard. While discussing the evolutionary theory, I remember, the teacher had written down the full name of his 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (usually referred to as The Origin of Species). He had discussed Darwin's journey on the Beagle; the Darwinian mechanism of evolution comprising the inheritable traits, occurrence of random variation, survival of the fittest and propagation of the species; and a comparison with Lamarck's theory, using the neck length of giraffes as an example. Even at that time, our young minds were impressed with the idea of evolution, and later on in higher classes, we gradually learned how natural selection was combined with Mendelian inheritance and genetics, to form the foundation of modern biology.

As I mentioned above, following his work on the evolutionary theory, [Quoting from Wikipedia] he conducted an innovative study of how (an orchid's) beautiful flowers served to control insect pollination and ensure cross fertilisation; he continued to write on origin of species, publishing in 1871 the two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where he introduced in full his concept of sexual selection to explain the evolution of human culture, the differences between the human sexes, and the differentiation of human races, as well as the beautiful (and seemingly non-adaptive) plumage of birds. A year later Darwin published his last major work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which focused on the evolution of human psychology and its continuity with to the behaviour of animals. He developed his ideas that the human mind and cultures were developed by natural and sexual selection, an approach which has been revived in the last two decades with the emergence of evolutionary psychology. His evolution-related experiments and investigations culminated in five books on plants, and then his last book returned to the effect worms have on soil levels.

Until next time, folks! Adios.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Perhaps I spoke too hastily...

when I said earlier that I did not find anything to feel strongly about anymore. A slew of stories today in different media shook me up. One that particularly caught my attention:

Wired News reports today on a bill that "radically redefines and expands" the government's ability to eavesdrop and search the houses of U.S. citizens without court approval.
By a 10-8 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the National Security Surveillance Act (the full text available as a PDF document at a Wired News blog site), which was co-written by committee's chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) in concert with the White House... Lisa Graves, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said, "The administration has taken their illegal conduct in wiretapping Americans without court orders, in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Constitution, and used it as springboard to not only get FISA changed to allow the Terrorist Surveillance Program, but to actually, going forward, not give protections to Americans' privacy rights."

Some important provisions of this bill, according to the Wired News report:
  • Redefines surveillance so that only programs that catch the substance of a communication need oversight. Any government surveillance that captures, analyzes and stores patterns of communications such as phone records, or e-mail and website addresses, is no longer considered surveillance.
  • Expands the section of law that allows the attorney general to authorize spying on foreign embassies, so long as there's no "substantial likelihood" that an American's communication would be captured.
  • Repeals the provision of federal law that allows the government unfettered wiretapping and physical searches without warrants or notification for 15 days after a declaration of war. The lack of any congressional restraint on the president's wartime powers arguably puts the president at the height, rather than the ebb, of his powers in any time of war, even an undeclared one.
  • Repeals the provision of federal law that limits the government's wartime powers to conduct warrantless wiretapping and physical searches to a period of 15 days after a declaration of war.
  • Repeals the provision of federal law that puts a time limit on the government's wartime powers to conduct warrantless wiretapping and physical searches against Americans. Under current law, the president has that power for only 15 days following a declaration of war.
  • Allows the attorney general, or anyone he or she designates, to authorize widespread domestic spying, such as monitoring all instant-messaging systems in the country, so long as the government promises to delete anything not terrorism-related.
  • Moves all court challenges to the NSA surveillance program to a secretive court in Washington, D.C., comprised of judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Only government lawyers would be allowed in the courtroom.
  • Allows the government to get warrants for surveillance programs as a whole, instead of having to describe to a judge the particular persons to be monitored and the methods to be used.
Specter has moved to have his bill voted upon next week by voice vote, called a unanimous consent motion, according to the ACLU's Graves. Such a procedure would leave no record of who voted for or against the bill.
The United States remains justly committed to continue their fight against the global threat of terrorism. But a rather cliched expression, that goes 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely', remains true in today's world, irrespective of geographical boundaries. Which is why the great American Constitution adopted the principle of checks and balances, the separation of powers in the governance of the state. Who but the conscientious US citizens can ensure that the provisions of the Constitution are not violated by caprice?

Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1738, "Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power." And the Pennsylvania assembly, in which he served, similarly noted in 1755, "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Truer statements have never been made, particularly in today's context.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A planet by any other name?

The New York Times reported today that the dwarf planet formerly known as Xena has been re-christened 'Eris'. Quoting NYT:

Dr. Michael E. Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology who discovered the distant ball of ice and rock that he nicknamed Xena, chose the name Eris, after the goddess of discord and strife in Greek mythology. The International Astronomical Union made the name official today.

"It is absolutely the perfect name," Dr. Brown said, given the continuing discord among astronomers and the public over whether Pluto should have retained its planetary status.

In mythology, Eris ignited discord that led to the Trojan War. “She causes strife by causing arguments among men, by making them think their opinions are right and everyone else’s is wrong,” Dr. Brown said. “It really is just perfect.”

Hmmm... I have known about Ares, the God of War (Come on, I used to love 'Xena, the Warrior Princess'!), but I don't recall hearing about Eris before. It is strange, on reflexion, how Eris, associated with strife, is closely homophonic to Eros, the God of Love! Those Greek mythologists had a sense of humor!

Perhaps so does the International Astronomical Union! Anyway, Prof. Myers at Pharyngula kind of stole my thunder by blogging the news of the name change in his post about Planetary conspiracy theories, and I have to say, he is HILARIOUS! I must share this with you, my friends; I urge you to visit his post following the link above, for further linkouts to other related blogs, but here is the excellent part:

The dwarf planet formerly known as Xena has been renamed Eris, and it's companion has been named Dysnomia... We all know the real devious reasons for juggling the names around.
  • It's an anti-feminist plot to deprive that famous female historical figure and butt-kicking lesbian, Xena the Warrior-Princess, of her due honor.
  • It's a feminist plot to punish Xena for making those horribly uncomfortable leather bustiers popular.
  • It's a Discordian conspiracy to destroy Christianity. Hail Eris!
  • Look at that name, "Eris". It makes no sense. But it's "Sire" spelled backwards…obviously, the British Royal Family is behind it, and we all know that they are up to no good, those shape-shifting reptoid bastards.
  • Alternatively, it's a typo: it's supposed to be "Bris." It's a Jewish feminist conspiracy, and they decided that a butt-kicking lesbian warrior wasn't aggressive enough, so they went to something more likely to strike fear in men's hearts.
  • It's a coded message from the Democrats. No more Floridas, no more Ohios—they're calling in Electoral Reform International Services.
  • Aww, heck, forget the secret conspiracy stories. This is an organization under the Bush administration, after all…somebody screwed up and accidentally typed random letters into a form. Has anyone seen Deutsch lately?
  • They were going to name the two bodies Eros and Dysmenorrhea, but those two just didn't get along, so they picked the next best names.
  • The REAL answer, the one we should worry about, is that all this shuffling about and renaming and categorizing of planets is an anti-evolutionist conspiracy. We now have dwarf planets; soon they'll unveil pygmy planets, and then we'll have the cosmic version of an irrefutable creationist argument, and we'll be doomed.
By the way, did anyone notice that Dr. Brown's description above about Eris - causes strife by causing arguments among men, by making them think their opinions are right and everyone else’s is wrong - fits ever so nicely to Organized Religion?

I shall say 'Amen' to that. Gotta go now. Later, dudes and dudettes.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Secularism? Ooohh, scary!!

Todays New York Times reports "Pope Assails Secularism, Adding Note on Jihad". In a mass at Regensburg in Germany on September 12, broaching the issue of the delicate relationship between Islam and the West, he reportedly said that "violence, embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad, or holy war, is contrary to reason and God’s plan, while the West was so beholden to reason that Islam could not understand it."

To be honest with you, I had a hard time getting past that first paragraph of the report. There are so many discrepancies right there. Let me look at the phrases, one at a time.
  • Violence... is contrary to reason: Indeed, very true. Violence never solves anything, it begets more violence, caught in a spiralling vortex till all participants are consumed. We don't have to look very far for evidence; the recent sanguinary conflict in the middle East, rioting and carnage in certain South-East Asian countries perpetrated in the name of religion or political causes, genocide in African countries - all fresh examples of mindless, irrational violence extracting a tremendous social, economic and psychological toll.

  • Violence, embodied in the Muslim idea of jihad, or holy war: Waitammminute! Muslim idea of 'Holy war'? His Holiness has never heard of the medieval Crusades? Holy wars justified by religious differences, sanctioned by the Papacy? The Just war theory that is traced back to St. Augustine of Hippo, that is in reality a contrived justification for aggression and imperialism? Is he closed to chapters of history identifying the repeated barbaric conflicts between the Crusading Christians and the Muslims, and the Crusaders' atrocities against Jews in various parts of Europe, and in Palestine and Syria, in what has come to be regarded a collective expresion of anti-Semitism?

    And at least, on the face of it, these Holy Wars, Crusades and the jihad, were to be waged between followers of discordant religions. What about the European Wars of Religion, fuelled by religious intolerance and extreme political ambition, where Catholics and Protestants engaged each other repeatedly in civil wars and military incursions?

    What face does His Holiness have to put the blame squarely on the shoulder of Muslims for the 'holy war'? Holy wars, the unholiest of events borne out of organized religion, do not follow any rational thought or embrace any constructive ideas, totally like the parent religions. There may be multiple and complex underlying causes, but these are undoubtedly fought primarily on religious grounds - as a means of expressing the faiths of the adversaries in the mode of comparison. "My religion is better than yours." And to this day, this is the central teaching of all major Western organized religions. All thoughtful insights, compassion, contemplation, service to mankind, self-abnegation are just hogwash. These are qualities of a good human being, to inculcate which no religious edict should be necessary, but those edicts are firmly put in place for these religions, no less in the ever-looming shadow of a vengeful, punitive deity and the constant warning of eternal retribution, because otherwise, how can the power over millions of lives be asserted?

  • While the West was so beholden to reason... : Muhuhuhuwahahaha! Yeah, right! Reason. Is there any evidence of it left in the West, indeed anywhere in the world? Do the religious, the faithful believe in reason? Hell, no! They have faith! Do, all over the world, they perceive any need or yearning for reason - these right-wing Christian apologists, proselytizing evangelists, creationists, believers of 'intelligent (divine) design', Islamic fundamentalists, radical Hindu jingoists, any follower of any organized, institutionalized religious creed or even a cult like Scientology? Each group is shouting its claim to the ownership and knowledge of "God's plan". A fine plan, no doubt, scuttling away countless lives of those supposedly created in God's own image!
The Papal speech "distilled many of Benedict’s longstanding concerns, about the crisis of faith among Christians and about Islam and its relationship to violence. And he used language open to interpretations that could inflame Muslims, at a time of high tension among religions..." Does it come as any surprise? Fundamentally, he shares the same ground as a Qu'ran quoting, venom-spewing, fatwah-imposing Islamist cleric. Which is why "he devoted the rest (of his speech) to a long examination of how Western science and philosophy had divorced themselves from faith — leading to the secularization of European society that is at the heart of Benedict’s worries. This, he said, has closed off the West from a full understanding of reality, making it also impossible to talk with cultures for whom faith is fundamental."

'Secular' has been treated like a four-letter word. The Merriam Webster defines it as 'not overtly or specifically religious'. Wait! That's right! It's a danger to the maintenance of a creed-based hegemony. If secularism raises its head, people will no longer feel the need to adhere to a set of pretentious, dogmatic rules, and may actually acquire knowledge, embrace other cultures, spread goodwill, and - horror of horrors! - go on with their lives without the spectre of eternal perdition! How can this allowed?

Marco Politi, the Vatican expert for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said that “the text reveals his deep mistrust regarding the aggressive side of Islam. Certainly he closes the door to an idea which was very dear to John Paul II — the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God."
Very understandable from His Holiness' point of view, I suppose. This congregation of multiple organized religions, even if they theoretically stem from the same lore, is anathematic to his chosen agenda, which is imparting an essentially Catholic Christian fundamentalist outlook to everything. Which is why he dislikes secularism like hell; it does not find any consonance at all with his warped, myopic, unilateral world view. He cannot understand or believe that in order to be a good human being, it is not necessary to be force-fed dollops of religious mumbo-jumbo; a healthy, reasoning, secular outlook - free from the inherently restrictive pre-conditions of organized religions - can achieve a lot of good in this world.

He has sounded his take on atheism, too: "being afraid of God... is ultimately at the root of modern atheism," he said. "Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life."

Therefore, Prof. Myers and my fellow Pharyngulaphiles, His Holiness enjoins us to shun atheism in order to get a relief from the emptiness of our lives, by filling it up with as much rubbish as possible. You know what to do, don't you?

Friday, September 08, 2006

A breath of fresh air...

I have come to a sad realization, one year and seven months following the commencement of 'Li'l bit of this and that'; I am not cut out to be a blogger. Regularly reading a few blogs now, I have come to appreciate greatly the passion, energy and enthusiasm the bloggers put forth into this business. I have awakened to the lamentable possibility that I am perhaps not passionate about anything any more, perhaps I have settled down to an ordinary, lower-middle-class, complacent existence that seeks comfort in tranquility and firmly suppresses any hint of rebellion from the old self trying to re-assert itself. To borrow an expression from an old favorite poet, my days are now spent in "Eating, drinking, sleeping... the prodigal Anabus (fish) returning to school in meek conformation". Which is why I have nothing to blog about.

I am not sure when this shift came about, and why. Sometimes I feel it is a gesture of defeat in face of the oppressive mediocrity that has pervaded the world; it is like a juggernaut hell-bent on diminishment of all the progressive human qualities - originality, rationalism, sincerity, conscientiousness and temperance, and suppression of ideas, thoughts, study and analysis, all those instruments of advancement of the human race. It is this mediocrity that prompts human beings to seek that elusive glory and fulfillment in non-existent utopias and outmoded concepts, making them easy prey for certain predatory parasites pushing personal agenda. It is this mediocrity that breeds and sustains ignorance, and reduces social conscience and responsibility. It is constrictive, depressing and all-pervasive, which is why I am so discouraged and defeated.

Hmm... now for a breath of fresh air. I am a lot into Scienceblogs these days. Scienceblogs' mission statement (read it here in full) says it quite eloquently:

"...science is figuring prominently in our discussions of politics, religion, philosophy, business and the arts. New insights and discoveries in neuroscience, theoretical physics and genetics are revolutionizing our understanding of who are are, where we come from and where we're heading. ScienceBlogs is a portal to this global dialogue, a digital science salon featuring the leading bloggers from a wide array of scientific disciplines. Our mission is to build a community of like-minded individuals who are passionate about science and its place in our culture, and give them a place to meet..."

And that is my little ray of sunshine. The three major blogs I read regularly are:

  • Pharyngula, by Dr. PZ Myers, a biologist and Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris. His prolific blogs profess to be about 'Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal', and are immensely enjoyable.
  • Aetiology, by Dr. Tara Smith, an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. She writes about 'causes, origins, evolution and implications of disease and other phenomena', a host of topics very close to my heart.
  • Pure Pedantry, an engaging blog by Jake Young, an MD/PhD student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine (in NY) focusing in Neuroscience.
I enjoy reading those tremendously, and try to follow almost all the linkouts they provide. I invite all of you to give them a try. Some of you may not easily grasp the biology discussions, but these bloggers present them with such a consummate skill that you cannot help being drawn to the contents.

And I shall let you in on a secret... I do comment in them sometimes, under the nom de plume 'suirauqa', that's 'aquarius' in reverse...

Wish you all an enjoyable weekend! Hasta que escribo otra vez.

Oh, and as always, your comments are always welcome. However, I have been forced to switch on a Captcha verification (word) for responders, because I was getting spammed through the comment box (I didn't even know it was possible...). I am really sorry for any resultant inconvenience. Ciao.