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Biblical Science?

April 28, 2016 Leave a comment

I was recently shown a small card which contained some religious propaganda. It was left at a lecture held in a science department at a university and purported to demonstrate how the Bible must have a supernatural origin considering it presented so many facts later shown to be real science where other sources of the same era got the same fact wrong.

Needless to say I was somewhat skeptical of the claim, but I decided to give it a fair chance and did some research on the subject. Because properly researching a subject like this takes a significant amount of time and effort I thought I should look at the first claim initially and then maybe move onto the rest later.

So here’s the first claim: according to the Bible the Earth is a sphere (Isaiah 40:22). And according to modern science the Earth is a sphere. But according to “science then” the Earth was a flat disk.

The phrase “science then” presents a few problems. First, science in its modern form has only existed for a few hundred years so what “science” thousands of years ago thought is very hard to establish. Next, when was “then”. The authors and dates of Biblical verses are not well known so the time we should be comparing the knowledge level of is hard to establish.

Then there’s the other, perhaps bigger, problem of Biblical interpretation. What do Bible verses really mean? Has meaning been lost in translation? Which meaning should we accept when many possibilities exist? And how literally should we take this material?

Well it actually doesn’t matter much because whatever criteria you use the claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Let me explain why…

First, here’s Isaiah 40:22 from the New International Version: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

I looked at the translation of the verse in over 20 different Bible versions and 16 of them used the word “circle”, one used “disk”, one used “globe”, and the rest didn’t really specify any particular shape. So it seemed that the intention was to indicate a two dimensional shape (apart from the one which used “globe”, the Douay-Rheims Bible, which isn’t considered one of the more accurate translations).

But I wasn’t happy with that. I found the translation for the Hebrew word “chug” which seems to translate to circle, circuit, or compass. I also checked a few sources (all pro-Christian) for how the word “circle” is used in other parts of the Bible. In every case it is used to indicate a flat shape rather than a sphere.

Here’s a quote from a Christian site, the Christian Resource Institute: “We certainly affirm that Scripture is fully inspired by God… Yet what is interesting is that even with inspiration, God allowed these ancient ways of looking at the world to stand without correction. In other words, God did not reveal modern scientific knowledge to the ancient Israelites, or correct their ancient views of the way the world works.”

So this is saying that the Bible contains the deliberate error that the Earth is flat rather than spherical just to make it easier for the ancient Israelites. I thought the Bible was supposed to be a source of knowledge, but that hardly matters because the clear conclusion (from a pro-Christian source remember) is that Isaiah thinks the Earth is flat.

So from that perspective alone the original claim fails. But the problems for this claim go far beyond that…

The authorship of Isaiah is highly uncertain. Most modern scholars think there were at least two authors. The first was Isaiah himself (although the Biblical character almost certainly never existed) and the first 39 verses were written by him. But the rest were done by another unknown prophet many years later and those include the verse in question (40) as well as others containing the so-called “Prophecy of Cyrus” (which, of course, wasn’t a prophecy at all).

So the date this material comes from is unknown but the earliest date is likely to be around 500 to 550 BCE. What did “science” know about the Earth then?

The idea of a spherical Earth dates back to around the 6th century BCE, when it was mentioned in ancient Greek philosophy, and the Egyptians observed a phenomenon consistent with it around 610–595 BCE. So even if the Bible had stated the Earth was spherical (which it didn’t) that wasn’t unique knowledge at the time.

And even if both claims were true (that the Bible stated the Earth is a sphere and that no one else knew this) then the claim is still weak because, with all the claims made in the Bible we would expect some to be true and some false based purely on chance. Since there are undoubtedly hundreds of parts of the Bible (the creation myth, for example) which are false, finding one small part which might be construed as being true according to certain interpretations might not be surprising. But this even fails that rather minimal test.

Finally, plenty of other books (and other sources) claim to contain secret knowledge. Muslims use a very similar argument to support the Koran but I often see Christians ridiculing it. And various conspiracies exist claiming that the Egyptians, Dogon, Aztecs, and many others had advanced knowledge given to them by gods, aliens, etc. It’s all utter nonsense.

So the claim that the Bible contains unique science regarding the shape of the Earth unknown to others at the time fails in every way. I would hope that any intelligent person – like those likely to be at a science lecture – would recognise this frivolous nonsense for what it is, so the propaganda was pointless. It’s actually rather pathetic that anyone in this day and age would even have the slightest disposition towards treating this stuff seriously.

On the other hand, maybe some of the other 11 claims are more realistic. But I won’t really know that until I research those too. Sounds like a good subject for a future blog post!

Those Pastafarians!

April 20, 2016 Leave a comment

The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pastafarian Church have been in the news quite a lot recently and I think this has brought some interesting social issues into focus.

First, there was the first wedding in the world performed by a Pastafarian marriage celebrant right here in New Zealand. There has been a lot of international media attention on this event and I think we should be very proud of this progress our country has made in being open to new ideas and beliefs.

On a less positive note, a US prison has refused a prisoner’s request to have Pastafarianism recognised as a legitimate faith. The judge ruled that it is more a satire than a real religion and that the prisoner’s claim of faith was unlikely to be genuine.

In that case the judge does have a point because the FSM was originally created as a way to satirise conventional religion. On the other hand surely Pastafarianism is no less absurd than Scientology which the same prison does recognise as being legitimate.

But this also gets back to the question of what religion is for and why religions are created. The problem is that the main distinguishing feature between a “respectable” religion and a cult or sect is that the religion has been around a lot longer and the highly questionable processes involved in its creation have been forgotten.

I am confident that if we looked at how Christianity was created by the early church leaders and various committees we would be either shocked or amused, depending on our outlook. But those details are well disguised by the intervening centuries so the religion is basically safe from that sort of criticism. When we look at Islam there is less time involved but still enough that its essential absurdity is well hidden. Newer religions like Mormonism and Scientology are clearly absurd because their origins are still fairly well known.

Of course Pastafarianism is even more open to criticism from this perspective. (Note that I am somewhat suspicious of the claim that the religion has existed for hundreds of years in strict secrecy!)

I fully agree that Pastafarianism was originally created as a satire and was never meant to be taken as being real. But it can still be taken seriously because satirising the stupidity and corruption which is entrenched in organised religion is a serious business.

And there is another purpose too. The one thing I noticed with the reports of the Pastafarianism marriage was just the fun aspect. It gave the participants a shared belief, a core set of values, and a set of rituals they could use in a ceremony without having to resort to the dreary stuff we see in most conventional services.

For example, the couple arrived at the ceremony by sailing the “high seas” in a pirate ship with their family and friends, while wearing full pirate regalia, and spoke pirate themed phrases using a pirate accent. That sounds so much better than a conventional wedding!

And instead of exchanging vows they agreed to “terms of engagement” which included something like “being on a voyage together, and whatever storms and doldrums they encounter they will get through if they keep their hands on the wheel”.

It might sound a bit silly but listening to them it really sounded like there was something they identified with there. The bride said she would probably not have got married otherwise because she just didn’t identify with a conventional ceremony and this “just felt right”. And I noticed the interviewer found the whole event really funny, but in a good natured way rather than thinking “what a bunch of clowns” like some people might.

Another potential problem is the authenticity of belief of the Pastafarians. But this criticism can be applied to any religion. When I was married it was with a conventional Anglican ceremony. But I didn’t believe any of the farcical religious stuff. I know I would have felt more of a connection with the FSM than the Christian god.

And I also know that many people who are involved with Christian religious ceremonies (weddings, funerals, christenings) feel the same way. I often hear of people who are upset or bored or just totally disengaged with them. That didn’t seem to be the case with the Pastafarian wedding.

There’s a lot of great things about being an atheist but there are things we lose as well. Maybe a fun religion (or even one which was originally a spoof) like Pastafarianism would provide some of the rituals and shared experiences that people with no traditional religious belief can use to fill this gap.

So I say “well done” to the followers of the FSM. They make life interesting and maybe the fun rituals which might be established at this first wedding might become real traditions in the future. Sounds good to me!

Led by the Pirate Party

April 11, 2016 Leave a comment

If you were about to listen to a political activist who founded a party called the “Pirate Party” you might assume that you would be about to hear some pretty crazy stuff, right? Well, that’s what I thought before I listened to a recent interview with Smari McCarthy, who co-founded the Icelandic Pirate Party in 2012.

But if that was your assumption then you would be wrong. The interview revealed a person who seemed to be completely reasonable, who didn’t try to evade any questions, and who didn’t appear to indulge in lies or misinformation at all. Compare that with mainstream politicians who are constantly caught lying or disguising the facts. Compare it with New Zealand’s prime minister who recently answered a question related to how he defended New Zealand being a tax shelter with the words “Because I’m right”. Yeah, sure John, you’re always right… on Planet Key.

The Pirate Party currently has just 3 members of parliament (McCarthy isn’t one) but is now polling at 43% so the people of that country clearly take it seriously. And in the US two unexpected challengers are doing extraordinarily well in the presidential primaries. Donald Trump is in front on the Republican side, and Bernie Sanders is doing well against the strongly established Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

What’s going on? Maybe people are finally realising that the political establishment are not only incompetent but also corrupt to varying degrees. In my previous blog post, “They Are Idiots” from 2016-04-08, I discussed how research shows a large proportion of our leaders are incompetent, and the recently leaked Panama Papers are starting to show that they are also corrupt, so I think the rejection of the current political elite is very justified.

But that doesn’t mean the alternatives are much better, of course. I mean would an anti-establishment person like Donald Trump make the world a better place? That seems highly unlikely. What about a “socialist” like Bernie Sanders? Well he does have a few gaps in the practicalities he espouses but his ideals seem quite laudable.

So what about the Pirate Party? Well they admit they have no experience in government and are lacking in many areas of knowledge required to rule, but they emphasise that they are good listeners and can get the advice they need. Given that we know most leaders are incompetent it seems quite encouraging that a potential politician would admit that possibility and offer a way to overcome those deficiencies.

That’s the sort of thing I mean about the interview being both honest and realistic. I can’t imagine many other politicians making an admission of that sort, but they all should be prepared to admit the possibility instead of just offering some smarmy, off the cuff irrelevance like New Zealand’s current prime minister so often does.

It’s easy for someone like me – who has so much distrust for the status quo – to think he sees signs of something better in the future. It may be that when it comes to the final vote the people “chicken out” and just go with the same old crowd they always have. Or it could be that if these new leaders are elected they immediately revert to the old way of doing things, either because that is the only practical way to realistically proceed, or because they in turn get seduced by the trappings of power.

But while I don’t think the current global political and economic systems will change much in the short term, there do seem to be increasing signs that people are ready to move on to something better. It’s going to be difficult because the current power elite won’t give up their privileges easily. But as corrupt empires have found in the past, there’s no way to escape a revolution whose time has come – even if it is led by the Pirate Party. Arrr!

A Pathological Sickness

April 5, 2016 Leave a comment

How greedy does someone have to get before it becomes pathological? A sickness, if not of the body then at least of the mind. How much does one person need before they reach the point where what they already have becomes meaningless and further acquisitions are an exercise in futility? And what sort of person will accumulate huge wealth and yet avoid sharing even a small part of it to help out his fellow human beings?

Well there’s no point in asking me because, even though I live in a relatively rich country, have a good degree and a reasonably good job, and work long hours, I still haven’t reached the point where I could be said to be even slightly wealthy. And I suspect there’s not much point in asking most of my blog readers either, because none of you are likely to be part of the 1%

Yet there is a certain part of society which has reached the point of being so disgustingly greedy that it really has become a sickness. And no, greed is not good, despite what some people on the political right might say. And in addition, no, these people do not deserve what they have because no one deserves so much no matter what their contribution to society is. Not that most of the 1% actually make any real contribution anyway so the point is moot.

My rant so far has been triggered by the Panama Papers, of course. That is the leaking of massive numbers of documents from the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca which implicates many world leaders in dodgy financial transactions to avoid paying their share of tax.

So who are these world leaders? Well there are 12 leaders of countries, 120 other politicians, associates of Russian president Vladimir Putin, 6 members of the House of Lords, 3 former British conservative MPs, many donors to UK political parties, and 8 members or ex-members of the Chinese Politburo.

So far there is less evidence of people from the US being involved but we are told that those will come later and it would be astonishing if they didn’t exist.

So when you have unbelievable wealth – more than any reasonable person could possibly use in a meaningful way – why would you feel the need to avoid paying a fair share of tax and contributing to the society which allowed you to gather that wealth? Why would you not want to help with healthcare, for example. Would you not feel even slightly responsible when you see people dying because the health system in your country is underfunded?

No, apparently not. These people just ignore everything around them, unless it can be manipulated and warped to their own benefit in some way. They seem to think they are somehow above the petty responsibilities that other people have and they wonder why should they have to pay tax when they can avoid it relatively easily.

I’m sure that most of the tax dodging is actually legal (although there is a suggestion that some of it isn’t) but so what? This has got beyond what is legal. The people who are saving millions in tax payments are the same politicians and business leaders who are making the laws. What possible reason would they have to change something which benefits them so greatly?

These people are sick. Our leaders and the richest echelons of society are a blight on our species.

And the worst thing is that my own country, New Zealand, features prominently as a tax haven for these vile parasites. Yes, I know our prime minister has insisted that NZ is not a tax haven and that is one of the reasons why I think it is. The PM always gets these things wrong.

We know that the majority of people on the planet are victims of the 1% but these things never last. Corrupt regimes always fall and I don’t think this one will last much longer. It’s unrealistic to think global capitalism will be replaced with something much better in the short term but I do think the current system will be forced to undergo big changes within the next 10 years.

Pathological greed is a sickness which has to be cured, and it can’t happen soon enough.

The Apps I Use

April 2, 2016 Leave a comment

I work in IT doing general computer support and web programming (and anything else to do with Macs and other Apple stuff). Sometimes when looking at problems my clients are having it is suggested I am a bit negative about the programs they are using and have been asked: well if you don’t like (whatever program is under discussion, usually Microsoft Word) what do you use instead?

That’s a good question and I thought I might answer it here. My main computer is a 15 inch i7 MacBook Pro with a high resolution screen, an SSD, and 16G of RAM, so it’s a moderately high-spec machine but not outrageously so. The programs I use could be used by almost anyone else with a fairly modern computer – as long as it’s a Mac, of course.

The programs I use most are in my Dock so to answer the question of what my alternative apps are I’ll just list all the stuff in the Dock and briefly say why they’re there…

General System Tools

Finder. This is Apple’s program which creates the desktop environment for file management. It is a standard part of the system so it might seem pointless listing it here, but there was a long period of time when I did use an alternative called “Path Finder”. That is a great app (like the Finder on steroids) but in the end it just didn’t offer enough extra to replace the good old Finder.

Helium. This is a small app which displays a web page in a floating window. On my Mac I have the Dock and menu bar hidden so I created a small web based app (using PHP) to display the information which would normally be in those two locations (plus a bit more) such as battery level, wifi signal strength, my public IP address, etc.

Astrill. This is a VPN service I use when I want to maintain privacy or make it look like I am actually in another country. I won’t say anything more about this!

Cisco Secure Client. This is the VPN service I use at work.

Server. This is Apple’s server suite which includes services such as web serving, file sharing, and many others.

Parallels. Sometimes I need to run Windows apps (I estimate about 10 minutes per month) just to check that my web-based programs work OK on Windows. Apart from this I have no need for Windows at all. In fact I spend about 10 times as much time maintaining it as I do using it!

Remote Desktop. This is Apple’s remote management service which allows me to take control of other computers screens, install new software, get status reports, etc. I use it a lot to do remote control of other people’s Macs to help with problems and to monitor and maintain remote servers.

Productivity Apps

Notes. This is Apple’s notebook app which automatically syncs with my iPhone and iPad. I keep all sorts of temporary information here which needs to be accessible from all the Apple devices I use. For example, I might write a note here on the iPad about a wine I am trying and copy the synced version into the main database on my laptop later.

Maps. I use Apple’s map program more than Google Maps, although I do use the Google street-view feature sometimes so I do have both installed.

Reminders. I use this to keep track of my list of things to do. It syncs across all of my devices.

Calendar. I have several calendars, mostly on Apple’s iCloud service, where I keep track of my tasks for the day. These also sync across all devices so I get reminders on my iPhone for appointments entered on the laptop.

Contacts. I use Apple’s address book program synced to other devices through iCloud for keeping all my contact information. I have photos for most of the people in the list so I see a picture of the person calling, emailing, or messaging me on all my devices.

Programming Apps

Skim. This is a nice PDF viewing program which I use to read documentation files. It has some useful features but the main reason I use it as an alternative to Apple’s Preview program is just to keep the documentation in a separate place from all the other PDFs I work with.

Script Editor. I use AppleScript (Apple’s scripting language) quite a lot of small tasks on my computer (connecting to servers, launching apps, etc) as well as for more sophisticated applications I have created to automate processes on servers.

XCode. This is Apple’s program development environment. I’m not doing any “real” programming at the moment but I have used this in the past, and it has useful utility tools as well.

FileMaker Pro 11. I have to maintain this older version of FileMaker to open older databases I have created and not moved to the newer version yet.

FileMaker Pro 14. If I am creating a serious database I prefer the MySQL/PHP/Apache environment but I quite like FileMaker for creating simpler desktop databases.

BBEdit. This is my main text editor for programming. It has excellent syntax colouring, keyword autocomplete, multiple file handling, and search and replace facilities. I also use the GREP system in this program to do complicated text processing.

Safari. Apple’s web browser is the one I use for testing and debugging my web sites and apps. It has good analysis tools and follows standards well so it is well suited to this.

Terminal. My favourite app! The command line is the “killer app” for the Mac. I love the Mac’s graphical user interface but I also like getting behind the scenes and using all the power of Unix, including Apache, MySQL, PHP, and shell scripts.

Internet Apps

NetNewsWire. This is an RSS viewer. I don’t tend to use RSS feeds as a source of information much, but I use this to check that the feeds I create for my blog, etc all work OK.

Chrome. I use Google’s browser for most of my web browsing. I like it because it is fast and reliable and handles lots of tabs open simultaneously (I just checked and I currently have 33 tabs).

Messages. This is Apple’s messaging app which syncs with my iPhone and iPad so I can send and receive text messages from my computer (also phone calls and iMessages).

Mail. Apple’s Mail program has a few faults but overall it is very clean and fast. I check 8 email accounts which I use for different reasons here: my main Apple account on iCloud, my work Exchange account, and 6 GMail accounts I use for special purposes. I do have a few sync problems with some of my Google accounts but just quitting Mail and restarting it (a few seconds) usually clears them.

Skype. I don’t use Skype much but occasionally people want to communicate with me this way so I keep it ready. BTW, I don’t count this as a real Microsoft program (see below).

Media Apps

iTunes. I think we all admit that iTunes has its faults but once you get over the confusing user interface it can do a lot and there really isn’t a realistic alternative for managing iPhones, etc.

Photos. Apple’s photo storage app is simple but fast, reliable and efficient. I just use it to store and display photos because I do my photo processing in more powerful apps before adding the photo to my library. Photos also syncs my photos between my computer, iPad, and iPhone through iCloud.

General Purpose Apps

Dictionary. Apple’s dictionary program looks up multiple dictionaries as well as Wikipedia. I have over 30 dictionaries installed but usually only have about 6 active. It also integrates automatically with most programs to allow word lookup from anywhere.

TextWrangler. This is a free, slightly scaled down version of the BBEdit text editor I mentioned above. I use it to open general text files separately from my programming files.

Preview. Apple’s PDF app is surprisingly capable and I use it instead of Adobe’s clunky Adobe Reader and Acrobat. It does almost everything most users need and is really reliable and easy to use.

Pixelmator. I am a big photography fan do I need a good photo editing program. I have used Photoshop since the first version was released, but I now find Adobe apps clumsy and slow, and I don’t like their licensing. So I use Pixelmator instead. It does most of what Photoshop can do, but because it is designed specifically for the Mac it is much nicer to use.

Pages. I use Apple’s Pages for word processing. It is so nice to use a word processor which works reliably, and quickly, and fits in with the rest of the system. I would never go back to Microsoft Word which I believe is probably the single worst program ever written (because of the frustration it causes for so many users).

Numbers. Of all the Microsoft programs I have used Excel is probably the one I find most useful. But, while it is quite powerful, it is still horrible from a user interface perspective so I usually use Apple’s Numbers app instead.

Keynote. Using Apple’s Keynote instead of PowerPoint is such a luxury. I know it will work reliably, that movies will play, and that graphics will always display. Plus it has a much nicer user interface and works better with the rest of the system.

So that’s it. Notice that I am Microsoft free (apart from Skype) and Adobe free. I do still have Office and Creative Suite installed but I almost never use them (really only to help other people who use them and have problems). This is partly political (I don’t like big corporations) and partly practical (I like elegant, well designed software). And yes, I do know that Apple is a big (evil?) corporation but I can’t really work in IT without teaming up with one corporation (Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Oracle, etc) so I guess at least Apple is the best choice out of all of them.