Archive for June, 2010

Fear and silence

Mohsin Hamid in Dawn:

Why are Ahmadis persecuted so ferociously in Pakistan?

The reason can’t be that their large numbers pose some sort of ‘threat from within’. After all, Ahmadis are a relatively small minority in Pakistan. They make up somewhere between 0.25 per cent (according to the last census) and 2.5 per cent (according to the Economist) of our population.

Nor can the reason be that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. Pakistani Christians and Pakistani Hindus are non-Muslims, and similar in numbers to Pakistani Ahmadis. Yet Christians and Hindus, while undeniably discriminated against, face nothing like the vitriol directed towards Ahmadis in our country.

To understand what the persecution of Ahmadis achieves, we have to see how it works. Its first step is to say that Ahmadis are non-Muslims. And its second is to say that Ahmadis are not just non-Muslims, but apostates: non-Muslims who claim to be Muslims. These two steps are easy to take: any individual Pakistani citizen has the right to believe whatever they want about Ahmadis and their faith.

But the process goes further. Step three is to say that because Ahmadis are apostates, they should be victimised, or even killed. We are now beyond the realm of personal opinion. We are in the realm of group punishment and incitement to murder. Nor does it stop here. There is a fourth step. And step four is this: any Muslim who says Ahmadis should not be victimised or killed, should themselves be victimised or killed.

In other words, even if they are not themselves Ahmadi, any policeman, doctor, politician, or passerby who tries to prevent, or just publicly opposes, the killing of an Ahmadi, deserves to die. Why? Because anyone who defends an apostate is themselves an apostate.


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Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?

Emrys Westacott in Philosophy Now:

Imagine that right after briefing Adam about which fruit was allowed and which forbidden, God had installed a closed-circuit television camera in the garden of Eden, trained on the tree of knowledge. Think how this might have changed things for the better. The serpent sidles up to Eve and urges her to try the forbidden fruit. Eve reaches her hand out – in paradise the fruit is always conveniently within reach – but at the last second she notices the CCTV and thinks better of it. Result: no sin, no Fall, no expulsion from paradise. We don’t have to toil among thorns and thistles for the rest of our lives, earning our bread by the sweat of our brows; childbirth is painless; and we feel no need to wear clothes.

So why didn’t God do that and save everyone a lot of grief? True, surveillance technology was in its infancy back then, but He could have managed it, and it wouldn’t have undermined Eve’s free will. She still has a choice to make; but once she sees the camera she’s more likely to make the right choice. The most likely explanation would be that God doesn’t just want Adam and Eve to make the right choices; he wants them to make the right choices for the right reasons. Not eating the forbidden fruit because you’re afraid you’ll be caught doesn’t earn you moral credit. After all, you’re only acting out of self-interest. If paradise suffered a power cut and the surveillance was temporarily down, you’d be in there straight away with the other looters.

So what would be the right reason for not eating the fruit? Well, God is really no different than any other parent. All he wants is absolute, unquestioning obedience (which, by an amazing coincidence, also happens to be exactly what every child wants from their parents.) But God wants this obedience to be voluntary. And, very importantly, He wants it to flow from the right motive. He wants right actions to be driven not by fear, but by love for Him and reverence for what is right. (Okay, He did say to Adam, “If you eat from the tree of knowledge you will die” – which can sound a little like a threat – but grant me some literary license here.)

Moral philosophers will find themselves on familiar ground here. On this interpretation, God is a follower of the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. (This would, of course, come as no surprise to Kant.) According to Kant, our actions are right when they conform to the moral rules dictated to us by our reason, and they have moral worth insofar as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. In other words, my actions have moral worth if I do what is right because I want to do the right thing. If I don’t steal someone’s iPod (just another kind of Apple, really) because I think it would be wrong to do so, then I get a moral pat on the back and am entitled to polish my halo. If I don’t steal the iPod because I’m afraid of getting caught, then I may be doing the right thing, and I may be applauded for being prudent, but I shouldn’t be given any moral credit.

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Do Economists Really Know What They’re Talking About?

The disconnect between economic theory and reality seems ominous.

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. . . . Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. —English economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)

Almost everyone wants the world’s governments to do more to revive ailing economies. No one wants a “double dip” recession. The Group of 20 Summit in Toronto was determined to avoid one. In major advanced countries—the 31 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—unemployment stands at 46.5 million people, up about 50 percent since 2007. It’s not just that people lack work. Lengthy unemployment may erode skills, leading to downward mobility or permanent joblessness. But what more can governments do? It’s unclear. We may be reaching the limits of economics. As Keynes noted, political leaders are hostage to the ideas of economists—living and dead—and economists increasingly disagree about what to do. Granted, the initial response to the crisis (sharp cuts in interest rates, bank bailouts, stimulus spending) probably averted a depression. But the crisis has also battered the logic of all major theories: Keynesianism, monetarism and “rational expectations.” Economics has become the shaky science; its intellectual chaos provides context for today’s policy disputes at home and abroad.

Consider the matter of budgets. Would bigger deficits stimulate the economy and create jobs, as standard Keynesianism suggests? Or do exploding government debts threaten another financial crisis?

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ISS Crew Captures Beautiful Image of Green Aurora Over the Indian Ocean

Ian O’Neil in Discovery News:

June 21, 2010 -- This spectacular photograph shows a snaking aurora over the Southern Hemisphere as the International Space Station (ISS) orbits overhead. It occurred during a geomagnetic storm, likely caused by a coronal mass ejection (CME) slamming into our planet's magnetosphere.

The ISS was passing over the Southern Indian Ocean at an altitude of 350 kilometers (or 220 miles) meaning this is the “aurora australis” — aurorae that occur near the South Pole. The aurora borealis occurs near the North Pole. The space station astronaut was pointing the camera toward Antarctica at the time.

Aurorae occur when energetic particles from the sun — carried by the solar wind or a solar ejection — flood into the Earth’s magnetic field. The particles (mainly protons) are then funneled into the polar regions, where the magnetic field lines feed into the Earth’s surface. As the particles fall toward the surface they hit atmospheric gasses. When they collide, light is emitted, producing aurorae.

In this case, the aurora is dominated with green light. This means the atmospheric oxygen is glowing under the onslaught of solar particles. The light show is most likely located between 100-300 kilometers (60-190 miles) up, inside the Earth’s ionosphere.

Image: Photograph from the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment (NASA)

Rose-coloured spectacles?

From The Economist:

Cheats may or may not prosper, but they despise themselves for cheating

THOSE who buy counterfeit designer goods project a fashionable image at a fraction of the price of the real thing. You might think that would make them feel rather smug about themselves. But an intriguing piece of research published in Psychological Science by Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggests the opposite: wearing fake goods makes you feel a fake yourself, and causes you to be more dishonest in other matters than you would otherwise be.

Dr Gino and her colleagues provided a group of female volunteers with Chloé sunglasses that cost about $300 a pair, supposedly as part of a marketing study. They told some of the volunteers that the sunglasses were real, and others that they were counterfeit. They then asked the volunteers to perform pencil-and-paper mathematical quizzes for which they could earn up to $10, depending on how many questions they got right. The participants were spun a yarn about how doing these quizzes would allow them to judge the comfort and quality of the glasses.

Crucially, the quizzes were presented as “honour tests” that participants would mark themselves, reporting their own scores to the study’s organisers. The quiz papers were unnumbered and thus appeared to be untraceable, and were thrown away at the end of the study. In fact, though, each had one unique question on it, meaning that it could be identified—and the papers were recovered and marked again by the researchers after they had been discarded.

Of participants told that they were wearing authentic designer sunglasses, 30% were found to have cheated, reporting that they had solved more problems than was actually the case. Of those who thought they were wearing fake sunglasses, by contrast, about 70% cheated.

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Sky-blue-pink. A colour never before seen?

Richard Dawkins writing for

A recurring conundrum in philosophy is the impossibility of sharing, or describing to a blind person, the subjective sensation of colour. Is my sensation of red the same as yours? Or do you see an entirely different hue that I cannot even dream of?

Do you see the number 15 here? People with color blindness cannot

It seems impossible for me to imagine a colour that I have never seen. I don’t mean some subtle shade in a paint catalogue, intermediate between colours that I know well. I mean a completely new colour, as different from the familiar as red is from blue. Proverbially we call it sky-blue-pink, but of course it would resemble no name-able colour.

I have long argued that subjective hues are constructions manufactured in the brain as convenient internal labels for light of different wavelengths. There is no reason why your brain should use the same label for red as my brain does, just because both are labelling light of the same wavelength. I have even gone so far as to speculate that bats might hear in colour. The bat’s brain constructs a detailed picture of the world using echoes instead of light. A bat, when echolocating an insect, might use the subjective sensation that we call ‘red’ as a convenient label for the furry texture of a moth, and might use ‘blue’ as an internal label for the leathery texture of a locust. These qualia are just conveniences, to be pressed into service in the way that is most useful for the species concerned. Since the mammalian brain has the capacity to construct the qualia that we call hues, and use them as internal labels to facilitate sensory distinctions, why wouldn’t bats, as fully paid-up mammals, press into sonar service the labels that we call red and blue? By the same token, I went on, perhaps rhinoceroses smell in colour.

But always, lurking in the background is the desire to imagine a completely strange and alien colour sensation, a colour never seen. I have no hope of ever enjoying that remarkable experience, not even on an LSD trip. But yesterday I nearly hit another cyclist who shot a red light and pleaded colour-blindness as his excuse, and immediately an intriguing thought occurred to me.

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Michelangelo’s secret message in the Sistine Chapel: A juxtaposition of God and the human brain

R. Douglas Fields in Scientific American:

At the age of 17 he began dissecting corpses from the church graveyard. Between the years 1508 and 1512 he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Michelangelo Buonarroti—known by his first name the world over as the singular artistic genius, sculptor and architect—was also an anatomist, a secret he concealed by destroying almost all of his anatomical sketches and notes. Now, 500 years after he drew them, his hidden anatomical illustrations have been found—painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, cleverly concealed from the eyes of Pope Julius II and countless religious worshipers, historians, and art lovers for centuries—inside the body of God.

This is the conclusion of Ian Suk and Rafael Tamargo, in their paper in the May 2010 issue of the scientific journalNeurosurgery. Suk and Tamargo are experts in neuroanatomy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1990, physician Frank Meshberger published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association deciphering Michelangelo’s imagery with the stunning recognition that the depiction in God Creating Adam in the central panel on the ceiling was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section. Meshberger speculates that Michelangelo surrounded God with a shroud representing the human brain to suggest that God was endowing Adam not only with life, but also with supreme human intelligence. Now in another panel The Separation of Light from Darkness (shown at left), Suk and Tamargo have found more. Leading up the center of God’s chest and forming his throat, the researchers have found a precise depiction of the human spinal cord and brain stem.

Is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel a 500 year-old puzzle that is only now beginning to be solved? What was Michelangelo saying by construction the voice box of God out of the brain stem of man? Is it a sacrilege or homage?

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