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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Quotes from Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546)

But since the devil's bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she's wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil's greatest whore. (German: "Vernunft ... ist die höchste Hur, die der Teufel hat.")

Martin Luther's Last Sermon in Wittenberg ... Second Sunday in Epiphany, 17 January 1546. Dr. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtsusgabe. (Weimar: Herman Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1914),Band 51:126,Line 7ff.

...women and girls begin to bare themselves behind and in front, and there is nobody to punish and hold in check, and besides, God’s word is mocked.” – To His Housewife ( An Seine Hausfrau), end of July 1545, De Wette, vol.v ( Fünfter Theil, 1828 ), p.753. No. MMCCLXXXVI [7]

Few are the woman and maidens who would let themselves think that one could at the same time be joyous and modest. They are all bold and course in their speech, in their demeanor wild and lewd. That is now the fashion of being in good cheer. But it is specially evil that the young maiden folk are exceedingly bold of speech and bearing, and curse like troopers, to say nothing of their shameful words and scandalous coarse sayings, which one always hears and learns from another.” Denifle vol.1, part 1, p.305.

Denifle, Heinrich, Luther and Lutherdom, vol.1, part 1, , tr. from 2nd rev. ed. of German by Raymund Volz, Somerset, England: Torch Press, 1917. Denifle give as his source for this quote: Luther’s works, Erlangen edition, ( 67 vols. ), vol. vi, p.401.

If [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth--that is why they are there.

Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God. - Said to be from V, 1312

A theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating.

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but--more frequently than not --struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

[With thanks to Wikipedia].

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Wiretaps Said to Sift All Overseas Contacts

by Charlie Savage for the Boston Globe

Friday, December 23, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency, in carrying out President Bush's order to intercept the international phone calls and e-mails of Americans suspected of links to Al Qaeda, has probably been using computers to monitor all other Americans' international communications as well, according to specialists familiar with the workings of the NSA. The Bush administration and the NSA have declined to provide details about the program the president authorized in 2001, but specialists said the agency serves as a vast data collection and sorting operation. It captures reams of data from satellites, fiberoptic lines, and Internet switching stations, and then uses a computer to check for names, numbers, and words that have been identified as suspicious. ''The whole idea of the NSA is intercepting huge streams of communications, taking in 2 million pieces of communications an hour," said James Bamford, the author of two books on the NSA, who was the first to reveal the inner workings of the secret agency.

''They have a capacity to listen to every overseas phone call," said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which has obtained documents about the NSA using Freedom of Information Act requests. The NSA's system of monitoring e-mails and phone calls to check for search terms has been used for decades overseas, where the Constitution's prohibition on unreasonable searches does not apply, declassified records have shown. But since Bush's order in 2001, Bamford and other specialists said, the same process has probably been used to sort through international messages to and from the United States, though humans have never seen the vast majority of the data. ''The collection of this data by automated means creates new privacy risks," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group that has studied computer-filtered surveillance technology through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. Among the risks, he said, is that the spy agency's computers will collect personal information that has no bearing on national security, and that intelligence agents programming those computers will be tempted to abuse their power to eavesdrop for personal or political gain.

But even when no personal information intercepted by the NSA's computers make it to human eyes and ears, Rotenberg said, the mere fact that spy computers are monitoring the calls and e-mails may also violate the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether automated surveillance of phone calls and e-mails, without a warrant, is constitutional. The closest comparisons, legal specialists said, are cases challenging the use of dogs and infrared detectors to look for drugs without a warrant. The Supreme Court approved the use of drug-sniffing dogs to examine luggage in an airport, but said police could not use infrared scanners to check houses for heat patterns that could signal an illegal drug operation. ''This is very much a developing field, and a lot of the law is not clear," said Harvard Law School professor Bill Stuntz. President Bush and his aides have refused to answer questions about the domestic spying program, other than to insist that it was legal. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this week said the program only targeted messages ''where we have a reasonable basis to conclude" that one of the parties is affiliated with Al Qaeda.

And some legal scholars have maintained that a computer cannot violate other Americans' Fourth Amendment rights simply by sorting through their messages, as long as no human being ever looks at them. Alane Kochems, a lawyer and a national security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, ''I don't think your privacy is violated when you have a computer doing it as opposed to a human. It isn't a sentient being. It's a machine running a program." But Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin said that Fourth Amendment privacy rights can still be violated without human contact if the NSA stores copies of everyone's messages, raising the possibility that a human could access them later. The administration has not revealed how long the NSA stores messages, and the agency has refused to comment on the program. Balkin added that as technology becomes ever more sophisticated, any legal distinction between human agents and their tools is losing meaning. Under the theory that only human beings can invade people's privacy, he said, the police ''could simply use robots to do their dirty work."

In 1978, following revelations that President Nixon had used the NSA to spy on his domestic enemies, Congress enacted a law making it illegal to wiretap a US citizen without permission from a secret national security court. The court requires the government to show evidence that the target is a suspected spy or terrorist. Under the 1978 law, NSA officials have had to obtain a warrant from the secret court before putting an American's information into their computers' search terms. The restrictions largely limited NSA to collecting messages from overseas communications networks, but some Americans' messages were intercepted before the 2001 terrorist attacks. Occasionally, the interception was deliberate. In April 2000, the NSA's then-director, General Michael Hayden, told Congress that since 1978 ''there have been no more than a very few instances of NSA seeking [court] authorization to target a US person in the United States."

More often, the interception was accidental. Because American international calls travel through foreign networks, some of which are monitored by the NSA, the agency's computers have sifted through some American international messages all along. ''Long before 9/11, the NSA gathered from the ether mountains of [overseas] phone calls and e-mail messages on a daily basis," said Columbia Law School professor Deborah Livingston. ''If you have such an extensive foreign operation, you'll gather a large amount of phone traffic and e-mails involving Americans. That's something we've lived with for a long time." But Bush's order cleared the way for the NSA computers to sift through Americans' phone calls and e-mails. According to a New York Times report last week, Bush authorized the NSA's human analysts to look at the international messages of up to 500 Americans at a time, with a changing list of targets.

Hayden, now the deputy director of national intelligence, told reporters this week that under Bush's order, a ''shift supervisor" instead of a judge signs off on deciding whether or not to search for an American's messages. The general conceded that without the burden of obtaining warrants, the NSA has used ''a quicker trigger" and ''a subtly softer trigger" when deciding to track someone. Bamford said that Hayden's ''subtly softer trigger" probably means that the NSA is monitoring a wider circle of contacts around suspects than what a judge would approve.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Poster Time.
My Favourite Movies: Akira.

I think this was the Manga (Japanese animation) breakthrough film. Made in 1987 and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo it tells the story of Kaneda and his motorcycle gang who get caught up in a secret military experiment.

The year is 2019. Its 30 years after a nuclear explosion destroyed old Tokyo and it looks like it’s all going to happen again. In their search for the ultimate weapon and the answers to what started the nuclear war the military are researching into the power of the human mind. By doing so they intend to understand and ultimately harness the power of their greatest triumph – Akira himself. Unwittingly they set in train a series of events that awakes the awesome mental powers of Kaneda’s youngest gang member Tetsuo Shima.

The action and adventure that follows is truly something to behold. Even if you’re not a Sci-Fi fan the strong storyline and amazing animation drag you into a highly believable world of the future. If you have never experienced Japanese animation you really should see this movie as it’s truly ground breaking stuff. Almost without realising it you forget that you’re watching what is, in effect, a cartoon – it’s that good. I’m not entirely sure that I can praise this too highly. See it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Study shows apes can plan ahead

By Rebecca Morelle - BBC News science reporter

Friday, 19 May 2006

Bonobos and orangutans are capable of future planning, according to a study published in the journal Science. Researchers found the apes could select a suitable tool for reaching a treat, carry it away, and return with it to retrieve the reward hours later. Forward planning is thought by some to be a uniquely human trait. The German team suggests such skills may have evolved about 14 million years ago, when bonobos, orangutans and humans shared a common ancestor.

"We showed that individuals are able to pick up a tool, transport it to a different location, keep it there for at least an hour, and bring it back to solve a problem," explained lead author Dr Josep Call, from the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "Previous studies had shown that chimps and other animals can transport tools to solve a problem on the spot - so they will go and even make a tool and then they will bring it to solve a problem. But the main difference with the tasks that we tried is that here when they transport the tool and save it, they have no use for the tool. They need to anticipate that they will require it solve a problem in the future."

The scientists investigated this with a series of experiments. In one of these, the apes were taught how to use a tool to retrieve a treat from a piece of apparatus. Then the researchers offered the apes a selection of tools - some suitable, some not - but blocked their immediate access to the reward. Instead, the apes were led away to another location where they had to wait for an hour before being returned to the original room where, if they had selected the correct tool, they could release their treat. Six out of 16 times the apes successfully chose the correct tool, kept it with them in the waiting room, and then used it to access the reward.

The team found the success rate was about the same when they increased the waiting time to 14 hours - enough time for the apes to sleep in between collecting and using the tool. "Traditional learning theory has a hard time explaining this, and several scientists had postulated that future planning is something beyond the capabilities of animals, so we were very surprised to see this," said Dr Call. The scientists looked at bonobos and orangutans because they represent our closest and most distant great ape relatives, respectively. Humans and bonobos evolved into separate lineages about five to seven million years ago; orangutans about 14 million years ago. "Because both orangutans and bonobos showed the ability to future plan in these tasks, this means this skill could have been present in the common ancestor to all great apes," Dr Call told the BBC News website. Next, the team plans to investigate whether the apes will protect their tool if they share the waiting room with a competitor.
Just Finished Reading: Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling.

I enjoyed this a lot so fairly raced though its 500 plus pages. The story is a post-apocalyptic one – but with a twist. A strange storm forms over Nantucket followed by a brilliant flash of light. Immediately all technology goes dead. No phones, no electricity, no cars. Planes drop out of the sky and fires burn out of control. But bizarrely other things stop working too. Like guns….

So begins the collapse of human civilisation seen mainly through the eyes and experiences of the two main protagonists and heroes of the piece. Mike Havel is an ex-marine who is caught during The Change flying a family to their wilderness retreat, whilst Wiccan High Priest Juniper Mackenzie is singing in a bar in Oregon. The novel basically follows how Mike & Juniper together with their followers cope with the new realities of life.

I thought this book was lots of fun. Stirling writes very well indeed and it’s not long before you really care about the many well drawn characters that populate the Changed world. I did have a few ‘niggles’ though. I found some of the situations overly contrived and some of the characters had far too many useful skills for my liking. I thought that his dismissal of the regular military in the New Order rather puzzling too – so far they’ve hardly been mentioned - to say nothing regarding just how quickly people adapted to a ‘medieval’ lifestyle and the lack of any real 'horror' as literally millions of people died, though I guess that wouldn’t be very entertaining would it?

Anyway [grin]. Despite all of the above this is still a cracking read. If you like post-apocalyptic tales this is just for you. If you like tales of chivalry and heroism (with a serious twist) then this is for you too. It’s also the first book in a trilogy – so with luck I might even find out why The Change happened and (more importantly) who did it.

Highly recommended (with a few caveats).

Monday, June 26, 2006

Muslim leader denounces religious extremism

From Ekklesia - 01/06/06

The Grand Imam of the al-Azhar in Cairo has denounced religious extremism and is encouraging Muslims to enter into active conversation and cooperation with Christians, according to the Straits Times. In a speech to Malay Muslim leaders in Singapore last week, Sheik Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, who is also a partner in the Anglican Communion’s global Anglican-Muslim dialogue, condemned religious violence and terror as “evil”. Declared the Sheikh: “[Islam] should lead us away from blind fanaticism and hatred because [it] considers all human beings to have come from one mother and father.” He added that the “hand of peace” should be extended to other faiths when they were under attack.

The Rt Rev Dr Mouneer Anis, Anglican Bishop of Egypt, has warmly welcomed the Grand Imam’s contribution. He told the Church of England Newspaper this week that it reiterates a long-standing position of the al-Azhar, which calls “Sunni Muslims in Egypt to be moderate and peace-loving.” Dr Tantawi also said that he was “concerned about the western attitude that recently insulted both Prophet Muhammed, through the cartoons, and Jesus Christ, through The Da Vinci Code.” This is likely to ring alarm bells with those who are concerned that elements in each of the world faiths are encouraging each other to seek more restrictions on those who would criticise or mock beliefs they disagree with.

However it is reported that the Muslim leaders is willing to meet Pope Benedict and Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, and that he favours a joint communiqué calling both for respect for religion and freedom of expression. Advocates of pluralism and secularity both within and beyond faith communities say that peaceful co-existence among the religions, which is a positive force, should not be used to reinforce further dangerous moves towards censorship in civil society.
Cartoon Time.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

No Longer a Christian - Part I

by Karen Horst Cobb for Common Dreams

Monday, October 25, 2004

[I’ve had this on my hard-drive for sometime now & thought it was worth a post. It’s rather long so I’ve tried to split it into what I hope are coherent parts.]

I was told in Sunday school the word "Christian" means to be Christ-like, but the message I hear daily on the airwaves from the “christian” media are words of war, violence, and aggression. Throughout this article I will spell Christian with a small c rather than a capital, since the term (as I usually hear it thrown about) does not refer to the teachings of the one I know as the Christ. I hear church goers call in to radio programs and explain that it was a mistake not to kill every living thing in Fallujah. They quote chapter and verse from the Old Testament about smiting the enemies of Israel. The fear of fighting the terrorists on our soil rather than across the globe causes the voices to be raised as they justify the latest prison scandal or other accounts of the horrors of war. The words they speak are words of destruction, aggression, dominance, revenge, fear and arrogance. The host and the callers echo the belief in the righteousness of our nation's killing. There are reminders to pray for our “Christian” president who is doing the work of the Lord: Right to Life, Second Amendment, sanctity of marriage, welfare reform, war, kill, evil liberals. . . so much to fight, so much to destroy.

Let me tell you about the Christ I know. He was conceived by an unmarried woman. He was not born into a family of privilege. He was a radical. He said, “It was said an eye for and eye and a tooth of a tooth, but now I say love your enemies and bless those who curse you.” He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5: 3-9) He said, “All those who are called by my name will enter the kingdom of heaven." He said, "People will know true believers if they have the fruit of the spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self control.“

He knew he would be led like a sheep to the slaughter. He responded with “Father forgive them.“ He explained that in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, slave or free male nor female. He explained that even to be angry is akin to murder. He said the temple of God is not a building, but is in the hearts of those are called by his name. He was called "the Prince of Peace." His final days were spent in prayer, so that he could endure what was set before him, not on how he could overpower the evil government of that day. When they came for him he was led away and didn’t resist his death sentence. This is a stark contrast to the call of the religious Christian right, who vote for war and weapons, and suggest towns and villages be levelled to bring freedom and peace to the people. They proudly boast this country’s superiority, suggesting God has blessed our nation. Today, as I listened to a popular Christian news network, I was reminded that in the last days, even God’s elect will be deceived, (II Timothy 3:13). When the religious media moguls preaching prosperity spout their rhetoric, I am reminded of the difficulty Jesus described of a rich man’s ability to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19: 24) Some who believe they are fighting evil will cry to the Lord, and he will say “I never knew you.“ (Matthew 22). They will have a form or godliness but will deny the power (II Timothy 3:5) to move mountains through prayer. (Matthew 17:20). Jesus explained that he has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. (II Timothy 1:17) I wonder if the innocent moms and dads, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and grandmas and grandpas who were the victims of US military weapons (the never reported collateral damages we are protected from in the “liberal” nightly news) felt the love of Jesus with the shock and awe. I wonder if the surviving family members now understand His radical love and that they no longer have any need for weapons or defense.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Just Finished Reading: Critical Mass – How one thing leads to Another by Philip Ball

This has been my bedtime reading (on and off) for quite some time. I normally read 5 – 10 pages of whatever book catches my eye from a pile of ten or so stacked by my bedside.

Critical Mass is the study of human group behaviour using ideas from the world of physics. Sounds strange I know, but Philip Ball makes a pretty good case that such a viewpoint can yield important insights into why groups of people act as they do. There were interesting explanations of traffic flow (I kid you not) both by vehicle and on foot as well as discussions of economic activity, alliances, politics and even mate selection.

Fortunately the book wasn’t too technical – there are precious few mathematical formula – yet it still manages to get across some fundamental physics (specifically to do with gases and magnets) and explains how they can aid in making Sociology much more scientific. As a Sociologist from way back I found that particularly intriguing.

This is certainly not lightweight reading though neither is it for the hardcore scientist. The book is well balanced in favour of those with a particular bent towards an interest in the human condition whilst not requiring a degree to understand it. Expect to get a reasonable mental workout – but expect to have fun too.
Poster Time.

Friday, June 23, 2006

My Favourite Places: The London Eye

The British Airways London Eye, sometimes called the Millennium Wheel (Coordinates: 51°30′12″N, 00°07′11″W), is the first-built and largest observation wheel in the world (a type of Ferris wheel), and has been the only one since its opening at the end of 1999. It stands 135 metres (443 feet) high on the western end of Jubilee Gardens, on the South Bank of the River Thames in Lambeth, London, England, between Westminster and Hungerford Bridges. It is adjacent to London's County Hall, and stands opposite the offices of the Ministry of Defence.

The wheel was constructed in sections which were floated up the river Thames on barges and assembled lying flat on pontoons. Once the wheel was complete it was raised into its upright position by cranes, initially being lifted at a rate of about 2 degrees per hour until it reached 65 degrees. It was left in that position for a week while engineers prepared for the second phase of the lift. The total weight of steel in the Eye is 1,700 tonnes.

The Eye was opened by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on December 31, 1999, although it was not opened to the public until March 2000 because of technical problems. Since its opening, the Eye, operated by Tussauds Group but sponsored by British Airways, has become a major landmark and tourist attraction. Recently, The London Eye was voted the world's best tourist attraction in a poll commissioned by the snack company Pringles.

[The above from Wikipedia].

I’ve been on this amazing contraption three times so far and love to visit it each time I’m in the capital. On a clear day you can almost see forever. It’s not for the faint of heart though! If you have any apprehension about heights I’d think twice about going up in a huge glass bubble with no way out until you complete one whole revolution. But if you don’t mind things like that it gives you a fantastic view over the centre of London that would take a helicopter trip to replicate. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Face Truth About Human Sexuality

by Jill Raymond for the Baltimore Sun

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Once again, Republicans have made a lame attempt to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. Once again, referenda will appear on the ballot in various states not only to ban gay marriage but also to forbid gay adoption. Clearly, Republican Party strategists figure that this dying horse can be beaten for at least one more set of election victories.

They may be right.

There is a singular terror shadowing this issue that defies rational argument and defeats any appeal either to civil rights principles or to basic human empathy. It allows otherwise reasonable people to leap an intellectual abyss and convince themselves that gay rights encourages incest, bestiality, and even teen pregnancy and that gay marriage somehow destabilizes heterosexual marriage. So intense is this homo-terror that groups such as Focus on the Family, headed by anti-gay zealot James Dobson, conduct conferences around the country promoting the idea that gays can be changed into straight people, if only they are willing to get with the program.

One such conference recently was held in Silver Spring, where protesters waved signs pleading for tolerance and gays disputed the notion that they can be "converted." But why is it even necessary to argue the point? Why is it necessary to accept the premise that heterosexuality is somehow ideal for everybody? (It's astonishing how many people who are gay and proud are adamant that they would "never choose to be gay.") If one could choose, would it be wrong to take a same-sex partner, and, if so, why? The paradox is that implicit in the effort to "convert" gays into straights is the suggestion that human sexual response has a fluidity to it that nobody seems to want to acknowledge.

OK, so we don't choose our sexual impulses the way we choose a pint of ice cream. But most gay people have had at least one or two relationships with partners of the opposite sex, experiences that are not necessarily fraught with the misery, angst and melodrama with which they are often portrayed. It is also fairly common for prison inmates to form sexual and/or romantic liaisons with each other and then re-establish heterosexual relationships when they are released. The question is not whether an individual can move between same-sex and opposite-sex attachments - we already know that people can and do, and this in no way need undercut the gay rights argument. The real question should be: Why does it matter? Because we also know this: Human beings can't be forced to fall in love with the "right" person, or, for that matter, to fall out of love with the "wrong" person. Even if Shakespeare had not taught us this, we would learn it from our own personal experience, sooner or later.

Could it be that the real fear is that human beings might escape a once-and-for-all definition in this regard and that that fear plagues folks on both sides of this issue? If people in homosexual relationships are not necessarily inducted and initiated members of the "tribe," but simply individuals who have primary relationships with members of the same sex, much of the gay movement might see it as a loss. That would be a shame, because it is the homophobes' case that would, under those circumstances, fall apart. They would lose their target. The "gay agenda" would evaporate into a sea of human beings of all stripes (it might even include some Republicans) who cannot be defined, categorized, separated from the rest of humanity and thereby disempowered. Homosexuality is common in the animal kingdom, bisexuality even more so. Obviously, biology plays a heavy role in sexual destiny, but so do conditions and experiences (some species show increased homosexual behavior as their population becomes overcrowded relative to the food supply). Further, there is little evidence that other species banish and shame individual members of their kind for deviant sexual behavior.

There is another lesson about difference and its relative importance to human life that we might learn from the animal world. Not infrequently, an adult female of one species will end up nursing, nurturing and rearing orphaned offspring of another species - even when they are different creatures. Dogs have nursed abandoned kittens, cats have raised squirrels, and wildlife and farm animals have been known to nurse and care for babies of another species. Kind of puts the efforts to ban gay people from adopting children in a different light, doesn't it?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Why Nuclear Weapons Should Matter

by David Krieger for CommonDreams.org

Sunday, May 14, 2006

For most Americans, nuclear weapons are a distant concern, and deciding what to do about them is a low priority. As a culture, we are relatively comfortable possessing nuclear weapons, believing that they are, on balance, a good security hedge in a dangerous world. We leave it to our leaders to determine what should be done with these weapons. But our leaders may be moving in exactly the wrong direction. Seymour Hersh reported in the April 17, 2006 New Yorker magazine that the US government is developing plans for the possible pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against Iranian nuclear facilities. Although George Bush dismissed such reports as “wild speculation,” he did not deny them. The reports should awaken the American people to some relevant issues. First, our political and military leaders are considering the pre-emptive first-use of nuclear weapons, an act that would undoubtedly constitute aggressive war and a crime against humanity. Second, these leaders hold open the possibility of using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state, despite official pledges not to do so. Third, the decision about whether or not to use nuclear weapons pre-emptively rests in the hands of a single individual, the president.

The framers of our Constitution could not have imagined the circumstances of the Nuclear Age, in which the possibility exists of one leader triggering a nuclear holocaust, yet they wisely stipulated that the consent of Congress, the political arm of the people, would be necessary to initiate any war. We need an open and vigorous discussion in every village, town and city about the anti-democratic and anti-Constitutional tendencies inherent in the presidential control of nuclear weapons. Without such discussion, we relegate the fate of the country and the world to the whims of a single individual. In addition, an equally fundamental question must be confronted – have nuclear weapons increased or decreased our security as a nation? In today’s world, nuclear weapons are a far more powerful tool in the hands of a weak actor than in the hands of a powerful state. Thus, Pakistan can deter India and China can deter the US and Russia. A powerful state, such as the US, has everything to lose and very little to gain from the possession of nuclear weapons. This concern isn’t being effectively addressed in the US.

The more the US relies on nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that other countries will do so as well. The most reasonable course for the US to take is to provide leadership to bring the world back from the nuclear precipice by working to achieve global nuclear disarmament. An argument can be made that a small number of nuclear weapons are needed for deterrence until they are all eliminated. But any threat or use of nuclear weapons for purposes other than minimum deterrence will certainly encourage other states to seek their own nuclear arsenals, if only to prevent being bullied by nuclear weapons states. This is the position that North Korea and Iran find themselves in today.

Current US nuclear policy favors allies, such as Israel and India, and threatens perceived enemies, such as Iran and North Korea. We are already engaged in an aggressive, illegal, protracted and costly war against Iraq, initiated on the false basis that it had a nuclear weapons program. Iran, because of its uranium enrichment, is currently within US gun sights. There is no conceivable US use of nuclear weapons, with their powerful and unpredictable consequences, that would not turn the US into a pariah state. The US engenders animosity by pushing beyond the limits imposed by minimum deterrence and failing to take seriously its disarmament obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It also creates a climate in which other states may seek to develop nuclear arsenals and in which these weapons may end up in the hands of terrorists. This should be a major concern for all Americans because it could lead to US cities being the targets of nuclear weapons used by extremist groups.

Polls show that Americans, like most other people in the world, favor nuclear disarmament. However, as a nation, we neither press for it nor question the nuclear policies of our government. But we refrain from such actions at our peril, for a bad decision involving nuclear weapons could destroy us. Inattention and apathy leave the weapons and the decision to use them beyond our reach. Thus, we continue with nuclear business as usual, drifting toward the catastrophic day when our policies will lead either to nuclear weapons again being used by us or, as likely, against us by extremist organizations that cannot be deterred by threat of retaliation. We are long past time to bring our nuclear policies back onto the public agenda and open them to thoughtful public discourse.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Now That’s What I Call a Sacred Document: Magna Carta

Magna Carta (Latin for "Great Charter", literally "Great Paper"), also called Magna Carta Libertatum ("Great Charter of Freedoms"), was an English charter originally issued in 1215. Magna Carta is the most significant early influence on the long historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law today. Magna Carta was originally created because of disagreements between the Pope, King John and his English barons about the rights of the King. Magna Carta required the king to renounce certain rights, respect certain legal procedures and accept that the will of the king could be bound by law.

There are a number of popular misconceptions about Magna Carta, such as that it was the first document to limit the power of an English king by law (it was not the first, and was partly based on the Charter of Liberties); that it in practice limited the power of the king (it mostly did not in the Middle Ages); and that it is a single static document (it is a variety of documents referred to under a common name).

Magna Carta was renewed throughout the Middle Ages, and further during the Tudor and Stuart periods, and the 17th and 18th centuries. By the early 19th century most clauses had been repealed from English law. The influence of Magna Carta outside England can be seen in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. Indeed just about every common law country with a constitution has been influenced by Magna Carta, making it one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy.

[The above from Wikipedia]

I had the chance to visit Salisbury Cathedral last week and thought that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see one of the four oldest remaining copies of Magna Carta. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is one of the foundations of Western democracy and because of that something that I regard as a truly sacred document. If you’re ever in the area go along and see this amazing piece of history - you can even buy a copy of it printed on a T-shirt.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Why do Skeptics doubt the existence of God? – Part III

From: Why I Am a Skeptic about Religious Claims by Paul Kurtz

The claim that our ultimate moral values are derived from God is highly suspect. The so-called sacred moral codes reflect the socio-historical cultures out of which they emerged. For example, the Old Testament commands that adulterers, blasphemers, disobedient sons, bastards, witches, and homosexuals be stoned to death. It threatens collective guilt: punishment is inflicted by Jehovah on the children's children of unbelievers. It defends patriarchy and the dominion of men over women. It condones slavery and genocide in the name of God. The New Testament consigns "unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's"; it demands that women be obedient to their husbands; it accepts faith healing, exorcisms, and miracles; it exalts obedience over independence, fear and trembling over courage and piety over self-determination. The Qur'an does not tolerate dissent, freedom of conscience, or the right to unbelief. It denies the rights of women. It exhorts jihad, holy war against infidels. It demands utter submission to the Word of God as revealed by Muhammad. It rejects the separation of mosque and state, thus installing the law of sharia and the theocracy of imams and mullahs.

From the fatherhood of God, contradictory moral commandments have been derived; theists have often lined up on opposite sides of moral issues. Believers have stood for and against war; for and against slavery; for and against capital punishment, some embracing retribution, others mercy and rehabilitation; for and against the divine right of kings, slavery, and patriarchy; for and against the emancipation of women; for and against the absolute prohibition of contraception, euthanasia, and abortion; for and against sexual and gender equality; for and against freedom of scientific research; for and against the libertarian ideals of a free society. True believers have in the past often found little room for human autonomy, individual freedom, or self-reliance. They have emphasized submission to the word of God instead of self-determination, faith over reason, and credulity over doubt. All too often they have had little confidence in the ability of humans to solve problems and create a better future by drawing on their own resources. In the face of tragedy, they supplicate to God through prayer instead of summoning the courage to overcome adversity and build a better future. The skeptic concludes, "No deity will save us; if we are to be saved it must be by our own efforts."

The traditional religions have too often waged wars of intolerance not only against other religions or ideologies that dispute the legitimacy of their divine revelations but even against sects that are mere variants of the same religion (e.g., Catholic versus Protestant, Shiite versus Sunni). Religions claim to speak in the name of God, yet bloodshed, tyranny, and untold horrors have often been justified on behalf of holy creeds. True believers have all too often opposed human progress: the abolition of slavery, the liberation of women, the extension of equal rights to transgendered people and gays, the expansion of democracy and human rights.

I realize that liberal religionists generally have rejected the absolutist creeds of fundamentalism. Fortunately, they have been influenced by modern democratic and humanistic values, which mitigate fundamentalism's inherent intolerance. Nevertheless, even many liberal believers embrace a key article of faith in the three major Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism: the promise of eternal salvation.

[But more of that in Part IV].

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Poster Time.
Hard to believe.

Below are extracts from two recent BBC News reports:

This on Sunday, 11 June 2006

The suicides of three detainees at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, amount to acts of war, the US military says. The camp commander said the two Saudis and a Yemeni were "committed" and had killed themselves in "an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us".

The US military said the men's bodies were being treated "with the utmost respect". White House spokesman Tony Snow said Mr Bush had "expressed serious concern" at the deaths. "He also stressed that it was important to treat the bodies humanely and with cultural sensitivity," he said.

Mr Goodman, whose organisation represents some 300 detainees, said the government had denied them that. Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch in New York, told the BBC the men had probably been driven by despair. "These people are despairing because they are being held lawlessly," he said. "There's no end in sight. They're not being brought before any independent judges. They're not being charged and convicted for any crime."

This on the same day

A top US official has described the suicides of three detainees at the US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a "good PR move to draw attention". Colleen Graffy told the BBC the deaths were part of a strategy and "a tactic to further the jihadi cause", but taking their own lives was unnecessary. Speaking to the BBC's Newshour programme, Ms Graffy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, said the three men did not value their lives nor the lives of those around them. Detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, so had other means of making protests, she said, and it was hard to see why the men had not protested about their situation.

On Friday, Mr Bush said he would "like to end Guantanamo", adding he believed the inmates "ought to be tried in courts here in the United States".

[Hard to believe isn’t it? People held for years without charge or trial and with the very real possibility of spending the rest of their lives in prison without any recourse to a legal system didn’t kill themselves out of despair. It was an “act of war” or a “clever PR move” and that the bodies will be “treated humanely and with sensitivity”. Maybe if they were treated humanely before they committed suicide they wouldn’t have taken their own lives? Maybe, as George Bush ‘would like’, the surviving inmates might actually get some kind of trial and the weeping boil on the backside of democracy can close down. Personally I’m not holding my breath. After all I wouldn’t want my actions to be considered an act of “asymmetric warfare” against the US now would I? I might end up on an all expenses paid indefinite visit to Cuba.]

Friday, June 16, 2006

My favourite Music: Adagio in G Minor for Organ and Strings by Tomaso Albinoni.

I first heard this pierce of music many, many years ago & it has haunted me ever since. The first time it found its way into my heart and my very 'soul' was whilst watching the original movie version of Rollerball. For those who have seen the movie the piece is played when James Caan is watching a video of his ex-girlfriend (who he is very much still in love with). It is still probably one of the saddest works of music I have ever heard.

For years I wondered what the music was that had captivated me and who was the genius that had written it. Not until a decade or so later did I hear it playing in a video shop in Bromley, Kent. It was one of those ‘CD Now Playing’ promotions they sometimes do and I immediately bought the CD and rushed home to play it. I wasn’t disappointed. The very first track was the piece of music I love so much that it hurts to listen to it. I now have at least half a dozen versions played by various orchestras and on various instruments. If you like classical music you may already now it – if not I can only recommend you give it a try. But be warned – the sound of it may never leave you. I’m just going to pop it on my CD player right now…..

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Just finished Reading – Dime Store Magic by Kelly Armstrong

This is the third in the ‘Women of the Otherworld’ series, the first two being Bitten and Stolen which concerned the exploits of the only female werewolf (long story) Elena Michaels.

Dime Store Magic concentrates on a character introduced in Stolen – the 23 year old witch Paige Winterbourne and her 13 year old ward Savannah. Witches, along with Sorcerers, are a different species in Ms Armstrong’s universe – not to be confused with human Wiccans. They have real power (unlike their human counterparts) but Paige finds herself way out of her depth when Savannah’s mysterious father tries to reclaim her in order to use her burgeoning power for his own ends.

Kelly Armstrong’s writing skills are certainly improving with each novel. Her first novel Bitten was often a little raw but her excellent central character Elena made it more than readable. Here we find again an excellent central character in Paige as well as a host of well drawn, three dimensional and most importantly believable otherworldly characters to compliment this novel. Still a little clunky in places it nevertheless moves along at a reasonable pace, is funny, sexy and disturbing in turn and is chock full of snappy dialogue. More than anything else it’s a fun read. It’s certainly light reading but not fluffy – and more than a little gruesome in places to be honest. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the Anita Blake series by Laurell K Hamilton then you’ll like these books too.
Picture Time.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Losing the Long War

by Tom Porteous for TomPaine.com

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Last week's summit meeting in Washington between George Bush and Tony Blair took place against the background of the escalating failures of their coercive policies in the Long War against Islamist radicalism. In Afghanistan, more than four years after the United States and its allies intervened to oust the Taliban and install a pro-Western regime, NATO forces face more than just another spring offensive by Taliban "remnants." May 2006 has witnessed little short of a countrywide rebellion. Significant masses of Afghan political and military forces are mounting a serious challenge to the status quo.

In Iraq, the formation in May of a new government under Nuri al-Maliki may or may not halt, or slow down, the steady collapse into sectarianism that has unfolded since the U.S. invasion of 2003. But the insurgency continues and opposition to the intervention grows even among those Iraqis who once welcomed it. In Muslim communities world-wide, the U.S. military intervention fuels anti-Western sentiment among extremists and moderates alike. Furthermore, the failure of the United States to control the situation in Iraq has dispelled the illusion of American military dominance in the world.

In Palestine, experts and politicians—few of them apologists for Islamism or admirers of Hamas—have argued to no avail against the U.S. policy of cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority following the Islamists' election. Such a policy, they point out, leads to further chaos in Gaza and the West Bank, strengthens the hand of extremists and sets back even further the prospects of Arab-Israeli peace. Meanwhile Western complicity in Israeli's continuing occupation of Palestinian territory remains a rallying cry for Islamists and anti-Western sentiment throughout the Muslim world.

In Iran, the hard-line Islamists have rolled back political reform and are thumbing their noses at the United States and Europe, rushing ahead with a nuclear enrichment program in defiance of U.S. and Israeli threats, safe in the knowledge that the political and military position of the United States in the region is now so precarious as to render the option of U.S. military action against Iran catastrophic for Western interests.

In Egypt, long regarded as a pillar of pro-Western stability in the Middle East and the most populous Arab state, the judiciary is now standing against the corruption and political stagnation of the Mubarak regime. There are signs that further repression of the burgeoning Egyptian movement for political reform is leading to a serious political crisis. There is little doubt that the main winners of any genuine political opening will be the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Even in distant Somalia, the pernicious impact of the Long War is being felt as U.S. backed warlords struggle to suppress Somali Islamist militias whose political and military influence has been steadily filling the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, and the failure of the international community to rescue it from feuding warlords and violent intervention by Ethiopia. The ideological appeal of Somalia's Islamists now appears stronger than the clan loyalties that have sustained the murderous squabbling of the warlords for the past decade.

If you add up all these (and other) complex events, they point to the comprehensive failure of the West's strategy to tackle radical Islamism. If the Long War really is an existential struggle between the "free world" and "Islamo-fascism" then these should be dark days indeed for the West. The fact is, however, that we are not living through any crisis remotely comparable to the Cold War or WW II (as goes the rhetoric of the Long War). The "threat" from Islamism remains limited to random acts of political terrorism, horrifying for the victims and entirely reprehensible, but of no major strategic threat to the West. The balance of economic, military and political power remains overwhelmingly on the side of the United States and its allies. All Muslim states except Iran are subservient to America's interests. For the vast majority of Westerners, the Long War impinges hardly at all on their daily lives.

The same cannot be said of the impact on Middle Easterners. The occupation of Iraq, the unqualified support for Israel's coercive and expansionist policies, the continuing support for authoritarian regimes, the brutal counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism techniques, and the deeply worrying doctrine of pre-emptive coercion (detention, torture, economic sanctions and war) have very real and catastrophic consequences for millions of Middle Easterners and serve to strengthen the political influence of precisely those extremist and anti-Western forces the West is seeking to suppress. Is the West now dropping the rhetoric of confrontation and returning to more realistic and sensible policies towards the Muslim world? Bush, Blair and their ideological supporters are yesterday's men, discredited at home and abroad by the negative consequences of their policies in the Middle East. In two years time they will be out of office. U.S. and European policymakers have looked into the abyss of a potential military strike against Iran and appear to have flinched. Long postponed, direct negotiations between the United States and Iran are now a possibility.

There is much that could still occur to maintain the current state of confrontation between Islam and the West. Extremists on both sides have an interest in upping the tension through polarising acts of homicide. Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine remain arenas of acute crisis and violence. There are few signs that any new Western leaders waiting in the wings in the United States or Europe have the ideas, the courage or the will to address the roots of these difficult crises. In their conflict with radical Islam, the West and Israel will not be able to win peace and stability through war and military occupation, but must seek it through genuine political accommodation and compromise based on a modicum of justice and fairness.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

An Introduction to Atheism

From: The Atheism Web

What is atheism?

Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This absence of belief generally comes about either through deliberate choice, or from an inherent inability to believe religious teachings which seem literally incredible. It is not a lack of belief born out of simple ignorance of religious teachings.

Some atheists go beyond a mere absence of belief in gods: they actively believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Just lacking belief in Gods is often referred to as the "weak atheist" position; whereas believing that gods do not (or cannot) exist is known as "strong atheism". Regarding people who have never been exposed to the concept of 'god': Whether they are 'atheists' or not is a matter of debate. Since you're unlikely to meet anyone who has never encountered religion, it's not a very important debate... It is important, however, to note the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. "Weak atheism" is simple scepticism; disbelief in the existence of God. "Strong atheism" is an explicitly held belief that God does not exist. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming that all atheists are "strong atheists". There is a qualitative difference in the "strong" and "weak" positions; it's not just a matter of degree. Some atheists believe in the non-existence of all Gods; others limit their atheism to specific Gods, such as the Christian God, rather than making flat-out denials.

"But isn't disbelieving in God the same thing as believing he doesn't exist?" Definitely not. Disbelief in a proposition means that one does not believe it to be true. Not believing that something is true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea whether it is true or not. Which brings us to agnosticism.

What is agnosticism then?

The term 'agnosticism' was coined by Professor T.H. Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He defined an agnostic as someone who disclaimed both ("strong") atheism and theism, and who believed that the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether God exists. Some agnostics believe that we can never know. In recent years, however, the term agnostic has also been used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against God is inconclusive, and therefore are undecided about the issue. To reduce the amount of confusion over the use of term agnosticism, it is recommended that usage based on a belief that we cannot know whether God exists be qualified as "strict agnosticism" and usage based on the belief that we merely do not know yet be qualified as "empirical agnosticism". Words are slippery things, and language is inexact. Beware of assuming that you can work out someone's philosophical point of view simply from the fact that she calls herself an atheist or an agnostic. For example, many people use agnosticism to mean what is referred to here as "weak atheism", and use the word "atheism" only when referring to "strong atheism". Beware also that because the word "atheist" has so many shades of meaning, it is very difficult to generalize about atheists. About all you can say for sure is that atheists don't believe in God. For example, it certainly isn't the case that all atheists believe that science is the best way to find out about the universe.
Poster Time.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Accept it: we're married, lesbian couple tell judge

Jamie Doward, home affairs correspondent for The Observer

Sunday May 28, 2006

A lesbian couple will this week make British legal history when they mount a High Court challenge to have their civil partnership recognised as a marriage. The case has dismayed Christian groups, which fear it could undermine marriage as an institution. University professors Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger married in Canada and want their relationship to have the same status in the UK. They hope their test case, which starts on Friday and is expected to last four days, will lead to others in same-sex relationships being able to wed in the UK. 'It's outrageous the government won't recognise our marriage,' Kitzinger said. 'Our lawyers are seeking a declaration of the validity of our marriage with reference to the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998.' Wilkinson said: 'If a different-sex couple went to Canada and got married and returned to England it would be automatically recognised ... This case is about equality.'

The pair, who have been together for 16 years, married in August 2003 while Wilkinson was working in British Columbia, one of the first places in the world to recognise same-sex marriages. Peter Tatchell of gay rights group OutRage, which is backing the case along with human rights group Liberty, said it was an attempt to end 'sexual apartheid'. 'Civil partnerships are second best,' Tatchell said. 'Nothing less than marriage equality is acceptable.' But Don Horrocks, head of public affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, said allowing same-sex couples to marry would set a dangerous precedent. 'Where does it stop?' Horrocks asked. 'Soon there will be people wanting to marry their horse or perhaps three or four people all want to get married. If the word marriage is going to be infinitely plastic it loses all meaning.' Many Christian groups see the case as vindicating the arguments they made when opposing the introduction of civil partnerships. 'We said this would happen all along,' Horrocks said. 'We know that when the homosexual lobby get one thing they move on to the next stage. It was always going to be the case that once they had got civil partnerships somebody who had been married in Canada would mount a test case in Britain.'

In April a High Court judge gave an interim ruling allowing the case to proceed: 'I consider that there is sufficient material available for an argument based on principle ... that the requirement of the Civil Partnership Act that a marriage between same-sex partners abroad must, on registration, be treated as a civil partnership and not a marriage, is on the face of it discriminatory on the grounds of sexual orientation.' The test case is one of several challenges around the world to have same-sex relationships recognised as marriages. There are similar challenges in Ireland, Israel, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Since civil partnerships were introduced in the UK, gay and lesbian couples have had the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. Some observers have therefore asked why those supporting the case feel that recognising a civil partnership as a marriage is so important. 'In some sense, those who say it's just a word are absolutely right,' Wilkinson said. 'So, in that case, why is the government fighting so hard against us?'
My Favourite Movies: A Matter of Life and Death.

I’ve had this film on video for many years and have just replaced it with a DVD copy. Made in 1946 it starred David Niven & Kim Hunter (pictured above) as lovers who met in rather unusual circumstances.

Niven plays Squadron Leader Peter D Carter who, on his way back from a bombing mission over Germany (yup – not quite another war movie, but one with a war background), finds that he has to bail out of his stricken bomber – without a parachute. After ‘meeting’ the American radio operator – played by Hunter – and starting to fall in love with her, he jumps to his certain death. Or not. For his heavenly conductor – played by the superb Marius Goring – misses him in the fog. Niven survives the jump and falls deeper in love with Hunter causing a problem for the Authorities in heaven. So starts the trail of Peter Carter who fights for his life and his love against Heaven itself.

This is a wonderful movie on many levels. The story is sublime, the acting magnificent, the cinematography outstanding. I can hardly fault it in any way. I particularly liked the character of Conductor 71 (played by Goring) and Doctor Reeves (played by Robert Livesy). A classic in every sense directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger who also directed The Red Shoes (which I also own) & Black Narcissus (which I shall own shortly). If you haven’t seen this you’ve missed a real treat.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Haditha Signals Beginning of End of Iraq War

by Richard Gwyn for the Toronto Star

Friday, June 2, 2006

Comparisons are being made between the alleged massacre — it's still being investigated — in the Iraqi town of Haditha of some 24 civilians by U.S. Marines with the killing of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops in the village of Mai Lai in 1968 in the middle of the Vietnam War. Those comparisons are invalid: What reportedly happened in Haditha is far worse. Only in certain respects was Mai Lai worse. The deaths there totalled an incredible 400, rather than two dozen. Not a single shot was fired by any of the Vietnamese villagers at the U.S. soldiers who had descended on them from helicopters, while the Marine convoy of Humvees was hit by a car bomb as it approached Haditha. One Marine was killed and two others were wounded.

Yet two defining differences between the two terrible events mark Haditha as the worst atrocity by far. What allegedly was done at Haditha was not done by raw draftees, or conscripts, but by elite professionals — that is, by highly trained and highly disciplined troops. That the Marines would be edgy and angry at the death of a comrade is understandable. They didn't, though, then go on a rampage. Instead, their alleged killings were spaced out and deliberate. First they apparently stopped a car with four students in it, ordered them out and shot all. Then, they entered three houses and killed almost everyone in it, of whatever sex and age. The second critical difference between the two outrages is that the alleged crime in Haditha happened after Mai Lai took place.

This means that all the publicity about that earlier crime, and all the shame so many Americans then felt about it and expressed so clearly and loudly, and all the systems and controls instituted by the military to make sure it could never happened again, made not the slightest bit of difference. Indeed, it appears that one new practice instituted by the U.S. military since the Mai Lai massacre amounts to a technique for covering up crimes like it. This relates to the way the cover story about the alleged Haditha massacre began to fall apart. The killings happened last November. Once it was realized that some of those shot down could not have been insurgents — the dead included women and children, one as young as 2 years old — approval was given for cash payments to be given to survivors as compensation. Some survivors, though, complained that they hadn't received any payments — in effect, "hush money" — as recompense for dead relatives.

Marine officers began to notice discrepancies in the numbers of the dead that they had been given and the numbers of those alleged to have been insurgents, as a consequence of which their relatives were ineligible for any compensation. As with Mai Lai, the Marine chain of command was incredibly slow to gather the courage it took to accept that a massacre had almost certainly taken place and, therefore, to investigate aggressively. The actual turning point was the first media story on what had happened, in Time magazine last March. Between Haditha, about which the White House has now gone into full damage control mode, and Mai Lai, there is one significant similarity. What Mai Lai did was to turn American citizens against the Vietnam War by making them realize what the war was doing to their own troops. This was that it was demoralizing and debasing otherwise decent young Americans, out of fear, out of hatred, out of sheer despair at being trapped in an unwinnable war — because it involved, inevitably, killing many innocent citizens as well as actual insurgents or guerrillas. The alleged Haditha massacre, once its full details are made public, will undoubtedly push American public opinion toward the same tipping point.

Abu Graib. Guantanamo. Haditha. And most probably many others which now will come to light. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Iraq war.
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Why do Skeptics doubt the existence of God? – Part II

From: Why I Am a Skeptic about Religious Claims

By Paul Kurtz

The historic religions maintain that God has revealed himself in history and that he has manifested his presence to selected humans. These revelations are not corroborated by independent, objective observers. They are disclosed, rather, to privileged prophets or mystics, whose claims have not been adequately verified: there is insufficient circumstantial evidence to confirm their authenticity. To attribute inexplicable events to miracles performed by God, as declared in the so-called sacred literature, is often a substitute for finding their true causes scientifically. Scientific inquiry is generally able to explain alleged "miracles" by discovering natural causes.

The Bible, Qur'an, and other classical documents are full of contradictions and factual errors. They were written by human beings in ancient civilizations, expressing the scientific and moral speculations of their day. They do not convey the eternal word of God, but rather the yearnings of ancient tribes based on oral legends and received doctrines; as such, they are hardly relevant to all cultures and times. The Old and New Testaments are not accurate accounts of historical events. The reliability of the Old Testament is highly questionable in the events and personages it depicts; Moses, Abraham, Joseph, etc. are largely uncorroborated by historical evidence. As for the New Testament, scholarship has shown that none of its authors knew Jesus directly. The four Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses but are products of oral tradition and hearsay. There is but flimsy and contradictory evidence for the virgin birth, the healings of Jesus, and the Resurrection. Similarly, contrary to Muslim claims that that religion's scriptures passed virtually unmediated from Allah, there have in fact been several versions of the Qur'an; it is no less a product of oral traditions than the Bible. Likewise, the provenance of the Hadith, allegedly passed down by Muhammad's companions, has not been independently confirmed by reliable historical research.

Some claim to believe in God because they say that God has entered into their personal lives and has imbued them with new meaning. This is a psychological or phenomenological account of a person's inner experience. It is hardly adequate evidence for the existence of a divine being independent of human beings' internal soliloquies. Appeals to mystical experiences or private subjective states hardly suffice as evidential support that some external being or force caused such altered states of consciousness; skeptical inquirers have a legitimate basis for doubt, unless or until such claims of interior experience can somehow be independently corroborated. Experiences of God or gods, or angels or demons, talking to one may disturb or entrance those persons who undergo such experiences, but the question is whether these internal subjective states have external veracity. This especially applies to those individuals who claim some sort of special revelation from on high, such as the hearing of commandments.

[To be continued in Part III].
My favourite Places: Stonehenge

Stonehenge is a Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monument located near Amesbury in the English county of Wiltshire, about 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Salisbury. It is composed of earthworks surrounding a circular setting of large standing stones and is one of the most famous prehistoric sites in the world. Archaeologists think the standing stones were erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC although the surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. The site and its surroundings were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1986 in a co-listing with Avebury henge monument, and it is also a legally protected Scheduled Ancient Monument. Stonehenge itself is owned and managed by English Heritage whilst the surrounding downland is owned by the National Trust.

[The above from Wikipedia].

I’ve visited Stonehenge 2-3 times so far and I must admit that I was initially disapointed, probably because I expected something a bit bigger. [grin] But on subsequent visits I became very impressed by the technical achievement and by the sheer majesty of the place. It’s truly awesome and the more we find out about it the more impressive it becomes. The last time I was there they had electronic ‘guides’ for hire which inform you about the history of the site which certainly adds greatly to the experience. A wonder of the age and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Friday, June 09, 2006

There We Go Again, Restricting Rights

by Nicola Castle-Bauer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Washington)

February 27, 2006

It seems to me that the United States has a knack for repeating history, especially when it comes to restricting rights from the citizens who rightfully deserve them. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the Army to intern more than 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans indefinitely without a trial, and without knowing what they were charged with. Sound familiar?

After World War II officially ended, we began the Cold War with Russia. In 1954, Congress enacted the Communist Control Act. "Red Menace" hysteria quickly devoured the country, causing the government to enact restrictions on free expression and free association, to create emergency detention plans for suspected "communists," to back legislative investigations designed to punish by exposure and to keep public and private blacklists of those who had been "exposed." Now that World War II is over and we've "saved" the country from the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians, and now that the Cold War is over and we've "saved" the country from the communists, shouldn't we be safe? Unfortunately, the answer is no. As probably every person in the world knows by now, the Twin Towers were destroyed by two hijacked planes flown by serial bombers on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, killing 2,300-plus people, including rescue workers and counting those killed when another plane flew into the Pentagon.

So now we are on high alert for a suspect just as broad as the men, women and children of Japanese ancestry (not one of whom was proved to be a spy), or all the accused communists. We are looking for the terrorists, in what our government is now calling the "war on terrorism," and that is where Guantanamo Bay comes into the picture. In our "war on terrorism," we feel obligated to detain more than 600 "enemy combatants" indefinitely without a trial, and without knowing what they are charged with. The "enemy combatants" are masterfully detained. Since the "enemy combatants" are being held on soil rented to the United States, the Constitution should apply, particularly the Fifth and Sixth amendments, which provide citizens and those being held on U.S. soil with due process of law. Unfortunately, it apparently does not. The Geneva Conventions, giving rights to prisoners of war does not apply, either, because the "enemy combatants" do not meet POW criteria (example, they are not associated with a certain country).

We can be thankful that the Supreme Court has decided to step in. In two very crucial decisions in 2004 on the range of the president's wartime powers, The Supreme Court debunked the claim by the Bush administration that it could hold "enemy combatants" on American soil without giving them a proper trial. Because Guantanamo Bay is under U.S. control, and thus appropriately within the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, whether U.S. citizens or not, the detainees will retain their rights to at least a legal hearing. "The president's constitutional powers, even when supported by Congress in wartime, do not include the authority to close the doors to an independent review of the legality of locking people up," said Fred Barbash of The Washington Post, summarizing the decisions made by the judges during the June 18 detainee hearings.

Now it is two years later, and not much has been done to put the estimated 500 to 600 detainees on trial for the charges, or lack thereof, that they are accused of. I hope we will clean up our act soon. The Golden Rule about treating others the way you wish to be treated has been passed down through generations for a reason; it works.
Poster Time.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Just Finished Reading - American Empire: The Centre Cannot Hold by Harry Turtledove.

As I’ve already said, I do like the SF sub-genre of Alternate History. Although certainly not the best example of this sub-genre, Harry Turtledoves many books are certainly entertaining – almost hypnotically so. This particular volume was the 5th (or 6th depending if you count the prequel How Few Remain) in the series charting the lives of about 20 characters shaped by and shaping an alternate world where the Confederate States won the American Civil War.

The Centre Cannot Hold runs from the early 1920’s to 1934 through the Great Depression, the Occupation of Canada and the bombing of Los Angeles by the Japanese Air force. The victorious USA grows ever prosperous under the guidance of its 12 year Socialist administration (falling into Depression after 1929) whilst the CSA stumbles towards fascism, finally electing a hard right-wing President in 1934 dedicated to rebuilding and revenge.

Not exactly the best writing in the world but the narrative keeps moving forward and you do find yourself getting ‘involved’ in these peoples lives as they grow up, grow old and produce children of their own. Turtledove does have a few annoying habits – the worst of which is incessant repetition of events or characteristics – but once you get past that you can enjoy the ride. I have three more volumes to go in this saga and there’s another one just out in hardback. Looks like I won’t be running out of storyline just yet.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

'New Monasticism' on the increase

From Ekklesia - 21/03/06

The number of 'monastic' Christian communities is on the increase, suggests new research. With the power, influence and privilege of Christendom crumbling, George Lings, Director of Church Army’s research unit The Sheffield Centre has claimed that the number of emerging monastic Christian communities is growing. His comments come in the latest edition of the magazine 'Encounters on the Edge' where he also speculates that the church may be entering a new 'dark age', with many Christians feeling there is an increasingly hostile environment around them.

His suggestions come ahead of a book to be published at the end of June by Ekklesia's director Jonathan Bartley, which looks at the phenomena of 'Post-Christendom' which will suggest that not all Christians lament the passing of Christendom. It will also critically assess the responses of those Christians who feel that they are being increasingly marginalized and excluded, sometimes even persecuted.

The 'new monasticism' has been identified as one type of fresh expression of church in the best-selling “Mission-shaped Church” report, is challenging the church to re-examine those areas of congregational life where there is a “weak sense of community, narrow attitude of enquiry, anaemic worship style and disconnection from issues of life.” Lings thinks it could even be of greater significance than most other fresh expressions because it invites us into a deeper spiritual life. Lings observes that most Anglican liturgies do little to nurture the calling of pioneers and evangelists and is not surprised by a stronger drive amongst the scores of fresh expressions of church being established which feed the calling and identity of hundreds of people who have discovered new and distinct ways of being church.

The Northumbria Community (a case study Lings examines in depth in the booklet) is “unusual and noteworthy in that both mission and community are deep in its DNA, and profoundly well-balanced. The danger for many fresh expressions is the reverse. Their temptations are to activism and to seek results in order to justify their existence before the watching church.”

Monday, June 05, 2006

“No dictator, no invader, can hold an imprisoned population by force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand.”

Spoken by G’Kar in the SF Series Babylon 5 written by J. Michael Straczynski
Hamster survives giant shredder

From BBC News.

Friday, 2 June 2006

A hamster has survived almost unscathed after spending several minutes passing through an industrial shredder. The rodent is thought to have got into a skip of rubbish that was taken to Recyclo recycling plant in Flintshire. It survived a giant shredder used to destroy waste such as washing machines and was found in a sorting area with no injuries other than a sore foot. The hamster, named Mike, has been adopted by Liam Bull, 10, whose father Craig works at Recyclo. Liam said: "I can't believe he's still alive after what happened, but he's doing fine now." The hamster's ordeal, which lasted around four minutes, began when it arrived at the plant in Sandycroft, probably aboard one of the many skips of waste which arrive there daily. As well as surviving the giant shredder, Mike passed through a rotating drum and vibrating grids before he was discovered by staff.

The plant's general manager, Tony Williams, said: "We deal with 300 to 400 tonnes of dry waste a day from all over Cheshire, Flintshire and Wrexham. "Some of the material is shredded and then goes through a series of conveyor belts and grids that enable smaller pieces of waste to fall through. "It seems that the hamster was small enough to pass through the blades of the shredder, but big enough to pass along the trammel without falling through an aperture. "We don't get very much animal activity here, but we're delighted Mike survived and is now being cared for."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Pentagon Report Said to Find Killing of Iraqi Civilians Deliberate

by Drew Brown for Knight Ridder

Thursday, May 18, 2006

WASHINGTON - A Pentagon report on an incident in which U.S. Marines shot and killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians last November will show that those killings were deliberate and worse than initially reported, a Pennsylvania congressman said Wednesday. "There was no firefight. There was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed those innocent people," Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said during a news conference on Iraq. "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them. And they killed innocent civilians in cold blood. That is what the report is going to tell."

Murtha's comments were the first on-the-record remarks by a U.S. official characterizing the findings of military investigators looking into the Nov. 19 incident. Murtha, the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and an opponent of Bush administration policy in Iraq, said he hadn't read the report but had learned about its findings from military commanders and other sources. Military public affairs officers said the investigation isn't completed and declined to provide further information. "There is an ongoing investigation," said Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. "Any comment at this time would be inappropriate." Both Gibson and Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said that the military has yet to decide what, if any action, might be taken against Marines involved in the incident.

"It would be premature to judge any individual or unit until the investigation is complete," Irwin said. Said Gibson, "No charges have been made as we have to go through the entire investigatory process and determine whether or not that is a course of action." Three Marine commanders whose troops were involved in the incident were relieved of duty in April, but the Marines didn't link their dismissals to the incident, saying only that Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of 1st Marine Division, had lost confidence in the officers' ability to command. Gibson reiterated that point Wednesday. "It's important to remember that the officers were relieved by the commanding general of 1st Marine Division as a result of events that took place throughout their tour of duty in Iraq," he said.

The dismissed officers were Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and two of his company commanders, Capt. James S. Kimber and Capt. Lucas M. McConnell. Gibson said all three have been assigned to staff jobs with the 1st Division. U.S. military authorities in Iraq initially reported that one Marine and 15 Iraqi civilians traveling in a bus were killed by a roadside bomb in the western Iraq insurgent stronghold of Haditha. They said eight insurgents were killed in an ensuing firefight. But Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the ground commander of coalition forces in Iraq, ordered an investigation on Feb. 14 after a reporter with Time magazine told military authorities of allegations that the Marines had killed innocent civilians.

After CNN broke the news of the initial investigation in March, military officials told Knight Ridder that the civilians were killed not in the initial blast but were apparently caught in the crossfire of a subsequent gun battle as 12 to 15 Marines fought insurgents from house to house over the next five hours. At that time, military officials told Knight Ridder that four of the civilians killed were women and five were children. Subsequent reporting from Haditha by Time and Knight Ridder revealed a still different account of events, with survivors describing Marines breaking down the door of a house and indiscriminately shooting the building's occupants. Twenty-three people were killed in the incident, relatives of the dead told Knight Ridder.

The uncle of one survivor, a 13-year-old girl, told Knight Ridder that the girl had watched the Marines open fire on her family and that she had held her 5-year-old brother in her arms as he died. The girl shook visibly as her uncle relayed her account, too traumatized to recount what happened herself. "I understand the investigation shows that in fact there was no firefight, there was no explosion that killed the civilians on a bus," Murtha said. "There was no bus. There was no shrapnel. There was only bullet holes inside the house where the Marines had gone in. So it's a very serious incident, unfortunately. It shows the tremendous pressure these guys are under every day when they're out in combat and the stress and consequences." Murtha, who retired as a colonel after 37 years in the Marine Corps, said nothing indicates that the Iraqis killed in the incident were at fault. "One man was killed with an IED," Murtha said, referring to a Marine killed by the roadside bomb. "And after that, they actually went into the houses and killed women and children."
My Favourite Music: 2112 by Rush

My favourites do seem to be stuck in the 1970’s don’t they? Though first released in 1976 I probably didn’t hear this album until almost 10 years later. I was introduced to Rush by a friend in College who leant me Fly by Night to listen to on my newly acquired Sony Walkman. The rest, as they say, is history. I guess I was attracted to 2112 in particular by the long 20 minute first track which had a serious SF theme to it. I also really liked the second track A Passage to Bangkok. But what I like most about Rush is their almost orchestral feel despite being very much a 'progressive' rock band.

As far as I know the Rush sound is pretty unique and so far I own about 5-6 of their CD’s. I’m planning to own them all – it’ll stop me buying books for a while if nothing else. If you haven’t heard Rush before I can certainly recommend them and 2112 is as good a place as any to start a possible addiction.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Praying for the Demise of Religion

by Rev. Kenneth W. Chalker for the Cleveland Plain Dealer

Monday, December 12, 2005

I have heard the line many times: "Rev, I want you to know right upfront that I'm spiritual - but not religious." This distinction is a 21st century American mantra: spiritual - but not religious. It could be on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. Truth be told, in the wake of the recent United Methodist Judicial Council ruling mandating the reinstatement of a United Methodist pastor who had refused church membership to an openly gay man, I would be one of the folks wearing the T-shirt. I have been a parish pastor in the United Methodist Church for 31 years. This calling continues to be a marvelous, enriching and energizing spiritual experience. Among other things, it has made me deeply spiritual and leads me to pray daily for the demise of religion.

While sharing in the lives of people, I have had numerous encounters with the Holy, Infinite One. I have witnessed resurrections, liberations, high moments of justice and mercy, and life-changing acts of forgiveness. I have seen healings that restored broken hearts, fractured minds and shattered spirits. I have seen people who were sinking in turbulent waters suddenly walk on those waves as a result of renewed faith. I've seen waters part, revealing reliable paths to places of promise. I have seen bramble bushes of confusion and pain set ablaze with a Holy presence revealing messages of clarity and hope. I have heard angels sing of holy births even as death appears to close the eyes of cherished friends. Because of wonderfully hopeful things such as these, I believe what all world faith traditions reveal. Namely, that God is Spirit and thus never captured in a picture, idea, book or creed. Rather, the Holy One is always mysterious, awe-inspiring, hope-raising and fear-relieving. Encounters with the Spirit are at once and always an amazing grace. Religion, however, is what Satan devises as a way of confusing faithful people. Holy wars, suicide bombings and other religiously motivated killings prove the point.

Those of us who exercise our spirituality by attempting to follow in the footsteps of Jesus are very much aware that when Jesus was around religious people it made him nauseated. I believe that is why Jesus always enjoyed eating with sinners. It was the only way he could keep his lunch. In these religious times, church organizations are forsaking their initial spiritual impetus and going over to the dark side. Employing labored, amplified heavy breathing, they have become religious institutions. Like most institutions, religious ones are very much interested in preserving their various ways of doing things. That is, in large part, why there are judicial councils. Their job is not to keep the faith. Their job is to keep the rules and make folks think that "the rules" and "the faith" are the same thing. Most often, they are not. While the decision of the United Methodist Judicial Council purports to protect a pastor's right to ascertain a person's readiness to affirm the vows of membership in the church, it does nothing of the sort. The decision does what religion so often does: It sanctifies acts of hidden prejudice and self-righteousness.

Wonder of wonders, there are many, many clergy and laypersons who serve in and give life to many, many churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and prayer rooms. They are those who each day open the doors of such places in marvelous ways. They welcome folks in. They step out into the streets to help others. They transform communities and daily work to make things better. They relieve suffering and amplify - as well as enable rejoicing. Such faithful people reveal that the Spirit is alive and active in our midst. They also know that judicial council terms come to an end and prejudices will one day pass away. In the meantime (and sometimes the times are very mean), institutional religion continues to be a mind-numbing reality. In all cultures, it preserves the status quo in ice. That is why religious folks often seem to be the "frozen chosen" rather than ones warmed by the fire of the Spirit with tolerance, acceptance and love, and set ablaze with a passion for justice.

Putting people out is a coldly religious thing to do. In the end, the rooms from which people have been excluded become empty. The temperature is turned way down to save expenses. Not much is going on in those rooms, but at least they are neat and orderly. Current judicial councils, like all of them over time, very much like it that way. Among other things, the thermostats in their rooms never have to be reset and the chairs need never be moved for their small, bi-annual meetings.
Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to fly?

Prompted, at least partially, by my recent viewing of X-Men 3: The Last stand I’ve been thinking about how cool it would be to be able to fly. Having the ability to just leap into the air whenever you felt like it and fly off somewhere. Wouldn’t that be so liberating?

I sometimes catch myself watching birds flying around and can’t help but wonder if they actually enjoy their abilities. I suppose it’s a bit like asking if people enjoy walking or if fish enjoy swimming. It’s just something that they do without much thought. But sometimes I do get the feeling that birds actually do enjoy flying. You can see them sometimes seemingly ‘playing’ with the wind, almost testing their limits. You see them at other times doing acrobatics with others of their kind and that’s just got to be fun.

OK. I’m sure that flying probably has its downside too and would undoubtedly present no end of practical problems if humans could do it – but we can dream, can’t we?