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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

86-Year Old Man Tells His Life Story

Sometimes, we find something in the internet that makes us smile, something that touches us, and makes us feel happy, even for a brief and fleeting moment.
Whoever this old man is, his account of his life throughout the years, told in rage comic, made me shed a few manly tears.

And as this is November, he reminds of my own father. 
Click here for a larger image: 86 years old...

Monday, November 4, 2013

Of Loneliness and Unheard Songs

Whales, like many mammals, are social animals. Some travel in groups, called “pods,” while some travel alone. Some whale species, like the blue whale and the humpback, are also known to communicate with each other by making vocalizations, called “whale songs.” Although researchers have yet to fully understand the hows and whys of whale songs, they do notice that whales’ karaoke night frequently happens during mating seasons, which suggests that whales use some sort of cetaceous pickup lines—or perhaps “love songs,” that invite the females to mate. Their songs are heard by other whales for thousands of kilometers.

These whales either sing alone, or in a group. They may sing together, in tune with one another. (A choir made up of humpbacks is awesome. I am picturing them in my head right now—with their mouths open, of course.)
Some researchers even suggest that whales recognize each other by the song they are singing, even those coming from a different pod. Of course, different researchers have different ideas on what these songs mean. But many agree that the sounds produced by these majestic creatures are often beautiful, sad, and haunting.
But what happens if a whale’s song is unheard by other whales? Whale songs are sung in a particular frequency, so that other whales can hear them. What if a whale sings in a different frequency?      
For years, a whale has been doing this, singing a song that no other whales can hear. It has been roaming the world’s oceans, alone. The whale belongs to no pod—it has no family, no friends, no partner. It doesn’t even follow the usual whale migration route.

The whale first caught the attention of the U. S. Navy in 1989 when their instruments (hydrophones built to track submarine movements) picked up an unusual frequency coming from the whale. It had all the characteristics of a whale song, but the whale has been singing a song at a frequency that no other whales can hear. Whales usually sing between 15 and 25 hertz; the forever alone whale, on the other hand, sings at 52 hertz. The whale might as well have been speaking in Klingon to a group of Hmongs. Members of the team that track down this whale say that “all signs are that the sounds come from a single animal, whose movements ‘appear to be unrelated to the presence or movement of other whale species.’”

They recorded that distinctive whale song again in 1990 and 1991.  

Nobody knows for sure what species this whale is, but with its unique call, scientists can easily track the whale. They call this whale The Loneliest Whale in the World. The whale swims on, year after year, singing its own beautiful, mournful and haunting song, unheard and unanswered.

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, scientists stated that the whale’s voice has since deepened, compared to its voice in 1992. The whale may have grown up since then.
They speculated that the whale might be a hybrid between a blue whale and another species, or else a malformed whale. The research team was even contacted by deaf people who suggest that the whale might be deaf. Or maybe it is the last surviving member of an extinct species, in which case it truly is the world’s loneliest whale.
It has been tracked as far north as Aleutian and Kodiak Islands, and as far south as the coast of California. The whale swims about 30 to 70 kilometers each day, and the longest distance it traveled in one season was reported to be more than 11,000 kilometers, recorded in 2002-2003.
In the whale’s case, loneliness does not seem to affect its health. It has survived for all these years being alone, singing its own song. What do you suppose it's thinking? Maybe it gets puzzled sometimes? 
“I keep calling out to them, why wouldn’t anybody out there answer me? Hello? Hello!”

Then again, the whale might be the cetacean equivalent of an antisocial geek, who shuns other whales. But I don't think so. 
Whatever he is, I hope he doesn't give up; I hope someday he would find another who can hear him sing. He is still out there, swimming by himself, singing his heart out, his voice reverberating in the cold waters of the North Pacific. 
And who knows? Maybe someday another whale will hear his song at 52 hertz.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Keith Richards and The Search For The Lost Chord

For someone who was in the Top Ten Rock Stars Most Likely To Die for ten straight years, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones shows remarkable resilience, considering his rock-star lifestyle.
The music magazine New Musical Express (NME) put Keith Richards (or “Keef”) on this list way back in 1973. They finally removed his name when, after ten years, the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist showed no signs of slowing down, either in his music, or in his work-hard-live-hard way of life.
1973 is forty years ago; it’s 2013, and he’s still about, and had just finished a 50th year anniversary (!) tour with his band, The Rolling Stones—arguably the greatest rock and roll band there is today.

Keith Richards may be among rock and roll’s greatest guitarists, and the undisputed King of the Guitar Riffs, but he (and the rest of his band) did not start out at the top.
In his memoir Life (written in collaboration with James Fox, published 2010), Keith Richards recounts that he started out as a blues fan, trying to emulate the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, and other old time blues legends. The Stones were among the first true “rock stars” (with all that title implies), but they also put in a lot of hard work to hone their skills, scrounging around for what gigs they could find, and to learn, learn, and learn some more. Talent and desire helped Keith Richards get started, but hard work carried him the rest of the way—along with all the drugs and alcohol he can ingest. Which was the reason why he was in that list, for ten years—apparently, the amount of drugs and alcohol that passed through his system was enough to kill any other mortal; but of course, Keith Richards is not an ordinary mortal.  
Keith Richards (2006)
When the Stones get to tour in the USA (their first, in 1964), and get to meet their idols, Keith Richards have this to say:
“We’d been playing this music, and it had all been very respectful, but then we were actually there sniffing it. You want to be a blues player, the next minute you fucking well are and you’re stuck right amongst them, and there’s Muddy Waters standing next to you. It happens so fast that you really can’t register all of the impressions that are coming at you. It comes later on, the flashbacks, because it’s all so much. It’s one thing to play a Muddy Waters song. It’s another thing to play with him.”
The Stones’ music is deeply rooted in the blues. The band was initially formed by the members’ mutual passion for the blues in its purest and rawest form. Keith Richards lived and breathed the blues; he listened to every blues record he could find, him and Mick Jagger, until he absorbed their mighty teachings. Adding his own, he created something new and wondrous. This is what makes the Stones’ music distinct—Keith’s guitar riffs, along with Mick Jaggers’ vocals.
Keith Richards in his early years tried to emulate the playing style of one his blues heroes, Jimmy Reed. His description of how he tried to emulate his hero sounds very much like hard work:
"But to dissect how he played, Jesus. It took me years to find out how he actually played the 5 chord, in the key of E—the B chord, the last of the three chords before you go home, the resolver in a twelve-bar blues—the dominant chord, as it’s called. When he gets to it, Jimmy Reed produces a haunting refrain, a melancholy dissonance. Even for non–guitar players, it’s worth trying to describe what he does. At the 5 chord, instead of making the conventional barre chord, the B7th, which requires a little effort with the left hand, he wouldn’t bother with the B at all. He’d leave the open A note ringing and just slide a finger up the D string to a 7th. And there’s the haunting note, resonating against the open A. So you’re not using root notes, but letting it fall against a 7th. Believe me, it’s (a) the laziest, sloppiest single thing you can do in that situation, and (b) one of the most brilliant musical inventions of all time."
The book also recounts the bands’ touring days, from touring in a van to a major commercial endeavor, a massive corporate machine involving private jets, a small army of roadies, technicians, engineers, lawyers, reporters, hangers on and other personnel.
And groupies, as well as all sorts of drugs and booze to cope with the demands of being on the road. To hear Keith tells it, it is extremely difficult for a band on a tour with just coffee or soda and enthusiasm powering them up.
Johnny Depp, a long-time fan of Keith Richards, has stated in interviews that he modeled Captain Jack Sparrow after the Stones’ legendary guitarist. 

Keith Richards as Captain Teague Sparrow, Captain Jack Sparrow's father in the film franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean"
He counts Keith Richards as a friend.

In the book, the Stones’ guitarist says that Johnny Depp was just this timid, quiet friend of his son, Marlon, who always hangs around their house. He mistook him for a drug dealer. When his son explained things to him, he exclaimed to the famous actor, when he next saw him, “Edward Scissorhands!”
It turns out that Johnny Depp has always been in awe, and has always idolized, Keith Richards. He had just finished a documentary about the life of his idol, a film four years in the making.
Speaking of Marlon Richards, it is quite remarkable that the son of a rock and roll god and a famous model, brought up in a household with two heroin-addicted parents with an unorthodox lifestyle, could grow up as normal as he did. While other people in similar situations self-destructed, Marlon Richards grew up with both feet firmly planted on the ground. Growing up, he was often left alone, which he did not mind, “…because it was exhausting with Anita [Pallenberg, his mother] and Keith.” Marlon, a father of three, is a gallery curator, graphic artist, and a photographer. He lives quietly in a farmhouse with his family, a life vastly different from the days when he, as a six-year-old kid, accompanied his father on tours.   
Keith Richards is for many years now sober, and has given up hard drugs. He is grandfather to four kids, a rock legend, with a body of work that would be remembered for as long as humanity listens to music.
Wih wife and two daughters

The autobiography is extremely entertaining, with enough anecdotes and vignettes from various stages of Keith’s life to make rock fans happy. 
The tone of the book makes you feel as if you are right there with him, drinking beer, you listening slack jawed, while Keith Richards, strumming absent-mindedly on his guitar, rambles on about his life, his music, his band, the people he loves (and has loved), and what it means to be Keith Richards.

“It is impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were,” he says.

Now go read the book.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

So You Think Evolution Is Just A Theory?

Many people have been told that evolution is just a theory, and that it is, at most, a hypothesis, or even a guess.

A scientific theory, however, is different from the theory the general public is familiar with. Many of us equates theory with hypothesis, which is erroneous. To a scientist, a theory is an explanation of a phenomenon. A scientific law, on the other hand, is a description of a phenomenon, and can be proven by a mathematical equation.

To illustrate: Newton’s law of gravity describes how gravity works, which basically means that things fall down if you let go of them. His theory of gravity, on the other hand, is an attempt to explain why this happens (although modern scientists accept Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as a better explanation of gravity). Newton’s and Einstein’s theories will always remain theories, because they are explanations, and different from a law, which describes things. 

A scientific theory therefore does not graduate into a scientific law, as many misinformed people seem to believe. A scientific theory meets these three requirements: it should be supported by evidence, is testable and falsifiable, and can be used to make predictions.
It is common to hear people say, “Oh, it’s just a theory. I’ll believe it if it becomes into a law.” They think that a scientific theory, if backed by further evidence, “graduates” into a law. This is not the case. To reiterate, a scientific theory does not become a law. It never does.

(Read: 10 Scientific Laws And Theories You Should Know About.)

Moreover, a theory should not be confused with hypothesis. A hypothesis is an educated guess made by scientists as an attempt to explain the cause of an event or phenomenon. They then rigorously test this hypothesis through experiment and observation, and if enough evidence is found to support it, and it repeatedly passes various tests it is subjected to, then it graduates into a theory. The theory of evolution, in more than a hundred and fifty years of study, experimentation, and observation, passes these tests with flying colors. It has never failed any crucial test. It has never been seriously challenged, only refined, and an overwhelming amount of evidence has been found that supports it. Evolution, in fact, is the basis for biology, without which biology and medicine wouldn’t make sense.
Someone who dismisses evolution as just a theory probably is just confused, and is unaware of what a scientific theory means. But if this someone is a figure of authority, like a pastor, or a teacher, they probably mean to confuse you, or even mislead you, and are letting their beliefs and prejudices cloud their judgment.

Many Christians (and other religionists) think that evolution is anti-God. This is not true. The Catholic Church, in fact, accepts evolution as a valid scientific inquiry.
Read this quote from Pope John Paul II's address to the Pontifical Academy of Science (1996), in which he reaffirms the Church's position regarding evolution:
In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.... Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.
Pope Benedict, in fact, calls the conflict between "creationism" and evolution absurd:
Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.

As the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it,Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes round the sun.

Unfortunately, most of those who deny evolution have already made up their minds, not because of some scientific reasons, but because their faith would not let them have the idea of a universe not put in order by some Creator.

“The way to see by Faith is to shut the eye of Reason.”

--Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

“If We Evolved From Monkeys, How Come There Are Still Monkeys?”

This question is a favourite among creationists; they often ask this to dismiss the Theory of Evolution. Although this probably dates back from the time of Charles Darwin, many creationists, when engaged in a discussion (especially in an online discussion), act as if they had just discovered this particular zinger. They believe this is irrefutable, an argument that would surely reduce those smug, know-it-all evolutionists into blubbering idiots trapped in an existentialist despair. If you see this question in an Internet discussion board, this is usually followed by “HAHAHA,” which tends to make the impression that creationists are raving lunatics.
This caricature of Charles Darwin with the body of an ape was used since the late 1800s to ridicule him and his ideas about evolution

To be fair though, there are people out there who ask this question out of genuine curiosity, maybe because they were told (and taught) all sorts of misinformation and fed lies, deliberately or inadvertently, about science, particularly evolution—of which many have a serious misunderstanding.
It is also interesting to note that the website “Answers in Genesis,” a creationist site that advocates the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis' account of creation (“Creationism”), discourages their followers from using this as an argument. They had probably realized that this is one of the dumbest things a person could ask, when attacking evolution.

And here are the reasons why:

Nowhere in the theory of evolution does it say that humans evolved from monkeys. What evolution shows (among other things) is that humans and modern apes (including monkeys) descended from some ape-like creatures millions of years ago. Humans and the modern apes share a common direct ancestor that existed 5 to 8 million years ago; the species diverged into separate lineages, one of which developed, ultimately, into apes, and the other evolved into early humans called hominids that became the ancestors of modern humans. 
There have been a number of different hominid species; many are close relatives. Most of these species became extinct without giving rise to other species. Some of these species that we know today through fossils are almost certainly Homo sapiens’ direct ancestors. We may never know the exact number of hominid species that existed and their relationship with each other, but our knowledge increases as new fossils are found.     
The “monkey question” also assumes that ancestral forms must disappear as evolution takes place, which is not the case. It is important to know that it is possible for a species’ direct ancestor (that is, the species itself, not the individual) can exist for a long time without evolving. If for example the species became isolated from the rest of the population, and there are no environmental pressures for the species to evolve, then they can go for millions of years with no (or very little) evolution (see living fossils). In these conditions, the species would have no biological imperative to evolve. This means that evolution does not have to occur, if there are no reasons for it.
If however part of this species’ population migrates into a habitat with a new set of conditions, (e.g., new food source, presence of predators, etc.) then there is pressure on the species to evolve. The species may evolve into a new one over time, while the ancestor remains relatively unchanged.   
Charts like these are misleading, for it suggests that humans developed in a linear and progressive manner, from monkey-like to human-like. This is probably one of the reasons that inspired the monkey question.
Creationists do not acknowledge that evolution have happened, and is still happening. Evolution takes a multitude of paths, and not through a process in which species progress up a sort of “stages” or “ladder” in a linear manner. Evolution is not random; rather, random factors affect evolution, and the species that had the best results from those random factors survive.

Next: So You Think Evolution Is Just A Theory?  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Neil Gaiman On the Importance of Reading, Libraries and Daydreaming

"Well meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading - do not discourage children from reading because you feel they're reading the wrong thing. There is no such thing as the wrong thing to be reading and no bad fiction for kids." - Neil Gaiman
(The following is Neil Gaiman's speech during the The Reading Agency's annual lecture held on October 14, 2013)

It's important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members' interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I'm going to tell you that libraries are important. I'm going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I'm going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.
And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I'm an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I'm biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.
And I'm here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.
And it's that change, and that act of reading that I'm here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it's good for.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read. And certainly couldn't read for pleasure.
It's not one to one: you can't say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it's a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it's hard, because someone's in trouble and you have to know how it's all going to end … that's a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you're on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
I don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian "improving" literature. You'll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

So Long, Mr. White

So long, Mr. White.
It is a very strange thing, when the defeat of a “monster” like Walter White—meth king, murderer, child-poisoner, destroyer of lives—evokes regret in us, the viewers. We feel sorry that his “empire,” his life, his world as he knows it, goes up in wisps of smoke like burned-off crystal meth on a strip of aluminum foil.

It’s to the credit of everybody involved in the production of the TV show Breaking Bad—the writers, production staff, directors, show creator Vince Gilligan, and of course the actors—that this show can make us empathize with a man like Mr. White (played by Bryan Cranston, who was ridiculously, stupendously good in portraying the rise of timid, beaten-by-life middle-aged high school teacher into “Heisenberg,” the brilliant, efficient, resourceful, brutal meth kingpin, and his descent into his own purgatory—eschewed by his own family, hunted by the whole world, hiding, planning his own brand of "redemption," desperate for one final defiant act that would validate all his “hard work”).  

"Say my name."

If you haven’t watched “Breaking Bad,” then you’re in for a treat, you lucky bastard. Schedule a whole weekend to watch the whole thingYou won’t regret it.
That last episode is hailed by many as one of the finest hours in TV history, although frankly, I think the episode “Ozymandias” (third from last) could also serve as the show’s last.
I like Walter White to somehow survive the whole thing.

Speaking of monsters, it’s interesting to note that George RR Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire, from which the TV series “Game of Thrones” is based) says that “Walter White is a bigger monster than anyone in Westeros.” Now that is saying a lot—King Joffrey (a character in Game of Thrones) does not in any way inspire sympathy—he is just a straight-up monster, through no fault of his own. After all, his mother is Cersei.  (Warning: Game of Thrones spoiler ahead) His death made me feel something akin to “unholy glee.”

Also, now that Mr. Martin has finished watching TV, maybe he can now finish writing Book Six of A Song of Ice and Fire.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cursed, Part 2--The Case Against GMOs

It turns out that these “rice farmers” weren't actually what they say they were; they were actually misguided activists who moronically believe that food crops that carry the tag “GM” (genetically modified) are automatically bad.
The rice plants that were destroyed were “endowed with a gene from cornand another from a bacterium, making it the only variety in existence toproduce beta carotene, the source of vitamin A. Its developers call it “Golden Rice.” If made available to people, a cup of this rice variety would provide half an adult’s daily recommended intake of Vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency causes the death of millions of people around the world, and could also cause blindness among children.

The vandals were members of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), AnakPawis Party list, and MASIPAG, organizations that ironically style themselves as pro-farmer and pro-poor.
They were there to stage a protest versus GMOs, a protest that quickly turned into an orgy of rice plant-killing when a group broke away and destroyed the rice plants in the trial fields, to the consternation of the real farmers who witnessed the attack.  
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have always been a target for these “environmentalists,” who think that we should all return to “traditional” or “organic” agriculture. However, isn't agriculture itself always been unnatural? Since Homo sapiens found a more efficient alternative to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around 10,000 years ago, humans have been genetically-altering most food crops.
Take for example the banana. The “natural” form of the banana is vastly different from the banana that we enjoy today. The “genetically unmodified” banana was a tasteless, mushy fruit with large seeds, and shaped differently from the modern banana. Rice, wheat, corn, are food crops similarly far removed from their wild ancestors. Do these food crops cause illnesses?
Genetic modification, basically, is a shortcut to get the more favorable traits in a crop. Selective breeding would produce a similar result, but that would take considerably more time.
Point is, not all genetically-modified foods are harmful; nor are they made solely for the benefit of multi-national corporations, like the much-maligned Monsanto.
Genetically modified foods made it possible for a good part of humanity to exist. If the world would rely solely on “organic foods,” the food production would only be sufficient to feed about 4 billion of the world’s population. Should the rest of humanity be asked to please quietly die from hunger because there are people who think GM foods are “yucky”?
People like Norman Borlaug (the greatest man you probably never heard of) made it possible for hundreds of millions, billions even, to have something to eat. Without this man, many of us in the Third World would probably never have been born. If people need somebody to worship, idolize, and to emulate, it should be this man.
"He fed five thousand people? Noob." 
Known as the “Father of the Green Revolution,” Mr Borlaug, who also helped prevent a Malthusian scenario, had a PhD in plant pathology and genetics. He developed high-yielding and disease resistant food crops that doubled the food production in many countries around the world, in the process saving more than a billion people from starvation.
The question of whether this is a good thing for the whole world in the long run is neither here nor there. That we are alive is sufficient reason for me to consider this a good thing.
Tons of researches have been done on the safety of GM crops, and the vast majority of them say that they are safe to eat. Banning GM crops would mean condemning a good chunk of the world’s population to starvation. Moreover, GM crops still has the potential to feed many, many more—millions are still going hungry around the world.
To be fair, some criticisms of genetic modifications may not be easily dismissed as irrational rants, and these should be addressed by scientists; otherwise, the case versus GMOs would further spiral down into fear-mongering and plain disinformation. 
Indeed, the subject of GMOs is an emotional one, and anybody doing a research on the subject would be swamped by tons of literature that can be found in the internet, both pros and cons. That's why it is important that we should employ a healthy skepticism in reading about this subject, and not be swayed by slogan-spouting activists-for-hire who are nothing but vandals and thugs. 
Many say that because of Green Revolution, population explosion happened, especially in the Third World; because of this, the resulting increase in the population in this part of the world is ultimately detrimental for all of us. So basically what they're saying is that for the rest to survive, some of us have to die—by starvation, perhaps? While that may have some merit (if one thinks about it in a cold-blooded, mass-murderer, and Stalinesque way of thinking), it would be difficult for them to look for volunteers. I know I wouldn't.  
But I might know a few who would be perfect candidates.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Cursed, Part 1--An Ode to Rice

Like most Asians, Filipinos love to eat rice. They eat rice at almost every meal. It’s their staple food, their go-to food, the ultimate comfort food. No Pinoy meal is complete without it.
Just as Eskimos have many words for snow, Filipinos also have several words that refer to (no, not snow) rice—they have about seven.
There’s kanin, which means cooked rice; palay—unhusked rice; bigas—husked, uncooked rice; bahaw—leftover kanin; tutong—the burnt part of kanin; binlidbigas that got crushed during the milling process; in some Visayan languages in the country's south, there’s even a term for the unhusked rice (palay) that got accidentally mixed with bigas: pasi.
They eat rice with ulam, which many Filipinos think is viand in the English language (it’s not). An ulam is any dish, usually protein, eaten in tandem with rice--it makes scarfing down platefuls of hot, steaming kanin more enjoyable. The ulam is usually strong-tasting ones like the adobo, a dish so tasty that a nibble can flavor several mouthfuls of rice.

This adobo is about ready to repent--it looks absolutely sinful.

Ulam can be vegetable, fish, or meat-based. Some even make an ulam out of pancit (fine noodles cooked with bits of meat or shrimp and vegetables, seasoned with soy sauce, and is a complete meal in itself). 
For Filipinos, meals revolve around rice. When they see an unfamiliar foreign dish, their first thought is usually, “Will that go well with rice?” And if the dish looks so mouth-watering it requires no identification, they’d exclaim, “That would be so delicious with rice!” (Ang sarap niyan sa kanin!)
To many Filipinos, all other foods are there to enhance the experience of the consumption of kanin

There are also those who say that they are not “busog” (the feeling of fullness in one’s stomach after eating a hearty meal—not just satisfied, mindthe stomach needs to be distended to get that busog feeling) if rice is not included in their meal. 
To bolster the feeling of being busog, they drink a glass or two of water after eating, after which they sigh audibly (ahhh), indicating that they are, indeed, busog.

A cold, sweating glass of water is the perfect end for a typical Filipino meal. Without it, the dining experience is incomplete. That glass of cold water is the Dorothy Boyd to the meal that is Jerry McGuire.
"You complete me."
Suffice it to say, Filipinos have almost a mystical-like veneration towards rice—wasting it is a huge no-no, and, for farmers who slog through muddy rice fields cultivating this gift from the gods, willfully destroying (gasp!) the plants that bear these life-giving grains is considered a sacrilege that merits a curse from the anitos. They call this curse, “busong.” 

This is why I am skeptical that the reported attack on genetically-modified rice plants that occurred last August 8 in an IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) research field in Bicol was indeed carried out by rice farmers. No sane rice farmer would even dream of destroying live rice plants.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Need For A Miracle

People Worship Weeping Tree In California, Tears Are Actually Insect Excrement

A growing number of Catholics in Fresno, California believe that a tree outside St. John’s Cathedral is weeping God’s tears.“When you say ‘glory be to God in Jesus’ name’ the tree starts throwing out more water,” parishioner Maria Ybarra told KGPE-TV. Ybarra was the first person to feel the drops of liquid, which began falling from the Crape Myrtle tree on Wednesday. As news spread, more and more people gathered under the tree to pray. “I said my prayer and asked the Lord to give me a miracle cause I’m really, really sick,” Rosemarie Navarro said.

Continue reading at this site.
Aphides, the insect whose poop is mistaken for Holy Water. If you look closely, you'll notice the little bugger is laughing his ass off.

This reminds me of a recent episode of the TV program Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho on GMA7 showing Filipinos worshiping (or “venerating”, they’d deny that what they do is actual worship) a tree inside someone's backyard, because the trunk has an image (more of a sketch of an outline, really) resembling that of a human figure wearing a sort of hijab. They superimposed an image of the Virgin Mary on it and decided that it IS the Virgin Mary.

And people flocked to it, and prayed to that tree growing in someone's backyard. They brought towels and used these on the image on the tree. They then used these same towels on their bodies. Not long after, a few had claimed that their illnesses were cured, or that their sick child, who had been sick for some time, suddenly showed signs of recovery. 
An agriculturist explained that this “outline” is caused by insects in the tree trunk, but I don’t think anybody heard him.
One can’t really blame these people. What one feels, mostly, is sadness: that people should have to resort to this nonsense because they couldn't afford to go to a decent hospital. 
They need to believe in something, anything—that would take care of them; they want to believe that a father- or mother-figure is always there for them. 
And if they see no evidence for this, if all they experience in life is one gigantic and life-long snub, all the more they are eager and willing to believe anything like these supposed “miracles.”  Or even manufacture a few.
Who else could they turn to? Where else would they go? The better life they believe they would have is not even in this world; they believe they would have that life after they die. If people can believe this, they'd believe anything.
What’s even more tragic is that rulers, religious leaders, and other charlatans throughout history know this, and how useful this simple fact is in manipulating people. 

History has been the account of one long scam after another inflicted upon the gullible.

It is not a coincidence that mostly miseducated people and/or people living in poverty-stricken areas are prone to believe in all manners of superstition.
There is something very wrong about all this, yes, but I don’t think making them understand various scientific principles and natural phenomena around us would open their eyes. After all, it is much easier for them to believe instead in a supernatural being. It's comforting, and effortless, too.

It’s just not the lack of proper education; it’s the whole shebang—the culture, the society, the poverty. Superstition goes soul-deep in these shores.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Introduction to Ancient Hebrews

The Hebrews, who settled in Palestine about 4000 years ago, were a nomadic tribe that came from southern Mesopotamia. They were among the many peoples who lived in the Fertile Crescent. Hebrew came from the Hebrew word Ibri, which means people who passed over, or people from the other side. Their story is told in the Bible.

            The Old Testament mentions that the first Hebrew was Abraham, who lived in the Sumerian city of Ur. Travelling with his family, he came to Syria, then to Canaan (Palestine), where he eventually settled. His grandson Jacob (Israel) had twelve sons after whom the twelve tribes of Israel were named. A famine in Canaan resulted in Jacob leading his people to safety in Egypt. 
The Hebrews are also called Israelites. 
The Israelites later became slaves in Egypt, until a religious leader named Moses brought them back to Canaan. Before they could establish their settlement in Canaan, however, they had to fight off all the people occupying the land, which they believed was promised to them by God.
For forty years, the Hebrews wandered in the Sinai Desert. During this time, Moses received many laws, including the Ten Commandments. After the death of Moses, Joshua succeeded him. The Israelites finally entered the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership.
            The Israelites had set up a kingdom around 1000 BC. Under three kings—Saul, David, and Solomon—Israel prospered. David, who, tradition has it, was a shepherd who became famous for defeating the Philistine giant Goliath, united the tribes of Israel into one nation and made Jerusalem its capital. Solomon, David’s son, made Jerusalem into an impressive city, and built a magnificent temple dedicated to God. While at it, he also built an extravagant palace for himself. King Solomon is famous for his legendary wisdom. He negotiated with powerful empires in Egypt and Mesopotamia, in the process increased the kingdom’s influence.
            Solomon’s structures and extravagance, however, took its toll on the Israelites. Heavy taxes and much forced labor were required to support such projects. Eventually, revolts erupted soon after his death around 930 BC. The kingdom split into two: Israel to the north and Judah to the south. This disunity severely weakened Israel. The Hebrews were not able to fight off the invading armies that followed.
Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC, while Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Jerusalem’s temple was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar, and many Israelites were forced into exile. During their captivity, the Israelites became known as Jews. The term Jew comes from the Hebrew Yehudi, which originally referred to the tribe of Judah. This exile was the start of the Jewish Diaspora.
Sculpture of Cyrus the Great
            Fifty years later, in 538 BC, the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great allowed many Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their temple. After Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, Israel fell under the control of the Greeks. Like many other small groups in the region, they continued to live under a series of foreign conquerors—the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans.

            The king of ancient Israel was not an absolute monarch. He had to obey the Torah, which contains the first five books of the Old Testament, and contains laws, both religious and secular. The Israelites viewed the Torah as God’s revealed instruction to Israel, and not even the king was above it. If the king’s commandment was in direct violation of the Torah, the ministers were not duty-bound to enforce it. The Sanhedrin acted as the supreme court of Israel.
             Like other Bronze and Iron Age populations, the economy of ancient Israel was dependent on agriculture. The production of valuable trade goods such as jewelry or weapons made from metals was also vital to their economy, as well as ceramics, field labor and craft production.
Ancient Israel had no public buildings during this period, and central government was still in the nation’s future. As a result, the family was the most important social structure during this time. Families lived in small houses, and connected by a courtyard to the houses of close relatives.
The home in ancient Israel was central to education, work, and leisure. The ideal Israelite family, according to the Bible, was large and patriarchal; however, excavated structures from this period suggest that average family size consisted of only four to eight people. High mortality rates and a short lifespan kept most families from achieving the biblical ideal.
Women in ancient Israel usually spent much time in their homes, processing the raw food materials that the men brought in from the fields. They were responsible for making sure that the food the men brought in will last until the next harvest. Childcare and daily upbringing were mainly the responsibility of women, since men were out in the fields or fulfilling their military duty. The husband was obligated to support his wife, although she could own property. Marriage was assumed to be an economic partnership, among others. If the husband could not pay his debts and went bankrupt, he, along with his wife, could be sold into slavery.

We can assume that the wife also worked hard to help her husband from going bankrupt, and prevent this unhappy event.

Education in Ancient Israel was centered on religion. The beth ha-sepher (or heder) was a community-maintained elementary school. Elementary education started at the age of six; a school for boys from ages 15-17 was also established. To those who wanted to further their study, a rabbinic education (rabbinic--pertaining to the Jewish religious leader, the rabbi) was provided in the Bet Ha-Midrash (House of Study), usually located close to the synagogue. In addition, the father is required by law to teach his sons not only the Torah, but a trade as well. The daughter’s early education, on the other hand, was mainly the responsibility of the mother.
            The Hebrews has had a great impact on history, despite their comparatively insignificant origins and resources. Their religion, Judaism, greatly influenced two other major religions—Christianity and Islam. The Old Testament derives from early Hebrew scriptures. The Bible is the greatest single influence on religion, ethics, and literature of the Western world; the three major religions of the world are all rooted in it.
            Judaism, the religion of the Hebrews, is monotheistic; that is, they worship one God—Yahweh, creator of everything. Through Abraham, God made a covenant, or a promise, with the Hebrews: Abraham and his descendants will be the Chosen People, and that Yahweh will protect them, in return for obedience. Moses later renewed this covenant; the Ten Commandments, and other laws, were part of this covenant with God. Judaism does not permit God’s representation through images. Early Hebrews believed that they alone lived under God’s protection, for they were His chosen people. Later, they believed that their God was also the God of all people, and of the universe. Because of this belief (of one God for all), the Hebrews came to believe that one must love not only one’s neighbor, but one’s enemy as well—an entirely new idea.
            Other stories in the Bible—the Creation, the temptation and sin of the first humans (and their expulsion from an idyllic “garden”), the Flood—have similarities with the legends of other earlier civilizations. Abraham, however, introduced the concept of one God in an age where polytheism was the norm. Akhenaton in Egypt and Zoroaster, if you remember, had the same idea (belief in one god), but the religions they founded did not have the impact that Judaism had to the world.

            Music played a large part in the culture of ancient Israel. The Bible, in fact, is rich with references to music and the role that it played with the social, political, and religious aspects of ancient Israel. Returning warriors, especially during the time of David, were often welcomed by singing and dancing women. Worship of course would not be complete without music, as well as the celebrations, like thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest, marriage, and others. The destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A. D. 70, however, made the Israelites abandon the music that they had so loved.   
From A. D. 66 to 70, the Jews rebelled against their Roman conquerors. In the savage fighting that ensued, Jerusalem was largely destroyed. The remaining Jews were again driven into exile; the Diaspora was at its height at this time. Thereafter, the Jews were, for two thousand years, without a country of their own. They lived among “gentiles,” becoming the most persecuted people in history. Despite all this, however, they were able to preserve their own identity—their culture and their religion. What’s more, they have also outlasted all the other civilizations that were their ancient contemporaries and left a remarkable legacy of accomplishments.  

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