Thursday, 9 January 2014

Sunrise Time

As I drag myself out of bed at 6.30am, outside everything is dark. It’s less than a month since the winter solstice, and as the year rolls on, the sun will rise earlier and earlier, until eventually we change our clocks by an hour to try to keep things relatively sane, nevertheless by summer it will still be light well before 6am.

This got me thinking - why do we have such a clumsy system for measuring time? What is 6.30am anyway? It’s six and a half hours measured from a meaningless point during the night called midnight. It’s a fairly arbitrary point from which to start counting. Ok so it's the middle of the night, who really cares about that?

Surely we can come up with a better system. One phenomenon that does make practical sense is sunrise. Imagine a time-keeping system which starts counting time at sunrise. 0:00 hours would be when the sun rises, winter or summer, wherever you are located. You might start work at 1:00, an hour after sunrise. You won’t have to get up in the dark in winter while feeling that the day is half gone in summer, it will always be an hour after sunrise. There would be no such thing as daylight savings time any more, there would be no need for it.

This of course would signify many changes. Time zones would no longer be simple bands more or less going North to South. Most countries, states or regions would want to choose a single location at which sunrise is measured so that the whole place would have the same time, otherwise simply announcing the time for an event would become too complex. Of course, sunset would still keep changing - if you start work an hour after sunrise, in winter you’ll probably go home in the dark while in summer it will still be light but that already happens now anyway. In addition, countries very far North or South, in which the sun doesn’t go set or doesn’t rise at all for weeks or months at a time, will have to use a different system - maybe using the nearest time zone outside the arctic / antarctic circle.

However the biggest headache would be our clocks. They’re all designed to measure time starting from midnight, and don’t expect "00:00" to keep changing from day to day. These would all have to be changed. Question is: would it be worth changing our clocks to eliminate these irritating anomalies?

Friday, 29 March 2013

The Bible (abridged) - Genesis

God created everything. He created humans without the ability to distinguish good from evil, told them a lie, then punished them and all their descendants (including you) for doing evil by not believing his lie. He also punished the creature who told them the truth.

So the first man and woman had two sons, and one grew crops and the other herded sheep. And both offered the very best of their respective products to God, but God was no vegetarian so he totally ignored the veggies and instead took the meat. The vegetable farmer got so angry he killed his brother which made God punish him some more.

Anyway after these first humans had populated the planet, God decided he didn’t like what he saw because they too were doing things he didn’t like, so he decided to kill everyone - men, women, children and innocent little babies, by drowning them. He also decided to drown all the animals and birds too for good measure. But instead of creating everything again he chose one man and his family, got them to build a boat and place two of every species of animal in the entire world on it, together with enough food for all of them for almost a year. Then he drowned everyone and everything else by covering the whole world with water for almost a year. After he did this however, God - who knows everything including the future and does not make mistakes - regretted what he had done and decided never to do it again so he invented rainbows to remind himself never to drown the entire world again. Just small parts of it.

Soon after the drowning was over and this man had returned all the species of animals and birds to their rightful places in the world while repopulating the planet, some people decided to build a great big tower tall enough to reach heaven. God became concerned because he thought they might succeed, so he magicked them into all getting different languages so they couldn’t understand each other any more. Still they made up for this because they lived really long lives of 500 years or more and apparently never needed Viagra despite their age.

Some time later, God chose one person completely at random - Abraham - and decided he and his descendants would be his favourites. He decided to give him Palestine as a gift, totally forgetting that there were already people living there. They’re still arguing about it to this day. In return however he and all his male descendants would have to have the tip of their weiners snipped off. So after he had brought this news to all his male relatives, who were delighted I’m sure, he and his family went to have many adventures.

In one of them, his nephew Lot ended up living in Las Vegas, only it was called Sodom back then. It was a trippy place, with pot, free love and everyone having a pretty good time. God however wasn’t pleased, probably because he wasn’t invited. So he decided to destroy the city and everyone in it. He sent two hot looking guy angels over to Sodom to (a) warn Lot to get away, and (b) destroy the whole cities with everyone in them. Including the animals and trees this time too. So the two twinks went over to Lot’s house, but while they were there, a group of partying men wanted them to come out and have sex. Lot, who was extremely holy, offered them his own daughters instead. The crowd weren’t interested in them however, so Lot and his wife and daughters left the city and the angels told them not to look back. As soon as they were out, the angels started killing everybody using burning molten sulphur - even the little children. When Lot’s wife heard the screaming and turned to look back, God killed her too. So Lot and his daughters went into a cave where promptly Lot got drunk, had sex with both his daughters and knocked them both up. But that wasn't as bad as looking back so God said "carry on".

In the meantime Abraham’s wife got mysteriously pregnant. Abraham heard a voice in his head telling him to kill his son and he happily agreed, tying him up and was about to gut him when a stranger stopped him. And this shows what a good man Abraham was.

Long after, twin boys were born and one day the younger boy stole his older brother’s inheritance. He’s the ancestor of all Jews today.  His name was Jacob but his friends called him Israel, and he had 12 sons. One of them had a nice coat and they made a musical about it. His brothers sold him to some passing merchants, which was perfectly normal back then, but he had interesting dreams that got him a job with the Egyptian pharaoh (they didn’t have TV back then). After bringing all the other brothers with him to Egypt, they and their descendants settled there. This would turn out to be a bad decision but that's another story.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Vatican Idol 2013

In about a month, a group of people wearing funny hats will meet to choose who among them will wear the funniest hat of all - the contest to find out who will be the winner of this edition of Vatican Idol is on!

Seriously though... In front of them will be a fundamental choice: Should they choose another conservative pope who will further alienate what Catholics remain, as well as the rest of society in places where the church retains a significant presence, or should they try to go for a more liberal/progressive pope who may stem the tide of people leaving the church? The latter could alienate those conservatives within the church and possibly have to declare that the church has (gasp) changed its mind on a thing or two. It's not easy for the church to do this - it took them 350 years to admit that, in the end, Galileo had been right about the earth and the sun.

I've heard many people who are opposed to the catholic church say that they would welcome a conservative pope since he'd hasten the church's demise. However one can't ignore the fact that the church can still exert quite a bit of pressure in some places, and having an ultra-conservative pope would perpetuate the problems being faced by several groups, including gays, women and non-Catholics.

Personally I would prefer a more reasonable, modern church which lasts longer and gets along better with people, than an intolerant church that causes more suffering but has a shorter lifespan.

A conservative pope is made likely by the simple fact that it is the pope who chooses the cardinals who will ultimately choose the next pope - and the current and previous popes were both very conservative and between them selected mostly dinosaurs. At the same time it's hard to miss the fact that the church is getting increasingly out of touch with reality. The pace at which society is changing has speeded up dramatically in recent times. The change from the Roman Empire to mediaeval Europe was relatively minor compared to the last 230 years, in which we've gone from the first human flight in a balloon, to people going out in space and not even making the news. 40 years ago, homosexuality was still a crime in Malta, while in 2011, a majority of the Maltese people - many of whom describe themselves as Catholics - went against the church's instructions (not to mention fire-and-brimstone warnings) and voted to introduce divorce.

In this context, a church that is still arguing against the use of condoms, insisting that priests must possess a penis (but they must never use it except for urination), and that two men or two women cannot possibly love each other just as a man and a woman can, is way out of touch. In fact the only thing that can be said in their defence is that there are churches that are even wackier, which is not exactly glowing praise.

In the meantime, an interesting development is that there is an increased likelihood that the new pope will be, for the first time, African. I've already seen a comment or two from people who are shocked that the pope could be black (isn't God white after all?) - though they generally avoid the B-word. Personally I'm a bit concerned that certain African contenders were behind, or supported, Uganda's new law to make homosexuality a capital offence. On the plus side he might do something about the dreary church music by injecting a few new rhythms from Africa.

In the meantime, while speculation is rife, Facebook users cheerfully share pictures of various people in papal vestments, from Silvio Berlusconi to Tony Blair top Austin Gatt (the pope who will never resign) - all of which reinforce what most people already know - that the Roman Catholic Church has become for many people a comical figure, as anachronistic as a knight in full armour going to work in his office.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Mammoth Lies and Pleistocene Porkers

It's said that if you repeat a lie long enough, people will eventually  take it as the truth - and true to form, the ultra-conservatives are out in force trying to prove it true today, the day after Tonio Borg managed to scrape through to his post as European Commissioner responsible for health and consumer rights. They are trying to convince people through repetition that the objections to his nomination were due to his religious beliefs, that these objections went against the EU's spirit of diversity, and that his eventual acceptance was a victory of common sense over partisanship and intolerance.
In fact, these statements seem to be trying to prove not only the aphorism above, but also the saying that some lies are so farfetched that some people might believe them, thinking nobody could possibly make something like this up.
The fact is that none of the objections to Tonio Borg were based on his religion - in fact, both of his predecessors were also Catholic, and this did not pose a problem. However, unlike them, Tonio Borg has a list of political actions in which he used his position to impose his extreme views on others. Things like his attempts to prevent same-sex couples inheriting property, his vote against divorce after the population had voted in favour in a referendum, and his participation in a campaign to entrench the anti-abortion laws in the constitution - laws which, in Malta, do not permit abortion even if the woman will die without one. Certainly these are issues that are influenced by Tonio Borg's religious beliefs, but the objections were not against his beliefs, but his willingness to use his position to impose them on everyone else.
Tonio Borg managed to get his post by reassuring the European Parliament that his behaviour henceforth would be different, or - to use his own choice of word - he has evolved, in reference to his past opposition to equal rights for gay people. That's a good sign of course - though obviously he will be watched very closely for any signs that he's going back on his reassurances. The moment he does, the commission could be heading for a major clash with the parliament - and could even result in the commissioner being forced to resign - for the second time in a row.
It is also worth looking at how Tonio Borg managed to win approval. Far from being a victory of common sense over partisanship, it was the other way round. The EPP, of which Tonio Borg's party forms part, voted en masse to approve someone from their own team, while the socialists allowed a free vote - so in fact it was a victory of petty partisanship over common sense. Common sense would have been to select someone who is not so extremist, and who would have passed muster with no controversy or doubts, which we have proven perfectly capable of doing with our past candidates. In the end, partisan politics won out.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Joe Borg's essence of vileness

Poison Bottle
In his weekly column on The Sunday Times, Joe Borg, a priest, put up one of the vilest piles of lies that I have seen in a while, reminiscent of the kind of writings the Nazis used to publish about Jews.

The subject of this invective is Tonio Borg, Malta's nominee to fill the post of John Dalli as EU commissioner responsible for health and civil rights. His nomination was greeted with surprise and dismay by most Europeans - the man is one of the least competent to take on the job. Since the commission he'd be responsible for includes responsibility for the rights of gay people, racial minorities, women and so on, why would the Maltese government put forward someone who is openly homophobic, who has tried to entrench Malta's anti-abortion laws into the constitution and whose decision to repatriate immigrants when there was clear evidence they were going to be tortured on arrival made international headlines? To me the answer is simple: The party wants to pave the way for Simon Busuttil to take over as second-in-command (so he'll be in place to take over from Gonzi should the party suffer a humiliating defeat) so Tonio Borg must go - and this is his farewell gift. However that is speculation on my part and not what this discussion is about.

According to Joe Borg, the only thing standing between Tonio Borg and his seat in the commission is an "anti-Christian secularist lobby". That this is a lie is made obvious by the fact that both of Tonio Borg's predecessors were Christians and neither of them raised these kinds of objections. In the case of ex-commissioner Joe Borg (a different person), it was because he was in charge of agriculture and fisheries - so no concerns about civil rights there - and in the case of John Dalli because whatever his personal religious beliefs, he demonstrated that he was quite capable of keeping apart his duty and his faith. Tonio Borg is different. He has a badly tarnished record of using his position to impose his beliefs on everyone else. If any sense of fairness prevails, he will be thanked for his application and sent back with a "next candidate please". Joe Borg (the priest again) lies about the reason for the objections - he says that the objectors are against him "because he espouses Christian values". That is only true if homophobia, sexism, racism and breaching basic human rights are "Christian values". Joe Borg digs deeper into his innate hate and vileness to compare secularists to suicide bombers as well as the far right racists. He forgot to mention that we're also responsible for storms and epidemics, sold our soul to the devil and eat babies for breakfast.

He then goes on to say how Christians (who make up BY FAR the biggest religious group) are poor persecuted people - in the west, and especially in Europe! I kid you not. Actually he was repeating the pope's brainfart there. He claims that secularists (whom he calls anti-Christians) "discriminate against Christians in public roles by requiring them to act against their conscience". Maybe he should ask the clergy in Pakistan, who are constantly lobbying for the country to be made more secular. I don't blame them - they get discriminated against, so they want more secularism - they know that secularism guarantees freedom of religion and a level playing field. But in Malta and Europe, where they are a majority and frequently enjoy a privileged position for historical reasons - where THEY are the discriminators - they think that being prevented from perpetuating their traditional discrimination is in itself a discrimination against them. He thinks that Christians have a right to harm gay people, or suppress women, or discriminate against religious minorities and if they're not allowed to do this, they're the victims. The truth is that if you occupy a public office which gives you certain authorities, you may not abuse your position to push your personal ideologies. If you are a marriage registrar, your job requires you to check the papers and rubber stamp the certificate. If you're a racist you are not permitted to refuse to marry someone whose race you don't like. Similarly if the law of the land says that gays can marry, if you're homophobic you are not permitted to deny marriage to a same-sex couple simply because you personally don't believe it should be done - even if you can pull verses from your preferred book of religious scripture to support your point. If you want the job of commissioner responsible, among other things, for gay rights, and if you've publicly expressed - in parliament - the view that same-sex couples should not have the same inheritance rights where property is concerned - among other things - then yes, you should expect some very pointed questions in that area and if you don't live up to expectations you should not get the job.

So it all now depends on whether Tonio Borg can convince the EU that he was joking in the past when he resisted allowing same-sex couples access to housing, when he tried everything to prevent women from having access to abortion, when he sent escaping migrants back to the torturers. If he can convince them that he is now pro-equal rights vis a vis women, gays, people with a darker skin than his own etc., then maybe he'll get the job. Of course he might disappoint Joe Borg if he sets aside the "Christian Values" of homophobia and so on, but then it's not a Maltese election he'll be contesting next.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Not Voting?

I'm seeing lots of people recently declaring that they're not going to vote - and this is of course, their right. However many of them think that this "sends a message".

It doesn't.

The only people politicians listen to are voters, or future voters - but not non-voters. You won't get politicians going door to door in hotels full of tourists, or schools. If you tell them "I'm not going to vote" they'll move on to the next person because, as far as politicians are concerned, non-voters are non-entities.

Not voting means that you're willing to let others choose for you. You may be as disillusioned as hell with our current batch of politicians, and I don't blame you. Ultimately however, we are going to have a parliament and a government and it is going to be formed from those candidates whether you make a choice between them or not. Even if only 0.1% of the Maltese electorate turn out to vote, there will still be a parliament and a government.

So, if there are any issues that you care about, find out about where politicians stand on those issues, and vote for those politicians that are closest to your own position. Don't expect to find many politicians that match your own likes and dislikes perfectly. Elections are not about finding someone who's perfect but finding the best choice out of what's available. Individual candidates can make a big difference - as shown by recent events. And if they do come knocking on your door, make sure that they know which issues you care about, and that this is going to affect your vote. Having a parliament that has lots of MPs that agree with your most important issues increases the likelihood of getting a parliament and government that disappoints you less next time round.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Violence, Marriage Breakups and a decline in morality

This is a response to Lino Spiteri's article on The Times yesterday.

Why is violence on the rise? A few days ago we had a group of people caught beating up a man while surrounded by reporters, cameras and so on. They got a paltry €60 fine. A couple of days ago a man was charged with cutting open a man's face from forehead to lips - he got just over €100. Yesterday, two men chased down a man for "
flirting" with a woman who was their relative. The police arrested and charged the victim because, during the chase, he ran over and damaged a car. No mention was made of actions taken against the aggressors. This leniency for violent crimes clashes with the draconian sentences meted out to anyone caught growing cannabis - an activity that causes nobody any harm. Examples like this serve to erode the public's confidence in the courts, which in turn may lead to the more hot-headed of them to not bother with the courts to seek redress over clashes with other people, and take matters into their own hands.

As far as marriage breakups are concerned, I know of no simple answer. This of course is happening everywhere in the world. It could be a result of a more hectic lifestyle which leaves less time for one another, or a culture where the couple are more concerned with getting than with giving, or increasing financial and other stresses. Another reason of course is that there no longer is the same kind of social stigma associated with marriage breakups - especially if there aren't children involved. Of course this only means that, in the past, many couples continued living under one roof long after their marriage was ended, merely for the sake of appearances.

I certainly agree that the police should be equipped with "non-lethal weapons" to give them a middle-ground between a stern voice and a deadly weapon. However we should be careful that, first of all, most "non-lethal weapons" are in fact "less likely to be lethal weapons". Many such weapons can and do kill - so we must look beyond the manufacturers' brochures. Secondly, we must ensure that our police do not abuse of them simply because they are non-lethal. In recent times we've seen photos from abroad of police officers using pepper-spray in the faces of protesters who were seated and posing no danger to anyone.

As for the concept of God, people are simply realising that there is no link between morality and gods or church. Cases like last year's divorce referendum and the current debate on IVF have opened people's eyes to the fact that the church's morality is highly flawed - and that their own sense of ethics is superior to the church's, which remains mired in dogmatic rules based on a book of stories from the iron age. Of course it's irrelevant today. It's been irrelevant for centuries. Morality, on the other hand, is not. It's only the source of that morality that has changed.