Suicide by plane?

I’ve been hearing for two days about how the crash in France of the Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf was a complete mystery, as there was no sign of a mishap on the cockpit voice recorder nor any recorded response to concerned air traffic controllers. On the news last night there was a report that the pilot had been locked out of the cockpit. Today’s New York Times reports how we know that:

. . . evidence from a cockpit voice recorder indicated one pilot left the cockpit before the plane’s descent and was unable to get back in.

A senior French military official involved in the investigation described a “very smooth, very cool” conversation between the pilots during the early part of the flight from Barcelona, Spain, to Düsseldorf, Germany. Then the audio indicated that one of the pilots left the cockpit and could not re-enter.

“The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door, and there is no answer,” the investigator said. “And then he hits the door stronger, and no answer. There is never an answer.”

He said, “You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.”

And then this just came on my CNN newsfeed:

There was a “deliberate attempt to destroy the aircraft,” Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin says about the Germanwings crash.

The most plausible explanation of the crash is that the co-pilot, “through deliberate abstention, refused to open the cabin door … to the chief pilot, and used the button” to cause the plane to lose altitude, Robin said. He emphasized that his conclusions were preliminary.

If the copilot wanted to kill himself, did he have to take 149 other people with him? One solution: put an outside lock on the cockpit door, and then give the keys only to the pilots.


Here’s another great song from Gordon Lightfoot’s 1966 album, “Lightfoot!” It’s one of three (out of 14 total) on the album not written by Lightfoot himself: it was composed by Phil Ochs (1940-1976). (Does anybody remember Ochs and his involvement in the protests of the 60s? Remember “I ain’t marching anymore“—an anthem for those opposed to the Vietnam War?) Somewhere along the line, Ochs produced this gorgeous ballad (you can hear his version here). There are several covers, including one by Neil Young (it starts at 2:10 on the video), but Lightfoot’s is by far the best. (He’s left out some of Ochs’s verses.)

And somehow this song encapsulates all the romance that pervaded the ferment of that time—at least for me.

Thursday: Hili dialogue

Today is Andrzej’s 75th birthday! Please join me in wishing him many happy returns, many more years of fighting for rationalism in an obstinate land—and many more Hili dialogues!

The warm weather we were promised yesterday failed to materialize, and so all the forecasts were whack. And we may get a bit of snow again in the next few days. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, spring has firmly arrived, and Hili is looking for God in all the wrong places:

Hili: I do not see any being here, either natural or supernatural.
A: Maybe there is nothing there?
Hili: I can’t believe it.


In Polish:
Hili: Nie widzę tam żadnej istoty, ani naturalnej, ani nadnaturalnej.
Ja: Może tam nic nie ma?
Hili: Nie mogę w to uwierzyć.

Family tries to include cat in 1911 census

Don’t ask me anything about this; it was tw**ted by Dapper Historian  (who noted “An extra family member was added here in 1911 but an angry enumerator has scratched it out & added “this is a cat”!), and sent to me by Matthew Cobb. For reasons lost in the mists of history, some family wanted their cat included as one of them. I guess that’s not so weird after all.


I have enlarged the relevant part for your delectation. If you can make out any of the words (I can get only that the cat’s first name was “Peter”) by all means put them below.

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What is this bizarre animal? (Hint: don’t eat it with drawn butter)

Matthew Cobb called my attention to this creature which was featured on Butterfly Conservation. Here’s a photo (from itchydogimages):


And here’s a video:

It’s the caterpillar of the lobster moth (Stauropus fagi), which lives throughout the world in the Northern Hemisphere. Here’s the adult, which is cute, fuzzy, and rests with the hindwings sticking out way beyond the forewings:


Jon Stewart interviews Ayaan Hirsi Ali (obtusely); Hirsi Ali has a new book

Well, if there’s anything that this interview of Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Monday’s Daily Show proves, it’s that Jon Stewart is no Bill Maher. As you’ll see from the 20-minute interview (click on the screenshot below to see the video), Stewart basically does everything he can to argue that Islam is no different in principle from any other religion, that all religions did bad stuff in the past before they were “reformed,” and, indeed, that religion isn’t the cause of violence or bad stuff at all.

Have a listen:

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Doesn’t Stewart sound like Ben Affleck when the latter defended Islam on Bill Maher’s show?

First of all, Stewart’s claim that all religions are the same, since all of them went through a period like Muslims are experiencing now, is just wrong. Jains didn’t, Jews didn’t, Quakers didn’t, the Amish didn’t, and Unitarian Universalists didn’t. The fact is that some religions inspire more violence than others. Period.

In addition, Christianity, contra Stewart, wasn’t “reformed” during the Reformation: it was changed. People were still killed for apostasy, and there were extremely intolerant forms of Protestantism. The real “reformation” happened when the Enlightenment infused religion with secular values. As Hirsi Ali points out, those values are easily accessible now to Muslims through the power of communication and the Internet.

And though Stewart seems to think that we simply need to sit back and wait a few hundred years till Islam is reformed, we don’t have time for that. We live in a world of nuclear weapons and unparalleled means of destruction, not excluding flying airplanes into buildings.

Stewart also errs, I think, in claiming that Islam gets a bad rap because its message has been taken over by a group of “radicals.” That’s not the sole problem: the problem is also that those radicals have a lot of sympathy from more moderate Muslims, as many surveys show (e.g., this one). Further, Muslims have adopted the canny and effective tactic of being offended—or pretending to be offended—when their faith is criticized, thus enlisting sympathy from Westerners who try to give the “underdog” a break (as if ISIS was an underdog!).

Finally, at 19:00, Stewart makes the unsupported claim that religion has nothing to do with this violence: that people would just find some other excuse to kill and terrorize even in a faithless world. I reject that claim because so much of the violence we see has an explicitly religious basis, such as the enmity between Sunnis and Shiites. Since both groups have the same ethnic and cultural background, and the only reason they have to kill each other is because they differ on who the true heads of Islam should be. Would the Holocaust have happened in a world without faith, a world where you couldn’t hate Jews as “Christ killers” because neither Jews nor Christians existed? I think not. You can think of many other examples.

I’ve focused on Stewart because I was so disappointed in his performance here: not only in his apologetic about religion, but in his failure to lead an informative discussion and to let Hirsi Ali express her thoughts without Stewart relentlessly driving the conversation back into politically correct territory.

Hirsi Ali in fact was there to talk about her new book (see below), which is doing quite well, ranking #33 on Amazon today. It’s apparently a road map to reform Islam; as the Amazon notes say:

Today, she argues, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims can be divided into a minority of extremists, a majority of observant but peaceable Muslims and a few dissidents who risk their lives by questioning their own religion. But there is only one Islam and, as Hirsi Ali shows, there is no denying that some of its key teachings—not least the duty to wage holy war—are incompatible with the values of a free society.

For centuries it has seemed as if Islam is immune to change. But Hirsi Ali has come to believe that a Muslim Reformation—a revision of Islamic doctrine aimed at reconciling the religion with modernity—is now at hand, and may even have begun. The Arab Spring may now seem like a political failure. But its challenge to traditional authority revealed a new readiness—not least by Muslim women—to think freely and to speak out.

Courageously challenging the jihadists, she identifies five key amendments to Islamic doctrine that Muslims have to make to bring their religion out of the seventh century and into the twenty-first.

Hirsi Ali enumerates those five “amendments” at 9:36 in the video, and says that if Islam is to reform, that must come from the bottom up rather from the top down—from the clerics and imams.  I think she’s right, but progress seems slow, for social pressure to conform is strong, and in today’s world, the Qur’an is taken far more literally than is the Bible.

I’m not sure why so many atheists dislike Hirsi Ali, who I see as a thoughtful and immensely brave woman. They don’t like the place she worked because it was a conservative think tank (the only place that would hire her, and she’s no longer there anyway); they don’t like the controversial views of her husband (why is that even relevant?); they don’t like the strong statements she’s made about Islam (those who criticize her secretly sympathize with Muslims much more than they do with other believers). I think the interview will give you an idea of the woman’s mettle.

Here’s her new book, which came out yesterday; click on the cover to go to the Amazon page. I’ll be reading it for sure.


h/t: Merilee

Now Ireland hops on the “offended student” bandwagon

Maryam Namazie, a prolific secular activist specializing in calling out the evils of Islam (she’s the spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims), has now become the most recent victim of the Offended Students Movement—a mindset that has apparently spread to Ireland. According to The Journal ie., which relied on posts from Namazie’s own website (see also here), she was supposed to speak on Monday at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) on “Apostasy and the Rise of Islamicism.” The appeasers and cowards among students and administrators, as well as the Potentially Offended, suddenly realized what they had got themselves into: a critic of Islam was going to speak! Unopposed!  They then laid two new restrictions on Namazie’s talk (reported by The Journal i.e):

  • All attendants of the event must be 1) Trinity students and 2) members of the society hosting the talk.
  • For “balance”, they require that a moderator host the event.

In a blog post on Friday, [Namazie” said she had been informed that “college security (why security?) has claimed that the event would show the college is ‘one-sided’ and would be ‘antagonising’ to ‘Muslim students’”.

These conditions were not specified in advance, nor were they imposed on another extremist Muslim speaker who, talking at an earlier time, advocated the death penalty for apostasy.

In light of the information above, the new conditions imposed on her presence, and the clear signal that her talk would offend Muslim students, Namazie refused to give her talk. But she still is adamant about wanting to speak at TCD, and is looking for some organization to host her. Good luck to her. She said this on her website (see also here; my emphasis):

“… It is crucial that I be able to speak against Islamist fascism and honour our dissenters deemed apostates, blasphemers, heretics… whether ex-Muslims, Muslims or non-Muslims.

I particularly insist on being able to do so in light of the fact that only last month – 25 February – Kamal El Mekki who advocates the death penalty for apostasy was given space to speak at an event hosted by the “Muslim” Student Association. No conditions were placed on his talk and security did not threaten to cancel the event nor inform the Association that the speakers’ position on death for apostates would “antagonise” ex-Muslim and Muslim students who do not support apostasy laws…”

“What is packaged as “offence” is really Islamism’s imposition of blasphemy laws and theocracy under the pretext of respect for “Muslim sensibilities”. Only in Europe does this far-Right fascist movement use “offence” or Islamophobia to silence and censor. In countries where they have state power, there is no need for such niceties. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, the “offenders” are called what they are – apostates, blasphemers, enemies against god, the corrupt of the earth, heretics – and legally murdered in broad daylight in the same way Charlie Hebdo’s journalists were “executed”.

It’s time to stop caving in to those who wish to avoid criticism of their faith by pretending to be offended, or using actual offense as a club to bash other people’s speech. Namazie has sensible things to say about Islam, and is being prevented from saying them by religious fanatics. Shame on Trinity College, its administration, and its students.

h/t: Grania

Larry Wilmore tells it like it is

by Greg Mayer

On Tuesday’s Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore and his guest panelists were discussing Ted Cruz’s presidential aspirations, when one of the guests stated that we must have “more respect in politics… for people who believe in creationism”. Larry was having none of it:

Someone who’s making the most important decisions in the world should not believe the Earth is 6000 years old. I’m sorry. I don’t have respect for that. I don’t.

Amen, brother!


BBC hosts debate on whether and where the Dalai Lama will reincarnate

What the bloody hell is up with the BBC? Reader Steve (with the side comment “fookin idjits!”) called my attention to a discussion on the BBC News site in which four people debate whether and where the present Dalai Lama will reincarnate. That’s like the Beeb having a serious debate on whether Xenu stored preserved humans in volcanoes before blowing them up with hydrogen bombs, and whether Paul Haggis is still afflicted with thetans.

This is all because the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso—in exile in India—has affirmed that he will refuse to reincarnate in Tibet, and therefore may be the last Dalai Lama. In response, the Chinese government has insisted that the 15th and next Dalai Lama will indeed reincarnate in Tibet.

This is all hilarious stuff, but also shows that the common assertion that Gyatso is down with science is completely bogus.  He believes in reincarnation, for crying out loud!

Anyway, here are a few inadvertently rib-tickling excerpts from the BBC debate.

Chonpen Tsering: Reincarnation process must not be manipulated

Chonpen Tsering is the Dalai Lama’s representative in northern Europe.

“The lamas – the senior religious figures – are able to determine firstly whether they are reborn, and if they are going to be reborn, where they’ll be reborn.

“The present carnation, the present Dalai Lama, can decide. The rebirth is his choice.


Jia Xiudong: Dalai Lama is playing a political game

Jia Xiudong is senior research fellow at the China Institute of international studies in Beijing.

“I believe that the tradition will be maintained [and] the Dalai Lama will be reincarnated.

“There’s a role for the current Dalai Lama to play for the reincarnation, but I believe he should not exaggerate that role.

“For example, he just cannot stop the tradition individually.

“It is tradition passed from centuries ago.


Robert Barnett: China wants a ‘tame’ lama

Robert Barnett is director of the Modern Tibet Studies Programme at Columbia University in New York.

“I think we have to look at all of this as negotiating moves on both sides. So the Dalai Lama is making these speculative, philosophical statements about, ‘I might be coming back, I might not. I might come back as a woman.’

“This is his normal method as a Buddhist teacher of the kind that he is to make people think. But it’s also a negotiating move with the Chinese to expose them to the kind of ridicule that they’ve put themselves in now by claiming to be able to arbitrate on matters like religion and reincarnation.

“This Dalai Lama has been so effective as a religious leader, even more so than as a political leader, that there’s going to be huge force among his followers for him to come back. So it’s quite likely that it’s going to happen.”


Jamyang Norbu: Dalai Lama must reincarnate for the sake of Tibet’s future

Tibetan writer and activist Jamyang Norbu fell out of favour with the present Dalai Lama when he criticised his “softly softly” approach to China.

“He doesn’t have much of a choice. The lama’s reincarnating is a political institution.

“It’ll have to be the choice of the Tibetan government in exile and of the people.

“China will have their candidate up and running, and you can be 100% sure that they will.

“They’ll just pick some Tibetan kid who looks cute enough and they’ll put him up there and they’ll say, ‘This is the Dalai Lama.’

“If we don’t have our own candidate from the general Tibetan Buddhist world, then they win by proxy.


And my own addition:

Professor Ceiling Cat: This is all insane.

I’ve been to Tibet, and it’s sad to see the systematic dismantling of Tibetan culture by the Han Chinese. When I visited monasteries, monks would furtively ask me if I could give them a picture of the Dalai Lama (Gyatso), as those pictures are forbidden.

That said, if you know about the old Buddhist theocracy in Tibet, it was by no means a paradise. Further, Tibetan Buddhism is just as rife with superstition and delusion as any other faith. It is romanticized in the West, but that’s largely because the religion is being suppressed by the Chinese government.

One of those superstitions is reincarnation, and here it’s being used in a political chess game between Tibetan Buddists, the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government. There is, of course, no way to prove that any child born, whether he be in Tibet, India, or elsewhere, is a reincarnated Dalai Lama, though Buddhists do have some “tests” (seeing, for instance, if a kid recognize objects belonging to the last Dalai Lama).

I can’t resolve this problem, but I can add two things. First, the Dalai Lama is given undue respect. He’s the Pope of Buddhism, and though he’s pretty friendly to science, still believes in superstitions like reincarnation and karma. But in general he does follow the physician’s dictum: “First do no harm.” Second, the BBC is crazy to host a debate like this. They can write an article about the fracas, and give the different opinions, but they needn’t have people taking reincarnation seriously. If they do, they could at least write a disclaimer: “Note: There is no reliable evidence for a human soul, nor for the fact that it can leave the body of a dead person and install itself into a child.”


Neil Shubin wins “Friend of Darwin” award

I’m pleased to announce that my colleague Neil Shubin, paleobiologist, developmental biologist, and of course a co-discoverer of the “fishapod” Tiktaalik, has won the National Center for Science Education’s “Friend of Darwin” award. There’s an announcement on PuffHo by NCSE director Ann Reid, recounting some of Shubin’s achievements.


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