7. Old Christmas Traditions; New Christmas Toys

Dec-20-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: xkcd looks at popular Christmas songs, and finds it’s all the Boomers’ fault. Brilliant research. Meanwhile David Sedaris has a very funny 15 minute monologue on the Netherlands strange traditions. A wonderful site (Thanks, Wilder!) called Know Your Meme will let you look up the latest trends and their history (look at what they do with the hip new phrase “yolo” for further enlightenment!) And David Pogue lets you find new gadgets under $100 to buy yourself  your beloveds, if you’re still searching.

* Xmas Tradition xkcd

* Six to Eight Black Men David Sedaris  YouTube

* December 21st, 2012  Know Your Meme

 Learn about why some people have been predicting the end of the world on 12/21/12 for over 56 years, and who the authors were who popularized the story.

* David Pogue’s 12 Days of Gadgets

Why can’t somebody invent a little beeper for your key ring? If you walk away from your smartphone (iPhone, Android phone or BlackBerry), your key chain beeps to alert you.

And it could work the other way, too. If you leave your keys somewhere, the phone beeps to alert you as you walk away!

That’s exactly the point of the Cirago iAlert Tag



4. Religious News

Oct-26-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: A fairly wide topic, but the pieces are fascinating. Shalom Rav looks at the fallout over 15 Protestant leaders not supporting aid to Israel; a prominent Catholic theologian calls for a revolt against Roman Catholicism’s hierarchical structure, and there’s interesting evidence that human beings are born believing in an afterlife. And, in an effort to leave no feather unruffled (the bird doesn’t like this metaphor) Robert Fulford speaks out in praise of blasphemy. (There’s a fine old relevant Wiccan saying, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Just remember, no one likes an asshole.”)

* More Fallout from the Protestant Leaders’ Letter on Aid to Israel by Rabbi Brant Rosen

The first comes from the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan:

It seems to me that aid of all kinds should have basic human rights strings attached to it. I would have suspended all aid to Israel when it refused to stop its settlement policy on the West Bank, but that’s a little like being in favor of an immediate space station on Mars, given the Greater Israel lobby’s grip on Congress.

So let me just reiterate something that has no chance of ever happening, but I might as well put on the record: we should treat Israel as any other recipient of US aid. If a country is occupying and settling land conquered through war, if it’s treating a minority population with inhumanity, the US should stand up for Western values. It should not single Israel out; but we have to stop treating Israel as the exception to every other US foreign policy rule.

Rev. Jim C. Wall (Contributing Editor of the “Christian Century”) in an unflinchingly honest blog post:

To begin with, the 15 church leaders are heavyweights, top officials for their denominations. They include the leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker agency) and the Mennonite Central Committee. Two Catholic leaders also signed, not including the Catholic Council of Bishops.

These are not just leaders of a few religious groups, which a Protestant version of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs could corral into an interfaith dialogue meeting. These are the major-domos of American Protestantism, which raises the question of what exactly gives the JCPA and its scattered letter signers, these “outraged Jewish groups” as the Times calls them,  the right to claim religious standing in this conversation. Many of these Jewish groups are secular and function as part of the Israel Lobby, a collection of lobbying organizations that have Israel, not Judaism as their primary client…

* Catholic Theologian Preaches Revolution To End Church’s ‘Authoritarian’ Rule  The Guardian

One of the world’s most prominent Catholic theologians has called for a revolution from below to unseat the pope and force radical reform at the Vatican. Hans Küng is appealing to priests and churchgoers to confront the Catholic hierarchy, which he says is corrupt, lacking credibility and apathetic to the real concerns of the church’s members….

“The only way for reform is from the bottom up,” said Küng, 84, who is a priest. “The priests and others in positions of responsibility need to stop being so subservient, to organize themselves and say that there are certain things that they simply will not put up with anymore.”

* Believe in an Afterlife Comes Hardwired in Humans The Atlantic

In a significant study the psychologists Jesse Bering, of the University of Arkansas, and David Bjorklund, of Florida Atlantic University, told young children a story about an alligator and a mouse, complete with a series of pictures, that ended in tragedy: “Uh oh! Mr. Alligator sees Brown Mouse and is coming to get him!” [The children were shown a picture of the alligator eating the mouse.] “Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator. Brown Mouse is not alive anymore.”

The experimenters asked the children a set of questions about the mouse’s biological functioning—such as “Now that the mouse is no longer alive, will he ever need to go to the bathroom? Do his ears still work? Does his brain still work?”—and about the mouse’s mental functioning, such as “Now that the mouse is no longer alive, is he still hungry? Is he thinking about the alligator? Does he still want to go home?”

As predicted, when asked about biological properties, the children appreciated the effects of death: no need for bathroom breaks; the ears don’t work, and neither does the brain. The mouse’s body is gone. But when asked about the psychological properties, more than half the children said that these would continue: the dead mouse can feel hunger, think thoughts, and have desires. The soul survives. Andchildren believe this more than adults do, suggesting that although we have to learn which specific afterlife people in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation, a spirit world, and so on), the notion that life after death is possible is not learned at all. It is a by-product of how we naturally think about the world.

* In Praise of Blasphemy Robert Fulford National Post

…We should be praising blasphemy, in fact proclaiming its many virtues, rather than sheepishly apologizing for it as a necessary evil we must reluctantly tolerate because of our belief in the freedom of speech.

Bernard Shaw may have been overstating the case when he gave to one of his characters the pronouncement that “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” But not by much.

Blasphemy, the challenge of official doctrine, helped create freedom over the centuries — and still needs to create it in many countries, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Blasphemy is a corollary to freedom of religion. It expresses the right to have no religion, in fact the right to disdain all religions.

The creators of Protestant Christianity were all denounced for blasphemy; so were generations of scholars in a dozen countries who campaigned for the critical examination of the Bible. Without the courage of those who were called blasphemers there would be only one acceptable religion in every country today. Certainly that’s how the royal and church authorities of the 18th century saw the future. As late as 1766, as the Enlightenment was proceeding, a freethinking 20-year-old Frenchman, Jean-François de la Barre, was tortured for blasphemy. He had his tongue cut out before he was burned to death, his copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary thrown on the fire with him. Today there’s a statue of him in Montmartre, as the last person executed for blasphemy in France.



10. Easter, Passover, and Holy Week

Apr-13-2012 | Comments Off

Bird’s Eye: Back when I taught World Religions, my students always had one key question: which major religion has the most holidays? But in a week when Passover and Easter were both celebrated (though usually by different people) we offer both some traditional enjoyable photos…after some untraditionally challenging thoughts. The heartwrenching David Sylvester piece is a must read.

* Were Jews ever really slaves in Egypt, or is Passover a myth? Haaretz 

We are so quick to point out the obvious lies about Jews and Israel that come out in Egypt – the Sinai Governors claims that the Mossad released a shark into the Red Sea to kill Egyptians, or, as I once read in a newspaper whilst on holiday in Cairo, the tale of the magnetic belt buckles that Jews were selling cheap in Egypt that would sterilize men on contact – yet we so rarely examine our own misconceptions about the nature of our history with the Egyptian nation.

…It is hard to believe that 600,000 families (which would mean about two million people) crossed the entire Sinai without leaving one shard of pottery (the archeologist’s best friend) with Hebrew writing on it. It is remarkable that Egyptian records make no mention of the sudden migration of what would have been nearly a quarter of their population, nor has any evidence been found for any of the expected effects of such an exodus; such as economic downturn or labor shortages. Furthermore, there is no evidence in Israel that shows a sudden influx of people from another culture at that time. No rapid departure from traditional pottery has been seen, no record or story of a surge in population.

*Some Thoughts on Passover 5772  Rabbi Brant Shalom Rav

This Pesach I’m thinking about exceedingly radical message at the heart of the story we’ll retell around the seder table tonight. I’m thinking in particular about what the story tells us about power, about the ways the powerful wield their power against the less powerful, and about the inevitability of corrupt power’s eventual fall.  And I’m thinking about what is possibly the most radical message of all: that there is a Power greater, yes even greater than human power.

…There’s no getting around the fact that our seder story is not a neat, tidy or particularly pleasant story.  That’s because – as we all know too well – the powerful never give up their power without a fight. No one ever made this point better or more eloquently than Frederick Douglass when he said in 1857….

* No More Cheap and Easy Easters  David Sylvester Tikkun Daily Blog

Perhaps you think I exaggerate when I say that we live suspended over this abyss of horror every day of our lives, an abyss that can crack open at any second during the most mundane moments of our lives?

Katleen Ping fell into the abyss last Monday at 10:30 a.m. Was she talking on the telephone, as she worked at the front desk, perhaps tossing a post-it note into the trash by her desk, wondering what the noise was outside her door? Did she experience a moment of peace when she faced her Good Friday? What will Easter mean to her four-year-old son? Or Grace Kim, a 23-year-old nursing student….These are two of the seven people who were murdered this Tuesday at Oikos University in Oakland, the sister campus of a school in Mountain View where I teach English as a second language. Many people at my school knew Katleen and Grace. Two of my former Mountain View students attend Oikos. (One escaped, the other mercifully absent on Monday.)

Suddenly, the tiniest, most anonymous school in the Bay Area was emblazoned across the front pages of newspapers around the world. As you probably know, a former student entered the classroom, ordered his classmates to line up and executed seven and wounded three with a semi-automatic handgun. On Tuesday, the next morning, my students and I passed around the front pages of the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. Students read them over, gazed away, shook their heads and looked up at me, the teacher….

* Easter and Holy Week   The Big Picture 

* Easter Eggs   TotallyCoolPix

Did you know that Easter eggs came in all shapes and sizes? If so, you’re wrong. Easter eggs only come in one shape: ovoid. They do come in all sizes and colours though, and we have the pictures to prove it



Feb. 3rd, 2012 :: Year 9, Issue 5

Feb-03-2012 | Comments (1)

1. Followups

Bird’s Eye: All the followups have to do with extremes. We start with an In Focus photo spread on this week’s “Tough Guy” competition, another extreme sport many readers will not feel the need to partake of. But all readers partake in the debate on Foxconn, maker of the computers on which you read this. We link to a fine debate on Reddit: the excerpted quote is the top comment and makes a strong argument for Foxconn as a positive role in China. Many respondents don’t agree…. Continuing with our Apocalypse Soon investigation. we link to the recently web-restored Apocamon a comic adaptation of the Book of Revelations as performed by Pokemon.  And following last week’s brain feature, we look at the ethics of upsizing your intelligence. 

* Tough Guy 2012  In Focus – The Atlantic

Billed as “the toughest race in the world,” the Tough Guy 2012 competition took place yesterday in Perton, England. Every year, thousands of men and women tackle the course, which is described on the Tough Guy website as eight country miles filled with freezing mud and “barbed wire, cuts, scrapes, burns, dehydration, hypothermia, acrophobia, claustrophobia, electric shocks, sprains, twists, joint dislocation and broken bones.” Gathered here are some images of the fun had by the tough competitors in this year’s event. 

* Foxconn And Workers Rights Reddit comment

“In a poor country like ours, the alternative to low-paid jobs isn’t well-paid ones, it’s no jobs at all.”-Jesús Heroles, Fmr. Mexican Ambassador to the US

I’m not going to lie, Foxconn doesn’t sound like a terribly fun place to work. That being said, it’s crucial to note that Foxconn employees are not slaves. Every employee is there of their own accord and is perfectly free to leave whenever they want (in fact, Foxconn has a 30-40% turnover rate). That’s critically important to realise. It’s important because the fact that someone would choose to work at Foxconn means that it’s better than any other option they have. Remember that for the vast majority of Foxconn workers, the alternative is farming rice in a country where there’s 1 tractor for every 200 farmers. It should be axiomatic that if a person is offered a choice, they will take the option that improves their life. Unless you’re of the opinion that all people to the East of the Himalayas are stricken with some kind of mass delusion, the fact that people are wilfully choosing to work at Foxconn should be indisputable evidence that Foxconn is having a positive effect on their lives.

* Apocamon: The Final Judgement  (NSFW)  Written by St. John the Divine, Illustrated by Patrick Farley

Warning: Some people will find this offensive and rude; others will find it very funny. Caveat lector.

* The Ethics Of Brain Boosting Oxford University

Recent research in Oxford and elsewhere has shown that one type of brain stimulation in particular, called transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS, can be used to improve language and maths abilities, memory, problem solving, attention, even movement.

Critically, this is not just helping to restore function in those with impaired abilities. TDCS can be used to enhance healthy people’s mental capacities. Indeed, most of the research so far has been carried out in healthy adults.

TDCS uses electrodes placed on the outside of the head to pass tiny currents across regions of the brain for 20 minutes or so. The currents of 1–2 mA make it easier for neurons in these brain regions to fire. It is thought that this enhances the making and strengthening of connections involved in learning and memory. The technique is painless, all indications at the moment are that it is safe, and the effects can last over the long term.



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