Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Atheists in an Alehouse

"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley"

To a Mouse (1785) by Robert Burns

Ever wonder what a cabal of atheists do when they get together?

Last Saturday, a Sabbath according to Jewish traditions and some Christians denominations, members of the Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers, Agnostics (and their friends) had one of their sporadic meetings at the Craft Brews Brewhouse & Restaurant at Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya. I arrived at the soiree a wee bit late, and I figured that since I didn't inform anyone that I was going to turn up in the first place, I'm allowed to be as tardy as I like. Right before the meet, I had tea with Jen and her man-friend - both of which happen to be non-religious - and I'd love to have them come as well, but I didn't think they are into unholy, godless assemblies as a spectator sport.

I tried to talk Terri into attending too since she is a member of MAFA but she was feeling less than enthusiastic about the proposition. I was hoping she would change her mind since there is always a real famine of the feminine in groups like ours.

Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers and Agnostics Meetup at Craftbrews 25-06-2011
Godless sausage fest (pictures courtesy of Ramon Fadli).

The only woman there was Ie Tzan's girlfriend who, as far as I know, isn't a member. The failed atheist meet I organised in Penang last March actually boasted a better girl-to-guy ratio (2:3) even if it didn't have a stellar atheist-to-theist ratio (also 2:3). The deficiency of female participation is a well-known chronic problem of atheist and sceptical societies everywhere in the world, and it have baffled us for decades. While there are no real shortage of women who are critical-thinking, science-minded secularists (no lack of prominent ones either), most don't seem to feel passionate enough take up a more active role for the cause.

The meets held in and around the Klang Valley region almost always command a decent turnout - which makes sense since metropolitan communities have a greater access to information and are consistently better educated, and those social elements correlate well with the rejection of religion and superstitions. Most of us present were either respectable professionals or university students which, to our collective surprise, were quite unlike the debauched, depraved, deceitful, devil-worshipping, baby-devouring criminals that most religious traditions demonised us as. I mean, could the Bible and Qur'an be wrong about us?!

Whoa, we should totally try to be more evil to help them despise us more easily!

About 15 to 20 people showed, coming and leaving in a revolving door fashion so we couldn't feasibly get everybody in the group shot. There are also members who are still "in the closet" for occupational or lawful purposes, so they couldn't be photographed either.

Terence speaking at the Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers and Agnostics Meetup at Craftbrews 25-06-2011
Terence (far left) organised this one.

We do plot and scheme, but being the intellectually independent individuals and unherdable cats we are, it's almost impossible to get us to arrive at any proper consensus. All the agendas proposed were defeated (except our devious plan for more future gatherings and more future beer - that one received unanimous support), but we still had a jolly good time hanging out. It's not often that we find ourselves in the company of literate and lettered people that have a working knowledge of philosophy, theology, cosmology, biology, psychology, ethics and human rights issues. It's almost a necessity for all of us to be well-informed laypeople on these subjects for us to survive one another. Seriously, every time you contribute anything to a discussion between rational, sceptical atheists, you must be prepared to back it up because we really have a very low tolerance for bullshit. Yes, there are irrational, unsceptical atheists as well, but they don't usually last very long.

And yes, as everyone probably suspects, we also swapped stories about our encounters with missionaries and holier-than-thou religious acquaintances who tried to witness to us, and had hearty laughs at their expense. There were some anger as well, since being unjustifiably condemned by most people around us as wicked heathens deserving of eternal torture in hellfire really doesn't do a lot to help our disposition.

As far as I can tell, our goals should be quite agreeable to most people, and it boggles my mind that they aren't universally applauded. We strive for a truly secular government which does not favour any one faith over another; the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion; the upholding of human rights and gender equality; and the promotion of science and critical thinking. In the case of our members who are Muslim only in name, we wish to fight for their right to leave Islam.

Now, it'll be nice if we can just agree on how we are going to achieve all those outstanding objectives.

All dressed up with nowhere to go,
k0k s3n w4i

Starbucks Invents Best Beverage in the Universe

"I hope you don't mind
I hope you don't mind
That I put down in words
How wonderful life is
Now you're in the world"

Your Song (2011) by Ellie Goulding

Yes, I prefer it over Elton John's 1970 original. Bite me.

It's Starbucks' spanking new Black Sesame Green Tea Cream Frappuccino®!

Black Sesame Green Tea Cream Frappuccino® from Starbucks
I foresee a future in which I am impoverished but ecstatic.

It's basically just their regular green tea frap with black sesame powder blended in and black sesame sprinkles on top. It was already a delicious drink to begin with but now it's ♪maaagiiicaaal♫

I can't think of a single thing in the world which a liberal application of black sesame wouldn't instantly improve.

Will open for sesame,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Powerlessness of Prayer

"Prayer must never be answered: if it is, it ceases to be prayer and becomes correspondence."

Oscar Wilde

In 2006, the largest and most scientifically rigorous study to date investigating the power of prayer was published in the American Heart Journal by Dr Herbert Benson et al. The research efforts were funded and supported by the John Templeton Foundation which, according to their own mission statement, finds its purpose in serving "as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality," whatever the hell that means.

However, if you look into what the foundation's been up to, then you would get a better handle on what they are really trying to do. They have an annual big cash give-out called the Templeton Prize worth $1.5 million which they award to a "living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension" and past recipients include that vile shrivelled fruit bat, Mother Teresa, and anti-Semitic Evangelist Billy Graham. The Foundation also gives out a $100,000 Epiphany Prize for "inspiring movie and TV" but the only winners had been religious (usually Christian) films like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Passion of the Christ.

What I'm trying to say is, the Templeton Foundation is heavily biased towards affirming a spiritual and religious worldview. They funded this study with the expectation that it will prove that prayer works.

So this is how it went down: 1802 patients from six hospitals recovering from coronory bypass surgery were enrolled into this study. They were then divvied into three groups:
  • 604 patients received prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayers.
  • 597 patients did not receive prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayer.
  • 601 patients received prayer after being informed they would receive it.

Atheist Kitty
This is my favourite LOLcat.

The members of three separate Christian groups were recruited to provide the prayers. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting on the night before the surgery. The results are as follow:
  • In the first two groups which are uncertain whether they would be receiving prayers or not, post-operative complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not. There is no statistically significant difference.
  • In the third group which knew that they are being prayed for, 59% (352/601) of them experienced complications.
  • Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.

The conclusions of this research paper (and lessons one can learn from it) are:
  • Prayer does not affect the course of illnesses. Don't bother praying for sick people.
  • If you must pray anyway, don't tell the recipient that you're doing it because the mere knowledge of it can cause them to be worse off.

Quod erat demonstrandum. Now, I can actually advice the loved ones of patients who are undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting to restrain themselves from praying, and it would be the ethical thing to do.

Atheist Cat Not Interested in Mindless Dogma
This is my second favourite LOLcat.

No doubt those who want to believe that speaking to God can affect our lives in any tangible ways will have a million rationalisations on the ready to discredit this rather damning study into the futility of their favourite pastime - but I'm just glad that they can't dismiss this as an effort by us wily atheists to discredit Christianity since everyone involved in it actually did believe in the transformative and transcendental power of prayers from the get go.

One of the tritest, ripest bullshit that Christians often offer to explain the obvious failure of prayers is the assertion that God does not give you what you want but rather, what you need. I called bullshit because if you simply look into the Bible at Matthew 21:22, Jesus clearly said, "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." The exact spirit of these words is echoed in Mark 11:24. In context, Jesus said this after cursing a fig tree to wither and die because it wasn't bearing fruits for him (it didn't matter to the Son of God™ that it wasn't the season for figs yet, of course), therefore indicating a comparable miracle is possible through prayer. Jesus also said that you can ask a mountain to throw itself into the sea and it will happen; he was pretty damn unequivocal about that. I like to see the Pope try it - move some mountains - but he seems capable only in moving paedophile priests around so we can't catch them.

The question is, why are modern Christians constantly trying to downplay the impressive effects of prayer which Jesus himself promised and turned it into something wishy-washy and invisible like the granting of strength and wisdom to cope with difficult situations, and the recovery of lost objects? I mean, I get those same boons too even though I've never prayed in my entire life! Doesn't anyone find this highly suspect?

You know what I think? I think it's because Christians themselves know deep down inside that nothing substantial can ever be achieved through prayers.

Another perennial favourite of Christian apologists is the excuse that prayers sometimes aren't answered because it is contrary to God's Ineffable Plan™. It's basically saying no matter what you ask for, things will still happen they way they would have. If that's true, then what's the point of praying in the first place?

Never mind that the very idea of speaking to an omnipotent, omniscient superbeing is absurd to begin with - even after it's scientifically proven that prayer is useless, most Christians will never be intellectually honest enough to admit that they got it wrong. Had the Templeton Foundation's study into intercessory prayer turned up a positive result, they would have shouted it from every pulpit in the world as proof of the truth of Christianity.

Unfortunately, it disagrees with the a priori beliefs they hold, so the eyes of Christendom do not see it; its ears do not hear. Its mouths, however, will continue to whisper to a God that either doesn't care or isn't there.

P.S. I do wonder why knowing that people are praying for you can have a detrimental effect. I had initially thought that the reverse is true, but I stand corrected now.

Has a special relationship with reality,
k0k s3n w4i

Friday, June 24, 2011

Attack the Block: A Review

"That's an alien, bruv, believe it."

Pest in Attack the Block (2011)

I'm absolutely convinced that London is the seediest, most dangerous place on the face of the planet. It seems to me that it's populated almost exclusively by feral chavs, neo-Nazis, migrant jihadists, and gangbangers drowning in inner city desperation and pulling everyone else down with them. That is, if British films like Harry Brown, Fish Tank, Four Lions, and KiDULTHOOD are any indication. Now, we have Attack the Block which opened up with a quintet of teenage chavs on BMX bikes mugging a defenceless nurse.

I say we should just nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

Attack the Block theatrical poster
The film looks nothing like this.

Attack the Block is the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, friend of the terrific trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost (who has a very minor supporting role here) and it's B-grade alien invasion chavsploitation flick. If that premise interests you even the least bit, then you might want to check it out.

This film only has a budget of £8 million, and having no conception of how expensive making a film of this calibre can be, I think it looks frightfully cheap and schlocky. It also has absolutely star power to speak of (with Nick Frost being the only talent with any name at all) so it must have saved lots on the actors' paychecks as well. So, I had to wonder: Why do the alien beings featured in Attack of the Block look like animated two-dimensional silhouettes of gorillas that a sleep-deprived amateur animator can whip up it in a single day on his laptop? Seriously, the creatures were essentially walking furry black holes which no light can escape from but unlike blackholes, they have no weight to speak of and therefore feel like they don't even exist within the scenes.

I'm guessing the creature design was a cheat - y'know, to get away from animating convincing-looking fur and sinews. Since the events of the film took place at night rendering it impossible for anyone to see the aliens at all, they added blue glowing fangs as a workaround.

I'm also not a fan of the shaky cam used to shoot many of the action sequences in this movie, and I'm speaking as someone who didn't even notice that Paul Greengrass was using that same technique in the Bourne films until someone told me it made them queasy. The camera frequently move far, far too close in proximity to the actors and the epileptic cuts all combined to make a lot of scenes incomprehensible.

Jerome (Leonn Jones), Biggz (Simon Howard), Moses (John Boyega), Pest (Alex Esmail) and Dennis (Franz Drameh)
From left to right: Jerome (Leonn Jones), Biggz (Simon Howard),
Moses (John Boyega), Pest (Alex Esmail) and Dennis (Franz Drameh)

It says a lot for the rest of the film that I ended up enjoying it ultimately. The dialogues were amusing triffles one would expect from the mouth of stupid teenage hoodlums but made all the more amusing with by their British street slang. And since I don't really like any of them, I could happily enjoy seeing them getting eviscerated graphically one by one by the alien creatures.

They tried to create a bit of a redemptive character arc for Moses, the head of his ragtag bunch of chavs, but it ultimately didn't really work for me. Since I've been beaten up once by a pair of youths robbing me on the streets at night before (one of them kicked me in the teeth), I find it quite impossible to summon any sympathy for juvenile delinquents anymore.

I'm going to divulge a bit of spoilers in the next paragraph. Just skip to the last paragraph if you haven't seen the movie.

Ron (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)
Ron (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway).

An astrobiologist watching Attack the Block will probably cry angry tears because the alien invasion makes no damn scientific or logical sense at all. How did the complex organisms survive entry into our atmosphere sans spacecraft without being completely fried to tarry balls of crisps by air compression? And if they can survive that, how can they be killed by something as relatively inconsequential as a gas explosion? I have a really high threshold for the suspension of disbelief, but the least I ask of any work of speculative fiction is that they remain internally consistent. I was actually expecting Moses' plan to fail hilariously and for the creatures to tear him into tiny bite-sized pieces of chav meat, and was quite disappointed when it didn't happen.

Despite my negativity, I did have a good time with Attack the Block. What I don't get is the 89% rating it garnered on Rotten Tomatoes. It's really not that good, folks, but if you're a Mat Rempit, I can see how you would dig the hell out of this film. The ones in my cinema certainly did.

Don't like chavs,
k0k s3n w4i

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Genitalia of Hindu Worship

"Religion is like a penis.
It's fine to have one.
It's fine to be proud of it.
But please don't whip it out in public and start waving it around,
And please don't try to shove it down my children's throats."

Seen on a T-shirt

Addendum: Yours isn't better than everyone else's, regardless of what you may think.

One of my earliest primers in comparative religion came from a large, hardcover book called Myths and Legends by Bellingham, Whittaker and Grant which I bought when I was in high school because I was such a huge mythology junkie back then. It is essentially a complete idiot's guide to Norse, Greek, Chinese, Japanese and Indian stories of divinity with lots of excellent colour photographs of religious relics and arts in it. However, it is by no means encyclopaedic as it left out Middle Eastern mythoi such as Christianity and Islam, which are the two most popular superstitious belief systems in the world today.

I brought this up because pretty much everything I know about Hinduism came from between the pages of that book. In it, I first learned about Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance and the Paragon of Paradoxes, which I still consider one of the coolest gods ever conceived by the minds of humankind. However, in my readings, I also found out some stuff about Shaivistic worship which are downright goofy.

Myths and Legends Shivling
Highlighted text reads: "But Shiva is most often worshipped as the
lingam. The lingam is usually a cylinder of dark, shiny stone with a curved
top set in a circular receptacle, or
yoni, the symbol of female sexuality."

Page 152 of my copy of Myths and Legends says: "Shiva is a very ancient god. He is still extremely popular today and is often worshipped in the form of a lingam, a stone phallus."

Alongside the androgynous Ardhanarishvara (the Lord who is half-woman), the lingam is an iconograph of Shiva I have always kept an eye out for. It supposedly represents his awesome "male creative energy", which is an euphemism if I ever seen one. When I was in Shiv-Bhumi, the earthly Abode of Shiva in Bharmour, I was seeing lingams everywhere in the Chaurasi Temple complex which boasts no less than 84 of Shiva's godly tallywhacker littering the compound. It made me feel slightly violated, like I was being spiritually bukkake-ta the whole time I was there.

The most impressive shrine in the compound is the 6th century Manimahesh temple...

Bharmour Manimahesh Temple with Streamers
The tinsel streamers undulating in the breeze like sperms weren't helping to put me at ease at all.

... which houses Shiva's thick black lingam.

Bharmour Manimahesh Temple Lingam
"Kneel and worship my monolithic ebony rod, mortals!"

Come to think of it, even the stone Śikhara-style temple is shaped like a mega-sized rock-solid schlong.

Bharmour Manimahesh Temple
And what more, it's ribbed for her pleasure.

Look at how wide its corona, I mean, roof is. And it's so long tall that it's almost a skyraper. Skyscraper! I meant to say skyscraper!

Okay, moving on.

The iconographical counterpart of the lingam is the yoni, which is the Sanskrit word for the female genitalia, and it is thought to be a symbol for the divine feminine, the source of all that exists, and it looks like a minimalistic square womb with a vaginal passage leading out of it (if you remember, I have actually mentioned the yoni in passing in one of my older posts about the Jesus Fish). When the source of existence, yoni, is conjugalated with the creative force, lingam, it becomes the abstract symbol of creation itself: the linga-yoni.

Here's one I found in the same temple courtyard,

Bharmour Yoni and Lingam
Um, that is NOT how sex works, kids.

The orange stuff covering Shiva's rigid manhood is kumkum, a powder used for social and religious markings in Hindu culture. Devotees would rub the lingam and then anoint their foreheads with their kumkum-stained fingers, making a mark called a tilaka. I don't even need to try - the jokes practically write themselves now.

And thus concludes today's lesson on the beliefs and practices of a major world religion. Isn't learning fun?

For the post describing my thrilling trip to Bharmour, follow this link: Landslides! Rockfalls! And the Road to Bharmour.

An avid 'Where's Willy?' player,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, June 20, 2011

Meets and Treats with Seb and Terri

"The Internet is like alcohol in some sense. It accentuates what you would do anyway. If you want to be a loner, you can be more alone. If you want to connect, it makes it easier to connect."

Esther Dyson

Last Thursday, I drove up to Putrajaya to register myself with the Malaysian Medical Council, and seeing that Cyberjaya is practically next door, I decided to pay someone I've never met before a visit.

Seb and I
Sebastian and I.

Sebastian (alias McGarmott from the Cinematic Concerns blog) had graciously offered to give me a guided tour of the visual effects studio he works for and I, being a self-described film buff, find that offer oh-so-impossible to resist. The company is called the Rhythm and Hues Studios, a renowned Academy Award-winning international outfit behind films such as Babe, the first (and best) Narnia film, and The Golden Compass. They have a branch in Malaysia which was recently involved in the making of X-Men: First Class, among other Hollywood projects such as the 2nd and 3rd Alvin and the Chipmunks movies and Hop.

This is where the magic happens.

 As someone who haven't the faintest idea how computer-generated special effects are created, the hour-long private lecture that Seb gave me was a real eye-opener indeed. Being a child of the CG-age of cinema, I've allowed myself to take it all for granted but some of the things he told me really defibrillated my sense of wonder and appreciation. Take for example the scene in X-Men: First Class where Charles and Erik played chess on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument towering before them - I had assumed that it was shot on site but it turns out that the only thing that's actually present in the set is the staircase. Someone once told me that if the audience is able to tell that there's CGI in a given scene, the visual effect artists have already failed.

Another example that Seb gave me was that scene where Emma Frost walked to the glass window in her CIA holding cell and cut out a perfectly circular hole with her diamond finger, and what was done there was a cool piece of CG sleight of hand. The reason the actress, January Jones, was capable of tracing such a perfect circle was because the circle was already there, and the visual effect artists' job was to remove it from every frame until it's suppose to appear. It supposedly took six weeks to achieve due to the camera's and the actress' movements.

One of the current projects Rhythm and Hues is working on at the mo is Ang Lee's cinematic adaptation of Yann Martel's Life of Pi. I haven't read the book, but now I'm going to.

This is where they watch as the magic is happening.

Seb and I have been in correspondence for several months now and I always welcome conversations with erudite, well-spoken and intelligent individuals (so few are available these days, s'pity). I was a bit bummed out that we couldn't hang out longer after lunch, him having to tend to his job and all, but I suppose there's still the future and all its promising possibilities?

If anyone wants to pop into the Rhythm & Hues studio in Cyberjaya, you'd be happy to know that they do official tours (guidelines and contact info through that link). To reserve a tour, you'd have to give a minimum of two weeks notice but since I already know someone on the inside, I got away with simply sending Seb a Facebook message in the evening before.

Sigh, why is everyone's jobs much more fun and cooler than mine?


After parting ways with Sebastian, I drove to KLCC for another date I had lined up that day with another friend - someone who I have also interacted with on the web only before now.

Terri and I
Terri and I.

Terri is a friend of Beve, and I don't believe we were ever properly introduced. She's an English Lit major at the University of Edinburgh and she's currently interning back here in balmy ol' Malaysia in the office of a DAP Member of Parliament whose name I have forgotten at least three times by now.

And she brought me a treat she baked herself! I have no idea what it was but I can tell you it's very, very edible.

Terri's Mochicake
If I have to try, I'd say it's a moist, chewy, matcha-flavoured cupcake.

I was struck by how much her behaviour and speech pattern resembled Beve, except that she's a lot more hyper and animated compared to her. I, on the other, hand had rather run-down batteries by the time she turned up at 6:30 PM. It had been an exceptionally long day for me. The drive up to Putrajaya, my business with the Council, my tour of Sebastian's studio, my getting a wee bit lost between Cyberjaya and the Kuala Lumpur City Centre, and my two-hour long book-hunt at Kinokuniya - it all took a lot of wind out of my sails. When I eventually caught up with my rendezvous with Terri, I brain was already hankering for a long, hot shower and a good night's sleep.

Note to self: remember never to meet more than one new person in a day. I had to struggle to even maintain eye-contact when I was talking to her (I don't know about the lot of you, but making eye-contact had always been a deliberate, energy-consuming action for me). And the expectation of having to drive back to Malacca on the dark, hypnotic highway afterwards was a rather daunting and intrusive companion.

We were suppose to have dinner at Hajime, my favourite Japanese restaurant which was nearby but it had apparently folded (I later found out that it had moved to Jalan Delima under the new name of Cocotei). So, I drove us back to KLCC and supped at this Belgian café which she recommended.

Terri was entertaining company. The same can't be said for myself since I made her tear up twice and throw up once (don't ask). She confessed that she was a little disappointed meeting me in real life, and the last time anyone said something like that to me was the Long-Suffering Girlfriend™. I'm not sure what she expected of me though. Another feet of height? Better hair? A Christopher Lee baritone and a professorial English accent?

On the brighter side of things, I guess her impression of me can only go uphill from here.


So, at which point does a friend of a friend or an acquaintance becomes a friend? I guess it's when you decide they are. There's a nostalgic piece of prose popularly attributed to the current Dalai Lama and George Carlin called The Paradox of Our Age about how much better the past is compared to these brave new times, but it was in fact written by a Bob Moorehead. You've probably gotten it in a chain letter before from your mother when you accidentally let her find out your e-mail address. A line from it reads,

"We build more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication."

It's all sappy, rose-coloured poppycock, of course. There's this pervasive sentiment that humanity have become so enamoured with technology like cellphones and the internet that they have forgotten to connect with other human beings is frankly absurd. If anything, we are communicating more robustly than ever before and often with people we would never otherwise meet if the world wide web never existed. When I went on a month-long backpacking trip to India, a Tibetan reader of my blog introduced me to her friend living in one of the towns I was visiting. When I was looking for other atheists in Malaysia, I found a whole community of people much like me on Facebook.

Seriously, how did people live before the Internet went online? How impoverished, how provincial their lives must have been!

Drunk on the soma of the age,
k0k s3n w4i

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Tale of Illusions and Self-Deception

"A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true."


This is a true story from my college days in Taylor's about that one time when I looked up and saw Jesus Christ's face appear before my eyes. I was told that that would happen, and it really did.

There is one other character in this little tale and she was a classmate and a dear friend of mine. Let us call her Rachel. There is a few things you should know about her. Rachel is a petite, friendly, outgoing girl who was pretty much one of the guys. She is also one of the most intelligent students in my class and a brilliant conversationalist, but the most pertinent thing about Rachel is that she was very, very Christian. She frequently invites her heathen friends to church and churchy events. Her parents (I'm not kidding) forbade her to read the Harry Potter books because they believe J. K. Rowling glorifies witchcraft - but she told me she reads them anyway behind their backs. She rejects evolutionary biology and when I asked her how she reconciled her rejection with the Cambridge A-Levels Biology syllabus, she told me that she's only studying it to be successful in life and hence, "glorify God's name" - what ever that means. She was the first person I ever discussed religion with and she was very helpful when I was just starting out in my study of Christianity and the Bible.

So, this is how it went: I was in the library, sitting at one of the computers when I witnessed the face of her Lord and Saviour emerge out of the whiteness of the ceiling - like magic! I closed my eyes and lo, I could still see his face! It seemed to be seared onto the black of my eyelids, luminescent and ghostly. I wanted very much to share what I saw, and Rachel was the first and only person to jump to my mind.

"Hey, I looked up at the ceiling and saw Jesus!" I wrote in a text and sent it off. Her reply returned almost immediately.

"Oh my God, do you need someone to talk to?!" she asked. "I'm at church now."

Oh dear, that was not how I thought she would react. I had expected her to be sceptical; to suspect a bluff and to promptly call it. Then we would both laugh about what a terrible scamp I was. I was a devout Buddhist back in those days but if anyone messages to tell me that he saw Buddha, I only had two words to say: 'Yeah' followed by 'right'.

Anyhow, I wasn't lying. I really did see Jesus' (or at least, a bearded man's) face materialise out of thin air, but it was only after staring for 30 seconds at a special image featured in a webpage for optical illusions.

Optical Illusion - Afterimage - Jesus Christ's Face
Stare at it for about half to one minute. Focus on the four dots in the middle.
After that, shift your gaze onto any blank, white surface - wall, ceiling or paper.

When done right, the effect can be quite startling. This type of optical illusion is called an afterimage, and you usually encounter it in your everyday life as the bright glow that seems to hover in your line of sight after looking at a bright light source such as the sun for few seconds. What happens is that the photoreceptors on your retina adapt or 'tire' and stop responding after being steadily stimulated over a period of time. So, when you divert your eyes to a blank surface, those adapted photoreceptors send out a weaker signal when compared to the ones surrounding it. Hence, the illusion of an inverted ghost image.

I told Rachel the full story of what actually happened. It's hard to tell if someone is annoyed, offended or disappointed through texts, but I assumed she was all of those things.

"I really thought you had a genuine vision," she said. I wonder if she had prematurely shared the good news of my miraculous sighting of the Messiah with her church friends. It would have been rather embarrassing, to say the least.

But suppose that I played along. Suppose that instead of coming clean on my little joke, I embellished my story further by saying that the vision came to me when I was praying (like she advised me to). I daresay she wouldn't find any aspect of my testimony wanting at all. All her life, Rachel wanted to, and do believe that the transformative power of Jesus' love is real. She had shared stories with me about unbelievers who had been "touched" while they were at church and subsequently converted to Christianity. The fact that Jesus actually appeared to me made perfect sense to her. From her point of view, it was like, duh.

She wouldn't ask, for example, how I knew how the historical Jesus looked like. She wouldn't ask if I was on any mind-altering substances at the time either, which was a very likely possibility since it's y'know, college. After all, she didn't even ask me if I was just joking or messing with her - and that was the first thing she should have done. If I had allowed it, she might even introduce me to her pastor and all her church friends, and all of them would no doubt celebrate my "vision" as a proof of the glorious powers of the Holy Spirit. I would bet good money that they wouldn't challenge me on my claim either.

This incident reminds me of the infamous Project Alpha orchestrated by stage magician and celebrity sceptic, James Randi in which he infiltrated two young amateur magicians, Banachek and Edwards, into a paranormal research program. The pair were trained so well by Randi that out of 300 applicants, they alone were selected as subjects. They managed to convince the researchers for four years through more than 160 hours of experimentation that they actually possess psychic powers. The kicker is that Randi actually told the two boys to simply confess if the researchers ever ask them if they were simply performing tricks. That question was never asked.

In fact, even after Randi publicly admitted that he the two youths were actually a plant of his, one of the parapsychologists went so far as to claim that Banachek and Edwards genuinely had psychic powers but were merely lying about being magicians. It's because he was so confident that he was too smart, too well-educated to have been so well and truly bamboozled.

Now, I have heard so many claims from believers about this miracle or that. I have heard stories about how the faithful would speak in tongues and get caught up in rapturous convulsions of ecstasy. I have heard about faith healers who had allegedly made the blind see and the lame walk. I have heard accounts of statues of the Virgin Mary weeping tears and crying blood; about Catholic saints whose bodies are incorruptible and would not rot. The believers claim that these are the proof of God's power, and that they couldn't all be hoaxes. But why not?

I wonder why they are so sure that they couldn't be hoodwinked since even in my limited experience, they have proven that they couldn't even see through the tiniest of tricks - or should I say, they wouldn't see through the tiniest of tricks?

It's so easy for anyone to be fooled when they want to be fooled so badly, and It's almost impossible to be sceptical about supernatural beliefs when they are your own supernatural beliefs. This is why when the faithful come to show me proof or evidence that their religion is true, I am always unimpressed. Over the years, I have grown quite familiar their standards for evidence.

Frankly speaking, they have no standards at all.

Would ask questions,
k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Weird Meats of Tibet

"Vegetarianism is harmless enough though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness."

Robert Hutchison, address to the
British Medical Association, 1930

After mucking about in McLeod Ganj for a couple of weeks, I've grown rather familiar with a lot of the usual suspects of Tibetan cuisine like thukpa, momo, tsampa, phingsha, tingmo and laping (particularly the dry, yellow ones which I really liked). I've even had Tibetan butter tea or pocha before which was quite horrible none too suitable for my palate, but I still remain ready to give anything new a try. On that note, I went to my ever-helpful Tibetan Spirit Guide™ to see if she had anything a little bit more uh, exotic to recommend to me.

That's when I first learned about lowa khatsa, one of her favourite dishes. I wrote it down in my notebook so I could order it the next time I find myself in a Tibetan restaurant.

And I did.

Lowa Khatsa
Oooh, what is it?

It's spicy bits of fried LUNG. Surprise!

I am not a fan of animal innards. With the exception of a piece of barbecued goat liver straight from the cooking fire which I ate when I was trekking in the Thar Desert a few years ago, I've never taken a real shine to any internal organs of any animals. It's not that I'm squeamish or anything - I just don't like the taste and texture of viscera. Now, lung... I've never eaten that before. I never thought I'd acquire a taste for pig's blood tofu either, but I did.

For those who are curious as to what manner of creature the lung were appropriated from: it's goat. Or at least that's what the waiter told me. I'm not sure if it's a dish prepared exclusively using goat lungs or if any lung would do just fine though.

The texture of the lowa was spongy and squishy, like deep fried bean curd but airier (it's filled with hollow cavities after all). It reminds me of the time when I was in the first year of med school and the lecturer invited me to squeeze a whole human lung just for fun. I still remember the little bubbles of formaldehyde frothing out of the bronchus. Chewing on a wad of lowa feels very much like that except instead of my palms, I'm getting that sensation in my mouth. Some people might find that upsetting, but I bet it's not as upsetting as that time when my Ex-Grrrfriend™ swallowed a piece of human fat (remind me to tell you that story sometime).

There was no extraordinary lung-ey flavour which I could ascertain, but it was quite heavily spiced after all. As a whole, it tasted okay but I was too busy noticing the alien texture to notice much of anything else about it. I wouldn't shun it if it's on the table, but I am sure I wouldn't be in a hurry to order it again on my own volition.

Another Tibetan delight which the Tibetan Spirit Guide™ got me to try is gyurma which she described enigmatically as "Tibetan sausage".

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what gyurma looks like.

They looked exactly the dismembered ends of cancerous penes deep-fried in oil. Go ahead. Google 'penile squamous cell carcinoma' if you dare.

Then again, I'm pretty sure Chinese sausages or lapcheong (which I consider to be delicious) look equally unappetising to people who are unused to its how it looks like. Anyway, gyurma is described in Wikipedia as Tibetan blood sausages with yak or sheep blood and roasted barley flour or rice as filler, a fact I wasn't privy to when I tucked in.

The sausage skin was rather tough and rubbery, like several layers of condoms melted together, while the inside was firm (but not uniformly so). All in all, it was a rather dry affair. Unlike lapcheong which has a very strong savoury and sweet fragrant taste, the gyurma I had was bland, surprising considering its very in-your-face appearance. I experimented with salt, vinegar and hot sauce, but the results were less than exciting.

Since I've only tried the the above two dishes only once, I'm not sure if what I had was how they usually taste like - but in my defense, I did order them from a certain restaurant that the Tibetan Spirit Guide™ vouched for. Still, I can't possibly like everything that comes out of a Tibetan kitchen right?

Especially when they are pieces of fried lung and blood sausages. Heck, I don't even like everything that comes out of a Chinese kitchen! Yes, I'm looking at you, chicken feet. You are bloody disgusting.

Strange meats before him,
k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Atheists As Homophobic As Your Average Religious Bigot

"The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity."

André Gide

When I railed against the discrimination of homosexual people in the past, the villains which drew my ire were always the hubristic people who claim to speak for God - and almost all of them are either Christians or Muslims, the two biggest groups of people on the entire planet which think that their belief systems are better than everyone else's. Homophobia is a rather rare trait for atheists to have, and most atheists I know advocate gay rights even though being an atheist simply means that one does not believe in the existence of divine powers (and does not require one to be humanistic as well). Simply said, being atheistic doesn't automatically preclude bigotry and irrationality. When I speak against homophobia, I speak as a believer of human rights and not as an atheist.

So, when homophobia does erupt within the atheist community, I would attack it just as passionately as if it emerged from religious circles (something which non-homophobic believers in God should emulate because otherwise, you are simply abetting such hateful behaviour). Quite recently, homophobia did in fact erupt within the atheist community, and it erupted on a tasteless, string-budgeted, atheist talk show on the Atlanta's Inspirational Network hosted by the Black Atheists of Atlanta.

This is the first part of three; watch only if you have a strong stomach.

Here are some of the highlights,
  • At 5:53, KD (right) says that homosexuality is not a traditional African custom but is in actuality a "European Graeco-Roman social custom" which was brought to the continent by white settlers. KD is a liar. Homosexuality had been documented in every single civilisation that ever existed, including pre-colonial Africa. Also, homosexuality is in no way a "custom" and what was in fact customary among ancient Greeks and Romans was their acceptance of it. In those civilisations, sex is sex and love is love, regardless of what gender the participants are.
  • At 7:03, Blackson Bau (left) says that homosexuality is "selfish" and it's about "me me me".
  • At 7:53, Blackson says that homosexuality is unscientific because it violates the "Law of Reproduction". That is just something pulled out right out of his ass. There is no such law in biology. In fact, non-reproductive sex is well-documented in nature and homosexuality is found in nearly ALL animal species. This means that exclusively heterosexual species are actually oddities of nature.

In the latter parts of the episode, someone called in to inform them that scientists have discovered biological bases for homosexuality (though his characterisation of homosexual gene(s) is a gross oversimplification of the phenomenon), but check out how KD responded,

KD: "Those scientists were white, weren’t they?"

Caller: "Why does that matter?"

KD: "It matters to me because I’m black… if you’re not careful, even science can be racist."

What the fuuuuuck? They claim to follow the dictates of science, but all they do is cite bullshit science laws they completely made up to support their homophobia. And when someone tells them that science actually disagrees with their position, they simply dismiss whatever inconvenient scientific fact that contradicts them as being racist against ethnic Africans. That must be the most egregious race card ever played! These atheists have no right to criticise religious people for being unscientific or irrational because they are all those things as well.

Even more baffling was this statement from KD: "For Africans to embrace European social customs is GENOCIDE." 

After I gathered up the pieces of my exploded head, I watched till the end in the vain hope that it was all a terribly unfunny joke, but no such luck. They were dead serious about everything they said.

The main fish they are frying is that they think homosexuals are hiding behind the banner atheism to justify their sexual orientation, and they want none of it in their black atheist community. So in short, homosexuality is okay by them so long as you're not a black person. As evidence of their tolerance, they say that they won't go out and hit gay people over the head with baseball bats. How sweet. I wonder how tolerated they'd feel when I inform them that I'm okay with them being black and that I'm not going to crack their craniums open with sport implements.

I hereby denounce them as a pair of fucking ignorant, homophobic, ethnocentric assholes. The two of them are a disgrace to atheists human beings everywhere. Would someone take away their rational badges, please? Thank you.

To read more, go to Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist blog, where I picked up this story from.

P.S. A related story is the self-styled "atheist rapper" Charlie Check'm who is also an unapologetic homophobe. Here is Debbie Goddard's post at the Center for Inquiry website about him (and you can also see the rapper in question defending his views in the comments section). I first found out about Charlie Check'm when he performed his song Bad Ass Angel in a porn film, and I e-mailed him to ask if I can get an MP3 copy of that track (he was generous enough to oblige). I didn't know he was an atheist then.

P.P.S. No, I'm not missing the point of porn. I notice these things because I care about production values, okay.

Atheistic and rational,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Girl Who Is Not Safe for Work

"Don’t ever fight with Lisbeth Salander. Her attitude towards the rest of the world is that if someone threatens her with a gun, she’ll get a bigger gun."

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) by Stieg Larsson

Last year, I watched and reviewed the highly-acclaimed Swedish mystery thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which propelled me to read the original novel it was adapted from and check out the two film sequels - none of which, I'm sad to report, are as impressive as the first movie.

The American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is expected to meet the world at the end of this year in December with Rooney Mara playing the brilliant but troubling Lisbeth Salander, and Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist (which was excellent because Michael Nyqvist, the original Swedish actor, does look like a poor man's Daniel Craig).

In an older interview, director David Fincher showed a topless picture of Rooney Mara in costume and expressed his wish to use it in the film's poster but he was quite sure he wouldn't be allowed to because the media watchdogs are such anal Puritans who think that tits will destroy the world. Lucky for us, it seems he got his wish after all and the official uncensored theatrical poster for Fincher's film just debuted this week.

Uncensored David Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Poster
My first thought was, "That could have been Ellen Page. Damn."

What do you think of it? Considering that one of the main themes of the original film and book is the exploitation of women by hateful men, does the use of Mara's sex appeal to market the film strike you as hypocritical?

This is one of my most anticipated films of the year. If it's even half as graphic as the original, I wouldn't see it in a cinema. I can't trust trust the Malaysian censors to be matured about these things at all.

The guy with no tattoos,
k0k s3n w4i

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Marrying of My Oldest Friend

"Marriage: that I call the will of two to create the one who is more than those who created it."

Friedrich Nietzsche

Most of you know Nietzsche as the guy who said "God is dead." As you can see here, he said some nice things too.

I am out of my native element at weddings and that is why I rarely attend them. There is not much good I can honestly say about the institution of matrimony - holy or secular - but that doesn't mean I have nothing good to say about it at all. I am human after all and there are irrationalities I doubt I can ever be rid of. Sentimentality and nostalgia are some of those things. Psychologists have taken away the favourite toy of children, used an illusion to duplicate it and then asked which one the kids wanted. Most of the children rejected the "new" toy and wanted the old one back, even though it's the very same one. Imagine you have a wedding ring. Would you allow someone to destroy it and return to you an identical replica - even if they use a Star Trek-style replicator capable of reproducing it down to the last atom?

On an intellectual level, I know that marriages are shams but what I also know is that the excitement, trepidation and happiness people feel on their wedding days are real. I know it's real because I feel happy for them too, and on the 4th of June, 2011, that's exactly what I felt for my neighbour and my oldest friend when he married the girl he loves.

The Groom and I
The groom and I.

Over the years, his trajectory in life and mine had launched in wildly different directions and we have grown distant even while he still lives next door. Should I have done something to preserve the way it was back in our toddling, kindergarten days when we were the best of friends? Should he? I am a great believer of letting relationships live, languish and lie on their own terms in the graveyard of life's little tragedies, and I suspect most of us are. We would be very haunted men and women if we cling to every ghost of our past.

The mother of my second oldest friend was at seated at my table and she asked me that perennial favourite of questions asked by women of a certain age. She wanted to know when it would be my turn to tie the red strings and snip off the loose ends.

"I'm not into the whole marrying thing," I told her.

"You mean, you're not ready to get married yet?"

"You can say that. You can also say that I'll never be ready."

My family has a rather cavalier attitude towards the whole idea of putting love on paper, and out of the six siblings of my mother's generation, only half of them showed enough enthusiasm to actually put it to execution. But for someone who considers marriage so lightly, I also consider it a lot. I have a vague conception of how I would arrange my wedding and I have also dreamed up the beginnings of the vows I intend to make. Perhaps I would make them yet - not to a hall full of people, only half of which I know - but in the silence of a familiar night upon a strange place. I would not speak the words aloud but in a lover's whisper meant only for one person's ears; under no steeple but the sky, with not a soul in attendance but the stars, and on no authority except that of the only two people in the whole wide world who matter.

Photo of Chong Chan Bei's and Hairen Gan's Families
Congratulations Mr. Chong Chan Bei and Ms. Hairen Gan, and families.

I am now of the age where I'll see my friends getting hitched one after the other. Soon, I will start welcoming their children into this odd, crazy, messed-up but amazing world of ours. And before I know it, I'll see them leave it - I'll see the legacies they left behind. I have this strange, unshakeable, depersonalising feeling that I am just a side character in everyone's lives, more spectator than player and closer to fiction than flesh. I am that guy who my ex-girlfriends dated and hated. I am that black sheep in the family no one understood. I am that friend who is now just a jumble of numbers and letters between real people in their phone books.

What scares me most is the realisation that I have been slowly coming to terms with it all my life. I guess this is why a lot of us eventually settle down, marry and have kids, even when we didn't want to at first.

"'Cause I'm a little bit tired of fearing that I'll be the bad fruit nobody buys.
Tell me, did you think we'd all dream the same?

And doesn't that sound familiar? Doesn't that hit too close to home?
Doesn't that make you shiver, the way things could have gone?
And doesn't it feel peculiar, when everyone wants a little more?"

Yes, Missy Higgins - yes, it does. Thank you for your beautiful song about scars.

Your supporting actor,
k0k s3n w4i