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In God’s name October 24, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the UK, has written a book named Not in God’s Name (excerpted in The Wall Street Journal), in which he provides his recipe for defeating religious violence:

Yes, there are passages in the sacred scriptures of each of the Abrahamic monotheisms that, interpreted literally, can lead to hatred, cruelty and war. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain interpretive traditions that in the past have read them in the larger context of coexistence, respect for difference and the pursuit of peace, and can do so today. Fundamentalism—text without context, and application without interpretation—is not faith but an aberration of faith…

We must raise a generation of young Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety but sacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, wage war in the name of the God of peace, and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

Now is the time for us to say what we have failed to say in the past: We are all the children of Abraham. We are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. God is calling us to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and to live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honoring God’s name by honoring his image, humankind.

Aw, that’s nice. Though I can’t help but wonder: How does Sacks know all that? How does he know God’s love works one way and not another? How does he know what God is calling us to do? I realize Sacks is a member of the House of Lords, but he admits that a literal reading of the sacred scriptures supports the fundamentalists’ interpretation of God’s will rather than his own. While I’m glad Sacks has found a way to cherry-pick and “reinterpret” the texts such that he doesn’t feel obliged to kill anyone, wouldn’t the fundamentalists be justified in judging his faith an aberration?

The truth is that Sacks is committing the same fundamental error as the fundamentalists: speaking in God’s name, identifying life’s meaning with obedience to God’s commandments, and glorifying faith. That is the real cause of religious violence — and in order to defeat it, we must raise a generation of young people to be wary of claims to knowledge not supported by evidence; to value life, love, peace and compassion for rational reasons, not because “God said so”; and to understand that no scripture is sacred and that faith is not a virtue but a vice.

Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

A widespread and insensitive mentality September 6, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Listen up, ladies — an important message from the Pope:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.

That’s funny, because it seems to me that there is a widespread and insensitive mentality and a lack of proper sensitivity regarding the health and autonomy of women — one example of which is the perverse characterization of abortion as a “tragedy” that entails “extreme harm”.

Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.

That’s interesting, because a recent study found that 99% of women who’ve had abortions reported that it was the right decision for them (up to three years later), with both negative and positive emotions about the abortion declining over time. The study also found that higher perceived community abortion stigma was associated with more negative emotions. So I wonder whether the Pope realizes that it’s his callous teachings that are exacerbating the agony and pain of so many women? But then, it’s not the reduction of actual harm to women that is the Pope’s main concern, is it.

The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfil this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.

If anyone tells you you’ve committed a grave sin and then offers to forgive you for it if you repent, turn around and walk away.


Software engineering principles exemplified with cooking recipes August 15, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science.
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Don’t Repeat Yourself


Add an inch or two of water to a pot. Insert a colander above the water, and bring the water to a boil. Add broccoli in bite-sized pieces. Cover the pot and cook for a few minutes, until tender.

Add an inch or two of water to a pot. Insert a colander above the water, and bring the water to a boil. Add cauliflower in bite-sized pieces. Cover the pot and cook for a few minutes, until tender.


Steam broccoli and cauliflower. (See sidebar on how to steam vegetables.)

Modularity (Low Coupling)


Push the “Start” button on the left side of the oven, then push the “plus” button until the temperature display reads 350. Wait 15 minutes. Put cookies in the oven for 27.5 minutes.


Preheat oven to 350 degrees (see oven’s instruction manual). Bake cookies for 20-30 minutes, until firm and brown.



Milk a cow, and let the fresh milk rest in a cool place for 24 hours. Skim the layer of cream off the surface and pour into a container. Shake the container for 30 minutes. Filter through a gauze to eliminate the liquid. Put into a mold and chill.


Buy some butter at the store.


Easy issues July 16, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Rabbi Avi Weiss supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry — even though it “runs contrary” to his religious beliefs — due to his commitment to the separation of church and state. But he tries to have his wedding cake and eat it too:

Still, as an Orthodox Jew, I submit to the Biblical prohibition. But as an open Orthodox rabbi, I refuse to reject the person who seeks to lead a life of same sex love. If I welcome with open arms those who do not observe Sabbath, Kashrut or family purity laws, I must welcome, even more so, homosexual Jews, as they are born with their orientation.

First of all, let’s not forget exactly what the Biblical guidance on this matter is:

And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Weiss tries to downplay the magnitude of the Biblical condemnation by quibbling over the accuracy of “abomination” as a translation for the Hebrew to’evah — without quoting the entire verse or mentioning the death penalty it prescribes. In any case, he accepts the Bible’s denunciation of homosexuals, yet he still wants credit for “welcoming” them. How would Weiss feel about, say, a Christian claiming to “welcome” Jews while simultaneously maintaining that the Jewish people are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus?

Weiss is clearly a good person trying to do the right thing, but his religion is getting in the way, creating conflict and strife where there need be none:

Are these easy issues? No.

Certainly, the role of homosexuality in the Orthodox community is something that must be deeply considered, discussed and evaluated. We must bring the plurality of voices to the table as complex dynamics will require thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation.

There are many difficult problems in this world, but homosexuality is not one of them. Indeed, Weiss never even attempts to make any kind of argument against it. He concedes that homosexuals are born with their orientation, yet he still considers them sinners — because the Bible says so. One can only hope that the outcome of all that thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation will be the long-overdue realization that the Bible was wrong about this issue (as about so many others), and that rational people should not be submitting to dogma. There are many difficult problems in this world, so we mustn’t get hung up on the easy ones.


Scientists say July 6, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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  • “Scientists Say ‘Life After Death’ May Be Possible, In A Way” [Huffington Post]
  • “Scientists Say They Can Recreate Living Dinosaurs Within the Next 5 Years” [Entrepreneur]
  • “Scientists Say Horse Tranquilizers are Good for the Soul” [Gawker]
  • “Eating Healthy Is A Mental Disorder, Scientists Say” [Inquisitr]
  • “60 Really Is The New 50, Scientists Say” [Today]
  • “Scientists Discover That Eyes Really Are ‘The Window To The Soul'” [Daily Mail]
  • “Scientists Say Moms With Bigger Butts May Give Birth To Smarter Kids” [Elite Daily]
  • “‘Designer Babies’ Debate Should Start, Scientists Say” [BBC]
  • “New ‘Stupidity Virus’ Discovered, Scientists Say” [ABC News]

Declining standards May 31, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Religion.
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As if being a Chasidic mom in London wasn’t hard enough already:

The British leaders of a major Chasidic sect have declared that women should not be allowed to drive. In a letter sent out last week, Belz rabbis said that having female drivers goes against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp” and against the norms of Chasidic institutions.

It added that, from August, children would be barred from their schools if their mothers drove them there.

According to the letter — which was signed by leaders from Belz educational institutions and endorsed by the group’s rabbis — there has been an increased incidence of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” which has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.

They said that the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has advised them to introduce a policy of not allowing pupils to come to their schools if their mothers drive.

The UK Education Secretary launched an inquiry, and in response, the Chief Executive of the Belz Day School wrote her a letter of explanation. After complaining about “misrepresentation” and apologizing for a “negative impression” created by an “unfortunate” choice of words, the letter continues:

Our community is guided by religious principles and strong traditional values. We are concerned by the erosion of such values, especially amongst our youth, caused by the proliferation of technology and the declining standards of visual and printed media.

We are proud of what we stand for and we do not feel the need to excuse ourselves for our deeply held beliefs and staunchly maintained way of life. It has withstood the test of time and is not prone to the vagaries of passing fads.

We fully accept that despite being private schools we have responsibilities to our members and to the wider public. However, as private schools we have the freedom to set our own high standards by which we seek to live and bring up our children. Our community invest in our way of life and it is our duty to ensure that we provide an education in line with our time-hallowed traditions.

For this reason we have seen it necessary to issue guidelines which are restricted to our community and guided by the Torah and by the teachings of the Rebbes of Belz. We do not impose these guidelines on anyone who has not chosen to adhere to the mores of our community of his or her own free will.

That claim is disingenuous with regards to the community’s women — who know that their children will be expelled from school and their families ostracized if they choose to disobey any of the “guidelines” handed down from the rabbis — but it’s downright false with regards to those who are most vulnerable: the children.

We hope that this clarifies our true intentions. We will continue to remain vigilant and unbending in ensuring that our children are shielded from the onslaught with which we are all faced today. It is our belief that only in this way will they grow up proud of our traditions and lifestyle which is built around the Torah, the family and mutual kindness. This is our purpose in life and for which we will always stand up proudly and unflinchingly.

You might be proud of a tradition that subordinates women and obsesses over policing their “modesty”, but your children deserve a fair chance to make up their own minds — and that requires exposing them to the existence of other worldviews and allowing them to think for themselves, without penalty. Otherwise, the claim that they have freely chosen to belong to your community is a mockery. And if the only way you can get your children to grow up proud of your traditions and lifestyle is by “shielding” them from alternative viewpoints and demanding obedience and conformity, then perhaps your principles are nothing to be proud of, after all?


The prosecutor’s dilemma May 25, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Game theory.
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“Here’s the deal: We’ve got enough evidence to convict you and your partner of a misdemeanor right now, and you’d each get two years in prison. Now, if both of you come clean, and confess to the felony I know you committed, you’ll each get three years. Why would you do that, you ask? Well, my colleague is in the other room right now making the same offer to your partner. If he signs a confession and you don’t, we let him off with one year and give you four! Of course, if you sign a confession and he doesn’t, the reverse applies. Now, if you think about it rationally, you’ll see that —”

“Yeah, yeah — I’m better off confessing no matter what my partner does, and we both end up doing three years — I’m familiar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Do you think I’m stupid? Listen up, cause here’s the deal: I’ll confess, but I only serve one year — no matter what my partner does. If you refuse, then I confess nothing, and I go public with the story of how you tried to use Game Theory to bully me into signing a false confession. Oh, and did I mention that my partner is making the same offer to your colleague in the other room right now? Do you want your colleague to walk away with a felony conviction, while you’re left to defend misconduct charges on your own? Think about it rationally…”

John Nash 1928-2015

John Nash

Intersection May 10, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Logic.
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Pushing our vision farther April 19, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science, Superstition.
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Mauna_Kea_observatoryIt’s been 400 years since Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens and the Roman Inquisition convicted him of heresy; nowadays, many people insist that there’s no conflict between science and religion — that was all just a medieval misunderstanding, whereas modern faith has left superstitious ignorance behind. Astronomy, certainly, has come a long way since Galileo: in fact, they’re about to build an awesome Thirty Meter Telescope on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii:

TMT scientists selected Maunakea after a rigorous five-year campaign spanning the entire globe that measured virtually every atmospheric feature that might affect the performance of the telescope. Located above approximately 40 percent of Earth’s atmosphere, the site at Maunakea has a climate that is particularly stable, dry, and cold; all of which are important characteristics for capturing the sharpest images and producing the best science…

The TMT telescope will provide extremely sharp images that will allow astronomers to see much fainter and more distant objects than possible with existing telescopes, and to study them in greater detail. This represents the possibility of pushing our vision farther into space and our understanding farther back in time to help answer fundamental questions about the universe. It is very likely that TMT will enable discoveries that we cannot even begin to anticipate today…

Following a lengthy 7-year public and agency review, all required state and county permits were issued to the Thirty Meter Telescope.

So how soon does it open? Well, funny story.

A nonprofit company planning to build one of the world’s biggest telescopes on a mountain many Native Hawaiians consider sacred will continue to postpone construction, Hawaii Gov. David Ige said Friday.

This is the second time the Thirty Meter Telescope has extended a moratorium on building at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on the Big Island of Hawaii…

The company suspended building after law enforcement arrested protesters for blocking the road to the summit and refusing to leave the construction site.

Scientists say Mauna Kea’s summit above cloud cover offers some of the world’s best conditions for viewing the skies. But some Native Hawaiians believe their creation story begins atop the mountain. It’s also a burial site for ancestors and a home to deities.

(That’s some stellar reporting from the Associated Press, by the way: first, implying that the telescope would encroach on a burial ground, whereas, according to the TMT Foundation, “The selected site has no archaeological shrines or features, no endangered plants, no endangered bugs and no burials”; then stating, without qualification, that the mountain is “a home to deities” — is that a fact?)

Despite the irony of opposing a project that seeks to better understand the origins of the universe because of parochial myths about the origin of the universe, some will argue that we should respect people’s heartfelt traditions and beliefs, even if we don’t share them ourselves. But where does it end? We also have Jews who refuse to sit next to women on airplanes, Christians whose businesses won’t serve same-sex couples, etc. — and I don’t think irrational demands should be given respect they don’t deserve. We got out of the Dark Ages by valuing reason and evidence over superstition and authority, and that is the key to building a healthy society that can face the challenges of the future. Those who wish to sanctify their traditions and be bound by them may do so, but they’re not sacred to the rest of us, and we mustn’t let them hold us back as we aim for the stars.

It really is almost a crime March 10, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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In 1986, Roald Dahl wrote this letter:

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old. As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

‘Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.

‘I feel all sleepy,’ she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunised against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk. In America, where measles immunisation is compulsory, measles like smallpox, has been virtually wiped out.

Here in Britain, because so many parents refuse, either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear, to allow their children to be immunised, we still have a hundred thousand cases of measles every year. Out of those, more than 10,000 will suffer side effects of one kind or another. At least 10,000 will develop ear or chest infections. About 20 will die.


Every year around 20 children will die in Britain from measles.

So what about the risks that your children will run from being immunised?

They are almost non-existent. Listen to this. In a district of around 300,000 people, there will be only one child every 250 years who will develop serious side effects from measles immunisation! That is about a million to one chance. I should think there would be more chance of your child choking to death on a chocolate bar than of becoming seriously ill from a measles immunisation.

So what on earth are you worrying about? It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.

The ideal time to have it done is at 13 months, but it is never too late. All school-children who have not yet had a measles immunisation should beg their parents to arrange for them to have one as soon as possible.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach. That was when she was still alive. The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles. You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books. And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

Meanwhile, in 21st-century America

The United States experienced a record number of measles cases during 2014, with 644 cases from 27 states reported to CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). This is the greatest number of cases since measles elimination was documented in the U.S. in 2000.

The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.

(via Sam Harris)


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