Mother Teresa: saint?

September 18, 2016

The September 2016 Richard Dawkin’s Foundation newsletter highlighted an article by Joe Nickell titled: St. [Mother] Teresa and the Miracles Game:

Around the world, the Catholic faithful clamor for their beloved late priest, nun, or other personage to be added to the roster of saints. Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) heard them and lowered the requirement from three verified miracles to two (one for beatification, another for canonization), creating numerous saints and beatifying over 1,300 others—more than had all his predecessors together.

mother-teresa-blog-yaaree-com-1

Source: Mommy dearest, Mother Teresa not so saintly

Mother Teresa’s canonisation (confirmation as a saint) occurred on September 4 after the “necessary” two miracles were “identified”, the first for beatification (in which the Pope declares the dead saint-to-be as being in a state of bliss) in 2003, the second for sainthood.

For the beatification, the case of an Indian tribal woman was selected. Monica Besra claimed to have been cured in 1998 of stomach cancer, in the form of a tubercular tumor, after she placed a locket with a picture of Mother Teresa on her abdomen.

Nickell goes on to say that the doctors treating the woman said the cyst (not tumor) had continued to receive treatment even after the death of Mother Teresa. Mrs Besra’s husband is quoted as saying: “It is much ado about nothing. My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle.” He conceded that his wife “…felt less pain one night when she used the locket, but her pain had been coming and going. Then she went to the doctors, and they cured her.”

Mrs Besra herself still believed in the miracle, while admitting she was treated by doctors in hospital. “I took the medicines they gave me, but the locket gave me complete relief from the pain.” It is of course not outside of the realm of possibility that the placebo effect could account for the pain relief. In any case, it appears that the claim that Mother Teresa cured Mrs Besra, is unfounded.

As a an aside, why do some consider it acceptable to thank God for the honest, hard work of doctors and nurses? The fact is that God can’t lose. If a patient dies, it was His will. If they live, He is praised. If only gods were held to the same account as people…

The second case, the one that took Mother Teresa over the line to sainthood was that of a Brazillian man who had lapsed into a coma due to some kind of brain infection (the details differ with the source). His priest prayed for Mother Teresa to intervene with God, and the man supposedly awoke suddenly as a result. As Nickell points out, it may of course simply be that the treatment he was undergoing was effective, after all.

Again from Nickell:

In both cases “miracle” was defined as it always is in such matters as “medically inexplicable.” The evidence is therefore not positive but negative, resulting in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam “an argument from ignorance”—that is, a lack of knowledge. One cannot draw a conclusion from “we don’t know”—least of all that a miracle (supposedly a supernatural occurrence) was involved.

and

Doctors—including Catholic doctors—should refuse to play the miracles game. If the Church wishes to honor a doctrinaire nun, let it do so without an affront to science and reason.

Miracles, like the existence of gods, should be treated with the same scrutiny as any other phenomenon. As Gregory A. Clark wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune, Sainthood for Mother Teresa exposes the delusion of religion:

Seeking intellectual respect, Pope Francis recently declared that God is not “a magician, with a magic wand.” But as the pope’s canonizing Mother Teresa shows, he’s happy to promote God’s magic when it makes for good PR.

and in response Clarke points out that:

One miracle is as possible — or impossible — as another. Preach that an omnipotent deity can perform miracles, and you also preach that at other times He chooses not to.

Apart from the more well publicised evils, especially of late, the corruption of the Catholic Church is again revealed in a casual disregard of evidence and abuse of logic.

But just suppose for a moment that the idea of sainthood made sense. What kind of a saint is Mother Teresa?

In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mother Teresa had this to say:

And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?

The Catholic News Agency provides the transcript of a 1954 speech by Mother Teresa to the National Prayer Breakfast, some of which is eerily similar to the Nobel Peace Prize speech 25 years later. After similar sermonising about abortion, we see this, also shared as a quote by the Faithful Catholics website:

Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.

It is bit of a stretch to see how the conclusion follows from the premise of either of the statements:

  • if a mother can abort a pregnancy then we are more likely to commit murder.
  • if (some form of) love is destroyed by contraception then abortion easily follows.

Indeed, the nature of the “living love” that is “destroyed by contraception” is unclear and seems vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python’s “every sperm is sacred” song from the Meaning of Life.

To those of a less dogmatic persuasion, there are surely greater “evils” than abortion, as a child affected by the Zika virus attests to.

Preceding this in the 1954 speech we have the following pearl of wisdom:

I know that couples have to plan their family and for that there is natural family planning. The way to plan the family is natural family planning, not contraception. In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self.

There’s nothing surprising about this stance from the viewpoint of a Catholic worldview of course, but there are well-known problems that can be directly linked to religious sanctions against contraception, e.g. the spread of HIV, poverty, overpopulation.

Arguably, aside from the abuse of children by priests, the command to the faithful not to use contraception is one of the greatest evils of the Catholic Church.

Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Visitors to the Home for the Dying in Calcutta have reported that patients were placed on basic stretcher beds (indeed, video footage shows this), strong pain relief was rarely used (in a “hospice”, where people are dying in significant pain), so too for antibiotics, and needles were observed being rinsed under running water rather than sterilised. There were also reports of patients who could have recovered with proper treatment not being sent to a hospital, including the case of a 15 year old boy with a kidney infection that went untreated by antibiotics; a transfer to hospital was prevented.

This despite associating with and receiving prizes from shady individuals such as Jean-Claude Duvallier, the right-wing Hatian dictator and amassing funds from corrupt individuals such as Charles Keating, who sent Mother Teresa millions and lent her his private jet when she visited the United States. Instead of creating world-class medical facilities with such funds, the Missionaries of Charity spread to more than 100 countries.

Yet when sick later in life, for example when she required a pacemaker, Mother Teresa herself received top medical care in the West.

Although she and her missionary sisters and volunteers no doubt provided some comfort to the sick and dying, there was a cult-ish element to the work of Mother Teresa. For example, she is quoted as saying:

I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.

and of telling a terminal cancer patient in extreme pain:

You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.

Mother Teresa seemed at least as interested in using the poor and their suffering as an opportunity for conversion to Christianity as anything else, the ultimate point of missionary activity after all.

Watching the short (24 minute) film by Christopher Hitchens, Hell’s angel (YouTube), provides a quick way to revise your pre-conceptions about Teresa of Calcutta.

Coincidentally, a few weeks before the canonisation, I finally made time to listen to the audio version of Hitchen’s book: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which provides further insight.

Hitchens visited the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and acted as a Devil’s Advocate in the case for her canonisation, giving testimony to the Archdiocese of Washington. As is so often the case, he says it best:

Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

300 variable star observations

September 8, 2016

I recently passed 300 variable star observations, having started in 2010.

301 obs

That’s a tiny number compared with prolific Australian visual observers like Rod Stubbings or those doing CCD photometry (e.g. of eclipsing binary variable stars) who quickly reach the thousands, such as fellow ASSA member Robert Jenkins or AAVSO’s Mike Simonsen.

Still, I’m pleased with my few hundred plodding individual observations of 16 variable stars, namely:

  • pulsating variables: R Car, l Car, W Sgr, X Sgr, L2 Pup, eta Aql, alf Ori
  • novae: T Pyx, V1369 Cen, V339 Del, Nova Sgr 2015 No. 2
  • eclipsing binaries: zet Phe, BL Tel, V Pup, eps Aur
  • the massive, once naked eye visible, unstable star: eta Car

Most of these are visual observations, and most of those were with 7×50 binoculars:

 

264 visual obs

I started making DSLR photometry observations in early 2015 after taking Mark Blackford’s first AAVSO CHOICE course on the subject:

36 DSLR obs

While visual estimates are quick and convenient in a time-poor life, photometry requires some effort from imaging through to processing and analysis, but the additional accuracy and error characterisation are satisfying, as is the ability to capture multiple bands in a single image, Johnson V and B primarily.

My last DSLR submission was in April. I’m looking forward to some nicer weather so I can get out and do more soon, in addition to the visual estimates I sneak in between the clouds.

Census 2016 resource

August 8, 2016

Not sure how to respond to the religion question in this year’s census?

http://censusnoreligion.org.au provides pragmatic questions and answers.

Edit: Now if only I could actually complete the census online…

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-10/australian-bureau-of-statistics-says-census-website-hacked/7712216

Another Gravitational Wave detection

June 16, 2016

Another gravitational wave detection by LIGO has been announced!

See https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20160615

The June 15 announcement page points out that while the signal was weaker than the first detection due to the black hole masses being smaller (14 and 8 solar masses vs 36 and 29):

…when these lighter black holes merged, their signal shifted into higher frequencies bringing it into LIGO’s sensitive band earlier in the merger than we observed in the September event. This allowed us to observe more orbits than the first detection–some 27 orbits over about one second (this compares with just two tenths of a second of observation in the first detection). Combined, these two factors (smaller masses and more observed orbits) were the keys to enabling LIGO to detect a weaker signal. They also allowed us to make more precise comparisons with General Relativity. Spoiler: the signal agrees, again, perfectly with Einstein’s theory.

The news release continues:

Our next observing interval – Observing Run #2, or “O2” – will start in the Fall of 2016. With improved sensitivity, we expect to see more black hole coalescences, and possibly detect gravitational waves from other sources, like binary neutron-star mergers. We are also looking forward to the Virgo detector joining us later in the O2 run. Virgo will be enormously helpful in locating sources on the sky, collapsing that ring down to a patch, but also helping us understand the sources of gravitational waves.

Gravitational Wave astronomy does seem to have arrived!

 

Commentary on Q&A’s church and politics

May 16, 2016

ABC’s Q&A on April 25 2016 discussed the relationship between the (Christian) church and politics and I’d like to make some observations from watching this. The panel consisted of:

  • John Haldane, Visiting Professor and Catholic intellectual
  • Julie McCrossin, (Uniting) Church elder and journalist
  • Ray Minniecon, Indigenous Anglican Pastor
  • Rev. Tiffany Sparks, Anglican Priest and representative for A Progressive Christian Voice;
  • Lyle Shelton, Managing Director, Australian Christian Lobby.

So, there was a Catholic, a representative of the Uniting Church (UC), two Anglicans, and a person of undeclared denomination. No Church of Christ, Lutherans, Baptists, Seven Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. At least protestants and catholics of some sort were broadly represented I suppose.

I suppose it was an interesting discussion, albeit within the narrow confines of the Christian church. John Haldane was easiest to listen and seemed the most lucid, ironic, given the evils of the Catholic church.

Julie McCrossin suggested that people of other faiths (e.g. Muslim people) should have been included on the panel and mentioned that her particular UC encouraged columns from other religions in their newsletter. I wonder whether pastafarians, adherents of Jainism (a gentler, saner religion than most), Hindus, Buddhists, Satanists, or Scientologists are also welcome to speak in such a column? Or aren’t they “serious” religions?

This inclusiveness struck me as both positive and odd at the same time. Positive because dialogue of any sort is better than none. Odd because it seems to suggest unitarian leanings. Just as I was once encouraged not to be a fence sitter, an agnostic at the time, and so found my way to atheism, I would have thought that people of faith should make up their mind what counts as valid belief and what does not.

How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

What bothers me about such talk of inter-faith dialogue, and certainly as expressed on Q&A, is that secularists including atheists are often not mentioned at all or only in passing, as if they couldn’t be moral agents. True, secular humanists, atheists and agnostics are the odd ones out here. Still, inter-faith dialogue just seems too much like the blind leading the blind or at least, the biased leading the biased.

John Haldane challenged Ray Minniecon about the claim that aboriginal people owned the land before white settlers arrived. A sensitive topic. There is of course, a need to acknowledge the awful details of our white settler history far more than we do, not just the romantic versions of it, the ANZAC spirit, and so on. But honestly, we really all need to get a grip. The idea that any human owns a country, an area of land, is very odd, and arguably just an artefact of the world we have constructed.

I have great sympathy with the idea that generations of aboriginal or other can live on a landscape and develop a  deep attachment to it; even a few days spent bushwalking can deeply affect you. But such experiences do not imply ownership.

Ray Minniecon made a reasonable yet familiar remark about white settlement having happened only a short time ago compared to the aboriginal settlement of Australia. I found myself puzzled by a follow-on comment from him about Christianity also being a blip in time compared to aboriginal settlement. It left me wondering why he was a Christian minister, given his apparently disinterested view of the importance of the appearance of Christ on Earth.

Of course, all human events are a blip in time compared to the age of the Universe. Again, we need to get over our pompous self-importance. In approximate terms, we have in reverse chronological order (and gap-riddled):

  • White settlement of Australia: 200 years ago
  • Birth of Christianity: 2000 years ago
  • Aboriginal occupation of Australia: 50,000 years ago
  • End of the reign of dinosaurs: 65 million years ago
  • Formation of Earth: 4.5 billion years ago
  • Big Bang: 13.8 billion years ago

I’ve always found the Cosmic Calendar quite compelling. Popularised by Carl Sagan on Cosmos, the whole timescale of the universe is compressed into 12 months. Nothing remotely human begins until late morning on December 31. The original settlement of Australia by seafarers didn’t happen until 11:58pm and the last few thousand years of human history occupies the last 30 seconds of the day!

cosmos-04-hulu

source: http://k1017fm.com/files/2014/03/Cosmos-04-Hulu.jpg

The totality of human civilisation on Earth is indeed a blip on the cosmic timescale. Arguably the most important thing to have happened in that final 30 seconds of December 31 was the invention of the Scientific Method, the only reliable way to understand the world. Not faith.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns, about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering, in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

Another early morning rainbow

February 23, 2016

About to ride to the bus station this morning; greeted by another nice rainbow:

 

Brought to us by the laws of physics. No pot of gold evident. Pity.

LIGO Gravitational Wave detection: the work of many…

February 13, 2016
I think it’s worth noting that 3 of the authors of the LIGO Gravitational Wave detection paper are listed as deceased (two in 2015 and 1 in 2012) and humbling to realise that, especially in a field like cosmology or particle physics, a scientist could spend his or her working life on something like this and never see the sought-after result.
binary-wave
It also emphasises that Science is usually not about a single person working in isolation, but about the work of many people collaborating and competing over a long period of time.
An ABC post about David Blair’s work on this for 40 years further underscores the point.
Congratulations to the hundreds (from the author list alone!) of scientists, engineers, and support people who contributed in some way to the first direct detection of gravitational values 100 years after their prediction from general relativity by Einstein.

It’s Darwin Day (actually)

February 11, 2016

Happy Darwin Day 2016!

charles-darwin-evolved-marketing-leader1

Freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science. (Charles Darwin)

The darwinday.org website has lots of resources about the life and work of Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) and the Richard Dawkins Foundation has recently added teacher materials.

From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Charles Darwin, Origin of Species)

Meanwhile, let creationism talk itself into oblivion.

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known; but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

 

Marvin Minsky (1927 to 2016)

January 31, 2016

MIT Artificial Intelligence (AI) pioneer Marvin Minsky died at the age of 88 on January 24th in Boston.

2006_marvin_minsky1

See this EE Times blog post for a good summary.

Marvin Minsky’s participation in the 1956 Dartmouth Conference along with John McCarthy, Nathaniel Rochester, and Claude Shannon gave rise to the term artificial intelligence. While considerable progress has been made in the domain of machine intelligence, Minsky’s book The Emotion Machine deals with some of the more recalcitrant aspects of human-level intelligence.

His work ranged widely, including early work in neural networks (perceptrons) or connectionism and symbolic or classical AI including expert systems. I took university classes in classical AI and enjoyed experimenting with neural networks in the 90s, but my knowledge representation Master’s thesis was very much in the symbolic camp.

Minsky provided advice for the movie 2001: A Space Odessey regarding the delusional HAL 9000 computer. He made this remark about the film:

Kubrick’s vision seemed to be that humans are doomed, whereas Clarke’s is that humans are moving on to a better stage of evolution.

I’ll end with more Minsky quotes that provide some insight into this influential man’s thought processes. I particularly like the final tongue-in-cheek comment.

No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it’s doing; but most of the time, we aren’t either.

If you just have a single problem to solve, then fine, go ahead and use a neural network. But if you want to do science and understand how to choose architectures, or how to go to a new problem, you have to understand what different architectures can and cannot do.

I believed in realism, as summarized by John McCarthy’s comment to the effect that if we worked really hard, we’d have an intelligent system in from four to four hundred years.

Peter Naur’s passing

January 21, 2016

Danish computer science pioneer, Peter Naur, died on January 3 2016 after a short illness, aged 87.

peter_naur sourcehttp://www.naur.com

 

Peter Naur received the ACM Turing award in 2005 for “…fundamental contributions to programming language design and the definition of Algol 60, to compiler design, and to the art and practice of computer programming”.

He is best known as the original editor of the Algol 60 Report, and as the “N” in BNF or Backus-Naur Form (with John Backus of Fortran, and other, fame), first used to describe the syntax of Algol 60. He objected to this and thought BNF should denote Backus-Normal Form instead. Nevertheless, MacLennan (1983), in Principles of Programming Languages: Evaluation and Implementation), notes the following about the connection between BNF and Naur:

Peter Naur, then the editor of the Algol Bulletin, was surprised because Backus’s definition of Algol-58 did not agree with his interpretation of the Algol-58 report. He took this as an indication that a more precise method of describing syntax was required and prepared some samples of a variant of the Backus notation. As a result, this notation was adopted for the Algol-60 report…

I gave examples of BNF from the Report along with Algol code fragments in a talk I gave to the Australian Computer Society about the 50th anniversary of Algol 60. Compiler construction tools like lex & yacc arose from the creation of BNF and variations such as EBNF (with which I have spent more time) led to more expressive and concise programming language grammars and still more powerful tools.

Alan Perlis commented in 1978, with a pun on the begin and end keywords used to delimit code blocks, that:

Algol’s is the linguistic form most widely used in describing the new exotic algorithms…Where important new linguistic inventions have occurred, they have been imbedded usually within an Algol framework, e.g. records, classes, definitions of types and their operations,…, modules. Algol has become so ingrained in our thinking about programming that we almost automatically base investigations in abstract programming on an Algol representation to isolate, define, and explicate our ideas…It was a noble begin but never intended to be a satisfactory end.

Others have remarked upon the contribution of Algol:

Here is a language so far ahead of its time that it was not only an improvement on its predecessors but also on nearly all its successors. (1980 Turing Award Lecture, C.A.R. Hoare)

Lisp and Algol, are built around a kernel that  seems as natural as a branch of mathematics. (Metamagical Themas, Douglas Hofstadter)

Algol 60 lives on in the genes of Scheme and Pascal. (SICP, Abelson & Sussman)

Block structure, lexical scope, and recursion are just a few features that no Pascal, C/C++, Python, Java, C# or  programmer would find surprising. Naur and his collaborators played a large part in shaping the programming languages we think and code in today. Scheme is a dialect of Lisp — Lisp predating Algol — that was ultimately influenced by it, e.g. lexical scope and by the “language report” document approach (see Revised Report on the Algorithmic language Scheme).

As Perlis alludes to above, many of the beneficiaries of the descendants of Algol are unaware of how their language constrains the way in which they think about programs and programming, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in action.

The late Dutch computer scientist, Edsger Dijkstra remarked:

Several friends of mine, when asked to suggest a date of birth for Computing Science, came up with January 1960, precisely because it was Algol 60 that showed the first ways in which automatic computing could and should and did become a topic of academic concern.

Naur started his career as an astronomer, but changed his profession after encountering computers. He was not fond of the idea of programming as a branch of mathematics and saw it as very much a human activity, the sub-title of a 1992 book (Computing: A Human Activity) by Naur. Section 1.4 entitled Programming as Theory Building challenges the simplistic Agile mantra that source code is all that matters, whereas in fact, like JPEG image files, it can be seen as a lossy format, a distillation of a programmer’s thoughts with lost context, mitigated only in part by appropriate comments (an art form in itself).

Peternaur

sourcehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Naur

In Programming as Theory Building, Naur outlines scenarios relating to writing a compiler for similar languages and the development of a large real-time industrial monitoring system. In his words:

The conclusion seems inescapable that at least with certain kinds of large programs, the continued adaption, modification, and correction of errors in them, is essentially dependent on a certain kind of knowledge possessed by a group of programmers who are closely and continuously connected with them.

Naur was offered a professorship in computer science at the University of Copenhagen in 1969. He thought that computer science was fundamentally about the nature and use of data, didn’t much like the phrase and coined the term datology, which he thought had a more human orientation, giving rise to what has been called the Copenhagen interpretation of computer science (as opposed to quantum physics).

Later in his career, Peter Naur was critical of contemporary conceptions of science and philosophy, developed a theory of human thinking called Synapse-State Theory of Mental Life, contrasted human vs computer thinking (see this video) and rejected the possibility of strong AI. I may not agree with all of Naur’s ideas in this area, but consider them worth hearing.

As an aside, this Y-Combinator post about Naur’s passing makes the interesting observation that a number of widely used programming languages other than Algol 60 have Danish origins, e.g.

  • PHP (Rasmus Lerdorrf)
  • Turbo Pascal, Delphi, C# (Anders Hejlsberg)
  • C++ (Bjarne Stroustrup)

It has occurred to me increasingly in the last few years that many of our field’s pioneers are reaching the end of their lives. Even confining oneself to those associated with programming language design and implementation, since 2010, at least the following have died:

  • Denis Ritchie: C
  • John McCarthy: Lisp
  • Robin Milner: ML
  • Peter Naur: Algol

Before I started writing this post, I knew about Naur’s association with Algol 60 and BNF, but that’s about all. Now I’ve discovered that, like so many pioneers, he had depths I have only just started to explore, even if confining myself to his work Computing: A Human Activity.