Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Why I am not a Muslim

by Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq is furious. Why is the West so blind, refusing to see Islam as it really is? Why is the Moslem world unwilling to look at the fraud perpetrated on them?

And so he wrote this book to summarize as much of the scholarship about and against Islam as he could. Some is quite valuable, and some much less so. He quotes Smirnov summarizing Morozov's assertion that Muhammad (MTLHMOHS) did not exist--not noticing that a Soviet religious scholar in 1930 was not free to say anything else--his job was to denigrate all religions, by any means.

I wish I were more confident of Warraq's sources. The claim that Muhammad (MTLHMOHS) borrowed (and corrupted) a great deal from the Jewish Midrash stories is quite interesting. Clumsy transitions in the Koran's story of Cain and Abel or of Joseph compare unfavorably with the clearer (exactly parallel) stories in the older Midrash--pretty clear evidence of borrowing.

Warraq seems to have shoveled all the sources he could find together without sorting through them carefully. He quotes Crone approvingly in a claim that the Koran was written late (2 centuries late), not noticing that the Shi'ite split was early, and would inevitably have meant different scriptures if the canon were not already firm.

To make matters worse, Warraq is an atheist (he calls himself a humanist), and he proceeds to trot out all the tired old chestnuts to prove that there is no God and therefore Islam is false. He seems to have not idea how badly this weakens his attack.

The Koran claims that the Christian trinity includes Mary--which was never true; and implies that the mother of Jesus was the sister of Moses, and similar nonsense. It is taken to repudiate itself internally as later pronouncements supercede the earlier eternal pronouncements. There are even the "Satanic verses." The Hadiths can stand even less scrutiny--they are known to be largely bogus, and Warraq claims that Hadith-writing industries appeared during the Umayyads and lasted through the Abhasids, fueled largely by political disputes.

After shredding the Koran, Warraq addresses himself to the character of Muhammad (MTLHMOHS), who doesn't shine with a very holy glow. Muhammad (MTLHMOHS) seems to have become more skillful at discovering convenient revelations to suit his interest as time went on, as shown by the stories of the early Moslem hagiographers themselves. His cruelty was perhaps in keeping with his culture, but then how is he a model for the ages?

He goes on to document how "tolerant" Islam has had heretic hunts. Everybody knows of the Shi'ites; but the Mu'tazilites led one such heretic-hunt, only to be hunted away in their turn. You can hear very bitter quarrels to this day, with various schools anathamizing each other, in places like Pakistan.

Islam's vaunted tolerance for others (about which see Bat Ye'or) developed its rules in an era when Moslems were both conquerors and a minority. (My observation, not his.) Life wasn't pleasant for the conquored, and as Moslems became the majority, the need for tolerance evaporated, leaving behind only fitfully applied rules.

Moslems apologists love to boast of the glorious flowering of arts and sciences in the Persia, but Warraq and others note that the arts were inherited from Zoroastrian Persia, and the whole business dried up about the time that the gates of ijtihad were closed and sharia was fixed. (Maybe a coincidence--I seem to recall a political/military decline; but my references are 150 miles away.)

Warraq illustrates that Islam is inherently totalitarian and deeply oppressive of women. The quotes are fairly damning.

For the honor of truth, I should point out that the theory and practice can differ amazingly. It is, or was until the Saudis starting throwing Wahabism around the world, quite possible to find Africans who called themselves Muslim whose practice was much more like their animist neighbors than anything in Arabia.

His answer to me would undoubtedly be that the seeds of the "pure form" are there, and can easily be brought to fruition by purist reformers. And he would be correct. Islam has always had a violent tendancy--unavoidably, given the way it started.

In sum, you'll find a lot of useful references in here, but there's a lot of less reliable material. Use salt.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Global warming

I've heard conflicting explanations of the causes, but I also keep hearing news reports about melting ice in important areas.

For the moment, never mind the causes. Short term there's not much to be done anyway--if ice packs are warming just stopping CO2 emissions won't do much beyond changing the slope of the warming curve. If this is a warming trend, we're stuck with it for at least a decade or so.

Given that, what is at risk in the short term?

I see three general types of risk:

  • Rising sea levels due to melting Antarctic ice. (Arctic ice is already floating, and won't change sea levels if/when it melts.)
  • Melting Arctic ice change the ocean currents in the north, and the nutrient flows, with possible damage to fishing.
  • Changing ocean currents change the air weather patterns in unpredictable ways. Some regions might get better growing weather, but even if agriculture is easier in some regions we have to deliberately adapt to it. If the wheat belt gets too dry we could have a new dust-bowl/desert if we keep on trying to grow wheat there.

What regions are susceptible to rising sea levels?

I think we ought to write off New Orleans, global warming or no--we're fighting a losing battle there. Plan a 20-year evacuation, with a new Mississippi course (and watch the notoriously corrupt Louisiana politicos swoop on this trough) as a test case. It is the biggest single city-drowning problem I know of in this country: Venice on the Gulf.

There'll be lots of problems, and things that don't work; but

  • It just gets harder the longer we wait
  • The political and legal and engineering lessons we'll learn apply to the partial city drownings elsewhere (and flood plain cities, too; and cities next to active volcanoes)

Moving a city takes bucks, and a lot of political will. There's a lot of voters in N.O. who don't want to move unless somebody can guarantee they'll be better off afterwards. The only really big club the Feds and state have is the Army Corps of Engineers and a new route for the Mississippi. Given that the Mississippi is going to pick a new route on its own in a few decades and kill a lot of people when it does, it makes good public policy sense to try to point it into a convenient channel. And that dries up New Orleans trade.

There'll still be a rump city hanging out to the bitter end, trying to run the pumps and repair the levees on its own, but if we make it clear that insurance companies don't have to insure property in the flood area after 2030 I think most people will get the message.

I wonder if something like the Abu Simbel project might get the ball rolling: condemn the whole French Quarter and move it to 'Newest Orleans.' I'd predict lots of storm and fury, lawsuits, sabotage, and very powerful people making sure they wind up with lots of bucks. And at the end, if it moved successfully, the tourist promoters would make a virtue of necessity and offer combination packages. We might have to move the cemetary too...

Now that I think about it, the collapse in the fishing industry is starting already. A sudden change in ocean currents might be a good thing if it started up a new rich region we didn't find out about for a few years.

The changes in local climate we can prepare for, if we've a mind to. What we need are variants of old crops and new crops with farming procedures to get them growing efficiently in new places.

That's nice and vague. For example, suppose that the Great Plains become substantially drier. We then can't tap the aquafer enough to sustain wheat. (Not that we can do that sustainably now anyway...) So, we give up on wheat there. What instead? (For the sake of argument, we'll assume we can still grow crops of some kind, and don't have to plant grass and pray for rain.) Amaranth? I've never tried it myself, but I understand it is a nice dry weather crop, though not a lot of yield. OK, three problems: nobody knows how to eat it (and people can be very stupid about unfamiliar foods), the yield isn't great, and we don't have any procedures for growing it or tools for harvesting it on a large scale.

Trying to get people to eat new foods isn't something the government is very good at, unless its World War II and everything is in short supply. Waiting for private enterprises to see a need, develop means, and advertise the heck out of the product sounds like a nice, adaptable approach. Unfortunately, the time scale for developing new crops and tools is more like decades than quarters; and very few businesses I know of think that far ahead. So we need federal research funding for new crops--crops for a dry Midwest, for a wet Midwest; for a cooler South, for a hotter South; and so on.

And we try to increase yields slightly. We could breed for greater yields if we could assume a particular climate. I think a shotgun approach works better, though--try a little of everything and hope something works.

No matter what the causes of the ice melting are, these are things that need addressing.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Unread books

OK, I have to admit it. I have plowed through some pretty formidable tomes over the years; tombstone-heavy books that mated dull material with clumsy style. But I haven't been able to finish the incomparable Koran. Maybe the small print and Sale's older English make it worse.

I started at the back, with the short suras, and tried to work my way forward. The earlier suras are supposed to be shorter, more lyrical, and more benign; the compilers were the ones who decided to include them in order of descending length.

It doesn't help. I read a little while, wonder what in blazes he means with some particular turn of phrase; stop to look up what some obscure item refers to--and then I hit some jarring thing like "I swear by the declining day." Ummm--God is supposed to be saying that? And what's this about blowing on knots?

I'll try again--I want to deal with original sources as often as I can--but . . .

Yes, I'm still trying to learn Arabic, and no, I haven't made much progress.

On a related note, I never finished the Book of Mormon either. I gratefully gave up on that ghastly forgery when I heard that it wasn't relevant to Mormon doctrines, (which apparently derive more from a different book and a collection of nominal revelations.) For those unfamiliar with the book, Joseph Smith claimed an angel gave him some gold sheets and the magical ability to translate them into what turned out to be a book in form quite parallel to the Bible, but shorter and written in ungrammatical King James-style English. It purports to be a history of various tribes of Israel which emigrated to North America and proceeded to undergo a series of wars and disregarded prophets; their only legacy being a lot of mounds.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Convoy Bombing

The NYTimes says that "Palestinian police arrested three members of a small militant group Thursday in connection with a deadly attach on a U.S. diplomatic convoy". (The link may be temporary.) I'm actually a little surprised.

Given the huge strategic importance to Arafat of US pressure on Israel, it doesn't make good sense to start openly attacking us. The key word there is openly. I have no doubt that little is done without Arafat's knowledge or direction, and the attack was meant as a warning.

The surprise lies in that the captured suspects are still alive. Live people sometimes talk. Talking it over with my eldest last night, I predicted that the PA would provide several corpses to the FBI.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Universe a Dodecahedron?

Everybody has seen the story by now that the universe may be finite and wrap around itself, with the dodecahedron shape suggested as a model (though I'm still not sure why).

OK, look at the story, and in particular look at the critical plot of data vs theory. The data fits the theory well except at a single point--the left-most point. The plot doesn't give the error estimates, which is deeply unfortunate, but from the way nearby points deviate from the curve I have to guess that the systematic error is substantial. Without that point the data is quite in line with the "infinite universe" theory, and even with it we aren't given an adequate estimate for how much the data differs from theory.

The soccer-ball universe hoopla is a bit overinflated, given the data I've been shown.

Sunday, October 12, 2003


I suspect Rush would rather die than try cocaine, but Oxycontin doesn't seem so horrible. And it's probably true that fewer people die per dollar supporting the Oxycontin trade than the cocaine trade, so maybe in that sense its a more benign addiction.

I don't think I'll bother starting to listen to him, though.

I only saw his show once, and that perhaps demands a little explanation. At work I cannot concentrate properly with people chattering on the radio, so I either tune in the classical music station or leave the radio off altogether. (I can't stand pledge drives.) He had a TV show, but we watch virtually no TV (we can't even pick up the Cubs games very well!).

So my first introduction to him came when I was on shift at Fermilab, staying in one of the dorms. His show opened with a rather tasteless shot of him standing on a rotating pedestal, and then he started lighting into the New York Superintendant of Schools. Rush blasted him, then played a tiny snippet of the Superintendant's speech, then blasted him again. Next on the list was some Western militant semi-military lesbian shock group, and then something I don't recall.

On the basis of other sources I already considered the NY School Super to be intellectually and morally unfit for his job, and I hold no brief for lesbian shock theater. But to my horror, I found that after listening to Limbaugh for 10 minutes I was starting to be defensive on their behalf! Although Limbaugh's ultimate conclusions were correct, the way he defended his conclusions (and arrived at them?) was so wrong that I was becoming sympathetic to the NY School Super.

I left the common room and have never bothered with anything of Rush's since.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

ET and God

"Could earthly religions survive the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe?", an article in the Atlantic, has to be one of the most idiotic collections of unexamined assumptions I've ever seen. C.S. Lewis addressed the bulk of these issues years ago (The World's Last Night and Other Essays).

If alien life exists, this neither confirms nor denies that God created it. (My personal take on this is that God has been so creative with life on Earth that He is probably equally creative elsewhere.) There's no fear that finding alien bacteria on Mars will somehow disprove Christianity. (Davis found a proof-text from the Koran to suggest that Islam wouldn't have a problem with extraterrestrial life, though it pretty clearly refers to angels.)

Nowhere is it cast in stone that we will be even able to communicate with aliens, supposing we ever found any. Star Trek and Dr. Who may have dressed up humans in rubber masks and had them use sound to communicate (mostly), but how would you communicate with someone who lived in a pool of liquid methane and thought at a speed of 2 words a month?

In particular, we can't say a priori if an alien species needs salvation or not. If it doesn't, then the history of God's actions on our planet will not doubt be of joyful interest to them, but not essential to their wellbeing. If they do need salvation, then the questions start. But until we find that out, we're just asking "What if God weren't good?" questions, and spinning our wheels in the same old way: How many angels can dance on a pin head? Is it as many as God wants or as many as the world God created allows?

This isn't to say that Christianity isn't falsifiable. It is. If Jesus didn't return to life, ashcan the whole thing and look elsewhere for the truth. If you can demonstrate that God created a people only to damn them without help or hope, then we have some serious issues with Christianity. But that's a very long way from worrying about bacteria on Mars.

FWIW, Davis mentions the possibility of seeding Mars with Earthly bacteria thanks to meteor impacts. It is possible, but quite hard. Since the trip is uphill all the way through the Sun's gravitational field, the effective escape velocity is very high. To get a kick like that you need to be close to the impact point, and the closer you are to the impact the more likely you are to be damaged by the heat and shock of impact.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

California Governor

So Arnold won, and by quite a large margin. What difference does it make?

The ugly mess California is in can't be blamed wholly on the old governor--the suck-up bills Davis was merrily signing in his last days didn't appear there by magic: the Legislature passed them. It won't change.

The whole recall business struck me as a feel-good exercise designed to vent steam without making any significant changes. If the Californians were serious about a recall they'd have recalled the whole barge-load: not just the governor but the legislators, and anybody else they could lay a vote on. Call it a popular vote of no confidence. Of course it wouldn't touch the bureaucrats, but you can't have everything.

I predict that next year will find no significant changes in California's budget crisis and rate of loss of businesses. Neither will the year after. I'm not sure Mr. S. will do worse than Davis, but I don't see how he can do better.

Monday, October 06, 2003

Street Sweeper's Blues

This morning southbound on Wright street I noticed the characteristic marks left by the streetsweeper--which at one point carefully swerved around a dead skunk. You'd think that collecting such debris was part of the sweeper's job, but think of driving around all day with a dead skunk in the rubbish bin right behing you; never driving fast enough for the breeze to keep the smell away...