Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Homeopathy's benefit questioned (BBC News)

Homeopathy is a controversy will alternative health practice, the effectiveness of which has been argued about for decades. This BBC News article reports on a Lancet paper which concludes that homeopathy is no better than the placebo effect. Read for article here.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

What Makes People Gay? - The Boston Globe

Here's a fascinating article on contemporary research into the causes of homosexual orientation. The article takes, as its starting point, some observations made of two boys who are identical twins but who have developed quite distinct personality traits and behaviours. The fact that they are identical twins means that they have the same genetic make-up. That means there must be some postconception factors which have influenced the two boys development. Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Photofakery (OE Magazine)

Have you ever seen a cat this big before? I certainly haven't. But here's the proof -- a photograph of a man holding a giant cat. But is the photo genuine? Or has it been doctored by somebody? Can you tell the difference between a genuine photograph or a fake? OE Magazine has an article explaining how to tell whether a photograph has been fiddled with or not. It makes interesting reading and it is obvious how easy it is to be deceived by what our eyes see -- seeing is no longer believing. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Movie Review: Unleashed

'Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you always do evil.' (Je 13:23, NLT) With these words Jeremiah tells us that there are some things that just cannot be changed, particularly when it comes to human nature. Louis Leterrier's movie Unleashed tackles this issue head-on with a combination martial arts movie and sensitive drama. Danny (Jet Li) has, since a young boy, been kept in a cage by his master (Bob Hoskins) who has trained him to become a fighting machine to protect his master while he goes about his criminal activities. Danny has been treated like a dog -- given food and water, one set of clothing, and a roof over his head (a cage below the floor). He wears a collar around his neck and has been conditioned to attack ferociously whenever it is removed and his master gives him the command to kill. Danny has been so mistreated that all positive emotions have been eradicated and he feels no fear, no joy, no love. One day, however, circumstances bring him into contact with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) who touches him tenderly for the first time in his life that he can remember. Danny escapes from his master and is cared for by the blind piano tuner and the 18-year old Victoria (Kerry Condon). But Danny's master finds him again and Danny has to return to his former ways in order to escape it forever. The movie swings between brilliantly choreographed martial arts and gently sensitive drama. Bob Hoskins is potent as Danny's master and Morgan Freeman is excellent in his role as the blind piano tuner. Jet Li is okay as Danny but isn't quite convincing in his role. The intense high-level violence in this movie is contrasted with the redemptive power of gentle love that sees value in the lowest of the low. There are some elements in the movie that strain belief. For example, Danny's change from an "animal" to a warm, gentle person seems too quick. But if you are willing to suspend belief and you can put up with the incredible levels of violence then this movie provides a contemporary redemption story where love and family win over violence and evil. Ultimately, it shows that, given the right circumstances and the right saviour, even the leopard can change its spots. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'Bounding out of the gate like a greyhound, Unleashed needs only its first 30 seconds or so to elevate itself well above the average action potboiler.' - Gregory Kirschling/Entertainment Weekly Negative Review 'Cloying dreck.' - Benjamin Strong/Village Voice Content Warning strong violent content, language and some sexuality/nudity

Monday, August 22, 2005

Book Review: Seven Types of Ambiguity

Back in the 1930s William Empson wrote a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Empson defined ambiguity as "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language." In other words, a person could be reading the same piece of text and, because of the subtle multiple meanings inherent in the language, another person may understand the text in completely different way. Elliot Perlman's contemporary novel of the same name takes the idea of ambiguity and constructs a complex story from seven different points of view. The main character of the novel, Simon Heywood, becomes obsessed with an ex-girlfriend he had when he was at university. He decides to kidnap the young boy of his ex-girlfriend in order to draw her attention back to him. Beginning with a monologue by Simon's psychiatrist, Alex Klima, we see this event and its consequences from the perspective of seven different people -- hence the seven types of ambiguity. As we read each person's perspective our own perceptions of the events change and we begin to wonder what the truth really is. The story is long (around 640 pages) and covers an enormous range of human emotions and experience. Perlman even wanders into politics, literature, psychology, the law, and other subjects. Despite this wide-ranging approach it kept my attention to the very end. The ending, however, was a little disappointing and did not seem to have the same intensity as the rest of the story. Despite that, the story as a whole raises some significant questions about the nature of truth and the way we understand it. In particular, human relationships are constantly shifting in their meaning and we tend to interpret them from within our own perspective. We may think we know the meaning of other people's actions but may be completely wrong. It is very easy to pontificate from our high moral ground about the actions of others and what they mean. Even if we are the ones behaving in a certain way we may not be entirely sure why we are doing it or what it means. Seven Types of Ambiguity is long, complex, engaging, and deep. It will leave you thinking long after the book is finished. Content Warning This book contains some coarse language and sexual references.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Movie Review: The Jacket

There have been lots of movies that play around with time and time travel. John Mabury's The Jacket creates an intriguing fresh story using an old premise. Jack Starks (Adrian Brody) has returned from the Gulf War where he was traumatised to the extent that he lost his memory. He doesn't know who he is or where he is. He is arrested by the police for murder -- a murder he cannot remember committing. He's found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed in a psychiatric institution where Dr Becker (Kris Kristofferson), his psychiatrist, treats him using a controversial method where he is tied up in a straitjacket, given drugs, and enclosed in a mortuary drawer -- this is supposed to help Jack regain his identity. While he is there he hallucinates as a result of the sensory deprivation and travels from a forward into the future where he discovers he only has four days to live in the time he has come from. Jack has to work out what is going on and what he will do to solve his dilemma. This film is a real mind bender. It also explores some interesting ethical issues. It also stars Keira Knightley as a love interest for Jack. If you're looking for an interesting movie that will provoke your thinking and stay with you after you leave the cinema, then The Jacket will fit you well. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'The first great film of 2005.' - Luke Y Thompson/Dallas Observer Negative Review 'In this case, the adage would go something like "material, material, material," also known as the Nicolas Cage Rule: Good acting can't overcome bad taste.' - Ann Hornaday/Washington Post Content Warning violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity

ReligionFacts.com - Just the facts on world religions.

Are you looking for a source of factual information on world religions? Check out ReligionFacts.com for information on Buddhism, Chinese religion, Christianity, Greek religion, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Judaism, Scientology, Sikhism, Taoism, and Wicca.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

XXXMinistry (Christianity Today Magazine)

Read this fascinating story about XXXMinistry - the story of two pastors who believe that God has called them to minister to those who are involved with the porn industry and those who are addicted to pornography. The ministry has created controversy within Christian circles but the two pastors concerned believe that it 'is about so deeply feeling the work of Christ that pulled us out of our gutters that we re-enter the gutters in order to call others out as well.'

Related Links

  • The two pastors have written a book about their ministry called The Gutter
  • The website run by the two pastors called XXXMinistry
  • A news article at WiredNews about the ministry
  • A Newsweek report on the collaboration between XXXMinistry and a pornographer to produce a public service announcements warning children to stay away from pornography.

Clonophobia (Baggini-Sunday Herald)

Julian Baggini has offered an interesting explanation for our phobia of clones. He suggests that we each assume we have a pretty good idea of who we are. But clones of ourselves threaten that assumption because

No matter how scientifically suspect the idea is, we think of clones as duplicates of selves. Since they are not unique, not completely free, and offer a very different perspective on who we are, they threaten all these day-to-day certainties.

If you plan to see, or have seen, The Island then you will be particularly interested in reading Baggini's article.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Tom Papania's Mafia Ministry

A couple of nights ago I was invited to go along to hear the testimony of Tom Papania who claims to have been a member of the mafia before becoming a Christian. He had been invited to speak at two different schools where children I knew attended. In both cases he was described to me as an inspirational speaker. I wasn't able to attend the presentation. But I decided to do some research on this evangelist and discovered that he is considered to be a fraud. Here are some web sites that you might like to check out in regard to Tom Papania:

Websites critical of Tom Papania

Websites supportive of Tom Papania

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Movie Review: Mysterious Skin

Content Warning This movie contains high level sexual violence, sexual references, and coarse language. It seems that just about every day child abuse or pedophilia are uncovered and reported in the media. Gregg Araki tackles this most difficult subject in his movie Mysterious Skin. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an eight-year-old boy on the local Little League baseball team - he's the best player. His coach, who is never named (played by Bill Sage), takes Neil home and begins a longterm sexual relationship with him. Another boy, Brian (Brady Corbet), around the same time, wakes up in the basement of his home, blood running from his nose, and missing five hours of his life. Mysterious Skin follows these two boys into adolescence where we see the destructive impact of their childhood abuse. Neil becomes a prostitute who picks up elderly men in his local playground and later in bars and nightclubs in New York. Brian spends his life trying to work out what happened to him during the five hours he can no longer remember. He comes to believe, after watching a documentary on TV about alien abduction, that he too was "taken". As the two boys' paths converge, Brian comes to believe that Neil may have the answer to his missing time. They finally meet and Brian is confronted with a truth almost too great to bear. Mysterious Skin will not be for everyone. It is disturbing, confronting and, at times, explicit. It is quite clear from the movie, however, that the director shot the film in such a way that the children who played the young boys did not have to say or do anything inappropriate. Even so, Araki has provided his viewers with two agonising portraits of boys whose emotional compasses are completely destroyed by sexual abuse. A movie on this topic, to be true to reality, inevitably must show sex scenes. However, Araki has managed to construct them in such a way that they convey the horror and agony of abuse and avoid any titillation or prurience. They are shocking and there will be those who will choose not to see the movie because of the subject matter and the sex scenes. In my home state of South Australia, one of our politicians attempted to get this movie banned because of its treatment of pedophilia and the alleged possibility of pedophiles obtaining information on how to operate. However, after a lengthy session of Australia's censorship board, the film retained its R (only able to be seen by 18 years and older) rating. The Australian newspaper reported the convenor of the Board as saying that "[t]he subject matter of Mysterious Skin is handled sensitively and the film unambiguously condemns child sexual abuse." The Australian also quotes Araki who, in response to these criticisms of his film, said,
the film isn't about pedophilia itself. "[It] is really [about] the emotional journey you go on with these boys and how they deal with the aftermath ..." He [Araki] is specially irritated by the claim made by the Australian Family Association's Richard Egan that the film might encourage pedophilia by showing potential offenders how to operate. "There is no new information in the film in terms of how to do it," Araki says. "We show the cliche of the sex offender having a lot of candy to offer his victim. The idea that this is telling a sex offender how to seduce a child is literally the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and the fact that it is a serious threat to my movie is depressing."
Mysterious Skin is an important movie. It is not about pedophilia per se. It is about the damaging aftermath that follows this crime. It is a gruelling film to watch because we are forced to enter the emotional world of the two boys who experience the results of their abuse in two very different ways. The two main actors brilliantly convey the complexity of the emotions they experience. The film confronts us with a very real horror in our society and gives us the opportunity to understand, at least to some small degree, what it must be like to live with such a traumatic, life changing experience. If it makes us more vigilant and understanding then the film will have been worthwhile. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Positive Review 'A gorgeous, heartbreaking and utterly convincing work of art.' - A O Scott/New York Times Negative Review 'Had Araki chosen to illuminate, rather than exploit, the traumatic aftermath of child molestation, his wallow in the horrors of Mysterious Skin might have had a purpose. As it stands, his film is just another trashy look at America as the land of imbecilic perverts.' - Bill White/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

'The struggle for Islam's soul' (TheStar,com)

Ziauddin Sardar has written an important article entitled The Struggle for Islam's Soul which analyses the roots of terrorist activities in Islamic history and thought. He writes:

While most Muslims abhor violence, some terrorists are a product of a specific mindset with deep roots in Islamic history. If Muslims everywhere refuse to confront this, we will all be prey to more terror.

It is very easy to draw simplistic conclusions about Islam and its relationship to violence. But Sardar explains some importantly nuanced understandings on this topic. Read the whole article here.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Blurbs Blog (Gelf Magazine)

We've all read them: movie blurbs that tell us how wonderful the latest movie is along with quotes from the critics that support the claims. Well, all is not as it seems. Many of the quotations we see are taken out of context, modified, or even from non-existent critics! The Blurbs blog exposes these media manipulations. Here's some examples from the blog:

Fantastic Four (Twentieth Century Fox)

Toronto Sun: "Fun!"
Actual line: "There are some fun moments, most generated by red-hot Johnny, and moving moments, all involving the Thing. But the overall effect is still far too juvenile to feel fantastic."
Not quoted: "Fantastic Four falls too far short of the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises to be called fantastic. How about The OK Quartet? ... lacks energy and drive ..."

Deseret Morning News: "Fun!"
Actual line: "Evans and Chiklis ... seem to be the only ones having fun here."
Not quoted: "Thanks to the 'X-Men' and 'Spider-Man' movies, and now 'Batman Begins,' we've come to expect great things from movies based on comic books. Unfortunately, 'Fantastic Four' doesn't come close to living up to the standard set by those films, or to those set by 'The Incredibles,' which 'Fantastic Four' resembles to a small degree. ... 'Fantastic Four' is not as horrid as early trailers made it appear. It's sporadically entertaining but never amounts to more than 'Mediocre Four.' "

Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (Twentieth Century Fox)

A. O. Scott, New York Times: "Better than the original 'Star Wars.' "
Not quoted: Writer and director George "Lucas's indifference to two fairly important aspects of moviemaking—acting and writing—is remarkable."

It's fascinating reading. Check out The Blurbs here.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Book Review: 'Blink'

Making decisions "without thinking" is usually frowned on according to conventional wisdom. But Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking challenges that wisdom. Drawing on contemporary neuroscience and psychology, Gladwell attempts to show that some of the great decision makers are not those who spend hours processing lots of information and deliberating before making a choice. The author uses real life stories of decisions that have been made "in the blink of an eye" which have turned out to be right - even against experts who have come to conclusions based on "incontrovertible" evidence. Frequently, experts in a field make decisions and, later, when interviewed, cannot explain how they came to make such good judgments. Of course, he also provides examples of decisions that have been made "in a blink" which have turned out to be wrong. What is the difference? According to Gladwell, it is the skill of "thin-slicing" - the ability to filter the essential factors that matter from all the rest. But, as others have pointed out (see links below), thin-slicing, or rapid cognition, may really only be the thinking of an expert who has made rational, logical thinking such a habit that it happens very fast. In other words, experience counts - another piece of ancient wisdom. Richard Posner has written an excellent critique of Blink that is well worth reading. Blink is written in a journalistic style and suffers from the superficiality which often accompanies it. Sometimes, one wonders whether Gladwell has done any thin-slicing when telling his stories. However, as an entry point to the idea of rapid cognition, it is thought-provoking. Just don't rely on it for the final word on the topic. Related Links

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The myth of moderate Islam (The Spectator)

The issue of whether Islam is violent, at its heart, is one which is provoking lots of debate. Here's an article from The Spectator which argues that Moslems '... must with honesty recognise the violence that has existed in their history in the same way that Christians have had to do, for Christianity has a very dark past.' Read the whole article here.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Movie Review: The Story of the Weeping Camel

The Story of the Weeping Camel is an absolutely delightful documentary about a family of camel herders in the Gobi Desert who face a crisis when the mother of a rare white baby camel rejects it after a very difficult birth. They call in a band of musicians who specialise in a magical ritual that is intended to reconnect mother and baby. The photography is beautiful and the story is a deeply moving one of separation and reconciliation. It was nominated for Best Documentary at this year's Academy Awards. My Rating: **** (out of 5) Best Review 'Blurring all the lines between fiction and documentary, this gentle and amusing movie blends real, unrehearsed material with delightful storytelling scenes.' - David Sterritt/Christian Science Monitor Worst Review 'Davaa and Falorni's film does suggest that camels have inner lives as rich and complicated as the human beings with whom they live in such intimate proximity. But they're also wholly camels, matted, goopy-eyed, gritty with sand and quick to knee an adorable calf in the snout when its demands become annoying.' - Maitland McDonagh/TV Guide Content Warning some mild thematic content Related Links

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Koranic scholar predicts tsunamis for US (ReasonOnline)

Here's an interesting development: A Palestinian Koranic scholar believes that the Koran predicts that the US will be wiped out by massive tsunamis in 2007, according to Charles Freund in ReasonOnline. According to Ziad Silwadi, passages in the Koran about divine punishment of terrible sins apply to the United States. Freund cites the Jerusalem Post which quotes Silwadi as saying that:

International law penalizes such crimes... If no one on earth is capable of punishing [the U.S.], Allah was and remains able to do so. All these actions have been documented by Allah in a big archive called the Koran.

Apparently, the scholar has arrived at his conclusion by calculations derived from verse counting in the Koran - a typical approach by apocalyptic prognosticators. Check out the whole story here.

Soul Survival: Is the new neuromorality a threat to traditional views of right and wrong? (Reason)

Cathy Young reports on a fascinating conference that took place in June which discussed the question Will neuroscience revolutionize our understanding of law and morality? If so, can law and morality be saved? Neuroscience researchers claim to be discovering more and more about how the brain actually works and some suggest that the conclusion we will inevitably come to is that our neurobiology will remove the need for such concepts as morality, free will, the soul, and personal responsibility. There are also issues related to the increasing sophistication of brain imaging which one of the presenters at the conference suggested may potentially raise questions about privacy. It's a fascinating debate - you can read the whole article here.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Movie Review: 'The Island'

Cloning is a hot topic today - particularly human cloning. Fraught with an enormous range of ethical issues, people argue over whether, even if we were to become capable of cloning individuals, we should do it or not. Michael Bay has courageously tackled some of these issues in his movie The Island. Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) lives in a utopian facility following a critical event that has left the earth contaminated. There is only one remaining pristine location on earth called 'The Island' which is slowly being repopulated. But who should have the privilege of going there? The answer is to run a lottery each week. If your name comes up, then you have the privilege of going to the Island. All of the people in this community live their entire lives hoping to win the lottery. But Lincoln Six Echo begins to suspect that there is something more sinister going on. When his friend, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansen), wins the lottery to go to the Island, Licoln Six Echo discovers what is really happening and decides to break out of the facility. The Island has been criticised by some as not knowing whether it is a serious science fiction movie or action thriller. The answer is: it is both! The Island is an entertaining science fiction/action/thriller that raises some profound questions about the ethics of cloning in the context of a non-stop suspense ride. Sure, parts of it are unbelievable. But I don't care - I loved it! I was entertained while being made to think. It is a movie with the lot: a good story, plenty of action, suspense, and thought-provoking. The movie paints a possible future world where cloning is justified for the common good but with sinister implications. Ignore the critics and go see it! My Rating: ***** (out of 5) Best Review 'Bay's movie couldn't be more timely; whatever you think about this subject, you might admire his attempt to come to grips with it in a summer blockbuster.' - Lawrence Toppman/Charlotte Observer (free registration required) Worst Review 'If you find yourself at "The Island" I have only three words of advice: Vote yourself off.' - Ann Hornaday/Washington Post Content Warnings intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language Related Links

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Movie Review: 'Flight of the Phoenix'

In the middle of the movie Flight of the Phoenix one of the characters says, 'Religion divides; believing in a common cause unites' (paraphrase). Taking the movie as a metaphor for this assertion raises this entertainment to an interesting level. A cargo plane on a routine return flight after shutting down an oil rig in the Mongolian desert crashes. The only solution to survival seems to be to follow the directions of an eccentric passenger who has the skills to build a new plane out of the wreckage of the old one. In the process, they have to deal with their relationships which threaten to undermine everything they do. Watched thoughtfully, the film raises issues of religion, hope, and despair. A joke told by one of the characters is particularly thought-provoking from a Christian perspective:
Let me tell you a story. A rabbi and a priest attend a boxing match. They watch as the boxers come into the ring. The rabbi sees one of the boxers cross himself. So the rabbi turns to the priest and asks, 'What does that mean?' The priest says, 'Not a damn thing if the man can't fight.'
Flight of the Phoenix is an entertaining adventure film that is sure to please the crowds. My Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5) Best Review This is high-carb filmmaking at its finest. When it's all over, you'll have a knot in your stomach. - Michael O'Sullivan/Washington Post Worst Review A moth-eaten stranded-in-the-desert yarn that throws in every cheap trick in the manual to pump up your heartbeat, is so manipulative that the involuntary jolts of adrenaline it produces make you feel like a fool. - Stephen Holden/New York Times Content Warning some language, action and violence Related Links