Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pliny the Elder:  Rebutting the Flat Earthers.

I don't have a decent online link for the text of Pliny's Natural History.  The text is an encyclopedia of classical opinions covering every topic imaginable.  In some areas it is fascinating as it talks about the relative size and distance of the moon and the sun, along with the nature of eclipses.  But then he includes remarks that lightning descends from Jupiter and the vapors of the earth effect the starts.  It is quite a mixed bag.  Astrology and omens get a lengthy section of praise in all this.

He expends much of a book proving that the Earth is a sphere and giving all sorts of arguments.  The timing of the visibility of eclipses from different parts of the globe is part of this.  Differing lengths of the days in summer and winter at different latitude also are noted and the fact that a sun dial which is correct for one locale will not be useful if it is moved too far.  Similar arguments are based on shadows since in the northern parts they never face south, while near the equator they are sometimes north and sometimes south.  Then there is Aswan in Egypt which is always to the north, except for one day of the year.  Pliny asserts that sailors have longer days sailing west than east.  The oddest, however, is a claim that some lights which were set during the day were visible elsewhere at night.  As to whether or not anyone actually believed a flat earth notion, Pliny doesn't say directly.  No one specifically is mentioned, nor does he quote anyone.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How to study a foreign language.

While working.  First, make sure your kids are grown up and out of the house.  The next thing to do is to have a class with an ambitious program.  Mine is a three semester sequence to learn Biblical Hebrew that will cost a bundle of money.  This guarantees that my wife will keep me motivated to stay with the program and get my money worth out of it.

The next is to study every moment possible.  Waking up the first thing to do is work on some pronunciation before heading off to work.  Lunch means more study.  As soon as I am home, it is study and homework again except for dinner time and a walk with my wife.  A bit more study and it is time for bed.  The weekends are the time to catch up on the schedule.

Skipping church to learn Biblical Hebrew or cutting out church activities would be defeating the purpose, thus, the need to squeeze all these activities in with the study time.  There is also the possibility of listening to language recordings while commuting, which I might do this morning.  What I have already been doing is to pull out a verb conjugation chart and look at this while waiting at red lights.  No law against this - yet!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Slow Blogging

My apologies to all those I usually check in with.

The semester of learning Hebrew is getting very busy.  Together with work and other obligations, this means that something has to be cut, and that is the blogging time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gregory Nazianzen (329-390AD), Bruce Willis and The Fifth Element.

These orations are roughly as convoluted as the movie.  I would not have thought there was any connection, but it seems I am wrong, so here goes:

"But if we are to assert that He is immaterial (as for example that Fifth Element which some have imagined), and that He is carried round in the circular movement ... let us assume that He is immaterial, and that He is the Fifth Element; and, if they please, let Him be also bodiless in accordance with the independent drift and arrangement of their argument;..." - Gregory Nazianzen, Oration XXVIII.

In the movie, the Fifth Element that saves mankind is Love, while the Fifth Element that Gregory is referring to is God.  The Bible then connects the two:

" ... for God is love." - 1 John 4:8

Before we get too carried away, however, it must be noted that Gregory is condemning the notion of God being composed of the Fifth Element along with the related baggage as being a heresy.  What makes Gregory's orations convoluted is that he somehow feels he needs to itemize and condemn every possible error known throughout the history of mankind in addition to that the of the Eunomians who were the ones who got him going in the first place.  An apt sentence begins this series of long-winded lectures:

"For there are certain persons who have not only their ears and their tongues, but even, as I now perceive, their hands too, itching for our words; who delight in profane babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called, and strifes about words, which tend to no profit; for so Paul, the Preacher and Establisher of the "Word cut short," the disciple and teacher of the Fishermen, calls all that is excessive or superfluous in discourse." - Oration XXVII

There are still several hours of this set for me to listen to.  But now, it is time for me to end my own profane babblings and cease engaging in excessive and superfluous discourse.  Good Night!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Cicero (106-43BC):  On Old Age.

This was written when Cicero was 62, although he is using another person, Cato, as his spokesman who is supposedly 84.   There is something that I enjoy as I get older which is quite eloquently spoken of here:

"But I have known many of them who never said a word of complaint against old age; for they were only too glad to be freed from the bondage of passion, and were not at all looked down upon by their friends. The fact is that the blame for all complaints of that kind is to be charged to character, not to a particular time of life. For old men who are reasonable and neither cross-grained nor churlish find old age tolerable enough: whereas unreason and churlishness cause uneasiness at every time of life." - On Old Age

I find that less agitates me as I grow older for which I am quite thankful.   Some people look with despair on old age as a time when there is nothing to do.  My hope is to be able to be more mentally and physically active as the demands on my time become less.  To this Cicero writes through the mouth of Cato:

"We see Solon, for instance, boasting in his poems that he grows old “daily learning something new.” Or again in my own case, it was only when an old man that I became acquainted with Greek literature, which in fact I absorbed with such avidity—in my yearning to quench, as it were, a long-continued thirst—that I became acquainted with the very facts which you see me now using as precedents. When I heard what Socrates had done about the lyre I should have liked for my part to have done that too, for the ancients used to learn the lyre, but, at any rate, I worked hard at literature."

This was written about the same time Cicero gave his Philippics against Mark Anthony that eventually got him killed.  I wonder if he wasn't deliberately trying to go out with a bang.  Cicero also wrote On The Nature Of The Gods which I have read.  It has different characters arguing for different philosophical viewpoints.  My initial view was that he was a Stoic, while others claimed that he founded the Latin skeptics.  To this I will add some of the finishing thoughts of Cicero on the immortality of the soul, and that the belief in the soul's immortality is a factor in how men behave:

"Do you suppose—to take an old man’s privilege of a little self-praise—that I should have been likely to undertake such heavy labours by day and night, at home and abroad, if I had been destined to have the same limit to my glory as to my life? Had it not been much better to pass an age of ease and repose without any labour or exertion? But my soul, I know not how, refusing to be kept down, ever fixed its eyes upon future ages, as though from a conviction that it would begin to live only when it had left the body. But had it not been the case that souls were immortal, it would not have been the souls of all the best men that made the greatest efforts after an immortality of fame."
 Sending wishes up to heaven.

There was a little village in the Taiwan countryside that specialized in this business.  People would write their wishes or whatever all over the paper balloon and then send it up to the sky.  One person was hoping that his job would go well.  Another that someone name Jenny would learn to drive safely.  Some had firecrackers attached which would start going off when the balloon was high up.  It was quite a sight when a number were drifting up through the sky at the same time.  I am wondering how many environmental and flight regulations this would violate in the US.



Saturday, January 07, 2012

Basil of Caesarea (329-378AD):  Reflecting on Nature.

My first reflection is that the hills are mostly brown, which they shouldn't be this time of year.  The Snowpack survey puts us at 19% of normal for January 3rd and there is no rain in the ten day forecast.



Basil's Hexaemeron is a collection of long sermons on the creation.  The context thus causes him to engage all his rhetorical skills in the discussions of nature, which means touching on a great number of subjects involving science and geography.  For this reason it is a treasure trove of ideas that were accepted in his lifetime, while also giving us insights into the state of caution that he maintained with respect to science.  There are a few oddities such as a claim that the full moon significantly effects things like humidity and rates of decay, while neglecting tides.  A condemnation of astrology is included and complaints about superstition.

I have been collecting notes related to the flat earth theory.  Basil gives us a collection of the views that circulated in his time:

"Those who have written about the nature of the universe have discussed at length the shape of the earth. If it be spherical or cylindrical, if it resemble a disc and is equally rounded in all parts, or if it has the forth of a winnowing basket and is hollow in the middle; all these conjectures have been suggested by cosmographers, each one upsetting that of his predecessor. It will not lead me to give less importance to the creation of the universe, that the servant of God, Moses, is silent as to shapes; he has not said that the earth is a hundred and eighty thousand furlongs in circumference; he has not measured into what extent of air its shadow projects itself whilst the sun revolves around it, nor stated how this shadow, casting itself upon the moon, produces eclipses. He has passed over in silence, as useless, all that is unimportant for us. ..."  - The Hexaemeron, Homily IX.

For reference, a furlong is about 200 meters, so 180,000 furlongs is roughly 36,000 kilometers, compared to the modern measurement of about 40,000 kilometers.  An interesting discussion is where Basil argues for the great size of the Sun and Moon given that they have the same apparent size in India as in Briton.  To this he compares a great ship which looks tiny when viewed from a mountain.  At this point the Darwin Worshipers and Big Bangers will immediately chime in that there is nothing in this that should conflict with the infallibility of their doctrines.  As if Darwin Worshipers and Big Bangers weren't known to Basil!  These are the first gnostics that he deals with:

"... Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and ducts, form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that all was given up to chance." - The Hexaemeron, Homily I.

Something curious in the Genesis account of Creation is that the plants are created on the third day, but the Sun and Moon are created on the fourth.  Basil's explanation is as follows:

"The reason why the adornment of the earth was before the sun is the following; that those who worship the sun, as the source of life, may renounce their error. If they be well persuaded that the earth was adorned before the genesis of the sun, they will retract their unbounded admiration for it, because they see grass and plants vegetate before it rose." - The Hexaemeron, Homily V

My end conclusion is that I would like to listen to more of Basil's lectures.  Hopefully more recordings will go up onto Librivox.org.
Back To School.

When I was working in France many years ago, we were having a dinner party.  One of the French engineers asked me how to translate "Bon Appétit" into English.  My immediate response was "Dig In", which caused a Dutch engineer who had spent a lot of time in the US to burst out laughing.  There was also a 40-something French lady there who was an English teacher.  She took some offense at my translation, but did not offer any alternatives.

The problem here is simple:  Both "Bon Appétit" and "Dig In" convey the instruction to commence eating, while the former is intended to be polite, and the later is an instruction to a group of swine who certainly need no such instruction.  The literal translation of both phrases would mean something even further removed from the subject.  This highlights the problem of translation from one language to another:  It is invariably ambiguous and there really isn't a single correct translation.

My school registration is for distance learning with Western Seminary.  This commences with Biblical Hebrew starting on Monday.  There is already a bit of ambiguity developing as I started pre-studying the Hebrew alphabet.  Do we use the Masoretic pronunciation?  Or the modern Hebrew pronunciation? Using the modern Hebrew would add some utility to this exercise, but the Masoretic would be more true to the ancients and seems to involve more subtle distinctions.   Will I succeed?  It means my after work hours will be quite busy and I may need to reduce time both blogging and reading other bloggers, but we will see.  Then there is my regular book reading which will need to be reduced.  Life is changing.

Friday, January 06, 2012

An Episcopal Funeral.

A former colleague passed away and some of us went to his funeral today.  Lots of memories were brought to mind.  He is in the Lord's hands now and my prayer is that God would provide comfort to his wife, children and grandchildren.

What I wanted to comment on was the Episcopal service, this being the first one I have been to.  Compared to what I am used to, it strikes me as being fairly traditional with the clergy wearing robes, making strange signs with their hands and using magical water to sprinkle things.  Then there was the liturgy based on prayers and readings done word for word from a liturgy pamphlet.  The funeral service ended with a mass, which is also something that I had never seen before.

The tradition was a bit intermittent, however, as the music was of a modern composition and the clergy were all women.  I brought a copy of the liturgy home and probably should go through it a bit more carefully.  Something to highlight immediately is the version of the Lord's prayer:

"Father-Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name." - Liturgy

Hmmm.  The King James Version of this is:

"Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name." - Matthew 6:9

I am wondering if "hallowed by" instead of "hallowed be" is a typo.  It completely changes the meaning of the text.  The last verse of the Lord's prayer is missing from the liturgy pamphlet.  This is the part that says:

"For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen." - Matthew 6:13

A common theme that fundamentalists will pick on when looking at a modernist worship is the sense of what the gospel of Christ means to us personally.  Fundamentalists say that it begins with acknowledging sin - my sin - not someone else's.  There is an acknowledgement of sin in the liturgy, but it is of a vague and collective nature:

"All say
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.  Have mercy on us.  -repeat 3X- " - Liturgy

And what the primary concern is:

"Mostly, Lord, help us to open to You the places in us that are injured, hurt, and traumatized." - Liturgy

I have prayed such things too, but what should traumatize me most is my own sin and not the thrashing I received at someone else's hands.  Shouldn't the thrashing I gave someone else be more bothersome to my conscience than what someone did to me?  As part of the Lord's supper, there is this definition of what is going on:

"This is the Lamb of God, who opens His and Her hands and pours upon us all that we need, so our lives may be whole and holy." - Liturgy

Of course the Lamb of God is Jesus, who is definitely not a Her.  Stepping back and looking at the entire service, it was certainly an educational experience.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

African Monarch


This was part of a visit to a flower garden spot in the Taiwan countryside.  With the nice weather and flowers, this was a good place to find some butterflies.


Here is one that caught my attention because it looked so familiar.  At first I thought it was the same Monarch butterfly as we have here in California.  Maybe a migrant?


A list of Taiwan butterflies caused me to change my opinion to a slightly different critter - the African Monarch or Plain Tiger.


This is a picture I took in Fremont, California of a regular Monarch Butterfly for comparison.  They are always eye grabbing.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Planet of the Apes:  Monkeying with Aesop's Fables.

Yes, I stooped to watching a movie on the airplane heading home from Taiwan.  My brain was too fuzzy to listen to more theologians.  With The Rise of the Planet of the Apes being set in my home area of San Francisco, I get to ponder whether the plot is more or less gloomy than the expected reality.  Not quite sure, but it is good to see that the apes exploit the fog bank in their rebellion.  That they would cross the Golden Gate and settle in Marin County is hardly surprising.  There certainly was too much competition at Fisherman's Wharf for them to set up a street act.

What struck me most, however, was a scene where the hero-ape of the story, Caesar, was trying to break a bundle of sticks.  This was at point where he was trying to convince the newly educated apes to join together in a rebellion.  Clearly Caesar had been reading Aesop:

Father and Sons



A certain man had several Sons who were always quarrelling with one another, and, try as he might, he could not get them to live together in harmony. So he determined to convince them of their folly by the following means. Bidding them fetch a bundle of sticks, he invited each in turn to break it across his knee. All tried and all failed: and then he undid the bundle, and handed them the sticks one by one, when they had no difficulty at all in breaking them. "There, my boys," said he, "united you will be more than a match for your enemies: but if you quarrel and separate, your weakness will put you at the mercy of those who attack you."


Union is strength. - Aesop's Fables.

I am told that this is a Chinese fable also, but involves a bundle of chopsticks.  Regarding whether or not the movie as a whole is a fable, I will leave that question to someone with more insight.
Home again ...

There are many more pictures which I will be uploading from this trip.  Yesterday the six of us headed off for Taoyuan airport from Kaoshiung.  We spent 1 hour, 38 minutes on the bullet train, hopped a bus to the airport, and then had to say our good byes as half the group went to LAX and the other half to SFO.


Each train can seat 989 passengers and moves along at almost 300 km/hour (~190mph).  The French TGV comparison info is here.  Each bullet train has 12 cars, whereas the TGV is either 8 or 10.


List of trains heading north.  We can't take an express train because they skip Taoyuan station which is nearest the airport.


Waving to Delirious' daughter.  This is the earlier trip south as we pass Taichung.


The bullet train arriving.  Again, this is the trip south a few days earlier and we are at Taoyuan station.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Old Country Church

Buddhism + Modern Construction + Wealth = ?

This is a monastery in central Taiwan that looks to have been funded by some wealthy businessman.  The scale can't really be seen from the photos, but it is huge and most likely had a price tag in the hundreds of millions of US dollars.  There is one room after another of giant images.  Compared to the older temples, this lacks much of the garishness and is simpler, although far larger in terms of scale.  The entire outside is faced with polished marble to make it more impressive.  Much of the structure is for large numbers of hotel like rooms that are for the monks who live there.  Traditional Christian monasteries provided for the livelihood of the monks by working the adjacent land.  This clearly wasn't being done at this monastery, which leaves one wondering what the source of their income is.

Tourists come in and look at the images one-by-one before moving on.  Many take pictures like I did.  A few will offer up a prayer and throw in some money.  Comparing to European tourism of cathedrals, there is some of the same sense as tourists would look at images of the apostles or other Bible scenes.  What is different is the lack of a hall for congregational worship, and the occasional pipe organ concert.

The reason for this post relates to the atheists.  I have heard atheists claim on multiple occasions that Buddhism is much more compatible to atheism than Christianity.  The pretext is that Buddhism is more philosophical and less superstitious than Christianity!  This temple is the simplest of the ones I have seen.  More common was one I saw in the city center where a large number of people were lined up to get their fortune told.








Augstine (354-430AD): The Enchiridion

Enchiridion means something like handbook, thus, it is a concise version of some of Augustine's other teachings.  What stands out the most is the discussion of good and evil, which goes for a few paragraphs.  One of the conclusions is this:

"Thus, there can be no evil where there is no good."

He is arguing that nothing can be created evil, but rather that evil can only come about as a corruption of good.  This is a more philosophical work on good and evil.  The century that included Augustine produced a lot of Christian writings, so I will be reading from various writers to get a flavor.  The list includes Basil of Caesarea (330-379AD), Gragory of Nazianzen (329-390AD), and Leo the Great (391-461AD).
Aesop's Fables (~600BC?).

Other than hearing the story of The Tortoise And The Hare, this collection is something I had never read.  I listened to the entire set while traveling and was surprised at how many expressions in English - and one in Chinese - come from Aesop's Fables.  What was more surprising was that a few seemed to be out of the Bible.  The ones that most directly are in the Bible are:

Physician heal thyself.

This is from The Quack Frog:


Once upon a time a Frog came forth from his home in the marshes and proclaimed to all the world that he was a learned physician, skilled in drugs and able to cure all diseases. Among the crowd was a Fox, who called out, "You a doctor! Why, how can you set up to heal others when you cannot even cure your own lame legs and blotched and wrinkled skin?"


Physician, heal thyself.

The Bible passage is Luke 4:23


Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’” “I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.

The second is Those who will not work deserve to starve, which is from The Blacksmith and His Dog.  This is invoked by Paul in 2 Thessalonian 3:10:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat.'

There are other similar usages, but they seem to me more of principles of wisdom that are common to humanity while the language or imagery isn't quite enough to draw attention.  One peculiar exception to this is the farmer who lights a fire to the tail of a fox seeking revenge.  The conclusion is "Revenge is a two-edged sword".  In the book of Judges, Samson also lights fires to the tails of foxes as part of his revenge.
Searching for snakes ...


I finally found where they are hiding.  The characters mean "snake meat".  It was in front of a restaurant serving things like snake soup.  No wonder snakes are elusive here in Taiwan.