Thursday, July 26, 2012

Equality FTW!! in New York State

I am subscribed to an email list for notifications from the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York State. This morning's email brought a great deal of joy: here is the notice, in toto...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bravo, Sanal! A Profile in Courage and Conviction

It has been a while since I had written about Sanal Edamaraku, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, a small but growing Indian organization that strives to debunk instances of pseudoscience, superstition and mysticism. For those who are unaware of Sanal's many accomplishments and his relentless efforts to unmask religious preceptors, or Gurus, and self-styled godmen, who claim to perform mystical 'miracles', I recommend the excellent website of this organization, the Rationalist International, of which Sanal is the founding president. In 2010, Sanal was in the news when he took a Tantrik guru upon his words, challenging the guru to kill him using only his 'mystical' powers. Needless to say, the effort didn't work well for the Guru.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Turbulence, by Samit Basu, a heady opus

Un-freakin'-putdownable! That's the first thing I must say about Turbulence, the latest novel by the young (well, almost a decade younger than I am!) author Samit Basu. [-Ahem!-] In the spirit of gratuitous shoulder-rubbing, he is an alumni of my alma mater! [-Ahem!-] It is difficult to review this book without enthusiastically letting out spoilers (I am trying hard not to gush... Stay with me, people!), but I'll try.

Basu writes with élan, making an unlikely story believable; in the universe of popular perception that is largely-dominated by American (and occasionally European) superheroes, he has made his superhero/metahuman characters, endowed with extraordinary superhuman powers, unapologetically Indian (to the extent of putting in - without explanation - regional Indian words, such as Bhajan, which may be unfamiliar to a non-Indian audience), and - what's more - he has made it stick, too. I particularly liked the idea of these characters eventually transitioning themselves, from Indian citizens to citizens of the world, champions of humanity as a whole. Suffused with wit and charm, as well as occasional clever mentions of pop-culture references on the sly, the story takes the reader through an incredible and breathless, edge-of-the-seat, roller-coaster ride of a journey.

Basu's strength, unarguably, lies in the narrative - a fact which jives well with his authorship of comic-book (a.k.a. graphic novel in the US) stories. In fact, he is one of the first popular Indian authors to have crossed over to the graphic novel genre and done interesting work there. In Turbulence, the whole narrative is so well illustrated with words, that the reader simply has to close one's eyes in between, and the story elements - the locations, the characters, the events - vividly appear and unfold in glorious three-dimensional detail onto two dimensions, much like a graphic novel/comic book, providing a tongue-to-the-wind vicarious thrill. Therefore, while I don't know if in the eyes of an intellectual (which I'm, emphatically, not) this would qualify as 'literature', but it's one hell of an enjoyable and exciting story. In fact, c'est brilliant!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Freedom... You say that word a lot

... I don't think it means what you think it means, Ms. Nusrat.

Ms. Ayesha Nusrat, self-described as a 23-year-old Muslim Indian from New Delhi, recently wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, titling it "The Freedom of Hijab". In this essay, Ms. Nusrat described her transition to wearing a hijab following the tenets of her religion, Islam. According to Ms. Nusrat, this was her [I quote]"most liberating experience ever" [End quote]. Ms. Nusrat made a choice to exercise her prerogative to dress as she pleases. This is not, I repeat, NOT, a comment on that prerogative. However, the essay indicates that she intended to make a statement through this specific choice of hers. Since that statement is in the public domain via the Op-Ed, I would like to call the statement (and the judgement behind it) into question.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Fighting for Sanity: a futile exercise?

Just over 5h earlier, Tweeter user Heather Henderson posted a tweet in her timeline, stating the she is a "woman and a skeptic" and she felt "safe at #TAM2012!". In a short time, her tweet was retweeted 10 times by various other users.

Religious Persecution: An exercise in insanity

Religious Persecution of Father in Iran Over Son's Facebook Posts in Holland: CNN's Brian Todd reports that the father of a young Iranian student in Holland has been imprisoned in Iran on the charge of supporting anti-Islamic activities, because the student dared to post some jokes and vids poking fun at a 9th century Shia Imam.

It's one of those things that make no sense to sane, rational folks anywhere - and yet, such outrage is perpetrated with impunity by religious fundamentalist regimes with no regard whatsoever for freedom of speech and expression, such as the one currently running Iran.

Think about that for a moment.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Scientific Method for the Non-Scientist? Yes, please!

NextGen Voices is a feature of the premier science magazine, Science. It is designed as a series of surveys targeted towards young scientists, asking them questions on different aspects of life as a scientist that matters to them.(For some reason, it is not very well publicized, which is a pity - because I do think that NextGen Voices is offering young scientists an important platform to voice their opinions. I got to know about it only because my colleague in the lab, a subscriber to Science, showed it to me. This is partly the reason why I wanted to blog on this today - to raise awareness).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Security Breach Exposes Sorry Lack of Creativity

Am I prescient or what! Wasn't I complaining the other day about a lack of creativity evinced by spammers and spambots of late? Turns out, it's contagious... [Cue scary music]

Tech blog CNET News reported today on the latest breach of online security that has unfortunately become a major irritant in the modern digital age. Voices, an online publishing tool that was acquired by Yahoo in 2010 and is now used as a part of its news service, was hacked, giving the hackers access to login information (username and password) of more than 450 thousand Yahoo users. The gleaned credentials were posted ('dumped' is the geekspeak) on a web page. As has become a trend, the anonymous perpetrators left a cautionary note (reported CNN):
"We hope that the parties responsible for managing the security of this subdomain will take this as a wake-up call, and not as a threat," a note on the page said. "There have been many security holes exploited in Web servers belonging to Yahoo! Inc. that have caused far greater damage than our disclosure. Please do not take them lightly."... The statement adds that the "subdomain and vulnerable parameters" that were used to hack the site were not posted "to avoid further damage."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Anatomy of a Phishing/Spam Email

Fact of modern life: I am sure none of us are unfamiliar with the junk mail that we receive via regular post on a daily basis, including (but not limited to):
  • 'Special Credit Card offers' (often from Discover, which, surprisingly, some people still seem to use)
  • Cheques ('Checks' in the US) from Credit Card companies (even if you would never, ever use them, mostly because of ridiculously high fees associated)
  • Offers to enrol in or switch one's Car Insurance (whether you drive or not)
  • Offers to swap one's TV provider from Cable to Fiber Optic to some kind of Satellite Dish-based system and vice versa (often along with enticing bundles)
  • Random catalogs from random stores (including ones you have barely sniffed at, perhaps, but never purchased from)
  • Desperate requests - often bearing pretty name-labels for free - from various otherwise charitable organizations (including ones you didn't know existed)
... and so forth. I sometimes worry (I know! Right?) about the tremendous amount of paper and postage that is wasted by these organizations, wondering whether the money, time and effort frittered away in such fruitless enterprise couldn't have been spent more constructively elsewhere by them.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Response to Paula Kirby's Open Letter to the Skeptic Community

I never thought I'd be attempting to write a rebuttal to a letter from an author of the stature of Paula Kirby whose excellent writing on atheism in the Washington post I have always admired. But her bizarre response to the entire sexism-in-skeptics business has flabbergasted me; I'd have thought that as a woman and a skeptic, a person of her erudition would be spearheading the efforts to weed out this deplorable attitude that has been plaguing the atheist-skeptic movement for a long time. Instead, I am watching in horrified fascination that she seems to be interested only in the denial of its existence, and vehemently opposed to anyone who dares to point it out.

In a publicly accessible Google doc, she recently wrote an Open Letter titled - rather amusingly - "The Sisterhood of the Oppressed" (dated July 1, 2012) to the Skeptic Community, in order "to spell out (her) position on the "Women in Secularism" issue". I think it's high time to exercise the old noggin' and address comprehensively the points she raised in her Open Letter. Since it is a rather long one, I'd try to break it up in small chunks and respond similarly; I am also quoting directly only the portions I am addressing. In the event the said document is not available in future, worry not, Inquisitive Reader, I Haz PDF!!

(Other bloggers, including atheistlogic and Ophelia Benson (Un et Deux), have already admirably taken on the letter, making a far better job of it that I possibly ever can. However, I take this as an intellectual exercise. To quote Barney Stinson, "Challenge accepted!" I must also acknowledge the invaluable help and input I received from my friend, Tigger The Wing in formulating this response. But I have to warn: this is a L-O-N-G-read!)

Friday, July 6, 2012

'Deep Rifts' Or 'The Humanity Of It All'... Part 1

A friend of mine was curious about the 'Deep Rift' that has been cooking in the atheist-skeptic blogosphere for about a year now, culminating in the Twitter storm over the FTBullies hashtag. I offered to make a timeline with bullet points. Little did I know that chronicling those cataclysmic events was going to be such a monumental task, requiring the last drop of my Google-Fu and reading/listening comprehension. Anyhoo, I must admit it was eeriely fun revisiting those events, and consequently, wondering anew how, atheist-skeptic or not, we all are subject to the very human foibles and frailties of ego, prejudice, presumptions, and sadly, blind irrationality. Vraiment, the humanity of it all!

Disclaimer: Although I shall try to be an unbiased as possible in preparing this chronicle, I find myself sympathetic towards Rebecca Watson and her fellow skeptics in this matter. YMMV, of course. Also, L-O-N-G-read!!!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Help a blogger in need: Appeal re-plug

Towards the middle of last month, I had issued an appeal to all sane and rational folks in and around London, UK; the goal was to help a fellow skeptic and blogger in dire straits. I had said (among other things) in that post:
Seriously, why do bad things happen to good people? Late last night I got to know about the impending misfortune of someone I've known for quite some time. Well, not 'known' known, but this is a much-respected Skeptic blogger based in the UK, whose excellent posts, reasoned, analytical and well-researched essays - on various pseudoscientific modalities (Steelclaws on Snake Oil) as well as on Biblical errancy (A Plague of Mice) - have given me countless hours of thoughtful pleasure.

And now, for reasons fathoming which is beyond my human capabilities, this person is in danger of being rendered homeless.