Monday, February 20, 2012

Science, Magic and Religion

The Internet truly is wonderful. Today I’d like to introduce readers to the possibility of viewing a complete undergraduate course at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), entitled “Science, Magic and Religion”, which is presented to us by Professor Courtenay Raia.

One would need to have a deep interest in the subject and/or rather a lot of time at his or her disposal in order to watch the whole course. However, the introduction video is well worth viewing, all by itself.

It is easy to imagine that it is only in relatively recent times that a clear distinction has arisen between the three elements in the title of this course: Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity, who defined mechanics and the laws of motion that bear his name, and who invented the Calculus, was an ordained clergyman who spent a good deal of his time practicing alchemy, the means by which many people of his day believed base metal could be turned into gold. Johann Kepler, who developed the laws that define the motion of the planets in their orbits around the Sun, had a steady sideline in the preparation of astrological charts which were supposed to tell the fortune of the person who commissioned them. In the Middle Ages astrology was taken so seriously that it was made a capital offence for anyone to attempt to tell the fortune of the King of England.

These videos have an added bonus in that Professor Raia is a joy to watch. She’s a supremely confident lecturer who uses her hands, in particular, to beautiful effect.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An Irish honorary consul for the Vatican?

The Irish embassy to the Vatican, Via Giacomo Medici, Rome

The Irish government has decided to close its embassy to the Vatican, ostensibly for reasons of cost. Supporters of the Catholic church claim that it is, instead, a gesture of defiance on the part of the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Eamonn Gilmore, who is on record as being a secularist, and made possible from a political point of view by the wholesale cover up of child sexual abuse by the Catholic church authorities, which had gone on for many years but has only come to light in relatively recent times.

Ireland has another embassy in Rome, to the Italian government. The Vatican has insisted that it should have a separate diplomatic mission on the grounds that it has been recognised by, among others, the United Nations, as a sovereign state. The totality of its territory is, of course, enclosed within the limits of the City of Rome and, to add anomaly to anomaly, the existing Irish embassy to the Vatican has always been situated, not in Vatican City, but in another part of Rome.

Many Roman Catholics in Ireland are not pleased about the closure of the embassy. This is reflected in the belated opposition of a number of Fine Gael back benchers, who are no doubt reflecting the views of their constituents.

Even those of us who have been campaigning for many years for the separation of church and state in Ireland can, of course, appreciate that Catholicism has been a major influence in Irish history and therefore a part of our culture, for better or worse. That cultural link will always be reflected in, for example, the names of certain notable times of the year, such as Christmas. After all, we have no problem in commemorating other, earlier, gods in some of the days of the week, such as Woden (Wednesday) and Thor, (Thursday). Maintaining an embassy to the Vatican for cultural reasons is in a different league, however. There is the cost, which is a duplication of the expense of maintaining that other Irish embassy in Rome. There is the fact that Catholicism is a religion, not actually another country, no matter what it may like to believe itself to be in this regard, and there is the little detail that the Irish embassy was never actually within Vatican City, indicating that all concerned were playing diplomatic games at the time of its inception.

The Vatican (population 860) is not unique in having an existence as a small, semi-autonomous entity in Europe. There are also The Principality of Monaco (population 35,000), The Republic of San Marino (population 32,000), and The Principality of Andorra (population 84,000), as examples. I owe this information to my son, Shane, who has politics in his degree and who works in Public Relations, as I do the fact that, in the case of Monaco, Ireland is represented by an Honorary Consul. We currently have no representation in Andorra or San Marino.

Wouldn’t the Monaco example be an excellent resolution to the current controversy with regard to the Vatican? An honorary consul to the Vatican. As Shane says, one of the cardinals could do it.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Democracy and a referendum on fiscal union in Ireland

Many people understand democracy only in terms of the will and dominance of the majority. However, as was well recognised by Thomas Jefferson and many others, majorities can be just as tyrannical as the worst dictators. That is why the free world operates under a system of constitutional democracy, which has other elements in the mix, like parliamentary representation and a constitution that guarantees the rights, not only of minorities, but of the individual.  
A referendum in Ireland on EU fiscal union will, almost certainly, be bedeviled by euro skeptic campaigners who will be quite happy to condemn the Irish people to all the very significant disadvantages of having to operate, in a globalised marketplace, outside of the membership of a major monetary unit, so long as they can strike a blow against abortion / the end of neutrality / the perceived defects of current government / whatever you're having yourself.  
At the end of the process it will be discovered, yet again, that half or less of those entitled to do so will have actually voted. Therefore the outcome will go to the faction that is best able to mobilise its troops.  
In the referendums on the constitution that were held in the years in the chart at the top, on no less than four occasions the turnout was below 50%. For what it’s worth, at those times a majority of the people was saying, in effect, that it did not want referendums. On no occasion was the turnout greater than 60% and in many cases it just managed to pull above the 50% level. In the 17th amendment referendum, on cabinet confidentiality, the number in favour was 52.6% of those who voted, but this was a mere 23.5% of all registered voters. Significantly less than a quarter of the eligible voters in the state were thus able to have the constitution changed. This was not really a good exercise in democracy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Internet sheriff is coming to town

The Internet is about to be policed. In the USA there are government proposals under the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) to restrain those web sites that allow users to download material that is subject to copyright. In the EU there has been a requirement on all member states to strengthen their copyright legislation in order to bring about the same result. Ireland has implemented this but there was an oversight in the legislation that has to be rectified.

There’s been a lot of protest to these proposed measures, especially in the US, by Internet companies such as Google and Wikipedia as well as by private individuals. A more sinister development has been the “denial of service” attacks that have been made on US government and other agencies connected with the piracy prevention proposals.

When it announced that it was about to enact further legislation to fix the problem in the EU mandated legislation, the Irish government was faced with the outrage of Internet users. In the circumstances this seems like a copycat reaction to the situation that has arisen in the USA, because there wasn’t a murmur from anyone when the original law was passed.

Many opponents of the new moves have characterised them as an attempt to censor the Internet. That allegation needs careful examination in the light of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and the defence, almost to a fault, by the USA courts of this principle. For example, the US Supreme Court has ruled that protests by anti-gay religious fundamentalists at the funerals of soldiers that had been killed in Iraq, which create serious further anguish for the relatives of the dead person and which often include posters saying such things as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, are allowed under the First Amendment provisions.

Internet piracy involves the distribution, over the net, of material such as songs, films or written works without paying the person who created it in the first place. Preventing piracy is an extension of the principle that has allowed authors, performers and producers to make records, CDs, books and films in the knowledge that anyone who tries to rip them off will be prevented from doing so. It’s a vital incentive for people to work at being creative.

The protests have a certain irony. In the past, many performers, especially in the music industry, complained that they were being seriously exploited by the record companies, who are now among the biggest supporters of SOPA et al. Then technology improved to the point where most of them could set up their own recording studios, often at their homes. Now we’ve moved on further, to where additional technological advancement, i.e. the Internet, is facilitating another generation of rip-off merchants.

There is a difference between freedom of expression and the protection of intellectual material. The Internet will have to be policed in order to ensure that copyright law is observed. To attempt to leave it in its current Wild West state is naïve. To refuse to recognise the principle of copyright protection is unfair to the world of creative endeavour. Those who organised and signed petitions against SOPA, and the web sites that blacked themselves out in protest, would be doing a much better job if they put their time into helping create meaningful legislation rather than preventing it altogether. The “denial of service” attackers are bullies and intimidators – their attitude is “do what we want or we’ll prevent you from operating at all”. Even the word they use to describe themselves, “Anonymous”, is indicative of a group that has something to be ashamed of. They must be resisted at all costs.