Review: Magic in the Middle Ages

Magic in the Middle Ages is a Coursera course offered by theĀ Universitat de Barcelona. It is actually the fifth course from Coursera that I have done and the third one done purely for my own interest. I was initially quite excited because of the topic but, since completing it, I have lost a fair bit of enthusiasm. That’s not to say that it is entirely without merit but I think that, currently, it is not taking advantage of the format and could be aimed better for a Coursera audience.

The course aims to teach students about magic in the middle ages, this includes how magic was perceived, different magical practices and the treatment of magic in both Christianity and Islam. As with most of these courses, it primarily consists of a series of short video lectures followed by a multiple choice quiz each week. There are also two short essays in this course which are judged by your peers. Continue reading

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My Viennese library

It’s not nearly as impressive as what I had back in Cape Town (Books were too big and heavy to take with me.) but it’s slowly growing.

My Viennese library

My Viennese library

I got I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier for free! During the introductory talk by the campus librarian, he gave us a short challenge to complete and the person that found the answer first would get a book. (In the end I believe he actually gave away two books because the replies were so close together.) It was just a simple task to look up the number that specified where the book could be found in the library. The library, and a nearby research lab, is named after Max Perutz, who was born in Austria, making the book a suitable prize.

I only got Faith Vs Fact a few days ago but I’m quite excited. It was actually almost 3 weeks later than Amazon originally promised but I’ll try to forgive them for that. It’s Jerry Coyne’s latest book after Why Evolution Is True. It, obviously, deals with the methodological incompatibility of science and religion. Someone can be both religious and a scientist but that doesn’t mean the ideas are compatible. There are also, for example, judges that take bribes; but that doesn’t mean that that’s compatible with being a judge. Since I’ve been reading his blog (He insists it’s not a blog.) for years and other pieces on the topic, I doubt there will be much new. Still, it should be interesting and it’s nice to have everything succinctly put together.

Quicklinks: Animals and religion

You might recall that, last year, I spoke about some free on-line educational tools I was dabbling with. I now want to recommend that anyone who has some sort of contact with animals, whether through work, having a pet or just eating meat, take the Animal Behaviour and Welfare course offered by The University of Edinburgh. I found it to be very engaging and an excellent introduction into a subject which affects most of us. It’s a welfare approach so sometimes it has its flaws, seeking to maximise welfare when one might rather stop the practice altogether, but it is science-based and doesn’t push a specific view. For example, they mention that cats kept indoors will be safer and have medical care but have welfare concerns about boredom and lack of choice. Stray animals benefit from free choices but have welfare challenges like being attacked by humans. In addition, there is a lot of extra information available. I didn’t have the time to go through it all but aside from the standard lectures there are extra recorded interviews and Google Hangouts as well as links to books and scientific articles which could be of interest.

At the end of last year, I stopped following Pharyngula, which had been one of my original inspirations for blogging, because I no longer considered PZ Myers to be a good model for rational thought. I felt kinda satisfied to now read that Atheist Ireland has (more symbolically than anything else) publicly dissociated from him. Their complaint is largely based on his “hurtful and dehumanising, hateful and violent, unjust and defamatory rhetoric.” It’s hard to fault them there. He always was less polite than many other writers but there are times when that can be justified and other times when it’s extraneous. His usage was mostly belonged to the latter category.

Lastly, a member of Mensa South Africa posted a link to this infographic on the group’s Facebook feed. It lists 439 topics where Bible verses contradict one another. In places it will no doubt be argued that it’s just semantics and interpretation but others are clear-cut contradictions. For example, regarding the death of Judas, Matthew 27:5 says:

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

While Acts 1:18 says:

With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.

If not free speech then what?

Free speech is absolutely vital for the sort of society in which I wish to live. I want a society where ideas can be freely exchanged, where they are judged on their merits alone and not on who supports or derides them. If we do not have freedom of speech then there can not even be debate on any other issue. This is something I’ve tried to defend throughout the history of this blog, whether it was calling out France for outlawing opinions, the UK for arresting people for harmlessly expressing their views or just arguing against offence being something we should be protected from. Now I need to do it again. Continue reading

Quicklinks

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted but that’s been due a particular busy time with me returning to Vienna, needing to find a place to live, starting the PhD course and, with terrible timing, falling sick. All that has left little time or energy to blog but I’ve had a breather today and will toss out a couple of links.

One of the biggest stories while I’ve been inactive was the Charlie Hebdo attack and later supermarket hostage drama. To do something different I’ve decided to post two links about positive Muslim activities regarding the attacks. Malian Muslim Lassana Bathily, who worked at the Jewish supermarket that was attacked, hid six people in the freezers during the hostage situation as well as escaping the building to inform police what was happening inside. Last I heard there was talk of awarding him French citizenship for his bravery. On imgur there is a collection of heartening cartoons from Arab newspapers expressing support for Charlie Hebdo.

In less heartening news there is an example of sexism from a Jewish newspaper that Photoshopped all the women out of a Charlie Hebdo rally photo. In Ireland we have the simultaneously depressing and funny “Sounds of Sodomy” sitation.

And, just so we don’t end on a low note, here is a collection of animals that are benefiting from prosthetics.

Quicklinks: Animals, animals and torture

Here’s a rather nice story about a dog who was born with deformed legs that can now run on 3D-printed legs. I can see all sorts of great things from that technology in the future.

While the US recently declared that a chimpanzee can not be considered a legal person and so not gain various rights that would come with, a court in Argentina has declared that an orangutan can have a legal right to freedom. This is similar to India’s decision last year to recognise dolphins as non-human persons.

A recent poll in the US confirmed an earlier poll result the more religious a person is, the more likely they are to support torture. Those with no religion was the only group where more than half of respondents were opposed to the CIA’s use of torture. Interesting when considering whether religion is a source of morality or not.

Quicklinks: Following up Islam and vegetarianism

About two months ago, I submitted a post about the open mosque in Cape Town that included a short bit on how the idea of takfir can make Islamic conflicts worse, specifically with regard to ISIS (or ISIL or IS or whatever it calls itself these days). There’s a guest post on The Friendly Atheist that addresses the same point but taking a slightly different angle, saying that when some Muslim groups say ISIS is not Islamic they are not necessarily saying they are not Muslims. I doubt either perspective is completely correct but I should at least share the information.

Going further back, to last December, I described my experiences at a writer’s workshop, including my dismay at recent trends showing an increase in global meat consumption. This dismay is now reinforced by a recent article in The Guardian (found via io9) which summarises a report showing that to avoid climate change it is necessary to reduce the global consumption of meat. It’s not just a minor issue.

The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, but a worldwide survey by Ipsos MORI in the report finds twice as many people think transport is the bigger contributor to global warming.

It’s pointless getting an electric car or cycling to work without reducing meat consumption because you’ll be directing attention at the wrong problem. It’s like telling people to be careful because candles are a fire hazard but staying silent about a trend for indoor bonfires! Even when people do say or do something, the reaction to suggestions that meat consumption needs to be reduced are negative.

For example, see this discussion about the push back against meatless Mondays. Not only the objections often completely misguided but when you see complaints about how meatless Monday or stricter emissions standards are bad for the economy you know that that person has a completely short-sighted view of the world. Are short-term economics really going to take priority over long-term survival?