How the Woke Cancelled Wumbus

June 1, 2021
Wum is for Wumbus, my high spouting whale who lives high on a hill.

Everyone knows How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

But have you heard How the Woke Cancelled Wumbus?

Among other Seussisms, “A Chinaman who eats with sticks” (from And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street), was recently declared to be offensive.

On March 2nd 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises issued this statement:

Today, on Dr. Seuss’s Birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises celebrates reading and also our mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.

We are committed to action.  To that end, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetIf I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.  These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.

These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

Hmm…

You have to admit though: that Wumbus high on the hill from On Beyond Zebra! looks pretty happy.

Land rights for gay whales anyone?

A Chinaman who eats with sticks… A big magician doing tricks…

No-one uses chopsticks anymore, right?

What about the “big” magician?

Should robust magicians everywhere suddenly be up in arms as they recall their traumatic childhood being force-read Dr Seuss?

In his recent article And then they came for ON BEYOND ZEBRA!, the American linguist John McWhorter said:

The book is not only entertaining but educational, in ways that a linguist like me especially values. It gently gets across the key fact that our letters only approximately reflect the language we actually speak. Note, for example, that there is no way to indicate with an isolated letter, or even a group of letters, the sound of u in put – if you don’t see it in the word itself, no other approximation works: oughooeueugh … see how nothing works? English has 26 letters to about 43 sounds, and Zebra introduces the idea, in its goofy way, that there could theoretically be more letters. 

But now we are to see the book as some kind of controversial contraband, and why? Specifically, on one page a man of no delineated race (and thus we would declare him “white,” I assume) is riding a kind of camel and has a mustache. A building in the background seems like, if anything (which it isn’t) some kind of pagoda. The man has the billowy pantaloons we would associate with an “Arab.”

I understand, formally, the idea that this picture signals that this is a Middle Easterner. However, I cannot be honest with myself and view it as a “stereotype.” In no way does this picture ridicule the man (or the animal), and in fact, the camel is a special kind (called a Spazzim) with elaborate horns that carry assorted objects which if anything make this man a mid-twentieth century homeowner.

SPAZZ is a letter I use to spell Spazzim, a beast who belongs to the Nazzim of Bazzim. Handy for travelling. That’s why he has ‘im.

I don’t know whether Dr. Seuss Enterprises felt pressure from within or without, but the action to which it has committed itself is an example of political correctness having reached dizzying new heights lately as the word woke has become part of our language.

Wokeness speaks to a keen awareness of social and racial injustice. We hear calls to “stay angry, stay woke”. The derivation is from African vernacular meaning that someone was sleeping but now is awake (“I was sleeping but now I’m woke“).

It’s not at all impossible to relate to such an awakening…

But with wokeness has come cancel culture.

Books from Dr. Seuss, along with other classics, are being cancelled.

Now, I lean pretty far left politically and ideologically. I’m a Green voting vegan atheist. I support freedom of speech, expression, and belief.

But it is arguably precisely these things that are under threat by cancel culture!

It reminds me of the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (index of forbidden books), the Nazi book burnings, and Ray Bradbury’s Sci-Fi story Fahrenheit 451.

To be fair, in the case of Dr Seuss, cancelled in practice just means: no longer being sold, not banned, but there are still books being banned, even if only in some countries.

Nevertheless, I think we have to resist a new index of forbidden books, no matter what form it takes.

Besides, if you did want to cultivate such an index, why on earth would you stop with modern classics?

Why not go after writings about (or by?) the vindictive, jealous, zealous god of the Old Testament, to name just one holy book?

Unless you think that burning witches or stoning adulterers or killing children if they’re disrespectful or slavery or drowning most of the world’s population are acceptable acts?

Or that damning people to Hell (New Testament) because they don’t utter the right magic words is okay?

No? Well, out with a bunch of books from the Bible then too!

But what counts as harm? What counts as injustice? What should be done about it?

If you look closely, you’ll notice that cancel culture is thoroughly anthropocentric.

How ordinary. How boring. How 20th century.

Not to diminish the importance of addressing the injustices still being done to people in various parts of the world, but why stop with human injustice? Why not upgrade racism to speciesism?

Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs: they’re no good to eat, you can’t cook ’em like steaks, but they’re handy in crossing small oceans and lakes.

It’s easy to imagine a different group of outraged people applying Seuss book bans for treating other species, even if fictional or outlandish, as things to be used. And I don’t mean Thing One and Thing Two.

Those poor old mistreated Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs. And don’t forget that the Nazzim only has the Spazzim because he’s handy for travelling. Or how about the udder (groan; dad joke) convenience of an Umbus?

UM is for Umbus, a sort of a cow with one head and one tail. But to milk this great cow you need more than one pail.

But Seussisms encourage a playfulness with language. And the corny humour never really gets old.

All Dr Seuss characters are essentially caricatures, including the chinaman with sticks, the Spazzim, and the magician.

There will always be someone to offend in this ultra-individualistic world we’ve created.

We have to stop worrying that something we write or say might be considered offensive to some group of people in the future and instead consider writings in their historical context.

That doesn’t mean that we should set out to hurt, to deliberately offend… Of course we shouldn’t…

And of course, we should stand against harm and injustice.

Obviously…

But what’s next: no Irish jokes? No jokes that start like: a priest, a rabbi, and a buddhist monk walk into a bar…

No question should be forbidden. No topic should be taboo.

Unless you think we’re special in some sense, except to one another, irrespective of any special capabilities we may have.

And yet…

We’re better than those others in some part of the world that is not ours. Right?

We’re smarter and superior to every other species. Right?

Wrong!

We have to reimagine ourselves as being a part of nature, the very nature that we seem so keen to distance ourselves from.

Not separate from nature. Not a special creation.

On this, especially, all holy books are misguided or misinterpreted. Usually both.

We are all biased beyond belief about one thing or another.

We are all flawed in some way.

Not one of us is perfect.

We need less judgement, misdirected anger, self-righteousness certainty, talk of those other people

We need more understanding, thoughtful conversation, tolerance of difference, kindness, forgiveness…

All easier said than done, I know…

Then again…

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

(The Lorax, Dr Seuss)

Possible Nova in Sagittarius

April 6, 2021

Western Australian amateur astronomer Andrew Pearce has discovered a possible nova (PNV J17581670-2914490) in Sagittarius on April 4. At that time its visual magnitude was around 8.8.

Andrew reported in a message to Variable Stars South today that the object has been classified via spectroscopy as a classical nova.

The nova’s visual magnitude is currently around 8 or a little brighter. As always with these objects, it will be interesting to see how bright it gets.

Here is a finder chart suitable for binoculars (something of a challenge at the current brightness in 7x50s):

Rotating this finder chart a bit more than 90 degrees anti-clockwise will roughly match this image from Stellarium at around midnight AEST.

Zooming out gives more positional context:

Further out still shows even more familiar landmarks in Sagittarius and Scorpius.

I have yet to observe or image the nova but hope to do so over the next few days.

EDIT: After writing this I went out and had an initial look at the area. It was after midnight and the nova was in a good position from my backyard. I was just able to glimpse it in 7×50 binoculars but not well enough to make an estimate. So I took a few quick untracked shots of the region from which it appears that it’s probably around magnitude 7.8 (visual) which is consistent with what I glimpsed through binoculars.

I’ll keep an eye on it over the next few nights and hopefully take some better images.

Adelaide Bikeway Fail

March 28, 2021
source: ABC News

ABC News recently reported that the Adelaide City Council (ACC) voted against the installation of a separated bikeway across the CBD after years of deliberations.

The 8-3 vote taken on Tuesday night means the council will miss out on $3 million in State Government funding towards the $5.8 million project. The east-west bikeway would have gone along Franklin Street, Gawler Place and Wakefield Street, connecting with the Frome Street bikeway in the eastern side of the CBD. The State Government funding was contingent on the council approving plans for the project by the end of the month. The tight deadline led to a condensed consultation period last year that upset businesses and the Greek Orthodox community, which has a church and a bingo hall on Franklin Street. Both groups were worried about losing parking spaces.

Sigh.

Worried about losing parking spaces… How about taking a bus or a cab or dropping off a friend or elderly relative?

In an email to subscribers entitled “The Cars That Ate Adelaide”, Bike SA condemned the ACC vote.

To be fair, according to the ABC report, there is some support for a bikeway, but not in the proposed location. Then again, given the length of deliberations so far, how much longer are we likely to have to wait for agreement?

The ABC report goes on to say that ACC celebrated “driver’s month” in November to encourage shoppers back to the CBD post COVID restrictions. Then this:

The council decision came after lawyer Greg Griffin wrote to the council on behalf of businesses opposed to the bike lane.

“Everybody has had enough of this matter continually arising,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide on Tuesday.

“No-one wants this bike lane. It will have a catastrophic effect in terms of businesses on Flinders Street.”

Mr Griffin said the population of Adelaide was primarily suburban, meaning it was “very different” to European cities renowned for their bike paths such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

“Everybody has had enough”? Not me.

“No-one wants the bike lane”!? Obviously false.

“Catastrophic effect”!? Oh please! Seriously?

“Primarily suburban”? Why then do we need so many cars in the Adelaide CBD if we’re all so suburban?

This kind of talk is a kick in the guts for those of us who want to ride a bike to work and get there safely, while reducing emissions.

We need more traffic in the Adelaide CBD like each of us needs a hole in the head.

I ride an electric bike to work three or four times per week at the moment. I get two or three 22km round trips from a single charge. There’s no discernible impact on our (solar powered) electricity bill and bugger all emissions from this activity.

I tend to steer clear of the CBD when riding but the proposed bikeway would have improved safety and made me more inclined to choose such a route sometimes.

My current route is quite traffic-heavy and judging by the lack of riders in the bike lane with me, I’m one of the few people apparently stupid enough to make the regular commute on that particular route.

Adelaide’s bike infrastructure is woefully inadequate with bike lanes stopping and starting (spatially and temporally) with sickening frequency, making commuting cyclists second class citizens.

Maybe we should (one day when that’s possible again) move to a country that actually gives a shit about safe cycling and lowering emissions and something other than car culture.

A “Helpful Guide” to the Afterlife from a Church Pamphlet

March 20, 2021
Photo by Emre Can on Pexels.com

It may be that Jesus never lived and so, never died. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day. We do know at least from the Jewish historian Josephus, that would-be messiahs and crucifixions were common around the time Jesus is said to have lived.

But let’s just suppose there was a historical Jesus, as described in the gospels. Was his death temporary? Did he rise 3 days later? What implications does this have for mammals like us?

35 years ago, when I was a Christian, although I hoped for an afterlife, I focused more on the death of Jesus, the atonement for the sins of the world through his blood sacrifice. But of course the other key piece is the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. Together, these seem to be the core of the Christian message, at least if you are a salvation by faith rather than a salvation by works kind of Christian.

We recently received a little pamphlet in our letterbox from a local Adelaide Baptist church entitled The Empty Tomb.

We’re approaching Easter 2021 so that’s not too surprising.

In my “Questionable Church Signs” posts I obscure any reference to the church to which a sign belongs. The Empty Tomb pamphlet includes the URL for the website, but I won’t include it here.

The Empty Tomb tells the story of the early life of Jesus, his baptism, miracles, downfall, crucifixion and resurrection.

After describing the horror of the crucifixion, it declares:

Just before He died, Jesus shouted… “IT IS FINISHED”.

The penalty for the sins of all mankind had been paid in full.

Now anyone could be saved by putting their faith in Jesus Christ.

All fairly standard salvation by faith stuff.

On the next page after the resurrection, we have:

HE IS RISEN!

Jesus DEFEATED Satan, and conquered death and hell.

At this point I could be excused for expecting a land of unicorns, rainbows and butterflies

But, then the pamphlet confronts me with…

All who accept Christ will live with God forever in heaven.

and, inevitably, and with “lovely” pictures…

Those who reject Jesus will burn forever in a lake of fire.

…which I take to mean Hell. Finally, we have…

Someday you will bow before God.

Who will YOU serve?

Jesus ChristSatan

So, no other options then?

Just the two?

Hmm. Wait a sec…

Is atonement really for everyone? Have our sins been paid for in full? Or, is this conditional upon uttering some magic words like “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour”?

Not completely clear from this particular user manual.

Were Satan and Hell actually defeated? Not really, if it’s possible to burn in Hell or to serve Satan (or bizarrely somehow, both at the same time). Was that always possible, and now only optional because of what Jesus did?

The logical contradictions and gaps in reasoning in The Empty Tomb abound.

But worse than that is the ease with which The Other is condemned. Those who do not believe as “we” do.

That is very dangerous thinking.

Hitch would have declared this an example of how religion poisons everything. It’s easy to see why.

What role do liberal-minded Christians have in countering this kind of thinking? Similarly, what role do liberal-minded Muslims have in countering Jihad and other Islamist (“must convert the infidel”) thinking?

I can’t speak for the faithful although I am always happy to converse with them or anyone, to try to find common ground, and to agree to disagree otherwise.

That’s really the only way forward, isn’t it?

However, I also see it as a kind of duty to expose and counter harmful nonsense, such as is promoted in The Empty Tomb pamphlet.

Life is short and we are not at the centre of things. And, our species is in desperate need of growing up.

My concern with religion is that it allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.

Sam Harris

Voluntary Assisted Dying in South Australia

March 10, 2021
Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) legislation is being discussed starting from March 17 in the South Australian parliament.

A little more than a year ago, my dad expressed a wish to die every day I was with him for the last week of his life. He was living in Tasmania. While there are amendments to be accepted, VAD legislation is now on the way to being passed there.

I recently took part in a discussion of VAD in South Australia at the Blackwood Uniting Church, a special meeting of the monthly philosophy group, supported by a well thought out presentation by a palliative care doctor. The consensus seemed to be support for VAD.

A cursory glance through my blog will show that I don’t believe in gods of any sort. One problem with religion in general is that it encourages people to pretend to know things they can’t possibly know, and potentially (and this is the crucial bit) base important life decisions on such belief. I’ve written elsewhere about what counts as good belief.

With respect to Christianity at least, the more liberal the denomination, the less salvation by faith thinking there is, and the more emphasis on living a good and caring life due to some notion of (a God of) love there usually is. Of course, you don’t need religion for that.

Especially given that there was a “Non-Christian but I wish to support the Group” option, I was encouraged to sign up on the Christians In Support of VAD website after the philosophy group discussion.

The more names on petitions and lists in favour of choosing a “good death”, the better.

Speaking of which, here’s one such (secular) petition. I signed that too.

Try to enjoy life now. There’s a very good chance that this is the only one you’ll get. And if your end of life scenario sucks, remember: it’s your life, not some imaginary sky fairy’s. You should get to choose, in consultation with those you care about.

Whatever you believe, the fact is that each of us was born into a life that none of us asked for.

You can choose to consider life as a gift, or to simply accept the fact of existence and embrace it. Or both, if you like.

We were not alive for 14 billion years (give or take), and we won’t be alive for even longer while the heat death of the universe plays out over trillions of years.

But we should, where possible, have some say in the manner, time, and place of our exit from life.

Anyway, let’s hope that VAD legislation is passed in SA.

On Food Choices: clandestine caged eggs

February 6, 2021

According to the current RSPCA frequently asked questions, there are 16 million layer hens in Australia, 9 million of which are still in battery cages.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

This means that 7 million hens are not in cages, but are free range (which has a broad definition), in barns, or pastured.

The numbers may be +/- 1 million or so different, depending upon which year you look.

These days consumers have a great deal of choice when purchasing a carton of eggs.

But if there are more hens in cages in Australia than in other systems, and we are seeing a decline in caged eggs on supermarket shelves, an obvious question arises: where are all the caged eggs going?

The answer? Into processed food products (e.g. baked goods) and into the hospitality industry (cafes, restaurants). Here’s what the RSPCA had to say in 2018:

An estimated eight in 10 eggs used in food service and manufacturing are cage eggs. But this is changing with many of Australia’s biggest and best-known brands responding to the expectations of their customers by ending the use or sale of cage eggs in their businesses, in favour of cage-free.

Why cage free will help end the battery cage (RSPCA)

Similar comments were made in a 2020 RSPCA podcast (see also below). So, although there is change, if you read the ingredients list on a packet and it says that it contains eggs, there’s a good chance this came from a caged hen. Likewise, if you eat out, and there is no information to the contrary, your smashed avo with egg on toast may also have come from a caged hen.

As an important aside, the RSPCA also says that in commercial systems, a hen lives for around 72 weeks before it is considered “spent” and euthanised on the farm by carbon dioxide gassing or sent to slaughter to be used for lower-quality products such as soups, stocks or pet food. Then there is the problem of male chicks that are considered a waste product to the industry and killed after hatching, since they are not of the right breed for the meat industry. Recent Australian gene technology may, if adopted by industry, be able to identify gender early, before hatching.

The ACT has already banned the caged egg system. An episode in season 2 of the RSPCA’s Humane Food podcast (the name of which is arguably a contradiction) mentioned that later this year the Australian parliament will consider a ban on caged hens. Let’s hope this comes into effect. Of course, that still leaves the rest of the industry in place, but as Christopher Hitchens might have said: it’s progress of a kind.

Baptism of Death

February 6, 2021

The BBC reported on the death of an infant (Feb 1 2021) after a dunking baptism in the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The baby had a cardiac arrest after he was immersed three times in holy water. He had a violent death and liquid was found in his lungs, an autopsy found. A manslaughter inquiry has been opened by prosecutors into the priest who carried out the baptism in the north-eastern city of Suceava.

BBC
source

The report goes on to say that: “If the baby’s death leads to reform in the way baptism rituals are carried out then it would cause a rift within Romania’s Orthodox Church.”

Really? Is that the main concern here? Sure, oh, good: a schism leading to yet another warring Christian faction disagreeing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin…

The bottom line is that baby died because of stupid archaic beliefs about the necessity of ceremonial particulars.

While some, such as the Archbishop of Arges, may be open to change, others are not so inclined:

Eminence Calinic, the Archbishop of Arges, is the most prominent voice so far who appears open to change. “In other icons, Jesus stands in the water up to his neck, and with his head bowed he receives baptism by pouring water over the top of his head,” he was quoted as saying.

The Archbishop of Tomis, however, took a more belligerent stance. “We will never change the ritual. The canons of this religion have been in place for over 1,000 years,” he said. “That is why we won’t change. We are not intimidated.”

Romania’s powerful Orthodox Church is not known for reform, but this baptism tragedy may lead to change.

BBC

Sometimes I really just don’t know what more to say…

My concern with religion is that it allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.

Sam Harris

Questionable church signs #4

January 17, 2021

I took this quick photo of a church sign from a distance on the way to the train, after a nice afternoon on the beach with my wife. The name is obscured to protect the innocent, so to speak, as usual.

Trust Him. Trust Him?

If 2020 is anything to go by, I’m inclined to place my bets elsewhere. A pandemic, major bush fires, earth quakes, untold suffering, personal loss…

The implication of this church sign is that God knows what’s coming. This makes Him all-seeing. Is He powerless to change the future? If so, He is not all-powerful, in which case He should consider a line of work other than Universe building.

Or did He plan to create a future in which there is suffering. If so, He is not all-good.

There are those Christians who will say that the suffering we see in the world is because of our rebellion against God. If God incarnate, in the person of Jesus Christ, died for the sins of all, and rebellion against God is a sin, then shouldn’t that be forgiven too, rather than God heaping more woes upon humanity?

Yes, I know… Jesus died for our sins and “all we have to do” is believe in Him to have eternal life.

What if we don’t want eternal life?

And forgiveness: don’t we get that whether we ask for it or not because of what Jesus did at Calvary?

Others will say that there is a Grand Cosmic Plan that we just don’t understand.

Either way, God gets all the kudos and we are still left with the puzzle. Adding “God” to a sentence does not contribute to an explanation.

I do understand the desire to believe that there’s a plan, that all the bad things that happen somehow make sense. Especially when we lose those we care about.

But perhaps we should follow William of Ockham’s advice and not multiply entities needlessly. It all just seems too complex, too arbitrary. It has all the hallmarks of being man-made.

In any case, I much prefer questions that do not yet (and may never) have answers over answers that cannot be questioned.

The sign is right about one thing though: 2021? who knows? It should have stopped there.

Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Picture of mum at 2 years old and the world of 1930

January 3, 2021

Karen was looking through family history documents recently and came across this photo of my Mum at 2 years, 2 months old in 1930 with her parents Alma and Jim Melville.

My mother, Lorna Jean Benn (nee Melville) at 2 years, 2 months of age.

Other than being a beautiful photograph, what struck me was what a very different time it must have been.

The back of the postcard on which Mum’s picture appears.

I was initially planning to stop there. Being on holidays and in a contemplative mood, I began wondering what was going on in 1930, 2 years after the discovery of penicillin, 11 years after the end of the Spanish Flu, between two world wars, at the start of the decade which saw the rise of nationalism.

Thinking about the history of computing, this was the year of Christopher Morcom’s death, the young man who was so important to Alan Turing, and six years before Turing’s historic paper On Computable Numbers. In 1930, an analog computer capable of solving differential equations was created in the US by Vannevar Bush and a simple binary counter was built in the UK by C.E. Wynn-Williams. John Vincent Atanasoff completed his PhD before inventing the world’s first electronic digital computer in the late 30s. The influential Dutch computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra was also born in 1930.

Moving from computing to space and science history, American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Pete Conrad were all born in 1930, as was Frank Drake, American radio astronomer and SETI pioneer. The process by which ozone is replenished in the upper atmosphere was explained by Sydney Chapman in that year, Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, Neoprene was invented by DuPont corporation, the diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis vaccine was first used and the particle later identified as the electron neutrino was postulated by Wolfgang Pauli.

While 1930 was a very different time from 2021 in many ways, there were historical events unfolding when my mother was just a small child that have shaped our world in important ways, bringing her time and mine a little closer in a strangely comforting way.

Jupiter and Saturn on Dec 23

December 23, 2020
Canon 1100D with Meade LX-90 8″ scope, ISO 6400, 1/15 second at 21:51 ACDT (click image to enlarge)

The two planets are slowly separating, tonight to 13 minutes of arc, around one fifth of a degree, up from 6.5 minutes of arc on Monday night.

My main goal tonight was to share the view with Karen, who worked the previous two nights, before Jupiter and Saturn are no longer in the same low power field of view. She enjoyed it.

I didn’t have a lot of time for set up and imaging tonight, but wanted to take an image that emphasised the planets themselves rather than their moons. The focus is not great, and Jupiter is still overexposed, but I like the fact that Saturn’s ring and the planet are distinct here.

The good news is that I have my Meade LX90’s AutoStar back from repair now, and it works well! This will encourage me to start doing tracked, piggy-backed, wide-field photometry again. It’s been awhile.