Conversations: Moderates and Morality

Even if a belief in God had a reliable, positive effect upon human behaviour, this would not offer a reason to believe in God. One can believe in God only if one thinks that God actually exists.

Good point. Even if atheism led straight to moral chaos, this would not suggest that the doctrine of Christianity is true. Islam might be true, in that case. Or all religions might function like placebos. As descriptions of the universe, they could be utterly false but, nevertheless, useful. The evidence suggests, however, that they are not only false but dangerous.

Slow down! Most Christians, Jews, Muslims, et cetera, cannot be categorized as fundamentalists. In fact, when talking about the good consequences that religious beliefs have on human morality, most people of faith follow the example of religious liberals and religious moderates. Consider Christians the world over, rather than say that they believe in God because certain biblical prophecies have come true, or because the miracles recounted in the Gospels are convincing, liberals and moderates tend to talk in terms of the good consequences of believing as they do. Such believers often say that they believe in God because this “gives their lives meaning.” Continue reading

Unless you are the Mongols

The Mongols are a civilization that are known for being the exception to many historical phenomena.[1] Listed below are some of the most important of those exceptions in a generalised form:

  • Nomads: The downside is that you have to move around a lot because your herd always needs new grass, which makes it hard to build cities, unless you are the Mongols.
  • Civilization: Certain conglomerations of humans are seen as civilizations, where as, say nomadic cultures generally aren’t. Unless you are, say it with me, the Mongols.
  • Early Cities: The city-state period in Mesopotamia ended around 2000 BCE, probably because drought and a shift in the course of rivers led to pastoral nomads coming in and conquering the environmentally weakened cities, and then the nomads settled into cities of their own as nomads almost always will, unless, wait for it, you are the Mongols.
  • Persian Empire: Let’s start with the Persian empire, which became the model for pretty much all land-based empires throughout the world. Except for, wait for it, the Mongols.
  • Silk Road: […] with the growth of the Silk Road, the nomadic people of Central Asia suddenly become much more important to world history. Much of Central Asia isn’t great for agriculture, but it’s difficult to conquer, unless you are, wait for it, the Mongols.

“A tiger wearing a bell will starve.” – Mongolian proverb

  • Early Christianity: Both Herods ultimately took their orders from the Romans, and they both show up on the list of rulers who are oppressive to the Jews, partly because there’s never that much religious freedom in an empire, unless you are, wait for it, the Mongols… or the Persians.
  • Early Islam: It’s common to hear that in these early years Islam quote “spread by the sword”, and that’s partly true, unless you are — wait for it — the Mongols.[2]
  • Dark Ages: [The Abbasids] hailed from the Eastern, and therefore more Persian, provinces of the Islamic Empire. The Abbasids took over in 750 and no one could fully defeat them; until 1258, when they were conquered by, wait for it, the Mongols.
  • Islam in Africa: Until then, most of the people living in the East had been hunter-gatherers or herders, but once introduced, agriculture took hold, as it almost always does. Unless, wait for it, you’re the Mongols.
  • Imperialism: So by the end of the 19th century, most of Africa and much of Asia had been colonized by European powers. […] Notable exceptions include Japan, which was happily pursuing its own imperialism, Thailand, Iran, and of course Afghanistan. Because no one can conquer Afghanistan, unless you are, wait for it, the Mongols.
  • World War II: So, not to sound jingoistic, but the entry of the U.S. into the war really did change everything, although I doubt the Nazis could’ve taken Russia regardless. No one conquers Russia in the wintertime, unless you are, wait for it, the Mongols.

“A donkey that carries me is worth more than a horse that kicks me.” – Mongolian proverb

[1] Green. J. (2012) Crash Course World History

[2] Actually, as usual, the truth is more complicated. Many people, including the Mongols, but also including lots of people in Central and East Asia, embraced Islam without any military campaigns.

Tantric Sex‏

Tantra involves a slow, sustained form of sexual intercourse founded on Indian mysticism; particularly, an esoteric current of Hinduism.

Prince and lady on terrace at night

Contemporary picture of an Indian prince and lady on terrace at night

The word Tantra also applies to any of the scriptures (called Tantras) commonly identified with the worship of Shakti, a divine representative of female energy. Tantra deals primarily with spiritual practices and ritual forms of worship, which aim at liberation from ignorance and rebirth.

Tantrism originated in the early centuries of the first millennium and developed into a fully articulated tradition by the end of the Gupta period (320 to 550 CE). It has influenced the Hindu, Sikh, Bön, Buddhist, and Jain religious traditions.

As tantric practice became known in western culture—a development that started at the end of the 18th century, and that has escalated since the 1960s—it has become identified with its sexual methods. Consequently, its essential nature as a spiritual practice is often overlooked.

Tantric sexual methods may be practised solo, in partnership, or in the sacred rituals of groups. The specifics of these methods are often kept secret, and passed from practitioners to students in an oral tradition.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, tantric sexual practice (Sanskrit: Maithuna; Tibetan:Yab-Yum) is one aspect of the last stage of the initiate’s spiritual path, where he or she, having already realised the void of all things, attains enlightenment and perpetual bliss.

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The Tsar’s Finger

It’s 1841, and Russia is attempting one of its great leaps forward to catch up with the rest of Europe. Railways are all the rage out west. So the Empire would like to lay some track of its own . There’s more than prestige at stake: the new transport technology might just be what the vast, badly connected country needs.

The Transsiberian Railway will form the backbone of Russian, and later Soviet dominance in northern Asia, connecting Moscow with the Pacific port of Vladivostok. It will be inaugurated in 1890 by Tsar Alexander II, and completed in 1916, on the eve of the Russian Revolution.

But at this point, the project seems at a standstill. There’s only one single stretch of railtrack in the entire country: the line connecting the Imperial capital of St Petersburg with Tsarskoye Selo, the Imperial summer residence 15 miles further south.

1884 map of the railtrack between St Petersburg and Moscow

Tsar Nicholas I’s glorious vision – a railway connecting St Petersburg with the Empire’s second city, Moscow – is held back by the bickering of engineers. Unable to agree on the best route of the future railway line, they test the patience of the Russian autocrat until it snaps. In exasperation, Nicholas snatches the map from the dithering technicians, grabs a ruler and draws a straight line between both cities:

Gentlemen, there’s your route!

In Imperial Russia, the Tsar’s will is the law. So his engineers have no choice but to lay down the tracks exactly as he has determined: in a straight line. Except for one curious deviation. Near Verebye, the straight track is abandoned for a semicircular deviation known officially as the Verebinsky Bypass.

The anomaly is also known as the Tsar’s Finger, because the story goes that Nicholas I stuck out a finger over the ruler, and in his furious impatience, simply drew around it. Since nobody dares to correct a Tsar, especially not an angry one, the railway was built exactly like Nicholas had demanded, bypass included.

Even if you don’t read Russian, you won’t need long to locate Verebye on this 1884 map of what then was known as the Nikolayevskaya Zheleznaya Doroga (‘Nicolas’s Iron Road’). It’s that little nick in the line just northeast of Novgorod (the only large city on this section of the map). Looking at this map, it’s easy to believe the story of the Tsar’s Finger. Unfortunately, it’s too good to be true: the Moscow-St Petersburg Railway was completed in 1851, four years before Nicholas died of pneumonia. The curve in the otherwise remarkably (but not entirely) straight railway line wasn’t built until 1877.

The line took 9 years to complete, and required the building of 184 bridges (one across the Volga). In 1923, the railway was renamed from Nikolayevskaya to Oktyabrskaya, to honour the October Revolution of 1917. Since 2009, the new high-speed Sapsan trains have reduced the travel time between Moscow and St Petersburg to 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Close-up of the track at at Verebye known as the Tsar’s finger

The bypass fixed a problem plaguing the line since its opening. Nowhere else was the gradient of the railway as steep as at Verebye. Trains coming from St Petersburg rushed down the incline at such a speed that they couldn’t stop at the next station; trains coming from the other direction needed four locomotives to make the climb. By constructing a curve that gradually overcame the height difference, the problem was overcome.

The Tsar’s Finger was in use for almost 125 years; advances in locomotive technology had long since rendered the detour unnecessary before the track was restored to its original, straight course in 2001. The trip between Moscow and St Petersburg was shortened by 3 miles, to 404 miles.

While there is no literal truth in the story ‘explaining’ the Verebinsky Bypass, like many other urban legends, it resonates with out perception of the subject. In this case, the relationship between Russia and its ruler – pun intended. From the Tsars through Stalin to Putin, Russia is eternally in need of a strong leader, who can bash heads together and get things done. Without these strongmen, Russia is condemned to bureaucratic dithering, counterrevolution, or capitalist chaos – respectively.


The Levant is a geographic and cultural term referring to the region of the eastern Mediterranean littoral (the part of the sea closest to the shore) between Anatolia and Egypt.

English: This map shows the location and exten...

The Fertile Crescent

The Levant includes most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and sometimes parts of Cyprus, Turkey and Iraq, and corresponds roughly to the historic area of Greater Syria; however, precise definitions have varied.

The Levant has been described as the crossroads of western Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and north-east Africa.

The Levant or Terra Sancta encompasses the middle section of the old Fertile Crescent.

Dutch Monkey

The proboscis monkey or long-nosed monkey, known as the Bekantan in Malay, is a reddish-brown arboreal Old World monkey that is endemic to the south-east Asian island of Borneo.

Proboscis Monkey (Brunei) Nasalis larvatus

Proboscis Monkey or Nasalis Larvatus

It belongs in the monotypic ironically named genus Nasalis.

The monkey also goes by the Malay name monyet belanda meaning Dutch monkey, or even orang belanda literally meaning Dutchman, as Indonesians remarked that the Dutch colonisers often had a similarly large overfed looking pot-belly and big red drinking nose.

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Umami [Noun.]

A category of taste in food (besides sweet, sour, salt and bitter), corresponding to the flavour of glutamates, especially monosodium glutamate

Umami is the most recently accepted taste in food and is popularly referred to as savoriness. It was first recognised as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates (a non-essential amino acid) at the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii in 1985. Umami can be described as a pleasant long-lasting savoury taste that often triggers a mouthwatering sensation of the tongue.

The word umami is a loan translation from the Japanese umami which literally translates into ‘delicious’ (umai) and ‘taste’ (mi). There is no proper translation for the word itself, which is why umami remains umami in all major languages.

The Japanese origins of the word can be attributed to the scientist Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of the Tokyo Imperial University, who discovered that glutamates caused the palatability of the broth of a certain seaweed. Because the taste of the broth was none of the four basic tastes, he called it umami.

East Asian cuisine uses a wide variety of food combinations that strengthen the umami taste. An example of this is the considerable Chinese usage of the monosodium glutamate ve-tsin, a flavour enhancer.

A possible but not yet accepted sixth taste is piquance, popularly called hotness or spiciness, although there is a certain linguistic ambiguity to the latter two; something can both hot (out of the oven) and spicy (containing a lot of spices) but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is piquant. The Scoville scale measures the piquance of chili peppers, more specifically the amount of capsaicin they contain.

27/viii mmx

Which South American country has the highest cable car system in the world?
– Venezuela

What is the population of Sri Lanka?
– 20,000,000

In which English county is the town ‘Cerne Abbas’, famous for its chalk giant?
– Dorset

What is the capital city of Peru?
– Lima

Kathmandu is the capital city of which Asian country?
– Nepal