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Firstly, let’s get this out of the way: am I a feminist? Damn straight I am. By what definition? This one:

There are just two pieces of dogma in my understanding of feminism:

1. Society deals with gender in a way that harms women

2. This is a problem that must be corrected

You’ll notice that they have nothing to do with: men, race, class, liberty, religion, teleology, biology, consumerism, violence, sex, or shoes. This is deliberate.

Next, this picture.


The thing is: maybe they shouldn’t. This is a manifestation of what some researchers call benevolent sexism. It’s characterized by the belief that “women are pure, moral, pedestal-worthy objects of men’s adoration, protection, and provision. People who endorse benevolent sexism feel positively toward women, but only when women conform to highly traditional ideals about “how women should be.” [See this post]

Moreover, “Benevolent sexism motivates chivalrous acts that many women may welcome, such as a man’s offer to lift heavy boxes or install the new computer. While the path to benevolent sexism may be paved with good intentions, it reinforces the assumption that men possess greater competence than women, whom benevolent sexists view as wonderful, but weak and fragile.”

In other words, this could actually be the complete picture.

I’m not saying this is established fact, but it’s very much worth thinking about. Read more here and here.

In any case, please don’t interpret the above as my being against affirmative action for women. In fact, I think placing women in leadership roles (even if they don’t “win” those roles in competition with men) can create very beneficial results for entire societies. This experiment strongly supports that idea.

A British man came to a Sheikh and asked, “Why is it not permissible in Islam for women to shake hands with men?”

The Sheikh said, “Can you shake hands with Queen Elizabeth?”

The British man said, “Of course not, there are only certain people who can shake hands with Queen Elizabeth.”

The Sheikh replied, “Our women are queens and queens do not shake hands with strange men.”

Then the British man asked the Sheikh, “Why do your girls cover up their body and hair?”

The Sheikh smiled and got two sweets; he opened the first one and kept the other one closed. He threw them both on the dusty floor and asked the British man, “If I ask you to take one of the sweets which one will you choose?”

The British man replied, “The covered one.”

The Sheikh said, “That’s how we treat and see our women.”


I really hate this story. I’ll choose to ignore the fact that the analogy uses a consumption good to represent a woman, but does it not strike anyone as offensive that the justification for the dress code for women is provided solely in terms of what men might or might not find desirable? Sweets don’t have opinions, feelings, freedoms or rights; are we to treat women as though they don’t either?

Oh and by the way, apparently Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with all sorts of people, Sheikhs included.


It’s true if you can’t prove it to be false


Sometimes good ideas need to be attached to the words of great individuals before they can be taken seriously. Head over to the page “Memorable Words” for a collection of quotes that I’ve accumulated over the years. You just might like some of the ideas/points of view that they represent.

Apparently, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a revered Shiite cleric and the Supreme Leader of Iran following the Islamic Revolution, made the following prescription for Shiite Muslim men in his book Tahrir al-Wasila:

“A man is not to have sexual intercourse with his wife before she is nine years old; whether regularly or occasionally, but he can have pleasure from her, whether by touching or holding her, or rubbing against her, even if she is as young as an infant… If a man penetrates and deflowers the infant then he should be responsible for her subsistence all her life.”

And no, that was not written some time in the 7th century, but in the 20th.

I came across the quote in an interview of the Lebanese writer Joumana Haddad, who has become renowned (and notorious) for her efforts to bring about gender equality in the conservative Arab world. The quote is included in her book I Killed Scheherazade, which has received favourable reviews from the New York Times, the BBC, and other respectable media organizations.

I have to end this post by being very clear on one thing: I have not been able to find an authoritative online translation of the Tahrir al-Wasila, much less an authoritative version with the quote actually in it. So I can’t even say I’m sure it’s in there. My point however, remains. Religiousness is no substitute for morality.

That’s right, you’re at The Folly of Human Conceits’ new address! This blog was originally at,  but I’m planning to eventually shift it entirely to this site. For now I’ll probably be uploading new posts to both addresses, but uploads to the former address may be delayed and infrequent. So if you’d like to continue reading The Folly of Human Conceits, I’d suggest you come back to this address.


An illustration from the second edition of The Canterbury Tales, printed in 1483

Sometimes the wide range of things that I manage to find interesting surprises even me. Regular readers of this blog – including Batman, Dracula, Cinderella, and several other seriously non-imaginary people – may even realize that the name of the blog was chosen because of my interest in humanity as a whole, and all of the inconsequential little things that humans get up to (Cf. “About this Blog).

For no good reason, I’m currently reading The Norton Anthology of English Literature (“Revised Edition”; but seriously, has that ever induced anyone to buy a second copy of the same book? Would anyone notice if they branded the first printed edition of the book that way? ). I’m barely two hundred pages into the 1900+ page tome, but already I’m having a lot of fun.

Right now, I’m reading The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400). Chaucer’s lively narration shines especially bright in comparison to the grave, dignified prose of Beowulf, which preceded it in the book. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re willing to take Beowulf on its own terms – a mental exercise that mainly entails picturing very big, hairy, well-armed and belligerent Vikings (it was written in the 8th century AD) listening around a roaring fire as one of their elders intones the lines of the poem – it’s a marvelous work. But there’s something much more human about Chaucer’s wit, his impudence, and his use of believable characters.

As an example, I’ve included a few lines in italics below. They’re all from “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, which might be considered as one of the “chapters” of The Canterbury Tales. And in case you didn’t know, the language that Chaucer wrote in wasn’t quite the one of modern English-speakers; it’s now known as Middle English. It came into use after the Norman Conquest of England (1066 AD) and was replaced by Early Modern English mainly in the Elizabethan Era (1558 – 1603), the time of Shakespeare.  Old English – the language in which Beowulf was written – is a bit of a misnomer, because, trust me, it’s nothing like English.

I think you don’t really get the feel of Chaucer’s work unless you read it in his language, so I’ve given the lines first in Middle English, then included a Modern English translation as well. The Canterbury Tales were composed in rhyming couplets and in iambic pentameter; what that means is that generally, each line is supposed to have five stressed syllables, and the endings always rhyme. And without going into any technical details, here’s a quick tip on how to pronounce the words: with a heavily exaggerated Scottish accent. Anyway, give it a shot:

“For hadde God commanded maidenhede,

Thanne hadde he dampned wedding with the deede;

And certes, if there were no seed ysowe,

Virginitee, thane whereof sholde it growe?”

And in Modern English:

“For if God had commanded maidenhood [it means ‘virginity’ here]

Then with that same word had he condemned marrying.

And certainly, if no seed were sown,

From where then should virgins spring?”

And to further translate into vernacular, here’s what those last two lines mean: “God can’t have been that fond of virgins, because where are virgins supposed to come from unless – well, unless people lose their virginity once in a while?” The irony is delicious.

There’s one vital fact that you must keep in mind when considering those lines: they were written at the height of the Catholic Church’s dominion over the Western world. And yet Chaucer had the audacity to use a female character – the eponymous “Wife of Bath” – to poke fun at Christian doctrine, making her unapologetically challenge several commonly held preconceptions about women.

And here’s another pair of lines that would have gained the approval of some Medieval Barney Stinson:

“In womman vinolent is no defence –

This knowen lechours [lechers] by experience”

Here’s a (rough) translation of that: “As every player knows, a drunk chick can’t say no.”

And finally, here’s another part that I really liked:

“Of alle men yblessed mote [may] he be

The wise astrologen [astrologer] daun [master] Ptolemy,

That saith this proverb in his Almageste:

‘Of alle men his wisdom is the hyeste [highest]

That rekketh [cares] nat who hath the world in honde [hand].”

Those lines translate to:

“May he be blessed of all men,

That wise astrologer, Sir Ptolemy,

Who says this proverb in his book Almagest,

‘Of all men, he who never cares who has the world in hand

Has the greatest wisdom.’”

I can’t help but feel that there’s Deep Truth in those last two lines. In fact, they’re going on The Folly of Human Conceits’ “Memorable Words” page.

FoHC now has a new page: “Memorable Words”! The link is under the name of the blog, aligned to the right, in case you can’t find it. It’s just a collection of quotes that I’ve picked up at random intervals over the last few years, and that I found interesting enough to remember (although, no, not always word for word; I had to look one or two of them up again). There’s no categorization by date, author, subject matter, or anything else.

I expect to be adding more memorable lines to the list as and when I come across them, so if you do find the ones up there already to be interesting (or, in other words, to have the property of “interestingness”… Sorry, I still can’t get over the fact that that’s an actual word), you may want to visit the page again every once in a while.

P.S. I tried to come up with a cool name for the page, like the Reader’s Digest’s “Quotable Quotes”. I failed.

DISCLAIMER: I’m pretty sure the law doesn’t allow you to sue me for things that other people said. So try your best to suppress that urge.

The mission badge for the Spirit rover, featuring Marvin the Martian

This image was named "Self-portrait with rock'

Sunrise on Mars. This panoramic image was one of the first to be beamed back to Earth

The Red Planet really is pretty red

Spirit is dying. And, one might say, it’s about time, too. The intrepid little rover’s been exploring the Martian surface since January the 3rd, 2004. It shares the Red Planet’s surface with its twin, Opportunity; but since their landing sites were almost diametrically opposite one another, they probably don’t get into too many fights about who’s on whose side of the planet.

Spirit, which is about the size of a dune buggy, got stuck in a sand trap in May 2009, and since only four of its six wheels remained fully operational by then, it hasn’t been able to extricate itself yet. This leaves the rover in an extremely vulnerable situation, as it’s unable to orient its solar panels to take full advantage of the sun’s energy, or to allow the wind to brush dust off the panels’ surfaces. And now, with the onset of the harsh Martian winter, when even less of the sun’s energy reaches the planet’s surface, Spirit may run out of power completely.

It would be a sad end to what’s been a long and fruitful life of adventuring. Far longer than nearly anyone expected, as a matter of fact. When Spirit and Opportunity were launched, their expected lifetimes were only three months. They’ve both already outlived that estimate by a factor of around 24. They’ve survived paralyzing cold, blinding dust and long periods without sun, all of which occasionally left them silent and still, but only until conditions improved and they shook off the dust, stirred to life and puttered off to do more work.

Don’t you just wish all electronic appliances were that resilient?

The ever-fashionable Korean dictator Kim Jong Il strikes a pose for the paparazzi.

I’ve always maintained that newspapers are relatively boring. I mean, sure, they’re worth looking through if you’re really interested in current affairs, but the great majority of newspaper articles are simply a collection of facts thrown in your face- the writing itself is rarely worth remembering.  I realize that this unemotional presentation of the bare facts is part of how newspapers are supposed to work, but it does take something away from their overall appeal.

News magazines, on the other hand, can often be a whole lot of fun- and none more so than The Economist, if you ask me. (The Economist actually prefers to call itself a newspaper, but it’s really got more in common with news magazines like TIME, Forbes, Businessweek, etc.) Just check out this article to see for yourself that it’s possible to find laugh-out-loud moments in a serious analysis of the news. [It might help if I pointed out right away that the tone is meant to be ironic.]|hig|05-06-2010|editors_highlights

Just in case you don’t get it because you’re not familiar with some of the illustrious (?) personalities mentioned, here’s a quick recap of what might be their greatest claims to fame.

Robert Mugabe: The current Zimbabwean president’s “land reform” efforts, which began in 2000, consisted largely of invading and grabbing farmland belonging to whites and reallocating it to supporters of his regime. These actions caused agricultural production in Zimbabwe to plummet, and to leave a once-self-sustaining nation at the mercy of donations from the World Food Program in order to avoid starvation.

Than Shwe: As leader of the ruling military junta in Myanmar, Than Shwe is partly responsible for keeping opposition leader and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi (who is a woman) under house arrest for fourteen of the past twenty years.

Silvio Berlusconi: Famous for his extramarital sexual exploits. Most recently, in June 2009, he was accused of hiring 42-year-old escort Patricia D’Addario to spend the night with him. Before then, in April 2009, there was outrage over his attendance at an eighteen-year-old girl’s birthday party. His wife noted that he’d missed his own sons’ 18th birthdays. Berlusconi, of course, claimed that he’d never had “spicy” relations with the girl.

One can’t help but feel that it says something about the Italians in general that they’ve allowed this man to become their longest serving Prime Minister.

Mahmoud Ahmedinajad: In the face of economic sanctions, democratic pressures, and outright threats from the rest of the world, the Iranian president has steadfastly stood by his country’s plans of developing civilian nuclear infrastructure. At least, he claims that it’s only for nonmilitary purposes- but not many people are willing to take his word for it. And so the brinkmanship continues, with Western powers continually trying to push Iran further into the corner, and Iran obdurately constructing secret nuclear facilities and keeping out nuclear regulators…

Saddam Hussein: Earns a mention here for his regime’s ‘multiculturalist’ efforts at eradicating the Kurdish people in northern Iraq and silencing Shia religious dissidents throughout the country. Attacks on the Kurds, in particular, made indiscriminate use of chemical weapons such as mustard gas and sarin. An estimated 180,000 Kurds were killed and 1.5 million were displaced during the Ba’ath Party’s rule.

Idi Amin: I actually had to look him up- and I’m glad I did. Idi Amin was the president and military dictator of Uganda between 1971 and 1979. He was famous for his egotistical behaviour, and enjoyed making provocative statements aimed at Western powers. He created and conferred upon himself the title of CBE- Conqueror of the British Empire,  parodying the existing title of Commander of the British Empire, which is granted by the British monarch. The dig about his innovative culinary skills refers to a widespread rumour that among his numerous other eccentricities, he was also a cannibal!

Dick Cheney: As Vice President, he was George W. Bush’s second-in-command, and he probably comes in second on the list of the most despised American political figures of recent times, as well. Alongside his political career, Cheney spent time working in the private sector, and even served as the CEO of a  Fortune 500 corporation called Halliburton between 1995 and 2000.

His ties with Halliburton, which offers services to support oil exploration and drilling, later became the subject of public scrutiny, as allegations arose that the company was receiving preferential treatment in the awarding of oil contracts in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. Cheney was always a fervent supporter of the Iraq War, and it seemed possible to many  that part of the reason for this was that Halliburton stood to make huge gains from such an action.

In July 2003, the Supreme Court ordered a group of oil company executives, including Cheney, to disclose documents relating to oil contracts in Iraq. Cheney refused, stating that the executive branch of the government had the right to keep such documents secret. (It does not.)

Kim Jong Il: Well, just take a look at the picture. And remember that he’s always dressed like that.

Hugo Chavez: He’s immensely popular in his home country, largely because of his programs to support Venezuela’s poor majority. In 2009, he won a nationwide referendum to eliminate term limits for the presidency, essentially making it possible for him to govern indefinitely. Chavez is a staunch opponent of American foreign policy, and has gained international recognition for his vocal (and verbose) tirades against the Americans, and on various other topics.

His Sunday show, Alo Presidente (Hello President), a largely unscripted monologue, often exceeds seven hours, amounting to 54,000 words, or 333,000 characters, about the length of a romance novel. He’s so fond of an audience for his political views that he even recently joined Twitter. Observers are extremely skeptical of his ability to say anything in under 140 characters, though.

Due to atmospheric refraction, the Earth's terminator is a hazy line

Due to atmospheric refraction, the Earth's terminator is a hazy line

No sudden, sharp boundary marks the passage of day into night on planet Earth. Instead, the shadow line or terminator is diffuse and shows the gradual transition to darkness that we experience as twilight. With the Sun illuminating the scene from the right, the cloud tops reflect gently reddened sunlight filtered through the dusty troposphere, the lowest layer of the planet’s atmosphere. A clear high altitude layer, visible along the dayside’s upper edge, scatters blue sunlight and fades into the blackness of space. This picture actually is a single digital photograph taken in June of 2001 from the International Space Station, orbiting at an altitude of 211 nautical miles.

Seen from 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles), Earth appears as a tiny dot.

Seen from 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles), Earth appears as a tiny dot.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance (6 billion km), showing it against the vastness of space. Both the idea for taking the distant photo and the title came from scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan, who also wrote the 1994 book of the same name.

In a commencement address delivered May 11, 1996, Sagan related his thoughts on the deeper meaning of the photograph:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

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.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

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.