Monthly Archives: November 2009

Dream Theater are almost upon us!

It’s been a long time. I would say between drinks but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate because when the great New York-based progressive rock legends Dream Theater arrive next week they will perform their first show on Kiwi soil.

I waited a long time to see them – I have been a huge fan since 1994 when the opening drums of the song “6:00” hit my ears. The wait ended when I saw DT live in 2007 at Wembley Arena and then a month later at the Wolverhampton Civic Theatre. What an awesome show the guys powered out during the Chaos in Motion tour. Systematic Chaos is an awesome album and translated well into the live sets. They played a lot from their extensive back catalogue and this tour promises to be an even more eclectic mix of their classics. Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci has promised Kiwi fans a trip back through the archives, since this will be our first experience of their instrumental madness.

To top it off, as any mad fan would, I’m off to Sydney to see them 5 days later. It should be a somewhat different show – the Sydney venue has been described as “a big shed” while the Civic in Auckland is an old and classy little theatre utilised more as place for plays. Whatever the case, DT are the sort of band you can thrash to (in the places where they’re not in some exotic time signature like 7/4 or 5/8) while also a spectacle to watch from the comfort of a theatre seat. Every Kiwi fan is now in a perpetual state of high anticipation. John Petrucci himself says there is electricity in the air at the thought of playing their first show in New Zealand. A full report will follow both shows.

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Carl Sagan: The Most Inspirational Voice of Our Time

the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

-Carl Sagan, Cosmos

November the 9th was the great Carl Sagan’s birthday – he would have been 75. His death in 1996 has been a great loss to the scientific community and to humanity. His message still lives on today in his many works, but particularly in his magnum opus – the wildly successful and unmatched Cosmos television series. Though it was broadcast to the world in 1980, its message – the grandeur of nature and the evolution of the cosmos still carries significance. It is an enduring message; that we are ways the universe can know itself.

In Cosmos, Sagan guides us on a personal journey from the beginning of time to the planets and beyond. All of science is unified into one seamless story of nature and the special effects allow us to catch a ride and be part of the poetic cosmic story Sagan weaves for us.

What is immediately striking when watching or listening to Carl Sagan is his passion for the cosmos and the science that has revealed it to us. He had a multi-faceted personality. That is why he is what such a great scientist – at once speculative about what might be, yet reflective and skeptical at the same time. Here was a man who knew that nurturing our innate curiosity is of the utmost importance. To Sagan, there were no stupid questions, for questions are the portals to knowledge and understanding.

His approach can be summed up in the following quote, from the opening stanza of Cosmos:

We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.

Sagan wove great tales about the cosmos because he could tap into the core of the human experience of the infinite. Cosmos was not a story of separation, man vs universe, no, Cosmos is tale based on the human species coming to the realisation that “the cosmos is also within us, we are made of star stuff. We are ways the cosmos can know itself”. This was perhaps the most life affirming aspect of Sagan’s work. We are all connected. In the first stanza of Cosmos, Sagan continues:

The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite inter-relationships of the awesome machinary of nature… some part of our being knows this is where we come from; we long to return.

From the infancy of our species, people have looked to the heavens and sought to find the meaning of questions such as “what is a star?” – the question that Sagan himself became engrossed with as a curious youth in New York. Sagan was adept at explaining not only what we know but the incredible journey from ignorant and superstitious beings to sending space missions to other worlds. The power of his explanations lay in how he could weave narratives by bringing all of science together to present an integrated and beautiful story of nature. He succintly related the unfathomable immensity of space to our little cosmic home and even the atoms that make up our bodies.

Another striking realisation one may chance upon when watching Cosmos is the cosmic perspective at once affirms the pettiness of human affairs and also the significance of our species. The realisation that we are just a speck in the cosmos – situated in the countryside on the outside of a fairly average galaxy – just one of billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars- is a humbling perspective, yet an ennobling one also. For we are as part of the cosmos. Sagan is far from cynical about the human mammal. He is upbeat about our prospects while recognising that some of our instincts, when nurtured, can flourish to our detriment:

If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilisation and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet.

And that is this mans lasting message that can’t help but reverberate from within each of us. We are the cosmos, albeit a small part of it, yet an important part because we are the eyes of the cosmos. Perhaps we are just one of a multitude of civilisations across the vastness of space. And since there is no division between us, all other forms of life and the entire cosmos, then there are grand implications to that view. Above all, I think Carl Sagan’s message to his own species is that when science surplants superstition and questions are elevated above easy and comforting answers, the human mammal is at its most alive.

Interesting Carl Sagan site: Be sure to take a peak at this site – Symphony of Science – where Sagan and other luminaries sing the poetry of nature.

Destiny Has Control of Your Mind

If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed,  I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm.

-Marcus Aurelius

Brian Tamaki isn’t content with being a self-appointed bishop of his own church (Destiny Church), now he is the “spiritual father” and 700 of his male followers are his “spiritual sons”.

What does being a “spiritual son” entail? It seems a complete surrender of the critical faculty to the leader – something common among cults. Despite this association, Tamaki’s spin doctors are feverishly fending of such criticism, calling him a great man of God. What is astounding about the media coverage is that arguably the most conservative writer in New Zealand, Garth George, warns that Destiny is straying into cult territory.

You see, the faithful spiritual sons were required to sign a covenant entitled and “Requirements Between Spiritual Father and His Spiritual Sons”. A church document calls this covenant “a solemn oath of commitment that is binding, enduring and unbreakable. You are bound to covenant … Covenant is an irrevocable, undissolvable oath of commitment”.

“To you Bishop we pledge our allegiance, our faithfulness and loyalty. We pledge to serve the cause that is in your heart and to finish that work. Success to you and success to those who help you – for God is with you.”

The New Zealand Herald article elaborates on the contents of the document:

  • Under “Conduct Towards Bishop”, the “sons” are told that “Bishop is the tangible expression of God”, so they need to understand how to properly approach their man of God “to protect the anointing and not transgress this special relationship”.
  • The “sons” must never openly disagree with Mr Tamaki in front of others.
  • “You will hear all sorts of statements and opinions but you must be prepared to ignore them and consistently hold him in the same high regard no matter what you hear.”
  • “A loyal man is supposed to ‘cushion’ the effect of a mistake on Bishop and to protect him. NEVER intentionally expose his weakness.”

Here is what the document really says:

Give me your mind, I am in control now, you should revere me because God speaks through me. I am off limits from criticsm, those who criticse me are demeaning God… sign here, and forever be my minion.

The fact he is discouraging his “flock” from thinking critically is not unusual, although the extent to which he is enforcing this is worrying. The notion that somehow he should not be held accountable for his actions is also troubling. Does that not mean he could do anything and he has his nearest and dearest men at his side as supporters? Is this not what Osama bin Laden has encouraged in his entourage of uncritical mindless drones?

But there is a deeper issue here. Effectively he is saying, don’t criticise me, I am the mouth piece of the almighty. Tamaki has elevated himself well beyond human status; his followers already permitting worship of a fellow mammal. Egos of the Brian Tamaki nature have risen to power on many ocassions, many of which have abused that power and committed terrible crimes against humanity. Whether Tamaki would go down that sort of track is not known, but the possibility is now more wide open given the unquestioning support he is seeking and that his flock are already uncritically giving him. Where is the accountability? Surely that is the first and most important aspect of any respectful organisation.

The seeds of totalitarianism

Power is seductive, unquestionable, absolute power is even more appealing to the powerful. For what purpose could Tamaki, or anyone else for that matter, possibly want to discourage their followers from questioning and thinking critically? If his intentions are good then what does he have to hide?

The way I see it, the only reason to denounce criticism and insist on absolute deference to authority is to ensure you can get away with something terrible. The US has an abundant supply of preachers, revereneds and pastors that have claimed to men of God – moral men – only to be found to be hippocrates and liars (among other things). As Christopher Hitchens points out rather forcefully, as soon as someone can be called “reverend” they are not required to meet the same standards of accountability we expect of others.

The point here is this, when someone says “believe what I say and don’t question me” you ought be very careful. No one has the right to take away your power to think for yourself. When someone says “believe what I say because it is the word of God, and don’t criticise” you ought to run in the other direction FAST.

Faith — the engine of self-deception

Faith, in the way it is used in all closed belief systems is the process of believing without evidence. The mechanism of faith necesseraily requires the adherent to abandon reason and contort logic to suit the belief system. Many true believers – whether religious, new age or otherwise – are proud that they can never be swayed from their beliefs. No argument can penetrate this fortress of faith.

This is willful ignorance, yet it is seen as a virtue by the believer. Is it really virtuous to turn one’s mind away from reality? To disconnect the reasoning mind from reality? Is this the path to truth – the one thing the true believer says they value? Turning one’s mind off from reality is the opposite path one should be taking, if the truth is really what they care about. Brian tamaki believes he has the truth, so why is he afraid of critical analysis of him and what he says? why the insecurity? Anyone who takes advantage of the servile impulses of others and asks that people surrender their critical faculties is, in my book, acting unethically.

In fact, this ability to think for oneself was deemed such an important basic right by the founding fathers of the United States that they made “free speech” the 1st, and therefore most important amendment to the constitution. No information is off limits from rational inquiry, the moment we do take it off the table of discussion then we are at the mercy of those who would use that silence to further their own agendas.

What we certainly ought not do, and history is full of such examples, is to elevate a human being above others and above responsibilty for their actions. To do so is to invite the worst kind of behaviour and to grant it the permission to flourish.

Whatever happened to that oft repeated saying of Greek playwright Euripides “Judge a tree by its fruit, not its leaves”?