August 2005 Archives

One Billion Years


A New York Times editorial pointing out, once again, that Intelligent Design isn't science.

This editorial has been widely praised. But it neglects to do one important thing: try to give a sense of the enormity of a billion years of time passing.

Try to do this.

Wounded City

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Elsewhere, the damage is done; what's gone is gone, what survived has survived. But the reports from New Orleans increasingly sound as though they are speaking of a mortally wounded patient. The photos show a city gradually slipping back into the lake. (more such) Reports vary, but levees weakened by the storm seem to have burst in at least three places.

The city had no power, no drinking water, dwindling food supplies, widespread looting, water rising in the streets, smoke rising on the horizon and even the sounds of gunfire. At least one large building was ablaze Tuesday.

-- CNN

I was watching the video dispatches from CNN -- a tricky proposition, since their website doesn't believe that my Linux system can play them. And, because I'm just that sort of fellow with no respect for the rule of law, I took screenshots. That's how I know, for instance, that I-10 has been destroyed east of New Orleans.

The New York Times has also been useful; the front-page article has been continually updated all day. It was clear that New Orleans was doing badly when the announcement came that the emergency shelters are being evacuated (by air or boat, I'd have to assume at this point). But when the municipal government throws in the towel and leaves town, things are definitely grim. Here at DailyKos I even ran across a list of the increasingly grim pronouncements from the place's mayor. And a link to the Flickr photo category for Katrina, incidentally.

There's still hope for saving the city, of course. In particular the old structures in the French Quarter have been through pretty bad before, and their survival will guarantee that the city goes on in spirit, even if the modern metropolis is a total loss. Which possibility must be recognized; the components of modern cities, the metal buildings and machines that maintain them, the distribution systems for water and power and sewage, the sheetrock and plywood of the residential house -- these do not take well to extended immersion.

For the first time in a while, the United States has a major regional refugee problem on its hands.

LiveJournal Puree


Sigh. LiveJournal makes things tricky for those of us out here in the rest of the world.

Okay, that's pretty close to blatantly false, but feels true. To wit: back in the day, if I wanted to hear the latest gossip I'd just have to see that I showed up for lunch or water cooler break or what have you. Then people started posting their gossip on the internet. And eventually the realization came to pass that maybe this wasn't such a great idea, which in LJ terms means that everybody restricted their posts to their Friends. But in the meanwhile, folks like me who tend to get holed up in a lab for days at a time got used to not being totally cut off from the doings of one's associates. So now I have to get my (virtual) self back to the (equally nonexistent) water cooler.

To which end, I have created a LiveJournal account. Apparently you have to befriend MilliganHasEars if you want me to be included. No sweat if you don't; if you're not one of the people who's been bugging me to make one of these, then I probably don't care about your gossip anyway (but notice that I didn't say iff).

That account will receive no posting. I do my talking here, for the whole internet to see. And it is completely separate from MilligansEGAD, which echoes EGAD for the convenience of the LiveJournal crowd but does no listening.

LiveJournal's like a big can of soup, that way. You need one hole to let the hot air in, the other to pour soup out.

P.S. I'm not actually sure how I'd know who's befriended this account. So email me or leave a comment on EGAD when you have, if you want to be certain that I notice. Thanks.

Katrina Update

Well, New Orleans is still there. Sort of. At the last moment, Hurricane Katrina weakened and veered to the east. It appears that instead, Biloxi, Mississippi has been destroyed. From the extent of the flooding, it appears that evacuating the entire region was not an overreaction, though.

The New York Times summarizes.

Miscellaneous Bits

If celebrating Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street is one of those things you have to do once in your life, here's hoping you already got around to that one. And if you live on the Louisiana or Mississippi Gulf coast, here's hoping you're far, far away by now. Earlier today, the order was given to evacuate the city of New Orleans (and everything nearby). Read what the local officials are saying -- and I'm sure this comes through on TV as well -- they're terrified that New Orleans won't be there in the morning. The trouble being that the city is below sea level, so if the storm surge is high enough or the waves violent enough to breach the dikes, the French Quarter becomes seabed. Landfall occurs around daybreak, so by the time most of you read this, we'll probably know how bad this gets.

Not sure what to make of the cell phone just yet. The thing squats on my desk like some exotic beetle contentedly soaking up power, single antenna in the air linking it to a complex global telecommunications network completely unlike the one I generally live on. Had to get out of the house, so walked for a few hours tonight. I've owned the strange little bug long enough for it to have buzzed once and it already felt good to leave it at home.

Malaysia is going to the moon? Funny idea, although I'm not sure the BBC had to laugh quite so much about it.

On a more serious note, the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip proceeded more smoothly than anyone had any right to expect while I was away. Hopefully this attack is an isolated case and does not mark the renewal of suicide bombings. But since the most violent of the Palestinian militants have generally concentrated in the Strip, and on the settlements there, it's to be expected that they'll turn their energies outward now. After all, if they could just gain a foothold in the area, it would be so absurdly easy to shell West Jerusalem as frequently as and far more devastatingly than when they fired at Gush Katif.

Schematic of a Road Trip


Before delving into the specifics of observation and nuance, it would make sense to present the broadest possible outline of the past couple of weeks. So the following constitutes the short answer to the question, where have I been? The accompanying pictures are presented in click-to-enlarge style.

Tuesday, 16 August: Embarkation

The Mitchell, SD, Corn Palace. 2005:08:16 16:04:00

Having acquired a small rental car and minimal provisions, my Dad and I strike westward Tuesday morning. There's not a tremendous amount to see on I-90; highlights include the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, and a 50's-themed ice cream parlour. We stop for the night on the banks of the Missouri, camping near where the Lewis and Clark expedition stopped.

Wednesday, 17 August: Side Trip the First

Sunflowers are one of the major crops in southern SD. 2005:08:17 13:32:42

Wednesday we leave I-90 to drive through the Lakota Sioux reservations, including Wounded Knee, site of a 19th century massacre and a 20th century seige of Sioux Indians. Next, north to the Black Hills were we make camp in Wind Cave NP.



Have descended from the mountains once again, grizzled and gruff, with many maps and hundreds of photographs in tow. These will be communicated to you, dear readers, forthwith. However, today will be mostly spent dealing with unpacking, with backed up email, and such mundanities. Posts will post when they post.

An announcement that will shock several: I have been compelled to acquire a cell phone. If anyone from the department wants to give me a ride to Roseville to pick it up, IM me. Thanks.

That is all.

Last Post

Until we hit a net cafe of some kind, that is. See y'all in a few days.

The More Standard Aspect

Setting crescent over the Minneapolis skyline. 2005:08:09 21:49:18

Longtime readers will recall that I developed a bit of interest in lunar photography and even put some effort into explaining the apparent orientation of the thing.

Here the moon sets in what most Americans seem to consider a more standard aspect.

So It Begins

The road is closed; you cannot pass. Image from Ha'aretz article of 15 August.

As of just about now, the Gaza Strip is closed to all civilians; the Disengagement Law has gone into effect.

I would expect rapid development, and it's worth paying attention. In rough order of usefulness, I go by the English-language coverage at


The Jerusalem Post

BBC World News - Middle East

and various blogs and other newspapers as I run across them. If all the Hebrew place names confuse you, open this interactive map of the Gaza settlements. Also, take a moment and flip through this photo gallery. By way of interpretation: orange means you oppose the disengagement, and rabbis wear sackcloth when they're sad and being dramatic about it.

Yesterday was Tesha B'Av, a day of mourning that traditionally coincides with catastrophe for the Jewish people (the First and Second Temples were destroyed on this day; the Jews were expelled from Spain; the Bar Kochba revolt was defeated; World War I began). The anti-pullout publicists are having a field day. Settlers and soldiers are already fighting, and at least one has gotten some attention by trying to declare independence. But nothing too serious, so far.

[Update 15 Aug '05]: How interesting! I seem to have accidentally used a link that returns whatever image is currently on the front page of the Jerusalem Post. Unintended, but kinda cool.

Taking Off

Dinkytown is blessed with a number of places to eat a decent Sunday brunch buffet. The Loring Pasta Bar gets points for having perhaps the most ecclectic offerings of the lot. Mmm, mussels and carrot cake for brunch. 2005:08:14 12:50:45

Sigh. It had to happen, eventually. After a year and a half of going without, I'll be taking classes again in the fall. Nothing strenuous, mind you, as my advisor's issued dire warnings about how he's paying me to do research, not homework. But, the course credits won't earn themselves. So since there's a couple of weeks of summer left, and because I've barely seen my Dad since Christmas, and since all of my Western camping has taken place south of, roughly, Denver, it's time for a road trip.

Tomorrow Dad flies in. We stock up, rent a car, and strike out Tuesday morning. The plan is to make our way across the northern plains up into the mountains, take a right at Yellowstone, and end up in Denver ten or twelve days from now. Then we return the car, he flies to a conference in California, and I come back here. It's a good thing we travel light, as everything we bring will have to become airline luggage on the way back.

Normally my luddite tendencies kick in on trips like this, but my father's in the middle of projects just now. So he encouraged me to bring along a laptop so we can search for wireless signals. And come to think of it, we may well have an easier time finding net cafes than good cell reception. So, I just might manage to post here during the trip, depending on what we find. No promises, but we'll see. Either way, lots of good (i.e. not all of the highway) photos when I get back.

Zanesville 4: God Country

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St. Nicholas Catholic, where the wedding was celebrated, lights up nicely in the evening. 2005:08:05 20:42:37

Now where I come from, it would be considered somewhat in poor taste to use Cortez' landing in Mexico as the subject of a church's entrance mural. No doubt the painters were trying to evoke a sense of the church likewise bringing the Word to heathen lands. Since the cornerstone claims to have been laid in the late 1800s, though, they would have been just a bit late.

The Catholics aren't the only denomination to have set up shop in Zanesville. In fact, pretty much everyone appears to have set up shop here. Given the size of the downtown area, just a few blocks on a side, a truly remarkable number of churches have sprouted over the years.

Climate Climax

A couple of weeks ago I pointed out a troubling story about changing current and temperature patterns in the Pacific, which have the potential to seriously disrupt marine life there. And I've brought up the spectre of thermohaline collapse on a couple of occasions. But here's a new potential tipping-point phenomenon that has the potential to get really terrifying in a real hurry.

Reported here by the BBC and elsewhere, Siberia is melting. Sometime in the last five years, an expanse of frozen peat the size of western Europe has abruptly turned into a very much thawed bog. Now that biology can get back to what it was doing there before the last Ice Age put it on hold, said ex-tundra is fixing to exhale millions of cubic kilometers of methane into the atmosphere.

Methane is an even more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So by itself, that's enough to force a bump up in the severity of climate change predictions. However, models now have to be adjusted; the global Arctic contains a whole lot of frozen tundra. If the Siberian thaw is caused by greenhouse warming (as is probable), then we could be looking at a positive feedback loop that's just been triggered. Now that we've raised the temperature to some critical level, the air will thaw more and more tundra, which will release huge amounts of trapped carbon and lead in turn to even more warming. And if that cycle has already started, there's absolutely nothing we Homo Sapiens can do about it.

So maybe moving to Minnesota wasn't such a bad move for me, after all.

Countering the Crazies

As I mentioned in the comments, there's been some rantage among the locals of late. The primary target is that particularly batty wing of the religious Right that has decided that science is an obstacle that will just have to go. The roll-back-the-Enlightenment crowd, in short. This is just the sort of rumble the blogosphere was made for.

Used to, you could keep track of all the counter-Creationist blogs, for one thing. Now you need group blogs like The Panda's Thumb to do that. When they heckle in person, the counter-Rationalists often score a few points by bringing up an absurd claim about something sufficiently obscure that the hecklee can't bat it down from memory. In Blogistan, the Index to Creationist Claims neatly solves that problem.

Still, it's enjoyable to see my peeps jumping into the mix. For instance, Paul has recently gotten fed up (Bush's endorsement of teaching pseudo-science seems to have been the last straw) and gone on a tear. Although I think he's being both overly optimistic and pessimistic in claiming that there are no credentialed scientists "designing experiments to test the 'God Hypothesis.'" Because I'm quite sure there are, sadly enough. But on the bright side, I'm willing to bet there's a couple out there who are actually doing it in good faith, and interested in the answer.

On a more irreverent front, Kennedy recently posted his take on the Flood according to Biblical literalists. Like most of his rants, well-written and, incidentally, hilarious. My problem with these literalists isn't the laughable science, though. It's that they take a neat and ancient myth about the Hercules of zookeepers and propose with a straight face archeological digs to track down a stadium-sized boat filled with metric tons of dung. It's like trying to find the Augean Stables by digging for an ancient barn with a river running through it, or combing the treasuries of Greece for a literal Golden Fleece. Searching for the Holy Grail is more credible, and that's a quest that has its own Monty Python movie.

Coming to a Head

Haven't written much about Israel lately, I notice. Not for lack of interest or attention; I've just been busy. But as this year's drama rattles on towards climax, it seems a good time to take a quick look about.

For those playing along at home, we're in the final days of disengagement fever. Letters have been sent to every Israeli (officially) living in the Gaza Strip to inform them that as of the 15th, their continued presence there will be illegal. On or about the 17th, the Israeli military will begin forcably evacuating anyone who remains. As the summer wears on, the actual settlers to be removed seem to have accepted the inevitability of this, and have mellowed considerably. At the same time, though, the Israeli far right has whipped itself into an advanced state of froth, exploiting every trick in the book to make trouble. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have vascillated between coordinating with and shunning the Israelis, while the Palestinian Authority walks a knife edge between a resumption of hostilities with Israel and civil war with the Arab militants.

Which means that this is actually a major sign of progress.

The Gaza Strip is under military closure now, meaning that it is almost completely sealed off to Israelis. This proved necessary since the grand strategy of the Yesha Council had been all along to flood Katif with so many radicals that any troops sent to evacuate the settlements would be overwhelmed. They never specified exactly how this was to take place, since they theoretically repudiate violence against other Jews. All told somewhere shy of 3,000 managed to infiltrate the Strip, some under the cover of massive demonstrations in towns near the border (causing, among other things, some tense moments when settler kids tripped the security sensors at the borders of the settlements they were sneaking into -- I can only imagine the howls if one of them had been shot by an IDF soldier), and others posing as (or actually as) relatives on a visit. That won't be enough, and quite likely doesn't even replace those who have already left. So the new strategy is to blocade the blocade, as it were. If they can't get in, neither can the evacuation forces.

All this is leading to a culture of lawlessness and alienation from the state among the nationalist Zionist Right that looks extremely dangerous to many. That tens of thousands show up to complain to God at the Western Wall is fine and even admirable, but when even more show up more-or-less publically announcing plans to sabotoge a military operation, the State has a very large problem indeed.

On a lighter note, remember that "This Land is Your Land" parody from the presidential elections last year? If anyone thought that the wide world of Flash animations as political commentary was confined to the United States, think again. The game is in Hebrew, but easy to figure out. And this game is a vaguely checkers or go-like attempt to dominate a blocked highway with cars flying your side's banner. (Press the שחק button to play.) And most bizzare of all, here is a game so odd it got a special mention in Ha'aretz -- you play Ariel Sharon, clearing settler kids from a roadblock with a mattress-equipped bulldozer and raining pigs.

Zanesville 3: Reception Portraits

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Somehow or other, Jess has induced Connor to lighten up. 2005:08:06 16:36:41

At events like these, there will be some people who see each other every day. The ones we're more interested in, though, are the people we used to see every day, but have since wandered off into parts remote. Or in my case, folks I saw regularly until I wandered off. I tend to do that.

Apropos of the previous post, here's a photographic sampling. For the modem-impaired, the large images are in the continuation.

More Zanesville


Just noticed, jlkennedy has posted a pile of wedding reception photos. There's even a couple of me in semi-formal, for those in the audience who have trouble picturing this.

[Update: 11 August] And for even more pictures, mxzzy has also posted a small collection as well, including the best shot I've found so far of the bride.

Guy Fawkes

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Ran across an interesting link at the Prospect blog. I had not noticed this, but 2005 is the 400th anniversary the Gunpowder Plot famously associated with Guy Fawkes. The Guardian observes some interesting parallels between then and now. And I, for one, would have enjoyed watching Hammond narrate the explosive demolition of a replica House of Lords. Pity that got shelved.

The meat of the article goes thusly, though:

The Catholics were the Muslims of 1605. Most of them were relatively happily integrated with the larger society. Under the new king, James I, a more tolerant policy was being pursued towards them than had been the case under Elizabeth. ... He didn't like Catholics but he didn't want to persecute them. ...

But within that large majority there was a small cell of Roman Catholic bombers who wanted to wreak maximum destruction in the heart of London. ... Most of them were Englishmen to their bones but deeply disillusioned with the way in which the highly materialistic, highly commercial and highly nationalistic culture of their country was leading away from the embrace of the Roman Catholicism that represented for them the ideal of heaven on earth.

The result of the failed plot was a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria which was promptly exploited by the Protestant elites of Britain to harshly repress the Catholic population, as a result of which they did not regain full political rights until the mid-19th century. Nicholson, of course, intends this as an analogy to the recent London transit bombings by who appear to have been militant Muslim youth. He hopes to warn Britons away from scapegoating the Islamic community in general. Or maybe it's a reminder of the danger in resorting to torture, not that any Britons have been tortured so far that we know of. Or just a plea to give some thought to not being scared by cultural diversity. The parallel to current events is well-drawn, but the second half of the article rather fails to do anything in particular with it.

My advice: focus. Yes, the poor Guy was tortured, but the article doesn't prove that anything bad really happened as a result. On the other hand, a couple of centures of renewed religions oppression is worth digging into a bit more. Especially when you consider that this is right about when Calvinists and the like started leaving for the New World in droves. And what about Ireland? The Irish Rebellion broke out just 36 years later, which led directly to barring of Catholics from Irish government -- is there a connection? (The answer, I think, is a rousing "sort of.")

Note, then, that Fawkes and conspirators were actually trying to spark a rebellion that would topple the Protestant ruling dynasty. In that light, it appears that the reaction to the Gunpowder Plot came dangerously close to fulfilling those aims, even though the bomb never even went off. So here's my takeaway lesson for today, if moral there must be. The viscerally satisfying response to a terrorist attack is quite often exactly what the perpetrators were trying to bring about.

Zanesville 2: Luminosity

Here we are playing putt-putt golf by blacklight. Of course, since we were all wearing black, we're a bit hard to recognize. 2005:08:06 19:53:09

After bride and groom sped off in a cloud of smoke (literally), Laura the unusually-cheerful goth declared that we should play a round of putt-putt. In the dark. Like Meridith's heart. Or so she claims, anyway.

Turns out that Zanesville not only has a mall, but said mall is occasionally infested with gothy-boppers. This amused Laura greatly (said Jess, "You visited my mall?!"). As did the prospect of blacklit golfing, especially in our formal duds. So Laura, 'Ridith, Gemma, and myself piled into Hatman's rental and away we went.

Also turns out that we're terrible at putt-putt, although Sawyer did keep sinking improbable holes-in-one.

Zanesville 1: A Splendid Match

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At important junctures, Connor is known to become, shall we say, absurdly serious. Here, he and Jess confront the awful spectre of a wedding cake. She remained calm. He later explained that the most terrifying moment of the whole day came just before the wedding began, as he convinced himself that he was going to trip and break his nose on the marble church floor. 2005:08:06 16:36:18

In Zanesville, Ohio, this weekend for the wedding of Jessica and Connor. Foundational members of many of the interlocking cliques making up the extended Mathews House circle -- that motley crew I refer to here nebulously as the Chicago gang, somewhat dispersed though they are now -- they were by far the longest-dating of our couples. The phrase, "Last of the Supercouples," was uttered more than once, with minimal caveats. So it was entirely fitting that as the tented reception wound down, bride and groom bolted for the getaway vehicle through a sparkler smokescreen to REM's It's the End of the World. We're going to have to find an excuse besides weddings to round up the cohorts.

The wedding ceremony was a beautiful Catholic service, fairly traditional but quite relaxed. Celebrating was Fr. Mulhill, imported from the Hyde Park parish in Chicago, and the jovial character reminded me of yet another reason to miss the neighborhood. A self-described and quite smug "good heretic" his sermon, among other things, went into the history behind the number of recognized sacraments (today there are seven; St. Augustine argued for hundreds, but Fr. Mulhill informed us that modern theology posits only one, and that nobody knows what it is). I think he considers Connor a bit of a pet project, and feels that he's done quite well at that. So smug is excusable.


Like the title says, back in Minneapolis. Stories, photography, et cetera, to follow. For now, sick of airports and the fact that my roommates apparently neither take out the trash nor wash dishes without me around to tell them to each time.

I may have to weed one out to serve as an example to the rest.

Offline this Weekend


Connor and Jessica -- college sweethearts, Scavhunt judges, and best friends -- are getting married this weekend. So it's off with me to Zanesville. Weekend connectivity is unguessable, so I'll be back when I'm back.

Congratulations to them both.

Today's Reading Material

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It's always a little disconcerting when the answer to a seemingly simple engineering question turns out to mean wading through fifty or so pages of computer-generated reports. So now I'm whipping up some software to summarize it for me. Let's just hope I don't end up having to summarize the summary.

The Senate today decided to roll over and play dead in exchange for lavish porky treats, and overwhelmingly pass the final iteration of the gigantic Energy Bill That Wouldn't Die (wire coverage lacking so far). Well, party favors for all except those of us who are actually concerned about climate change, but this suprises precisely nobody. Just like the fact that it took the AP until now to notice this potentially related and really creepy story that's been kicking around all summer.

In honor of which, here's the good if broadly fluffy cover story of this month's National Geographic summarizing what's right and what's very, very wrong with the world's energy policies. My only real complaint: failure to distinguish Brazilian biodiesel efforts from American ethanol. The former is generally sustainable and probably carbon-neutral, whereas the latter consumes so much fertilizer and energy that it's a net loss in the global carbon and energy balances.

And just for the space geeks out there, the New York Times summarizes the current state of play in NASA's thinking on a Shuttle replacement. I have to hand it to the present crop of planners -- this is a bit of deft institutional judo that takes full advantage of both Congressional and technological inertia.


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So I asked myself, do I know anyone perverse enough to leave comments over in the LJ feed after I suggested that they not do that? Why yes, actually, I do believe most of my friends fit that particular bill. Better check. Oh, ha, ha.

Even better, I can't directly respond, since only actual LJ users can leave comments on a feed. Ah, well, let the games begin.

Anyhow, as a heads-up, I'll be in Zanesville all Friday afternoon (through Sunday). Sending out a general announcement here seems the most efficient way of discovering who else will be there on Friday, so if you're also getting in early, drop me a line.

Ethics of the Gaps


Listening to George Ellis on Speaking of Faith on NPR some mornings ago, expound on the compatability of science and religion arising from the existence of areas, such as ethics and aesthetics, which science will "never ever be able to touch." Always interesting to hear the respectable, non-crazy scientists weigh in on matters of spirit. They can, at the very least, usually be relied upon to have thought their opinions through.

I find myself disagreeing with his propositions, because of the very train of thought that his original thesis sparked -- that ethics and morality are built into the structure of the universe. He provides only a very fuzzy argument in this direction, but it occurs to me that something resembling an evolutionary argument can be made to explain the existence of a fundamental knonotic1 ethics such as he proposes, if you really want to go in that direction. Principles that, with mathematical rigour, could be said to ensure that pain or violence always exists in a negative feedback loop; failure to discover such principles would eventually result in failure to survive.

However, this very idea suggests that these principles could be scientifically discovered, meaning that science could well uncover fundamental ethical principles. Ellis observed that science occasionally makes similar claims that sociology or sociobiology does investigate ethics, but that if you ask science what should be done in Iraq, there is a "great silence." Yet this is wrong; many sociologists, economists, and other academics would offer suggestions about how to deal with Iraq. "Science" as a monolithic whole obviously says little, as the many disciplines have different viewpoints -- stemming from the fact that science has yet to convincingly uncover a way to answer the question of what outcome we actually want.

So overall, a disappointment. After all, we have here an important cosmologist on the radio to discuss how morality is intrinsic to the fabric of reality. The least I'd expect is a proposal to investigate, if not actually test, this hypothesis. Something more than a kind exhortation to take his word for it, on faith.

1 Knosis is a Greek word which, in Ellis' usage, means the ethics of Jesus, of unconditional love and rejection of violence. I think he actually means the word gnosis, γνώσις, Greek for "knowledge". This word has been used in a number of ways over the centuries.

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