Monday, November 26, 2018

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe - Novella et al.

Stephen Novella, with Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein. The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How To Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of FakeHodder & Stoughton, 2018.

I have been listening to the weekly podcast, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, for the past 12 years, so I was happy to hear that the presenters were publishing a book. 

The book starts with a detailed elaboration of core concepts in critical thinking. It discusses the way human beings think, how we know things, and various cognitive biases that make our thinking inaccurate. This is an important section, and the book is worth buying even if you only read this part. Readers will learn how and when to doubt, how to evaluate information, and how to apply this knowledge first and foremost to themselves. The point of being a skeptic is not to find certainty in your own opinions and attack those who hold different opinions, but to be comfortable with uncertainty and subtlety, to be aware that scientific knowledge is provisional, and to approach knowledge with humility. 

The next section features stories of the contributors' adventures in skepticism, each choosing a different aspect. Then the book discusses the media and how and why it misrepresents science and enables the promotion of fake and even dangerous opinions. Naturally following from this section are some examples of how pseudoscience can be fatal, not just "harmless" beliefs. 

The book concludes with a section on changing yourself and influencing others to be better critical thinkers. Once again, the purpose isn't to win arguments or feel superior, but to approach knowledge and opinions with an open but informed mind, with humility and a willingness to change and admit our mistakes when proven wrong. The podcast and book encourage a gentle attitude to trying to change others, and I agree with this approach.

This is an important book that should become essential reading for any enlightened person, whether interested in science or just in the way we think. It should be translated into other languages. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Trip to Jordan 2018

My mother, sister, and I went on a short trip to Jordan. The trip was planned and organized by Wandering Sands, and our private guide was Abu Yazam of Zeta 4 Tourism.

Israel has had a peace treaty with Jordan since 1994. I haven't been able to find out how many Israelis visit Jordan each year, or how many Israelis take connecting flights through Amman Airport. According to our guide, it can be difficult for Jordanians to visit Israel, as applying for a Visa can take two months.

We crossed into Jordan at the Jordan River border crossing near Beit She'an. This was my first experience of crossing an international land border. After the security check and passport control, a shuttle bus took us across the border. Our guide, Abu Yazam, met us there and facilitated our passport control on the Jordanian side, which included a retinal scan. Our trip took us from north to south. We drove toward our first destination, Jerash. The landscape and agriculture in the region was reminiscent of parts of Greece, and we were told that many of the agricultural workers were Syrian refugees.

Jerash is the site of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa. The modern city completely surrounds the archaeological site. Only about 20% of the ancient city's area has been excavated, and the rest is unlikely to become available unless the residents are relocated. But even this fraction of the ancient city provides an impressively large and well-preserved section of the ancient city. A few highlights of our visit: Hadrian's Arch, the Forum, the Theatre (which was full of school children), the Cardo, the Temple of Artemis (goddess of hunting and patron deity of Gerasa), and the Nymphaeum.

Hadrian's Arch



Cardo (modern city in background)

Temple of Artemis


As we were leaving the site, it started raining heavily, and we ran to the car. We had lunch at the Green Valley Restaurant. Jordanian food is familiar to us, and everything was fresh. I can confirm that the hummus is good. After lunch we drove, sometimes through the rain, to Amman. We had to cross a few deep puddles, and the city streets were full of children playing in puddles.

In Amman, we first visited the Citadel. This site afforded us impressive views of the city, and also ancient sites of various periods, and a small archaeological museum. We noticed the Raghadan Flagpole, one of the world's largest flagpoles, but the enormous flag wasn't flying that day due to the strong wind and rain.

Ummayad water cistern

Ummayad Palace

View of Amman with the Raghadan Flagpole

Sunbeams over Amman



Glass vessels

Giant hand of Hercules (from a 12 meter tall statue destroyed in an earthquake)

Temple of Hercules

After the citadel, we visited the Roman theatre, with 6,000 seats. It was built into the hillside and is now surrounded by the modern city. There was a small folklore museum here, containing some mosaics and costumes.

Amman Roman Theatre

Capital at Amman Roman Theatre

Mosaic at the Folklore Museum

Mosaic at the Folklore Museum

Desert fighter costume, still worn by the desert branch of the Jordanian army

Traditional Bedouin costumes
About this point, our guide Abu Yazam received a phone call from the Ministry of Tourism. There had been flash floods at Ma'in hot springs near the Dead Sea, where we supposed to go the next day, and about 20 people were missing, mostly school children. We followed this tragedy over the next days, hearing that the Israeli army sent rescue teams and helicopters to help in the search. This meant that we didn't visit the hot springs, and we were very relieved that this hadn't happened to us, though sad that anyone had died.

From Amman we drove south to Madaba and stayed at the Grand Hotel. While we were having dinner, a group of Christian tourists from India were praying and singing hymns in the lobby, which was rather unexpected. This showed the wide appeal of the ancient Christian sites of Jordan to Christians and other tourists from all over the world.

After a cloudy and sometimes rainy first day, the next day was clearer. We started with a visit to Mount Nebo, with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, the Dead Sea, and across it toward Jericho. Visibility wasn't quite good enough to see Jerusalem. Seeing the spectacular mountains made a profound impression on me, and I think I feel about mountains the way some people feel about the sea. We saw the impressive mosaics in the Moses Memorial.

View toward the Dead Sea, with a glimpse of Jericho beyond


From there, we returned to Madaba to visit St. George's Church, home of the Madaba Map. This is a Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land. This was of particular interest to my mother, whose M.A. thesis and book were about Byzantine Gaza. Among other things, in her research, she found mention of a Byzantine clock in Gaza, and managed to locate its depiction on the Madaba Map. The church also contained a painting of the Virgin Mary with three hands, one of them blue, which is her miracle healing hand.

St. George's Church, Madaba

Madaba Map

Madaba Map

Madaba Map

Madaba Map: Jerusalem

Madaba Map: Gaza
Three-handed Virgin Mary, St. George's Church, Madaba

Next our guide took us to the Byzantine Church of the Apostles, which is apparently less well-known, as we were the first tourists to visit that week. The remains of the ancient church are housed in an impressive modern building. The attendant let us view the mosaics from close up and sprayed them with a special spray to make them clearer to see. The mosaics include a Personification of the Sea and various human figures and animals.

Church of the Apostles, Madaba

Personification of the Sea

From Madaba, we drove south toward Petra. We stopped at the Petra Tourism Centre for lunch and to buy some souvenirs. The landscape gradually changed from mountains to desert. We visited Shawbak (Montreal) Crusader Castle, built by King Baldwin of Jerusalem and later occupied by Saladin. While we didn't get to visit Kerak, Jordan's most famous crusader castle, this site was interesting in its own right.

View of the desert

Apparently, one arch was a church and when Saladin conquered the site he added a mosque in the other arch
We reached Petra and stayed in the Petra Palace Hotel, located conveniently close to the entry to the site.

The next day was devoted entirely to walking around Petra. From the site entrance, our guide took us down the Siq, a gorge in the natural rock formation that serves as a narrow entrance to the ancient city. The rocks themselves are astonishingly beautiful, and it was a profound experience to see the result of millions of years of geology and thousands of years of weather that went into forming the landscape. Add to this the ancient carvings that must have taken years and decades of dedicated human work. We reached the so-called Treasury (actually a mausoleum like most of the impressive engraved facades), a site familiar from many films and photos, around mid-morning when the light is at its best. Knowing what to expect didn't prepare me for the sense of awe I experienced seeing this work of art. There was a strange contrast between the hustle and bustle of tourists and local people offering camel rides and selling postcards and what I was feeling. Neither words nor pictures can express the sense of wonder. I feel privileged to have visited this place.

From the Treasury, we continued walking down through the ancient city. We saw the Winged Lions Temple, the Cardo, and the Theatre, along with various tomb facades.

We had lunch in a restaurant called The Basin, and spent a while resting in the shade. The weather was perfect for our visit, but it wasn't an easy walk. At this point, Abu Yazam left us, having explained the various routes we could take back. We decided that the climbs to the High Place and to the Monastery would be too much for us, and instead we chose the path that took us to the Byzantine Church, with its mosaics, and past the Tombs of the Kings.

We made our way back to the Treasury, where we sat drinking Bedouin tea for a while. Then we slowly retraced our steps through the Siq and returned to the hotel.

One thing that bothered me was the use of animals at the site. You can ride in a horse-drawn cart along the Siq, and in other parts of the site you can ride a camel, horse, or donkey. While I have read that the authorities are trying to improve the working conditions of these animals and prevent abuse, we saw them being whipped with electrical cables, and we heard the unhappy cries of donkeys echoing through the canyons. I couldn't help remembering the donkey sanctuary we visited in England, and we naturally decided to refuse all offers of rides so we wouldn't be contributing to animal abuse. Visiting this site does require a lot of walking, but it's not impossible even for less fit individuals.

Our final day in Jordan included a visit to Wadi Rum, a beautiful desert area that was used in filming Lawrence of Arabia, Prometheus, The Martian, and we were told that another film is being made there at present. The scenery was breathtaking. We rode on the back of a jeep driven by a local guide. We saw the rock formation called the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and my sister climbed a sand dune, barefoot at the guide's recommendation. There were ancient rock carvings and some more recent rock carvings showing Lawrence of Arabia, King Abdallah I, and the first Bedouin to live in the area. Some people camp in the area over night, and there are some interesting new geodesic domes in some of the camps. We had a wonderful lunch at the Bedouin camp, and I also bought some of the local herbal tea.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a rock formation where local tribes gathered to settle disputes

Sand dune

Ancient rock carvings

Lawrence of Arabia

King Abdallah I

First local Bedouin

Our trip ended with a drive to Aqaba, where we crossed back into Israel at the Rabin border crossing, drove to Eilat, and got a flight back to Tel Aviv.

For those interested in visiting, unless you know Arabic, I recommend going in a group tour or with a private guide. The best times of year are spring and autumn. Drink only bottled water, as the tap water is considered unsafe, at least for visitors. It's worth having a hat with a neck strap or wearing a headscarf, as the wind often threatened to take my sunhat. We encountered no hostility even when we said we were from Israel.

I really enjoyed this short trip to our fascinating neighbouring country. It exceeded my expectations. This visit made me think about the connection between Israel and the surrounding area. We are all part of the same geography and the same history, with great diversity of ethnic and religious groups, and I hope that the people living in the region today can gain a wider perspective and strive for peace and co-existence as part of the continuing story of this part of the world.