Monday, August 31, 2009

How did life arise?

Living things are purposeful. Non-living things are not.

Many current life forms are capable of self-reproduction. Supposedly earlier life forms cannot.

Many current live forms are storing and processing information. Non-living things do not.

What is more likely? That lifeless and mindless things somehow became purposeful, reproducing, and information processing on their own?

Or is it more likely that an intelligent being, God, created these purposeful, reproducing, information processing life forms - including these weird electric eels, ..., and us human beings?

What is life anyway? And how did it arise?

Who created the laws of nature?

Most people, if not everyone, would agree that nature is rational and logical. That it is at least partly comprehensible. That it is governed by certain laws of nature. That is, in fact, an assumption in science.

What people differ on is: from where did these laws come? Atheists believe that these laws just are. That there is no reason, intelligence, meaning, intention behind these laws of nature.

Theists, on the other hand, believe God is behind these laws of nature.

Both positions involve faith.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

There Is A God

Anthony Flew had been a famous atheist for over 50 years. He had published a great many books and articles arguing there is no god. Then, sometime in the early 21st century, he changed his mind. In this book, he outlined the reasons for his being an atheist, as well as the reasons that subsequently made him change his mind. This book is very well written, and fairly easy to read - as easy as a book on philosophy can be.

He insists that he has been following the command attributed by Plato to Socrates, “We must follow the argument wherever it leads.”

The main reasons for his believing in atheism earlier were these: (1) the problem of evil disproves the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God; (2) the “free-will” defense did not relieve the Creator of responsibility for the manifest ills of creation.

Why does he now believe that there is a God? It is based on three dimensions of nature that point to God. (1) Nature obeys laws; where do these laws come from? (2) How did life, which is so intelligently organized and purpose-driven, come from non-life? (3) How did nature, the universe, come into being?

Of course, there is a lot more to the arguments than what I can say here. So I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the existence (or non-existence) of God.

By the way, Flew’s discovery of God has been an exercise of reason, not of faith. He does not rely on any special revelation from God. He is considered a theist, someone who believes in the existence of a God, but not a specific one. Not yet, at least. He did say, however, that “the Christian religion is the one religion that clearly deserves to be honored and respected ...”

Our pastor gave my wife and me this very interesting book - for which we are very grateful.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A close, odd encounter

I was sitting near the stairs on the upper deck of a cross-harbour bus on route 101. I was sitting in the window seat, with my bag on the aisle seat. The bus was half empty. Most of the two-seat benches had only one person in them, typically in the window seat, like I did.

As the bus was approaching the tunnel from Wan-chai, I was startled by a sudden voice, ”Excuse me, may I sit here?” The owner of the voice was a young lady, seemingly in her 20s, holding a couple of bags. She was probably sitting somewhere in the back, since she approached my bench from behind. I had no reason to say no, even though I felt it was rather odd. So I placed my bag on my lap; and she sat down beside me. She had a seat before; so why did she move? And why did she choose to sit beside me? Perhaps she intended to get off the bus after the bus passes through the tunnel; and she simply wanted to get closer to the stairs, so that she could get off quicker when the time comes? Perhaps she was trying to escape from some harassment or perceived danger - and she felt safer next to someone, even a total stranger?

To avoid any possible misunderstandings, I moved closer to the window, leaving about half a foot between us. Nothing happened. She didn't move. But I still couldn’t relax.

As the bus exited the tunnel, the young lady made no effort to get up. So I did. As soon as I left the bench, what did she do? She got up, moved forward a couple of rows, and sat down beside another man!

She was still there after I exited the bus.

Can someone explain that?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A conversation

A conversation among 4 young men, probably around 20 years old, with clean-cut short hair, wearing shirts and ties - overheard at a hamburger joint in Wan-chai:

“Is this table occupied? Can we take it then? Thank you so very much.”
“The Central Park was really beautiful. I was impressed that they have such a nice park right in the middle of New York City.”
“Where did you stay in New York City?”
“A youth hostel up near Columbia University.”
“That’s right where Harlem is. I was there before. It was full of black people. Very scary.”
“Chicago is the place in the USA where there is the largest number of blacks.”
“Yeah. There were a lot of black people. But it wasn’t so bad. I didn’t find that scary at all.”
“I purposely stayed overnight in a bus station once, while I was travelling through the USA, just to see what it is like. It was a good experience.”
“I want to teach in a community college, or vocational school. It will be a good experience for me, while I finish university.”
“I want to get into investment banking.”
“That should not be difficult.”
“It is not enough to have a bachelor’s degree. I want to get a master’s degree.”
“I don’t want to take up a full time job. I want to take on different tasks, to gain a lot of experience in a variety of things.”
“I am afraid it may not look so good on my resume, if I start with freelance jobs right after graduation.”
“I cannot totally disregard making some money, because I have grant-loans to repay. But I think it is important to gain a lot of experience in a variety of areas.”
“If I were the Chief Executive, I would ...”

I don’t know these young men, and I don’t even know what they look like. But they made quite a good impression on me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The People of Venice

Well, some of them are not really people. But they do make a nice photo, don't they?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Girls of Venice

Hotel Adventure in Venice

Our hotel in Venice was on a narrow side street, barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. We were very happy to have finally reached it after dragging our suitcases through the narrow streets and crossing the bridges over the canals after getting off the waterbus.

Opening the doors to the hotel, however, gave us a big shock. The walls of the ground floor lobby were not just bare. They were crumbling with bricks exposed. There was nobody there, and no furniture. The thought came across my mind that perhaps we were swindled.

I looked around a bit more carefully, and found a sign next to the staircase that said the hotel was located in the third floor. Did I dare to walk up three flights of stairs? I asked my wife and daughter to stay on the ground floor, with the entrance open. Then I walked gingerly up the stairs. Fortunately, it did get better. On the first floor there appeared to be some lawyers’ offices. On the second floor there appeared to be some apartments. And I could see the actual entrance to the hotel lobby around the corner.

The hotel turns out to be small but reasonably well-furnished. The best feature is the terrace on the fourth floor, where we had our breakfast. From the terrace we could see the dome of the Basilica San Marco and the Bell Tower, just a couple of blocks away.

Regarding the state of the ground floor of the building. Our street is at the same level with Saint Mark’s Square, which can get flooded in high tide - which means the ground floor of our building can also get flooded. That’s why nobody in Venice lives on the ground floor anymore, which explains the state of disrepair that we encountered. We were surprised because we were not familiar with Venice.

While we were having breakfast, a bunch of sparrows were jumping around us, just a couple of feet away. As soon as we left the table, they jumped right in, picking crumbs from our plates and even the breadbasket.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pearl Milk Tea (珍珠奶茶)

I went to ShauKiWan to eat fish ball noodles (魚蛋粉) at the famous On Lee (安利) yesterday. But this post is not about fish balls nor noodles.

After fish balls, we wandered down the street and stopped at a small shop selling Taiwan style pearl milk tea. The stall looked clean and tidy and was manned by a young lady and a young man. We ordered three cups of milk tea with different flavours. Then the young lady started making the tea. There was only one other customer, yet we had to wait for a long time. So I tried to find out what the young lady was doing. She took a cocktail shaker, added ice cubes, black tea, powder for flavour, “pearls”, and milk one at a time. She then shook the shaker for a long time, taking several minutes to make a cup of tea. No wonder we had to wait for so long, much longer than at the other shops that I visited before.

I started to wonder. The young lady was clearly doing a fine job, seemingly taking her job quite seriously. If she had taken the same serious attitude in her studies, she should have done reasonably well academically. At her age, she should be entering, or already in university. Why is she then working at a milk tea shop? I sincerely hope that this is only a summer job for her, and then she would be returning to school soon.

By the way, if you are looking for (安利). It is on (筲箕灣東大街), across from the Tin Hau Temple (天后廟).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Florence - people

We were walking on a crowded street towards Palazzo Pitti when we held a faint voice singing. We looked around and, at first, couldn’t see who it was. Turing around a corner, we realized it was a young woman singing in front of the palace, some 50 meters away. It was an open square, and she was not evening facing us. An amazingly powerful voice. We figured she could have been a student at some music school.

These people were making a copy of Caravaggio’s “Doubting Thomas” (or Saint Thomas Putting his finger on Christ’s Wound), using colored chalk, on the street near Palazzo Vecchio. The the colors were vivid and the contrast strong. The faces, in particular, were animated and seems to jump out of the picture. These guys are good. Perhaps they are dreaming that one day they can also create something as good as a Caravaggio? I hope they do.

We saw a few Chinese selling grasshoppers made with blades of grass. Those were really well-made; but there did not seem to be a lot of buyers. The Chinese, of course, are everywhere. Operating Chinese restaurants, pizza shops, ... It cannot be a good living making and selling grass grasshoppers. So why are they here, thousands of miles from home, half way around the globe in a foreign land, selling grasshoppers on the street? Probably this is not what they came here for. I hope one day they do find what it is that they are looking for.

This horse was having a snack from a sack. The gadget was quite clever, and tidy. Don’t know whether the horse actually likes it or not. But the setting sun did cast nice shadows.

This is part of the more shady side of Florence. They were, of course, not really nuns. But beggars. They were not too pushy, perhaps because of the heavy presence of the police. But it was still annoying. And a bit sacrilegious.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bridges of Florence

Florence is really as pretty as a painting. You can almost point your camera at an arbitrary building, wait for favourable lighting, snap, and get a beautiful picture. This photograph was taken from near the Ponte Vecchio, in late afternoon, looking East. The bridge in the middle, over the river Arno, is Ponte Alle Gracie. Piazza Michelangelo is on the hill to the right of the river.

This other photograph was taken from Ponte Alle Gracie, in the morning, looking West, over the same river Arno. The bridge in the middle, with houses on it, is the famous Ponte Vecchio. Almost all the houses on the bridge are now jewelry shops. Florence is very pretty. But it is also very commercial.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


This is the view of Florence (Firenze) from Piazza Michelangelo atop a hill. The famous dome of the Florence Cathedral, actually Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, is in the center. The Palazzo Vecchio, with its distinctive clock tower, is on the left. On the right is Basilica Santa Croce, the burial place of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, ... It is a wonderful place, isn't it.

It is amazing that the character of the city has been preserved so well, and still so livable. The land must be very valuable and a lot of people must have wanted to build modern high rises to make maximum profit from the land. A lot of planning and self-restraint must have been exercised for the sake of history and culture. Perhaps it is simply a matter of seeking longer term value as opposed to extremely short term gain. In any case, we are grateful.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quest for Gelato

The first day we arrived in Rome, we had gelato - succulent Italian style ice cream. It is less frozen, hence softer, than the ice cream that we are familiar with. It is so soft you don’t need a scoop to serve it; a spatula would do. For 2 euros (about 22 HK dollars) we got 3 huge dollops of gelato on a cone and we were in heaven. I would have taken a photo of it as proof if I was not so busy trying to eat mine before it melted completely.

From then on, we hunted for gelato everywhere and basically ate gelato everyday, sometimes in lieu of a meal. Indeed they were ubiquitous, practically there is a gelato shop every corner, and sometimes more than that. However, most of them gave us less than half of what got that first time. That was very disappointing.

Looking back now, if we did not find it such a good deal that first time, we would not have eaten so much gelato in Italy. And we would not have been so disappointed each time we had gelato subsequently. I am sure there is lesson in there somewhere, but I am not quite sure what it is. Perhaps a good thing is not such a good thing after all?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Saint Peter's Basilica - Quo Vadis

Saint Peter's Basilica at dusk. It is enormous, impressive, and beautiful in many ways.

A legend says that Peter was fleeing Rome ahead of persecution under the emperor Nero. While walking south on Via Appia (The Appian Way), he encountered Jesus walking towards Rome. When he asked Jesus, "Quo Vadis (Where are you going?)" Jesus answered that He was going to Rome to be crucified a second time. Peter felt Jesus was telling him to have the courage to face up to persecution, rather than to run away. He then returned to Rome and was eventually crucified upside down, because he did not consider himself worthy to die exactly like Jesus.

Quo Vadis is also the name of a historical novel set in Nero's Rome, by the Polish writer Henry Sienkiewicz. The novel was part of the reason he was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. I remember reading a Chinese translation of it from the library of our secondary school. I do not remember much of the story, but the name stuck in my mind.

To me, something is not quite right when a Christian leader lives a life of luxury, exerts enormous power, or enjoys the adulation of others. Jesus himself never seek luxury, worldly power, or adulation. He did say that whoever wishes to be a leader should be a servant of others. It seems to me therefore it is better to seek to truly serve, rather than to exert power. I do admire the courage of the original Peter in the Bible, and the Peter in the legend, however.

Romans and the republic

This is where the Roman Forum was. It was effectively a public square where the citizens gathered to discuss the affairs of the state. Nearby are the temples where they worship their gods. Affairs of the state and religion are intertwined in those days. The Romans, inheriting from the Greeks, developed the republican government, or representative democracy - in which elected individuals represent the people in the government. And this is the center of it all.

The Romans built great buildings such as the Coliseum and the Pantheon. They built great roads such as the Appian Way. They built the aqueducts to supply the city with water. They made Latin the lingua franca. They made Christianity practically universal. But in my opinion, together with the Greeks, their greatest contribution to the world is the republican system of government. It may not be the perfect way to govern, but no one has come up with a better way yet.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Eyes of Statues

Many of the marble statues from Greek and Roman antiquity are very life-like, except for those blank eyes which give the impression that the statues are blind.

This one, however, is different. It is unnerving looking directly into those eyes, isn’t it?

Many of these marble statues were supposedly fitted with glass eyes - actually thin layers of colored glass - originally. Most of those eyes have since disappeared from the statues over the years, perhaps because they are so fragile. This one in the Vatican Museums is one of those whose glass eyes are still intact.

It is probably better this ways, however. Otherwise these statues may be too life-like, and it can be really uncomfortable under those unblinking, watchful eyes.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Freeze Mimes

Living statues, freeze mimes, or minimalist mimes. They wrap, paint, or simply dress themselves and stay motionless until someone gives them money. We have encountered a whole bunch of them in Rome and Florence. Here are some of the more interesting ones. Is it an easy, or actually hard way to make a living?