Sep 17, 2017


Has a Mysterious Medieval Code Really Been Solved?

The Voynich manuscript is not an especially glamorous physical object. It is slightly larger than a modern paperback, bound in “limp vellum” as is the technical term. But its pages are full of astrological charts, strange plants, naked ladies bathing in green liquid, and, most famously, an indecipherable script that has eluded cryptographers to this day.

What could be so scandalous, so dangerous, or so important to be written in such an uncrackable cipher?

This week, the venerable Times Literary Supplement published as its cover story a “solution” for the Voynich manuscript. The article by Nicholas Gibbs suggests the manuscript is a medieval women’s-health manual copied from several older sources. And the cipher is no cipher at all, but simply abbreviations that, once decoded, turn out to be medicinal recipes.

The solution should be seismic news in the Voynich world—for medieval scholars and amateur sleuths alike—but the reaction to Gibbs’s theory has been decidedly underwhelming. Medievalists, used to seeing purported solutions every few months, panned it on Twitter. Blogs and forums started picking at its problems.

Are We There Yet?

When Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo arrived in Dharamsala in the 60s to study Tibetan, she needed the Dalai Lama to give his blessing before she could study with the monks at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. Since then, she’s helped Tibetan nuns learn to read, supported other Buddhist women around the world, and watched as thousands of nuns in Asian countries have fully ordained.

Donna Lynn Brown spoke with Ven. Lekshe about the role of women in Buddhism at the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta in November 2015.

. . .

Just talking to other Buddhist women. When we began comparing notes, we realized how many experiences we had in common. We were frustrated at not having access to higher studies or retreat facilities, and were disheartened by the lack of encouragement. So we decided to get together to talk about it. We thought it would be just a small tea party! But it turned into a huge gathering, inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Bodhgaya, India. There were many firsts at that conference. It was the first time Tibetan nuns had publicly played gyaling [trumpets] to welcome His Holiness. It was the first time outside of Dharamsala that Tibetan nuns wore the chögu, the yellow dharma robe. When we held a sanghadana [a lunch offering for monastics], it was the first time that Thai bhikshus [monks] sat at tables the same height as bhikshuni [fully ordained nuns]. These were incredible breakthroughs. At the end of that conference, we wanted to continue the conversation. So we launched Sakyadhita, which has created a space for women to share their experiences of learning and practicing dharma.

Buddha would have helped persecuted Rohingya refugees, Dalai Lama says

The Dalai Lama has called on Myanmar to follow the example of the Buddha and come to the aid of the country's persecuted Rohingya minority, more than 300,000 of whom have fled their home province in two weeks.

Speaking to journalists in North India, the Tibetan spiritual leader expressed his grief over the ongoing violence inside Buddhist-majority Myanmar on Friday, saying the Buddha would have "definitely helped" the Rohingya.

"They should remember, Buddha, in such circumstances, Buddha (would have) definitely helped those poor Muslims. So, still I feel that (it's) so very sad ... so sad," he told reporters.

Almost 90% of Myanmar's population are Buddhists, according to government figures, while the Rohingya have long been marginalized for their Muslim faith.

Uncontacted Tribe Allegedly Killed By Gold Miners In Brazil

At least 10 members of an uncontacted tribe in Brazil’s Amazon Basin were allegedly killed last month by illegal gold miners, according to Survival International.

The organization, which advocates for indigenous rights, said the massacre included women and children and may have wiped out one-fifth of the tribe.

Members of the tribe were gathering eggs along a river in the Javari Valley, in the country’s remote west, when they came across the miners, The New York Times reported. The miners later boasted about the slaughter at a bar in the nearest town, and even showed off a hand-carved paddle they claimed to have stolen as a trophy.

“It was crude bar talk,” Leila Silvia Burger Sotto-Maior, Funai’s coordinator for uncontacted and recently contacted tribes, told the Times. “They even bragged about cutting up the bodies and throwing them in the river.”

Funai is Brazil’s agency for indigenous affairs and its budget was recently cut under President Michel Temer. Survival International described Temer’s government as “fiercely anti-Indian, and has close ties to the country’s powerful and anti-indigenous agribusiness lobby.”

Judge orders Warren Jeffs to pay $16 million to former FLDS child bride

A Utah judge has ordered imprisoned FLDS polygamist leader Warren Jeffs, as well as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints itself, to pay a former child bride $16 million in general and punitive damages after Jeffs reportedly forced her to marry an adult church member when she was 14 years old.

Concluding a case first filed in Washington County in 2005, 3rd District Judge Keith Kelly awarded Elissa Wall $4 million in damages and $12 million in punitive damages Tuesday in the lawsuit she filed against the self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS church.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Wall said the following:

The judgment handed down by the Court is a big step forward in the fight for a strong and unmovable statement to the world that no one, especially children, can be sexually exploited and abused in the name of religion. Today is a victory for many thousands of victims of abuse. Many of us have stood up in our own way to fight for justice and further the protection of children.

Neither Jeffs nor the FLDS church obtained a lawyer or defended themselves against Wall’s lawsuit, which claimed that she had been forced to marry her 19-year-old cousin, Allen Steed, when she was 14 years old, according to court documents. She was then required by Jeffs and the FLDS church to fulfill her religious duties by having sex with her husband and “to produce children.” Wall went on to have miscarriages and a stillbirth.

ISIS’s End-of-the-World Problem

In a gruesome video released November 2014, showing the beheading of American aid worker Peter Kassig along with 16 Syrian soldiers, the masked militant known as “Jihadi John” says to the camera, “Here we are, burning the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

That invocation of Dabiq was significant: In ISIS’s apocalyptic propaganda, the otherwise unremarkable Syrian town of Dabiq was to be the site of a showdown with “Rome,” the Christian invaders of the Middle East, which was to immediately precede the conquest of Constantinople, and then the Day of Judgment. ISIS named its English-language magazine after the city, which it captured in the summer of 2014, and heavily fortified the town, despite it having little strategic value. But in October 2016, ISIS lost Dabiq after a short battle with Turkish-backed rebels. The Day of Judgment hasn’t happened yet.

The Islamic State has distinguished itself from previous terrorist groups with its brutality, its emphasis on controlling and administering territory, and the grand apocalyptic vision of its propaganda. ISIS’s followers aren’t just fighting to cleanse the Muslim world of nonbelievers, defeat Western powers, or even to build a “state.” They believe that the re-establishment of the caliphate will lead to a final battle that hastens the end of days. The message has been a critical recruiting tool for the group. As one recruit told the Wall Street Journal in 2014, the prophecy stuff “always works.”

Texas church blocked volunteer from helping Hurricane Harvey victims because she is a Jewish lesbian

A Texas woman who volunteered at a church to help families in need after Hurricane Harvey has been 'fired' after the church found she's Jewish and a lesbian.

Carmen Hix told OutSmart magazine that The Calvary Church in Friendswood, Texas needed volunteers to help at the food bank after Hurricane Harvey tore through the community. Hix decided to take off a week from work and donate $500 worth of food to the church. On Friday, September 8, she was taken by surprise when she was called in by a volunteer and the church’s pastor, Ron Hindt, who told her she was no longer welcome at the church after he found out about her religion and sexuality.

. . .

In a post on her Facebook page, the 64-year-old combat veteran recalls how the pastor called her into his office to question why she said “Shalom” after her prayers. When she told him that she was Jewish, he asked her to leave and to not return to the church.

. . .

Once she got home, Hix told the magazine she called the church to complain about the pastor and was invited back in. But when she arrived, she was confronted by the pastor again about “rumors” of her sexual orientation.

Hubble observes pitch black planet

Astronomers have discovered that the well-studied exoplanet WASP-12b reflects almost no light, making it appear essentially pitch black. This discovery sheds new light on the atmospheric composition of the planet and also refutes previous hypotheses about WASP-12b’s atmosphere. The results are also in stark contrast to observations of another similarly sized exoplanet.

Using the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, an international team led by astronomers at McGill University, Canada, and the University of Exeter, UK, have measured how much light the exoplanet WASP-12b reflects — its albedo — in order to learn more about the composition of its atmosphere [1].

The results were surprising, explains lead author Taylor Bell, a Master’s student in astronomy at McGill University who is affiliated with the Institute for Research on Exoplanets: “The measured albedo of WASP-12b is 0.064 at most. This is an extremely low value, making the planet darker than fresh asphalt!” This makes WASP-12b two times less reflective than our Moon which has an albedo of 0.12 [2]. Bell adds: “The low albedo shows we still have a lot to learn about WASP-12b and other similar exoplanets.”

The great nutrient collapse

In agricultural research, it’s been understood for some time that many of our most important foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that their minerals, vitamin and protein content has measurably dropped over the past 50 to 70 years. Researchers have generally assumed the reason is fairly straightforward: We’ve been breeding and choosing crops for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and higher-yielding crops—whether broccoli, tomatoes, or wheat—tend to be less nutrient-packed.

In 2004, a landmark study of fruits and vegetables found that everything from protein to calcium, iron and vitamin C had declined significantly across most garden crops since 1950. The researchers concluded this could mostly be explained by the varieties we were choosing to grow.

[Irakli] Loladze and a handful of other scientists have come to suspect that’s not the whole story and that the atmosphere itself may be changing the food we eat. Plants need carbon dioxide to live like humans need oxygen. And in the increasingly polarized debate about climate science, one thing that isn’t up for debate is that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is rising. Before the industrial revolution, the earth’s atmosphere had about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Last year, the planet crossed over the 400 parts per million threshold; scientists predict we will likely reach 550 parts per million within the next half-century—essentially twice the amount that was in the air when Americans started farming with tractors.

Snow leopard no longer 'endangered'

Has the chilling threat of extinction worn off at last for the long-endangered snow leopard?

Not exactly - but the iconic big cats' conservation status has been improved from "endangered" to "vulnerable".

The decision was announced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - the global standard for assessing extinction risk.

Experts have warned that the species still faces serious threats from poaching and habitat destruction.
The elegant yet elusive creatures, which live in the mountains of central Asia, were first listed as endangered by the IUCN in 1972.

. . .

The Snow Leopard Trust, which aims to protect the big cat through community projects, strongly opposes the status change. It plans to challenge the decision with the IUCN.

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