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Archive for June, 2008

As the curtain begins to rise on another season of English soccer, pundits are racing to make their predictions; not only is the Premiership title in question, but the debate is going thick and fast over who will reach the coveted – and lucrative – Champions League places, and who will be mired in the relegation dogfight.

With Euro 2008 in full swing, many of the top European players are placing themselves in the shop window for the admiration and possible acquisition of the biggest clubs. While the England national team are not participating, you can rest assured that the managers of all Premiership clubs have at least one eye on the tournament and the other on their pocketbooks.

The arrivals and departures in the usual summer merry-go-round have only just begun, but already one can discern a few teams with a great deal of ambition. Of particular note is Tottenham’s purchase of Croatian sensation Luka Modric for £16 million, but can the deadly playmaker cut it in the upper echelon of European soccer?

Predictions like these are inevitably subject to the element of surprise, but in the spirit of sportsmanship, let us review the contenders.

Manchester United top many people’s lists as title contenders, and with good reason; now Premiership champions two years running as well as European champions, the Red Devils show no sign of giving up their hold on the coveted silverware. Much has been made of midfielder Cristiano Ronaldo, and if United can keep the 42-goal wunderkind in addition to the current crop of talent, they will be well placed to repeat. The long-rumored signing of Spurs hitman Dimitar Berbatov would add still more firepower to a squad facing no shortage.

Chelsea too should not be discounted; new manager Luiz Felipe Scolari is inheriting a squad smarting from a season of what might have been. Initially considered contenders for an unprecedented quadruple – the Premiership title, the two domestic Cups and the Champions League – the team will have rediscovered their hunger for success. However, former manager Jose Mourinho, recently installed at Inter Milan, is reportedly keen to re-sign some of his prize assets from his Chelsea days, which could see goal assassin Didier Drogba and veteran defender Ricardo Carvalho (among others) heading to the San Siro.

Rounding out the likely top three are Liverpool, who will also be aching to improve on a series of third-place finishes. £26 million man Fernando Torres, bought last summer from Atletico Madrid, discovered his scoring touch a little late but has proven to be lethal inside the eighteen-yard box and will be seeking to add to his tally. The Dutch pair of Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel will ensure that goals are in plentiful supply both at Anfield and on the road, and if canny manager Rafa Benitez can succeed in prying England midfielder Gareth Barry from Aston Villa’s clutches, the side will be hard to break down. Added to this is the presence of Steven Gerrard, a midfield general unequaled in the English game. Expect to see them pushing the top two all the way to the last games of the season.

The fourth and final Champions League spot shows more signs of a fight; while Arsenal have been up there for several years now, their hold on the place has looked less secure than Arsene Wenger would care to admit. Wenger will be hoping for a speedy return to form for Brazil-born Croat Eduardo da Silva to partner Togolese forward Emmanuel Adebayor up front, and with Nicklas Bendtner and Theo Walcott standing in line to become Arsenal’s new goal hero, they should not be discounted. The creative midfield play of young Spaniard Cesc Fabregas will ensure that the ball keeps moving forward, and the solid defence marshalled by Kolo Toure will be hard to break through.

Also pushing for that fourth spot will be Arsenal’s perennial North London rivals and Carling Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur. In addition to the aforementioned Modric, Spurs have laid out substantial funds to bring in Giovani dos Santos from Barcelona, who stands to make quite an impact if he can adapt well to the more rough-and-ready English game. With these, plus the signing of highly-rated Crystal Palace youngster John Bostock, Tottenham have declared without doubt that they are an ambitious team ready to knock on the doors of the four teams which have claimed the Champions League spots almost every season.

The UEFA Cup places could also present an interesting drama, as a variety of teams look to build on impressive showings last season. FA Cup winners Portsmouth will be aiming to consolidate their place among the European challengers, and the right signings could see Harry Redknapp’s men hold their own among those once counted their betters. Last year’s high finishers Everton and Aston Villa will also be attempting to duplicate their feats, and Manchester City, under new manager Mark Hughes, will be aiming to better their ninth-place finish. Their stated ambition of signing Brazilian ace Ronaldinho, while a lofty goal, speaks volumes about their intentions.

At the other end of the table, new boys Hull City and Stoke City would appear to be favorites for the dreaded drop, having the weakest on-paper squads in the top flight. There is no such thing as a bad team in the Premiership, however, and there may yet be a few surprises in store. Also facing a fight for those precious points (and thereby another season of Premiership soccer) will be perennial survivors West Ham United, who often appear to have a death grip on 15th place in the table come May. Joining them, I expect to see Wigan Athletic, Sunderland and quite probably Bolton Wanderers, unless Sammy Lee can pull off the same magic trick which former manager Sam Allardyce has achieved against the odds several times over the past few seasons.

In between the glory and the ignominy, the other new arrivals West Bromwich Albion will be the most likely to stay up, and I expect to see them consolidate their place among the big boys. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, currently undergoing a squad revamping of sorts, will also probably finish above the relegation dogfight, but may experience a few scares. Northeastern rivals Newcastle and Middlesbrough, as well as the currently managerless Blackburn, should expect to find themselves rounding out the mid-table places.

Perhaps I will be proven wrong, and each of these predictions will be out the window by October. However, the table as I expect to see it after all the dice have been rolled is as follows:

1. Manchester United
2. Liverpool
3. Chelsea
4. Tottenham Hotspur
5. Arsenal
6. Manchester City
7. Portsmouth
8. Everton
9. Aston Villa
10. Newcastle United
11. Blackburn Rovers
12. Middlesbrough
13. Wigan Athletic
14. Fulham
15. West Ham United
16. West Bromwich Albion
17. Sunderland
18. Bolton Wanderers
19. Hull City
20. Stoke City

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I’m just about sick of this evolution vs. creation debate that seems to pop up every few decades when the writers of educational policy have nothing better to do (or want to divert attention from their continued inability to stop fucking things up).

There is room for both in the world, and in the textbook.

Generally, given the choice between conjecture and evidence, I’ll go with the side that shows evidence. Which is customarily the side of science and technology rather than faith and dogma. I am willing to concede, however, that I don’t have the whole story, and that science is not infallible.

So:

In the beginning the Universe was created. This fact in and of itself has pissed a number of people off, and either George Bush or Osama bin Laden is probably looking for a reason to make war on it.

Was it created by God, or gods? Was it created from concentrated energy by a humongous kablooie? We may never know.

Here’s something to consider. Who is to say that the aforementioned humongous kablooie was random? Perhaps the Big Bang itself was itself ‘intelligent design’. It certainly strikes me as a convenient way to create a great deal of matter very fast.

Evolution, in and of itself, has been scientifically proven. It does happen. The fact of it still being called a theory is no different than the fact that some textbooks still refer to gravity that way. It’s not even all that much of a stretch to deduce the concept of evolution and the notion of the survival of the fittest from Mendel’s first few breeding experiments with garden vegetables. Ultimately, Darwin was not so stupid as to publish his findings unless there was something pretty solid to back them up.

It has not, however, been conclusively proven that we, Homo sapiens sapiens, evolved from anything. However, given our physical resemblance to Homo erectus, whose existence is also known to be fact, it seems at least feasible.

Perhaps evolution was actually a part of a greater plan. When God (or gods, though for simplicity I shall henceforth use the singular) decided that all things should come to be, perhaps it was His (or Her, but again I shall use the conventional phrasing) desire, His wish, that the world move on, beyond the original boundaries of its design. He would thus have created the laws of nature (including evolution) and the laws of physics (including those governing the formation of planets) as a framework within which this growth could occur.

We all know of the Missing Link in evolution – the piece of the puzzle that would supposedly connect us to earlier, less sophisticated primates, if only we could find it. Perhaps we didn’t actually evolve from them the same way everything else evolved. Perhaps God did put us here in place of other primate species which were dying out. He may have wished to see progress sooner, and thus introduced mankind into his design once everything else was in motion, which would be in keeping with the Biblical assertion that we were created last.

In the same vein, it is possible, ludicrous though it sounds, that the reason for the famous Missing Link is that some more advanced race from another planet chose to cross their own genetic strain with that of early humans, giving rise to an altogether new species – us. The Book of Genesis could simply have been their means of rationalizing it.

The creationists have a tough job here, since they not only have to prove the existence of God but prove that He created humans rather than having them evolve. It is very hard to unequivocally prove the existence of an intangible divine entity.

“God exists, for it is written in this Book.”
“How do we know that we can trust what is written in the Book?”
“The Book is the word of God.”

The circular reasoning takes us nowhere, and yet it is all but impossible for many of us to deny the existence of a greater Being of some sort. Many people, myself included, look in awe at the wonders of nature and find it hard to believe that all of this was created by random chance. We look at the unfathomably complex human body and can’t quite tell ourselves that this grew from a few molecules in some primordial muck.

I have moved away somewhat from actual educational policy. My own view is guided by my number one educational principle: that a student should always be free to ask questions, to find his or her own answers. This is progress. Two billion children learning to regurgitate accepted truths is not education, it is stagnation.

I have no objection to the teaching of creationism in schools per se; I do not, however, want to see the teaching of evolution suffer for it. An underlying problem of teaching creationism is the notion of separating Church and State, which I believe to be a good idea. I do not think, though, that too much religion is being introduced if the textbook simply says that “many people believe that the world, and human beings, were created by a God, as detailed in the Bible, Qu’ran and other sacred texts” and encourages students to consider all possibilities.

I think it best to avoid working with certain other discrepancies unless the student wishes to undertake research on it. For example: the creation happening in seven days versus billions of years, the Earth only being 6000 years old and the 13,000-year-old archeological evidence of cities. I myself attempted to pick out flaws in both sides when I was a young boy. My principal argument against the Creation story back then amounted to “Hey, where did Cain get a wife from?” I also learned of the Missing Link at around the same age.

So I don’t know which is true, or which parts of each are true. I only know that we don’t have all the answers yet, and we won’t get them unless we make sure the next generation knows that the answers are still waiting to be found. Throwing accusations and crying heresy will not help either side of this debate, because it’s a debate that doesn’t need sides. It needs open-mindedness from all parties.

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Having discussed in a previous post what it means to be America, let us turn our attention to one of the most divisive global issues of the present day: that of religious affiliation.

For all of the technological sophistication we have attained, for all of the nuances of civil discourse we have evolved, in matters of religion we are but a hair’s breadth separated from our tribal ancestors. The mere mention of religion can scrape away the thin veneer of cultural pluralism to which we pretend, leading to attitudes descending rapidly into a my-God’s-better-than-your-God schoolyard-style scrap.

If we accept the validity of all religions and keep our minds open to all of their teachings, we can quickly understand that we are blessed with a plethora of deities, spirits and otherworldly presences, each with wisdom to share if we but listen.

Regrettably, there are many among us whose minds are firmly closed to any truth not conforming to their preconceived mindset and dogma. This fundamentalist attitude is a disease of the small-minded, a disease responsible for unconscionable destruction of human lives and livelihoods. And the disease has proven to be not only resilient but surprisingly virulent in the current political climate.

There is a perception in America today that Islam is fundamentally evil, a perception born of ignorance and intolerance in both directions. The actions of a tiny minority of extremists have drastically colored the views of the American public, and a half billion decent, law-abiding Muslims have been tarred with the same brush. A recent story carried by the American news media showed that some American voters, even registered Democrats, are unwilling to vote for Barack Obama because he is a Muslim. Leaving aside the erroneousness of the statement, it highlights the view that all Muslims are to be considered untrustworthy.

Likewise, there is a view among many Muslims that America has essentially declared a jihad against their faith, that all Americans are intolerant of their beliefs and hell-bent on their eradication. This too is based very much on the actions of certain far-right extremists in the American political arena.

Similar conflicts beset Israel and its neighbors, as well as tribal groups worldwide. The sad fact is that a vast majority of the world’s people genuinely yearn for peace, even those who believe that peace can only come as a result of violence. There are even those who believe that the price of peace is the wholesale vernichtung of one side or the other.

The truth is that most wars, most conflicts, most misunderstandings can be avoided before they begin, simply through the effort to listen to another’s position with an open mind and the willingness to find a mutually acceptable compromise.

I would recommend that every Christian take the time to read al-Qu’ran and that every Muslim take the time to read the Bible. Each making even this much effort to understand the other could lend itself to a massive change.

Muslims are enjoined to greet one another by saying ‘Assalam-o-Alaikum’ that is, peace be upon you. According to a saying of the Prophet, the best Islam is to greet everyone you come across, regardless of whether or not you are acquainted with the person.

Likewise, peace is inherent in Christianity. Jesus said it bluntly: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). The Gospels also provide this gem from Luke 1:78-79: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Let us not forget Judaism in all of this, a religion often disparaged by Christians and Muslims alike. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “By three things is the world preserved: judgment, truth and peace. And all three are in effect one.”

Many of the Eastern traditions stress that peace within oneself and peace within the world go hand in hand, and that neither can be achieved fully without the other. A wide variety of Native American traditions stress similar points.

So is our history truly nothing more than a series of wars over which of these peace-loving religions is supreme?

It would certainly be more constructive to draw a line under the long history of wars and instead allow history yet in the making to be a series of lessons on how best to understand each other.

The word ‘religion’ comes from roots meaning “to re-tie” – that is, to re-establish the bond between oneself and the Divine. Perhaps this bond would be better served if our particular Divine were more than something to take out of our back pockets and wave threateningly at people we don’t know or understand.

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