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April 29, 2007

Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.0: Feb 07 issue

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SCOTT ME UP, BEAMIE

Ian Wishart discovers speech recognition software is light years ahead of where it used to be


It was in the mid 90s that Dragon and I first became acquainted, and I won’t say it was love at first sight. I remember walking into a Noel Leeming store and being told to come back in a week when the new, Dragon 2.0 version would be out - “much improved” on version one, the salesman assured me.

I bought it, and given the limitations of the old 486 processors (remember those?) and the software, it worked OK. Good enough to be novel, not good enough to write a novel, if you get the drift, and certainly not as fast as speaking or as fast as a good typist.

As a writer and book publisher, there were however certain tasks – like dictating someone else’s handwritten book manuscript – that made speech recognition software useful.

I vaguely recall purchasing Dragon 4.0 at some point then misplacing it, and so purchasing Dragon 7.0 a couple of years ago when, again, I needed to dictate 50 pages of transcripts of a major Maori hui dating from 1861 for an Investigate article.

It would be fair to say I was impressed by Dragon 7.0 and its ability, once I had trained it, to handle complex Maori tribal names and places like Whakarewarewa. Nothing wrong with version 7 at all and I still have it on one of the office computers, but when Mistral Software – the NZ agents for Nuance who now own Dragon – sent through the latest release, Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.0, I have to say I was blown away.

The speed at which the software now translates as you speak is incredible, and the accuracy is stunning to boot. We used it over the New Year break here at Investigate to compile the John Key/Bill English interviews in this issue – I simply played back the interviews on my MP3 recorder and live-dictated the questions and answers into the computer. The software transcribed so rapidly (Dragon boast 160 words per minute) that most of the time it was waiting for me, while I was trying to repeat a politician’s words on the wing so to speak whilst dropping the ums, ahs and pauses.

Like much of the software, and for that matter hardware, on the market today, Dragon 9.0 is capable of far much more than the average punter will use. In some programmes that’s a negative because they’re so complex to navigate and unlock. In Dragon’s case the company has always erred on the side of idiots, offering a package that allows users to either dip their toes in or plunge in. Like peeling away the layers of an onion, regular use of Dragon 9.0 turns up new tricks and new options on a semi-intuitive basis.

It can, for example, scan a downloaded voice memo from a digital recorder, Palm handheld or Pocket PC device, and automatically transcribe and type it out. Bluetooth headphone support is built in, allowing you to pace the room wirelessly while dictating. If the idea of bells and whistles excites you, why stop at dictation? Dragon is also pitching virtually keyboard-free use of your computer simply by talking to it.

There’s a memorable scene from the 1986 movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where Scottie confronts a 1980s desktop computer and tries desperately to make it respond to his voice. It was to be a further 11 years before the first Dragon programme hit shop shelves to help make Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic vision real.
Dragon 9.0, however, is itself galaxies away from its 1997 ancestor. Nuance are boasting 99% accuracy with the latest version and, for the first time, no lengthy training process. In previous versions time had to be spent reading set scripts for yonks while the computer got used to your voice patterns. No longer. In what Nuance claim is a world first, it’s virtually out of the box and go, and the software learns intuitively the more you work with it. Streamlined processing means coughs, sneezes, ums and ahs are all screened out, so they no longer appear on screen like a swearword in an Asterix comic.

As an office tool it’s excellent. As a homework aid, it allows students to much more quickly add passages from books or encyclopedias to their work

There are specialized versions available for the legal and medical professions, and the standard version of Dragon 9.0 kicks in at NZ$259 with a “Preferred” edition aimed at small business/home business users at $449, and a Professional edition for corporate and network use available as well.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 08:55 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2007

Book Reviews: April 07 issue

In association with The Nile
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PAGE-TURNERS

Michael Morrissey's picks for an Indian summer

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INES OF MY SOUL by Isabel Allende, Fourth Estate, $36.99

Ines of my Soul is Allende's tenth novel – and an excellent one it is too. Initially a fully paid up member of the Magic Realism school, she, like Louis de Bernieres, has to a large degree moved onto being a historical novelist sans the Irish tall story-style embellishments which characterise this highly influential manner of writing fiction extensively deployed by Latin American writers for several decades.

Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, widely regarded as the world's greatest living writer, is most famously associated with Magic Realism. While Allende is not quite in Marquez's class, she is a very good writer indeed and this novel shows off her talents to great advantage. Magic Realism, richly imbued with what might be dubbed the Latin American voice, is characterised by narrative being overwhelmingly dominant over dialogue which becomes correspondingly sparse; a heavy Latinate style; highly colourful character contrasts and of course touches of wild exaggeration.

In Ines of my Soul the exaggerations are minimal, and Magic Realism greatly diminished. Instead we have a rich surfeit of blood and thunder sixteenth century conquistadors armed with sharp swords and large doses of warrior spirit as they set about the brutal conquest of Chile. Blood lust, gold lust (as well as the usual fleshy variety) permeate this complex tale narrated by Ines Suarez, a passionate woman who loses a husband and gains a lover - the war hero Pedro de Valdivar, a lieutenant so to speak, of Francisco Pizarro, the most famous conquistador of them all.

Ines, like the men who stride through these pages, is no lily-white lady herself. She is a swordswoman who beheads her enemies, and doesn't seem overly bothered by the ruthless conquest of the local Indians and the unflinchingly stoic Mapuche – who do not break even under torture. I did not, as some hostile reviewers imagine, that Allende herself condones this behaviour but assume like all good fiction writers she is letting her story and character speak for themselves with the voices of their time – accordingly, it is for us in more hopefully enlightened times to make a more strict moral judgment.

The book is energetic and colourful throughout though at times I found myself wondering is every man so swashbuckling (ie tall, handsome, cruel, a great lover, an even greater swordsman, and always greedy for gold) – aren't there cobblers and or cooks labouring away humbly? But this is after all the dashing world of the conquistadors and the violent world of sixteenth century Chile.

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CROCODILE by Lynne Kelly, Allen &Unwin, $39.99

Whether through fear, sound survival instinct or meagre travel, I have led a crocodile-free existence. Reading this book - unlike a book on orangutans or dolphins - doesn't make me pine for any personal encounters. The scaly monster, which may well be the fact-founded basis for dragon legends, more than lives up its reputation as a fearsome man-muncher.

Some crocodile facts – there are fourteen species of crocodile, eight of alligator and caiman and one only of gharial. One of the India crocs is cutely named a mugger. The most recently discovered crocodile is the Philippine crocodile - in 1935. The most to be feared are the Australian fresh water crocodile affectionately nick-named “freshies” and the Nile crocodile both of which have claimed many lives. The latter kills hundreds of people a year though Kelly points out there are 800 million people in Africa – and the hippo kills more. In general, people do not survive a crocodile attack but Val Plumwood survived three of the dreaded death rolls by an Australian freshwater crocodile in 1985. Some accounts of their ferocity have proved to be exaggerations – the tale that nearly a 1000 Japanese soldiers were eaten in Burma during the Second World War in a single night is a wild exaggeration spawned of wartime wishful thinking.

The crocodile is a remarkable animal. It can advance on prey without causing a ripple, and their blood's unique chemistry enables it to utilise more oxygen from a breath of air than any other animal; it is the only animal that has actively controlled muscular valves in its heart. Its incredible immune system means that even serious gashes heal in a few days due to an antibiotic in their blood called “crocodillin” – currently the object of research to see if we humans can befit from it – hopefully it will not turn our skins scaly. (And just to confuse, crocodiles are often referred to as crocodilians.) Their toughness is legendary. Captain Lort Stokes of the Beagle wrote, “It was not before he had received six balls in the head that he consented to be killed”.

Though the alligator is a much more peaceful beast than the crocodile, attacks have increased because people feed them – they then begin to associate food with human beings and act accordingly. Though reputedly you can keep a crocodile's jaws shut with a strong rubber band (something I'm not about to test any time soon), it takes an almighty amount of force to open them once they are closed shut.

This is a lovely and well-informed book with inside covers appropriately rendered in a crocodile skin motif plus some startling art illustrations ranging from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary Aborigine showing the crocodile and humans have been acquainted for thousands of years. An excellent gift for reptile lovers - and one that won't bite.

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IN THE NAME OF HONOUR by Mukhtar Mai,Virago, $34.99

Mukhtar Mai's tale is a harrowing but ultimately heroic one. In the savage world of Pakistan tribal custom in which she was raised, western notions of justice do not figure. In this brutal world, one member of a family can be punished for the crimes of another. Standards of proof are low or difficult to impossible. A woman who is raped, for instance, needs the testimony of four honest Muslim men and, as Mai ironically points out, sometimes – as in her case - the only four such witnesses are the very ones who perpetrated the deed! And what criminal is going to testify against himself?

Mai's living nightmare began when her younger brother aged but twelve was accused of flirting, then of raping Salma, “a rather wild young woman in her twenties”. His punishment was to be kidnapped, beaten and sodomised - for merely talking! If that were not enough, Mai was abducted and then systematically raped by four men. In her society, it was expected that through feelings of shame, she would commit suicide. Instead, her anger compelled her to live and seek justice. Sometimes “shamed” women are mutilated – their noses cut off – at least Mai was spared this barbarity.

In her rage, Mai contemplated hiring hitmen to kill her attackers or buying a gun herself but in her society women have no money. Instead she chose to seek justice through the legal system. Fortunately, the judge who heard her story was fair, impartial and patient. She describes him as “a distinguished man, very polite, and the first official to call for an extra chair so that I may sit down”. Whenever she became agitated he told her to calm down, take her time, have a sip of water. Thus gradually was her story revealed.

Over and over again, Mai makes the point that the fact she was illiterate made her vulnerable to manipulation. A standard technique was for the police to write the “confession” or statement the way it suited them and for the non-literate woman to affix her thumb print. Obviously the woman in question is not accurately aware of the content of what she is 'signing'.

Luckily, Mai's case was taken up by the media and Amnesty International also became aware of it. The course of justice was not smooth. Initially,14 men were arrested, six condemned to death, eight set free. Then five were acquitted. Finally, after the intervention of the Prime Minister, the men were re-arrested together with the originally freed eight. Thus at the conclusion of the book justice appears to have won out – no easy task in her country. Mai ends her book with this plea: “.... the real question my country must ask itself is, if the honour of men lies in women, why do men want to rape or kill that honour?”

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LIMERICKS: THE OAKLEY COLLECTION by John Bentley, Polygraphia, $25

John Bentley is already a noted short story writer of witty complex stories deploying a neo-Joycean playfulness with language accompanied by learned footnotes giving his oeuvre a late modernist ambiance. In addition, he is a noted limerickist and this collection has numerous amusing example of the genre.

The limerick is a five-line poem with two recurring rhymes in an aabba formation. Though it has been most famously associated with Edward Lear – who write 212 of them and is known as the poet laureate of the genre – it dates back to ancient Greek times. There are also several examples in the plays of Shakespeare. Other distinguished writers such as Tennyson, Swinburne, Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson have seasoned the mix.

The modern limerick, like the short story invented by Poe, often has a twist or punch in the last line – and bawdy or ribald examples are legion. Many of us have probably heard, over a few pints, bawdy variations of the man from Nantucket. The form allows for play with language, deliberate misspellings, split line typography to achieve unlikely rhymes and so forth.

Bentley's limericks range far and wide from the local to overseas, with learned references from history, literature and psychology:

“The Magic Flute takes more time that it warrants,”
Said Bruno (the muso and thespian) Lawrence,
Whose company, Blerta
Never performed “Zauberflote”
I believe Freud would explain his abhorrence.

And in more satirical vein:

Said J Hunt, “There's a current malpractice
To address me, on e-mail or faxes,
In a manner quite sinister,
As a Cabernet minister!
Be assured, when I order a cab, it's a taxi!”

In naughtier bawdier vein – and more salty examples can be therein located - is this item:

There was an old fellow from Clapham
Had bollocks so low he could trap 'em
By crossing his knees
Though a cough, frat or sneeze,
Or patellar reflex would un-wrap 'em.

In addition, there are a goodly number of paintings and line drawings which add an attractive visual flavour to the combination - Bravo John Bentley!

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NEW ZEALAND AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN edited by Stephen Levine, Victoria University Press, $35

This intriguing book is a collection of 14 essays by leading academic historians speculating on alternative pathways for New Zealand history. Normally the zone of fiction writers - consider for example the large number of works on the topic of Germany winning the war – here the new 'discipline” of counterfactual history is debated and defended. While some historians (though none are named) are not happy with this type of speculation, the historians contributing here have gleefully taken part and cooked up multiple versions of our possible pasts. Time travel by historians instead of fictioneers is a pleasing novelty though at times the ideas might have enjoyed a more dramatic exploration by the latter instead of the former. Still, this is a brave and in the main, successful attempt by customarily fusty academics to plumb alternative futures, or should I say alternative pasts.

As a World World Two freak, I found the alternative of Japan invading New Zealand by leading war historian Ian McGibbon the most adrenalin-raising and the notion of Nelson becoming the capital of New Zealand by editor Stephen Levine the least interesting (sorry Stephen). McGibbon's exploration has Japan invading Wellington and occupying the central part of the country. As many as 6 atomic bombs instead of the historic two are needed to bring about eventual defeat in 1946.

Giselle Byrnes asks “What if the Treaty of Waitangi had not been signed on 6 February 1840?” and concludes that the most likely outcome is that “the British would have annexed only those areas that British settlers had occupied leaving Maori with their autonomy intact”. A similar speculation – looking at the notion of Maori not being made British subjects in 1840 - leads to the startling conclusion that the wars of the 1860s could have been avoided.

Erik Olssen looks at the possibility that strikers in the 1913 Waihi strike - New Zealand's largest – succeeded and concludes that New Zealand would have moved more sharply to the Left and the Labour Party would never have been founded in 1916 – tough luck Helen!

Donald Anderson has several startling variations to offer - Churchill killed in the Boer War so no invasion of the Dardanelles, no entry of Turkey into the First World War so no glorious defeat at Gallipoli. And a chapter in a similar vein by Denis McLean has Prime Minister Savage reversing his famous words thus: “Where she goes, we cannot blindly go; where she stands, we do not find cause to stand”. Heresy!

John Wilson suggests that Muldoon Think Big projects may have failed in the late 1970s due to an unexpected drop in oil prices but the current oil crisis may force us to re-examine this philosophy. Other topics covered include speculation over the All Blacks not winning the final test in 1981, Ruth Richardson not delivering the mother of all budgets and Winston Peters not going with Labour in 1996.

To my mind the obvious omission from this collection is What if the Spaniards Had Discovered New Zealand Before the Dutch and the British? The notion has been investigated by several authors including Robert Langdon, Roger Herve, Ross Wiseman and K.L. Howe and many others including my own fictional account in Paradise to Come.

It will be fascinating to see what other professional historians of the non-counterfactual variety make of this collection of essays by their more fearless - or should that be reckless? - colleagues.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:38 PM | Comments (0)

Blame it on Rio: April 07 issue

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BLAME IT ON THE RAIN

Chris Welsch discovers Samba is the heartbeat of Brazil, and manages to avoid the Carnival

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Rain fell in sheets that battered the pavement like the waves crashing on nearby Ipanema Beach. The beat was steady and slow - whush, whush, whush, whush. The taxi pulled up, slick and yellow, and my wife and I ran out of the door of our hotel, hunched against the deluge, to meet it. Inside the cab, our Brazilian friend greeted us with apologies for the rain.

Our destination for the evening was the Rival Theatre, which occupies a cavernous basement hall with an entry on a narrow side street in the Lapa District, one of Rio's oldest, grandest neighborhoods.

Our friend, Cristina Walmsley, a carioca (native of Rio), was well-known to the doorman, who greeted her and my wife with kisses and me with a heartfelt handshake. We entered the hall, and a waitress took us to a table not far from the stage.

Shortly thereafter, Arlindo Cruz, a massive man with a tiny mandolin, sat down on a stool center stage. More than a dozen percussionists, guitarists and horn players lined up behind him and they began to play. They took up the beat of the rain and the ocean - steady, even, seductive. That was the base from which Cruz's plaintive vocals rose and fell.

At the first note, the music lifted everyone in the bar onto their feet. Men elegantly shuffled the tidy two-step of the samba. Their female dance partners matched the beat with their feet, but doubled it with their hips. There was no self-conscious hesitation; the separation between band and crowd didn't exist. Cruz sang, the crowd sang. The band members danced, we all danced. That is the spirit of samba.

We went to Brazil on a long-postponed honeymoon, but the reason we'd chosen the destination was for its music. One borrowed CD a few years ago has led to an obsession with the popular sounds of Brazil.

As human beings, we are often drawn to what is alien to us. My genes, and those of my wife, Silke Schroeder, came down from people who lived in the darker, colder parts of the world.

Samba, with its distinctive, floating downbeat, is a product of warm, sunny places. At its core, driven by percussion, samba has African roots, but like Brazil itself, samba is a stew of other places. From Portugal, samba gets its guitars, and an undertow of heartbreak. From indigenous Brazil, samba is infused with the soul of the country itself. Samba's most distinctive sound is the lilt of the cuica. If you've heard samba, you know that squeaky cry - it sounds like it's coming from a jungle bird of particularly iridescent plumage. The moment I heard samba, I felt a twitch in my hips and a strong pull toward Brazil.

We had a room at the Arpoador Inn, a hotel at the eastern end of Ipanema Beach. It was plain, clean, comfortable and right on the waterfront. We slipped into a leisurely carioca rhythm. We hit the beach during the day, the clubs at night, all the while accompanied by a steady samba beat, whether it was set by drums or waves or just a passerby, singing on the sidewalk.

Infrequently, we roused ourselves from sun-drenched torpor to explore Rio, a city of magnificent and miserable extremes. The dragon-backed mountains that ring the beaches serve as the majestic if unsteady foundation for the tumble-down slums called favelas that precariously cling to their flanks. Those who can afford it live on the low ground, near Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. There, on the sand, some of Rio's extremes meet. One group tans and swims, the other rents umbrellas and sells snacks.

We did our part, watching the surf and the passing show from under an umbrella, drinking iced coconut milk and snacking on Globo biscuits, which look like doughnuts made of styrofoam. For some reason they were saltily delicious and crunchy on the beach; when we ate them anywhere else they tasted like salted styrofoam.

We didn't want to spend our whole honeymoon in the middle of a big drunken party. So as Carnival approached, we left Rio. The sentiment was shared by some cariocas, apparently. When we told our hotel manager we were checking out for a week, he said, "Can I come with you?"

We had made reservations at a pousada (a small inn) on Ilha Grande, about 160 kilometres south of Rio. Getting there involved three hours in a private bus and another hour by ferry.

The words Ilha Grande are delicious in Portuguese - EEla GRANji, but they just mean Big Island. Until 10 years ago, it was home to a prison known as the Devil's Cauldron and a small village where the prison employees and their families lived. Now it is my idea of paradise: a car-less isle with a few hotels and restaurants, big, empty beaches, shady jungle trails and not much to do.

Silke had spent many hours on the internet finding Pousada Asalem, and all that research had paid off. It was in an isolated spot in the jungle, a half-hour walk from the island's only village, on a slope overlooking the bay.

There was a main house, with a big veranda where meals were served. The six rooms were built into the side of the hill above. The pousada's chefs served us meals of fresh fruit, eggs from the resident chickens, fish from the sea. Our suite had an airy loft, a giant yellow hammock and a palm-framed view of the bay. At night, samba from the Carnival parties in the village of Abraao drifted across the bay.

On the day of Carnival, we walked into town to catch the parade. It consisted of a marching samba band of about 20 villagers followed by a troupe of 40 children in costumes followed by another 100 people shuffling along to the pounding drums and blasting horns. It lasted about a half-hour, everyone cheered and sang, and then it was over. It was perfect.

A stage had been set up on the town square for a night of pop music and dancing for the young folk. We left before the real debauchery kicked in, although we heard music and shouting in the distance until after 3 a.m. At one point I heard what I thought might be gunfire.

At breakfast the next day, Paolo, the manager of the pousada, told us we'd missed some excitement. "I was there watching from the second story of a bar," he said. "A fight broke out. There was one police. He broke up the fight, but then the mother of one of the guys started biting him. Then that guy got mad because the police was hitting his mother. They both attacked him. Then the police pulled his gun and shot into the air, but they kept hitting on him. So he shot the guy in the foot. Then more police come and shoot pepper spray. I got some in my throat. It was a mess."

He told the story with some concern, which evaporated the minute the story ended. He never mentioned it again, and neither did anyone else.

Still, the story echoed later in the day. We went on a hike through the jungle to a tiny beach, where we met an American woman named Bobbi Oleo, her Brazilian fiance and several of their friends. They were all from Sao Paolo, and like most of the other tourists on the island, they were refugees from the big Carnival celebrations in the cities. They invited us to join their group for lunch.

"By now you've figured out that Brazilians are whimsical," Oleo said. "They change plans very easily. They say they're doing one thing and then do something else. That's probably why they're happy most of the time, even though things are difficult here. They live in the moment."

To that end she told us about the time she and her fiance were stuck in a traffic jam in Sao Paolo, on their way to a concert. A man came up to their car and robbed them at gunpoint. She was traumatized and wanted to go home, but Eduardo (the fiance) didn't see why. "He didn't want to let a little armed robbery ruin an evening of music."

Rio seemed a little tired and run-down when we returned. Pieces of paper, colorful feathers and sparkly pieces of what had been very small costumes littered the ground around the Arpoador Inn.

The beach was just as we left it, and our favorite umbrella vendor welcomed us home to our lazy post by the sea. I did feel a small ghost of regret flitting through my mind. I missed Carnival in Rio: The ultimate samba celebration. There are huge samba clubs of 4,000 to 5,000 people that spend the whole year writing and perfecting a samba, making costumes and building a float for the big contest at the Sambodrome, where more than 100,000 people will join them in song.

That night we consoled ourselves to a fine meal at a feijoada restaurant. Feijoada is one of Brazil's distinctive dishes: a hearty black-bean stew that is a staple of Carnival time. Loaded with cured beef, spareribs and sausage, it's remarkably heavy. As we were walking home, Silke pondered, "How can people eat like this and then dance?"

Not 10 minutes later, we saw a truck coming down Avenue Viera Souto, which fronts Ipanema beach. On top of the truck was a band. Twenty drummers marched behind it. A crowd of at least 200 dancers followed, doing the samba.

The band played the same song, over and over, and as the waves of sound washed over us, our feet moved, our hips shook, and we sang even though we didn't know what the words meant.

Bean stew, the heaviness, the impending trip back to a cold, hard place - none of that even came to mind.
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AN EAR FOR BRAZIL
Music pervades every aspect of life in Brazil; accordingly, the depth and breadth of recordings is rich. Here are a few starting points for an aural expedition.
Luaka Bop/ Brazil Classics
The CD series from David Byrne (former frontman of the Talking Heads) offers samples of many artists, styles and time periods. It is an irresistible invitation to the world of Brazilian music.
Martinho da Vila
This samba legend with a deep, melodic voice developed a reputation as a master composer and singer during a 40-year career.
Marisa Monte
The Brazilian pop diva dabbles in many styles. "Universo ao Meu Redor," a recent release, is a passionate study of samba, even if it is too slick to satisfy old-school samba fans.
Caetano Veloso
Veloso - one of Brazil's national treasures - has spent his remarkable career moving fluidly from one style to another with the only constant his signature, lilting voice.
Jorge Ben
Another groundbreaker, Ben merged funk and samba to create a sound all his own. "Africa Brasil" remains a classic of Brazilian popular music; my favorite Ben CD is "A Tabua de Esmeralda."
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A traveler's checklist for Brazil
RIO DE JANEIRO
Explorer Amerigo Vespucci was better suited to naming things than he was to figuring out what they were. When the Portuguese ship he was piloting floated into Guanabara Bay on Jan. 1, 1502, Vespucci wrongly believed it was a river mouth. Thus, he dubbed the place the River of January, though there is no river. Now Rio (pronounced HEE-u in Portuguese) is home to 6 million cariocas (the preferred label for Rio-ites), with a laid-back attitude and culture that is unique even in Brazil.
CRIME
In Brazil, crushing poverty fuels crime in the big cities. Holdups and petty theft against tourists are not uncommon in Rio de Janeiro. Even well-traveled neighborhoods such as Lapa, where many of the liveliest nightclubs are found, are unsafe at night. Having a friend in Rio who knew taxi drivers and where to pick them up safely was invaluable. In daylight, tourist areas are generally safe. Nighttime requires more caution. Use taxis and avoid solo travel. The U.S. State Department consular information sheet is worth reading: travel.state.gov/travel.
TWO BOOKS
Don't head to Brazil without a good guide. Lonely Planet's Brazil guides are reliably comprehensive. If Rio is on the itinerary, read "Rio de Janeiro/Carnival Under Fire" by Ruy Castro, a true carioca. In 242 pages, he somehow manages to weave together all the disparate strands of Rio into something truly beautiful and melodic, like the city itself.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:37 PM | Comments (0)

April 05, 2007

An Easter Story

They’re calling it the most explosive movie on the life of Christ ever made, but as millions flock to see The Passion, sceptics and evangelists are again at loggerheads over the truth of the Gospel story. IAN WISHART analyses the arguments.

“Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, but fail to see; and ears, but fail to hear? And don’t you remember…?” The words of history’s most controversial figure echo down through twenty centuries and onto cinema multiplexes worldwide this month, yet the question Jesus Christ posed to the world back in AD 33 is as pungent now as it was then.

Could Christ really have been the Son of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One? Or was he just an itinerant preacher who happened to come up with what even critics regard as an impeccable moral code?
Mel Gibson’s move makes no apologies for painting Christ as the Messiah.

Newsweek magazine, Time and the NZ Herald, to name just a few media outlets, make no apologies for attacking the Christian gospels as fairy stories and The Passion as an anti-Semitic hate film.

So which is it to be – fabrication or fundamental truth? Newsweek’s basic premise is that Gibson’s movie relies on an “unreliable” source: The Bible.

“The Bible can be a problematic source,” writes Newsweek’s Jon Meacham in the Feb 16 cover story. “Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance.”

Meacham’s criticism is similar to those expressed by liberal theologians and sceptics everywhere, and naturally in the Newsweek article it goes unchallenged. But is it really true?

“Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events,” he wrote in the anchorpoint to both his paragraph and the entire premise of his article. However, Meacham is just plain wrong.

“Archaeology,” writes William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology and regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in his field, has been unable to “disprove the Bible’s assertions of the meanings of events.” Further, he writes in a scathing critique of liberals who recently tried to claim the Old Testament was a complete myth and there really was no “ancient Israel”, the liberals overlook the fact that the Bible writers “got right virtually every detail [of history] that we can now confirm”. And William Dever is an atheist.

In other words, the Bible has not only survived the heaviest onslaught critics could throw at it during the 20th century, it has passed absolutely unscathed in regard to its accuracy.

Nor is Dever the secular humanist alone in making such claims defending the historical accuracy of Scripture. So too does Norman Geisler, widely regarded as one of Christianity’s leading philosophers and historians.

“Not one error that extends to the original text of the Bible has ever been demonstrated,” says Geisler, who takes the accuracy of the world’s most popular book seriously. So what would Geisler say to the second part of Meacham’s premise, where he wrote:

“The Bible is the product of human authors” – automatically implying not just the capacity for error but also deliberate deception in the comments that followed, even though no errors have actually been discovered.

Geisler sets out the logic behind the claim like this:

“Some biblical scholars argue that the Bible cannot be inerrant, through some faulty reasoning:

1. The Bible is a human book
2. Humans err
3. Therefore, the Bible errs.

“The error of this reasoning,” says Geisler, “can be seen from equally erroneous reasoning:

1. Jesus was a human being
2. Human beings sin
3. Therefore, Jesus sinned.”

But of course, there is no indication either inside the Bible or outside it that Jesus Christ ever sinned, and Geisler uses this as an example of where the liberal logic goes astray.

“The mistake is to assume that Jesus is simply human. Mere human beings sin. But Jesus was not a mere human being. He was also God. Likewise, the Bible is not merely a human book; it is also the Word of God. There can no more be an error in God’s written Word than there was a sin in God’s living Word.”

Where Geisler does acknowledge that difficulties can arise is in human interpretation of the Bible.

But Meacham’s chief line of attack against The Passion is that Gibson took the New Testament “too literally” and his film is therefore “anti Semitic”. Meacham lays the blame for that not just with Gibson but also the Gospel writers themselves.

“So why was the Gospel story - the story Gibson has drawn on - told in a way that makes "the Jews" look worse than the Romans? The Bible did not descend from heaven fully formed and edged in gilt. The writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John shaped their narratives several decades after Jesus' death to attract converts and make their young religion - understood by many Christians to be a faction of Judaism - attractive to as broad an audience as possible.”

Again, Meacham’s key assumption, that “the Bible did not descend from heaven fully formed and edged in gilt”, colours his whole approach, as does his subsequent comment that the Gospels were written “decades” after the events in question. In fact, even liberal scholar John A. T. Robinson has gone on record as being convinced that the whole of the New Testament must have been written and completed before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 – less than 40 years after the death of Christ and well within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses who could have contradicted any errors in the Gospel accounts.

However, Meacham goes on to develop the theme further when he accuses the Gospel writer Matthew of being “partisan” for including the line at Matt 27:25, “Let his blood be upon us and on our children” in reference to taunts from the Jewish crowd when Pilate was deciding whether to crucify Christ.

From the end of a phone line 10,000 kilometres away, leading New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg is saddened by those trying to make capital out of alleged anti-Semitism in the movie.

“They’ve interpreted that as somehow a condemnation of the entire Jewish race,” comments Blomberg – author of the books The Historical Reliability of The Gospels and Jesus and the Gospels – currently based as a Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary, Colorado.

“As a historian, the important thing to stress is that Jesus was a Jew, all his first followers were Jewish, this was an internecine Jewish debate. The crowd was simply using the standard Hebrew idiom for saying ‘we accept responsibility for this person’s death’. In no way is it an indictment of the whole race or even the entire Jewish leadership.”

Like many others, Blomberg is well aware of the anti-Passion spin the media have been creating at every opportunity. He’s also aware that attacking the movie has become somewhat of a cause celebre for liberals wanting to redefine and limit Jesus Christ.

In the Newsweek article, for example, there are many pointers to the writer’s hidden agenda.

“The Gospels were composed to present Jesus in the best possible light,” writes Meacham, “and to put the Temple leadership in the worst possible light.” He adds that Matthew must have been writing after the fall of Jerusalem because he presumes the “blood be on us” comment to refer to the Jewish rebellion that culminated in the events of AD 70.

And it is here in the Newsweek story that Meacham begins to proffer his own version of who Christ was – not a spiritual leader but a political one who posed a direct threat to Rome, not the Jews and who, presumably, got his comeuppance.

To back up this line of reasoning, Meacham first argues that the two men crucified beside Jesus were not criminals but freedom fighters.
“In the age of Roman domination, only Rome crucified. The crime was sedition, not blasphemy—a civil crime, not a religious one. The two men who were killed along with Jesus are identified in some translations as "thieves," but the word can also mean "insurgents," supporting the idea that crucifixion was a political weapon used to send a message to those still living: beware of revolution or riot, or Rome will do this to you, too.”

Meacham does not reveal the source of his “insurgents” interpretation, but the most authentic ancient texts use the Greek words “kakourgos” – or “worker of evil” – and “lestes” – or “robber, brigand, one who plunders openly and by violence”. The clear context in both cases is of a criminal, “for profit” motive.

In fact, the New Testament provides an ideal contrast in the language it uses to describe Barabbas, a man who was an insurgent and who stood beside Christ as a fellow Roman prisoner when Pontius Pilate asked the Jewish crowd which prisoner they’d prefer to see released on Passover. Luke’s Gospel records Barabbas had been arrested by the Romans for murder and trying to lead a revolution.

“If Jesus had not been a political threat,” writes Meacham, “why bother with the trouble of crucifixion? There is also evidence that Jesus' arrest was part of a broader pattern of violence or feared violence this Passover. Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus, was, according to Mark, "among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection"—suggesting that Pilate was concerned with "rebels" and had already confronted an "insurrection" some time before he interrogated Jesus.

“Clear evidence of the political nature of the execution—that Pilate and the high priest were ridding themselves of a "messiah" who might disrupt society, not offer salvation—is the sign Pilate ordered affixed to Jesus' cross. The message is not from the knowing Romans to the evil Jews. It is, rather, a scornful signal to the crowds that this death awaits any man the pilgrims proclaim "the king of the Jews."

The problem for Meacham and liberal critics of The Passion, is that – based on their argument - Pilate would presumably have sent an even stronger message to “the pilgrims” if he’d nailed the more popular Barabbas to the cross, not Christ. There is no suggestion in the Gospels, or outside the Bible, that Christ led “insurgents” in any political campaign against Rome. In fact, every reference to Christ outside the Bible talks more of Jesus’ alleged “sorcery”, and people worshipping him “as to a god”, rather than a political campaign.

“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged,” records a Jewish Sanhedrin document from around 90 AD. “He has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy [rejection of orthodox Judaism].”

The Roman governor Pliny, writing to the Emperor Trajan around the same time, records: “[the Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up…”

Now, if that’s a political rebellion in the making then the Moon is made of green cheese.

Another Roman historian, Suetonius, writing of the period after Nero’s great fire of Rome about thirty years after the crucifixion, says “After the great fire at Rome…punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.”

Meacham is right in only one respect, that Rome ultimately had much to fear from the spread of Christianity. But to argue as Newsweek does that Pontius Pilate was fearful back in 33 AD of the impact of a non-violent itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus who might lead an “insurgency” is widely regarded as laughable by many historians.

Meacham writes: “It was as the church's theology took shape, culminating in the Council of Nicaea in 325, that Jesus became the doctrinal Christ, the Son of God "who for us men and our salvation," the council's original creed declared, "descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead."

But if Meacham is correct here, how does he reconcile his claim that Christ only became “the Son of God” in 325 AD, when the passages above show Christ being worshipped as God virtually from the moment of his crucifixion almost three hundred years earlier?

Even more troublesome for Meacham is perhaps the oldest passage in the entire New Testament, Paul’s dissertation on the divinity of Christ at 1 Corinthians 15:3, where he says:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance – that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.”

Denver Seminary’s Craig Blomberg explains the significance.

“You have somebody like Paul describing Christian traditions and beliefs that were passed on to him from Day 1 of his conversion, which was within two years of the death of Christ! So you have full belief in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus two years, not 325 years, after the death of Jesus.

“Now, can you still dispute the truth of those claims even in that short period of time? Sure, but to say that no one believed in the divinity of Jesus or the exalted view until 325 AD is simply a flat out factual mistake. It simply is a flat-out lie and untrue to history to say that nobody made this claim until 325, when they’d made it long before 50 AD.”

So the liberal claim that Christ only “became God” hundreds of years later because of the Church is a myth with no factual backing, yet it repeatedly goes unchallenged.

Meacham and Newsweek’s disdain for Christ’s claim to be God is clear from his article.

“The climax comes when [Jewish High Priest] Caiaphas asks Jesus: "Are you the Messiah?" and Jesus says, "I am..." and alludes to himself as "the Son of Man." There is a gasp; the high priest rends his garments and declares Jesus a blasphemer… There is much here to give the thinking believer pause. "Son of God" and "Son of Man" were fairly common appellations for religious figures in the first century. And it was not "blasphemy" to think of yourself as the "Messiah," which more than a few Jewish figures had claimed to be without meeting Jesus' fate, except possibly at the hands of the Romans. The definition of blasphemy was a source of fierce Jewish argument, but it turned on taking God's name in vain—and nothing in the Gospel trial scenes supports the idea that Jesus crossed that line.”

If it was quite common for people to call themselves the Son of God, why then did Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin react the way they did?
Meacham may attempt to shrug off the context, but Luke’s Gospel tells a different story:

“At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. ‘If you are the Christ,’ they said, ‘tell us.’

“Jesus answered, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God’.

“They all asked, ‘Are you then the Son of God?’

“He replied, ‘You are right in saying I am’.”

And in the Gospel of Matthew, it is recorded this way:

“The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’

“ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied. ‘But I say to all of you: In the future, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven’.

“Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy!’ ”

It wasn’t a case, as Newsweek and the Herald imply, of a casual Messianic claim. The exchange between Jesus and the Sanhedrin is electric, loaded and definitive.

Sure, others may have claimed to be Messiahs, but none of them raised people from the dead, exorcised demons or healed the blind at a touch.

In another attack on the credibility of The Passion, the Associated Press wire service posted a feature claiming to debunk the movie’s depiction of the crucifixion. Among its many dubious claims was this pearler from Israeli anthropologist Joe Zias:

“Zias said the question of whether Jesus was nailed to the cross or simply tied to it remains a mystery. "There is no evidence whatsoever he was nailed," he said. "The Gospels say he was crucified and leave it at that."

“Zias criticized "The Passion of Christ" for accepting the standard version of three nails being used.”

The AP feature was sent to thousands of newspapers worldwide, but apparently no-one at AP bothered to actually check Zias’ claim that nails were not mentioned in the Bible.

At John 20:25, the disciple Thomas greets the news that Jesus has risen from the grave with scepticism: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were…I will not believe it.”

So much for Biblical silence on the question of nails.

The other “expert” quoted in the story was John Dominic Crossan, one of the leading lights behind the now discredited “Jesus Seminar” of the 1990s. Again, no mention by AP of this.

Craig Blomberg admits that many of the “Death of God” theologians and leading lights in the Jesus-wasn’t-divine movement are elderly men and women whose own theological training came decades ago when less was known about the New Testament than today. Like tall trees in a forest, their out of date biblical knowledge is overshadowing the real work on biblical scholarship.

“That tide is slowly turning. Certain views are accepted as standard and the time by which a generation of pastors trained under other folks retires and is replaced by new people who are familiar with the new scholarship, that takes time.”

As to Bishop John Spong, whose recent New Zealand tour received extensive media coverage:

“Bishop Spong is neither trained as a New Testament scholar, nor do his writings ever read as if he’s giving a representative take, even on more liberal criticism. He’s just trying to debunk the whole thing, relegating virtually everything to ‘myth’.”

But, says Blomberg, the ‘myth’ idea is itself outdated.

“In many ways they are the ones appealing to an outmoded worldview, going back to [theologian] Rudolf Bultmann nearly 100 years ago when in some of his earliest writings he talked about how modern man in an Age of Science could no longer believe in the supernatural. That’s certainly not what philosophers of science are saying in the 21st century. They’re leaving the question of God very much open.”

In 29 years’ time, it will be exactly two thousand years since the man who claimed to be God incarnate was nailed to a Cross by Roman soldiers, at the instigation of some members of the Jewish high priesthood who wanted rid of “this turbulent priest”. And after 1971 years, Jesus is still managing to do what he predicted all those years ago:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled…Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

And as debate rages about The Passion, that division has never been more apparent.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 08:50 PM | Comments (1)