When their eyes closed in death

Recently, I visited two ancient burial places. It was only until a while later that I reflected on the diverging philosophies behind them. (Warning: Readers may find the next paragraph disturbing. Proceed with caution.)

Stone seat
Stone seat

The first location was in a 16th century convent on the island of Ischia  (off the coast of Naples). When a nun died, her body was placed on a stone seat (see picture). The body was left to decompose slowly as body fluids were collected in a container placed below the seat. When only bones were left, these were moved to an ossuary where all the skeletons of the deceased nuns were heaped together .

Why, oh, why did they do that? Translating from the visitor’s guide:

This macabre practice found its basis in the necessity of demonstrating to the utmost level the uselessness of the body as a mere container for the spirit. The refusal of an individual burial further emphasised this conviction.

Moving on to the second burial site, the catacombs of St Callixtus in Rome (sorry, no photos). These, according to our tour guide, are the oldest catacombs in Rome and were in use between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Unlike other catacombs in modern-day Turkey, the Roman ones were not used as dwelling places. Believers would bury their dead there, and occasionally gather for prayer there.

Necropolis in Ostia Antica
Necropolis in Ostia Antica

At the time, the prevailing way of disposing of a corpse was cremation, and the urns containing the ashes would be placed in niches (see right) in the town’s necropolis.

The Christians didn’t think that they should follow the pagan way. They would wrap their dead in a shroud and place the body in the earth, in a horizontal position. They invented a new word for this strange burial place of theirs—the word we translate ‘cemetery’. The Greek word translates roughly as ‘a sleeping place’.

If I had to choose, I think I’d have chosen to live in the 2nd century. I love it that those early Christians sought to be distinct from their surrounding culture both in life and in death. I love that they weren’t influenced by pagan dualistic philosophies (spirit=good, body=bad) like those nuns centuries later. I hope that I too can find inoffensive and yet inescapable ways of demonstrating my faith in a God who raises the dead.

Squish my discontentment

For some weeks now I’d gotten into the habit of making not-so-subtle jabs at my life condition in general and my job in particular. And then I came across the infographic below:

I’d given it a quick once-over and was ready to move on to something else when I felt a nudge to “look” for myself in each category (just another sign of my self-absorption). I started at the top (gender) and worked my way anti-clockwise. By the time I got to ‘nutrition’, I was under conviction.

How quickly I forgot that just a year ago, a lot of what I’ve been complaining about was nowhere in sight. How easily I forgot all that the Lord has done for me. And I’m grateful that He’s still mindful of me, even to the point of using unusual means to get the focus off of what I think I lack and onto what I already have!

The hymnbook index (that’s really not about hymnals)

In my former church in Rome, we used the Southern Baptist hymnal (can I get an ‘Amen’? 🙂 ). The set-up was such that, unless there was a large crowd, each worshipper could have a hymnbook all to themselves. I noticed, however, a certain segment of the population who tended to forego this privilege and it was then that the hymnbook index was born.

The index takes two values: 0 and 1 (or no and yes, respectively). It only measured one thing: whether a married couple sitting in close proximity would share a hymnbook. In my very unscientific observation and subsequent conclusion, those who shared a hymnal appeared to have happier marriages than those who didn’t.

At my current church we have a projector and so the hymnbook index doesn’t apply. I was reminded of it this past Sunday, though. I sat behind a couple in their late 30s/ early 40s, who leaned into each other throughout the service. At one point I wondered whether they were holding hands. It wasn’t hard to tell that, even after 4 kids (I saw them) and over a decade of life together, there was still a fire in their marriage.

I’ve had a chance to observe not a few marriages. There were those which, unless someone told you or you connected the names, you’d probably never guess that the two people were married to each other. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those in which the two partners are virtually inseparable. I believe a happy medium is ideal. Now of course, my marriage is perfect, seeing as it exists only in my imagination 😉 Seriously though, it is encouraging for not-yet-marrieds like me to watch those who have gone before and are succeeding.


The Crusades: Probably a lot more than you wanted to know

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Growing up, I detested history. I didn’t see why I had to learn about people I cared nothing for, and most of all, I had no patience to memorise all those dates (which would inevitably turn up on some exam). I escaped taking the subject in the last two years of high school only to have an unavoidable head-on collision with it in university. Incidentally, one of the first YouTube channels I subscribed to earlier this year was Crash Course World History. I’ve come full-circle. (Maybe it’s because I don’t have to sit history exams any more) 🙂

That said, I probably wouldn’t have looked into the history of the Crusades out of my own volition. In part, it would be because I wouldn’t know where to start looking: it’s not a topic we Christians like to talk about. Good for me that a follower of this blog, Eric Costanzo, recently completed a 6-part series on the Crusades:

  1. Deus Vult: Pope Urban II Calls for the First Crusaders in AD 1095 – Were the crusades an unprovoked attack by Latin (Western) Christians on the Muslim world?
  2. The First Crusade and Reclaiming the Holy City (AD 1096-99) – How things went very wrong very fast, and continued downhill.
  3. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Second Crusade (AD 1144-53) – The Latin Christians lose a key city, and consequently many lives and much land.
  4. Lionheart and the Third Crusade (AD 1187-93) – Saladin takes Jerusalem from the Christians and the Pope calls for a new crusade.
  5. The Fourth Crusade & Children’s Crusades: Perhaps Christendom’s Lowest Point (AD 1198-1212) – Those on the fourth crusade attack Eastern Christians, and the Pope rightly condemns them. Someone comes up with the idea that innocent children would succeed where adults had failed, with appalling consequences for the children.
  6. Final Crusades and Final Results (AD 1215-91) – What was there to show for 2 centuries of crusading efforts?

(Yes, I know my little summary statements are rather negative. Sorry.)

Some quick, random, incomplete observations:

  • Those Christians living 1,000 years ago needed to hear the quotation at the head of this post. Despite the slim successes they had, they kept on assembling armies to head East.
  • I’m struck by how quickly noble intentions were replaced by base and vile ones. Is it possible that we do things today under a thin veil of upholding Christ’s glory?
  • The crusading armies, it seems to me, engaged in selective reading of their Bibles. (I smiled at the report of the re-enactment of marching around Jericho in the first crusade.) It looks like they missed the part about Christ’s kingdom not being of this world (John 18:36).
  • The Latin Christians were, as I understand it, reacting to a loss of power and possessions.  Christendom was the dominant force in Western Europe and the concept of being a powerless minority (as in New Testament times)  was utterly unknown.
    As Christians in the 21st century see the reversal of society to pre-Christian, pagan norms  I hope and pray that we would respond in a manner worthy of the Saviour we profess.

4 productivity tools that you should consider using

This is a post in which I try to convey my excitement over Dropbox, Evernote, OneNote and Pocket. That list is not only alphabetical, but also happens to be the chronological order in which I began to use these useful tools. Below, I’ll simply relate how I’m using them.

Dropbox – “Simplify your life”

Image representing Dropbox as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

From Wikipedia: Dropbox is a file hosting service that offers cloud storage, file synchronization and client software.

I joined Dropbox months after I was first invited to use it. I just didn’t think I needed it. And while I’m still not a heavy user, it is a great tool to have on hand when I need it.

Before, when I needed to access files while at different physical locations or on different computers, I’d use my trusty USB thumb drive. Other than not having one when you need  it, the thing that bothers me most about thumb drives is the whole process of using them: plug in (wait a few seconds) – transfer files – eject (wait a few seconds) – repeat.

When I got my current computer I had to transfer files between three computers (one old and temperamental, another that I used as a temporary replacement and the new one). The file transfer process was much simplified by using the Dropbox uploader.

Dropbox’s best feature (for me) is that you can link to any file in it. This is handy for sharing files with others, but there’s more! Here on WordPress.com, one needs a space upgrade to be able to upload audio files, for example. I can upload a file to Dropbox and embed it here, all for free!

Audio clip from “190 – Original ” by taboca.

Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Google’s Drive offer similar online file storage services.  But since only Dropbox was there when I really needed it (close to 18 months ago), it will always have a special place in my heart 🙂

Evernote – “Remember everything”

Image representing Evernote as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

From Wikipedia: Evernote is a suite of software and services designed for notetaking and archiving.

Evernote came pre-installed on my current computer, but it was two months before I opened it. In the first few months I didn’t use it much, but now I use it every single day.

Before, when I came across something interesting on the internet, I’d save the page as a PDF or as a TXT file. For the short while it existed, I used Google Notebook for clipping information on the web. Now I use Evernote, whether to clip an entire page or blog article or just a sentence or two.

Evernote has also simplified my blogging life. For example, a while back I did a series of Advent hymns. To select titles, I sat down with the hymnal at church and made a list of approximately 10 candidates using the Evernote app on my phone. That information was then available on my computer once I synced my account. In the past, I’d have had to write the titles on paper—with the inherent risks of losing the list or forgetting that I had made it.

The feature that has of late excited me is the ability to attach files of any kind within an Evernote note. I’m one of a team of Bible study leaders at church, and when it’s my turn I like to go over the passage repeatedly during the preceding week. Using the Evernote browser extension, I clip the text of the Bible passage and then attach an audio recording to the passage. Voilà! When I have a couple of free minutes, I can listen to and read the Bible passage simultaneously! This could also be useful when memorising Scripture.


OneNote logo
OneNote logo

From Wikipedia: Microsoft OneNote is a computer program for free-form information gathering and multi-user collaboration.

I started using OneNote at the same time I started with Evernote. They have overlapping functionality as well as distinctions, and not being able to decide on only one, I use them both 😀

While I use Evernote mostly for works-in-progress, OneNote is more for archival storage. The process goes something like this: Clip to Evernote – blog it – send to OneNote. One reason is that Evernote’s browser extensions make clipping really easy. Another reason is that OneNote is tied to SkyDrive, where I have 25GB of storage space.  (I don’t know what the limit of my Evernote account is, which probably means it’s generous.)

A feature I really love is that contents of a OneNote page do not have to be linear, which is perfect for placing panels side-by-side. For this reason, I use OneNote to gather all my notes when preparing to lead Bible study, as in the image below:

Side-by-side notes in OneNote
Side-by-side panels in OneNote

Pocket (formerly Read It Later)

pocket logoPocket’s former name is self-explanatory. I guess they changed it when they realised that people were saving videos and other stuff you don’t read.

Before, when I found an interesting item on the internet that I didn’t have time to read/watch right at that moment I’d (a) bookmark it, and prove the adage “out of sight, out of mind” to be true, (b) save it to Evernote, or (c) leave the browser tab open (sometimes for days). Now I save it to Pocket (I especially love that the Google Chrome extension has a keyboard shortcut–nerd delight!).

One of Pocket’s really thoughtful features is that it remembers your reading position between sessions, saving users  from scrolling down to find where they’d left off. And if that’s not enough, this also works between devices—I can start reading something on my phone and pick up at the following paragraph on the computer without any hassle at all.

I surprised myself in that I actually do get round to reading/viewing the stuff I save to Pocket, mostly just before falling asleep at night. I’ve had Pocket for about a month now, so maybe the novelty will have worn off six months from now. Or maybe not.

But I don’t want to keep track of yet another account and password!

I totally understand. That’s the same reason I held off using all of these tools. Except for OneNote, I had to create new accounts with each of these services. If you’re tired of juggling multiples logins, you may want to try LastPass (I haven’t used it). Or you may want to try the tips in this article.

For me, the extra accounts have been worth it. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

Voice search: a review

A little over two weeks ago my favourite search engine (favourite because I’m too lazy to try the others) rolled out voice search and search by image. I tried them out so that, if you’ve not yet got a chance to use them, you can raise or lower your expectations accordingly 🙂

I wasn’t expecting great success with voice search, considering my Kenyan accent and all. I was pleasantly surprised!

Searches that went well

These were simple queries which yielded what I was looking for as the first result:

Voice search for national parks in Namibia
Voice search for national parks in Namibia

The people behind voice search recommend it for recipes:

Voice search for a recipe
Voice search for a recipe

Conversions worked fantastically!

Voice search for currency conversion
Voice search for currency conversion
Voice search for weight conversions
Voice search for weight conversions

Be sure not to leave out the word ‘degrees’:

Voice search for temperature conversions
Voice search for currency conversions

Searches that kind of went well

My search term wasn’t the first, but almost:

Voice search for the definition of 'specious'
Voice search for the definition of 'specious'

I was getting flustered so I went looking for the introductory video I’d watched:

Voice search for a voice search help video
Voice search for a voice search help video

Searches that were epic fails

The nice engineer in the video (or maybe the text on the page, I don’t recall) said that I could do translations with voice search. I beg to differ:

Voice search for 'Highway Code in Italian' (1)
Voice search for 'Highway Code in Italian' (1)

I tried again:

Voice search for 'Highway Code in Italian' (2)
Voice search for 'Highway Code in Italian' (2)

They also said voice search was good for long queries:

Voice search for 'Photos of archaeological sites in Turkey' (1)
Voice search for 'Photos of archaeological sites in Turkey' (1)

Woe is my non-American accent:

Voice search for 'Photos of archaeological sites in Turkey' (2)
Voice search for 'Photos of archaeological sites in Turkey' (2)

How about a long query made up of simple words, in this case the fragment of a hymn that’s been floating through my head?

Voice search using a 20-word query
Voice search using a 20-word query
Voice search using a 20-word query (2)
Voice search using a 20-word query (2)

Here’s what I was searching for: “What more can He say than to you He has said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled”.
Just because I could, I tried some foreign place names. I tried to look for this cemetery in Paris.

Voice search for a place in France
Voice search for a place in France

I searched for this tourist trap with a passable French accent:

Voice search for another place in France
Voice search for another place in France


My Italian accent is way better than my American one, so maybe I’ll use voice search more when it expands geographically. Or maybe I’ll just stick to typing in stuff.

Search by image: a review

A little over two weeks ago my favourite search engine (favourite because I’m too lazy to try the others) rolled out voice search and search by image. I tried them out so that, if you’ve not yet got a chance to use them, you can raise or lower your expectations accordingly 🙂

The idea for search by image is simple: drag and drop an image into the search box. I used my own photos which had the default name and no extra meta information (such as geotagging, etc) that would make the search engine’s job easier.


It got these two right:

Search for St Paul's Outside the Walls
Search by image using a photo of St Paul's Outside the Walls
Search for Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, Italy
Search by image using a photo of Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, Italy

It was able to recognise the Spanish Steps even with the people, scaffolding and temporary decorative flowers:

Search for the Spanish Steps
Search by image using a photo of the Spanish Steps

It got stuck on the 21st century Ara Pacis museum:

Search for the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome
Search by image using a photo of the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome


It got the idea of sky and water:

Photo of Lake Nemi, Italy
Search by image using a photo of Lake Nemi, Italy

And that of sky and (mountainous) land:

Search by image using a photo taken in Antrodoco, Italy
Search by image using a photo taken in Antrodoco, Italy


If it can’t make out what’s in the photo, it goes for matching colours:

Search by image using a photo of a fruit stand
Search by image using a photo of a fruit stand
Search by image using a photo of a red flower
Search by image using a photo of a red flower


A human face is recognised as such, but I’d hope for more similarity (Picasa’s face recognition spoiled me):

Search by image using a photo of a person
Search by image using a photo of a person

Not wishing to use pics of my friends and acquaintances, I used my cats. Bolla looks like food (which is kind of funny considering Bolla eats A LOT):

Search by image using a photo of a cat
Search by image using a photo of a cat

Missing and presumed dead Tempesta is inscrutable, but at least there’s one cat in the suggestions:

Search by image using a photo of a cat
Search by image using a photo of a cat

A black and white shot of Wiki brings up lots of human faces, as well as an unexpected symbol:

Search by image using a photo of a cat
Search by image using a photo of a cat


I’d hoped that it would work better than it did, especially with faces. I guess that will improve with time.

Next: Should people with non-American accents bother with voice search?

It’s the end of the world! (Except in Africa)

I not-so-recently watched the blockbuster movie 2012 (spoilers ahead), 2012: Supernova and 10 or so minutes of 2012: Doomsday. They were all exceptionally bad movies.

I watched Supernova precisely because it was lousy. In one scene, the panel of eminent scientists (an American, a Chinese and a Russian— it sounds like the beginning of a  joke) were making last-minute calculations as they awaited to get on the Space Shuttle. They were going to save the world with calculations done by hand on paper. Someone hand them a slide rule, for goodness’ sake! They proceed to enter the Shuttle dressed in apparel resembling overalls and motorcycle helmets. The entire film was an insult to intelligence.

To watch 2012, you similarly have to suspend your disbelief. Numerous times the characters outran (on foot, in cars and planes) the earth crumbling beneath them. But the part that had me laughing loudest was the end. The survivors sail to Africa, whose landmass had been spared all the flooding and falling into bottomless chasms that had affected the rest of the world (its surface area had even grown!). Never mind that there may just be people living there, our bunch of billionaires are going to start afresh on the continent.

I’m not sure which I prefer: the end-of-the-world flicks that totally ignore Africa (all of them), or this one which is ridiculously patronising.

We’re not like that nowadays

[I started this post almost 5 weeks ago. Clearly, I haven’t reformed my procrastinating ways.]

Humans can be astonishingly self-contradictory. That’s what I took away from watching an episode of  History Cold Case, a BBC documentary in which “skeletons of everyday people from across the ages are analysed in staggering detail” (description from BBC website).

A little background info: In the Ipswich Man episode, a skeleton of an apparently sub-Saharan African man is found in a medieval burial ground in Ipswich during the construction of a residential complex. The team of scientists on History Cold Case sets out to find out what an African was doing in England in the period around 1200-1500: where he came from, how he got there and why he was found buried next to a monk in a friary cemetery.

What caught my interest was the role of Christians in the Ipswich man’s journey to and stay in England, because in it I saw the ugly and the beautiful in those who profess the name of Christ. First, the ugly. The scientists were able to conclude within reason that the man was taken to England by knights returning from the Crusades, though it remains unknown whether he went as a captive or a free man. The Crusades were a horrible idea, to put it mildly. Most of them were organised in the hopes of padding the coffers of European noblemen, who had no intentions of spreading the gospel. This, of course is a broad generalisation.

Now for the beautiful. The forensic specialist was able to deduce from the man’s skeleton that he suffered a spinal abscess that almost certainly disabled him and most certainly caused him no small amount of pain. Back then, cutting-edge medical care was to be found in monasteries. A study of some of the other skeletons found in the same burial site revealed that all those individuals suffered from debilitating chronic diseases, leading the team of scientists to the conclusion that they were being cared for by the Franciscan monks who ran the friary.

How is it that the same age produced such contradictory responses in men? On one hand, there were those who went —ostensibly in Christ’s name— to destroy life and on the other were those who went—in Christ’s name—to take care of people with little hope of recovery (in the age before penicillin).

What will future generations say about ours?

[And now for an addendum borne from further thinking through things]

As this post languished as a draft, I came to realise my arrogance and short-sightedness. My attitude reeked not only of elder-brother syndrome, but also of chronological snobbery.  I’ll start with the latter.

Chronological snobbery, a term coined by C.S. Lewis, is the mistaken belief that our age is superior to those that have preceded it. So we can look back even 50 years and think people then primitive in their thoughts and beliefs. Or indeed, I could watch a BBC documentary and think the Christians in the medieval period to be such brutes.

Elder-brother syndrome, named for the prodigal son’s elder brother in Luke 15, is being self-righteous and considering yourself better than someone else who does all sorts of vile stuff you’d never do. I’ve blogged about this syndrome before.

The truth is there are lots of people today who profess Christ and do all sorts of weird stuff (like protesting other churches). And there are probably many more who are pouring out Christ’s love to the “undeserving”. When faced with believers who’re not living up to what we perceive to be the right standards, we need to be more like Jesus and less like James and John, remembering that it is only through God’s enabling grace that we can live up to those standards.