All entries for August 2009

August 25, 2009

Flat Earth

Writing about web page

I was actually planning to write a post about resaurants, but then I discovered this little jewel on the Internet. A forum for people who believe that the Earth is flat! Priorities changed, and suddenly I had something way more urgent to write about.

Now, I know that there are people out there who believe some ridiculous theories. Some believe we never landed on the Moon, some believe that biology is not a science. But believers in a FLAT EARTH?! Oh come on. That's not even controversial, that's just plain stupid. Naturally, I initally suspected that the entire forum might be a hoax. However, after reading the FAQ, and the posts made by regular members, I realised with creeping horror that they were serious.

Q: "Is this site for real?" 

A: This site is real. There are members who seriously believe the Earth is flat. However, there are also members who do not.

I'm not a physicist - never mistake a Mathematician for a Physicist - but I know enough about Newtonian Mechanics and our universe to know that a spherical Earth is the most sensible and elegant solution to the shape of our planet. Not to mention the most... true. There are pictures, there are satelites, and there has been overwhelming scientific and public consensus on this for hundreds of years. I see no reason to question my belief that the Earth is round and I am absolutely positive that you, the reader, feel the same way. So I am speechless that these people nevertheless believe this drivel.

I spent quite a while on the forum. Not because I felt a need to rebut their theory (in my opinion they are lost souls who have reached a level of idiocy that is not worth my time) but because I found it amusing to read about their extremely elaborate and complicated theory which attempts to explain natural phenomena from a Flat Earth perspective. I will give you a summary of their belief system here:

Map of a flat Earth

According to Flat Earth'ers, the Earth is a flat disc at the centre of the Universe, looking as above. It is surrounded by a great impenetrable Ice Wall, that prevents the sea and the atmolayer from falling off. The Sun and the Moon are spotlights that circle the sky overhead, thereby illuminating different parts of the Earth at different times. Sunrises and sunsets are "perspective effects". Lunar eclipses are caused by a third celestial body, the anti-moon, getting between the Sun and the Moon, thereby darkening the moon. Gravity is caused by a Universal Accelerator underneath the Earth. It is unknown how the opposite side of the Earth looks. Also, pilots who fly from, say, South America to New Zealand, are being misguided by their GPS. Other unexplained phenomena usually have something to do with Dark Energy.

That's Flat Earth Theory in a nutshell. For more details, go visit their FAQ. For an even more scientific approach, see Samuel Birley Rowbotham's book on Zetetic Astronomy, Earth Not a Globe.

The whole idea is of course utterly absurd. What I find funny is their obstinacy to make this a consistent theory with no flaws whatsoever. This means that they constantly have to invent new explanations to all the evidence that seems to refute their beloved hypothesis. The thing is, even if they somehow do manage to patch up every anomaly with far-fetched solutions to reach a theory that does not contradict itself, it will be riddled with so many pointless and artifical rules, forces and celestial bodies that it will look like a wobbly shed, next to the beauty of the Round Earth Palace. In short, Flat Earth Theory raises too many new questions. Ever heard of Occam's Razor?

Still, all that got me thinking. The posters at the forum in question seemed very stubborn, and I started wondering how one could possibly make them change their minds. So here's a little challenge for you: What is the simplest way to prove that the Earth is spherical? By "simple" I mean "easy to execute". And I'm talking about proper proof; a picture of a round Earth, for instance, could technically have been photoshopped. Any ideas?

August 18, 2009

Review: Praying Mantis

Not rated

I'm back! With another book review. Yay, I guess you all missed those terribly! This time presenting to you, one of those tragic books about the misery in Africa!

First of all, Praying Mantis is not the kind of book I usually spend my time reading. I tend to need something more fictitious, written for the sake of entertainment rather than information or awareness. In fact, I did not buy this book myself but was given it as a present a good while ago. I finally got round to reading it because I felt bad for leaving it unread for so long.

That being said, Praying Mantis is still a very good book by an author who has earned several prizes and whose works have been translated into thirty languages. I'll even go as far as saying that Praying Mantis is the best book about Africa that I have ever read. Okay, so I've only read two (the other one being Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe), but my point is still valid.

The story is based on the life of Cupido Cockroach, a South African Khoi (or 'Hottentot' as they were known then) who was born sometime around 1760. Despite being based on a true story, it is written as a piece of fiction, and we thus get a detailed account account of Cupido's life and adventures, in a time where two colonial powers, the Netherlands and Great Britain, are disputing the control of South Africa. Cupido is born to a black slave and raised by his mother as a true Khoi, with stories about eagles, mantes, Tsui-Goab, Heitsi-Eibib, and more. However, his mother soon leaves him and Cupido ends up becoming a devoted Christian instead, after a lengthy period filled with all the things that Christians consider sinful (drinking, fighting, sex, etc.).

The book itself is divided into three parts:
The first one is about Cupido's life before becoming a Christian. It is told as a story, like the stories Cupido himself are being told by his mother, and constantly balances on the line between fact and legend, the explainable and the supernatural. The language is also surprisingly neutral, leaving it up to the reader to recoil at the shocking attitude of the white farmers.
The second part is written from the point of view of Reverend James Read - a missionary who befriends Cupido - and covers the period from Cupido's baptem to him becoming a missionary. The language is much more developed and subject to a slight Christian bias, in contrast with the first part of the book which has a more Khoi perspective on reality. As always, here's an extract from me to you:

[Brother Cupido's preoccupation with the Word] also led to wholly unforeseen excesses and convolutions. The most exorbitant, and also the most fantastic, came to light on a late Sunday afternoon when I chanced upon Brother Cupido some distance away form the mission in a small kloof overgrown with euphorbias, aloes and blue plumagoes (which I had by then laboriously begun to identify). It was a year or so after Anna Vigilant's death, and he was sitting with his Bible on his knees, tilted at an angle to catch the last deep yellow rays of the setting sun. [...]
He had not seen me approach as he was so engrossed with what he was doing, so I stopped in some perplexity to observe him. He was reading aloud to himself, following with one finger the words on the big page, as if each were an insect he had to crush before moving on to the next. [...]
When he reached the end of this page, just as I was preparing at last to step forward and address him, he performed a most stupendous action. He tore out the page of which he had just read recto and verso, crumpled it, and proceeded to stuff it into his mouth.
Both fascinated and horrified, I exclaimed, 'Brother Cupido!'
He looked up, startled, snapping the great book shut, then shook his head and continued to masticate for a good while before, with slightly bulging eyes and quite considerable effort, he swallowed.
By this time I was kneeling in the dust in front of him.
'Brother Cupido,' I repeated in complete consternation. 'What's happening? What are you doing?'
'I am consuming the Word of God,' he said in his sermonising voice, seemingly unperturbed.
'But...' I was at a loss for words. 'It is a new Bible, Brother!' I stammered stupidly, as if that made all the difference.
He shrugged.
'Why are you doing that?' I insisted in a much more peremptory voice than I customarily adopt.
'There is so much that I still do not understand, Brother Read,' he explained patiently, as if I were a child to be taught something of importance. 'So I decided I must eat it and swallow it to absorb it in my body. Only then will the Word of God be fully part of me. Then no-one can ever take it from me again. Is it not so?'
'But you have devoured nearly the whole Bible.'
'I still have Corithians to go. Then Galatians. Then Ephesians. Then --'
'I know, I know,' I interrupted. 'But surely this is not the way to go about it.'
'I spoke to God,' he said, 'and that is what He told me.'

The third part of the book concerns Cupido's doomed solo adventure as a missionary in Dithakong, a lost corner of South Africa. This is the hardest part to read, and in the same time the most important one. The objectivity of the first part has been forgotten, and the harsh behaviour of white people towards anyone black is clearly exposed. What makes this bit especially painful, is that everything keeps getting worse and worse for the poor Cupido we have come to love. Fortunately - and this is all-important in my opinion - Brink manages to turn things around in the end, and leave the reader with a perfect, almost magical ending.

The reason I enjoyed Praying Mantis more than Things Fall Apart, is that while the latter is written as one long mourning lament, pointing the finger at Christian settlers and categorising everything by either 'good' or 'bad', this books keeps a more neutral stance throughout most of the book and hence becomes a more pleasant reading experience. The injustice present in South Africa is still just as obvious, but it is sometimes up to the reader to deduce it, rather than having it slapped continuously in one's face. It is also less explicit in denouncing good and evil, which leaves us with a more realistic picture of the political situation, with Khoi, Xhosa, the English settlers, the Dutch farmers, and the Church, a very inhomogenous group in itself.

Recommending the book is tricky. If depiction of a historical setting through a work of fiction is your thing, go ahead and read it. Most probably will you enjoy it, and maybe even become an André Brink fan. If, however, you've never been thrilled by anything of this kind, Praying Mantis is not the book that is going to change this.

Next on the list is The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. I'll have to admit that the reading is proceeding far more quickly for that one.

August 04, 2009


Alexander's Alternative Definition

Paedophile: Someone who, when it gets down to it, doesn't love children.

August 03, 2009


It seems to me that super-villains want either of two things:

World domination; or Immortality.

Now, the first one I can understand. Being the Master of the Universe certainly sounds attractive, and while the geopolicital considerations may be a little stressful and some of the administrative details rather tiresome, the advantages gained from this position would undoubtedly outweigh the disadvantages. Personally, I'd much rather lead a quiet and happy life in a reasonably-sized house and be pleased with my lot, but I still fully understand the prospects that motivate Evil Overlords.

But immortality?! Living forever is serious business, and if you were to invest all your energy and years of planning into achieving this, surely you would spend some time comparing the pros and cons of eternal life. And so, you would inevitably reach the following conclusion: Being immortal is the most horrible form of torture ever conceived. I'll dedicate this post to explaining why I believe this is true.

Now, don't get wrong. Longevity certainly is cool. There's nothing wrong with living a very long time - there's something wrong with being unable to die.

(For the sake of clarity, I'll define "Immortality" and "Eternal life" as "The quality of being unable to age or die, combined with the ability to gadually regenerate any part of your body." The regeneration ability is added in order to avoid uncomfortable questions such as: "Are you still alive after your head has been smashed into 227 seperate peices?")

Let's first look at things from a practical point of view. What is realistically going to happen if you are granted immortality in real life. How you want to spend the first 10,000 years of your existence is up to you. Abuse your immortality to become rich and famous; learn everything there is to learn about Mathematics, Psychology, Physics, English Literature, Economics, Computer Science, Biology, and so on; master every musical instrument on the planet, every language, every martial art; achieve your childhood dreams; read every book that is worth reading... the list goes on. If we assume the human race don't somehow destroy the planet withtin the next million years, you will also get a chance to see a world in which animal species look rather different than the ones present on Earth today. By that time, life in general will be so radically different from the present, that we can't realistically predict what you'll be doing to pass time. Due to the increase in solar temperatures however, the Earth will become uninhabitable, so you will have to leave if you have not already done so.

My guess is that you will begin felling bored sometime during the following 100 trillion years. And by "bored", I mean of course "unbearably, mind-numbingly bored". Unfortunately, this is just the beginning, and things are about to get much worse. Indeed, around that time, the Universe should slowly start to be hostile to life in general, as the stars go out. Then starts the decay of the Universe. If your lucky, time-space will eventually collapse unto itself, and everything will be compressed into a dimensionless singularity, thus effectively putting an end to your existence. If you're unlucky, the Universe will "end" in Heat Death, and you end up floating around aimlessly in a universe that consists entirely of nothingness. The trillion years you spent among a universe that supported life, will seem like a quick flash compared to the eternity that you will spend in this miserable state. Enjoy.

There's a very entertaining piece of fictionon the Net that illustrates my point. I do, however have one issue with this story. It puts too much focus on the problems of living a long time, and being part of a lifeless universe. Granted, these are important factors in making eternal life a living hell, but that is not, in my opinion, what makes immortality such a curse. The problem, I want to emphasise, is that dying is impossible.

So let's examine things from a more theoretical perspective. Suppose that, after your physical death, you gain Eternal Life, and enter a wonderful place that is perfect in every way. No universal collapse, no heat death, no exploding stars, or anything like that. Everything stays impeccable. Why do I still claim that this heavenly immortality would be worse than purgatory?

Because, as I mentioned earlier, you get bored out of your mind. It might take a long time, maybe some people can manage to keep themselves occupied a quintillion years, who knows; but even a quintillion has an end. After that you will already have done everything that you can possibly do, seen everything there is to see, learnt everything there is to learn, and you've done it so many times you can no longer keep track of the numbers. Any newly published book will look completely identical to one you've read a thousand times. If a few things still amuse you, you can practise them an indefinite number of times, but there will always be a moment when the feeling of enjoyment fades away. What's worse is that, while your initial period of happiness will have lasted a finite amount of time, the boredom will last eternally. Maybe you'll try pain, just to experience something new, but even that wears out. Suicide is, fo course, futile. Every morning you wake up, and have to go through another day you've already experienced. And the next morning you will wake up again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Madness is bound to ensue, but even so, it never ends. I think I have made my point. The worst part of being immortal, is not that you outlive everyone else, not that you cannot stay on Earth, not that you burn for billions of years inside stars, not that you get bored quickly, not that you get bored after a long time... the worst part is that you cannot die.

Go for world domination, then.

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