Friday, December 29

The Stone

A Dutch singer/songwriter once wrote a song called De Steen (The Stone) which strikes me more as a poem.

Ik heb een steen verlegd in een rivier op aarde
I have moved a stone in a river on earth
Het water gaat er anders dan voorheen
The water travels different than before
De stroom van een rivier hou je niet tegen
The current of a river cannot be stopped
Het water vindt er altijd een weg omheen
The water will always find a way around it
Misschien eens gevuld door sneeuw en regen
Perhaps, when filled with snow and rain
neemt de rivier mijn kiezel met zich mee
the river will take my pebble with it
om hem dan glad en rond gesletente laten rusten in de luwte van de zee
to let it rest, polished and rounded, in the lee of the sea

Ik heb een steen verlegd in een rivier op aarde
I have moved a stone in a river on earth
Nu weet ik dat ik nooit zal zijn vergeten
Now I know I will never be forgotten
Ik leverde bewijs van mijn bestaan
I proved my existence
Omdat door het verleggen van die ene steen
Because of moving this single stone
de stroom nooit meer dezelfde weg zal gaan
the current will never take the same way again

Wednesday, December 27

Heatherwick Studio


More wonderful architecture can be found at http://www.heatherwick.com/

Tuesday, December 26

Confessions

I'm sorry to say, but I've done things that I regret this year. I'm not worried about the situations that I regret because I got hurt, because I can't change anything about that anymore. What bothers me are my faults towards other people, wether they have ever been bothered by it or not. I considered offering my apology to at least seven people, but just don't have the guts. I'm sorry. However, I did ask for the forgiveness of one person just now. By email. But I went about it thoroughly - he really deserved my apology - admitting that I have been a tart acting out of pure egoism. Because that's the truth, although I am ashamed of it. I'll try to do better next year.

I am sorry for not always trying to be sociable. I am sorry for disappointing at least one, but probably several people. My heart's just not in it. I am sorry for taking advantage of people who yielded to my wishes. You are too good to me. I am sorry for amplifying someone's pessimism, although she calls it realism. No more sarcasm for you, my friend. I am sorry for not being more nice, chatty, and charming towards one particular person. I'll try to make it up to you, and I hope you'll notice my efforts.

Sunday, December 24

To all the people

I'm not sure what to make of Christmas. It has little to do with the birth of baby Jesus, these days. And it's not about Santa Claus either. Is Christmas about family? Love? World peace? Is it an excuse to party and eat too much? None of these. Christmas is about all of them, or rather, it's what you want it to be. Christmas is no more than a vague but warm feeling that somehow got connected with a day in December. And in many ways, it's a wish for a better world - not just globally, but also on a more personal level. Because we can't help but hope. We can't help but imagine.

So here's to a bit more understanding and joy in the world. Here's to you. Have yourself a merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 21

Flaw

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. - G.K. Chesterton

I believe it is theoretically possible to be interested in anything. The difficulty of generating interest in a particular subject depends on a few things. First of all, I reckon imagination is essential. Amongst other things, I am interested in geology, because what happens inside the Earth fascinates me. But I wouldn't be if I would simply process the facts; I am only interested because I can use these facts to form a mental picture of the situation. Which in turn amazes me because of the beauty and apparent perfection it displays.

I have long thought that the reason of my interest for particular subjects is the fact that these can be understood by using your imagination to draw the bigger picture. But maybe this is true for everyone and every subject - perhaps I am interested because I can personally form a mental picture best in those fields. If I would have been more talented in imagining X than imagining Y, I would be more interested in X. It's not exactly the same as understanding the subject matter - I'd rather describe it as the mechanism you use in order to understand it. Some people process information visually, on a very basic and realistic level, which is like imagining a teapot or a trainstation. Others are able to grasp grammatical systems or mathematical equations. I don't know how, but they must be able to imagine it in some way. To see through the facts and see the bigger picture.

Persuasiveness is a second tool, one you are going to need in more difficult situations. And you'll need a lot of it, because you'll have to persuade yourself. If you can make yourself believe that a subject is truly interesting - Fascinating! Wonderful! - then you are. And to be able to do that, you first have to believe you can persuade yourself... But the difficulty of generating interest in a random subject is especially tied to your initial amount of interest - which I assume mainy depends on your imagination, plus your experiences. Unnecessary to point out, it will be more difficult to become interested in something you detest as opposed to something you just don't care about. Pure willpower and persistence are the keys.

Being able to generate interest because you want to be interested is a very useful ability. It could help you study your least favorite subjects; was your favorite subject at school more fun because it was easy, or easier because it was fun? Another example. If you are able to spot if the person you're talking to is genuinly showing interest, or just trying to make conversation, then other people might be able to tell if you're interested yourself, as well. Last but not least, I reckon a general interest in the world around us is very important for keeping an open mind.

The reason why I am telling you this, is the fact that I am painfully reminded of the fact that generating interest in some subjects is easier said than done. In my case, take maths. There is no doubt in my mind that mathematics is a fascinating science - and I am not being sarcastic. Why would there be mathematicians if maths was uninteresting, right? Let alone mathematical geniuses such as John Forbes Nash; Russel Crowes character in A Beautiful Mind was inspired by this Nobel Prize winner (see picture). I cannot imagine maths to be truly fascinating, but I can understand. Somebody able to grasp the fundamental patterns and the complexity behind it all will surely be swept away in amazement. But I can't. All I manage to find in the dizzying sequences of numbers and variables are rules. Crispy, dry, dead rules that crumble in my fingers at the first tricky problem I try to solve. There's a whole world behind those rules, but I can't see it. I am ashamed to say this, but I find maths dreary, highly unpleasant, and anxiety-inducing. And I am even more ashamed to admit that to this day, I haven't been able to change this attitude. In fact, I'm about to give up.

Monday, December 18

Winter

Today feels like the first day of winter. I haven't seen one flake of snow yet, but there's more to winter than frozen water. Winter is breathing the cold air and being glad you've put your gloves on - the ones that don't cover your fingers entirely, so you can feel the cold of your bike's metal frame. Blue skies and frosted windows. I wonder what's next.

Saturday, December 16

A thought experiment

"We have the answer. It is our existence. The fact that we exist is proof that God is motivated to act in some way. And since only the challenge of self-destruction could interest an omnipotent God, it stands to reason that we . . .”
I interrupted the old man in midsentence and stood straight up from the rocker. It felt as if a pulse of energy ran up my spine, compressing my lungs, electrifying my skin, bringing the hairs on the back of my neck to full alert. I moved closer to the fireplace, unable to absorb its heat. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” My brain was taking on too much knowledge. There was overflow and I needed to shake off the excess.
The old man looked at nothing and said, “We are God’s debris.”

God's Debris is a thought experiment created by Scott Adams. You won't agree with every idea in it - I hope you won't, much of it only sounds convincing - but the purpose of this book is not to persuade the reader. Adams writes that God's Debris 'might be the most compelling vision of reality you will ever read.' Expecting this might be a little to optimistic, but you'll never know if you don't read it. The thought you should try to keep in mind when reading the story is this: Try to figure out what’s wrong with the old man’s explanation of reality. God's Debris can be downloaded here for free. An interesting discussion forum about the theories discussed in the book can be found here.

Friday, December 15

Marvel, part 2

Could it be that this feeling, this brightness, is the very experience that connects all this? Is it our God, wether He is imagined or not? Does it provide an explanation as to why there is such a similarity between the ways in which God is experienced in different faiths, and even in non-theistic religions such as Buddhism? Love, happiness, a touch of divinity (even the ecstasy induced by drug use, after all, man has been using intoxicants to experience God for millennia), is it all in essence the same feeling? I wonder, because based on what I know and what I dare to believe in, this is a feeling caused by chemicals. On August 5 I also wrote that, "for all I know, happiness is a chemical process in my brain. Neurotransmitters released." When we get high on euphoria, we're experiencing the effects of an overwhelming cocktail of dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin, or whatever chemical influences our emotions and perceptions in this way. Drugs can trigger the release of these neurotransmitters when your brain has no reason to do so. But sometimes we're experiencing the feeling without apparent reason, and without being under the influence of intoxicants. If we can learn to master that process, if we can trigger that event by solely using our willpower and make it last forever... I believe that is the ultimate goal of anyone who tries to reach Nirvana, or whatever you'd like to call it.

Having said this, I think it's important to state that I do not believe that this explanation challenges the existence of God or the 'divinity' (both literal and figurative) of happiness and love in any way. I would like to emphasize this, not because I am afraid to go against the grain with religious people, but because I think that the ideas I have expressed will easily be mistaken for such a statement. However, I have only answered the question as to how I believe this experience is generated, and although one could conclude that this explanation removes the need for 'real' divinity, the how-answer remains only part of the solution - the part that science usually tries to answer.

The other part is why things happen the way they do. I have yet to meet the first person who completely rejects the importance of this question and its answer. One might even say it is what makes us human; asking why. If someone you love dies, you might ask yourself why. And a doctor would be able to explain to you which disease or injury caused her death, perhaps even explain all the causes and consequences in great detail. But even if you would know and understand what took place in every cell of her body on the moment she breathed her last, you would not be satisfied. You would only know how she died, and that is not the answer you are looking for.

In the same way, chemicals only explain how, not why. Nevertheless, I would not be disappointed if there is no underylying reason for our euphoria - a possibility we shouldn't disregard either. Why should we be disappointed? Because it would mean that our most treasured and beautiful experiences, the ones that make us feel special and unique, are 'simply' a product of our cells and molecules? Humanity has disliked that idea from the day they considered themselves more than 'just' children of nature. Personally, I don't believe that all miracles have to be heaven sent. Man was created out of dust. Whether it took a day or 3.7 billion years, whether it was God or Nature... What is the difference? Marvel, because we can.

Wednesday, December 13

Marvel, part 1

On this blog, I write about my daily thoughts, the experiences and ideas that seem most valuable to me. Some of these thoughts break the surface time and again. Sometimes I experience a feeling that is beyond description. It is not triggered by anything in specific, but it occurs at times when I feel contented and notice 'the beauty of it all'. On May 6 I wrote;

"And it is there at those moments, when everything seems to be in the right place - when bliss overflows you for no apparent reason. Confounding, but never exuberant. Happiness that doesn’t dazzle you - but instead makes everything clear, in a soothing way. I believe it comes from within. We do not have to wait for something or someone to make us feel fullfilled; it is up to us to experience it."

And on August 5 I wrote:

"(...) the euphoric feeling that takes me by surprise and throws me into ecstasy. It feels like sharing my heart. It feels like making a little space and saying, "you can come live here, with me". For some reason being able to say that - feel that - is the closest thing to heaven. It sounds like I've fallen in love hopelessly, doesn't it? Yes, that's exactly the same feeling. I've fallen in love with the sensation of falling in love. I can even imagine believing in God with all your heart feels like this. Standing on top of a mountain. Listning to a piece of music that strikes you in a great way. Finding your purpose in life. Euphoria in every quantity. Not all the time, of course, but sometimes the sensation just wells up inside of me and overcomes me completely. "

This feeling of happiness is stimulated by the beauty of the landscape, sunlight, warmth, certain music and ideas. It ripples like water when I allow such matters to touch me, when I actively try to incite it. But when it catches me by surprise, it's much stronger. The feeling engulfes me and carries me away, if only for a brief period of time. Seconds of euphoria, unbelievably pure. It feels like falling in love. It feels like a religious experience.

And although this experience is difficult to describe, I seem to recognize it in the words of others. I recognize it when reading about the religious ideas of a certain Plotinus, a major philosopher in the ancient world whose metaphysical writings have inspired centuries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics. Plotinus taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent "One", containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. The One can be compared to the Sun, and everything else ripples from its centre like sunlight. Plotinus hypothesized that everyone strives for unification. Instead of recognizing separate legs, arms and a head, we organize these perceptions and recognize a human being. The whole is greater than the sum of parts. But we are all part of something greater, and it is the ultimate unification of everything that Plotinus had in mind when he wrote about the One. We are all part of it, and we all seek it. Plotinus describes the final stage in reaching union with the One, with God (it is said that Plotinus himself had this experience on four separate occasions), as following:

"The soul comes to see both God and himself, himself made radiant and filled with intelligible light, really, grown to be one with that light in its purity, without any heaviness, transfigured to the divinity, really, being god in essence."


I recognized it on August 24, when I argued that the following monologue in the film Contact (Eleanor, played by Jodie Foster, maintains that she has made contact with extraterrestrial life) can be interpreted as a description of a meeting with God.

"I had an experience I can’t prove, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was part of something wonderful, something that changed me forever; a vision of the Universe that tells us undeniable how tiny, and insignificant, and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us we belong to something that is greater than ourselves. That we are not, that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and the hope..."

I recognize it - in a soft, barely perceptible form - when trying to grasp concepts so great and all-embracing that I can't help but feel an almost religious awe for them. Like on April 17, trying to get an idea of the vastness of the universe. And on March 22, realizing that we are all stardust. A day earlier, March 21, I wrote:

"Every atom in your body is making an incredible journey through time and space. They've all been part of several stars and millions of other organisms before finally coming together in you - not for long though. A billion of your atoms once belonged to Shakespeare. Another billion to Genghis Khan, Buddha, Alexander the Great, you name them. If they lived a few decades ago, you've inherited millions of their atoms. We're exchanging atoms every second, taking a part from everyone we meet while giving them something back. When I die, I might not live on in Heaven, Walhalla or the Summerlands. But my atoms will find new purpose and new life. In a few centuries, a part of 'me' will be in every living creature and every place on Earth. To me, it's an inspiring and comforting thought. That's what religion should be like, shouldn't it?

Monday, December 11

All I want

All I want for Christmas is Richard Dawkins? I'm sorry to disappoint you, Richard - my second apology already. On my wish list, Unweaving the Rainbow is accompanied by Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, amongst other books. I know it's not a very original choice, but it contains a lot of text (686 pages) about a lot of subjects (nearly everything), so it should be a great way to spend a lot of passtime - although I have no such thing at my disposal at the moment. But anyway. Then there's Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos about space, time and the texture of reality. Since I loved reading my biography of Alexander the Great (alright, I admit, I wás picturing Colin Farrell) I also asked Santa for The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox. An epic history of Greece and Rome, the cover says. Fifth and last on my list is Douglas Adams' complete Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The famous trilogy in five parts. I actually own (and have read) the first two parts. Call it nonsense - it is - but it makes me laugh.

This is not just all I want, for now - it's all I get. Picking your own presents is not that bad, even if you do like surprises.

Friday, December 8

Colour

I'm not sure if I deserve Santa's gifts this year. I always try to be unprejudiced towards others. But a few weeks ago, I have made a very biased statement. I quote; "Richard Dawkins will probably have established a personal record by writing more than fifty words without emphasizing his contempt for religion. Although one can never be sure." It was meant as a joke - hence the exagaration - but I feel I owe mr. Dawkins an apology anyway. Shame on me. The best way of making it up to you, Richard, is of course to buy one of your books. Actually, I've asked Santa Claus to buy it for me. Forgive me for the fact that I have not put The God Delusion on my wish list - it would only prove me right. No, I've asked Santa for Unweaving the Rainbow instead. Shockingly, Amazon.co.uk's synopsis tells me that - on this subject - I couldn't agree more with Dawkins.

"This is a dazzling, passionate polemic against anti-science movements of all kinds. Keats accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by explaining the origin of its colours. In this illuminating and provocative book, Richard Dawkins argues that Keats could not have been more mistaken, and shows how an understanding of science enhances our wonder of the world. He argues that mysteries do not lose their poetry because they are solved: the solution is often more beautiful than the puzzle, uncovering even deeper mysteries. Dawkins takes up the most important and compelling topics in modern science, from astronomy and genetics to language and virtual reality, combining them in a landmark statement on the human appetite for wonder."

Science doesn't destroy the miracles in this world, it uncovers them. That's exactly what I've been trying to capture in posts like these. And of all writers, I recognize that thought in work by Richard Dawkins. How I love to be proven wrong. How I need crayons in all colours of the rainbow to chase away the black and white in my mind... where colouring within the lines is strictly forbidden.

Sunday, December 3

Presents

I am probably one of the very few bloggers who will tell her audience what presents she will be giving to her family for Christmas - before she has actually given them. The logical reason for this is the fact that my audience does not encompass any of my family members. Furthermore, I don't have to warn you to keep this a secret, as I am pretty sure none of you know my family. Such freedom is given to me by the Almighty internet... Don't expect any brilliant gift ideas, though. This is what I have bought so far:

  • Two carmine red tealight holders, because it isn't quite like Christmas if you don't give something to light up the room. And they're in my mom's favorite colour.
  • A tealight holder of frosted glass on which the the tealight sheds patterns of light (the patterns are cut out of a metal cup in the holder). Because it looks real pretty, and you can never have to much tealights burning at Christmas.
  • Aerial, the most recent CD by Kate Bush. I cannot stand this music, but I hope the receiver thinks differently.
  • Facial masks, because sometimes you just have to force somebody to relax.
  • A tea box, because it's needed. No gift like a practical gift, right?
  • A rubber oil brush, because I ran out of original ideas. But again, very useful.
  • Two luxurious bars of chocolate. Food and Christmas always go well together.

The idea counts.

Cubbyholes

In Dutch it is called a hokjesgeest, a mind that tries to categorize everything and everyone into little cubbyholes. In essence, I think we perceive the entire outside world through a grid, a sieve to sort out our observations. Our anchestors used categories such as 'edible plants' or 'potential enemies'. And I'm sure other animals do exactly the same thing, for the same reason we all arrange our computer files into folders; to keep our hard disk organized and to allow us to retrieve files efficiently. The folders in our mind also help us recognize additional similarities between the members of one category. This is why animals in the jungle will generally stay away from brightly coloured frogs, since most of them are poisonous. Some harmless frog species have even taken advantage of the situation, evolving bright skin colours to make their hunters believe they are dangerous.

This inevitable system has its advantages, but it also induces a very subjective outlook on reality. And the relations we see between certain characteristics are often imagined. Making a connection based on a few cases, assuming that it applies in all cases, and ignoring all evidence that could prove that idea wrong... That's too easy. So easy that we do it all the time. We connect the dots wrongly, even when we are aware of the fact that we are listening to mere prejudice . Most of the time, these small lies do not cause any harm. But some people lose sight of reality as they get cought up in their own conclusions. They start to make assumptions about large groups of people, categorizing them by skin colour or religion. And we all know where that can lead to.

I believe that tolerance is one of the most important virtues one can possess, and to receive this trait we should at least try to keep an open mind. We will never be able to break down those cubbyholes inside our minds, but by carefully keeping our balance, we might be able to tiptoe atop the walls that divide them.

Image: Route 2 J

Saturday, December 2

Wish upon the Moon

"In thought, the sand seeps through my fingers."

The Planetary Society encourages people around the world to send their names and a message along with SELENE, a Japanese lunar orbiter spacecraft currently in integration. The proposed launch period is sometime between July and August 2007, bringing thirteen science instruments - and thousands of messages - into an orbit around the Moon. I know, it will not immortalize our poor souls... But the symbolism of it! You can submit your name and message here. My message (at the top of this post) Isn't exactly a wish, it's more of a homage. A homage to the greatness of human imagination, which allows us to make such giant leaps. In some ways, we are closer to the Moon than SELENE will ever be.

Thursday, November 30

Thanks

The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank. - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Does God exist? I do not know. And although the question intrigues me, I am glad I have managed to get through daily life without knowing the answer, so far. But that's not all. I have a lot to be glad for. One could even argue I am thankful. The question is, to whom?

I'm not good in finding objects I've lost, and worse in dealing with the fear I'll never find them again. Not being able to find something makes me feel bad, even - dare I say - worse than the average, ehm... loser. One who has lost something. Automatically, I will beg for some luck. "Please, let me find those keys. I will be so thankful. Let them be at my desk, under the bed, in the hallway." And I do feel very thankful once I've found my keys. But then I wonder to whom I am talking. Destiny? Lady Luck? God? An atheist has nobody to thank in such a situation. But I am faced with a dilemma. I might have nobody to thank, but I can't be sure. And getting what you've asked for without showing your gratitude is not very polite, even if you don't know who did you the favor. So, if anyone's listening? Thanks.

Thursday, November 23

Frogs

In my last post I borrowed an example - the story about a lady dying in the theatre - from a journalist of my morning paper. He had his own reason for mentioning this incident of course. He used it to illustrate how he perceived the reaction of the general public to the issue of global warming to be. We know we should do something, but we can't help but waiting for others to take action first. Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth fortunately has drawn more attention to the subject, simply because he is a well-known politician. In his own words, he "used to be the next president of the United States." I have respect for the way Gore has brought global warming to the attention of the public at large. But did we really need a VIP to tell us what can be read in the most basic books on climate change?

I have been studying Earth and Environmental Sciences for a few months now, and I happen to follow a course entitled 'Global Change' this month. We're mainly using John Horgan's Global Warming as a source, a serious and scientific textbook which extensively deepens of the subject discussed in An Inconvenient Truth. If there is one thing that this book has thought me, it's that global warming is real. The average global temperature is increasing, there is no doubt. Measured in periods of months and years, this rise seem to be quite slow. But in reality, it's going very fast.

I understand why the appropriate reaction did not take place. Many of us have not experienced any serious results of this climate change yet, and if we have, we tend to wonder if the event actually occurred as a consequence of climate change. And if the increased greenhouse effect is a reality in the first place - that is to say, if human activity is substantially contributing to the rise in global average temperature. However, trusting in climatologists, we can say with considerable certainty that we are indeed the cause of a large part of the change. Either that, or our little green neighbours from Mars are playing a trick on us. And rising temperatures are not even the problem; their consequences are.

"An increase in global temperatures can in turn cause other changes, including a rising sea level and changes in the amount and pattern of precipitation. These changes may increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, and tornados. Other consequences include higher or lower agricultural yields, glacial retreat, reduced summer stream flows, species extinctions and increases in the ranges of disease vectors." - Wikipedia

Knowing this, governments still feel they should wait to see the actual extent of the damage. In the meanwhile, we're all sitting here like frogs in a pot of water, and something tells me we're about to be boiled. And I know climate change is not the most popular subject to discuss. It has become associated with environmentalists and doomsayers, it's not 'cool'. On the contrary, it's getting hotter and hotter. But at some point we have to face up to reality, the sooner the better. What do we have to loose? A lot.

Visit http://www.climatecrisis.net/ and http://www.stopglobalwarming.org/ to find out what you can do.

Wednesday, November 22

Jumping out of the crowd

Taking the initiative does not seem to be one of human nature's finest qualities - not because we do it the wrong way, but because we don't do it. I have to admit that many fine accomplishments have been made by individuals who had the guts to take initiative. Some of them great, others small, but the initiators can always rest assure afterwards, knowing that they have at least stuck their necks out. That they have had the courage to do so.

The truth is, most people don't like taking the initiative. We are herd animals. We often wait for someone else to make the first move. This seems to contradict with our indomitable curiosity - of which I do not believe it is solely a characteristic of the few people who do not recoil from taking the initiative, on the contrary - but it seems unescapable to conclude that most of us are not very eager to stand out of the crowd. I explicitly use the word 'we', because I am referring to myself as well. I actually consider myself to be quite shy, although I sense I am able to find more courage year after year. To avoid misunderstandings about my perception of this particular subject, it might be useful to borrow an example from a journalist of my morning paper.

A middleaged lady went to see a play in the theatre. However, after some time, she began to experience serious discomfort (the exact details slipped my mind). According to the journalist, she knew it was here time to die. The lady decided not to bother anyone with her upcoming death and struggled to her feet, determined to die in the bathroom instead. But she collapsed in the aisle, right in front of the actors and many people in the audience. Despite the fact that many noticed her fall, it took a full minute before the actors stopped acting and people got up to see how the poor lady was doing.

The same phenomenon can be observed in experiments. In one case, a student was put into a room with three others to make a test. It was strictly forbidden to talk, of course. After a while, smoke began coming in from underneath the door. The three other students were in on the experiment, and pretended not to notice this alarming signal. It didn't take long before the subject's attention was attracted by the smoke, but it was astonishing to see his reaction. In disbelief, he looked at his fellow students who were concentrating on their tests, hoping that they would see the smoke coming in - so that he would not be forced to say anything himself. It might have taken him several minutes before he actually responded to the apparent threat.

Asking ourselves what we would do - and what we should do - in these and similar situations is very important, I reckon. Apparently it is very hard to think clearly in the heat of the moment. If you see someone being hit by a car, would you immediately come to her aid? What would you do if you saw a person being intimidated by several men? Even if you are not the only witness, especially if you are not the only withness, it might be difficult to intervene. Telling yourself that there would be no doubt in your mind, that you would do the right thing - taking the initiative - is very convenient, but is it the truth? Frankly, I am not at all sure that I would be courageous enough to make the first move in such a situation. But I know I should, and the more I am aware of that, the more persistent I will be in taking action. Ask yourself, what would you do?

Monday, November 20

True worth

Humans have always been very interested in playing God; taking our fate into our own hands and creating our own world. Recently, Homo Sapiens has even succeeded in creating new and unique life through genetic modification. In time, we might end up changing our own genes. Another future goal could be to create artificial life - or has that goal been achieved already? It depends on what definition of 'life' one is willing to accept.

Life: the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally. - Dictionary.com

If man creates a machine and/or program that corrensponds with this definition, should that life form have its own rights? I reckon this depends on the level of intelligence it possesses - after all, many of us think animals such as dogs and pigs (who are actually more intelligent than dogs) should have animal rights, but nobody ever demonstrates to enforce rights for insects or plants. And then there is the possibility that we create a creature which cannot be called alive, but nevertheless is intelligent. Or is the ability to experience emotion a requirement to claim robot rights?


The complicated issue of determining the worth of man-made 'machines' brings along numerous other questions as well. One may even wonder wether creating human-like artificial intelligence is ethical in the first place. Or an intelligent decision.

Sunday, November 19

Into perspective

The wise man is he who knows the relative value of things. - William Ralph Inge

Sometimes we tend to focus on one particular thing too much, while disregarding the rest. An unhealthy habit that should be avoided in most situations. The subject of your thoughts easily swells up like a giant balloon blocking your sight. And when you don't see things in perspective anymore, well, it has become very hard to judge their value. Some blow up theirselves, others their job or beliefs. This selective 'inflation' has been the cause of many bizarre utterances, in the style of "I cannot live without seafood" or "I cannot believe you have never tasted marinade oysters before, you don't know what you've been missing!" In these examples, notice how the words 'I cannot' indicate the speaker suffers from a considerable lack of imagination. A direct result of narrow-mindedness?

When discussing the possible meanings of life in What's it all about, philosopher Julian Baggini warns us not to make the mistake of thinking that our own personal interests are a necessity in giving any life meaning. For instance, we might expect Baggini to agree with Socrates' statement that "the unexamined life is not worth living." After all, it is his job to examine life. He must reckon it is exceedingly important to do so. Suprisingly, Baggini immediately rejects the idea that philosophy - thinking about your own life, its purpose and its meaning - is essential in having a meaningful life.

"(...) many do still claim that we need to engage in some form of philosophical reflection to make our lifes worthwhile. I am suspicious of such a response. It has the whiff of intellectual arrogance about it and perhaps betrays a lack of imagination. People tend to overestimate the importance of the things that interest them most - for example, the English National Opera, known as ENO, once ran an advertising campaign using a slogan based on its initials: Everone Needs Opera. (...) I am reminded of the character in Willy Russel's Educating Rita who exclaimed, 'wouldn't you just die without Mahler?' Well, no, actually, bu as an enthusiast she can't help but think of Mahler as being an indispensible part of a full life."

When putting things in perspective, we may realize that we are just one of the 6.5 billion people on this planet. Although you undoubtedly share many of your problems and passions with numerous others, you are still only one, and what concerns you might not be of universal importance. One could even reason that all earthly affairs fade away compared to the immensity of the universe. The Earth is just a tiny speck in space. When I was a young girl, I could look at the stars and feel that sensation press upon me - even without being able to encompass the extent of the cosmos, which will never fit inside our heads. While some find that feeling of insignificance comforting, others may not. Fortunately, it's just a matter of perspective. However small you are compared to the world, you are the result of 3.5 billion years of evolution. I estimate that 99,999% of all creatures that have ever lived does not have any descendants living today. Their bloodlines have died out, their genes have not been passed through. Yet none of your thousands of anchestors is part of that overwhelming majority. You descend from the ultimate victors of life. Of course, so does every other living creature on the globe. But that doesn't make you any less special, does it?

Saturday, November 18

Bright

I'm often in search of quality photographs on the internet, using them on this weblog or as wallpapers for my notebook. At this website I found just what I was looking for; a search engine which browses through wallpaper groups on Flickr. I was surprised by the high resolution and sparkling colours of the images it finds, which can be downloaded in several sizes (from tiny to absolutely huge). This tool really comes in handy. I've handpicked some examples.



Tuesday, November 14

Cities falling silent

A few days ago, I saw a British film called Children of Men, which hypothesized how society would respond to the sudden and complete infertility of the human race. Everyone sees the end coming, and realizes that the streets will be empty within a century. A troubling portrait of a dying society. Our Last Century, a book by Martin Rees I bought last week, also deals with the idea of humanity coming to its end within a few decades.

There are many ways in which Homo Sapiens could go extinct. Some scenarios even involve the destruction of the entire planet. The amusing website Exit Mundi offers a broad collection of disasters that could end the world in a flash, including comets, quantum explosions and flipping magnetical fields. There are many interesting theories. But what really fascinates me isn't which catastrophe ends the existence of mankind, but rather what happens after the extinction - that is to say, what happens if humans just 'disappear' off the face of the Earth, without the entire ecosystem being destroyed in the process. Something like that might happen as a result of a pandemic, for instance. But let's keep it simple. Imagine that every human being simply ceases to exist; everyone gone in the blink of an eye. In many (natural) environments it will seem as if little has changed. Even in the countryside, you might not notice what has happened at first.

But imagine a city, only minutes ago a thriving metropolis, which is now abandoned by human life. Everything reminds of the former presence of people, but they are already beginning to lose their meaning. The city is not dead - plants are still growing, birds are still singing their song. Nevertheless, it seems to have fallen completely silent. A feeling of immense desolation would strike you if you were to walk through those empty streets and buildings. For a relatively short moment in time, perhaps a few thousand years, time would seem to be stuck in the past here. Until nature has fully claimed back the grounds, and life on earth continues as if we were never there.




These and many more pictures of abandoned man-made environments can be found at this Japanese website. Many other photographs of 'silent cities' can be found here.

Monday, November 13

To dream the impossible dream

He who says we can do anything as long as we put our mind to it, is a liar. It’s just that simple. Regardless of what we might hope for, the bleak truth shows us we are limited in many ways. Our possibilities are not endless. Many paths are blocked off by the laws of logic, physics, present-day technology, intelligence, time, and so forth.

There are many things that I cannot achieve personally, such as winning in a match of chess against the best chess player in the world, or performing a backflip. Furthermore, there are innumerable tasks of which we can assume – with some certainty – that no human being can perform, at least not in this day and age. Flying to another star. Having practicable laser beams coming out of our eyes without developing serious medical complications. Things that only superman is able to do, for now. A third category is formed by the sheer impossibilities, which are never going to be possible, not for anyone or anything, ever. Actions that would conflict with everything we know about reality. Reason predicts that not even God would not be able to accomplish these things. God might exist, but he cannot be almighty, because he would not be able to build a wall so high that he could not jump over it. Or so the insolvable riddle goes. In other words, one cannot become all-powerful because that would automatically imply that one has lost the ability to fail. Thus, failing does more than pointing out our imperfections and incapacities (that is to say, the fact that we are ‘only’ human). Failure shows us we are bound to the laws of this universe. I fail, therefore I exist.

We cannot do anything we put our mind to. To many people that may sound awfully pessimistic. It’s not what you say to your children when they ask if they can be an astronaut when they grow up. Instead, you tell them that everything is possible, as long as they do their very best. Making children believe this particular lie can have a number of positive effects. It can encourage their hope, confidence, and persistence. It’s a little trick to protect them from disappointment. I can certainly come up with more reasons as why to tell your children they can achieve anything they want, as opposed to telling them Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny really exist. Whilst they are both lies, and whilst we both use them to trick small children. Perhaps we should rather look at the negative consequences these fables can bring about. When your kid finds out that Santa Claus is just a regular guy in a suit, not in the possesion of any magical flying reindeer, he might feel somewhat shocked or offended. When my niece found out, she was pretty upset actually. However, I do not consider it likely that she sustained any permanent mental trauma. And of course I’m not arguing that this will be the case when a child finds out that he cannot achieve everything he puts his mind to – but you’ll have to agree that this discovery may have a more substantial effect on some children’s psychology. Subconsciously, it might affect their personal assessment of accomplishments they make throughout their entire life. If you’ve been brought up believing that the sky is the limit, how are you going to cope with the numerous falls back to earth?

I believe that children - and adults alike – should be able to believe in their hopes and wishes. However much one appreciates rationality and being realistic, a part of us should always be allowed to dream the impossible dream. Some dreams come true, but even unfulfilled dreams have their purpose. The idea itself is often worth it, and gives us something to look forward to - even if we never expected the event to happen in the first place. Some say we have only truly become old when we do not dare to dream anymore, and I agree. It would be like giving up our future. Provided that we understand and accept the possibility that we might not see our wishes fulfilled, and thus protect ourselves against the disappointment, I reckon there is nothing wrong with a bit of daydreaming. After all, it’s not that hard to imagine.

Friday, November 10

Latest book buys

All the way from God's paradisal orchids to doomsday and the heath of hell.

Global Warming: The Complete Briefing by John Houghton (€39/$50) Normally I would never have bought this book - or any book - for such a high price, but I need it for my course Global Change. And I have to admit, if you're interested in an objective and extensive explanation of global warming and its implications, this is the book to read.

A History of God, From Abraham to the Present by Karen Armstrong (€15/$19) I had considered buying this book on Amazon, but fortunately I stumbled across the Dutch version last weekend. Reasonably priced, since former nun Armstrong manages to fill 500 pages with her survey of the way in which God was seen in the course of 4000 years of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Very interesting though, it's all new to me. Thank God it's in Dutch.

How To Build a Time Machine by Paul Davies (€2/$2,50) Today, I came across a bookstore giving major discounts, and I seized the opportunity of buying four ridiculously low-priced books (including this one, the following two, and a booklet for a friend in Michigan). How To Build a Time Machine is a cute little must-have booklet explaining the basics of time travel, if one can speak of basics in this field of 'science'.

Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century? by Martin Rees (€2/$2,50) The title of astronomer Sir Rees' book says it all, really. Waiting for doomsday. I wonder why the cover (of the Dutch version) features rather paradisal orchids instead of damnation and destruction.

The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century collected by John Brockman (€2/$2,50) Agent Brockman has collected 25 of his writers to discuss the future of science in their respective fields of study. What can we expect from science, assuming we will at least survive the first half of 'doomsday century'? Cosmology, mathematics, medicine, genetics... 25 short essays cover every area of importance. Major plus point: Regarding the subject of this compilation, co-writer Richard Dawkins will probably have established a personal record by writing more than fifty words without emphasizing his contempt for religion. Although one can never be sure.

Tuesday, November 7

Bird!

A friend of mine uttered some memorable words today. "I should really stop calling everything 'bird'!", she said. Ahum, yes, shouldn't we all... In honour of both senseless statements and sublime photography - as well as birds, of course - here are some great pictures from Route 2 J, all the way from India.


Monday, November 6

Waking up

Here I am, talking about New York City. Again. I want to wake up in the city that never sleeps. Around eight o'clock in the morning, when the sun reveals the bright blue sky and throws its orange beams against the high-rise buildings. Breakfast on a bench in Central Park, cream-cheese bagels and a large cappucino. Josh Radin whispering in my ears. Sinatra will have to wait until afternoon, as does the Guggenheim. Call me a dreamer. I'll be sitting there in the future, one day. Again.



Where would you like to wake up tomorrow?

Sunday, November 5

There I am

Everybody does things they will regret later. Now and then, our behaviour gets out of control. You might not make a monumental mistake every time, but afterwards you realize it just did not seem to be your behaviour at all. You lost track of yourself. Trying to become the person you want to be doesn't necessarily have to mean you are trying to become someone else. On the contrary, if you're going about it the right way, you should end up more like yourself. It's really not yourself you're changing, but rather the way you express yourself. However, I think we should all keep in mind that it is impossible to actually reach that noble goal. We will always loose ourselves, time after time. We will always display behaviour that doesn't correlate with our true character. There will always be 'flaws' in the way we express ourselves. The second biggest mistake you can make is to give up in trying to eliminate these flaws. The biggest mistake would be to fail in accepting them.

Wednesday, November 1

Against a dark sky

Let no one who loves be unhappy, even love unreturned has its rainbow. - James E. Barrie

Today, as I was walking out of 'my' metro station in Amsterdam, I was raining while I could barely feel the raindrops falling on my skin. The sky displayed its darkest shades of grey, and yet the sun was shining on my face. Weather for a rainbow, I thought, and as I was walking down the street I turned around. A brightly-coloured arch appeared from behind the oddly shaped headquarters of the ING bank. Upon looking again, it was gone. I realized I had smiled when noticing the rainbow. Looking out the window of the metro train, I had also smiled at the reflection of the morning sun against graffiti-filled walls. And I smiled at the wind that tried to pull me off my bike this afternoon. I just couldn't help but smile at the wind as one would smile at a dear friend who's teasing. Yesterday, grey skies made me sad. Today, I choose them to make me deeply contented.

Saturday, October 28

Meaning

For millions this life is a sad vale of tears
Sitting round with really nothing to say
While scientists say we're just simply spiralling coils
Of self-replicating DNA
- Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life

What's it all about? I have just begun reading this book by Julian Baggini, in which he explores the many possible answers to the question in the title. A large question mark is printed on the cover of the book. I have to admit I've only finished one chapter so far. In Looking for the blueprint, Baggini discusses the possibility of a meaning of life given to us by God. He wonders why we often assume that a meaning given by a divine creature, is somehow worth more than the meaning we can give to our lifes ourselves. Baggini considers the history of the Post-it notes. The repositionable adhesive that the notes use was discovered in 1963, but nobody had any idea what possible use this glue could have. Six years later, someone hit upon the idea of lightly adhesive bookmarks, an idea eventually resulting in Post-its.

"The Post-it note may seem like a trivial example, but it illustrates neatly the point that, when it comes to use or purpose, what matters is not necessarily what the inventor had in mind, but the uses or purposes the inovation actually is."

"What's it all about?" is one of those pocket-sized books to take with you on your way to work or school, reading a little everyday, and taking the time to reflect on the matter. Another book to recommend!

Friday, October 27

To the core

I have noticed it is hard to get to know me well. I am only truly myself when I am alone. Whenever other people are around, I change - anyone's presence will turn me into a slightly different person. She doesn't just act and talk differently - she also thinks in a different way than I do. The change of behavior around different people is quite universal, I assume. A way to optimalize communication - people will subconsiously imitate anyone they're talking to. But to what extent do we lose ourselves amongst others? If we strip away all imitations and assessments of the way we are seen by everone around us, what will be left of us? I am convinced we do all have a unique identity and character, a foundation beneath our 'everyday' shifting personality. On the other hand, I do not know where this 'core of being' came from, how it was created, what its exact characteristics and boundaries are. Is there really any possibility that my identity cannot be traced back to other people?

Perhaps I could say I - meaning, my mental self - have created myself in a process of filtering out influences from the outside world. The outcome of this continuous process in any person will determine his thoughts, opinions, and behavior; his character, the expression of who he 'is'. Genetics might play a part in either someone's identity, the extent to which one is able to express that identity, or the way in which information is filtered. After all, we do have something to begin with, a base from which to build. And arising from this concept, it could be that I feel I am 'myself' most at times on which the 'core of my being' - the mosaic of influences I have collected from birth - is well-balanced. When new influences start to come in; certain parts begin to dominate in order to provide the right response. That would imply I am in fact doing no such thing as losing myself amongst other people. Although I still don't like being thrown off balance.

Saturday, October 21

Sweet scents

Who wouldn't want to buy a perfume that evokes the universal scent of happiness? Researchers hope to develop that perfume by investigating the brainwaves of volunteers, to discover the exact characteristics of the fragrance that makes everyone feel good. Sensory scientists have assumed for years that our reactions to smell were only dependent on our cultural background, but brain scans now indicate that our responses to some smells are innate. Could it really be developed, a perfume of universal joy? Maybe we should rather try to capture the scents of our beloved ones, and find a way to reproduce those sweet fragrances. This would provide a way to be taken back to the events of our distant memories, just for a brief moment every now and then, even after the people we hold dear are gone. We could catch the very fragrances that personally bring about strong associations with happiness and love - grandmother's apple pie, oranges, a particular aftershave mixed with the scent of sigarettes. That last one makes me loose my mind every time I smell it - or rather, it makes me loose my heart.

Wednesday, October 18

Sparkling

Even though my vote is like a single grain of sand on the beach, it’s my grain and it sparkles.- Lynn Sislo

If I would have choose between Republicans and Democrats, I would vote Democratic. Easy. Not because that's the only right choice, but because left-wing viewpoints match my personal ideas best. Anyway, in the Netherlands, things are a little different. Politics are not so much a battle between two heavyweights, there are a lot of political parties that can really make a difference. I reckon that is a good thing, because voters have a better chance of finding a party that really matches their viewpoints. On the other hand, I found it can be very hard to actually find the party that appeals most to me. The upcoming elections for the Tweede Kamer - the main chamber of parliament in the Netherlands - are going to be my first chance of casting my vote as a citizen of the Netherlands, and I reckon it is important to make a considered decision. However, I am still doubting between three different left-wing parties. The issues on which they have different standpoints are the very same issues on which I don't have a strong opinion. Not because I refrain from thinking about these issues seriously, but rather because I don't feel I have enough information about them to make a decision of any significance. Who am I to judge? Frankly, I reckon that's perfectly alright. Not choosing between two choices can be a choice as well. But next month I do have to make a choice. I wonder if my vote will sparkle.

Saturday, October 14

Mistakes of reason

Objectivity is the perfect reflection of reality, an ivory tower that we can never reach, standing forever at the far horizon of our world. We know it's there, but we cannot see it clearly; its image is always enveloped in mist. The fact that it is unlike anything man has ever visited before makes it hard to estimate the distance between ourselves and this mythical beacon. Sometimes objectivity can appear close while being far away. We do not notice it, but this actually happens all the time. Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini is a distinguished cognitive researcher who wrote a captivating book on this subject - not in the misty way I am describing it, but in the language of exact science. In Inevitable Illusions Piatelli-Palmarini explains how we fool ourselves time and again. And we rarely ever notice how absurdly wrong our conclusions really are; everything seems to make perfect sense. The book gives numerous examples showing what goes wrong in our minds, and although I must admit that at first, I thought this was simply an easy way to fill the two-hundred pages, it turns out these examples are essential in understanding the matter. Assessing the implications of our mistakes of reason would be impossible for anyone who hasn't studied cognitive science.

Imagine you were to take a clinical test for an illness affecting 1 percent of the population in the same age group as yourself. The test is 79 percent reliable. That is, 21 percent of all positive outcomes is false. In your case, the test comes back positive. Knowing this, what is the probability that you actually have the illness (not taking into account any symptoms or signs)? Think about it.

The majority of people who were asked this question answered with some confidence that the probability of having the illness is equal to the reliability of the test, 79 percent. This would certainly have been my answer as well. But the statistically correct answer is 8 percent! Our intuition miserably fails in this case, and many others. If you'd like to know more, I warmly recommend reading Inevitable Illusions. You might not be able to avoid making mistakes of reason after reading this book, but at least you will have a better insight in the error margin of your intuition.

Friday, October 13

Up to me

If I would make a list of all the things I want to do before I die, it would certainly be very long. And somewhere in that list you'll find "eating a bagel in New York". Probably listed right after "going to New York". Bagels are sold in the Netherlands as well, of course, but it doesn't quite feel like the real thing. I don't know if the taste of a Dutch bagel is very different from a New York bagel - I have to admit I have never bought a bagel here either - but they've probably spoiled it by adding egg and making it a 'normal' bun. But I do love making bagels myself. It's unlike baking anything else. Making bagels is almost meditation, requiring patience, attention, and an unknown secret ingredient that makes it so lovely to do. My bagels aren't the real thing either, but they are made with love. Maybe that's what makes them taste so good, especially with some cream cheese, onion, and chives.

Thursday, October 12

In truth, part 2

Truth is a very relative notion in our subjective conception of the world. But we do have a more or less collective truth, of course. Very few people will question me if I say I am wearing a grey sweater today, once they have seen me. But some issues are easily interpreted in different ways by different people. And unfortunately, these issues are often of more importance than the color of a sweater. I will not be offended by anyone calling my sweater green as opposed to grey, but I will be offended if someone calls me rude in a situation where I consider myself friendly. It's easier and of less significance to agree on the color of a sweater. I have discussed the naming of a particular color before, but the discussion was light-hearted and would never have resulted in an argument.

Should we always be as honest as possible? I reckon we shouldn't. I feel it's worse to hurt somebody over something of little importance, than to keep my actual opinion from them. I've used this quote before, but I reckon my opinion doesn’t hold much water outside of My Universe. Why bother? On the other hand, even hurtful truths have their advantages. Take Cedrick, for instance. Cedrick doesn't come across as a friendly guy at first. This has an obvious reason; he always says exactly what he thinks. Ask a random person for a honest opinion on something you have made or done. They will probably wrap their criticism in friendly advice, trying to make it 'constructive' and easy for you to deal with. Ask Cedrick, and he will tell you the truth - that you've done it wrong. All wrong. And that kind of criticism is much harder to handle. But if Cedrick says you're doing alright, if he says your work looks good? Then he makes your day.

Wednesday, October 11

In truth, part 1

If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything. - Mark Twain

The truth has the unmistakable ability to hurt. Not because there is anything wrong with the truth itself, but because the lies - that so often replace it - tend to be more pleasant to hear. And we have all gotten used to those sweet little lies. Should we always speak the truth? Is everything other than the truth to be called a lie? I think many will agree with me that it's not that simple. Between the unconquerable tower of absolute truth - a perfect reflection of reality - and the low pits of twisted lies, we find the plains of politeness, old wives' tales, and small lies that are supposedly used only to protect one's feelings. These common alterations of the truth can hardly be called lies. They might or might not be harmful or depraved, but can certainly not be condemned that easily.

Nobody can always be truthful, because nobody knows the truth. As I have mentioned before, it seems to me that we are forced to fix our entire worldview onto crooked foundations. We cannot even be sure that the most constitutive facts match reality for one-hundred percent. The Matrix-concept illustrates this idea perfectly; how can we be sure we can trust our senses? How can we be sure that we even control our thoughts? These ideas might seem very far-fetched, but if you dismiss them as nonsense you're missing the point. I'm not saying I think we are all living in a virtual world constructed of lies, or that we are likely to be deceived in such a way. Frankly, I am of the opinion that the chance of this idea resembling the truth even slightly, is extremely small. Small, but existant. None of us is able to completely exclude the possibility of something so improbable to be true anyway - against all odds. We just can't be sure. This goes for every accepted fact and every insane conspiracy theory - we can only evaluate the likelihood of something being true. It's mind-stretching, indeed, but it's also a very important thing to realize.

Sunday, October 8

Sound

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. - Aldous Huxley

What is it about music? I'm not talking about an average broadcast of any given radiostation. What makes your favorite music better than just good music? Why do I associate Josh Radin's music with taking the metro at a rainy day? Why haven't I been able to listen to Our Lady Peace for years, being shocked by the singer's voice too much? What is it about Frank Sinatra that makes my heart a dancer? Why does Evermore's It's Too Late take me back to events I would have forgotten otherwise? Some music seems to be able to reach out and grasp hearts.

I cannot explain why. There are more or less logical explanations for even the most intense sensations. Falling in love feels all but rational, but why it should feel like that can be founded in a scientific way. The same goes for being influenced by other people and events. But there is something different about music, something inexpressible. It can make you feel buoyant or wistful, courageous or timid. It can take you places. Music shows that not everything is logical. It's way beyond reason.

Thursday, September 28

Bye!

Tomorrow morning I will be heading for Belgium, on an excursion that will take until next Friday. Hard work, no internet connection. But you can expect my next post in about a week. In the mean time, you are - of course - welcome to read some of my older posts which you can find in the archives. My posts rarely have anything to do with current affairs, so I guess you could say the posts are timeless. See you next week!

Wednesday, September 27

The unnoticed lack of euphoria

Sometimes it is just so hard to get out of bed in the morning - even when I have slept for eight or even nine hours. The cause of this well-known phenomenon seems to be tiredness, but on reflection, the real cause turns out to be a lack of motivation. That bothers me; considering the reality of my life I should be burning with enthousiasm. I should be waking up with the glorious feeling of not having a secondary braintumour in an advanced stage. My last thought before falling to sleep in the evening should be drenched in gratitude, for not being run over by a truck. But these are not my thoughts. The truth is, one becomes used to prosperity. Mankind does not strive for happiness. The only purposes of life, for us animals, are survival and reproduction. And the daily struggle for survival brings nothing but stress. It's hard to be happy 24/7.

I don't know the full worth of what I have got until I've lost it. And if something does happen, I will probably blame myself for not having realized how lucky I really was. But not realizing - that's what I'll really miss.

Monday, September 25

Sleepyhead

"Oh sleep! It is a gentle thing, Beloved from pole to pole."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)

Good news for sleepy students and workers! Scholars at The City University of New York have shown that taking a nap helps you perform certain tasks, such as memorizing. "Traditionally, time devoted to daytime napping has been considered counterproductive," the researchers say. But now it seems we have an excuse to nap in the middle of the day. Of course, a good night of sleep is not to be underestimated - especially the REM sleep, when most dreaming occurs, is thought to be particularly important. Personally, I love sleeping, but I cannot take a daytime snooze, not even when I am tired or ill, lying on the couch with a blanket and the curtains closed. It just doesn't work with me. However well-spend napping time may be, I'll stick with sleeping at night - as long as possible. Oh, sweet oblivion of dreams...

About the image: A detail of Brendan Monroe's "Blush from side to side."

Sunday, September 24

Soothing sound


All’s well at the base of the hill
You might need to fill
A prescription to kill
Off the silence.

I found this photograph in Michael Muller's online portfolio. Out of all those photographs, I wondered who this guy was. Josh Radin. It turns out he's a musician, and a good one too. His songs are soft and thoughtful, somewhat sad. Music to listen on a cloudy day in the bus. He doesn't sing; he wispers the lyrics in your ear. I especially like Star Mile - the quotation above is taken from the lyrics. See what you think. By the way, I almost forgot to mention: Radin keeps is own personal weblog here. How sweet.

Friday, September 22

Looking up

"When I grow up, I am going to be..." According to a friend of mine, she uses this phrase regularly, but not many people understand why she does. She's not a little girl anymore. Neither am I. But I reckon it's a good thing to be able to think like that - dreaming about a future that is as distant as it is sure. In some way, it keeps you forever young. We are only truly old when we feel there is nothing to look forward to anymore, when we think our life is going to continue at the same pace until death separates us from it. When our past has shaped our future, and it appears unchangeable. It must be hard not to age like that, because your past only grows while your future time decreases by the minute. Inevitably. But if there is even the smallest chance of succeeding, than resisting an elderly mind is certainly worth trying. Every day, I study to be a geologist, and being a geologist is probably something I will do for the rest of my life. But when I grow up, I am going to be a photographer. And a scriptwriter. An interior designer. An architect. A writer of popular science. I'm going to think of brilliant commercials. I'll design gardens, furniture, clothing, note cards. I'm going to be an astronaut... When I grow up.

Wednesday, September 20

Magnus

I just finished Paul Cartledge's book Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, a most wonderful book for anyone interested in reading an elaborate introduction to Alexander and his world. Cartledge manages to give a seemingly unabbreviated image of an enigmatic figure - without concealing or ignoring the fact that historians do not know particularly much about Alexander. A praiseworthy accomplishment, indeed.

Cartledge's book left me with a question, and I believe that's what every good book is supposed to do. How should I look upon this fascinating historic figure, this legend, if not even historians have a clear picture of the man? How do I know if I am envisaging Alexander in a rational way, as opposed being influenced by the so-called Alexander Romance too much? I feel that it might not be such a bad idea to see Alexander the Great as the man he would have liked to be seen as himself; as a God - in the Greek sense of the word. In the last chapter of his book, The Divinity of Alexander, Cartledge writes:

"Though represented anthropomorphically, a god(dess) was not exactly a person in the human sense. He or se was, rather, an embodiment of certain powers and forces."

Thus, Alexander can be seen as an embodiment of ambition, courage and power - as well as a warning against megalomania and paranoia. We do not know what Alexander was like in real life, but his deeds show that he must have been a remarkable man. I admit I would like to believe the image I have formed of him, and I might as well believe it if I choose to envisage him as an embodiment of these characteristics. Whether he was a courtious man with ideals, or a savage who enjoyed above all the killing of men, I believe Alexander had the heart of a lion.

Sunday, September 17

A day for silence

Some days are for expressing your feelings and ideas. Those are days for talking and writing. Painting. Singing. Blogging. Making a move. Today is no such day. Today is one of those days on which we observe. A rainy sunday afternoon, seen from our own comfortable little corner of the world. Or, as Hugh Elliot of the Standing Room Only weblog once put it;

Listen. Do not have an opinion while you listen because frankly, your opinion doesn’t hold much water outside of Your Universe. Just listen. Listen until their brain has been twisted like a dripping towel and what they have to say is all over the floor.

I wish I could write like that. But enough said.

Friday, September 15

Fall

I should have seen it coming; the fall that inevitably follows upon the rise. Yesterday, I found out the hard way that I am not capable of going through life as if I never get used up. I had been on the university campus all day, hauling along my newly purchased notebook. I was starting to wonder why I had bought it in the first place. In the afternoon I noticed how it was draining my energy both physically and mentally. When I was finally ready to begin the most backbreaking part of the day - the trip homeward - I became aware of the fact that I had lost my jacket somewhere. From your own experience you might know how devastating that is when you're all dead beat and worn-out. It can break a person. It is the straw that breaks the camel's back. The misfortune resulted in a vain search for the lost item, still dragging along a heavy box and three bags - but my jacket was nowhere to be found. I suppose that was to be expected, but the fact that I was not succeeding in my desperate quest still hit me hard. Hope can be a cruel thing. There was another event that surprised me, although this too was to be expected. It involved a car in my proximity, moving at considerable speed, its driver yelling at me and - this is important - a traffic light that had turned to red quite some time before my arrival. I wasn't thinking too clearly, obviously. This depressed mood of mine could be dangerous, I thought to myself. Life-threatening even. And so I tried to cheer myself up. Thinking about the poor children in Africa actually helped this time. What was I thinking, getting all upset about a tiring day (week, actually) and a lost jacket? I guess it just took me by surprise - getting used up. The last drop made the cup run over. In the dutch language, the proverb speaks of a bucket. But even empty swimming pools will flood once the rain refuses to stop. Everyone gets used up once in a while, and all we can do is wait for the sun to break through the clouds. Fortunately I live in a country where it never rains for long. And I'm not even talking about the weather.

Tuesday, September 12

Nec plus ultra

January 30 1774 in the Amundsen Sea. The ship Resolution, commanded by explorer James Cook in search of the mythical Terra Australis, reaches its most southern point. It was the first ship that had ever sailed this far towards the South Pole. But which person traveled furthest south? This question was the subject of a - no doubt entertaining - debate between two crew members. When the Resolution was about to change course and turn back to the north, the English explorer George Vancouver climbed to the very end of the bowsprit and declared: "Nec plus ultra!", a Latin phrase which literally means 'nothing more beyond'. Surely the person at the very front of the ship had gone furthest south? But the Swedish botanist Anders Sparman stated that he had been furtest south, because he was in Cook's cabin at the back of the ship when the ship made its turn. And a ship always sails backwards for a short period of time before choosing its new course, Sparman reckoned.

I don't know who was right that day, but it is not of great importance. James Cook and his crew had been pushing back colossal borders on the entire journey. In the next half a century, nobody would equal the accomplishment of the Resolution and its men - to sail further to the South Pole than anyone had done before.

Sunday, September 10

Saturday, September 9

Secret

suc‧cess 1. the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors. 2. the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.

Most people want something, and we all want to be able to achieve what we want. Whether in work or education, fishing or cooking, life's little struggles or eternal love - we like to win. Yes, success is a pretty big thing, and it doesn't have to be about money or prestige. To Bob Dylan, "A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do." The only problem is that you can't always get what you want.

Is there a secret to success? Abraham Lincoln impresses on us to "Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing." Many others agree with him. Dedication. To have one goal and aim for it unswervingly. But that's not a secret, is it? It's just common sense. I personally think the French philosopher Albert Schweitzer hit the mark when he supposed "A great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up." Working hard is often a substantial part of the road to success, but how long does the perseverance last? How long until we cry out we've had enough of it? The real secret to success would be to find a way to postpone that moment forever. The real secret is to find a balance in life that allows you to get energy out of work - instead of doing it the other way around. It's the secret of flight; a pair of wings to fly through life.