Wednesday, August 30

Silent times

Sometimes you get up in the morning and you have nowhere to go. You're either the only one awake or the only one in the house. It's quiet outside. You don't see any people walking by and you can't hear any cars. There's just the wind and the rain and the dark skies above. It seems as if time has stopped - right at the very moment you opened your eyes this morning. You fetch a book or turn on your computer. Read a bit, work on your weblog. And everything stays the same. You try to make an estimate of the amount of time that has passed by, looking at the reading or writing you've done. The clock. But it doesn't work, it makes no sense. Time has stopped, not in a dramatic way, but slowly and calmly. As if it wished to take a pause. And soon time will resume its course again, taking you along for the ride.

Image: Robert Watson's Discovery of the Sky

Tuesday, August 29

A quest for truth

It is an interesting paradox. Science is all about knowledge, yet the height of scientific thinking must be to admit near total ignorance. Ten new questions arise for every answer given. Truth is volatile and evaporates as soon as the right are proven wrong. Science gives us knowledge, but at the same time show us our knowledge is negligible. Man - subjectivity embedded in his very nature - infers the road of curiosity and resourcefulness has led to great achievements. But at the end of the road the great human mind can only infer that we are all immensely small, and perhaps unbelievably alone.

I consider myself a weak agnostic. To be a strong agnostic is to say that mankind at this point in time cannot possibly know wether God exists or not. I wish to go even further by stating that one can only be sure of him- or herself not knowing of the existence of God. To exclude the possibility that there are people who actually know one or several divine entities exist would be to judge of something I cannot know. Although the meaning of the word 'knowledge' itself is questionable in this case, for who is to judge where the exact bordeline between knowing and believing lies? Who is to determine what falls under proof and solid facts? I do not know.

I believe it is safe to say that uncertainty rules our vision of the world and ourselves. The only way to live with this all-embracing ignorance is to make numerous unfounded choices, time and again. It makes life bareable. Nevertheless it would be good to dwell on these matters once in a while, for they stretch far beyond religion. Failing to accept our own ignorance can lead to selfishness and prejudice. None of us possesses the gift of seeing the absolute truth. We have our own truths, all of them inaccurate due to a serious lack of information. Our subjective minds easily form opinions, even about matters that do not concern us. But how do you know who is right or wrong? Palestines or Israelis? Democrats or Republicans? One stranger or the next? We merely believe we know, just like we believe we can make a distinction between right and wrong in the first place. In my opinion, this kind of belief must be handled very carefully - for obvious reasons. Furthermore we should not be afraid of admitting that in many cases we haven't got sufficient information at our disposal for a well considered decision or an informed opinion. This applies to scientists as well- a group I hope to be part of in the future. Whom would you respect more, a scientist who thinks he knows everything, or his colleague who dares to admit he simply does not know?

Depicting mankind as ignorant and metaphorically blind may sound awfully sad and gloomy, but it is not my intent to convey such an image. Where man vainly quests for knowledge, he may find something more valuable, profound and true, namely hope. Yes, it takes a leap of faith to find this treasure - but that's life.

Monday, August 28

Saturday, August 26

My Amazon buys

The Earth: An Intimate History - Richard Fortey
Paperback (520 pages) for £6,59 / €9,75 / $12,48
An ambitious attempt to tell the geological story of planet Earth. Fortey manages to turn the most important aspects of centuries of geological research into an enjoyable narrative for the general reader. The book is a sort of guided tour around a number of geological sites with which Fortey is personally familiar, such as the Grand Canyon, the European Alps and Vesuvius. He then uses their particular geological details to build a more general story of the geology of earth as it is generally understood today.
Sunday Times: 'it provides a grandly unifying and intellectually satisfying theory of almost everything geological, and Fortey does it full justice'

Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth - Richard Fortey
Paperback (400 pages) for £7,53 / €11,14 / $14,26
A guide to the Earth from the very earliest signs of life on the rims of volcanoes, to the first appearance of man. The book ranges across many scientific disciplines, analyzing their arguments and findings, and showing readers whose the discoveries have been and whose the arguments.
One reader calls it 'an apetizer to the history of life, and a very interesting read for the non-scientists.'

What's it all about?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life - Julian Baggini
Paperback (224 pages) for £6,39 / €9,46 / $12,11
What is the meaning of life? It is a question that has intrigued the great philosophers. Is there one profound and mysterious meaning to life, a single ultimate purpose behind human existence? Julian Baggini says no, there is no single meaning. Instead, he argues meaning can be found in a variety of ways, in this life. He succinctly breaks down six answers people commonly suggest when considering what life is all about.
The Observer: ‘A practical but charming exploration… It’s witty, it’s engaging and it’s easy to pack: perfect beach reading for the disaffected’

Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Mind - M. Piatelli Palmarini
Paperback (256 pages) for £7,25 / €10,73 / $13,73

Everyone knows that optical illusions trick us because of the way we see. Now scientists have discovered that cognitive illusions, a set of biases deeply embedded in the human mind, can actually distort the way we think. In Inevitable Illusions, distinguished cognitive researcher Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini takes us on a provocative, challenging, and thoroughly entertaining exploration of the games our minds play.
Richard C. Lewontin: 'Fascinating and insightful. . . . I cannot recall a book that has made me think more about the nature of thinking.'

Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past - Paul Cartledge
Paperback (352 pages) for £7,19 / €10,64 / $13,62
The acclaimed new biography of one of history's greatest icons, Alexander the Great. By the time of his death, aged only thirty-three, in 323BCE he was ruler of the known world and was being worshipped as a god. The fruit of a lifetime's scholarship and meticulous research, this is an outstanding biography of one of the most remarkable rulers in history.
Tom Holland: 'Paul Cartledge's new book blends all the pleasures of Hollywood epic with those of a subtle and deeply intriguing detective tale. Fascinating...'

Spirited Away
DVD for £4,00 / €5,88 / $7,53 (when it was 80% discounted)
The highest grossing film in Japanese box-office history, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is a dazzling film that reasserts the power of drawn animation to create fantasy worlds. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Lewis Carroll's Alice, Chihiro plunges into an alternate reality. On the way to their new home, the petulant adolescent and her parents find what they think is a deserted amusement park. Her parents stuff themselves until they turn into pigs, and Chihiro discovers they're trapped in a resort for traditional Japanese gods and spirits. The result is a moving and magical journey, told with consummate skill by one of the masters of contemporary animation.
One owner writes 'it's visially stunning, with a very thought provoking storyline.'

Friday, August 25

Life

Some time ago I saw a man on tv who had immigrated to the Netherlands some years ago. Originally, he was from a country in Africa which I do not recall. He was a dance tutor, and during the entire conversation he talked and laughed so lively. He was asked to share his experiences as an immigrant. What was different about living in the Netherlands, living in western Europe? Upon that question he quoted René Descartes. "Here, people believe: I think, therefore I am. Where I come from, they say: I live, therefore I am. That's the difference." And I thought to myself, that is such a meaningful answer. There sits a man, talking with such enthusiasm about his family and his work... He is simply bursting of life. No doubt he has known both worries and pain. But he knows that he cannot live in the past, nor the future. He lives today. And he looks as if he's enjoying every second of it.

Thursday, August 24

Looking up to the skies

Last night I was watching Robert Zemeckis' Contact, a film starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. More than just any science-fiction film, Contact is a story about faith. The main character is Eleanor Arroway, a scientist working on the SETI-project. She hopes to find traces of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Palmer Joss is a theologian she meets in Puerto Rico and fundamentally disagrees with. Eleanor cannot see how anyone can believe in a supreme being, a God, something highly improbable of which there is no evidence. She does not understand until she finds herself in the same position as Palmer, becoming a believer who is not believed. After actually making contact with an extraterrestrial being, Eleanor is told that she was merely hallucinating. A skeptical Congressional investigating committee asks her, since she cannot prove anything, "why don't you simply withdraw your testimony and concede that this journey to the center of the galaxy, in fact, never took place?"

"Because I can't. 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..."

For the first time in her life, Eleanor understands how it feels to believe in God. It is improbable and you cannot prove it. But that changes nothing about the fact that you know God exists. Evidence of the existence of God is not to be looked for in science, it can be found in your heart. Who am I to say that truth can be found in sensory perceptions only? What could make anyone think that his or her personal belief is the only existent truth?

Many people feel there is a certain contradiction between believing in God and believing in science. Some members of both sides seem to think there should be a rivalry between religious people and scientists. I believe there should be no such thing as a - verbal or physical - fight for the truth whatsoever. There is no wrong or right in this game. There can be no winners or losers. The line that people see between science and religion does not exist. It is like the border between two nations, only existent in the minds of the people on either side. In truth, you will find that the landscape does not radically change on the other side. Truth is a landscape that changes independently of man-made borders - it is different and unique everywhere. We can only decide for ourselves where we stand.

Monday, August 21

Material girl

The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated. - H.L. Mencken

Is it a curse or a blessing? Probably both. I have a serious problem with spending money on myself. Spending money on somebody else is easy, but as soon as I want to buy something for me - something which I do not actually need - I can't. As with all psychological problems, the roots lie in my childhood. Every child wastes money on bad buys, to eventually be able to recognize and avoid them. When we're young, money doesn't really have its value yet, right? Well, I was devastated every time I spend money on something. Everything became a bad buy. The question raised to mind; "Will this buy make me a happier person?" and of course the answer was always "no". Certainly not if I took all my doubts and regrets (continuing weeks afterwards) into account. This reasoning was fairly solid and it dragged me into a vicious circle for years.

But now I am beginning to see the true value of money, and I have a considerable receipt of Amazon.co.uk to prove it. Soon, the shock and utter panic will set in, but by then the damage has already been done. One should never spend money carelessly, but at the same time it is good to remember that the true value of money lies in the things money can buy. Money can't buy happiness, but neither can poverty. And being overly economical - like me - doesn't help either.

Sunday, August 20

Smile

Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine. - Lord Byron

On most mornings you probably wake up moody because of the shrill sound of your alarm clock and negative experiences you associate it with. The cold. The darkness. The prospect of having to stay awake an entire day. Here's something you can try. Have a laugh. Or just smile. Generally you smile when you're happy, but research has shown it works the other way around as well. Even when you smile without having a reason to - when its cold and dark and you wish you could stay in bed - your brain produces endorphins. Endorphins make you feel good, resembling opiates in their abilities to produce natural pain killers and a sense of well-being. Another study demonstrated neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones decreased during episodes of laughter, which provides support for the claim that humor can relieve stress. We are able to administer our own medicine, our own happiness. The effects might not be as strong as using actual medicine, but at least there are no side effects. And it's free. In addition, smiling more often will have a positive effect on others as well. Count your blessings! I reckon that's worth a smile.

Friday, August 18

Law of nature

During my education,
It was announced to me
That gravitation, stumbling,
fell from an apple tree!

- Emily Dickinson

Thursday, August 17

Wednesday, August 16

Hello world

It has been more than eighteen years since we have first met, and I realize I have never wrote you a letter before. We have our ups and downs, sad and bright sides. We could not always get along. I have not always listened to you. I wonder when you first decided to pay court to me - or did I once invite you? Lately you make me smile time and again. Showing me poems on blind walls, and elderly couples with the soft tones of self-evident love in their eyes. I admire how it can be delicate without being fragile. We both know they will never part again, and neither will the two of us say goodbye. Thank you for carefully making my heart dance with your sweet melodies and your warm sunlight. You show me, surprise me, teach me, move me. I just ask of you not to change me. You were not mistaken when you granted me my soul. I will promise to cherish you if you help me keep this soul. And find it when I lose it.

Tonight I will fall asleep with you by my side. And no matter how we will feel tomorrow, something tells me you will always give me another chance. A day on which find myself in love with you again.

All yours,
your friend.

Tuesday, August 15

Time to wait

There art two cardinal sins from which all others spring: Impatience and Laziness. - Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Twenty days until the end of my vacation - and the beginning of my first year at university. But I am still managing to be patient - although some might call it laziness, I'm sure - filling my days with books and the internet and some other pleasant activities. My patience might actually last until the very last day, which would be absolutely record-breaking in my case. Frankly, I've already broken my previous record many weeks ago. I always found it difficult to relax after a year of constantly 'making progress'. Getting somewhere. Learning something. It made me feel quite useless during vacations. But not this time! I'm having a great time relaxing. I've accomplished nothing substantial for months.

Wait a second, maybe I have. I've learned to relax and to be patient. The significance of those skills is often underestimated. But I guess the real question is, at what point has the great virtue of Patience changed into the cardinal sin of Laziness?

Sunday, August 13

A strong myth

Spinach contains a high level of iron for a vegetable. True. That's why those tasty green leafs are exceptionally healthy and make you strong, right? Wrong. Hundred grams of boiled spinach contains only 2.7 mg of iron - compared to other vegetables that is quite a lot of iron, but consumption of spinach does not have special health connotations as folklore might suggest. There is simply not enough iron in spinach to actually make a difference. But why have we all been told this 'strong' lie? A conspiracy of greengrocers? A collective trick cooked up by our parents? Not really. As far as anybody knows, the myth was first propagated by Dr. E. von Wolf in 1870. A misplaced decimal point in his publication led to an iron-content figure that was ten times to high. It took nearly seventy years before a group of German scientists measured the quantity of iron again and discovered von Wolf's mistake. But to this day, it is still believed by most people that spinach is healthy because of its high iron level.

But not to worry. All that spinach that you've been eating involuntarily in your childhood might have had a positive effect on your health after all. Spinach does have a large nutritional value - especially when fresh, steamed, or quickly boiled. It is a rich source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, folic acid and several vital antioxidants. If you feel it would be beneficial for your health to eat food with a high level of iron, try watercress. Or spirulina, a genus of cyanobacteria which not only contains fifty times more iron than spinach, but also ten times more bone building calcium than milk. Very healthy. Just don't expect it to beat the taste of an oven baked spinach pie; nothing does!

Saturday, August 12

Islands for sale

"No man is an island," John Donne said. That might be true, but some men do own an island. Some how it's better than owning just any piece of land. Owning an island must feel like owning your own miniature country. A place to retreat from the world, and at the same time a place to experience the world. Of course buying an island of your own is expensive. Very expensive. But maybe the dream itself is worth treasuring. Feel like window shopping? Google is very helpful upon typing the magical words "private island". Private islands can be bought anywhere in the world - in any price-range and size. Two extremes;

The 'at-least-I-can-say-I-own-an-island' Island aka Cupid Island is indeed very small, but if you're willing to spend $75 000 on this heap of sand, you will have 4.4 spacious acres in the Philippines fully at your disposal. Become a castaway amidst perfect blue waters.

The 'I-will-never-be-able-to-spend-my-entire-fortune-in-this-lifetime-anyway' Islands of your dreams can be found in a slightly higher price-range. But this paradise - belonging to the US Virgin Islands - could be well worth the $45 000 000 they ask for it. 610 acres covered with palm forests, stunning cliffs, several secluded bays, white sandy beaches and crystal-clear turquoise waters. You might want to consider changing the names though. Great and Little Hans Lollik? That doesn't sound very exotic.

Friday, August 11

Dawn of democracy

The sixth century B.C. in Greece. After rule by tyrants of the aristocratic class and a struggle for power, the Athenian Cleisthenes - himself an aristocrat - brings democracy into being. Ordinary citizens are allowed to enact laws by voting with black or white pebbles. Athenians invent the word democracy (from the Greek demos, "people", and kratos, "rule") to define their system of government, and Athens becomes one of the most important democracies in ancient times. Thousands of years later, in these modern times, democracy has become perhaps the most successful form of government; almost half of the world's population now lives under liberal democratic governments. And although democracy was practised before it was developed in the Greek city-state of Athens, some argue that it all started with some pebbles.

Thursday, August 10

Into the night

The best pictures out of hundreds I took last night on the dutch highway from The Hague to Alkmaar, while experimenting with the shutter speed which can give spectacular effects. For example, the clouds on the second picture where actually hidden behind trees while photographing, but those trees did not appear in the image - like people walking by did not appear on the earliest photographs (see this post). Feel free to use any of these pictures for non-commercial purposes, but please notify me and publish the URL of this weblog along with the picture.







Sunday, August 6

Grey's words

Grey's Anatomy is a popular American television medical drama you've probably all heard of. What I particularly like about the show are the monologues at the beginning and ending of every episode. Meredith's introspective words secretly remind me of my ponderings on this blog. I was delighted to see that - on typing a few remembered words of one of her narrations - Google willingly offers the literal texts. This is my favorite Grey-quote; talking about 'turning on the light'...

"A couple of hundred years ago, Benjamin Franklin shared with the world the secret of his success. 'Never leave that 'till tomorrow', he said, 'which you can do today'. This is the man who discovered electricity. You think more people would listen to what he had to say. I don't know why we put things off, but if I had to guess, I'd have to say it has a lot to do with fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, sometimes the fear is just of making a decision, because what if you're wrong? What if you're making a mistake you can't undo? The early bird catches the worm. A stitch in time saves nine. He who hesitates is lost. We can't pretend we hadn't been told. We've all heard the proverbs, heard the philosophers, heard our grandparents warning us about wasted time, heard the damn poets urging us to seize the day. Still sometimes we have to see for ourselves. We have to make our own mistakes. We have to learn our own lessons. We have to sweep today's possibility under tomorrow's rug until we can't anymore. Until we finally understand for ourselves what Benjamin Franklin really meant. That knowing is better than wondering, that waking is better than sleeping, and even the biggest failure, even the worst, beat the hell out of never trying."

Saturday, August 5

Find the light switch

It was only a couple of days ago when a new metaphor crossed my mind, a metaphor to help me put it into words; 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.

But I think there is one aspect of importance we should keep in mind at all times; opening up the doors to your heart is the primary cause of that experience of divinity - not who or what you invite in. Oprah Winfrey once said that "every day brings a chance for you to draw in a breath, kick off your shoes, and dance". We do not need an occasion to be happy, true happiness is generated inside ourselves. Realizing this can keep us from always placing the blame on others, or not being able to live without the attention of a lover at all times. It keeps us from constantly seeking approval, affection and other stimulation - like drugs. "Happiness is not a fish you can catch" says the title of a Canadian rockband album, and I believe those are true words. For all I know, happiness is a chemical process in my brain. Neurotransmitters released. Well, those are my neurotransmitters. I just have to find the courage to open the doors and let in the light. And if it's dark outside, I'll just have to find the light switch.

Wednesday, August 2

Desolation

A ferris wheel in an abandoned Japanese park. You can walk through this park without seeing a soul and imagine everybody else has simply seized to exist. The absence of people can be a very peculiar sensation in man-made surroundings. Early photographs are fascinating because even streets in the centre of London are desolated - the process of photographing an object required a long shutter speed, and as a result passers-by did not leave a trace. Lifeless objects suddenly stand out of the background, their presence seems to press upon us. These artefacts are monuments of the past in the most general sense of the word.

Tuesday, August 1

You Are Beautiful

Yes you are, you are beautiful. Wouldn't it be good to realize that, every day? And wouldn't it be good to tell somebody they are beautiful too? At www.you-are-beautiful.com you can read everything about this beautiful project that asks us to spread an important message. You Are Beautiful is a simple, powerful statement which is incorporated into the over absorption of mass media and lifestyles that are wrapped in consumer culture. Projects like these make a difference in the world by catching us in the midst of daily life and creating moments of positive self realization. Usually, public messages are about buying, or insulting. They are cold and meaningless. We all just try to ignore them. But imagine how surprising this message would be if you would find it on a toilet mirror, a blank wall or a banknote. It would make you stop... and think. So why not? Let's make a difference. Let's show we're all beautiful people.