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.