Archive for October, 2007

What do you want?

October 30, 2007

What does an atheist want?

Well, there is no Church of Atheism, and no Great Unpope for the Unbelievers, and so each atheist shares just one thing: the opinion — or call it conviction, or even belief — that there is no God, no gods. Beyond that, we might be mild professors, nice humanitarians, or raving church-burners. Some might want every church blown up and every pastor sent to a re-education camp; every faction has its violent crackpots.

Since I’ve already answered the question ‘Who are you?’ at length, maybe I should answer ‘What do you want?’ next — not that I have any means to make these things happen. Here are four homilies on things I, as an atheist, want or do not want. (Note: my dictionary says: ‘homily — a solemn, moralizing talk or writing, esp. if long or dull’!)

* * *

I see no reason to bully the believers. Religion is a mind virus: an idea that probably has shaped the believer since his or her childhood. People don’t unlearn ideas if you bully and insult them; it’s much better to talk calmly and firmly, and to point out the things that their idea-sources (teachers, books) haven’t mentioned. If the idea isn’t intellectually defensible, a chink in its armor will be found, and eventually the idea will crumble in the mind of the idea-holder.

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A movie out of ‘the Hobbit’?

October 29, 2007

An office somewhere in Hollywood. A director’s phone rings; it is his lord, the dread studio executive calling.

Executive: Hiya! I’m calling about this new Hoggit —

Director: Hobbit?

Executive: — Hobbit film of ours. It’s a prequel to those previous megahits, right?

Director: Uh, yes.

Executive: Excellent. Love the idea, by the way. Grand concept, grand concept. Maybe we could expand it into a prequel trilogy, huh? Just asking. Now, what people really want to see are the previous heroes coming back.

Director: Well, the film’s got Bilbo, and Gandalf —

Executive: Gandalf. Splendid. Everyone loves wizards. But we need more. How about a young Frodo? That’s maximum appeal, pure maximum appeal. Put Frodo in. And we need that, uh, that pointy eared guy —

Director: Legolas?

Executive: — yep, him too. And put that funny short guy in too.

Director: Well, I suppose I could write Legolas in into the Mirkwood scenes; he’s a son of the king and all, and Gimli — the short guy — could make an appearance after the Battle of Five Armies —

Executive: Super! But there’s one really serious lack in here, you know. We’re really worried about that. No movie works without it.

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Why Finns don’t talk

October 26, 2007

Maybe you are an exchange student; maybe a tourist, or someone just interested in Finland and the Finns; and maybe you are a Finn that never dared to ask this one question: Why Finns don’t talk?

If you are a Finn, you probably never asked the question because Finns don’t talk. Not about things like this. The reason is a very deep and philosophical one: human communication is imperfect. An example —

A Finnish man asks his friend whether or not he should propose to his girlfriend. The friend mumbles: “Hell, yeah. What a prime idea.” The friend, confident that his tone was easy enough to understand, shouts for more beer and drops the subject.

Consequently, the Finn proposes and is rejected: the girlfriend’s shrill and forceful communication is quite easy to understand. The Finn leaves, heartbroken, and after three days notices that his sorrows float, and thus cannot be drowned in alcohol. Paying the bartender, he has a sudden epiphany: people are the source of all his problems! Thus he utilizes an axe on both his friend and girlfriend.

And so only the one with worst communication skills survives to breed. Indeed Finland is a vicious downward spiral.

Or: Finns don’t talk because talking means communication, and communication always holds the seeds of misunderstanding, offense, and grisly axe-murders. It’s not a good idea to offend anyone in Finland: just think of all the sharp instruments and the blunt ones, the aggressive drunken people, and the empty places where no-one can hear you scream.

And so Finns avoid speaking, being withdrawn and introspective by nature, and having little opportunity or inclination for honing their communication skills. For them, all is fine as long as one can point at a beer bottle and grunt: the cashier will understand.

After several years of this, only the grunt is needed — a man walks in, snorts, and places a bill on the counter. The cashier hands him a sixpack, gives change, and they part, without speaking a single intelligible word.

A few years more, and even the grunt disappears.

And if the years pass along, bringing with them a voluminous beer-gut and many interesting health problems, sooner or later there will be no bill either — and then no beer.

Oh, the manifold tragedies of Finland.

(Shocking expositions of some other reasons why Finns don’t talk might follow later — like the foolishness of keeping your mouth open during winter chills, and the evolutionary pressure caused by the talkative ones attracting bears and, if any of the tribe survived, being cast out after the bear had eaten its fill.)

Humble suggestions for improving church services

October 25, 2007

I think this counts as constructive criticism, so I’ll try to be as polite as I can. You know that church services can be kind of a dull. There’s plenty of room for improvement, and so here are eleven things one could do to make things a bit more lively.

( 1 )

Have a Q&A session after the sermon. There surely are many things the listeners want to know.

“Excuse me, pastor, but a few verses before your subject the Bible says ‘Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.’ I would like to have a more exact definition for — Alice! Stop digging my ribs!”

“Uh, sorry to bother you Reverend, but the parable you told us ended with Jesus saying that ‘if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree’ — make it wither with your word, that is — and, um, I’m a gardener, and I’ve been wondering why my plants keep withering — and then it ends with ‘but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done’, and frankly, I’m scared shitless right now. Dare I speak any?”

( 2 )

Continuing on that — though this is more of a theological suggestion — a spirited pastor might easily spend all the Sundays of a year by going through the laws of the Old Testament, telling his listeners just which of them apply to Christians, and which don’t.

Then people would finally know whether witch-burning, gay-bashing, polyester-wearing and masturbation are legit or not.

It’s such a bother reading first that not a jot of the old law is changed, and then hearing that it’s all been repealed.

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Bottleback mountain

October 25, 2007

There’s one problem with being a grad student of mathematics: you spend a lot of time sitting down, either reading or writing. And, since mathematics can be kinda dry, you need something to drink now and then.

Something non-alcoholic, mind you — otherwise there’ll soon be green gradients crawling in through the walls. And proving theorems can have pretty weird results, too — “From which we can easily see that 6 is a prime! THAT’S THE SECRETS OF THE WORLDS!”

You’d feel a bit foolish come the next day, and spend most of the morning pondering whether you e-mailed your new insights to your advisor, or if it was just another vivid dream.

So one has to drink something non-alcoholic: for me, that means various ice teas and soft drinks. And, as the months pass, and one is much too lazy to haul the empty third-of-a-liter bottles away, they keep piling up next to the computer, and taking up space in the desk drawers, and each week one thinks that “This Friday I will grab a big trash bag and haul these away.”

And then one doesn’t.

Which leads to the surprise one gets on finally remembering that bag, and noting that one has 98 bottles to fill it with.

Ninety-eight bottles. I should have waited for a little while more to get a full hundred.

Well, in Finland most bottles (all of mine) are returnable, but the small ones are worth only 20 cents. (Slurping coke from a big 1.5-liter bottle looks slightly unprofessional.) Ninety-eight bottles sounds like a lot, but translates to only 19 euros and 60 cents.

Which I promptly blew on a book of M. C. Escher’s prints. Hey, once a space is freed in a room, it needs to be filled, right?

Laziness triumphs again

October 25, 2007

A few days ago I was in a local bookshop. That wasn’t very odd by itself: the people that work there tend to smile in a slightly predatorish way whenever I come in, for they know it’s going to be a good day for the sales figures.

No, the unusual thing was that I was reluctant, unwilling to buy a book. The book in question was the official Nightwish history; fascinating, very probably, and quite nice in design, but still too steep in price: 39 euros, or around 55 dollars. Too much for around 380 pages, no matter how fancy the covers and plentiful the pictures.

So I didn’t buy the book then, and guess what happened today? (Well, since I’m so cheerful, you can pretty easily guess what happened.)

I went to prowl around the new shopping center, and to re-visit a discount book shop there — one that apparently buys cheap whatever the publishers have that they can’t sell elsewhere, and sells those books cheap. (Sidenote: There were piles of the Finnish translations of the Left Behind books, but no-one was willing to pay me enough to take them.)

And lo! There were copies of the Nightwish-book, for the price of 12 euros, or around 17 bucks. I bought one quicker than the speed of light.

Laziness triumphs again!

Four random thoughts

October 23, 2007

The useful habit of breaking heroes

I don’t think that there are heroes. Not really. Just human beings of varying sensibility, sensitivity and decentness. There never was a perfectly good human being, or one perfect in any one characteristic. We all have our faults, and it’s dangerous to put any of us onto too high a pedestal. If you see a seemingly perfect person, look harder until you see some fault in him or her. It’s good for your sense of proportion. Einstein was a lousy husband and wrong about some of his physics; Newton had a weird superstitious side and a rather unpleasant personality; Mother Teresa was worryingly friendly with dictators and more a friend of poverty than of the poor; I eat too much. We all are imperfect.

The terrible shock of opinion grey

One of the most disturbing events of my childhood was noticing that adults disagreed, too — disagreed about big things. I have always loved books, and it was quite terrible to notice that you couldn’t trust something just because it was written so in a book — some writers held very different opinions, and some even lied by wild extrapolations or omissions. I think the book that sparked this realization was written by a person colloquially referred to as a ‘ufo nut’. Maybe ‘hazel-Reticulan’ would be more courteous.

Profound things are exoteric and never esoteric at all

Here’s something that once struck me as I was bicycling through the city, waiting for a traffic light to go green — no, it’s not a bus. Just the idea in the centered headline above — it’s nice to think that big and important truths are hidden somewhere deep, but what if they’re here for all of us to see, if we only lift our eyes? What if truths are open-source, instead of restricted-mystic-exclusive? In some vaguely wah-wahhy way that sounds right.

One place means one place only

Sometimes I find myself in a supermarket, swearing and really looking for some item — usually some rare necessity such as 25 W lightbulbs or roll-on Snowflake deodorant. It’s comforting to know that the item in question is there somewhere, but at the same time it’s such a downer: it’s there alright, but in only one place. Meaning that you won’t find it unless you hit that exact spot. That’s irritating, and speaking of irritating things, this piece is over now.

One happy mix

October 23, 2007

One can solve many problems by applying technology, and sometimes technology might solve a problem without anyone doing any applying at all. Consider planes and other ways of traveling swiftly from one place to another, and the modern (relative) ease of moving from, say, Finland into Japan, and living there.

As centuries pass, this ease will erase one very ancient idiocy of ours: namely, racism.

Think about it. As people live in foreign places, and marry there, and have children there, and their children in turn travel to other places — as time passes, these skin-color differences of ours will melt into one nice cream coffee color with only slight local variations. Screaming about the superiority of your particular tribe will be pretty difficult when your ancestors are scattered all over the world.

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Drama words

October 21, 2007

Imagine a typical Hollywood action movie. The Villain is smiling and stroking his beard, looking down at the captured Hero. The Hero looks ruggedly handsome, as always. The Villain gives, being hopeful as always, the Hero a final chance to come to the dark side of the Force. He speaks:

“Come now, and let us reason together,” says he, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool. If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”

Predictably, the Hero refuses, executes a crafty escape from the shark tank, and overcomes.

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A hidden message

October 20, 2007

Here’s something seen one day at the local library. Sometimes coincidences work better than any imagination could, no?

A Hidden Message

It’s Die Welt, of course.