Archive for February, 2008

Quote for today 5

February 28, 2008

Quapropter bono christiano, sive mathematici, sive quilibet impie divinantium, maxime dicentes vera, cavendi sunt, ne consortio daemoniorum animam deceptam, pacto quodam societatis irretiant.

(The good Christian should beware the mathematician and all those who make empty prophecies. The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of hell.)

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a famous Christian theologian, in De Genesi ad Litteram (quoted in Mathematics in the Western Culture by Morris Kline)

The trick of this quotation is that the word “mathematician” was, in the bad old times, used as a synonym for “astrologer”. The difference should be obvious: Astrologers claim that their silly squiggles and inane scribblings have something to do with reality; mathematicians don’t.

It’s that simple.

And now I have to return to my squiggles and scribblings.

Hate-hate-hate: Backcover descriptions and blurbs

February 27, 2008

I buy and read a lot of books, and I hunger for many more. While doing this, I’ve come to hate two specific external things about them. Hate, as in “imagines emptying several clips of hollow point bullets into their quivering bodies” hate.

(1) Backcover descriptions.

Most books have a descriptive paragraph or two on their back covers. Half of the time it seems that the text has been written by a random blind hobo picked from the street, since it has almost no connection to the plot of the book itself.

It’s as if the cover-writer overheard the plot and setting in a party, drunk too much, and the next morning groaned what he could remember to an associate, who translated it into Turkmenistani, delivered it to Pyongyang, and had it there translated back into English with a dictionary, and then copyedited into decent text by someone whose powers of expression usually manifest themselves in smearing blood and feces on bathroom walls, and occasionally on the ceiling.

Why, when publishers are on the receiving and hiring end of a great deal of varying levels of literary talent, why do they always pick their backcover writers from the “hobos on a sugar high” pool?

Just asking. It’s probably one of those inviolate laws of the universe.

If only the people writing backcover blurbs for fiction were even more incompetent — then one could treat the cover texts as meaningless babble that tells something of the mood of the book, but spoils nothing of the plot. But no, there’s just enough verisimilitude to ruin even this angle.

Really, if the first half of backcover texts are nothing like the book, the second half — all on the backs of novels — invariably tell the point which the first 300 pages of the novel strives to keep mysterious or hidden.

Seriously. I once bought a novel, from an author I then liked and whose backcover I thus didn’t need to read, but I read it anyway. And what jumps up at me? “And while the mystery deepens, he begins to wonder if she’s the murderer!”

Guess what: She was, and that asinine insinuation ruined a big part of the mystery for me, since those inane heavy-handed hints are always how the matter turns out to be. Apparently there are significant amounts of book-reading baboons that might blow their heart valves if surprised by a novel’s resolution.

A really crafty novelist might write an insinuating backcover text himself/herself, and thus make the reader blunder into hasty conclusions about the plot. Finally, there would be an afterword where the author apologized for the ploy. That would be a pleasing surprise — well, except that whenever I find an author I like, I lend and buy and read his/her books without ever looking at the backcovers. It’s less painful that way.

(Then again, the backcover ploy could backfire if done badly. A book described as a nurse romance that, after 20 pages, turned into a hospital siege by zombies could end up with rather dissatisfied readers. “What, ‘a puddle of entrails’? Where’re the hunky doctors?”)

(2) Superlatives.

“Solves the most puzzling mystery of all time”. “Greatest ever”. “A phenomenally unique tour-de-force of uniquely singular originality”. Breathtaking, enthralling, heart-freezing, controversial parrot-droppings!

Every single book seems to have its front cover smeared with semirandom superlatives and words of praise. Every first-time author is cried as the bestest, brightest promise-talent ever, every work is a masterpiece, a tour-de-force, a book that will be remembered and enshrined in plastic forever!

As a result, none of the words mean anything anymore.

It’s the same with all advertising. Once you get on the superlative treadmill, all sense flies out the window. “Entertaining” is bested by “exceptional”, which must be couped with a work that is “extraordinary”, which loses to “godlike in its execution” — as a result, none of the superlatives and words of praise mean anything, and I’ve come to hate them as the meaningless blemishes on pretty covers that they are.

Sooner or later we’ll have a Bible whose cover cries: “The greatest unique original best-selling thrilling masterpiece hexadecahexalogy anthology superpunch of all time! (now also available as a multi-trillion-dollar movie with Angelina Jolie as Jesus!)”, and which has a snippet of praise from the Pope, and from Stephen King.

(One single exception: A quote from someone I know to be sensible might have a real meaning. Then again, it might just be a way of marketing the endorser as an “influential bestselling author”, or propping up a fellow with similar goals. “I’ll kiss your book if you lick mine.”)

Also, almost every nonfiction books is a “the”. Not “A History of Blah” anymore, but “The History of Blah”. I hate that arrogant assumption of definitiveness. And too many books have stupid, useless subtitles. How about Murder : The Bestseller of the Century — that’d be some title.

And these two things, badly done backcovers and hyperventilating blurbs, I hate (maybe I should write hatehatehate instead) because they can, especially if combined, ruin a good book or, even worse, make me pass it, thinking it’s something I wouldn’t like. I don’t even want to think how many of the mystery-thrillers published after the Da Vinci Code were really just rushed clones of it, and how many are nice original books whose plot-descriptions were raped by unscrupulous backcover-describers and quotation-vendors to steal a little bit of the Code’s thunder. (“Huh? It’s got a protagonist and a bit of history? Get me my Code template! And let’s name this thing the Dante Code!“)

And now that I’ve let off a bit of steam, I’ll go to read something nice by either Dan Simmons or Bart Ehrman — without looking at the frickin’ covers. Have a nice day.

Islam 2.0?

February 26, 2008

BBC has a very interesting article about a group of Turkish scholars preparing a revised version of the Hadith, the collected traditions of Islam.

This might just be the moderating influence that that particular religion needs. The Christian “update” of the Protestant Reformation was a small improvement on Catholicism, but it was only as good as the time it happened in: something like the equality of men and women didn’t get in because it wasn’t a current idea then. In this current world of ours, there are many more good ideas floating around.

My personal opinion about books like the New Testament and the Koran is, of course, that the early members of both religions were so efficient in pushing their particular agendas that there’s no way to be sure what Jesus or Muhammad said or meant; thus one can pick and choose and reconstruct and reinterpret almost any way one wants, and get the Christianity (or now, Islam) that “feels right”. Maybe we’ll get a more humane religion out of this?

Then again, I’d like to see the same thing done to the Koran itself that’s been done to the Christian Old and New Testaments: merciless skeptical criticism, comparison to other sources, evaluation of the works as purely human artifacts, Wellhausen gone wild, and things like that.

The reason I feel like that is that I am an atheist: I can suffer the fictions of other people as long as they don’t act like utter pricks because of them. (Evangelical Christians with their hells and radical Muslims with their burkas do.) If the godless truth isn’t accepted, then a fiction that makes one act nice is preferable to one that causes raving bloody madness.

Then again, this might just be something that causes blind rage, mass violence, scared retractions, lynchings, screaming and explosions: that’s what happens when your passionate love of your fellow human beings has been hijacked by a book and a ghost in the sky.

I hope that Prof. Görmez and Vaize Koc and their fellows succeed in this project, but I fear that whether they succeed or not there will still be immense amounts of spilled blood.

My problem with all religions

February 26, 2008

My main problem with religions isn’t that they are unjust, cruel, anti-intellectual or anything like that. My problem with religions is that they simply are not true.

Got that?

Then again, “true” and “not true” aren’t that simple, especially for an impractical mathematician such as I. A mathematical mind is inclined to think: “True or not? Hm, can I prove it either way?” Sadly enough, the real world (as opposed to the imaginary worlds of mathematicians*) doesn’t contain proofs: only evidence and theories.

First, you make an educated guess and then try to prove that guess wrong; if you can’t, the guess might be partly true. If there’s no way to prove the guess wrong, then it’s pretty useless: An undetectable elephant in your garage isn’t a useful guess. “I see no elephant!” — “It cannot be detected no matter what we do, but it’s there!

Then you repeat this guessing-and-testing until you have enough theories to build aeroplanes and nuclear reactors. In science, “theory” doesn’t equal “wild drunken guess”, but “a guess-plex of considerable predictive power that’s been tested and tested and not yet found lacking”. One example is gravitation, another is evolution.

I think that is how science works: wild attempts to make better guesses, puzzlement about why predictions based on theories bomb, and then better guesses and better theories and, hopefully, predictions that come true. (“If I drop this ball, it doesn’t jump and latch onto my face, but rather drops to the floor. I hope this prediction holds.”)

The sad (to a mathematician) part of this exciting process is that there’s no “absolute truth” in it: just hypotheses that have no discovered exceptions to them. Once you find an exception, things get interesting: Newtonian mechanics is valid unless you go nose-bogglingly fast, then you need an Einsteinian correction, and so on. Thus, “truth” must be redefined to mean “true according to our best current approximation of reality”: not something that’d ever occur to a mathematician, who lives in a world of absolutes and abstractions. A shabbier corner of that same dreamworld is the home of theologians, who differ from mathematicians in the fact that they’ve deluded themselves into believing that their ideas and absolutes have some real real-world existence.

Scientific truth isn’t as nice and invariant as a mathematician would want: our current approximations say you can’t go faster than light, and you can’t get a free lunch: but some ingenuous guess-and-test (or test-and-guess) might show us it really isn’t so. Scientists alter their assumptions and axioms: they try to press the cloth of theories ever better against the shape of the world, while mathematicians take a kernel of assumptions and make it into a tree, waving and growing without any contact to anything real.

Hm, but then there of course is the spooky usefulness of mathematics in science: I think that most of the laws of nature (the pretty ones anyway) can be described with equations. New and seemingly pure pieces of mathematics often find applications, sometimes in describing a part of nature the mathematician would never have thought of. Why is that so? My guess is that we, being products of this world, can’t separate our inventions from it. Or maybe a mathematical system of logic and amounts is the only way to describe the actions of real objects and amounts — I don’t know, for I am not a philosopher. (I won’t think more about that; the philosophy of mathematics has driven men stronger than me to live under bridges, shouting abuse at passers-by.)

I digress. The point I wish to make is that, despite the occasional misinformation and outright lies of some religious people (coughintelligentdesigncough), the world-approximations of science have always moved further away from the religious “truths” of the day, and further away from the guess “There is a god”. The guess “God did it!” has been replaced with less extravagant guesses so many times that it seems rash to offer it while there are other, more “cost-effective” alternatives. For example, evolution: Since mutations do occur, and mutation-and-selection suffice to explain the divergence of lifeforms, there’s no need to add a god making various animals one by one.

That is my point: Science is the best way of explaining what the world is like, and why it has became like that; the best way precisely because it’s self-correcting. Some fixed ideology can’t really be compared to it. Saying that “Well, our facts were right from the beginning!” doesn’t mean anything if one can’t test the facts — and if one can and they’re proven false, well, then the jig is up, like it is with every literal or testable interpretation of mankind’s amusing ancestral myths.

Was there a worldwide flood? There’s no evidence for it, and no need for it to have ever happened. The Israelites wandering for forty years in the desert? No tracks, no campsites, no shards of pottery. Miracles and effects of prayer? Never detectable when a skeptic comes along, and easy to explain with placebo effects and facts of probability. Perfect and eternal moral rules in tablets of stone or gold? Not so perfect, immutable or clear, and the original divine plates are of course conveniently lost. A universal moral sense in all of mankind, the wonder of altruism and the near-miracle of love? Explainable with selfish evolution and without god. The origin of life? Just an inevitable chemical accident. A soul? Not found, and not necessary to explain the light in your eyes.

Science is our best interpretation, and it has found no god, and hasn’t needed the guess “god exists”. That’s close enough for me, an absolutist mathematician, to the statement “There is no god, and all religions are false”. Withholding judgment forever isn’t practical, or even elegant after some ill-defined limit has been passed. (How many times do you have to search your garage to convince yourself that there’s no elephant there?) Likewise, there’s no shame in trusting the best guess we have, even if we can’t ever be quite certain. The evidence against religions isn’t inconclusive, or inapplicable: it is strong and, for me, entirely sufficient.

The greatest irritation of mine isn’t that religions are unjust, hypocritical or anti-intellectual — though they often are all three — but that they simply are not true, and I’d sooner see the heavens fall than acquiesce to a lie, no matter how comforting or beneficial it might be.

Enough brimstone for ya?

Note (marked with * in the text) : Real and imaginary worlds have zero in common. This is a bad mathematical joke.


February 26, 2008

The problem of human life is that it is so short: one is lucky to live a full century. Also, it’s impossible to know what is going to happen. I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have enjoyed the fourteenth century, but there’s no way for me to know whether the twenty-fourth would be better than this one. Barring unlikely developments, as I am not a sufficiently mad enough scientist, I won’t be around then.

But — the twenty-first century of the Common Era, counted from a rough approximation of the assumed birth of an influential preacher. This is not such a bad time, and I guess there’s no past century that I’d like better.

One reason: Health. People today live longer, and better, than ever before. The hey-nonny-nonny folke of the woods in ye olde times weren’t healthy: a pox was on them all, plague and rotting teeth and no defense against typhus; noble and work-broken commoner suffered alike, and their only comfort was that they didn’t know of anything better. Placebo and whining at the stars ruled the medical field. If you didn’t live during the last thousand years or so, you didn’t have glasses to help your failing sight: if you didn’t like within the few last centuries, there was no cure for most of various plagues. Ick, you could even die of diarrhea. (There are places where you still can, but nothing like the worldwide danger zones of yesterday.)

Second reason: Comfort. There hasn’t been any other period when free time and ease have been so widespread as today. This is, incidentally, a good thing. It keeps people sane, and might give them time to do something that isn’t necessary for their personal survival, but instead valuable to the human species as a whole: writing poetry, or the Great Finnish Goat Sacrifice Novel (suuri suomalainen vuohiuhriromaani). (Don’t write that; it’s my idea.) There were leisurely kings and lounging noblemen in the past years, true, but a bit of ease for the working classes and the lowly peons? Unheard-of in the world of “with the sweat of your brow” and so on.

Also, with the marvels of modern technology, I can amuse myself with moving pictures and reproduced sounds, and with my trusty pile of books I can learn things I’d never even hear about otherwise. On the Internet, I might observe the thoughts of a Pakistani, or see what penguins do in Antarctica. (The penguin-cam is addictive: “No penguins yet. How about now? Not yet. Now? Not yet…”)

Third reason: Freedom. I can say and write and think whatever I want without fearing an inquisitor’s rack or an assassin’s knife. I can easily travel to most destinations I can think up (though I might have to fear an inquisitor’s rack there). The money I earn is mine to use, I select the clothes and manners I wear, I have free rein over the choice of my friendships and hobbies, and, best of all, I can eat anything I want, even pieces of dead cows and pigs.

Modern life is good. Modern life is better than life has ever been before, and it might get better still. There are points where improvement is very possible: careless pollution and useless bureaucracy, sexism and racism and discrimination against jokers, irrational religiosity and rampant pseudosciencery, the ravages of nationalism and the follies of postmodernism, fear and hate of science, technology and progress, and neophobia in general.

I, personally, can’t understand those that hanker for some “better bygone age”, because to me it seems that there has never been an age better than this one. This age isn’t, of course, perfect, but isn’t it heartening to know that the deaths of half a dozen soldiers in Iraq or twenty mineworkers in Russia are news thousands of kilometers away in Finland? That isn’t just a consequence of better communications or a sign of the bloodthirst of the public: I think it’s a genuine sign of that how we’re less tolerant of stupid butchery these days. (The fact that some utterances of Abraham Lincoln, a very progressive fellow in his day, sound very odd today, is another sign of this.) Our morals are improving with our toys. Human life has been, so far, almost everywhere and at almost every time, an non-descending curve, and I am happy to be dancing on the upper lip of it.

Yup, I think about things like this when I should be working. I guess this is one of the more philosophical forms of procrastination.

Useful Finnish phrases

February 25, 2008

If you are a foreigner in Finland — say an exchange student — you’ll get along with English all right, at least with the younger folks. Finnish is a fiendishly difficult language: I’ve heard it said that it sounds like Latin spoken backwards, and I know from personal experience that it is in complexity to English like English is to the Car-Drivers’ Universal Sign Language.

(C-DUSL consists of three signs: a raised finger signifying “I disapprove of your driving”, a raised fist meaning “I am calling my Hell’s Angels buddies right now” and a brandished object saying “This is a gun; could you please stop and give me all your money?”)

But, anyway, the Finnish language. You might have a phrasebook, maybe even a dictionary, but those things are a fuss, and not always the place to find the most urgent words, so here you go.

“Milloin tämä loppuu?” or “When does this end?”, a common question for those that are forced to attend various “amusements” organized by exchange-student-organizers or others that think the youth cares for three-hour recitations of the Soporific Songs of Väinämöinen. Amusing the Finn sitting next to you may be the only way to keep him (or her) awake short of actual violence, which is usually disapproved of when listening to culture. And, speaking of culture —

“Hyvin eleganttia ja hienostunutta.” or “Very elegant and refined (possibly even recherché).” If you only memorize this phrase and drop it once or twice when viewing some pile of bricks or smear of paint, you’ll both make the Finns feel good, and install into them a near-religious awe of your Artistic Sensibilities, which Finns automatically feel they lack, and all foreigners have.

Well, this covers the cultural occasions one might get involved in, but what about other outings? The following pair of phrases always works.

“Helvetti että täällä on kylmä.” which means, “Hell it’s cold here.”

“Helvetti että täällä on itikoita.” which means, “Hell there’s a load of mosquitoes here.”

You can use the first during winters, and the second during the other three months of the year.

“Anteeksi, missähän täällä on vessa?” which translates to “Sorry; I’m wondering where the toilet might be around here.” Typical polite Finnish talk: you don’t tell that your sphincter is leaking, but merely and politely ask for the location of the relief-room. Finns will understand your intent, since their brains are not wired to even realize the existence of such a feeling as mere architectural curiosity.

If you’ve studied Finnish a bit, you might note that the question part isn’t just missä täällä on vessa or “where here be toilet”, but missähän, which is just one of those inscrutable suffixes that make learning Finnish much akin to flossing with barbed wire.

And, to end this note to random readers, an interjection and three random words.

“Yäk”, which is “Ugh” or “Blecch” or any other sound made in response to, say, biting a rotten apple or seeing Saw IV.

And the words: “krapula” (hangover), “paleltuma” (frostbite) and “aamu-unisuus” (morning sleepiness) — all three are words that are current right now.

Cheer up!

Quote for today 4

February 22, 2008

I’ve come to think that, if there is a God in the world, which I tend to think there’s not, but if there is, then surely God is not more cruel than any human being who has ever lived, and there’s no human being who has ever lived who has subjected eternal torment on anyone else. So, I simply can’t believe that, even if there is a God, that one needs to worry about roasting in Hell forever. I think this was a doctrine that was invented by the early Christians, in part in order to convert people.

(Bart Ehrman, an agnostic New Testament scholar in a 2/19/2008 Fresh Air interview, around 38:20)

I agree. Oh, I do agree.

Life in the Hominidae family

February 21, 2008

Nationalism-inflamed Serb rioters trash the US embassy in Belgrade, breaking windows and setting fires, no doubt howling and gibbering like morons, and maybe even pissing on the floors. No doubt they believe they’re achieving something. Those that stormed the Croatian embassy probably did it just because it was next door, and maybe had a shiny doorknob.

No doubt soon Kosovans and Serbs will be stealthily killing and throwing each other out of their respective countries. Torches and pitchforks might be utilized. Without a doubt they’ll say that a land-claim of eight generations trumps that of six. Besides, what better way to get a bigger piece of land for yourself? Without a doubt they’ll be willing to blame, too, by some insane sympathetic magic, one Serb (or Kosovan) for the deeds of another, and then the knives come out.

If I had the power, I’d force each human being to procreate only with those that aren’t of his or her “nationality” or “race”. The world would be a much better place after a few generations of that.

We’re still ostracizing, shunning and killing each other because of accidents of birth, bedroom preferences and different imaginary friends. No doubt many of the persecutors jump up and down and imagine they’ll sooner or later get a big fat banana for acting like utter pricks.

We humans are just a humongous bunch of baboons.

No, a decent bunch of baboons would be insulted if it could understand that last sentence. I wonder if there’s any nice baboon that’d adopt me into the Cercopithecidae family?

If prayer worked… (image)

February 18, 2008

“If prayer worked…”,

Actually, if prayer worked, solutions like this would be the least scary ones. What about War Prayers?

This trumps that (image)

February 18, 2008


Isn’t this the fate of sensible people everywhere?