Archive for July, 2008

Humans are like chili peppers…

July 30, 2008

Humans are like chili peppers: Unless you deal with them one by one, in small doses, you’ll likely lose your lunch.

Just a deep thought from me, the Finnish misanthrope. Not a sad thought, not a bitter one, just a thing that feels true. Sometimes it’s hard to find any likable entity between “you” and “all mankind”.

(Note: yet another chapter for my Guide to Finland, namely History 4, 1809-1918, is around halfway ready.)

Holidays end, and weathers are spoken of

July 30, 2008

So, I’m back from my holidays, writing this on ye Goode Olde Keyboard. Many books have been read, of which the nearly last and maybe the best was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. The order from the sequel is already being handled by Adlibris, my trusty all-Nordic net bookstore of choice.

Many meals have been eaten, but mainly the article of consumption was drink: and since I’m one of the sissies by choice, the drink means Coca-Cola or some equally good other cola liquid.

The summer — and by this I mean July, for that was my holiday — was mild-ish, not really hot, with very frequent rains, even outright rainstorms, and one case of hail. (“This is madness!” — “This… is… Finland!”) Weather pretty much to my liking, that is: by hereditary inclination (I’m Finnish!) and by my choice of pastime (reading and computer-fooling) I like the weather more the colder, darker and rainier it gets.

My favorite weather of all would be a dark, dark night, chilly bordering on cold, quiet save a monstrous downpour of water down from the heavens, and down to the gutters. Then it would be fine to lay down inside, reading a book, downing a glass of cola, and be happy.

But blisteringly hot sunshine? Oy, ick.

(I wonder if there’s a university in Greenland? Of course there is. It even has an Institut for Sprog, which probably isn’t anything as funny as it sounds.)

Also, sunshine usually means a day, and days mean noise and crowds — and I don’t like either. (Those aware of my taste in music may disagree.) The rush and growl of crowds doesn’t entertain me and it doesn’t calm me either. I’m okay with individual people, but being an introvert, inward-turning by nature, chatter and blather drain me instead of recharging. I suppose some feel differently.

And noise? Eh, I’m originally a country boy. Even this city apartment of mine is kilometers from the center, near the end of a dead end street off a dusty side way. One hears more of the wind whispering than of cars roaring here. That fits me just fine. I don’t want any noise save what I myself choose to let loose.

And with that thought I’ll stop this train of thought, and pull the whistle marked “Verjnuarmu, Mustan virran silta“: or a metal group from deepest darkest Savonia, the nut-basket of Finland, howling of a Bridge Over Dark Waters.

Ghosts, tigers and UFOs

July 29, 2008

What if I said I saw a ghost today?

You would maybe laugh; certainly so when I clarified that the ghost had been just an odd fold in my blanket in a shadowy bedroom, resembling a sad human face.

That’s the problem with us humans — we’re prone to seeing familiar things. Most of us can read comics and watch cartoons, and immediately see characters with faces and facial expressions, despite the fact they might consist of just a few wavy black lines on a white background. It’s this same ability of ours to recognize faces that misfires as pareidolia, seeing faces where there are none. If Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Ted Rall’s squiggles look like human faces, it’s not at all surprising that sooner or later, by the sheer number of such things, a piece of burnt toast or a whorl in a wooden door have a shape our minds misread as a face.

Similarly, an overexcited (say scared) person might hear voices in the wind; learning to hear what you’re told (say “There be a tiger behind ye!”) is so important that we learn to be too good in it. Likewise, there is a neat trick where a video of people singing is given subtitles: weird nonsense, just random words strung together, but if you look at the words and listen, the people seem to be singing just that! They actually sing some obscure hymn; but once our brains get a suggestion of what they might be saying, we tend to hear just that.

The same tendency caused considerable distress to many elderly matrons in bygone days — once you heard the rumour that some weird growly part of your son’s favorite rock song, once played backwards, was a sneering cry of “All hail Satan!”, you could pretty easily hear it as just that. I think there’s some experiment which shows that once you tell a person what the supposed hidden message in a noise is, that message tends to be heard in there, whether it’s there or not.

So the next time someone comes to you, saying that after three weeks of fasting and self-denial, and constant praying and thinking of only Jesus, he saw him in the shifting shadows of the wood outside — well, quite unlikely someone should come to you saying just that, but should something similar happen you should remember that humans are very good in seeing what they expect to see.

Just remember the Welsh fellow who phoned the police, telling there was, out in the night, a weird light floating up high, surely one of those UFO thingamajics one hears about on television, again and again — and the police, arriving, were relieved and a bit embarrased to see he was, literally, just barking at the moon.

* * *

Ah, this is just one of those things I think about now and then, and even if I am not the best expositor on the subject, this little thing needs to be kept in mind. Otherwise, the Miracle of the Sun, ka-blam!

When it comes to pareidolia and things like that, you shouldn’t trust a callow mathematician like me; go worship at the temple of the luminous Philplait, the Death from the Skies, instead.

I think I saw the reworded hymn video over at Plait’s blog, but, silly me, I can’t find it anymore, and I can’t stomach going through all of his “12 bazillion blog articles” (he says so, on his own sidebar!).

Edit: And of course I didn’t found the hymn vid at Plait’s because I’d seen it over at Aardvarchaeology. Curses and confustications!

My infected mind

July 25, 2008

Visiting ScienceBlogs, saw an ad banner. Read like this:

Enjoy birding like never before!

Have I had too much internet, for my first reaction was “Hmm, I’ve never heard of that fetish before” and not “Ah, birdwatching, eh, hey?”

(Only a few days until my rustic holiday ends and I’ll be back in a place with a decent keyboard. Longer, better posts then. Laptops are a pain.)

(A pa—innn!)

If you need a holiday treat — listen-read J.C. Hutchins’s podcast novel 7th Son: Descent and its sequels. Good amusement for biking etc., if you can concentrate on dodging cars and hearing of clone adventures at the same time. (If not, listen — life is short anyway.)

Oh, and of free podcast novels and infections — I know of Scott Sigler‘s (“bestselling horror author and failed pimp”) Infection, which I will listen to, but I’ve been too caught up with the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes and the superb Swedish Beck series of TV movies out of crime novels to do anything else. (Go Gunvald!)

Four recommendations

July 19, 2008

I continue holidaying, and thus write only now and then. Here’re four things to occupy yourself with.

  1. Music. Kristoph Klover, Fire in the Sky. A piece of filk or sf/f folk music. Prometheus they say, brought gods’ fire down to men, and we’ve got it tamed and trained since our history began, and soon we’re returning the fire to the skies with Apollo flights. The only better filk performance that I, with my admittedly amateur knowledge of the subject, know of, is Tom Smith singing Hope Eyrie, also a song of Apollo, of all the things courage can do.
  2. Book. The New Shadow, or ten pages of an sequel for the Lord of the Rings, in the Peoples of Middle-Earth, the final part of the unfinished and/or abandoned writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Just ten pages, but… ah, Tolkien himself said that tale would have been just a thriller in the Fourth Age, but what a thriller it would have been! A sinister name, philosophical debate, rumors of a Satanic sect, orc-deeds and deviltry in Gondor!
  3. Music. Pandora’s Box (the band), Original Sin (the album, 1989), Good Girls Go to Heaven (a track on it). Jim Steinman’s girl group with their only disc, and one of its best tracks. And Youtube has it! The same is better known as sung by Meat Loaf — but it’s much better, and that’s a lot, when sung by women. Besides, says the freethinker in me, it’s hard to not hum to good girls go to heaven, but the bad girls go everywhere!
  4. Book. Melinda Snodgrass, The Edge of Reason. An atheistic book of fantasy! Jesus Christ-Allah-Yahweh as a foul-mouthed bum! Lucifer-Prometheus as a hero! Better background philosophy than any novel I’ve ever read! A flap quote comparing it to Illuminatus! and the Golden Compass! Impossible to resist! Exceedingly exclamation-mark-worthy! Good fun! Still reading it, but I dare to recommend it already.

CERN is the holiest place on Earth

July 19, 2008

CERN, the giant particle physics laboratory near Geneva, is the holiest place on Earth.

I realize this might seem like a strange statement, especially coming from an atheist like it does. Nonetheless that is my opinion. Let me explain.

What does ‘holy’ mean? One could play a delightful little game of semantics with it, probably ending with an ironclad proof that by the rules of semantics, slips and dot-bothering most cheese crackers are holy. But that is not my meaning. ‘Holy’ means important, but not just important like a functioning engine is important to a flying plane. ‘Holy’, if one thinks how people use the word, means something that has value beyond its physical parts; not necessarily any ill-defined (and in my opinion nonexistent) spirit-world quality, but something symbolic and powerful, some quality that tells something of us, and some quality that makes us remember, and by remembering, makes us respect and adore.

To many Americans, I suppose, the Declaration of Independence is holy, not in any way associated with gods and divine ectoplasmic matters, but as a tangible symbol of a will to try building a good world, or at least a nation way better than the one that existed then.

Likewise, the site of some special death or act of daring might warrant calling a spot holy: everyone can no doubt summon up a few of these. The place where a tyrant died, the place where innocence was lost, the place where a discovery was made.

And in this colloquial sense CERN is, indeed, the holiest place on Earth: the greatest and (maybe) most expensive scientific experiment yet done, a prying into the most fundamental forces of all existence, and performed not because it would make someone rich, or be a propaganda feat for some nation, or even yield a bomb of humongous magnitude, but because of simple and sweet human curiosity: the want to know how things work, how they are, the all-probing attempt to press the rough cloth of inquiry ever closer to the beautiful folds of the invisible glass statue that reality is.

That is why I think CERN is the holiest place on Earth. Okay?

(Oh, and 19 days until the Large Hadron Collider activation.)

A recommendation: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes

July 12, 2008

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, notes and annotations by Leslie S. Klinger

A boxed set of two volumes, each around 700 pages, that contain the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A third separate volume, which I haven’t got yet, has the four novel-length pieces (A Study in Scarlet, the Sign of Four, Valley of Fear, Hound of the Baskervilles).

Plusses:

  • Elegant, sturdy hardback books; beautiful, slightly period typesetting; nice rich-feeling paper
  • Sidney Paget’s original, beautiful illustrations, and some very pretty period photographs and drawings, and (!) newspaper advertisements of the products mentioned in the stories, like one for macassar hair oil.
  • Plenty (as in “hundreds and hundreds”) of annotations. I’d guess an average of one or two for every page: the pages are set in two equal colums, the inner columns of each spread being used by the text in black, and the outer columns by the annotations in mild red. Somehow I get the frightful feeling the the total length of the annotations is quite close to the total length of the stories themselves.
  • Some annotations are Sherlockian speculation and connection-finding, drawn from the apparently very varied and extensive thinking people of my type have done when having their periods of too much free time; the ideas expressed range from very clever to just amusing, each demonstrating the speculator’s special knowledge — say botany, railways, laws of Georgia, or the like. They’re good reading, unless you’re one of those neurotic types who can’t understand taking a sub-world like Middle-Earth or the overlay on ours in Holmes seriously.
  • Some annotations are cultural notes without which reading the stories would be, at least for me, a bit awkward: say when the portraits of two fellows are mentioned, there are a few hundred elucidating words annotating Henry Ward Beecher, and double that for a mention of Charles George Gordon, plus a reproduction of an apparently famous painting called General Gordon’s Last Stand. And the annotations for slang words and the various horse-drawn thingies — well, not indispensable, but certainly valuable. I’d say the annotations easily double the entertainment value of the volumes.
  • In addition to the Sherlockian annotations and cultural notes, notes on the original times and places of publication, plus a few essays on subjects too lengthy for annotation: say the use of guns by the Holmes-Watson duo, or the rather puzzling question of whether a goose has an anatomical feature called a crop or not.

Gripes:

  • Some illustrations (from the printings of the stories in American papers) are distractingly hideous. Or then the contrast to Paget’s pretty pictures is just too much for me.
  • A tad heavy for a lad of two meters like me; might be a tad heavier for you littler folks. Then again, a pleasant way of exercising one’s abs is reading these lying down. And you’ll never fall asleep, for you dare not, if you spend your evenings reading these holding the thing high on raised arms above your head!
  • A bit pricey, but more than worth the price. I’d guess you won’t ever need to buy another edition of Holmes again.

Overall:

Plus-plus-plus. Buy it and enjoy it.

(An atheist endnote: Funny that one side of Conan Doyle was being a nutter that believed in fairies and spiritualist nonsense; now that I read the stories I just can’t avoid the feeling that Sherlock Holmes if anyone was a science-trusting atheist, a fellow I’m glad to idolize more than a little bit.)

Quote for today 9

July 11, 2008

Ever noticed how people who believe in creationism look really unevolved? The eyebrow ridges, the big furry hands and feet… (arrogant voice) “I believe God created me in one day!” Looks like he rushed it.

— Bill Hicks, the comedian

Heh, heh, heh. Hicks and Carlin are gone, but their immortal words remain.

Laptops

July 7, 2008

Why no laptop has a keyboard one could actually write with?

Screaming unintelligible curses I retreat back into darkness, trying to move my holiday activities into a form that would give me access to a real, big, clunky keyboard I’m used to.

Writing these sentences took thrice as long as it usually would.

If you need entertainment, look at angels talking in Heaven, or clues on what academic advisors of Ph.D. students are like.

Still living!

July 5, 2008

And with a gasp I resurface, after a momentary absence, to write again.

Mostly because this means I also return to read a few blogs, and with Pharyngula one simply has to return often, or the backlog (back-blog?) will get monstrously immense. After neglecting reading it for nearly a week I had to skip the comments entirely. A shame, but the pretty people there won’t be (I hope) going anywhere away anytime soon. People that are right tend to stick around.

So: A recommendation. Eiger Dreams by Jon Krakauer is a very entertaining collection of real-life stories about mountaineering, ice climbing and things like that. Not quite as gripping as Into Thin Air, but it gave me a couple of pretty bad cases of vertigo.

It’s a good book when you find yourself silently screaming “Have care, you fool!”

Well, or a bad reader. Haw-haw.

Also — and this will be quite futile a recommendation to you all uitlanders — the action novel 6/12 by Ilkka Remes is very, very snappy and entertaining. I started the 400+ page thing 23 hours ago now, and I’m going to finish it before 24 are full.

Remes is something like a Finnish Tom Clancy, though I don’t know either writer well enough to say if this is the best possible comparison.

If you find the title evocative of something else — why, yes, it does feature a clutch of terrorists and an act of shocking proportions — for Finland, that is; and the sixth day of December is the Finnish independence day, a day when all of top government is in one place celebrating and boozing.

And then, bang-bang and scream-scream until a heroic cop comes.

And, yeah, it’s 6/12 and not 12/6 because we here in Europe write dates the right way. (Also: Go metric, Yanks. Your sensible scientific types have done so already.)

And now I’m going back to reading, farting and lounging: It’s summer, after all.

(I have some post-ideas floating around, and one actually written out with a pen and a piece of paper — oh, the tedium of pre-digital means! It’s not WordPress compatible! — but those will have to wait a day or two.)