Movie Reviews: Does Batman Want to Believe? – by Octavia

the-dark-knight1The fundamental relationship that these two films share is that of paired opposites: the Joker and Batman, Harvey Dent and the people of Gotham City, Mulder and Scully. Each pair consists of a person or a group who sees the opposite of themselves in another, and each pairing revolves around the question of belief. What is it to believe, what is worth believing in, and does – or should – truth be a part of that belief? Where does one find the strength to decide?

I Want to Believe hinges its argument about Proverbs 25: 2: It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.

Both these summer films explore this question in the context of faith, although not necessarily religious faith. Specifically, in discovering what it takes to break faith down, and what it takes to keep it. It is this search for what is worth believing in, and conversely, what that belief is worth, which links Dark Knight and The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

They take very different approaches, it’s true. Dark Knight is the quintessential summer blockbuster, explosions and gunfire and car chases and villains that are far larger than life and more interesting than the good guys (even when they have new and improved gadgetry). In comparison, I Want to Believe is a more traditional thriller – bleak landscapes, subtle clues, and nary am explosion in sight. No longer working for the FBI, Mulder and Scully don’t even have guns any more. Their weapons are their minds, and their respective abilities to believe.

Both films are fantastic.

If Dark Knight is unquestionably more uncompromising in its moral dilemmas than I Want to Believe, it is the subtlety of the latter that further helps to distinguish both films. The Joker is completely psychotic, a pure delighted evil, and Harvey Dent’s descent into his own darkness is slightly too abrupt to be believable. Evil is too back and white, in Dark Knight. In comparison, the paedophile priest in I Want to Believe is so repentant he has cut himself off from normal society and performed his own castration, and the murdering organ harvester does so to save his lover. Even the black market doctors comfort their victims before drugging them and dragging them to the operating table. Evil, in the X-Files, doesn’t plough through city streets in a hail of bullets. It sits across the table from you, swims in the same pool, worships at the same church – and its strength lies in the fact that you can never be sure that it’s there.

In Dark Knight, you are sure. The confrontation between Batman and the Joker is the cornerstone of Dark Knight, and it is so successful precisely because we can see in it the echoes of other confrontations, the archetypal confrontation with the Jungian Other. The most obvious recent comparison is Gollum’s split personality conversation in The Two Towers, except this time, the personalities are in two separate bodies. Stinker and Slinker share two faces instead of one, and neither, shown alone, indicates to the outside world the complexity of the personality beneath. The same thing occurs with Luke Skywalker and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. Darth Vader, like Harvey Dent, has the willing capacity to change. The others do not.

In fact, the only pairing in either movie that shows any possibility of – or acceptance of – distinct change is Harvey Dent and the people of Gotham. It’s no coincidence that as Dent is descending into his own capacity for evil, the Gotham citizens on the two evacuee boats are discovering their capacity for good. These two are in a balance – as one side goes up, the other goes down. But it is a false balance – Gotham City can improve itself because it believes in Harvey Dent, and Harvey Dent can stand up against the Joker only as long as he believes that Gotham City is worth his faith. When that belief is shattered, when Dent is confronted with his own capacity for darkness, and with the cowardice of some of the people who are also sworn to protect, he can no longer retain that belief, no longer keep his faith. He is forced into change, because he cannot continue as the person he was.

Neither the Joker nor Batman show any essential changes – the Joker is locked in Arkham by the end of the film, but is as mad and as bad as ever. Batman lives to fight another day, publicly shamed but using the same lawless tactics as he ever did. It is the public perception of the Batman that has altered, not his essential self or actions. Yet how a person can (or must? won’t?) change when confronted with their other self directly impacts on how they are able to confront external and internal darkness.

xfilesAfter the loss of the X-Files, Mulder insists that he hasn’t changed at all, and of course he hasn’t. He’s still the same sunflower-munching, pencil-throwing, partner-ditching loner and loon that he always was, except now he has a beard and works at cementing the chip on his shoulder from a house stuck in the hinterlands instead of the FBI basement. Drawn out of his hideaway to assist in locating a missing agent, he quickly readjusts after a token sulk, and it’s same old, same old for him. In a remark which is superficially jarring to those unfamiliar with X-Files canon, Scully accuses him of looking for his sister all over again, and it’s true: Mulder may be older and supposedly wiser, but he’s on the same circular track that he ever was. He’s still searching for the truth, still wanting to believe that it’s out there, and has no problem jumping back into the routine of paranormal investigator. As usual, his search is externalised into a series of adventures that keep him at death’s door and allow him to avoid facing the toll his prolonged search has taken on him. “I’m asking you to look at yourself”, Scully spells out for him. “Why?” Mulder responds, clearly confused.

But if Dark Knight focuses more on the Joker than Batman, I Want to Believe is clearly Scully’s story. (It helps that Heath Ledger and Gillian Anderson are clearly better actors than their counterparts.) This is underlined by the structure of the film, which echoes that of the X-Files pilot, a decade or so back. Scully is now working as a paediatrician in a Catholic hospital, and her twin faiths – science and God – are on a collision course as she tries to introduce the idea of stem cell therapy as a course of treatment for a young patient. In one of the few self-referential clangers (the rest are more subtle, such as Mulder’s cell phone contact list) the hospital is called Our Lady of Sorrows – and while Scully has left the darkness and horror of X-Files far behind and wants them to stay there, there’s no denying that she’s still got more than her fair share of angst. Unlike her paired opposite, however, Scully has internalised her experiences on the X-Files, and pain drips through her every glance as psychosis drips off the Joker.

In the end, both films deal with the problem of belief differently. Dark Knight externalises it by consecrating it in an individual – Harvey Dent is presented to Gotham City as the person he wanted to be and not the person he became. While one has undeniable sympathy for him, it can’t be denied that the faith this engenders is a faith based on a lie; a lie that is deliberate and ongoing. Batman himself willingly cements his role as a public anti-hero in order to support this untruth. The question of faith, of belief, is resolved in favour of an external representation, one which has intrinsic value only because of a lie. Gotham City does indeed want to believe – but because there is no collective internal rock to stand upon, that faith must be externalised into something other than themselves, something other than a moral value. And if that faith isn’t true… the desire to believe makes it good enough and the resulting social conscience is based on a false foundation.

One wonders if the Joker isn’t laughing at that in Arkham.

There’s less to laugh at in I Want to Believe, if only because the problem of belief surviving darkness is dealt with in a different way. As Gotham and its three representatives externalise it, Scully internalises, avoids. But whatever answer she comes up with, she finds within herself. Mulder tempts her – Gollum-like, Joker-like – with the prospect of escape. In what is really a rather uncharacteristic outburst, he suggests the two of them ditch their responsibilities and get as far away as they possibly can. The prospect of a normal life… As the Joker tempts Harvey Dent to the dark side by destroying what he loves, Mulder unwittingly does the same to Scully by tempting her with what she wants. The price would be the pretence that it is possible to escape the darkness, both within and without. Gotham City may evade moral, individual responsibility by putting its faith in lie but Scully does not – she declines. The Batman may accept the lie in order to allow others to maintain belief, but Mulder does not. “I think the darkness finds us,” he tells Scully, and acknowledging the justice of this statement is what allows her to remain and face it; to continue to live at that tipping point where Harvey Dent could not keep his balance. He chose to let pain and loss of faith change him. She chose that the secession of pain and the prospect of false faith would not change her. For Mulder and Scully, the truth is still out there and it is in this that they put their faith. For Batman, truth is something to be buried, another casualty in a faithless world.

It is the glory of Dark Knight that it conceals the thing: but the truth is out there, and the honour those who want to believe is to search it out.

I Want to Believe had the misfortune to be coming out at the same time as Dark Knight, and Ledger’s incredible performace as the Joker. What may save it, however, is the fact that although these two films are dealing with similar questions they do it in very different ways, and their conclusions are diametric. In the end, the viewer’s ideological or moral preference may be what distinguishes between them. And that may be why even though I saw Dark Knight first, I went to I Want to Believe again.

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the inner predator

We were predators before we were shepherds. Despite what a liberal interpretation of myths such as Genesis might tell us – that we are caretakers of the Earth and all that inhabit it – our reality is that care-taking is primarily a sop to conscience, and that we have a preferred method of dealing with the world outside ourselves. Although “preferred” may seem like the wrong word, it is not. Humanity evolved as predators, and that is how we continue today. Even those of us who eat no meat cannot be said to abstain from that predation, as the evolutionary defences of plants make it clear that they too share in the hunting relationship. Some of them, such as pitcher plants and Venus fly-traps, even predate back.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Thus, in the sense of our own evolutionary history, the choice is made for us. We are predators, not caretakers; bloody-mouthed shepherds, not sheep. Yet along with our jaws and our running pelvis and our throwing arm, our minds also evolved, and it is that which gives us the choice of whether to retain our view of ourselves as predators, or to subsume that old knowledge into a new identity.

Yet as we look at the world today, it is not hard to see that this new identity has not been taken up by many of our fellow predators. For predation continues – on the weak and the helpless, those that cannot fight back, who are the lesser predators themselves. And deep within us – or, at least, deep within me – there is a small voice that says: “Do they not deserve it?”

It’s easier to remember your evolutionary heritage when you are physically strong. Then, any interaction with others is coloured by weakness – specifically, their weakness or lack thereof. It’s something that’s felt not only in real life communities, but in virtual ones as well, when each individual met is automatically put in one of two categories: they are weaker than me, or I am weaker than them.

It’s bragging to say it, but in most cases people I meet fall into the first category: men and women, physically and intellectually. And that is where my problem comes in. I can’t get away from the fact that I size people up like a predator – people or posts give out particular vibes, like an animal limping at the edge of a pack, like blood in the water.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson

It is the strong that survive, and the strong that should survive. Give me not that milquetoast “and the meek shall enter…” please. Why should they? I ask myself. And then that question gets damped down quite quickly, for the stronger part of me, the part that is not wholly predator, realises that a world run according to the will of the strong is more likely than most to end in bloodshed and destruction – and even in the service of a wider ideal, the improvement of the species, that is not a tactic that can be justified. Yet what is it that surmounts those millions of years of physical evolution? Is there a social evolution that moves alongside of it, a development of altruism that benefits the species, if not the individual? Some would argue that this knowledge comes from God, that atheists cannot explain the knowledge of good and evil in any other way – and yet, like the religious, atheists have that knowledge every moment of every day of their lives, for it exists within the body, “red in tooth and claw”.

If such as thing as God did exist, he would be the ultimate predator. You only need to read the Old Testament – among other religious texts – to realise that anyone who can and will slaughter entire cities of themselves can keep lesser predators in line when needed. But without that top predator, what keeps the rest of us from giving in to our own ability to predate?

There is the social contract, of course. If you don’t predate me then I won’t predate you. But if one were given the chance to predate, in an environment where that predation is free from risk or almost so, does that social contract hold? It doesn’t and neither does the religion – the fear that God will punish can and is often subsumed in the assumption that God will forgive, or that God will excuse or support a predation done for his sake.

Yet that God should doesn’t necessarily mean that we should – and are we not the predators with whom we should have the most concern? It’s inescapable that, whether you believe in the death penalty or not, the world is just better off without certain individuals in it. Few would shed a tear if instigators of genocide were to be brought down by their own packs, and their blood spilled in place of others’. There is a certain temptation in power that the ability to successfully predate feeds upon, and that temptation is ongoing. If we cannot match the ultimate predator with his ultimate forgiveness, our own mortal lives still revolve around our ability to predate and our ability to judge the predation of others, and of ourselves. A certain amount of predation is necessary to live, after all. Perhaps that is the duty of the evolving Autopygmalion: to live with the temptation of our own nature without wallowing in it or hiding from it. To know the truth of our bodies and ourselves.

I don’t know the final result of this conflict between our two natures – the natures of our past. Where will they take us in the future? Can there ever be a resolution, while we look at our hands and see the remnants of claws, while we can see the canines in each other’s smiles, and the soft pulse in the softer throats around us? Perhaps that is where we find the real knowledge of good and evil – in our ability to predate, and our reason to employ or withstand it.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

Book Review: Dava Sobel’s “Longitude” – by Octavia

longitudeCreative non-fiction writing has been the new big thing in literature for some time now. While science was being popularised long before the 1990s – Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene being a case in point – the last decade has seen a massive increase in the amount of “biographies of things”. These biographies may be on ideas, or inventions, or ordinary, everyday objects that we take for granted, but there is no denying that people interested in science – and the history of science – have benefited a great deal from the books lately pouring into their local shops.

One of the books most often credited for starting this new wave is a little piece called Longitude, which reached 7th on the New York Times book list for 1996. It has since been made into a deluxe, highly illustrated edition and has also been televised. Not bad for less than 200 pages!

Sobel used to be a science reporter for the New York Times, and then one day she went to cover a conference on longitude. A conference, I ask you. On longitude, for goodness sake. Who knew these things existed, and one could get a book out of it?

It deserves to be so popular. I have to admit, I was forced into reading this book. Course requirements and all that. How interesting could a history of longitude really be? I asked myself. I can’t honestly say that it was a subject I had any interest in – I’d only recently found a way of remembering which was latitude and which was longitude (longitude runs the length of New Zealand), so you can see I came ignorant to the topic. Yet I found it surprisingly enjoyable.

Yet this book appeals so to non-scientists because the geographical explanations, and the inner workings of clocks, are sandwiched between small interesting stories of a kind that can barely be believed. The first of these, after the overall introduction, is gruesome and black-humoured enough to get even my attention: it concerns the results of being unable to tell where your ship is, if you don’t have a reliable means of determining longitude. In 1707, the unfortunately named Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell (as in if only he had been hit on the head by a shovel) was bringing his fleet home from the latest squabble in France. It was a cloudy, foggy night, as English nights are wont to be, when some poor bastard of a sailor, whose name is lost to history, went to Admiral Shovell and said that, according to his private calculations, the entire fleet was about to run into the Scilly Isles.

Shovell had him hanged on the spot for mutiny, and what do you know?

Crunch.

Unfortunately, the nameless sailor was right. Unfairly, of the two survivors of the two thousand killed, one of them was dear Sir Shovell. The universe has a sick sense of humour, I tell you.

Anyway, it’s peppering the scientific history of longitude with stories like this that makes this little book so attractive to the reading public. . Invention was helped along, no doubt, by the reward of £20,000 offered to the solver of the longitude problem in 1714, no doubt by people who were sick of Shovellers.

Admittedly, for a history of science, the scientists themselves don’t always come across too well. Some of the experiments that comes out of this book do tend to show the essential ludicrousness of some of the things tried in the past by scientists – the vivisection of the dogs, for instance – and the constant changing of the prize rules to favour the efforts of Maskelyne, who wanted the loot for himself and was prepared to sit on the prize-giving committee to get it, shows that pettiness is universal.

However, it’s a layman clockmaker called John Harrison who finally cracked the problem, and Sobel’s descriptions of how and why his ever-improving clocks become more and more accurate in understanding and locating the problem of longitude are clear and easy to follow.

Longitude is not The Selfish Gene. It’s distinctly towards the popular end of popular science writing, but because of that anyone without even the slightest amount of geographical or horological know-how can grasp what’s going on without the bother of re-reading. In fact, the principle that Sobel appears to work upon here is that if you can read, you can understand. As such, it’s probably also quite a good book to give to kids who are interested in science (and even those who are not) as the pill is hidden in the jam.

It’s certainly better than many of Sobel’s later efforts, and is an appealing if undemanding addition to your history of science bookshelf.

Summer Nibbles – by Isolde

When the weather gets hot and humid, I don’t like to do as much baking.  So for this month, I’ve got three easy recipes that don’t require the oven.


Quick Maple Kettle Corn
from The All-American Dessert Book

popcorn

One 3 to 3.5 oz bag of microwave popcorn – plain, not flavored
3 tbs maple syrup
1 tbs corn or vegetable oil
1 tbs sugar

Pop the popcorn.  In a large pot, mix syrup, oil and sugar.  Cook over medium high, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it boils and thickens slightly, about 3 minutes.  Immediately remove from heat.  Quickly and vigorously stir in the popcorn until it’s evenly coated.  Dump it into a bowl and sprinkle with a bit of salt if desired.  This looses its crispness after a couple of hours, so eat right away.


Hummushummus

1 can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/3 cup tahini
3 tbs lemon juice

The amounts given are just the starting point. Hummus is really flexible, so adjust the ingredients to suit your tastes. If you like more tahini, garlic or lemon juice, add more.  Add salt and seasonings to taste (pepper, cumin, cayenne – use what you’d like).

Throw it all in the food processor and blend until smooth.    If you’re using it as a dip, you can add water until it’s the consistency you like, but if using for a spread, you’ll want to have it a bit thicker – only add as much water as you need to get it to make a smooth paste.


Tropical Tapioca

tapioca

Pineapple Topping:

1/2 cup sugar
4 cups of fresh pineapple, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 tbs rum (optional)

Tapioca:

4 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup small pearl tapioca (not quick-cooking)
1 13.5- to 14-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk (I used low fat)

Topping:  Mix sugar and pineapple in a saucepan. Cook on medium until pineapple softens and gets a bit translucent.  You can continue to cook it until it breaks down more, but I wanted full pieces. The fruit should have released about a cup or more of juice. Remove the pineapple chunks with a slotted spoon (you don’t have to get the tiny pieces) and cook the juice until it thickens into a syrup.  Add rum (or any flavor extract you like), pour it over the pineapples and stir it in.

Tapioca: Rinse the tapioca and let it sit in the strainer while you get the milk going.  Bring milk and sugar to a boil over medium heat. Stir in the tapioca.  Once it just hits boiling, reduce heat to medium-low.  Simmer, stirring very frequently (a skin will form if you leave it for long), until thickened. For me, this took about 25 minutes.

Stir in coconut milk. It’ll be a bit soupy, but it thickens overnight. Transfer to bowl. Cover – placing plastic wrap directly on the top to prevent a skin from forming – and refrigerate overnight along with the pineapple.

Our Stories – by epepke

I grew up in a vaguely theist family. We never went to church, except occasionally to the churches of others. Growing up in New York, I was exposed heavily to Judaism and Catholicism. After moving to Sarasota, Florida around 11, I was exposed to some Protestant sects. Sometimes, when I was very young, I asked why we didn’t go to church, and my mother always said, “God is in your heart, not in a house.” Which I suppose is the kind of thing you tell a kid, but I still think it’s a dumb thing to say.

Now, a lot of people here know what my brain is like. For those who don’t, my brain is highly unusual. Some might say freaky. I can’t really tell, because it’s mine, and it seems perfectly ordinary to me. However, I can infer this from how people sometimes react. Sometimes I am incredibly wrong in exactly what I infer, but I’m as sure as I am of anything that some inference is valid.

After I moved to Florida (I had already hit puberty), I inferred some things from the way people, especially those of the female persuasion, treated me. Those things I inferred were hideously wrong, but I was not to begin to understand that until 15 years after graduation. In any event, they set up in me the conditions ripe for a conversion to highly moralistic Christianity, which is what happened. I fell, and I fell hard. This lasted me through High School and about half of college and a marriage based on something like desperation.

I was also attracted to that “plate of shrimp” stuff about how the Mayans invented television and all that crap. That, however, was not entirely my fault. It was the 1970s, and it was all the rage. In school, we were subjected to the Propellor Beanies of the Gods nonsense and had a field trip to see a woman who claimed to be able to communicate psychically with pets. In the words of Frank Zappa, Pheeeeuw!

What I think kept me from being destroyed altogether consisted of two things.

First of all, it is a peculiarity of my brain that with respect to everything of the mind, including intellectual pursuits, I am either completely clueless and incompetent or an expert. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Intelligence affects the rate at which someone can work through the process, and I’ve been extremely slow and retarded about a lot of things that almost everyone finds easy and accessible. It’s just that the whole range of the average seems excluded to me. I can bang my head on a problem, sometimes for decades, without making any apparent progress at all, and then it all just falls into place. Many people report this experience, but for me it is overwhelmingly dominant. This has caused extreme unhappiness in my life, not simply with respect to the way other people treat me, but to the way I have viewed myself. Employers and potential employers either fail to understand me completely or think I’m the best thing since sliced peanut butter. This has resulted in long periods of unemployment and desperate poverty punctuated by fantastic and fascinating jobs.

It does come in handy, however. I think it is one of the reasons for my long-standing love affair with mathematics, where every problem is either impossible or trivial.

Another is that, due to my technical background and scientific bent, I had a healthy distrust of authority. Richard Feynman writes about this. My first exposure to Feynman was when my father gave me a copy of Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and wrote in the overleaf “This reminds me a lot of you.” He also once became angry with me when I said, “I’m just a kid, what to I know?” I was nine years old and was hooking up vacuum tubes to power supplies to see what they would do. He told me never, ever to think that. He was a jerk in many other ways (especially once I surpassed him in knowledge and intelligence), but this was good for me. Many years later, in something like despair, he told me that I was physically and intellectually superior to him. I therefore know why he tried to destroy me and once said “I should have worn a condom,” but it does not make it any easier.

So, when I read the Bible, I really read the Bible. When I came across Bible study groups, and they all tried to tell me this and that and nodded simultaneously, I had an annoying tendency to laugh. I did see the Bible as a complete and coherent hole, and I now have the terminology to describe that in one sentence: The God of the Bible has borderline personality disorder. I was like 15 at the time and pretty messed up in the head, so I actually empathized with the god-character.

Specific events that got me away from Christianity and theism are as follows. I saw Cosmos, and it hit me on the same emotional level that Christianity had, but for good this time. I was exposed to a peripatetic preacher by the name of Brother Jed with his wife Sister Cindy, and they seemed to me ridiculous. This was the heyday of televangelism, with Jim Bakker and cronies running rampant. Pat Robertson had a specifically anti-Cosmos episode, and I saw it as unutterably stupid.

The final straw related to the fact that I previously had some expectation of a creator God. I did not reject evolution (fortunately, I had a great teacher in High School who taught good classes and sometimes called them Sex and Gambling), but I was familiar with thermodynamics and information theory, and I thought that the rate of information increase to produce a human being was too large to be accounted for without at least occasional tweaking by a Creator. I had probably been influenced by 2001, the whole point of which is much the same, and I was able to find justifications in the Torah.

That annoying curiosity got the better of me. I had just learned about computational analysis, and I thought it was way cool. So I made some assumptions and modeled the process of evolution on a gross level by a field of non-deterministic Universal Turing Machines. This is similar to the way people, including myself, have tried to tackle the Continuum Hypothesis (where it fails is that the aleph-1 counting part of the proof manifestly overcounts numbers in C, and it turns out not to be possible to count the number of numbers it overcounts, if that makes sense or even if it doesn’t). However, as a broad approximation, it works just fine. What I found was that evolving something like a human in about that number of generations only requires a reasonable and even unimpressive change in information, easily within the range of random fluctuation.

So that was pretty much it. It wasn’t a happy time, as my marriage was falling apart, and I was to face a two-year period during which I thought that no woman would ever touch me again, but my brain was telling me something, and I could not ignore it.

Anyway, the theism went away. The next couple of decades involved a stint as a research scientist, the Skeptical Inquirer, Lake Hypatia, some groups who actually payed me to speak (!), a masterwork called SciAn, some limited fame, some bad experiences with women, some not-so-bad but still not-so-good experiences with women, a long-standing program to overcome my crippling shyness, watching an institute I loved self-disintegrate, retraining for a new career that didn’t work, a second marriage that didn’t work, the death of my father, friendship with almost everyone here who is a friend, breast cancer of my mother for whom I cared when I was unemployed, eventual moves for work, much more unemployment, pancreatitis and a cholycystectomy, a sort of snapping of my mind that eliminated my mood swings but made me numb for a couple of years, and so on and so forth. All of which brings us to about two and one-half years ago, when things really came together for me.

I know this will come as a surprise and shock to some of you, but I have changed my beliefs dramatically. In terms of all particulars, however, I haven’t changed a thing. I still don’t believe in a god or gods. I still have little patience with paranormal junk. I don’t believe in the supernatural, and I don’t even know what people mean by “spiritual,” though as a famous Rabbi once said, it seems to be something for the sexually frustrated.

What has happened is that I learned how to be happy. I stopped, inasmuch as I found it possible at the time, listening to what other people thought, though “listening” isn’t exactly the right word. I pay attention, but I don’t buy it, and I always see more important truths behind the statements. I started paying more and more attention to the entire universe and to what I feel in my bones.

Things have been happening which I can feel, to the point where I don’t even have time to recover from them. It’s getting so common it seems unlimited. I do not know what to call this, so I will call it “mojo.” I do not know what it is, or why it happens. Other people have tried. There’s the concept of synchronicity of Jung and Pauli. There is paranormal junk. There are, I think, all the religions of the world. I’m not going to believe in any of them, nor am I going to say more than what I am reasonably sure of. I’m a good little skeptic, and I am very sensitive to confirmation bias, the sheep/goat effect, and all those other things that make it difficult to understand the universe. As Newton said, I frame no hypotheses.

I am not going to try to communicate this. I don’t think I can, and I certainly don’t have much of an idea of how to go about it. There is no vocabulary for it even if I had a good understanding, which I do not.

I can, however, say what I think at the present time. I could always be wrong, and it is always subject to change.

I think it has a lot to do with sex, or rather the concept mythically described as Eros, a place where the distinction between sex, love, life, health, joy, beauty, and happiness becomes meaningless.

I think a lot of people get this stuff in flashes, and then they sober up or go home to their families and make up stupid religions so that they can go to sleep at night.

I think it has something to do with the fact that sex has been an essential component of the evolution of multicellular organisms, including us. It may be a sine qua non as it has the ability to couple conscious choice with evolution. It may not be the only way in the universe, but it is what we are.

What we are is, everything else put aside, the part of the universe that appreciates and enjoys the universe. Alone amongst all the life we know of, we can look back into the farthest reaches of time and space and to the fundaments of reality. We’re not completely there, and we may never get there, but the point is that we can go through the process. If there be others in the universe who can do the same thing, then they be in the same boat.

I think that the universe really is very different from what we mostly perceive by the classical means of organizing sensory information. When people learn how to juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time, they throw the balls in the direction of travel, expecting to catch up. It doesn’t work. This is a fairly trivial example of how our expectations are not particularly good at modeling reality. I don’t know what the right model is.

I think I’ve seen something like this happen to other people before, most recently and notably science fiction writers Greg Bear and Philip K. Dick. They seem always to become religious nutters or grind their gears without oil. I hope that I’m not that dumb, but I have no way of telling. It doesn’t seem to last more than a couple of months in other people. With me, it’s been going on at an exponentially increasing rate for more than two years.

Physically as well as metaphorically, the top is down, the Scissor Sisters are playing, and I’m burning the blood of the Earth. I don’t know where I’m going; eventually to my death, I suppose, but isn’t that always the case? In the mean time, perhaps I’ll see some new scenery. No fear, no need, no shame, no guilt, no worries. What else is there? Madness, perhaps? Been there; done that. Got the T-shirt, showed off my tits in it, left it to mildew on the front porch. Sometimes it rains or the engine overheats, and ozone and glycol tang wrinkle my nose. That’s part of it, too, and it’s all good.

So you want to be a Scientist? – by Octavia

…And you have a grudge against these little horrors:

mosquito

In many parts of the developed world, the humble blood-sucking mosquito is an itchy annoyance. Unfortunately, in tropical and sub-tropical regions mosquitoes transmit malarial parasites. These infest red blood cells, causing malaria. This disease can kill either by destroying sufficient amounts of red blood cells, or by clogging the capillaries that transmit the blood to organs – including the brain. Over 500 million people are infected with malaria each year, and of these, 1-3 million die of it. Most of these deaths occur in young children – every 60 seconds, an African child dies of malaria.

As yet, there is no vaccine, and preventive methods (such as mosquito nets) are used. However, treating malaria still takes up vast amounts of resources, especially in African countries, where as much as 40% of government spending on health is directed to combat the disease.

The Swiss Tropical Institute is working on modelling the transmission dynamics and health effects of malaria, in order to more efifciently combat it. Current model inputs include the characteristics of individual infections, the short-term and long-term effects on individuals, and the interdependence of hosts. It is estimated that without distributed computing, it could take decades to complete these simulations.

By downloading the BOINC system, your computer can help assist the modelling process, and you can aid in the treatment and understanding of malaria… without having to get a degree in epidemiology.

MalariaControl

Africa at Home

Icelandic Landscapes – by SteveF

SteveF’s work brought him to Iceland last year, where he took these photos. I don’t know about you, but I want his job!

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