Tuesday, February 28, 2017

NASA & TRAPPIST-1: A Treasure Trove of Planets

The full press conference (40 minumtes)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

8 Things Some Asshole Says in Every Debate About Sexism

#8. The Duh-DoS

The first and worst asshole technique for arguing against feminism is demanding proof of sexism every single time the subject is raised. It's a popular strategy because it pretends to be in good faith. New claims do require proof. But sexual inequality isn't a new claim. Sexual inequality is almost the entire history of our species. When nearly every social statistic in every country on the planet is evidence of the problem, people fighting it don't have to list them all to justify the discussion.

A Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack is when multiple sources overload a target computer with requests to prevent it from getting anything done. The Duh-DoS is the organic equivalent, with multiple people asking duh-worthy questions. If the target answers, they're wasting their energy on someone with no intention of listening. If they don't answer, they're accused of admitting there's no real problem. No matter what they do they're at a disadvantage, which is exactly the problem they were fighting in the first place.

It works on more infernal and shittier levels than a Malebolgian leak. It resets every discussion (imagine a basketball forum demanding that the concept of points be re-explained at the start of every thread). It automatically devalues the woman's experience, because her statement that she experienced sexism is invalidated by implication: She must provide external proof. It also elevates the questioner to the position of authority, the ultimate judge who must be satisfied before he'll deign to consider the problem. As opposed to an asshole rando begging for the block button.

The solution? Screw them. Duh-DoSers try to claim the moral high ground by turning you into a human Google. But they don't win when they're ignored. If I stand in the street and start demanding that passersby prove gravity, I'm not a flying wizard when nobody can be bothered.

#7. The Semantic Quo

As well as wasting your time, assholes want those specific lists so they can move on to their second front: wasting more of your time. They'll try to disprove your points with all the obsession and specificity of someone proving Green Lantern could totally beat Superman. But less connection to reality. They'll apply more minute attention to detail than the search for the Higgs boson, and act like their results have more massive effects on reality.

These commenters are Kings of Polysyllabilogic (the art of proving a point with really long words they aren't actually using correctly). They write like Vulcans cheating at Scrabble. They try to sound like alien energy beings who've never even heard of these hu-man "testicles" but feel an altruistic compulsion to list impossible errors in anything threatening their scrotal sanctity. As if the desire for equal rights was a Star Trek computer malfunction that could be exploded if you convince it of one mistake.

Sexism isn't a scientific proof: Someone can't unravel the whole thing by picking at one point. And unless they're a wizard they can't reshuffle syllables until reality changes. Sexism isn't "identifying that a gender exists," it's "unfair treatment of people because of that gender, especially women." It's such a universally understood problem it's in the dictionary. It doesn't matter how much someone obsesses over the exact phrasing of a Twitter rape threat: A thousand more have been posted since. The Semantic Quo is an extended waste of time. Because when someone's arguing semantics from the side of the status quo, wasting time is all they need to do.

#6. Saint or GTFO

This imperfection attack is digging through someone's Internet history to see if they've ever said anything less than perfect. Because the only allowed options are immaculate saint or total asshole, and the antifeminists have the asshole side locked down. They're the Asshole Emperors, defending their rule by defecating over everything and everyone who's made the mistake of facing them. They'll extract something sort of stupid said several years ago, usually by ripping it more dangerously out of context than the core of an atomic warhead, and wave it around as if it was exactly that powerful.

This attack assumes that only saints and particularly blessed Buddhas are deserving of even the most basic human rights or empathy. You'll see this attitude when women are sexually assaulted, when black men are murdered in broad daylight in front of cameras, and in all the other absolute worst things about our species.

It also ignores the human ability to learn from mistakes and improve. In their defense, these guys don't seem to have that. In their offense, fuck those guys. Learning from our mistakes and improving is the entire point of feminism. And the species.

#5. Accusing Victims of Faking It

Anyone denying the existence of sexism can go to any YouTube video with a woman in it, read the comments, and fuck off. Victim-accusation isn't an impartial quest for truth or "hearing both sides." It's piling extra pressure on the victim as standard operating procedure.

While accusations of sexism apparently require a Supreme Court ruling as a cited source, accusations of faking sexism need no support whatsoever. "I'm just looking for proof," smiles the scumbag. "I'm just calling every woman a liar and acting like that's the unbiased course of action, instead of proof of the problem I'm denying, and if there was any justice in existence I would cease to do so."

These magical conspiratorial women would have to be faking more electronic output than the Matrix. And that's a movie where they killed almost every major female character. Sometimes twice! Demonstrate a specific example of someone clearly receiving threats of sexual violence and they'll say, "Oh yeah, but she deserves it." Which means that all accusations are either false or deserved, or, in other words, there is no such thing as an attack on women that this asshole will not find justified. Which is the worst possible truth someone can have.

#4. The Nicer Detonator

Assholes act as if anger in response to centuries of systematic oppression is equal to centuries of systematic oppression, and the two cancel out. "Maybe if you were nicer about asking," they say, and it's impossible to respond properly, because only comic characters can scream so loudly it ruptures their eardrums and pulps their skulls.

"Maybe if you were nicer about the constant stream of poison you're subjected to, I'd consider not pissing into it." Someone being aggressive in reaction to sexist abuse isn't attacking anyone. Someone being aggressive in reaction to sexist abuse is reacting to sexist abuse. The tactic of getting women as mad as possible and then acting innocent was developed by studying 6-year-old boys. No, sorry, being 6-year-old boys.

It's another way of reframing an urgent discussion of sexual equality as a patriarchal indulgence. "Asking nicely" is for a child who wants more ice cream: an inferior petitioner begging the favor of a stern authority figure for something they don't really need but think would be nice.

The kicker is that deploying the nicer detonator is the best possible way to trigger an explosion of anger. A result the asshole uses to smugly prove to themselves who the real problem is, infuriatingly unaware of how they've truly done that.

#3. Feminazi vs. Boogeywoman

"Feminazi" is a real timesaver, because someone saying that just freed you from listening to them ever again. It's such a specific strawman that it has its own name. But the term "feminazi" is far too evocative and powerful a phrase for this phantom. I suggest the term "boogeywoman," reducing the concept to the appropriate level of maturity and power.

Those who fear the boogeywoman claim feminism is a crusade of man-hating assholes, instead of a struggle against a patriarchal system that damages men as well as women. But don't worry, there's a useful quick check to find out if someone's an asshole, and it works on both sides: Ask them how they feel about transgender people. That'll identify who truly cares about equality and who's just being an asshole real quick.

Even if a woman is mean to you, boohoo. You can't dismiss an entire concept because one supporter is an asshole. If "one of them was a jerk" was reason enough to censor entire concepts, men would have become extinct long ago, along with every political and sociological concept ever conceived. I've met dickhead professors of quantum mechanics, but that doesn't mean my computer stops working.

#2. Ignorance by Induction

"How can you be complaining about this when there are starving children in Africa? Starving children I'm doing less than nothing to help, because merely nothing would be ignoring them. But I'm specifically pointing out that I know about them to use them as underfed weapons against things I actually care about."

I'm not saying you should punch people who use this tactic in the face, steal their wallet, and spend all the money on charity donations and sweet victory whiskey. Technically, they're saying that, since by their own argument nobody is allowed to complain about anything if they're not reincarnated into one of the worst situations on the planet.

Nobody is allowed to complain about anything except the young and starving, and they're not allowed to complain about anything unless they're the youngest and most starving, all the way down to one tragic soul who can't help but notice that nobody's actually bloody doing anything about the situation. (If you want to do something, Kiva is a great way to do that.)

#1. Equalist Equals Asshole

"I'm not a feminist, I'm an equalist." They're not an equalist, they're an asshole. This doesn't bring enlightened impartiality to the problem, it smugly pretends to bring enlightened superiority to the problem while implying that silly women are being distracted from the wider picture by their own selfishness.

Equalists claim we must tackle all bad things everywhere but start by derailing the discussion of even one of them. Entering a centuries-long struggle affecting billions of lives, their opener is, "Heh, let me fix this cute little mistake you made." Even if they had a point, and they really don't, their first priority is branding.

Imagine being on fire, running up to a firefighter screaming for help, and they hook their hands in their pockets and say, "Actually, before we start, I think you should say you're violently oxidizing. Not all oxidization is bad. I mean, some of my cells are performing oxidation right now, and I think it would be better if we ..." Your last act would be to SET THAT PERSON ON FIRE.

Feminism is gendered not because women want to be treated better in the future but because they're being treated worse right now. Insisting on "equalism" means defining yourself by ignoring that fact. As if sexism, street harassment, pay differences, and rape threats affect genders equally. But the only way everyone could be affected equally is if we were conquered by the universe's worst aliens. And should we enter that dark space-future, and you get the job as commander of Babylon 5 with its dozens of alien races, then sure, equalism will be the way to go. But here on Earth we have a gender spectrum with two definite poles, and one of them is clearly treated worse than the other.

It's amazing how many people are prepared to publicly be on the wrong side of progress. We have never looked back on any part of history and said, "Actually, we were totally right to diminish and ignore the complaints of that mistreated demographic group. That wasn't a humiliating monstrosity at all!"

Feminism is the idea that women should have equal rights. Anyone claiming otherwise is explaining what's wrong with themselves instead.

Fron Cracked

Saturday, February 25, 2017

How understanding evolution might help solve problems that bedevil society

Evolution has drawn more criticism from non-scientists than any other scientific theory, probably because it speaks to the origins of humanity.

Much is therefore at stake. And despite the mountains of evidence in support of evolution, there is still much opposition to it. Opposition stems largely from evolution’s unintended consequence of removing humanity from the pedestal of special creation.

Such opposition is fuelled by a misunderstanding of how evolution works and the claims it makes. For example, it is often alleged that evolution claims that humans have evolved from baboons. But all that evolution claims is that humans and other non-human primates share a common ancestor – a very different claim.

Evolution also does not claim that extant non-human primates, including monkeys, baboons, chimpanzees and gorillas, if given enough time, will evolve into humans.

The truth is we cannot predict with any degree of certainty what form the descendants of any living organism will evolve into 10,000 or one million years from now. There are just too many variables to consider and the process of evolution includes a component of randomness.

But a better understanding of how humans evolved and how that affects human behaviour can unlock alternative and workable solutions to societal problems.
How evolution works

Life propagates through the duplication of DNA and transference of that DNA from parent to offspring. Offspring are not exact copies of each other or of their parents as a result of mutation and sexual reproduction. This results in differences among individuals in the traits they possess, including size, shape, colour and behaviour.

Such differences are a fundamental characteristic of all natural populations and the generation of such differences is entirely random. We cannot predict which differences are likely to arise in any population.

Life plays out in time and space – in some kind of habitat or environment. Differences among traits of individuals will translate into differences in how long individuals live or how many offspring they produce.

Differences in survival and reproduction result in a change in the relative proportions of individuals in subsequent generations. This is evolution.

Although the generation of individual differences is random, which individuals survive and reproduce is not. Individuals with traits more suited to their particular environment will survive and reproduce. Those with traits less suited to their environment will be eliminated from the population. This is natural selection and it is not random. The environment selects which traits are transmitted to the next generation.

Competition for resources
Resources are finite and natural selection occurs because individuals have to compete for the resources they need to survive and reproduce. These include sexual partners, food and living space. In species with separate sexes, the costs of reproduction are different for males and females.

For example, reproduction in female mammals involves energetically expensive eggs, which provide the nutrition needed by the developing zygote, a lengthy pregnancy, and energy-rich milk for the baby.

In contrast, male reproduction involves sperm that has relatively little investment of energy. Over the span of their lives males produce millions of sperm. Their reproductive potential is never tied up by pregnancy or milk production. This gives males the potential to impregnate hundreds of females.

Reproduction for males is limited only by access to females. In contrast, female reproduction is limited by resources. But males can gain access to females by providing them with the resources they need to reproduce. This generates much competition among males for resources. Such competition increases when resources are scarce.

In social animals, males may form alliances that improve their access to resources and therefore to females. The differential costs of reproduction and the male alliances that such costs promote has the potential to explain many phenomena observed in human and non-human animal societies.

Evolution shaping behaviour

For example, it might explain not only why xenophobic and gang violence occurs in human societies but also why these behaviours are largely restricted to impoverished communities and perpetrated almost exclusively by young males in the prime of their reproductive potential.

Male alliances are evolved strategies that allow males greater access to females. Groups of males can compete more effectively than individual males for resources and females. A potential solution to some societal problems may be to reduce competition among males for females. This can be done by reducing poverty through a more equitable distribution of resources so that competition is reduced.

Another way is to improve access to resources by females through equality of education, opportunity, and employment equity. This may reduce competition among males because controlling resources would no longer be important for access to females. In short, patriarchy must fall.

Competent delivery of key socioeconomic services by governments is crucial for tackling many of the ills associated with competition for scarce resources. This includes the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, which have been blamed on the fierce competition for scarce jobs between locals and foreign nationals.

We accept that there are sets of human behaviours which are similar despite differences in race, culture and gender. We call this human nature. Fossils provide us with evidence that our physical form has evolved. The existence of human nature is evidence that our behaviours have evolved. Evolution, therefore provides us with a tool to scientifically investigate the causes of human behaviour.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The five most common misunderstandings about evolution

Given its huge success in describing the natural world for the past 150 years, the theory of evolution is remarkably misunderstood. In a recent episode of the Australian series of “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”, former cricket star Shane Warne questioned the theory – asking “if humans evolved from monkeys, why haven’t today’s monkeys evolved”?

Similarly, a head teacher from a primary school in the UK recently stated that evolution is a theory rather than a fact. This is despite the fact that children in the UK start learning about evolution in Year 6 (ten to 11-year-olds), and have further lessons throughout high school. While the theory of evolution is well accepted in the UK compared with the rest of the world, a survey in 2005 indicated that more than 20% of the country’s population was not sure about it, or did not accept it.

In contrast, there are not many people questioning the theory of relativity, or studies on the acceptance of the theory of relativity; possibly reflecting an acceptance that this is a matter for physicists to settle. Many studies have tried to determine why evolution is questioned so often by the general public, despite complete acceptance by scientists. Although no clear answer has been found, I suspect the common misconceptions described below have something to do with it.

1. It’s just a theory

Yes, scientists call it the “theory of evolution”, but this is in recognition of its well accepted scientific standing. The term “theory” is being used in the same way that gravitational theory explains why, when an apple falls from your hand, it goes towards the ground. There is no uncertainty that the apple will fall to the ground, in the same way that there is no uncertainty that bugs resistant to antibiotics will continue to evolve if we do not curb our general use of antibiotics.

Although people use “theory” in everyday conversation to mean a not necessarily proven hypothesis, this is not the case in scientific terms. A scientific theory typically means a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that sits above laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.

2. Humans are descended from monkeys

No, your great-great-great-ancestor was not a monkey. Evolution theory indicates that we have common ancestors with monkeys and apes – among the existing species, they are our closest relatives. Humans and chimpanzees share more than 90% of their genetic sequence. But this common ancestor, which roamed the earth approximately 7m years ago was neither a monkey nor a human, but an ape-like creature that recent research suggests had traits that favoured the use of tools.

3. Natural selection is purposeful

There are many organisms that are not perfectly adapted to their environment. For example, sharks don’t have a gas bladder to control their buoyancy (which bony fish typically use). Does this refute the theory of evolution? No, not at all. Natural selection can only randomly favour the best of what is available, it does not purposefully turn all living organisms into one super creature.

It would be really convenient if humans could photosynthesize; hunger could be immediately cured by standing in the sun (and the much-sought miracle diet would have been found: stay inside). But alas, the genetic ability to photosynthesise has not appeared in animals. Still, selection of the best option possible has led to an amazing diversity of forms remarkably well adapted to their environments, even if not perfect.

4. Evolution can’t explain complex organs

A common argument in favour of creationism is the evolution of the eye. A half developed eye would serve no function, so how can natural selection slowly create a functional eye in a step-wise manner? Darwin himself suggested that the eye could have had its origins in organs with different functions. Organs that allow detection of light could then have been favoured by natural selection, even if it did not provide full vision. These ideas have been proven correct many years later by researchers studying primitive light-sensing organs in animals. In molluscs like snails and segmented worms, light sense cells spread across the body surface can tell the difference between light and dark.

5. Religion is incompatible with evolution

It is important to make it clear that evolution is not a theory about the origin of life. It is a theory to explain how species change over time. Contrary to what many people think, there is also little conflict between evolution and most common religions. Pope Francis recently reiterated that a belief in evolution isn’t incompatible with the Catholic faith. Going further, the reverend Malcom Brown from the Church of England stated that “natural selection, as a way of understanding physical evolutionary processes over thousands of years, makes sense.” He added: “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science” and vice-versa. I fully agree.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How can Greece take charge?

If there’s one message that Greece should take away from its recent confrontation with the euro zone, it’s that it will never get the help it really needs. Assuming that the deal goes through, Greece should be able to reopen the banks and keep the economy from total collapse. But, with that economy having shrunk by a quarter in five years and an unemployment rate over twenty-five per cent, it needs real stimulus spending and a much looser monetary policy. Neither is on offer. Even if Greece gets the debt relief that the I.M.F. is recommending, the next few years will be grim. As James Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin, who assisted the former Greek finance minister during this year’s negotiations, told me, “What’s going to happen in Greece is going to be very sad.”

So what can Greece do? It really has only one option—to make the economy more productive and, above all, to export more. It’s easy to focus on Greece’s huge pile of debt, but, according to Yannis Ioannides, an economist at Tufts University, “debt is ultimately the lesser problem. Productivity and the lack of competitive exports are the much more important ones.”

There are structural issues that make this challenging. Greece is never going to be a manufacturing powerhouse: almost half of all Greek manufacturers have fewer than fifty employees, which limits productivity and efficiency, since they don’t enjoy economies of scale. Greece also has a legal and business environment that discourages investment, particularly from abroad. Contractual disputes take more than twice as long to resolve as in the average E.U. country. Greece has been among the most difficult European countries in which to start and run a business, and it has myriad regulations designed to protect existing players from competition. All countries have rules like this, but Greece is an extreme case. Bakeries, for instance, can sell bread only in a few standardized weights. Recently, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, had to promise that he would “liberalize the market for gyms.”

The scale of these problems makes Greece’s task sound hopeless, but simple reforms could have a big impact. Contrary to its image in Europe, Greece has already made moves in this direction: between 2013 and 2014, it jumped a hundred and eleven places in the World Bank’s “ease of starting a business” index. And reform doesn’t mean Greece needs to abandon the things that make it distinctive. In fact, in the case of exports, the country has important assets that it hasn’t taken full advantage of. Greek olive oil is often described as the best in the world. Yet sixty per cent of Greek oil is sold in bulk to Italy, which then resells it at a hefty markup. Greece should be processing and selling that oil itself, and similar stories could be told about feta cheese and yogurt; a 2012 McKinsey study suggested that food products could add billions to Greece’s G.D.P. Similarly, tourism, though it already accounts for eighteen per cent of G.D.P., has a lot more potential. Most tourists in Greece are Greek themselves, a sign that the country could do a much better job of tapping the booming global tourism market. Doing so would require major investments in improving ports and airports, and in marketing. But the upside could be huge. Greece also needs to stem its current brain drain. It produces a large number of scientists and engineers, but it spends little on research and development, so talent migrates abroad. And there are other ways that Greece could capitalize on its climate and its educated workforce; as Galbraith suggests, it’s an ideal location for research centers and branches of foreign universities.

To implement such changes, Greece will have to overcome other problems. Reforms work best when the level of trust in political institutions is high. But the Greek state has a poor reputation among citizens, who see it as a pawn of special interests. (This distrust of the government is one reason for the country’s notoriously high rate of tax evasion.) On top of this, the chief advocate of structural reform to date has been the much hated troika, whose obsession with austerity has made the mere notion of reform anathema. Opening up the Greek economy would benefit ordinary citizens, since the economy’s myriad rules and regulations serve mainly to protect the wealthy and those lucky enough to have won a sinecure. But that’s a hard sale to make at a time when people are worried about holding on to what they have.

Nonetheless, it’s a sale that Alexis Tsipras should try to make. As Ioannides told me, “We know from looking at other countries that, for reform to work, the government and the public really need to own it.” Right now, no one in Greece really owns reform. Still, Tsipras has considerable political capital. He could use that capital to spend the rest of his time in office inveighing against austerity. But Germany has made it painfully clear that that will have no effect. Instead, Tsipras should forget about what Europe isn’t going to do, and focus on what Greece can do for itself. He should make the case for why Greece needs to focus on exports; make it easier for young people to find jobs and start businesses; and even allow loaves of various weights and liberalized gyms. This isn’t the platform that Tsipras ran on. But it’s the platform that Greece needs him to govern on.

The New Yorker, originally published July 27th, 2015

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A tragedy Unfords in Lesvos

In the early fall of 1922, the third year of the Greco-Turkish War, the Turkish Army entered the city of Smyrna, on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, after routing the Greek Army. A day later, much of the city was burned to the ground, and the Turks began massacring ethnic Greeks and Armenians. Hundreds of thousands fled, desperately trying to secure seats in small, overcrowded boats that sputtered away from the Turkish mainland. Many sailed to the northwest, to the Greek island of Lesvos. The young nation was changed forever by the arrival of these prosfyges, as they were known; Greece’s music, cooking, and urban landscapes would never be the same.

In 2015, the straits between Turkey and Lesvos are again traversed by refugees—this time from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. They number half a million so far this year. The summer brought increasingly helpless scenes as the island filled with refugees, and the local government, already straining under the pressure of Greece’s debt crisis, was unable to help them. Alex Majoli’s stark black-and-white photographs show the refugees’ continuing struggle to register with the authorities when they arrive on the island’s rocky northern beaches. Majoli, a longtime member of Magnum Photos, was on Lesvos two weeks ago. He told me that many journalists had left the island, but the number of refugee boats arriving tripled in the days he was there. On Wednesday, the International Rescue Committee noted, sixteen thousand refugees were stuck on Lesvos, unable to move on.

Majoli’s photographs are shot digitally, with a strong flash, to create “theatre out of reality,” as he puts it. Drawing influence from the Italian absurdist Luigi Pirandello, Majoli uses his lens to capture the increasingly surreal geopolitical landscape of Europe today. Scenes of children being carried from a flimsy dinghy through the spray of the Aegean and onto the island take on the moral weight of a carefully constructed tale. An improvised cardboard sunshade, held above the head of an Afghan man who is stuck in a two-day-long line for his transit visa, evokes the masks of ancient Greek tragedy.

Greeks today still talk of the sailors on French, British, and U.S. warships who sat in the harbor watching refugees as they died on the quai at Smyrna. Majoli, who is Italian, criticizes Western Europeans for similar paralysis. “To be an individual, you need boundaries,” he said. “If you open the boundary, you lose your identity, maybe in a good way, but it changes what it means to be German, what it means to be Greek.” Just as the 1922 catastrophe transformed Greece, the 2015 influx is acting as a “detonator for a greater crisis in Europe,” where questions of identity become more fluid daily. Majoli describes the turmoil using an Italian adage that echoes an English one about chickens coming home to roost: Tutti i nodi vengono al pettine—“The knots are becoming caught in the comb.”

The New Yorker

Monday, February 20, 2017

The mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

The word “ink” is a child of the Latin incaustum, which means “having been burned.” In the Middle Ages, people thought that ink burned its way into parchment, because iron-gall inks go onto the page pale, then darken. This is not what’s happening, physically, but it makes sense as a metaphor: a medieval manuscript, because it was made by hand, is necessarily an original, even when it is a copy of something else. It cannot be standardised any more than a thing can be unburned.

The Voynich Manuscript is a special kind of original. We know, thanks to carbon dating, that it was put together in the early fifteenth century. But no living person has ever, as far as we know, understood it. Nobody can decode the language the book is written in. It has no title and no author. A new facsimile, edited by Raymond Clemens and published by Yale University Press, draws attention to the way that we think about truth now: the book invites guesses, conspiracy theory, spiritualism, cryptography. The Voynich Manuscript has charisma, and charisma has lately held a monopoly on our attentions.

The manuscript is two hundred and twenty-five millimetres tall, a hundred and sixty wide, and five centimetres thick. Yale’s new facsimile is somewhat larger, as it includes wide white margins for the amateur cryptographer’s own marginalia. The manuscript’s Renaissance-era cover (it was rebound) is made of what the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, at Yale, calls a “limp vellum.” The book has resided at Yale’s library since 1969.

Turn the covers—as Umberto Eco once did; it was the only book in the Beinecke’s famous collection that he cared to see—and you are greeted by writing in brown ink accompanied by strange diagrams and paintings of plants. The writing will not be decipherable to you. The book was made in the ordinary medieval way, but the script—the form of its letters, the language itself—was apparently invented by whoever made it. Some call the language and its script “Voynichese.” The letters loop prettily, and the text runs from left to right, top to bottom.

The first half of the book is filled with drawings of plants; scholars call this the “herbal” section. None of the plants appear to be real, although they are made from the usual stuff (green leaves, roots, and so on; search a word like “botanical” in the British Library’s illuminated-manuscript catalogue and you’ll find several texts that are similar to this part). The next section contains circular diagrams of the kind often found in medieval zodiacal texts; scholars call this part “astrological,” which is generous. Next, the so-called “balneological” section shows “nude ladies,” in Clemens’s words, in pools of liquid, which are connected to one another via a strange system of tubular plumbing that often snakes around whole pages of text. These scenes resemble drawings in the alchemical tradition, which gave rise to a now debunked theory that the thirteenth-century natural philosopher Roger Bacon wrote the book. Then we get what appear to be instructions in the practical use of those plants from the beginning of the book, followed by pages that look roughly like recipes.

Voynich is not a word from the book but, rather, the name of an eccentric book dealer, Wilfrid Michael Voynich, who bought the manuscript, in 1912. When Voynich purchased the text, it was accompanied by a letter by Johannes Marcus Marci (1595-1667), of Prague, who claimed that the book had been “sold to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at a reported price of 600 ducats and that it was believed to be a work by Roger Bacon.” (Voynich would later say that the seller was the occult philosopher John Dee; Clemens points out that he was nudged toward this hypothesis by a historical novel.) The book appears to have bounced around Prague for a while—in 1639, a person named Barchius described it as “a certain riddle of the Sphinx, a piece of writing in unknown characters,” and guessed that “the whole thing is medical.” The book’s historical trail vanishes in 1670, up until the time that Voynich purchased it.

Yale’s new edition affords Voynich a profile, by Arnold Hunt, which turns out to be warranted by his strong and odd personality. Voynich was born in 1864, in Telšiai, to a Polish family. He supposedly spoke twenty languages fluently. He was arrested in Kovno, in 1885, for his membership in the Proletariat Party, a social-revolutionary group, and sentenced, without trial, to exile in Siberia for five years. He got a lot of reading done there, and then he escaped, travelling widely and ultimately bartering his waistcoat and glasses for a spot on a boat from Hamburg to England. There, he became part of the intellectual circle that surrounded the Russian agitator Sergei Kravchinsky, known as Stepniak. Once his adventuring days were over, Voynich became a book dealer—a good one, although he once accidentally (one hopes) sold a forgery to the British Museum. “Voynich in later life would sometimes point dramatically to the wounds he had received” on his youthful adventures, Hunt notes: “Here I have sword, here I have sword, here I have bullet.”

In 1903, the Jesuits decided to sell a group of texts from the Collegio Romano collection to the Vatican; the sale took nine years to complete. For reasons unknown, and under conditions of total secrecy, Voynich managed to procure some of the books before they entered the Vatican Library. One of them was the Voynich Manuscript. Voynich believed that his impenetrable book contained authentic wisdom—or, at least, he said so during publicity kicks in the States, trying to make his treasured book famous. “When the time comes,” he told the Times, “I will prove to the world that the black magic of the Middle Ages consisted in discoveries far in advance of twentieth-century science.”

Voynich never cracked the code, if one indeed exists. In “Cryptographic Attempts,” another essay that accompanies the Yale facsimile, William Sherman notes that “some of the greatest code breakers in history” attempted to unlock the manuscript’s mysteries; the impenetrability of Voynichese became a professional problem for those in the code game. William Romaine Newbold, a professor of intellectual and moral philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in the early part of the twentieth century, “persuaded himself that the writing used both a cipher common from Bacon’s alchemical manuscripts along with a separate—and far more complicated—system best described as an anagrammed micrographic shorthand.” This system of cypher “requires transposition (changing the order of the letters), abbreviation (using a system taken from ancient Greece), and microscopic notation (whereby individual pen strokes within a single character, when magnified, serve as shorthand symbols for other letters).” This theory was initially endorsed by the eminent medievalist John Matthews Manly, who had worked as one of the U.S. Army’s chief cryptologists during the First World War. But it did not hold up to closer scrutiny, and Manly eventually concluded that Newbold’s “decipherments were not discoveries of secrets hidden by Roger Bacon but the products of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconscious.”

The next great mind to apply itself to the manuscript’s code belonged to William F. Friedman, another Army cryptographer, who was among the first people to use computers for textual analysis. In 1925, Manly connected Friedman and his wife, Elizebeth, also a cryptographer, with the manuscript, sending them photographs. They worked on the project for forty years. Friedman and his colleagues broke Japan’s code Purple during the Second World War, and Friedman became the chief cryptanalyst for the War Department and head of the Signals Intelligence Service in the forties and fifties. The historian David Kahn called him the “world’s greatest cryptologist.” By 1944, Friedman had formed the Voynich Manuscript Study Group with some colleagues.

The group never cracked the code. The Friedmans did, however, provide an enigmatic message about the manuscript in an article in Philological Quarterly, “Acrostics, Anagrams, and Chaucer,” published in 1959. The article included a long excursus on the pointlessness of looking for anagrammatic cyphers; a note revealed that the statement itself was an anagram. The authors had left the solution to the anagram in a sealed envelope with the P.Q. editor. After William died in 1970, that editor revealed the message along with a reprint of the piece: “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type.—Friedman.”

According to Sherman, the majority of those who have tried their hand at the manuscript’s code “have been amateurs, and many have more interest in conspiracy theories than cryptographic systems.” Nowadays, you can find people trying to crack the code on Reddit. There are many competing theories. Some suggest that the manuscript might be part of a “conworld,” or constructed fantasy—but then one poster responds, “I don’t see why someone would create such an expensive manuscript if this were the case.” Another Redditor asks, “Anyone else wondering if this is material from a lost Mayan codex?”

You can find serious scholarly work among the Redditors’ posts, but most of it is just fun speculation. It is interesting nonetheless, because it’s written in a voice that has shaped communal understanding in our time. Speculative knowledge flourishes in moments of uncertainty and fear. “They don’t want you to know the truth,” the speculators say to their faithful, on the left and on the right. 9/11 conspiracy theories are less frightening than the truth, which is that our lives are always in danger. Astrologers point to an invisible world, freeing its subscribers from the visible one that oppresses them. Tarot facilitates healing conversations. Whether code breaker or spiritualist or amateur historian, the Voynich speculators are linked by their common interest in the past, quasi-occult mystery, and insoluble problems of authenticity. When the book was featured in a recent episode of the Sherlock Holmes-inspired television show “Elementary,” Clemens writes, it stood in “for a mysterious but learned reference to past mysteries that somehow hold important meaning for the present.”

Readers will probably never stop forming communities based on the manuscript’s secrets. Humans are fond of weaving narratives like doilies around gaping holes, so that the holes won’t scare them. And objects from premodern history—like medieval manuscripts—are the perfect canvas on which to project our worries about the difficult and the frightening and the arcane, because these objects come from a time outside culture as we conceive of it. This single, original manuscript encourages us to sit with the concept of truth and to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know.

The New Yorker

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The deadly sins - Make that six

“Kant calls marriage a contract for each [partner] to use the other's genitals,” writes Simon Blackburn, “so it is lucky that he never tried it.” Mr Blackburn, a professor at Cambridge, has the robust dry wit that has typified the best British philosophers since Hume and disconcerted most German ones since Hegel. His way with words has served him well. He is now probably the best selling populariser of his trade in English, thanks to his short primers, “Think” (1999) and “Being Good” (2001). His latest slim volume, replete with 16 glossy illustrations, not all of them decent, seems on the face of it to have more to do with Being Bad.

But appearances deceive. “Lust” is the third book in a series on the seven “deadly sins” which began life as a course by seven lecturers at the New York Public Library, that well-known den of vice. In the course of investigating lust, Mr Blackburn is lured irresistibly to the conclusion that there is nothing at all wrong with it. With the caveat that the word is often cheatingly used in such a way as to make lust wicked merely by definition (the Oxford English Dictionary calls it a “degrading animal passion”), it is hard not to be seduced by Mr Blackburn's sweet reasonableness.

So what is lust? Mr Blackburn starts by stripping it naked. After seven pages of analysis by counter-example and refinement, he defines it as an enthusiastic desire, which infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake. The subsequent tour of attitudes to this desire in western thought and literature is engagingly illustrated and masterfully argued, especially when it takes on the view that sex ought to be reserved for reproduction and not enjoyed for its own sake—an easy target, as Mr Blackburn demonstrates, but still a necessary one.

The author is no libertine, though. He does not go nearly as far as Epicurus and his populariser, Lucretius, who held that lust is superior to love. The Epicureans feared love as a kind of madness that overcomes the rational soul—in the fourth book of his “De Rerum Natura”, Lucretius gives a marvellously dyspeptic account of romance that is convincing if you have just fallen out of love but unpersuasive if you are falling in. Indulging in plenty of sex for its own sake, the Epicureans argued, is an effective remedy for the insanity of love. (This rationalisation for promiscuity is curiously little-used by the sex industry.)

Mr Blackburn's own sympathies lie with the account of lust given by Hobbes. The discussion is subtle, but to cut to the chase—as lust is wont to do—the essence of Hobbes's view is that the pleasure of lust is not only sensual but also a “delight of the mind”, because it consists of “two appetites together, to please, and to be pleased”. As Mr Blackburn puts it, lust involves a “pure mutuality”, a “joint symphony of pleasure and response”. Alas, it will probably take more than a slim volume of sweet reason to win over lust's enemies. Guilt about sex seems to run too deep for that.

The Economist

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Excerpt from '77 Shadow Street' by Dean Koontz

Here no civilisation existed, only the heart of darkness, bewitching in its immensity, charming because it promised the freedom of madness, because it promised death without meaning.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A message from your personal demons

Hello, my dear. You do not know who I am, but I know you. I am one of the three demons that were assigned to you at birth. You see, some people in this world are destined for greatness, destined to live happy, fulfilling lives. You, I am afraid, are not one of those people, and it is our job to make sure of that.

Who are we? Oh yes, of course, how rude of me. Allow me to introduce us:
Shame is my younger brother, the demon on your left shoulder. Shame tells you that you’re a freak; that those thought you have are not normal; that you will never fit in. Shame whispered into your ear when your mother found you playing with yourself as a child. Shame is the one who makes you hate yourself.

Fear sits on your right shoulder. He is my older brother, as old as life itself. Fear fills every dark corner with monsters, turns every stranger on a dark street into a murderer. Fear stops you from telling your crush how you feel. He tells you it is better not to try than let people see you fail. Fear makes you build your own prison.

Who am I, then? I am the worst of your demons, but you see me as a friend. You turn to me when you have nothing else, because I live in your heart. I am the one who forces you to endure. The one who prolongs your torment.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Joy of Sects!

The profusion of minority faiths in a Sussex town hints at Britain’s attitudes to religion

Scientologists, Mormons, Opus Dei and others have settled around East Grinstead. Why?

Everything about East Grinstead seems rather ordinary. The road from the station into town is lined with a timber merchant, a dog salon and launderette. The black-and-white striped Tudor high street is more attractive, though hardly unique. But in the middle of town, an unobtrusive brick building provides a clue as to what makes the place unusual. It is the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormons. A few miles north sits the London England Temple, a striking limestone-clad edifice, topped with a soaring, copper-coated spire. The Mormons are far from alone: East Grinstead and its environs are home to an unusually rich array of rare religions.

Just south of the town lies the 18th-century Saint Hill Manor estate, the British headquarters of the Church of Scientology which, according to the census, had 2,418 followers in England and Wales in 2011 (the church itself has put the figure in the “tens of thousands”). A squat Norman-style castle (pictured), built in the 1960s-80s, sits next to the manor. Devotees attend “auditing”—a kind of counselling—inside.

Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organisation, hold retreats at Wickenden Manor, a little farther out into the countryside. The Christian Scientists, who do not believe in conventional medicine, had a church in East Grinstead until the 1980s. In nearby Crowborough, the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (also known as the Rosicrucians) has a base.

That so many minority faiths have come to practise in this corner of southern England is a puzzle to many locals. Some put it down to the existence of ley lines, prehistoric mystical pathways. The more prosaic explanations seem more plausible. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, bought Saint Hill Manor for a song from the Maharajah of Jaipur in 1959. The site was perfect, says Graeme Wilson, a spokesman for the church. It is an hour from London and 20 minutes from Gatwick airport—convenient, since Scientologists travel to East Grinstead from around the world (Tom Cruise owned a mansion nearby until 2016).

Other groups offer similarly pragmatic explanations for their presence. Opus Dei appreciates the proximity to the capital for its retreats; the Mormons, who have been in the area since the 1950s, happened to find a nice spot with scope to build a church, says a spokesman.

East Grinstead has not always been so tolerant: in the 16th century three Protestants were burned there for their faith, as Queen Mary sought to restore Catholicism. More recently, however, the town has been welcoming to pious outsiders. Few objections were made when the Scientologists turned up, points out Simon Kerr, a trustee of the local museum. That may have encouraged others, leading to a religious kind of clustering.

The Scientologists stress their neighbourliness. They made a sizeable donation to the restoration of the local Bluebell steam railway. This winter they hosted an ice-rink, open to the public. They even hold multi-faith services, says Mr Wilson. This has not stopped some townsfolk grumbling about the church’s plans to cut down trees and expand a car park.

Mr Kerr highlights an alternative period of the town’s history. During the second world war Archibald McIndoe, a plastic surgeon, treated desperately disfigured servicemen at the local Queen Victoria Hospital. East Grinstead was dubbed “the town that did not stare”, for its warmth and openness towards the outsiders. Some of that spirit remains, Mr Kerr suggests.

In fact, East Grinstead’s approach may point to Britain’s attitudes more generally. The state is more tolerant of religious diversity than many European countries, argues Amanda van Eck, director of Inform, a research group that studies religious movements at the London School of Economics; in France, for instance, sects may be prosecuted for crimes including manipulation mentale. Britain’s relative cultural openness makes minority groups less likely to operate clandestinely.

As part of its hands-off way of doing things, Britain has no official definition of what counts as a religion. But the more unusual ones are increasingly keen for recognition, aware of the legitimacy it confers. After an appeal to the Supreme Court, Scientologists have been allowed to perform weddings since 2013. According to the census, the number of pagans increased from 42,000 to 57,000 between 2001 and 2011—mainly because pagans have become increasingly willing to declare themselves as such, believes David Spofforth of the Pagan Federation, a pan-European group. They might all gather in East Grinstead, at a tiny pub decked with flowers aptly named “The Open Arms”.

Originally posted on THE ECONOMIST

Saturday, February 04, 2017

You might be brainwashed

Kind Regards
The Free Thought Project

Something to consider..
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Friday, February 03, 2017

'Warrior of god' by KMApok

"If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world?" It's a common question, but it is misplaced.All things must have balance. Light and dark. Good and evil. Sound and silence. Without one, the other cannot exist."So if that's true, then God does NOTHING to fight evil?" That might be your follow up question.Of course, he fights evil. Relentlessly. I am Dartalian, one of His most Holy and Righteous angels.I roam the Earth, disposing of evil wherever I find it. I kill the monsters you don't ever want to know about. I crush them completely so you can sleep at night. You humans, have no idea how many of you live because of the work I do."But what about Stalin? Hitler? Ted Bundy? Jack the Ripper?"Well, those are the minor ones I had to let live. For balance. The ones I destroy are ....too horrible and vile to survive.What's funny, is while I would wager you never have heard the name Dartalian in any religious texts, I bet you have heard of me. Americans, for example, have their own name for me. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Author KMApok

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Feb 2nd 1922 - Ulysses is published

Ulysses is a novel by the Irish author James Joyce. It was first serialised in parts in the American Journal 'The little review' from March 1918 to December 1920, and then published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach in February 1922, in Paris.

One of the most important works of Modernist literature, it has been called 'a demonstration and summation of the entire movement'. 'Before Joyce no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking'.

Ulysses' stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring and experimental prose, full of puns, parodies, and allusions, as well as its rich characterisations and broad humour, made the book a highly regarded novel in the Modernist pantheon

Read online free

 Source wikipedia 

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

King Charles I: Heading off

GRANTED, the competition isn't strong. But England has never had a cleverer line of monarchs than the 17th-century Stuarts. Nor one more foolish, as apt to harm themselves as the nation they misruled: four civil wars provoked and lost; two crowns lost and one crowned head. Still they did the nation—and, as time showed, the monarchy—one real favour. If most later sovereigns have used their heads more wisely, it was not least because Charles I lost his.

The hero of this lively biography, which was published in Britain a year ago and is just out in America, is the lawyer who, in his field, did most to execute the king: John Cooke, who prepared the case for trial in 1649, and was savagely punished for it after the monarchy was restored in 1660. Cooke's name is barely a footnote in histories of the time. With men like Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein in mind, Geoffrey Robertson, an international lawyer, is eager to write it six feet high.

The trial never really became one: Charles, accused of high treason and much else, refused to plead, denying the court's authority. He had a point. The court was set up, without the king's consent or the Lords', by the House of Commons alone; a house from which many members had been forcibly ejected in “Pride's purge”. But Mr Robertson will have none of this. As the de facto power-that-was, he argues, even this truncated Commons was entitled to create the court.

So Cooke himself argued, vainly, at his own trial in 1660. Anyway, he added, he had only done his duty as a lawyer: he had been given a case and he had to argue it as best he could. Factually, this was thin: a lawyer maybe, but one wholly in sympathy with his case. His plea anyway fell on plugged ears. Yet history has backed him: the “cab-rank” principle that a barrister must take any brief he is offered is today commonplace, if not always a fact. And no one disputes that, having taken it, he must argue for his client as best he can.

 History also backs Cooke on the substantive issue. Had Charles deigned to plead, he would have argued, as Cooke's prosecutors did in 1660, that “the king can do no wrong”. If wrong were done, even at his command, his ministers could be punished, but not the monarch, accountable only to God. To modern ears this is absurd. To the 17th century its truth was self-evident. Not to Cooke and the Commons: the divine right of kings, which Charles had imbibed at his father's knee, was myth. The king was not above the law. The “rump” Commons indeed went much further still: “the people under God are the organ of all just power”, and the Commons, representing them, the supreme authority, entitled to make law whether king or Lords consented or not.

In practical terms, Charles was indeed guilty. At least the second civil war was of his sole and unscrupulous making. He had conspired to bring in Scottish, Irish and even French soldiery to aid him. Lawfully or not, Cooke and the court of 1649 gave him what he deserved. From then on, Cooke, seemingly successful, was in practice a loser. He went to Ireland, and did his personal best to ensure that justice be both just and speedy. But the reforms of legal sloth and chaos that he tried to institute there and hoped to see take root in England too were frustrated. Then came the Restoration.

Having said he did not seek revenge, Charles II named 49 “regicides” as due for it. All who could be found were set before a kangaroo court, “tried” for a few hours, and duly found guilty by a jury that seldom bothered even to retire. Some escaped death. Cooke was one of ten sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, a revolting medieval procedure that his executioner dragged out as long as possible. And until 1859 the Church of England delivered sycophantic prayers in memory of Charles I, “the Martyr”.

The Economist
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