Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Towel Day Part III

Oh dear. A post that has been regurgitated a second time... And it's the second one in a row quoting Doublas Adams. But that important time of year has come around again, so in memory of the death of the great Douglas Adams on the 11th of May 2001, and in celebration of the premier of the Star Wars episode IV on the 25th of May 1977, I’d like to remind every geek and nerd out there to remember to be proud and carry their towels with them tomorrow.

For does the Guide itself not say:
      "A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value - you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to- hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you - daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

      "More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with."

Even if you never read the Guide and don’t understand the significance of Towel Day do it for the sake of Geek Pride Day tomorrow. And if you are really so geeky that a towel is not enough for you, then make sure to carry your hard boiled egg and lilac with you for the Glorious Revolution of the 25th of May, as a tribute to Terry Pratchett, and to help raise awareness for Alzheimer's research.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

On Religious Beliefs, and My Own Lack Thereof

(On a side note: This is a particularly difficult post, but I think I am now mature enough to be open and honest about this. I can't say the same for those around me (because, while I consider myself to be a reasonable judge of character most of the time, this is the one field in which, due to its very nature, people tend to be completely irrational. Please don't be irrational if you read this. Think calm thoughts.)

    I am an atheist.

This does not mean that I believe that there is no god. It means that I do not believe that any god exists. These are two fundamentally different ideas, and I think the difference between them are a primary source of confusion for many theists and a fair number of agnostics too.

I realised that it is important for me to talk about my religious beliefs after stumbling across a certain Wikipedia article (Importance of religion by country), and in particular, the fact that only 65% of the USA perceives religion to be important as opposed to an alarming 84.5% of South Africans. The poll opened my eyes, and I have suddenly noticed the incredible number of devout religious followers in my life every day.

Atheism tends to be tricky to explain to someone who completely and absolutely believes a certain set of religious teachings. The problem seems to be with understanding how atheism goes beyond the whole idea of belief. While all religions tend to emphasise the concept of faith and belief, even putting it forward as the defining characteristic that will earn the most divine rewards ("He who believes in me has everlasting life" - John 6:47), atheism simply rejects that belief. It's difficult for a believer to understand that. So let me put forward another one of my religious views to help clarify.

    I am also an agnostic.

When I was less informed on the matter, I was very much against being labelled an atheist. I grew up under the impression that atheism was an arrogant assertion of the non-existence of any deity that had no room for error. While I was (and still am) almost certain that no god in the conventional sense actually exists (partially on the grounds that there simply is no evidence that a god exists, nor any need for one to exist), I have never been able to discount the remote possibility that I could be wrong. I am pretty arrogant, but even I do not have the extreme arrogance to claim that I have all the answers to the universe.

I cannot claim that there is no god. I do not believe that there is no god. I do not believe anything regarding the existence of god. It really is as simple as "I do not believe in god". Gradually, as I came to understand more about atheism, I realised that being able to say that one statement truthfully is all that it takes to be an atheist. Now, I am proud to label myself an atheist.

    I am also a pantheist.

Or more specifically, a naturalistic pantheist in a sense. Being an atheist does not mean that I do not have a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world. The natural world is amazing, and those that know me will know that I am fascinated by almost everything. I have a very high respect for almost all natural phenomena, and life (not only human life) is one of the things that I hold in very high regard.

    I am also an antitheist.

I have never really been open about my views before, but I increasingly feel the urge when I am around religious people to point out how absurd and arrogant their beliefs are. I know that the only reason I have never done so in the past is because I lack the confidence in my ability to put forward a convincing argument to convert them to atheism faster than the argument would alienate them.

Although I certainly dislike awkward situations, I've come to the point where I'm starting to feel that it is my moral obligation to stop people from throwing their lives away on a fictional concept, and start living their lives with wonder, realising that they actually don't know anything.

Opposition to religion tends to cause people to take offence, but it shouldn't. The words of Douglas Adams (possible one of the biggest influences on all of my writing) from his speech at Digital Biota 2 in September 1998 probably highlights this best: "The invention of the scientific method and science is the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn't withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn't seem to work like that... Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be."

So, from this moment forth, I am going to strive to attack religion with sensible and rational arguments. My aim is not to alienate people, but to inform them of the absurdity of absolute belief. Even if I cannot turn everyone I know into atheists, just having them accept an open-minded and agnostic viewpoint would be enough. I don't intend to be mean and I certainly don't mean offence, but it is inevitable that some will take things offensive. All I am asking is for everyone to just admit that they just don't know.

(On another side note: Even though I was never confirmed, I used to consider myself a Christian until only a year or two ago. And it wasn't like I was young and impressionable when I first started really calling myself a Christian. I was in my very late teens when I first started seeking religion, and spent almost two years calling myself a Buddhist before I began calling myself Christian. Gradually, I came to realise that I didn't really believe, nor did I need to believe. It is not at all difficult to drop belief in the Bible, and dropping belief in God is only a small step away from that. I suggest that absolutely any doubt in the existence of God is a sign that there is an agnostic hiding somewhere in your subconscious. Embrace it. The world is far more complex and amazing than any book could have you believe. Life is so much better than you think. You are free. You are one of billions in a species that is one of billions on a planet that is one of billions in a galaxy that is one of billions in the universe. And is the universe one of billions in something else? Quite possibly, but that's the awesome thing. No one really knows! Isn't that completely amazing in itself? Not knowing but striving to find out, I can assure you, is far more exciting than pretending that you know but can never understand.)

(On a final side note: Religion was one of the absolute no-go topics when I started this blog (I still thought of myself as a Christian back then). I guess that I have changed a lot.)

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On the Sizes of Things in the Sky, Part II

On the 6th of May 2012, many people noticed and reported on the so-called "abnormal" size and brightness of the moon. It just goes to show how little people notice if its not pointed out. I wrote last month about the sizes of things in the sky, in which I explained why the moon varies in size, anywhere from 9.3% smaller than to 4.8% larger than the sun.

The moon has an elliptical orbit, which means that it can be considerably closer at one point of the orbit than at another point. Over 40 000 km closer, in fact (which is actually less than 6% closer than it's average distance). This point in the moon's orbit is called the perigee.

(On a side note: The perigee has an interesting property - the rate at which the moon is getting closer or further from the Earth is slowest at this point. That means that the perigee is a gradual thing, and the moon stays close to this distance for a couple of months at a time.)

A supermoon is arbitrarily defined to occur when the moon is within 90% of its perigee during a full or new moon. Astrologers refer to the event as a supermoon, and like to believe that it has some special significance on natural disasters and the like. Astronomers, on the other hand, use the term perigee-syzygy, and point out that apart from causing perigean spring tides, there's hardly any evidence suggesting that it has any significance whatsoever.

Just in case the media frenzy seems to have made the supermoon of earlier this month appear to be an incredibly rare occurrence, I've taken the effort to look up all the dates of supermoons in the 21st century (i.e. I clicked the second link in the Google results for "super moon dates"). The dates, from the very astrologer who coined the term, for the last and next five years are as follows.

Table 1: Supermoon dates for full moons from 2009 to 2015.

11 January 2009
31 December 2009
30 January 2010
28 February 2010
18 February 2011
19 March 2011
18 April 2011
6 April 2012
6 May 2012
4 June 2012
25 May 2013
23 June 2013
22 July 2013
12 July 2014
10 August 2014
9 September 2014
29 August 2015
28 September 2015
27 October 2015

There is another type of supermoon - the so-called extreme supermoon, which occurs when the moon is closer than its average closest approach. The table below lists the dates on which this occurs for the first half of the 21st century. You cannot help but notice that 2012 is suspiciously absent from the list.

Table 2: "Extreme supermoon" dates for full moons from 2001 to 2050.

12 December 2008
30 January 2010
16 March 2011
14 November 2016
2 January 2018
25 November 2034
13 January 2036

Although, the actual event of an "extreme" supermoon is not that different from a normal full moon, as demonstrated in the picture below. Note that the March 2011 supermoon was supposedly the biggest since 1993.

The "supermoon" of 19 March 2011 (right), compared to a "typical" full moon of 20 December 2010 (left).
Image by Marco Langbroek, 2011 under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Fascinating. It seems that the whole supermoon frenzy is simply just another case of a journalist getting hold of a piece of information and getting extremely excited about it without bothering to do any research on the topic first.

(On a side note: If you do want to read further on supermoons, please bear in mind that logic is to astrology as the finer points of Russian literature are to the bacteria on a decomposing dead penguin in the Antarctic.)

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On an Interesting Pronunciation Point

In general, South Africans tend to take their pronuncialtion from the English, but every now and then a word sneaks in with the American pronunciation. A very good example that not many people seem to know about is the word "mall". The majority of South Africans tend to pronounce it the same as the word "maul", which is indeed a homophone, at least to the Americans. Pronounced the English way, "mall" should almost (but not quite) rhyme with "shall". In non-rhotic accents (that is, accents which tend to drop the letter 'r' if it's followed by a consonant), it it even almost rhymes with gnarl.

The reason, as far as I can tell, is that the Australians got the wrong pronunciation from the Americans, and then South Africans gradually copied it from there. Why the Americans can't pronounce half the words in the English language correctly, no one knows (if I were talking aloud now, this would be followed by a loud clearing of the throat and something like "laziness" mumbled under my breath).

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

On Better Dates for South African Public Holidays

Public holidays that fall on a Tuesday or Thursday (like earlier this week) tend to trigger that thought of "Hey, it's one day short of a long weekend, so why don't I just take an extra day off?". This leads to a drop in productivity for that week. Wednesday holidays tend to spark similar reasoning for some people.If you exclude the two Easter holidays, the two Christmas holidays and New Year's Day, you are left with seven public holidays. Each of these seven holidays will fall on a different day of the week, so that each day from Monday to Sunday has a corresponding public holiday. This year, it just so happens that these roles are filled by Heritage Day, Workers' Day, Human Rights Day, Women's Day, Freedom Day, Youth Day, and the Day of Reconciliation respectively, but this varies from year to year.

In theory, this even distribution should mean that there will be the same number of those "extra days off" every year (exactly two). Likewise, there will be exactly one public holiday missed each year due to it falling on a Saturday (at least for those of us in Monday to Friday jobs). So, from year to year, the overall number of unproductive days should be identical. However, there is little consistency in the distribution of these. Also, an additional "extra day off" comes in if either Human Rights Day or Freedom Day falls on a Wednesday in the same week as one of the Easter public holidays (as happened in 2011).

So, to deal with all of this, I propose that those seven public holidays be assigned dates that move from year to year. This is not dissimilar to the way that federal holidays are observed in the United States.

I have done all of the necessary calculations to minimise the distance that each holiday moves in the years 2000 to 2100, inclusive. The table below gives my proposed public holiday dates, as well as the average deviation from the current date for that holiday throughout the 21st century. Where there was no difference between having the holiday on a Monday or Friday, I favoured a Friday holiday, but a Monday holiday would be equally valid (although I suspect that a week with a Friday holiday would be more productive than a week with a Monday holiday). Holidays for which this was the case are marked with an asterisk.

Table 1: Proposed New Public Holiday Dates.
Public Holiday Current Date Proposed Date Deviation
Human Rights Day 21 March 3rd Monday of March 3.03 days
Freedom Day 27 April Last Friday of April 1.71 days
Workers' Day 1 May 1st Monday of May 3.97 days
Youth Day 16 June 3rd Friday* of June 2.29 days
Women's Day 9 August 2nd Friday* of August 2.28 days
Heritage Day 24 September Last Friday of September 2.97 days
Day of Reconciliation 16 December 3rd Monday of December 2.28 days

Of course, many people do attach some significance to a particular calender date, but I have discussed why this is completely unfounded in a previous post.

Although having Freedom Day on a Monday produces the same net deviation as a Friday, this introduces a possibility for a clash with Family Day in the distant future (as happened last year, and will happen in 2038). Likewise for holding Human Rights Day on a Friday (which would have caused a clash in 2008, and will cause a clash again in 2160). For all other public holidays, the day may easily be switched from Monday to Friday with no significant effect on the deviation from the current date. In the cases of Workers' Day, Heritage Day and the Day of Reconciliation, the day that came out on top only did so because my sample (of 101 years) happened to cover one or two more of one day than the other.

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