20120430

Dangers of religion; pt. I

So I got into a discussion with a friend of mine today, about the good and bad aspects of religion. I maintain the belief that any and all kinds of religion are positively harmful for human society. Even if we ignore all the terrible things some religious congregations or individuals did throughout history (which is, admittedly, quite hard to do) - even putting that aspect of religion aside, I still believe it is harmful, in a way which is maybe even more disturbing. I'm talking about a kind of brainwashing which goes side by side with religious upbringing. By this I mean simply the way of thinking practiced by most of religious individuals. As a former member of Catholic Church, I feel versed enough to be able to talk about the 'Christian mindset', but I believe most of other religions have the same way of operating on human brains and thinking processes. When you are a Christian, chances are you were taught never to question, never to doubt the holy scriptures and the words of the preacher, who represents a direct connection to god, and is the highest authority down on earth. Blind faith and silent obedience are stuffed into children's heads and encouraged in adults. And this is what I find the most disturbing, and the most harmful effect of religion - it teaches humans to be dumb, to accept the earthly things as dull and not worthy of admiration. It teaches humans to dream about the impossible and unreachable, and in the same time to ignore the beauties of this world, which are innumerable. It is easy to see why this is so - control the way people think and you control all of their lives. But if you teach a child to ask questions, to be curious about the inner working of things, you risk the possibility that it will come to conclusions which do not correspond with your teachings; the teachings that are created in such a way to put an effective stop to human ingenuity and creativity. Nurture the people as mindless worker drones, and you have made yourself a vast source of income as well as a strong army of blind supporters and deaf zealots. Put an end to creativity, skeptical questioning and free thinking, and you can be sure that the level of human society will stagnate on the one from centuries ago, where your caste of mystic wise old men is on the top of the hierarchical order.

Honestly, I'm afraid of this. I'm afraid of people who do not think for themselves. Not only are they more receptive to harmful, aggressive ideas and violence, but they hinder the progress of science, medicine, culture, and human society in general. I think we must always ask questions about every single thing that surrounds us. Curiosity is a beautiful thing, and should not be viewed like something bad, as a great number of preachers and 'holy men' seem to do. As a matter of fact, it should be encouraged, especially in young children. They must learn to ask questions, to wonder, to appreciate the inquisitiveness of scientific method. What great feeling of joy does knowledge bring! Or, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson said in his interview with KCTS9: "If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, [...] and that understanding empowers you."


I'm not saying that religion does not have its merits. It cannot be questioned that some of the best works of classical art, be it in music, painting or sculpture, were directly influenced by religion. Christian Church spread the written word, set the course for what would become the Renaissance, and sometimes even actively encouraged scientific experiments. Isaac Newton, possibly the greatest mind ever to live, believed in biblical prophecies. Many a scholar was a priest, and many a priest a scientist. But, undoubtedly, these individuals were not the typical examples of religious minds. These were great minds, set apart from the rest of humanity by sheer potential of their thinking process. I am not concerned with people like this - I am concerned with the ordinary men and women, those simple people who go day after day doing the same task, doing their jobs (which quite often do not comprise of philosophical debating and writing mathematical treatises), raising their kids and propagating that which they have been taught. Faith is very similar to a genetic disease - it also has a tendency to spread from one generation to the other, although by different means. And these means - upbringing, education and indoctrination - are what needs to be changed, I believe. This is not an easy thing to achieve - tradition has terribly strong and deep-grounded roots - but it can be done with time, if only we try hard enough. The educational system has to change in a way that promotes critical and skeptical thinking more strongly. Scientific values must be promoted as the only ones which bring true and concise results, the scientific mindset as the one most productive and beneficial for the society as a whole. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but nobody wants the return of the Dark Ages either.

20120427

Solargraphy project, engage!

Alright, my photographic paper arrived today in the mail so I was finally able to set up my own set of pinhole cameras for the Solargraphy project.  I made two because one paper is just big enough to cut into two pieces that fit perfectly into the smaller and the bigger can. Also I have a bunch of cans that have to be used for something. I just hope they'll stay in place, I'd hate to lose them somewhere over the period of the next 30 days, or as long as I plan to keep them up.
Looks very professional, too.

20120425

Zeta Tauri, maybe

An interesting sight through my binoculars tonight - the Moon and what I believe to be Zeta Tauri. I can't be sure since the light pollution is quite strong here, and the sky is hazy due to high humidity and some wannabe-clouds, so I don't have any reference points to determine exactly.

20120424

Why coming out as an atheist is important

Why would it matter if some random person, like me (or you), should state publicly if (s)he is an atheist or not? Though we live in the 21st century, the century of great scientific and technological advance, we are still unfortunate witnesses of strong religious movements and terrible acts done by those who still believe in bronze-age fairy tales. The number of people claiming to be religious is still bigger than that of open-out atheists. By open-out I mean those who are not afraid to say, publicly, that they don't believe in a deity of any kind. Why is this so? I blame cultural pressure. Our grand-parents are religious; our parents are religious; ipso facto we are religious. It is hard to break free from all the teachings stuffed in our heads since we were too young to think critically. But, not only is it hard - we are also lazy. It is much simpler to go with the flow, to not question and accept what we are told without asking questions. It is much easier to fit into the rest of society, than to be ostracized. But ask yourself only this: is it the right thing to do?

I believe not. If we allow ourself to be silenced, to be ignored by the masses, what good does it do? It is my honest opinion that we must stand by people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and never-to-be-forgotten Christopher Hitchens. We must be the foundation of the new society in which critical thinking will be the basis of every research; in which logic and reason will replace personal prejudice and misjudgment; in which science will take precedence over religion. And that's why every voice is important. Most of us are not great scientists, writers or artists; we don't have names to back us up; but we have the power of science, logic and reason, and our numbers are growing steadily. As our voices are becoming louder, our message rings clearer in the ears of those who have the power to change things. And we must be heard, lest we return to the dark ages, where unreasonable faith overpowers rational thinking. Strength comes from numbers, and we have to understand that. Without numbers, we are nothing - a mere buzzing of a fly, which, although annoying, poses no real threat (of course, I don't mean threat in any physically harmful way). Just remember how very retarding religion has been to scientific and technical improvement throughout the ages. If not for the inquisition, the silencing of critical thinkers, the burning of books etc., who knows where we'd be by now. I won't say we'd be visiting other worlds, but...

And even if you don't care whether people know you're an atheist or not, think about this: with every person declared as a believer, the religious congregation (s)he 'belongs to' gets more money from the state. This is an important fact, since more money for some church means less money for science, medicine, art and numerous other branches of society that would use that money for a better purpose. Think about that when the time for the next census comes, wherever you live.

20120423

Green Boxleaf Newcomer

I like the fact that I can never buy only the things on my grocery list. Whenever I go shopping, I bring home something I never intended to buy. Which is great, cause there's always something new in my life, heh.

So today I got us a new plant - Euonymus japonicus Microphyllus, a.k.a. Boxleaf Euonymus.
I especially like the two-colored, white-framed leaves. Quite cool.
Neat.
To be completely honest, I mostly bought it because the name reminds me of Euronymous.
Euronymous japonis Mycrophyllus

20120420

A very cheap microscope!

You know what's great about reading other people's blogs? You learn stuff! And some really exciting and interesting stuff, too.

For example, while browsing Alex Wild's wonderful blog Myrmecos, I found this post. Which links to this post, by the same author. And, boy, what a great discovery this was! I learned how to turn my lame-ass cellphone camera into an approximation of a microscope. A very, very cheap microscope. It costs exactly - one drop of water! What you do is - you place a drop of water on your cellphone camera... And that's it; you have a liquid magnifying lens. Turn the phone over (carefully, so your drop stays on the camera) and start making pictures.

Of course, the quality of your images will depend on the cellphone you own. I have a Samsung Galaxy I5500, which has quite a... well, it has a terrible 2 MP camera. Still, I'm quite satisfied with the images I made. I decided to test this method on some of the mineral samples I own (I'm a bit of a collector, albeit an amateur one):
Amethyst (click to embiggen)
Also amethyst
Aragonite
Galena
If you decide to try this yourself, you're welcome (and encouraged) to share the results in the comments. :)

P.S. Also, I strongly recommend that you check Myrmecos - it has some beautiful insect close-ups, and it's very informative and interesting. Learning is fun!

20120415

Look ma, I'm a peasant!

Well, I'm really sorry for the delay, I'm visiting my grandma and there's so much work to do!
Like, you know, climb stuff and pick lemons.
Anyway, if you noticed my page about the Örtig garden, you know I like gardening and working with plants, so I'm gonna ramble a bit about this now. And just to say it right away - today was fun! We got time to visit two of our fields and do some real work, though it was raining the whole morning and that kinda messed up our plans. Also we had to put on these ugly green raincoats.

And our fields are awesome.
If you ever worked with olives, you know how hard it can be to keep the pests off the plant. On the island of Mljet, where my family has land, the biggest problem is the bug called Otiorrhyncus cribricollis. What it does best is nibbling. That is, the little fucker eats half of the leaves. Even if you don't have a problem with exactly this bug, I bet there's a lot of other that do this same thing, and have to be kept of the plant. Well, today I learned a neat, cheap, economical way to do just this that is also good for the plant. And forget about pesticides, poison or whatever - this is so simple and non-toxic for any kind of life that it's just incredible. It can also be used on any kind of plant, not just olives.

There is this great polyester-wool tape called Rincotrap (the page is in Italian, though) which you simply wrap around the branch following the steps below, and that's it.
My mom's the best.
1) Cut enough of the tape to be able to actually wrap it around the branch. This might seem like a fairly self-evident thing, but sometimes you just, you know, don't really think much. My mother and I didn't, anyway. xD Then you separate the two layers of wool, and take one, while keeping the other for the next branch.
2) Wrap the wool around the branch, and tie it in the middle with some elastic ribbon (and remember to use an elastic one - this wool can last for more than a year, during which the branch will grow thicker and a non-elastic rope will cut into it. This happened to one of our younger olives and it's pretty ugly, and bad for the plant).
3) Fold the upper half of the tape over the ribbon and the lower half of the tape.
And that's it! The bugs crawl up the branch, enter the trap you made and get stuck in the fibers of the wool. And thus the plan(e)t is saved! As I said, the tape can last for more than a year, but sometimes the birds will cut it up while trying to pick the bugs out of it, so it would be best to check it every now and then. You can also put two traps on the same branch to double the effects and capture them more sneaky bugs, but make sure to leave some space between them.
"Oh man, did we cut the wrong length AGAIN?"
The final product - hipster olive.
Well, other than that, I didn't learn much, but we had lots of fun and picked a TON of asparagus and dandelion leaves for dinner, and boy was it good.
And there are some apples-to-be, too!
So, do you like gardening and what tips can you share? :)

20120409

Why space travel matters

Bruce McCandless floats free in space

About forty years ago, humans took the first stroll through our closest neighborhood, the low Earth orbit. About thirty years ago, we set foot on our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon. Since then, we became ever-present in Earth's orbit, with space stations inhabited for years in a row, and countless man-made satellites circling around our pale blue dot. The International Space Station was not abandoned for one single day since Nov 2 2000! This is one of the greatest achievements of human intelligence, capability and technical prowess, and one we should all be extremely proud of. But, inspiring and mind-blowing as it is, we have to admit that it is also, in a way, outgrown. Think about it: we have been doing this - traveling to-and-fro the orbit - for the last forty years! I won't say we should stop doing it; on the contrary, the time has come to reach further out.

Why in the name of Darwin should we do this, you might ask. Well, my initial response would be - why the hell not? Now, of course, this answer is nowhere near satisfactory, but it's not supposed to be, since it is completely subjective (though I think it is also completely sane and reasonable). The more objective one would be something along the next lines: think of all the things we would learn from visiting other planets, let alone other stars! We don't have to go too far out in the beginning; we are not capable of doing it yet, anyhow. But we are capable of going to, say, Mars (I won't even mention the fact that we might practically at this exact moment go and build a base on the Moon, if not for the general greed and stupendous love for money of those who hold power). Even easier (and more logical, too) would be to send our fellow earthlings to some asteroid(s), perhaps Ceres or Vesta. There is much to think about when talking about something like this, for example, how to even get to an asteroid, or what to do when you get there? How to keep orbit around a body with such a small gravitational force? How to interact with the asteroid, if you don't even know its composition? I imagine breaking one in half while you're on it is not the best way to spend your holidays in space. But these are the questions we are able to answer and challenges we are able to tackle. And by visiting an asteroid we would learn so, so much: for example, how to eventually reach Mars (and further); or, how the solar system formed and what it looked like in its youth; or, how to deflect the evil asteroids that shoot for Earth. Who knows, we might even find out if the speculations about bacteria reaching Earth via some interstellar wanderer have any solid background.

And, of course, there is always Stephen Hawking's fear of human race destroying itself before it manages to leave this place. And we can all agree how bad that would be. Now, I don't think this is as likely to happen as some people claim, but we do have to consider it as a possibility. Don't keep all your eggs in the same basket, I say. Especially when so many people claim ownership over different eggs and even parts of the basket. Silly, silly people, but powerful and hard to ignore, too.

Well, anyway. I would like to hear some other opinions on why space travel matters, or matters not, so feel free to leave a comment below. Share your thoughts - it's fun and educational! :)

20120406

We all live in the CB-20 submarine

Well, okay, most of us don't. I'm actually pretty sure nobody ever lived in a CB submarine, especially considering only 26 of them were made and they are so small you can hardly fit four regular-sized humanoids in there without turning a submarine into a tuna can. However, I got a chance to spend a few minutes inside one today, and it was friggin awesome.

So what the hell is a CB, anyway? 'Caproni tipo B' was a group of midget submarines built for the Italian Navy during the World War II. They were 15 meters long, 3 meters wide, had a speed of 7,5 knots while on surface, and about 6 knots while submerged (powered by a diesel engine with 1 - 80 hp, or an electric motor with 1 - 50 hp). Now, 7 knots is about 13 km/h. Imagine spending 5 hours (maximal time they could stay submerged) in a coffin, 55 meters below the surface, moving 13 km/h, armed only with two torpedoes or two mines (not both, mind you!). You had an option to arm it with an additional machine gun, but only while surfaced. And there were only 3 other guys with you (this class of submarine had a crew of 4 in ready-for-battle mode, and 2 in the time of peace). Not a very pleasant ride, I would guess.

Where did I see it? Technical Museum in Zagreb, Croatia, opened the hatch of the CB-20, previously known as P-901, for a few days. If I got it correctly, this is the only one from the CB class that is still in one piece. It has been restored to its original state and is now the heaviest exhibit in the Technical Museum. This particular submarine was intended to serve as a scout vessel, to be used inside the Adriatic sea. Later, after 1945, it was used as a training vessel for the Yugoslav Navy. And today it a source of fun for bunch of nerdy kids and their parents. And me. ^^

Also here are some pictures.
It's really big isn't it?

Some people, to show the size of the interior.
Engine room, diesel (left) and electric motor (metal box on the right).

20120405

Knowledge and lightning hunting!

Went to the Ruđer Bošković Institute today, where CFI Croatia had organized the first in a series of lectures entitled 'Science Thursday', which is very nice since scientific happenings here are not really common. The topic of today's lecture was the evolution of the universe, which is a very interesting topic, albeit one we've all heard quite a lot about. I was pleasantly surprised with the number of attendants, some 30+ of them. That might not seem like a big number, but believe me, for this part of the world it actually is. Now, not much was said that I (and anyone with even the slight interest in astronomy or physics) didn't already know, but the lesson was very well organized, easy to follow and nothing was left unsaid. And, for the first time, I heard someone say 'We are all made of star stuff' in a public lecture, which in itself is a great moment for Croatian science, I think. Especially when you consider the words of one of the other lecturers I recently listened, who closed his lesson with these words: "If we ever find the unified field theory, we'll have to ascribe it to God, for only he could achieve something like that.' And I think I remember the sentence completely accurately. Bear in mind I'm not talking about some high-school professor - this was one of the most influential Croatian physicists!

Well, however. It was a nice day, although I did get completely wet while returning from the lesson. Stupid rain couldn't wait five minutes to start falling. But then again, I finally managed to capture a lightning with my camera, although it was pretty hard since the longest exposure I could achieve was 4 seconds, due to insanely high amounts of light pollution combined with the low clouds. And I had to edit colors quite a lot to make it visible, but I'm still very satisfied with the result. ^^

Hey, it could've been worse!

(Old) new horizons

If you looked up tonight, there's a great chance you've seen both the Moon and the Mars. Seriously, they are quite shiny and close to each other so I doubt you could've missed them. But in case you somehow did, here's a picture.
Click to embiggen
Now, if you look at the Moon a bit closer, you might notice one great fact (it also requires some knowledge, though). You can currently see all the landing sites of the only three successful Soviet lunar sample return missions - Luna 16, 20 and 24. All of these were robotic mission, without the crew to witness the eerie beauty of the Moon. But more importantly, you can also see all the landing sites of the six manned missions of the Apollo space program that managed to safely land humans on the Moon, and return them home - Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. Think about this for a second. Although the chance is great that you (and me) will never be able to set foot on the Moon, right from your window you can see with your own eyes the places where, about 30 years ago, another human beings walked, talked and laughed. For me, this is one of the most beautiful facts in the story of humans.
The picture is upside down, though. Blame my telescope.
And where do we go from here? Many people believe it should be Mars, and I completely agree. "It has water, it has carbon; it has a 24 hour day; it has geothermal energy; Mars is a place we can settle." Sending people to Mars would, of course, be a hard, expensive and dangerous venture. But it would be worth it. All the scientific discoveries aside (and these would be numerous!), landing humans on Mars would mean conquering another obstacle that lays in our way towards moving to the outer space. And it's only a matter of time when this new horizon will be reached. I just hope I'll be able to witness it. :)
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