Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Being Suspected of Breaking and Entering can be Surprisingly Entertaining

In the middle of the night, a friend of mine and I were walking through a somewhat bad area of town carrying a computer. One might wonder why we were doing that. So did the police.

One of my only potentially serious run-ins with the police is something I consider a rather funny story about really improbable coincidences.

It was a few years back and at the end of a period of hard exams at the university. As usual after exams we wanted a way to relax, and this time we opted for nostalgia and nerdiness. We decided to have an old fashioned LAN-party at my friends place; gathering up some people and their computers to play games together. I know; we’re just the epitome of cool.

As is common for such events we totally messed up our sleep patterns, and when we decided to stop playing it just happened to be very early morning.

A friend was going to drive me home, so he and I were walking to his car, carrying my computer. We didn’t have to walk more than a few hundred meters to his car, so we didn’t really foresee any problems. Not that I’ve ever foreseen any real problems in any simple walk to a car, and I’m usually right about it.

This time I wasn’t right. As we were about to cross a street to the parking lot, two police cars came driving up along it. We looked at each other and laughed, commenting on how it must look mighty suspicious that we’re carrying a computer in the middle of the night. And it felt like such an improbable coincidence that the police would show up just then, because we rarely ever see any police cars out and about like that around here.

But even though we knew we looked suspicious we didn’t expect them to actually stop us. But they did. And they did it in an amusingly stereotypical manner, as if it was a TV show. Both cars pulled to an abrupt stop in front of us and police officers welled out of the cars, with their hands threateningly at their gun belts, eyeing us carefully and telling us to put the computer down.

The situation felt absurd, but still highly amusing, and of course we did as they said. One of the officers started questioning us about where we came from, and we told them the address of the apartment building we had just left, and pointed behind us.

She told us that they were out on a call about a break-in in the building behind the one we came from, and said that to them it looked mighty suspicious that we were walking with some valuable electronics from the direction of said break-in. We said that we could understand how they might think so, but assured her that we had nothing to do with it. She looked thoroughly unconvinced.

She stayed with us while the others went on ahead to examine the scene of the crime. She continued to question us and we found out just how damned difficult it can be to explain the concept of a computer LAN-party to a police officer in her fifties. After several attempts to explain what we had been doing, she still didn’t seem to understand how what we were saying could be a good explanation for how we could possibly have any legal reason to wander around with a computer in the middle of a freezing cold night.

It still seemed like we were easing some of her suspicions though, even if our explanations made no sense to someone of her generation. Maybe we just didn’t act like any typical hardened criminals. But her suspicions seemed to be renewed when she got a call on the radio. It was one of the other officers, confirming that a computer had been stolen at the burglary.

We started realizing exactly how suspicious we looked, and how amazingly improbable it all was.

It was the first time in years that I was at a LAN-party. It was the first time ever that I was walking through that neighborhood (which I didn’t live in) in the middle of the night. It was the first time I walked around carrying a computer in the middle of the night. And this just happened to coincide with one of the only times I’ve seen a police car there.

And the police was there because someone had called them to report a crime at precisely the right moment; if it would have been half a minute earlier the police would have passed by before we left the apartment, half a minute later and we would have gotten to the car before they got to the area.

And burglaries aren’t all that common around here; the crime rate of this city is rather low. Sure, that area is a bit worse than most of the rest of the city, but it was still a bit of a coincidence that there was a burglary right then. And to top it off, the only thing stolen in the apartment was a computer, and that’s what we were carrying.

Of course there wasn’t any real risk for us. A quick check would have revealed that we weren’t carrying the correct computer. But we did look pretty suspicious. But then the next coincidence kicked in – the first one to our advantage.

While they were checking the underside of our shoes to match with footprints under the window of the apartment in question, another call came in on the radio, and they promptly let us go. It turns out that the police had actually caught the real burglar, less than half an hour after the crime took place.

I mean, come on, how often does something like that happen?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Does the F-Word have Magical Properties?

Warning: that certain, special little word occurs several times in this text, for obvious reasons.

Normally, people can judge from the context if a word is appropriate or not. At even the finest of dinners I could be discussing Dick Clark or Dick Cheney, and no one would mind me saying Dick several times during the conversation. But if I would proclaim “You should all suck my dick!” that would rarely be seen as quite as acceptable.

Saying “Dick Cheney is a great man” may be offensive to your sensibilities, but the word “Dick” in that sentence is not deemed a dirty word, even though “dick” can be dirty in many, many other sentences.

So obviously the formation of sounds that form the word “dick” can be acceptable or not, depending on the meaning we give them. That particular arrangement of sounds doesn’t have any special, magical properties; it isn’t the sounds themselves that are dirty. But what about the collection of sounds that make up the word “fuck”? In that case, many seem to do believe that it has some very special properties.

Take for example the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series, a somewhat popular science fiction TV-show. A very common expletive used by the characters in that show is the word “frak”. This is presented as just some alien swear word, and therefore entirely acceptable for use on TV. But curiously it has many, many similarities to the earth word “fuck” – besides being homologically similar.

The two words seem, by amazing coincidence no doubt, to have the exact same (and wide) range of use.

When curious about the details regarding the nature of someone’s relationship with someone else you can ask “Are you frakking her?”

When you want to use a strong pejorative to express your dismay with someone you can say “Frak you!”

When you feel that all is lost and want to articulate this feeling you can say “We’re well and truly frakked.”

You can call someone of limited mental abilities a “frakwit” and when you are in strong disagreement with someone you might be tempted to call this person a “motherfrakker”.

If you’re really surprised you might shout out “Frak me!” and if you want to give extra strength to a statement about your feelings of dislike for the thing that startled you, you can of course use an adjectival form of the word, like for instance in the phrase “Frakkin’ rats!”

In short I’ve seen the word “frak” used in almost all the ways that I could imagine using the word “fuck” here on earth. For all intents and purposes it is exactly the same word and of course anyone who sees the show knows this. But they still see it as necessary to keep up the blatantly obvious charade.

To them it seems like it is much more acceptable to say “frak you” instead of “fuck you” but I really don’t see the difference. Unless you ascribe some mystical power to the word “fuck” there is no difference. And obviously no one in the target audience seems to be harmed by the numerous instances of the word “frak”, so maybe the word “fuck” isn’t all that horrible either?

While I do understand that swearing might be frowned upon under many circumstances, I don't understand what is so utterly special about “fuck”. But it seems like many, many really do think that it matters; thinking that you can’t say “fuck” but you can say something that everyone knows is just a thinly disguised replacement for the word.

I see this a lot in internet comments, regardless if the comment thread is moderated and censored or not. I look at many more or less humorous pictures commonly classified as “Engrish” and or “fail” in Internet humor terminology. These pictures very frequently contain the word “fuck” in very larger letters on the picture (in, for instance, mistranslated restaurant menus and foreign street signs) so anyone viewing the pictures have already been subjected to the word and they know that the word is part of the humor of the situation.

But, for some reason, people making comments often inexplicably choose to censor themselves when discussing it, writing things like “f*ck” or “f-word” in their comments when discussing what can be read in the picture. Even though every single person discussing the picture knows that the word is “fuck”, they still think that it is wrong to write it out, for some reason.

Once I understand why this is, I will be another step closer to understanding some of the many oddities of the human mind, so it’s something I think about at times.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Musings on Ray Comfort’s “Banana Argument” (the Atheist’s Nightmare)

Ray Comfort is a strange, strange man. And if you’ve never heard of him before, I assure you that he is someone who can bring you plenty of amusement.

He is an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian preacher, and he has a ministry called “The Way of the Master” which has a hilarious TV-show under the same name. The most famous clip to ever come out of that TV-show is his “banana argument” against the validity of an atheistic world view.

The clip can be seen here, and I suggest that you watch it, if you by some chance haven’t seen it yet and want to be amused. The argument put forth is silly beyond words and, to someone dirty-minded like me, the video is filled with so much unintentional(?) sexual innuendo that I can’t help but laugh.

Many people have very, very well debunked his statements about the banana as a perfect proof of God’s existence, but I will make a short note on that before moving on to my main point.

Comfort argues that certain characteristics of the banana are proof positive that God designed it and that evolution is bunk. He claims that this is obvious, since bananas are good for people to eat, they fit perfectly in the human hand, they are easy to open, easy to eat, easy to digest and you can see on the outside if they are ready to eat or not. He calls them the “atheist nightmare” because this is truly a testament to a perfect and benevolent God, designing wonderful yellow treats for us.

Of course that argument is stupid, mainly because of one, very important thing: bananas didn’t look anything like that when humans first found them.

The “original” banana was short and stubby and filled with large, hard seeds. It didn’t “fit perfectly in the human hand” and it wasn’t easy to eat. The reason we have the much friendlier bananas of today is that humans cultivated bananas and selectively bred them to the now so familiar form.

This was done through a process of “artificial selection”, which is something that is very closely related to natural selection, that integral part of evolution. So Comfort really, really shoots himself in the foot by trying to use bananas to disprove evolution.

But let’s not dwell on the fact that it’s a stupid argument. Let’s instead ask ourselves “What if he was right? What if I get convinced that the banana requires a deity capable of creating and designing life; what would that tell me?”

To someone like Comfort the answer seems obvious. He spends his time trying to convince people that his particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity is the Truth, and arguments like the banana argument is how he does it.

So, to Comfort the sentence “There appears to be a god of some kind, capable of designing a banana” automatically equates to “The designer is the God of Judeo-Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth is the son of this almighty God, he was born of a Holy Virgin, died on the cross for our sins, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and the only way to a decent afterlife is to accept him as your personal Lord and Savior”.

To me, this is something of a large leap. A huge leap, one might say. “Holy logical leaps, Batman!” one might even say, if one has a tendency to reiterate old jokes.

Normally people are very good at spotting leaps like that. But some people seem to shut of that part of their logic when it comes to the particular religion that they favor.

If I said “When I was walking through the forest yesterday I heard rustling sounds that I couldn’t identify. Clearly this was the sound made by tiny, tiny unicorns grazing in the underbrush!” most of you would think I was kidding, crazy or both (and of course I am both). My conclusion of unicorn-caused ruckus would be seen as a huge leap without any logic behind it by almost anyone.

Of course it is possible, albeit incredibly unlikely, that the sounds really are caused by miniscule, horned equines, but it would be unbelievably strange of me to assume that this is the case, without any further evidence for it. It might as well be tiny, tiny elephants! Or something mundane like the wind or a rodent…

The statement “there was a sound I couldn’t identify” says nothing about the existence of undersized animals of any kind, and people generally understand this perfectly well.

But somehow it is seen as more logically sound to assume the divinity of Jesus based on nothing but a “proof” of a designer, even though the statement “there is a designer” says nothing about who or what this designer is and nothing at all about this Jesus character. But people like Comfort still act as though they have proved their particular version of their particular religion just by some inane statement about how good bananas are to hold and eat… I find this terribly amusing.

Of course, Ray Comfort also shoots himself in the foot a second time at the end of the famous clip, when he says “Seriously Kirk, the whole of creation testifies to the genius of God’s creative talent” (or something very close to it, the last word is kind of garbled in the clip I saw).

What Comfort implies is that fruit designed to be easily eaten by humans is proof of God and he says that we see this in “the whole of creation”, but if that is so he really fails to explain things like coconuts and pineapples. I would assume that they are also part of the whole of creation, they are also very good for (most) humans to eat, they are tasty to most humans and they are freaking difficult to eat, especially if you have no tools.

If we had a perfect, benevolent and loving God who created everything, as the one that Ray wants us to believe in, I would expect everything that is good for humans to be equally easily eaten. As it is, with coconuts and all, even if Ray’s argument did hold any weight, it wouldn’t seem to favor a single, all-powerful God. It would instead seem to favor a specialized banana-making god, and I am certain that he doesn’t believe in any of those.

And of course this is the problem with many similar arguments that people use when they try to convert people to their religion. Even if their arguments are sound, they generally point towards nothing other than some, unknown deity or something else unknown. The arguments never explain how they would “prove” the existence of some particular deity.

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