Laputan Logic
Thursday, June 19, 2003
mithras-01.jpg - 56163 Bytes
Mithra, known as Mithras to the Romans, was originally a Persian god of the sun. At the beginning of time Mithras had sacrificed the mythical great bull from the body of which flowed the blood which gave life to earth. With the Romans Mithras became the god of kings, justice and contracts. He was a deity particularly favoured by soldiers, who were bound in loyalty to their rulers and is often described as the soldier god.

"If Christianity had been checked in its growth by some
deadly disease, the world would have become Mithraic."

Joseph Renan, French religious historian and critic
Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique

For over three hundred years the rulers of the Roman Empire worshipped the god Mithras. Known throughout Europe and Asia by the names Mithra, Mitra, Meitros, Mihr, Mehr, and Meher, the veneration of this god began some 4000 years ago in Persia, where it was soon imbedded with Babylonian doctrines. The faith spread east through India to China, and reached west throughout the entire length of the Roman frontier; from Scotland to the Sahara Desert, and from Spain to the Black Sea. Sites of Mithraic worship have been found in Britain, Italy, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Persia, Armenia, Syria, Israel, and North Africa.

In Rome, more than a hundred inscriptions dedicated to Mithras have been found, in addition to 75 sculpture fragments, and a series of Mithraic temples situated in all parts of the city. One of the largest Mithraic temples built in Italy now lies under the present site of the Church of St. Clemente, near the Colosseum in Rome.

The widespread popularity and appeal of Mithraism as the final and most refined form of pre-Christian paganism was discussed by the Greek historian Herodotus, the Greek biographer Plutarch, the neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, the Gnostic heretic Origen, and St. Jerome the church Father. Mithraism was quite often noted by many historians for its many astonishing similarities to Christianity.

The faithful referred to Mithras as "the Light of the World", symbol of truth, justice, and loyalty. He was mediator between heaven and earth and was a member of a Holy Trinity. According to Persian mythology, Mithras was born of a virgin given the title 'Mother of God'. The god remained celibate throughout his life, and valued self-control, renunciation and resistance to sensuality among his worshippers. Mithras represented a system of ethics in which brotherhood was encouraged in order to unify against the forces of evil.

The worshippers of Mithras held strong beliefs in a celestial heaven and an infernal hell. They believed that the benevolent powers of the god would sympathize with their suffering and grant them the final justice of immortality and eternal salvation in the world to come. They looked forward to a final day of judgement in which the dead would resurrect, and to a final conflict that would destroy the existing order of all things to bring about the triumph of light over darkness.

Purification through a ritualistic baptism was required of the faithful, who also took part in a ceremony in which they drank wine and ate bread to symbolize the body and blood of the god. Sundays were held sacred, and the birth of the god was celebrated annually on December the 25th. After the earthly mission of this god had been accomplished, he took part in a Last Supper with his companions before ascending to heaven, to forever protect the faithful from above.

However, it would be a vast oversimplification to suggest that Mithraism was the single forerunner of early Christianity. Aside from Christ and Mithras, there were plenty of other deities (such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Balder, Attis, and Dionysus) said to have died and resurrected. Many classical heroic figures, such as Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus, were said to have been born through the union of a virgin mother and divine father. Virtually every pagan religious practice and festivity that couldn't be suppressed or driven underground was eventually incorporated into the rites of Christianity as it spread across Europe and throughout the world.


Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The ability to offend vast numbers of your friends and acquaintances has been greatly enhanced with the invention of email. I suppose the potential always existed with other forms of written correspondence but there's something about the immediacy of email which makes it seem more like a verbal form of communication rather than a textual one. That is, a verbal medium but one that is devoid of voice tone, facial expression or body gestures. When used carelessly it can far too easily lead to misunderstanding.

Hence we have the smiley or, somewhat more pretensiously, the emoticon to help us smooth out these thorns as much as possible. But the perils inherent in rapidly and remotely exchanging texts are hardly new. More than a century ago, telegraph operators had already discovered this problem when they started yammering away at each other using Morse code. The remoteness of communication through the wire meant that it was far too easy for a harmless joke to be taken the wrong way. The solution was to append a HI

i.e. . . . .   . .

to the end of every humorous sentence. It was, in effect, a smiley.

Until recently, I had been under the impression that "HI" was some sort of an acronym, "humour intended" or something like that. Not so apparently, HI was really the product of a different kind of miscommunication:
Alfred Vail, Morse’s assistant, was the inventor of the telegraph hand-key and sounder. He also made changes where characters were defined by spaces and dashes, as well as dits. ‘HO HO’ or ‘HEE HEE’, were used for laughter or humor. These are incorrectly sent today as ‘HI HI’. The error results from the confusion in the early days of amateur radio, between the use of the Continental or International Morse code, and the Landline/Railway or American Morse code. In the American Morse code, ‘O’ is sent as two dits, spaced slightly farther apart than the two dits in the letter ‘I’ Radio amateurs, not familiar with the American Morse code,, picked it up as ‘HI HI’, instead of ‘HEE HEE’ or ‘HO HO’.

See this Morse code table for more information.

I was interested to learn (via LanguageHat) that the Japanese have developed a totally different set of smileys and emoticons from the ones we use in the West.
1.Chapter of "Expressions of feelings"

(These are the most popular ones. Everybody knows them)
Smiling (niko niko)
smile (nikott)
Wow! (wa--i!)
ouch! (itai!)
It's very popular.
Blushes when smiling.
Raising hands and saying "Wow"
Indicating pain or failure
Wishing good luck
crying face (naki gao)
Sleeping (neteru)
Being surprised with eyes wide open.
Holding a banner and cheering
Crying with tears running down the cheeks.
Good night.
? (hate?)
Victory! (pi--su!)
Expressing defeat
Magnifying glass
(mushi megane)
Saying "I don't understand" or asking "Do you understand?"
Making the victory sign,
Holding out the white flag of peace with a smile.
Trying uncover some secret
Applausing (hakushu)
Tears of happiness
(naki warai)
Isn't it? (ne!)
Getting angry without showing it outside
We use it when we want to appreciate so much something
sometime you may have the moment that you are too happy till tear come
Asking "Do you agree?" or "Isn't it?"
He gets angry but he doesn't express his emotion so much outside.

Some of these emoticons use characters that are not available on a Western keyboard. So for your signalling convenience, here is a list of ones that only use ASCII characters.  

Here's another article about the 160,000 year old skeletons recently unearthed in Ethiopia.
The discovery was largely an accident, one that never would have happened if not for El Nino. Back in 1997, the Pacific Ocean disturbance that affects much of the world's weather triggered punishing rains in Ethiopia. The deluges not only exposed buried fossils but also drove away the people of Herto and their livestock, which would have trampled the fragile bones. When White and the others happened to drive by the village, they noticed a fossil hippo skull poking out of the ancient sand. On closer examination, the skull bore marks indicating that the animal had been gashed with a stone tool. Clearly, human ancestors had once lived there.

When the scientists returned 11 days later, it took them only minutes to find the skulls of two adults, probably male. Six days after that, Berhane Asfaw of Ethiopia's Rift Valley Research Service found a third, the skull of a 6-or 7-year-old child, shattered into about 200 pieces. After years of painstaking cleaning, reassembly and study, the team was confident enough to tell the world that it had found the earliest true Homo sapiens — older by at least 1,000 generations than anything previously discovered. "It's not a modern human," says White, "but it's so close that there's no doubt it will become one. The child, in particular, is so like us that you couldn't distinguish it in a population of modern human children."

White and his colleagues think these hominids are distinctive enough to merit their own subspecies, which the team has dubbed Homo sapiens idaltu. (Idaltu means elder in the Afar language.) But whether or not the nomenclature holds up, says paleoanthropologist G. Philip Rightmire of the State University of New York at Binghamton, "the key point is that they are from the right place at the right time to be, broadly speaking, the ancestor of modern people. It's as near as we're going to get."

...Perhaps the most intriguing discovery, however, is that these ancestors behaved like us in at least one poignant way: all three skulls were deliberately tampered with after death, evidently as part of some sort of mortuary practice. "This," says White, "is the earliest evidence of hominids continuing to handle skulls long after the individual died."

"Handle" is an understatement. Cut marks on the skulls indicate that the overlying skin, muscles, nerves and blood vessels were removed, probably with an obsidian flake. Then a stone tool was scraped back and forth, creating faint clusters of parallel lines. The modification of the child's skull is even more dramatic. The lower jaw was detached, and soft tissues at the base of the head were cut away, leaving fine, deep cut marks. Portions of the skull were smoothed and polished.

"The cut marks aren't a classic sign of cannibalism," White said while showing the skulls to a TIME reporter in Addis Ababa. "If you wanted to get at the brain in order to eat it, you'd just smash open the skull." Instead, he suspects, the scratches might be a form of decoration. As for the polished areas, he says, "we know they weren't caused by the environment, because the marks go across the breaks between the recovered pieces. The child's skull looks as though it has been fondled repeatedly."

Monday, June 16, 2003
  Missing link

An international team of fossil hunters is reporting today the discovery of the world's earliest known "near-modern" humans -- a thickly muscled subspecies of Homo sapiens who used stone tools to butcher hippopotamus and buffalo by the shores of an ancient African lake.

UC Berkeley's Tim D. White and colleagues found the well-preserved, 160,000- year-old fossilized skulls of two adults and a child, along with skull fragments and teeth of seven other individuals, in 1997 while combing a fossil- rich area of Ethiopia about 140 miles northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa.

The discovery, reported today in the journal Nature, fills an important gap in the evolutionary sequence between earlier pre-human ancestors, known as Homo erectus, and our own species. The latest find is about 60,000 years older than the oldest known specimen of Homo sapiens.

The facial bones suggest strikingly modern features, although these early humans would be somewhat bigger and stronger than nearly anyone alive today. White said the discovery offers the best evidence so far of what our immediate ancestors must have looked like 100,000 to 300,000 years ago, "a period of time for which we had virtually no evidence."

Just how and where the human species emerged is still hotly debated. Some experts hold to a "multiregional" theory, which suggests human evolution followed many paths simultaneously in different parts of the world, including the Neanderthal lineage arising in Europe.

But White said this latest find offered strong support for the now-dominant "out of Africa" idea, which holds that our ancestors showed up first in Africa and then spread throughout the world. Neanderthals, by this argument, were a side branch that went extinct rather than an important component of the human rootstock.

"The African fossil record is pretty clear now in its message: Our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa," White said.

Independent experts, including some multiregional theorists who disagreed with White's conclusions, said the new find ranked among the most significant fossil discoveries of recent years.

"It fills in an almost empty space in our knowledge of human evolution," said anthropologist John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in an e-mail exchange. "There are very few fossils from Africa during the time that the distinctive characteristics of recent people were evolving, and none can be placed in time as well as these remains."


  When humans faced extinction
Unlike our close genetic relatives - chimps - all humans have virtually identical DNA. In fact, one group of chimps can have more genetic diversity than all of the six billion humans alive today.

It is thought we spilt from a common ancestor with chimps 5-6 million years ago, more than enough time for substantial genetic differences to develop. The absence of those differences suggests to some researchers that the human gene pool was reduced to a small size in the recent past, thereby wiping out genetic variation between current populations...

Because all humans have virtually identical DNA, geneticists look for subtle differences between populations. One method involves looking at so-called microsatellites - short, repetitive segments of DNA that differ between populations. These microsatellites have a high mutation, or error, rate as they are passed from generation to generation, making them a useful tool to study when two populations diverged.

Researchers from Stanford University, US, and the Russian Academy of Sciences compared 377 microsatellite markers in DNA collected from 52 regions around the world. Analysis revealed a close genetic kinship between two hunter-gatherer populations in sub-Saharan Africa - the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo Basin and the Khosian bushmen of Botswana. The researchers believe that they are "the oldest branch of modern humans studied here". The data also reveals that the separation between the hunter-gatherer populations and farmers in Africa occurred between 70,000 and 140,000 years ago. Modern man's migration out of Africa would have occurred after this.

An earlier genetic study - involving the Y chromosomes of more than 1,000 men from 21 populations - concluded that the first human migration from Africa may have occurred about 66,000 years ago. The small genetic diversity of modern humans indicates that at some stage during the last 100,000 years, the human population dwindled to a very low level. It was out of this small population, with its consequent limited genetic diversity, that today's humans descended.

Estimates of how small the human population became vary but 2,000 is the figure suggested in the latest research.


Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.

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