November 29th, 2008


Christmas Crowd Control

I'm sure you've all heard about the security guard at a Long Island Wal-Mart who was killed by a Black Friday shopping mob. What I have to wonder is whether Wal-Mart did anything to try to prevent this sort of thing. Did they limit the number of people who could enter the store at any one time, or make them go in single file? Or did Wal-Mart just think, "Hey, if someone dies, we won't have to pay them for working today!" Yes, I know controlling a crowd can be difficult, and people might well have pushed their way in even if they HAD been told to wait, but it seems to me like a lot of retailers don't even try. For that matter, why not find some other way to distribute rare items, instead of making it whatever person can reach and hold on to it?

I'm sure I'm not the first one to make this point, but isn't pretty much everyone in a crowd like that shopping for Christmas, or some similar holiday? You know, peace on Earth, good will toward men, and all that? Are you showing good will to your fellow man by shoving him out of the way and trampling on him? I'm sure whatever joy you bring into the world by giving a loved one a $300 off-brand laptop is more than counteracted by any acts of violence you perpetrated in obtaining said gift. To these people, "holiday spirit" presumably means crushing someone until they become a ghost.

I haven't yet started my holiday shopping, and it's never easy for me to do so, because I have no idea what most people want. Can't they at least give me SOME idea, even if it's something as vague as "clothes" or "a book"? Mind you, I'm not always sure what to ask other people for either, but I DO have an Amazon wishlist that to which I've directed people in the past. Granted, a lot of the items on it are currently unavailable from Amazon, but that doesn't mean they can't be found elsewhere.

Support the Planet

You might have heard the probably apocryphal story of the woman who claimed that the Earth stood on the back of a giant turtle, and when asked by a professor what was under that, she replied, "It's turtles all the way down!" The idea of the world resting on a turtle is a common one in mythology, and one that Terry Pratchett adopted for the Discworld series. The best known is probably the model Pratchett uses, which originates in India, and has four elephants standing on the back of the turtle. I've heard of other primitive cosmologies where the world was supported by a giant fish or a lotus flower. Ancient Mesopotamian belief had a disc-shaped world floating in a cosmic ocean. Despite people trying to claim that the Bible refers to a spherical Earth, it actually makes reference to the world being a flat circle held up by pillars. Some cultures considered the world to be square or rectangular, but I don't know of any ancient society realizing it was spherical. The general idea seems to be that people figured there must be SOMETHING beyond the world we know, but had no way of fathoming what it might be, so they either went with something mundane (e.g., water), or something that (at least to us) comes across as rather absurd (like enormous animals). Later, however, the idea of a spherical Earth (which was most famously championed by the Greeks, but could possibly have been devised by other societies independently) came into prominence, and it seems like the majority of the early Church Fathers accepted it. There were exceptions, like the sixth century monk Cosmas Indicopleustes who decided the world we knew was the bottom of a rectangular box and drew a map to that effect, but I get the impression that they were the minority, at least among scholars. There was certainly no question among the educated people of Christopher Columbus' time that the world was anything but spherical; the idea that there was a strong flat-Earth contingent in fifteenth-century Europe is usually credited to Washington Irving, in his fictionalized account of the explorer. This was also after Europeans had begun sailing to the Southern Hemisphere (Marco Polo wrote the first known record of doing so), which some earlier thinkers had thought was impossible, on account of the equatorial regions being unbearably hot. Dante's Divine Comedy had it that there was only one small island in the Southern Hemisphere, located opposite Jerusalem. I tend to doubt that Dante actually believed this, any more than he believed Purgatory was an actual physical mountain, though; he was more likely just using unexplored territory as a convenient setting. A lot of ancient maps had a huge continent, known as Terra Australis, taking up almost all of the Southern Hemisphere. Early Northern visitors to Australia and New Zealand thought that these lands were part of the larger continent.

I have to wonder how a flat Earth would actually work. The idea that you'd fall off the edge was based on a mistaken notion of gravity, although I suppose a larger body beneath the Earth (like, say, an enormous turtle) might cause this to actually happen. With a planet that's simply a disc floating in space, though, would I be wrong in assuming that you'd just automatically walk around to the other side, resulting in a shift in perspective? It's something I've been wondering for some time now.