Friday, December 14, 2001

I have studied a lot of mathematics in my life. For example, I am familiar with the fundamental theorem of probability theory, which basically states that it is very likely that extremely unlikely coincidences occur from time to time. One such coincidence, I would like to suggest, is the find of a video in an abandoned house in Kandahar - a video in which Osama bin-Ladin confesses the September 11 atrocities.

I suspect there are a lot of deserted houses in Afghanistan these days, and that they consist a large amount of fairly insignificant stuff. Furthermore, I suspect that only a small fraction of these houses have been searched and that only a few items in each house have been thoroughly examined. Yet, some American soldiers found a video film and - probably equipped with a remarkable sixth sense - decided to watch it. You can imagine how amazed and excited they must have been when they discovered who starred in the film: 'Hey, that's our guy! And he's confessing!!' Extraordinary coincidence, I have to say. Perhaps a bit too extraordinary?

Yes, there is the fundamental theorem of probability but still, you have to get a little suspicious. Is this video really real?

We were talking about special film effects on a lecture some weeks ago. Dr Fleming informed us that special effects today are so sophisticated we can no longer see the difference between a computer animation and a film shot the old-fashioned way. The question asked was, does this matter? Is it important to know what is 'real' and what is not?

As for validity as evidence in a court of law, yes it does matter. In the case of the bin-Ladin film it is of crucial importance. As you have already figured out, I feel doubtful about this film and - given the circumstances under which it was found and the possibilities of today's special effects - I certainly don't think it proves beyond any reasonable doubt that bin-Ladin is guilty of the terrorist acts. To me, these events stress that we have to reconsider how we look upon film footage in legal terms. To my knowledge the debate has not yet started, but it is an extremely important one from a civic security point of view.
I've got another book recommendation for you: 'Comme un Roman', by Daniel Pennac. I don't know if it is translated to English, but if it is i suspect that the title is 'Like a Novel'. The book is about reading, about the joy of reading and about how we could make reading books attractive for kids.

I came to think about Pennac yesterday, when we, during Dr Fleming's lecture, watched a short video clip about computer games. A lot of people, in this case teachers, express concerns about the affect computer games have on children's minds, and in particular on their language skills. 'Today's kids don't read books! They will become stupid!!', is my interpretation of what they said.

Pennac, who is a French teacher, had the same concerns for his own son and for his pupils in school. He decided to go back to the basics. He forgot about the interpretations, the allegories, the analyses and the hidden messages. He left out the classical but somewhat esotherical works of Joyce (I don't want to offend you Irish, but you have to agree that Joyce is not always easily read.), Proust and Kafka, and focussed on story telling. In class, he read books loud and made sure that they were simple exciting stories. Once the pupils had understood that they didn't have to say something smart about the stories they started to listen relaxedly and eventually began to look for exciting stories on their own. There's nothing that can beat a good story, and I think that approach may be a way to make kids play less computer games and read more.

If, that is, reading is necessary. I love reading by all means - it's probably the one activity apart from sleeping that I spend most time doing - but I don't like it when you make reading a moral virtue. 'Smart people read books, stupid people don't.' Pennac expresses the danger of this very sharply when he declares the ten rights of the reader. They include the right to not to finish a book, the right to read only parts of books (there is a quite lovely description of how Pennac, as a 15 year old, was totally consumed by the love story in 'War and Peace' but equally bored by the rural problems of 19th Century Russia and simply read only the love story parts) and the right not to read at all. Yes, we have that right! Those who don't read books of course miss out on a lot of fantastic experiences - for example 'Watership Down', which completely absorbed me when I was ten... or ‘The Long Ships’, the farce about the Vikings. Brilliant stuff!! – but let’s hope they have other equally fantastic experiences, and – more importantly – don’t assume they are stupid. Such an assumption rather indicates you are.

‘The Long Ships’ is a Viking adventure reminiscent of the ancient Icelandic sagas. It is written by the Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson, and it is an absolutely hilarious novel. Read and laugh your guts out!