I know that there is a statute of limitations for posts relating to Christmas, but I didn't find today's site until just yesterday, so please pardon one final Christmas link.
Akiva and Ilene Miller wondered what Christmas would be like if it were a Jewish celebration. In particular, they wondered what the mitzvah (i.e., laws) of the celebration would look like.
The site also has some "traditional" Jewish Christmas songs including "Hagada for Christmas" which is about "the fruitcake of our affliction, which our ancestors baked 400 years ago".
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
I know that there is a statute of limitations for posts relating to Christmas, but I didn't find today's site until just yesterday, so please pardon one final Christmas link.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Well, I have, in fact, been working on the second half of my essay concerning the problem of celestial bodies in The Land of the Lost, but I've run into something of a roadblock and I hope that one of you can help point me in the right direction.
It's become fairly clear that this is an essay that needs some illustrations. I've Googled around for some that would fit the bill but haven't been able to find any, so it looks like I'm going to have to make them myself.
Does anyone know of an open source illustration program? I would prefer something that's easy to use (particularly since I have zero artistic talent). Ideally it would be something that would have a built-in ability to create illustrations of simple geometric structures, such as spheres, cylinders and toruses, with the ability to arbitrarily shade and label them.
If anyone knows of such a utility, please either email me or post a comment.
Saturday, December 24, 2005
I assume that, by now, all of you are aware that I've been waging war on Christmas.
Honestly, it came as something of a surprise to me. All these years I just considered Christmas to be another one of those Holidays that people celebrate as they will whether or not they think about what it's supposed to represent (a bit like Memorial Day which, contrary to most people's impressions, isn't a celebration of three day weekends and barbecues).
Yes, I was aware that, for a fair number of people, the day had religious significance. That never especially bothered me since the actual parts that interested me, such as gift giving, the Christmas tree, and so forth, weren't closely tied to religion (unless you want to go back to the ancient pagans, at least). It seemed like a perfectly reasonable sort of arrangement.
Lately though, I've been told (mainly by Fox news) that the forces of secularism (which is where I get drafted into this nonsense) have been trying to destroy the Christian version of Christmas. I assumed that this had to do with nativity chreches since that's long been the seasonal point of contention between secularists (and Jews, and Jehovas Witnesses, and Christian liberals, etc) and the self-appointed defenders of Christianity.
Honestly, though, I had thought that the courts had done a fairly decent job of working that controversy out with a general prescription that says that you can't put displays on public land that are solely for the promotion of a religion but, if you want to have a nativity, it could be fine if you place it in the general context of a secular celebration of the season. It's one of those compromise solutions that doesn't make anyone quite happy, which is often the nature of a good compromise.
It turns out that's not what Fox is on about, though. And least not entirely, since they do mention the whole creche controversy as being part of the War on Christmas. It seems that what really steams their stockings is the phrase "happy holidays". Although I've never really been conscious about what sort of semi-sincere seasonal greetings I've been offering, I'm sure that I have said the dreaded double-H every now and again (thus waging war on Christmas). Heck, I'm pretty sure that I've even suggested that people have a good Solstice now and again. Of course the fact that I am, indeed, an atheist automatically makes me one of the warriors in the battle. Even when I do say "merry Christmas" it can be assumed that I am merely trying to infiltrate my way into the ranks of the good and decent so that I may further subvert them.
So, since it's apparent that I am, in fact, waging war against Christmas, I would like to beg a favor of the government. In keeping with the tradition of all the other wars on things (drugs, terrorism, jaywalkers, etc), I think that it would only be fair to grant me unlimited powers of search and seizure, the ability to arbitrarily arrest and detain people without oversight, and the ability to surveyal my enemies (real and imagined) without restriction. Seems only far.
So heads up, Christian America! I'll know when you are sleeping, I'll know when you're awake...
(And a very happy set of holidays, however you may celebrate them [or not], to all my loyal readers. Do take care.)
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Like most people, I tend to think of graffiti as an eyesore. I will admit that there is some small fraction that aspires to art but most of it is banal. For archaeologists, however, graffiti can be an invaluable tool for understanding the common language and culture of a vanished people.
Today's link is a list of gaffitos found at Pompeii.
There are declarations of love ("I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world"), of hate ("Serena hates Isidorus"), and of bitterness ("I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins. If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?"). There are sexual boasts ("Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion"), insults("Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they every have before!"), and compliments("Crescens is sweet and charming"). There are philosophical proclamations ("Once you are dead, you are nothing"). There are advertisements ("Palmyra, the thirst-quencher") and admonishments ("heophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog"). There are some that sound like a something out of LiveJournal ("On April 19th, I made bread").
There are also the critics: "O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin."
The overall impression is that there were ordinary people just like ourselves, although every so often you come across an entry that's jarring to our modern sensabilities ("Take hold of your servant girl whenever you want to; it’s your right"). On the whole it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who were beneath the notice of History, as are most of us.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Lately I've been getting a lot of spam with unsolicited hot stock tips. According to a recent AP article, similar messages are getting sent out via text messaging to cell phones and IM accounts.
These are all a type of scam known as "pump and dump" trading. What the scammers do is they buy up a bunch of low valued stock, then they spam out messages encouraging people to buy the stock because it's a hot pick. Once enough people buy into the stock, the scammers sell their own shares for a profit. Meanwhile, the people who were tricked into trading typically lose money when the stock price collapses back to its regular value.
It should go without saying that it's never wise to respond to unsolicited messages but, sadly, many people still do. Like any other unsolicited email or message, just delete them without giving them a second glance.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Back in the early to mid 70's, Sid and Marty Krofft were a dominant force in Saturday morning kids programming. Mind you, this is equivalent to saying that you’re the tallest person at a dwarf convention. In those days, kids shows were done on the cheap and were largely considered an afterthought by the Networks — a way to provide a convenient slot for toy manufacturers to hawk their wares.
The Kroffts specialized in low-budget live action shows. Most of the shows were fairly dismal with such titles as Lidsville (a show about a land of living hats, which must have been inspired by LSD consumption), Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, The Bugaloos, and similar dreck. There did exist one bright spot in their lineup: a show called Land of the Lost.
Land of the Lost was about the adventures of the Marshall family who were stranded, Robinson Caruso style, in a mysterious and strange world. The most obvious thing about the show (aside from its lack of budget and the dearth of good acting) was that it had dinosaurs (provided via stop animation as well as some truly pathetic puppets for close-ups). Indeed, from interviews with the Kroffts, it's clear that all they were interested in was plugging into the dinosaur market which, even in those pre-Jurassic Park days, had a hell of a lot of kid appeal. Left to their own devices, they would have probably come up with one of their standard crapfests. Fortunately, they were lucky enough to sign up David Gerrold as the story editor.
If the name tickles your hindbrain, it may because you've seen him credited for the much loved Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles. Gerrold, by that point, had quite a few science fiction screen credits. More importantly, he was a bonified science fiction author in his own right (I would absolutely recommend his book The Man who Folded Himself, which is, in my opinion, the very best time travel story yet written). Even more importantly than that, he was well connected in the serious science fiction community and, thus, able to get such respected authors as Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon and Ben Bova to contribute stories. From the perspective of the Kroffts, this was like knowing someone who could get Stephen Hawking to help you with your physics homework.
I started watching the show when I was five years old. My initial attraction to the show was, of course, the dinosaurs. Even compared to other little boys, I was intensely interested in dinosaurs. I remember shouting out "That's a struthiomimus!" in Kindergarten when the teacher was showing us dino pictures. By the time I was six, half my vocabulary had an alarmingly high percentage of complex Latin and Greek names. Ultimately, though, it wasn't the dinosaurs that made me really love the show. What really kept me coming back for the full three years was the originality of the world that the Marshalls had found themselves in.
I suspect that most people, given the assignment of making a dinosaur show would have either set it in the past (via time travel) or would have done something in the present using some kind of Jurassic Park variant. Gerrold, in conjunction with Niven, came up with something really out of the box. The story was set in an entirely different universe. Erratic space-time doors would occasionally trap random people and beast in this other universe (hence the dinosaurs, as well as other curious flora and fauna, including a family of ape-like creatures called Pakuni1). The universe also had its natives in the form of the Sleestak who were a kind of hybrid insect/lizard people who were the degenerate descendants of the creators of the Land of the Lost.
The most interesting thing, for me, however was the nature of the universe. Rather than being a true world, the Land was actually a very small pocket universe that wrapped around itself. An early episode (by Larry Niven) has the Marshalls attempt to find their way to civilization by sailing down a river. At the end of the episode the river returns them to their starting point. A later episode has them on a mountain top looking through a pair of binoculars and seeing the backs of their own heads in the distance. Even as a kind, that scene simply blew me away with the awesomeness of its implications.
As a kid, of course, I didn't really understand what was being presented. I thought that it was cool and mind blowing, but I didn't realize that I was being exposed to the idea of higher geometries.
Allow me a slight digression to discuss this.
We tend to think of such concepts as the forth dimension as being thoroughly modern. In point of fact, the idea goes back some ways. One of the best treatments of the subject comes from Edwin Abbott's book Flatland. Flatland is a universe of two dimensional creatures (who mainly take the shape of simple polygons). Being constrained to a two dimensional plane, they have no concept of the third dimension. The protagonist of the story, a Mr. A Square, encounters a visitor from the 3rd dimension. This visitor, who is a sphere, demonstrates the existence of a third dimension beyond the two that Mr. Square can perceive. In the end, A Square ends up afoul of the authorities, who consider his claims to be anarchic and blasphemous. He also offends the sphere by suggesting the existence of dimensions beyond the third.
Flatland was simultaneously a parody of Victorian culture (a fact that gets lost of some of its detractors who object to the portrayal of women in the book) as well as a kind of theological speculation. At the time of its writing, some theologians and spiritualists believed that Heaven and Hell could be found in the fourth dimension (which is much more tenable than supposing that they can be found somewhere in our universe) and that angels and demons were able to accomplish their apparently magical interactions with the world via their privileged status of being four dimensional beings.
In the early part of the 20th century, Albert Einstein brought the idea of higher dimensions to the world of physics. Einstein proposed that space and time were a unified four-dimensional structure and that both are curved, in higher dimensions, by the presence of mass. With the ascendance of Relativity, the subject of higher dimensions ceased to be a theological parlor game.
With the emergence of science fiction, as a distinct genre, in the late 20s and early 30s, it wasn't long before the subject became the subject of popular fiction. One of the more memorable of the early efforts was Heinlein's And He Built a Crooked House which was about a man who built a house in the shape of a "flattened" hyper-cube (aka, a tesseract). Think of unfolding a cube and flattening it out and you have the basic analogy (for what it's worth, a "flattened" tesseract looks like a cross built of cubes with additional cubes struck in the front and back of the junction point). In the story and earthquake causes the house to fold up into a true tesseract, causing immense distress to the people trapped inside of it.
Although you find references to the fourth (and higher) dimensions in stories from the Golden Age of science fiction (which lasted through the 50s), it wasn't really that common of an idea. The bread and butter of the science fiction community were stories with spaceships and aliens (and scantily clad women in constant distress, to judge from the covers of the pulp magazines).
The late 60s and 70s represented a sea change in the SF community. So-called New Wave authors rejected the traditional tropes of science fiction in favor of more literary stories where the science fictional elements took a back stage to such things as characterization, politics, religion, sex, and so forth. Essentially, science fiction was trying to grow up and escape from the teenage-boy ghetto of its readership. Unfortunately, in attempting to become more mature, many of the authors threw the baby out with the bathwater. Hard SF, meaning stories with rigorous scientific speculation, were considered to be passé and undesirable. While a lot of good stories did come out of this era, many of the efforts come across as amateurish and self-indulgent. The actual scientific content became such a minor chord that some of the stories are barely recognizable as science fiction at all.
Larry Niven was one of the few authors who moved against the grain. Almost single-handedly he managed to revitalize the field of Hard SF. His stories were based on cutting edge theory in physics and astronomy, applying rigorous logic to the consequences of his speculations (for instance, he proposed that widespread teleportation booths would result in the existence of flash crowds showing up at major events). Many of his ideas came straight out of the covers of astrophysics journals.
One of the hot topics at the time was cosmology. During this period there was a vigorous debate over the origin and nature of the universe. Part of that discussion dealt with the question of the shape of the universe.
The notion that the universe has a shape is counterintuitive. We tend to think of it as just being a vast, featureless emptiness without either shape or substance beyond a small sprinkling of matter. It we recall Einstein, however, our perception of the universe is as limited as A Squares perception of flatland. Since space can be curved, the idea that the universe has a shape is not so outlandish. In point of fact, the actual shape of the universe is rather important when discussing its origins and ultimate fate. A universe that is relatively flat has different properties than a universe that has an overall curvature.
Different models speculated on different curvatures. One idea was that the universe was a kind of immense hyperdimensional sphere. Supposing that the universe is indeed a 4D sphere, certain odd properties arise. One of those is that, from our perspective, the universe seems boundless, meaning that you can travel around it forever without coming to an edge, but finite. In other words, if I got on a very fast spaceship and flew, in a straight line, in any direction, I would eventually return to my starting point.2
The Land of the Lost was envisioned, by Niven and Gerrold, as a miniature analog of what our own universe might be like on a much, much, much larger scale, thus providing what may well be the only intersection between popular kids entertainment and advanced cosmological theorization.
In the next installment of this essay (and I do, in fact, promise that there will be one), I will take a closer look at what sort of shape the Land of the Lost would have to have to be consistent with its portrayal. In particular, I will confront the problems caused by the fact that the Land of the Lost has a sun as well as a number of moons. Stay tuned.
1The producers actually got a professor of linguistics to develop a language for the Pakuni. It was that sort of attention to detail that really helped to make the show something beyond the ordinary.
2There's a couple of assumptions here, not least being the assumption that you can travel faster than the universe expands and that you have enough time to get back to your starting point before the heat death of the universe.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Well, folks, it has not been a fun month as Casa Lias. This last thursday I went home early with a major migrane headache. This, as it turns out, was the good part of the day. When I took off my shoes to go to bed I noticed that the carpet was damp. My first thought was to wonder if I had spilled something but the area of dampness was huge. I checked around and found that the water was seeping in through the wall.
I called maintenance who determined that a pipe had broken in the vacant unit next door. They shut it off and called in flood specialists who arrived at eleven that night. They determined that they would have to take all the furniture out of the room and rip up the carpet to get to the padding. Afterwards they'd need to dry it out. This was not going to happen overnight, so I was put up in a hotel.
I am typing this on Saturday and am still in a hotel. They weren't able to get the carpets dried yesterday and I haven't heard whether they will be done today.
I am attempting to cultivate a sense of serenity. Considering I haven't kicked anything yet, I think I'm doing a good job.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
I've been a happy customer of Netflix for some time now and have been very pleased with their rental model. It didn't really occur to me that the same idea could be applied to other products (which is why I'm not a millionaire, I suppose). Others haven't been quite so slow to see the possibilities, however.
One of the most interesting varients of this idea comes from a company called Bag Borrow or Steal. What they do is rent luxury purses out to (I would presume mostly) women with such popular high-end labels as Prada, Chanel and Burberry. The idea is essentially the same as Nexflix: you pay a monthly membership fee, you can keep your purse as long as you like, and exchange them as often as you like for new ones. Apparently the idea has been successful enough to spawn a competitor company called Bags to Riches using a similar methodology.
NPR reports that the idea of renting out luxury goods, including such items as antique jewellry, has proven to have popular appeal. They said that this was part of an overall idea with the truly awful name of masstige, meaning prestige items for the masses, which nearly seems an oxymoron since the very thing that used to make something a luxury was its relative unaffordability.
Labels: popular culture
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
I came across this drawing of a strange, skeletal funeral while surfing the internet. Sadly, I don't remember quite where I got it from. I'd like to know what the name of it is and who the artist was.
If you happen to recognize it, please leave me a comment.
Monday, December 05, 2005
So here's the story: a student comes in late to a statistics class and notices two problems on the board. Assuming that they are assignments he jots them down and takes them home. He has a really hard time with them but finally manages to solve them a few days late. He brings them to his professor, apologizing for his tardiness. His professor tells him to leave them on his desk and he'll look them over.
A full six weeks passes before his professor wakes him up one Sunday morning exclaiming that he'd written an introduction to one of the papers and that he was sending it out for publication. It turns out that the two problems were examples of well known but unsolved problems which the student had, in fact, managed to solve.
Urban legend? Too good to be true? Surprisingly, no. Mind you, urbany versions of the story have been circulating around, but the core facts are true. The student in question was George Bernard Dantzig and the events of the tale transpired in 1938.
Snopes has a full account of this rather amazing story.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Well, I thought that a long weekend would be the perfect respite for the writing of an essay. Alas, Santa's evil brother, Nackles, decided to deliver me an early present in the form of a kidney stone which means that my weekend is consisting of interludes of pain interspersed with interludes of Percocet-induced sleep.
At least I was able to enjoy a good Thanksgiving dinner before it struck.
I do want to clarify that I have no immediate plans to finish up part two of the Intelligent Design essay. Frankly, I've lost my train of thought on it and would rather not deliver a substandard conclusion simply for the sake of concluding it.
Friday, November 18, 2005
First an announcement: instead of doing regular Tuesday Fun articles, I've decided to do them on a less structured scheduled; hence, "Tuesday Fun" is now "Unstructured Fun".
For this first entry, Lore Sjöberg, formerly of Brunching Shuttlecocks, has put together a fun little web toy called Untitled States. Basically it's a set of pictures that you can self-caption.
It's a simple toy but, in my opinion, surprisingly fun to play around with. It also provides you with HTML so that you can add the resulting images to a web page or post them to a forum.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Those zombies among us
Who purport to believe
In life before death.
I will not argue with them.
Suffice it to say
That we are certain
That it is the dead who walk,
That it is the dead who talk,
And that no one knows a thing
About what came before.
Photo courtesy of Anthéaïs
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Sunday, November 06, 2005
It's Monday. At precisely 7:16 in the morning, Eastern Daylight Time, the world ends. It does that a lot on Mondays.
It's a standard Christian apocalypse which means a long morning for me. It used to be that these things would just be a couple of days of plague, famine, et al, followed by a nice, neat Heavenly ascension and Judgment — hallelujah! Ever since the fundies polluted the zeitgeist, they've invariably included a tedious thousand-year reign of the Antichrist in which every last little tidbit of biblical hallucigenia gets played out in endless, banal variety.
If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a drawn out eschatology. That's why I love the techno-nerds. When they end the world it's usually something like some rogue grey goo that escapes from a secret lab — there's always a secret lab — that eats the world in three days, or some super-virus that makes everyone puke their innards up in a week, or an accidental black hole that devours the planet before lunch.
At 10:28 its zombies. Fucking horror freaks.
At 1:10, 1:31 and 1:56 we get Hindu, Islamic and, so help me, Mayan endings. This is why I drink.
I get a nice break before there's a nuclear holocaust at sundown. I haven't seen one of those since 1998. I actually like the nuke scenarios, at least when they don't have any damned mutant cannibal hoards. Nuclear wars are all pretty fireworks followed by a pleasant nuclear winter as mankind's dominion over the world comes to an end. They're also easy to clean up
Elder Gods at eight, war against the machines at nine, everything's a dream and the Dreamer is now waking up at ten and, finally, aliens destroy the planet at a quarter to midnight.
I was twelve years old when I got my gnosis. It was May of 1958. Most of the apocalypses back then were of the nuclear variety but this time it was giant bugs. Of course I didn't know anything about the ways that the world ends, back then. I was twelve and, as far as I was concerned, everything was ending for the first time ever.
The bugs in question were locusts. It was a standard horror movie. They came out of the Alamogordo but, in no time flat, they were everywhere.
I was a smart kid, a nearly perfect stereotype of a 50's science geek. I even, swear to The Great Unknown, had a junior chemistry set, a backyard telescope and, yes, a slide rule and a pocket protector. I knew that the bugs just didn't make any sense. Giant bugs violate the laws of physics and biology. They should have collapsed under their own weight, exoskeletons cracking from the strain. They shouldn't have been able to breath. The sure as hell shouldn't have been able to fly.
I remember being trapped in school, looking out at the street where the locust were ripping open cars and tearing apart pedestrians, and it just didn't make any sense, so I stopped believing in it. That's when things got weird.
You ever have a dream and you wake up just enough to know that it's not making sense but not enough to realize that you're actually dreaming? It was like that. Time suddenly got jumpy as my mind tried to force what was happening into some kind of semi-sensible template. The bugs flickered and were replaced by insectile robots. Then they flickered back. Everything jerked and then I realized that the bugs were really aliens. Hugh saucers floated in the afternoon sky. Then the disks crashed to the ground and the bugs went back to being bugs. The world lurched and, instead of bugs, they were Commie tanks cleverly disguised as bugs. Then they went back to being bugs again.
I don't know how long this went on. Time didn't make sense. All I knew is that there was no well in hell that overgrown locusts were destroying the world and that I was not going to let that be the case. Eventually a hand clasped my shoulder and some guy I didn't know said, "Kid, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
I turned around. He was a tall, muscular guy with a weirdly feminine look, especially around his eyes.
I remember stammering that none of this made any sense. He smiled and told me that I had to relax and let it play itself out. He told me that I couldn't force it. I had no idea what "it" was supposed to be. He touched my forehead and everything went hazy.
Tuesday is a trifecta of ecological, economic and epistemological collapses, which is not a bad day as these things go.
I woke up in my own bed. I got up and ran to the living room in a panic. I remember my mom being very cross with me. She told me to march back into my bedroom and put some clothes on because, "We're not animals!"
I knew better than to ask about rampaging radioactive monstrosities. Clearly it had, after all, been a dream even though it seemed far too vivid to be one. It was Saturday (so what the hell happened to Friday?) and I desperately needed to clear out my head, so I told my folks that I was going to the park.
When I got there, I found myself lost in thought. I think that I'd finally managed to convince myself that I'd imagined everything when, off in the distance, an air raid siren went off.
There he was, again: the same big frame, the same feminine eyes. I don't mind telling you that he really creeped me out.
"Who are you," I demanded. "What's going on?"
He said that, from the sounds of it, we were about to experience a nuclear war. I could feel my legs going rubbery. Giant bugs, no way, but a nuclear war was something that I could, in fact, believe in. I wondered how soon it would be before the soviet bombers dropped their awful cargo on us.
"My name is Elaios," he told me, "I'm the archon of the North American continent. You can call me El."
I had no idea what he was talking about. All I knew was that I was about to die. It must have shown on my face.
"Look, kid, this isn't any more — or less — real that what happened yesterday. The world's about to end, but that's nothing to worry about. It does it all the time."
Wednesday is sci-fi day: comets, gamma ray bursts, a planet busting anti-matter explosion (from a secret lab), and the Borg.
The world has been coming to an end since the beginning. I'm told that, in the first fractions of a femtosecond after its creation, the universe collapsed back on itself, or expanded out into a thin haze of nothingness, more times that can be counted. Even when the expansion was just right there were other things that went wrong. Sometimes there was too much gravity and everything collapsed into black holes. Other times the strong force was a bit too weak and we ended up with a universe that only had hydrogen. Lots of things could, and did, go wrong. Apparently it took a fair amount of tuning just to get something stable enough to allow for the existence of people.
Once we were on the scene, things really got out of hand.
The world doesn't end on Thursday. The world never ends on Thursday. Don't ask me why. I'm just glad that I get a regular day off.
An A-bomb went off less than half a block away. I was instantly flashed into atoms as was "call me El". It's a painless way to die, which is another reason why I like nuclear wars.
I suppose that I should have been more surprised to still have any sense of awareness, but I assumed that I was a ghost and that I'd be going up to Heaven soon. I was, however, surprised at how solid I felt and at how solid Elaios looked. He knelt down to my eye level and asked me, "Do you wonder why the world doesn't ever seem to completely fall apart?"
The highlight of Friday was a rampaging queer hoard running around buggering, burning and applying forced makeovers to unwilling straight guys. When you've seen as many rampaging hoards as I have you appreciate the fine details that illuminate the specific angsts that generate them.
Awareness changes reality. I suppose that there's some deep quantum explanation to account for this but it's been decades since I lost my simple faith in the explanatory power of science. All I know is that it's so.
The very first intelligence was the Demiurge. He's El's boss, which makes him my boss's boss. In the beginning, he touched the spark that ignited the universe and has been spending the rest of Time doing his best to make sure that that precious, divine flickering, which is our Cosmos, doesn't fade. Or so El says. Some folks who've heard about him think that he's a godly semi-abortion who created this universe to trap us in a world of lies and illusions. Whatever.
The important thing is that we're all bending reality to our expectations. If you want to put some kind of postmodernist or New Age spin on that, be my guest. What matters is that, most of the time, our competing desires to remake the universe into our own images cancels out. The Demiurge is the tie-breaker. It prefers a universe of orderly physical laws, which is what we mostly get. Frankly, that works for me, too.
The problem is that reality just isn't very stable. People are pessimistic. They look out at the universe and some deep part of them thinks that it's all just a little good to be true. That doubt translates into eschatology. Sometimes — often — the balance tips and the world goes spiraling down into one of a million different oblivions.
Saturday starts with run away global warming and ends with an endless ice age. The irony fails to amuse me.
"You ever hear the story of the virtuous men?"
I shook my head.
"It's a story that you find in a lot of mythologies. Supposedly there are a handful of virtuous men — sometimes seven, sometimes nine, or some other mystically significant number — whose virtue prevents the world from ending."
Off in the distance I could see blasted buildings. Every so often there'd be a flash on the horizon that I assumed was another bomb going off. I toyed with a chunk of fused glass that I had pulled from the ground.
"I suppose that you're going to tell me that you're one of those guys, right?"
He smiled. "No. I'm not particularly virtuous and the world keeps ending whether I like it or not. I'm just one of the guys who gets to put it back together after it falls apart."
It's Sunday. Aside from a lone AI gaining godlike intelligence and turning the whole solar system into computronium, it's been a quiet morning.
I'm having coffee with El. I've been the sub-archon in charge of the Eastern Seaboard for almost five decades now.
"What's the point, El?"
I'm tired. I'm tired of living through catastrophe after catastrophe. I'm tired of getting murdered. I'm tired of being blown to smithereens. I'm tired of being butchered, raped, dismembered and eaten. I'm tired of being sucked into black holes and tired of living through every inane nihilistic fantasy that the Collective Unconscious spews out.
I'm tired of fixing everyone else's mess.
He absently taps his mug with his spoon a few times. It's just one a dozen annoying habits that he has.
"What I can I tell you, kid? I've been doing this since King Tut was in diapers and I've thought about calling it quits thousands of times. I never do, though."
He shrugs. "I know it sounds corny, but I believe in the world. I believe in humanity."
I tell him that I can't do it anymore, that I just want to end it all, even if that means ending myself. I tell him that I've got a gun at home with a bullet in the chamber. I tell him that I just wanted to say goodbye and that he's going to need to find someone else to manage this little corner of our fragile world. I've got my own eschatology to take care of.
He tells me that I just need a vacation. He leans over and takes my gnosis. I had no idea that he could do that.
It's Monday, again. I've got the hangover from Hell. I clutch my head, trying not to puke. I can tell it's going to be one of those days.
At least it's not the end of the world.
Friday, November 04, 2005
As promised, I will be starting up the blog soon. I'm giving some thought to how I want to do so. I'm still a bit worried about just how much time I'm going to have to dedicate to it and whether or not I should, in fact, make it just a bit more unstructured. I think that I will go back to doing regular poetry postings every Thursday. I'm not entirely sure if I want to keep Tuesday Fun as a regular feature or just go to posting fun stuff as it comes on an irregular basis. The Sunday posts are the most up in the air. I like writing essays but I don't want to reach the point of writing an essay for the sake or writing one. I'm also thinking that I'd like to do more reviews and stories (in fact, this Sunday I will have a fresh story up).
In the meanwhile, he's a pic of the costume I wore this Halloween. Please note that the tonsure (i.e., "monk's cut") is not a wig.
Sunday, October 16, 2005
In spite of the fact that I plainly said that I wouldn't be writing anything until November, I can see that some of you have been peeking in anyway, so I may as well let everyone know that I have made the move to my new place and that I've settled in quite comfortably.
This is the first time in my life that I've had a place entirely to myself and I'm finding that I rather like the solitude of living alone. I think that I have a bit of a hermetic streak in me.
This is not to say that the move has been without complications. I only now have managed to get my broadband in and, even then, only at the compromise of having a long cable snaking from the living room to where my computer actually resides. Adelphia has gotten very stubborn about installing additional outlets in apartments (and my apartment management hasn't been as helpful as I'd like in communicating the fact that yes, I have authorization, dammit!). In like manner, I've been patiently waiting for the complex to install a dish so that I can watch TV... although being without for the last sixteen days has proven that it's not as invaluable a service as I might have supposed (and thank goodness for Netflix).
So, in summary, all is well and good and I look forward to returning to our regularly scheduled blog early next month. Please do stay tuned.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
If my work load wasn't enough (although levened by a recent raise), it would seem that my relationship with my girlfriend is now at an end. Please be assured that this is an amicable breakup and it is, I believe, truly for the best for both of us. Never the less, it does put me in the situation of finding a new place to live (followed by the inevitable nuisance of moving and getting settled in).
The bottom line is that I'm not going to have any time to blog for quite some time. I feel bad because last week's essay left on a cliffhanging note. Never the less, I'm not going to try to compromise with a half-assed effort to write when I have neither the time nor the focus to do so. Sorry.
The blog will be on hiatus until November. I suspect that a lot of my semi-occasional readers will be saying their final parting, and I can't blame you if you do. Never the less, I do hope that you'll be checking back in when I return. In the meanwhile, take care.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
I wsa introduced to the world of Bongard problems by Douglas R. Hofstadter's book Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Bongard problems are studies in pattern recognition and are, thus, useful to such researchers as neurologists and psychologists as well as those studying artificial intelligence.
A Bongard problem is a set of twelve squares — six on the left, six on the right — with figures in them. The left group of figures have some property that links them while the right group lacks that property. The challenge is to identify the property. In the example below, the property is three sidedness. The potential properties cover a wide range, including color, size, curvatures, angles, and so forth. Many of the problems are exceptionally subtle and can be a real challenged to figure out.
Harry Foundalis has put together an index of 263 (as of this writing) problems, which constitute today's link. Be warned, these are Bongard problems. No solutions are provided; you will need to work those out on your own. The nice thing abount these, though, is that once you've found a solution, it's usually self-evident that you have the correct answer.
Monday, September 05, 2005
It has been said that civilization is only ever three meals away from anarchy. Katrina is only the latest in a long seriest of demonstrations of this principle with its antecededents stretching back into prehistory. As such, I am neither shocked nor surprised at the looting or the general lawlessness that have followed in its wake. What does impress me are the stories of compassion, heroism and humanity that have arisen in blatant contradiction to this rule.
It is in disaster that we often see the worst that humanity has to offer. It is also, then, that we often see the best. Always, we have a choice in our actions, even when the world is falling to ruin around us. I can only hope that, if I ever find myself is such circumstances, I will be able to rise to the occasion as well.
Saturday, September 03, 2005
It would seem that my off-site essay link to Jon Carroll's essay on the topic of Intelligent Design (henceforth ID", in which he argues that it has no place in a scientific course of study, particularly in the context of a public school's science classes, has generated a rather unusual amount of traffic. In addition to the posted comments, I got a fair share of email.
Much of the communication that I received was a dull iteration of the sort's of arguments that have been used in attempts to defend Creationism (or to attack Darwinism) ever since the publication of The Origin of Species. Few people actually addressed the issue of the theory of ID, which more or less what I expected given that it is my belief that most proponents of ID aren't really interested in it except in as much as it provides a back door for standard Creationism. One person, whom I shall not name, asked what I thought was a more pertinent and intelligent question — she wanted to know what, exactly, ID wasn't science.
[Science] is observation, formulation of an hypothesis, using that hypothesis to make predictions (ie, that there are as yet other undiscovered systems which can't be accounted for under existing evolutionary theory), etc. I know it's a gussied up "goddidit", but I can't see how that precludes it from being science, even if it's wrong.I think that this is a fair question and I think that it deserves an answer. In addressing it I want to be clear that I am, specifically, addressing the Behe version of the ID argument. It is necessary to specify this since there are quite a lot of variations of ID with some being more overtly theological than others. The version supported by William Dembski, for instance, explicitly conjectures not only a hypothetical designer but, in fact, that the supposed designer is none other than the Christian God. Since science does not address anything outside of the natural world, any theory that appeals to the supernatural is not, by definition, science. Other ID variants are less explicit in their endorsement of supernatural agencies; however, it would be impossible for me to address every variant of the theory. The Behe version is the most famous and, I believe, the one that comes the closest to approaching scientific standards, therefore, I will be limited my discussion of the subject to it.
I want to also make it clear that what is being proposed for the schools is not the Behe version of the theory. I think that it is important that we not lose sight of this. The question of whether ID could be considered scientific is distinct from the question of whether it should be taught in public classrooms. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, one cannot really address the question of the scientific metrics ID without addressing that other question, although I will address the question of its scientific merits before returning the secondary issue of its appropriateness for students.
I think that we must first clearly define what Behe's hypothesis is. In Darwin's Black Book Behe raised the following conjecture: certain systems in the biological world can not be accounted for via evolutionary processes; it is, therefore, rational to conclude that those features are the product of an external intelligence. He proposed that the distinguishing feature of these systems was a property called irreducible complexity (henceforth IC and ICS for irreducible complexity and irreducibly complex system). An ICS is a system that is composed in such a way that one cannot remove any component of the system without breaking it.
The typical analogy of an ICS is a mousetrap. Behe, himself, uses this example in his book. He says that a spring-loaded mousetrap is an ICS because one can not remove, for instance, catch. Behe claims that the same sort of irreducibility is found in certain natural systems such as the flagella of the E. coli bacteria.
Before I go any further, I want to contrast ID with an early 19th century argument for the existence of God known as "Paley's Watchmaker". This was an argument put forth by the philosopher William Paley (although variants go back at least as far as the roman philosopher Cicero). A typical version of the watchmaker argument asks us to imagine that we are walking along a trail when we come across a watch (imagine an old-fashioned pocket watch with lots of intricate gears). As we examine the watch we are impressed by its complexity. That same complexity tells us that the watch isn't something that just happened to form by natural processes; it was constructed. The fact that it was constructed implies the existence of a constructor, i.e. a watchmaker. Paley argues that the fact that the complexity of the watch implies a designer must also imply that the complexity of nature requires one as well.
Paley's argument has a great deal of intuitive appeal. Indeed, among the people impressed by it was none other than Charles Darwin, who believed, as a young man, that the argument did, in fact, demonstrate the existence of a god (if not, indeed, God himself). The argument is, however, fundamentally flawed. The particular flaw is a type that philosophers often call begging the question. A question is begged when the answer provided is circular. In this case, Paley uses the complex nature of the watch to argue that it is an artifact, which is to say the creation of artifice — which is to say that it is not a product of nature. However, he then uses the artificial complexity of the watch to argue that biological objects must also be products of artifice. In other words the aspect of the watch that he's contrasting with the natural world is being used to draw a conclusion about the natural world.
A more reasonable conclusion is that our observation that natural structures exhibit complexity means that the mere complexity of the watch is not, in and of itself, sufficient for us to draw the conclusion that the watch has a watchmaker. There are other factors that lead us to the rational conclusion that it had a maker, not least being the fact that we have experience with watches and with biological systems and that we know that the creation of one (by construction) is not like the creation of the other (by germination and growth). The conclusion that Paley reaches is not justified by the observation.
Paley's watchmaker had a lot of pull beyond its logical merits simply because no one had any alternative idea of how biological complexity could, ultimately, be accounted for. Ultimately it was Darwin — older, wiser, and with the benefit of his observations in the Galapagos — who showed how that very thing could happen without requiring us to suppose an intelligent agency (Richard Dawkins has referred to the agency of natural selection as a blind watchmaker in a jab at Paley's original argument). Darwin did more than simply offering an explanatory framework that allowed us to see past Paley, he demonstrated the danger of reaching a conclusion based solely on the lack of a compelling alternative.
Although Behe's designer has much in common with Paley's watchmaker (indeed, it is a philosophical descendant), Behe's arguments are more subtle and don't suffer from the specific logical flaw that Paley fell prey to. Behe isn't drawing a direct comparison between artificial and natural system; rather, he is making a comparison between one type of natural system and another.
Both detractors and supporters of ID often fail to realize that Behe does not deny the existence of natural selection. In point of fact, Behe believes that the majority of structures in the natural world, including the existence of ecosystems with diverse species, can and must be accounted for my conventional Darwinism. It is not even entirely clear that Behe is a creationist since he doesn't offer any opinion about the origin of life. Behe's proposed designer is deliberately left vague as are the mechanisms whereby it (or they) implemented the designs that Behe believes require an intelligent agent to account for. Behe's designer could well be aliens who visited the earth back in the pre-Cambrian and who performed acts of genetic engineering on the local microfauna. Indeed, if the theory is to have any scientific merit, it must limit its speculations to the natural world.
Religious critics of science believe that the fact that science doesn't allow for supernatural speculations means that science is, at its heart, anti-theistic. This is an error. Science is, basically, an epistemological philosophy about the natural world. Science only addresses questions about the natural world by design. At the point where science entertains non-natural explanations it finds itself in the situation illustrated by a semi-famous Sydney Harris cartoon where two scientists are pondering a chalkboard full of equations. In the middle of the equations in the phrase "and then a miracle occurs". While it may be easier to suppose the existence of miracles, once we have done so, we have abandoned science for metaphysics.
Behe, to his credit, does not claim that irreducible structures are miraculous. He only claims that they are the product of intelligence. The intuitive implication is, of course, that there is something miraculous, indeed divine, going on, and I strongly suspect that Behe is being disingenuous when he coyly claims that people are jumping to conclusions, but a theory can not be dismissed simply because it implies something that's non-scientific, no matter how strong that implication may be.
A stronger criticism is that Behe is drawing a conclusion from an absence of evidence. Even if we grant the claim that current Darwinian theory can not account for an E. coli flagellum, are we required to conclude that the explanation must be an external intelligence? Before we evaluate this criticism, I think that it would be a good idea to consider a case where an observational absence led to a legitimate scientific conclusion.
A neutrino is a kind of massless (or near-masslesss, perhaps) particle that has nearly no interactions with other particles. A typical neutrino could pass through several light-years worth of solid lead before it was stopped. They have been described as being as close as it is possible to get to nothing while, never the less, still being something.
Neutrinos were originally postulated by Wolfgang Pauli to account for some missing energy and angular momentum during a processes known as beta decay. Neutrinos were not being observed during this type of decay. Indeed, because of their extremely non-interactive nature, it would take another quarter of a century before experimental evidence for the existence of neutrinos was produced. In the meanwhile, physicists contended themselves with a hypothesis whose sole rationale was to account for a discrepancy in the data.
So, how is this different from ID and IC? Well, for a start, physicists didn't just pull the neutrino out of their asses (although that would be a neat trick!). The basis for conjecturing the neutrino were two of the conservation laws: the conservation of mass and the conservation of angular momentum. It is not an exaggeration to say that these laws form an important part of the foundation of modern physics. They are philosophically important to physics since the idea of conservation provides a basis from which we can make speculations involving an invariant physical reality. If any of these laws did not hold, not only would we need to radically reevaluate our understanding of physics, we'd have to reevaluate our basis for deriving models of physical law in the first place.
Beyond the epistemological question, the laws of conservation have a firm grounding in experiment. Literal centuries of effort have found nothing which would lead us to suppose that the conservations do not hold. The most radical change to theory was provided by Einstein who showed that the conservation of mass and the conservation of energy were, in fact, both aspects of a single conservation law which allowed for mass and energy to change form from one state to the other (which is what allows the Sun to burn and nuclear bombs to go boom).
Faced with a single observation that seemed to show a violation of two conservations, Pauli decided that, given they overall success and importance, it was much more likely that something else was going on. The simplest supposition was that there was an unobserved particle. Such a weakly interacting particle would be a bit weird, but certainly not outlandish. His intuitions were validated by the eventual detection of neutrinos, which is now done on a regular and ongoing basis.
Many counter-intuitive theories follow a similar course. Astronomers are positive that there is dark matter in the universe because, otherwise, their observations of such things as galactic rotations simply don't make sense. These hypotheses are arrived at out of necessity and are based upon the application of known law (e.g., the Newtonian laws of gravity) in order to be arrived at.
How then is this different from ID?
I will take that up in next week's continuation of this essay (assuming, of course, that work concerns don't delay it).
Thursday, September 01, 2005
Left to my own devices,
I am an engine of atrocity.
My idle fingers
Keep getting tangled in politics
And before I know it,
There’s been another genocide.
It’s not that I try,
It’s that I don’t,
Follows in my wake.
I just can’t seem to kill time
Without committing crimes
Against the whole of humanity.
My wife tells me
That I should get a hobby
Before I accidentally fill
Any more mass graves.
I tell her
Photo courtesy of zu.browka
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Japanese pop culture has an interest in English words that's rather analogous to certain westerner's interest in getting Japanese tattoos, which is to say that the coolness of the shapes is often more important than the actual meaning.
This, of course, leads to quite a lot of inadvertant humor on either side. Since this is an English site, I will, perhaps unfairly, highlight the Japanese side of that equation by pointing you to Engrish.com which is a photographic collection of English-like oddities that have been found in Japan.
While it would have been easy to make a site like this with a cruel underlying sense of mockery, I think you'll find that Engrish.com is a good-natured site whose only goal is a bit of gentle humor at the sort of garbling that naturally occurs when cultures mix.
Friday, August 26, 2005
As you all know, I've been posting audio links to my poems. I've been recording these over the phone via Audioblogger and the quality is rather lacking, so say nothing of the fact that I've been getting tired of having them cut me off in mid-composition.
I decided to experiment with recording directly to my PC using a trial of an MP3 recorder and the quality is absolutely amazing. The problem is that I that I need to find a free site that I can use to upload them to so that I can link to them. Does anyone know of such a site?
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
I am not a tortured soul.
I do not rage against the very heavens.
Perhaps I grumble and mutter,
And speak ill whispers
And sometimes wish
That the very stars would fall,
But I do not rage.
My bones do not heave
My very flesh
And press forlorn sighs
From my lungs,
In the morning,
Or at night
Throughout the day.
Just not every day.
Nor do I ever long to die
Except for once in a long while
When it seems that,
With every single step
Into this ceaseless, heartless wind
I am winding my way around
The coils of a noose.
I am happy,
Almost certainly happy,
Except when I’m not.
Photo courtesy of Sandeep Thukral
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Names fascinate me. They're these little semiotic labels that offer us a major component of our identity. When Number 6, in The Prisoner, exclaims that he's not a number, it evokes a chilling sense of our fear of identity loss.
The Name Voyager is a Java aplet that dynamically shows name trends (culled from American Social Security records) since 1880. You start by typing in a name and, as each letter is entered, it readjusts the graphs to include that subset of names.
It's also a mesmeric toy that's hard to put away. It's interesting to see how name popularities change over the years. As an example, Andrew has been mosly on the rise while Fred has, for all intents and purposes, dropped off of the map.
Sunday, August 21, 2005
One of the many myths that have been foisted upon general public think that the controversy over teaching Creationism in school is a scientific controversy. It is not, of course. It is a religious controversy. The reason for the confusion, however, is deliberate. The American courts have consistently rules that religious doctrines can not be taught in public schools.
For years certain groups have tried to make an argument that "creation science" is a legitimate scientific alternative that ought to be given legitimate secular attention. Those efforts have largely failed; however, in recent years creation advocates have adopted a more subtle platform called "intelligent design". Let us make no mistake, "intelligent design" is just creationism by another name as evidenced by the fact that such groups has the Institute of Creation Research has gotten behind efforts to wedge it into public curricula.
ID theorist have, never the less, been reasonably cagey in the way that they've packaged it. They avoid the more blatantly religious claims such as the notion of a young Earth and the Noachian flood. Indeed, they go out of their way to avoid using the "G" word, only opining that there is an unspecified "intelligence" behind the existence of life on Earch. Of course, this is about as subtle of a code-word as Madison Garden's use of the word "Urban" to mean black. Never the less, ID comes off as being less extreme than generic Creationism which has allowed it to seem more palatable to the public at large and, thus, more politically savory. Unfortunately, the media have played into these efforts by presenting ID as just another side to the topic with the implication that the dispute is one of competing scientific theories.
Today's off-site essay is by Jon Carrol who is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is one of the few editorialists I've seen who seems to have a consistently solid grasp on matters of science and public policy and one who is definitely not buying into the smoke-screen being thrown up by those who believe that our schools should be a center for the public indoctrination of private religious beliefs.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
I was not surprised to hear coffee brewing at 3:00 a.m.
They had been talking about their vacation
Practically without cessation for a month and more,
And I was only mildly surprised that she choose me
To fill, to fill her, to wake her up.
It was a bit of a disconcertment to be left on the counter
Only half-empty with rapidly cooling liquid —
My natural optimism urged me to think of myself
As half full.
I soon found that I could be sanguine for only so long
Before I started to feel like an infant with a soiled diaper.
Once again, I suffered futile fantasies of animation —
Would that be anymore outlandish than my anomalous sapience?
I had not yet begun to worry, though.
If nothing else, I have a memory that is strong
To compensate for my obvious weaknesses.
I remembered that they had arranged to have a friend
Come over and attend to the house in their absence.
I was, if nothing else, certainly part of this home.
She brought the mail in.
She fed the cat.
It was only a few iterations before I resigned myself
To the realization that this was going to be her routine,
Only varied by the occasionally emptied litter box.
I suppose that she thought that I could attend to myself.
By the fifth day, I was starting to feel desperate.
I could sense that mold was starting to grow on the coffee,
That I was going to become an unintentional petri dish.
I actually began to hope that the cat would knock me over.
Better to have this vile stuff out of me,
Better to simply be proximate to this filth,
Better, even, to risk being shattered than to suffer this.
It was not to be.
The cat was incongruously mindful of the countertop.
It was appropriate that my fickle fortunes
Would be emblemized by a feline.
Two full weeks I suffered.
The caffeinated muck actually started to penetrate my pores.
If self-destruction had been within my potential
My owners would have returned to the duty
Of disposing me into the dustbin.
I dreamt that they would have wept.
Eventually they did return.
She, the wife, made a terrible face when she saw me.
I wanted, so very badly, to curse her.
It was your carelessness, I would say.
This is your failure, I would assert.
This is your duty to repair, I would demand.
But I lie.
I would have been a good container.
I would have begged to be cleaned.
One does not berate one's god to their face.
Fortunately, I am silent by design.
She filled the sink with warm, soapy water
And disdainfully tossed me in.
I chipped myself against the porcelain.
I was too warm and happy to care —
Until she took me out.
She gave me a hard look, and I was afraid.
I would suffer an eternity of holding
All of the filth of the world
Than to ever see that look directed at me.
I was certain that she would discard me
And that I would live the remainder of my days
Slowly sinking to the middle of a midden heap.
Finally, she put me in the back of the cabinet
Out of the light,
Out of sight,
Out of mind —
Blessedly, out of harms way.
I am happy here.
I think that I have an aptitude for hermitage.
If I had hands, and cups of my own,
I would drink a toast to my newfound solitude.
Photo courtesy of Justin Baeder
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
My DBA group, at work, has recently lost a member. This means that, for the foreseeable future, I'll be working a lot of overtime.
This is a good thing and a bad thing. The good part is that I'll be making a lot of extra income (thank Sophia that I'm hourly); the down side is that I'll have less time to work on essays.
This does not mean that I'm going to stop producing essays; however, it does mean that I can't promise them on a regular basis. I'll try to fill the gaps with more off-site essays but part of that processes is that I need time to read those essays to make sure that they live up to my standards for the site. It's a catch-22. Unfortunately, it is possible that there will be Sundays with no new content.
I would like to extend an invitation to my readers: if any of you would be interested in contributing a guest essay, please contact me with the topic you'd like to write about. If I think that the topic would be of general interest, I would be delighted to host your contributions.
In the meanwhile, I must be your indulgence and patience. Hopefully we'll hire a new DBA before too long and things can return to normal.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Human beings live in such a narrow slice of time. It's often difficult for us to step out of out temporal frames, which is why I think that time lapse photography is such a fascinating thing to us. The first time you really see that a plant is a living, animate thing is a moment of epiphany.
A particularly striking example of this phenomenon can be found in a photo essay of the family of Diego Goldberg. The Goldbergs have made a ritual of taking a yearly photo of each of their members. The site has arranged the photos into a vertical chronology that really gives you the sense of the passage of years.
Sunday, August 14, 2005
I hate Daylight Saving Time. I hate it on a personal level because anything that, at any time, makes me get up an hour earlier than I would otherwise have to is, by definition, evil. I hate it on a professional level because it complicates the sort of automatic scheduling that's part of a database administrator's life (especially if one happens to be working with international servers as well).
Recently, congress has decided that, as of 2007, Daylight Saving Time is going to be extended. It's going to start three weeks earlier and last an additional week. This, frankly, pisses me off even more because now DST is going to occasionally start on my freakin' birthday! I ask you, what sort of monster would make you get up early on your own birthday?
In order to understand what sort of nefarious thought processes was the seed of this infamy, I decided that it would be educational to turn to the original author of this evil: Benjamin Franklin.
Saturday, August 13, 2005
Recently, I noticed that our local Safeway had installed a number of 15 minute "Starbucks" parking slots. It was clear that they had painted over a number of handicapped slots to do so.
Lest Safeway appear too heartless, it is evident that they didn't simply remove the handicapped parking; they added a few to replace the ones that were removed. However, I couldn't help but notice that the Starbuck's lots were closer than any of the handicapped ones.
I would sincerely hope that this isn't emblematic of our culture's priorities.
Friday, August 12, 2005
I recently dyed my hair blond. One of my blond coworkers noticed this and told me that now that I was blond, I'd be getting a lot of blond jokes.
In an attempt at wit, I replied, "Yes, but now that I'm blond, I won't get a lot of blond jokes."
She looked me with a puzzled expression and then said, in an earnest tone of voice, "No, you will! You will get a lot of blond jokes!"
Thursday, August 11, 2005
I accidentally wrenched my arm
And it popped right off.
It fell on the floor,
Writhing with all the dumb urgency
Of a headless snake.
I couldn't bring myself to pick it up.
The thought of those blind fingers
Clutching and grasping at me
I found a broom and swept it out to the corner
And into the gutter.
I've been sitting here, sort of watching TV,
Trying not to mind
The scratching sounds at the door.
Photo courtesy of Lyra Bellacqua
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
When I was young and naive, I wanted to learn Japanese. I thought that it would be a simple process of simply learning a new set of words. Of course, language is a hell of lot more complex than that. I never did learn Japanese. I did take five years of German (of which I've managed to retain a handful of sentences and the ability to count up to 999), two semesters of American Sign Langauge (I know some cool obsenities including a very graphic sign for the word "orgasm") and a correspondence course in Esperanto (I can ask "Do you hate the evil, blue cups?").
When it comes to language, it is painfully apparent that I am hopelessly monolingual (which is what I get for refusing my mother's attempts to teach me Spanish). As such, I can sympathize with non-English speakers who make hillarious mistakes when trying to do dictionary translations from their native languages.
They're still funny as hell, though.
Today's link is a blog post (with pictures) of poorly translated captions from a bootleg copy of Revenge of the Sith that came from a version of the movie that had been translated into Chinese. Best line: "I was just made by the Presbyterian church."
Monday, August 08, 2005
Peter Jennings succumbed to lung cancer yesterday.
Jennings may well have been the last of the Great Anchormen; a final gasp of a legacy exemplified by such men as Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. In today's world of unceasing news coverage, the news has been explicitly redefined to be a type of entertainment. Indeed, the CNN website's story on Jennings death, gruesomely enough, is found in that very section of the site. Jennings, however, was from an older school of thought that considered journalism to be a kind of civic duty with an associated list of responsibilities that journalists had with respect to the public.
Jennings own journalistic career had a number of remarkable highlights, including coverage of the slaying of Jewish athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. What I will remember, however, is his coverage of 9/11. During the four days that followed the attack, Jennings worked what was, essentially, a 96 hour work shift, taking a handful of catnaps between segments and shaving during his rare moments off camera. As much as the sheer dedication to reporting the event, what was just as remarkable was the tone of his coverage. He didn't pander to sensationalism or panic and he refused to engage in wild acts of speculation. He simply reported what was happening in a calm (and calming), rational tone of voice.
I will miss him. Televised news coverage has reached a nadir. These days, most people get the bulk of their news from the internet with some supplementation from radio and the (fairly unreliable) blogs that are trying to become the "new journalism". I do believe that there are still principled journalists out there, but I doubt that we'll be seeing another of that breed in the anchor seat anytime soon. Those days are gone I mourn their passing even as I mourn the passing of one such man.
Saturday, August 06, 2005
I’m a documentary junkie. When I was a teen, I’d sometimes get up late at night so that I could catch HBO documentaries that might parents thought might be inappropriate for my age (when I wasn’t doing so to catch the occasional R-rated movie in the hopes of glimpsing a boob or two, but that's another story).
I have an especial fondness for nature documentaries which goes all the way back to watching Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Looking back, of course, it’s hard not to seen an essential corniness to that show which seemed to have the goal of moving every single animal in Africa to some other place on the continent using rocket propelled nets and tranquilizer guns as primary props.
Be that as it may, there’s something about wild animals that has an irresistible appeal. For a kid like me, born and raised in the suburbs of the Bay Area, there’s a fascinating sense of otherness that shows about animals convey. Along with Marlin and his poor side-kick Jim (who was always given the task of actually capturing dragging the poor beasts from place to place) I would go out of my way to catch National Geographic episodes. I remember pitching a nasty fit, once, because my dad had the audacity to preempt one of their specials with a football game that went into overtime. The nerve!
Of course, now that we have Animal Planet on as a 24-hour basic cable television show, as well as an honest to grog National Geographic channel, I’ve found that my interest in animal shows has waned. What has become common is no longer special. Fortunately, there’s still something about seeing that sort of thing on the big screen that allows me to slip past my own sense of jadedness. Something about the bigger-than-life magnitude of a movie screen can still transport and delight me. Alas, quality animal documentary movies are hard to find, even when one has a good independent theater to rely upon.
This summer has given me a double treat. I’ve had the chance to see not one but two animal documentaries, both about birds as it happens, albeit rather different sorts of birds. March of the Penguins is about the life-cycle of Emperor Penguins struggling to live in the very harsh environment of the Antarctic. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, by contrast, is about a flock of wild parrots living well outside of their native environment, having established themselves in San Francisco.
Penguins is a National Geographic film and it shows. If you’ve seen any National Geographic films it’s fair to say that, to a first approximation, you’ve seen all of them. You know, walking in, that you will see examples of birth, of life, and of death. You will recognize the careful style of editing. You will know that there will be a deep and somber voiced narrator (in this case Morgan Freeman). You will anticipate that there will be some truly exquisite cinematography. The pictures and the sounds will be crisp and have an indefinable glossiness to them, as though they could be taken directly from the screen and placed on the cover of a National Geographic magazine.
Penguins has all of those features. Never the less, it is an undeniably captivating format in spite of the fact that it closely adheres to a formula. Indeed, one of the reasons that National Geographic specials stand out in our minds is that the formula is such a successful one at capturing our attention. One of the things that make it work is that the focus is squarely on the animals. We hear the narrator but his sole role is to bring us closer to the animals. There is a very definite sense of being there.
Penguins are hard birds to empathize with. Their faces not only lack expression but, in fact, look more like a sort of abstract sculpture: a small round lump tapering to a long, cruelly hooked point. You can barely see their eyes. All the sorts of cues that human brains focus as points of projection are lacking. Making it worse, full-grown emperor penguins are far from being like their smaller, cuter counterparts. They simply don’t look friendly or playful and, for the most part, they aren’t: they are big, loud, ungainly creatures.
It says something about the talent of the editors that we do empathize with them in spite of these. When the penguins are doing the seventy mile trek to their breeding grounds, we are amused at they sometimes flop down on their bellies and push themselves along like tubby sleds (the producers also give us a couple of pratfalls to chuckle over). When an inexperienced penguin couple accidentally breaks their egg, we feel sorry for them. The sight of the penguin fathers bravely enduring a storm while trying to protects their eggs gives us a profound sense of sympathy. The sight of a penguin mother, driven to a kind of madness by the loss of her chick, trying to take another chick, and the other penguin mothers holding her back, is actually heart rending. Then there are the chicks themselves.
While adult Emperors may not be cute and cuddly, their chicks certainly are. They’re chubby, little bundles of grey fuzz. There’s not a child on the planet that wouldn’t want one of these things. Of course, National Geographic plays that up in a number of ways. We feel good when we see them playing, we feel warm when we see them interacting with their parents (no siblings here -- penguin chicks are born one to a couple), and we feel awful when we see a big seagull trying to make one of them its dinner.
If you are getting the idea that the film is emotionally manipulative, it is. It’s a shameless manipulation that, never the less, perfectly managed to bypass my natural sense of cynicism towards such tactics. While I was aware that the editing and the narration were deliberately dragging me on an emotional ride the fact remains that there are some absolutely remarkable animals and that their story is genuinely compelling.
Penguins live in a harsh world. The amount of investment they need to put into a single chick is staggering (Focus on the Family might want to consider making them their symbol of committed parenting). First they need to make a long journey to their breeding ground during the winter (necessitated by the fact that during the summer the ocean will come to the breeding place… if they didn’t make the march, the chicks would drown). During this time, they can not forage or hunt for food since there is none. After the mother’s lay their eggs, they need to go back to the ocean and hunt for fish. In the meanwhile, the fathers have to stand vigil over the eggs, using their own feet as nests (since there’s no other material to be found). The father’s go a full 180 days without food of any kind. Eventually the mothers come back (assuming they haven’t been killed by seals) and the fathers take their turn.
There are so many ways for an egg to be lost, or for a chick to be killed, that it’s remarkable that any manage to survive at all. The degree of sacrifice that parental penguins make is, of course, a product of natural selection -- nothing less than such an investment would get their genes into the next generation -- but it’s still awe inspiring and incredible to watch.
If Penguins is a representation of the pinnacle of spit and polish for animal documentaries, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is its conceptual opposite.
National Geographic documentaries always make their animals the sole focus for the audience. Parrots not only spends much of its time on the person of Mark Bittner, who observes and interacts with the birds, but even has the narrator step out in front of the camera! In documentary land, this is almost always an immense faux pas. One reason that a lot of people reject the idea that Roger Moore is a documentarian (as opposed to a propagandist) is precisely because he makes himself such a big part of his own film.
Where Penguins has polish, Parrots is fairly amateurish. The film is often grainy and frequently washed out or dim, the sound is considerably less than excellent, and the editing doesn’t provide us with a clean narrative story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Honestly, I enjoyed Parrots far more than I did Penguins for the precise reason that it was such an unaffected production.
The movie starts with an opening sequence in which we meet Mark and the Parrots. Please notice that I didn’t say Mark and his parrots. He’s out in public feeding the birds which draws the attention of a number of passers-by and tourists. One guy (who you can’t help but to instantly dislike) insists that the birds must be his pets. Mark assures him that the birds are genuinely wild. The guy asks if he’s given the birds names. Mark admits that he has. “Well, you feed them and you have names for them. That makes them your pets.”
Understanding why that’s wrong is one of the almost inadvertent themes of the film and one of the things that make it most captivating. Curiously that same guy provides the solution when he sarcastically says that Mark is the St. Francis of Telegraph Hill.
Wild Parrot flocks are surprisingly common. Almost every major city has them. What’s remarkable is how hardy the birds are. Parrots are tropical birds. One would suppose that they would perish, if not cared for, when taken out of their warm environment but wild parrot flocks have been found to flourish even in Chicago. More over, the birds have proven adaptive in other ways. The ones in San Francisco, for instance, have devised strategies -- and there’s no exaggeration to that term -- for dealing with hawk attacks. Among other things, the birds set up a sentinel to keep watch for hawks while the other birds rest. When they do spot a hawk, they have a number of ways of avoiding attack. The most remarkable is that sometimes they will fly behind the hawk, keeping themselves out of its attack radius.
Much of the film is about Mark Bittner. Mark isn’t an ornithologist (real ornithologists aren’t very interested in the birds since, technically, they are an invading species -- some conservationists, indeed, advocate their capture and destruction for that very reason). In point of fact, he looks a lot like a hippy. This impression is amplified when we learn that he doesn’t have a job. He lives rent free and survives on the charity of his friends. Given this first impression, one might expect that his relationship with the birds is a shallow one.
It’s a mistaken impression. It quickly becomes clear that Bittner has not only a keen intelligence but that that he also has the sort of eye for observation that makes for a good naturalist. The reason that the birds have names isn’t because he is declaring himself their owner; they’re named because he sees them as individuals. Make no mistake, Mark loves the birds, but also observes them with an objective eye. I found myself reminded of Jane Goodall and her relationship with the Kenyan chimps she observed.
Lest I go too far, Mark, unlike a real naturalist, does cross the line from observer to participant. When one of the birds becomes sick or injured, he’ll take it inside and tend to it; however, he never tries to keep the wild birds (he does own some domesticated parrots). One curious exception is Mingus. Mingus was a wild parrot that decided that it didn’t want to leave Mark’s care once he was healed. There’s an absolutely amazing segment where Mark punishes Mingus for acting aggressively by taking him outside and forcing him to stay out of the house for five minutes. Mingus clearly finds this to be a distressing experience.
The film often rambles. It lacks the clear narrative that we tend to expect in documentaries. In one scene, Mark is talking about a lonely blue-crested parrot named Connor. The rest of the parrots are red crested. When one of the red crested parrots loses her mate, Mark muses that it would be wonderful if Conner got together with her and had some purple-headed babies. In another documentary this would be a cue that by the end of the film there would, in fact, be a nest full of purple-headed chicks. I am sorry to report that Conner’s story has a rather different ending.
What makes the film succeed is that we do come to understand and appreciate these anomalous parrots. We also come to understand how they could have such a profound effect on Mark. In one segment he talks about the death of one of the birds under his care. It's a poignant story but it's told matter-of-factly with a profound lack of histrionics. It pulls at our hearts precisely because it isn't an emotionally manipulative telling.
Mark understands that his birds aren't people while at the same time insisting that they are individuals and that they have personalities and life histories which merit our respect and due consideration. In the end, Mark is forced to move out of his home and away from the parrots that he so dearly loves. There is a segment where he's addressing the San Francisco city council. One might expect that he would have begged for them to take care of his birds. He doesn't. He assures the council members that they can take care of themselves and all he asks is that they be left alone to do so. This, finally, is what proves him right when he insists that there birds aren't his pets: although the birds have come to consider him someone that they can rely on for food and help, they are not dependent on him. They are, in fact, independent and free.
Both films are, I think, worthy in their own way. Penguins is, by far, the more polished of the two products as well as being the more educational. It is a genuinely good movie that leads one to an appreciation for some magnificent animals living in an exceedingly inimical environment. Parrots, by contrast, is less polished and less focused on being education (although it does educate!). What it lacks in polish, though, it more than makes up in heart and soul. If I had to recommend one above the other, I would encourage you to see Parrots when and if it comes to your town; however, I can, in good conscience, suggest that you give yourself the pleasure of seeing both movies. Each has a different focus and each comes with different strengths. Both movies are worth seeing.
Thursday, August 04, 2005
It was the termites that took us down,
Much to our surprise.
One day we were
The masters of the world –
Proud, ponderous and unassailable –
But our edifices could not withstand
The sudden coordination
Of their assaults:
The ants were kind enough
To take us in.
Photo courtesy of Velo Steve
Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Eschatology is the study of the end of the world. Eschatology got its start as a subset of theology. A lot of religions (but not all) describe the world in terms of a beginning, a middle and an end, often with some sort of epilog, much like a conventional linear story. In recent decades, other people have gotten into eschatology. Ecologists find themselves things about global extinction, stellar physicists contemplate the death of the solar system and cosmologists have deep thoughts about the end of everything altogether.
Exit Mundi is a site that is dedicated to all sorts of theories about the end of the world ranging from the religious, the scientific, the science fictional, to the silly.
Just be sure to give your eyes a rest now and again. The site's style does leave something to desire but, hey, it's not like it's the end of the world.
Sunday, July 31, 2005
I am not, in general, an economics wonk. I have a general understand of the subject. I know about the principles of supply and demand, I've got a comparative understanding of the essential differences between Capitalism and Communism, and I am reasonably familiar with the work of Adam Smith. On the whole, however, outside of the intersection between economics and Game Theory, I find that I'm just not very interested in the subject.
There is one exception, however. I am absolutely fascinated by shadow economies. These are economies, black or grey markets, that operate outside of the context of legitimate economies. Since such economies are considered unethical, at best, if not criminal, there doesn't appear to have been a lot of study of them, which I think is a shame. I think that it would be useful to understand how economies arise in spite of the desires of the legitimate authorities. In a sense, these are feral economies and I think that an understand of how they work could help us better understanding the workings of "domesticated" economies.
One interesting recent permutation of shadow economics has been created by the existence of online roleplaying games. Such games have internal pseudo-economies based on such things as gold and equipment. Just like in real-world economies, demand is driven by scarcity. However, my interest isn't in the pseudo-economies of the game world but how those pseudo-economies are driving transactions in the real world. Some of the transactions are entirely legitimate. People diligently collect game items and sell them to other gamers for real world tender. Others are less legitimate. Today's essay, titled Wage Slaves, by James Lee is an expose on how online economies have lead to the existence of real world sweat shops. As the boundary between the real world and the various virtual worlds of gamers become more blurred, I expect that we'll see more of this sort of thing.