by Robert Waltz
Not for the faint of art.
A complex number is expressed in the standard form a + bi, where a and b are real numbers and i is defined by i^2 = -1 (that is, i is the square root of -1). For example, 3 + 2i is a complex number.
The bi term is often referred to as an imaginary number (though this may be misleading, as it is no more "imaginary" than the symbolic abstractions we know as the "real" numbers). Thus, every complex number has a real part, a, and an imaginary part, bi.
Complex numbers are often represented on a graph known as the "complex plane," where the horizontal axis represents the infinity of real numbers, and the vertical axis represents the infinity of imaginary numbers. Thus, each complex number has a unique representation on the complex plane: some closer to real; others, more imaginary. If a = b, the number is equal parts real and imaginary.
Very simple transformations applied to numbers in the complex plane can lead to fractal structures of enormous intricacy and astonishing beauty.
|What is this "productive and happy" of which you speak?"
PROMPT September 7th
I completely rearranged my desk space yesterday! It was a much-needed change and has helped with my motivation. What does your desk space / writing space look like? What sorts of things do you need (or not need) in your work space to be productive and happy?
Here's the thing: I like being in a clean, organized space.
Here's the other thing: I despise cleaning and organizing with every fiber of my being.
These two urges tug constantly at my psyche, just like "eating that whole pizza" vs. "not having another heart attack." Sometimes one wins. Sometimes the other does. Most of the time I just distract myself with something else.
Anyway, I don't have dedicated desk space right now. My office has gathered too much crap, and I can't be arsed to straighten it all out. I write on a laptop, because a) I travel, or I used to in the Before Time, and b) I like to sit outside on my deck whenever it's not too cold. Too hot, I can deal with. Drop below about 70F / 21C, though, and I start to freeze to death.
I'm not looking forward to fall and winter.
Anyway. it's a honkin' big laptop, because I also use it for gaming. Not light, and I've seen cinderblocks smaller than the size of the power converter. Still, it's portable enough to fit into my backpack for travel, if that ever becomes an option again, and no one wants to steal the backpack because it's heavier than a box of rocks.
One of the things I like most about traveling is hotel rooms.
I know this is probably just as unrelatable to most people as my desire for heat over cold. Hotel rooms freak a lot of people out. Me? Love 'em. Even the dingy, faded ones. I've been in those, and I've also stayed at the actual Ritz-Carlton. And everything in between. Because I walk into one, and it's sparse: A bed or two. Bathroom. A nightstand with a lamp. A dresser. A desk and chair. A TV which I utterly ignore. One of the reasons I don't usually travel with people is every time I do, they seem to have this need to walk into a hotel room and immediately turn the TV on. It's annoying as hell and I don't understand it. All TV can do is provide us with commercials and other chaotic noises.
But I digress. A hotel room looks clean and neat. It may not actually be clean, but I don't give a damn. Best of all, I'm not the one who cleaned it. I pay for that privilege gladly. So then I can set up my excessively-sized laptop on the desk, plug it in, and game, or write, or look at cat videos, or whatever.
Now, look, I don't want to give anyone the idea that I'm a lazy bum who expects other people to do his housework for him. No, I'm a lazy bum who hates to do housework, and hates even more if someone does it for me -- except in the aforementioned hotel rooms. I neaten up when I have to at home, but not before. Usually I just take the laptop outside, as I said, where I can't leave a lot of shit lying around because sometimes it rains, snows, or winds.
Productive and happy, though? Pipe dreams.
Final Birthday Week MB goes to WakeUpAndLive~No cig for me! as a fellow Trekker, but please know that I appreciated all of the comments. Yes, all of them. Thank you. Some things coming up this week: Tomorrow is Star Trek Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the first airing of the first Original Series episode on September 8, 1966; September 10 would have been my father's 103rd birthday; and then September 11 is, among other things, my account anniversary. Hopefully I'll remember to give out more Merit Badges for my account anniversary, if I don't drink too much rum the day before (Dad was a sailor).
|Holy shit, it's Sunday already?
PROMPT September 6th
Reflect on the last week. Write about something you did really well last week and something you could have done better.
Warning: I'm going to wallow in self-pity here. Skip this one if you're just going to roll your eyes and tell me to get over it already. I know everyone else has it worse than me. I know I should count myself lucky. I know I have no "right" to complain, but goddammit, this is my blog and I'll fucking complain if I want to.
The answer to both sections of the prompt is "drinking."
In the Before Time, I talked about drinking way more than I actually drank. Hell, I managed to drink so little in 2019 that, in conjunction with changing my eating and exercise habits, I lost 100 pounds. But shit, it's a big part of my brand, so I had to talk about it anyway. I make that sound so corporate, I know, but I really do enjoy the experience - just not enough to have made it a daily thing. Occasionally, I'd go to a brewery and sample a small amount of several of their beers. Once in a while, I'd pour myself a scotch, or mix a margarita, or go to a wine tasting. Then I'd go days, sometimes weeks, without touching a drop (I do have an unmitigated addiction to Coke Zero, but that hardly counts).
And once in a blue moon (callback to a previous blog entry here), I'd get drunk and pass out. Sometimes I just needed that. I don't get violent or nasty or neglectful when I do that. Usually I just listen to BrandiCarlile or Leonard Cohen to enhance the emotion, and then pass out. And for the gods' sake, don't give me shit about driving drunk, because I never do that. Somehow we've conflated drinking and driving as a society, perhaps because everyone drives everywhere, but even when I'm completely cabbaged, I have enough sense to summon an Uber if I'm out -- but usually I do this at home.
My... temperance, if you want to call it that; the term originally referred to moderation, not teetotaling -- it wasn't a hardship for me; my other great love in life is video games, and I can't do those if I'm wasted. It requires coordination, thought, and concentration, none of which is compatible with being drunk.
I also like to drive. As I've mentioned before, I've driven myself across the goddamn continent three or four times now -- yes, I've lost count. And again, I'm very, very careful about being sober when I drive. Not for my own sake, but for everyone else's; same reason I wear a face mask in public these days.
Which brings me to how things have changed this year.
The thing I most love to do when I travel is visit breweries. I wish I'd kept better track, but I've had beers from close to a thousand craft breweries all over the country. As I said, I'm careful about it; I've been known to choose lodging based on it being in stumbling distance of a brewpub -- much to the detriment of the quality of said lodging. Thing is, I wanted to -- I still want to -- visit every brewery in the US and Canada. As of January 1, there were nearly 10,000 of them in my country alone; I suspect that number is substantially lower now, but I haven't looked into it because the last thing I need right now is to get more depressed.
I'm well aware that this is probably an unattainable goal. Every week in the Before Time, on average, we gained two and lost one. By the time I've swept the country, a hundred more will have popped up and I'd have to go back. But everyone needs a goal, and this one is mine.
Then the pandemic happened, and my world shrank to a pinpoint.
Now, as I said, I'm aware that I'm a fortunate, privileged individual. I have time because I'm retired. I'm financially stable; though far from filthy rich, I'm not exactly dirt poor (I always had it in my head that I'd write a personal finance guide titled "Dirt Rich" as a play on these clichés; can't be arsed to actually do it because I don't really have the credentials for it.) Most fortunate of all, I live within walking distance (just barely) of my second-favorite brewery in the US. (My first-favorite brewery is on the other gods-be-damned coast.) And I have a good, reliable Subaru to take me where I want to go.
The last time I moved that car was six months ago. It's been sitting, neglected, on the street in front of my house.
Which is not to say I haven't gone anywhere. I walk to the local taphouse. I walk to the aforementioned second-favorite brewery. I had a dentist appointment on the other side of the city a couple of weeks ago, for a toothache that I had developed precisely 15 seconds after my state shut everything down, and I took an Uber -- because the dentist office was near a brewery I hadn't been to, and I wanted to sample their wares.
Doing that, though, just made me more depressed. I got my usual sampler, just small portions of several beers, and they were good enough, but all it did was remind me of the thousand or so times I'd done the same thing in New York, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, California, Nevada, Illinois, Texas, North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, Florida, motherhumping Hawai'i... every state in the US, in fact, except for Michigan, Alaska, and Nebraska.
Technically, sure, I can travel. In practice, it's a bad idea.
So... getting back to the point here, finally... I drink. A lot. Every day. Well, almost every day; I skipped last Sunday so I could finally get some decent sleep.
Couple of weeks ago, the movie theater reopened, with precautions. More importantly, the taphouse in the movie theater reopened. By "the movie theater," I mean the Alamo that's a mile from my house. I walked there and staggered back. The movies -- Unhinged, New Mutants, and Tenet -- all kinda sucked, but it didn't matter; it made me feel halfway normal again, even though I was the only one in the theater for all of them. Well, except for New Mutants, where a couple of douchebags had seats way up in front while I was in the back. Anyway, I could have seen gods-be-damned Manos: The Hands of Fate (without the MST3K commentary) and it wouldn't have mattered, because the important thing was I was able to get cooked in the taphouse first.
And I discovered that I have forgotten how to interact with people.
Not that I was ever very good at it, but, like everything else, it's a skill that fades away if it's not used. I mean, yes, I have a housemate and we talk occasionally, and another way I'm fortunate is that we're still friends even though we're in close proximity, but in the last six months I've seen one other friend once, and an old friend and her husband... also once. My interactions with people have been limited, is what I'm saying. And so I forget how to be polite to bartenders and such. It's important to be polite to bartenders. They're a lifeline. It's not that I didn't try; I just feel like I failed at being sociable. Don't worry; I ameliorated any bad feelings with enormous tips. I still feel bad about it. It wasn't anything in particular that I could explain; it's just I was probably not as affable as I usually am.
So of course that means I'm even more inclined to drink at home. I've been ordering wine online. Near the movie theater is a liquor store, and I've staggered home carrying scotch, gin, tequila, and ingredients for my creation, the American Election (it's a twist on the White Russian; an American thing with Russian influence, hence the name). My second-favorite brewery (see above) delivers beer. The grocery store delivers beer and wine. I'm set. Who needs to travel, anyway, right?
Now, I've heard that the first step is admitting that you have a problem. So okay, I admit I have a problem.
You know what?
I don't give a shit.
In fact, I like it.
After I've posted this I'm going to use the last of my vodka to make another American Election, and I'm going to watch the last two original series Trek episodes.
First, though: once again, I'll have a free MB to give away tomorrow, I think the last one for Birthday Week, and it'll go to someone who makes a comment here below that I like. And yeah, if you've gotten one from me already this week, feel free to comment anyway, but the point is to give away the free one so it's not like I can wait two weeks for CR credit. Remember, though, I do this about once a week or so anyway, so there will be other chances. My account anniversary is coming up soon, and I'm sure I'll give out presents for that.
Today's MB goes to *drumroll* Elisa, Bunny Stik , because her comment about omniscience reminded me that it's one superpower that I definitely don't want. I mean, yeah, I love to know things... but there are some things about which even I prefer to remain ignorant.
|Maybe I already have a superpower. How would you know?
PROMPT September 5th
Imagine you have a superpower of your choice. However, no one knows about it! What does your superpower enable you to do? Do you confide in anyone? What happens?
If I confide in someone, that violates the "no one knows about it" requirement. Just saying.
Here's the thing about actual comic-book style superpowers: you'd better hope you have an extremely powerful one, or once somebody finds out about it, you're going to disappear for a very long time while they run tests on you.
So you just have to make sure that nobody finds out.
It's kind of like winning the lottery jackpot. I mean, being rich is kind of a superpower by itself (one I wouldn't mind having). But the point is, if you go public with your lottery win and stand up there grinning and holding that gigantic fake check in front of cameras, it will be approximately 15 microseconds before your mobile starts lighting up with scammers, long-lost relatives, and long-lost scammers. And then there's the IRS.
So, you know, you discover you can fly, and you swoop around for a while and people see you, and then next time you land you'll find yourself netted, tagged, and rushed off to Area 52 for observation, tests, and vivisection. Yes, Area 52. Area 51 is too public.
Or say you can Jedi Mind Trick people into thinking these aren't the droids they're looking for, and as soon as it wears off, they'll come for you wearing earplugs so you can't convince them of anything.
Super-strength is another obvious and popular one. Also very useful. And maybe you could pass it off once or twice as adrenaline or whatever, but eventually they'll catch on and boom - underground in a vault made of 6-foot-thick titanium walls.
Then there's invisibility. You might think, "well, they can't Gitmo me if they can't see me," but really, invisibility is trivially easy to get around. Blow some flour into the room, and then your outline becomes powdery-visible. Also, you're naked. Seriously, though, invisibility wouldn't be all that great - in order to see, light has to get focused by your eye lens and absorbed by your retina, and if those aren't visible, you're blind, which effectively makes everyone and everything else invisible to you. Better would be if, instead of actual invisibility, you have the power to make people not notice you at all. This happens naturally when you hit about 50 years old, though, so you could just wait.
Worst of all are the powers that rely on external objects, like Green Lantern's ring or Ant-Man's suit. (I'll spare you the science of why Ant-Man could never be an actual thing.) Someone steals it and poof, no more powers.
So if I could choose a superpower, it would be one that would be useful in multiple situations, easy to conceal, and has a chance of getting me out of Area 52 should I slip up and get captured by dudes wearing dark suits and sunglasses. Telekinesis, say. Being able to move objects with mere thought is more useful than most people give it credit for. Especially since I wouldn't have to, you know, get up from my chair to get a beer. Or hold it in my hand to drink it.
What, you were expecting me to use it to fight crime? Or commit it? Nah. Too much work. Can't be arsed.
(Edited to add) oh yeah, Merit Badge.
Today's goes to Lilli ☕ because I want to see a video of this:
Might be a good night to dance in the street wearing my witchy apparel, while sipping cabernet from my crystal skull goblet.
Still in Birthday Week, so another one of my free MBs will go to a commenter of my choice tomorrow!
|I've done this before but I continue to see misinformation out there.
PROMPT September 4th
Write about a weird, cool, unbelievable, or interesting fact you know, but don’t think many other people do.
There is going to be a full moon on October 31.
That's not the salient fact for the prompt, though. The relevant fact is that this full moon will not, contrary to widespread reportage, be a Blue Moon.
The calendar we use, the Gregorian, is purely arbitrary, like most of our measurements of time. It's achieved worldwide acceptance, but it's not connected to anything real. Not the solstices, not the equinoxes, and certainly not the phases of the Moon. All it does is attempt to start at (nearly) the same point in the Earth's orbit every time, which is functional enough for a calendar.
Other calendars are in use, ranging from purely lunar (months based on actual Moon cycles) through lunisolar (a lunar calendar that occasionally adjusts to align with the solar calendar, like the Hebrew calendar). There are other proposed calendars, but I won't go into them here; the only relevant thing is that all of our dates are simply social constructs.
The lunar phase cycle is approximately 29.5 days -- that's how long it takes for our satellite to return to a particular phase. Our solar year, in contrast, is roughly 365.25 days. Divide the one by the other, and you get about 12.4; consequently, there are usually 12 full moons in a solar year, but sometimes the number is 13.
I use full moons because that's the most obvious (and awesome-looking) phase, but also because pre-technological humans were inclined to use full moons to subdivide time. Another thing they measured, as seen at sites such as Stonehenge, were the solar quarters: the solstices and equinoxes. Due to fuckery involving us having an elliptical orbit, the time between solstice and equinox, or vice versa, is not exactly the same for each quarter, but I'm going to call it a quarter of a year, or roughly 91 to 92 days.
So our ancestors, who were more inclined (and more able) to actually watch the sky because things like electric lights, Downton Abbey, and the internet had yet to be invented. And they cared deeply enough about the celestial clockwork to give all of these occasions -- full moons and quarterly solar transitions -- names.
The names themselves varied from culture to culture. Perhaps the most well-known full moon name is the Harvest Moon, but there were also things like Cold Moon, Wolf Moon, and so on. And all of these names were tied to the seasons; that is, solstices and equinoxes.
Now, look up these names online and what you generally find is misinformation. They'll tell you that the Wolf Moon occurs in January, the Flower Moon is in May, and so on.
These names, whatever they were in different cultures, predated the Gregorian or even the Julian calendar. They have roots deep in natural cycles and folklore, not mechanical timekeeping devices or arbitrarily designated dates. Because, as I said, a season lasts around 91 days or so, and a moon cycle is 29.5, there are usually three full moons between solstice and equinox, another three between equinox and solstice, and so on around the annual cycle. And each one of those moons had a name, because the essential purpose of naming them was to mark the seasons with something more obvious to the farmers and herders than the zenith position of the sun.
But if you've been following along, you can see what the problem is: sometimes there are four full moons between solar quarters, which would throw off the naming conventions. This would happen, if I recall correctly (I'm writing this without references), approximately once every 2.5 years or so; in other words, relatively rarely.
And so, in a season containing four full moons, they inserted what we'd think of as a "leap moon," but was known as...
... the Blue Moon.
Technically, the Blue Moon is the third full moon in any season containing four full moons. All of the other full moons keep their original names.
Hopefully you can see the logic behind this: it is not tied to any human-made calendar; it's completely independent of January, February, etc., or the numbers of the days therein.
An old issue of, again if I recall correctly, Sky and Telescope magazine from the late 1940s created our error in nomenclature: misinterpreting some information in the Farmer's Almanac or something, that magazine confidently asserted that a Blue Moon was the second full moon in any given calendar month.
Again. Lies. I mean, not deliberate lies, but falsehood, at any rate. But somehow, like many falsehoods are wont to do, it stuck. And so we get what we're inevitably going to see over the next eight weeks: "The full moon on Halloween is a Blue Moon!" No. No, it vehemently is not. (As an aside, a full moon on Halloween is a rare coincidence that's pretty cool for other reasons.) There are no Blue Moons for the rest of this calendar year. There's the Harvest Moon after the equinox in early October, the one on October 31, and one in late November... and then comes the winter solstice. Three. Not four. No Blue Moon.
Why does this matter?
Well, for one thing, I hate seeing mistakes perpetuated and then treated as fact. Bad enough in politics, but now you're messing with folklore and natural cycles.
For another, this leads to what we had a few years ago: two full moons in January, none in February, and then two in March. And anything that happens twice in the span of three calendar months should never be associated with the phrase "once in a Blue Moon."
And, finally, it's disrespectful to cultures that don't use the Gregorian calendar.
Okay, that last one might be a bit of a stretch, but the point is, the false definition of Blue Moon could only happen in a purely solar calendar such as the Gregorian. It can never happen in, say, the Hebrew calendar (which uses leap months every so often so, say, Pesach doesn't get observed in the Northern Hemisphere fall or Hanukkah in the spring). And the true definition of Blue Moon is tied to actual things happening in the sky, the relative positions and orientations of the Earth, Sun, and Moon -- which will be the same for the foreseeable future, whereas human-created calendars change.
Is the false definition easier to compute for the average person? Sure. But that's no excuse.
And, believe me, I've heard counterarguments. "But Waltz, definitions change. Language itself changes over time." True, but irrelevant; the great calendar in the sky hasn't changed appreciably in all of human history, and will continue to not change appreciably well past human and civilization time scales. "But Waltz, I first heard the twice-in-a-calendar-month definition, and any contradictory information just makes me double down on that." Yeah, I heard that one first, too, but when I hear something that's later contradicted by the truth, I change my knowledge to fit the data. "But aren't the full moon names themselves arbitrary?" Yes, but their positions in time, relative to solstices and equinoxes, are not.
So this is my crusade. This is the hill I have chosen to die on. Like I said, I've explained all of this before, maybe even right here in this blog. Certainly in a newsletter a while back. Definitely in my travel blog.
Respect our shared human heritage, and embrace the true definition of Blue Moon.
Just... don't drink that beer. It's pisswater.
Oh, and I appreciated all of the comments from yesterday, but especially Apondia 's:
The interesting thing I found when studying math in a college setting was that I love writing words. I can express things no one ever bothered to listen to about me before. I love reading because I found myself in so many horrible situations in stories I read. Then, when I took math from an older teacher who wanted me to be able to learn, what she was teaching we discussed math vocabulary. I got really happy reading a math dictionary!! And, lo and behold numbers began to fall into equations like they belonged there because I understood that words and numbers are part of each other. I'm not the smartest mathematician but, at least now I get it.
Because it acknowledges that math is mostly just another kind of language (alternatively, language is actually a really complicated form of mathematics), and because -- relevant to today's discussion and that of a couple of days ago -- a person can change their beliefs, and thence succeed. So one MB coming your way -- and since we're still in Birthday Week, I'll give out another one tomorrow, to someone who comments here today.
|Does getting a failing grade on an elementary school art project count?
PROMPT September 3rd
Describe a time when your work was criticized. How did you react?
Well, of course my work gets criticized on a regular basis. I'm a writer on a peer review website. We all are, and it's part of the deal here. In fact, sometimes I wish for more criticism. "I love this!" is great to hear, yes, tell me that, don't stop, oh! But the only part of me that grows from it is my... ego. (What were you expecting me to say?)
But oodles of reviewing articles abound on this site, including one in my own port, so there's no need to belabor the point. I'm going to talk about my previous life as a professional.
Don't worry. I'm not going to go into details. The details of civil engineering, especially on the small scale that I practiced it, are incredibly boring. (That's a civil engineering pun. Boring? Because we sometimes bore to install.. oh, never mind.) So I'll write in broad generalities.
I worked on the design of a subdivision. Roads, lots, sewer, water and -- the important part for this discussion -- storm drainage.
Used to be you could design a subdivision and put in a pond downstream that caught all the runoff and released it slowly. But then there came issues with wetlands disturbance, and that sort of thing was frowned upon. So instead of one big pond that disturbed a natural stream, I needed to put in dozens of little ones to catch the runoff before it got to the existing streams. Again, I'm oversimplifying here, but I can already sense you nodding off. Bear with me just a little longer.
Well, this method was not only time- and math- intensive, but it was new to me and, more importantly, it was new to the people whose job it was to review the plans for compliance with local, state, and federal regulations.
Said reviewers tore me a new one for overcomplicating things.
How did I react? Well, my first reaction -- a private one -- was anger. What the hell was I supposed to do? I had to put in stormwater management, and couldn't do it in the traditional way, so I basically invented a new paradigm. Don't give me too much credit for that, though; I found out later that other people were already doing similar stuff, and I didn't know about it because, honestly, civil engineering advances on that small a scale aren't exactly fast-paced, so we didn't keep up with the literature like, say, computer scientists are supposed to.
So yeah, anger -- but it was short lived and, like I said, private. After taking a few deep breaths, I arranged a meeting with the reviewers and we hashed it all out like the professionals we all were.
Sorry there's no big denouement here; like I said, the details are ennui-inducing, and far in the past now. Hell, I don't know if the subdivision ever got built. The developer handled things after the plans were eventually approved, and this was just before the Bush recession.
I guess the point is that this is not the sort of thing I take personally -- provided it's not a personal attack in the first place. Getting back to writing, if I get a review that essentially says "this story sucks and here's why," I take it seriously. If I read, "you suck and here's why," well, that's another issue entirely. Fortunately, I don't recall any of that on this site.
On a related note, I went to see Tenet yesterday; Alamo had early access screenings. Once again, it turned out to be a private viewing. I was the only one in the theater. Great for avoiding the 'rona, probably not so great for Alamo's bottom line. Anyway, the movie was not nearly as clever as its makers thought it was. Now, I can't say "Christopher Nolan is a hack," because I've seen his other stuff and a lot of it is very good. But I, personally, would hate to put that much work, that much of my heart and soul into a movie, only to have someone (like me) with absolutely no talent for moviemaking say that it sucked. I suppose you have to develop a thick skin, like a politician.
I'm not sure I could do that, which is one reason I haven't aggressively pursued publishing. I mean, what if I succeed and some idiot calls me a no-talent hack?
I guess that ties into yesterday's entry, too.
Speaking of which, thanks for all the comments. I appreciate all of them, even the ones that disagree with me... because I can accept other points of view besides my own. I'm going to give today's MB to Charlie 🌈 , though, because of the math thing:
Math is probably one of the best examples of not people not believing in themselves. I don't know how many times in school I heard people say that math "just wasn't their thing" or "better you than me" when they found out my majors. I'll concede that some people have a natural aptitude for math, but it's absolutely learnable, just like any other language.
I think a lot of that falls on teachers though because the teachers in my formative years did not instill a lot of self confidence in us when it came to learning math. I do think you have to have a special understanding of mathematics to actually be able to present it in an understandable way. It seemed like my teachers gave up pretty quickly on students and allowed them to just go with the "I don't do math" mentality.
I mean, after all, math is the central metaphor for this blog. But also it got me thinking: the way other people are about math is the same way I am about art and music. I've tried both, with lousy results... but I love to look at art and listen to music. It's very frustrating to me that I can't create them the way other people seem to do so effortlessly.
Perhaps I just haven't tried hard enough. Or maybe I've just had it instilled in me from a very early age that I just don't have the aptitude for these things. So even though I (and Charlie) spoke about math blockage, I understand because I'm blocked in other areas.
Please keep the comments coming; I'll award another one of my free Birthday Week Merit Badges tomorrow, but mostly I just like feedback - positive or otherwise.
|Sometimes I probably take things too literally.
PROMPT September 2nd
Be inspired by this quote: "Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning." - Mahatma Gandhi
I assert that I cannot fly without special equipment. Granted that I could fall, and possibly have some amount of control over the fall, but I could not take off, fly, and land where I desire like, say, Superman.
Neither can anyone else. Not even Gandhi. No matter how much you think you can, no matter how motivated you are, no matter what you convince yourself of, there's these persnickety things called the laws of physics that absolutely prevent it. I have seen exactly zero evidence to contradict me on this, and I'm certain that people have tried. I know I have.
I also assert that I cannot physically live forever, or tunnel through a mountain without tools, or move a thing with telekinesis. No amount of belief, no deep well of self-confidence, no pleading with the universe to make it so, can change this.
So on the face of it, Gandhi was, in this instance, absolutely wrong.
"Oh, but Waltz, that just means that no one has tried hard enough, or that we're so convinced of natural laws that we limit ourselves accordingly. We say to ourselves, these things are impossible, and so they are impossible."
Nope. They're just physically impossible.
Now, we can get around these things, depending on what your actual objective is. For a long time, powered flight was considered impossible, until it wasn't. If the purpose of tunneling through a mountain is to lay train tracks, we've done that -- with tools. If I need to move something, and it's light enough or I have the right equipment, I can move it - no need for telekinesis. As for living forever, well, I covered that in my last two newsletters; no need to belabor it. The point being that while no, I can't personally fly like Superman, I can get on a jet and go to Belgium. Well. I could if there weren't a fucking pandemic going on.
Having covered that we need to accept that there are limitations, though, I will concede that, if a thing is possible at all, belief in oneself is a good beginning to get it done. So many people are bad at math, for example. "I'm so bad at math! I could never understand physics." That's self-limitation. They have a mental block, convinced that there's something they can never understand, and so it is. But if you approach it going, "My teachers sucked. I know I can learn math. I'll get a book and watch videos," then maybe, just maybe, you can learn something new.
Neither of these observations -- that the possible is possible and the impossible is impossible -- is particularly new or meaningful. What interests me is not the possible made manifest by belief in oneself, or the impossible that can never happen, but the cognitive space in between the two.
One of the marvelous things about humanity is that we can conceive of the impossible, or even the improbable. Because I'm still rewatching old episodes of Star Trek, I'll use warp drive as an example. The speed of light is a known limitation on acceleration: nothing -- no matter, no energy, no information of any kind -- can accelerate in space past the speed of light.
Humans, who despise limitations of any sort (except, apparently, when they impose them on other humans), upon learning of this, immediately started imagining ways around it. One such imagined method is the aforementioned warp drive. Another is wormholes - folding space between two distant points like you're folding a piece of paper to bring the opposite edges together. One guy even managed to come up with a... possibly... plausible workaround: The Alcubierre Drive. . All we'd apparently need is to be able to create negative mass and effectively limitless energy, which... well, we don't know if that's impossible or not. I'm certain we'll try, if we aren't already. Because that's what humans do.
All of this shows is that while we certainly have physical limitations, it is possible to imagine the impossible. And, as a result of imagining it, sometimes we can even do it. In fact, I'd argue that without being able to imagine things beyond the realm of possibility, we certainly do limit ourselves. As Commander Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins) in Mission:Impossible II said to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise): "Mr. Hunt, this isn't mission difficult, it's mission impossible. "Difficult" should be a walk in the park for you."
We can't all be Tom Cruise. At least, not without that franchise's mask-creation technology. Let's get to work on that.
Now, look, I've been doing Merit Badge Mini-Contests about once a week. I can't usually do it more often than that because, well, 10,000 gps is 10,000 gps, and I'd eventually run out of funds. But this week, we get a free Merit Badge to give away every day for Birthday Week. I can't think of any better use for such a boon than to use it to bribereward people for commenting in my blog. So go ahead and comment below; I'll pick one to receive a badge.
I'm also going to give today's free one to one of yesterday's commenters... let's see... I liked LostGhost: Seeking & Learning 's comment, and I'm fairly sure she hasn't commented in here in a while, if at all, so she gets today's.
|Hm. Another WDC birthday week. That means I'll be 16 soon. Can I have a car? I was promised a flying one.
PROMPT September 1st
Happy 20th Birthday, WDC!
I know this is cheesy, but I have to do it... In your entry today, write about what you love about Writing.Com. How have you grown as a writer? How are you (as a writer) different from how you were when you first joined this site? Thank the members who helped you get where you are today.
You know, my hesitation on prompts like this is not that it's cheesy. I can do cheesy. It's that I've been here for just short of 16 years, and no matter how much I try, there is no way I wouldn't forget someone significant if I tried to list all of the people who are important to me here. And, sadly, some of them have left the site and others... well, they've left far more than the site. Everyone that I've interacted with over the years -- occasionally unpleasantly, usually quite the opposite -- has helped to make me what I am today. That includes you, since you're reading this. But also everyone who enters the Writer's Cramp, organizers and participants in the October NaNo Prep Challenge, anyone whose work I've reviewed or has reviewed mine, all those who have given me awardicons and Merit Badges (and vice versa), those who take the time to give me feedback on my newsletters or comment in this blog, anyone whose blog or newsfeed I follow, the members I've exchanged IMs with, the many who I've met in person, those I occasionally talk to on Zoom... everyone.
That helps to address the earlier parts of the prompt, though. No matter what else, it's the people that make this site what it is. Oh, the setup is important, of course -- we'll get to that in a bit -- but it would be empty without you.
How have I grown as a writer? Well. I'm not sure I know how to answer that. I'm the worst judge of my own stuff. I mean, sure, sometimes I look back at stuff I wrote back in the noughties when I first joined, and I'd forgotten I wrote it, and it makes me laugh. Other times it makes me cringe (but I keep it around anyway). I expect if I'm still here in another 16 years, I'll say the same thing about this year's output.
I just don't know. I think I've improved -- I hope I've improved -- but I have no objective measure on that. Changed? Sure. I have more confidence now, but I also have a better idea of my limitations.
Aside from the people themselves, as I mentioned above, there are several things about this site that I think help anyone grow as a writer. The most obvious of these is reviewing. When done with intent, it can really help a writer determine what works and what needs work. And reviewing itself is an exercise in writing. Also, even the most cursory review at least lets you know someone's reading your stuff. I don't do enough of it, myself; I will work on that in the future.
I know I said I didn't want to thank anyone individually, but I'd be horribly remiss if I didn't call out three specific individuals for thanks. The first two are obvious: The StoryMistress and The StoryMaster . They've built a great community and a wonderful platform for all of us. I know very little about web coding and even less about graphic design, so their work might as well be sorcery for all I understand it.
The third to thank is maybe not so obvious to anyone else: ArtemisMad , who, approximately sixteen years ago this week, first told me about the site. Without her recommendation, I might not be here at all. Yeah, I know, some of you don't see the downside to that.
Before I go, I need to announce the Merit Badge winner from yesterday.
Great comments, all. I don't really have the time, tonight, to address all of them individually, but I did appreciate every one, which made it hard to pick just one as a favorite.
But I'm going to go with ⭐Princette♥Pengthulu , who wrote:
I hope for Cthulhu to awaken in September and put us all out of our misery. I figure, considering how 2020 is going, that's not as farfetched as it might otherwise seem. If Cthulhu doesn't rise in September, I'm putting it down for December. Gotta end the year in style, right?
Because I can totally see that happening. Not in September though. Or December. But this is going to take a bit of an explanation.
One of my favorite writers was Roger Zelazny. He, sadly, died back in the 90s. His last full novel before he left us was titled A Night in the Lonesome October, and you can probably call it my favorite book. I don't want to spoil the thing too much, but basically, the premise is this: On certain rare occasions, it is possible for the door to the realm of the Elder Gods to be swung wide, releasing eldritch horrors to doom us all. Possible, that is, but not certain; it hasn't happened yet (in the story).
What is this rare occasion? It is a full moon falling on Halloween.
Guess what's happening for real on Halloween 2020. Go ahead. Take a wild guess.
Point is, ⭐Princette♥Pengthulu gets the MB this time, but I'll do this again soon so there will be more chances. Yes, even with the 30DBC running.
|Well, tomorrow I plan on going back to the 30DBC for September. We'll see how that goes.
So today's article is short on philosophy and long on speculation, but I thought it was interesting enough to share since this affects many people.
Also, since it's the end of the month, I'll do a Merit Badge Mini-Contest! Details below.
Why the world is becoming more allergic to food
The rise in allergies in recent decades has been particularly noticeable in the West. Food allergy now affects about 7% of children in the UK and 9% of those in Australia, for example. Across Europe, 2% of adults have food allergies.
Obviously the BBC is a Brit-focused site, so they didn't give stats for the US. I suspect it's about the same... at least in reality. When you lump in all the children whose parents just want them to be special, it's probably closer to 40%.
Naw, I just pulled that number out of thin air. I can't be arsed to look it up. But seriously, all the ones who are faking it (as with gluten intolerance, or getting some doctor to sign something that your vicious little yip-yip mutt is actually an emotional support animal) just make things worse for those with serious issues. I suppose as far as Munchausen's-By-Proxy goes, though, things could be worse.
While we can't say for sure why allergy rates are increasing, researchers around the world are working hard to find ways to combat this phenomenon.
Article is from last year, obviously. I'm betting the pace of the work has slowed somewhat.
The increase in allergies is not simply the effect of society becoming more aware of them and better at diagnosing them.
It is thought that allergies and increased sensitivity to foods are probably environmental, and related to Western lifestyles.
Well, then, we're boned.
There is no single explanation for why the world is becoming more allergic to food, but science has some theories.
Insufficient data to know if she's using "theories" in the scientific or colloquial sense. Given her credentials, I certainly hope it's the former.
One is that improved hygiene is to blame, as children are not getting as many infections.
Sounds like a bit of a trade-off to me, but what do I know?
Another idea is that vitamin D can help our immune system develop a healthy response, making us less susceptible to allergies. Most populations around the world do not get enough vitamin D for several reasons, including spending less time in the sun.
Not much you can do about that in the UK. But really, you tell people to slather on SPF60 sunscreen and then wonder why they have VitD deficiencies?
A newer, "dual allergen exposure" theory, suggests food allergy development is down to the balance between the timing, dose and form of exposure.
Well, that tracks with it being an immune response thing, but the article doesn't do enough, in my opinion, to explain why rates are increasing if that's the case.
I went over half a century without allergies. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one. When I spent some time in the hospital, I got asked about it all the time. The orderly: "Are you allergic to any medications?" Me: "No." Nurse: "Any allergies?" Me: "No." Doctor comes in. "Do you have any allergies?" "I'm allergic to repeating myself." They wheel me down the hall in a gurney. Janitor stops what he's doing: "Are you allergic to anything?" Me: *sigh*
I mean, this is a hospital that, one time, switched a couple of people's babies, and apparently people thought that was a Big Deal (having been adopted, I fail to see the problem), so I can understand them being thoroughly cautious, but fucking stamp it on my forehead or something, will ya? I'm having a heart attack over here; I got worse things to worry about than allergies.
So anyway, some years later, I tried a new brand of protein bar with something called "moringa" in it, and goddamn if I didn't break out in hives. I could feel my blood pressure plummet to something like 40/20. Okay, I don't know what my actual BP was, but the point is, it felt awful.
I can no longer say that I'm not allergic to anything, but unless they put moringa in my flu vaccine, I'm probably safe.
Merit Badge Mini-Contest!
Normally I relate these things to the topic, but I'm allergic to allergy talk. So, since it's the end of the month, I'll just ask:
This year has been utter shit. What are you hoping and/or fearing for September?
As usual, you have until midnight, when the calendar flips over to the new month. Just comment below. There's a Merit Badge going to whoever posts the comment I like best. Could be funny, serious, something in-between; I won't know what I like best until I see it.
Here's some inspiration. Or not. Up to you:
|Because nothing matters anymore, I thought I'd just take today's blog entry to give you the recipe for a drink I invented.
3 oz. Russian vodka
1.5 oz. Kahlua
1.5 oz. Rumchata
1.5 oz. milk or cream
Fill a cocktail glass with ice. Mix vodka and Kahlua in glass. Splash in Rumchata and milk.
This is my take on a White Russian. I invented it sometime in 2017 at a bar but never really made it for myself because I don't like to buy milk. This is because every time I actually buy milk, it seems like it goes bad the next day, and yes, I do put it in the fridge.
But nothing matters anymore, so I have milk now.
Oh, so Rumchata? If you're unfamiliar with it, it's delicious.
This is an American drink with a Russian influence. Consequently, my name for it is...
The American Election.
So August is almost over. Therefore, this needs to be shared.
You look into her eyes
And it's more than your heart will allow
In August and everything after
You get a little less than you expected, somehow.
|Okay, whoever keeps asking the question, "How could this year get any worse?" -- I want you to stop that shit right now. Never ask that again.
I learned of Chadwick Boseman's death a bit over an hour ago, so I'm getting drunk and watching Black Panther. But that doesn't mean I can't do a quick blog entry at my usual time.
Today's ties in with the entry from a couple of days ago, and it's written by a guy I know.
Do aliens exist? Probably. Are they intelligent? Probably not.
Just to be clear, my own speculation on the subject, as seen in "No, It's Not 36." , was based on stuff I'd figured out before I saw Plait's article. As you'll see, we are in fairly close agreement on these things.
I've been asked if I think life exists elsewhere, and my answer is always that I do. This is based upon a single fact: Life got a toehold on Earth very rapidly after the planet formed, just a few hundred million years.
Only in cosmology is "a few hundred million years" considered "very rapidly."
Maybe life usually takes billions of years, and we were lucky. We only have our one example of life arising and so it doesn't really tell us anything about how easy it is. All it tells us is that the chances of it happening are not 0.
The chances could be one in billions, trillions, or even more. Or it could be close to 1 in 1. We simply don't know, and we won't until we find other examples of life and study them closely. If it seems unreasonable for the chance to be 1 in a trillion, just remember: your odds of winning the lottery may be 1 in a billion when you buy the ticket, but once you've won, prior odds are irrelevant. Maybe we won the lottery. We'll find out eventually if this year would stop fucking with us.
A new study using a sophisticated form of statistical analysis shows that life is actually quite likely to arise if conditions allow it. Hurray! However, it also shows intelligent life is far less likely. Boo.
Which is fine and all, but any statistical analysis, sophisticated or not, boils down to guesswork in this sort of thing. And yet, I'm inclined to believe it. Perhaps because of confirmation bias. But just because I'm inclined to believe it doesn't make it true.
But they found that when they ran their calculations, changing the prior assumptions strongly influenced their result, giving wildly different answers. That's frustrating.
That also supports my "don't put too much weight on this analysis" suggestion. Phil goes on to explain some of the math involved, but I've already had too much wine to know what to paste and what not to paste here, so you'll have to read the article.
What about intelligence? Assuming life arose quickly, the odds of intelligent life evolving are actually slim. Looking at whether the probability is very close to 0 (meaning extremely rare intelligent life) or 1 (very common), Kipping's work favors the low probability at odds of just 3:2. In other words, it's more likely intelligent life is extremely rare.
Phil uses approximately the same definition of "intelligence" as I do; to wit: the ability to use technology to go into space. Those are the species we'd be most likely to encounter, if they exist. In my own opinion, sure, we could find there's a highly advanced squid-like civilization under the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa, but our own squids are pretty damn clever and they're not building rockets. More, we can't seem to communicate with them.
But if you like to gamble, it implies that the best bet is that life is common, but intelligence is rare.
This study, this article, and my own thoughts on the subject are not new. There's a thing called the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which, in a nutshell, asserts that the particular combination of conditions the Earth has experienced and allowed creatures to evolve who could build rockets is probably rare in the universe.
He hasn't proven anything, because that's not how this kind of probability works. He's just shown that, given these assumptions, life is likely to be common and intelligence rare.
Leaving this here because it's important. As I noted before, I could be wrong and I kinda hope I am. Also, again, it's a really big universe, and lots of things are possible... somewhere.
Anyway, if you have the time and desire, read the article and watch the video embedded in it. There's also apparently a Tweetstorm at the link, but I've arranged my browser to pretend that the blight on the Universe known as Twitter doesn't exist, so I can't see it.
And now, back to getting drunk and watching Black Panther.
|Hey look, something relevant to fiction writers today.
The good guy/bad guy myth
Pop culture today is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. Traditional folktales never were. What changed?
Good guys don’t just fight for personal gain: they fight for what’s right – their values.
Personal gain is a value. Kind of a shitty one, but it's a value.
This moral physics underlies not just Star Wars, but also film series such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) and X-Men (2000-), as well as most Disney cartoons.
Couple of points: First, the X-Men comics may have been, at one point, good vs. evil, but the movies (absent the new one which hasn't come out yet) are pretty damn clear about the moral ambiguity on both sides. Professor X is the protagonist, Magneto is the antagonist (usually), but we see Xavier do some reprehensible things, and Magneto is shown to have solid motivation other than personal gain. Second, the Jedi are no angels; bending someone's will with the Jedi Mind Trick is the very definition of evil. And third, this article is from 2018; this year's X-Men title, New Mutants, is supposed to be the last film in that series -- which, of course, doesn't mean that Disney won't reboot it now that they have full rights.
That last one is beside the point; I just like superhero movies. This is the important part:
Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure: good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society. These tropes are all over our movies and comic books, in Narnia and at Hogwarts, and yet they don’t exist in any folktales, myths or ancient epics.
The rest of the (somewhat long) article basically expands on this.
In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice.
No wonder people are so confused all the time.
In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.
I usually root for the wolf because bacon is delicious.
On a side note, I ventured into a movie theater the other day. With a severe lack of choice, I went to see Unhinged, the Russell Crowe thriller about road rage. I was the only one in the entire theater, incidentally (and yes, I followed all the guidelines for safety except for the one about "don't go to the movie theater.") I won't spoil it, but I made the mistake of reading the reviews first, so I went in expecting to be disappointed -- but it's actually not bad. Terrific acting, really impressive stunt work and car chases, and the plot hangs together pretty well. The reason I'm bringing this up is that it's relevant to this article: there's a good guy (er, girl) and a bad guy (Crowe, and please spare me the corvid-19 jokes), and on the surface at least, it's black and white. Thing is, and I think this might be why a lot of people don't like the movie, I thought his motivation was kinda flimsy, and her character was uninteresting to me. Perhaps they tried too hard to make it black and white, or, perhaps, they tried too hard with the motivation. After all, Jason doesn't need motivation to run around slashing teenagers, does he?
Anyway. No need to quote more from the article; if you're interested in this sort of thing, check it out. Like I said, it's kinda long, but I think it's a good essay on how storytelling has changed. And the conclusion -- the discussion of why it has changed -- is kinda chilling. Though not so much as the idea of a road rager who believes in disproportionate retribution.
|Oh, Guardian. And you were doing so well.
Scientists say most likely number of contactable alien civilisations is 36
New calculations come up with estimate for worlds capable of communicating with others
In case you're not aware, The Guardian is a British rag; hence the British spelling. Now, on with the show:
They may not be little green men. They may not arrive in a vast spaceship. But according to new calculations there could be more than 30 intelligent civilisations in our galaxy today capable of communicating with others.
And there "could be" a magical griffon roosting in a tree in my backyard. I can't prove there isn't. After all, it's magical and might be invisible.
Experts say the work not only offers insights into the chances of life beyond Earth but could shed light on our own future and place in the cosmos.
I'm all for shedding light on our own future and so on, but the fact remains that the only spacefaring, communicating civilization [just because they spell it with an s doesn't mean I'm going to] that we know of is us.
Usual disclaimer to ward off the inevitable jokes and human-haters: if I use the word "intelligent" in this post, read it to mean "technologically equipped with the ability to send signals across, and visit, space." Also, "they haven't shown their little green faces because we're terrible," or words to that effect, is utter tripe, and I don't have the time or patience to go into why right now. Perhaps a future entry.
“I think it is extremely important and exciting because for the first time we really have an estimate for this number of active intelligent, communicating civilisations that we potentially could contact and find out there is other life in the universe – something that has been a question for thousands of years and is still not answered,” said Christopher Conselice, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Nottingham and a co-author of the research.
1. Not the first time.
2. It's a guess, not an estimate.
3. The timescale of any communication with someone else in this galaxy is potentially, on average, on the order of 50,000 years, round trip.
4. "Other life in the universe" doesn't necessarily mean intelligent life. I've covered this before.
In 1961 the astronomer Frank Drake proposed what became known as the Drake equation ...
Which is not an equation as such, but more like a way to think about these things. Nothing wrong with thinking about them. To be fair, the article points this out:
But few of the factors are measurable. “Drake equation estimates have ranged from zero to a few billion [civilisations] – it is more like a tool for thinking about questions rather than something that has actually been solved,” said Conselice.
And yet, guesswork remains guesswork.
“Basically, we made the assumption that intelligent life would form on other [Earth-like] planets like it has on Earth, so within a few billion years life would automatically form as a natural part of evolution,” said Conselice.
And the basis for that assumption is...? Just because intelligent life can appear doesn't mean that it must appear. Again, I know I've said this before, but evolution does not require that an intelligent species develop. Nor does it proceed toward any sort of ultimate goal. Life on Earth existed for something like four billion years, most of that time underwater, before we showed up. Those qualities that led us to eventually travel into space are not necessary for species survival. Just ask the millions of other species that infest this orb. Oh, wait, you can't because we can't communicate concepts with them, and yet most of them thrive just fine, and even more would, too, if we weren't actively, if inadvertently, trying to eliminate them. Yes, some are quite clever, but they aren't using radios or building spaceships, which is what we're talking about here.
The assumption, known as the Astrobiological Copernican Principle, is fair as everything from chemical reactions to star formation is known to occur if the conditions are right, he said.
I think it probably is fair to assume that, given the right conditions (whatever they may be), life will arise in semi-stable environments. Whether that life develops radio and whatnot is another question, entirely unrelated.
He added that, while it is a speculative theory, he believes alien life would have similarities in appearance to life on Earth. “We wouldn’t be super shocked by seeing them,” he said.
It's not even a theory. And I think "similarities" is entirely too broad a term. If we found life and there were no similarities, how would we know it was life?
The team add that our civilisation would need to survive at least another 6,120 years for two-way communication. “They would be quite far away … 17,000 light years is our calculation for the closest one,” said Conselice.
This differs from my number above because he's using "probable closest one" and I was using an average. Either way, it's a long damn time. Now, sure, maybe we get lucky and we find that birdlike creatures on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri are starting to send out bird porn broadcasts that we pick up, but even there, we're talking a 9-year round trip communication.
Dr Oliver Shorttle, an expert in extrasolar planets at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the research, said several as yet poorly understood factors needed to be unpicked to make such estimates, including how life on Earth began and how many Earth-like planets considered habitable could truly support life.
I'm not going to argue with experts, but "how life on Earth began" is irrelevant to this discussion as, obviously, it did. Oh, sure, you can have your pet hypothesis that it originated elsewhere (say, Mars) and migrated here as microbes on asteroids, but all that does is kick the can down the road on the question of "how life began." And I will grant that since it started here, it probably started elsewhere, though not necessarily through the same processes. What I will not grant is that it necessarily evolves what we're calling intelligence.
Dr Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo, an expert on how Earth became habitable, from the University of Bristol, was more upbeat, despite emphasising that many developments were needed on Earth for conditions for complex life to exist, including photosynthesis. “But, yes if we evolved in this planet, it is possible that intelligent life evolved in another part of the universe,” she said.
Oh, now we've gone from galaxy to universe. I would not be in the least surprised to find that around one of the 200 billion stars in each of the 200 billion galaxies in our observable universe (wild-ass guess here, but that order of magnitude), someone else didn't trek into space. Whether it happened more than once in this galaxy, which is the only one where we can reasonably expect some sort of communication, well... sure, maybe. But maybe not. We simply do not have enough information to state with any kind of certainty that "intelligence" happened elsewhere than on Earth.
“[The new estimate] is an interesting result, but one which it will be impossible to test using current techniques,” he said. “In the meantime, research on whether we are alone in the universe will include visiting likely objects within our own solar system, for example with our Rosalind Franklin Exomars 2022 rover to Mars, and future missions to Europa, Enceladus and Titan [moons of Jupiter and Saturn]. It’s a fascinating time in the search for life elsewhere.”
And I'll say this once more for emphasis: the search for extraterrestrial life in our own solar system is looking for microbes (or whatever equivalent). It would be a big fucking deal if they found some and were able to demonstrate to a high level of certainty that it wasn't seeded from Earth. I'd say there's a fair chance, and I hope they succeed.
But sorry, guys... no Martians, no Vulcans, and, sadly, no Orion slave girls.
Or, hell, maybe I'm completely wrong. I kind of hope I am. But the evidence doesn't make it seem likely.
|You might have thought yesterday's article about quantum physics put you to sleep. Well, wait'll you see today's...
What Happens to Your Body When You Take Naps Every Single Day?
It sleeps. Duhhh.
As often as we talk about the benefits of sleep, more than a third of Americans are not getting the proper amount of shut-eye.
That's because they're working three jobs just to live.
If the thought of adding one more thing to your already busy schedule is making you stress out, you can consider naps as a natural way to recharge for the day.
Maybe during your commute?
"Like meditation, it can be [used] as a quiet time in the middle of a chaotic day."
What a coincidence! Every time I've tried to meditate I've fallen asleep.
However, taking a midday nap doesn’t mean you can sleep the day away.
Do people actually do this? I'm retired and don't have a set schedule most days, and I still can't sleep more than 9 hours, max. Usually 7-8. In two shifts.
While you may want to sneak a small nap into your day, you might have a hard time getting a little shut-eye if it’s not something your body is used to doing.
My body was used to me fighting to stay awake through a slump every day between 4-5 pm or so, and then being forced to wake up before 8 am. It never worked well for me, as much as I tried to conform.
Basically, adding a nap into your daily routine will give your body a major health boost. After six months, the long-term benefits of napping kick in. Breese notes one study on Greek adults that found a short nap during the day reduces the risks of dying from heart disease and regularly getting more rest may increase your sex drive.
Well, that's useless to me.
Incidentally, can anyone tell me why they people call it "beauty sleep?" This has never made sense to me. I get the feeling it's used sarcastically, or perhaps apologetically. "Oh, just like every other human being on the planet, I need to sleep, but admitting that might make me seem weak, so I have to pretend there's a purpose to it." Or something like that. Like I said, I never understood it, and it's a phrase that's been around since at least my childhood.
Well, I'll sleep later. First, drinking. Which doesn't actually help one sleep, but it's worth it for its own sake.
|Not a lot of commentary today. I started late and I want to hurry up and get to the drinking part of my evening.
But Contest results below!
How to Make Sense of Quantum Physics
Superdeterminism, a long-abandoned idea, may help us overcome the current crisis in physics.
Mostly I'm just leaving this here because it touches on a lot of subjects I tend to post on, and it starts out as a pretty good explanation of quantum physics. It goes on to branch out into philosophy and even questions of free will. Recommended reading -- just remember the entire second part is speculation.
So on with the marketing question from yesterday.
Great entries, and tough to pick just one -- but I managed. As usual, everyone will get another chance in a few days.
Annette , the phrases "tone-deaf," "bad optics," and "read the damn room" come to mind there.
Sumojo , this is exactly why I try to stay away from hot-button issues. I don't always succeed.
⭐Princette♥Pengthulu , how that got past the number of people who would have had to have been involved is a mystery. Perhaps they were all drunk.
prettypoetry, yeah, I remember that. You do one thing and you've been doing it for decades, and all of a sudden you want to change the formula that works (that is, without seismic macroeconomic shifts as with JC Penny and Sears, see below)? See also: New Coke.
Wordsmitty ✍️ , what in the hell were they thinking?
Lostwordsmith , true, not really what I was looking for, but darkly hilarious.
Charity Marie , I could say the same thing about Sears. Sears built its entire brand by people in remote areas being able to order stuff from them through the mail, from a catalog. They were huge; at one point, they had their name on the tallest building in the world, and they were a household name. The Internet comes along, and Sears sticks to its b&m model; Amazon adopts an updated Sears strategy and becomes a juggernaut. Sears gets gutted by private equity and turns to vapor. As for Sherwin Williams, true story (at least as far as my memory might be reliable): the first time I saw an SW logo as a kid -- it hasn't changed in at least 50 years afaik -- I remember thinking, "but where is the gravity coming from that's letting the paint drip off the planet? Point being, I was a huge nerd even as a child.
Everyone who commented without an example, I appreciated your responses too -- thanks!
In awarding the winner, I wanted to consider something as close as possible to the Tropicana and Coke fails, and the idea of a marketing strategy being so outrageously bad that it led to the company becoming not-a-company, so:
Wordsmitty ✍️ gets the Merit Badge for: Just For Feet, a giant shoe retailer, decided to take the plunge with a Super Bowl ad to an estimated 120 Million plus viewers on January 31, 1999. Unfortunately, ...
The commercial began with four caucasian-looking men in a Humvee with the license plate "Just For Feet." They track footprints in Kenya until they overtake a black man and offer him water. He collapses (drugged?) and they put a pair of Nikes on him. When he wakes and sees the shoes, he screams "Nooooooo!" and runs off trying to shake the shoes from his feet.
Quoting the book, "The backlash from the ad was immediate and fierce." The company didn't survive to see the new century.
Thanks again and we'll do this again soon!
|Something a little different today.
Also, Merit Badge Mini-Contest below!
The Worst Rebrand in the History of Orange Juice
They paid $35 million to then lose $20m in sales
So why am I linking something about orange juice? Because it's a product, and some marketing techniques apply to a broad range of products... like, for instance, your writing.
Not that I know jack squat about any of this. Which is why I read them -- to confirm that not only do I not understand, but I will quite probably never understand. But maybe this will help someone else. Or, hey, maybe you just like orange juice.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why Tropicana’s 2009 rebrand failed.
No. No, it really isn't. Not to me. And even the author explains, later, that it shouldn't have taken hindsight.
Less than 30 days after launch, they pulled the new design off the shelves and went back to the old one.
Which probably explains why this is the first I'm hearing about this. Coke's "New Coke" fiasco personally affected me. I don't drink orange juice, so I never noticed a rebrand.
The article helpfully includes "before" and "after" pics.
Without even getting into the subjective topics of visual appeal and recognizability, some design flaws practically stare you in the face.
But do they, really?
After the rebrand, the font was thinner, the same color as the remaining text, pushed to the side, and, worst of all, vertical. No matter how great your juice is, if it can’t heal neck pain, don’t force me to tilt my head sideways to read your name.
I have the ability to read text upside down, sideways, backwards, mirror image, upside down mirror image... the latter takes me a bit longer, to be sure. I can also write in all those directions. The sideways text wouldn't even impinge itself upon my consciousness. But hey, not everyone can be a super-genius, I suppose, and you have to market to morons.
What’s more, white font on a yellow background is a weaker contrast than dark green on a white background — especially considering they stuffed it inside the juice glass.
Okay, on that part, I can see their point.
Beautiful design is important, but if it’s not functional, it won’t matter.
Function is more important than form. Well... for me. Engineer, remember? But I can admit that when it comes to trying to sell shit, part of the function is to catch a viewer's eye (or ear in the case of radio). That requires form.
“Historically, we always show the outside of the orange. What was fascinating was that we had never shown the product called the juice.” Really? I mean, it’s juice. Give me a clear symbol of it, and I’m good to go. And what could be clearer than the actual fruit the juice is from?
Somewhere in there, I think, is probably a metaphor for promoting one's writing. I'm not quite sure what it is, but I'm pretty sure it's in there.
The one thing I’ll give them credit for is the cap of the new carton. It had the haptic structure of an actual orange. “We engineered this little squeeze cap so that the notion of squeezing the orange was implied ergonomically.”
Look, I know what "haptic" means, but a few paragraphs ago this author was complaining about jargon (I didn't copy that part, but it's there). Also, making your orange juice cap look like an orange is a surefire way to get me to purchase a competitor's brand. If, that is, I were inclined to buy orange juice.
But then, I freely admit I'm not a typical consumer.
So, anyway, like I said, maybe someone else can make more sense out of this. And hell, why don't we make it a mini-contest?
Merit Badge Mini-Contest!
Know any good (by which I mean bad) marketing failures? Comment below. The one I like best will earn its author a Merit Badge. Two restrictions today: 1) Don't talk about New Coke. I know about New Coke. I suffered through the Great Coke Crisis of 1985, and I have no wish to relive those horrid months. 2) Don't use this blog as an example of a marketing failure (I'm including this because I'm the sort of asshole who would do something like that, and besides, I'm not trying to sell anything here. Quite the opposite.)
If you can't think of one, it's not cheating to use Google. Mostly I just want to understand this marketing thing better, and, just like they kept showing us the newsreel footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse as a warning in engineering school, I think we can learn from failures as much as from successes. It's best if it's not our own failure.
|I haven't been to a barber in months, so this article caught my attention.
Why Did Humans Lose Their Fur?
We are the naked apes of the world, having shed most of our body hair long ago
As usual, I have issues with parts of the article, but pointing them all out would be tiresome. All I'll say right now is that almost all of the evolutionary discussion here is pure speculation and hypothesis... and that the question of "why" in the headline might be misleading.
Millions of modern humans ask themselves the same question every morning while looking in the mirror: Why am I so hairy?
Well, for me, as I said, the answer is "I haven't been to a barber in months." I suspect a lot of men my age are more asking themselves, "Where did all my hair go?"
Evolutionary theorists have put forth numerous hypotheses for why humans became the naked mole rats of the primate world.
And few of them are testable.
Scientists aren't exactly sure, but biologists are beginning to understand the physical mechanism that makes humans the naked apes. In particular, a recent study in the journal Cell Reports has begun to depilate the mystery at the molecular and genetic level.
Even the Smithsonian mag can't resist a bad pun.
The article proceeds to explain some of the genetic findings, which I can't really comment on but I'm assuming are current science. But that answers "how," not "why."
I'll come up with an analogy here. Could be relevant, could be not; I don't know. Cats can't taste sweetness. . This is, apparently, due to a genetic mutation way back in their lineage. And it's not just your house panther; it seems that all felids have this mutation. ("But my cat loves ice cream and cake!" "The article I just linked addresses that. Also, don't feed your cat ice cream and cake.")
But does that mean that there was a reason for it -- a "why?" No. And whether it's the mutation that makes a cat a cat, or being a cat is what resulted in the mutation, well, that's above my pay grade. But it appears to connected to why cats, unlike most mammals, are obligate carnivores. ("But my cat eats grass!" "Yes, and then she throws up on your bed.") So it seems to me with the hairless thing in humans. A mutation turned out to be beneficial for our early human ancestors' survival.
With a greater understanding of how skin is rendered hairless, the big question remaining is why humans became almost entirely hairless apes. Millar says there are some obvious reasons—for instance, having hair on our palms and wrists would make knapping stone tools or operating machinery rather difficult, and so human ancestors who lost this hair may have had an advantage.
Okay, this is one place where I am going to quibble here. Operating machinery wasn't, I believe, much of an issue a million years ago. Evolution didn't plan for the industrial revolution; evolution doesn't "plan." This is symptomatic of my issues with the evolutionary guesswork these people do. Of course, it's important to make such guesses, but there's nothing substantial to back it up. And again, they might have cause and effect switched.
There's more of this guesswork in there; I won't belabor it fur-ther.
Now, I wonder if I can borrow some of my housemate's ponytail bands?
|I can only think of one subject more contentious than politics or religion. And this is it.
How To Tip
For Americans, this whole thing can be a minefield. For people from other countries, it's bizarre and more than a little irritating.
The worst person in New York City is a 29-year-old woman, ostensibly named Sam.
No. No, it is not.
How do I know to single out Sam, alone amidst a population of eight million people, many of them not so great themselves? Simple. It's because Sam is someone who tips "around $5, whether the bill is $50 or $100."
Oh, someone who tips $5 is worse than those Sunday brunch holy assholes who leave religious tracts that look like $20 bills? No.
While writer Monica Burton concedes that many people who don't tip just might not know what's appropriate to do, and cites Michael Lynn, "a tipping expert at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration," who explains that "40 percent of people aren’t aware that they should be tipping between 15 and 20 percent," I think that's far too generous of a concession to make.
The fact that there is someone who calls himself a "tipping expert" makes me irrationally angry. And don't they know that a lot of Americans are innumerate, and a lot more are numerophobes? Throwing around percentages like that will just make their brains snap shut like my last date's legs.
I also think that if people don't know to tip properly, then they probably shouldn't be eating out at all.
Which of course would be SO wonderful for wage slaves in the service industry, if fewer people went out to eat. As we've seen over the past 6 months.
Beyond that, as is clear from reading the article, lots of people who don't tip are fully aware of how much to tip, they just don't want to do it. Total sociopath "James" says: "I will add a few dollars and round it to an even number, say a $36.87 meal being tipped $3.13 to make $40.00... This isn’t because I want to tip, it just gives me a little mental math game and I like even numbers."
$40.00 says "James" refuses to wear a mask during a pandemic too. Also, that's not "a little mental math game" unless you're a complete and utter imbecile. A better one would be to shift the decimal point one digit to the left, double the result, and leave that much. No, it's not harder; it's actually easier and then you're tipping 20 goddamn percent.
But what's fair? It's pretty simple. There is, of course, the 20 percent rule of thumb, and that's not a bad one to live by. Always leave at least this much at a restaurant.
Oh, if only it were that easy.
So you go into your favorite brewpub. While eating, you notice that they have six-packs of a favorite beer in the cooler. You want to take some home with you. So you have the waiter add them to the bill. Say the bill is $20 without the six-packs, and you get $60 worth of canned delicious beer. $4 is what you'd normally tip for the meal. But the check reads $80 because of the sixes, so by this you're supposed to leave $16. While that's nice and all, that's a goddamned 80% tip on the part of the check that the waiter actually worked on. At absolute worst, the waiter brought the sixes over to you and punched the total into the order screen thing. Is that worth the price of another six-pack?
I have the same problem with ordering wine at a fancy restaurant. You get a $40 meal and a $60 bottle of wine. Okay, I can see tipping $20 at a fancy restaurant, but is opening a goddamned bottle of wine worth the same as bringing you menus, putting up with your inane, arbitrary and bullshit dietary requirements, communicating same to kitchen, bringing you food, keeping your water filled, asking you what you'd like for dessert, bringing you said dessert, and then cleaning up your mess afterward?
I say no. No, it's not. But dammit if I don't tip 20% anyway, because social pressure requires that I do so.
How about at a bar? One dollar per drink, right? Wrong. One dollar is fine on a $5 beer. Anything other than that deserves at least $2. The 20 percent rule applies at bars, too.
I always give bartenders more than 20%. They're bartenders, my equivalent of a priest or psychologist. It's cheaper than tithing or paying for therapy.
And finally: Tip the people making your coffee. If you can afford to buy a $6 latte, you can afford to put a dollar or two in the tip jar.
No. Under no circumstances. This is where I draw the fucking line. I have no issues with tipping for table service or if I'm sitting at a bar, but if I have to stand in line, order from a cashier, pick up my tea (I don't drink coffee), carry it back to my table, and then bus my own table? That's no different from going to McDonald's, and you don't tip at McDonald's, do you? Or do you? I haven't been in one for a while; for all I know, they've played into that bullshit.
There are other times when the 20% rule goes right out the window. The last time I took a cab in Vegas, for instance. Okay, so picture this: the airport is approximately three blocks from the Luxor. I mean, it's right there. So one time, instead of renting a car, I hired a cab to take me on this really remarkably short trip (I know because I've driven it). This cabbie must have thought I was a wide-eyed newbie who couldn't read a map, so he ended up giving me the tour of North Vegas, the Strip, and Nellis Air Force Base before turning around and taking me back to the Luxor.
Okay, I'm exaggerating, but only a little bit. Point is, a $20 trip ended up costing closer to $40. Not that $20 is fair, but it's cheaper than renting a car and the distance is just a little too far to walk in 110 degree heat, no sidewalks, while shlepping luggage. Anyway. When I went to swipe my card, they had certain tip amounts preset: 25%, 40%, 50%.
Hell to the power of no squared.
I declined to tip by card, instead digging into my Emergency Stripper Fund (a wad of $1 bills) and handed the driver five of them. More than 20% of what the trip should have cost, less than 15% of what that con artist ended up charging me. And then he had the audacity to call me a cheapskate for that.
Like I said, that was the last time I took a taxi in Vegas. Now, if I fly in, I use Uber. The only difficulty there is that, while the taxi stand is clearly and plainly marked at the baggage claim, and is located right outside its doors, the signage for Uber was about a 6"x8" placard with "rideshare" and an arrow on it. I followed these placards up an escalator, out into the oppressive heat, across an overpass to a parking garage, through the parking garage, down a flight of stairs (no escalator), across to another parking garage, through a door with a smudged sign reading "Beware the leopard," up an elevator, across a tightrope strung over a shark tank, through a bunch of dark, twisty passages, all alike (being careful not to be eaten by a grue), finally leading to an ill-lit and badly organized rideshare pickup area.
The Uber driver drove me straight to the Luxor, though, and got a nice tip.
What I'm saying is, 20% doesn't always work.
I don't mind tipping, especially for superior service. What I mind is living in a society that requires people to tip. If restaurant tips, for example, were done away with entirely, with wait staff paid a decent wage, the cost of dining out wouldn't change much if at all - it would simply be all up front instead of hidden on the back end, and requiring people who failed high school algebra because it was "too hard" to do math. I mean, sure, I'd like to see more math literacy and less fear about it, but we're not accomplishing that by requiring tips -- especially because more and more places have started explaining exactly how much 15%, 18%, 20%, and maybe even 25% of your bill comes to, or just providing buttons on a screen that do the same thing. That's like saying spell checkers have made people better spellers.
I understand that, in France, no tipping is expected, though people often do it if they think the server went above and beyond. And I've heard that in Japan, tipping is an insult. I don't know; I haven't been to France since I was a kid, and never to Japan, and I get the impression I'd have even worse culture shock from other things.
Oh, and that article? It never does fulfill the promise in the headline: "How to Tip." Oh, sure, it says "20%," but as I've indicated, that's bullshit outside of restaurants. What do you give the concierge who called you a cab? The bellhop at a fancy hotel? What do you slip to the person who did your laundry? Why do you tip your massage therapist and not your head therapist? Should you really give the McDonald's cashier a couple of bills? How often do you tuck a $1 bill into a strippers' g-string? And shouldn't inflation have upped that to $2 bills by now?
Make it all go away, and while you're at it, include tax in the advertised price. No, I'm not advocating for paying less for services; I'm saying it shouldn't require an advanced degree in Gratuity Studies to figure all of this out.
|I looked over some earlier entries and discovered a trend to rag on Scientific American articles.
Today's, though, I have fewer problems with.
What Does Quantum Theory Actually Tell Us about Reality?
Nearly a century after its founding, physicists and philosophers still don’t know—but they’re working on it
In essence, this seems to be a good introduction to quantum theory, at least at its very basic.
For a demonstration that overturned the great Isaac Newton’s ideas about the nature of light, it was staggeringly simple. It “may be repeated with great ease, wherever the sun shines,” the English physicist Thomas Young told the members of the Royal Society in London in November 1803, describing what is now known as a double-slit experiment, and Young wasn’t being overly melodramatic. He had come up with an elegant and decidedly homespun experiment to show light’s wavelike nature, and in doing so refuted Newton’s theory that light is made of corpuscles, or particles.
It does, however, toss words around without much precision. For starters, Newton developed several "theories," but the particle nature of light was more of an assumption. And I'd argue that it's more of a refinement than a refutation. Photons act like both, depending on context. Lots of other stuff that Newton came up with turned out to need refinement, but the basic math is still sound, especially for everyday experience.
But the birth of quantum physics in the early 1900s made it clear that light is made of tiny, indivisible units, or quanta, of energy, which we call photons. Young’s experiment, when done with single photons or even single particles of matter, such as electrons and neutrons, is a conundrum to behold, raising fundamental questions about the very nature of reality.
The old argument "is light a particle or a wave?" is usually phrased thus. Personally, I think they're using the wrong terms, as usual. As with Newton, "particles" and "waves" are functions of our everyday experience. The question isn't why light has properties of both; the question is why macroscopic effects are one or the other.
Some have even used it to argue that the quantum world is influenced by human consciousness, giving our minds an agency and a place in the ontology of the universe.
All these years and we're still stuck on that nonsense.
The article goes on to describe the double-slit experiment. I remember doing a basic one of those in physics class when I was in college. It's one thing to hear it described; it's another to actually see it (and do the damned math).
The photon is not real in the sense that a plane flying from San Francisco to New York is real.
That's... misleading. Both are "real." One behaves differently than the other, is all.
Werner Heisenberg, among others, interpreted the mathematics to mean that reality doesn’t exist until observed.
Also misleading, and probably not the case. No, reality doesn't require us hairless apes to observe it, or believe in it. Well, to be fair, there is a nonzero chance that the universe sprang into existence, fully formed, complete with a coherent history. If this event also happened to create humans, then there might be something to this. But while that chance is nonzero, it's represented by an unimaginably small number. Otherwise, the evidence suggests that reality existed before we did, and will continue to exist under most foreseeable conditions after we're all gone.
But quantum theory is entirely unclear about what constitutes a “measurement.” It simply postulates that the measuring device must be classical, without defining where such a boundary between the classical and quantum lies, thus leaving the door open for those who think that human consciousness needs to be invoked for collapse. Last May, Henry Stapp and colleagues argued, in this forum, that the double-slit experiment and its modern variants provide evidence that “a conscious observer may be indispensable” to make sense of the quantum realm and that a transpersonal mind underlies the material world.
Sigh. Yeah, I know. I wasn't going to talk about panpsychism again. But if everything is conscious, than anything can be the "observer," not just humans.
On a related note, you've probably heard of the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment. Look it up if you haven't; I can't be arsed to explain the whole thing. The upshot of it is that Schrodinger postulated that without an observer, a cat in a box subject to the randomness of quantum phenomena is neither alive nor dead, but in a state of superposition, until an ape opens the box and collapses the cat's wave function.
What's always bothered me about this (and as far as I know, no one has actually performed the experiment, much to the relief of half the world's cat population) is that in his scenario, there is one conscious entity who "knows" whether the cat is alive or dead; to wit, the feline in the box.
Also, there are other ways of interpreting the double-slit experiment. Take the de Broglie-Bohm theory, which says that reality is both wave and particle.
There you go throwing words around again. There's an upper limit to where wave/particle duality holds sway. As this article notes, that limit is as yet undetermined. But it's definitely smaller than a golf ball. A golf ball is unquestionably (except to the most drug-addled philosophers, which would seem to be a lot of them) a reality-based object, and it doesn't act like a photon in the double-slit experiment.
Crucially, the theory does not need observers or measurements or a non-material consciousness.
So when drug-addled philosophers start talking about how nothing exists unless we observe it, give them different drugs. Well, who knows. Maybe they're right. But I doubt it.
If nothing else, these experiments are showing that we cannot yet make any claims about the nature of reality, even if the claims are well-motivated mathematically or philosophically.
Decent conclusion, anyway. "We don't know yet" is a great answer in science.
And given that neuroscientists and philosophers of mind don’t agree on the nature of consciousness, claims that it collapses wave functions are premature at best and misleading and wrong at worst.
I'd be a lot more concerned if neuroscientists and philosophers agreed on anything.
|I couldn't resist posting today's article.
Willpower is a dangerous, old idea that needs to be scrapped.
They both succumbed to short-term temptations, and both didn’t keep their long-term goals.
I went to a dentist today. See, approximately 20 seconds after my state declared a lockdown, back in March, I got a toothache. It's been bearable up until about last week, whereupon the pain in my mouth exceeded my desire to avoid covfefe-19.
Few people enjoy going to the dentist, but most realize that the short-term discomfort involved is worth it to prevent problems in the long run. Not me, though. I've never been one to let long-term goals get in the way of immediate gratification.
Fortunately, the dentist told me what the problem (probably) is. Unfortunately, it involves redoing a root canal on a tooth that got a root canal many years ago. And root canals are the Platonic ideal of "things I don't want to deal with." That's something I have to schedule tomorrow, which means at some point soon, I'm going to have to visit a specialist's office, again, and keep my mouth wide open for two hours in the middle of a fucking pandemic.
So, naturally, afterwards, I walked over to a nearby brewery and drank. I Ubered home. See, I figured something like that would happen, so I had the foresight to not drive to the dentist in the first place. I can plan ahead, when it involves drinking.
Back to the article.
Ignoring the idea of willpower will sound absurd to most patients and therapists, but, as a practicing addiction psychiatrist and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about the very concept of willpower, and concerned by the self-help obsession that surrounds it.
I'm concerned by the self-help obsession, period.
More fundamentally, the common, monolithic definition of willpower distracts us from finer-grained dimensions of self-control and runs the danger of magnifying harmful myths—like the idea that willpower is finite and exhaustible. To borrow a phrase from the philosopher Ned Block, willpower is a mongrel concept, one that connotes a wide and often inconsistent range of cognitive functions. The closer we look, the more it appears to unravel. It’s time to get rid of it altogether.
Good idea. Do we have the will to do that?
The specific conception of “willpower,” however, didn’t emerge until the Victorian Era...
If ever there were a time for that concept, it would be then.
Self-control became a Victorian obsession, promoted by publications like the immensely popular 1859 book Self-Help, which preached the values of “self-denial” and untiring perseverance.
Sometimes I think I was unlucky to have lived during the declining period of American civilization (we peaked on July 20, 1969, and it's been downhill ever since). But then I read stuff like that and realize it's not so bad after all, pandemic be damned.
The earliest use of the word, in 1874 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in reference to moralistic worries about substance use: “The drunkard ... whose will-power and whose moral force have been conquered by degraded appetite.”
Always with the drunk-shaming. Stop it.
In the early 20th century, when psychiatry was striving to establish itself as a legitimate, scientifically based field, Freud developed the idea of a “superego.” The superego is the closest psychoanalytic cousin to willpower, representing the critical and moralizing part of the mind internalized from parents and society.
Since Freud proposed it, 96.5% chance it's wrong.
By mid-century, B.F. Skinner was proposing that there is no internally based freedom to control behavior. Academic psychology turned more toward behaviorism, and willpower was largely discarded by the profession.
Make that 98%.
That might have been it for willpower, were it not for an unexpected set of findings in recent decades which led to a resurgence of interest in the study of self-control.
These studies also set the stage for the modern definition of willpower, which is described in both the academic and popular press as the capacity for immediate self-control—the top-down squelching of momentary impulses and urges. Or, as the American Psychological Association defined it in a recent report, “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” This ability is usually portrayed as a discrete, limited resource, one that can be used up like a literal store of energy.
If I had a battery icon on my forehead for that, it would be nearly empty and have a slash through it. No, I'm not tempted to get that as a tattoo. But the thought did cross my mind.
Studies supporting the ego depletion effect were supposedly replicated dozens of times, spawning best-selling books (including Baumeister’s own, Willpower) and countless research programs. But a 2015 meta-analysis examining those findings more closely, along with previously unpublished research, found a good deal of publication bias and very little evidence that ego depletion is a real phenomenon.
And here we have another example of science correcting itself.
Related studies have shown that beliefs about willpower strongly influence self-control: Research subjects who believe in ego depletion (that willpower is a limited resource) show diminishing self-control over the course of an experiment, while people who don’t believe in ego depletion are steady throughout.
Funny how that works.
A paradigmatic example of reframing is the phenomenon of “temporal discounting,” in which people tend to discount future rewards in favor of smaller immediate payoffs. When offered $5 today versus $10 in a month, many people illogically choose immediate gratification.
"Illogically?" I don't think so. You tell me you'll give me $5 today or $10 in a month. I'll take the $5. Why? First, I might be dead in a month. Second, you might be dead in a month and your executor won't know you owe me $10. Third, $10 is couch change for me. And finally, if I'm in Vegas, I could put the $5 on 27 and maybe turn it into $150 -- or probably not, but the $5 was free to begin with and I won't miss it.
I'm obviously skipping a bit here but...
A conscientious reframing of a problem in this manner would certainly be an example of willpower, but it would not fall into the conventional understanding of the term. Rather than relying on an effortful fight against impulses, this kind of willpower has the individual completely reimagine the problem and avoid the need to fight in the first place.
Which, actually, is what I usually do when faced with temptation. Often I indulge anyway. But not always. Like today, when I woke up from my drunken stupor and there was pizza. I think I might have mumbled something about pizza before I passed out, and my housemate, either thoughtful or easily persuaded, had ordered some for delivery. I declined. Alcohol was enough extra calories for me today, and while my weight loss has plateaued, I don't want to backslide.
But now comes the important part of the article:
Notions of willpower are easily stigmatizing: It becomes OK to dismantle social safety nets if poverty is a problem of financial discipline, or if health is one of personal discipline. An extreme example is the punitive approach of our endless drug war, which dismisses substance use problems as primarily the result of individual choices. Unhealthy moralizing creeps into the most quotidian corners of society, too. When the United States started to get concerned about litter in the 1950s, the American Can Company and other corporations financed a “Keep America Beautiful” campaign to divert attention from the fact that they were manufacturing enormous quantities of cheap, disposable, and profitable packaging, putting the blame instead on individuals for being litterbugs. Willpower-based moral accusations are among the easiest to sling.
Which is kind of what I've been saying all along.
|Today's link is a bit esoteric, and I wouldn't blame anyone for giving it a miss. But I find this stuff fascinating, so I waded through it, and of course I have comments -- else I wouldn't bother posting it.
Skip to the bottom for Mini-Contest results!
New Evidence for the Strange Geometry of Thought
In 2014, the Swedish philosopher and cognitive scientist Peter Gärdenfors went to Krakow, Poland, for a conference on the mind.
Philosopher and cognitive scientist? That's a dangerous combination.
In his talk, “The Geometry of Thinking,” he suggested that humans are able to do things that today’s powerful computers can’t do—like learn language quickly and generalize from particulars with ease (to see, in other words, without much training, that lions and tigers are four-legged felines)—because we, unlike our computers, represent information in geometrical space.
So, if I'm reading this right, the evidence suggests that we store concepts the same way we store, for example, the layout of our homes.
He argued that the brain represents concepts in the same way that it represents space and your location, by using the same neural circuitry for the brain’s “inner GPS.”
You know, we were talking about inventions yesterday, and as I re-read this article to talk about it, I came to the conclusion that there are, in general, two broad categories of inventions: those that can be compared to other things, and those to which we compare other things. To use yesterday's example, a wheel would be one of the latter. So, apparently, is GPS -- a truly world-changing invention, though one that's built on a multitude of earlier inventions.
The hippocampus’ place and grid cells, in other words, map not only physical space but conceptual space. It appears that our representation of objects and concepts is very tightly linked with our representation of space.
This makes all kinds of sense when you think about it (not that "making sense" means it's necessarily right). At the risk of delving into the kind of evolutionary just-so stories that I despise, our remote pre-hominid ancestors, lacking the concept of "concept," would have known nothing but their environments. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that our brains use the same sorts of brain configurations, adapting them for other purposes.
But again, I don't know; that's pure speculation on my part.
The article goes into some of the studies backing up the mapping idea.
Yet the mind is not just capable of conceptual abstraction but also flexibility—it can represent a wide range of concepts. To be able to do this, the regions of the brain involved need to be able to switch between concepts without any informational cross-contamination: It wouldn’t be ideal if our concept for bird, for example, were affected by our concept for car.
It will be when I finally get the flying car I've been promised.
Scientists still need to experimentally verify the link between the hippocampus and higher-order cognitive functions in humans. fMRI studies like the ones from the group in Oxford are, as yet, only suggestive.
I'm just including this here for anyone who's still with me. This isn't settled science; just an interesting idea with some evidence for it.
One reason the concept is intriguing is the potential impact on AI development:
Gärdenfors’ theory highlights a fruitful path, not only for cognitive scientists, but for neurologists and machine-learning researchers. It is a kind of incomplete, generic sketch on a canvas that invites refinement and elaboration. Cognitive spaces are, as Gärdenfors and Bellmund put it, a “domain-general format for human thinking,” an “overarching framework” that can help unravel the causes of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, and “to inform novel architectures in artificial intelligence.”
Oh, yeah, and also to help us deal with brain dysfunction. Maybe we could even figure out how to get more people to appreciate science.
All great responses yesterday! Though I have to admit I'm just a little disappointed that no one said "sliced bread." Let's see, we have:
The Human Genome Project -- while I wouldn't consider that an invention, it's certainly an innovation, and a major one at that. As Sumojo noted, it has improved human life to a vast extent.
Sterilization -- Lazy Writer est 4/24/2008 pointed out that the idea that implements and people should be, you know, clean, that's a big deal. Saved a lot of lives. I don't know why they didn't think of it sooner, to be honest; it shouldn't require knowledge of microorganisms to know that dirty things make people sick.
Writing, as per Zhen -- I think I did a blog entry a while back on that subject. Or maybe a newsletter? If not, I'll have to do one. This one's foundational, the almost-hidden basis for a multitude of other inventions.
Printing Press -- Paul noted that this extended the above to a wider audience.
Vaccinations (and beer!) -- Annette , I'm a big fan of both (though if I had to choose, it would be beer). Both have saved lives. No, I'm not joking -- as with the sterilization one above, the process of making beer required that water be boiled, which had the unintended (pre-germ theory) effect of destroying harmful germs. Beer, for much of human history, was often safer than water to drink.
And Wonder Queen Sox mostly reiterated other comments, but added "autocorrect," which I'd argue is a mixed blessing, but it's certainly made it easier for people. And yes, beer.
Now, given that it's me here, I'm really tempted to go with beer (and I will, in fact, go have a beer when I'm done posting this). There are suggestions out there that civilization is the result of people doing what needed to be done to make beer. Of course, whether "civilization" is, on balance, better or worse is arguable. (I'm arguing "better" because I like not having to hunt my dinner.) But in terms of Most Important Invention or Innovation, I'mma have to agree with writing. After all, without it, what would I do when I'm not drinking beer?
Oh, right, binge-watching Star Trek. But wait -- that show had scripts. No writing, no scripts, no Star Trek, and no blog entry on this or any other day -- a bleak alternate universe indeed. Maybe even just as bleak as one without beer. So this time the Merit Badge goes to Zhen . I'll send you the MB before I start drinking, promise!
Everyone else, thanks! Great comments, and there will be another opportunity in a few days.