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Rated: 18+ · Book · Personal · #1196512
Not for the faint of art.
Complex Numbers

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.

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November 7, 2020 at 12:02am
November 7, 2020 at 12:02am
I'm sorely tempted to respond to this prompt with "differential calculus" or "matrix algebra."

PROMPT November 7th

It's said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Describe something that you think is beautiful or attractive that someone else might consider unattractive or ugly.

But if I talked about those subjects then no one would read it. Hell, I probably lost half the potential readers just by mentioning them.

My first impulse, other than math (hey, where are you going?), was to describe my spirit animal, the turkey vulture. Majestic creatures they are, embodying the ideal of maximum gain from minimum effort, an efficiency that appeals to me as an engineer and a lazy person.

But objectively, those birds are ugly as hell.

Okay, not "objectively." There's no such thing as objective beauty or ugliness, and that's even before you get into the "beauty is only skin deep" cliché. But really, I don't know if even I would hang a photograph of a close-up of a turkey vulture's head in my living room.

There are, of course, certain things that are generally agreed upon to be aesthetically pleasing, such as the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, or, well, pretty much everything else in France with the possible exception of this apartment complex in Paris  , and that's still more attractive than anything I've ever seen in New Jersey except maybe the Statue of Liberty, which... oh, right, that's from France too.

You know what's pretty, though? Well, no, you probably won't agree with me, because that's the whole point of the prompt. But I think spiders are kinda elegant.

Not at first, of course. When I see a big damn spider, my reaction is the same as most peoples': aaaah get it away GET IT AWAY. But then my rational mind takes over (provided, of course, that the arachnid isn't preparing to chomp on me) and I can see their beauty: eight symmetric, articulated legs; multiple jeweled eyes; delicate mandibles that I definitely do not want to get too close to.

And then there's their webs. Not all spiders spin webs, of course, but I marvel at the evolutionary process, whatever it might have been, that led some spiders to be able to instinctively create those works of art. Yeah, I know, I'd think differently about them if I were a fly, and I really, really hate walking into one unexpectedly (because that's a good way to get munched on by a spider), but they captivate the eye just as effectively as they snare insects.

Not that I want to live with one or anything. But when they're outside, where they belong, and they don't sneak up on me, I'm fine with them; they spin their webs and eat the bugs and gleam in the sunlight.
November 6, 2020 at 12:03am
November 6, 2020 at 12:03am
I suspect I'm going to be an outlier here.

PROMPT November 6th

Would you ever take a trip to a place "off the grid?" Where would you go?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: HELL no.

Even longer answer with philosophy and life experience thrown in:

First of all, let's work out some underlying assumptions. I've driven through the stark deserts of Nevada and the sequestered mountains of Colorado, Washington State, and West Virginia. With Nevada in particular, it's possible to drive for hours without encountering civilization at all, or even mobile phone service. So I'm assuming, here, that by "trip" we mean something longer than a few hours, or even overnight. Also, by "off the grid," my mind jumps to those polar opposites: hippies and libertarians, each seeking a reprieve from what we call civilization for their own disparate purposes; there might be electricity, self-generated, or perhaps something even more primitive: survival in a pre-technological mode.

It's as if you've built yourself a mansion, and when you look at it, you decide, "nah, I'mma go live in a mud hut."

Fuck that.

I mean, hey, you do you. Obviously no one reading this is "off the grid" in any meaningful way, because to do so you had to access the internet, but I'm sure you've heard of the type of person I'm talking about: an acolyte of Thoreau, perhaps, or of some Eastern guru. It's not my intention, though, to disparage their way of life, or to insult the Amish, or rag on the Inuit; only to say that such a lifestyle is absolutely not for me.

But we're not talking about spending one's life cut off from the rest of the world, here; just "taking a trip." Even there, I have my limits.

I'm only alive right now because of technology. If not for medical science in particular, I'd be dead at least thrice over: once from complications of bronchitis when I was sixteen years old (resolved with a course of antibiotics), once from some weird infection of the optic nerve whose name escapes me right now but could have spread to my brain (again, antibiotics), and once from a heart attack (angioplasty and stents). At the same time, I'm perfectly aware that technology has its dark side: pollution, microplastics, toxic waste dumps, auto accidents, Justin Bieber. Still, on balance, I've already lived longer than I would have in a pre-technological era. I'll take that trade-off.

Now, again, don't get me wrong; I understand full well that some people feel the need to escape civilization for a time, going camping or whatever. I understand, yes, but it's not for me. I could probably spend one night without my CPAP machine, for example (and, last night, I was forced to do so because my nose was doing its Snotagara Falls impression), but after one night without it, I'm boned. But even absent that technological marvel, I've never enjoyed nor sought out camping for the sake of camping. I mean, sure, I did it some when I was younger, but I can't say I ever enjoyed it; I always wanted to get back to electric lights and books and my computer (this was even before the internet was a thing) and, primarily, heated rooms and showers.

Hell. I spent a shitload of money on a whole-house generator because I can't be arsed to go without electricity for extended periods of time, and we get power outages here. I excuse it by saying I need it for my CPAP and a foundation drain sump pump (it occurred to me one day that power outages usually coincide with the times when I desperately need the foundation drain to work), but it also keeps my internet connection on.

And now? Now I have personal goals that require me being connected to the internet on a daily basis. This blog, for one. I have written in it every day so far this year; in eight more weeks, absent a serious illness and/or the coming collapse of Western society, I will have written a blog entry every single day. Though... it's worth noting that, had this year gone as originally planned, there would have been gaps -- a trip to Europe and a trip to a dude ranch in Colorado; in both cases, I still wouldn't have been "off the grid," but I probably couldn't have been arsed to worry about blogging.

For another, I've got a good streak going on Duolingo -- 435 days as of yesterday. For those unfamiliar with the platform, that means I've done language lessons every day for well over a year. Now, a streak isn't really all that important; what's important is that I keep learning the language, but I'm obsessive enough to want to keep the streak going as long as possible. Doing lessons daily helps me learn and retain more of the language than if I only did it sporadically.

And yes, the internet can be poisonous. I think I avoid the worst of it, like Twitbook. But I have a thirst for knowledge and learning, and an insatiable curiosity, and the greatest marvel the world has ever created is the ability for us to learn about pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want. YouTube videos on quantum mechanics. Treatises on ethics. Where we stand on figuring out our universe. Chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, cosmology, music, astronomy, psychology, history, philosophy, comedy, geology, art, literature... sure, sometimes I have to weed out the falsehoods and be critical about things, but like any skill, one gets better at it over time (at least I hope so). I trust that my blog entries when I'm not doing the 30DBC reflect this curiosity.

I wouldn't trade all that for time in the wilderness, not even for a single week. Okay, maybe for a day or two, because that too would satisfy my curiosity, but that's my limit.

All of this, of course, means that I will be utterly useless in our impending civil war and subsequent breakdown of society. I have only rudimentary survival skills outside of a technological milieu. I'm okay with that; like I said, I've been living on borrowed time since I was 16 years old. There are worse things than dying, in my view, and being stuck without technology is one of them.

So enjoy your camping trip or your sojourn in Antarctica or visit to Siberia or whatever. No, really, if that's your thing, go for it; I look forward to reading about it and seeing the pictures and/or videos (as long as the videos aren't vertical) on the internet. I'll watch the mansion for you while you're away.
November 5, 2020 at 12:01am
November 5, 2020 at 12:01am
What's the point of temptation if you have to resist it all the time? Tonight, I'm giving in to temptation with my response to this prompt.

PROMPT November 5th

Imagine the year is 2030. Write about what has happened in your life over the last decade in the past tense.

This past decade has been the longest century of my life.

It started, of course, with 2020. I remember the sayings well: "This year sucks." "Will this year ever be over?" "And we thought 2016 was bad." All posted on the internet, of course.

I miss the internet.

I miss computers and smartphones.

Hell, I miss electricity.

I tried to warn them, you know. Every time someone started talking about looking forward to 2021, I'd point out that things were only going to get worse. I didn't make a lot of friends, but that's the fun thing about being a pessimist: either you're wrong, in which case you feel good because something better happened; or you're right, in which case you get to be smug about being right.

Silly me. I thought I was preparing for the worst.

I never expected to actually survive.

The pandemic was bad enough. Then there were the riots. And the flooding. And the hypercanes. And the water shortages (which would have been amusingly ironic, considering the floods, but I stopped laughing after the first time I saw the tide of dead bodies washed up from a tsunami) that killed millions outright and displaced billions, triggering apocalyptic warfare.

I don't think anyone used nukes, but I can't be sure. Not around me, obviously. But the sunsets turned bright crimson for a while: dust kicked up by nuclear detonations? Or simple volcanic ash? All I know is the skies glared white in the day and the stars shone only dimly at night, and the hottest years on record got replaced with the coldest weather I'd ever encountered. I meandered south, hoping to be where it's warm, but the murder hornets and plague mosquitoes had the same idea, so I turned back to the frozen zones.

I always joked about how nuclear winter and a drastic decrease in population would be a surefire solution to global warming. Ha. Ha. Very funny. I was such a comedian.

I was able to scrounge, for a while. Fresh food became a distant memory. Plenty of cans, though. Dried beans and rice. After a few years, even in the cold, those staples started to go bad.

How did I manage to survive when so many fortunate others perished? I still don't know. Maybe I didn't. Maybe there is a hell after all, and I'm in it.

If not, then let it be known that my penultimate action in life was to leave this note where, maybe, one day, someone will find it.

I saw a bear out there. It looked hungry. Farewell.
November 4, 2020 at 3:27pm
November 4, 2020 at 3:27pm
No, I do not have a hangover; thanks for asking so loudly.

PROMPT November 4th

Details, details, details... Pick something in your view and describe it in as precise detail as possible without naming what the object is. See if you can get your readers to guess what object you're describing.

I did, however, wake up with a runny nose. This happens to me from time to time; while I'm not technically allergic to anything (except maybe an obscure ingredient in some protein bars), dust or pollen can irritate my sinuses just like with many actual humans.

But, of course, these days, a runny nose can be a death sentence, or worse, so my mind immediately leaped to: Could it be Trump-mumps? It feels just like every other time Nature has a good laugh at the expense of my mustache (it's hard to catch all the drips), but my best friend tested positive for Covfefe-19 the other day. Fortunately, she's basically on the other side of the country and I haven't seen her in person for months, so I couldn't have caught it from her. Still, that's where my mind went; it's 2020 and part of me would welcome the sweet release of death, but I'd prefer it not to take two weeks on a ventilator to get there. Anyway, I even took my temperature and, if anything, it's a bit low, I'm guessing from all the ethanol from last night that my system is currently frantically trying to process.

And yet, my nose is running like Niagara Falls, and it's annoying as hell.

All of this is to not only kvetch about it -- my blog, I can kvetch if I want -- but make the object from the prompt maybe easier to guess.

Its basic shape is a rectangular parallelepiped, which I can spell just fine but don't ask me to pronounce it. Wait, that won't help much, will it? It's a right rectangular prism, a rectangular cuboid... oh hell, it's a three-dimensional object with six rectangular faces, the parallel planes of which are congruent. The regularity of the container is broken by a large oval cutout in its cardboard. This morning, it was completely full of soft white pieces of flimsy paper, half of which are gone now because, at the risk of repeating myself, my nose absolutely will not stop running and no antihistamine or decongestant has ever done a goddamn thing for me.

The box is printed with artwork: stylized flowers. I'm pretty damn sure this is to make it so that people will buy more of these things faster, because we're highly suggestible, and what is one thing that triggers people with allergies? Flowers. That's what. It doesn't matter if the flowers are real or just pictures; hell, people have gone into sneezing fits just looking at oil paintings of flowers.

And the ones that don't have flowers on them? Grass. Ugh.

I guess they don't print them with pictures of ragweed because that would be too obvious.

So this thing's in my field of view, within easy arm's reach, and will remain so until Nature decides to stop messing with my head. Literally.

To make matters worse, I use a CPAP machine to sleep. If I don't use it, I don't sleep well, and I invariably wake up with a headache and a scratchy throat, not to mention everyone within five counties can hear me snoring. But if I do use it, it goes over only my nose. And right now, what's in my nose is desperately trying to escape, which makes wearing the damn mask that much more of a pain in the tuchis.

And yes, I know full well that lots of people have it worse than I do right now. That doesn't stop me from being irritated with the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse (his name is Minor Inconvenience; Famine, War, Death and Pestilence don't talk about him very much).

Chances are I'll do tomorrow's entry just after midnight, as usual. I couldn't do it last night because I was entirely drunk (as you have probably already intuited). But if I had, I would have missed the opportunity to describe this object and kvetch about my sinuses.
November 3, 2020 at 12:02am
November 3, 2020 at 12:02am
If there's one skill I've always had, it's the ability to keep my head above water.

PROMPT November 3rd

Write about a time when you were "thrown in the deep end." This can be taken literally or figuratively.

I mean the above both literally and figuratively, though these days, it seems "literally" serves double duty there.

I grew upspent my childhood near a large body of water. This was an estuary of the Potomac, which in turn is part of the Chesapeake Bay, which is essentially the flooded remnants of the Susquehanna River, submerged after the last Ice Age. That far from the ocean, the water is usually fresh, not saline. This matters because I've been to the Dead Sea, so I know from experience that it's easier to float in water with a high salt content; the point is that when I was a kid I wasn't overweight and could have easily sunk in the estuary. But I didn't, because one of the first things my dad taught me was how to swim.

And he did it the old-fashioned way, like he did most things: took me out to where he could stand but I couldn't, and let me go. It worked.

I never became a strong swimmer, but I could dog-paddle with the best of them, so the "deep end" never really fazed me. Of course, later in life, my density only decreased (fat is less dense than muscle) so floating only became easier. Exactly the opposite of walking on land.

Which is not to say I'm in any way graceful in the water, which leads me to the "figurative" response to the prompt.

One of the few artistic skills I had, besides some small ability at writing, was photography. I use the past tense, because I don't do it much these days. Oh, sure, I snap pics with my mobile from time to time like most people, and I retain some sense of framing and composition, but I don't worry too much about other technical aspects of photography. But back in college, long before everyone walked around with a camera in their pocket, I was good enough to use it to earn beer money.

My foray into semi-professional photography took two paths: photojournalism, which at the University newspaper took the form of not only random pictures of stuff going around on Grounds (that would be a "campus" anywhere but UVA), but also concert and sports photography; and also, I got hired by an actual professional photographer to document fraternity and sorority parties and, later, weddings. None of this paid a great deal, but like I said, beer money.

I like to think I was pretty good at it. My sports photos in particular were well-received, because I seemed to have a knack for knowing when something interesting was about to happen in a sportsball game. And okay, I also had a really fast automatic... whatever it was called. A thing that advanced the film faster than my thumb could. I don't even remember what the damn thing was called, it's been so long. Of course, it's archaic now because there's no film to advance with digital photography, but back then it was a Big Deal. I also got really good at swapping out rolls of film. Point is, I could do stuff like follow a quarterback, shooting a frame every half a second or so, so the result was almost like video.

And yet, I'd never messed around with video, even when digital video started to become a thing. I just wasn't interested. Still-shot photography was my focus (pun absolutely intended) and I didn't want to stop (pun even more absolutely intended) doing that. The whole idea made me shutter (okay, last photography pun, I promise).

So when my party-and-wedding-photographer boss came to me and said, "I have another photographer that can handle this wedding, but no videographer, so I need you to handle the filming," I gulped.

(Obviously this was a long time ago so I don't remember the exact words used but hopefully I'm conveying the gist of it.)

"I've never done video," I said. Which isn't entirely true; I'd messed around with my dad's movie camera once, a tiny thing that was light and easy for a kid to handle, but the results had been... unfortunate, which is one reason I never took up cinema.

"It's okay," said the boss. "You know how a wedding goes. Just concentrate on the bride and groom. Mostly the bride. Maybe get some dancing at the reception. That sort of thing."

"Really, I have no idea what I'm doing."

"You're a great photographer. This isn't so different. Besides, it pays more than stills."

The combination of money and flattery always works on me, so I agreed.

So come the day of the wedding, he hands me one of those fifty-pound movie cameras that dig into one's shoulder. Hey, that was the height of technology in the 80s, I suppose. It even had gyro-stabilizers, from what I recall, which meant that I wouldn't have to work too hard to keep the camera steady... but panning was an absolute chore. I could explain the physics of that, but experiencing it was something else entirely.

There I was, then, with a camera that weighed almost as much as I did (at the time), one that wanted to turn at weird angles because of the gyroscopes, and whose controls I had to figure out on the fly: Focus here. Zoom there. Aperture with this ring. Also, it had the old-fashioned viewfinder, because, if I recall correctly, LED screens were barely an itch in some inventor's pants at the time. What that meant was that I had to keep the thing glued to my eye, which in turn meant that my peripheral vision was shot; if something happened to my right, I'd only find out about it too late, and then I'd have to pan the bloody bulky contraption over in that direction (boss said he'd edit out the twisty parts later).

And, just to emphasize this once more, this was a wedding. It may not be a once-in-a-lifetime event for people these days (or even in the 80s), but there's pressure to get things right, because it's not like you can get all the guests back together in a month for a reshoot.

My friends, I tried. Shoved into the deep end, I flailed around and attempted to keep my head above water, but goddamn if I didn't sink like a stone (the fifty-pound movie camera didn't help there).

No amount of editing could fix the result. Shit was out of focus. Zoom was all over the place. And in spite of the stabilizers, the video ended up shaky -- which could have been passed off as "artistic license" in just ten short years, but that the time, it was an absolute ruin.

Now, obviously, it's been over 30 years now, and that camera was probably not as heavy or as unwieldy as I remember. Memory is funny that way. But the result, I'm absolutely certain of: abject failure.

He paid me anyway, because he was that kind of boss. But obviously I never again shot video at a wedding. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Well, the occasional thing on my phone, which is much easier to use (technology has come a long way in 30 years), but I'm still not happy with the results.

Oh, I'm sure that, given time and practice, I could shoot a decent video. I would at least know to hold the fucking camera sideways; the only thing I hate worse than present-tense narrative in fiction is vertical video. But the idea just doesn't hold much interest for me.

I still take still pictures sometimes, though I wouldn't bestow the title of "photography" on the results. Scroll through my phone gallery and it's like: beer, beer, brewery, beer menu, beer, beer, steak, mixed drink, cat, cat, cat, cat, cat, bottle of wine, bottle of scotch, beer, beer, tacos, beer, beer menu, brewery sign, beer, beer, beer, cat, cat, cat, cat...
November 2, 2020 at 12:01am
November 2, 2020 at 12:01am
I figured out long ago that everything -- well, almost everything -- that we humans create goes through four phases.

PROMPT November 2nd

Write about something you collect. If you don't collect anything, write about the collection of a friend or family member.

There are exceptions, of course. Perishables, for one; you want to consume those as fast as possible before they go bad. Strawberries, for example. After one day in the fridge, they become a biology project. Avocados have an approximately 15-second window between "too hard" and "rotten;" only once in my life have I seen a perfectly ripe avocado, and by the time I was done eating it, it was already turning black.

Art is another exception. Real art, great art, I mean, which can't be defined but "I know it when I see it." The Sistine Chapel ceiling is probably just as valuable now as it was when Mikey painted the sucker. Great care is taken to preserve works of art, because each is unique.

But for most mundane objects, the first phase is shiny and new and therefore valuable, while the second phase is when it's lost its luster and has become, in the common parlance, junk.

It's at the second phase that things get discarded, thrown away, scrapped, recycled. Few care about such objects, unless they hold some kind of sentimental value. Your mom throws away your comic book collection. You trade in your iPhone for the latest model and the earlier one becomes garbage. Entire neighborhoods are leveled to make way for a shiny new apartment complex or stadium, which, some decades from now, will in turn be demolished for something even newer and shinier.

But some things, should they survive, enter a third phase of their existence. Their contemporaries have mostly been destroyed, and they gradually become valuable again, for their uniqueness. And it doesn't matter what the book value of such a thing is. It could be a house, the last remaining example of its architectural style, a window into a bygone era. A street - when I was in Alexandria the other day, I walked along an alley of original cobblestones, preserved because there weren't many examples left of Colonial-era cobblestones. An antique automobile, all of the other vehicles from that long-scrapped assembly line having been wrecked or junked. Even something as relatively valueless as a beer can; I've seen entire collections of vintage beer cans, ones with pull-rings instead of tabs, even earlier ones that you had to use a pointy opener on.

It's always been my intention to preserve certain things through the second phase until they entered their third phase. My ex-wife put a stop to that. My stamp collection is gone. My book collection is severely diminished. I had a piece of the Berlin Wall that she thought was just another brick (cue Pink Floyd here), and a jar of fine ash from Mount St. Helens. All gone.

I can forgive her for a lot of things, but not for that.

Now, I'm the first to admit that I'm a bit of a hoarder, for that reason, but I've never kept old beer cans. I do have a couple of wine bottles of sentimental value, signed by the winemaker or something of that sort. But I do have a bit of a collection of shot glasses going on.

Shot glasses are easy to collect. They're generally not very expensive, and when I'm traveling, sometimes I'll pick one up at one of those tacky tourist shops. Dice on a glass from Vegas, or a seashell shot glass from Virginia Beach. A crude drawing of Bear Lodge (aka Devil's Tower) from a gift shop in Wyoming. One done in Navajo style that depicts the Four Corners location. Things of that sort.

I rarely use shot glasses, myself, and when I do it's a generic one just so I can properly portion out the ingredients of whatever alchemical concoction I get it in my head to try. Like, tomorrow, I expect to make a few that involve: two shot glasses' worth of vodka, one of Kahlua, one of Rumchata, pour into a glass with ice, top off with heavy cream. It's a riff on the White Russian so beloved of my role model, The Dude, from The Big Lebowski. Because it's an American creation with a Russian influence, I call it "The American Election," which is why I intend to throw a few together on Election Day.

Whether that will be to celebrate or drown my sorrows remains to be seen, but that's one of the many beautiful things about booze: it works for both.

But I digress.

There is, of course, the matter of the fourth phase. No matter how much we try, no matter what techniques we employ, even those items which have enjoyed some time in the third phase of their existence will, eventually, crumble into dust.

Some find that depressing. Not me. It means they're real, and to be celebrated. Things that are real will eventually pass into oblivion; anything that we think is eternal is but an illusion. Sure, some things will last longer than others (including, I would hope, my shot glasses, because glass is remarkably durable unless you break it on purpose), but eventually, entropy always wins. Until one day, far in the future, even entropy will stop and with it, time itself.

But that makes it all the more important to appreciate things while we have them.
November 1, 2020 at 12:02am
November 1, 2020 at 12:02am
Well, it's November now. Which means another round of 30DBC for me.

PROMPT November 1st

Write about something you want. Pick something that you don’t necessarily need, but would make you happy simply to have.

The first thing that comes to mind is a vaccine for... you know.

Not just for me, of course. I'm selfish, but I'm not that selfish. There are a lot of people suffering from this, both by having it and by having friends and family go through it, not to mention lost jobs and broken social networks. I'm fortunate for many reasons, but one of them is that no one I know in real life is sick... but then, I don't know too many people in real life anymore.

For myself, it might mean being able to travel again. I don't know if the foray I made to Alexandria last week was a good thing or not. I mean, I had a good time overall (except for that goddamned broken vending machine), but in a way, that just makes it worse. Winter is coming, as the saying goes, and with it an end to being able to sit on a patio and dine and drink beer in relative safety. More people congregating indoors, masked or not, means more chances for getting sick. I'm probably going to have to go back into hermit mode for a few months, which does not make me happy.

Whether travel in itself would make me "happy" or not is an open question, though.

I pretty much have everything I need and most of what I want (that flying car continues to elude me), and I'm self-aware enough to know that "stuff" doesn't make me happy; at best, it relieves the tedium of day-to-day existence. Hell, at this point, it might make me happier to dispose of a good bit of "stuff." Not to the point of going all minimalist or anything, but stuff does tend to accumulate.

But I don't think of happiness as a goal to strive for. I mean, sure, there's that line in the Declaration of Independence, that pesky "pursuit of happiness" thing, but I have other motivations. Besides, I'm pretty sure that the word had different connotations   250 years ago. I find that happiness is elusive in pursuit of it for its own sake; rather, it's a byproduct of other activities.

And I'm pretty simple, when it comes down to it. A good beer, some good music, a good book (all, of course, dependent upon my own subjective determination of "good") will do it. As will a few other things, like after I'm sick or in pain and suddenly I realize that I'm not; it's really my baseline physiological state, but feeling bad just emphasizes how good feeling ordinary is.

Hell, I don't even like the word. "Happy." It comes from the same Old English root as the word "happen." As in, I see it as something that happens to you, like winning the lottery (which might or might not make one happy). "Hap," apparently, did have the denotation of luck or fortune - both good and bad. The two French words I know for the equivalent concept are: content(e) and heureu(x/se) -- the latter of which also has connotations of good luck or fortune, and the former of which it's so far impossible for me to read without thinking of the equivalent word in English, which is not exactly a synonym for "happy," but connotes (to me, anyway) a more general, less exuberant feeling of wellness.

So I don't know if owning a flying car would actually make me happy or not, but I'm willing to take the chance.
October 31, 2020 at 4:04am
October 31, 2020 at 4:04am
I can't be arsed to riff off a link today. For the first time since March, I'm away from home and staying in a way-too-expensive hotel from whose window I can see a sliver of the Potomac. Also, the vending machine doesn't work.

At least the restaurant was good and had patio heaters for outdoor seating. They had scotch. Yes, I'm just now waking up from passing out from drinking almost enough scotch.

While I'm complaining about lodging (which, really, I shouldn't be, because I should just feel lucky that I finally get a small change of scenery, but in my condition I just want to complain about everything, including the fact that I continue to see today's full moon referred to as a "Blue Moon," which is WRONG), can I just say that if I spend the money to stay at something just a bit fancier than a Super 8, could they possibly put goddamned tea in the room? I don't even need the fancy artisan stuff. Hell, right now I'd settle for shitty-ass Lipton. Not everyone is a coffee drinker, but coffee drinkers get free coffee, and what do I get? I get having to put on my pants and a mask, trudge down to the lobby (because the vending machine is broken) and buy a way-too-expensive Coke Zero to get my needed caffeine to offset my incipient hangover.

Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to remember to bring my room key. One loses one's travel habits after seven months of moping about at home.

Later this morning comes the whole purpose of my travel, which is an hour and a half walking tour of Alexandria with a focus on the city's history of brewing. You'd never know it these days, though, since right now the nearest brewery is four miles away, and while it's big enough that I've had their beers before, I'd never visited Port City Brewing Company. Apparently, at Port City, they reserve the patio heaters for groups, and us lone wanderers have to huddle alone in the frigid shade. Worse, they're not even doing tasting flights, and you have to use a crappy smartphone app to order. How am I supposed to enjoy their full range of beers if I have to order them one at a time and not ask the bartender about them?

Anyway, I'm going to try to get a bit more sleep, but I didn't want to break my blogging streak, so here it is. And here's a link for you to laugh at: https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/food/people-who-pronounce-it-pan-au-shock-oh...
October 30, 2020 at 12:14am
October 30, 2020 at 12:14am
Do you want to live forever?

What if We Could Live for a Million Years?  
Vastly extended life spans would bring dazzling opportunities—and daunting risks

Well, a million years isn't forever. Not even close. Not even in the same ballpark. Not even the same sport.

Recently, scientists discovered bacteria that had been buried beneath the ocean floor for more than a hundred million years and was still alive.

This sounds like openers on a really bad horror novel.

What would change if we could live for even just a million years? Two thoughts immediately come to mind. First, tenure in academia would have to be capped.

Oh, sure, the first thing I think of is academic tenure. Sure. Don't tell me, let me guess. "Abraham (Avi) Loeb is the Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University."

Quelle surprise.

Second, a birthday cake cannot hold a million candles.

And sure, that's the second thing I'd think of, too. Uh huh.

With advances in bioscience and technology, one can imagine a post-COVID-19 future when most diseases are cured and our life span will increase substantially.

Science fiction has imagined such things for at least as long as I've been alive, which is not even an eyeblink compared to a million years.

Given the luxury of pursuing longer-term plans, we could accomplish more ambitious tasks. We could decide to care more about our planetary environment and interpersonal cooperation, since pollution or hostilities carry long-term dangers.

Nah. We'd just find ways to make sex kinkier.

But even with shrewd strategies, survival is by no means guaranteed. For example, the known correlation between brain size and body weight did not make dinosaurs smart enough to deflect the asteroid that killed them.

That's... what? Loeb is an astronomer, not a biologist, and I'm neither, but while brain size may or may not be statistically correlated with body weight, it doesn't seem to be correlated with those qualities that we deem "intelligence." Octopuses are intelligent, though not technological, and don't even have the same kind of brain that we do. Or that dolphins do.

Increasing our fertility period in proportion to our life span will bring the risk of overpopulating Earth.

Do you want to tell him, or should I?

Alternatively, travel ports could launch people into space to balance the birth rate and maintain a terrestrial population suitable for the available supply of food and energy.

More science fiction. First, we have to find places for them to live, and we still haven't found such places. It's entirely possible that we could create them, but that's science fiction right now, too. (I'm not ragging on SF. I love SF. But I have some idea about what's plausible and what isn't.)

The good news is that over a lifetime as long as a million years, space travel can take us to the nearest stars using existing chemical rockets. It would take merely 100,000 years to arrive at the habitable planet around Proxima Centauri with a space vehicle that travels at the speed of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

First off, habitable? Perhaps he knows something I don't; after all, like I said, his specialty is astronomy. Last I heard, there is indeed a planet (or possibly a number of planets) in the presumed habitable zone around PC, but merely being in a habitable zone of a star doesn't make a planet habitable by humans, or give it compatible biology if there is life there, which is still an open question. Venus and Mars are both technically in the Sun's habitable zone, and they'd require massive terraforming efforts.

Second, the logisitical hurdles involved in crafting a livable spaceship that will last 100K years, or even 50K or 10K (assuming we could increase the speed, which isn't out of the question), are formidable. Could we overcome them? Probably. Would you like to live inside a spinning spaceship for thousands of years? I wouldn't. All this changes if we manage to invent warp drive, of course.

And the passengers will have to maintain a stable mindset for their journey’s goal and not lose faith, like a fisherman who, after a long hiatus without finding any fish, asks whether “the real purpose of fishing is catching fish.”

Third, if I spend 100,000 years on a massive, self-contained, self-sustaining spaceship, I'd be sorely tempted to stay there rather than risking the unknowns of a planet that may or may not be compatible with human life.

What does a mature technological civilization look like after such a long time? Can it survive the destructive forces that its technologies unleash? One way to find out is to search for technosignatures of alien civilizations, dead or alive. Inevitably, all forms of life eventually disappear. The universe cools as it expands, and all stars will die 10 trillion years from now. In the distant future, everything will freeze; there will be no energy left to support life.

Bypassing the discussion of the possibility of finding technologically sophisticated alien life -- I've harped on that nonsense before -- even if we find some, there's absolutely no guarantee that it will illuminate our own path. Alien life is, by definition, alien, not large men in forehead prosthetics growling at each other in Klingon.

In principle, one could imagine a life that lasts a billion years, during which stars turn on and off in the sky just like light bulbs. Against the backdrop of that long-term perspective, our current concerns about the world would seem as naive as the first thought in the head of a newborn baby.

Would our sense of time continue to alter? A year in your 50s is noticeably shorter than a year in your teens. This says nothing profound about time itself; it's either a result of a year being a proportionally shorter fraction of one's lived life, or related to the idea that new experiences tend to stretch our perception of time and we have fewer new experiences as we get older. Or a bit of both. Either way, it's not like we'd probably experience a day during one's 100,000th year of life as we experience a minute now.

In any case, this is all pure speculation -- which, don't mistake me, is a good thing. Consider the most common causes of death   here in the US:

Heart disease: 655,381
Cancer: 599,274
Accidents (unintentional injuries): 167,127
Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 159,486
Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 147,810
Alzheimer’s disease: 122,019
Diabetes: 84,946
Influenza and pneumonia: 59,120
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 51,386
Intentional self-harm (suicide): 48,344

In the past, this list would have been different. Childbirth might have been on it, for example. Or measles or something. We've reduced the impact of those things, letting us live long enough so that heart disease and cancer could climb to the top spots.

So, say we somehow eliminate heart disease, preferably without forcing everyone to adopt a plant-based diet and never smoke. Then you have cancer in the top spot. Okay, we've made great strides against cancer, and I can believe that if we last long enough as a society, we might be able to do something about it.

That might put "accidents" as the leading cause of death. And I don't see how to fully eliminate those, not without taking away some of the things that make life worth living. Driving, to name one common cause of accidental death. We each have a 1/100 chance, or thereabouts  , of dying as a result of an automobile accident over the course of our current lifespan. Sure, that's lower than it used to be, and could probably go lower, but the only way to eliminate it entirely is to ban cars (self-driving cars might increase those odds, but no transportation system is perfectly safe). Point being, and I can't be arsed to do the probabilistic calculation here, but all else being equal, people living in a hypothetical world free of disease have a really fucking slim chance of making it to 1000, let alone 1,000,000.

Of course, all else would not be equal, but the point is there's no way to avoid death from accident entirely. Hell, people have died stepping out of the shower at home, or falling down stairs, so even staying home has its risks -- risks that are cumulative year over year, making it extraordinarily unlikely that, even having eliminated disease, anyone would make it to a million years old.

Oh, sure, one can imagine technologies that mitigate those risks. But attempting to eliminate them entirely reaches a point of diminishing returns.

So while these things are fun to think about, let's not take the ideas too seriously. We're a little more complex than bacteria.
October 29, 2020 at 12:02am
October 29, 2020 at 12:02am
Science is still surprising us. This is a good thing.

The Sun Is Stranger Than Astrophysicists Imagined  
The sun radiates far more high-frequency light than expected, raising questions about unknown features of the sun’s magnetic field and the possibility of even more exotic physics.

Though, actually, it shouldn't be that surprising, since it was only 100 years ago that someone   had the idea that maybe the sun (like other stars) generates its power through the process of nuclear fusion. That was only an idea at the time, but it turned out to be -- probably -- the right one. Point is, 100 years isn't that long in the grand scheme of things, and we should still be figuring stuff out.

A decade’s worth of telescope observations of the sun have revealed a startling mystery: Gamma rays, the highest frequency waves of light, radiate from our nearest star seven times more abundantly than expected.

Just don't tell Marvel Studios, or they'll reboot Fantastic Four again.

The surplus light, the gap in the spectrum, and other surprises about the solar gamma-ray signal potentially point to unknown features of the sun’s magnetic field, or more exotic physics.

Again, this is a good thing. Oh, not for astronauts, obviously; gamma rays suck. My understanding is that our atmosphere and magnetic field generally keep the gamma rays from wreaking havoc here on Earth, but once you get beyond Low Earth Orbit, you don't want them zipping through your body. No, you won't turn into the Hulk; you'll just die horribly. But for scientists, hell, here's some potentially new physics to explore.

“It’s amazing that we were so spectacularly wrong about something we should understand really well: the sun,” said Brian Fields, a particle astrophysicist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

And why, exactly, is it that we "should" understand the sun really well? I mean, that's why we point instruments at the accursed thing. Because we don't understand it as well as we could.

Not only is the gamma-ray signal far stronger than a decades-old theory predicts; it also extends to much higher frequencies than predicted, and it inexplicably varies across the face of the sun and throughout the 11-year solar cycle.

I mean, sure, we have lots of evidence to suggest that sunshine is ultimately caused by the fusion of hydrogen to helium, a process that releases a metric shitton of energy. That's easy enough to understand. It's the details, and how the energy transfers from the core of the sun to its surface, and what happens above the surface, that we're still working on.

And Seckel, Stanev and Gaisser’s model said nothing about any dip. According to Seckel, it’s difficult to imagine how you would end up with a deep, narrow dip in the gamma-ray spectrum by starting with cosmic rays, which have a smooth spectrum of energies. It’s hard to get dips in general, he said: “It’s much easier to get bumps than dips. If I have something that comes out of the sun, OK, that’s an extra channel. How do I make a negative channel out of that?”

Well, that sounds like an absorption spectrum to me. But I find it highly unlikely that they didn't consider that possibility. Still, you'd think the article would at least mention it, if only to rule it out for nerds like me.

Besides, what exactly is doing the absorbing?

They’ve long suspected that the sun’s core might harbor dark matter — and that the dark matter particles, after being drawn in and trapped by gravity, might be dense enough there to annihilate each other. But how could gamma rays produced by annihilating dark matter in the core avoid scattering before escaping the sun? Attempts to link the gamma-ray signal to dark matter “seem like a Rube Goldberg-type thing,” Seckel said.

I'd imagine that this is because we don't know what dark matter really is. That's why it's called "dark matter" and not "stuff we understand."

I've been saying for a while now that the whole dark matter and dark energy thing reads like the luminiferous ether that was proposed as an interstellar medium before Einstein et al. showed that entirely new physics was involved. Not in the details, of course, but that it's a placeholder for, again, "stuff we don't understand."

The sun is the most extensively studied star, yet its magnetic field — generated by the churning maelstrom of charged particles inside it — remains poorly understood, leaving us with a blurry picture of how stars operate.

I would hope it was the most extensively studied star. It's not like we can go haring off to study other stars up close. Yet. But it's also notoriously difficult to study. Want to know what Mars is made of? Send a robot with sampling tools. Want to know what the moon is made of? Send astronauts, bring crackers and wine. Want to know what the sun is made of? Don't get too close. Figure it out from out here where our instruments won't melt. Much.

A solar panel malfunction kept the Fermi Telescope mostly pointed away from the sun for the last year...

Irony, thy name is Science.

Scientists are also eager to see whether the spatial pattern of gamma rays changes relative to 11 years ago, since cosmic rays remain positively charged but the sun’s north and south poles have reversed.

Misleading, thy name is Science Reporting. Of course cosmic rays are positively charged; they're basically protons moving at relativistic speeds. While electricity and magnetism are of course related, the charge on a hydrogen ion (proton) is independent of the direction of a magnetic field.

Since NASA is publicly funded, “anybody can download it if they want to glance through,” said Linden, who downloads Fermi’s new data almost every day.

No, thanks. I'll rely on science reporting, with all of its flaws. I'm smart but I'm not that smart.

“The worst that can happen here is that we find out that the sun is stranger and more beautiful than we ever imagined,” Beacom said. “And the best that could happen is we discover some kind of new physics.”

Oh, I can think of much worse things that could happen "Sorry, guys, the sun's going to blow up in 10 years instead of 5 billion. Our bad."

But no, I find that unlikely in the extreme. It's exciting to learn new stuff, especially about the thing that, I reluctantly admit, enables life to thrive on Earth.

I suppose I should explain the title of this entry for any younger readers...

Blinded by the light
Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Woah, but mama that's where the fun is
October 28, 2020 at 12:10am
October 28, 2020 at 12:10am
This article is more than two years old now, but nothing's really changed about its subject matter (even as everything else has).

How Your Credit Score Is Calculated  
Here's the formula for success no matter which model lenders use.

I'm linking this because there is a great deal of false, including dangerously false, information out there on the subject.

As a side note, this one's only going to be applicable to US readers. I have no idea how other countries do this sort of thing.

Your credit score—the three-digit number that creditors use to evaluate the risk when they lend you money—helps determine which loans or interest rates you qualify for and how much you’ll pay. Landlords, utilities and cell-phone companies may also check your score before doing business with you.

This may seem unfair, but it's a much fairer system than "Sure, I'll lend you money; you look like a fine, upstanding white man."

Both grade your creditworthiness on a scale of 300 to 850, with a score of 750 or above generally considered good enough to qualify for the best rates.

One thing that all of these scores have in common is that they don't share their exact methodology used for calculation. Still, there are some things that we know, and this article goes into them.

On-time payments. Both FICO and VantageScore prize on-time payments above any other factor. As long as you pay at least the minimum due each month, your payment history will stay clean (though you will rack up interest on your balance).

The best way to handle revolving credit is to pay off the entire balance every month -- effectively, use it as a debit card. Some people don't have the discipline for this, though, and that's something that it's good to know about yourself. One falsehood I heard is that you *have* to carry a balance; this is utter tripe.

Every credit card I know provides a grace period before charging interest. A balance that is paid off in full, on time, shows up as credit use on the reports, because the scoring people check it at some interval. You can make a charge on, say, November 1, which doesn't show up on the statement until November 20, and that statement is due on, say, December 15 -- effectively an interest-free loan for a month and a half.

Miss a payment, though, and you're in danger of lowering your credit score -- not to mention incurring penalty interest charges, which are usurious. Pay only the minimum payment on time, and there's no effect on the score, but then you start incurring regular interest charges, which are usually just shy of usurious.

But in a pinch, at least make the minimum payment if you care about your credit score.

Limits on your credit usage. Your credit utilization ratio is the amount you owe on your credit cards as a proportion of the total limit on each card, as well as the total limit for all of your cards in aggregate. VantageScore advises consumers to keep their utilization ratios below 30%, but “the lower the better,” says Barry Paperno...

Now, I'm not 100% sure about this, but my understanding is that, unlike with late payments, a ding to your score doesn't hang around very long after you have a high utilization rate once.

Still, as the article suggests, it's better to have a low utilization rate than a nonexistent one. Some people think their credit must be fine if they don't have any balances or don't use credit. Nothing could be further from the truth; this is like saying your muscles must be fine even though you don't exercise.

There are, of course, people who choose to avoid credit altogether. That's a valid choice. Just know that this could limit your options, if, say, you try to rent somewhere that does credit checks.

A long track record. This slice of your score considers the age of your oldest account and the average age of all your accounts.

Unfortunately, this is just one of those things that takes time to build up. Fortunately, it's not a huge percentage of your score. Some people get tempted to close older credit cards they haven't used in a while; this may be a good idea if said account charges an annual fee, but there's a card I've had since the early noughties, with no fee, that I remind myself to use on just a small purchase every year -- because I've had issuers cancel cards on me that I don't use.

Why did I apply for them if I don't use them? Well, for a while there, they had promotional things -- like, spend $2000 in three months and you get $100 cash back sort of thing. They had no fee, and the cards were otherwise useless to me, so I met the minimum, paid it off every month to ensure I wouldn't get an interest charge, and then stopped using the card once I got the $100 check. It was a free $100. Who doesn't want a free $100?

(I think they all told each other about my one weird trick, because I don't get those cherry deals anymore.)

Other factors. A mix of revolving and installment loans also boosts your score. But don’t overdo it when applying for new credit.

This is one thing that keeps my credit score from being perfect; I no longer have a mortgage or auto loan. And the small difference it makes -- 10% of the total score -- is in no way worth the interest I'd pay, even though mortgage and auto loans tend to be much lower interest than credit cards or other revolving accounts.

Every once in a while, I get 0% financing offers, for example, I had to replace my home's HVAC unit a few years ago. That sort of thing usually counts as an installment loan, but some companies run it through their credit card, which makes it just another revolving credit account. If you go for 0% financing, though, make damn sure you never miss a payment -- because the 0% is usually contingent on paying the entire installment, on time, every month. Depends on the terms, of course, but in general, miss one and you end up paying a lot more than you were quoted.

And with cars, e.g., sometimes you get a choice: 0% financing, or some amount of cash back. Say it's $2000 for the sake of discussion. Take your car price and subtract $2000 -- the result is the actual cost of the vehicle, and the $2000 represents interest. That may or may not be worth it, depending on the terms and your own situation, as well as what interest rate that $2000 comes to, amortized over the rate of the loan, and compared to the standard interest rates for an auto loan. Fair warning, though: that will involve math.

Most people are better off paying less money for a used car, anyway.

Having “hard inquiries” on your credit report from potential lenders will temporarily shave points from your score.

Which is one reason it's a bad idea to open a bunch of credit cards in a short span, even if they're offering the free $100 or whatever. But, again -- not a big factor. The biggest factors, by far, as presented in the article, are on-time payments and low utilization rate.

One of these days, maybe I'll tackle misinformation about taxes, for instance, why that refund check is a Bad Thing. But enough for now.
October 27, 2020 at 12:05am
October 27, 2020 at 12:05am
This one's been kicking around on my list since May, and I'm just now getting to it. Still mostly relevant, unfortunately.

I've linked stuff from David Wong before. This is another of his, and as usual, it's insightful.

At the time of this writing, we're about seven weeks away from what may be the most important cinematic release of my lifetime: TENET, the Christopher Nolan movie that appears to be about handsome modern wizards who use time magic to suck bullets into their guns:

Insightful, but not always right. I saw Tenet. It was... pretty. But not very good, and I could barely see the plot around all the holes. To be fair, I was pretty drunk when I saw it, so it's entirely possible I missed something, but as a long-time consumer of science fiction, I wasn't impressed.

But we should treasure it for another reason: It may be the last big movie that ignores COVID-19 altogether.

And that's truly a scary thought. I don't really buy it, though.

It takes place in a world that has never heard of COVID-19 and I want Hollywood to know that I'm fine if every upcoming movie takes place in that same world.

On that point, I absolutely agree.

1. We Don't Need Movies (Or Even Plotlines) About The Pandemic

Maybe you saw headlines about how Michael Bay is working on a COVID-19 movie (or maybe they'll coyly call the pandemic something else, to make it even more obnoxious). This is a dire example of a creator badly misunderstanding what people want out of him.

Yep. Bay is associated with massive explosions for a reason. I go to the movies to watch massive explosions of... well... explosives, not massive explosions of contagious viruses that I already know happened in real life.

But I don't even need that powerful pandemic movie from a good director, ten years from now. I don't need it from anyone, ever.

Of course, we could, you know... just not go see it.

In fact, I'm good with every future movie just completely ignoring the fact that COVID-19 ever happened. I'm fine if the romantic comedies of 2022 feature unmasked characters having a meet-cute at the chocolate fountain at Golden Corral. Nobody is going to be pissed that they're not following CDC guidelines, for the same reason nobody wants to see James Bond stop to fumble with a condom.

Yep. If we wanted reality, we wouldn't go to movies. By the way, I will throat-punch anyone who uses the term "meet-cute" in my presence. Just be aware of this.

2. We Don't Need You To Evoke The Imagery Of The Pandemic, Either

Hey, remember how after 9/11, action directors started adding scenes that looked a whole lot like Ground Zero?

That, at least, had the advantage of being visually appealing. Not so with tent hospitals or small gatherings of masked individuals. Or large gatherings of unmasked individuals, also known as Trump worship services.

Right now, a whole bunch of filmmakers are likewise thinking of ways to incorporate COVID-19 imagery into the thing they're making, in the same way that not even in Star Trek can we escape shots of buildings collapsing into gray clouds.

Again, at least collapsing buildings look epic. Well. Unless they're happening in real life without benefit of clearing the place out first for a controlled demolition.

3. Actually, You Can Scrap Your Trump Movies, Too

You know what? Now that we're here, just apply everything I said above to the entire Trump era. I don't need a goddamned movie five years from now where Jonah Hill wins a bunch of awards for playing Steve Bannon. I don't need a star-studded HBO miniseries about Jared Kushner or Michael Flynn or James Comey or Sebastian Gorka or Tom Price or Scott Pruitt or Anthony Scaramucci or Rex Tillerson or Paul Manafort or Jeff Sessions or Michael Cohen or Eddie Gallagher or any of the other names I just got off the "Trump Scandals" Wikipedia page.

Movies have been made about Presidential administrations before. I never saw any of them. Again... just don't go see it. I wouldn't. And it wouldn't matter if the movie was trying to be fair, or sucking Trump's dick, or trying to beat him down. I've lived through the last four years inhaling the daily news cycle, and I agree, I don't need some cinematic effort to "put it all in perspective."

While we're on movies, you know what else I'm not going to see? The Avatar sequels.

Oh, I'm sure they'll be pretty. And I kind of enjoyed the first one, once I decided to let go and ignore the plot, science, acting, and dialogue. It's more the utter hubris of Cameron and the studios going, "You know what? We're just going to go ahead and make the next four right now, each with an enormous budget. People loved the first one, and they loved Titanic. Cameron is gold! What could go wrong?"

No, I want to see a boycott of those movies. Not for any silly political reasons, but just to send a message to Disney (the first movie was Fox, but I think Disney picked it up when they bought the studio): We're not putting up with this shit. Release one movie. If we like it, you'll make money, and then you can make the next one.

But, as usual, people are going to make the movies they want to make, despite what internet comedy writers have to say about them. And hopefully there will continue to be movies, and theaters, because the experience of going to the theater (especially the one I go to) just can't be replicated at home.

This year was supposed to be the year of me going to see a different movie in the theater every week or two. That held up well... until March. I started again when they reopened (at a much lower capacity) in August. I've seen movies I wouldn't normally see. I've disliked ones that got great reviews, and liked ones that people panned.

But no. I'm not going to want to see Covfefe-19 references in movies now, or ever. We get enough of that shit in real life. I go to the movies to escape from that shit. And to see explosions, car chases, and people in costumes fighting crime.
October 26, 2020 at 12:02am
October 26, 2020 at 12:02am
I sometimes find SyFy articles to be interesting. I started following them so I could keep up with Phil Plait, whose Bad Astronomy feature is always educational. But they have other science articles, and this is one of them.

If you die in a dream, you'll die in real life.

Me: Oh, I guess I'm actually dead and this is the afterlife.

*looks around at all this*

Me: Wow, I must have been truly evil.

It’s one of those urban legends most of us have heard, the sort of knowledge that gets passed around the playground without being questioned. It was a meme before memes, like the knowledge that Marilyn Manson scooped his eye out with a spoon. Or that Marilyn Manson played Paul in The Wonder Years. Or that Marilyn Manson removed one of his ribs for... reasons. Holy hell, we liked to tell rumors about Marilyn Manson.

Does this guy also write for Cracked?

The "dying in your dreams" rumor persists for similar reasons, not because there’s no internet, but because it’s nearly impossible to fact check. Dreams are nebulous and fleeting and, after all, if someone did die as a result of dying in their dream, how could we know?

Fact: since we became recognizably "human," something on the order of 100 billion humans   have died.

Fact: Some percentage of people who die do so in their sleep. I'm unable to find a good figure for this. I suspect it's changed over time, anyway. Even if it's only 1%, though, that's 1 billion deaths during sleep over the last 50,000 years or so.

Fact: We don't dream during the entire sleep cycle.

Still, out of the assumed 1 billion, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if at least some people just happened to die during an REM phase that featured a dream about death. But that says nothing about causation.

The legend, as I originally heard it, was definitive. If ever you die in a dream, you will absolutely die for real. It wasn’t a suggestion or a could-be, it was presented as irrefutable fact.

Like I said, if it's fact, then I'm actually dead right now. So let's dismiss that legend like all the others.

However, if we reframe the question to whether or not it’s possible for you to die in real life if you die in a dream or, even more loosely, whether it’s possible for a dream or nightmare to kill you, the answer seems to be a qualified... yes?

Finally, an answer! Oh, wait.

First, it is possible (though unlikely) for a person to be scared to death. When we’re frightened, the body flings itself into fight or flight mode, which is triggered by a flood of adrenaline. The heart beats faster and blood flow is rerouted to major muscle groups. Particularly in those who are already predisposed, the influx of adrenaline can cause a cardiac event, which could lead to death: An ironic result from a process that is meant to keep us alive when sensing danger.

From what little I understand, rabbits apparently react badly to being cornered by a predator. If they can't fight or flee, sometimes their heart just gives out, presumably so they won't have to actually feel the teeth sinking into their little fluffy bellies. As a friend of mine once pointed out, "Worst superpower ever."

It’s unclear, and in fact unknowable, if reported SUNDS cases were the result of dreams in which an individual died, but there is some correlation between parasomnias (sleep disorders) like night terrors, and the sudden onset of death during sleep.

One of these days, it's possible that we might have the technology to record one's dreams. I wouldn't want to be the one writing the grant proposal for a study on dream-death, though. "Yes, we're going to hook sleepers up to these electrodes and study if they die when they dream about dying." Even absent such technology, though, I suspect we could have the technology to be able to tell if someone died in their sleep while experiencing the symptoms of fear:

We also know that the mechanisms exist for the heart to be catastrophically impacted by overwhelming emotions, like fear. All of which is to say, while dreaming of death is not in and of itself a death sentence, it probably doesn’t help.

It's been suggested, though I can't be arsed to look it up, that one of the purposes -- or at least one of the results -- of dreaming in humans is a kind of emotional rehearsal. Dreams are not real in the sense that the clown standing behind you right now is real, but they can certainly provoke emotions -- which are, at base, electrochemical cascades in the body. So I could certainly imagine it happening that a sufficiently scary dream about death could elicit a surge of adrenaline that might stop your heart.

I just wouldn't lie awake at night worrying about it. That clown, though... you might want to duck right about now.
October 25, 2020 at 12:01am
October 25, 2020 at 12:01am
I've noted this article's thesis in a previous blog entry. Good to know it's not just my drunk ass that picks up on these things.

The Strange Similarity of Neuron and Galaxy Networks  
Your life’s memories could, in principle, be stored in the universe’s structure.

I'm not sure that the subheading there is strictly accurate. But the physical similarity between the mid-scale structure of the universe and the neural mapping of the brain is too similar to be ignored. Not that there's anything supernatural at play here; patterns often repeat themselves in nature for perfectly ordinary reasons, such as the way we find Fibonacci's number in all manner of structures... but that's not important right now.

We have predicted that the void-filament boundary is one of the most complex volumes of the universe, as measured by the number of bits of information it takes to describe it.

This got us to thinking: Is it more complex than the brain?

I suspect it has to do with exactly how complexity is defined. The speed of light puts a hard limit on how information can be transmitted through such megastructures, whereas the speed of information in the brain, while much slower than the speed of light, is fast enough for our purposes.

The first results from our comparison are truly surprising: Not only are the complexities of the brain and cosmic web actually similar, but so are their structures. The universe may be self-similar across scales that differ in size by a factor of a billion billion billion.

Physical similarity, however, doesn't automatically translate to similarity of utility.

The article, while fascinating, doesn't really lend itself to a lot more quoting, especially since my own gray matter is perhaps just a bit disordered right now, thanks to a generous infusion of simple molecules involving carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. But it's worth reading, if only as an example of what can happen when you get two vastly different scientific specialties together to compare notes.

It's out of such things that creativity arises, I think -- that finding of similarities in things that are, at first glance, disparate.

But I will quote one more bit, because it relates to a phenomenon I've mentioned in here fairly recently.

Is the apparent similarity just the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns in random data (apophenia)? Remarkably enough, the answer seems to be no: Statistical analysis shows these systems do indeed present quantitative similarities.

Now, I should probably emphasize that no, this doesn't mean that there's some mystical or metaphysical conclusion to be reached here. But, materialist that I am, I'm also a writer (of sorts) and this kind of thing is one reason why science fiction exists. Could the universe itself have a kind of consciousness? My instinct is to scoff at such an idea, but really, no one really knows what consciousness is, even though one must possess it in order to even ask the question.

But soon it will be time for me to experience its opposite for a few hours. I just thought I'd leave this here for your neural networks to contemplate.

Edit: After completing this entry, as I usually do after one of these entries, I checked the website Astronomy Picture of the Day, which updates around midnight EST. In another cosmic coincidence, today's picture is of a computer simulation that closely resembles the structure of the universe on these cosmic scales, and so I present it   as another illustration of the superficial similarity between the universe and a neural net.
October 24, 2020 at 12:06am
October 24, 2020 at 12:06am
Because I select these things at random from a list, it's not all that common that I hit upon similar topics two days running. Today is one of those days, though.

It would probably be more accurate to say that the equations changed our understanding of the world. The world spins on, regardless of our mathematical prowess (or lack thereof). True, we then go on to shape the world based on the new understanding, but... well, perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Do you know that mathematical equations affect our day-to-day lives?

Trivially true; I mentioned the world spinning on in the last paragraph, and that motion follows mathematical and physical realities.

While there are many mathematical equations that have molded mathematics and human history, let’s have a look at 10 of them:

You'll have to go to the link to see the actual equations, I'm afraid. Especially the later ones use symbols I can't be arsed to reproduce here.

1. The Pythagorean Theorem:

Hopefully everyone knows this one.

The theorem states that: The sum of the squares of the lengths of the legs of a right triangle is equal to the square of the length of the hypotenuse.

This article is brief; don't expect definitions of things like "right triangle," "square," "legs of a triangle," or especially "hypotenuse."

2. Isaac Newton’s Law Of Universal Gravitation:

I've heard it proclaimed that "Newton Was Wrong!" Well, he was, in a trivial sense, but as the article points out, this equation does just fine when dealing with things on a human scale and slightly bigger.

3. Albert Einstein’s Theory Of Relativity:

Oh boy, is this one simplistic. E=mc2 is hardly the totality of the Theories of Relativity. Also, there's another term in the equation that's generally left out of its popular form; it's generally enough to know that a) energy and matter are really the same "thing" and b) the speed of light (in a vacuum) is a constant.

4. The Second Law Of Thermodynamics:

Oddly, this list isn't in chronological order. We knew about this one before Einstein. The weird thing here isn't so much the equation itself, but how it relates to the passage of time.

Rudolf Clausius’second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy can never decrease over time for an isolated system, that is, a system in which neither energy nor matter can enter nor leave.

I have heard this used to argue against the process of evolution. Such arguments conveniently ignore the fact that our planet isn't an isolated system; we get a constant influx of energy from a handy nearby fusion reactor.

5. Logarithm functions:

As the article points out, these lost a lot of their necessity once computers entered the picture. They're still useful to learn, though, as logarithms have the other benefit of turning an exponential chart into an easier to understand linear one.

6. Maxwell’s Equations:

First published between 1861 and 1862, by combining the electric and magnetic fields into a set of four equations they define the key mathematics behind radio waves of all types also called as electro-magnetic radiation by scientists and engineers.

Truly one of the great triumphs of applied mathematics, though understanding the equations and their arcane symbols takes a bit of work. Hell, electromagnetism is sorcery as far as I'm concerned. But apparently even sorcery has mathematical underpinnings.

Also, check out what the UK was doing while we were over here fighting a war over whether or not it should be legal to own human beings.

7. Chaos Theory:

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focused on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.

Seriously jumping through time, here. There passed almost exactly 100 years between Maxwell and the beginnings of the understanding of chaos theory. Also, this article doesn't nearly do justice to the topic; I've read entire books on the subject and I only understand the basics, myself.

8. Wave Equation:

The wave equation is a linear second-order partial differential equation...

Don't worry. I noped on out of there when I read that bit, too.

9. Schrödinger Equation:

Today, all of our semiconductors (transistors, integrated circuits, Intel CPU chips, etc.) depend on the science of quantum mechanics that wouldn’t have been possible to understand without Schrödinger’s equation. It also paved the way for nuclear power, microchips, and electron microscopes.

Most people have heard this guy's name in connection with a famous thought experiment involving a cat that might or might not be alive. I prefer living cats, myself. The point is, though, that if you're reading this, you're doing so on a device that relies on quantum mechanical processes. Well. I don't know. Maybe you printed it out from such a device. Still, it's clear that we don't have to understand how something works to use it effectively.

10. Fourier Transform:

The Fourier Transform defines the mathematics that allows us to put many different signals onto one wire, or one radio signal, and to then extract each individual signal at the other end.

Ever wonder how a fiber optic bundle can transmit so much data with little to no loss? That's why. Well, that and the near-magical property of complete, lossless reflection off of the boundary of a medium such as glass (or water for that matter) when the angle of reflection is in the right range.

Like I said, a lot of this stuff is beyond me. There are plenty of resources for anyone who wants to delve deeper into these concepts, and I've done so myself. Also, this list is only a starting point; there are other important equations that advanced our understanding of science and the universe. But you don't need to understand the jargon to feel a sense of wonder at how we products of the universe have worked at understanding said universe, or how far we still have to go.

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.
         --Albert Einstein
October 23, 2020 at 12:01am
October 23, 2020 at 12:01am
This one's about mathematics, folks. I can already see your eyes glazing over.

Unlike yesterday's link, this one was written in proper American English, so it's "math," not "maths."

Here are some good mental math shortcuts to keep under your hat.

Does anyone (besides me) still wear hats?

To sign your check in record time:

To calculate the amount of a 20 percent tip, calculate 10 percent (or remove the last digit) and double it. For instance, with a $42.50 bill, 10 percent is $4.25 and double it to get an $8.50 tip.

This is so simple, straightforward, and obvious that I would have never thought to put it into an article about "secret math tips." I do it all the time. I do it when drunk. I don't just mean tipsy, I mean forget-the-Uber-call-an-ambulance brain-dead. Of course, at that point, I'm generally inclined to leave more than 20% and then forget my credit card. And my hat, and my glasses, and sometimes my pants. The tip is still easy for me, but I forget that not everyone considers simple mathematics "simple."

Complexity comes in, though, when you decide not to leave a 20% tip. Maybe the service was extra-slow, or the beer was warm, and you want to lower the tip to reflect that. Or, contrarily, maybe the bartender flirted with you and you want to leave something extra. Of course, you could leave your phone number as a tip, but that's generally considered gauche, and besides, unless you're Jeff Bezos, you don't have that much money.

Still easy, though. 15%? Move the decimal place once to the left, add the result to half of it. 30%? Move the decimal and multiply by three. 18%? Only if you're sober or if their machine hands you a handy tipping chart. Still, 18 is 20-2, so once you have 20%, move the decimal one more to the left and subtract the result.

To ace sale shopping:

First, remember that if you're offered a nominally $100 item for $70, you're not saving $30 but spending $70. But, assuming that you absolutely MUST have the item...

To find out how much you’ll pay for an item that’s a certain percentage off, first subtract the percent off from 100. So if it’s 30 percent off, use 70; 60 percent off, use 40, etc. Divide this number and the price by 10 and then multiply the resultant two numbers.

Still too much work for most people. I'd use the same trick with the tips: 10% is trivially easy, and then just multiply that by whatever. 3 if it's 70% off, 6 if it's 40% off, and so on.

To see your future without a crystal ball:

Use a time machine.

Okay, that's also out of reach for most people.

Use the rule of 72 to calculate how long it would take an investment to double. The rule of 72 is that an investment that earns 10 percent interest will double in 7.2 years.

Which is nice and all, but there are no viable 10% investments. Socking the money into a market-matching ETF will *probably* earn you an average of 8% over a long enough time frame (20 years or more), but that's smoothing out all of the ups and downs along the way and assuming that we won't be in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in 20 years. Any bond that promises to pay 10% annually is junk. Any guaranteed interest, say from a savings account, isn't going to net you more than 2% APY, and probably significantly less, these days.

Use this as a starting point for calculating various interest rates and lengths of time, by dividing the number 72 by your interest rate.

Which is a little more useful, but for a lot of people this is where they whip out their calculator, at which point you might as well use a Future Value equation, which is beyond the scope of this blog entry, but you can find it if you look.

Just don't forget that for an investment to double in terms of real spending power, you'd have to subtract the projected rate of inflation over the time period. Which is a guess.

To do fast house math:

To calculate how much a month more you’ll pay in a mortgage payment for a certain increase in house price, figure roughly 6 dollars per month for every thousand dollars more in total price.

This one, I wasn't familiar with. I haven't had any reason to use it. I've only purchased one house.

To translate temperatures when you travel:

Double it (Celsius) and add 30. Useful if you drive into Canada a lot. But then you also should know the miles/kilometers conversion, which I'll go into in a bit.

The actual conversion is C*9/5+32, but the quick one is good enough at most temperatures you'll encounter -- at least in the southern parts of Canada.

To be the fastest calculator in any room:

Multiply any number by four quickly by doubling the number twice. So 106 times four is 212 plus 212, for a total of 424.

As with the tip thing, I thought everyone did that.

To ease your wage wonders:

Double the hourly wage and add three zeros. $20 an hour is about $40K a year. $8 an hour is $16K annually. One of the first shortcuts I learned. As there are actually 52 weeks in a year, not 50, it'll be off by a bit, but who cares - taxes eat up way more than the error.

This assumes, of course, a standard 40 hour work week.

Another way to compare hourly wages to a salary is to drop the three zeros of a salary and then divide by two. So a salary of $42,000 would be roughly equivalent to $21 an hour.

Unless you work in one of the professions that requires salaried employees to work more than 40 hours a week which, last I checked, was all of them.

What the hell happened to computers allowing for greater productivity, leading to us working two days a week?

To analyze the impact of that coffee habit:

What coffee habit? Oh, fine, I suppose I can apply this to Crack Zero.

To estimate the annual cost of a daily habit, multiply to find the weekly total amount you spend (so, times 5 if it’s a weekday habit, or times 7 if it’s every day a week. Then add two zeros to that number, and divide by two.

Generally, when people do this, they get a nice fat kick in the assets.

To know how hard you have to study:

And this is where my own eyes glazed over. Been a while since I had to study, and all I ever did then was the best I could.

Even in math.

Okay, I said I'd talk about miles/kilometers conversion. This is not actually as bad as it seems at first glance. It's about 1.61 kilometers to a mile (the precise figure is 1.60934, but unless you're doing survey work, who cares?) Now, that's a tough number when you look at it, but one way to remember it is to consider the Golden Ratio.

The Golden Ratio, phi, is an irrational number that starts out 1.618033... and goes on to infinity, but again, who cares? The important thing about the GR is that if you subtract 1 from it, you get its multiplicative inverse, 1/phi: 0.618033... and that it's really remarkably close to the miles/kilometers conversion. This means that in addition to there being roughly 1.61 kilometers in a mile, there's 0.61 miles in every kilometer. Approximately. Good enough for driving.

And when you're actually driving, you don't even have to worry much about the 0.01 involved. 0.01 kilometers is, by defnition, 10 meters, which is about as accurate as most GPS receivers. So I just use 1.6 and 0.6.

As to how to do the conversion quickly, in your head, while driving and with no access to Google (which can give you a very accurate conversion at the risk of you crashing into someone), it's simple.

Take the number of kilometers on the road sign. Let's say Calgary is 30 kilometers away, for instance.

Divide by 2, which is the same as multiplying by 0.5. So, 15.

Add 1/10th of the original distance in km, which is 3, so 18.

Consequently, Calgary is about 18 miles away. The actual value, by Google, is 18.64. So the quick mental math can be improved upon, sure, but again... we're talking about driving, not surveying.

The reason the Golden Ratio comes into play is that reversing the calculation is very similar. Take the number of miles, add half, add 1/10th. So if something is 50 miles away, it's 50+25+5=80 km. Roughly. The actual value is closer to 80.5.

Either way, it's simpler than converting pounds to kilograms, which only works on the Earth's surface anyway and then only approximately, as pounds are a unit of force and kilograms are a unit of mass and gravity is measurably different at different points on the planet.

But the conversion factor is roughly 2.2 kilos per pound under those conditions, which, given the above, should be a dead easy conversion for you right now.

Now, go to England, where petrol is dispensed by the liter and priced in British pounds, and try to figure out how much a gallon of gas costs over there. Solution: a metric shit-ton.
October 22, 2020 at 12:06am
October 22, 2020 at 12:06am
So, I lied.

I said yesterday that I was done with religion for now, but then this came up at random. (Note: this article uses British spellings. I will try to stick to American in my own commentary.)

When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked.

If only.

But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour.

That's probably because, as the article theorizes later, in a smaller society, everyone knows everyone else, so anyone who transgresses against social norms is known to do so; they lack the protection of anonymity. Unlike today, when anyone can get on the internet and become a troll.

I should also point out that I read this article as someone who understands that humans created their gods, rather than vice-versa.

Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.

The whole "good are rewarded while evil people are punished" thing falls apart in those religions that stress faith alone as the key to salvation. You can be a mass murderer or a child rapist, and if you repent on your deathbed, according to some theologies, you still get the wings and a harp thing. But, in general, at least in the way things are interpreted for the average person, I'll concede the point.

Now, thanks to our massive new database of world history, known as Seshat (named after the Egyptian goddess of record keeping), we’re starting to get some answers.

Which is great and all, except that one wonders about the inputs. Your conclusions are only as good as your observations.

The database uses a sample of the world’s historical societies, going back in a continuous time series up to 10,000 years before the present, to analyse hundreds of variables relating to social complexity, religion, warfare, agriculture and other features of human culture and society that vary over time and space. Now that the database is finally ready for analysis, we are poised to test a long list of theories about global history.

Again, this says nothing about the quality of the data itself.

One of the earliest questions we’re testing is whether morally concerned deities drove the rise of complex societies.

I would put this differently, inserting "a belief in" between "whether" and "morally." But I got the idea.

In other words, gods who care about whether we are good or bad did not drive the initial rise of civilisations – but came later.

This makes more sense than the other way around, really. Sometimes you build something and only later realize that it needs a security system.

We are now looking to other factors that may have driven the rise of the first large civilisation.

Pretty sure it was beer. That, or a desire for mutual protection.

If the original function of moralising gods in world history was to hold together fragile, ethnically diverse coalitions, what might declining belief in such deities mean for the future of societies today? Could modern secularisation, for example, contribute to the unravelling of efforts to cooperate regionally – such as the European Union? If beliefs in big gods decline, what will that mean for cooperation across ethnic groups in the face of migration, warfare, or the spread of xenophobia? Can the functions of moralising gods simply be replaced by other forms of surveillance?

We already have such systems in place, but it's an open question whether they're as useful as religion in controlling peoples' behavior. Think star ratings on Uber, or credit scores, or the Chinese social score.

People game those systems just like they game religion, but I'm not sure to what extent. Like, every once in a while, in my travels, I'll see a sign for a hotel or restaurant or other service that displays an icthys, you know, the fish symbol. Always, without fail, those that do so are more greedy, underhanded, or hateful, to the point where I've quit patronizing those establishments. One hotel I went to turned away a minority family, blatantly and obviously racist. The next people in line, a white couple, noted that "those people" "always bring in their friends and trash the place." The desk clerk nodded knowingly. Yes, I turned around and found another place to stay.

There are none so evil as those who believe themselves to be righteous.

Perhaps I'm also being prejudiced in avoiding such places based on a few bad experiences, but so be it. I don't claim to be righteous. Point is, even with their "eye in the sky," some of them still act like greasy tools.

I've seen it asked before: "If you don't believe in God, what keeps you from murdering or stealing?" Well, heck, if belief in God is the only thing keeping you from doing these things, or worse, then please, for gods' sake, keep believing. I'll just be over here quietly drinking a beer and not murdering anyone.

There's a landmine of an argument I'm not prepared or willing to engage in right now, concerning exactly what is good and what is evil. I've been thinking about it a bit lately, but haven't come to any firm conclusions. Obviously, I don't believe in those concepts as external forces; I'm thinking in terms of human behavior. "I know it when I see it" just doesn't cut it, but I'm not sure what does. But it's clear to me that the kind of religion this article speaks of, with the rewarding / punishing deity, doesn't make much difference.

Perhaps actual surveillance, and the threat of purely human retribution, does.
October 21, 2020 at 12:01am
October 21, 2020 at 12:01am
I don't have a lot to say about today's link, but I'll say what I do have. Here it is:

Is Dreaming Real?  
When you’re lucid, it can feel so real the distinction ceases to matter.

As you've probably noticed, I'm not one to resort to dictionary definitions of things. Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive, and the definitions often have a subjective element.

That said, let me put up the pertinent Oxford Dictionary definition of "reality:"

the state or quality of having existence or substance.

And the stated philosophical definition:

existence that is absolute, self-sufficient, or objective, and not subject to human decisions or conventions.

I find these definitions problematic. "having existence or substance" just kicks the can down the road, forcing one to try to define "existence" and "substance." A good example is the question posed in the title of the article above: A dream has existence, if not substance, but that "or" in there means that either condition can be met. A photon has existence, but no substance. On the other hand, I can't think of anything with substance that doesn't possess existence - that would be a chunk of matter that doesn't exist. Perhaps you can think of one.

As for the philosophical definition, perhaps I'm being dense here, but our decisions create things that are objectively real on a regular basis. I can decide to bake a cake, and an hour later, behold, there is a cake.

It could be argued that there's a Platonic ideal of "cake," that it, in a sense, has always existed, will always exist, in the realm of the possible. I promise you, any cake I bake will not be ideal, Platonic or otherwise.

But the realm of Platonic ideals is itself a thing that has no physical, substantive existence. Plato thought that shit up. It's a mental construct. Oh, I suppose it could correlate to a particular arrangement of neural firings in his brain and that of his students, on down to the present day and hopefully beyond. That's hardly what we think of when we consider "reality."

Being a pragmatist of sorts, I tend to my own, ideosyncratic definition of "reality:" that which is still there when we don't believe in it.

I'm not a philosopher; I just read about them. So I'm sure my own definition leads to all kinds of roadblocks and paradoxes, too. Consider it a working definition, a practical tool to help me divide the real from the unreal. The chair I'm sitting in is real and won't disappear if I stop believing in it. It won't even disappear when I die; someone will have to decide what to do with the damn thing. I can imagine a much better chair, one that's more comfortable and with hydraulics that won't jar my spine by giving out every time I lean back to stretch. If I stop believing in this ideal notion of "chair," or die, then poof, this ideal chair exists nowhere. Well. Unless you count this paragraph.

Point is, any attempt to define what is reality and what isn't is a bit like gripping a bar of soap, or trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Getting back to dreams, though, as is so often the case on the internet, the headline is somewhat misleading. It's not asking these deeper, subjective, and possibly unanswerable questions; it mostly talks about lucid dreaming, and the difference between being a passive observer in one's dreams and taking an active role in their unfolding. There are implications on dreams' effects on our minds, and hence our brains -- which, for most people who aren't politicians, I'm prepared to postulate the real existence of.

Consequently, the article is interesting -- which is why I linked it in the first place -- but I feel like it asks the wrong question, precisely because we can't really define what "real" is. We all dream, whether we end up remembering them or not. Since it's a subjective experience, a dream unremembered might as well never have happened at all. Most of us, myself included, only remember fragments of dreams, with a vague idea that more happened but we just can't seem to grasp what it was.

I don't doubt that, as the article suggests, unlike Vegas, what happens in dreams doesn't always stay in dreams. It can impact our thoughts in the waking world. This can even change other peoples' entire perception of the world; the article uses Einstein's dream as an example, something that led to one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in history and has had an effect on all of us, whether we believe in it or not.

And if something changes perceptions or actions in consensus reality, is that something not, in some sense, real?

Well. Like I said. I don't have much to say about the article itself, but it turns out I had quite a bit to say about its philosophical underpinnings. There are those who assert that we each create our own reality, and there are certain interpretations of quantum mechanics that seem to bear that out -- though by no means all of them.

Perhaps those who remember their dreams can do so more effectively than others.
October 20, 2020 at 12:04am
October 20, 2020 at 12:04am
The thing about predictions is that people tend to remember the ones that come to pass, and selectively forget those that were off.

Though I'm still sore about not owning a flying car. I was promised a flying car long before 2020. Instead I got a pandemic, during six months of which I didn't even drive my boring, surface-grubbing Subaru. Yes, I know, prototypes exist for flying cars. Prototypes exist for a lot of things. The point is, I don't have one.

Now, Hawking had, beyond all doubt, a brilliant mind. He thought deeply and logically and, most importantly, had a sense of humor. That doesn't mean he knew everything or had a crystal ball, though.

This article is two years old, but it's not like Hawking could change his predictions, as he remains deceased.

The late physicist Stephen Hawking’s last writings predict that a breed of superhumans will take over, having used genetic engineering to surpass their fellow beings.

I, too, watched Star Trek. Still watch it, in fact, in its many incarnations. I can't imagine Hawking didn't, as he had a cameo in TNG at one point.

I don't pretend for a moment that its future will come to pass. Oh, sure, pieces of it, maybe, but it is, in the end, like all science fiction: there to make us think, be entertained, and possibly serve as a warning or roadmap.

Hawking delivers a grave warning on the importance of regulating AI, noting that “in the future AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours.”

Again, anyone who has read more than a little bit of science fiction is going to be familiar with this trope. Hell, it's the entire plot of Terminator, to name just one of the more popular franchises.

Every movie, book, or TV show that I've seen on the subject dances around one simple question: How would such a thing be powered, and why can't we just, you know... flip a switch or pull a plug. When Trek brought it up, it tapped into the purely fictional near-unlimited power of the Enterprise's matter/antimatter engines, and created for itself a force field to keep it from being unplugged. Ultron had Iron Man's plot device power source. That sort of thing.

In objective reality, we have neither limitless energy or force fields... though I will concede that it's possible an AI could invent these things before making its nefarious intentions known.

The bad news: At some point in the next 1,000 years, nuclear war or environmental calamity will “cripple Earth.” However, by then, “our ingenious race will have found a way to slip the surly bonds of Earth and will therefore survive the disaster.”

Optimism and pessimism in the same paragraph. I'm impressed.

Once such superhumans appear, there are going to be significant political problems with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant.

Yeah, I like the X-Men stories too.

Hawking acknowledges there are various explanations for why intelligent life hasn’t been found or has not visited Earth. His predictions here aren’t so bold, but his preferred explanation is that humans have “overlooked” forms of intelligent life that are out there.

Every time I talk about something like this, I have to pre-emptively thwart any jokes or snide remarks about there not being any intelligent life down here, either. The sense of "intelligence" used here is the ability to use technology and be curious and self-aware. We fit the definition, even if some of us are dumber than a box of rocks and twice as dense.

That said, I've made my opinion known on this subject on multiple occasions, so I'll just summarize: I would be greatly surprised if we were the only "intelligent" life in the universe, but just as surprised if we weren't the only ones in our galaxy. Intelligence is not an inevitable product of evolution, and most species here on Earth get along without it just fine -- some better, in fact, before we came along with our tools and machines and pesky communication skills.

Skipping the "Does God exist?" section here. His opinion is no more informed on the subject than mine or yours, and I already did my religion argument for the month, back on the 14th.

The biggest threats to Earth: Threat number one one is an asteroid collision, like the one that killed the dinosaurs. However, “we have no defense” against that, Hawking writes. More immediately: climate change. “A rise in ocean temperature would melt the ice caps and cause the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide,” Hawking writes. “Both effects could make our climate like that of Venus with a temperature of 250C.”

I wouldn't say we have "no" defense against asteroids. While the chance of one in any given year is vanishingly small, the cumulative probability increases over time. Eventually, a giant rock is going to be on track to slam into the Earth. It's inevitable. But we keep improving rocket technology and sending people and robots into space. A rock big enough to cause a catastrophe will be seen early, and, in the near future, we will in fact have the technology to do something about it... that is, if the other thing doesn't happen to us first.

For my fellow Americans, 250C translates to "Really goddamned hot. You think Phoenix in the summer is hot? You ain't seen nothin' yet."

The best idea humanity could implement: Nuclear fusion power. That would give us clean energy with no pollution or global warming.

And power the vicious AIs bent on world domination and enslavement of humans, super and otherwise. I mean, come on, is it too much to ask for some consistency from one of the greatest minds of our generation?
October 19, 2020 at 12:01am
October 19, 2020 at 12:01am
Entry #8 of 8 in

 Journalistic Intentions  (18+)
This is for the journal keeping types that come to PLAY! New round underway!
#2213121 by Elisa, Bunny Stik

*Mailr* hairtherapy@gilbertneurolgy.com

There exists an animal called the Japanese Dwarf Flying Squirrel.  

Each word in its English name has a specific meaning:

Japanese: from Japan
Dwarf: smaller than usual
Flying: able to soar
Squirrel: Cute rodent with bushy-ass tail

Nothing really special about any of these individual words. Quite common, actually. We see examples of most of them every day, either in our backyards or on the internet. Well, maybe I see more Japanese than others because... well, just you never mind.

The point is, put those words together and you get Epic Awesomeness. A Japanese Dwarf Flying Squirrel. Seriously, go to that link above and look at it. LOOK AT IT. And look at this picture,   too.

If that is not one of the cutest, if not THE cutest, thing you have ever seen, there is something seriously wrong with you. Possibly even a neurological disorder.

Perhaps, then, you need hair therapy.

See, unlike four words forming a unique synergy, as with the squirrel, sometimes you get four words that make you go... "Huh?"

Hair - humans' answer to fur; some have more than others
Therapy - a process to help restore a person's mind or body
Gilbert - somebody's name, presumably
Neurology - the study of the brain and nervous system

Each one of those words, taken individually, is rather innocuous -- though my personal connotation of neurology stems from when they took out part of my ex-wife's brain.

Taken together, though, they make no sense, not even a little.

I am, however, reminded of the hairshirt that penitents supposedly wore, and perhaps still do. Something deliberately uncomfortable that focuses the mind, hopefully forcing one to contemplate the numinous and esoteric rather than the pleasures of the flesh.

As a dedicated hedonist, though, I prefer cotton or silk. Just not squirrel fur. That would be cruel.

*StarB* *StarB* *StarB*

Mini-Contest Results!

I appreciate all the comments, but only one seemed to address the question in my last entry. So today's Merit Badge will go to WakeUpAndLive~No cig for me! for:

Scientists discovered how to control a biomechanical hand, just by thoughts- 2009

Amputee Pierpaolo Petruzziello learned to control a biomechanical hand connected to his arm nerves with just wires and electrodes and became the first person to make movements like finger wiggling, making a fist, and grabbing objects using just his thoughts.

Which is truly cool (and, serendipitiously, ties in to the "neurology" thing in this entry, which was chosen at random). However, can you imagine what would happen if someone figured out a way to hack it?

"Why are you punching yourself?"

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