The tide is turning

One of the initial “problems” following my TBI was separating symptoms. It seems odd to me, although many things seem odd to me, that my doctors appeared to be dodging responsibility, blaming various symptoms as resulting from a condition in which they did not specialize. “Oh you’ll need to see a (insert specialty) about that” was a shared mantra; was it the MS, or the TBI, or maybe something else? As I zeroed in on the diagnosis of SCDS, I found another area of overlapping symptoms. As I heal from that surgery, I find many of my TBI/MS symptoms relieved at least in part. Much of the brain fog has lifted, I am able to focus and organize thoughts better. My neuropsychologist discharged me from therapy the other day, satisfied that although my recovery is not complete, I have the necessary tools and coping skills to move forward on my own, I am capable of self evaluation.

As I considered the topic I will be writing about this time, it occurred to me that this may turn out more in the style of some of my earlier writing, a variety of events tied by synchronicity. It may end up appearing as the ramblings of a damaged brain, or it may be clear enough to communicate a hidden reality.

I want to start with the “March for Science” held this year on 22 April, at various sites around the globe. I wrote about the march previously, it had appeared to have lost a true science base, appealing to populists who talk about science without understanding it. Nonetheless, it appears some scientists did not care they were being represented by a steampunk contingent and a celebrity with a bachelors degree in engineering, or perhaps they were reacting to the farcical world in which anybody can call themselves a scientist. A group (thirty thousand) of scientists spoke out about global warming. They stated global warming is a hoax. A non-scientist friend disagreed, and presented the following graph.

 

Misrepresentation of CO2 levels

 

As someone with the dignity and respect for scientists not to call myself a scientist, I point out the features of this graph. The graph is properly indexed, with the first eight hundred thousand years of data identified as coming from ice cores. The last sixty years of data were drawn from another source, an observatory atop a volcano. The graph indicates a series of cycles, each roughly one hundred thousand years, in which the level of CO2 rises and falls. At the point the ice core samples revealed the latest peak, the data source changes to Mauna Loa observatory, which indicate higher levels of CO2 than had ever been recorded in an ice core.

There is no indication of the data from Muana Loa previously (largely because the data was not being collected), we have no idea how the measurements made there compare to samples from ice cores. All we know is in the last sixty years the levels from the Muana Loa data have been exponentially higher than any ice core sample.

We also do not know how this might suggest global warming, as actual temperature data from the last twenty years have shown steady  global temperatures. While there is a debate as to whether CO2 is a warming or cooling effect on the globe, the cyclic patterns which took place for six hundred thousand years before there was a species identified as remotely human would indicate humans had nothing to do with those CO2 levels. As those levels in Mauna Loa’s data peaked over the last one third of their data, actual temperatures have remained stable. But it is a shocking graph, until you read it.

When I was twenty, I drove an ice cream truck, for a company called Tropical Ice Cream. In one of the neighborhoods in my territory lived a man who owned his own ice cream truck, and was not a friendly competitor. One day a little boy was among the crowd at the window, and he said “Tropical Ice Cream is bad, they gave me wrong change.” Not recognizing the child, I asked him why he said that. “Bill (the other ice cream truck driver) told me.” Some folks just repeat what they have heard, without considering the facts. I’m sure the AGW fanatics will continue to argue about science with actual scientists, after all, they heard it from Bill Nye the science guy.

Another science based theme which has been pushed since the March for Science is the anti-vaccination cult. It took the British medical journal, The Lancet, nearly twelve years to retract Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 paper suggesting a link between childhood vaccines and autism, as “utterly false.” His license to practice was revoked six months later. But the anti-vaccination crowd will hear nothing of it, continuing to insist on various reasons vaccines must cause autism without any data to back their claims.

This attack on science is more direct. Rather than falsely claiming to be backed by science, the anti-vaccination crowd contends the scientists who have failed to find any data connecting vaccines and autism are corrupt, paid off by pharmaceutical companies. When it comes to anything even resembling facts in the matter, they are misunderstood or misconstrued. Nonetheless, the anti-vaccination front was represented at the March for Science. Of the many reasons I did not participate in the march, this hypocrisy is the epitome.

Science is designed to be challenged. It is designed to be challenged by other scientists, not celebrities and laymen. It will always be misconstrued or denied for political reasons, it took the Vatican three hundred and fifty years to apologize to Galileo. This year, after an election that highlighted false news, a populist March actually revealed truths; not from the lips of the marchers, but from the scientists to whom the marchers claimed the desire to provide a voice. Many of the marchers are like that little boy next to the ice cream truck, repeating what they heard. They tend to passionately defend the beliefs they have been told they hold, but the scientists are standing up, and their response has been “That is not what we said, that is not science.”

The tide is turning. It may require another three hundred and fifty years, but eventually science will be respected again.

Ten days out

This is me on 12 April 2017, two days after surgery, when my compression bandage was removed.

12 April 2017, bandage removed

It looks severe, and I guess it is, but it wasn’t painful. I’m told I received IV steroids during the procedure, which were supposed to make me feel better. My experiences with IV steroids in the past are radically different, they literally sucked the life out of me when I received them for multiple sclerosis, but I did indeed feel better when I left the hospital this time.

I felt too good in fact. I am supposed to limit myself, some limitations are obvious such as avoiding loud noise (no concerts for two months); some are less obvious, aimed at reducing cranial pressure. I can’t bend over to the point my head is below my heart, I can’t lift more than three kilos, I’m supposed to sleep at a 45 degree angle. I took a lot of scolding to settle myself down.

My symptoms are gone, no bone conduction sounds, no autophony, no pressure in my ear. I’m also less aware of my cognitive deficits, which I knew was a possibility but intend to withhold judgement for a month or two.  I do suddenly have tinnitus (out of curiosity I checked the frequency, ~3000 hertz), but that is an expected post surgery symptom which should resolve itself within a few weeks. My balance is a bit worse, so I’m using a wheelchair for the time being. It is fun, but a bit tiring. I can turn and spin as if I’ve been doing it forever, which should be good news; no dizziness or motion sickness. It has pointed out my only post surgery pain, the point on my left hand in which a catheter was inserted to measure blood pressure. The other catheter, made famous by my friend Barry Parham in his book “Why I Hate Straws,” was just a weird sensation, and I had to eat through straws the first two days.

As days go by there are differences. Not always pleasant but there is no indication they are permanent. The hearing is returning to my right ear incrementally. At first, higher tones came through as if they were transmitted by kazoo, scratchy and fuzzy like the teacher character in Charlie Brown. Today they sound more like whistles. I yawned for the first time about four days post surgery, which was a good sign, I could open my mouth fully, and I was tired. I’ve been sleeping a great deal, probably more than after the brain injury, but back then I couldn’t move much so perhaps I was resting more then. Opening my mouth meant I could try more foods, we found a new Mexican place one night that had wonderful food and great margaritas, ranging up to thirty two ounces. I ordered a smaller one but asked the waitress if I could see the thirty two ounce glass, it was a small fishbowl. I’ll have to visit again when I am fully recovered, they carry my favorite tequila.

We’ve been discussing the question, “Was it brain surgery or ear surgery?” in my SCDS support group. A little of both. The brain needs to be moved out of the way, so even though an otolaryngologist does the diagnosis and sometimes the ear part of the surgery, a neurosurgeon must be part of the team to handle the brain; or in my case, a neurotologist (with a T), which is a new specialty, who handles both parts. The condition of Superior Canal Dehiscence was only identified in 1995, it only affects about one percent of the population, and not everyone requires surgery, so it is rare to find a neurotologist, or even a neurosurgeon/otolaryngologist team, who can properly treat the condition. Some people I have spoken with went a dozen years or more seeking a diagnosis, as most otolaryngologists don’t recognize the condition. It took me four doctors, the second one made the diagnosis and referred me to a team I could not trust, so my fourth happened to be a neurotologist who had just transferred to my hospital from Portland. Perfect timing, his schedule is already filled. I saw him first on 15 March, already had the cat-scan which showed the hole, he said he had 10 April available for surgery so we did the audiograms and VEMP testing the next week. Other folks I have spoken with, searching years and finally getting a diagnosis, were depressed. The surgery is scary, I felt a bit of fear, but nothing was going to stand in the way of a solution.

There was more stress in the intervening weeks than I am accustomed to these days, my landlord lost all vestige of civility and kicked me out of the home where I have lived for four years, and the anesthesiology department demanded a full echo cardiogram a week before surgery because the EKG showed “minimal voltage LVH, may be within normal parameters,” which was difficult to schedule because in their request to my insurance they said “routine health examination” rather than “pre-surgical requirement.” We found a place to stay, moved, and laughed with the echocardiagram technician about healthy my heart is. Plus, just watching the echocardiogram was fascinating. The drain pipe in our new place broke about a week before surgerythe plumber came in while I was in the hospital. Even good news, like my father wanting to come out, caused a little stress because I knew I would be out of it most of the time he was here. At least he was able to see my oldest son while he was here.

My father as I regained consciousness

Sam did a wonderful job of preparation, stocking up on soups and broths and creating healthy food I could ingest through a straw, I was just able to eat solids too fast. She was able to have her father over the night I came home, so he met my father. She scolded me into slowing down, along with members of the SCDS group and some of my friends (special thanks to Vince Coviello, who put it bluntly, “Recovery is not supposed to be exciting. Just suck it up and listen to the Docs!”). Sam made sure the place we live is level, reducing the chance of falls, and has been of constant assistance. I’m going to need to do some exceptionally special things for her when I am fully recovered.

I am getting better. The overlap of symptoms with TBI and MS made me wonder what would change; I am pleased so far and have no doubts about future improvement.

 

Unknown Territory

A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind

A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind

 

I have been writing in this blog for almost three years, daily at first, slowing to a more random pace, trying to settle on no less than once a week. Three hundred and eighty articles in and I am on target. I’ve covered topics from Quantum Physics through Astrophysics, Cosmology through the End of the World, Religions, Politics, a little Sex, and a good helping of Music. In short, the things I think about. This last year has been increasingly personal, and this article may wander into the most personal dimension, not the thoughts in my mind but the matrix of my mind itself.

I have always had a strong memory, recalling the quantity and quality of the events I have witnessed with speed and precision. I have been told I possess a keen intellect, absorbing and analyzing information, then communicating said information in easily understandable terms to any audience. I tell you these things because I remember them, not because I am aware of their presence now. I am reticent to comment on the world today, as I am not secure my analysis stands on the same foundations I have relied upon in the past.

Imagine the way you think. The complex layers of a memory, the data from all of your senses wrapped in your intellectual perception connecting every fraction of a second. I have been told a human may only experience one sensation at a time, one sound, smell, touch, emotion. The brain switches between inputs so rapidly it appears all these things are happening simultaneously, yet even more is taking place outside of awareness. We possess filters, our vision shifts our perception of colors to believe light is white; try on some tinted lenses and see for yourself. We can hear a melody through static, separating out what we want to hear; the same can be true with words in a conversation, consider a single political speech as heard by one thousand different voters, each hearing what they want to hear. We have each had enough tactile experience to know physical sensations are relative. Emotions exist in a dimension of their own, no adjectives are adequate. Tuned by all these factors our memories reside not only in the instant they were formed but also in the moment they are recalled. A word describes this, it is originally Sanskrit. The word is māyā (माया), and in a sense we refer to as “poetic” it has multiple meanings, most commonly considered to be “The illusion of reality” in the sense reality is an illusion. It is “that which exists, but is constantly changing and thus is spiritually unreal”, and the “power or the principle that conceals the true character of spiritual reality.”

With this fabulous brain creating reality from our sensory inputs, it can be difficult to determine if one of the inputs is faulty, and often difficult to explain. Verbally explaining a vision issue to an ophthalmologist is near impossible, you don’t speak their language; twice in my life I have had to resort to visual aids, a smear on the lenses of the first, using my hands to represent my eyes to the second, and this because I had diagnosed the problem and needed them to confirm and treat it. They had been pursuing (and ruling out) a different diagnosis, and were not on the path to the problem with my vision. How do you determine if the fault is in your brain? The stimuli has passed through several filters, are you certain the processor is to blame? Are you likely to ever suspect the processor, as it creates the filters and references you use to judge reality?

So I find myself today. I know one of the functions which takes place in my brain is malfunctioning. I don’t know if this is affecting other functions, or if those are malfunctioning on their own, or if everything is fine outside of one malfunctioning segment.

I have always been an emotional person. I feel deeply, I am passionate both verbally and physically. When I got out of the hospital last month, once I started remembering things, I found myself surrounded by reminders of Emma. My grief was overwhelming, I cried so much I would leave the room so I could scream in the pain which was tearing me to shreds. Then I stopped. I didn’t feel anything. I felt no passion or desire for Sam, and although I knew I should have some level of emotion directed towards the woman who leapt from open relationship partner to full time caregiver while waiting for the ambulance, even the apparent emptiness of my soul only troubled me on an intellectual level. Nothing affected me, I used to cry over commercials, dance to rhythms of the road, laugh at inappropriate moments,  and suddenly I was flat.

I do not think it requires a leap of logic to suspect the remainder of your mental facilities when one function of the brain isn’t working properly following a concussion, and I don’t remember much of the week following the accident. This just seems to be a reasonable precaution, along with avoiding heavy machinery.

I am not sure in which way or ways I should approach the question; how to elicit an answer (tests), how to measure and interpret any results. My mind is a carnival, every barking dog and stick of candy floss an important part of the tapestry, which is the gold thread and which the brass ring?

Lacking any formal training, and allowing any lapses in judgement, it appears I will need to reconcile every item I find, taking inventory of what holds me together, should I care for that revealed or not. I should enlist assistance for the task, and a brief perusal of psychiatrists who accept Medicaid produced zero results within the state. I feel rather strongly no shortcuts should be taken, the blossoming questions rise as a cloud from a bonfire off in the field, drifting across the moonlight as it paints the faces awaiting the carnival’s fireworks display.

And I can’t tell if this prose is an elegant indication of wellness, or an abstruse intimation of infirmity.

 

 

I will be waiting a few more weeks for cognitive therapy, it seems odd to me there are so few therapists available, the need appears overwhelming. So many unconscious sufferers wandering aimlessly. I joined Luminosity at the suggestion of my neurosurgeon, at least I will be exercising my neural net, keeping blood and electrons flowing. The other practice I have been applying in trying to find my emotional base has been following “inspirational” web pages, reassuring thoughts and mantras usually presented as memes. The greatest power I realize from these memes is the recognition I am not alone, someone else has produced the same thoughts I am pondering.

 

"Soul Speaking" Inspirational page

Soul Speaking” Inspirational page

 

The eventual remedy lays in memory, remembering who I am, verifying the memory represents reality, and living the life of the man who not only has been this person in the past, but is this person today. Social therapy, spending time with people who know me, can only provide the strength to separate the music from the static, provide reminders of laughter and passions. When I find I can dance to the music I have uncovered, there will be reason to believe I am on the right path toward experiencing passions again. I can acknowledge the possibilities are endless, opening my mind to the breadth of the spectrum, but only one wavelength belongs to me. I think it is just about 400 nano meters.

 

 

It’s a wonderful carnival, I’m staying all night.

 

The Ice Bucket Challenge

If you had not before this Summer, you have certainly by now heard of ALS, sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Raising money and awareness through the Ice Bucket Challenge has placed ALS in the spotlight.

I hope.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a neurodegenerative disease that affects the motor neurons in the Central Nervous System (CNS). “Amyotrophic” can be translated to “No muscle nourishment,” what is actually happening is the neurons which control the muscle have died, meaning the muscle can no longer be controlled voluntarily. “”Lateral” describes the portion of the spinal column in which the neurons are located. “Sclerosis” is a term for scarring,  referring to the hardening of areas in which the neurons have died. As ALS progresses in a patient, the degeneration of the motor neurons causes paralyses, If you recall Stephen Hawking, 40 years ago he was wheelchair bound and mildly spastic. He was able to father children and have a relatively normal life within his accommodations. Today, his communication is limited to a synthetic voice controlled by a computer, which he operates with his cheek muscle, one of the few muscles he is still able to control.

Like Lou Gehrig, Stephen Hawking is a famous person putting a face on the disease, which is relatively rare, affecting about two of every one hundred thousand people, about 140,000 people in the world, 6300 in the United States. There is no cure or treatment to end or reverse the degeneration, but a drug from Sanofi-Aventis, Riluzole, may slow the progression of the disease. It’s hard to tell with statements such as that. Stephen was diagnosed with ALS over fifty years ago, life expectancy is rarely more than ten years after diagnosis. My own experience with chronic disease has been some drugs work for some people, each case is different. I was diagnosed with MS twenty five years ago, none of the drugs that have been developed work for me (in fact a few made me worse), but my outward symptoms are barely noticeable. On the other hand, one woman who was diagnosed at the same time as me died within six months.

I have a friend who has been raising money for the ALS foundation for years. Every February she is involved in a “Valentine’s Day Plunge” in Manasquan New Jersey, in which people are sponsored to jump into the Atlantic surf to raise money for ALS research. In a bizarre twist of fate, her husband was diagnosed with ALS last year. She has organized a benefit for her husband Danny, and will continue with the Valentine’s Day Plunge, but she also has made popular among our circle of friends the Ice Bucket Challenge, which has now “gone viral.” I don’t know where it started, but we were doing it before it hit the news.

The idea behind the Ice Bucket Challenge is to raise money, but in popular culture it has turned into “raising awareness.” Well, a lot of people now know about dumping a bucket of cold water on themselves, but I don’t know that many know about the disease or are making contributions. Thus this article.

No amount of cold water or awareness is going to curb ALS, or any other disease. Awareness is certainly nice, with eighteen times as many patients, MS is largely misunderstood and I do find it quite annoying when people misinterpret my condition. Since I was diagnosed eight treatments for MS have been developed, none of which work for me. There is one drug for ALS, if it doesn’t work for you you have no other avenues. It could be worse, I had a friend in the Police Department I worked in who developed a disease only three other people in the United States had. He was the only guinea pig when research needed to be done. He vacationed at the NIH each year, no drug companies were interested in a drug that would have a handful of customers.

There is more than research that your donations provide. Most organizations provide support for patients as well. The American Cancer Society provided transportation for Emma to get to her Chemo and Radiation treatments, and provides wigs for patients who lose their hair. The MS and ALS foundations have outreach programs to assist with the daily needs of families affected by the respective diseases. Government funding is drying up, so not only do contributions go directly to research, they also pay for lobbyists to promote funding in Congress.

Being aware is not enough. Caring is nice, but only a sociopath doesn’t care. Money is what will make a difference. This year the Ice Bucket Challenge has inspired a flood of donations to the ALS association, $94 million so far. In reality that isn’t much money when you consider the price of laboratory equipment and facilities on top of the daily assistance provided to ALS patients, it amounts to roughly $671 per patient (worldwide).

 

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If you do not have the money or time to give, at least educate yourself about these diseases. Understand what that friend of yours is going through. That alone can make a world of difference.

Future Archaeologists

Archaeology is the study of past civilizations, based on artifacts left behind. A great deal can be learned from past civilizations, but if there are future civilizations, what will they be able to say about us?

When we sent Voyager out into the universe to introduce ourselves to the the unknown, our “calling card” consisted of technology that was out of date before the spacecraft was out of our solar system, a phonograph with instructions on how to listen to the recording. Were Voyager to one day return to Earth, would the current civilization be able to decipher the message? Would your child know what a phonograph is? Considering a recent video of children trying to figure out what to do with floppy discs, I wouldn’t expect too much. We can’t even replicate the Space Shuttle, our best minds conceding it is “too complex.”

The Voyager Phonograph

The Voyager Phonograph

What of our civilization will remain in a thousand years? Even plastic, which is our most common artifact, degrades in a thousand years. Unless we break away from our egocentric concept that there will be no breaks in the continuity of society, there will be no books or films, which would require archival preservation, and should an all out collapse take place, everything stored electronically will vanish. We have systematically erased our history, converting our fragile “hard copies” to ethereal digital versions, changing our digital media from the semi permanent optical recordings of DVDs to strings of electrons on flash drives, hard drives, and now “the cloud,” which is as stable (and secure) as it sounds.  We are barely one electromagnetic pulse away from the dark ages.

The steel of our buildings will decompose in a few decades, but the glass will last for thousands of years. Will some future archeologist piece together the mass of shards were once a skyscraper? With porcelain being almost indestructible, will they puzzle over all the bathroom fixtures? Perhaps it is fitting that the toilet will be the most common artifact remaining in two thousand years.

Our modern pyramids, buildings of concrete, are becoming scarce in the landscapes of steel and glass. Our homes are increasingly built of wood. The remnants of twentieth and nineteenth century buildings may provide evidence of a once great civilization that disappeared.

When we look at recent civilizations, I am reminded of extinct Native American tribes, whose demise can be traced to their deforestation of the local environment. When it took longer than a day’s walk to collect firewood, the Pueblo died. Will a future anthropologist be able to figure out we consumed the resources that provide electricity, and having stored all our knowledge on electronic devices, were left with no past, and thus no future?

We, and by “we” I mean twenty-first century humans, will be forgotten. All of our mistakes will be remade. Perhaps the future Einsteins will not build nuclear weapons, but my greatest hope is that survivors of this civilization will turn away from technology and embrace the simple life they will be forced into, living in small social groups and building upon the lesson that bigger is not always better. Perhaps our progeny will be a nobler species, Homo Sapiens Supra.

As with anything, the journey to that day will be difficult for those who resist change. Considering ourselves as merely modern Cro-Magnon, another step in the evolutionary chain, is more soothing (to me) than thinking we are the very best we can possibly be. Because we are not. We are not capable of destroying our world, but we are very good at killing each other. It appears to be our goal.

 

A difference of opinion

 

The Ichthys is a symbol in Christianity, from the Koine Greek word for fish, based on Matthew 4:18-19:

18 And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.19 And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.

During the time of persecution by the Roman Empire, the Ichthys was a symbol used to mark meeting places, and even as a “salute”, to covertly distinguish friends from persecutors. If you recall the television program “The Prisoner,” you might recognize the symbol.

The Ichthys salutation

The Ichthys salutation modified to mean “I’ll be seeing you”

 

In the last few decades, the symbol has been re-popularized, initially as a bumper sticker or medallion quietly acknowledging Christianity. Not willing to let a private expression of faith go without an argument, several groups decided to mock the Ichthys, creating their own variants.

 

Evolution of the Ichthys

Evolution of the Ichthys

If you know so little about both Christianity and evolution you believe the two are in conflict with each other, you might find some of the more aggressive variants (none of which are shown here) as expressing something you consider to be “truth.” The truth is, by displaying a “Darwin Fish” you have expressed your general ignorance and arrogance. Christ had nothing to do with creation. That was his father, God, who gave the people sixteen centuries before Christ a story of the creation of Earth they could understand. There is no rational reason to believe that the creation story in Genesis reflects the actual or complete mechanics of the creation of the universe, but it does follow the path that scientists believe took place. Some people might feel that lends some veracity to the story. Other would prefer to pick apart the story for what is left out. If you think Genesis is a science book, you missed the point, regardless of your religious beliefs.

In a recent conversation about arrogance, one contributor displayed both his arrogance and ignorance as he attempted to preserve his point of view with something that no doubt sounded wise and noble to him by saying “it should also be noted that respecting someone’s right to have a belief in something is a given. But it in no way means that the belief itself, especially one that is considered to be the cause of much damage and suffering, should be respected. Indeed, it becomes one’s duty to hold it up for ridicule and scorn.”

I can respect someone I don’t agree with, but when you feel it is your duty to ridicule and scorn someone’s beliefs, you are not in any way respecting the person, their right to have the belief, or the belief. Trying to sugar coat your arrogance only makes you appear more arrogant, as if the foolish Christian can not see through your self deceit. Very little elicits more pity than a fool who genuinely believes he is wise.

If you choose not to believe the Judea-Christian beliefs, so be it. You are not alone, roughly two thirds of he world’s population is neither Jewish or Christian. However, very few people actually believe there is no God. If you wish to express the superiority of your views that no God exists, even claiming them to be backed by science, you might want to consider the meaning of both “Atheism” and “science.” To say you believe there is no deity, none at all, because you have no empirical evidence of its existence, indicates faith. You believe in something you can not prove. Were you to have any understanding of science you would know that the absence of empirical evidence of something does not imply the actual absence of that thing’s existence. There is no empirical evidence of the existence of electrons, yet we are all certain they exist. Intellectual honesty would require a thoughtful person who does not believe in a deity to accept the possibility that a deity might exist. Such an intellectually honest person would call themselves an Agnostic.

If you call yourself a Christian, there are rational discussions to be had about your beliefs, such as “why you think you are in a position to judge other people.” If you call yourself a Muslim there are rational discussions to be had, such as “why do you believe you should kill people who do not share your faith.” If you call yourself an Atheist there are rational discussion to be had, such as”Why do you have faith in something that can not be proven (there is no God) yet feel you can judge others who have faith in something that can not be proven (there is a God).”

We all have differences of opinion, and if we are secure in our opinions can discuss them without insulting other people’s opinions. People who feel they can simply shout down any opinion that is contrary to theirs lack security in their beliefs, whether they be the Westboro Baptist Church, the Taliban, or Atheists. They are all equally annoying to those of us who have explored our spirituality and can express our beliefs rationally.

Secure in our beliefs, most of us can take a joke. I might even put this medallion on my car.

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C is NOT for “cookie”

On the odd chance you are not aware, there is a disease called cancer. It can take many forms and affect any part of your body. Some forms are curable, some are not, but if left untreated it is always lethal.

Yeah. I thought you might have heard about it. There are over one and one half million new cases every year, and a little over half a million deaths in the population of roughly three hundred sixteen million Americans. That’s about 0.5% of the population newly affected each year, someone’s parent, spouse, sibling, child, or all of the above. You know at least one and possibly several people directly affected, survivors and fatalities.

This is why I really do not understand Cancer Awareness programs. What disturbs me even more deeply are secret cancer awareness games. The oxymoron title does not seem to sink in to the people involved.

The first of these I noticed a few years ago. One day a number of my female friends posted status updates consisting of a color. A few weeks later a few posted suggestive sounding status updates such as “I like it on the kitchen table” which was part of a game in which you posted where you liked to place your handbag. You were not supposed to explain, but a few people did privately. This was all supposed to raise awareness about breast cancer. How being part of a secret raises awareness is beyond me. How people who have suffered from breast cancer, or lost a loved one to breast cancer, could be a part of this astounds me.

More recently there was a group posting “selfies”, pictures one takes of oneself, without makeup. A few people mentioned it was for “cancer awareness” and fewer still provided a link to a cancer research association. While this might have had more impact on cancer research than any previous game, it was also the most revealing exercise. It was not easy to participate in. It took the courage to reveal yourself without makeup, so it was not quite as widespread as previous campaigns. Despite the narcissism of a society that has actually coined a bastardized word for self worship (selfie), the idea of being seen at less than your cosmetically enhanced “best” lacked appeal. Asked to contribute so much as a morsel of vanity the movement crashed, despite national news coverage of celebrities without make up (although possibly still Photoshopped).

Maybe the point of cancer awareness is self awareness. Cancer avoidance begins with self awareness, diagnosis begins with self awareness. The path to that self awareness is discussion and openness, so cute little secret games could never be the answer, in fact they are the antithesis of awareness.

Today (1 April 2014) would have been my fifteenth wedding anniversary with Emma. It is a day on which I am acutely aware of cancer, as are the dates of her birth and death, which is not to say it ever slips out of my mind. During the thirteen months she (we) struggled with cancer I learned quite a bit about cancer and its effects. I learned about the human spirit, hope, and loss. I have lost other friends to cancer, and know quite a few that have survived cancer, so losing my wife does not make me special or unique in any way.

You do not have to lose a loved one to be aware of cancer, in fact I honestly believe you would need to live in a remote cave to not be aware. If you are unaware of the signs of cancer, playing games will not make you, or anyone else, aware. Talk with your friends who have survived (you must have at least one) or visit the website of the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society does wonderful work in all aspects of cancer awareness, and provides services to not only patients but families of patients. They fund research investigating avoidance, treatments, and cures as well as providing counseling for those who lose loved ones to the disease.

If you want to raise awareness, talk. Discuss avoidance with your loved ones. Donate money or time to charities like but not limited to the American Cancer Society. Share your story if you are a survivor, or the stories of others that did not survive. Share this article, or something written by someone else about their journey with cancer (maybe a short book, I leave them on airplanes and in hotel rooms). If it has not already, cancer will affect you in some way in the future. Be prepared.

One other thought I would like to share with you. Cancer is a random event. There are circumstances which make it more likely such as exposure to carcinogens (sunlight, smoking, certain chemicals), but there is no way to completely prevent cancer. In the same way you would not blame a rape victim for the actions of a violent criminal, never blame a cancer patient for their disease. Blame has no place in treatment other than as a footnote among things that have a negative effect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climate science

I have some background in science, enough to know when I have to hit the books rather than depend on instinct or “the buzz”. Some issues are obvious, others less so. The trouble is, most folks don’t know when something isn’t obvious. The ability to analyze and interpret data is a skill no longer taught in schools as a part of general education. We teach young people they have a right to speak, a right to their own opinions, yet we don’t teach them how to form intelligent opinions.

At our fingertips is access to all the information of the world, but without the ability to discern fact from fantasy, how do we really know to discard the web page from Elvis’ lover from outer space? In a large number of cases, we trust certain sources to be accurate, but there remains massive amounts of people who will believe anything, and once they believe, their faith cannot be shaken.

You may or may not believe in what is now called “Anthropogenic Climate Change”. It was previously called Climate Change, and before that Global Warming, and before that Weather. One clue an idea is without merit is when it keeps changing its name.

The idea of Anthropogenic Climate Change became popular after Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published in 1962. Carson’s focus was the use of pesticides, notably DDT, which could be directly linked to genetic damage in wildlife. Her book launched the environmental movement, which at the time was warning air pollution would cause a decrease in planetary temperatures by blocking sunlight, bringing on an ice age.

There are wondrous benefits to humanity to be gained by realizing where “away” is when we throw something away. Archeology provides several examples of societies that polluted their environments, and either moved on to pollute new locations or found themselves trapped in an environment that could no longer sustain them. There is no question that we can foul our immediate surroundings, or consume all of the locally available resources. Today we see ourselves as a global community, we realize we might actually be able to use all the resources on the planet, the pollution we ship off to someplace we can’t see can wash back up on our doorstep.

Somewhere in there is the break in logic. Maybe if we compare the issue to physics, where we recognize the rules change with scale, we may be better served. The thin crust of humans on this planet can destroy individual species, and in some cases those species may be keystones in the environment. We can do a lot of damage, and might even be able to make the entire planet hostile to human life. What is far more likely is we will find our pattern unsustainable, and due either to wisdom or necessity reduce the number of humans on the planet. Fewer humans, fewer resources consumed and polluted, the environment heals. If we do manage to drive our own species to extinction, should we shed a tear?

Everything works in cycles, we might mourn the loss of the Snail Darter, but is anyone campaigning to bring back Tyrannosaurus Rex? Part of our minds accepts, even embraces the cycles of lives, another insists on controlling them. Perhaps Homo Post Sapiens will do better.

For me, the issue of  “Climate Change” boils down to a few critical points.

First, “Is it happening?”. Despite what either camp is shouting, the answer is “The jury is still out on that one”. There is adequate data to indicate we are following natural cycles, and there is adequate speculation extrapolation of that data to indicate the trend might be towards unnatural warming.

Second, “Is there anything that should be done about it?”. Note that before even questioning if how or if we can, the question is “should”. The questions that arise here are “Is this a natural process?” and “Is there some reason to believe altering a global process could have positive results?”. We put on sunscreen before going out in the sun, and carry an umbrella in the rain, but is it a good idea to stop the sun or the rain? If it does turn out that humans have caused Climate Change, are not humans part of the ecosystem? Everything humans do is by definition natural, so should we consciously attempt to alter the climate of the entire planet?

Third, “What can be done about it?”. If there is climate change (Anthropogenic or not) and we determine we should attempt to alter it, what should we do? How precisely will allowing some countries to pollute more, and assigning fines to countries that have been arbitrarily chosen to pollute less, affect the climate in any possible way? If the problem is carbon in the atmosphere, and the problem is a global one, why is it a solution to allow Russia to buy India’s capacity to produce atmospheric carbon? Wouldn’t the solution be closer to eliminating atmospheric carbon production altogether rather than transferring currency?

My skepticism on the subject is not assuaged by the fanatics that claim humans are responsible for climate change. Starting from the beginning, are not weathermen the least trusted when the question is accuracy? Maybe they can forecast today’s weather, but next week? Next century? Ten thousand years from now? These are people who can’t remember not to wear green in front of a green screen, their only interaction with technology each day.

Chroma key at work

Chroma key at work

Our local weatherman mentioned today the wind chill temperatures would be lower in a certain area because they had more snow on the ground.  There is more snow on the ground there because it snowed there yesterday. Wind chill is determined by air temperature and wind speed, snow on the ground does not factor at all.

A fake petition was passed around at a global warming rally (I’m just guessing they’re against, and not for, global warming) requesting the United States government to lower the temperature of the sun. Stupid followers do not enhance your public image. People claiming that global warming “deniers” are ignoring science might want to check where that thermostat on the sun might be, and share with us why they think Americans have access to it.

Gallup recently presented the results from a poll, indicating “More than four in 10 Americans say the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, while one in three say it is generally underestimated and about one in four say it is generally correct”. Despite the odd presentation (4/10 + 1/3 + 1/4 = 1) the poll was not about the science, or even about the scientists, but about public opinion, what people thought the scientists (more precisely the media) were saying. And this is my point. People are arguing about their opinions, with no knowledge of the facts. Despite the fact public opinion has nothing to do with the validity of data, it is interesting that even though more people believe scientists believe in global warming, more people than ever believe that global warming claims are exaggerated in the media.

Climate change deserves your attention. I have seen nothing that convinces me it is not a totally natural process, but regardless of your beliefs, seek out facts to support them. Don’t listen to wankers, they’re on both sides of the issue.

Seeing is believing

There has been a trend against language for some time. The masses, easily misled by words, prefer pictures.

Several alleged “news” sources simply post video. No analysis or comment, occasionally going as far as stating “At 2:15 he makes his point” suggesting I should watch two minutes and fifteen seconds of a video to discover what the point might be. Just tell me, I can read, and I can read much faster than the video can tell its story. I have seen “articles” that consist of a collection of “memes”, with no original content. A string of pictures with captions rather than an actual opinion. “You know what I mean” moves to the next level.

“Meme” is derived from “mimeme”, meaning to imitate. The person who coined the word (Richard Dawkins) was looking for a monosyllabic expression. Rarely does a word fit its own definition so well, in some ways an intellectual onomatopoeia.

Recently footage of a chunk of ice falling off a glacier into the sea was headlined “Watch as a piece of the planet disappears forever!”. I watched, and saw ice fall into water. Nothing disappeared. Nonetheless the site was filled by global warming enthusiasts wringing their hands over the shame of it all. Pictures are like that. This is why anti-abortion activists carry pictures of aborted fetuses. The portion of the brain that reacts to visual stimuli skips the part that weighs facts and balances arguments. It’s a function of the survival instinct.

I’ve also noticed a grotesque misuse of graphs. A line on a page is not a graph. Unequal indices and unequally spaced indices are misleading. A graph with missing indices is just a set of meaningless lines. Yes, we can all see the line goes up as it moves from left to right, which influences my opinion as much as a picture of the guy from the Dos Equis commercials. But look! The line goes to the upper left hand corner! Turn the page ninety degrees, has the data changed? Why does the line go down now?

You may have noticed certain words in my articles are underlined. This was once the common way of letting readers know they could click on those words to link to an article verifying the information. Even that simple non-verbal form of communication has been corrupted. In a recent article about climate change, more than half the links were “broken”, that is, they lead nowhere, most often to a “404 Error” page. The casual reader would think there was documentation. Whether this was an intentional ruse to mislead readers or this was a case in which the documentation had been withdrawn is purely speculation.

The written word is not a natural form of communication. It is the product of intellectual evolution. De-evolution is a choice, it is a failure of intellect, and a great band from the ’80s. It is not the path a “progressive” should be attracted towards.

Numerals

Numerals are the names we give to numbers. Twelve, 12, Dozen, XII, Двенадцать, Twaalf, and Doce all refer to the same number. The number is the collection of objects, so the numeral is an adjective describing the collection. In the sentence “Bob has twelve blue eggs” the words “twelve” and “blue” describe the eggs Bob has. If he gives away an egg, the collection has changed as much as if he had bleached one white.

Just wanted to get that out of the way. The word “number” is in some ways similar to the word “anesthesia”, something that makes you numb. Maybe not you, but many people.

Most people do not understand numbers or their relationship to each other. As the data is translated into numerals, the level of understanding does not increase. Part of this is rooted in language, almost everyone understands the difference between addition and geometry, without realizing the difference between million and trillion is geometrical rather than linear. Moving a decimal point is not a function of counting, the simple addition or subtraction of a single unit, it is the multiplication (or division) of a number by a factor of the base. We use base ten, one hundred is ten times ten, or ten squared, one thousand is ten times ten times ten, or ten cubed. One is ten divided by ten, zero point one (0.1) is ten divided by ten divided by ten. 0.1 is related to 10 the same way 10 is related to 1,000. Decimals are easy, fractions drive people insane.

Really big events are often expressed using numerals, but if numerals and the numbers they represents are not understood, the event isn’t understood either. It is often said “Numbers don’t lie”. Words don’t lie either. Both can be used to tell lies.

I give you this as a preface to some numbers I’ll be referring to in the coming weeks. I’m going to be exploring some common myths in our culture, and I want to get your minds in a place where they can analyze the data without taking my word for the meaning of the numbers. For today, I’m just going to go over a couple of ways numbers have been used to lie, or at least mislead.

I have nothing against H&R Block, I’m using their ad as an illustration.

There is a commercial for H&R Block in which they state one billion dollars in tax deductions are missed by people who complete their own returns. We’re going to accept this as a fact without any verification, one billion dollars in deductions. As anyone who has prepared a tax return is aware, one dollar of deductions does not equal one dollar of taxes, but this is an ad for people who haven’t done their own tax returns, so why not go ahead and accept that one billion dollars in taxes have been overpaid. I won’t go into the representations of one billion dollars used in the commercials other than to say there would be different results if the money was in one dollar bills, hundred dollar bills, or pennies.

The population of the United Sates is estimated to be just over 316 million people in 2013. That means the one billion dollars is about $3.16 per person. Using the logic presented by H&R Block, your family of four is due an extra $12.65. Knowing that, are you ready to spend thirty dollars to have them prepare your taxes?

Of course, my numbers are wrong. Although each person should be represented on a tax return, each person does not file a tax return. Of actual tax returns, less than half are individuals (people rather than businesses). A small number (relatively speaking) are filed on paper rather than digitally. That small number is estimated as less than ten percent of the total number of returns, or a little over twenty four million returns for 2013. What, you didn’t think twenty four million was a small number?

So who knows what H&R Block is referring to in its commercials? All that is important is you should get your share of one billion dollars. If that share is a three hundred sixteen millionth, it isn’t much of a share, but you’re not supposed to think about anything other than the pile of bills shown in the commercial.

Next we’ll talk about graphs, visual representations of numbers.

 

 

So say we all

There’s an important concept within democracy that seems to be misunderstood.

The majority decision is the law. It is not inherently “right”, or “fair”, or even “intelligent”, it is only the law.

We got along for quite a while enjoying the benefits and responsibilities of a democracy. I’m not exactly sure why things have changed, but they have.

Very possibly it is the collision of the “me” generation and their offspring with the “information superhighway”.

The responsibility of living in a democracy means accepting you will not always be in the majority, nor will you always be in the minority. The importance of your ideas and beliefs is equal to the importance of ideas and beliefs you don’t agree with. It is the interaction between people of different views that produces growth. Sometimes we rise above where we are and learn something neither party had considered before.

Somewhere along the way a large portion of American society has come to believe that being a majority infers some moral and intellectual superiority, there is nothing to learn from the minority and they should be destroyed. A scorched Earth approach to social interaction.

As dangerous as that state of mind might be, what is happening is even worse. Since being in the majority is the only accepted validation of ideas, it becomes more difficult for an ego to accept it might be wrong about anything, therefore it creates a majority that doesn’t exist. “I’m not wrong, and everybody agrees with me” has replaced “you may not agree, but this is what I think”. By following this path, the wounded ego empowers itself with an illusion.

The essence of democracy is we do not believe in precisely the same things. We do believe in each other.

In a discussion about religion, self proclaimed atheists state they are not only a majority, but they will supplant all religions. This is the kind of nonsense you hear from religious fanatics, but don’t suggest atheism is a religion, because even though the person speaking is telling you out of one side of his mouth that everyone agrees with him, out of the other side he’s saying there is no definition for his beliefs.

In a discussion about politics a member of one party states the other party is the “enemy of democracy” and this opposing party will cease to exist. Suggest to the person a democracy requires at least two points of views, and you are labeled a fanatic. Both sides see the other as idiots intent on evil.

They are not idiots. Well, some of them are. You read this on a computer screen. At your fingertips is the massed information of our civilization, opposing viewpoints, and pictures of cats. You may be a genius, a poet, an artist, a mailman, or an inmate at an asylum. You might be anything in the world, and your opinion is equal in value to mine. We may not be of equal intellect, in fact it is unlikely we are. It is our responsibility to be civil with each other despite our differences.

Opinions are not truths. There is no objective “right” and “wrong” with opinions. There is simply the majority and infinite minorities. Membership in those groups changes every day. Being a participant in democracy, it is important to understand that today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority, and the way you treat others may be the way you are treated.

It’s not easy. Just as the majority of milk is not cream, the majority of society is not the best we have to offer. Education is our greatest tool, but the majority prefers propaganda.

Be proud to be different. Do not be swayed by other opinions, but listen to them. Learn the facts and make up your own mind. Because in the final analysis, your own mind is all you have.

 

 

Our daily bread

There was a book by Philip & Phylis Morrison, “The Ring of Truth“. It is about the scientific method, and subtitled “How we know what we know”. It is a fascinating adventure into “popular” science, the idea that by presenting material about science in a non-scientific manner, lay people will be educated about the scientific method.

Much like teaching carpentry with a book about pastry, the results were somewhat disappointing. People who already understood the scientific method found the book interesting for its anecdotes. People who didn’t understand the scientific method found the book fascinating because anecdotes are often more interesting than data, and went forward believing they were now “Scientists”.

A dark day indeed.

Presently, we have descended intellectually to a point where “The Ring of Truth” is all that is required as proof for a theory.  Popular consensus carries more weight with lay people than actual facts, and education is deplored as “mind control”. “Research” means finding agreeable views on the internet, regardless of source.

In the name of “equality” we have skipped past the fact fifty percent of the population is of below average intelligence, and average intelligence is nothing to brag about. Everyone feels good about themselves and gets a trophy for being special.

There are “red flags”, items that should be obvious in the media that something is “sketchy” about a story, yet the same things that are red flags to those over median intelligence are the ring of truth to those below.

Take this as you wish. When a story is all over the news, does that make it true? When you hear the same story from several sources, does it trouble you that not a single source asked obvious follow up questions or dug into the subject a little deeper than the surface?

Take for instance azodicarbonamide.

Azodicarbonamide

Azodicarbonamide

I’m partial to CHON,  the essential elements of life, Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen. I know you can put them together in ways that are toxic to life, but no life on Earth exists without them. This group of CHON is a commonly used food additive, but for some reason it has been in the news lately. No, not the actual chemical, just a little about two products that contain it, and one of the many companies that uses it.

Compare it to the chemical that is often used in its place.

HCO− 3 + H2O → H 2CO 3 + OH−


NaHCO3 AKA “Baking Soda”

Azodicarbonamide is used in the same way as Baking Soda, when moistened it produces bubbles, those things that make the difference between “dough” and “bread”. It is used by most commercial bakeries in the United States and the United Kingdom. There have been questions about its safety in large doses as an inhalant, so it is banned in many countries, and limited to only forty five parts per million in food in the United States. In case your brain doesn’t work with numbers like that, ten thousand parts per million is one percent of the total, so forty five parts per million is .0045% of the ingredients.

Despite the fact azodicarbonamide is in most of the bread you eat, you may think that only Subway uses it. This should be the first red flag. Why would they be the only ones to use it? They aren’t.

You may also be aware that a variation of azodicarbonamide has commercial uses and is used in the production of some foamed plastics, like exercise mats (those little bubbles turn rubber into foam), but it is more likely that you have come to believe that azodicarbonamide has only two uses, Subway bread and yoga mats. Wow what a specialized chemical.

It should also be noted that a variation of the chemical Hydrazine (an antidepressant), known as both Hydrazine and Diazane, is used as a component of rocket fuel. Anti-depressants are not rocket fuel, bread is not yoga mats.

Hydrazine MAOI

Hydrazine MAOI

93px-Hydrazin.svg

Hydrazine rocket fuel

The question that has not been asked is “Why is it so important for Subway to remove a common ingredient from its bread?”. No one has suggested anyone else remove it from their bread, so why Subway? Could it be a competitor starting this fuss? If there is a health concern, it seems more likely that you would inhale azodicarbonamide when doing a downward facing dog than eating a sandwich.

But that only has the ring of truth, no empirical data exists.

Meanwhile, at the rebel base on Tatooine…

1551645_10203162630216601_1464973946_n

No, not really. Those are not X wing fighters, although they have been mistaken for alien spaceships. These are A-12 (OXCART) aircraft, very possibly the most advanced aircraft ever built, doomed to be killed by a blackbird.

Now that much concerning the development of these craft has been declassified, we can talk about these exotic craft and the people who worked with them.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, since the flurry of activity last November and a number of friends sharing photographs that are no longer classified. What finally motivated me was a reference to Polaroid cameras the other day, and the recognition that strategic reconnaissance is a vastly unknown art.

Almost everyone has heard of Dr. Edwin Land, creator of the Polaroid camera. What many are unaware of is Dr. Land’s contribution to surveillance. In World War two he adapted his vectograph, a polarized 3D image, to defeat camouflage. Vectograph uses a system that polarizes the left/right images rather than using color filters. Dr. Land developed the cameras used in the U-2, OXCART (and later SR-71 BLACKBIRD), and several series of satellites.

These cameras took images from incredible distances. The closest perigee of a KH-11 was 157 miles, while the A-12 was flying at about 19 miles with an air speed over three times the speed of sound. The precise resolution remains classified, but paired with excellent photo interpretation, we managed follow a great deal of activity.

Strategic surveillance has always been around, we watch each other, and sometimes the curtain of secrecy which separates engineers of differing political persuasions can be pierced.  The greatest airframes have been designed by Russians, but the imaginations required to exploit those airframes with superior avionics have been American. You knew the Mig-25 magically turned into the F-15, but now you know the stealth program began with a Russian design. When we first saw one on a runway we thought it was a Russian space shuttle prototype, the design became TACIT BLUE.

Today surveillance is more signal oriented. In the flood of communications made available to every drooling biped on the planet, computer algorithms “listen” to our conversations, looking for keywords. The same way advertisers zero in on you, hitting you with ads for whatever you just looked for, programs like NARUSINSIGHT look for key words or combinations. Even with the most sophisticated and immense computers in existence, only about thirty percent of traffic can be monitored. Observe a smaller pool of communication, and you can catch everything (reveal what you’ve found and people stop talking).

The “revelations” about surveillance are only surprises to those who haven’t been paying attention. The fears about surveillance are only as founded as our own self measurements of guilt. Was it a bad thing for Victoria Nuland to express her feelings in a private phone conversation? I don’t think so. I think it points out the importance of appropriate interpretation. Personal opinions are not state agendas.

The biggest secret is there really are no secrets.

Predeterminism

I’ve never quite understood how people can believe in predeterminism, that all events are inevitable and unchangeable. I can see it growing from the disappointment surrounding the discovery there are things we cannot change, but it feels like a surrender.

I recognize that the sun will rise in the East each morning, and should I release my coffee cup it will fall to the floor, but I believe releasing my coffee cup is a choice. I believe when God created the universe, and said “Bang!”, there was light, and God knew what would happen next in the same sense I know my banana bread will be ready in an hour when I place it in a 375°F oven.

Continuing the baking analogy, creation was proofing the yeast, the great flood was punching the dough, Christ was placing the loaf in the oven, Revelations represents the finished bread. Does God know there will be bread at the end of the process? Of course. Does God know where on the bread a remaining bubble in the dough will cause a brown spot on the crust? No, but he does know there will be brown spots.

In physics we know certain things about the behavior of subatomic particles. We know they behave within certain limits in a scale of probability. Is it possible that every molecule of oxygen will congregate in a one meter cube in the corner? Yes, it is. Brownian motion is random, so any outcome is possible. If we were to measure the area involved once per second over the course of five billion years, we might never see it happen, because although it is possible, it is highly improbable.

If every event in the universe is predetermined, if we are part of some grand, rigid machine, how would we know? Every conversation, every thought, every attempt at action we make and its result would be predetermined. That we would ask, consider, and discuss the issue would be predetermined. If it is predetermined that I will win the lottery, it must also be predetermined that I will purchase the winning ticket.

Belief in determinism or predeterminism is rooted in faith, there is no real proof for either side.

In my life, I have acknowledged my inability to control the universe. Disease comes along randomly, sometimes it can be treated, sometimes it can be cured, sometimes not. If the course of a disease is predetermined, is not that determination based on attempts to treat it? If my destiny was set at the instant of creation, isn’t a part of that destiny my struggles to alter my path? If I decide that I am a pawn to predetermination, that decision in itself would be predetermined.

Trying to see the universe through the measure of a life that at best spans a century is foolish. In the ninth verse of Second Peter, it is said “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”.

 

God is waiting. He has forever. You don’t.

Is it live, or is it Memorex?

In the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, LeVar Burton plays helmsman Geordi La Forge (his assignment changes to Chief Engineer after the first season, odd career path).

Geordi-La-Forge-Gets-Downgraded-to-Google-Glass-2.jpg 1364822836

The allegory of a blind man as helmsman provides infinite opportunities to address the meaning of “vision”, story lines touching on perception were the mainstay of the La Forge character. He may have been inspired by the Frank Herbert’s Guild Navigators in the “Dune” novels, or the Fafa-kitahi, the “Feelers of the Sea”, Tongan navigators who were blind. Roddenberry named the character for a fan of the original series, George La Forge, who was quadriplegic.

The purpose of science is to see the unseen.

Applied sciences exploit our understanding of the universe, but it is “pure” science, the desire to understand, that sparks great minds. In the real world our La Forge is the real life helmsman of understanding the universe, Stephen Hawking.

For those of you not familiar with Professor Hawking, he is a brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist, whose greatest contribution has been his personality. Dr. Hawking didn’t invent black holes, but without him you would have never heard of them. Professor Hawking has made theoretical physics accessible. From his wheelchair. Professor Hawking was diagnosed with a form of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of twenty one, and his physical abilities have deteriorated to the point that he now controls devices with the muscles in his cheeks.

Curiosity - Is there a creator

Professor Stephen Hawking CH CBE FRS FRSA

You’ve heard his “voice“, which despite being generated synthetically is still recognizable as belonging to him. He has appeared in countless interviews and guest appearances, including a role on “The Simpsons“. His first popular book, “A Brief History of Time”, sold over ten million copies since its publication in 1988, and spent five years on the London Sunday Times’ best seller list. The New York Metropolitan Opera has commissioned an operatic adaptation.

Very few people know what exactly Professor Hawking did that made him so famous. He presented a theory that black holes aren’t really black. Hawking radiation, an emission at the event horizon of a black hole, was a pretty radical idea in 1974. In a micro black hole, more energy could escape than is consumed, causing “black hole evaporation”. Maybe it is the romanticism, the Geordi La Forge effect, that comes when a man whose personal universe is collapsing  sees the omega of the universe has an escape hatch, that has made Professor Hawking so popular.

A great deal of understanding physics involves the ability to see through the veneer of “reality” and into the way things really work. In the same way that it is difficult to draw a four-dimensional object on a two-dimensional canvass, it is difficult to explain theoretical physics with words. The idea of a black hole, an object so massive that its gravitational field can trap light, seems simple. It’s when you get down to the “How can that exist within the known laws of the universe?” part when descriptions fall into mathematics. We “prove” the existence of things we cannot see through mathematics, electrons do not orbit nuclei in orderly solar systems, they exist in a probability cloud. The picture of an atom is an equation of probabilities.

The boundary of the gravitational field, the points in space at which the field is so intense that light cannot escape, is called the event horizon. Because light does not escape that boundary we call it a black hole. But if you’re picturing a non-reflective sphere, or some point at which a gravity well can be presumed to exist due to the flux in visual perception, you’re trying to draw two-dimensional tesseracts.

I’m trying to avoid the math and just stay with the concepts. Professor Hawking made the universe of cosmology approachable, but what he “showed” us can only be imagined. We see what we can imagine, which presents our limiting factor. If we can’t imagine it, we can’t understand it.

Recently the professor has published a new view of the invisible. In “Information preservation and weather forecasting for black holes”, Professor Hawking addresses the conflicts between general relativity and quantum theory as they explain black holes (he also indicates, by the title, he is still has an awesome sense of humor). This has been popularized as “Hawking now claims black holes don’t exist”.

Language zero, Physics one.

In the classic sense, black holes as we envision them do not exist. If anything that enters the event horizon is lost to the universe forever, there is no way for them to fit our classical measures of existence. What Professor Hawking has formulated is an explanation for the existence of something that can’t exist. Professor Hawking is suggesting is that event horizons do not exist, and replaces the term with “apparent horizons”, a fuzzy zone in which the super gravity of the black hole wrecks havoc with the laws of physics; he summarizes “The absence of event horizons mean that there are no black holes — in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infi nity. There are however apparent horizons which persist for a period of time”. That period of time may be billions of years.

Our impressions of the universe are experienced with our minds. What we see is only the photons that have traveled to our optic nerve, what our mind sees is the photons that could never reach us. When we look at the stars, we see them as they were thousands of years ago. We see constellations with no sense of depth, as if the stars were laid out upon a canvas, yet from another angle, the brightness and relationships would form different pictures.

What is “real”? The answer rests on what we understand to be possible. And of course, there’s always the wisdom of the Rockman…

 

Heroes

I have known people who are bona fide heroes. Depending on your definition, I might be a hero. It’s a title I don’t desire, as it waters down the impact of those I consider to be real heroes.

These days there are so many heroes that it is the unusual person who is not a hero.

The kid with cancer who wants to be Batman for a day is a “hero”. Any cancer survivor is a hero. Oddly, dying of cancer is less heroic, and treating cancer gets no mention at all.

Right now, as far as I’m concerned, the guys from the water company who worked through the night to repair the water main break out front, allowing me to take my first hot shower in days, are heroes.

Edward Snowden is not a hero. Neither is “Chelsea” (Bradley) Manning, or Julian Assange. Heroism requires more than being on the right side of an issue, and I’m still not certain which side of their issue is the “right” side. I do know that heroism involves “doing the right thing”, a fairly fuzzy definition, and that none of these men chose the “right thing” that was available, turning instead to illegal avenues that endangered the lives of others. Heroes don’t put people in danger, so yeah, I’m sure these guys aren’t heroes.

Most of you have never heard of Aaron Swartz, but a lot of people think he was a hero. He was certainly a genius, developing the RSS standard when he was only fourteen. He left public school in the tenth grade, enrolling in the local college, and was later admitted to Stanford University. He dropped out of Stanford after a year, because he “didn’t find it intellectually stimulating”.

What he did find intellectually stimulating was exploiting the internet, developing ways to make it accessible in more ways to more people. Among his cooperative developments are Markdown, Infogami (which became Reddit),  and Jottit, among a multitude of web shattering collaborations. Aaron became quite wealthy from his creative efforts, and invested his money and intellect into social causes. He believed the internet should be free, and that all the content on the internet should be free. Not a very popular position among artists, but big with consumers.

Aaron was, as most “creative types” are, prone to depression. Real, clinical depression. Being a genius and being able to accomplish anything he applied himself to made him feel invincible, the praise and hero worship justified his impression of moral superiority. When he “liberated” millions of documents from the MIT JSTOR library, he was indicted on 13 counts of wire fraud, computer intrusion and reckless damage.

The reality of a world regulated with “stupid” laws that applied to everyone, including him, was more than Aaron could handle. He hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment last year, three months before his trial date, at age twenty six.

I can empathize with his turmoil, his aspirations, the frustrations of living in a world of masters and slaves.

Was he a hero? Maybe. Was he a criminal? Probably. Was he a gift of genius and insight to the human race? Certainly.

Life is a complex equation, human beings are a mash of variables. Very few things are black or white.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently ruled on the issue of “net neutrality“, allowing providers to regulate content. What this means on the surface is Verizon can charge Netflix for the amount of bandwidth it uses, and that cost will be forwarded to end users. What it means to some people is that internet providers have the ability to charge for and control what content they deem to provide. Will it be abused and used for censorship? Probably, in the way that Walmart, the largest retailer of hardcopy music, has the ability to control what it sells. If you want a CD with a parental advisory, it’s not at Walmart. That would only be censorship if you also couldn’t get the CD at Target, or a neighborhood record store (a few still exist), due to Walmart’s influence.

If internet providers were capable of censorship, I would certainly hope the first thing they shut down are child pornography sites, I will give a second thought to whether or not they might censor speech sometime after that happens. In the meantime, I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that copyrights still apply to the internet, as an author my work is protected, as artists my friends works are protected.

There are a lot of heroes out there. They make the world a beautiful place. Celebrate them.

Know Nukes

I always find the phrase “Nuclear family” rather funny.  Even though my parents divorced when I was twelve, I still think of my childhood as nuclear, just a different kind of nuclear. Dad worked in the scientific instrument field, so we had radioactive supplies around the house quite often.

I did the “Duck and cover” drills in elementary school, I grew up with the knowledge that a fission device could end the lives of everyone I knew at any moment, and that liquid scintillation counters used radiation for life saving research. I knew some forms of radiation were safe and some were not. I learned that some chemicals keep us alive while others are toxic. I learned that some plants are natural medicines, and some are natural poisons. I learned when to be afraid, and when not to. I used a cooler that my father had carried radioactive isotopes in to carry beer to concerts. There was no residual radioactivity, but I would joke about it and say “I didn’t want to have kids anyway”. It was a joke, okay? I’ve got four kids now.

Back then, all that information was in books. It still is, but it is supplemented, and sometimes supplanted by the internet.

The internet is a social forum. It is not a font of knowledge, it is a sewer of information. Sure, there may be a discarded gold watch in there, but it’s covered with feces.

There is a reason why scientists are respected. Because they are trained in critical thinking, and have studied their respective fields. When Emma had cancer, we didn’t seek the advice of a nuclear physicist, we were fortunate enough to find a premiere oncologist, Dr. Charles Yeo. When I’m looking for information on Global Warming, I don’t call Dr. Yeo, I check peer reviewed studies from respectable institutions. The resources available on the internet are amazing, and so is some of the garbage.

There is a lot of fuzzy logic out there. People who have no idea how to apply critical thinking are unlikely to apply any critical thinking to their sources. It’s maddening that people who say they don’t believe anything will believe anything, as long as it has no connection to actual research. For some reason fear mongering is popular. Maybe it’s the release of frustration, maybe it’s the need to control other people. Look at the various theories floating around, is there one that is based on a positive event?

Usually the false information is harmless. If people want to get worked up over issues that don’t exist that’s fine, just don’t try to get me worked up about it. Don’t come to my  door (this actually happened a few years ago) and insult me because I don’t believe your bullshit. If you don’t want there to be fracking, or a pipeline, or offshore drilling, then drive your SUV off a cliff. If you want to eat, drink, and breathe asparagus to cure your cancer, go right ahead. I’ll be pursuing therapies that actually have positive results. I don’t see a problem with genetically modified organisms. Gregor Mendels began the research in 1856, we’ve been modifying plants and animals at a genetic level for one hundred and fifty years. Suddenly it’s the end of the world?

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There is stuff to worry about, and insufficient time to worry about things that don’t matter.

The Fukushima disaster has caused a great deal of wringing of hands. Radiation can be scary, especially in the country where it brought Godzilla to life. I’ve read a lot about it, but actual verifiable information is being crowded out by fear mongering. If you’re afraid of nuclear power, fine, turn off your computer. Nuclear power has caused fewer deaths than any other source of power, when compared on a watt to death ratio. What that means is that more people die generating one hundred gigawatts of electricity in coal based generation, petroleum based generation, hydro-electric generation, and even solar generation than in nuclear generation. Wind power costs twice as many lives as nuclear per watt, while providing one seventeenth as much of the world’s electricity (I know that statistic could be claimed to be misleading as I’m using two different measures, read it carefully).

Fukushima survived one of the largest earthquakes in history. Measuring 9.0 on the Richter magnitude scale, with an epicenter less than one hundred miles away, it is not the kind of event that can be factored into safety engineering. The Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, even closer to the epicenter, survived undamaged. Eight gas fired power plants and two refineries were damaged. Nearly sixteen thousand people died, but no deaths are tied to exposure to radioactivity, although several people died due to the evacuation around Fukushima.

There has been a good deal of speculation and outright lies in the reporting of the impact of the earthquake. When people don’t understand that there is a level of background radiation that occurs naturally everywhere on Earth, they are easily fooled into a  post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning when shown background radiation in an area they don’t expect to see it. This is similar to the concern over radiation in the waste water from fracking. Uranium is a naturally occurring element, if it is in the soil where fracking is taking place, it will be in the waste water. It is no different than the cognitive dissonance which takes place when people see a bear in a semi rural neighborhood such as my own, and ask “where did it come from?”. We move to the woods to be closer to nature, yet are surprised by its presence.

One of the reasons we need to be aware of our surroundings is so we’ll know the difference between normal and abnormal occurrences. This way we know when to be afraid, and when not to be.

Know nukes. No fear.

 

Save

Watching the skies

The night sky always fills me with wonder, contemplating the distances involved, considering the journey each photon makes, from a hydrogen fusion reaction on a star light years away to my retina.

Screenshot, Stellarium

Screenshot, Stellarium

The weather doesn’t always cooperate and sometimes the light pollution makes it difficult to pick out feint objects, so a few years ago I started using Stellarium. Unlike other star charts, Stellarium is personalized to your exact position.  And perhaps the most incredible part is, it’s free.

Once you download the software, you input your location. This can be as simple as your town, or as precise as your latitude and longitude. Input your elevation and the default view (North, East etc.) and you will be shown the view as it exists. At one point, I matched the view on my screen to the view through my window, so I could look back and forth and identify objects.

The chart is in real time, so as the stars move in the sky they move on your screen. You can fast forward, reverse, and stop, allowing you to find any point in time. Know Jupiter is supposed to be visible tonight, and you’ll be looking around 2130? Fast forward to 2130 and find Jupiter, and you’ll know right where to look. You can also see satellite paths, so if you’re using binoculars you can plot when and where to look.

The features are incredible, allowing you to overlay constellation lines or pictures (A bear for Ursa Major and Minor) making it a nice teaching tool for family stargazing. Navigation is easy, you drag the view to turn or look at a different angle, zoom in and out with the scroll on your mouse. Click on an object for its name and info. One thing that takes a little getting used to is it is in real time, so when you zoom in to look at Messier 31, it will move across your screen, because the world is turning. Just click pause.

You can simulate light pollution to match whatever you’re dealing with, or you can look at a pristine sky to see whet you’re missing. I use it a lot on nights when it is cloudy or too cold to go out, or when there’s an alignment that will be happening when I’d rather be asleep. You can also change the location to get a feel for events that are not visible from where you are, or to match your location when you travel.

Did I mention that it’s free?

Another nice application, also free, is available from NASA. “Spot the Station” sends you an email (or text) with the coordinates for the next flyover of the International Space Station. A typical email reads “Time: Sun Jan 12 5:31 AM, Visible: 3 min, Max Height: 63 degrees, Appears: NNE, Disappears: NE”, in this case the next morning at 0531, the station was visible for three minutes as it passed on a short arc reaching an altitude of 63° (straight up is 90º) traveling from North Northeast to Northeast. I’ve seen arcs that were anywhere from one to six minutes, typically pre-dawn or late evening. I usually get a preview on Stellarium to give myself a feel for which stars to orient with.

The International Space Station is about 260 miles from Earth. The average distance to Mars is 140 million miles, with the closest approach being 33.9 million miles. Jupiter gets as close as 390 million miles. The closest star (other than the Sun), Alpha Centauri, is 4.2 light years (24.6 trillion miles) away, but that can only be seen from the Southern hemisphere. Barnard’s star, the closest visible (with a telescope, it’s a red dwarf) star in the Northern hemisphere, is 5.9 light years away. That’s over 34 trillion miles, or more precisely 34,683,890,693,365 miles, or 133,399,579,589 times as far away as the International Space Station.

Some people look at the sky and see pretty lights. I see the universe, and the perspective of our place within the universe. One pretty light among billions.

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are fascinating. To me, they indicate a variety of things.

The first is essentially insecurity, there are monsters under the bed. The other is a feeling of helplessness, the monsters are everywhere. Yet another is actually a belief in basic human goodness, this can’t be the work of one man, it must be a conspiracy.

The JFK theories persist because we’re uncomfortable believing that one person, acting alone, could kill the President of the United States. It was easier for Hillary Clinton to put forward the idea of a “vast right wing conspiracy” than to acknowledge that her husband had a history of marital infidelity. Conspiracy theorists create a conspiracy of their own, a denial of rational thought, and anyone who disagrees with them is simply a member of the antagonistic conspiracy. Global Warming, a theory allegedly based in science, uses as its argument that people who don’t “believe” are “deniers”. There is no discussion of actual facts, just an argument of faith. Despite claims of a consensus being proven fraudulent, believers still invoke the claims. Doesn’t sound too scientific.

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Studies of people who believe in conspiracies show that the leading indicator of whether a person will believe in a conspiracy theory is if they believe in other conspiracy theories. That is not to say they’re gullible, there are just no other commonalities. We used to consider these people “foil hat wearing lunatics”, but as more and more people feel life is beyond their control, they are more likely to believe they are being controlled by evil cartels and a bad turn of fortune. We can call an uneducated Arab a fanatic terrorist and then justify torturing him without acknowledging our own fanaticism. People can praise the “Affordable Care Act”, embracing the name “Obamacare” and attacking the “evil conservatives” for fighting against it, but once it has taken effect the same people claim that the entire program was developed by the conservatives and pushed through congress by Republicans.

Subscribing to conspiracy theories requires a suspension of rational thought. Attempting to have a rational discussion on a topic with someone who has abandoned rational thought only results in frustration for both parties. It is not a question of logic, it is a question of faith. Global Warming has caused increased ice packs. The NSA has developed energy beams which they control you with through your computer. Vaccinations cause autism. The Illuminati are poisoning us with with chemicals sprayed by aircraft. There is an invisible planet that is streaking towards the Earth. Anything can be evidence, it doesn’t have to make sense.

There is no common background in people who believe in conspiracies. They come from the Left, Right, and Middle. Well educated people are as susceptible as the illiterate, because it has nothing to do with intelligence, although the “believers” almost uniformly accuse the “deniers” of inferior intelligence. Because it’s obvious to them. It isn’t a conspiracy theory to the people who believe it, it’s the truth. To them, the truth is the propaganda.

There is a lot of money to be made by manipulating who believe in conspiracies. “Secret documents” available only through the mail, “research” funding, and millions of website hits. Heroes of the cause, brave crusader’s who need your five dollar donation to continue spreading the “truth”. The twisted logic of the believer supports the crusader, who has been shunned by his colleagues due to his “refusal to bow to the establishment”. And that’s only the “wacky” conspiracies. The really big conspiracies thrive on the wealth of entire nations. Choose a conflict in the Middle East and one side is blaming the other of taking part in a multinational conspiracy.

Why do I mention all this? Because it hampers free thought. It masquerades as critical thinking while it is anything but. It can happen to anyone, and it can also be avoided by anyone.

It is healthy to question everything, including yourself. That’s what science is all about. Being able to accept and evaluate new data is how growth takes place. Being able to say “Well, that’s what I used to think, but I was wrong” is evidence of growth.

 

 

The world turned upside down

The-Little-Prince-007

 

 

When I travel, I often think of my place on the planet in terms of “The Little Prince”. Speaking with friends on other continents I see us as two large figures on a small planet.

Being from the Northern hemisphere, it seems natural to picture myself standing atop the planet. I wonder how people in the Southern hemisphere would picture it. There is no “up” and “down” in space, so our view of Earth is influenced by our interpretation of “North” and “South”. Approaching Earth from a different star system, how would we orient ourselves?

Add to this the fact that such measurements as magnetic poles change over time, and you see the lack of meaning in words like “upside down”. The magnetic poles of the Sun, a measurement we might use to determine how to view our solar system and thus Earth, flip every eleven years, so the “top” surface of the plane of the solar system has changed five times in my life.

But it takes something truly amazing to realize that the world has turned upside down. Like the Russians presenting themselves before the United Nations as champions of democracy.

Raised in the KGB, Vladimir Putin understands how a good dictatorship works. It’s a cushy job to control other people. It’s also quite obvious when someone else starts pulling the strings. The global warming scam was acceptable propaganda when Russia was racking up carbon credits. But when the Conference of Parties decided that Russia was being given an economic advantage based on the Kyoto protocols prejudice towards underdeveloped nations, they decided to change the terms.

The irony in all of this is incredible.

A consensus of propaganda

A consensus of propaganda

 

For any great propaganda campaign to be successful, reality must be altered. The lie becomes believable when the language is changed in such a way that misinformation can pass as information. The key to the global warming scam has been altering the understanding of the term “consensus”.

Reality is not democratic. Six hundred years ago, scientific consensus held that the earth was flat, and the Sun orbited the Earth. In a world of populist movements, it is important to remember that it doesn’t matter how many people think something, it matters how many people who know what they’re talking about think something. Survival in the academic world means toeing the line, much as it did in Galileo’s day.

Despite evidence that the much celebrated “consensus of climatologists” is a fabrication, The propaganda machine rolls on. When the only papers being allowed publication agree with the “consensus”, the belief that a consensus exists continues. Simple facts such as observations not matching projections are dismissed. Attributing every major event to global warming continues, but actual scientists are starting to publicly back away, realizing that one day credibility will come back into vogue.

So back to the Russians. Happy to accept carbon credits based on the “consensus” that global warming exists, and the “consensus” that it is caused by humans burning fossil fuels (but not by biofuels), they’re not too happy with a consensus they have received an “unfair” advantage. Now they want to see democratic, transparent procedures followed. In English, we say “You’ve made your bed, now you must lie on it”.

The world cannot turn upside down, because there is no such thing as “up”. It is hilarious listening to everyone talk about the sky falling.

 

 

Creation

A couple of conversations brought my thoughts to this subject this week. I no longer argue the points, if someone wishes to deny the obvious there is no need to bang my head against a wall.

One friend was commenting on the beauty of nature, and the intersection of mathematics. She was fascinated with a broccoflower, the beautiful spiral upon spiral of its form. Marveling at the mathematics behind the spiral sequences (F_n = F_{n-1} + F_{n-2}), the Fibonacci sequence.

Broccoflower

Broccoflower

The Fibonacci sequence is a mathematical explanation of perfect spirals, the arc following a pattern in which each segment is equal to the sum of the previous two. 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 etc. The number of petals on a flower is always a Fibonacci number. Someone entered the conversation with what appeared to be secular point of view after I said “God really likes math”. I didn’t feel like getting into an argument, so I just walked away. His point was “It is not surprising that basic evolutionary paths follow some of the basic mathematical rules. What else could they do?”. Well, what they could do is adapt for each situation depending on the requirements of that environment, which would negate any pattern in global systems. Instead, evolution follows a path opposite the second law of thermodynamics. While the rest of the universe follows a pattern of decay, evolution works towards more complex and specialized systems. By accident.

An article in Scientific American about cosmic dust entering Earth’s atmosphere, and thus being a part of the dust you clear from your windshield, was met with the most nonsensical of comments. It took me a moment to remember that my fellow Scientific American readers are for most part non scientists. The Earth is not separate from the cosmos. The Earth was made from intergalactic dust and continues to accumulate and shed matter.

A third incident occurred during an interview on NPR. The host desperately wanted a number of the planets that would have life on them, and the astrophysicist he was interviewing was very polite in refusing to speculate in any way. The host wanted to validate the Drake equation, the astrophysicist was attempting to point out that the variables are, well, variable.  This is the Drake equation:

N = R_{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone);

and

R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

The initial problem is that not a single variable can be defined. If life is indeed a random event, what exactly is life? There remains a reasonable debate over whether human beings are the most intelligent form of life on Earth, how do we expect to locate other forms of life if we have no idea what they might look like, or how they might communicate? What scientist in his right mind could approach this equation with a data set of one (Earth)? In creating such an equation, we make the assumption that human beings are the definition of “Life”. It is both egotistical and demeaning to suggest we are the highest expression of life, and our existence is so random we could happen anywhere.

There is no conflict between the belief that God created the universe and our understanding of the mechanics of that creation. There is no reason to not believe that when God said “Let there be light” the next event was “The Big Bang”. There is no reason not to believe that the creation of Earth for the purpose of supporting humans involved several steps, and that evolution is one of the tools used. There is every reason to not believe that life is an accident, yet the same people who think we “just happened” think the exact same events took place on other planets, with absolutely no guidance other than chance.

 

Perspectives

I’ve been thinking about how various groups fit into the world, what our ranking is by size. This started a few weeks ago when I was writing about religions, and found that for all the attention paid to Judaism, there are only 15.4 million Jews in the world. Looked at another way, more than twice as many people live in Tokyo Japan than are Jewish. Yet we consider it a “major world religion”. This may become my new measuring stick, the Jewish population, or JP. America has a population of 22 JP.

Oh my God he’s playing with numbers again.

I heard on the news that in the first three weeks, 475,000 people had signed up for Obamacare (This does not mean that they purchased healthcare, just that they signed on). Less than half a million. Less than the population of Fresno, CA, or 0.03 JP. At this rate, two million (0.12 JP) people will be signed up by 1 January. The other three hundred eleven million Americans will be facing tax penalties.

I had no idea that the system was so unstable. It is alleged that the administration didn’t either. I’m not sure if I believe that, but there are plenty of management types out there who are incapable of saying “I’m sorry, we cannot possibly accomplish that”. When we switched to an Oracle system from mainframe at Imagistics, with only a few thousand users, it took a year to prepare and two months to work out the kinks. Could no one in the administration comprehend the scale, the number of systems being integrated and the number of users, this project represented?

When the system crashed soon after going live, how could anyone reasonably blame it on volume? Exactly how much traffic did they expect for a system with three hundred twelve million users? Did it not occur to them that on a daily basis, ten percent (2.2 JP) of those users would require access?

It is only recently the blame has been shifted from traffic volume to software, and now the software designers are blaming the White House for last minute changes. They apparently were not aware that you would have to register with all your data before you could compare prices. Obviously they had never purchased insurance of any kind for themselves. How ironic, the very people Obamacare was supposed to help…

But this wasn’t just a traffic problem. The software itself is useless. All of the data collected thus far is corrupted. If you happen to be one of those residents of Fresno CA who managed to sign up, the options you have been offered are based on corrupted data, so should you choose to purchase a healthcare plan, you may find that you don’t qualify for it. When will you find this out? When the doctor’s bill is rejected, and you’re responsible for it.

Not to be overly cynical, but which part do you suspect will work? How about the part that fines you for not having health care? There is a natural mistrust of anyone who handles your money, but the IRS has certainly earned their mistrust. A few years back there was a change in the tax code, and a large number of people were calling the IRS helpline for assistance. The information they gave out was incorrect. Not only that, but they refused to take responsibility, because it is the taxpayer’s responsibility to correctly file their tax forms. Add to that the recent scandal in which the IRS was targeting conservatives. First they apologized, then they denied having done it, then the director stated the employees did not know the regulations. I know I have trust issues, but this is ridiculous.

The White House has just offered a solution, allowing a six week extension (15 February 2014). This should only leave three hundred ten million Americans (20 JP) facing a tax penalty. Perhaps this is the solution to the deficit. All those people that we hear are not paying taxes will now be fined by the IRS anyway.

The only way for a system this large to work properly, is to erase all current data, rewrite the software, and test with a reasonable sample, let’s say 0.12 JP, or roughly the number of federal employees. After the bugs are worked out (there are always bugs), then roll it out to the general public. Of course this may mean that the program isn’t implemented during our children’s’ lifetimes, but this would be the right way to do it.

Who do you trust?

I don’t know how other people choose what to believe. Most of us go with our gut feelings, but some of us have better trained guts than others. Some people choose to believe things despite hard facts to the contrary. Telling a delusional person that they are delusional is pointless, just remember that by rule of mathematics, half the population has a below average intelligence level, and have another glass of wine.

I have been blessed (or cursed) with a strong sense of observation and memory. I have a good sense of people, I feel their vibe. Sometimes I’m wrong, but usually I’m right, and the weight I apply to the decision is based on the importance of the decision. In addition to those skills, I have this handy little guide for evaluating information:

First evaluate the source,

A – Reliable: No doubt of authenticity, trustworthiness, or competency; has a history of complete reliability
B – Usually Reliable: Minor doubt about authenticity, trustworthiness, or competency; has a history of valid information most of the time
C – Fairly Reliable: Doubt of authenticity, trustworthiness, or competency but has provided valid information in the past
D – Not Usually Reliable: Significant doubt about authenticity, trustworthiness, or competency but has provided valid information in the past
E – Unreliable: Lacking in authenticity, trustworthiness, and competency; history of invalid information
F – Cannot Be Judged: No basis exists for evaluating the reliability of the source

Then evaluate the content,

1 – Confirmed: Confirmed by other independent sources; logical in itself; Consistent with other information on the subject
2 – Probably True: Not confirmed; logical in itself; consistent with other information on the subject
3 – Possibly True: Not confirmed; reasonably logical in itself; agrees with some other information on the subject
4 – Doubtfully True: Not confirmed; possible but not logical; no other information on the subject
5 – Improbable: Not confirmed; not logical in itself; contradicted by other information on the subject
6 – Cannot Be Judged: No basis exists for evaluating the validity of the information

Some of you might be familiar with that system. You evaluate the source, then you evaluate the information, and you have a metric to compare data. Obviously, A1 is almost blind trust, E5 is useful only in knowing the information is false, F6 is between C3 and D4, and there are thirty six permutations. It’s a basic thing that some of us do subconsciously, but it works so well it’s been codified into intelligence agencies.

In a world where we are swamped with information, being able to know what is “true” is a valuable asset. In a world with opinions driving the course of society, it is invaluable. This is one of the reasons I enjoy having a wife who constantly questions me, I am reminded to evaluate my opinions and their sources daily.

I find it frustrating that the general view has moved from trust to belief. One symptom of this is the “accreditation” given to Jenny McCarthy, by her placement as a co-host on “The View”. To me, this just furthers my appraisal of The View, and opinions produced by it, as E5. But millions of viewers will adopt the “I saw it on TV” attitude and believe. Jenny has a child with autism who received childhood vaccinations. In the 80’s a preliminary report linked autism to vaccines. That link has since been refuted. But Jenny continues her crusade against vaccines.

When I was in the Air Force, the preliminary study made headlines. NBC ran an “investigative report” on the subject. A Staff Sergeant I worked with said to me “If you love your kids, you’ll watch this program”, to which, after I restrained myself from punching him in the face, I replied “Never question my love for my kids, I’ll read the study“. I did, all my kids received their vaccinations. Since then Measles epidemics have run rampant, causing thousands of deaths every year. Mumps have gone epidemic. God only knows how many birth defects can be traced to exposure to Rubella.  Other children, with even less intelligent parents, have been left at risk of Diphtheria, Pertussis, Hepatitis, Polio, Tetanus, and Pneumococus. Evolution at work.

When the “Global Warming” furor began, I gave it a C3. When Al Gore got involved it became an E3. After going over the data it moved to E4. Now, there is adequate data to confirm it at E5, and in fact, false. Nonetheless, egos have continued to refuse they were wrong, and a large percentage of people believe it to be true. My mother told me not to argue with crazy people, so I have removed myself from most arguments on the subject.

I do not seek marital advice from people who have not had successful marriages, but some people will trust a friend, regardless of their actual experience. Presently the President of the United States enjoys almost messianic, and certainly maniacal, immunity from his history. I can understand forgetting the man made a cornerstone of his campaign transparency, and now runs the most secretive administration in history. Heck, 2007 is ancient history, right? People who really remember ancient history agree that Obama is worse than Nixon. Nixon, that horrible guy that everyone can remember, or at least claims to. Selective memory, that cognitive dissonance that allows people to forget what Obama said six weeks ago, but “remember” to hate the previous vice president runs rampant.

We live in a society led by individuals who have earned a D rating at best. They are driven by information that rates a 4 or worse, and have demonstrated opinions with a value of 5 routinely. When they make decisions that can be corrected at the next election cycle, I try not to get upset. When they drive us toward a World War, I feel the need to become more vocal.

Although I have used the term “acceptable losses” in the past, there are no acceptable losses prior to entering a war. Zero is the acceptable number, best achieved by staying out of the war.

Watch out now, take care
Beware of greedy leaders
They take you where you should not go
While Weeping Atlas Cedars
They just want to grow, grow and grow
Beware of darkness (beware of darkness)

Chemistry

I have this widget on my desktop, from Snapple. Every day it pops up with a new piece of trivia. Most days it leads to a search to authenticate the “fun fact”.

The other day was “Baking Soda makes a great scouring cleanser, and it’s naturally chemical free”.

Didn’t need to check this one. Sodium hydrogen carbonate (NaHCO3) is a chemical. Baking soda is free of any other ingredients.

Not that there could be any additives that would dilute the amount of chemicals in the product, Everything consists of chemicals, A newborn human consists of chemicals, about ninety nine percent of which are oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. About 0.85% is composed of another five elements, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. The remaining 0.15 percent are trace elements, most of which are easily recognizable as lethal, too much or too little of anything is dangerous.

Chemical makeup of humans

Chemical makeup of humans

My view of chemicals is different than most people, my father was a chemist, and the dinner conversation every night was often a science lesson.

The general view is that chemicals should be avoided, while the truth is “additives” should usually be avoided. Most people recognize the benefit of taking a multivitamin every day, but would be appalled if the same ingredients were listed as being part of their food. Those chemicals should be obtained from a balanced diet, because all the trace elements exist in nature, but since most people don’t eat a balanced diet, they consider it healthy to take a pill every day.

Just because you can’t pronounce an ingredient doesn’t make it bad for you. In fact Durk Pearson, who graduated MIT with a triple major in physics, biology, and psychology, has suggested in his book “Life Extension“, that some preservatives are beneficial. You know all those anti oxidants that you seek out? What do you think a preservative is?

Chemicals, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad. Your stomach makes Hydrochloric acid (HCI) to digest your food. Too much acid and you may choose to ingest lansoprazole ((RS)-2-([3-methyl-4-(2,2,2-trifluoroethoxy)pyridin-2-yl]methylsulfinyl)-1H-benzo[d]imidazole) also known as “Prevacid”. Or you might try Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3), the active ingredient in those chalky chewable antacids. Or you could just avoid foods that cause excess acid, which might be the most natural approach.

The word “organic” in chemistry refers to a chemical compound which contains carbon. ALL food is organic. Carbon is released with every breath. That carbon you exhale is inhaled by plants, which in turn exhale the oxygen that you need. Without carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, life could not exist.

All that exists is chemicals. The basic elements can only be created or destroyed by fission (unpopular) or fusion (not yet possible), we just move them around from one place to another. We are responsible for what we put into our bodies, whether we ingest it as solids, fluids, or gasses, and when we die, those chemicals will return to the cycle.

We live in a world where politicians control (and destroy) the educational system, and then provide the uneducated masses with false information.

Truth is only inconvenient if it gets in the way of your agenda. Otherwise, it’s just the truth.

Economics

I want to start by saying I have never studied economics. By that I mean that I have never possessed a textbook with the word “Economics” on the cover. I have studied in the other schools, “Having a job”, “Supporting a family”, and “Raising children”, as well as the specialized courses “Operating a small business” and  “Putting things back together after a disaster”.

The first rule in economics is “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. Milton Friedman managed to pay for several lunches from the money he earned from his 1975 book by that title, the phrase has been credited to Robert Heinlein in his 1966 book “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, and Fiorello La Guardia, in a speech in 1933, although he actually said “È finita la cuccagna!”. Rudyard Kipling made a reference to the concept in 1891, and of course the first law of thermodynamics is essentially the same thing, energy cannot be created or destroyed. So apparently there are free quote attributions in life.

Despite this eternal wisdom, there are still people who believe that free lunches exist. This takes place at every level, from people asking a doctor for medical advice at a cocktail party, to a nation expecting free healthcare. Some of this comes from a lack of education, the failure to understand the meanings of words such as “price”, “cost”, “value”, “worth” and “taxes”.

The practice is widespread in what is often called the artistic community. I used to think this is because most people don’t appreciate artists, and believe there is no effort in creating a photograph, or design, or song. My second wife stopped singing at weddings as a gift, because her friends didn’t recognize that as a professional, her performance was of some meaningful value. My current wife was asked to design an entire promotional campaign for free, because it was a “charity”. It wasn’t a charity to which she was inclined to donate the thousands of dollars her effort was worth, and the firm they eventually hired didn’t think so either. What’s disturbing is when one artist does it to another, as in authors expecting graphic artists to design covers for free.

Everything on the internet is free, right? Downloading songs, copying artwork, if it’s there, it’s yours. Everyone does it, even me, this illustration by Melanie Gillman doesn’t have a © attached, so I took it.

Artists pay

I once thought it was about jealousy, as in the phrase “they have so much, they can afford to give some to me”. This is no different than Gordon Gekko‘s “Greed is good”. Greed is not good, and both thoughts are about greed. Greed is about wanting more than has been earned. Greed not only devalues the work of others, it devalues the greedy person’s self worth and the object of the greed.

Greed is a learned behavior, and it’s contagious. Within a system, if greed is rewarded, other people will not only learn to be greedy, they will justify their behavior by the actions of their teachers. Let this go on long enough and the entire system becomes corrupted. Look at our government, good people go in, and if they make it far they are no longer good people. The system, regardless of its intentions, becomes destructive.

Presently, the School District of the City of Philadelphia may not open for the academic year on schedule. Blame is flying at everyone involved, but the root is greed, the desire for a free lunch. Labor unions, designed to protect the hard working employees, have become corrupted by the lazy employees. The result has been the neglect of the most important of public institutions, education. A lack of academic results resulted in a lack of funding, and the courageous, dedicated teachers who are worth far more than they are paid are used as examples by the lazy babysitters who receive more than they are worth in salary negotiations. Dumping money into the school system has resulted in glistening high tech offices for the school system, and schools without books. Administrators with high six figure salaries ask families with low five figure total incomes for donations to pay operating costs, as if those families weren’t already paying exorbitant taxes for the privilege of a free education.

The schools in Philadelphia have been in trouble for so long that the “School Reform Commission” is a business in itself, where secretaries have larger offices than many high powered attorneys, and may be paid more as well. Meanwhile teachers watch the clock and bolt out of the building right behind their students. Some because they won’t spend a minute longer than their contract requires (I knew a teacher at a High School in Philly who said to me “You’ll need to be finished by 3:12, that’s when I leave”), and some so they can get to their second job, so they’ll have enough money for school supplies. Awards are given to schools for “Adequate Performance”. Excellence is no longer a goal.

adequate

Adequate Progress Award, proudly displayed

They stopped serving free lunches for students at schools before my time. The free lunch school administrators have been receiving is costing Philadelphia a generation of poorly educated students.

Unusual birthday gifts

I acknowledge that I am unusual, “eccentric” is the polite word but I really don’t mind “weird”. One of the benefits of being eccentric is that “normal” people tend to shy away from you. This leaves the path open for other eccentrics, so we tend to congregate, or at least associate. There are of course times when the eccentricities clash, but we’re usually friendly, accepting folk.

Knowing unusual people usually means peering into unusual families, we rarely sprout up without some kind of nurturing. When I was thirteen, one of my best friends was Otto, and while Germans aren’t odd in and of themselves, his family was very odd to me. The food and the language was the start, but the choice to bestow a thousand dollar oscilloscope on a thirteen year old as a birthday present left even me scratching my head.

I’m not sure why Otto wanted an oscilloscope, or if he even asked for it. This was 1972, and I think it had something to do with testing vacuum tubes, our eccentricities clashed and we found ourselves out of sync with each other shortly afterward. It was cool to hook up to his record player, and watch the waves as we played music. My favorite was the song “Popcorn”, which just told a story of its on on the CRT screen.

The experience piqued my interest in electronic music, which was just coming onto the scene. Walter “Wendy” Carlos had released “Switched on Bach” a few years earlier, and my Uncle Steve introduced me to the music of Isao Tomita a few years later. Tomita’s use of synthesizers is astounding, and using his covers of Debussy and Holst I introduced a number of friends to classical music. I read an interview with Tomita in which the interviewer commented that the clock on the wall was five hours slow, and Tomita replied “No, it’s seven hours fast”.

Synthesizers have changed immensely since then. From the banks of analog Moogs to the handheld Casios sold at K-Mart. Tomita still plays the Moogs, there is something about the combination of man and machine that transcends digital electronics.

Tomita in the 70s

Tomita in the 70s

Electronic music has also changed. From the early covers of classical music through arrangements developed to suit the capabilities of the instruments. As digital took the place of analog, synthesizers began replacing other instruments. even drum kits became electronic. The pendulum swung back and forth, from “No one played guitar” to “No Synths!” being seen as selling points for albums.

Today, what is called music ranges from a rapper talking over an actual artist’s recording, to the resurgence of traditional instruments as in the band “Ghengis Barbie“. Electronica is here to stay, it can be well crafted or garbage, and as has always been, one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure. I treasure my eccentric friends, and the paths they’ve opened to me.

Of all the things music is, it should always be fun.

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Tin foil hats

tin-foil-hat cautionTo me, there is little funnier than someone describing a person whose sanity is in doubt as wearing a “tin foil hat”. Although aluminum foil was first produced a century ago, and tin foil all but ceased to be manufactured after world war two, a reference to a product that more than likely has never been seen by the speaker is a measure of the other person’s sanity. “I’ll see your paranoia and raise you an anachronism”.

The original use of tin foil hats was to block “mind control rays”, because tin foil is fairly thick and isn’t a bad shield against electrons. Aluminum (by the way, how many syllables do you pronounce in “aluminum”?) is much thinner, but the right design might foil (sorry) the NSA if they’re listening to your brainwaves. I’d suggest this one.

foil hat

If the pleats are at the right frequency per inch, they should actually block transmissions. Doesn’t really matter, the NSA is following every keystroke on your computer, and apparently intercepting regular mail as well. Yep. We all knew that Washington DC bound mail is filtered through a facility in Virginia to check for Anthrax, Ricin, or any other chemicals, but on the news the other night discussing the Embassy closings, the government spokesman let it slip that some of the information intercepted was in the form of ground mail. Oddly, that clip is no longer available.

This is not to say that foil hats are going out of fashion, paranoia is always in vogue. If you decide to use aluminum foil, there are types that are bonded to paper. Put the paper side out, it makes you less noticeable in a crowd. As recently reported by that grand lady of journalism, Mother Jones, the Obama brain mapping project is a secret attempt at mind control. Apparently, you can wear a foil hat while operating video equipment:

I miss the old days, when “Secret” meant “Not on the six o’clock news”. Back when if someone was obviously a threat to the gene pool you could…oh but don’t let me get nostalgic.

I agree, every advance in science has been weaponized. This may be why education is in the shape it is, free thinking individuals are a threat to the state. Then again, almost every weapon of mass destruction has assembly directions on the internet, and a modest background in chemistry provides the recipes for explosives using items in your cleaning closet. Certainly, if the aim is controlling objects with the mind, the door to controlling the mind with objects will be wide open. But seriously, what technological advancements has this administration been successful with? They think evacuating a country is not retreating from terrorism. They’re definitely low tech buffoons, but start worrying if there’s a foil shortage.

As a rule of thumb, do not keep tin foil in the ice box, it tends to get brittle. You also shouldn’t pick it up with a carpet sweeper, tin is conductive and can generate a triboelectric charge. You can take your motorcar to the soda fountain and wrap your goods in tin foil while you shop at the record store for an album, if you still have a phonograph.

Cat-With-Tin-Foil-Hat-16407434984

 

You may choose to say “Aluminum” or “Aluminium”, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) uses both spellings (and pronunciations).

Backwards is the new forward

If you’re of a certain age, you have heard that sixty is the new forty. This makes sense if you have children and can see that twenty is the new infant. I certainly appear younger than my father did when he was my age, but then I appear younger than most of my schoolmates. In the grocery store yesterday, the young man who was obliged to check my I.D. had to tell me twice that I didn’t look like I’m in my fifties, because I still have the hearing of an older person. I blame it on being a drummer for so many years. The other thing that gives me away is that every story has a long introduction.

Numbers are what they are. I don’t believe that people don’t understand the difference between a billion and a trillion, but they sound similar. What is required is an understanding of scale. As you recall from grade school, some people never understood fractions, and decimals tend to disguise scale. That’s why so few people noticed as our federal budget went from being measured in billions to trillions, a difference of three orders of magnitude.

Politicians mention what appear to be big numbers, because we compare those numbers to our personal wealth rather than the budget to which they are applied. Confusing (AKA misleading or lying to) the public even more is the tendency of politicians to talk about money over a period of time, sometimes decades, while we think about that money as affecting us today, at a fixed point in time.

Case in point is the recent “fiscal cliff” and the effects of “sequestration”. The amount of money “saved” by sequestration is a total of eighty five billion dollars in 2013. That sounds like a lot of money. It’s just over twice the net worth of Larry Ellison, the third wealthiest person in America. Way more money than I have. Compared to the three and a half trillion dollar budget, it is a little over two percent. Compare that to your budget, don’t even consider that the federal government budgets more spending than income (thus operating at a deficit, and building a debt). If you earned one hundred thousand dollars this year, how much would losing two thousand dollars affect you? It is one dinner for two at Deux Cheminees (including really nice wines), or lunch for two every work day at McDonald’s (if you eat there).  Do the cuts to services being blamed on the sequester fit that scale?

A simple way of visualizing these numbers is this video about the promised (not actual) cuts to the 2009 budget. It’s short, take the minute and a half to watch it.

Today’s subject is not the budget, it is the numbers themselves. The number that led me to write this is the speed of light. 186,282 Miles per second is the way I first was introduced to the “c” in E=mc². That’s 670,616,629 Mph, or just over a billion kilometers per hour. It is so fast that light needs only eight and a half minutes to make the journey from the Sun to your eyes. Based on Pluto’s mean distance, that journey takes almost six hours. Understanding the scale of the difference between eight minutes and six hours provides some insight into understanding how distant Pluto is from Earth. In contrast, light traveling to our nearest galaxy (M31, Andromeda) requires two and a half million years. Looking backwards two and a half millions years, apes were just starting to stand upright. So if today folks in Andromeda are looking this way, the standing ape would be the most evolved land mammal they would see. The most intelligent life would be in the sea.

When we consider nuclear energy, that “c” comes up again. Here it is c². The energy from converting one gram of mass (at 100% efficiency) is equivalent to the burning of 568,000 gallons of gasoline. That’s less than we use in America in two days. However, if we’re discussing Plutonium, one gram costs about $4000, and is about 0.0030795 cubic inches in size. You can see one of the attractions of nuclear power. Factoring in safety and waste disposal, nuclear power is still the most cost effective form of power, but it has a scary reputation, which is as real as Godzilla.

Now some smaller numbers again. I’m no fan of Monsanto or GMOs, but I was taken aback by a story about a petition to ban Monsanto. There are presently two million signatures for a world wide ban. How such a ban could be implemented, and by whom, remains a mystery. But my point is the insignificance of two million signatures. If we’re considering a world wide ban, two million is 1/3500 of the seven billion inhabitants of the world. Monsanto employs , directly and indirectly, over forty million people, or twenty times as many as signed the petition. If you want to ban GMOs, start in your own kitchen. When I decided to avoid products from China it was a daunting task, but I cared enough to make the effort. Here are not just one but two articles on Non-GMO sources, one has a printable list (some of the stuff continues beyond GMOs, I’ve been trying to get Banoosh to hire better writers, maybe even me).

When you hear big numbers, consider their context. Even if you don’t think you understand math, you can certainly count, and understand that “zero” is more important than “nothing”.

Now you see it, but it’s not there

"Pillars of Creation" in the Eagle Nebula

“Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula

What you see above does not exist. It did once, and will continue to be viewable for about a thousand years.

The formation is called “The Pillars of Creation”, and consists of gas and matter coalescing into planets and stars, but it isn’t doing that anymore. In fact, it was destroyed about six thousand years before the telescope that enabled us to see it was invented.

Being in a nebula, it is surrounded by stars of various ages. Somewhere around eight or nine thousand years ago, one of those stars went supernova. It was probably visible from Earth. The shock wave from that supernova is estimated to have taken a couple of thousand years to reach the pillars. Since they’re seven thousand light years away from us, we still see the pillars as they existed before the shock wave destroyed them some six thousand years ago. If that star was closer to the Earth than the pillars, we might already have seen the flash, it might have been the one of 6 August 1181.

The sky we see at night is the light from thousands of years ago. Some of those stars have gone supernova, we just haven’t received the light from that event yet.

As we consider traveling between the stars, our concepts of time need to be adjusted. We aim for targets that may no longer exist, or may not exist by the time we reach them. By the time we see the pillars destroyed, there will be other stars that have or are being created that exist behind them that we will be able to see. The universe is not only constantly changing, it has already changed in ways that we can’t yet see due to the speed of light.

Considering the distances involved, this should humble us. We see constellations, because the points appear on a flat curtain of night, when in fact from a different angle, different in the range of the distance of another star to here, those constellations appear differently. When we think of things we see, in fact, the stars that we can see are within our own galaxy. The Milky Way is just an arm of our galaxy.

You are Here.

You are Here.

Other galaxies, such as Andromeda (M31) are millions of light years away. Andromeda was once thought to be a star, until telescopes revealed its nature. When we consider our reach, Voyager, traveling for the last thirty six years, is just reaching the edge of our solar system (the enlarged section of the illustration above).

This is our world. We more than likely will never visit another that we can live on within the span of our species’ existence. There is no running away, there is no escape. Why do we think we can make another world habitable when we can’t manage to “terraform” Earth?

I think that is how it should be. If we can’t make Homo Sapiens work on this planet, why should we foul another?

Today in history

After my second marriage, we honeymooned in the Poconos. It was an interesting week, and one thing stood out as we socialized with other couples at the resort. Our “special day” did not belong to us. Dozens of other couples had been married the same day, at that resort alone. No doubt thousands of other couples had been married on the same day as us around the world.

So it is with every momentous occasion, not only is the day shared with the entire human race, but the date is an anniversary for many events in history. Today, 6 August, is remembered as the day in 1181 that Japanese and Chinese astronomers observed a supernova, along with countless other events throughout the years. In 1945, the Australian Kieth Miller scored 110 in the Victory Test Cricket at Lord’s. Earlier that day, there was another supernova in Japan.

After assembling the greatest minds in physics, and just two weeks after the first test of a different design, we managed to transport a ten thousand pound package named “Little Boy” to Tinian, an airfield in the Northern Mariana Islands, for its six hour flight to Hiroshima, Japan upon the B-29 “Enola Gay”. Along with the aircraft carrying the package were two observation craft, “The Great Artiste” and “Necessary Evil”.

At 0815 local Little Boy began its forty three second descent to an altitude of two thousand feet, at which point a little over half a gram of matter was converted into energy. The math on that (E = mc^2) works out to the equivalent of sixteen thousand tons of TNT. In the next second, seventy thousand people died, including about ninety percent of the doctors who might have treated the survivors. Over the next few months, another hundred thousand died from the effects of radiation. Little Boy missed his target by eight hundred feet, fairly inconsequential considering the blast radius of one mile.

Silhouette of human within blast radius

Silhouette of human within blast radius

Three days later an implosion weapon, using the design that had been tested, destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan.

The site of the Mitsubishi Ohashi Weapons Plant, which was completely destroyed, 1.3 kilometers north of ground zero. Visible in the upper left are the ruins of the Yamazato Primary School and in the upper right is the gas storage tank of the Saibu Gas Co. in Ohashi-machi.

1.3 kilometers north of ground zero. Visible in the upper left are the ruins of the Yamazato Primary School.

Since that date no nuclear weapons have been used in anger. They have been considered “deterrents”, with America stockpiling seven thousand seven hundred warheads, Russia eight thousand five hundred, the United Kingdom two hundred twenty five, France three hundred, China two hundred fifty, India one hundred ten, Pakistan one hundred twenty, North Korea less than ten, and Israel eighty. That is what we’re aware of. The weapons have been shared through NATO to several European nations. That’s sixteen thousand, seven hundred ninety five nuclear weapons scattered around the globe, that we’re aware of. And while we were busy making everything else smaller, the yield of nuclear warheads got larger. With Little Boy measuring sixteen kilotons of TNT, the largest test detonations have gone up to fifty megatons of TNT. That would be over three thousand times as powerful as the weapon that destroyed everything within a one mile radius. For some reason, our precision targeting allows delivery within one meter.

I knew a man who had flown on one of the observation craft, thirty years later he was still shaken by the memory. Today, people with very short memories control weapons that exceed their imaginations.

Following the attacks on the World Trade Centers, a young man who worked with me asked if buildings “that tall” really exist. We were in Philadelphia, about ninety miles away, and he was unaware of the tallest buildings in the country. A reward of twenty five million dollars was offered for information about Osama bin Laden, in a country where the nominal per capita GDP was six hundred dollars. Hard to imagine an amount equal to over forty thousand times your GDP. I recall one person that was interviewed thought of it as enough money to buy a goat for everyone in his village. For fifty years following the bombings in Japan, our leaders encouraged the idea that we could survive a nuclear war. After the test of a two hundred kiloton weapon in China in 1974, Strontium 90 from the fallout was detected in cows in California.

I do not believe that the leaders of several nuclear states, and certainly no terrorist who illegally obtains a nuclear weapon, can imagine the damage the weapon will inflict. Nor do I believe in the concept of a “limited nuclear exchange” between states.

Nuclear weapons are not weapons of mass destruction, they are instruments of mass suicide.