Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Weakest of all the Human Race

Few people have ever heard of the Khwarezmian Empire. At one time, it extended throughout Central Asia, from the shores of the Caspian Sea to India, and encompassed most of modern day Iran.

A trade expedition was sent from the East to the city of Otrar, in hopes of establishing a peaceful commerical relationship. Perhaps suspecting the merchants as spies, the Governor of Otrar had them executed and confiscated their goods. Not wishing this incident to turn into a precursor to war with the powerful Khwarezmids, a second diplomatic expedition was sent to protest the deaths of the merchants, with the request for appropriate reparations. These men were taken before the Shah, Ala ad-Din Muhammad, who had them shaved bald, beheaded, and the heads sent back, with a refusal to pay reparations for the actions of the Governor of Otrar.

This displeased the ruler in the East, and so in 1218, the Great Khan – Genghis Khan - assembled 200,000 men and marched on the Khwarezmian Empire. Khwarzemids piss off the wrong guy, maybe? Yeah, you got it. Were they worried? Nah. They outnumbered the Khan's army four to one. The Mongols had nothing but light cavalry, and were going up against well equipped and armed infantry and heavy cavalry, defending some of the most heavily fortified cities in the world. Classic case of overconfidence? Ohh, yee-ah, baby.

Two years later, the Empire was in ashes, the Governor and Shah dead, the Shah’s son the sultan fled into India. For the Muslim populations, defeat went beyond simple military conquest. It seemed that God had forsaken them. The Mongols cultivated this idea. After capturing Bukhara, Genghis Khan ascended the pulpit in the Friday mosque and announced:

“THOU HAST SINNED, O ISLAM! AND I… I AM THE WRATH OF ALLAH!”

Is that what he said? Nah. That’s what I say he said. Historical accounts go something like this:

“O people, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you”.

I love that story.

Now, the viewpoint from the Muslim lands is that this was the beginning of the end for the Golden Age of Islam. The Muslim lands would never recover from the Mongol Catastrophe. Coupled with the internal splintering of religious sects, charges of heresy, assassinations, squabbles and power grabs among the religious and political leaders, along with the occasional irritation of the European Crusades, and it was the end of the golden age of free inquiry, empirical investigations, and advances in science, philosophy, and medicine.

Some (unfair) blame has been cast at the feet of one Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al Ghazali, a tenth century philosopher and theologian.

During his lifetime, orthodox interpretations of faith were challenged, and skepticism was on the rise. The rap goes along the lines that, like the mullahs of today, he forbade this type of thought, and the tide of religion was turned back towards tradtional belief. Culture was thus “frozen” and no further advances have taken place within the Muslim world.

The Muslim world is, by and large, a brutishly backward place. In terms of economic development, they rank second to last only behind Africa. While abject poverty is rare, most of the population – despite the enormous energy wealth – is barely getting by. Public health, literacy, life expectancy, education and the sciences are all at a dismal level.

So, is this the Mongols fault? Or al Ghazali’s?

Nonsense.

It’s quite simply because they have fucked-up leaders.

You know, the more I read history, the more I realize it is the story of psychopaths. Occasionally brilliant, ruthless, psychopaths. But more normally, shallow-pated, narrow-browed, blunt-skulled (can I make the brain smaller in any other dimension?) motherfuckers more interested in puffing up their sick, fucked-up, grisly, malformed personalities through petty rivalries and fratricidal conflict.

This is not to say the Muslim world has a monopoly on this type of intestinal parasite. The rest of the world, most notably Europe and America, has had very healthy franchises going.

As the Russians say, “Whether salt water or fresh, shit floats to the top”.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

My inner dog

Note: This is the first entry under the Friday Happy Fun Time label (FHFT). Aren't you excited? I may, at some point, go through my prior entries and label them all. I might also, with the same probability, fold my clothes neatly and put them in the dresser, as opposed to just dressing out of the clothes basket as is my wont. I think you get the picture.

Last Friday was my four month anniversary of quitting smoking. I completely spaced it off. I smoked usually a pack a day for thirty-five years. My lungs are as clear as interstellar space. That was a pretty good run.

I'm told that it takes six months for all of your body's cells to be replaced, and so the nicotine taint is still with me.

I've not really experienced any extreme positive health effects yet. I chalk that up to maintaining a lifestyle of running, and fitness training throughout my life.

(Thanks, Coach Tower).

Oh, there are some noticeable changes. I don't end up in a coughing fit whenever I laugh now. And I can run a lot farther and faster before really start to suffer (and those who do it know that suffering is when the run actually starts). But, like I say, I'll wait for the six month anniversary before I can really make any judgements on the new lifestyle.

I quit cold turkey. It actually wasn't all that bad. Oh, it was bad, but I was able to make it through, so it wasn't all that bad.

I tried the patch before. Didn't work. I'd just tear of the patch, light one up, and get a REAL buzz going on. I was going to try the Chantix, until I heard one of the side effects "thoughts of suicide".
Now, that's a successful quit strategy.

Funny (funny strange) thing is, I still have cravings. That actually isn't all that funny, but what's strange is what triggers the cavings. I have some weird triggers.

Being around smokers is not a trigger. Sometimes it smells good. A lot of times it does not smell good. Smoke on other people, combined with their personal odors, is usually pretty stinky. I have a feeling, had I not ever started smoking, I'd have gotten laid a lot more than I did.

Drinking heavily is not a trigger. Nor is the reptilian torpor behavior after meals. Nor after sex. Well, not so bad that I can't resist it.

What's a trigger? The first one I noticed was simply getting into the car after grocery shopping. Oh, yeah! I guess that was a time to light up.

Another one? Standing outside in subzero temperatures. I guess the brain rightly assumed the only reason I was outside in that kind of weather was to smoke a ciggie.

It's like having a fucking dog in my head. Ready to play catch.

You know, we like to think of ourselves as rational entities with conscious control over our thoughts and desires.

But no, we are dumb, stupid animals ruled by habit and impulse.

No, we are obviously of two minds.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Happy Fun Time

I'm going to institute a self-imposed rule, and make Friday entries pretty much frivolous, dumb, stupid, fun things. You know, "a show about nothing".

But first, let's finish up the politics thread. First off, I slogged through the Republican's Better Solutions pamphlet that all the creepy palsied old farts that look like they smell like bowling shoes handed over to President Obama, so you don't have to. 

And I gotta say, what the hell is it with politicians? Why can't they just come straight to the point, instead of blathering and bloviating for the first four pages before they finally get to substantive issues? It's not just Republicans, Democrats do it too. But... geez.

Okay, finally! The solutions are... same old stinky old stale ideas. What are these guys?

Defective robots? Animatronic Refugees from Disneyworld?

"Cut taxes. It'll create jobs and increase government revenue".  

Uh, bullshit to that last part. Look it up. I'll get back to that first part.

"Deregulate". 

Yeah, that's... that's worked so well past couple years, huh?

"Let the Free Market do it".

So, Boehner, what's the mortgage like on that Sugarplum House that you live in , over there on Gumdrop Lane in Candy Corn Village? Oh, it's Free! Goodie for you! Canfields for everyone!

"Drill, baby, drill". 

Okay, let me get this straight. Price of oil will inevitably go up. Oil, that is under our land up in the Arctic and offshore, is worth more the longer we leave it in the ground. Oil we suck out of the Middle East, at today's comparatively cheap prices, is oil we burn cheap now, as opposed to paying dearly for that oil in the future, at which time we can extract our own oil that we own under our own property at cheaper extraction costs. ... Okay. Got it, O Party of Savvy Business-types!

"Government is too big". 

You always say that, but then you help make it bigger, while not being willing to pay for it, and thus sticking our "children and grandchildren with crushing debt", which you (*cough*Reagan*cough*Bush the Elder*cough*Bush the Younger*cough*) created... Okay. Got it!

Okay, back to the first part about tax cuts above. 

Hey, here's a laugh. The Republican Smart Solution TM is for everyone to agree not to raise taxes until the unemployment rate hits 5%. 

Their rather disingenuous statement is, "Surely you wouldn't want to increase the tax burden during a period of high unemployment? Surely and truly you could not possibly be so mean and cold-hearted"?

Hmm. Let's see. The time is September, 1982. Ronald Reagan, in the depths of a crippling recession, with unemployment at 10.8%, and GDP growth at -1.5%, signs TEFRA (Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act) into law. Most provisions take effect on Jan 1, 1983.

Newt Gingrich (R, Ga) with his usual eloquence, comments "I think it will make the economy sicker".

The Wall Street Journal states "Any school child knows you don't raise taxes in a recession".

So, what happened? Not much. There's no evidence it made any difference. The economy jumped to 5.0% growth in 1st quarter '83 (sound familiar? 4th quarter '09 5.7%), and jumped to 9.3% 2nd quarter of '83. 

The unemployment rate slowly dropped to 8.3% by '83 year's end. It didn't reach 5% until 1989.

Can Reagan be blamed for his recession? Probably. Can he be lauded for the recovery. Nope.

What about Obama? Pretty much the same, I wager. The government is big, but the economy is bigger.

I've often thought that a little toy plastic Fisher-Price steering wheel with a nice cute sounding horn be installed on the President's desk, just to remind him how much control he has over the economy.

Yeah, that's the ticket.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

If it ain't fixed, don't break it

Shades of the echo chamber effect! This entry is a response to Ellen Abbott's musings that perhaps the only way for the US to move forward is for it to be divided

Unfortunately, unlike the Recent Unpleasantness of the 1860's, we no longer have the luxury of convenient geographical boundaries in which to separate - amicably or (more likely) not.

Nor can we easily divide ourselves along party lines. Times change, labels stay the same, and everything goes topsy-turvy. The Republican Party of today is certainly not the party of Lincoln. Nor are the Democrats any more than a pale specter of a once staggeringly racist and oppressive movement. 

Even labels such as conservative and liberal no longer provide easy demarcations - save at the batshit-crazy extreme ends of the spectrum. Despite the historically conservative leanings of the US of A, most people ARE, whether they admit it or not, socially liberal. We are a community-minded folk, willing to help and share (you goddamn fucking commies). So political or ideological affiliation doesn't make for good borders (except, of course, for the wing-nuts, who, since they all seem to have shows on the TV, should be, as far as I'm concerned, shipped off to Reeducation Camps in the Nevada Desert). 

What about along income lines? Do we really need rich people, or, as the kids call 'em, douchebags (and isn't it about time we had a good disparaging term for fortunate pampered white people)? 

After all, study after study has shown that there is no link between being rich and being smart. And really, most of them just have the good luck to be born into fortunate circumstances, like living in a prosperous representative civil society, having a network of family and friends to provide privileged information, and the means and wherewithal to commit expensive mistakes. 

Douchebags really don't seem to do much except collect big bonuses and ruin global economies. Popular opinion would suggest they ("they" being, what, earning more than $150,000 a year, which is pretty much everyone on Wall Street and Congress) could easily be sent into exile. 

Well, that's really not fair, now is it? After all, it's quite possible you could get lucky tomorrow. Perhaps win the lottery, and then invest in a company that invents a robot that knows when to kick people in the nads at just the right moment, like when they use the word "paradigm", or "meme".

Okay, how about along IQ lines? That seems to make sense, right? But you know how that goes. Eugenics. And once you start segregating dumb people, why, ugly people are next, and then, quite naturally, homos, and spazzes, weirdoes, dorks, and then the next thing you know, we're right back to where we started - provided any of us have survived the gleaning process. 

Besides, I know for a fact that smart people can act as dumb as the next guy. We all deserve a second chance.   

So what are we to do? Should we accelerate what seems to be a world trend towards Balkanization? Split up our patchwork nation? 

I think that would be huge mistake. I'm sorry I don't have a better idea at the moment, but I'm thinking about a few things. 

Give me time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wither America

It's pretty obvious to any serious student of American history that, if we ever become a military dictatorship, it will be a right-wing dictatorship, and under a conservative agenda. Lefties simply have never had the sympathies, ideological will, or power base to accomplish anything close to socialism - not even under Roosevelt's New Deal administration.

It is therefore the duty of all freedom-loving progressives to counter the inertia towards the right. It is even more crucial for conservatives to constantly police their own kind. Since the founding of constitutional government in 1787 (after the failure of the Libertarian Free Market Utopia under the Articles of Confederation) we've had more than our fair share of overzealous or incompetent conservative leaders, who in their minds just Wanted to Do the Right Thing. The road to hell, etc.

It seems unlikely that conservatives have the emotional maturity or intellectual capacity  to police themselves, and hopefully I'm wrong about this. But, big-picture-wise, conservatives have ALWAYS been on the wrong side of change. Valuing tradition and the status quo, they've had a consistent track record of opposing change for the better. They've, over time, been for slavery, for the oppression of women, for exploitation of weaker nations, against science and technology, against social experiments like capitalism, public charity, and education. Its only been as a last resort, and typically after a generation dies off, that conservatives come around to liberal traditions such as, oh, I don't know, liberty, freedom, and the American way (equality for all under the law, an equal chance at competition, and a level playing field).

A standard canard about participatory democracy goes something like "If you didn't vote, you don't have the right to complain about the results". 

Really? I'm paying taxes, so I figure I can complain if I want to, regardless of what you say.

Anyway, it seems to me, not voting is the same as voting for None of the Above (NotA). I didn't vote in the last presidential election. I didn't do so because I didn't like either candidate.

Given a choice between a senile old right-wing throwback to the Austro-Hungarian style of imperial militarist rule with zero impulse control (McCain), and his batshit-crazy self-serving tiny-brained Half-Baked Alaskan running mate (Palin), or the right-center Closet Reaganite masquerading as a progressive (Obama, and come on now, does anyone over the age of 8-years-old REALLY think he is a progressive?), and his loudmouth running mate (Biden), I chose NotA. 

And so, it seems I have a perfect right to say "Hey, don't blame me. I didn't vote for either one of them assholes!"

If you look at national voter turnout during presidential election years since 1968, the average hovers around 52%. Before that, it was around 60% or so.

You might think 52% is pretty good. Take, for example, 2008, with 56.8% of voting age population participating in democracy. Or 2004, with 55.3%. 

But then, that means that, in the 2004 presidential election, 44.7% of eligible voters chose NotA. That's 98,961,953 people. Bush was elected by 62,028,285 people. And didn't Bush declare a"mandate"? Ah-ha-ha-ha!

Or take 2008, with 231,229,580 eligible voters, 98,611,000 people chose NotA. 66,882,230 people voted for Obama. 58,343, 671 people voted for McCain. 

In fact, NotA has been winning elections since, wow, 1960. That's pretty good.

Well, I guess it's a sign of the direction this country is taking.

Right-Wing Dictatorship in 2020. Destruction of the Middle Class in 2021. Total Economic Meltdown in 2022. Canadian barbarians sack Washington DC in 2024. Russians buy Disneyworld, ship it to Siberia in 2080. Everyone looks Chinese in 2106. 

Thanks, Conservatives!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cargo Cults (continued but different)

My college years were spend at Indiana University. I have some nice memories of being there,  but I really have no great longings for the place. Nor am I likely, as an alumnus, to contribute any further monies to them. 

Indiana University really should stop pestering me for revenue. When their cheerful little phone marketing coeds call up, I just tell them I'm unemployed and can't help them out. They get embarassed for me, and hang up pretty quickly, which is what I want them to do. 

As far as I can see, we had a business contract, which was fulfilled, completed, finished, and now we are done. They supplied me with a degreed certification, stating that I was vaguely qualified for some type of occupation, and I (ahem, my parents and I) supplied them with monetary reimbursement, and really, that should be the end of that.

I'm not entirely satisfied with my education. I started out with an art scholarship when I entered college. I came out the other end with a degree in mathematics. I'd prefer to think I don't know how that happened, but, of course I do. 

Primarily, it's because I'm lazy.

"Lazy?!" you exclaim, perhaps with a husky little uplifted squeak at the end, which you know I find so endearing, "but math is HARD! How can you call yourself lazy?"

Well, let me explain. When you are taught higher mathematics (calculus and up), you are shown a big bag of tools. And at first it all looks very confusing and intimidating, because the tools are all mixed up in the bag and you are not quite sure what each of them does. But as you go along, the tools are laid out one by one. The function and purpose of each is made clear, and it turns out that the tool itself, and how to use it, is not all that hard to grasp, once it is explained. 

It actually turns out that the hardest part of learning higher mathematics is algebra.  What is x? Well, x can be any number. You can plug any number into x and solve stuff like x2 - 2x +2. 

Once you've got algebra figured out, most of higher math falls into place. It is just repeating rules you've already learned, and usually through rote learning. The hard part of picking up algebra is something that we've all learned, or were supposed to learn, at a much younger age. It's when we learn to move from thinking about things in concrete terms to abstractions.

This is not to say doing higher math isn't hard. The actual hard part is knowing when to use the tools that a situation calls for. When should you, metaphorically speaking, use a screwdriver instead of a hammer. 

That capacity actually has nothing to do with mathematics. It has more to do with a certain style of thinking.

One of the best books I ever read was entitled "The Art of Probability" by Richard W. Hamming. The book is primarily devoted to probability, but I found, over the years, that the scope and importance extended well beyond this limited field, well, beyond math and physics, into, really a realm of thought and into an actual lifestyle. Reading Hamming over and over again, I came to finally understand this quote (you may, if you wish, substitute whatever activity you find important in your life for the word "probability", and then, perhaps, it makes sense):

"Probability theory provides a way, indeed a style, of thinking about such problems and situations... This style of thinking is an art and is not easy to master; both the historical evidence based on its late development, and the experience of current teaching, show that much careful thinking on the student's part is necessary before probability becomes a mental habit".

What I got from this is, a slow and measured examination of assumptions, and the resulting consequences of their adoption, is a far harder mental task than mere formal manipulation and rote repetition of logical and reasonable arguments. 

In other words, cutting though the bullshit is an art form. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Cargo Cults (continued)

The reason I'm having a hard time getting this train of thought out of the station is that the overarching theme may be a bit multiferous in its sources, pursuits, and ramifications. Perhaps by bulldozing all the exits, I'll finally be able to set the theater ablaze and yell "Fire!"

I'm sure whoever reads my thoughts must think that the overarching theme of my essays is that People are Just So Goddamn Fucking Dumb As All Hell Dip-shitily Moronically Idiotically Stupid. And I can understand how this impression could be arrived at. And I'm sure it all sounds overly negative and generally unhelpful in terms of prescribing soothing balms for the human condition.

But that's really not my intent. I would prefer, hopefully, to make my message "Hey, we are all smarter than this. These problems we have really aren't that hard. We can figure this out". In short, a message of hope, delivered, when necessary, via frying pan upside the head.

Yesterday, I described Cargo Cults, and then proceeded to bash on so-called Critical Thinkers. Specifically, Critical Thinkers with scare quotes around them. Self-proclaimed pundits and experts found on the Internet, in the media, print, radio, TV, etc.  who pretend to be critical thinkers. They may be fooling themselves in the process. But an extensive analysis of their arguments, and the rhetorical posturing and posing surrounding them, will show them to be frauds.

They may have, at one point or another,  been exposed to reasonably intelligent and rational adults, and come across the rules and regulations governing learned discussion, and studied the methods of discourse. And like Cargo Cultists, so think that, if they merely ape these behaviors, if they perform the rituals, the Manna of Intelligence will fall from the skies, and they shall be made smart. In other words, through a version of sympathetic magic, if these sad, stupid sorry dumbasses act as if they were college professors, they will be accepted as degreed professionals, and accorded all the deference and respect they think they deserve. The sadder thing is, quite a few of them are degreed professionals. But as my Old Man once said, on being exposed to a pea-brained pompous braying ass with a legitimate PhD, "Just goes to show you, any asshole can get a degree". 

God's Stinky Old Dentures, I see these assholes all the time. Especially, on the Internet, radio, and TV.

(More later)

 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cargo Cults

Note: I'm a little distracted with work and competing ideas today. I'll have to write this in installments. It may take some time for this locomotive to build up steam and pull this train of thought properly. If this entry don't make much sense, I'll try to steer it where I want it go... eventually.

Around the 1940s or thereabouts, on some islands in the South Pacific, a lot of white men suddenly appeared from out of the skies and seas. And they brought with them processed foods, starchy white flours, candies, radios, watches, trucks, jeeps, washing machines, canned meat, iceboxes, medicines, Coca-Cola, and many, many other wonderful things. And then one day they just all up and vanished. 

The natives didn't know where the endless supplies of goodies came from, and so assumed they were summoned by magic. And knowing more than their fair share of ritual and superstition, they constructed crude piers along their shores, and carved airstrips from their fields and jungles. They prayed for the ships and planes to come again, and performed military ceremonies, marching in perfect step and ranks, toting bamboo "rifles", with certain locals imitating the strident cadence of drills sergeants. But, aside from the trickle of a few tourists and old veterans, the magical G.I.s never returned.

We Americans who precipitated these cults may smirk and laugh at their naivete, but are we any less primitive? Aren't there certain things, certain mysterious events and items, that we, for all practical purposes, feel arrived by magic, from the spirit world? 

Oh, I think so.

Now, I'm not really talking about religious fundamentalists, or social conservatives (the American Taliban, as I call them, as they share so many values and opinions with those Islamist creeps). Although they easily come to mind. 

Nor am I talking about the faithful consumers. Those who, with every trip to the gas station, or the pharmacy, or the grocery store, display a simple act of faith in assuming that, since these goods have always been there, they always will be there.They have only a vague conception of how items appear on store shelves, or how government subsidies make them cheaper than they really are. 

Nor am I talking about the SHAM (Self-Help and Actualization) artists, the fuzzy thinkers, the New Agers, the crystal creeps, the ones who believe in astrology, or anything labelled "quantum", fans of Deepak Copra and The Secret. They can be dismissed as marginal, targeted by the media and easily and readily manipulated. And besides, when push comes to shove, when things get tough all over, they discard this mystic baggage in favor of more pragmatic behaviors.

No, I'm talking about the ones who consider themselves sophisticates. The Critical Thinkers. The self-styled Critical Thinkers at any rate. One thing I've noticed is, they all can parrot the terminology. They have read through the glossary of terms, the definitions of logical fallacies. They make use of phrases like "strawman" and "non sequitur" and "ad hominem" in so-called "debates". But few have any conception of how to investigate claims, or how to formulate a reasoned argument. If they've managed to build a reasoned argument, they often miss the fact that the logical construction they've fashioned still fails miserably because it is built upon  a faulty premise. In Internet debates, they are constantly distracted and sidelined by trivial tangental issues, or questions of "semantics". On TV and radio, the pundits cannot properly map out fundamental issues. In short, despite our proclamations to the contrary, we Americans SUCK at critical thinking.

(More later).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Eccentricities

Those who know me, know that I am a tad on the peculiar side. I possess certain... idiosyncrasies. Among the strangest of them is that I like to be outdoors during the winter. 

I love cold weather.

You've probably seen people like me as you drive by in your nicely heated automobile. Running. Skating. Skiing. Walking. Vacuous smile plastered on a drippy-nosed, red-cheeked face, a fog of breath appearing from underneath a snot-smeared upper lip. I think it is the running that freaks people out the most.

"Look at that idiot", they say. "Running. Running! In the snow!  I hope he slips and breaks something, the freak!"

I've slowed down some. I don't ski or skate as often as I used to. But, and this sounds strange, I do train for winter. I know a lot of people who train for summer. Get in shape for bikini season and all that. But train for winter? That's just crazy talk.

Now, it could be the Scandinavian ancestry. There does seem to be something behind how tough we are in the cold. Which would kind of suggest that we've also been bred to enjoy it.

It could be where I grew up. Northwest Indiana, perched as it is on the south shore of Lake Michigan, gets more than its fair share of snow. When the wind blows in from the north, we get the entire lake, all 300 plus miles, to provide moisture for a good lake effect snow. Twelve inches a day - and sometimes an hour - is not uncommon. It is an extremely rare winter when we get no snow at all. So, we have the winter wonderland effect. It is encouraging to go out into this, this clean white landscape, as opposed to a brown grass desert topped with grey sky that some have to put up with.

It could also be the family and community tradition for outdoor activities in any type of weather. But again, that might be a Northern European type of thing.

All I know is, not so much now, but in the past, with all the outdoor activity, I'm one of the few I know who has a tan come March. And maybe that's why I don't succumb to Seasonal Affective  Disorder. Getting whatever sunlight I can. Getting the incredibly fresh air down from the arctic. Not being sky deprived.

I know people hate me when I burst in from out-of-doors, in a good mood, exclaiming how that bitter frigid cutting bone-chilling crud out there is "exhilarating".

Geez. Sorry!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Nostalgia is a Kind Of Torture

For all my bizzaro attempts at self-deprecation by telling you how supposedly smart I am and then noticing how stupid I can be... you  know, I really am a stupid, stupid man. Sometimes. Most of the time.

When I first discovered the Internet, I really didn't think about it much. I just used it the way pretty much everyone else used it, as a new toy. Or a new kind of TV. And once I'd tired of looking at the porn, and working my way through the giant silicone boobies phase, and swimsuit issue perfect Hollywood perky ripe artificially sculpted bodies phase, and the creepy fringe weirdo gross-out websites like rotten.com and somethingawful phase, eventually I'd use the web for something useful or even edifying. I stumbled across Project Gutenberg, and, uh, I don't know, other high-brow stuff. 

And that didn't last very long.

Because eventually, like most everyone, I found out about the message boards, or bulletin boards, or web forums. And of course, that was the place to be, because everyone wanted to know what I thought about things, right?

There were many variations on a theme, but basically you had a collection of people loosely attracted around an activity or a person, like a hobby or a fan base. And like pretty much everyone else, I kind of preferred to maintain my anonymity. We all, to one extent or another,  reverted to early adolescent behavior, assumed alternate identities, and donned these dorky superhero/supervillian/alterego costumes. 

I pretty much stuck with the handle "Ned", for reasons of minimal typing really. 

But others... well, some of the pseudonyms were downright embarrassing-- and revealing. Any handle with an "X" in it, such as Comrade X, or Cowboy X, or Mister X, suggested to me an immature or malformed personality. And they usually were.

It really was quite sad. Some, of course, were excused. Specifically, those of us who were actually fifteen-year-old boys. The rest of us supposed adults - including me - were pretty much just pathetic behavioral examples of Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons: petty, pedantic, ponderous, pseudo-intellectual, fact-spewing, pissing-match-contestants with University of Google degrees, and not offering much in the way of intelligent, or interesting, conversation.

Anonymity does not bring out the best behavior in people. Generally, BBS systems quickly devolved into Lowest Common Denominator territory. There was, in some areas, civilized discourse, but the more general situations were flamewars, IP banning, and the continual appearance of trolls. And after some time, you really grow to hate people you know nothing about. At least I did. So, I'd eventually do the sensible thing, vote with my feet, and stop posting to the bulletin board systems.

Instead, now I post here, where I have the last word. Mature, huh?

But anyway, the one thing it took me forever to figure out was: just how anonymous were you really? 

I mean, here you are with browser software running on your personal computer. And not only does the browser software allow other programs to run on your computer, programs you don't even know are there, but the browser software is gaining all this knowledge about you. All this time, people worried about malware, spyware, and it has been running on all of our machines from Day One.

It knows not only where you are, but what you do, how often you do it, when you do it, and with the help of increasingly smarter software, what your preferences are, what your shameful secrets are, what your  heart's desire is. And this juicy information, this advertising executive's wet dream is, available to marketers.

What an idiot I am. 

 What an incredibly precise information gathering tool. It makes all mass-marketing attempts look like the clumsiest simian fumbling about at stone axes and hand clubs.

What an amazingly clever piece of subversion. The economic value of the knowledge gained is nothing short of vast. Vast, in fact, is a poor descriptive term. Massive, colossal, gigantic, mammoth, don't even come close.

The world has shifted on its axis, and someone built the new axis. That's how big this is.

And I never had a clue.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Shameless Plug


I completely forgot. Another reason to write online journal entries is for self-promotion. So here we go.

I am a participant in the Rockford Art Museum's Midwestern Biennial. The show is opening January 22nd, 2010, and running through April 25th, 2010.


I have two entries in the show. The first entry is entitled "Hooke's Constant". The piece is made of wood, fabricated metal, glass, and springs. I made everything except for the springs.

Well, that's a a slight exaggeration. I did not make the metal, wood, or springs. I didn't even smelt the metal. Or grow the wood. Or wind the springs. I purchased all that stuff. But the glass is hand-blown. By me. And I did the bending and welding and stuff.

"Hooke's Constant" is a number representing the restoring force of a spring, which is directly related to the length it is stretched (within reason). The only physical quantity named after the English natural philosopher, robert Hooke. Hooke was a contemporary of Isaac Newton. A man of rather diminutive stature, he was nevertheless brimming with energy and occupied with countless pursuits and investigations into the natural world. A demonstrator for the Royal Society, he did much usher our world into modern times, and banished a great deal of nonsense and superstitious thought in the process.


The second piece is entitled "Sensoria". The busts are made of cast bronze and are mounted on a sheet of plate steel. The work is quite dense and heavy as sin. 

The piece originally was intended as something of an explanation for a series of works I did involving masked figures. Starting from the unaltered bust of a woman, each woman in the circle loses a sense. It was, at the time, a comment upon electronic remediation, but since no one seemed to understand that, I just shut up and let the piece stand on it's own.

Not really all that much more to say about this, I suppose. 

...but enough about me...

You know, I'm trying to figure out why I'm writing an online journal. 

(And I just can't use the word "blog". I realize my not using the word will not eradicate it from the English language. It's a personal preference. To me, it's just a clunky and dorky word, infused with the insincere and insecure sincerity of breathless adolescence. I mean, even the original phrase "web log" is irritating. First of all, you have the out-of-fashion "web" as in"World Wide Web", as in "Helloo, 2010? 1994 wants it's phrase back". And then you have the word "log". Log? Who the fuck do you think you are? Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise? Here's a clue. You are just not that important, you cheese log!).

So, anyway, one of the reasons I write an online journal entry is to get out of work. The Internet, for me, has existed since 1995, and the Internet's primary purpose is to get out of doing things. Back when I had a real job, supporting laughable business software in soon-to-be-extinct billion-dollar Soviet-structured corporate dinosaurs, the Internet was there for me to waste an enormous amount of time. It wasn't just me. In retrospect, during the 1990s - to borrow from Winston Churchill - "Never had so many undeservedly earned so much money to waste so much time on so few accomplishments". Or something like that. This, dearies, is, to me, one aspect of the very essence of Capitalism - to earn as much money doing as little as possible. I think 2008 is ironclad proof.

Well, times change, and I'm a bit different now. I became obsolete "retired"  from the IT industry in 2001. If you've looked at my profile, you'll notice I list my profession as "sculptor". This is true. It is one of  the things I do, but occupying perhaps no more than a third of my waking hours. I earn, basically almost zero dollars in this pursuit. The largest amount of time I burn through, the part that allows me to eke out a living at pretty much Fourth World wages, is as Studio Technician at the community college where I work. 

Although a better job title would be "janitor/nanny", or "nanny/janitor", or maybe "nannitor", or perhaps "The Terminanny".

The nanny part actually only occurs when school is in session. The janitor part is ongoing. 

So that's what I'm doing today, and not just today, but pretty much every day that I've added an entry to this online journal. "Dear diary, today I fucked around - yet again!"

Well, I actually would like this journal to serve some type of purpose. I think I've tried, and may try harder, to be an edutainer in the service of Science. I think it was the late Walter Cronkite who said that "the only news that is really news is science news". I think, if he said it, that he was right. So there's that.

But honestly, Big, Big Fan that I am, even I get bored with some of the stuff. So maybe I should write about other stuff as well. Well, you know, they say "Write what you know". Well, I know me, but honestly, I'm pretty boring as well. But what the heck. We'll give a shot.

(Next: Things I've Done on The Internet - or - How to Communicate with Total Strangers From All Over the Planet, and Grow to Hate Them)  

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Wall Street Is An Asshole" - Bumper Sticker

Note: I may have come up with a killer app. You've got spellcheck for proofreading. You've got spellcheckplus (spelling check and grammar check). What you don't have is definitioncheck. Problem is, it is an app meant more for readers than writers. Your average American has the IQ of a carrot, and needs an app that flags big words what they don't know what it means. The problem is with hyperlinks, it is a cumbersome process to find out the meaning (click the link and read the definition in a separate page, then try to remember what the fuck it was you were doing, with yet another open window to distract you). Instead, there should be one of those java script thingies, so that when you put your little pointer arrow on the word, a balloon appears with the summarized definition. That way we have one less thing to remember, and can all get just a little bit dumber, and use our brains just a little bit less. Whoever is out there that does all the work and comes up with this app, you better fucking send me a royalty check.

I once had a chance to get up close and personal with a B-17 Flying Fortress at an air show. The B-17 was employed in the daytime bombing of Germany during WWII. Underneath the plane is a ridiculously small plexiglass bubble where the belly gunner sits. My Uncle Ed was a belly gunner. Small wonder, then, that he was an alcoholic. 

Flying in these bombers was not a pleasant experience. Aside from the cramped conditions, the lack of oxygen, the below-freezing temperatures, the inability to void your waste products in an expeditious or dignified manner, there would also be encounters with pesky German fighter planes who would hurtle high velocity large caliber lead projectiles at you, and flak - truly evil-looking pieces of sharp-edged shrapnel from exploding anti-aircraft artillery shells. 

These artillery shells were designed using a mathematical technique which combined probability theory and operational optimization. You have an explosive shell, and, by scoring the surface, you can control its fragmentation. It will break up into pieces of a certain size. How many pieces do you want? How large should they be? If the pieces are too small, they may not do much damage. If the pieces are big, they will do real harm. But you will have less pieces, and the chance of hitting the plane will be correspondingly less. 

This philosophical exercise isn't just theoretical, and it isn't just a horrifyingly cold little academic calculation. Lives are at stake. Blood and treasure are at risk.

So, anyway, yesterday I actually started on something which may develop into an extended theme, namely, simulations and models. A large part of the theme is that most mathematical or computer models, really having only a partial, idealized description of reality (not unlike a philosophical exercise) are silly. 

Well, let's briefly talk about philosophical exercise. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief, a degree of let's pretend, a modicum of play. At its best, it is informed, structured speculation, a good form of improvisational comedy, an exercise of the mind. At its worst, it is trite and annoying, a clumsy form of public masturbation, like a Quentin Tarantino movie.

The ancient Greeks were very good at coming up with these silly exercises, such as the Ship of  Theseus: an exercise in identity, persistence, categorization, that will, for most people who check out the link, suck all the joy, the precious juice of life, right out of your day, cause your eyes to roll into the back of your head, and your head to slam into the edge of your desk and give you a nasty bleeding gash that will require stitches. The ancient Greeks were probably also very good at public masturbation, but I've no real desire to check up on that.   

The interesting, or appalling thing, depending upon your point of view, is how often these idealized models inform our day-to-day behavior. Take, for example, the Flak Problem related above. Milton Friedman, the Nobel-prize winning economist, and fucker-up of the Chilean economy (among other things), was one of the first to notice the similarity between portfolio investment strategy and the optimal explosive pattern of anti-aircraft shells. (Not surprising, as he worked on the mathematical modeling of both).  

Friedman, and many others, were working under the assumption - now (post-Panic of 2008) pretty much discredited except by a few die-hard lunatic Libertarian idiot types - that the stock market is both efficient and rational. How the fuck they ever managed to delude themselves that this was the case is beyond me, but that is the model.

Of course, anyone who has even the slightest ability of even the most superficial of observations about human - or should it be simian? - behavior, knows that the market is composed of actions produced by irrational choices by irrational dumb, stupid, herd animals motivated by fear and greed. There is, after all, a reason why all the market upsets have been called Panic of this or that year. 

The market, as a model, mirrors only coincidentally attributes of the "real" economy. The market is there to be manipulated, and everyone is manipulating the market. If it wasn't for everybody manipulating the market, there wouldn't be a stock market at all.  

One of the premises of financial forecasting is that the fluctuations of stock prices are completely random. A statistical analysis of prices by mathematical economists has suggested otherwise, but, as is usual with mathematical conveniences, the modeling of fluctuations as random were "close enough". 

Thus flawed and faulty financial equations and instruments were and are used that assume price changes are random. Instruments used that assume that, on average, market behavior rests comfortably under the classic bell curve. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb likes to say, Wall Street ignores "black swans", or "fat tails" (the extreme edges outside of the bell curve behavior, the bubbles and busts) at their peril.

Now, there are still free market apologetics out there who, in a rather pathetic infantile whine, complain the the government should have saved us from ourselves (irony alert), that the SEC watchdog should have curbed this insane and irrational behavior before the party got out of hand.

But this was never the intended purpose of the Securities and Exchange Commission. When the SEC (fortunately or unfortunately the legislation written NOT by mathematical economists, but by lawyers and bankers) was created in 1934, the intent was... how to reassure the public that the stock market was not rigged? (Remember folks, in the 30s, a LOT of financial executives, rather than getting obscenely huge bonuses for fucking up the economy, went to jail). The SEC's mission was "to restore public confidence in the securities market". In other words, how to make the stock market look real?

The answer was stringent new laws aimed, not at the sweaty mob of average Americans, but at the Wall Street Elite, to make sure that never again would their manipulations of their poop-covered dirty birdie fingers soil the clean white linen sheets resting upon great altar of Capitalism.  

In other words Securities Police Theater, to borrow the phrase "security theater" from Bruce Schneier. Fake controls on a fake model of a toy economy which does nothing to protect very, very real livelihoods. Not quite a danger to all of us, but certainly an inconvenience. Fun, huh?


Monday, January 11, 2010

The Model is Only as Good As the Model

I recently finished a book called "The Genie in the Machine" by Robert Plotkin. Plotkin is a patent attorney. He also writes a blog. In the book, Plotkin documents and comments upon computer automated invention, or computer assisted creativity. Automated invention, through the use of either the evolutionary software of genetic algorithms, or the brain function approximation software of neural networks, or combinations thereof, have already produced money making inventions. Companies have sprouted up which take advantage of this technique, such as Natural SelectionTenfold, NuTech Solutions, and Imagination Engines.

Plotkin insists we will soon enter the age of Automatic Invention Age, and I have no reason to doubt it. Still, I'm not going to recommend the book, as Plotkin spends entirely too much time on the legal process of patents, and how this new process will affect the legal world, and not enough on the fun geek stuff. 

But here's an excerpt from the book that caught my eye, perhaps because it stirred a memory from something I read in the late 90s (italics mine): 

"Thinking Machines founder Danny Hillis used evolutionary computation software to create programs for sorting numbers. When you give such a program a list of scrambled numbers 9 8 2 7 3,  it gives you back a sorted list of the same numbers: 2 3 7 8 9. Hillis examined the number-sorting programs that his software had evolved but could not understand how they work.  "I have carefully examined their instruction sequences, but I do not understand them: I have no simpler explanation of how the programs work than the instruction sequences themselves. It may be that the programs are not understandable"".

In other words, Hillis could not find a simpler way of describing the program except for the program statements themselves, or by watching a computer execute the program. Now, this is actually a problem faced by mathematicians and physicists. 

In order to understand the behavior of something, say, a water spout, or an avalanche, scientists will try to create a simpler, more idealized model. In doing so, they have to eliminate or ignore some parts of what they are studying, and hope that the parts they ignore are not too important in determining a general behavior. (You can imagine that, prior to the age of computers, this was a very dull, dreary, boring series of steps involving a great deal of arithmetical drudgery, and you'd be right. Even now, in the age of computers, this still can be a difficult task). 

But there is a problem with simulation. If the model is made too simple, the model is just a toy. It really doesn't simulate properly what it is you want to study. It may not show behaviors you know - through careful observation - to occur in the real thing. Then again, if you include too many parts to simulate, you find that your model is too complex. In fact, what you find, to your great dismay, is that the model is even more complicated than the actual thing you are studying.  

To put it in a silly way (as in philosophical, as philosophy is generally silly), if I were to create a model of the universe, and run the model on a computer, I would need to create a computer bigger than the universe, and run a program on it more complex than the universe. And well, that's just very, very silly. 

Friday, January 8, 2010

Comet Wars


One of my problems - and there are many - is that I'm just not smart enough.

There are times when, studying some topic, I come very close to getting a handle on it. I am just shy of having a powerful insight or possibly game-changing answer, and then things get all confused and convoluted in my head and whatever it was just slips away. It's like being stoned. Which... you know, I hardly ever do anymore.

Now, supposedly, I'm very smart. According to the IQ and the SAT and the GRE tests, I score in the 99.98 percentile, which means that I am in the top 2% of the top 2%. You've heard of MENSA? The organization for smart people with IQs in the top 2%? I met someone who was a MENSA member once. They wuz, lyke, reelly, reely stoopid.  

Of course, that IQ test of mine was nine concussions ago. I figure I've lost ten points with each concussion, which means the next inevitable one will turn me into some kind of baby seal - after the Eskimos have had their fun.

And it has me worried about the rest of humanity, because, compared to me, the average person has the IQ of a carrot. And not a particularly bright carrot either.

Honestly and truthfully, though, I just ain't all that smart. And even more scary, I know people who are so smart that they make me look like a carrot! And they ain't all that smart either. So, I'm worried about us.

But that's not what I want to talk about.

For those of you not In The Know, let's talk about the K-T Event. That's shorthand for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction Event. The prevailing scientific thought is that some 65 million years ago, a big comet smacked into the Earth with the force of a 100 million megatons. (That's, um, about a couple hundred thousand times more powerful than the total world's nuclear arsenal going kablooey all at once in one place). The result of this big, huge smoking hole in the ground was that the dinosaurs went extinct. There's a lot of evidence for it, and since evidence is really all that matters, that's why scientists think that is what happened.

Yesterday, in the previous journal entry, I said that the Dinosaurs had a Comet War(!)

Meaning, I suppose, that some species of dinosaur got smart, and got so smart that they developed space travel. They got so smart and powerful that they could fling comets and asteroids around. Oh, well, and then they got all pissy with each other. War broke out. The weapons they used were comets and asteroids, and they wiped themselves out.

No, that really didn't happen.

At least, I don't think it did. The Earth is what? 4 and a half billion years old? And as far as we know, in all that time, only one species got smart, or should I say "smart"? Just us monkeys? No lizards? No frogs? Octopi? Clams? Mats of gelatinous slime? Seems kind of weird, doesn't it? That only one species managed the task? 

Well, anyway, I noticed in the news that Russia is scared of Aphophis. 

Apophis is an asteroid that was first sighted and calculated to hit the Earth in the year 2036. Its about 750 feet from end to end, or two and a half football fields for those of you who like sports. If it smacked into the Earth, it should produce an impact force of about 880 megatons, which is equivalent to several hundred thousand trillion Easy Bake Ovens for those of you who like cookies and brownies.

Well, now its calculated that Apophis won't hit the Earth. But ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency, wants to use it for practice anyway. They want to try out some deflection technology or strategy to nudge the orbit some, or some destruction plan like in that awful movie "Armageddon", which Hollywood should have just forked the budget over to ROSCOSMOS from the get-go, since it was such a fucking horrible smoking hole in the ground of a movie.

Anyway, the one problem which most people don't think about it is... if you develop the technology to nudge asteroids and comets away from the Earth to protect us from impacts, doesn't that mean you also have the technology to nudge things toward us?

Oh, crap! Didn't see that coming. 

Smart, huh? And funny. The whole Unintended Consequences thing cracks me up. How making ourselves safe from one thing puts us at risk from something else.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Missile #27

The year I was born, there were no satellites up in orbit. There were no Artificial Moons circling the Earth. 

Yeah? So what?

Then, when I was still just a itty bitty teeny tiny little baby, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. And a month later, a larger and heavier satellite called (surprise!) Sputnik 2 carried a dog named Laika into space.

Laika died.

That's kind of sad, but then 22 astronauts and cosmonauts have died since then, and an even larger number of ground crew. Going into space is dangerous. 

But that's not what I want to talk about.

Few people know October 4, 1957 is a historic date. I think it is because people just don't care. Really. Even fewer people know that September 20, 1956 could have been a historic date. That was the date that the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) sent aloft Missile 27 from Cape Canaveral. This was an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) test. The rocket reached an altitude of 600 miles, and splashed into the Atlantic Ocean some 3,300 miles away. The launch team was not authorized to orbit a satellite, and besides no one had asked them to do it. So the team replaced the solid rocket fuel in the fourth stage of the missile with sand.

History records the result. A great deal of pants shitting occurred on or about the date of Oct. 5, 1957.

As is customary, the media was the first to shit itself, as usual. "SOVIETS CAN HIT US FROM SPACE WITH BOMBS! NOT A DAMN THING WE CAN DO ABOUT IT!"

And they made such a hue and cry, such a wailing, such a tumult, such a dancing about of the Shitty Pants Dance, that everyone couldn't help but notice - which is what the media does, right?

Congress, not to be outdone, upped the ante, and called many special press conferences to show that they too, had done a spectacular job of projectile pooping, staining their undies right down to their socks.

Naturally the public took its cue, and soon practically every horizontal surface was damp and soiled.

Poor old President Eisenhower. He now had to respond to all this. But there were things he knew which he could not tell the media or the public. Things he knew that a select few in both the House and the Senate were aware of. (That time being a different age, when duplicity and deceit were highly valued, and thus used more sparingly, those in Congress who were In The Know were not inclined to do the Shitty Pants Dance). 

What things did Eisenhower know? Consulting with his administration, he knew that the US missile programs were doing fine, thank you, on par or well ahead of the Soviets. Eisenhower knew, from U2 high altitude spy plane overflights of the Soviet Union, that the state of Soviet armaments and preparedness was just barely above donkey cart mode. In short, he knew that Sputnik did not constitute an immediate threat to the security of the United States. He knew that there was no such thing as a Missile Gap. (This fact, of course, did not stop John F Kennedy from instilling fear in the American public in a cheap ploy to get elected by LYING about the Missile Gap, or for that matter, a generation later, for Ronald Reagan to LIE about a similar Missile Gap when the Soviet Union was on the ropes, a shattered starving skeleton of itself, or for one more matter, for George W Bush to LIE about WMDs existing in a basket case of a nation, but that's for another rant). 

He held a press conference in an attempt to quell the fears of the American people. He utterly failed to calm the hysteria, and in fact, came across as perhaps a little too detached and clueless. The media was telling the public that, because we are now not safe something had gone wrong, and someone was at fault and to blame, and then things must be fixed. And the public, paradoxically, individually calm and relatively intelligent, but collectively stupid and anxious, desperately needing something, anything, to be done, demanded that something be done, even if the thing to be done was pointless, useless, and a waste of time and monies.

Sound familiar? War on Terrorism, maybe? Perhaps?

Well, fear not, things turned out well for the USA! Not now, silly. We are doing exactly what the terrorists want us to do - waste blood and treasure. Things turned out well back then. 

In the end, the Russians had actually done the US a good turn. NASA and DARPA was established, Congress authorized a big budget increase for science and engineering education, not to mention funding for corporate and university R&D, and kids across the country went space crazy. And we spent ten trillion dollars on the best damn Mutual Assured Destruction 20,000 warhead missile system not seen since the Dinosaurs had their Comet War.

Makes you proud, don't it?