Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dear Loyal Lunatics

Life is indeed making me its bitch this week. I promise good posts and good things next week.

Maybe, if life is nice to me tomorrow, I'll post some pictures. They would have been awesome if there weren't a giant raindrop on my lens when I took them. So you'll have to imagine them looking better.

I'm sure I have other ones I can post.

I'm not dead yet. But I'll be back.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Why what you choose doesn't matter: Part 2

How can we plunk robots down on other planets, keep energy releasing reactions that take place inside of stars under control, and make multi-ton metal machines fly? Physics.

All matter in the universe is governed by physical laws. Once we understand these laws, we can calculate how events will unfold. This is because the laws of the universe are deterministic:

If I drop exactly the same marble in a vacuum from exactly the same height onto exactly the same surface, it will bounce with the exactly the same period and come to rest in exactly the same place every single time I drop the marble.

If you're having a hard time accepting this deterministic universe thing, you can try this experiment yourself: Hold a brick over your head, then let go. Did it hit you? Try it again. Did it hit you again? Amazing. Maybe one of these times it will fly away. Think not? Then you've accepted that the laws of physics govern the physical universe in a defined, determinate and predictable way.

"But it doesn't hit me the same way every time," you say. "The dents in my skull seem to have some kind of random pattern. How can there be randomness in a deterministic universe?"

Well, for starters, the reason the brick doesn't land the same way every time is because you don't actually drop it the same way every time. So your random pattern of bumps doesn't mean the falling is different, it means the dropping is different. And even under the best controlled conditions, there is variation. The arrangement of molecules in the air differs from second to second. The brick's mass changes subtly as tiny bits of brick dust fall off. These subtle variations due to circumstances beyond our control don't indicate that the universe is not determined. They just show that it's hard to predict future states of the universe with perfect accuracy, because the elements impacting a specific situation are always very complex. This is why we know the weather tomorrow, but guess at the weather two weeks from now.

Much of statistical analysis was developed to strip out these noisy subtle complexities and unearth the underlying larger truth. Measuring the acceleration of the brick over and over and over gets us to an average of 9.8 m/s². Just because we can't predict an outcome with perfect accuracy (gee, I thought the Mars Lander would work. Anyone got another $300 million dollars and 8 years?), this doesn't show that the physical world isn't governed by deterministic laws.

So we've now established that physical things are governed by deterministic physical laws, (and you must accept this, or perform the brick experiment till you believe it), and that our minds are brains, which are physical things.

So when we put them together, we get this: If the future states of all the matter in the universe are determined by the laws of physics, and if our brains are matter in the universe, and if, therefore, our minds are matter in the universe, the future states of our minds are determined.

Guess what: Free will is an illusion.

We may believe that we are deciding. What we're experiencing is merely our little neurons chugging away. Just like doing long division in the third grade: You may not know what 65,783 divided by 23 is when you start the problem, and you may not even know what the final answer is at the end, but, assuming you know how to apply the solving algorithm, the answer you were going to get was determined from the outset. Just imagine a really slow computer, calculating π to the thousandth digit. The computer doesn't know the answer when it starts. It "knows" how far it's come. It "knows" when it's done. It's "aware" that it isn't done processing. But the computer is no more coming to a decision than we are when we choose a dessert from a menu. The output of a physical entity undergoing a physical process is determined by the laws of physics. Brains "making decisions" are governed by the laws of physics.

Actually living life while accepting that free will is an illusion is certainly challenging, as we'll see in Part III.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Why religion is evil

Take a look at this.

George: Help me with this "liberation" thing

From Riverbend:

"Please dress appropriately next time you come here." The man said to me. I looked down at what I was wearing- black pants, a beige high-necked sweater and a knee-length black coat. Huh? I blushed furiously. He meant my head should be covered and I should be wearing a skirt. "I don't like being told what to wear and what not to wear by strange men. I don't work here- I don't have to follow a dress code." I answered coldly. The cousin didn't like where the conversation was going, he angrily interceded, "We're only here for an hour and it really isn't your business."

"It is my business." Came the answer, "She should have some respect for the people who work here." And the conversation ended. I looked around for the people I should be respecting. There were three or four women who were apparently ministry employees. Two of them were wearing long skirts, loose sweaters and headscarves and the third had gone all out and was wearing a complete 'jubba' or robe-like garb topped with a black head scarf. My cousin and I turned to enter the room the receptionist had indicated and my eyes were stinging. No one could talk that way before the war and if they did, you didn't have to listen. You could answer back. Now, you only answer back and make it an issue if you have some sort of death wish or just really, really like trouble.

Shiite Islamist parties got 48% of the vote. In a parliamentary government, this means they're in charge.

Saddam was Sunni. He wasn't a good guy. Iraq wasn't democratic. A minority dominated a majority. But Iraq was secular.

But now the majority has come to power. And that majority is a big fan of Islamic law. So the new democratic Iraq will be free to vote, but not free to follow anything but strict Islamic codes of behavior.

We "oust the oppressive Taliban" in Afghanistan and then supply a platform for oppressive Islamists to take over Iraq.

You keep using that "liberation" word, George.

Why what you choose doesn't matter: Part 1

Brain: Organ in your head

So what's your "mind"?

Some research indicates that they're the same thing.

There are poor folks out there with intractable epilepsy. A radical therapy is brain surgery in which the corpus callosum - the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres of the brain - is severed, letting the two halves of the brain operate independently.

These split brain people are pretty interesting. Repeated experiments show that the left half literally doesn't know what the right half is doing and vice versa. "Raise both hands" gets only one arm up, since only the side of the brain that understands language, and the arm that listens to that side, can respond. If you interview the same patient, but different sides of the brain, you get different answers to the same questions.

The dudes who did this work got a Nobel prize for figuring this stuff out. The split brain patients are how we know the right and left brain handle different tasks.

So how does this cast doubt on souls and show that minds and brains are the same thing?

If there were some thing like a soul or mind that was not identical to and in fact separate from the brain, then splitting the brain shouldn't split the mind. The soul or disembodied mind should be able to co-ordinate both sides of the brain. When the mind hears a question, it should give the same answer, no matter which side of the brain the question came through. If the mind wants to be a fireman when he grows up, one shouldn't hear "race car driver" from the right side and "hacker" from the left. But we do, in fact, observe these things.

So when patients with split brains exhibit split minds, we have to conclude that minds and brains are the same thing.

One could argue that we are all, actually, of two minds, and not just one. But while I can't speak for the rest of you, there's only one voice in my head.

And if that's not enough evidence: Antidepressants. How can a chemical lift your spirits if your "spirit" is not actually a thing with which chemicals can react? Unless pharma companies have taught pills to hold seances in your blood stream, drugs can't interact with the spirit world. And if pills can change your feelings, your mind has to be a physical entity.

And the facts that our minds are brains and that our brains are physical objects have some pretty interesting implications. As we'll see in Part II...

Monday, February 14, 2005

Why Vegetarians are Wrong

unnaturally tender filet mignon grilled medium
tarragon and wild mushroom cabernet sauvignon reduction

Compound flowers are cool

Many little flowers grow together to form MEGAFLOWER

Thought for today

The rise of digital pictures
transforms our mood
from mild disappointment
to expectant elation
when we receive
a "home-made valentine".

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Bloggers: wanna help?

Seems some grad students in Singapore are trying to understand the ethics of blogging.

I think it's an interesting question, and I have professional empathy for their efforts at research, so I'm posting a link to their study here. Not that I have that much traffic to send them, but I know most of you who visit have blogs of your own. If you have a few minutes, consider helping out.

I had a hard time classifying my blog in their schema. I think some of you will, too, and others will not. That was the one thing I got out of the study: That my blog isn't really typical. I'm not single issue, single agenda, or story of my life, or serious writer or anything.

To the lady from the shopping center

Dear Madam:

I, like you, buy into our American system of first come, first served.

I, like you, don't actually believe in cutting in line.

And I did see you making that three point turn down there.

And I know those parking spaces on my left were angled to be entered only from the direction you were soon to be heading.

And you did, certainly pass by that last remaining empty parking spot first.

And I did, perhaps illegally, just casually back into that spot, while you were properly executing a 3 point turn.

And I did notice that you were genuinely pissed off at me for taking the spot. It's now clear to me you had your eye on it.

In my defense, I offer only this:

1) The spot was labeled "Compact"

2) You were driving a Land Rover

Friday, February 11, 2005

Old Skool Catholicism

This is a church in Malta. It's got all the old world decadent stuff. What I'd like to draw your attention to is the floor: See all that marble? Those nice neat boxes are actual grave sites. Folks got buried in the church. Of course, not your every day 18th century Maltese Peasant, mind you. You had to be a bishop or a general, or, in later years, a merchant of some import to grab a spot where you'd be stepped on by pious people forever. It's a great way to up your Mass attendance. What we shall see is that these folks didn't exactly share our current ideas about what was appropriate grave maker decor...

Just in case you've forgotten that you, too, will die, this marker, like many of the others, offers a subtle, tactful reminder. Did you notice the skeleton? If you look hard, you'll see it.

The above marker's simple message: Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shall return. And once you return, you'll have eternity to Monday morning quarterback your life.

Like my scythe? Like my buddy, Ominous Black Cape Guy? We have a warrant... For your SOUL!

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Why my mother owns no yardsticks

Once upon a time, when I was a kid, there were yard sticks in my house.

There were probably 3 or 4 of them. One was painted orange. One was a dull green. All were faded. They were wooden, made back in the day when things, including toys, were made of wood or metal. They had probably lived long lives in a classroom some place. They were kept on top of the refrigerator, which was then just within my reach. I think mom had picked them up at a garage sale somewhere. Maybe she thought they were educational. They weren't practical for measuring anything. But they did get used.

Mom broke each and every one of them hitting one of my brothers. Not to say I never got hit with any of them. I just don't remember that part as clearly. (I have vague recollections of parrying a swing.) Maybe mom figured the sticks worked best on the younger two: I remember their encounters a bit more clearly, though I'm not sure if that's because they were more often the targets, because there was more screaming and crying involved, or because it did something to me to watch that. But it's what I remember.

Perhaps the vintage of the yardsticks made them brittle. One shattered into three pieces after connecting. Would have been nice if the end of the stick meant the end of the beating. But that wasn't always the case. Sometimes it continued as spanking. Other times, a remaining fragment was still long enough to be useful. It seemed to make her madder any time the stick broke.

The irony is, of course, that I can't remember exactly why any of my brothers got hit with the stick. I'm sure it was something punishable. But twenty years later, the only lesson that persists is that wooden yardsticks can be used to spank people, and that spankings with sticks leave kids terrorized and sobbing.

I don't know what the original motive was for bringing the damned things into the house. But if you place the broken pieces back on top of the fridge, you're not putting away a thing you intend to use for measuring.

I remember a stretch in which she went through a couple in a few days. I remember the fragments of one demolished stick with red and black writing filed vertically in the trash can, so as not to puncture the bag, a visible reminder of why the house was now quiet.

I learned about proximity and delay early on. She's got a stick, and she says "come here". You can get hit now, or hold out, and get hit later, and possibly more severely, since she'll be more pissed off cuz you didn't come when called. We always chose to hold out.

Psych class, 12 years later: "Humans would rather suffer a big pain later than a small pain now."

Ya don't say.

When I grew up to be an athletic boy, I laid down a new law: No more hitting.

At first, it was taken as "He means himself".

So I began to intervene. Intervening consisted of putting myself between her and the sibling in question and shoving my rather un-coordinated and tubby mother to the ground as often as required until she lost the intent to hit someone. Can't beat kids when you're on your fat ass.

Eventually, my brothers got big enough.

Mom never bought new yardsticks.

Why is Tobacco legal?

Setting: The modern world, except tobacco is heretofore just another North American weed.

Entrepreneur: I have discovered a new product, and I'd like to begin marketing and selling it.

FDA: Is it something to eat?

Entrepreneur: No.

FDA: Is it something you drink?

Entrepreneur: No.

FDA: Does it have any nutritional value?

Entrepreneur: No.

FDA: Is it a drug?

Entrepreneur: Kind of.

FDA: Kind of?

Entrepreneur: Well, it doesn't cure anything or alleviate any symptoms, but it does deliver nicotine, an addictive stimulant, to the blood stream

FDA: So people will become physically and psychologically dependent on your product?

Entrepreneur: Yes. We think it'll be a great way to generate "customer loyalty".

FDA: Are there any side effects?

Entrepreneur: Nothing too bad. We get lots of coughing, respiratory ailments, higher incidence of influenza and bronchial infections, cardiac arrest, oral cancers, laryngeal cancers, lung cancer, emphysema, gum disease, bad breath, premature aging and staining of the teeth. Did I mention the cancer? But I think that's it. Pretty standard stuff, really.

FDA: You expect us to let you sell this to people?

Entrepreneur: Sure. You let people sell stuff with caffeine in it. That's an addictive stimulant. Why not us?

FDA: Yes, caffeine's addictive. But we've seen no evidence that it causes cancer or any of that other crap. It's that "addictive AND deadly" combination that's really bothering us.

Entrepreneur: Oh. Well fast food is legal. It's not so good for you. Why not shut down McDonald's?

FDA: It's bad for you, but McNuggets aren't addictive.

Entrepreneur: Heroine is legal.

FDA: No it's not.

Entrepreneur: Damn. Well then I'll just go over your heads.

FDA: Excuse me?

Entrepreneur: I'll supply a high margin crop to the rural south, and offer congress and the states a fat revenue stream from giant taxes on my product.

FDA: So you're gonna bribe our bosses?

Entrepreneur: Yup. We're good at this marketing stuff. Instead of "bribe" we like to call this "economic addiction". Pretty cool, huh?

FDA: Fine, go ahead. But if anyone sues your assess, you're on your own.

Entrepreneur: Great. And one last thing. You don't mind if we market it to kids, do you? I mean, yeah, they're kids, but remember: Every pack someone buys puts money in your pocket, not just ours!

FDA: Just go.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

To my loyal fans (both of you)

Hi folks!

Next few days will be rather hectic for me, so I'll probably not be posting with the frequency of old. I do have a few ideas I'm working on, so stay tuned.

In the mean time, I've got one of those map thingies now. I know I have some readership in odd corners of the world. If you're a regular, I'd be happy to have you put a marker for yourself on the map.

I intend to update my blogroll soon, too.

Mean time, I will cop out and post some more pictures.

Glacial erratics, Yosemite National Park

In the Eastern part of the park, there are many granite domes formed by magma pushing close to the crust, cooling under ground into granite, then persisting while all the surface stone is worn away by glaciers and water.

When the glaciers recede, sometimes they leave rather large boulders in rather odd places. What once floated in a river of ice sinks in an ocean of air. So all those pebble like things you see in the foreground are actually rocks the size of living room furniture. Their technical name needs no explanantion.

This is yet another reason why Yosemite is awesome and Teddy Roosevelt was cool.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Consumptionfest '05: 6 of 7 ain't bad

Today we celebrate a most wholesome and American cultural experience: The Superbowl.

We'll congregate before the glowing machine, at the residence of the envied pack member owning the alpha television, which is larger and better than the televisions the rest of us own.

And we'll watch the American football championship game, which culminates in proud ethnocentrism as the winner is crowned "world champion".

And we will enthusiastically critique never before seen commercials from companies that love us enough to vie for our laughter tonight, our dollars tomorrow and our favor at the water cooler on Monday. And we will want the things we do not have.

And each of us will eat thousands of calories of American things like pizza and beer and wings and sandwiches and potato chips and salsa and guacamole and Doritos and Coke and Pepsi. We will eat these things because they are scientifically designed to be yummy.

And we will sit on our asses, and exert only the effort required to waddle to the john or stagger to the fridge. We will travel short distances in big cars.

And there will be a pre-game show. And they will tell us stories of the players and the teams and their struggles and humanity so that we care, deeply, about which group of millionaires wins. We will chose a side, and we will love our side, and we will hate the other side. And we will be elated when our team does well, and angered and sad when the hated enemy defeats us.

But there will be no tits at the Superbowl. Tits, you see, are evil. There will be no performers flaunting tits, nor commercials poking fun at tit flaunting. The Superbowl is wholesome.

So while our wholesome tradition has room for Sloth and Gluttony, Pride, Anger, Avarice and Envy, Lust would just put it over the top.

So eat your Doritos, sit on your ass, covet your friend's surround sound, forget there are other countries, hate the opposition and learn what to buy next. Just be careful not to think about boobs, or our glorious culture might go to hell in a handbasket.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Filling up on sound bites: Satisfyingly unhealthy

Republicans: (Sung to unfrozen cave man lawyer theme music)

First they were a dictatorship
Now they are a democracy
Invading Iraq was okay!

Democrats:(Also sung to unfrozen cave man lawyer theme music)

First they had elections
Now they are a democracy
Bring all the troops home now!

Simple American: What do you think of that, Napoleon Dynamite?

Napoleon Dynamite: Ugh! Freakin' IDIOTS!

Simple American: Do you care to elaborate?

Napoleon Dynamite: Iraq's not a democracy. They don't have any skills

Simple American: What kind of skills, Napoleon? Numchucks skills? Bo staff skills?

Napoleon Dynamite: No, Idiot. Democracy skills.

Simple American: What are democracy skills?

Napoleon Dynamite: You know, democracy skills:
Having a working constitution skills,
Not assassinating people you disagree with skills,
Not blowing up police stations skills,
Tolerance of ethnic and religious diversity skills,
Rule by law and not force skills,
Not starting an ethnic war when someone's buffalo gets in your garden skills,
Having a peaceful transition of power without starting a civil war skills.

You know. Skills.

Simple American: I'm kind of in a hurry. I saw pictures of Iraqis voting on TV. So I'm just going to consider Iraq a democracy, ok?

Napoleon Dynamite: Idiots

Why it costs $$$$ to live in California

Clouds in the sky: 0

Temperature: 62F (17C)

Sunroof: Open

Windows in my Apartment: Open

And yesterday it was still January.