Archive for the ‘Rants’ Category

Not everything ends.

July 27, 2010

Not everything will die.

Pi, for example.  Pi will never cease to be.  It existed, as a cosmic truth of mathematics, before anyone thought to derive it or calculate it or measure it.  It will still exist after all life has evaporated from the Earth and the universe has cooled into a silent, homogenous void punctuated at unbelievably great intervals by solitary atoms of helium.

And pi is more than immortal.  It is infinite.  Its digits stretch on and out forever, in no particular pattern, never looping, always changing.  Because of these properties, pi can be shown to contain any sequence of digits imaginable, no matter how long.  Pi contains your phone number.  It contains your birthday.  It contains your name and the name of your first crush, translated into their ASCII numerical equivalents and concatenated, side by side, as if they were meant to be there.  But of course, they were not meant to be there, just as you were not meant to be here.  They, like you, are the product of chaos.

Pi contains the complete works of William Shakespeare.  It contains the exact same information that is stored on your computer’s hard drive at this moment.  If you dumped the digits of pi into an infinitely long WAV file and played it back, every song in the world would eventually emerge.  It contains your genome, and the genome of everyone else on earth.  It contains the genomes of everyone who has ever died.  It contains the genomes of people who will never be born.

Of course, most of this information lies out in the extreme far reaches of the digits of pi, at a decimal depth so great that not even the most powerful computers could calculate it in the lifetime of the universe.  Because pi, unlike the universe, is infinite.  The universe has a finite amount of matter and energy, but pi goes on.  The digits of pi contain more information than the entire universe.

Because of this, pi contains not only this universe, but all possible universes.  Anything you can imagine has already been dreamt of by pi.  The universe where you can play guitar.  The universe where you can fly.  The universe where there is justice.  The universe where you said No.  The universe where you said Yes.

So start memorizing digits.  Somewhere out there in the zillionth decimal place is the information that represents you.  You as you are right now.  You as you could only hope to be.  You, memorizing the digits of pi, on and on into oblivion, for who knows how long.  Far beyond the digits you know is the information that could tell you when you will stop.

The God Delusion Debate

May 12, 2010

I promise I’m working on a comic, but right now I’m totally engrossed by this:

http://www.fixed-point.org/index.php/video/35-full-length/164-the-dawkins-lennox-debate;

Clearly, neither side had as much time as they would have liked, even though the debate was over an hour and a half.  If you have an opinion, you can comment below.

Facebook Has Made Changes

April 30, 2010

(Cross-posted from my Facebook notes. If you read it there don’t bother with this one. IT’S THE SAME THING, OKAY)

Facebook has made changes.

And, like the stimulus-response automaton I am, I write a note about it.

I’m not actually that peeved about the changes. I value my privacy little to not at all, mostly because I haven’t posted anything that I really care about keeping private. But I don’t see myself using Facebook’s “like” button on every corner of the interwebs, or their new “community” pages. And this realization prompted me to ask myself: what is it that I actually do use Facebook for? And might those activities be better served by something else?

When I think about it, I’m the sort of Facebook user who’s probably really unprofitable. My posts range from irrelevant to arcane — not really the stuff data miners are after. I import half my updates from Twitter, and I access Twitter from an external client, so I am basically seeing no ads at all. I stayed away from the dumb “social” applications that got so many people hooked on Facebook. I liked to keep my personal information, well, personalized. For instance, I cannibalized the “TV shows” field and used it to list my favorite webcomics instead.

And because of all this, and because Facebook is not profiting from me and other users like me, who don’t use their system the way they intend, they are of course not too keen on updating the site in ways that cater to us. Future updates to the site will likely be in the direction of funneling users’ information into a clean, ready-to-sell format–and that means less privacy, and less freedom to customize how you present yourself on Facebook and interact with others.

If there were no alternatives, I could see Facebook being the host to a horde of aggravated users, frustrated with the system but unable to break their addiction. But it turns out, there ARE alternatives, and I don’t need the overhead of the Facebook platform to actually do the things that I use Facebook for.

I use Facebook for three things. Maybe four.
1. I post status updates.
2. I comment on other people’s posts.
3. I post links that I find, and videos, and other such things.
4. Occasionally, I will stalk my friends’ musical preferences or look for their phone number if I need to call them.

And I could accomplish the first three with Twitter, or Buzz. Both of which I am already using.

So despite my basically neutral emotional response to the updates, my cerebral response is:

It’s not going to work out, Facebook.

Yes, I know I stuck with you even though we disagreed about your serial makeovers. But those were largely cosmetic changes, and you even gained some new features that I liked. Threaded comments on every post? Fantastic. But those were the days before Buzz, before there were a million Twitter clients to choose from that had basically every feature imaginable.

Facebook, I’m leaving you.

Again.

Just as soon as I can find someone else who also knows all my friends.

UPDATE: Facebook and I are no longer a thing, really. We still hang out sometimes. If you want to contact me, the best way is via email.

Biodegradable Blog, Part 0

March 22, 2010

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but I have a sneaking suspicion that all these biodegradable corn-plastic foodware items are a scam.  I don’t necessarily think the claims they make are false — I think, given the right conditions, bioplastics will eventually return to the soil.  But replacing recyclable plastics with biodegradable ones is pernicious because most people won’t give these things the conditions they need to decompose effectively.  Throwing something in the landfill is not the same as composting it, and I’m afraid that’s where the large majority of bioplastic products will end up — in landfills, where entombed newspapers are still readable after 30 years.

Biodegradable plastic cup from Ecoproducts

If you were a worm, would you eat this?

Also, looking at this supposedly biodegradable cup, I’m bewildered as to what organism could break it down.  I certainly can’t eat it.  I could potentially eat paper, or leaves (not that I’d derive any nutritional value from them).  I could eat most of the stuff that goes into compost.  But not this.

So, in order to investigate what really happens when bioplastics get thrown away, I’m keeping one of these cups under semioptimal decomposition conditions – in a shallow grave in my backyard, where it will get exposure to moisture, oxygen, and all sorts of organisms.  We will see how long it takes.

Religion Hijacks the Crush Module

January 10, 2010

JesusOr maybe crushes hijack the religion module.  It all depends on which you view as more essential to the human mind.  But in either case, they use the same brain functions.  For example, one of the main features of both religion and crushes is a desire for approval – from a person in one case, and from God in the other. Often, people are inspired to do good deeds to secure said approval, and continue to make efforts to impress even when their labors are met with apparent indifference. Elaborate fantasy conversations are central to both religion and primary-stage affection, and may reflect a desire for telepathic communion or simple proximity. We tend to cling to any utterance that the object of our admiration lets drop, seeing great significance where perhaps none was intended. Cognitive dissonance reduction plays a major role, too, since it allows us to see what we want to see and makes less pleasant details easy to ignore.

So religious belief and crushes use a lot of the same thought processes and patterns. What’s the point? Really, I’m drawing this parallel because I just thought of it and want to know what other people think about it. It’s also partly for the benefit of the subset of atheists who see religion as a blind rejection of reality in favor of fantasy.

Which it very well may be. But my point is: atheists do it too. No one is perfectly realistic and logical; our irrational quirks are often the most dear to us, and trying to argue anyone out of their irrationality is likely to make them defensive. Because – let’s face it – it’s the subjective, personal, unprovable things in life that keep us getting up in the morning. Perfectly rational people just know that eventually everyone will be dead.

I’m not trying to trivialize religion, or say that atheists are hypocrites. I’m just saying… we all use the religion/crush module of our brains. We should embrace it, whichever purpose we use it for. It makes life good.

Prop 8 and Left-Handed People

December 26, 2009

Perry v. Schwarzenegger is going to hit the federal courts soon, which could either mean the overturn of Prop 8, or another crushing failure. So I thought I’d talk a bit about… left-handed people.

Don’t laugh. I am dead serious here. Left-handed people are being discriminated against. The society we inhabit has hundreds of features designed with the right-hander in mind, features that prove suboptimal for left-handers. We write English from left to right, forcing lefties to drag their hands through wet ink or twist the page around. Those silly flip-up desks that they give you in college lecture halls only really work for right-handed people. Right-handers will probably never know the frustration of having to wield scissors or sharpen a pencil with their nondominant hands. We drive on the right, in part because we want the stickshift to be by the driver’s right hand, in part because historically the coachman held the whip in his right hand. It’s difficult to find lefty computer mice, and the left click is the primary interface method because the left mouse button sits beneath a right-handed user’s index finger. All books except manga are designed for right-handed people.

Now of course, discrimination against gays is much more serious, and oftentimes more intentional, than discrimination against lefties. But it hasn’t always been this way. In the middle ages, and even more recently, left-handedness was considered diabolical, and left-handed children are still sometimes encouraged by parents to be more right-handed, for religious, cultural, or practical reasons.

There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between handedness and sexual orientation. Scientists aren’t sure what causes handedness – there are probably genetic factors, because people seem so strongly to prefer one hand over the other, but genetic factors are probably not the whole picture. Handedness may also be affected by conditions in the womb. Or maybe some babies are born ambidextrous but learn to be right-handed by living in a strongly right-biased society.

Handedness, like sexuality, is a spectrum. Some people are hopeless at doing tasks with their nondominant hand, while others are pretty coordinated. Some people are totally ambidextrous. You can find people anywhere on the handedness spectrum from left to right. But lefties are in the minority, making up about 10% of the population.

Now here’s the parallel I want to draw with the Prop 8 battle. If there were a campaign to ban the sale of left-handed scissors and desks, no one would take it seriously and it would be shot down in a moment. What arguments could be made for such a ridiculous law? “Lefties live in a right-handed society and they should conform or get out.” “Handedness isn’t inborn, it’s a choice.” “Using your left hand is sinful.” These all sound insane. The first argument, for conformity, shouldn’t ever be made in a society that claims to protect individuality and personal freedom. As for the second – who would ever choose to be left-handed in a world that is so strongly right-biased? The third is obviously based on superstition and couldn’t be taken seriously by anyone with half a functioning brain.

And yet, these are exactly the types of arguments that are made in favor of Prop 8 and the ban on gay marriage. The most common argument for Prop 8 – the argument for the equality of a restricted definition of marriage – basically goes: “everyone has an equal right to use right-handed scissors if they so choose. We don’t need lefty scissors.”

I hope everyone can see how ridiculous this is.

And to those who say that gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed because homosexuality is a choice (the only other argument that is even worth countering) – I’m not even going to get into how ignorant and condescending it is to make this argument. Other people have already pointed this out. My counterargument is:

So what?

Plenty of other things are choices. The choice to state your political affiliation and vote however you choose. The choice to watch whatever TV you choose to watch, or not watch TV at all. The choice to like noise music, or 90s rap, even though nobody likes those things. Nobody gets upset about these choices, and guess why?

They’re not in the Bible, that’s why. And they don’t have much to do with sex. And the debate over gay marriage is not about choice, or what the right to get married actually means. It’s about religion, and sex, and prejudice.

I’m not saying you don’t have a right to your opinion. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion. But I am sick of gay marriage opponents pretending they have logic on their side, and throwing up barricades and straw men and doublespeak and false logic that I can break with my little finger. If you don’t like gay marriage, just stand up and shout “I am a bigot, and I have no regard for science or logic or any morality that isn’t in my holy book.” It’s time to come out of the closet.

And if you’re ashamed to come out as a bigot, maybe you should rethink your views.

ADDENDUM:

I realized I didn’t address the argument that marriage is a religious institution with millenia of tradition behind it, and the government can’t just step in and change what marriage means. Many, many other people have countered this argument, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll do it again:

First of all, marriage in the U.S. is not just a religious institution. Like it or not, the government has adopted the term “marriage” and used it to confer benefits on married couples. Among the most frequently cited of these rights are custody of children if one spouse dies, and hospital visitation rights. If the government granted all these rights to couples in civil unions, and reserved the term “marriage” for religiously-recognized unions, I probably wouldn’t even have written this post. But the fact is, the government does recognize both “marriage” and “civil union” – and the terms are distinct because the benefits of each are different. I’m in favor of letting religion have its way with semantics if it wants–I’d like it if the government threw out the term “marriage” entirely and only recognized civil unions. But alas, that doesn’t seem to be the way things are headed.

Second: it’s not like the definition of “marriage” is constant and unchangeable. You may say that you favor a “traditional” definition, but how traditional are we talking about here? Should we go back to the days when interracial marriages were prohibited? Or to a truly Biblical definition of marriage, where fathers basically sold off their daughters to interested young men? I don’t think very many people support these definitions of marriage anymore, so you can’t argue that the current definition of marriage has centuries of tradition behind it. It doesn’t.

And I’m not even sure that tradition is valuable in our rapidly-changing modern society. The idea of geocentrism, or the alchemical theory that illnesses were caused by imbalances in the four bodily humors–those ideas really did have centuries of tradition behind them. The scientific method itself is founded on the idea that a theory that has proven satisfactory for thousands of years can be overturned in an instant if a situation is found in which it doesn’t apply. If people valued tradition over evidence, we’d still be dying of dysentery, burning witches, and thinking that night air could kill us, among other things.

Science Thursday

September 10, 2009
You are running along the top of a train travelling at lightspeed.  Relative to the track, how fast are you going?

Is your mind sufficiently blown?

Answer: You are going at 0 m/s, because the air resistance has long since burned the flesh from your bones.  But seriously, if anyone with more knowledge of relativity can answer this question, I’d love to hear about it!

Hypothesis: the length of the train appears to be zero from the point of view of an observer on the ground, so you are still traveling at lightspeed relative to the track.

Or, how about this: relativistic time dilation means you don’t perceive time at all if you’re moving at the speed of light, so you actually can’t move relative to the train because you have no time to move in!

Man, I should really learn some actual science about relativity before attempting posts like this.

Some Zen Wisdom

September 5, 2009

Soyen Shaku has this advice, which I think ranges from good to revelatory:

  1. Upon awakening, quit your bed at once, like discarding a useless pair of shoes.
  2. In the morning, before dressing, light incense and meditate.
  3. Eat at regular intervals and only to the point of satisfying hunger.
  4. Retire at a regular hour.
  5. Receive a guest as when you are alone. Be alone as if you had received a guest.
  6. Be aware of what you say. Say only what you would do.
  7. Do not forego opportunity, nevertheless, think twice.
  8. Do not regret the past but look instead to the future.
  9. Have the fearless heart of a hero and the loving heart of a child.
  10. When you retire to sleep do so as if it is your last night.

(Soyen Shaku, The Zen Housewife)

My favorite is the one about receiving guests. To be mindful and considerate but true to yourself – that is pretty awesome, guys. The last one reminds me a bit of this comic though. I tend to agree with T-Rex on this one. Any advice that says “exist as if you were about to die” seems weird to me. I don’t know much about Zen Buddhism, but maybe it means that you should go to bed with good karma, so if you happen to die you don’t come back as a poo bug.

Okay I think I have linked to Dinosaur Comics enough for one day.

Ftarrh

August 14, 2009
Bartholemew: "Attention, everyone! I have invented a word.  The word is "ftarrh". It means the part of a duck that is under the water"  Hal: "That's ridiculous!  How could you even use it?" [[Diagram showing duck floating on water, observer below the water, critical angle shown]]  Problem 11.4: You are swimming 1 meter below the surface of a lake.  A duck is floating on the surface, a distance x from the point directly above you.  Given that nH20 is 1.33 and nAir = 1, what is the minimum x for which you can only see the duck's ftarrh?  Bartholemew: "It is plausible!"

Okay, everyone. Start using this in context now. Okay?

YAY my physics (light and heat) final is over. If you don’t understand the physics problem in this comic, it’s about the critical angle of refraction between two substances. Basically the idea is that light bends when it transitions from moving through air to moving through water, and there’s some angle at which it bends enough that it doesn’t actually reach your eye. When that happens, you can only see the ftarrh.

You can try this with a coin and a glass of water. Set the glass on top of the coin, and you should be able to see the coin through the side of the glass. Then fill the glass with water, and suddenly the coin vanishes. woooo science

Global Warming: Uh-oh.

August 14, 2009

I just had a terrifying thought.

We’ve been assuming all along that global warming is due to CO2 emissions, since CO2 levels correlate with global temperatures. And it’s probably true that yes, CO2 in the atmosphere does create a greenhouse effect. But the assumption is that by fixing our methods of energy production, changing them to less carbon-intensive sources, we can halt global warming. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.

The fact is, whether the energy you capture is from oil, the wind, the water, or the sun, energy production is really energy conversion – you’re taking chemical, electromagnetic, or mechanical energy and converting it into useful work. But no matter what purpose you turn it to, that energy always ends up as heat. It seems that energy use would always heat up the planet, regardless of how “green” the source is. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to limit CO2 emissions, since they are certainly responsible for some of the global warming crisis, and since producing and burning fossil fuels has other negative impacts as well. But if a green-energy revolution enabled us to cheaply provide clean power to everyone on Earth, I think we’d quickly realize that sustainable production does not imply sustainable consumption.

The good news is that even if this does happen, if we manage to avert a CO2 crisis first, global temperatures won’t continue rising out of control. They’ll simply be a bit higher until people decide to stop running their air conditioners.