Monday, August 29, 2005

Time and Its Uses

It's too broad a subject to describe in a simple blog entry, but I've been observing usage patterns, which is to say, the way mankind makes use of resources on this planet. It's not an obsession yet, but it certainly is more interesting than cable TV. Cable is not without its uses- there's always something interesting on A&E, the Discovery Channel, or PBS. The biographies and documentaries of inventors and their achievements hold a particular fascination for me, not simply for the inventions but also from a forensic perspective. In many cases, the inventions were an improvement on existing methods or traditions, but some others were created before a known application had been identified.

Many successful ideas have been pursued in a relatively benign environment of ignorance, meaning that the inventors were operating with relatively few bureaucratic restraints. Like every other ingredient, the ignorance of unintended side-effects (such as toxicity, life span effects, environmental impact) is in shorter supply, but not before ideas had reached their ascendancy. Freon is a good example; a substance which does a multitude of tasks extremely well, but with one tiny LEETLE drawback, namely, that it scavenges ozone from the atmosphere, and as a result, allows hazardous levels of ulraviolet radiation to impinge directly on the Earths surface. Petroleum as a fuel and chemical feedstock is another great idea, but with some fairly long technical shadows. These two examples were developed and exploited at points in time when the biggest open question was, "How many different ways can we use the product?", but an equally large question went relatively unasked, "What will the use of this substance do to us, in the future, on this our only planet?"

We've had a really bad record, as affected citizens, of taking a retrospective view of what impacts our miraculous inventions have had overall. Certainly, successful inventions have addressed the issue for which they were first developed, but time gives us a track record of incidental effects which may be ignored at our peril. Freon is now outlawed for most (if not all) uses, since its nasty aftereffect was identified. Petroleum is still finding new uses and markets, though again, the long-term numbers don't really add up. For reasons that make sense only to my darker imagination, we have not begun a national operation on the scale of World War II's Manhattan Project, to cross all petroleum distillates off the list of commonly-used fuels. Unless somebody's hiding a few continents' worth of underground decaying dinosaurs, we don't have the luxury of standing around while what's left in proven reserves gets used up. If you believe that China and India have suddenly conjured up domestic demands exceeding the total production of available oil, and will be content to pay over $60/barrel for it indefinitely (presumably, in hard currency- wonder how much of that is floating around in their collective treasuries?), then there's nothing in the supply and demand equation to drive the price down.

It may be a point of pride to Americans, who shrug off paying $80 - $100 a tankful for gasoline, but my guess is, many are wincing as they hand over the credit card. At home, they ought to be sitting down, before opening their heating bill.

I didn't initially plan to go postal on world oil prices. I've been thinking that we're already recovering oil from previously unprofitable sources, which are now viable thanks to the market prices for crude oil. When or if the prices drop significantly, these sources will be turned off again. We really need to start thinking about the eternal costs to produce goods and services, as long as we're stuck in this rut of using non-renewable energy sources. While we're enjoying the spectacle, it's time to think of a replacement for profligacy, as a new lifestyle.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A Minute From Our Busy Days

I have the dubious luxury of having minutes to spare in my "busy" schedule, so by a trick of the light, I'll slip into my penny loafers, put on my Cardigan, and make the professorial assumption that anyone reading this entry has as many discretionary minutes as I care to claim, for purposes which I'll explain shortly. Technically, it pains me to have to say so, but we as people are getting a lot of complete answers, a number of wrong answers, and a few completely wrong answers. Could it be that we're simply victims of incorrect training in the fine art of critical evaluation? Are we not asking the right questions? Are we not asking any questions? I keep hearing about the necessity for continuous, lifelong education and certification, but somewhat less about the refinement of our ability to assess reality, to filter out the irrelevant, and to refine our decision-making faculties. Time to go back to school? What if we restructured all of lifes exams thusly:

All questions take a single common form, a combination of multiple choice AND essay AND either true or false. The same question and answer format will be applied to all examinations, whether the subject be mathematics, science, literature, philosophy, history, or any other field of study.

Extra credit is given for understanding where the question lies. Extra-extra credit is given for suggesting workable solutions to problems which do not engender nor create newer, greater problems as a side-effect.

All exams will be open book and open notes. Calculators and laptop computers are permitted, as are crib sheets, notes written on body parts in tiny letters, or any other artifice that the examinee feels will improve her|his odds of a correct answer. Should any of the aforementioned be found in the test hall, all examinees will receive a point deduction from overall examination results, regardless of whether the aids were actually used during the test.

Tests will be unscheduled, and will be time-limited to the remainder of the time scheduled for the class in session. At the end of the exam, examinees will sign their name and submit the completed test to the examiner. To prevent complacency, examinees may receive examinations on any subject, not restricted to the course syllabus of the class being taken at the time of examination.

Addendum: Upon completion of the exam, initial examinees will take a second examimation, consisting of a set of answers for which the examinees must correctly identify what question is being addressed. Note that the answers are unrelated to the preceding examination (in other words, they are not answers to the initial exam questions) and, owing to time constraints, may be given at a date/time subsequent to the initial examination. In all other respects, the rules and processing are the same as in the initial examination.

To prevent outright plagiarism and foster the spirit of collaborative reasoning, the collected examinations will be redistributed to other examinees at a subsequent time for revision and completion. This is a normal phase of the examination process, and will be governed by the same scheduling rules as previously mentioned.

To prevent favoritism, the examinations will be critically analysed by yet another set of randomly selected examinees. To prevent intellectual bias, these examinees will be drawn from the general pool of all examinees - past, present, and future - regardless of social standing, religion, race, understanding of the issue in question, or other folderol.

Exam questions will be composed to cripple, rather than kill the examinees. The cumulative exam results will be etched on each examinees forehead, regardless of who initially took the examination or how the results turned out.

Nota Bene: This carefully crafted set of criteria is the direct result of current, state-of-the-art reasoning techniques (meaning: I thought it up as fast as I can type, and applied no logical tests, sanity checks, or proof-of-concept assessments before issuing it as a decree. And no, I'm not running for office.)

All jocularity aside, I imagine that a few of you may be thinking, "Poor Grumble, the mercury level must have gotten worse in his pond..." Not so fast! For those of you with conventional binocular vision, try leaving my list of criteria up on the screen, then turn on whatever news/prevaricative infotainment source you like, and see how many of these little guidelines actually apply to what you hear (and/or see) in the broadcast. Look hazy? Try focusing in on something near and dear to your heart. Did you vote for our duly elected representatives? Does any part of what they're deliberating have anything to do with basic governance issues, or are they merely goring your favorite ox, and letting the rest slide? What about Creationism versus Evolution? Is this another attempt at mixing oil and water, and passing it off as Dom Perignon? The Budget deficit? Social Security (or, if you want to widen the scope, retirement in general)? Constitutional rights? Hey, don't be too hard on these guys, if they get things a little mixed up. We elected 'em, didn't we? Why should their standards be different from ours, when it comes to getting correct answers? Aren't we posing the questions correctly? What about grading the answers? Thank God that we don't have to apply these standards concurrently to real world problems.

Friday, August 19, 2005

More Stuff That's Useful To Not Obsess About

Well, I got three of the zombie boxes back to life, including an ancient Pentium MMX box with a pre-PCI mezzanine backplane, which is cool, because I still have loads of old AT-style add-on boards and driver software. The other two chasses are headed for the boneyard, along with a full complement of "shot in the ass" hardware. I also bumped up the patch sets on my UNIX and Linux machines. I know, this doesn't sound like much of an achievement, but there's a pretty significant physical degree of difficulty involved. What you don't see is that my cave is packed anatomically tight with esoterica, flotsam, cats, computers, books, papers and miscellaneous gadgets, which makes any such attempts at enthalpic behaviour sort of like trying jazzercise inside a Chinese wood block puzzle. Curiously, I didn't get the rush that I once did from these little technical adventures. I attribute this change in sentiment to the knowledge that the scrapyard dogs are sleeping, and have been for some time. They're lying in the shade of enormous heaps of what was possible, indifferent to the arrival of new deliveries, or the departure of ancient shipments. Airborne excimer lasers? Smith charts? Pockels Cell driver circuitry? Pulsed Hydrogen Thyratrons? Ho hum... Electromagnetic signal processing? Traveling Wave Tube Amplifiers? Magnetrons? Get real... High Vacuum Coaters? RF Plasma sources? Electron Beam evaporation? Reactive Ion etching? Please! That's so last month!

This sounds like the beginning of one of those good, old-fashioned pity parties, but the truth is, things are going pretty much the way that nature intended. Generations come and go, but for many working engineers and scientists, long stretches of their careers are spent polishing some minor variant of existing technologies. Who cares, as long as the check clears? I feel extremely lucky to have surfed down the cutting edge of some technologies, and waded blissfully in some older ones. It makes me sad to think that whole generations of newbies will never really know what it is to find a long-forgotten friend, hiding somewhere in a dusty old journal that hasn't been read in 30 years, written in some obscure combination of mathematics and a foreign language by authors whose names come out like mouthsful of broken glass. It's probably in the best interests of everyone if these voices remain stilled; generations to come will stumble across new problems that must have been solved before somehow, and arrive at new conclusions strikingly redolent of things past. I'm not grumbling. My kids are going in other directions, and the local library dutifully takes my donations and dumpsterizes them, after I've left the building, there being precious little shelfspace or demand for books about microstrip transmission line design or undersea electro-acoustics. I wonder whether, buried somewhere in Librarian curricula, there's a course which deals with literary euthanasia? It's not the same as it once was, for me. I may shed a silent tear or two, packing the ghosts up now, but it's not as hard as used it to be, like Sophie's Choice, asking myself to part with my treasures. I look ahead, and see a stretch of the trail which requires packing lightly, to make it between oases. I need the space for a whole new set of problems, which may have extant solutions or not, where I'm going.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Escape and Chill Tactics

This accursed heat and humidity has dulled my wits insufferably. I know it sounds like blasphemy coming from a fish, but going around wearing one's juices like a cheap suit has its limits. It must be impossible for you poor surface-dwellers, staggering around with your cell phones, PDAs, and an imagination as dry as a gulch about seeking respite. Anyone that I've ever spoken with will tell you that I'm the least assertive (but most didactic) creature they know, but I feel as though you people may run amuck from the heat, barring some form of relief, which is generally a bad thing for all creatures. It eludes me why none of the major breweries nor distilleries have siezed on such a contest for marketing purposes, but your salvation lies in the past - roughly 63 years in the past. What you need is a national ice art renaissance. Mind you, I'm not advocating a wholesale debate about "Shaken versus stirred, one olive or two?" In fact, I'm not even talking about potable forms of frozen water. But why not consider the deploying a flotilla of vessels (personal or family-sized, if scale is important) made of Pykrete, which is a form of ice containing roughly 14% wood pulp. This slight digression of recipes confers a few important mechanical properties to Pykrete that one doesn't enjoy with conventional ice cubes - the most relevant being a quantum leap in durability (read: it won't melt before you've finished carving it) and toughness (I don't advocate testing this with live ammo, but the stuff is substantially bullet-proof to small caliber weapons fire), plus its ease of workability.

Take a moment or two to lose those smirks, I'm trying to be serious myself here. Moreover, your countries may have many more privileged ninnies casting about for tasks, than there are tasks to go around. You want Junior to sit there, posting to his buddies on alt.goths.nuke.the.moon, or some equally dubious affiliation? Of course not! You need something wholesome and useful to occupy his imagination and waking hours, to replace his waning interest in mowing the lawn. You say the heat's made your wife delirious, and she's been fantasizing about being the second coming of Nefartiti, princess of the Nile, but the market for suitable barges is tight where you live? And your daughter's making no bones about being...

~*~~*~~*~~*~~*~ ~~\~~\~|~/~~/~~ ~~~\~~...~~/~~~ ~~*-. HOT .-*~~ ~~***********~~?

My heart bleeds for you poor terrestials. What? Your crowded schedule won't allow you to fool around, trying to whip up 100 tons of Pykrete yourself? Relief is on its way, but you'll have to act fast. Just toss a few chainsaws, some picks and ice hammers into the back of the ol' Winnebago (don't forget to tow the Hummer along, for emergencies), then get the family packed for a trip to Labrador . You won't have to wait long, once you get there. Just hang around, while the ice pack disintegrates into conveniently-sized pieces. Make sure you have everything you need, as these pieces are just garden-variety ice, not Pykrete; you'll have to work fast to complete your dream boat, sculpture, or whathaveyou, which will melt away as it drifts toward the equator. This is your chance to do something really grand, so knock yourselves out. A lifesized replica of Mount Rushmore? Sure, that sounds doable. The Washington Monument in repose? Swell! Why hasn't that been done before? How about a 5x mockup of the S.S. Titanic, to show those little icebergs (also melting) who's boss? How imaginative. Capture the moments with your Polarrhoids, as the moments melt into history.

For those with modest means or ambitions, consider something a little less formidable, but fun and useful. Get in touch with the icehouse that stocks your local convenience store, and get them to set you up with a few tons of Pykrete. Check the tire pressure on the Winnebago, then toss the 100kG blocks in the back and head down to the lake or ocean. Once you're there try something a bit less awesome - a small houseboat, or a mock up of the stage at La Scala, or your own Summer Ice Palace. Leave a little room for a gas generator, a water pump, and a heater, so you can make any necessary repairs- then push the whole shooting match into the water, and call in your friends and family for some fun in the sun.

We have the British Empire to thank for the miraculous discovery.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Good, Old-fashioned Power Grumble

I've got so many contraptions running off the mains here that I can practically trace the juice with a hand-held pyrometer. Miraculously, it holds up pretty well; the stuff that has to keep running, keeps running. But every now and then, the system gives a little twitch, a subcycle burp. That's all the warning one gets. I got one such eructation last night, while I was putting some servers together out of scrap parts (inherently a "heads down" process). I was beginning to wonder how long we'd be waiting for this to occur- a question of when, not if - and immediately brought the network down, and unhitched everything from the mains and ISP. These boxes are really supposed to be up 24x7, but I think it's a good idea to take 'em down periodically, and do a full-up reboot of the whole network, just to clean things up a bit.

It turned out to be a pretty good idea. No sooner had I unplugged the last box, when a resounding Boom! rattled the window panes of my humble cave. When I say "heads down", I mean that I really do lose track of the world outside. There's no better way to restore your connection with reality than a point blank lightning strike, and the instantaneous crash of thunder which follows immediately: If one event doesn't get your attention, the other surely will.

After a quick stop at the 'fridge for a cold beer, I went out to sit on the porch with the kids, and enjoy a better view of the celestial fireworks. Lightning's always come out ahead of man-made fireworks for sheer spectacle, at least, in my book. After a couple of straight days in the upper 90's, the clouds were grumbling amongst themselves with a vengeance, trying to pawn off large electrical charges from one to another until a path to ground presented itself. The rains came, and with their torrents, the clouds at last closed their circuits with the Earth below. The jagged plasma lashed out at everything and nothing - the Pin Oak in my neighbor's yard across the way sustained a strike, a main branch fluoresced for a moment, but did not come down. Several more violent blasts resonated in the street, as well as in the back yard. Quarrelsome clouds continued to billow, roll, and exchange fulgurous retorts among themselves, quieting briefly when one or another found land with its jagged lance. The argument seemed to last only a few minutes, but that was illusory: the cantankerous clouds continued to spar as they moved off to the east, with the rain reluctantly mediating. Trees, hills, eventually the river, all would be forced to observe the wrathful discourse, even though they were already busy being themselves. I like to grumble about heat and humidity as much as the next guy, but these clouds really are the last word, when it comes to grumbling.

I like the purgative effect that lightning has in its passing. The air seems cleaner (though with a touch more ozone than usual) and generally a bit cooler, if only for a short while. In this case, the effects were short-lived. I suspect that more rowdy clouds will take up cudgels in the yard again tonight. Think I'll leave the network down, maybe get some more beer. Who knows, maybe I'll luck out and find a fulgurite ?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Who's Got a Projector?

Despite all appearances, I'm not blind yet. I've been looking around over the past couple of days, searching the faces of men and women I'll never lay eyes on, looking for examples of that peculiar, up-and-over-the-shoulder glance (not at anything or for anyone, generally and specifically). I've seen the signs, and don't pretend that you don't know what I'm talking about: It's the glance which expects not to see a specific image, at a specific location. I've seen the glance occur under all kinds of conditions, at night and in broad daylight, thrown in much the same way by women and men, usually over either the left or right shoulder, in crowds or empty rooms. Oddly, I've never seen a kid try it, maybe because their senses will report whatever there is, even if it really is nothing. So, what I'm talking about is adults and the glance.

"Big Deal! Who gives a damn, one way or another, about this 'glance for nothing'? Isn't it already enough, just trying to focus on the things that we're looking for? "


For a time, we focus on perfecting the art of finding objects, solid, tangible, desirable objects. This begins before we fully understand the nature of objects, and persists beyond the point where more objects are necessary to us. Admittedly, this can be exciting, fun, challenging. To acquire cash, cars, castles, to attract the attractive, to gain dominion over our own pile of objects and exclaim, "Behold! I!", seems like a perfect crusade, an extension of the good in life. Even for the very best at search and acquisition, the understanding of objects always seems to lag the desire to acquire, but as the battle continues on the ascending slope, the objects each reveal a manifesto of their own: caveats, special handling requirements and threats which cannot be fully addressed or read, given other pressing matters. As if things weren't complicated enough, the glance offers yet another, new possibility to consider, just when ones hands are full.

For the rest of us (who could be slower getting out of the blocks on that whole search and acquire process), the glance may show up either sooner, later, or not at all. As with our more evolved searchmeisters, we probably just got bogged down along the way - maybe, in the starting blocks - while trying to figure out what the rules were, when or where the game ends, or whether we were even interested in participating. No matter, the key thing is, we all find ourselves out on the course somewhere. Note from grumble: I puzzled over the correct punctuation for that last sentence, which changes the inflection and meaning. I just left it "as is", because I liked a couple of possible meanings. Try a couple of different ones, and see if it really changes what I'm saying. Sorry for the digression! Coincidentally, that's around the time when the glance initially appears as an option. Poor or wealthy, the difference lies in the path taken, and the decisions made, not in the outcome. Up and coming, or down-and-out, you're not supposed to get more than you can handle, but the glance typically doesn't appear until you're pretty well loaded.

The glance itself makes sense, after awhile. I'm not really talking about the act of looking at or for something, or receiving a visual image of something that your eyes rest upon. It sets itself apart from the countless images we've deliberately sought- eying the shiny toy or trinket, the fast car or sequined dress (or, ratty and threadbare coat), the piles of crisp bank notes (or, your last crumpled bill), the excited freshness of a new lover;these aren't examples of the glance, merely possible scenery along the route. The glance, when at last it comes, is the missing piece of a puzzle hidden to us all, hidden to you, mute and incomplete. The finest artisan could not craft a counterfeit glance to reveal the completed vision; none are available on the market, and one size does not fit all. There is no universal prototype, no set of builders blueprints, even if you're feeling handy (Ironic, isn't it?: Your collaboration is needed to form the authentic glance.) Rich? Poor? You have two choices: Either wait for your glance to at last reveal the missing piece of your puzzle, or, you can try to skip the glance altogether, and see whether your life actually meant something (this is a bit euphemistic, since the revelation would presumably be delivered slightly too late). I've got a hell of crick in my neck, for all of the glances I've cast.

[ Background about "the glance", as I've dubbed it here:

A few days ago, Paul raised a question about recollections from our earliest memories on his blog "Off-Topic Week: Discovering My World", in which several of us recalled drive-in movie experiences. I remembered the small, brightly flickering cloud of colors which appeared right outside the projector hut (which immediately turned into a funnel of tinted light, aimed at the screen) which was fascinating, even though I knew nothing of physics at time. I'd written an entry about Einstein rings, and these two themes got commingled in my head: The sense of safety, trust, and community, that was once a regular component of life, and the idea that every instant of history could be replayed, if one could play back these Einstein rings at the correct time and place. For folks who already have more than they'll ever need, and for people who have little left to lose, the remaining meaningful gift would be lawn-chair seating at a cosmic drive-in, featuring a replay of the highlights of their lives, spliced to fit the time alloted. And, if by chance, either group thought about the effect that their decisions or mere existence has had on the world (then and now), that would be a bonus. The glance is merely a quick scan for a nearby projection booth, which could turn up anywhere. grumble]

Sunday, August 07, 2005

That was Now, This is Then

How wonderful it would be, to live a life free from regret or remorse. These are accepted as part and parcel of human existence, the compensation for recognition of life's joys and pleasures. If only we had the ability to retract our cruelties, cowardices, and acts of basic folly, armed now with wisdom we did not possess then. Ah well, life goes on, and we must make what we can of our past, warts and all.

To travel lightly, to respond to pain and pleasure with the lightest necessary touch, to see the light in our beloved's eyes, these all require a subtle, yet simple understanding of light. And, for those fortunate to live their entire lives with never a need of a more complex understanding, life can truly be a sweet thing. For the rest of us, light is a fleeting thing, to be enjoyed in those moments when we're not busy, grappling with our lives' shades of darkness. Obsessed as we are with its speed and evanescence, we devote little (possibly, too little) time to examining lights subtleties.

Why worry about light, if it must be killed to reveal the recollections of its innumerable glances? It all happens so quickly anyway, and then the light's gone. What's the point of envying lights capriciousness, its talent for going to those places we cannot go, faster than we can, as fast as it pleases, only to land weightlessly on what it discovers? You may as well ask a sleepy cat about its fascination with lights silent dialogue, its desire to sleep in the fickle light.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Fun Things to Do In Eternity

Maybe it's a bit different for you hominids up there, walking around on the ground, but here in the water, there's no such thing as too much anonymity. People need to be noticed, or they feel as though they don't exist; A fish that gets noticed, typically gets eaten. My advice? Don't try so hard, either way. It's all being recorded for posterity anyway. At any instant in time, every object that you can perceive is being bathed in electromagnetic radiation, spanning DC to Gamma rays, and the reflected images are bounced in every direction. The ones that go up, go out as an endless stream of photons, much like an endless film, traveling across the near-emptiness of space. Except, of course, that there are an infinite number of such films being recorded at all times, and radiating away at an infinite number of angles. And, though we tend to think of rays of light as being straight lines, they actually travel in a kind of bumpy circular path through space. Light's a funny thing, and even more stubborn than your average grumblefish- It doesn't give out, doesn't give up, and won't stay in one place for very long. The one problem with these cosmic home movies is that it can take forever for them to show up in the neighborhood, once released. Young Einstein (a Pisces, if that matters) had an intuition about their existence, a while ago, but decided to go a different way with Relativity.

Here's where the fun comes in: The next time you're at a party, and growing tired of playing strip Parchesi or the like, gather your friends together for some good, down-home fun. It's time to simulate Gravity Wells! I imagine that this could be equally enjoyable whether fully clothed or au natural, but thanks to old Heisenberg, I can't be certain.

To play, you'll need 4 or more participants, a gingham tablecloth or geometrically patterned flat bedsheet, and a variety of balls, in different sizes and weights (actually, you only need one small, round ball; the other items can be of any shape you like). Be reasonable in your selection. Next, pick 4 players of approximately the same height to take the four corners of the tablecloth/sheet (hereafter, the "field") and pull them such that the field is as taut and flat as possible, like a trampoline. The remaining players should place all of the balls or other objects randomly on the field, except the one small, round ball. Notice that, depending on the mass of individual objects on the field, and their proximity to nearby objects, each causes an indentation in the field. If one of the objects used was a bowling ball, the indentation may be deeper than the diameter of the bowling ball, and the other objects will roll or slide into the indentation, owing to its relatively huge mass and gravitational field, much like the way matter and light disappear below the event horizon of a black hole. Gently set the sheet down, remove an item of clothing, or pour yourselves a couple of cold ones. Massage those kinks out of out of your shoulders. The indentations caused by each object are an indication of its relative gravity, and the distortions of the geometric pattern on the field (assumed to be rectangles) show the effects of local gravitational fields on the overall gravity waves, at least, in one reference plane. As a bonus, you got to see the intense gravity of a black hole and its effect on other matter in the region of its event horizon. Feeling refreshed? Good! Now, have another sip, and (optionally) remove another bit of apparel: This time, pick objects that all weigh about the same, fairly lightweight and small, and set up the field again. Notice that the objects are less likely to move around, if they're evenly spaced, but they still cause indentations in the field right around the objects themselves. With the field configured and pulled tight, take the remaining ball to one of the corners and attempt to roll it to the diagonally opposite corner. Can you do it? Every time it gets close to one of the randomly spaced objects in the field, local distortions in the gravitational field cause the object and the ball to change their position and/or direction- much the way packets of photons in our "home movies" get shunted around in space by objects in their path. Repeat this as often as necessary, until everyone's nude, drunk, or you get the ball to the other corner.

It's harder than it looks: not many illustrative examples of Einstein Rings have been documented. And the ones that have been seen are somebody else' home movies, maybe, coming in from the edge of the universe. Think of an old Super-8 movie clip, being played through a projector in a smoky, dusty theater. The image is kind of seedy, and people are entering and leaving the theater, smoke and dust are dimming the image- not all of the images are that clear. Now imagine that image being distorted by moving the projector back, say, 4,000,000,000,... (you get the picture) miles, and for grins, throwing in a blizzard or hailstorm. Even though space looks pretty empty, it's surprising how many chance encounters with dust, planets, galaxies these little packets may make, over the millenia. Each of these collisions may redirect the packet somewhere else, in which case, you'll have to wait until at least the next showing, but at least you can watch the stars twinkle while you wait.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Listen, You Shouldn't Listen to Any of This

Okay, so playing Joni Mitchell after a day of surrender was a bad idea. A very, very bad idea. All this talk of cats this week, must finally have gotten its claws into me. People who aren't into felines fail to grasp that, despite their initial fierceness, a cats real art lies in the ability to surrender to luxury and sensation. The fight's for show, but the surrender is for go. Unless. If you violate their maximum stroke count, surrender or no, you're going to be shredded, so pay attention to details. A steady, thunderous purr means "Stop!", stop right now! I think we already talked about this elsewhere.

"...He don't let up the sorrow
He lies and he cheats
It takes a heart like Mary's these days
When your man gets weak"

"Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" by Joni Mitchell

As a man I see the catlike response in women, and a doglike response in men. Finish the picture for yourselves. "Am I a fallen woman?" or "What kind of man behaves this way?" are pretty much rhetorical questions. Warning: The view looks radically different, depending on who's skin your standing in, whether you're asking the questions, or supplying the judgements. The aggrieved are often offered pain in this situation, but just as often, it's misplaced pain. It's still misplaced, and if you aren't in the middle of it yourself, then you are an infant, with loaded diapers and issues.

Our quadruped pals have their sensory hardware rigged up for side-to-side pleasure perception, whereas we're set up front-to-back. What may seem like casual caresses to you, sitting in your easy chair, stroking Delilah or Seamus absently, may cause steam vents on their little volcanoes to pop and fizzle, may earn your leg a good old-fashioned humping. In the wild, I'd guess that any such sensory torments are infrequent, and carry a very specific meaning, but in a domesticated relationship, they're an acknowledged perk, or a perk of acknowledgement. I suspect that people, over millenia of sociological jury-rigging, have managed to mask or suppress any human equivalents, but not to kill them outright. And if they're not dead, then what does their dormancy mean? Should we even think about them, or devote any attention to their demands? I say "yes", they're real, and ignoring them only leads to otherwise inexplicable modern illnesses. On the other hand, addressing them in the context of our modern society is a delicate thing, masking some occasionally brutal realities. Brushing them aside now means selecting the second- and third-most impalatable dishes from an embossed bill of real ugly fare, later. But, as long as we insist that everything's hunky dory, we'll just have to keep a close watch on our stroke counts, and offer any leftovers to folks who obviously need a few more.

"...Compelled by prescribed standards
Or some ideals we fight
For wrong, wrong or right
Threatened by all things

Man of cruelty, mark of Cain
Drawn to all things
Man of delight, born again, born again..."

"Shadows and Light" by Joni Mitchell

[Sigh] I can see this needs elaboration.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

There are Limits, You Know

Hour after hour, one border collie after another takes its turn at corraling little packets of renegade sheep into a larger, docile herd. If you understand what floats a border collies boat, I tilt my glass to you, and this peculiar art form already has some rhyme or reason. I make no such claim, and view BC's as yet another unacknowledged form of coitus interruptus , or if that's too bold, anythingus interruptus. Don't misunderstand me, I think they're fine dogs, energetic, smart, handsome, and loyal. In fact, they're no problem at all, if they happen to be your border collie. God knows, the sheep respect their abilities to keep one on the straight and narrow. If, on the other hand, you are not a sheep, and the border collie is not yours, then it's possible to experience some... operational difficulties, shall we say?

The real issue is that outsiders tend to rush into situations, without first taking the time to get a sense of the ground rules and protocols in play. You see, the sheep think that the border collie is a sawed off, hyperactive version of beasts that like to bite large pieces from sheep. The border collie has managed to suppress any such instincts, but knows that its joys in life will invariably come from rounding up things - sheep, little kids, ducks, even other border collies - and keeping them in manageable formations. Nice... squared away. I applaud this feature of a BC's character. But they're also into protecting the deliverables, and will make a job of fending off all aggressors, real or imagined. This is an occasionally annoying quality, but the real story is the first quality, or more exactly, the underlying dynamic between BC and the herd.

Sheep will bolt in terror for any reason, or no reason at all. It takes practically nothing to send them scurrying, if it triggers sheep logic and might be a threat. The border collie has a deep dislike for any such entropic behaviour, and will move heaven and earth to restore order and calmness. Sounds like a match made in heaven, doesn't it? Better put the matches away.

People are forever holding up others against a template, a checklist of known or knowable traits; sizing them up, eying their physical attributes, cataloging their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses. Where these are not always out in the open, we sometimes play a modified form of "Chicken", to try and draw out hidden tolerances. Border collies and sheep have already negotiated this part of the course, but people go through this de novo, as if nobody ever thought of this concept. Humans and sheep are just looking for entities called the LEL (Lower Explosive Limit") and the UEL (Upper Explosive Limit), terms borrowed from the materials safety community, though the fundamental regions of interest are reversed. Essentially, combustible substances like benzene or gasoline are capable or exploding, while the ratio of combustible material to air, or more precisely, Oxygen, remains between the LEL and UEL for the gas or vapor in question. Too much fuel, and there's not enough Oxygen to support an explosion: Not enough fuel, and the explosion sputters to a halt before it really gets going. Between these limits, the substance in question makes a useable fuel, when combined with Oxygen and some ignition source.

People and sheep calibrate their comfort levels in relationships to be somewhere between the extremes of their partners, even though the limits may not be very well known in advance. Sheep seem to be content in knowing roughly where the limits lie. Whatever unnamed terror sent them scurrying is probably not as great as the wrath of a border collie whose charges have run amuck, so they go back to the herd, rather than test the BC's UEL. Human beings also screw around with locating the limits (usually, UEL first, then some time later, the LEL) before making commitments. In the end, it comes down to a nice, wide operating band, with widely spaced operating limits that are hard to transgress upon, that makes up a comfort zone for people or sheep. Sheep are content with a loose definition, but people get mangled, often as not, while simply probing for the limits.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Perpetual Emotion Machines: Myth or BS?

Interest in perpetual motion machines tends to wax and wane, but it never seems to entirely go away. There's always a hobbit, hunkered down in Suburbia somewhere, fooling around way after midnight in the garage, trying to get at least one of the laws of Thermodynamics to choke on his visionary contraption. Yeah, well... better not bet the ranch on it, pal. Your machine may bend the laws, but no one's been able to out and out break them, at least, not yet. Half the fun of watching these Quixotic tilts lies with the post-mortem evaluation of failed machines, many of which do not qualify as perpetual motion machines, but still have fascinating, highly efficient designs. The thing is, these noble scientists and ragtag home tinkerers are essentially pursuing a goal which is only successful if they can somehow break an existing law of thermodynamics. I'm not sure which holds the greater allure, the cachet of a Nobel Prize, or the bragging rights of being a successful outlaw in the physics community. As I prowl around blogsites, I see that interest in perpetual emotion machines is just as keen among dedicated bloggers as with physicists and their utopian perpetual motion machines. I'm not sure that the same neat cleave lines exist in the study of emotions, as what one sees in the organization of sciences, but that's probably not an impediment to research; if anything, it likely enhances the mystery and romance of the cause. Both camps seem to be looking for a self-sustaining process capable of generating enough energy internally such that none is required from without, to keep the process running indefinitely. Hmm... romance and physics, physics and romance... romance and physics, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g... (Here's where it breaks down. There's no subspecies of physicist, say, a behavioural physicist, to work the equations for this match.) No matter, there are also no romanticists to interpret such an analysis, if one existed. Bummer! We're stuck with at least one singularity that brings the comparison to a standstill. Can romance and physics still be friends? Should we call the whole thing off, and let them go their separate ways: Physics, in search of cold fusion; Romance, in search of hot confusion? Maybe we're missing a few terms in the equations, such as a candy store that won't lead to obesity or diabetes, if couples spend the night there? Or a well-stocked wine cellar which always maintains the precise temperature for each vintage, regardless of how hot things get, elsewhere in the private quarters? What about morning mouth and snoring? Modeling this mathematically would be a challenge. The good news is, no matter how discouraging other aspects of reality may be, there are no signs that enthusiasm for experimentation is in any way cooling on the romance front. And, unlike the scientific community, few reprimands are given for repeating experiments whose track records are dismal. Under duress, romanticists can usually get physicists to back off, simply by asking how the old perpetual motion thingy's running.

Walk, Don't Run

It's hard to believe, but I'm coming up on a rather dubious anniversary. It's been nearly five years since my last salaried job, since I last tossed my satchel into my little cell in the corporate cube farm, since I swigged my last complementary cup of coffee in the cool confines of the clean, curved-countertop, color-coordinated cafeteria. Man, what a ride! I'm not even a statistic anymore.

If the opportunity presents itself, take the time to brush up on walking, even when the signs say "Run!" The change of pace is more than just literal, it's figurative as well.