Archive for July, 2009

Headstones and longlists

July 30, 2009

A thought: It will be a great opportunity lost if, when that becomes a matter to be handled, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tombstone doesn’t read “I’ll be back.”

Another one? Well, if you insist. Saw most of Apollo 13 today, and thought: Jim Lovell, oh, Jim Lovell, no offense but your stone would be so hilarious with “Houston, we have a problem.”

I know. Terrible person.

And a divider goes here; since the Beings of WordPress are ceaseless in their toils and in excellence without equal, they’ve magicked up an archive shortcode that, among other things, allows one to list all of one’s blog-posts in a single HTML list. That looong (600+) list is below.

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Skepticism and atheism

July 29, 2009

(Well, since there’s a bit of kerfuffle on the JREF blog (mostly in the comments) about skepticism and atheism, I voice my say. Not that I’ve ever commented there, or am in any way involved, but hey, monkey see, monkey blog.)

Skepticism is a tool, an approach; incidentally the opposite to the tool called gullibility which will, indeed, make you look like a total tool.

Atheism is a position, a conclusion.

Skepticism and atheism aren’t the same thing.

Neither are skepticism and the provisional nonexistence of Bigfoot.

Or skepticism and the fact that there were no aliens at Roswell.

No, skepticism is the tool by the application of which we reach the conclusions that there’re no Bigfoot, no Roswell aliens, and no God, gods, angels, heavens, or hells.

Personal feelings of god are no different from personal feelings of fairies in the garden; the blood-weeping Mary statue is no different from the supposed miracles of older date or different form; and nothing said in defense of god is any different from the things said in defence of the veracity of the New World Order, homeopathy, satanic ritual abuse, haunted houses, ESP and the Bigfoot. Religion has the same dodgy claims as every other paranormal thinga-magic; to give it different treatment is, depending on how you wish to phrase the matter, respectful, coy, dishonest or just an effing intellectual travesty.

A skeptic that goes a-saying skepticism and atheism aren’t the same thing is just being coy, or then making a PR move. That statement is technically correct, but that’s all it is, since there is a certain causality and connection such a statement doesn’t mention.

Also, a skeptic that says there are believers and infidels in the skeptic ranks is no doubt correct, but also says no more than one saying there are Bigfoot-believers and Bigfoot-deniers in the skeptic ranks, or anthropogenic global warming deniers (“skeptics”) and sensible evidence-driven folks; no doubt there are, but such statements neglect to mention that in both cases one group isn’t being skeptical for real about that particular matter.

And by being skeptical about things you do reach conclusions about them, or at least best explanations, all the while staying open to possible future evidence; and I think the current and quite firm conclusion a skeptic will reach is that (by the final-seeming evidence that’s been trudged forth so far) there ain’t no extraterrestrial UFOs (though there most probably is extraterrestrial life), there was no dodgy business at Roswell, and there ain’t no Bigfoot, fairies or gods either.

It might be PR-wise to shut up about this, but honest it ain’t.

(Also, not the first gripe on this particular distinction by me.)

Budgie did a go-go: a pet urnery

July 29, 2009

A post that is part speculation, part stand-up comedy sat down to paper, and part the kind of things entirely too drunk or stoned people say in wondering tones.

Having written what is below I am in awe of, and a bit sickened by, myself.

Tagged with “caution”, “CAUTION” and “talk about the dead”. Some of the dead are pets. Some not. You’re warned. Click to read on.

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Japan, I love thee

July 28, 2009

I lack the words to describe this culinary invention.

Well, except: “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!”

Story: A heartless woman is dead

July 27, 2009

A partially original solution to the old chestnut.

* * *

The second most startling thing I learned of my great-grandmother when researching family history was that she was a victim of Jack the Ripper.

The most startling thing was that, in a way, she was that awful killer as well.

This takes some explaining; I hope you excuse the rambling nature of this missive, as this has been something of a shocking and upsetting revelation to me. (more…)

Recommendation: the Lies of Locke Lamora

July 26, 2009

the Lies of Locke Lamora, Book 1 of the Gentlemen Bastard sequence, by Scott Lynch, 752 pages, Bantam, 2006, Amazon link)

This was a book that was a great fun to read.

The non-spoilery plot is roughly like this: Locke Lamora is an orphan and the head of a gang of his own in the city of Camorr. (He’s also a priest, but that would take a while to explain.) His chosen avenue of crime is the confidence trick, and he’s very good with it. Then very bad things start to happen. Some of them happen to Locke Lamora. And he bites back. And great entertainment ensues.

Plusses:

  • Plots. Locke Lamora, the main character, is a criminal, a confidence trickster. This leads to all kinds of outlandish schemes, some of them successful, others not. There’s one moment in the first third of the book which makes you upgrade your opinion of Locke from “a devious bastard” to “the utter father of all conniving devious bastards”; and another towards the end that makes you appreciate the power of walking like you know what you do, and carry the messages you say. (And in between one point where Locke is as deeply fucked as I’ve ever seen anyone be.)
  • Cursing. No, really. It’s refreshing to see a medieval world where people have actually invented foul words. (Two quotes: one a self-description of the main character — “I am the king idiot of all the world’s fucking idiots.” — and the other a description of his state during much of the book — “Oh yes, Master Lamora. Yes, I’d say you do have one hell of a fucking problem.”)
  • Did I say, medieval world? This means, in something quite rare, that the local theories and practices of medicine are… interesting. Every time someone gets battered, broken and beaten up, one starts wondering if they won’t be killed by the “medicine” instead.
  • And speaking of getting killed — oh, boy. People do.
  • The matter of names. Lot of the people and places have names that sound vaguely Italian, German or the like, and much to my surprise this didn’t bother me a bit. When I thought a bit on it, this made perfect sense — Tolkien’s Rohirrim had names in Old English, too. (Not to say that if it’s in Tolkien, it’s okay — I’m just saying that this extent of real-world borrowing isn’t some cheap and lazy heretical thing.) It’s an idea that works surprisingly well; the meanings of don and dona are easier to guess than, say, yarrgh and yarrghina-x.

Minus ( well, if I recommend something, it better not have too many bad parts!):

  • I haven’t read the sequels yet, so I must just say there are certain non-essential details I will be wroth because of if the author doesn’t tell the resolution of. (When semi-wroth I sound like that. To not sound like that I’m off to order the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies — dang, I love the names of these books — and since I have nothing else negative to say, that is it.)

Overall A+ and recommended to all, whether fans of fantasy or not.

Post Apollo

July 25, 2009

Since I was elsewhere, and oddly forgetful, I didn’t post anything timely about the Apollo anniversary on Monday.

Here’s a late thought, then:

The Apollo landing on the Moon, with two genuine humans inside, was the biggest thing we the human race had done so far.

There were three aspects that I, in my hurried amateur view, see as big, whatever that might be.

First, one needs to be certain that the Moon is an actual place. That’s not just astronomy; that’s cosmology.

Second, one needs to have the vast, and vastly reliable, amount of technology to go there with any hope of arrival and return. That takes centuries before you even know what to strive for, and decades to get it after you have your Tsiolkovskys and Goddards.

Third, one needs to have the will to pay the time, resources and lives (remember Apollo 1!) it takes to make the idea and plan into reality. (This is a tainted point, by the way — Apollo was not driven by pure curiosity and desire, but US-Soviet PR rivalry. If only they had consulted a Terry O’Reilly on how to make brands live long and prosper instead of taking the gains and running.)

As I have no good metric for measuring the bigness of things done, I have to guess; and my personal guess is that the thing that culminated in Armstrong and Aldrin stepping down, with Collins circling above lonelier than anyone ever before, was so big and mythic that it deserves to be called the biggest thing we humans had done… so far.

* * *

Phil Plait has a more eloquent personal opinion.

Back with gadgets

July 25, 2009

So, back from the warm south (Helsinki), bearing a variety of items, most of them little objects from the science shop of Heureka — because though I am but a callow graduate student, I am firmly of the opinion that the official workroom of an academical ought to have at least some knickknacks, and for a mathematics-person Rubik’s cubes, Happy cubes, and the sort are just the right fit — they too tend to drive you nutty if you contemplate them for too long. (If my posts begin to get erratic, I have dug up that Hofstadter column from Metamagical Themas that told how to solve Rubik’s without a screwdriver.)

Being back from Helsinki, but not away from my holiday (until the end of month, and then back to the salt mines), I had a pleasant sauna-bath today, and being in that hot, moist room naked with my father — I believe things like this do not, except in saunas, happen very often — we bantered, and after a bit on the theory of jokes* turned to inventions, and especially this idea:

Suppose you had an invention that altered or switched senses.

We both being broadly speaking Savonian, of the Finnish tribe famous for its skewed humor, these were the three main inventions made.

  • Horse glasses. A visor much like that of Geordi La Forge in some incarnation of Star Trek, except that it has optics over the eyes which run outwards and end right over an ear, left for left and right for right, and looking to the sides. The predicted effect is a non-overlapping 360-degree field of vision, massive headaches, and eventually brain haemorrhaging.
  • Ear Color-o-matic. A little contraption for the blind, curled around your ear like a hearing aid. Has a little staff pointing outwards like the earpiece of a pair of glasses, with a camera in the end. The camera images a tight beam and registers the color in front of the wearer; the earpiece omits a sound corresponding to that color: louder for brighter, and correlating pitch for wavelength. (As “color” is a combination of intensity and wavelength, that would mean a blind man could hear colors. Not that “I can hear colors!” is something to say if you want to impress others with your acuity.)
  • Schrödinger’s Kitty Litter. A Geiger counter for the deaf — instead of ticking noises, emits a stench whose foulness correlates with the amount of radiation striking the machine.

Endnote: A device that turns sensations of touch to sound would be trivial: You takes a man and a stick, you attaches man to stick, and waves the stick in the desired direction. Loud sounds of discomfort indicate extremes of heat, sharpness and jaggedness.

* * *

* : A bit on the theory of jokes — most jokes are all about sudden shifts in perception. Witness this:

One evening a man walks into a bar, and sees an older gentleman sitting there, all prim and proper, but with a stick of celery behind an ear. Not wishing to appear rude, our man says nothing.

Comes the second evening, and he walks to the bar again, and the old man is there again, a stick of celery behind his ear but otherwise a perfect picture of quite wealthy respectability.

Comes the third evening, our man is there again — as is Mr. Celery, but there’s a tomato uneasily wedged behind his earlobe instead. Our man gathers his courage, approaches, asks: “Er, sorry, I don’t mean to intrude, but why do you have a tomato behind your ear?”

The old man gives the other a mournful glance, and sighs: “Because they were all out of celery.”

That’s an evil joke, as it sets up an expectation of some standard funny resolution, and then snubs the listener and leaves him without an answer.

How about another bar-joke?

Three mathematicians walk into a bar. You’d think the second would have ducked.

Nature path 6

July 24, 2009

A nature path in Somewhere, Finland — with two concluding images.

First, a view across a river. The waters are cold and stony; the forests long and quiet.

Also, the photography is shoddy and inexperienced. Much apologies.

summer6a

Finally, a dark land under light skies. Can’t add any to that description of summertime Finland without substracting from the beauty of it.

summer6b

I hope you enjoyed the nature path; I did since it was a cool and a little bit windy day, and thus my experience was quite as mosquito-free as yours.

Even more so, if you work in a free range entomology lab.

Nature path 5

July 23, 2009

A nature path in Somewhere, Finland, some fifty kilometers south of the famous Middle of Nowhere, Finland.

First, a fallen tree. This is Finland, baby: the people are nice, but the nature is where this land shines.

summer5a

Second, to celebrate this penultimate post and point on our nature path, a sausage on a stick. The stick has just been used to hold the sausage to the fire until it sizzled and screamed, since in Finland a walk in nature is incomplete without a fire, some coffee from a thermos, sandwiches, and sausage.

Just sausage if you’re in a hurry.

Any haziness in the picture is the result of me being my usual smokecatcher self — no matter where I sit next to a fire, soon winds turn and a grey cloud envelopes me.

summer5b

The final part follows tomorrow.