Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Good Life

In Australia, both Christmas Day and Boxing Day are public holidays.  If either of them occurs on a normal working day, you most likely get a paid day off.  If both occur on normal work days, you get TWO paid days off!  Lucky!

I have no idea what Boxing Day is about or what you're supposed to do (Pack away your Christmas decorations?  Re-package gifts that you are going to return?  Punch people with over-sized novelty gloves?) but what was once good fortune is now considered an entitlement.  If either Christmas or Boxing Day occur on a weekend (like it did this year), you not only get the day off, but you also get another paid day off to make up for the fact that Sunday was going to be a day off anyhow.  If that same logic is followed indefinitely, people will want an additional paid day off if a public holiday doesn't fall on a weekend, to make up for the additional day they would have gotten if it had been on a weekend, et cetera. Employers will soon have to pay people to never work at all, just like in France.

In any event, that's why on a completely ordinary Tuesday two days after Christmas that wasn't any particular Holiday other than my brother's birthday (he never did have very good timing), I was up at The Shed relaxing and taking it easy.

There I was, lying in a hammock, sipping an ice-cold vanilla Coke, the bright sun warming me, the green Jarrah trees (Eucalyptus marginata) shading me, the cloudless deep-blue sky calming me, the breeze gently rocking me, the spiders in their enormous webs overhead alarming me, and I thought as I absently flicked away yet another kangaroo tick that was crawling up the leg of my jeans, "You know, John, life just doesn't get any better than this."

I honestly wished at that time that every guy in the world could be having such a peaceful, relaxing experience.  They'd most likely be consuming beer instead of cola, however.

Before coming to Australia, I never had to explain my abstinence to anyone.  In the USA, being abnormal is much more . . . well, "normal" isn't right, so I'll say "usual."  But here in Australia, not drinking alcohol is so unusual it can never pass unnoticed and I am constantly having to explain myself.

People assume I must be either Muslim, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, an extremely committed Methodist, in the Baha'i faith, or possibly a High-Initiate Eckist.  Because nobody would ever choose to not have alcohol if it were entirely up to them, would they?

Not so.  I knew an athiest once who didn't drink either.  He said he'd spent too much of his life trying to learn things and get smarter, that he'd be buggered if he was going to go pouring stuff down his neck that might undo even a little of his hard work.  Especially something like beer that doesn't even taste good anyway.

He also said that too many men cower behind some religion to justify their actions for which they lack the moral courage to take responsibility themselves.  If you're going to do what you believe is right, he said, do it because you believe in it, not because some church says you have to.  "Never let religion prevent you from doing the right thing."  Funny, that I should learn more about religion from an atheist than I ever learned from anyone else.

That got me wondering. Can religion cause someone to lose his individual moral compass?  I once asked a staunch believer in a minority Christian faith what he would do if the leader of his church ordered him to blow up a bus full of children.  I became extremely alarmed simply by the delay in his answer, which I forestalled after a moment by saying, "Great Gilligan, man! You don't seriously have to THINK about that one, do you?"

Rather than a firm and definite "no," his answer was a cowardly, "it depends."   Mind you, his own church adamantly espouses a doctrine of free agency, a person's responsibility for his own actions, and the commandment not to kill people.  Could he really have been absent from Sunday School on all the days those items were covered?  The Superbowl is only once a year.

Or are beliefs in leaders' infallibility, absolute conformity, and moral relativism just that much more attractive to people, even to members of a church that explicitly denounces all three of these tenets?  Why even be in a religion if you're not going to believe anything they teach?  It couldn't possibly be that some people do not want the responsibility of making their own choices, could it?

-     -     -

I have a particular belief that I create my life, through my thoughts, actions, inaction, and choices. I can't prove that this is literally true for everyone all the time, and it seems like an awful lot of responsibility for a person to have.  But having this belief makes me more empowered, helps forestall feelings of helplessness and depression (see this scientifically tested book by Martin Seligman) and rouses me into activity like no other belief I have.  So I choose to believe it without further need of proof.

At times like today when life is as good as it gets (and when I focus more on the blue sky, green trees and sunshine than on the spiders and ticks in my life), I get the feeling that I might have made an OK choice.

Happy New Year to all my readers!  Make your 2012 the best one ever.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas In Australia

It's Christmas Down Under, and just as you've probably come to expect, it's weird.

For one thing, it's summer in Australia for some reason.  Oh, sure, I've heard all about the tilt of the earth's axis and the astoundingly boring scientific explanation for why Australia is six months out of synch with the rest of the world (New Zealand and South Africa excepted).  But I have the distinct feeling that the real reason is Australians simply want it that way out of sheer obstinacy.  What the locals refer to as "bloody-mindedness."

That's when, if you have absolutely nothing to lose by doing something that would be of tremendous benefit to others, but because you have nothing to gain from it, you don't do it.  Bloody-mindedness.  Politicians get accused of that a lot here.  It's what Ebeneezer Scrooge had, before he found his Spirit of Christmas Presents.

If the rest of the world has Christmas in winter, Australians just HAVE to be different and hold it in the middle of summer. "That'll show the bastards," is probably what they are all thinking.

I haven't felt the spirit of the Christmas season once in the ten years I've been here.  It's usually just too darn hot!  Too hot to bake Pfeffernüsse, Lebkuchen, cookies, fudge, divinity, roast turkey, Stollen, or any of the traditional winter holiday foods that I associate with Christmas.  Too hot to go out shopping for gifts, and too hot to sit by a glowing fire in a woolen sweater reading anything whatsoever by Charles Dickens.

While people in the northern hemisphere are enjoying a day out in the snow, getting windburn and the occasional touch of frostbite, Australians head for the beach for a sunburn and an occasional shark bite. While kids north of the equator are trying out their new snowboards, toboggans and skis, Aussie kids are trying out their new surfboards, boogie boards, and air conditioners.

My Christmas Dinner
Up north, you'll be having roast turkey, goose, ham, more turkey, mashed potatoes, hot chocolate, and still more turkey. In Australia, you get a barbeque.  And not like an awesome Southern barbeque - I mean just frying some steaks on a grill with maybe some prawns on there to classy it up a bit.

Down here, your uncle Albert would still get drunk and make a nuisance of himself at the family get-together, but the difference is that in Australia he'll likely be wearing a speedo as well.

With all that that entails.

Up north, Santa delivers gifts in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.  In Australia, Santa does his rounds in a clapped-out Holden Ute.  But don't hold your breath.  It's a big country.  And Santa doesn't always remember to check the coolant level before heading out.

Santa calls out some other reindeer names that can't be printed here.

I've touched on some of the uniquely Australian characteristics of Christmas previously.  We have Christmas spiders (Austracantha minax), Christmas trees that you must not cut down (Nuytsia floribunda),  Christmas island (a refugee detention center), and Christmas Crackers.

The first time I was offered a Christmas Cracker, I declined.  "I can have crackers any old time," thought I.  "Hey, it's Christmas - let's eat some crackers!"  Could Australia really be that lame?

It turns out that Christmas Crackers aren't Saltines or even Ritz.  They're something even more lame.  Looking like someone's attempt to gift-wrap an empty toilet paper tube, they are supposed to explode when pulled open from the ends.  Someone's idea of humor, I guess.  But in reality, they make an almost detectable "tch" sound when detonated.  Once opened, they reveal a plastic choking hazard and a hat made of tissue paper.  And boy when you're wearing a hat made of tissue while trying to dislodge a miniature plastic desk lamp from a toddlers mouth, the fun just never stops.

My recommendation for your holiday travel is to visit Australia at some time of the year other than Christmas.  Unless you really like spiders, overweight men in speedos who have had too much to drink, and tissue paper hats.

Merry Christmas, one and all!


Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Story of Newtonmas

As you are probably aware, Sir Isaac Newton's birthday, December 25, is celebrated each year the world over.  We sing songs about Santa's gravity-defying reindeer, eat heroic quantities of the finest foods available, and decorate our houses, our trees, and increasingly, ourselves with highly technologically advanced paraphernalia, all in celebration of our civilization's utterly miraculous scientific and economic accomplishments.

QUIZ:  Which of these men was actually born on December 25th:
Sir Isaac of Lincolnshire, or Iosua of Galilee?
This is the True (but slightly anachronistic) Story of Newtonmas - the most Scientifically and Economically Wonderful Time of the Year.  And by "true," I of course mean "completely made up."

Once upon a time in the long-forgotten past, about eleven years ago, Nikolaos of Myra (who is known in the Blogosphere by his username Santa Claus) was meeting with his Chief Scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, to discuss his plans for a brand-new global holiday.

Santa:  "... and then I'll drop down the chimney and leave the presents under an indoor tree or shrub (haven't made a final decision on that yet).  What do you think?  I reckon this will be the best holiday of the year!"

Isaac:  "Well, Nick, I can't really comment on your marketing projections, but there might be a few technical issues with the plan.  Assuming we can provide the reindeer with sufficient thrust, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to fly just fine.  It's the landings that have me a bit concerned."

Santa:  "We can work out those details later.  My number one concern (besides keeping bloody PETA off my back) is the timing.  I'm really hoping 24 hours is going to be enough.  I'll start in Australia, since they've got the earliest time zones..."

Isaac:  "Ah, yes.  I've done a few calculations, and there might be an issue or two.  To meet your timeframe, Santa, you'll have to average about 650 miles per second while making about 800 stops per second.  Assuming you can even react that fast without getting the presents mixed up, the g-forces would turn your flesh into jelly.  A big, bowl full of jelly, to be precise."

Santa:  "Even with my special red carbon fiber suit?"

Isaac:  "Especially with the suit.  The air resistance will not just melt your sleigh, but vaporize the remains as well."

Santa:  "Bugger.  Well, what do you suggest we do, smart guy?

Isaac:  "Um, there's something I've been working on for a while, and this might be the perfect opportunity to roll it out. I've succeeded in developing a consistent theory of Physics, which incorporates all known phenomena such as motion, forces, acceleration, light, mass, and energy.  The relationships between these things are nicely described by a method of computation I've developed ... which that scoundrel Leibniz keeps trying to take credit for.  Make sure you put him on your Naughty list, Nick."

Santa:  "(Sigh!) Physics and Calculus is all really interesting, I'm sure, but how is it going to help me?"

Isaac:  "Keep your beard on, grandpa, I'm getting to that.  When people can work out accurate predictions of how inventions are going to function, then developing technology is going to be a lot cheaper and faster to do.  And with a correct understanding of natural principles, it will be a lot less risky, since unfeasible inventions will be easy to spot, and more likely candidates easier to design.  The effect of all this will be an explosion of technology giving Humanity incredible levels of wealth, power, freedom and comfort that the world has never before seen or even imagined.  What I suggest we do, Santa, is publish my Physics and wait for it to get a foothold.  When it does, people will have all they need and more."

Santa:  "Wait ... but won't that mean they no longer need me to bring presents to the children?  They'll already have all they require."

Isaac:  "No, that's the beauty of it.  See, parents can then afford to go out and purchase the presents in a thriving, vibrant economy, wrap them up and leave them under the Santa Bush themselves.  The kids won't know the difference - they'll think you paid them a personalized visit, leaving you free to focus on the special needs cases."

Santa:  "Holy Commercialization . . . Isaac, you're a genius!  That is the best idea I've ever heard.  Sheer brilliance.  You know, I was going to hold this holiday on my birthday - December 7th - (a bit of personal vanity, I suppose), but because you saved Santa-mas, we're going to hold it on your birthday instead!  When is that, anyway?"

Isaac:  "December 25th."

Santa:  "No good.  It's too close to the pagan Solstice celebrations."

Isaac:  "Not necessarily.  If you were to merge the two, you'll get much greater market penetration.  Plus, I know this Jewish guy who's a genius at Public Relations.  I've become a huge fan of his work myself - he's already got about a bazillion likes on Facebook.  If you get him to handle the publicity, this holiday will go viral in no time at all."

Santa:  "Good thinking.  I'll give him a jingle.  Get it?  Jingle?  Ho ho ho.  What's his name?"

Isaac:  "Joshua of Galilee, but his friends just call him Jesus."

Santa:  "When's his birthday?"

Isaac:  "The 30th of Nissin.  Why?"

Santa:  "Never mind.  That's, like, March or April isn't it?  It doesn't matter I suppose.  Yes, with your help, Isaac, and Joshua's marketing skills, this holiday is going to be an absolute smash!  A real corker."

... And that's the story (more or less) of how we came to live in a wonderful world of untold wealth, possibility, freedom, abundance, long life and joy.  Of course not everyone shares in this Utopian dream.  There are people today still living in darkness, in lack, in despair and in shackles both real and imagined.  But as more and more people embrace the spirit of Newtonmas, the can-do belief that our intellect, hard work, rationality and best intentions can make life better for everyone,  the blessings of human progress will gradually but inexorably become universal.  Each December 25 will find the world a better place than the previous one did.

Merry Newtonmas, Everyone!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is The Mechanical Age Finished?

Is it the end of the Mechanical Age?

The what?  Well, you'd better watch the video.  Then decide.

(26 minutes)


Sunday, December 11, 2011

One Little Word That Can Change Your Life

I've written previously about untestable beliefs that you can test personally but which are not subject to scientific validation or falsification.  Unlike science, which is a collaborative, cumulative enterprise of progress, personal growth depends on you alone and is a journey everyone makes from start to finish.  No shortcuts.  Or are there?

You alone can make the discoveries of personal enlightenment.  No teacher, guru, minister, psychologist, "self help" coach, parent or mentor can do it for you.  A teacher can at best give hints and encouragement.  I can only promise you based on my experience that there are discoveries waiting to be made which are immensely worthwhile.  Possibly the only thing really worth doing with life's short moment.

If you have ever wanted to change your life or if you ever desired to be happy, then perhaps you have tried taking a vacation, re-decorating the house, buying some completely different (yet somehow identical) shoes and clothes, getting up at an entirely different time, quitting one job and getting another, moving to a foreign country, reading completely different books, having a new relationship or a new child or a new divorce, or buying a totally different car to the one you have.  One with, say, four wheels instead of . . . oh, never mind.

You might be unusually lucky and have everything suddenly go your way.  All morons and idiots vanish from your life, bullies all get their come-uppance, your preferred political party wins the election, your chosen athletics corporation makes the playoffs, and all the TV shows you most despise get cancelled.

If you are fortunate enough to experience all that, then it might also be your good fortune to learn an extremely valuable truth:  You're still unhappy!

Then if you have the time, health and resources, you could keep trying to change your internal emotional state by continuing to re-arrange the world around you.  If you do this and if you live long enough, you might even discover something truly extraordinary:  You had what you were looking for inside you all along.

A person who can make that journey is lucky indeed.  How much luckier is the person who gets to the finish line in an instant without all that effort?  Such a person could live his whole life happy right from the get-go.  Wouldn't that be interesting.

So what is this one little word that can change your life?  It's just an untestable belief I have that says the way I ask a question determines the quality of the answers I receive.

Lots of people ask themselves, "Why is this happening to me?"  And the human brain is an answer-generating machine.  It is not a logical truth machine, however.  Answers only.  If you ask your brain a question, it WILL produce an answer even if it has to make shit up.

If you ask why awful things always happen to you, your brain will produce plentiful evidence that this assumption is not only correct, but has countless logical, inescapable reasons.  So be extremely careful what you ask your brain.

But if we change one little word in that question, it becomes a vehicle of power rather than self-pity.  It becomes the trigger for your brain to plan for your success rather than undermine all your efforts.

Change the "2" to a "4" and get:

Why is this happening FOR me?

Test it in your life and share the results.

I recommend:

Just An Ordinary, Boring Weekend in Oz

Some people think Perth is a boring place.  At first, I didn't understand what they were talking about.  But after getting to know Perth and learning some of the many incredibly, amazingly boring things about it, I'm beginning to understand.

An uninvited swan.
Take this weekend, for instance.  Saturday afternoon Yvonne and I were at Point Walter (what a BORING name!) sitting on the grass enjoying a meal of beef Teriyaki and Thai green curry (ho-hum - such ordinary, everyday boring food) when to our utter boredom an absolutely boring Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) casually strolled right through the middle of the picnic area.  Two hundred years ago that would have caused tremendous excitement, since at the time the mythical Black Swan was believed to be, well,  mythical.  But today if you live in boring old Perth tripping over Black Swans everywhere you go, they just contribute to the overall boredom.

Cygnus atratus,  NOT mythical.  Quite boring, actually.
Not even venomous or anything.
Later that evening, we were down at Fremantle Harbour watching the boring container ships being unloaded, which they do here 24 hours a day 7 days a week.  Yawn!  Over 26 million tons of remarkably dull goods pass through this port every year.  Then the dullest thing imaginable happened:  a transport ship from Kobe opened its hull and a bunch of ordinary Toyota cars started driving right out onto the dock.  About twenty wharfies then spent hour after boring hour parking hundreds of cars in a massively boring lot and then stuffing themselves into an ordinary minivan, driving back onto the transport ship and starting all over again.  This went on for hours.

On the bridge of HMAS Choules, facing aft, port side.
We know, because we watched the whole thing happening from the bridge of the soon-to-be-commissioned Navy transport HMAS Choules, a Bay-class landing ship dock purchased (in typical Australian fashion) second-hand on Ebay.  Ha ha!  No - they actually bought it from the Brits.  Second hand.

Well, at least they didn't pick it up on the side of the road somewhere or make off with it in the middle of the night while its owners were sleeping, which is even more typically the Australian way of procuring things.

This ship is so immensely boring that the sheer size of it stunned me into submissive silence.  It weighs 16,000 tons and is 580 feet long.  It has an enormously boring cavity right down the middle of it with enough space for 150 trucks.  That's a lot of trucks.

HMAS Choules in Falmouth drydock,
earlier this year.
To get an idea of what this experience was like, you should go out and find a parking lot big enough for 150 trucks and imagine putting the entire parking lot INSIDE the middle of a ship.  How does that make you feel?  Pretty darn bored, right?

Our fully authorized incursion onto the ship was courtesy of a friend who is an electronics technician in the Australian Navy.  He had just arrived on this ship all the way from Falmouth, England (Britain's deepest and most boring natural port) where the ship had been undergoing re-fit since August.  By the time they finally got to Perth, the entire crew was absurdly, ridiculously bored.  Perth has that effect on people.

The HMAS Choules was re-named for Australia's oldest living WWI and WWII veteran Claude Choules, who ironically died earlier this year in Perth (undoubtedly from boredom) at age 110.  He was Australia's oldest living man at the time of his death.  And he holds the World's Record for being the oldest first-time published author when he released his memoirs at age 108. This is probably how he got a ship named after him.  Well, that and his service in two world wars and 41 years as an enlisted man and NCO in the Australian Navy, of course.
December 10, 2011 Total Lunar Eclipse at about
40 minutes before full occlusion.  Photo by
 Cpl. Marek Bubna-Litic, R.A.N.,
taken from onboard the HMAS Choules.

From our towering vantage point some 100 feet above Fremantle harbor, we could see every boring thing that was going on. In particular, the TOTAL LUNAR ECLIPSE that was happening that very night right before our eyes.  This is a scientific event that is so boring it happens only every couple of years (but twice this year, being a particularly boring year).

The overall effect it had on me was to make me so sleepy after watching it until well past 11 PM that I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.  But I finally understand why people say Perth is so boring.

It is because they are devoid of any imagination and lack even a passing curiosity about the fascinating place we live.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Well, it's finally December, and you know what that means, right?

Tinsel?  Lights?  Santa?  Presents?

Wrong!  At the Shed, December always means . . .


Lots and lots of spiders.  Colorful, festive spiders adorning everything.

The entire block (where the Shed is) is presently criss-crossed between every tree, shrub, bush and plant with spiderwebs.  Peter Jackson could film most of The Hobbit right here and save a fortune on fake webs and giant spider animatronics.  Plus my recently-acquired ear hair qualifies me to be an extra in the film, maybe even a supporting extra.

I was up there a few days ago checking on the rainwater tank (finally full, which I determined with just a glance at a most ingenious tank gauge)  and making sure the drip irrigation system was in good order for the start of summer.  This simple task was rendered almost impossible because I literally could not move an inch or turn around on the spot without going straight through some spider's ludicrously ambitious web, some of them eight feet across.  I had to carry several sticks with me at all times (second most useful thing ever) and constantly wave them around, high and low.  If I passed through one way, there'd be a new web in the spot by the time I returned.  At one point there were three bewildered spiders clinging to my stick at the same time probably asking themselves in their creepy spider language, "Why, God?  Why is this happening to me?"

The main culprit in all this Holiday Madness is called the Christmas Spider.  Now tell me this: what the hell kind of country has something called a Christmas Spider? But there we are.  Deal with it.

Christmas Spider photographed at The Shed

Austracantha minax is a type of Orb Weaver found only in Australia, and is also known as the Christmas Spider, The Australian Jewel Spider, the Spiny Spider, and for some reason, "Bowser Henderson."  Are you finally convinced that Australia is the strangest place on Earth?  As though Mel Gibson and Steve Irwin wasn't proof enough.  Then tell me, what other country in the world would name an entire species of spider "Bowser Henderson?"*  (SEE BELOW - NOT TRUE)

They show up in late November, and by Christmas there is a spider sitting in a web filling every possible web-making space in certain parts of the outback.  A month later, they are nowhere to be found.  They celebrate Christmas by feasting on the explosion of moths, mosquitoes and other flying nuisances that erupts this time of the year, and then vanish until next holiday season.

We're just crazy about Christmas here.  Australia also has something called Christmas Island, but you wouldn't want to go there.  It has no snow, no elves, and nothing even remotely resembling Holiday Cheer. It is most famous as the location of a concentration camp for refugees who are permanently detained by the Australian Government while politicians decide how best to use them to their electoral advantage.  Unfortunately, most politicians can only see their existence as a political disadvantage and are simply hoping the problem will go away if they ignore it long enough.

Christmas in Western Australia also means Christmas Trees, of course.  But it wouldn't be Australia if that, too, were not also weird and a little bit sinister.  A Christmas Tree is a parasite (technically, a hemiparasitic plant) somewhat related to Mistletoe (so there's that, anyway), which bursts out in the most violent day-glow orange display each December.

This large, free-standing plant known scientifically as Nuytsia floribunda and found only in Western Australia uses its roots to tap into and hijack the roots of almost any other tree or plant to obtain the nutrients it needs.  When the colorful Christmas Trees are in full bloom, that is a signal for everyone to get ready, hang up their stockings and watch out for . . . Santa?  No!  Spiders.  Hang up your stockings and anything else that you don't want spiders getting into.

Nyoongar aboriginals consider it to be extremely poor manners to cut down one of these trees.  Oh, it might bring bad luck, who knows.  Anything's possible, I suppose.  But these trees are an excellent source of shields fashioned from bark, and produce an edible resin gum.  And they make a pretty cool natural calendar, too.

Have a Holly Jolly Creepy Crawly Christmas!  And don't forget to BUY STUFF.  The economy needs you.

* This "Bowser Henderson" factoid sounds a lot like bullshit, doesn't it?  Interestingly, wikipedia is the only reference to this usage (other than sites that just copy whatever wikipedia says), and it is looking more and more like bullshit as I continue my attempts to verify it.  I suspect it is someone's private joke on the world, because the name doesn't appear to have any cultural or popular meaning.  I am attempting to raise the question with Australia's leading spider and lingual experts.  I will keep you informed.

UPDATE 17 DEC 2011:  I have been in communication with a spider expert at the South Australian Museum who agrees that this "Bowser Henderson" thing is probably bullshit.  He has never heard of it.  I have also been in contact with an expert in Australian Linguistics who knows more about Australian slang, regional terminology and dialects than probably anyone alive, and he says he's never heard of it.  He surmises it may be a term used only within the contributor's own limited circle, own family, or possibly even within his own mind.   Therefore we will declare that this factoid is BUSTED and  "Bowser Henderson" IS NOT a "commonly used" alternative name for the Christmas Spider at all.    -j.j.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How Clever Are You?

There are a lot of really clever inventions out there, mainly due to (and sometimes in spite of) the efforts of a lot of really clever people.  Are you one of them?

Are you clever enough to figure out a way to indicate the level of water in a rainwater tank using nothing other than String and Rocks, two of the four fundamental Blokian Elements?

I'll even give you a hint:  It looks exactly like this:

As the water level inside the tank increases or decreases, the external red pointer (seen on the white pole near the center of the photo) rises or falls to indicate the actual water level to within a couple of millimeters.  How does it work?

I have seen fluid level sensors that use mechanical floats, electromagnetic transducers, ultrasonic sensors, capacitive sensors, induction sensors, thermal sensors, Vessel Resonance Depth Gauges and differential pressure depth gauges.  But this is the first one I've encountered that uses only string and rocks.  Talk about Low Tech, you don't get much lower than that.  Unless it were using just Rocks and nothing more.

The depth of a hole, canyon or gorge can be determined using only a rock.  Drop the rock over the edge and count "One-hippopotamus, Two-hippopotamus, ..." until the rock hits something.  Then square the number of hippopotami.  That is the depth of the canyon in rods.  To get feet, multiply by 16.  To get meters, multiply by 4.905 instead.  What could be simpler than that?

If you can describe to me how this tank level indicator operates using only String and Rocks, I will add your name to the Blokian Honor Roll in a future post that reveals the answer.  A diagram is useful.  Click on the "About Me" link in the left sidebar to send me your entry.

And don't forget to do your Christmas Shopping!


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More Secret Men's Business

Walt Whitman wrote:

A batter'd, wreck'd old man,
  Thrown on this savage shore, far, far from home,
  Pent by the sea and dark rebellious brows, twelve dreary months,
  Sore, stiff with many toils, sicken'd and nigh to death,
  I take my way along the island's edge,
  Venting a heavy heart.

  I am too full of woe!
  Haply I may not live another day;
  I cannot rest O God, I cannot eat or drink or sleep,
  Till I put forth myself, my prayer, once more to Thee,
  Breathe, bathe myself once more in Thee, commune with Thee,
  Report myself once more to Thee.

My hands, my limbs grow nerveless,
  My brain feels rack'd, bewilder'd,
  Let the old timbers part, I will not part,
  I will cling fast to Thee, O God, though the waves buffet me,
  Thee, Thee at least I know.

  Is it the prophet's thought I speak, or am I raving?
  What do I know of life? what of myself?
  I know not even my own work past or present,
  Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me,
  Of newer better worlds, their mighty parturition,
  Mocking, perplexing me.

  And these things I see suddenly, what mean they?
  As if some miracle, some hand divine unseal'd my eyes,
  Shadowy vast shapes smile through the air and sky,
  And on the distant waves sail countless ships,
  And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.

Our old friend Walter raises several very good points with this.  One concerns the Mathematician, aka the Magician.  The doer of magic, so-called, because so few understand it.  So few also comprehend the effort it takes, the years of preparation and study, enduring confusion, suffering privation with a single purpose in mind:  to Know.  Nor do they see the power that must be summoned to create such original works. 

At some point the Magician must bid goodbye to his powers and see his works blossom or not, float or sink as they will, without him to steer them.

Another is the Grieving Man, so full of woe and venting a heavy heart.  Where does he come from?  Where does he go when at last he disappears?  To quote the great Leroy Carr, "The blues, they come, the blues they come, nobody knows where the blues come from; the blues they go, the blues they go, and everybody's happy when the old blues go."*  It must serve some divine purpose, as everything in existence (which existence is the divine itself) must do.  The clever part is in finding it out.

One final word, and if this isn't making sense, then check the title again.  Things can be hidden in plain sight, like the Parables. What I'm really interested in knowing is this:

Why is there new hair growing on my ears that  was never there before?  What possible benefit could that bestow upon me?

Am I turning into some sort of Hobbit?

* Leroy Carr (1905-1935) was a blues pianist who lived only to age 30 but within that short time influenced generations of artists including Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Count Basie, and T-Bone Walker.  The lyrics come from the song "Papa's on the housetop."

And would you LOOK at the size of those hands?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Stupid Science, Stupid Religion

Lest anyone imagine that all religious beliefs are equal or that everything called Science is awesome, I'd like to get a few things off my chest and open things up a little.

It's sort of like comparing smart girls to particularly dumb boys, or smart boys to really dumb girls, and then trying to conclude that either boys or girls are generally the dumbest.  There is such a thing as stupid religion, and also stupid science.  Neither has a monopoly on being completely lame once in a while.

It is this flawed method of biased comparison that is largely responsible for the falsely perceived incompatibility that people often pretend exists between Science and Religion.

The real incompatibility is between smart and stupid, and my life has been entirely committed to becoming gradually less stupid in both areas and striving to be slightly smarter, bit by little, as a scientist/engineer as well as a spiritual being whenever an opportunity to do so comes along.

Stupid Religion happens when people use Religion when they should be using something else instead.  Like Science,  The Emergency Room, or Birth Control.  Or something called a Brain.  Religion is particularly stupid when it makes testable statements.  These are claims that can actually be checked or verified through a bit of investigation, experimentation, or mathematical analysis.  This is very dangerous for Religion, because once testable claims are made and they happen to prove false, that Religion's credibility takes a major hit.

It gets worse, though.  Because many people can't tell the difference between these testable "beliefs" and real beliefs, they may feel social pressure to continue believing in statements that have already been disproved.  Basically, they are believing in lies and will sooner or later suffer because of it.

This credibility hit and the attending suffering is something to which the Catholic Church can testify.  It is a lesson that all other religions should carefully consider.  Catholics once persecuted Galileo for examining some of their stupid testable beliefs and proving them wrong.  Eventually, though, they had to eat humble pie and admit they were wrong and he was right.  This is actually much to their credit, because some Religions would rather cease to exist than to ever admit being wrong.  It pleases me immensely to observe the Christian teaching of Humility over Pride being put into practice in this way.  Even though it took a few hundred years.

But too often I find religious people adamantly and pridefully clinging to some false testable statement that has already been disproved.  They are certain that there is no possible way they could ever have been mistaken in the way they interpret ancient texts written in some long-dead language by people they know nothing about.  If there's anything more arrogant or prideful than that, I surely don't want to know about it.  The earth is only 6,000 years old?  That has not only been proven completely false, but the bible doesn't even say this.  Readers of the bible made up this statement out of pure ignorance.

Beliefs that can be tested are Stupid.  Nobody ever needs to believe them, because they can be tested and either proved or disproved.  "Do you believe in evolution?"  No!  It's not a matter of belief, it's a proven fact. You don't need to believe in it any more than you need to believe that your cell phone really can make phone calls or that airplanes really can fly.  And really believing as hard as you can that 2 and 2 make 7 will never make it so, and will eventually lead to your spiritual downfall.

Believing in something that is false has only one spiritual or practical benefit.  If this is happening to you, it is probably what should be happening.  The reason you're here is not to have a perfect existence and to be right all the time.  This world is a classroom, and we are here to learn and grow.  Everything is an opportunity to fulfill this Divine purpose, including getting yourself into and then out of some stupid, testable beliefs.

Powerful, spiritual beliefs are those that cannot be tested in any way except within your own character.  If they improve you, end your suffering and make you stronger, keep them.  They are proved for you.  But everyone else on the planet needs to do their own work.

Tell us, John, what religion are you anyway?

Why?  So you can label me?  So you can judge me according to your perception of that religion, as totally clear and perfect as that perception surely is?  Forget it.  I, like every person on the planet, am far more complex than even a whole dictionary of labels could contain.  I might be Catholic, Bhuddist, Hindu, Methodist, Muslim, Jewish, Evangelical, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Adventist, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, Quaker, Mennonite, Anabaptist, Baha'i, Eckankar, Jainist, Zoroastrian or Pastafarian, and it wouldn't make any difference to the validity of ideas that have an independent existence.

My Religion isn't the church I go to in order to participate in community life.  My Religion is my personal spirituality, untestable beliefs, and the growth that hopefully occurs once in a while as a result.


Stupid Science happens when scientists do the opposite, and make statements that are not testable.  They make proclamations that their data do not support.  Sometimes this happens when they perceive only what their personal bias and preconceptions allow them to see, or they filter every new experience according to  their past experience. In other words, when they are acting perfectly human.

But scientists are supposed to have more discipline than that, especially before opening their mouths in public.

The worst example of Stupid Science is when scientists publicly announce that There Is No God.  Now, how the hell were they able to work that out?  What data do they have to show this conclusively?  What peer-review process did they follow?  None:  they are just being Stupid.  They are messing with untestable hypotheses which are not within the domain of Science at all.  They are overstepping their bounds.

"I'm WATCHING you!"
Other examples of Stupid Science are found everywhere on the internet:  free energy scams; dubious anti-aging cosmetics, drugs and devices; "alternative" medicine; Climate Change Denial; Ass-trology, Numb-erology, bible codes, or anything else that uses scientific-sounding bullshit but with no methodology for eliminating bias from the evidence, or which claim proof of untestable or poorly-formed hypotheses.

Science is really very simple.  You draw conclusions based on real evidence, and only based on the evidence.  

Anything and everything that is objectively testable is the property of Science.  Anything that is subjective to the mind belongs to Religion.  They have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, nor does either one pose any kind of threat to the other.  There is no conflict between them.

Unless, of course, they are being Stupid.

Next:  Science V. Religion, Round 2

See also: Certainty or Self-Deception

and:  So it's Religion you want?


Monday, November 28, 2011

Ramblin' on my Mind

Tim and I were invited to play at a private party last Saturday.  We only had once chance to practice beforehand.  The results are as follows:

We're looking for a drummer and bassist to play with us once in a while.  But so far we haven't found any who, like us, are unable to keep a tempo.  It just wouldn't work.

The real thing:

Too Much Stuff

It's possible to have too much stuff, but you usually only become aware of the fact when it's too late and you have to move it all to a different house.

After three years in a house that was too small for our stuff (some of it had to be left outside in the rain), it was finally time to move to a bigger house.  Except for the stuff that had been ruined by being out in the rain, of course.  Luckily, there was a Bring Out Your Dead day a few weeks before the big move.

To save about a thousand dollars, we decided to move ourselves.  We rented a truck from Thrifty because the name simply appealed to us somehow for reasons we can't explain.  It was a 3-tonne truck which is the largest you can operate in Western Australia with only a normal driver's license.  It took four trips over a 48 hour period.  We returned the truck at 1 o'clock in the morning.

(Like the music?  Get it here.)

By the end of it, my body felt like I had been hit by a truck.  A big, blue truck with the word, "Thrifty" painted on the side.  Four times.

Interestingly, we put 170 miles on the truck but used only 8 gallons of diesel.  That makes it slightly better than 20 miles to the gallon.

This gave me an idea.  I could load my tired old 1800-cc Toyota light truck into the back of this moving van and cart it around everywhere I went.  I'd get better fuel economy that way.  Plus it would save on wear and repairs.  With nearly 450,000 kms on the clock (that's 280,000 miles for my metric-impaired readers), repairs are becoming more frequent.  It would also save on speeding tickets.

How can you avoid getting saddled with too much stuff?  I suggest moving house every few weeks.

Just to be on the safe side.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Theory of Awesomeness

One of the characteristics of a great, enduring Scientific Theory is its ability to organize random observations and facts into something more orderly.  Something that makes sense.  And at no time are we in more desperate need of organization than while moving house!

I have way, way too much stuff.  Most of it is books.  Then there's my calculators, watches, cameras, and various computer things.  But then there are things that I have no idea why I have them, what they're good for, or where to put them.  This is where the Theory of Awesomeness comes into its own.

Before, during and after the big move, I've had to make a seemingly endless series of decisions about what to keep, what to give to the Salvos*, and what to send to the Tip*.  My Theory of Awesomeness makes these decisions  vastly easier and in many cases so obvious that I don't know what I'd do without it.  It's Awesome.

That's actually one way to define Awesomeness: the degree to which something is Awesome.  But to avoid a tautology (look it up), Scientists are trained to define concepts like this quantitatively.   Therefore,

where a0 is the baseline Awesomeness, U(t) is the item's usefulness or un-usefulness as a function of time, E(t) is the Elegance (or lack thereof) which is defined as the base-pi logarithm of the coolness, and d is the density.  Obviously things that are Awesome because of rather than in spite of how much space they take up or how much they cost will require a different equation.

The real power of this equation is that it will be at least a week before someone emails me and says, "Hey, wait a minute . . . ."

While packing for the big move, each item's Awesomeness was calculated.  If it was less than the baseline Awesomeness, I threw it away.  If it was merely baseline Awesomeness, I gave it away.  If an item was clearly and demonstrably Awesome, I kept it.  For example, there were some books containing information that was irrelevant even when new, but which was now also out of date.  These were tossed straight in the bin.  Items of clothing for which the Awesomeness had worn out leaving large holes in them were also thrown out unless they could be used as awesome paint rags.

None of my calculators got thrown away or given away, owing to the fact that even the broken ones take up so little space and were in past times (t approaching negative infinity) very useful.  Most of the books I own stayed because they have potential usefulness as t approaches infinity.  All of my watches and clocks were saved from the axe due to their undiminishing elegance and/or coolness.

Highly subjective, you say?  I don't think so.  I defy anyone to prove that this incredibly practical Casio with a 10-year battery is not both Useful and Cool.  It is in fact the only digital watch I can be bothered to wear.

Or try to prove that this limited-edition watch isn't the coolest thing in the entire Solar System.  The face revolves once per sidereal day and correctly displays the location in the southern hemisphere of 1000 celestial objects at any given time.  As the months pass and the earth revolves around the sun, the dial keeps track of the changes in the night sky and shows me which constellations and stars are visible at the moment.  That is, as long as I have the 10x magnifier that came with it.  Sometimes I wear it even if I'm not particularly fussed about what stars are presently visible.  It's the sort of watch that a great wizard like Dumbledore would have worn on a daily basis.  Heck, it's the sort of watch Dumbledore would have invented.

Or, prove that this Seiko Chronograph isn't completely and absolutely cool due to the rotary logarithmic slide rule built into the bezel.  It can do unit conversions and multiplication or division (provided you know how a slide rule works AND have a magnifier handy - see previous).  It is so cool that I had no choice but to give it to myself for my birthday.

Well, I couldn't have expected anyone else to realize that I needed a watch with a rotary logarithmic slide rule.  Oh, sure, it's completely obvious in hindsight.  But my understanding of the Theory of Awesomeness makes buying my own birthday presents the most practical and scientifically sound course of action.

So, the next time you have to make a decision about what to keep, what to throw away, what to donate, or what to buy that special engineer or scientist in your life for Newtonmas (only 30 shopping days left!), feel free to use my Theory of Awesomeness.  If an item contains enough Awesomeness, it is worth having.  It might even be worth the trouble of moving it to another house.

*  Salvos is Australian slang for The Salvation Army, which in addition to being among Australia's many excellent religious organizations, operates an immensely useful chain of thrift stores.
*  The Tip is the Australian word for a landfill.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Taboo #1: Politics.

My personal views on Politics and Religion are sure to alienate every other living person on the planet.  This is exactly how it's supposed to be, since every person on the planet is entitled to have their own personal views on things.    If you are apt to experience outrage when someone's views differ from yours, I suggest that you read no further.  Ever.  Anything.  Unless you like being outraged (which admittedly many people do, given the popularity of outrage-promoting TV shows such as The News.)  In that case, my best advice is to do whatever you want, and don't blame me.

I find Australian politics to be fascinating.

Like most statements about politics, this one is also an outright lie.  The truth is that I find few things to be more irritating than politics.  To my mind, interesting questions are scientific, philosophical or engineering in nature and not the endless random noise about who supports what or whom.  It's Celebrity Gossip and nothing more.

In Australia, the conservative pro-wealth party is called The Liberal Party of Australia for some reason.  This would be like the US Republican Party calling itself The Gay Communists of Atheism Party.  The word "liberal" is such an epithet and insult in the United States that the casual use of it in Australia still sounds weird to me.

I also consider it to be blatant false advertising.  "Vote for lower taxes on the rich, fewer immigrants, more corporations, less health care, less welfare, less education, and more Religion in public life.  Vote Liberal!"    Say what?  That stuff isn't liberal, it's head-in-the-sand 17th-century Conservatism.

Meanwhile the liberal side of politics in Australia is called the Australian Labour Party for the very compelling reason that they needed to have a different acronym (ALP) from the other guys (LPA).  This is also a bold move that the US Democrats are too cowardly to take: openly declaring their support of labor unionism.

Back in the 1800's when the lines were being drawn globally, progressive socialist intellectual marxist bolscheviks ("liberals") decided they needed a voting base slightly more diverse than that of over-educated and under-experienced idealistic university students, and so they recruited blue-collar workers to their side by promising better wages and conditions.  This was accomplished first through unionism, then violent communist revolutions, later through government-mandated conditions of employment, and later still, total government oversight of every aspect of life.  Early attempts at totalitarian control utilized a kind of secret police called The Secret Police, but now most governments do this simply using the tax code.  I'm not talking just about Russia here, but every nation on the planet including the USA.

But what they didn't count on was the underlying conservatism of blue-collar workers,who tend to believe in family life, religion, national patriotism, and sports.  And so to maintain this tenuous grip on blue-collar support, the liberal Labour Party, just like the conservative Liberal Party, has to pretend to like all those very conservative yet very populist things as well, making the conservative Liberal Party and the liberal Labour Party visibly indistinguishable from each other.  But behind closed doors, Labour Party leadership are still essentially intellectual communist atheists.  Australia's Prime Minister for example is a woman who openly lives with a man to whom she is not married, and has done so for years.  In America, many people think it's still legal to stone monogamous adulterers (aka "liberals") to death.  Can you imagine a man or a woman in a de-facto relationship running for office in the US?

This brings me to the parliamentary practice of making one of their numbers the de-facto (har!) head of state.  It's like putting one of the chickens in charge of the henhouse, which seems to me like an enormous conflict of interest.  Who is representing her electorate while Julia Gillard off being the Prime Minister?

To be effective, any legislative body needs to have a common enemy, specifically a chief executive or President as head of State. Otherwise, they do what the Australian Parliament does all day, which is bicker and snipe at each other rather than figure out how to settle the President's hash once and for all.

Every statement heard in parliament is made solely to denigrate the other party simply for being the other party.  The LPA trashes the ALP for supporting policies that the LPA itself supported not more than a couple of years ago.  There is nothing substantive or intelligent ever said within those walls.  I find it to be pure childishness and a complete waste of the taxpayers' money.

But would it be any different if Australia had a President instead of a foreign Queen as head of State?  Based what I hear from the USA, the answer would have to be "no."

The late and famous Douglas Adams wrote in one of the Hitchhikers' Guide books that no one who seeks power can ever be trusted to have it.  In his universe, the real leader is a hermit who doesn't give a toss about power, and makes decisions on a purely rational basis (he asks his cat) rather than based on what is more likely to get his party re-elected.

J.K. Rowling, whom you may have heard of if you've been anywhere in this Solar System during the last 15 years, also writes that those who crave power should under no circumstances be allowed to actually have it.  Everything I am unfortunate enough to read about politics confirms these views for me.

The solution?  First, we should immediately ban all political parties forthwith.  They have never done anyone any good whatsoever and are a hinderment to real democracy.  Secondly, adopt real democracy, which is making decisions by the majority voice of the people.  Democracy did not originally mean creating popular celebrities who would then make short-sighted decisions based on how to best remain in power.

We have the technology now.  Why not have politics without politicians?

But doesn't someone have to be in charge?  No problem.  You've heard of Jury Duty, right?  Pick citizens at random to fill the seats.  You have my personal Guarantee that they will be no worse than the politicians who lie, cheat, steal and deal to get where they are.  Or your money back.


Taboo #2: Religion.

In 1958 Bertrand Russell posited that there was a perfectly good Teapot orbiting the sun in our solar system, and defied anyone to prove him wrong.  He was trying to explain what an unfalsifiable hypothesis was, and to show that something isn't necessarily so just because you can't disprove it.  Why would he do such a thing?

Because some knucklehead tried to force religion on him by asserting that since you can't prove that God doesn't exist, then you have to accept that He does.

What this alerts us to is the idea that if something can't be found, it isn't necessarily nonexistent.  We've all heard of the not-very-bright prospector who after years of searching without success concluded that there was no such thing as Gold.  Assertions of the existence of something (such as an orbiting Teapot, a Flying Spaghetti Monster, or The Invisible Pink Unicorn) can't be disproved just because we are unable to find them.  We can't very well look everywhere all at once.

Even worse are assertions of the existence of something which by its very nature is unable to be seen, felt, or otherwise detected in any way.  Although an obvious logical error, it's still quite funny (to my sense of humor at any rate) to say that lack of evidence is itself not only evidence but final proof of the thing existing. In that way, we can assert that any absurd thing exists as long as we also say that by its nature it cannot be observed to exist.

This line of thinking is countered by the purveyors of quality religion who say, "Yes, but these unfalsifiable teapots are just objects, small ideas that have no real power to change the world.  Religion consists of big ideas that create meaning in people's lives."  

Tosh, says Russell, people are able to find meaning in anything, given enough time, motivation and creativity.  Athiests are eager to claim (though without proof) that this is exactly what happened at the beginning of each major world religion.

Recently this precise thing has occurred with the emergence of our newest worldwide religion, Pastafarianism (google it).  Because someone asserted the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster that can be no more proved or disproved than the dogma of any traditional religion, non-deists worldwide have adopted it as a kind of anti-faith or spoof religion.  Essentially, it's the same argument as Bertrand Russel's Orbiting Teapot.  So why isn't there a worldwide religion dedicated to worshiping the almighty Orbiting Teapot?  It's obvious, isn't it?  In 1958 the Internet hadn't been invented yet.

Please don't get me wrong - I'm not anti-religion nor am I an atheist.    I regularly attend one of Australia's many excellent religious organizations.  However, I'm not a Zealot and I reject Fundamentalism in all forms. I'm perfectly content for atheists to think what they think, and for any particular religious group to do likewise. I wonder only that people who crusade for atheism or any sort of -theism don't have anything better to do with their time.

Fractal known as The Mandelbrot Set
One thing I'm not happy to sit back and silently give approbation to is someone going around saying they have proof that their own Flying Teapot or Spaghetti Monster is the one real one.  I speak of the Intelligent Design fruitcakes whose lives are squandered away in vain resistance to the natural proven fact of Evolution.  They claim that by studying something they call "complexity" they can find evidence that there was an intelligent agent at work in creating Life.  In other words, they say they have scientific proof that their God exists.

The problem is that their definition of complexity is no better than that of pornography:  "you know it when you see it."  That way they can assert that anything they want to be complex IS complex, and anything they don't want to be complex isn't.  Is it any wonder they claim their hypothesis to be proved?  It doesn't surprise anyone, frankly.

Mandelbrot set, magnified 2000 times.
However they define it, the main assumption is that "complex" things need to be designed "intelligently" and things that aren't complex have probably formed naturally or were perhaps designed by morons.  I say that this is completely wrong and backwards.  As an engineer, I know that things that are intelligently well-designed will always be simple.  Rectangular.  Regular.  Containing no more features than are absolutely necessary.  Random features, such as that of gravel (a man-made manufactured product!) don't count.  Infinitely repeating features such as that on a fractal pattern look complex but aren't really. One simple mathematical equation describes all the infinite and intricate features of the Mandelbrot Set, for example.  A bowl of spaghetti seems complex when you examine it closely, but it contains no information and only one part.  Unless you add meatballs.

But complexity has a real definition and a way of measuring it.  It comes down to how much information an object contains, not necessarily how much is needed to duplicate it.  Spaghetti and fractals are not complex.  A Terabyte of random numbers is not complex.

The most complex thing we normally deal with is a computer.  Wasn't it designed?  Heavens, no.  It evolved through many increments to the point where no single person could possibly in a lifetime create all the hardware, firmware and software necessary for you to be reading this right now.  Compared to the human body however, a computer is relatively simplistic.  It also contains little or no random "garbage" owing to the intervention of designers.  The human DNA sequence on the other hand does contain "junk."

No, the idea of "irreducible complexity" does not prove the existence of an undetectable invisible sky person.  It is a false concept that misunderstands and misrepresents its own basic terms: intelligence, complexity, design, and creation.  Complex systems cannot be designed.  They can really only evolve.

And this should come as very welcome news for people who are into religion.  Religion is supposed to be something not scientifically tested or subject to forcible persuasion by proof.  It is supposed to be something of personal choice rather than compulsion by government or logic.  Why are some religionists determined to look for proof?  Do they in fact have no faith?  If you know any of them, could you get them to please stop it?

If you want religion to have a place in your life, you don't need the permission of Logic, Science, or any human being on the planet to do so.  Anyone who tries to ridicule you for doing so should be told to go and get a life.  At the same time don't be under any misapprehension that your Flying Spaghetti Monster is any more or less scientifically proven than someone else's.

In the words of America's most respected judge possessing the very Wisdom of Solomon,

"I order Science to stay 500 yards away from Religion at all times."

That's suits me.  While I quite enjoy chocolate in my peanut butter and peanut butter in my chocolate, the same does not apply to science and religion:  I enjoy both of them so much more when they are each minding their own business.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Very Auspicious Day - November 8

You might not be aware that November 8 is one of the most interesting dates on the entire calendar.  

For example, on this day in 1889, Montana became the 41st State of the Union.  Where would we be today if that hadn't happened?  Not in Montana, that's for certain.

X-Rays:  Creepy!
Röntgen: Creepy.
Also on this day, in 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-Rays while messing around with electricity, thus creating a whole new way for scientists to be creepy.  And proving once and for all that messing around with electricity is, on the whole, an excellent thing to do.

Speaking of creepy, November 8 is also famous for being the day in 1923 on which a confused young Adolf Hitler attempted to seize control of Germany by occupying a beer hall in Munich at gunpoint.  And it just might have worked, if it hadn't been a completely idiotic idea!!!!  Sure, Germans like beer, but there is so much more to Germany than that.  Young Adolf wouldn't have necessarily understood such nuances of German culture, he himself being Austrian. And part Jewish.  And his real name wasn't Hitler, but Schickelgrüber.  Yes, he was a very confused young man, about a great many things.

But young Adolf learned his lesson, and after being released from prison he gave up trying to put his nefarious plans and half-baked sociological theories into effect by force.  Instead, he did what everyone else does who lusts for power, and got himself elected democratically.

Which is why you must never vote for anyone who says, "Vote for ME."  Because that person will absolutely, definitely be the next Hitler.

LOSER of the 1960 US Presidential Election
Speaking of villains and democracy, November 8 also marks the day in 1960 when Richard Milhous Nixon, the world's second most famous Quaker after the guy on the Oatmeal box, was defeated in his bid to become the 35th POTUS.  The voice of the People was clear and decisive in their rejection of Nixon as their 35th president.  Nixon accepted this decision with good grace and resigned himself to becoming 37th president instead.

Remember that word, Dick.  "Resign." It might come in handy again.

Speaking of resigning, today is the day in 2006 that the Worst Secretary of State Ever, Donald Rumsfeld, resigned.

While November 8 has seen its share of blood, such as the historic first-ever jet-on-jet aircraft dogfight (1950, USA 2, North Korea 0), or in 1520 when Denmark invaded Sweden for some reason, it has also been a day of peace.  1965, for example, when Britain officially abolished the death penalty.  Or the signing of the Pacification of Ghent in 1576.  And thank goodness for THAT.  Just imagine what your life would be like if the Dutch town of Ghent were still full of angry Spaniards.

King Charles the Clueless
November 8th is also the birthday in 1622 of King Charles the 10th of Sweden, who spent most of his time trying to explain to the rest of the world that Sweden and Denmark are actually two completely different countries.  By far the most interesting thing about him is that he was actually King Charles the 4th.  But King Charles the 9th who was really King Charles the 3rd had chosen his number based on a book he read which he thought was a history of Sweden but which turned out to be a work of fiction.  Thank goodness no democratically-elected leader in modern times would ever rely on fictional stories to make important decisions (ahem).  The fact that George W. Bush had never read an entire book might actually have been for the best.

It is the birthday in 1836 of Milton Bradley, a wealthy Capitalist and entrepreneur who built a monopoly based on board games, which ironically did not include Monopoly!  Instead, Monopoly was the creation of a puritanical do-gooder who wanted to teach people about the evils and moral bankruptcy of Capitalism.  The game failed miserably in this goal, and instead became the means of introducing millions of children to the endless joys and wonders of Capitalism.  As a consequence, and much to her dismay, the self-righteous do-gooder became a fabulously wealthy Capitalist.

Also born on this day, in 1848, is Gottlob Frege, the German mathematician and logician who elevated Logic from something akin to the disreputable morass of Grecian rhetoric into a respectable branch of mathematics.  Presumably he did this in an effort to figure out what on earth his parents were thinking.  Next time you use an IF( ) function in Excel or draw a Chance card in Monopoly, thank Gottlob Frege.

Jack Kilby, Inventor of the
Calculator and the
Integrated Circuit.
One individual indebted to Gottlob Frege was the inventor of the integrated circuit, an item that makes prodigious use of Frege's formal mathematical logic.  Jack Kilby built and patented the first integrated circuit while working for Texas Instruments in 1958, and was promptly awarded the Nobel Prize.  Well, relatively promptly.  It apparently took 42 years for the news to reach Sweden.  (All their mail was being delivered to Denmark by accident.)  In any case, Jack's birthday could only be - you guessed it - November 8th!

Jack Kilby was an engineer after my own heart.  He also invented the electronic calculator, which I regard as the greatest invention of all times.  If I could put just one item into a time machine and send it to my personal hero Galileo (who famously never did anything on November 8th if he could help it), it would be a solar-powered scientific calculator.  He really could have used one.  And I have a few extra, including the Texas Instruments TI-30X IIs, which in my studied opinion is the best calculator available today and a direct descendant of Jack Kilby's creation.

Some of the calculators I have owned and used.  Best Invention Ever.

Atlas: Not Verified
This day is also the birthday in 1656 of astronomer Edmund Halley, who correctly guessed the periodicity of the object now known as Halley's Comet.   It is also the day before the birthday of astronomer and author Carl Sagan.  Twelve hundred years or so from now, November 8th will be celebrated by "millions and millions" of people throughout the inhabited Galaxy as Sagan-mas Eve.

Also in Astronomy, it is alleged to be the anniversary of the discovery in 1980 of a 15th moon of Saturn based on images taken by Voyager 1 (there are now at least 62 known moons of Saturn).  Try as I may I have not been able to verify this claim, nor verify that the fried-egg-like Atlas was that lucky moon.  Actually, this factoid is almost certainly wrong.  But if it were true, how awesome would that be?
2005 YU55.  Verified.

Verified, however, is the hair-raising near-miss of a 400-meter-wide asteroid, named 2005 YU55 for some reason, passing between the earth and moon on November 8 of 2011. Hey - that's TODAY!!!

If an object of that size were to collide with the earth, it's pretty much lights out for 90% of higher life forms on this planet, and even some politicians too.  The chances that it will do so are zero, however.  Its trajectory has been very accurately plotted, and it will definitely miss us.  We'll be able to get a much better photo of it, though, so that's a bonus.

Bram Stoker's character
scares the hell out of me.
Shouldn't we really call this a near-hit instead of a near-miss?

It is the birthday of scary Irish author Bram Stoker (1874), and notable user of language Gordon Ramsay (1966).  It is the day English poet John Milton regained paradise in 1674.

November 8 is the day in 1983 that the amazing James Booker left us for the sunny side of the street.  In honor of His Magnificence, please take a moment to listen to one of the great human achievements of all time:

So my friends, enjoy this absolutely amazing, one-of-a-kind day!  What will I be doing on this most auspicious occasion?  I am going to celebrate by laying in a hammock.