Portland Passes Through the Sun's Corona

As Portland passes through the Sun's corona I'll be taking shelter for a few days (burying myself in the sands of Pacific City with nothing but a snorkel above ground). I will work on my rabid defense of CAM upon my return assuming the city is not consumed by the heat...


A Challenge: Imagine You Are Wrong

One recent poster took issue with my literary and informational talents. Apparently not a fan. No matter because blogs are inherently like an unattended white wall too inviting for a tagger to ignore. As my sites moniker suggests, I prefer gracious discourse to rabid feces slinging and I appreciate the restraint and respectful responses I get from the few who regularly visit this Internet backwater, but I have a thought.

A Challenge

Long ago when I was a member of a debating team, we often faced a significant challenge - arguing a position contrary to our own. It was a good exercise.

So my idea is this - why not stretch ourselves a bit and agree to be assigned a topic far outside our comfort zone and be required to argue, as convincingly as possible, the merits of a contrary position?

If there is enough interest, my plan would be to have you few decide my topic, and I would help decide yours.

Sound like fun? Any takers?


The Memeing of Life: Pliny's History of Human Cognition, part 1

I frequent a number of well-intentioned sites where insightful scientists lament their inability to combat even a single mumbled phrase that Oprah, et. al., happens to drop with abandon. They hurl data into the fray only to have it swallowed in the cacophony of ignorance that takes the place of real informed discourse in this country. Somebody like Jenny McCarthy can sway the public's perception of life-saving miracles of science that couldn't be dispelled by the resurrected ghosts of Einstein, Fleming, Newton and Galileo. It's probably a losing battle.

Scientific and critical thinking's tenuous hold on humanity may well have been doomed by the Internet and cable TV- the latest and greatest forms of unfiltered mass hypnoentertainment. Why? because they combine all of the attributes of video games, television, pulp entertainment, nasty gossip, conspiracy theories, the anonymous trash talking people love to do in cars, with porn from all over the world. You know, all the stuff humans find entertaining. It's probably unbeatable until real VR comes around and then we'll all starve like those old Skinner rats who couldn't stop pushing the button connected to their pleasure centers. Ironically, the later part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries may be remembered (in museums at least) as the high point of enlightenment - the period before technical progress allowed activist monopolists like Rupert Murdock to amass vast wealth and skew the political process while simultaneously rotting our brains.
America has never loved scientists. We are a people more interested in passion than sense and logic. That's part of the reason we love athletes in America but hate scientists. We forgive the athlete a thousand transgressions yet imagine a million conspiratorial theories about the actions of scientists. Never been too clear on why that is. Maybe it's because a 5'9'' guy standing next to a 7' NBA center has an easier time understanding why he can't do that guys job. I suppose if scientists really had huge pendulous craniums with exposed brains it might help. Or maybe not. Maybe it's because sitting at home drinking a cold one, we don't worry about the geopolitical impact of a good rebound. (I do to an extent - I'm tired of getting taxed to pay for all these damn sports venues that I don't go to but that's just me.) Maybe it's some ancient tribal yearning that replaces pillaging, who knows.

Or maybe it's an ancient race jealousy and distrust from a time when things were very different and physical prowess (and the occasional spear) was all we had going for us.

It's time for the wayback machine to help us understand how all this has come to pass.
One thing is pretty clear. Scientists are a recent development in human history - or at least the persistence and reproduction of scientists is. The deep scientific rationale for this is explained below. It explains the problem faced by proto-scientists throughout the great majority of human history.

The problem we face is that proto-scientists - those that questioned assumptions, tended to be lunch for predators. Those non-curious types who ran anytime they even thought they saw a face, reproduced. The result? A race of paranoid beings who see faces in everything and who make snap decisions on gut instinct and little data - and who are loathe to physically stick around too closely to where there are scientists... Explains a lot doesn't it.

The fate of early investigators did nothing to dissuade others to abandon the cut and run model.

Humans also found that skills honed to handle predators came in equally handy during debates.
It was probably not long after that the first proto-geeks began to hide their intellect so as to avoid the big stick. It would be some time before proto-scientists would be able to contribute to significantly improved weapons design and thus gain a level of importance to the tribe.

In the memetime....

Unfortunately about the time all this was happening and mankind had begun, perhaps for the first time ever, to ask the question 'why?', generation after generation of primate ancestors reproduced offspring good at seeing faces and running away. Over time this life-saving propensity to see faces in the grass got a bit out of hand. The combination of increasing brain size, confirmation bias and Pareidolia (seeing faces in all the wrong places) resulted in the first set of easy answers to the the why question - spiritualism. Who knows what triggered it though my best guess is that it was some frustrated father who blurted out to his kids that the rock monster would come for them if they didn't tan that hide, or got tired of his kids asking him why all the time and so started making stuff up to appease them. Kind of like the Internet. Before you know it they'd start feeling weird around that particular rock and not want to turn their back on it. Their imaginations would feed their fears and when Grok, the biggest and bravest of them took a dare and climbed it - only to fall on his head, well that was the end of challenges to the rock monster for a long time.

Animism was the probable result from being able to see all those angry faces in anything and everything. It certainly made for a lot of mystical items strewn about. It was probably hard to go about without bumping into one of them with potentially dire consequences. Possibly resulted in the first cases of agoraphobia. Trouble was when you picked up one of these items it was hard to distinguish from other rocks and such. But the answer to why one rock had power and one did not was obvious! There was something invisible in the rock. True some rocks like URANIUM did have invisible powers but I doubt that was true of most mystic rocks and trees, etc. I suppose pure happenstance may have resulted in an icon to the god of alopecia being made out of yellow cake but a truly functioning icon was probably rare.

It wasn't too long before resourceful types tried to bribe the inanimate objects in order to gain favor. After all, you could often bribe a big warrior to prevent them from killing you, why not the rock? That was the true downfall of man, for while spirituality could only really be something personal between an individual and his or her perceptions of the universe, adding coin and offerings to the process began to tweak the senses of a new kind of predator who could seek profit from all these individual transactions. But that was still in the future.

Before long this habit of giving offerings to anything with a face became a bit of an inconvenience since many rocks trees and mountains had faces, so the world waited for some spiritual equivalent to United Way - some process of giving thanks with a single payment. The stage was set for the industrialization of spirituality. The problem with spirituality was then as it is now; it's a lot of work. But if a 'kit' could be provided well perhaps it would easier, at least for those who wanted to be part of something greater but didn't have time to work it out for themselves. The stage for Religion, the out sourcing of spirituality, was set.

Some guys had already figured out that clouds held faces too (and bunnies, and horses, etc.)

Then it hit them! All the faces in the rocks trees and mountains are just manifestations of the cloud faces! There is only one real face! We need only pay tribute to one. How do I know? OH, because the cloud face speaks to you through me. And thus was an industry born. Self help kits were fine, but the real money would be, as any entrepreneur knows, in recurrent revenues.

As the brokers of this misty being the middle men got to relay the costs of doing business to the masses, (who lapped it up because one large payoff was better than having to pay each rock and tree), fancy hats could now be afforded. But of course payola is never a one time event. Why the brokers seemed to be getting along so splendidly while the poor starved to make their offerings was one of those 'inscrutable mysteries' they kept prattling on about.

(I dare you to come up with a more simple explanation for the shift from poly to monotheism ;))

Once brokers got into the act spirituality was doomed for most. Once people looked to others for finding their own purpose in the cosmos, it was a sure recipe for abuse. Whether there was or was not a force in the universe to be blamed for placing our airway in close proximity to our esophagus became less interesting to the brokerage services than the trimmings of power they were coming to enjoy. The shtick had to be refined over time as some people began to question the costs of providing for these guys who dressed well but didn't seem to do too much else. Particularly when compared with all the other guys who demanded payment for piece of mind... But they were clever.
Keeping things mysterious helped with blaming the victim for any failures.

Before long the mystics began to bet one another about what they could get some guy to do if they asked, and they were pretty amazed with what they could actually get away with. This was a pretty sweet gig for many centuries. Of course new franchises would pop up from time to time to compete but savvy mystics would nip them in the bud whenever possible. Extending the paternal umbrella of 'Because I said so'" to a greater sphere of questions resulted in greater riches. Eventually the big box religions would come to be, but that was something for the future. Unfortunately, the biggest loser in all of this was the very spirituality that had spurred people's interest in the organized processes of religion in the first place. In place of help with the answers to life's journey they got institutions of great power that became interested mostly in keeping theirs. And as the old saying goes, power corrupts.... If there ever was a deity in there somewhere it became harder and harder to find and often less and less the point.

That was how it remained for centuries. But a something was brewing beneath the surface. Or rather in the night sky. All those little pinpoints of light and faint hazy smudges had held many answers to questions not yet asked. But that was about to change...

(But how, you might ask, (if not then go away now) has the Internet and cable TV doomed our race? The next set of diagrams contained in part 2 explain it all.)


Pliny's Postulate

Pliny's Postulate:
A person who believes that their's is the only absolute and therefore valid world view, cannot logically use any argument against any other viewpoint derived from the doctrine of fairness.


Cents of Scale

How big is big? We hear about millions, billions and trillions all the time but it's hard for me at least to comprehend these numbers. So I did a little exercise.

Take a penny.

Enlarge it a million times,

Enlarge it a billion times,

Now enlarge a penny a trillion times,

The little red ball at the lower right is the sun...

At a quadrillion times the size of a penny, the orbit of Neptune looks like the blue ellipse.

That's some serious coin. This metaphor falls completely apart at greater distances, but if we shift it a bit and imagine that the orbit of Neptune were the size of a penny, the Milky Way would be this big...

Yes, you are right - Pliny was plenty bored last night, but I hope you can make some cents out of these numbers now... (rim shot!)


The Myth of Small Government

A cornerstone of conservative politics is a preference for 'smaller government'. Submitted for your consideration is a question: Is the notion of small government real or a convenient (possibly even a dangerous) myth?

It's a bit simplistic but essentially Mankind has been governed by four forces throughout history: mysticism, power, money and the law. None is a perfect solution with each saddled with limitations and dangers. At different times, the relative proportion of influence exerted by any one of these forces varies and it is also true that certain of these forces may co-opt others. Examples of the latter include theocracy's and authoritarian states. Mysticism, power or money based systems of power tend to corrupt their legals systems either by enacting new laws which further their reach or eliminating those extant laws which might mitigate or check their influence and power.

The fallacy in the small government philosophy is the assumption that less government (fewer laws) equates with reduced overall control in our lives. I.e., the other governing forces won't just expand to fill the resultant gap. History suggests that this may not be the result. Nor can we simply depend upon our neighbors good intentions.

It also ignore the real possibility that these other governance forces may benefit directly from an elimination of legal restrictions to their power. This seems particularly true of our recent history.

A potentially valid assessment of the Reagan/Bush era is that reduced government simply lead to a greater proportion of our governance being handed off to economic interests outside of public oversight. As the current greed driven collapse of the economy suggests, this may have been a Faustian bargain.

My preference is the law, or the judicious use of representative government as a check on the other three. The law and government is an imperfect solution no doubt. A frustrating aspect of the law and governmental influences is that they are often affected by a wide range of divergent interests resulting in slow progress and inherent compromise. But these compromises may prevent power from becoming too concentrated in the hands of a few - the usual outcome of economic governance such as that we we have now. It is precisely this frustrating and inefficient pull from all sides which can check governmental power, and which is dangerously absent from any of the other options.


Way to Go Milky Way!

If you’ve never seen the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon my advise is make the effort. I still get goosebumps when can stay awake long enough in a place where it is visible. That cloudy band surfeit with stars is hypnotic. To imagine the shear size of it; a galaxy over 100,00 light years across - almost 587 quadrillion miles! Numbers and distances too big to comprehend and dwarfed only by the even greater distances between the great galaxies themselves. Light itself that started at the farthest corner of the spiral when modern man was in its infancy just now reaching our eyes. It boggles my monkey brain. This week was something special; I learned something new about the Milky Way, which lead me to learn something odd and rather silly about myself.

I learned this week that the previous estimates of the size of the Milky Way were way too small! Armed with actual measurements in place of old estimates the mass and size of the Milky Way is roughly the same as the Andromeda galaxy. An increase of 15-20% in size. WOOHOO! Our previous position had been that of the second largest galaxy within the local group a member of the Virgo Supercluster; one of millions of similar groupings - not exactly unique. But now we are at least as big as Andromeda - none of our neighbors has bragging rights over us.I found that I was very pleased by that revelation. Probably far more thrilled than was practical considering the lack of implications.

I learned that I finally had to admit that I had galactic size issues for some time. I’ve never liked living in number two. The cosmos is apathetic enough to the egos of Man without having that little visible smudge in the constellation of Andromeda there to rub our noses in. The more I thought about it the odder it seemed. Why should it matter that the Milky way is as big as Andromeda? For some really strange reason it did to me. I guess I’ve always had a size issue with ours vs Andromeda. It doesn’t help that the name Andromeda sounds a lot more impressive either (though we can always dis it my merely referring to it as M31 - take that!). Talk about massively irrelevant jingoism. There is no conceivable practical importance to me, you or our most distant descendants, or the earth for that matter. The difference between living in a 100,000 light year across galaxy vs a 120,000 or 130,000 light year one is hard to appreciate here other than my slightly springier step from knowing we live in a really big one (Yeah I know the big ellipticals and globular clusters are bigger but they are all old and stodgy accretions not the brash swirls of an adolescent star formation such as ours ). Not some average joe galaxy but a really big one. UHUHUH! Despite the complete irrelevance of the fact that our galaxy once thought to be huge beyond my comprehension and any relevance to human existence is huger still, I am a happy camper. It makes no sense at all and I could care less. When we finally tangle with Andromeda in 2 or 3 billion years we’ll kick its ass! Then we'll start on these guys next...


Farewell Old Friend

No more greens beyond those in nature,
no more reds brighter than the sun,
If I seek colors deeper,
must look elsewhere than this ended run.

Paul begged his mother not to hoard it,
its nice bright colors preserved if we stored it,
Our necks craned high if we wished to view it,
though often not sorted cause I hadn't got to it.

Held in boxes shielded from the light,
many memories of places past stored out of sight,
Like the ones with wee horses a death knell,
has been rung for another type of carousel.

Pixels no doubt level the paying field,
today's clicking shutter offering a better average yield,
Gone the days when I schlepped 40 pounds to every shoot,
the complaints of elders such as me, no doubt moot.

I watched with dread this day to come,
each increase in resolution beat like an approaching martial drum,
Past 3 then 5 then 8 and beyond 10,
my beloved's 14 would one day be impossible to defend.

Truth be told I should confide,
I often can't recall where I put that slide,
China, Germany, Italy, our mainland and Hawaii too,
Dearest, some day from them, our kids will learn a lot of me and you.

Doomed to fade as all memories may,
life's colors slipping with each passing day,
Reds will pale and greens will blur,
not much more permanent than the instances they caught, only that is sure.

In boxes, sleeves, and the odd carousel,
Some easy to place and others hard to tell,
No more additions to all those scattered about my home,
for at long last they have taken away my beloved Kodachrome...


Empathy, Love and Perfection: a Theological Conundrum

I thought your responses to the question of divine punishment were interesting and about what one would expect from rational people. Two things struck me: why would an omnipotent being bother to punish in the first place, and if it did, the response should be measured and befittting the crime if the entity was loving. There was pretty strong agreement for using perhaps the most advanced moral rudder we have, empathy to guide the punishment. "Make them feel empathy for their victims". Does it strike anyone (other than old Pliny) as odd that this would on the surface seem to be more fair, loving, and moral than the punishments we find in our sacred texts?

Now some might shoot back that terms like loving and perfection as applied to omnipotent beings are beyond our interpretation. Baloney. We get these definitions from the texts themselves. Not to pick on the Bible but if we use it as example we get a pretty good idea about some critical issues: 1) God is perfect. 2) Man is made in God's image though of course an imperfect rendering. 3) Love, compassion, empathy and mercy are 'godlike' (moral) attributes that are praised and well defined within the texts. 4) The entity whose behavior most often would seem to be lacking in these perfect virtues is the omnipotent and perfect being. You kind of expect the imperfect humans to trip up once and awhile but not the perfect entity.

I'm really not trying to play a game of gotcha here. These inconsistencies were some of the first factors in my personal journey away from religion: a perfect and loving God could not by definition be less merciful, loving, compassionate or empathetic than the most moral human beings created in its image. And the most moral humans would not create hell. A place where torment is eternal, where no hope for redemption exists, no useful lessons are taught, and where most of the crimes being punished eternally are ones that imperfect human justice would punish with limited sentences. Would a moral human court damn one in total despair suffering from mental illness who took their own life? I doubt it. Frank Capra came up with a much better and more empathetic solution to that one than one finds in the Bible.

Imagine for a moment the 'empathetic' punishment of someone like Hitler; admittedly a worst case. It's not hard to wish for a place like hell for a monster such as he. If we used the punishment of empathy for his victims we might imagine him having to experience the suffering of every one of his 20 million victims (blame him for all of WWII). Sentence him live through the last 10 years of each victims life - 10 times! So where would that leave us? Hitler would be punished for 2 billion years. Or about 1/7 the total time that has elapsed since the Big Bang. And a rounding error of the time left before time itself ends - not eternal damnation by a long shot. Not long enough? Add another decimal or two, it's still not forever. Add punishment for every child not born because of his evil but it's still not forever.

One might argue that Hitler (and Stalin) are special cases deserving of eternal (trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of years) damnation but I would argue that 99.999% of those who would according to the Bible suffer a similar fate wouldn't receive such a sentence by a court made up of the most loving and moral of humans. The father of the prodigal son, never wrote off his wastral son. Would he not have kept on loving him even in death?

I know some might come back with the old saw that the punishment doled out 'hurts me more than it does you' cliche. Don't think so when the sentence is forever...

So I have been bothered by that conundrum since my wee years. A perfect, and loving God would be far more compassionate than any human ever could be. If a compassionate human could not imagine hell as just, then God could not either.


Blogger Almighty

Ok, I hope you guys bite on this one. Imagine you are omnipotent perfect and loving deity for a day. One of your tasks is to come up with an appropriate punishment and sentences for the worst crimes imaginable. You can make it fair or not - you are all powerful, just this once...

Obviously we'll return to this subject.


Americas Next Top Real Survivor of the Amazing Congressional Race

Al Franken's ascendancy to the Senate has got me thinking. I have a thought - in place of elections lets just create a reality TV series called 'Americas Next Top Real Survivor of the Amazing Congressional Race'. Sponsorship advertising revenues go to the US general fund. Each candidate has to live in the House of Representatives for 4 months, eat dinner with the other candidates, argue, and room with the rest while cameras follow them everywhere capturing all the reality. We start with an eclectic mix of Dems, repubs, anarchists, libertarians, etc. They participate in a made up series of challenges that kind of reflect things that a representative might be expected to master: a three legged race with a lobbiest, impromto back peddling on a tandem bike teamed with a reporter, a 30 minute speech about absolutely nothing, long distance mudslinging, standup fillibustering, brothel geocaching in foreign lands, and creative infidelity, to name a few. Viewers get to vote off the ones they don't like or who aren't entertaining enough. The winner takes a seat in Congress... Maybe it's not different enough from our current primary system.