Monthly Archives: March 2007

Archer’s birthday invitation

At Archer’s upcoming birthday party, the theme is “superheroes.” Guests will choose from a wide variety of capes, masks, and insignia to customize their superheroic alter egos.

Here’s the invitation. The real-world version has the black and red elements printed on transparency, which is then affixed along its top edge — like a cape — to a backing of yellow card stock.

Indiana Jones and the Rolling Roles

The latest Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, came out in 1989 and was set in the year 1938. Next year, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford will present a fourth Indiana Jones movie. In real time, 19 years will have elapsed since the last one.

Since Harrison Ford has visibly aged in that time, it’s reasonable to expect that a comparable interval has elapsed in story time between Indy 3 and Indy 4. Let’s say that the story interval is not 19 years but 24. That opens up a pretty interesting story possibility.

It’s 1962. An aging Indiana Jones has made a discovery of tremendous personal importance to himself, something he’s been looking for all over the world for thirty years. And for some reason, the first thing he does is to make his way to a small city in California to track down an obnoxious loudmouth with a fast car and a taste for Stetson cowboy hats — Bob Falfa.

Jones tries to convince Falfa to accompany him on a highly unique project. Mysteriously, Jones tells Falfa that he can divulge no details (“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you”) but, knowing Falfa’s love of fast cars, promises him the chance to drive something faster than anyone’s ever seen.

This was the wrong thing to say. Bob Falfa’s pride is hurt; his own car, he asserts, is the fastest thing on wheels. “And I’ll prove it to you!” Falfa storms off before Jones can get another word in and, almost at once, he goads a local hood, John Milner, into a drag race — which Falfa loses, spectacularly, trashing his car in the process.

Humiliated, Falfa leaves town that very day and changes his identity, swearing off hot rods and Stetson hats in a bid to be untraceable. (But he can’t completely break with the past. His new name, Martin Stett, commemorates his preferred hatmaker.) Stett kicks around for a few years and ends up with a gig in San Francisco as the personal assistant to a wealthy and unsavory businessman known as The Director.

Late one night Stett finds himself in a high-stakes poker game with some hardcore gamblers, including one charming out-of-towner (“I’m just passing through”) who’s losing badly. Out of funds on a big hand, the stranger puts his pink slip in the pot, assuring everyone that it’s for “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.” Stett wins the hand — and learns to his astonishment that he’s the new owner of a spaceship called the Millennium Falcon. The stranger, Lando Calrissian, is devastated but gracious in defeat. He offers to give piloting lessons to Stett in return for a lift back to his home galaxy far, far away.

After dropping off Calrissian at a bustling spaceport, Stett flies around this new galaxy for several years, picking up odd jobs where he’s able and enjoying his new solitude so much that he changes his name again, this time to Solo. Over time he befriends a Wookiee, a Jedi, and a princess, and plays a role in reforming galactic politics.

Feeling nostalgic one day, Solo takes a long flight back to Earth and is a little puzzled to discover that, due to the time-distorting effects of faster-than-light travel, he has arrived years before he left. Thus unable to visit his old stomping grounds — they don’t exist yet! — he makes to leave immediately but the Falcon’s hyperdrive, which has always been finicky, gives out altogether. Solo is stranded on a planet where there are no spare hyperdrive parts for thousands of light years in every direction.

With no other options, he conceals the Falcon in the New Mexico desert and begins researching ways to rebuild the hyperdrive from raw materials available on Earth. His research reveals the existence of ancient Etruscan mineral-smithing techniques that produced artifacts suitable for use in the hyperdrive motivator.

Solo begins hunting for Etruscan artifacts all over the world and is soon drawn into the world of archaeology, for which he has adopted yet another new alias — Indiana Jones — and reindulged his old love of broad-brimmed headwear. Along the way he has numerous new adventures and his repair of the still-concealed Millennium Falcon is sidetracked into an on-again, off-again project whose highlight is a dramatic near-crash during a test flight in 1947.

Finally, by 1962, Jones/Solo/Stett/Falfa has accumulated enough Etruscan jewelry and pottery and so on to build a hyperdrive motivator and complete the Falcon’s repair. However, he is by now old enough that his arthritis robs him of the agility needed to crawl in and among the parts of the Falcon’s engine machinery. What he needs is someone younger, mechanically inclined, and trustworthy. He knows just the person: an aimless young hot-rodder named Bob Falfa. And this time he won’t insult his car…

Elementary, my dear human

On my commute recently I listened to a recording of the talk given last month by Vernor Vinge to The Long Now Foundation on the subject of alternatives to “the Singularity.”

Vernor Vinge is an acclaimed science fiction author and futurist. The Long Now Foundation is an organization of technologists, artists, and others dedicated to pondering the challenges facing society on very long time scales, on the order of thousands of years. And “the Singularity” is a concept invented decades ago by Vinge that says, in effect: technological progress is advancing almost unavoidably to a point (called the Singularity) where technology itself will exceed the intelligence and abilities of humans. After the Singularity, continued technological advancement is in the hands of technology that’s literally superhuman. It proceeds at a superhuman pace according to superhuman motives. Just as our laws of physics break down at the event horizon of a black hole, it is in principle impossible for us to make predictions about the future beyond the Singularity, when things will be as incomprehensible to us humans as, in Vinge’s words, “opera is to a flatworm.”

Although Vinge believes that the Singularity is the likeliest non-catastrophic outcome for the future of humanity (and there are many who agree and many who don’t), his talk to The Long Now Foundation addressed alternative, non-Singularity possibilities. What might prevent the Singularity from occurring? War and various catastrophes on a global scale are obvious ones. But there are two interesting non-Singularity possibilities that Vinge did not discuss.

The less interesting and less likely of the two possibilities is that there is some fundamental limit on the complexity of information processing systems, and human brains are already at or near that limit. If these two suppositions are true, then it is not possible for technology to exceed human reasoning or inventing power by a significant amount — though it would still be possible to employ vaster, harder-working armies of reasoning and inventing machines than it would be to recruit similar numbers of people. (Interestingly, Vinge posits just such a fundamental limitation in his science fiction masterpiece, A Fire Upon The Deep — a rousing and thought-provoking adventure, and the only sci-fi story I’ve ever come across that feels truly galactic in scope.)

Here’s the non-Singularity possibility I like better: though machine intelligence may exceed that of humans, human intelligence can keep up, like Dr. Watson arriving at a conclusion or two of his own while following Sherlock Holmes around, or like me surrounding myself with friends whose superior intellect and wit eventually rubbed off on me, at least a little.

Consider that a hundred years ago, it took geniuses at the pinnacle of human intelligence to devise the counterintuitive physical theories of relativity and quantum mechanics that, today, are grasped (in their rudiments) by children in middle school. Consider that the same race of beings that once gazed up at the heavens and made up fairy tales about the constellations has now charted and explained very much of the visible universe, almost all the way back to the beginning of time — and it took only a few dozen centuries.

Perhaps there are realms of thought and invention that require posthuman brainpower to discover. But I’m optimistic that where our future technology leads, we can follow.

World widescreen web

Thinking of upgrading your conventional picture-tube TV to a fancy new flat-panel widescreen? But you’re on a budget and don’t want to go overboard? Confused about what size TV to buy? You’ve come to the right place.

The main criterion for choosing a screen size is one that I have not seen described in other TV buying guides: viewing area. The viewing area of a 32″ conventional TV is 492 square inches, whereas the viewing area of a 32″ widescreen TV is a mere 438 square inches! If you’re upgrading from a 32″ conventional TV you’ll want at least a 34″ widescreen to get the same viewing area.

Here’s how I arrived at those figures.

The advertised size of a TV display is the length of the diagonal. If from the diagonal we can determine the height of the display, h, and the width, w, then the viewing area is h×w. Thanks to Pythagoras we know that h2+w2 = 322. But this isn’t enough information to determine the viewing area: we also need the fact that the aspect ratio of most conventional TV displays is 4:3, which means the width of the display is four-thirds the height.

Substituting 4h/3 for w and then simplifying gives us:

h2+(4h/3)2 = 322
h2+16h2/9 = 322
25h2/9 = 322
h = √(9×322/25)
h = 3×32/5 = 19.2

Plugging that into the formula for viewing area (h×w) and recalling that w = 4h/3,

h×4h/3 = 19.2×4×19.2/3 = 491.52 square inches

Knowing that the aspect ratio of widescreen displays is 16:9 and using similar arithmetic gives a result of 438 square inches for a 32″ diagonal.

In fact, the math shows that for a given diagonal, the viewing area of a 16:9 display will always be about 11% less than the viewing area of a 4:3 display.

But wait! It’s not as simple as finding the widescreen TV that has at least the same viewing area as your conventional TV. You should also take into account the kinds of programming you watch.

Do you watch a lot of wide-format movies on your 4:3 TV? If so, you’ve certainly noticed the “letterboxing” needed to fit the wide aspect ratio of the film into the narrow one of the display. You’re not using the entire viewing area; some of it is wasted, as much as 32% of it for very wide format formats such as “CinemaScope.” With a 16:9 TV the need for letterboxing wide-format movies is decreased or eliminated.

Similarly, if you watch a lot of conventional TV programming (sitcoms, newscasts, etc.) on a widescreen TV, you’ll get “reverse letterboxing,” also called pillar boxing, where the black bars appear not on the top and bottom but on the left and right of the image to make the taller aspect ratio fit into a shorter one. Here again you’re wasting some of your viewing area.

So think about the kinds of programming you watch and consult this handy table that shows the true image size (in square inches) for various combinations of TV diagonal size, TV aspect ratio, and programming aspect ratio. Choose a TV that gives you the best image size you can afford for the types of programming you typically watch.

Program aspect ratio
1.33
(4:3)
very common
1.66
(5:3)
some movies
1.77
(16:9)
“widescreen”
1.85
(13:7)
VistaVision
2.35
(33:14)
CinemaScope
4:3
screens
20″ 192 154 144 138 109
27″ 350 280 262 252 199
32″ 492 393 369 354 279
36″ 622 498 467 448 353
42″ 847 677 635 610 480
46″ 1016 813 762 732 576
50″ 1200 960 900 865 681
16:9
screens
20″ 128 160 171 164 129
27″ 234 292 312 299 236
32″ 328 410 438 420 331
36″ 415 519 554 532 419
42″ 565 707 754 724 570
46″ 678 848 904 869 684
50″ 801 1001 1068 1027 808

Religion: another view

In previous blog posts I’ve been pretty down on religion. Well, on organized religion. Organized Western religion. But my actual outlook on the subject is more nuanced than I may have made it sound. Let me explain.

It infuriates me whenever someone tells me that religious faith is required in order to keep people moral. Apparently, if it weren’t for the fear of divine retribution, eternal damnation, etc., everyone would be a brute, stealing, raping, killing, and generally behaving badly. We would be in a Hobbesian state of nature. To keep society functioning, it is necessary for everyone to be ruled by fear. To be “God-fearing” is to be gentle and humble.

This is a very dim view of humanity — people can’t be good on their own? — and I’m happy to report that it’s as wrong as can be. In my experience, it’s the atheists and the agnostics who are by far the most moral and decent people: the most ready to lend a hand, the most reluctant to inflict harm, the most community-minded, the least selfish. They are guided not by fear for their immortal souls but by enlightened self-interest: sharing and caring buys you entrée to a culture that shares with and cares for you too. (Perhaps there’s a bit of San Francisco hippie utopianism in there as well.) For them, virtue may or may not be its own reward — it is for me — but at the very least it’s the currency with which a class of rewards can be purchased.

I submit that those who behave in a moral fashion for their own reasons instead of someone else’s are more moral. To such people, religion is probably irrelevant, especially if they’ve outgrown their simian need for a super-father-figure/tribal-leader/alpha-male.

What about everyone else? After all, it is lamentably true that not everyone behaves in a moral fashion on his or her own. Probably most people do not. For many of those, we see again and again on the local news (“if it bleeds, it leads”) how religion does not serve as an effective restraint on their darker lusts and passions, even in spite of occasional sincere belief in divine judgment.

Which leaves the remainder: those people who aren’t moral on their own but whose wrongdoing is effectively prevented by religious belief. They want to murder and steal and covet their neighbors’ wives and kick adorable defenseless puppies, but they don’t because God is watching.

Are there many or few such people? The Talmud says that to save one life is like saving the world. By that reasoning, if just one would-be victim’s life is spared by the inhibiting effects of religion on his or her would-be killer, then religious belief is a good thing. On the other hand, think of all the lives that runaway religious belief has cost over the centuries. In attempting to curtail one kind of evil, religion unleashes another kind. Which way does the scale tip? Does religion do more good than harm, or more harm than good?

Violent fanatics are the dark side of religious belief. Is it possible to have religion without creating fanatics? That would be the best of all possible worlds. I suspect, however, that, just like acting morally, acting fanatically is possible with or without religion to justify it.

…But without a religion to organize around, the damage they could do would be limited. Hmm, I guess I’m down on religion after all.

East is east and west is… wet?

For my first twenty-six years I lived near the East Coast: first in New York City for eighteen years, and then in Pittsburgh for eight.

After that I moved to California and encountered a strange phenomenon: my sense of direction kept getting confounded by having the ocean on the wrong side!

Though I almost never saw the ocean in New York other than when I went to the beach, and of course never ever saw the ocean in Pittsburgh, I still unconsciously navigated by the knowledge that where the ocean was, was east. After getting to California, though again I seldom actually saw the ocean, I had a lot of trouble adjusting to the knowledge that where the ocean was, was now west. In fact, for a while I made a conscious effort to think not of the nearby Pacific Ocean but of the distant Atlantic for purposes of orienting myself around the Bay Area. (And, that worked.)

What makes this interesting is that, years later, I discovered that other East-Coast transplantees had encountered the same strange phenomenon.

I wonder what the larger significance of this phenomenon could be, if there is one. Does it belie some innate primal connection we all have to the sea? Is it related somehow to the way migrating birds navigate by the shapes of shorelines? If there were no ocean nearby but there was a major mountain peak, would I unconsciously relate my position to that instead?

A scientific hypothesis

A short time ago, Slater, our neighbor’s cat, appeared in our backyard. I went out to say hi and pet him. I spent only a couple of minutes, in part because of being very busy with work and in part because of my severe cat allergy.

An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to some stimulus. On this occasion I wondered: maybe my immune system is not overreacting, but merely reacting — possibly to the threat of infection by Toxoplasma gondii! Perhaps my cat allergy is just a sign that my immune system is more evolved than the immune systems of those who aren’t allergic and are therefore more susceptible to T. gondii infection.

Do cat allergies in fact protect sufferers against T. gondii? If so, are we, as a group, less likely to exhibit the personality traits associated with T. gondii infection?

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” we might expect to see a correlation between cat allergies and an increased likelihood to vote Democratic.

Like father, amazingly like sons

As we were heading out the door last night after finishing dinner at Milano Ristorante (try the eggplant-veal involtini!), the proprietor, a friendly old Italian man, ran after us to hand Jonah and Archer each a biscotti cookie. They dutifully thanked him, then asked me what they’d been handed. I said, “That’s an Italian cookie. It’s called biscotti.” They munched contentedly on their biscotti as I strapped them into their car seats. Jonah then blurted, “Hey! Biscotti — like Scotty from Star Trek!” Ten minutes later, Archer echoed the thought.

Andrea laughed and told me how proud I must be. Clearly the indoctrination is proceeding apace!

(We’ve seen a few episodes of classic Trek, but the kids know Star Trek mainly from the animated series on DVD. They’re big fans. Jonah loves to “read” the credits aloud in every episode. [It’s part reading and part recitation from memory, after asking me to read them to him about a dozen times.] “Star Trek! Created by Gene Roddenberry! Starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk! Leonard Nimoy as Mister Spock! And DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy!”)

Speaking of indoctrination, when I was out with Archer for a few hours over the weekend, Jonah asked Andrea to play “the capture game” with him. Yesss! My plan is still working…

If Bush didn’t exist, would it be necessary to invent God?

The ghosts of thousands of American soldiers butchered in an inhuman slaughterhouse do not haunt the conscience of the man who blithely sent them there. He is untroubled by the cries emanating from a dying American city, ruined and neglected on his watch. The piteous pleas uttered by the multitudes marginalized by his policies — the poor, the ill, the not-well-connected — do not perturb him. And he is completely deaf to the wailing of those foreign families he has destroyed by the tens of thousands.

Will nothing wipe the smirk off this man’s face?

All men love justice,” and for most people other than those who have bought into Bush’s “sophistry […] by which he proves to himself that it is best to be done,” the possibility that he will not be made to answer for his crimes is frankly unbearable.

Hence the need to invent the concept of Hell. Though we have no evidence for it, we are compelled to believe in it; the world is sometimes simply too cruel to bear otherwise. Even I am occasionally reduced to muttering, upon losing some argument with a boorish authority figure or customer-service agent, “Well at least he’ll writhe in agony for eternity.” (Hell is passive-aggressive.)

There have always been evil men like Bush, and though some of them may escape judgment in this life, we satisfy ourselves that no one escapes judgment in the next. Thus too the need to invent God, the immortal, infallible, and pitiless judge, to mete out a better justice than we humans can manage. Finally, to balance Hell and cement our faith in the fundamental rightness of the universe, the concept of Heaven — the place “we” will finally go to be free of everything that has interfered with our enjoyment of this life, including “them,” the other people we have consigned to Hell.

Western religion is founded upon childish wish fulfillment. This is so transparent, it’s a wonder so many people fall for its promises. Given that they do, it’s no wonder so many people fall for Bush’s.

Déjà recherché

It’s weird when you go to enter a search term in Google and your browser autocompletes it because you’ve done that search before, but have no memory of doing so. This happened to me yesterday when I typed “shoel” into the Google search box and my browser provided “shoelace knots,” which is just what I was going to search for. Must have done that search once before, though I don’t remember when or why.

(I was looking for a shoelace knot that would keep my laces out of my bicycle’s chain ring. Yes, I’m finally biking again; cutting out pasta alone isn’t doing the trick.)