Apr 202015

Recently I was boasting to a friend of mine that I had successfully predicted the emergence of Starbucks bottled coffee. Alex and I were shopping at an Asian market here in Seattle, where I found this outsized bag of dried chilies for sale:
Dried Chilis

I bought some chili paste with garlic, and several containers of coffee bottled in steel cans. I recounted to Alex how I discovered this sort of coffee way back in the late 80’s. At the time I was a staff pharmacist at the Westwood Village Pay ‘n Save in West Seattle. Pharmacy

As I recall, at the time I had an entire hour for lunch. Being that I was from Montana, a largely mono-racial state, the Asian markets of Seattle were endlessly fascinating to me. I discovered several Asian supermarkets in West Seattle that sold canned, sweetened coffee. The two brands I found were “Mr. Brown” and “Mr. Black.” I think Mr. Brown had milk, and Mr. Black was straight. I believe both were sweetened. At the time I had a subscription to Reason magazine, which promoted a largely libertarian viewpoint. One of their arguments was that the free market would, at least in some ways, reduce solid waste by more efficient consumer packaging. An example they used was the “aseptic pack” which was novel back then, but is quite common today, especially for little boxes of fruit juice popular with children. I remember buying an entire case of canned “Mr. Brown” which I took back to the pharmacy and placed in the refrigerator. It was one of those discoveries which makes you wonder “why doesn’t everyone do this?” Why don’t Americans embrace canned, sweetened coffee? I predicted that some big American company would start selling pre-made, sweetened coffee in aseptic packs.

Well, as we see, eventually an American company finally did! These days Starbucks sells a bunch of bottled coffee products, though not in “aseptic packs.”

At a deeper level, it’s always prudent to “date stamp” a prediction in some way. I have no proof that I made this prediction in the late 80’s, other than possibly the recollection of my pharmacy co-workers. These days one can blog about things, or post them on Twitter, or upload things to YouTube. It’s a no-cost social game that everyone can play, and even if one is wrong about a prediction it’s often a useful learning experience, as we can often infer WHY a prediction was inaccurate.

I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan, so speculating on the “future of food” is somewhat despairing, as it surely involves more processed food rather than “real” food. Nevertheless, I shall take this opportunity to make two predictions about the future of food:

1. I predict that genetic engineering will become prosaic, commonplace, and will lose its feared reputation. From this, we will see low-cost meat substitutes being “grown” in factories. This will appeal to our growing moral revulsion about treatment of animals on factory farms, and its gratuitous use of resources. On the upside, imagine the range of flavors and textures could be developed for synthetic meats. Lipid profiles could be altered, and healthier sorts of fats could be incorporated into these meats. They could be as delicate as fish, or as robust as a roast.

2. I predict that genetic engineering will broaden the range of fruit flavors in fruits. So-called “tropical” flavors will be transplanted into plants that grow in moderate climates. Flavors which are entirely synthetic, such as “tutti-frutti” could be produced by transgenic plants. Imagine eating an Idaho potato which tastes like pineapple or mango! Imagine a carrot which tastes like taro. I suspect that the first applications of such transgenic fruits will be in ice cream, as I believe issues of texture would take more time to optimize than pure flavor.

Personally I look forward to the day when I can eat a hamburger made from transgenic mastodon meat, accompanied by a milkshake flavored with REAL Frankenberries…

 Posted by on 04/20/2015 Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off
Apr 192015

I remember a strange incident from my childhood which involved what might be called an improvised weapon.

This must have happened when I was in about the 8th grade, which would have been the mid 70’s. I recall it occurred in the springtime, as it was light out after dinner, but not summertime. I was at home, and I began to hear an unusual sound outside. It was strange “foomp” sound, a loud and occasional percussive noise. Eventually I went outside to investigate. I saw several boys I knew gathered at the corner. They had constructed a cannon of sorts, which could shoot tennis balls into the air.

It consisted of a number of steel soda pop cans, each ganged together in a vertical stack with tape. Back then pop cans were made of steel and not aluminium. The bottom can of the stack had its bottom intact, but its top was crudely punched out with a tool, probably a screwdriver, resulting in a plate of mangled metal. The bottom of the next can in the stack was similarly punched in both the bottom and top. The top can in the stack, which was probably 5 or 6 cans tall, had the very top carefully removed, I think with a can opener. The can at the bottom of the stack had a small hole punched in the side, just above the very bottom. A tennis ball was placed in the top can of the stack, which fit just perfectly.

The boys would squirt lighter fluid into the small touch hole at the bottom, insert a tennis ball at the top, and shake the stack. In retrospect, the use of the crude tool to mangle the tops and bottoms of the middle cans instead of using a can opener was rational, as it increased the surface area inside the cannon, enabling greater vaporization of the lighter fluid. The cannon would be placed vertically and a match or lighter would be brought to the touch hole. A great “whoomp” sound would be produced, and the tennis ball would be shot perhaps 50 feet into the air.

You would think that an activity like this would become insanely popular amongst boys back then, but I only saw it used the one time. Years later, I built one myself with my friend Tim Cridland. I’m not sure what sort of can I used, as this would have been the late 80’s, and steel cans were becoming harder to come by, but not impossible. As I recall, I got it to work, but the novelty of the creation was gone, and it wasn’t quite as amazing as seeing it for the first time.

The stimulus for writing down this recollection was drinking canned Asian coffee recently, which made me recall the days when soda pop was packaged in steel cans. I’m not even sure if tennis balls are packaged in steel cans anymore, or if they would provide a tight enough fit to make such a thing.

Apr 152015

When I was a child I had a wild friend that I’ll call “R.” I’ve written about him before, and he was the subject of many of my wild and dangerous childhood adventures. This adventure started out prosaically, with a shopping cart.

R told me that he knew of an abandoned shopping cart, stashed under a building near the Clark Fork River in Missoula. This would have been the early 70’s, when stolen shopping carts were not as prevalent in the world as they are today. Back then I never saw a homeless person with a shopping cart. R suggested that we could transform this ordinary shopping cart into a go-cart. This sounded like fun to me, and we set about to do it.

Arriving at the building I discovered that R was speaking the truth; there was indeed an abandoned shopping cart under a building which I believe was used for cutting grave stones. We used wrenches to disconnect the wire basket from the underlying frame and wheels. We left the basket there and took the frame back to R’s house. Seen from the side, the shape of the frame was a sort of “J” shape, with the “J” laying on its side. From the rear, there was a gap between the two rear wheels. About 12″ above this gap was a cross-bar, which formed the curved part of the “J” shape. I could see the legitimate fun this vehicle could have, but it was clear that a board needed to go between the gap between the two rear wheels. We found a board, and I recall it was either bolted down or in some way firmly attached. Not surprisingly, there was no adult supervision during this process…

From here things began to get weird and dangerous. I imagined that one should ride this go-cart by kneeling on the board while holding on to the crossbar. R suggested that one ~sit~ on the board, and use the crossbar as a “roll bar.” We quickly tired of simply pushing each other along, and decided to take it to the next level. We enlisted the help of our friends John and Chris. We headed for Mt. Sentinel which as you can see by the photo on the Wikipedia page is largely grass covered. Of all all four of us, R was the only one of us crazy enough to actually try riding the go-cart down the hillside. R insisted on sitting on the wooden plank, which made “bailing out” virtually impossible. We tried launching R down the hillside several times, but each time the clumps of grass which covered the hillside stopped his progress. The wheels of a shopping cart are small, and easily stopped, sort of like how a small pebble can stop a skateboard wheel. On the final attempt R gained escape velocity, and began to roll down the hillside on his own. Soon enough the clumps of grass plus his “roll bar” proved his undoing and he began to lose control, first in great bumps, then by CARTWHEELING down the mountain side. Eventually his cartwheeling stopped, but he was still sliding down the mountain, face down. We ran down after him as fast as we could, but we couldn’t catch him. He managed to stop just a few feet before a small cliff.

Thankfully R was more or less unhurt; no broken bones or bleeding that I remember. Needless to say, that was the last time I remember using the go-cart. I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how kids use their free time these days, but I suspect this sort of thing doesn’t happen too much during modern supervised “play dates.”

Apr 132015

When I was a child our family experienced a strange series of events involving a telephone. I was probably about 10 when this happened so it must have taken place in the early 1970’s.

One day I answered the telephone in our house. Our phone was a landline, probably a model 500, and owned by the “phone company.” The caller hung up immediately. Not an uncommon experience, of course, but it began to happen several times a day, for days on end. It became obvious to all of our family members that we were the victims of some sort of crude harassment. One of my parents, probably my father, decided to contact either the police or the “phone company.” To their credit, Mountain Bell took action, and put a “tap” on our phone line. Here is where the story gets weird.

The representative of Mountain Bell told my father that what we must do upon receiving any phone call was to pick up the receiver and immediately put it on a pillow. From there we were to make no noise in the house at all, and in fact whisper as we spoke. We were to keep the phone on the pillow for several minutes, at least. A bit of a hyperbolic over-reaction in my opinion! I don’t think telephone receivers have ever been that sensitive. We had to call all our friends and ask them to cease and desist from calling our house for several days. In some way, the relative silence of the open phone line would facilitate the “tap” of the phone to determine the caller. In the end it turned out to be a female friend of my mother’s, a woman who we believed had become mentally ill.

The really strange part of the episode is that the Mountain Bell representative told my father that the “tap” occurred almost instantaneously, and that the receiver-on-the-pillow protocol was essentially overkill. The weirder thing about this was that the Ma Bell rep told my father that this was “secret” information, and that we should keep it a secret!

This makes total sense, as if one made a long distance phone call back in the old analog days, the “phone company” would need to know the number to which the call was made, and the duration, to properly bill the caller. Back then “long distance calls” were a BIG FUCKING DEAL as they were expensive, and not to be utilized frivolously.

For many years, I’d watch TV or movies in which the “bad guy” made a telephone call and had to be “kept on the line” for some dramatic amount of time, though he usually delivered his key lines just before the “trace” was made. Complete and total bullshit, of course, but it goes to show how effective the corporate propaganda of Ma Bell was back in those days. But why would they engage in such a propaganda campaign in the first place? Why would Hollywood voluntarily go along with it? It’s the same sort of thing as not showing a tension wrench used to pick pin tumbler locks. Perhaps some taps recorded the caller’s voice, and could be used in court as damning evidence above and beyond the originating telephone number. Perhaps Ma Bell chose to err on the conservative side, and promoted the fiction that ALL tapped called needed to be of a substantive duration.

For those in Seattle interested in analog telephones and switching equipment, there is a telephone museum in South Seattle, though they do a terrible job of self-promotion.

 Posted by on 04/13/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off
Apr 062015

People concerned about the existence, or non-existence, of free will usually acquaint themselves with the issue by reading philosophical literature. The literature on the subject goes back hundreds of years, often intersecting with theological interpretations. There is a growing body of scientific literature on the subject, which can be categorized as the “neuroscience of free will.”

I should like to propose a self test for free will, that is an exercise that an individual can perform that may have the end result of convincing one that “free will” is ultimately an illusion. Unlike testing for things like exoplanets or novel viruses, this test requires no esoteric machinery, as the perception that one has “free will” is purely subjective. We don’t even need the sort of exotic devices used in the tests performed by Benjamin Libet and others.

First off, the exercise requires that one meditate. For those who already meditate, this should be no problem. For those that don’t simply sit comfortably in silence, in a chair or comfortably cross legged. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. There is no need to modify how you breath; simply pay close attention to the rise and fall of the breath within the chest. Relax as many muscles as deeply as you can. The goal here is to try to pay close attention to the somatic sensations of breathing, in real time, instead of the thoughts, perceptions, words, and images that naturally enter our stream of consciousness. It’s an amazingly difficult exercise! To be free of words entering the mind for even a few seconds is hard. Nevertheless, with perseverance it becomes possible, at least for moments.

Now become aware of the ~nature~ of the thoughts entering the mind. Most will be associational in nature, that is they will be copies of thoughts you had earlier in the day. You may be considering the tasks you need to do today. You may be imagining a pleasant event that is scheduled to occur later, or mulling over an event that continues to preoccupy you. Mulling over is essentially creating modified copies of thoughts, an associational process. It’s a non-optimal sort of association. Imagine a word association exercise in which one repeatedly answers “cat” to the stimulus of the word “cat” instead of “dog” or “fur.” This is natural, and attests to the less than optimum software that runs our minds. This software was not designed by an “Intelligent Designer” but is a product of evolution. Why do we need to “tell ourselves” things we already know? Why do our minds repeat the same idea over and over again? At the very least this form of largely associational mental functioning, even during meditation, is familiar. It’s unlikely any productive insight will occur during this sort of habitual process.

Most likely, a truly novel word, image, or impression will eventually present itself in your stream of consciousness. It may take several attempts at meditation for this to occur, if one is not already practicing. I still remember the specific image that occurred to me that produced the insight I’m trying to share: During meditation, a memory, tempered by imagination, entered my mind. I saw the shoreline of the Bitterroot River in Missoula, but from the perspective of being in the middle of the river. I had been on the shoreline before, but not in the water. The image was a hybrid of true memory plus imagination.

At this moment my meditation was completely disrupted by the insight that free will is an illusion. For “I” simply did not “chose” this unique visual image at all, it simply entered my mind. The image of the river was striking because of its utter uniqueness. There was no preceding cogitation of rivers, rafting, water, shorelines, or any sort of similar thought. At this moment it was crystal clear to me that there was simply no act of “choice” that occurred in my mind. The notion of choice is integral to the concept of free will, as if we do not choose what thoughts enter our minds or choose what actions to perform we concede that we are, in an ultimate sense, deterministic. If one counters that “free will” is the ability to choose amongst multiple behavioral or cognitive pathways, then indeed we have that ability. Yet the choice to act is yet another impression that simply enters the mind, just like a visual impression of the Bitterroot river. The choice itself has deterministic antecedents, albeit highly complex ones. This is the ultimate sense in which “free will” is illusory.

Why must this exercise occur during meditation? Because meditation is a very effective way of reducing the barrage of stimuli that enter our minds. Meditation is a way of reducing that barrage so the insight of how the contents of our minds simply ~enters~ the stream of consciousness, and is not “chosen” can occur.

Consider that most of our daily thoughts are associative or repetitive in nature. Isn’t this more or less a concession that those thoughts are essentially habitual and mechanical, and thus far less “chosen” than truly unique impressions? Once one becomes more perceptually attuned to “where” ideas come from that enter our streams of consciousness, it becomes easier to notice this process happening in our prosaic day-to-day lives, not just during meditation. I should like to propose that the FAMILIARITY of our habitual associational thoughts is largely responsible for producing the illusion of “free will.”

For those wishing to research this novel, and admittedly counterintuitive, idea further, I would highly recommend the work of Sam Harris. He is the author of a small book on the issue, as well as a 12 minute video now on YouTube that explains the idea very clearly.

UPDATE 4/25/2015:

In Sam Harris’ latest podcast, a more direct statement of this notion is given at about an hour and 5 minutes into the presentation:

Q: How often should we be aware of the illusion of free will? Should it serve a more reflective function, rather than happen in real time?

A: Well, for me a direct awareness of the illusoriness of free will, the very clear sense that the notion of free will doesn’t name anything in my experience this is more or less coincident with a moment of mindfulness or a moment of meditation where I’m clearly aware of how thoughts and intentions and desires and their subsequent actions arise spontaneously. Something is not there a moment ago, and then suddenly it’s there. And all of one’s mental life, even the most voluntary behavior has this character when you look at it in a fine-grained way. But I think the most important understanding of it is reflective, certainly the most important ethical implications are born of reflecting on this truth about us. It is just an understanding that people are operating on the basis of everything that has made them who they are, and that they are not agents in the deepest possible sense.

 Posted by on 04/06/2015 Opinion, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off