May 172015

I loved Star Trek as a child. I deeply identified with Mr. Spock, and loved science in general. I probably saw re-runs of the original series first when I was in about the third grade, and re-runs were in heavy rotation on TV in the 70’s. Consequently, I understood the deeper issues raised on Star Trek somewhat incompletely.

I recall a paradox that occurred to me when I was watching The Gamesters of Triskelion. I must have been in about the third grade, as I say, when this dawned on me. At that age, time seems to move at a different rate. One year of childhood seems to move more slowly than one year of adulthood. Schooling seems to take forever. Even as a child, it seemed discouraging to me to imagine my future; namely how many more years I’d have to be in school!

What got me thinking was the climactic scene of the episode. Thankfully, the script of the show is online, and I’m copying the relevant passage here. Captain Kirk has just defeated the thralls in the big climactic fight.

ONE [OC]: You have won, Captain Kirk, unfortunately. However, the terms of the wager will be honoured. You are free. Remove your collars.
(They come off easily.)
KIRK: The thralls will be trained?
ONE [OC]: They will be trained. We have said it.
KIRK: I think you’ll find it a much more exciting game than the one you’ve been playing. I’m sorry, Shahna. I didn’t lie. I did what was necessary. Someday, I hope you’ll understand.
SHAHNA: I understand, a little. You will leave us now?
KIRK; Yes.
SHAHNA: To go back to the lights in the sky?
KIRK; Yes.
SHAHNA: I would like to go to those lights with you. Take me?
KIRK: I can’t.
SHAHNA: Then teach me how, and I will follow you.
KIRK; There’s so much you must learn here first. The Providers will teach you. Learn it, Shahna. all your people must learn before you can reach for the stars. Shahna. (he gives her a farewell kiss) Scotty!
SCOTT [OC]: Aye, sir.
KIRK: Beam us up.
(They disappear in a twinkle.)
SHAHNA: Goodbye, Jim Kirk. I will learn, and watch the lights in the sky, and remember.

What really got me was this statement by Kirk: “There’s so much you must learn here first. The Providers will teach you. Learn it, Shahna. all your people must learn before you can reach for the stars.” I sympathized with Shahna, as I imagined it would be impossible for an adult to learn enough to build a star ship, if they started learning as an adult. It would be impossible for her to meet Captain Kirk in the future. Sadness!

Since Star Trek is set centuries in the future, it dawned on me that for humans to reach that level of technical sophistication, a great deal more discovery would have to occur. This knowledge would have to be imparted to young people at the university level. Even as a child, I supposed that there must be a finite limit to how much knowledge a human could assimilate in one lifetime. I imagined that one would have to be in school essentially their entire lifetime before they could learn enough to build a Star Ship! Are there scientific discoveries and technical accomplishments that are simply beyond what humans could accomplish, simply because they would exceed a human lifetime of education to break new ground?

In retrospect, I didn’t really consider the notion of ~specialization~ by which only some people would become Star Ship engineers. I didn’t really understand that intellectual breakthroughs, or scientific and technical developments, are profound and difficult at the time they occur, but are much more easily assimilated by the lesser minds that follow. I discovered a great illustration of this latter point just recently. I’ve been reading through older blog entries by Sam Harris, and discovered this beautiful passage by Harris illustrating how profound Newton’s intellectual accomplishment was at the time:

“Please consider how differently we treat scientific texts and discoveries, no matter how profound: Isaac Newton spent the period between the summer of 1665 and the spring of 1667 working in isolation and dodging an outbreak of plague that was laying waste to the pious men and women of England. When he emerged from his solitude, he had invented the differential and integral calculus, established the field of optics, and discovered the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Many scientists consider this to be the most awe-inspiring display of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence. Over three hundred years have passed, and one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement. But no one doubts that Newton’s work was the product of merely human effort, conceived and accomplished by a mortal—and a very unpleasant mortal at that. And yet, literally billions of our neighbors deem the contents of the Bible and the Qur’an to be so profound as to rule out the possibility of terrestrial authorship. Given the breadth and depth of human achievement, this seems an almost miraculous misappropriation of awe. It took two centuries of continuous ingenuity to substantially improve upon Newton’s work. How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could upgrade this “inerrant” text—scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually—in this email exchange.”

I agree with Harris when he states that “one still has to be exceptionally well-educated to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of Newton’s achievement.” Yet many students at the undergraduate level routinely manage to learn and assimilate calculus. I suppose that the scientist, or more likely scientists, of the future who unlocks the secrets of warp drive and dilithium crystals will be as Newton or Einstein in coming centuries, yet successive generations of students will have not have to rival them intellectually to understand the concepts.

Clearly human minds have progressed from hunting on African savannas to building GPS satellites and decoding the human genome. The trick seems to be ~specialization~ which is something I didn’t quite understand when I was in the third grade…

 Posted by on 05/17/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Gamesters of Triskelion Paradox
May 142015

I believe I only attended Lutheran church service about three times. I attended Sunday School largely because my mother told me to, although I don’t recall feeling victimized by attending. I went through confirmation, which consisted of a series of night classes taught by the pastor. I remember studying Luther’s Small Catechism, though I don’t recall learning about Luther’s weird and hateful ideas about Changelings and Jews.

From there I remember attending regular adult church services about three times. My memory is hazy, but one element that really stood out was the recitation of what I believe was the Apostle’s Creed, specifically the Lutheran version. Per the Wikipedia entry, the text is as follows:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy Christian Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The part that seemed weirdly unsettling was the line “He descended into Hell.” I always wondered about this: Why did this happen? Why did Jesus go to Hell? I would imagine that His crucifixion was somehow not enough propitiation for God himself, that he needed MORE torture. Considering that the crucifixion story is a major centerpiece of Christian theology, I had to wonder why Jesus’ time in Hell was not discussed more widely. How do we know he went to Hell? Did he tell the dudes at Emmaus with whom he dined, post resurrection? Why was the above ground crucifixion story given so much more prominence? Why wasn’t crucifixion enough punishment? Perhaps Jesus went to Hell to hang out with sinners. If so, what was that outcome? Did he save them through his Grace? Did they go to Heaven?

I’m sure those with a more sophisticated understanding of Christian theology have ready answers for these questions, as I’m surely not the first person in the last 18 centuries to wonder about this. Ultimately of course, there is simply no evidence whatsoever that Jesus went to Hell, or that Hell exists at all. And that’s what really matters.

I became curious about these matters not long ago, as I began to wonder how more liberal strains of Christianity concluded that Hell was not a real place. Again, it’s an enormously complex question, and ultimately not grounded in any sort of good evidence, so it could be argued that it’s a fruitless intellectual exercise. Yet it’s a fact that many people are truly terrorized by fear of Hell. As long as an idea is in one’s mind, it can be troublesome. Sometimes as I fall asleep I experience rather frightening “visions” of falling out of a burning World Trade Center building. When I saw 9/11 coverage on TV, I had enough understanding of my own mental health to know that watching images of this atrocity would do ~some~ psychological damage. Still photos of humans jumping out of the burning buildings were particularly disturbing for me. I can’t “unsee” the images. I imagine for some Christians, “Hell” is a very real place, and this is the sort of pathological meme that damns the Christian religion: The propagation of fear based on claiming to know things that are not actually known.

 Posted by on 05/14/2015 Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on He Descended Into Hell
Apr 302015

I remember the popularity of the Book of Lists. It came out when I was in high school, and I believe my friend Dave Peterman had a copy. I seem to recall a list of famous alcoholics, with Ambrose Bierce being listed as an “eminent tankardsman” but I could be mistaken. Despite its sensational and easily digestible format, I feel that lists are a useful way of organizing one’s thoughts. It’s also useful to write things down. I suspect, but do not know, that many people besides myself think in a similar way, particularly about rock bands, TV shows, or certain movies. We discover something we really like, and wonder why EVERYONE doesn’t feel the same way. Ultimately of course, it comes down to “matters of taste” so it’s difficult if not impossible to count these as objective esthetic facts. In any event, here’s my attempt to organize my own thoughts on things I’ve discovered which other people don’t seem to venerate to a similar degree.

1. Baked beans for breakfast. Popular in the UK, not so much in America. Americans are certainly willing to embrace sweet things for breakfast, particularly pre-sweetened breakfast cereals, or perhaps donuts for adults, but not baked beans. Ultimately of course, the argument is that they are delicious, not that they constitute “health food” as they are full of sugar.

2. The Leatherman tool. Jesus God in heaven, how I have tried to promote this meme. I have saved my own bacon and the bacon of others so many times since my first Leatherman tool in the late 80’s I have lost track. Just last weekend I helped fix a folding chair owned by my friend Alex using my Supertool 300. I keep it on a belt pouch so it’s always within reach, yet doesn’t weigh down my pocket. I also keep a “Micra” on my belt in a pouch. It has a small folding scissors, which is eminently useful. I have wished for years that Leatherman would scale up the Micra to a “full sized” unit, but this has not happened.

3. Net t-shirts. Way back in the stone age of the 70’s “net” shirts had a period of popularity. Many were made of synthetic materials, which I suspect may have led to their decline. That, coupled with the vaguely transgressive display of seeing men’s nipples…

I happened to discover a particular brand sold at K-mart that was sold as a t-shirt, and had very small holes, perhaps only a millimeter across. They were the most comfortable shirts I’ve ever worn. I suspect they were a cotton and polyester blend, or perhaps all cotton. They don’t even seem to have come back as hipster retro style, as big beards have. If I found net shirts as comfortable as the ones I wore in high school, I’d wear them again in a heartbeat!

4. Cutting food, usually meat, with the knife in the right hand whilst holding the fork in the left hand, then moving the food directly to the mouth with the left hand. This is a “Continental” or “English” style of eating, as opposed to the American style of eating, which sets down the knife in the right hand, swaps the fork to the right hand, then uses the fork in the right hand to bring the food to the mouth. Not surprisingly, I changed my behavior while in Europe. I was helped along by discovering the utility of using both hands to manipulate tools while working on cars. There are situations where it makes better sense to hold a tool in the left hand than in the right hand, usually due to cramped quarters. People often think of their “handedness” as a binary; either right or left. Yet it’s really just a matter of habit: I’ve found that I actually underestimate how poorly my left hand functions. Yes it feels less capable, it feels strange, but it’s really not as uncoordinated as I anticipated.

5. HP sauce, or brown sauce. Another quirk I picked up from Europe. Americans love ketchup, which I find sort of middling in value. Most American supermarkets have a section devoted to barbecue sauces which might include a tiny bottle of HP sauce, which is only one brand of brown sauce. Brown sauce is distinctly different from ordinary barbecue sauces, and compliments both beef and baked beans. Ultimately I don’t use it on a regular basis, as it’s full of sugar, and it no way could be defined as “health food.”

6. Bulgur. I love this stuff! Classified as a “whole grain” I find it cooks up easier than rice, or at least is less finicky. I like the coarser versions, which are given numeric gradations from one to five. I’m spoiled here in Seattle, as I’m not far away from an ethnic food paradise in the form of the DK Market in Renton. They sell a plethora of bulgur. Why is this wonderful grain not more popular?

7. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap. Years ago when I started working on cars, I didn’t wear gloves. My hands would become utterly filthy, often a thick sort of grease mixed with dirt. At the time, I believe that liquid soaps that included pumice as a suspension would be the best, sort of like good old Lava soap. One day a gear head friend of mine suggested Dr. Bronner’s and I thought he was kidding. Amazingly enough, it worked better than the pumice style liquid soaps. I shower with the stuff, and it’s even possible to shave with it, but it doesn’t quite have enough emollients in it to properly shave with. It rinses off very well, and leaves no lingering perfume odor. Fantastic stuff, despite it’s hippie connotations and psychotic religious texts.

8. Coconut syrup. I had this over pancakes while in Hawaii. Delicious! With the current popularity of coconut “water” and “milk” I am befuddled why coconut syrup is not better known. Most Americans use maple syrup on pancakes, with sorghum and honey following in popularity. Why not coconut? I’ve seen it for sale only once here in Seattle.

I’m confident I will think of additional items, which is really a testament that we don’t always categorize disparate concepts in our minds under tidy category headings. I suspect that many people think the same way but may not have drawn up an itemized list. I encourage everyone to do so.

 Posted by on 04/30/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Why Doesn’t Everyone Like This?
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 on Predictions
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.

 Posted by on 04/19/2015 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Tennis Ball Cannon