Nov 042016

I recall that when I was a child I would occasionally become embroiled in arguments. This being the days long before Google, the notion of “fact checking” in real time was a science fiction fantasy. Nevertheless, I recall using the term “physically impossible” as a knockdown argument in rebutting claims. I wish I could remember where I picked up this term. I don’t recall it was from Star Trek, so perhaps it was my mother. If one of my little friends walked into an argument that could be countered with “that’s physically impossible” then I won!

Not surprisingly, as time went on I found myself using the term less and less. I honestly don’t recall the last time I adjudged something to be “physically impossible.” Nevertheless, over time, I’ve given the notion of things being “impossible” some degree of thought. I’ve concluded that possible vs. impossible is not a binary, but falls on a continuum. I’ve come to this conclusion partly because I believe there are different ~kinds~ of impossible, or different “flavors” if you will.

Consider the assertion “it’s impossible to eat the sun.” Indeed, that’s a good example of something that’s physically impossible. Now consider a different sort of assertion: “I could be President of the United States.” Sadly, with the nomination of Donald Trump, the strength of this argument is weakened, as Trump so lowered the bar of what would traditionally be obviously disqualifying behavior. Yes, I am ~legally~ allowed to be President, but beyond that I possess a set of social and cultural characteristics that would disqualify. We see that “legitimate candidacy” falls on a spectrum, and is not a binary, thus the possibility of Presidency also falls on a spectrum.

Consider the assertion “It’s possible that I’ll have sex with Elizabeth Taylor.” This is obviously IMPOSSIBLE, but impossible in a completely different way than eating the sun or becoming president. Death is a binary, as is time travel, as far as we understand the laws of physics and biology.

Consider the assertion “I could run a marathon race.” That may not be physically impossible. I would have to achieve many small goals before attempting the main goal. I have two legs, I can run, and I’m generally physically fit. Many in my cohort have achieved this goal. So we see that this example falls on a spectrum much closer to “possible” than “impossible.”

So why discuss this issue at all? Why analyze the notion of “impossible?” What is the value of thinking out loud about this issue? I believe it’s possible to make profound changes in one’s life for the better. It’s possible to change one’s emotional and physical well being. Sadly, some people simply label reasonable goals as “impossible” when they really are not. I suspect they may be conceiving possible and impossible as a binary when it should be viewed as a spectrum. This is a much more realistic way of thinking about the subject. Rational solutions to problems entail utilizing the best models of reality we can muster.

 Posted by on 11/04/2016 Culture, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Different Flavors of Impossible
Oct 132016

Here’s a counter-intuitive argument: Cultural appropriation is a good thing.

What, exactly, is being appropriated when cultural appropriation is said to occur? It’s a nebulous thing called “culture” which is to say it’s an idea, process, or behavior, rather than a physical artifact. Were the Hope Diamond to change hands, we would identify it as a purchase, gift, or theft, not an appropriation.

To argue that cultural appropriation is a good thing we start with the moral intuition that good ideas deserve to be spread and acted upon, while bad ideas should be stopped. If you accept that smallpox is a bad thing, then you should accept that smallpox vaccination, a process, is a good thing. We could define “good ideas” as those which lead to furthering human health and aesthetic joy. If you accept that human sacrifice to appease the gods is a bad idea, we should work to stop it and thankfully for our species we largely have.

Ideas, processes, and behaviors are not zero sum entities. Your vaccination against a dread disease in no way reverses or “steals” my vaccination.

Unless you suppose that a particular idea, process, or behavior occurred simultaneously to a group of people, it’s most likely that good ideas start with particular individuals. Most likely, at some point in our prehistory, some hominid decided to pad their foot with an animal skin, creating the first shoe. The utility of this good idea would have been evident to other hominids, and copied. We are all descended from humans who have “culturally appropriated” from this first group of enlightened hominids, who themselves probably copied it from an individual.

There seems to be a deeply human impulse to share good ideas. We love to express to those we care about our aesthetic discoveries, whether it’s food, clothing, music, movies, or really any stimuli which makes us feel good. This good and natural impulse is countered by those who define it, incorrectly, as “theft.”

Ideas, processes, and behaviors which are claimed to be “appropriated” are ones which are held to be positive values. Behaviors such as “black face” are acts of mockery, not appropriation. Caucasians who wear dreadlocks do so because they think it looks cool, not as an act of mockery. Thus the ~intention~ of what is held as “appropriation” is that of reverence. Intentions matter.

While I’ve been thinking about this subject for some time, I’d like to thank Peter Boghossian for the clothing metaphor. I fully support honest acknowledgment of where good ideas, processes, and behaviors come from.


 Posted by on 10/13/2016 Culture Tagged with:  Comments Off on Cultural Appropriation is a Good Thing
Sep 042016

Our family had a pressure cooker in the 1970’s. My mother and brother were fascinated with cooking, particularly French cuisine. As I recall the pressure cooker enjoyed a certain vogue at that time but I was simply too young to assess its cultural impact properly.

My father subscribed to Gourmet magazine. He was a genuine intellectual and a voracious reader. Though he grew up in Butte, Montana he had lived in both Los Angeles and New York. From these facts I concluded that he might be a genuine “gourmet” though he left all the cooking to my mother. I thought he might have a dormant set of cooking skills.

Another factor in this family equation was that my mother became quite interested in “health foods” in the early 70’s. She developed type II diabetes, and decided to treat her condition nutritionally. Sadly, this resulted more in reading about the subject than actually changing the diet of our family. One of the books she acquired was Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Lappé famously promoted the notion of “complimentary proteins” which has now been largely discredited.

As I recall, my father alluded to an article in Gourmet that included a Caribbean recipe for black beans and rice. He enlisted my help to make it. This was unprecedented, as our family functioned on rigid yet unstated gender-based roles. My father “went to work” and my mother stayed home and cooked. I believe my mother helped during our beans and rice adventure, as cooking rice was considered slightly tricky. She knew enough about nutrition to avoid white rice so we used either brown rice or the sub-par “converted” rice. My father taught me how to dice an onion, though he used a “fan” pattern for his initial cuts rather than a series of parallel incisions. This resulted in a collection of different sized chunks. In retrospect, his technique betrayed inexperience, as he meticulously cut garlic in the same manner. Being that I was in high school, and this was happening on a Saturday, I recall feeling highly impatient to speed up the process.

We decided to use the new high tech pressure cooker for the beans. The unit we used was what Wikipedia refers to as a “first generation” unit. Per Wikipedia:

“Also known as “old type” pressure cookers, these operate with a weight-modified or “jiggly” valve, which releases pressure during operation.[5] Some people might consider them loud or very loud because the weight-modified valve operates similarly to the piston in a steam engine. They typically offer only one pressure level—with the exception of some newer “old style” pressure cookers that allow the operator to change the weight of the weight-modified valve.”

Here’s a photo I pulled off Google Image Search. This unit is either the same one we had in the 70’s, or is remarkable similar:

Pressure Cooker Two

Once filled with uncooked food, the unit is set on a burner on the stove top. When it reaches its proper temperature the rocker weight on top starts oscillating. The device we had vented continuously, which led to considering it a “ticking time bomb.” It had to be monitored constantly, as it was prone to malfunction, and a malfunction in a pressure cooker was potentially very dangerous. The problem was that the vessel was squat in its proportions. Foods like beans were notorious for foaming up. Bits of food would rise to the top and clog the vent hole. This caused the regular steam venting to cease and was cause for immediate panic. The pot was immediately taken off the stove and quenched with cold water. This happened during our beans and rice adventure.

My father had worked in the copper mines in Butte before he became a lawyer. I suspect he had seen the results of blue collar workplace accidents, which resulted in a long standing fear of machine tools and mechanical devices. Suffice it to say the pressure cooker freak-out in the Crowley household led to the unit being quietly set aside.

Fast forward several decades. Living on my own, I encountered Roger Ebert’s fascinating essay entitled The Pot and How to use It.

I was sufficiently aroused by Ebert’s glowing recommendation to buy an Aroma brand rice cooker from Costco. It was a cheap unit costing perhaps 30 dollars. The non-stick coating in the inner pot became scratched, despite my use of plastic tools. I didn’t cook much rice in the vessel and began using its slow cooker function instead. From there I transitioned to an ordinary crock pot, albeit a older model that had a rotating knob that controlled temperature.

Not long ago I became fascinated with Indian cuisine, probably because of its inclusion of strong spices. I began to watch Indian cooking videos on YouTube. Many of them utilized pressure cookers, particularly to cook “dal” or split legumes. Many of the units in these videos vented intermittently rather than continuously, as did our family’s unit from the 70’s. I decided to buy a pressure cooker for myself so I could cook Indian food at home.

I didn’t research this class of machines before actually buying one. I didn’t know that modern units are considered “third generation” vessels, per Wikipedia.

I gather that modern units employ thermostats and relays like those found in rice cookers, and are thus programmable. Per Wikipedia:

“3rd Generation with smart programming. Smart Programming includes pre-set cook times and settings, based on heating intensity, temperature, pressure and duration. Programmable electric pressure cookers have become as intuitive to use as the microwave.”

While the Wikipedia entry sounds like hyperbolic advertising copy, I would have to concur! The ability to set the cooking time is obviously a virtue. Yet the greatest advance is simply that the machine does not have to be constantly monitored for malfunction. I’ve had my Farberware cooker for about a month now, and it’s experienced ZERO malfunctions. I suspect, but do not know, that this is due to the taller, more cylindrical shape of the machine as compared to our 70’s unit. The unit does not vent at all during its operation. This completely eliminates the low grade fear induced by continuous venting. The “ticking time bomb” is a cliche for a good reason: The ticking sound reminds us of its inescapable presence and threat.

The go-to virtue of the pressure cooker is that it cooks food quickly. But so does a microwave oven, and we don’t hold the microwave oven as a tool that facilitates fine dining. In my opinion, the primary virtue of the pressure cooker is that it retains moisture better than a crock pot. My unit has a “warm” function that automatically kicks in after the “cook” cycle. I can set food in the vessel late at night and have a hot breakfast ready for me the next morning. The food will still be perfectly moist even after 7 or 8 hours. I doubt this would work with a crock pot.

The go-to virtue of quickness is a benefit when I cook my lunch. I usually combine bulgur, buckwheat, or barley with some sort of dal, usually one of the quicker cooking varieties like masoor dal, urad dal, or moong dal. Cooking times are similar, and I’ve gotten excellent results in only 20 minutes. From there I add chopped vegetables, and allow them to warm for 5 minutes or so. Delicious and nutritious!

I no longer use a rice cooker to cook rice. I’ve had perfect results cooking slightly tricky sorts of rice in the pressure cooker. I cook big batches of brown, red, or black rice that lasts for several days. I soak the rice overnight then rinse it in a colander. I add water at a ratio of 1.5 times the weight of rice.

The freedom from worrying about overcooking curries and stews is a godsend. I can start dinner cooking any time in the day then dine at any hour of my choosing without worrying that the food will be desiccated. The Farberware unit that I own has a more robust inner metal pot than the flimsy Aroma rice cooker. The non-stick coating seems to be superior as well, but I’ve not owned it long enough to assess its long term durability.

I never thought I would give up my crock pot! I imagined it to be a perfect and mature technology. I no longer think this, and now swear allegiance to the modern pressure cooker. Though it sounds hyperbolic and exaggerated, the pressure cooker has changed my life for the better, and I HIGHLY recommend people seriously consider buying one.

Farberware Unit

 Posted by on 09/04/2016 Growing Up In Montana Tagged with:  Comments Off on An Homage to the Modern Pressure Cooker
Aug 072016

Hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to science fiction. Then again, what constitutes a “hit” or “miss” regarding a predicted future may be ambiguous or nuanced. Consider the claim that Star Trek (speaking here strictly of the TOS franchise, the only with which I’m really familiar) successfully predicted cell phones with the use of “communicators.” Even in the 60’s there were two-way radios, aka “walkie-talkies” but they were not integrated with the telephone infrastructure. Similarly, Star Trek’s communicators are only person to person or person to ship, which is really just a two way radio in space. The great failure of TOS to predict cell phones was in imagining that future communicators would be single function devices. Modern smart phones are vastly more complex, and effectively integrate text, video, data storage, and an array of apps that gives them essentially unlimited functionality.

Let’s extrapolate the use of another technology into TOS universe. Consider the so-called “body cam” that many police officers now wear. The moral argument is that police officers are public servants who have been given great authority and tools capable of applying lethal force, and therefore it’s a virtue to have an objective record of their actions. Though it’s never made explicit, as far as I know, we are given to understand that the Star Trek crew are essentially a combination of social emissaries, explorers, and scientific researchers. They are not soldiers, and they don’t appear to be employed by a corporation engaged in commerce. This three-fold job description makes them perfect candidates for body cams.

Consider the role of social emissary: In the TV show, situations are neatly wrapped up at the end of each episode. In the real world, alien contact is often just the beginning of often long-running relationships. Imagine the historical value of knowing EXACTLY how “first contact” occurred. Imagine how much more rich an historical record could be if we could SEE and HEAR exactly what happened during first contact. An electronic recording device is superior to human memory in not having a bias that might color descriptions of the way historical events really occurred.

Ah, counters the imaginative interlocutor: Consider a future in which drugs or neural implants give humans perfect recall. Such advances could obviate the need for even electronic devices. Yet consider what I call the “Bloomsday” analogy: The amount of time it takes an author, in this case James Joyce, to describe the events of a single day is VASTLY greater than a single day. Captain Kirk is a busy man. There is a reason his Captain’s logs are brief and pithy. Let future historians mull over his actions and question his motives at their leisure.

Consider the role of the Star Trek crew as explorers. Real world explorers periodically encounter danger, often abruptly and with little warning. Now imagine body cams that might do more than passively record events; imagine multi-function devices that could sense infrared or ultraviolet light, radio waves, charged particles, toxic chemicals, ultrasonic sounds, or other sorts of stimuli beyond the limited senses of the human organism. Futuristic body cams might warn the wearers of danger, or alert them to anomalous places or structures worth investigating. Unlike bulky tricorders, future body cams would not need to be held in the hand and constantly monitored. Imagine body cams that would relay this information in real time back to the ship. It’s safe to assume a future in which ALL the data is stored. It’s easy to imagine an AI level computer engaged in command level decisions, perhaps as trivial as “investigate over there” all the way up to “Don’t trust this guy, Jim, his heart rate just went up and his eye saccades suggest he’s bluffing.” At the very least, an AI aboard the Enterprise could help ~augment~ command level decisions, based on body cam input alone.

It’s safe to assume a future in which voice recognition technology would be more or less perfect. An AI integrated body cam could recognize the words and vocal intonations of crew members, and alert others automatically in perilous situations. But imagine a future using neural implants. Imagine Jim Kirk’s neural functioning being transmitted from the neural implant to the body cam, or even directly to an AI aboard the Enterprise. While frighteningly invasive, perhaps neural implants would be intentionally “de-tuned” perhaps programmed to automatically broadcast warnings, or distress calls. No more need to fire up a communicator to order “beam me aboard.”

Imagine body cams that were easily removable from one’s uniform. They could easily be integrated with a video enabled smart phone style communicator. Left discretely, such a body cam could turn a Klingon vessel into the Watergate Hotel.

Consider the purely scientific role of the Enterprise crew. Besides Mr. Spock, other command level crew members lack specific scientific training. It’s still safe to assume a future in which humans are specialized in their training and expertise. A multi-function body cam could help overcome the scientific shortcomings of untrained crew members. A body cam, transmitting in real time to an AI computer, might help a crew member avoid a plant that would shoot freaky spores that contain MDMA…

It’s been suggested that cell phones would have quickly obviated 90 per cent of the misunderstandings that drove sitcoms until very recently. In the same way, intelligent body cams would certainly increase the degree of power and control that the crew of the Enterprise enjoys. The next time you watch an episode of TOS, imagine how such devices would change if not simply eliminate the fundamental premise of the episode. To give drama a fighting chance, no doubt the crew would encounter malefactors that would simply strip them of any and all of their devices.

While “warp drive” and faster-than-light travel may forever be science fiction, a world full of humans wearing body cams is not at all unreasonable. Data analysis is only going to get better and data storage is already dirt cheap. A future world in which the heroism of explorers is so coupled or even eliminated by small electronic devices may not make for good fiction, but is in fact a much safer bet as to what will really happen.

 Posted by on 08/07/2016 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Star Trek and Body Cams
May 192016

I vaguely recall the environment of the boy’s locker room in my high school. I recall a number of posters which contained what might be called “motivational quotes.” Not surprisingly, they focused on athletic performance and winning. For those unfamiliar, they might be such sayings as “a winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.” At the time I found these abrasive, namely because I held science and technical innovation as MUCH higher human virtues than athletics, particularly team sports.

Not surprisingly, over time my thoughts on motivational quotes have changed. First of all, I notice that there are MANY human enterprises about which there are motivational quotes. A quick Google image search shows a number of categories, some of which include the following: Relationship, strength, determination, attitude, confidence and beauty. Helpfully, Google has chosen to further identify these categories with color codes! I invite you to check it out for yourself. Secondly, we all struggle with doing what we think is good, and avoiding what we think is bad, and I’m no different. Perhaps I’m still stuck with the juvenile disdain for motivational quotes I had when I was in high school, as I’m resistant to doing anything besides just reading these aphorisms when I see them. I would never buy a poster or print out a motivational quote and put it on my refrigerator.

Recently I began to think about the nature of resisting temptation, which is integral to creating and maintaining good habits. I believe “motivation” is a two headed coin; namely avoiding bad habits and inculcating good habits. A simple metaphor for this dichotomy is an Angel on one shoulder and a Demon on the other. Let’s consider for a moment the act of persuasion on the Demon’s part. First off, consider a more prosaic example. You are with someone who wants you to do something that you don’t immediately want to do. This person attempts to persuade you by suggesting positive outcomes if the suggested action is performed.

“Let’s go get Indian food!”
“Hmm… I’m sort of tired tonight. I’m not sure I feel like going out.”
“Oh,come on, you know how delicious that curry is, you know you’ll love it.”

Or the persuasion could go in a negative direction:

“Let’s go get Indian food!”
“Hmm… I’m sort of tired tonight. I’m not sure I feel like going out.”
“Don’t be such a wuss, we haven’t gone out in ages.”

The second example is a sort of double-whammy, as it implies that one’s inaction is preventing the other from having fun.

Obviously there are MANY sorts of persuasion, encompassing the entire spectrum of approaching positive outcomes to avoiding negative ones. In my opinion, some of the most successful persuasion works because the persuader KNOWS AND UNDERSTANDS the personality of the person being persuaded. Consider romantic relationships. Why is it that insults and threats delivered by a partner can be the most upsetting? Because of all the people on the planet, a partner is likely to know the sensitivities and weaknesses of the other the best. This is one of the great downsides to all romantic relationships. The person that knows you the best is also the person poised to hurt you the most.

But let’s step back from that dire human assessment for a moment. What if you are trying to break a bad habit? What if you are like me, and wish to stop snacking after dinner? Is there a killer motivational quote to help us? Well, I’m not sure, but consider this: Who REALLY is the Demon on your shoulder who tempts you to engage in postprandial snacking? It can be no other than you, yourself! Consider that of all the humans on the planet, probably including romantic partners, it is YOU who can formulate the most cunning and tempting idea, the most persuasive rationalization to give in to a bad habit. The Demon is YOU!

Frankly I don’t consider this a giant psychological insight, but I do find it helpful. When I find a temptation entering my stream of consciousness, I now realize that it has derives its psychological power from the fact that it came from ME, the person who can most persuasively tempt me of all humans on the planet. For what it’s worth, I find this conception empowering, as I now recognize how potent our OWN ideation can be.

Suppose I find myself in the kitchen, and the following idea enters my stream of consciousness:

“Go ahead and have a spoonful of peanut butter, if you use that long handled spoon it will be even cooler.”

Of all humans on the planet, IT IS I who knows just how much I love peanut butter, and how groovy I find my long handled spoons! Understanding this allows me to recognize how effective such internal persuasion can be, and weirdly, I feel it helps me resist it.

Perhaps understanding how effective your own persuasion works on you will enable you to resist it more effectively. So far it seems to be working for me. I plan to continue paying attention to see if it continues to function effectively.

Good luck!

Homer Simpson

 Posted by on 05/19/2016 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Musings on “Motivational Quotes.”