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Write every day no exceptions – this plane flight sucks June 22, 2010

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I just had the worst airplane flight ever.

Realize that I normally love air travel. I endure security, despite increasingly ridiculous security regulations. I don’t mind sitting in coach, so long as I can get some view of a window. By the wings is best, so I can watch the plane actually work.

Today? Today!? Good freaking god.

First, my mom and I got to the check in counter for Air Tran, only to find that there was a huge line. We weren’t that worried, because we had only brought carry on items, and figured we could skip to the electronic check-in.

Except the electronic check-in had a huge line.

Okay, no problem, we figure. We’re patient people. We’re good at line-waiting. We are veterans of Disney. We get to the kiosk, and then… our confirmation number doesn’t work.

Still. No problem. We can deal with this. We try to get the attention of the woman behind the desk.

She throws up her hands, says, “I can’t deal with this”, and leaves.

Just leaves.

I’m staring at this in disbelief while my mother tries to get the attention of the other woman, who is too busy checking in the first-class passengers – one of whom needs a wheelchair and is thus taking even more time. It takes nearly twenty minutes to get this damn woman’s attention before she finally freaking checks us in.

Man, we say. Thank goodness we’re through with that nightmare! Surely we’ll be okay now.

Of course, the security line wraps around half the terminal.

We weather this. We endure. Though we are exhausted (especially me, since I had a late shift the night before and had to get up at five thirty to catch this flight) we go on. We’re both starving and we’re hoping to grab some food before getting on the plane.

It is, naturally, boarding when we get there.

We manage to grab some pretzels, and I think to myself surely, surely things will be okay. I’m in an A seat, that means I’ll have a nice relaxing flight with a nice window seat.

Well, I would have a window seat, except that I’m in the last seat on the plane, and therefore my view is blocked by the engine.

The jet engine. You know. The huge loud thing.

In the immortal words of the Internet, “FML”.

write every day no exceptions – the Name of the Wind June 20, 2010

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I lied. Not writing about the Martian-Venusian war. Also, can I just say that writing every day no exceptions, especially with my other obligations (full time job, preparation for grad school, move) is rather grueling? Mostly because… well, for me, it’s difficult to write without direction. I really need someone telling me “Hey, this is what you’re assigned, and your deadline is X.” If I don’t have a deadline, I don’t work. Hence the “every day no exceptions”. I have a deadline of midnight each night, and this severely annoys my mother because it means that I’m often using this to avoid doing the dishes.

I can’t even imagine what this would be like if I was living alone. I probably couldn’t, because I’d have to eat sometime. Or I’d have to give up sleep. Damn my need to sleep for 8+ hours every night 10 preferable. I wish I was one of those people who only needed three hours of sleep a night. Dear fellow Transhumanists – can we stop worrying for a bit about the whole Singularity thing and maybe make ourselves sleep-optional? Not to mention immunity to disease. I think those are much more reasonable short-term goals, guys.,

Right, essay of the day…

I’ve been having some troubles with books lately. I’ve been trying to read fantasy and science fiction books in the evenings to get my brain to decompress after a long day, and at first this went fantastically. Jhereg was a fun romp, sort of your typical modern high-fantasy that sometimes gets very confused and thinks its science fiction, or maybe it’s science fiction pretending to be high fantasy. Either way, it was fun and silly. The Black Company was a bit too morose for my tastes at many points, but I got through it. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind was frakking fantastic, and brought fantasy (long a genre that had been dead to me) back to life. What I loved about it was that it was more like reading a really good memoir than “And so and so got on his horse and went to defeat the Dark Lord.” There’s a Dark Lord alright, and there’s a so-and-so, but the framing device is that our So-And-So (in this case, Kvothe, pronounced ‘quothe’) has fallen into a depressive funk because a lot of shit has happened to him in his life and he doesn’t want to play Epic Hero Guy anymore. He’s only in his twenties and already he’s (presumably) killed dragons and kings, and oh dear if I go any further we’ll get into spoiler territory. He’s a legend in his own lifetime, most people are pretty sure he’s fictional.

And at this point in his life, he’s content with being fictional. Kvothe is pretty content to spend the rst of his days as a failing innkeeper in the arse-end of nowhere, even as the Dark Lord starts doing his Dark Lord thing and making a big fuss killing folk. This is despite the Dark Lord killing Kvothe’s parents! He is not Batman. He’s just a man, and he’s a man who honestly doesn’t want to be bothered.

Of course, this being fantasy fiction, his student/servant Bast (who seems to have a giant raging crush on Kvothe, by the way. This isn’t a fangirl talking, either, this is a genuine case of “did you write this guy to be this gay on purpose?”) has other ideas, and those ideas include getting a famous wandering historian to write Kvothe’s memoirs in the hopes of getting the guy back in the heroing saddle.

What follows is a wonderful tapestry of a world that both follows and completely subverts the usual “Farm boy goes out on a quest thing.” The great thing to me is that while Kvothe really is a hero, and he really does go from “Fairly ordinary kid” to “guy who commands the very elements etc etc”, the book takes a realistic approach to this. Well, as realistic as a fantasy novel gets, anyway. There’s a mentor, but he’s not drawn to Kvothe out of some great destiny and he doesn’t stick around. In fact, you could say that there’s several mentors who come and go, just like in real life. Kvothe is brilliant, but his brilliance is (probably) not ordained by some higher power. Well, it might be the result of being half-fey, but that’s just tinfoil hat speculation. When his parents are viciously murdered by the Chandrian (aforementioned Dark Lord) it isn’t because Kvothe is any sort of Chosen One; it’s because his parents were poking about at stuff they shouldn’t have been and also because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Kvothe, in refreshing dose of realism, doesn’t instantly swear revenge so much as he goes nearly catatonic from shock and becomes feral, wandering the woods and surviving only because of what he’s learned from his mentors. Instead of being picked up instantly by a gentle benefactor, he then ends up in a city where he lives in squalor, and not the sort of romantic gentleman thief squalor either, or even Oliver-esque squalor. We’re talking something that feels gritty and genuine and goddamn depressing.

Kvothe gets out of this, I won’t say how, but again, it’s less because of some sort of miracle as it is because of Kvothe’s own wit and a bit of extrordinary luck that Kvothe has the sense to take advantage of, at which point he goes off to a university of magic, but one that is entirely unlike Hogwards. In fact, if any of you have ever read “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality”, it’s basically Hogwarts as if that version of Harry ran it. Much of the ‘magic’ is actually good use of (real but obliquely described) chemistry and the laws of physics. One of Kvothe’s teachers has basically figured out how to make light bulbs. And Kvothe himself has enormous problems with his student loans and paying them back. It felt a bit like reading about my own current predicaments, only in some version of early Rennisance Europe. Sort of.

There’s real magic, alright, and it still operates on distinct principles – indeed, basic magic seems to follow laws of thermodynamics to some extent. The high magic is treated as something strange and powerful and incomprehensible indeed, and is only barely sprinkled into the narrative… and even then, it’s not mountain-moving or earth shaking, but rather something subtle and terrifying. Making walls vanish. Bidding the air to move.

There’s a dragon, yes, and there’s a girl, but neither are what you’d expect. The girl is as strong as a girl in a medieval analogue culture can be, but in a realistic way, and Kvothe even comments on this. The dragon is more like a big drug-addled cow that happens to breathe fire, a misunderstood creature that ultimately is, like so many of the other characters, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book has a cruel end in that I want more and I’m not going to get it until April. Patrick Rothfuss has somehow gotten me excited about fantasy literature again in a time when I’m really, really jaded about this sort of thing. I’ve nursed a “seen it all” attitude for so long that this came as a real and genuine surprise.

… heh, and here I started out intending to complain about the fantasy literature I’m reading right now, which I’m not liking in the least. Perhaps I’ll save that for tomorrow. In the meantime, you should all go read The Name of the Wind, because it’s excellent.

Write every day no exceptions – Titan June 19, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in spaaaaaaaaaaace, write every day no exceptions.
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Continuing my astrobiology theme from yesterday, let’s talk Titan.

Titan is currently the most exciting thing in the solar system (besides Earth, of course, but since we’re on it most of us have this strange habit of not noticing how exciting it is.). Titan is to the 21st century what Mars was to the 19th – a strange, distant world full of infinite possibility. Where with a Mars we got excited because some guy thought he saw canals on the surface (what turned out to be the insides of his own eyeballs!), on Titan we’re excited because there’s molecules that are going somewhere.

As I understand it (and, again, as I say in every one of these posts: I don’t have internet while writing these, so I’m probably wrong about some of the science here), there’s methane, nitrogen, ammonia, argon, ethane, propane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and cyanogen (spelling?) on Titan. There’s some compound (acetone? Acetylene? Ammonia? I can’t remember and I don’t have internet where I am!) that’s disappearing when it shouldn’t be.

There’s a couple of possibilities as to why this stuff keeps going poof on Titan’s surface. All the theories I’ve heard involve some kind of mad-crazy chemical process. Some of these processes may be fairly mundane, just the normal interaction of molecules (well, normal by some standards anyway). But the theory that really excites people is the idea that maybe, just maybe on Titan’s surface there exists an exotic form of life that consumes this compound, kind of like how we need oxygen and water to live.

Again, I’m no a biochemist (and thank god, organic chemistry is some of the most wall-bangingly difficult stuff in school. Ask any biologist or chemist that doesn’t specialize in the stuff and you’ll get shudders). And just like with Europa, life on Titan, if it exists, is probably tiny and analogous to Earth bacteria. This would still be super-exciting because it’d be proof that life CAN exist elsewhere, even if it’s small.

But what if it wasn’t small?

I’m more interested in what kind of culture Titanites would develop . I can’t speculate very far in this space and without a lot more research, but I can make baseless conjecture (and who knows, maybe some day I can write a golden-age sci-fi novel about it).

First, life on Titan would probably have wings. There’s just no evolutionary reason not to. The atmosphere on Titan is so starkly ideal for flight that it sends aeronautics experts into a frothing stupor. Titan has the unlikely combination of very low gravity and a very dense atmosphere. Its winds are, as far as I’m aware, not particularly violent (unlike, say, Jupiter or Saturn.) This means that anything which flies needs a very short wing surface area to get into the air. You, a mere human, could probably fly by just stretching out a bedsheet attached to your ankles and running really fast (granted, not very well, and we’re ignoring the fact that you’d suffocate and freeze to death first).

Since flight is so easy, it’d be silly for things not to evolve it. Ground based creatures would still exist, as would, perhaps, beings that swim in Titan’s methane seas, but there would be a vast variety of things that soar through the atmosphere. There might even be gas-bag creatures, things that take in the abundant hydrogen from Titan’s atmosphere and use it to float gently above the ground (see the TV series ‘Alien Planet’ for a few examples of such creatures). Imagine a flighted species that builds vast towers on mountaintops to glide from, great rookeries. I again say that they would probably not see in visible light due to how little there is on Titan and also because of the moon’s thick atmosphere; more likely they’d see in some other wavelength (infrared, probably. I am fond of this as a way of seeing). Unlike the inhabitants of Europa, however, they might be able to see Saturn through the clouds, a looming ringed presence in the sky. Their early ancestors likely worshiped the ringed sky-being in much the same way Earth-people worshiped the sun. Maybe they gave their own names and personalities to the other moons of Saturn, and made up legends about why they disappear and re-appear. Maybe they eventually built great telescopes to watch the skies, and maybe they came to look at the small blue-green planet that sometimes appeared in their sky.

And maybe they dismissed the possibility of life there completely. After all, that huge and distant world’s gravity is far too heavy, its atmosphere too thin, the temperature too hot for methane to exist in liquid form on its surface. Life couldn’t possibly exist there.

Or maybe they’d look and hope, like we do, that someone’s looking back.

Next, I’m either going to talk about a hypothetical martian-venusian war that took place long before the first humans. Of course, I said nonfiction every day no exceptions, so I may be straying too far from my subject…

Write every day no exceptions – Europa June 18, 2010

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I’ve been reading an awful lot about Europa and Titan lately. For those that don’t know, Europa and Titans are moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively, and if there’s currently extraterrestrial life within our solar system, they’re the two most likely candidates. Europa probably contains a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface, water that’s heated by tidal forces exerted by Jupiter and its sister Io, while Titan has a thick atmosphere and a variety of complex hydrocarbon compounds on its surface, as well as weather and, yes, water, though in this case the water is in the form of rock-solid ice.

It’s extremely unlikely that any life we’d find there would be particularly complex. Our most optimistic current theories say that we’re likely to find bacteria or other micro-organisms, likely similar to the type we find clustered around hot springs or beneath Antarctic ice on our own planet – that is, adapted to extreme temperatures and circumstances.

But let’s consider a thought experiment for the moment, not unlike authors of old once speculated on what life beneath the clouds of Venus or in the deserts of Mars might be like. There’s a vast body of wonderful literature based on these concepts, even after the majority of the scientific community realized that we probably weren’t going to find glorious thick jungles on Venus or water-starved canal-building civilizations on Mars.

Europa is covered in extremely thick plates of ice. I’m not sure (and can’t look up at the moment) if that surface ice ever cracks enough to let liquid water to the surface, only to rapidly freeze again, and I can’t fully speculate on the kinds of ‘weather’ they’d have down there as I don’t understand the fluid-dynamics of ocean currents well enough, nor do I know what the core of Europa is like. I don’t know if it has a rocky center with a molten core or what, though I do gather it’s protected by cosmic radiation by Jupiter’s vast magnetic field, and from asteroid impacts by the outer moons of Ganymede and… Calypso, I think (see, my inability to access Wikipedia on the train already hurts my ability to write articles).

A civilization on Europa would live suspended in this liquid universe. They would have concepts of up and down, but they’d be rather different from ours since as a species they’d be able to ‘fly’ from the start. There’d be no Europan Wright Brothers; there’d be no need. Let me for the moment conjecture that like Earth, Europa has a rocky floor beneath those marvelous oceans, some of which are close to the surface and some of which are crushing, deadly depths. Europans would not, at first, turn to the skies, but rather to the depths, for their inspiration and exploration. They would build carefully pressurized vehicles to allow them to descend further and explore the chasms of their planet, before eventually sending explorers to the ice-cold skies. I can imagine them finding the upper levels difficult to live in due to the temperature, but an intelligent species would find ways to create tools to let them live there. Imagine fantastic cities in reverse, anchored in solid ice – to Europans, as if the sky were covered in air so cold it was solid.

And then one day, one Europan gets the idea to drill into the great ‘ceiling’. Or, perhaps, the shifting gravitational field of Jupiter (for which the Europans have many ultimately incorrect theories) or a stray meteor impact punches a vast hole in the ice, and, at last, they see…

… what?

Europans would be unlikely to see in visible light – if I was going to give any candidate for how they ‘see’ I would conjecture some combination of infrared and echolocation. Infrared would mean that the core of their planet would glow softly, while the sky would be black. Detail would be gathered through echolocating. So, what would the sky look like to such a creature?

I unfortunately can’t give any sort of accurate description right now due to, as I said, the fact that I write these essays on the train and thus can’t magically access Google or Wikipedia (damn!). But I can conjecture based on what I know:

Jupiter would be a great glowing red presence in the sky, covering much of it. If Io were visible, it would be a brightly studded orb that would approach and then recede at regular intervals. Stars would be faint, the Sun itself only a much brighter dot among them, and the whole sky would be full of peculiar background radiation. I don’t know what Earth would look like, but in this stage of Europan development, I doubt they would even think to look for life yet, or have the tools to do so. Indeed, even if they suddenly decided to build dozens of telescopes peeking through to the surface, they’d likely dismiss the Earth as an unlikely candidate for any sort of life – too close to the Sun, and therefore too exposed to dangerous ultraviolet radiation detrimental to the development of life.

Perhaps I’ll speculate on Titan civilization tomorrow.

In before all my biology and physics friends explain exactly why I am wrong.

Write every day no exceptions – Portal June 17, 2010

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A few trailers for Portal 2 recently surfaced (thanks, E3!), and I feel compelled to comment on this game.

I’m a gamer. I love games. If I had more money and time I’d play them constantly. I kind of wish there was a real way to break into the video game reviewing scene besides posting on a blog and hoping feverently that someone, anyone takes notice, but it seems that getting paid to tell people why their games suck is a privilage reserved for brits who talk very fast and live in Australia and have excellent video editing skills, or people who can pair their writing talent with a witty comic. In other words, not exactly me, given that I hardly have the attention span for this sort of thing.

I digress. I love games. I’ve loved games since before I was actually allowed to play them – I’d beg friends to let me play their Nintendo 64s while my mother bought into the media hype about Doom making kids kill people (ah, the 90s). When my parents got Might and Magic 6 for the PC I used to try to play as much as I possibly could, forcing my parents to put a one hour time limit on my game time. I love videogames.

And Portal is a perfect game.

“What!” you say. “Blasphemy! What about Half Life itself?! What about Goldeneye? What about Halo? What about…”

Nope. Portal is perfect.

This isn’t to say that Portal is my favourite game. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love it, and I wish I had a computer that could actually play it. Once I manage to purchase my Xbox360 I will gleefully buy it and then lament that my hands are exactly the wrong size for the Xbox’s absurd controllers and wish that Valve would release a Wii version. For my psychotic AI protagonists, System Shock 2’s SHODAN far, far outstrips GlaDOS in how godsdamned scary she is. In terms of atmosphere, Bioshock infinetly outpaces Portal, particularly given that Portal’s environments are, well… a little bland. Hell, they remind me of old school Dungeons and Dragons in their bizarre dungeon-ecology nonsense. Even the later levels in the actual test facility still give me Galaxy Quest moments where I go “WHY IS THIS HERE?! WHOEVER WROTE THIS EPISODE SHOULD DIE.” Planescape: Torment is the most well-written game of all time, nothing I have ever played comes even remotely close to the emotion that game put me through (a post for another game, perhaps), and Kingdom Hearts will always be my fallback game for good old mindless fun. And as for puzzles? Riven, even with its genuinely impossible Fire Marble puzzle, will win for me due to its compelling story and incredible atmosphere.

So, it’s not my favourite game. And clearly, other games do certain things better than Portal. So why do I say that Portal is a perfect game?

Because none of those games combine all the elements that make a great game into one seamless whole. Each one has a stellar spike in some singular area, but each one also severely fails in some area. Riven doesn’t allow you to freely roam about, and as mentioned earlier some of its puzzles are bone-headedly impossible. Planescape was sometimes too wordy, and I’m sorry Allandaros, I will never, ever like 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons mechanics no matter how much you laud them. Kingdom Hearts suffers from Japanese RPG Syndrome in that the plot often makes no goddamn sense and there’s really no way to customize anything. Basically, each of these games has some kind of big flaw.

Portal… doesn’t. Not really. The biggest complaint I’ve ever personally seen towards the game is that it’s too short, which to me isn’t a flaw. I hate games that are too long. I’m an incredibly busy person with a severe case of ADD; I’ve never finished Disgaea: Hour of Darkness because it’s nine hundred goddamn hours long and 90% of that is grinding.

So, let’s back up a bit and look at what I consider the fundamental elements of a game:

Gameplay. This is the first and foremost. It’s a goddamn game, people, and it’s scary how often people forget this part. Failing here is the fundamental flaw of many a Japanese RPG and every single movie tie-in game. Gameplay has to be fun. It doesn’t have to be unique, exactly, so long as it works.
Engagement. It’s all well and good if you can push a button and you get shiny lights, but the player has to feel like they’re actually doing something. This is, again, a big flaw in your average Japanese RPG – the game feels like it’s on auto-pilot. A good game enables the player.
Plot. A game has to have a story. This is a failing of most Western shooter games – 90% of them are “Blah blah A Space Marine Is You blah blah Some Kind Of Bad Guy Probably Aliens Or Terrorists Blah Blah you shoot them.” On the other end of the scale, you get Japanese RPGs (and some Western RPGs!) that get these massive plot tumors that cease to make any sort of goddamn sense at all.
Environment and atmosphere. This doesn’t make a good game – I know quite a few truly excellent games that were pretty shitty in this regard. Just look at text adventure games – WHAT graphics?! But environment and atmosphere can do wonders for making a great game. You could have made the Myst games without any graphics at all, but no one would have given a damn – they would have been just another Zork. The fact that Myst had freaking gorgeous photorealistic (for the time, anyway) graphics that gave you a sense of interacting with a living, breathing world is what made that so-called ‘pretty slideshow’ into the runaway bestseller of the mid-90s. So many games forget this as well. I again point to Western style shooters – Real is Brown! Have endless dark industrial environments repeated over and over again in GLORIOUS BROWN!

… I seem to be picking on Japanese RPGs and Western shooters a lot, don’t I? Bah, call it writer bias. I’m also probably missing some points.

So, how does Portal hit all these points?

Gameplay. It’s simple and intuitive. Anyone can pick it up fairly easily. There’s no fiddly learning curve to figure out menus, there’s no work to be done in regards to learning how to aim a complicated gun. There’s a portal gun. You press left and right to fire different colors of portal. Then you can run forward, back, and jump. Easy. Simple.
Engagement. My god, it’s fun! Wow, remember when games were fun, guys? The game challenges you in a myriad of ways, constantly coming up with new ways to completely immerse and engage the player. At no point do you feel like you’re on autopilot, even though GlaDOS is doing her best to railroad you into all sorts of odd situations, you can often find multiple solutions to a single problem.
Plot. Portal is a master of the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’. At no point are you outright told anything. At best, you have an extremely unreliable narrator in the form of GlaDOS. Thus, like much of the best literature, the player is left to figure out things on their own. And what an engaging exercise this is! In the end, some is revealed, but not all, leaving ample room for a sequel hook.

And aw dang, that’s all I have time to write tonight. Sorry, folks. I’ll try to stop failing to finish entries.

Write every day no exceptions – Dreams June 16, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in Armchair philosophy, write every day no exceptions.
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I’m running out of steam and topic ideas, as evidenced by yesterday’s failure. Someone, anyone, please, give me prompts.

And now, today’s essay.

I have recurring dreams a lot. Recurring places, recurring themes, recurring images. My dreams are often sunlight soaked and verdant, involving glorious green cities with winding back alleys, vast canyons and ancient ruins, wide rivers and humid air.

Recently, I’ve been dreaming that I’m a Professor of English at the Potomac University in some alternate dream version of Washington DC. For some reason, in this version the Potomac flows alongside a huge cliff, and the city itself is… it’s different. Hard to describe how. The University is where Roosevelt Island should be and they have a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution where the students can use all their resources.

I live in an apartment on campus, as all young graduate student professors do. My room is spare and small, but it’s painted pleasantly green and I have nice curtains and a great view of the river. It is always sunny. It never rains, and it is never cold. The air seems full of liquid sunlight every morning when I wake up in comfortable pajamas. I eat breakfast alone in a dining hall where all my meals are provided because I get up before the other professors and students. My students are all eager to learn and we spend the afternoons outside on lush lawns talking about Shakespeare, often with guest speakers from the Folger Library, and at night there are fireflies that dance along the banks of the river.

When I go to sleep, it’s morning at the Potomac University. I start my routine.

I’m always loathe to wake up. It’s such a beautiful, pleasant, perfect dream, a calm and peaceful life where I’m secure and taken care of and perfectly happy. I only wish my friends sometimes appeared in those dreams.

Write every day no exceptions – Beauty in the helix June 13, 2010

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A long time ago, I was sitting on the internet (as I have since I was about what, twelve?) and I discovered a post on a messageboard I enjoyed frequenting. The post went something like this, only with far worse grammar:

“So I have a horrible problem. I look out of my window every day and I see the green grass and blue sky and the sun, and all I can think about is how the only reason the grass is green because of the chloryphyll in it. The only reason the sky is blue is because of the way air refracts light, and the only reason the sun buns at all is because of hydrogen molecules smashing together. I can’t see any beauty in the world anymore. This is why science classes and education are wrong – they destroy all the beauty in the world by explaining it!”

I remember becoming irrationally angry at this guy. As pretentious, self-righeous high school students who hang out on the internet are wont to do, I typed out an angry, incoherent response as to why he was wrong and started a massive flame war with the vast majority of people at this board vehemently disagreeing with me and insisting that Science Is Bad, just like Holywood has taught them. Isn’t the only thing science ever does is clone vicious dinosaurs that eat tourists or build supercomputers that throw us out of airlocks and into really weird surrealist montages or enslave us into the most inefficient power source ever (they should have stuck with the parallel processing idea).

I’m going to try to respond a bit more coherently here. Or, rather, I’ll try, but honestly, Richard Feynman said it better than I did, even if he had a bad habit of belitteling artists.

See, what got me onto this little rant is that I’ve been reading Feynman lately, specifically the book Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character. It’s a collection of anecdotes and memoirs by the man, who I hadn’t even known about until recently (I know that this is a terrible thing, but forgive me, I’m still learning). Feynman muses about science and art a few times, and he has a specific essay where he writes ‘I have a friend who’s an artist…’ where his artist friend says basically the same thing that Disgruntled Internet Guy says above. If I recall (I don’t have internet access or the book in question with me at the moment of writing), it’s something like “I’m an artist. I can see the beauty in this flower. But you’re a scientist, so all you can see are a bunch of molecules. You don’t see the beauty.”

There’s a few things that make me angrier than statements like that, but it’s still something that makes me pretty damn angry! How can you say that knowing what a flower is made of somehow makes it less beautiful?

To give an example, is Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ a less spectacular picture for knowing how he made it by intricately cutting dozens of blocks of wood, covering them with ink, aligning them carefully and then pressing them to paper, making certain that each block was justified perfectly to layer up the image of a great tsunami and a few beleaguered fisherman near Mount Fujii? Is it less beautiful for knowing that he made several copies, and that he often worked for the money like many Ukio-e artists did? Is it less beautiful for knowing that it’s actually one of thirty-six images in a series about Mount Fujii?

No, of course not! In fact, I’d argue that you can appreciate that iconic image more once you know the story behind it. You can appreciate the hours and hours of hard work that Hokusai must have put into making that image, the difficulty of carving out the wood blocks. This wasn’t photoshopped, gentlemen. You can look beyond the dozens of pop culture reproductions and homage images and see the truth behind the image. And, if you know about the other Thirty-Six views, maybe your world will be expanded and filled with more beauty as you go and look for these other less well-known but equally fine prints of Japan’s most famous mountain.

In the same way, it’s completely idiotic to assume that because you know how a flower functions that it’s somehow less beautiful. It’s a flower no matter what you know about it (as the Bard said, ‘a rose by any other name…”). Once you know how it functions though, a whole world of other beauties appears to you. Think about how that flower evolved – billions of years ago a soup of carbon chains got complex enough to make other carbon chains, and those carbon chains did weird things like get cell walls and DNA and make more of them until you got more and more complex things, until some of them by chance started using this funky molecule that let them use sunlight as a power source, and those guys had a better chance of surviving than some of the other ones that were relying on other sources of energy, and then they kept getting more complex until they moved onto land and one of them by chance started doing this funny thing with DNA combining and releasing the results in tiny packets and then another one somehow evolved so that bugs would do the DNA combining for it and the ones that were better at getting bugs made more copies of themselves and it just so happened that when a bunch of monkeys saw the results of this they went “Wow! That’s really cool looking!”

What the hell are the odds of that? Think about it! Millions of years of evolution had to happen for grass to be green, for flowers to be pretty. And that’s not even getting into the complex and intricate beauty of the cells that make them up, the molecules that compose those cells. There is an intrinsic beauty to what we can discover through science – look at any photograph taken by the Hubble or by our robot probes. If you aren’t moved by the sight of the Pillars of Creation you just aren’t human.

… man, I had somewhere I was going, but it’s now much too late, and I must sleep. More on other topics tomorrow.

Write every day no exceptions – No, you may not purchase the Hindenberg June 12, 2010

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One day, a kid tried to buy the Hindenberg from me.

It was a pretty slow day in the National Air and Space Museum book store, which meant that I was walking the floor, adjusting books and DVDs on the shelf. I start walking to round the corner to re-stock the space pens when a kid stops me.

“Hey,” he says. “How much for that?”

I look around and I can’t tell what the heck he’s talking about.

“What?” I ask.

That!” he says emphatically, once again failing completely to indicate what ‘that’ is.

“… I’m not quite sure I’m understanding,” I say. To me, it looks like he’s pointing into empty space, not at any book.

“That! That Nazi balloon!”

I finally see where he’s pointing, and it’s at the model of the Hindenberg.

See, there’s a model of the Hindenberg right outside of the bookstore. It’s one of the few examples we have at NASM of lighter-than-air flight (the Stephen F Udvar-Hazy center has considerably more). It’s pretty clearly one of our artifacts, given that it hangs outside the store and has a sign on the wall indicating what it is. To be more specific, it’s the model used in the film Hindenberg by Universal Pictures, and is on loan from them. I didn’t know that it was on loan at the time, but I did know perfectly well that it was one of our artifacts and therefore not for sale.

So, I looked back at the kid, a strange ‘are you kidding me’ smirk on my face, and asked,

“Are you serious?”

He nodded emphatically. “Yeah, I want that Nazi Balloon!”

“You mean the Hindenberg.”

“Whatever it’s called, I want it.”

“Kiddo,” I say, laughing a little, “I’m pretty sure that’s a little out of your price range. It’s one of our museum artifacts, you know. It’s not for sale.”

“So? I’ll pay you right here. I’ve got a hundred dollars, and I’ll give it to you for that balloon.”

Now I really am laughing out loud. I can’t help it; this is about the most absurd thing that’s happened to me today. “Dude, I can’t sell you that. If you want to buy it, you gotta talk to the museum director. Also, it’s probably a lot more than a hundred dollars. I can sell you a book about lighter-than-air craft though if you’re interested, and we’ve got some smaller models downst-”

“I want that one. How do I get hold of the director?”

I can’t believe this kid. “Go down to the information desk by Independence Avenue,” I say. “Tell them what you want.”

I dunno if he did, but he certainly didn’t manage to buy the Hindenberg, because it’s still there, outside the entrance to the store.

Write every day no exceptions – Fountains June 11, 2010

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There’s a lot of fountains on the National Mall. There’s so many I haven’t seen them all, and writing on the train as I am I can’t even name all of them. I know there’s one in front of American History, There’s supposedly one at the WWII memorial, but I’ve never been there; there’s one near the National Botanic Garden.

I love fountains; I have ever since I was a little kid. I’m not sure what it is about them. Maybe it’s my fascination with water – it is a pretty amazing liquid, both essential to sustaining life and capable of incredible destruction. It has a lot of nifty properties, like its ability to hold surface tension, the way it expands as a solid. Maybe there’s something about the play of the water, the artistry; really good fountains are sculptures in motion. Honestly, I don’t know, I just really like sitting near moving water. Same’s true of streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans – even if they’re mosquito-ridden, I like being near the water.

There’s a few fountains in or near the Mall that are particular favourites of mine. The National Gallery has its sculpture garden fountain, a great big round pool with a number of jets pointing towards the center. The arrangement itself is nothing special, but the real draw is the fact that they let you stick your feet in the water. There’s few treats better than sitting out on a hot day with your feet in the cool water of the fountain.

There’s the United States Navy Memorial, which isn’t actually on the mall but somewhat off of it. This one always makes me cry if I think about it too hard – there’s a statue of a young man waiting with a duffel bag in navy gear, looking like he’s standing on a windswept pier. At his feet is a map of the world’s oceans. The whole place is a testament to the men who have died in service to our country at sea, and something about that – especially because my grandfather was a sailor, though not in the US military – really hits me hard. I think it’s a testament to the designer that the place has the power to make me cry.

I will never, ever, ever understand the Hirshhorn, but I can’t deny that they have a cool fountain. Almost every piece they have in there makes me go “bwuh” and not in a particularly thought provoking way, but the fountain itself is spectacular. The building itself is a giant cylinder, and this cylinder surrounds a huge pool of water. At the center is a gigantic spout which rises and falls throughout the course of the day, reaching a height of more than sixty feet at its peak – nearly to the top of the building. The water seems to reach for heaven itself, for that perfect circle of blue at the top.

But my very favourite fountains aren’t very well known or frequently visited. These are two fountains behind the Castle, one next to the Museum of African Art, the other next to the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. I didn’t even know these places existed until I wandered back there on a whim one day a few years ago, and was enchanted. This isn’t to say the fountains are empty – far from it – they’re simply much quieter than many other parts of the Mall.

The first fountain is called, I think, the Four Rivers of Paradise (I can’t quite remember, and I don’t have internet access at the moment). There are, as one might imagine, four ‘rivers’, which are actually four troughs of water surrounding a square. At one end is a waterfall, representing the gate of Paradise, and in the center is a single jet of water, representing (I think) Enlightenment. It’s surrounded by trees, and the jet of water is something you can run right through (lots of fun).

The second is less a fountain and more a simple pool of water. I believe it’s called the Moon Gate, and it’s based on the design of a fountain that belonged to the Emperor of China (again, I don’t have internet access as I’m typing this on my laptop on the metro, so I don’t quite know the facts). There are two gates on either side of the pool that consist of two big circles cut into rose colored granite. The pool itself is square, and cut into quarters by footbridges made of the same rose-colored stone. In the center is a great circle, like a full moon. At opposite corners of this pool there are two benches, which also consist of circles cut into square granite. The paths align to the cardinal directions, an important concept in Chinese mythology as anyone who has dabbled in Feng Shui knows.

There’s something powerful about the simplicity of the design. I used to go there after work when I worked up on D-Street as a database manager, just to get out of the office and relax in the open air. Again, it’s seldom crowded, so it’s a wonderful place to come to get away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the Mall. I remember on one such afternoon I rescued a drowning bird from the fountain by borrowing a map from a passing tourist and flipping the poor thing out of the water, whereupon it scrambled into the bushes, and I spent the rest of the afternoon eating some food from the Folklife Festival (I can’t remember what it was, besides delicious) and making sure the bird stayed safe and out of sight. It was a moment in time, among the leaves, me and a bird. I only wish that I had m ore free time to simply sit by the water and think.

Write Every day No Exceptions – Why do we like sugar? June 11, 2010

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This entry was originally posted on June 6, but in the process of trying to delete an entirely different entry, I accidentally deleted this one. As that was completely not my intention, I am re-posting it, this time with a few minor edits. Sorry for any confusion this may cause.

***

The other day we had a book signing at the National Air and Space Museum. This is pretty common – we have about one a week. This one, however, was a bit unusual because the gentleman who happened to be doing the signing also had an exhibit: Michael Benson. Both the book and the exhibit were called “Beyond: Visions of our Solar System”, and involved an extensive collection of photographs taken by various probes and telescopes of the little patch of the Milky Way we call home. If you’re in the area, I can’t recommend this exhibit enough. It has some of the most spectacular photos I’ve ever seen of our neighboring planets, my particular favorite being a photo of two of Jupiter’s moons seeming to hover over the surface of the gas giant.

Michael had brought his young son with him – I think the boy was about nine years old. Like most nine year olds, he was bored. While I find book signings fascinating, this is because I get to talk the ears off of authors in a variety of field and talk to customers with a genuine interest in . To a nine year old, however, none of this has any relevance at all. In this case, the author was his dad, and why would you ever want to talk to your dad, the customers were all strangers and that cashier lady with the red hair talked too much about nothing. He busied himself by running into the store to see if there was anything interesting, failing to find anything interesting, and reading The Hardy Boys. He also kept asking if he could buy candy. Michael said yes, and I said yes, but I had to tell the kid that he couldn’t eat it inside the museum and had to wait till he left. This, of course, didn’t please him at all. He wanted that candy now.

This went on for a while, until about an hour before Michael was supposed to leave. At this point, we’d been there for a few hours, and the boy (whose name I can’t remember, unfortunately, and I wish I could) was getting truly antsy. I couldn’t blame him: I remember countless times that my mother stayed after at some theater event when I’d get utterly bored and want to leave. In an effort to get his attention, I said,

“Why don’t you go see some of our exhibits? They’re really cool!”

“I don’t want to.”

At this point, both Michael and I started trying to convince the kid to go see some exhibits, and he kept stubbornly refusing. It’s hard for me to remember the exact conversation, but I seem to remember talking with Michael about the difficulty of interesting kids in this sort of thing. I could only shrug helplessly – as a kid, while I found my mother’s job terribly boring, I was endlessly fascinated by science and remember spending hours at this very museum (one reason why I can rattle off useless trivia about the artifacts at the drop of a hat). Meanwhile, the kid started asking about candy again.

“Look,” I said. “You have to be more curious about the world around you. You keep asking about candy and sugar, but have you ever considered why you like sugar? Why don’t you try to find that out? Why is sugar even sweet?”

This didn’t really help the situation, but luckily for the kid the book signing was over. I’m not sure if he ever got his candy, but the idea of ‘why do humans like sugar’ stuck with me. I’d be a very poor writer and wannabe scientist if I didn’t at least make a cursory glance into the matter.

Lucky for me, I live in the twenty-first century, which means I have access to this marvelous oracle named Google. Unlike the Greeks, I don’t have to rely on somewhat loopy young women in caves, and I don’t have to spend weeks digging around fruitlessly in the library trying to get an answer (not that I mind doing so, but this is ‘write every day no exceptions’, which means I don’t have much time.)

Before I began, I had my own hypothesis about why we like sugar, based on having read an awful lot of books on evolutionary biology as a kid. I figured that our primate ancestors really needed the calories, since one could never be sure where one’s next meal was coming from, and thus the ones that liked sweet things lived longer and were overall healthier animals, and thus had a higher chance of breeding. They were able to get the energy and nutrients they needed because something in them told them “oh man! That thing we just ate was awesome, let’s find more of that!” This continued to be an extremely valuable trait right up until we developed the ability to make our own sugar. Before then, people still didn’t always know where their next meal was coming from, and, again, the ones that had more access to delicious sweet things lived longer.

Along comes processed sugar. Now we can have delicious sweet things whenever we want! But like anything taken in excess, now it works to our detriment, causing us to consume massively more sugar than we need. Or, well, most of us anyway – I myself don’t particularly like the taste of processed sugar, and I know quite a few others who don’t either! I wonder if that might turn into a survival trait later on: people who eat too much sugar develop obesity and diabetes, while those of us geared to consume it only in moderation live longer, healthier lives and have the chance to attract more mates. But that’s neither here nor there.

Given that I write these essays on the train as I go to work, I don’t have much time to do in-depth research, so like I said, I just typed the question into google. I got a lot of health and fitness sites, but, as it turns out, the majority of the ones I read agree almost exactly with my hypothesis! To give three examples: FitnessMantra.info has an article on this, albeit with a lot of severely anachronistic references to running from dinosaurs (are there seriously still people who believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted? I mean, really.). An article from LiveScience.com agrees, but with fewer dinosaurs and more references to actual studies (in this case, a glycoscinece study conducted by the European Science Foundation). Finally, there’s an article on sugar cravings from HowToThinkThin.com. Not bad for a five minute google search. I’d still prefer to find an actual scientific study rather than just blog posts and anecdotal evidence, but the fact that these articles all agree (and believe me, these weren’t the only ones; I got quite a few hits) suggests that my guess was at least partially correct.

There’s really no excuse not to have a curious mind in this day and age. Information is so readily available to us, why don’t more of us just ask questions?