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culture

Odd Lots

  • I had some fairly sophisticated oral microsurgery about ten days ago, and it kind of took the wind out of me. That’s why you’re getting two Odd Lots in a row. I have things to write about long-form but have only recently found the energy to write at all. Promise to get a couple of things out in the next week.
  • Some researchers at UW Madison are suggesting that sleep may exist to help us forget; that is, to trim unnecessary neural connections in order to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the brain. Fair enough. What I really want to know (and am currently researching) is why the hell we dream. I doubt the answer to that is quite so simple.
  • Ultibo is a fork of FreePascal/Lazarus that creates custom kernel.img files for the Raspberry Pi, allowing direct boot into an embedded application without requiring an underlying OS. I haven’t tried it yet (still waiting on delivery of a few parts for a new RPi 3 setup) but it sounds terrific. Bare metal Pascal? Whoda thunkit?
  • Humana just announced that it is leaving the ACA exchanges after 2017. As I understand it, that will leave a fair number of counties (and some major cities) with no health insurance carriers at all. Zip. Zero. Obamacare, it seems, is in the process of repealing itself.
  • NaNoWriMo has gone all political and shat itself bigtime. You know my opinions of such things: Politics is filth. A number of us are talking about an alternate event held on a different month. November is a horrible month for writing 50,000 words, because Thanksgiving. I’m pushing March, which is good for almost nothing other than containing St. Patrick’s Day. (Thanks to Tom Knighton for the link.)
  • Paris has been gripped by rioting since February 2…and the US media simply refuses to cover it, most likely fearing that it will distract people from the Flynn resignation. Forget fake news. We have fake media.
  • I heard from a DC resident that there was also a smallish riot in Washington DC today, and so far have seen no media coverage on it at all.
  • Cold weather in Italy and Spain have caused vegetable shortages in the UK. Millions of small children who would supposedly never know what snow looked like may now never know what kale looks like. Sounds like a good trade to me.
  • Trader Joe’s now sells a $5 zinfandel in its house Coastal brand, and it’s actually pretty decent. Good nose, strong fruit. Seems a touch thin somehow, but still well worth the price.
  • I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Gahan Wilson’s cartoons in Playboy and National Lampoon, but Pete Albrecht sent me a link to an interview with Wilson that explains why he did certain things the way he did, like his brilliant series called “Nuts” about how the world looks and feels to small children.

Odd Lots

Was 2016 Really That Deadly?

John Glenn. Carrie Fisher. Debbie Reynolds. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gene Wilder. Lots, lots more. OMG! Worst year evah!

I wonder. And because I wonder, I doubt it.

It’s certainly true that a lot of famous people died in 2016. However, we didn’t have any plagues or natural disasters that would raise the death rate significantly, so we have to assume that these deaths are unrelated to one another, and that we can’t finger any single cause or groups of causes. First, some short notes on mortality itself:

  • Plenty of ordinary people died too. We had one death in our extended family. Several of my friends lost parents this year. A quick look back shows such deaths happening every three or four years. There was a peak circa 2000-2010 when extended family in the Greatest Generation were dying. Those individuals were in their 80s, mostly, which is when a great many people die.
  • There are a lot of Baby Boomers, and Baby Boomers are hitting a knee in the mortality curve. The oldest Boomers are crossing 70 now, and the curve goes up sharply after that.
  • Basically, there are lots more old people now than in the past, and old people die more frequently.

All that is pretty obvious, and I list it here as a reminder. Humanity is aging. That’s not a bad thing, if living longer is better than dying young. In truth, I thought Zsa Zsa Gabor died years if not decades ago. She lived to 99, so she stood out in my mind, as does anyone who lives well into their 90s.

Which brings us to the issue of fame. There are different kinds of fame. Three types come to mind:

  • Horizontal fame falls to people who are very famous and generally known to the population at large.
  • Vertical fame falls to people who are well-known within narrower populations.
  • Age cohort fame is vertical fame along a time axis: It falls to people who are generally known but by people in a narrower age cohort, like Boomers or Millennials.

John Glenn had horizontal fame. Zsa Zsa Gabor had age-cohort fame: She had been out of the public eye for quite some time, so while Boomers mostly knew who she was, I’ll bet plenty of Millennials did not. Vertical fame is interesting, and I have a very good example: David Bunnell was a tech journalist, so as a tech journalist I knew him (personally, in fact, if not well) and know that he was well-known in tech journalism and very much missed. The fact that another well-known and much-loved tech journalist, Bill Machrone, died only two weeks later, gave us the impression that tech journalism had a target on its forehead this year. The fact that both men were 69 at the times of their deaths just made the whole thing stand out as “weird” and memorable in a grim way.

Most people have a passion (or several) not shared by all others. We can’t pay attention to everything, but all of us have a few things we pay attention to very closely. I’m not a medical person, so when Donald Henderson (the man who wiped out smallpox) died, I had to look him up. Those in science and healthcare probably recognized his name more quickly than people who focus on music or NASCAR. The point here is that almost everyone falls into some vertical interest bracket, and notices when a person famous within their bracket (but otherwise obscure) dies. This multiplies the perception of many famous people dying in any given year.

The proliferation of vertical brackets contributes to another fame issue: We are making more famous people every year. Vertical brackets are only part of it. With a larger population, there is more attention to be focused on the famous among us, allowing more people to cross the admittedly fuzzy boundary between obscurity and fame.

The key here is mass media, which creates fame and to some extent dictates who gets it. The mainstream media may be suffering but it’s still potent, and the more cable channels there are, the more broadly fame can be distributed. I doubt we’re producing as many movies as we used to, but the movies that happen are seen and discussed very broadly. I confess I don’t understand the cult of celebrity and find it distasteful. Still, celebrity and gossip are baked into our genes. (This is related to tribalism, which I’ll return to at some point. I’m starting to run long today and need to focus.)

Over the past ten years, of course, social media has appeared, and allows news to travel fast, even news catering to a relatively narrow audience. Social media amplifies the impact of celebrity deaths. I doubt I would have known that Zsa Zsa had died if I hadn’t seen somebody’s Twitter post. I didn’t much care, but I saw it.

There is another issue that many people may not appreciate: More people were paying attention to news generally in 2016. Why? The election. The profound weirdness and boggling viciousness of this year’s races had a great many people spending a lot more time online or in front of the TV, trying to figure out what the hell was actually happening, and why. I think this made the celebrity deaths that did happen a lot more visible than they might have been in a non-election year.

Finally, averages are average. There are always peaks and troughs. In fact, a year in which celebrity death rates were simply average would be slightly anomalous in itself, though no one but statisticians would likely notice. I’m guessing that we had a peak year this year. Next year might be kinder to celebrities. We won’t know until we get there.

To sum up: This past year, for various reasons, more people were paying attention, and there were more ways to pay attention. These trend lines will continue to rise, and I have a sneaking suspicion that next year may also be seen as deadly, as will the year after that, until the curves flatten out and we enter into some sort of new normal.

Grim, sure, but not mysterious. There may well be reasons to consider 2016 a terrible year, but thinking rationally, the number of celebrity deaths is not among them.

Odd Lots

  • Whew. We’re in Phoenix, now permanently, with the Colorado house on MLS. Much remains to be done, but the immense project of getting our house emptied and ready to sell has been nailed. The Smaller But Still Significant Truck Full of Stuff has emptied itself into our living room, and we have a week or two of sorting and sifting and putting away. Overall, we’re in good shape.
  • Iconic Mad Magazine cartoonist Jack Davis has died, at 91. I’ll readily admit that I used to read Mad while I was in high school, though not where my parents could see me. Humor mattered to me, as it does to this day. The only Mad artist who rivaled him in my view was Mort Drucker, who is still with us. (“I don’t believe your ears either, Mr. Spook.”)
  • I’m wondering if it would be possible to write a Windows-like user shell for Windows 10 IOT, which is available for the RPi. (You would be perfectly justified, this time at least, in asking “Why would you want to do that? Answer: Because it would be a cool hack, and it would probably annoy Microsoft, which is always a plus.)
  • Do you see the sunspot? I don’t see the sunspot.
  • We have now gone a record 129 months without a major hurricane making landfall on the US mainland. One of my friends continues to argue that Superstorm Sandy was a major hurricane because of the damage it caused. Ok…except “major hurricane” is a technical term in climate science, with a technical definition: Class 3 or above. Sandy was Class 2 when it hit the Atlantic Coast, and not a hurricane at all when it did the most damage. We’re talking about sustained wind speed, which is the only way we have to objectively classify hurricanes and get a handle on hurricane trends over time.
  • I got the impression (see above) that I was supposed to bow my head and whisper, “Hurricane Sandy was a horrible tragedy,” every time I talked about hurricane physics. Uhhhh…no. That’s like requiring me to say, “Nuclear bombs are horrible things,” every time I talk about the physics of nuclear fission. Sorry. Not gonna happen. Emotion has no place in science, except to politicize discussion and demonize dissent.
  • Where do Americans smoke the most weed? No points for guessing Colorado, though central Maine has a surprising constituency. What else do you do during those interminably miserable winters? (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
  • Speaking of which, Donald Trump supports allowing states to legalize marijuana, a position neither our president nor Hillary Clinton has taken. This is truly the weirdest presidential election in my considerable lifetime.
  • To be honest, I’m more interested in nootropics. Here’s a light article worth citing because it mentions a nootropic I had not heard of before: L-theanine.
  • Which is best used in conjunction with the oldest and probably best nootropic of all. Drinking coffee significantly reduces the risk of suicide. Well, caffeine raises mood, therefore acting against depression, and depressed people are those mostly likely to kill themselves.
  • Oh, and coffee acts against prostate cancer, too. I never drank coffee regularly until I was 33. I hope that wasn’t too late.
  • We had numerous Nash Ramblers when I was a kid. The company just turned 100, even though they became AMC and got devoured by Chrysler years ago. Nash did a lot of good stuff, some of it far earlier than their competition.
  • Why do I have to say this so much? Genuine virtue does not need signaling. I’ve come to the conclusion that all signaled virtue is fake. The rest of us are onto you. Just stop.

Remembering the Known Unknown, Redux

It happened again. I tried to remember a person (two persons, actually) and remembered several things about them, but not their names. This sounds ordinary enough (especially if you’re a Boomer) but hold on a sec. There’s more.

First, if you’ve never read this entry of mine, it’s might be worth a look. If it’s TL,DR, I’ll summarize: I tried to remember the name of a favorite poet, and failed. However, I did remember that his name was the same as the name of Indiana Jones’ rival in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I couldn’t remember that name either, but I knew it was the same name. After I had gone on to something else for awhile, the name popped up out of nowhere: The poet. The rival.

Clearly, human memory is not a set of SQL tables.

So the other night, I was reading some article online, and it mentioned the hapless Jayne Mansfield in passing, referring to her as a classic “blonde bombshell.” That’s a phrase I hadn’t heard in some time, and after I wondered briefly why there were no brunette bombshells, a peculiar thing occurred to me: There had been two blonde bombshells whose names were odd but very similar, structurally. I remembered that the women themselves were similar, but then again, “blonde bombshell” was a type in its day, and there were many, including Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and Jayne Mansfield. Ok. I dug deeper, and came up with another weird recall: Their names both had three parts…but no names appeared. Why is it that I could know that two names each had three parts and were structurally similar, without remembering the names themselves?

Two hours later, while I was reading ARs of the mass storage chapter in my Raspberry Pi book, two names surfaced in the back of my head simultaneously:

Mamie Van Doren.

Monique Van Vooren.

There’s nothing remarkable about either of them, and as I am not a fan of blonde bombshells to begin with, I had to wonder why I remembered them at all. Then again, I can sing the entire theme song of Car 54, Where Are You? which hasn’t been first-run since 1963. Memory is a weird business–especially when it stops working effectively.

Back in the entry I cited from 2013, I posited that we could think before we could speak, and so we probably store the names of things separately from their attributes. I still think this is true, but I think it’s even more peculiar that I could remember attributes of two names without remembering the names themselves. The key may be that we use different neural machinery to store names and attributes, so if the attributes of names are to be remembered, they get remembered by the attribute machinery rather than the name machinery.

It makes evolutionary sense: Knowing that the guy in the next cave is short, strong as an ox, has a stone axe buried permanently in his skull, and has a bad temper is a survival skill. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a name when there were only four caves in the neighborhood. The attribute that needed to be remembered when looking his way was “twitchy badass.” Names probably evolved out of attributes; think “Eric the Red.” But the attributes came first. Names came about when the world grew so complex that passing knowledge among peers through shared experience was no longer enough.

Evolution doesn’t replace. It overlays. So all that weird freaky ancient stuff is still down there somewhere, and is more loosely coupled to the newer stuff than we might like–especially when it’s the newer stuff that starts to malfunction first.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Intel’s announced the Compute Stick, a complete $150 Win8.1 machine in the format of a fat thumb drive. Looks like the plug is HDMI, though, and the device gets power from an uncommitted USB port. I could see this melting seamlessly into a big-screen TV (or any monitor with an HDMI input) and giving you something that indeed approaches (as Michael Abrash said probably 20 years ago about 21″ CRT monitors) Windows on your bedroom wall. (Thanks to Eric Bowersox for the link.)
  • It’ll be awhile before this becomes available, but a brand-new antibiotic has been isolated from bacteria that live in dirt. I’m doubly enthuisastic because this may encourage researchers to look harder at bacteriophages, which live in dirt and worse.
  • If you haven’t heard of Smart Pascal, it’s an interesting concept and worth a look: A commercial Object Pascal compiler that generates HTML5 apps. It’s basically a way of writing sophisticated Javascript apps without having to wash your mental hands and rinse your brain out every twenty minutes. To me that would be worth $42/year.
  • From the Words I Didn’t Know Until Yesterday Department: A selfie stick (also known as a narcissistick) is a camera holder that allows you to take pictures of yourself or groups by parking your camera on it and holding it up in the air so that the camera is facing you. It’s usually just a rod with a handle, sometimes telescoping. Many support bluetooth to trigger the camera, though the details remain obscure to me.
  • Beware the Facebook Logic Fallacy: One member of Group X is evil, therefore all members of Group X are evil. Much of my objection to Facebook memes is that this is a very common template. Attack memes must die. Not sure how to get there from here.
  • The percentage of ice cover on the Great Lakes is now 18.7%. Keep an eye on this graphic, as I think our current winter stands to be an…interesting…season from a Great Lakes ice perspective.
  • In general I’m no fan of government regulation, but here’s an excellent argument that both broadband providers and airlines could use a little consumer-oriented regulation.
  • Related to the above: Air travel is a lousy business (rather like health insurance, in fact) and merciless price competition has led to creative fee-hiding and generally charging extra for a travel experience that hasn’t been made deliberately miserable.
  • From the Department of the Painfully Obvious: There are many benefits in finding a spouse who is also your best friend. I guess it’s nice to have some research behind it, but damn, is this really news to anyone? (Maybe New Yorkers.)

Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

I just finished walking to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,which is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. I have some grumbles: The damned thing came to 181 minutes long; did we really need atolkienic rock giants starting a rumble with dwarves clinging to their pants legs? On the other hand, it was visually startling and lots of fun, and I give Jackson points for working in some of the appendices’ material, especially Radagast and Dol Guldur. Sure, Goblin Town was over the top, as was the Goblin King (“That’ll do it”) and the whole Goblin Town episode reminded me of a side-scroller video game.

All that said, what I really like about the film is its depiction of the dwarves. We didn’t see much of them in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, beyond Gimli and stacks of decayed corpses in Moria. From his own text, Tolkien clearly didn’t like the dwarves much, both explicitly and implicitly. I figured that out over 40 years ago, once the Silmarillion was published. Unlike elves and men, the dwarves were tinkered together after work hours by Aulë, the Valar demigod of tinkering. Aulë was out of his depth there, so Eru (God) fixed their bugs and archived them until the elves got out of beta and were RTMed.

That’s a pattern in Tolkien’s universe: Aulë’s guys were always digging stuff up and doing stuff with it, causing lots of trouble in the process. Fëanor made the Silmarils, and before you know it, we’d lost half a continent and the rest of the First Age. The dwarves in Moria dug too deep and struck Balrog; the dwarves in Erebor unearthed the Arkenstone, which made Thrain go nuts and hoard so much gold that Smaug sniffed it half a world away.

Oh–and Sauron (disguised as as a sort of evil Santa Claus) gave the clueless dwarf kings Seven Rings of Power. Worst. Idea. Evah.

Ok. They were nerds. You got a problem with that? By contrast, the Elves just sort of sat around inside their own collective auras, eating salad and nostalgia-tripping. The elven makers like Fëanor and Celebrimbor all came to bad ends, leaving behind the elven New Agers, who made a three-Age career of doing nothing in particular while feeling like on the whole, they’d rather be in Philadel…er, Valinor.

Screw that. I’m with the dwarves. They had an angular sort of art design that I envy (see any footage set within Erebor) and a capella groups long before the invention of barbershops. (See this for a bone-chilling cover.) We haven’t seen them in the films yet, but Weta concepts indicate that dwarf women are hot, irrespective of their long sideburns. And only a celebrity dwarf could tell you why mattocks rock.

Metal is fun, and craftiness is next to demigodliness, especially with Aulë as your demigod. The dwarves are basically Tolkien’s steampunkers, and if they didn’t have airships it was solely because they didn’t like heights. Sure, they were maybe a little slow on the uptake at times. Playing with minerals requires an intuitive grip on chemistry, and out of chemistry (given metal plating for motivation) comes electricity, as the Babylonians showed us. After three Ages, the dwarves still didn’t have AA batteries? Sheesh.

Still, they did real damned fine with iron, bronze, gold, and mithril. Makes you wonder what they could have done with ytterbium. Eä, the Final Frontier? Fifth Age, fersure!