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Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

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!

Odd Lots

  • Lenin’s head is missing. It was last seen rolling around a forest near Berlin 23 years ago, but nobody can find it now, even though it weighs three and a half tons. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Evidently Lenin loses his head a lot. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Shame it didn’t happen in 1890 or so.
  • How far does $100 go in your state? (Backstory here.) Be careful; the figures are state-wide averages. It’s much worse in urban cores. (Thanks to Tony Kyle for the link.)
  • If you’ve never seen one, here’s an ad-farm article. I’ve often wondered if these are machine generated, written by people who don’t know English well, or machine-obfuscated copies of legitimate articles, intended to duck news providers’ plagiarism bots.
  • Wired volcanologist Eric Klemetti reports that a swarm of small earthquakes may presage an eruption from Iceland’s Barðarbunga volcano. The volcano is interesting because its name contains the ancient letter eth (ð) something I don’t recall seeing on Web news sites in a lot of years. To generate an eth on Windows, by the way, just enter Alt-0240.
  • Wired misses as often as it hits. One of its supposed futurists is telling us that the educated elite should be able to license reproduction, and dictate who can and who cannot have babies. By the way, his description of who is unfit to reproduce sounds a lot like the nonwhite urban poor. Articles of this sort are about as wise as “The Case for Killing Granny,” which put Newsweek in a world of hurt back in 2009.
  • To make you love this guy even more, let me quote a summary of presentation he did on Red Ice Radio: “Zoltan argues that ultimately technology will be helpful to the ‘greater good’ and must be implemented, even if by force and even if there are causalities along the way. In the second hour, Zoltan philosophizes about technology as evolution and luck as the prime mover of the human experience. He talks about maximizing on the transhumanist value for the evolution of our species. We parallel transhumanism with religious thinking. He’ll speak in favor of controversial subjects such as a transhumanist dictatorship, population control, licenses to have children and people needing to justify their existence in front of a committee, much like the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw’s idea.” If I were a transhumanist, I’d be ripping him several new ones right now. Or is transhumanism really that nasty?
  • Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek is not proposing thiotimoline, nor anything else (I think) having to do with time travel. He believes that he’s broken the temporal symmetry of nature…which sounds devilish and full of interesting possibilities. As soon as I figure out what the hell it all means, time crystals will land in one of my hard SF concepts in -5 milliseconds.
  • Michael Covington reminded us on Facebook that there are a surprising number of plurals with no singular form, including kudos, biceps, suds, and shenanigans. (I do wonder, as does Bill Lindley, if the very last bubble in the sink is a sud.)
  • That discussion in turn reminded me of a concept for an END piece in PC Techniques that I took notes on but never wrote: the KUDOS operating system, which lacks error messages but pays you a compliment every time you do anything right. In 1992 I was thinking of purely textual compliments, but these days I imagine a spell-checker that plays “Bravo!” on the speakers every time you spell a word correctly. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Doubt and the Scientific Method

This took me by surprise: Over in that global laboratory of abnormal psychology that most of us call Facebook, a man I’ve know for almost 35 years grew furious at me. My crime? A longstanding contention of mine that doubt lies at the heart of the scientific method. Note well that we were not talking about Issues. Not evolution, not climate, not even the Paleo Diet. None of that had even come up. No: We were talking about the scientific method itself.

I’ve seen this weird “doubt undermines science” business come up before, though never directed at me personally. Nonsense, of course. Doubt really does lie at the heart of the scientific method. This is not some opinion of mine that I pulled out of thin air. Hey, if somebody wants to start a new game show called “Are You Smarter Than Karl Popper?” I can recommend the first season’s contestants.

Here’s my understanding: The scientific method requires a trigger, and that trigger is doubt. Some smart guy or gal looks at something we think we know, often but not always after examining a pile of new data, and says, “This smells fishy. Let’s take a closer look and see what we can learn.” That initial insight leads to hypothesis, experiment, repeatable results, and eventually (one would hope) new or corrected knowledge. Absent doubt, nobody thinks anything smells fishy, no closer look happens, and whatever booboo might be in there somewhere never comes to light. Without doubt, there is no science.

It’s pretty much that simple.

So how do we explain my excoriation for stating the obvious? I have a theory, heh. It involves those idiotic Facebook memes that set religion against science. Some are worse than others; my personal antifavorite is the one that reads, “Religion flies aircraft into buildings. Science flies spacecraft to the Moon.” Gosh, was it the Episcopalians? And did engineering maybe have a role? Let it pass; there are plenty more. What they represent is tribal chest-thumping by people who want to replace religion with science. That sounds fishy to me. I probed a little and began to get a suspicion that what the chest-thumpers really want is the certainty of religion under a new name.

What tipped me off is the fact that the chest-thumpers were always talking about scientific knowledge, but never the scientific method. The reason is pretty simple: The scientific method is the single most subversive system of thought that humanity has ever created. Nothing that we know (or think we know) is safe from the scientific method. Not even physical laws. Back in the 1950s there was a physical law called the Law of Parity, holding that nature does not differentiate left from right at the subtomic level. Some physicists thought the Law of Parity smelled fishy. They put their heads together, came up with some truly brilliant experiments, and snick! They nailed the Law of Parity through an eye socket. They nailed it because they doubted it. And we’re not talking the Paleo Diet here. We’re talking a law of physics.

That scares people with a strong craving for certainty. At this point we need to talk a little bit about the religious impulse. Note well that I am not talking about religion itself here. I’m talking about the primal hunger for certain things that religion provides. The two biggies are meaning and certainty. (Belonging is a third biggie, but I feel that religion inherits the hunger for belonging from its primal sibling, the tribal impulse. I’ll have to take that up another time.) As anyone who’s read Viktor Frankl has learned, “meaning” is an important but slippery business. I’ve thought about it a lot, and it looks to me like the meaning we see in our lives grows out of order. There is huge comfort in living lives that follow a predictable template. We all imagine lives lived reliably in a certain way. We do not imagine chaotic lives, and generally avoid chaos when we can. (We may grumble about the template we’re currently living, but what we want is a better template, not chaos.) When chaos strikes, our lives can quickly move from meaningful to meaningless. A need for certainty follows from the need for order. We want to be certain that we’ve chosen a path that leads toward meaning. As often as not, this means choosing templates that work for us and embracing them without doubt. Some people take this too far, and become reactionaries or fanatics who insist that the templates they’ve discovered are the only ones that anyone should embrace. Alas, this is where the religious impulse gets tangled up in the tribal impulse, which, unimpeded by laws or cultural norms, gallops straight toward genocide.

Religion satisfies the religious impulse by providing us with wisdom narratives that suggest life templates, calendars of rituals and festivals that repeat down the years and reinforce a sense of the orderly passing of time, and saints as heroes whose very meaningful lives may be emulated. (I hope my religious friends will relax a little here and look closely at what I’m saying: I am not denying that God is behind religion. I’m suggesting the mechanisms by which God gets our attention and calls us home.)

What’s happening in our secular era is that religion is becoming less prevalent and (in our own culture, at least) less strident. People who feel the religious impulse strongly need to get their meaning (via order) and certainty somewhere else. Science is handy. Science makes for bad religion, however, because it creates its own heretics and subverts its own wisdom narratives. It creates disorder via doubt, in the cause of creating new order that more accurately reflects physical reality. Certainty in science is always tentative: What the scientific method gives, the scientific method can take away.

This makes people of certain psychologies batshit nuts.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’m something of an anomaly, in that my need for order doesn’t march in lockstep with any need for certainty. I’m an empiricist. I’ve created an orderly and meaningful life that works for me, but when circumstances require change, I grit my teeth and embrace the change. Incremental change is one way to avoid chaos, after all: Deal with it a little at a time, and you won’t have to deal with an earthquake later on.

In a sense, I live my life by the scientific method. Sometimes I doubt that that what I’m doing is the right thing for me. I stop, think about it, and often discover a better way. Doubt keeps pointing me in the right direction, as it does for science. Certainty, well…that points in the opposite direction, toward brittleness and chaos. Science doesn’t go there. None of us should either.

Comment Harpies

Every so often I moderate a comment, and the commenter objects: “You’re censoring me!” (Most of the time I just nuke it, and that’s the last I hear.) Granted, it isn’t often, though it’s happening more and more over time. I’m discussing it today because of an interesting phenomenon that other bloggers may have seen, one I call comment harpies. It works like this: Some whackjob swoops in and tries to post a nasty comment on Contra, generally to an entry that happened months or even years ago. I’ve never seen the poster before. The comment is invariably angry, often insulting, and sometimes obscene. The general impression I get, however, is one of out-of-control desperation.

I picture a person awash in cortisol sitting at a machine, googling topics that the harpy’s tribe disagrees with, plowing through long lists of blog hits with shaking hands and attempting to post condemnations anywhere the blogs will let them. This is the terminal state of the “someone, somewhere on the Internet is wrong” psychology. Disagreement used to be a learning opportunity. Then it became insult. Now it appears to be declaration of total war.

Sad, sad.

I moderate all comments from newcomers, and I pay attention to everything said by everyone. I began moderation to throttle comment spam, which tries to come in five or six times a day, sometimes more. You’ve probably seen these slightly surreal cookie-cutter posts on unmoderated blogs, invariably accompanied by one or more links:

“It is of nothing enjoyed to be better apart than reading insights of distinction sourced with your sight. Links are of to be permitted, yes? I make a mind out to return of oftener.”

Links are of to be permitted, no. Lost, get apart now forever and my sight out of.

The harpies are different. The English is good, and the posts generally pertain to whatever topic the target entry discusses. There’s rarely any link. Though usually short, there’s an occasional multi-hundred-word rant. As a general policy I delete them immediately. Now and then the indignant harpy emails me and demands an explanation. When asked, I answer: “I don’t allow angry/abusive/obscene comments.” End of story, usually. Sometimes the cortisol-tripper reponds again, claiming that I’m engaging in censorship. At that point, their having crossed the bright line into delusional, I delete and forget them.

Some comments fall into a gray area. A year or two ago, when I began talking about my research into ice ages for my caveman novel, I got a one-liner:

“Don’t be an idiot. There will never be another ice age.”

This is less angry than most, and I’ve certainly been called worse. With faint hope that he/she might have something interesting to say, I wrote back and suggested a politer comment with factual content, links permitted. The email address (which was qwertygargle and suspicious to begin with) turned out to be fake.

So what can we make of this? Some of my friends have suggested that posts like these are paid compaigns intended to discredit the blogger or the topic the blogger is discussing. That seems unlikely to me. Anger and insult won’t change anybody’s mind except perhaps in the direction opposite the harpy’s intent. And when someone calls you a “Foux News watcher,” what else can you do but giggle? I wonder if these people have any least idea how utterly pathetic they make themselves and their ideologies look.

Are they bored? Unemployed? Crazy? Are they crawling with toxoplasma gondii? As with all manifestations of tribal fury, the comment harpy phenomenon probably has deep roots in our primate past, where the addled tribal footsoldiers throw poop at each other while their alphas live the good life at their expense. If you have any better explanations, I’ll certainly hear them.

Odd Lots

  • This exploit isn’t new, but may be the most devilish thing I’ve seen in a couple of years: Using the Unicode “right-to-left override” character in a filename to make a .exe file look like a .pdf, a .jpg, .txt, or anything else. Double-click on that PDF, and you’ll get pwned…because it isn’t a PDF.
  • Working 16-hour days and sleeping a couple of hours under your desk may contribute to the high percentage of failures among startups. Basically, people who short on sleep think dumb thoughts and chase dumb ideas. They seem to wear their wilfull sleeplessness like a badge of honor, even as it kills their startups. Or themselves.
  • Note the near-obligatory Ekirch reference in the above article. I’ve still not found much evidence for his theory of “divided sleep” outside of his own book, but the guy gets citations all over the place.
  • This article on food myths is less interesting than the comments, which generally confirm my conclusion (having seen lots of similar comment sections) that nobody really knows what healthy eating is. (Thanks to Roy Harvey for the link.)
  • My own advice runs like this, with no apologies whatsoever to Michael Pollan: Eat food. Not too much. And sometimes plants.
  • Much activity in this realm recently. Bruce Baker sends this link from the New York Times . Comments section very similar. The whole field, in fact, is a virtual food fight. Proving you’re right by insulting your opponents is very in right now, especially on Facebook.
  • Neil Rest sends a link suggesting that exposure to bright light in the morning lowers BMI. Now, I think BMI itself is bogus–the metric doesn’t differentiate between fat and muscle, sheesh!–but if morning sunlight does indeed goose metabolism, getting out in the sun is a good thing. We should be cautious here: It’s been established that losing sleep does promote weight gain, and it’s mostly night people who lose sleep.
  • Name brand diet soda sales are in free-fall. I think that this is less about health and more about cost: People are probably reacting to price hikes from Big Soda over the past couple of years by moving to house brands from Wal-Mart and the major grocery chains.
  • House brands are a fascinating business, and there’s very little out there on how this titanic but virtually invisible industry operates. Who makes the Cheerios that aren’t Cheerios?
  • Is the Internet taking away religious faith? Hardly. What it’s doing is providing secular religions (like political ideology) to satisfy the tribal hunger of the 50% whose disaffiliation from organized religion can’t be explained in other ways. Tribal ideology is cheap (no churches or clergy to support) and once you’ve given yourself permission to hate others who differ from you, it provides the perfect excuse.