Monday, July 30, 2007

What... the... ?

This "P.S.A" is one of the most mind-blowing things I've ever seen, and I personally saw it air on BET television about three days ago. I certainly don't have any commentary to offer--the video speaks for itself. No wait; I will say this: I can not believe this was on television in 2007.

Check out this video: Read A Book

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007


...and I'm back. Married. Better off.

Monday after a Saturday wedding. We were flying out of Providence on our way back to Indianapolis by way of Philadelphia, I was in that brain-haze that follows intense and sustained human interaction--I assume everyone must feel something like this: you love your family and friends, but 85 of them at once, for hours at a time, can be exhausting. The wedding went perfectly excellent, but there's a kind of stupor that follows. It was raining outside. The airport was... well, an airport.

Then Gretchen pointed over my shoulder and said, "Look!, there's Stephen Wright!" Sure enough, sauntering along in a Boston Red Sox hat and a jean jacket, one of my favorite comedians of all-time. And just like that the cloudy brain-haze lifted.

But it was still raining outside. Gloomy. Hmm...

We waited on the tarmac for 45 minutes--happy about the wedding going so well, but unhappy about travelling so tediously. Then it happened. We took off in the rain, I got that "aren't-we-climbing-too-steeply?" feeling in my stomach, entered the clouds, Gretchen clutched my hand, and minutes later we emerged to see this:

The sunniest image I had ever seen, and a lesson, somehow... something about perspective, I think. When you're... weary, feelin' small...

Anyway, here's to my new wife!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Follow-Up on Universe-Talk

Finally something interesting. Somebody qualified is proposing that the data has been poorly interpreted: the universe may actually be contracting, not expanding. This is a wonderful inversion, and it makes some sense -- if you admit (as astronomers will) that there is no non-relative point in the universe, then it seems perfectly reasonable to interpret the apparent widening gap between us and the next nearest galaxy cluster as evidence that we are hurtling inward a little faster than they are (thus increasing the gap).

The problem that anyone with a dab of intuition will raise is that the gap appears to be increasing uniformly in all directions. Interesting problem. But it is not more or less problematic in the scenario of a collapsing universe or a contracting universe than it is in the customary view, the expanding universe. I had a hard time figuring out on "the internet" whether scientists think galaxies are expanding or contracting, but this picture makes me think "contracting":

Looks like water down a drain to me; and if happens at the galactic level, I don't see any reason that it couldn't happen with the entire universe. Further, why do we tend to believe our observations at the fringes of our technological capability more than those we are sure about? It is certain that our solar system is not expanding. Nor is our galaxy. Nor, even, is our "galaxy cluster." It's at the level of between-galaxy-clusters that the expansion is supposed to be occurring. Really? I don't know about red-shifts that much, but is it possible there's some kind of distortion happening?

Here's my best guess: the number of black holes increases (naturally) with distance... as light passes a black hole and curves, it decreases in speed. Thus, cosmic objects observed farther away will not arrive at the speed of light, but slower. The effect decreases as we observe closer objects. A weak pictorial representation:

If nothing nearby is observed to be expanding, is it really probable that something that isn't happening here is happening way out there? Umm... sorry about that last sentence. My post below on heresy and blasphemy is better.

Heresy as sophomoric attempt at Blasphemy

I found a pretty intriguing phenomenon on YouTube, based on the words in Mark 3:28-29:
I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.

The deal is, The Rational Response Squad posted a video on YouTube challenging skeptical people to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. I found this when I discovered that one of my favorite bloggers posted his own video blasphemies in the spirit of rationality. The seemingly hip/liberal "Father Matthew" even posted a response video, in which he tries to understand how contemporary religious rhetoric can be alienating to atheists... very empathetic, Father Matthew.

Since reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand" for the first time a decade ago, I've had an abiding interest in the idea of "the unforgivable sin," and I've certainly thought about these verses in Matthew before. I think I have a novel take on it, which seems to be confirmed after watching these videos...

My thesis: Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is nowhere near as easy as declaring, with words, something like "I do not accept the Holy Spirit." Further, saying something even more scathing like, "F*ck the Holy Spirit" would not remotely qualify in my view as a violation of the Holy Spirit. I will go so far as to say that I have never known anyone personally (though I believe there are some) to successfully blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. In fact, having spent a decade of my life declaring similar blasphemies whenever I could, I am convinced that the words "I do not accept the Holy Spirit" may, at the right time, be precisely the most holy words one could utter. See Ralph Waldo Emerson's maxim, "The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and whines…"

In my view, blaspheming against the Holy Spirit would involve something like premeditated murder or (somewhat more debatably) suicide. That is, real blasphemy against this thing that has been called "the Holy Spirit" does not happen in the arena of language. In the old, old days (as anyone knows who has seen The Life of Brian), people could be stoned to death for uttering the name of God. Yet today most of us do not see it as a great affront to use the word God. Real, consequential blasphemy against God, against the Holy Spirit--indeed, any real blasphemy--can never be committed with a smile and a clean conscience.

It seems to me that these YouTubers are trying to get a rise out of committing heresy, and are not even approaching blasphemy. Definitions may be minimally helpful (?):

Heresy: opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, esp. of a church or religious system.

Blaphemy: impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things.

I'm not sure that helps. Still, I suspect that trying to prove one's eminent rationality by uttering a few phrases that would've landed a person on the rack five centuries ago would hardly upset the most orthodox religious institutions these days--and, if I'm right, wouldn't even be a blip on the real Holy Spirit's radar.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nietzsche was Right, Dude!

I'm perfectly content with scientists' conclusions on two points of fact:

  • the location of the earth in the solar system
  • the location of the solar system in the Milky Way
But, given these straightforward answers, I wouldn't think I would be alone in asking the next question: "Where is the Milky Way in the universe?" However, that search on Google yielded ZERO hits. So I changed my phraseology slightly: "Where is our galaxy in the universe?"

5 hits, two of which are redundant. And there is one little straightforward answer on the whole internet regarding this seemingly obvious next-step question for cosmology:
It is difficult to answer directly, because of the way that you phrase it. Basically, you need to understand that the universe does not have a "middle," and it doesn't have "edges" either. Therefore, the Milky Way is not in either of those regions, because those "regions" don't really exist.The universe does not really have a "middle" or "edges." This is similar to asking another question, which some people have asked me. That question is "In what direction was the Big Bang?" People want to know if they are looking in the direction of the Big Bang if they look toward Orion, or the Big Dipper, or whatever. You need to understand that the Big Bang happened EVERYWHERE. At that time, the word "everywhere" was only a tiny, tiny, tiny dot, but it was literally ALL of space. That dot WAS everywhere. Today, the universe itself is expanding, as it has been doing for 13.7 billion years, since the Big Bang.

I can't imagine I will be alone in considering this a kind of side-step answer. The answerer, apparently an "expert" in astronomy, blames his difficulty answering the question on the inquirer's phrasing... but surprise!, does not suggest a better way to phrase it. Then he unfairly compares it to a bad question that the inquirer did not ask. In fact, however, a dot (as he describes it) does have edges -- where there is "dot," there is "not-dot," and regardless of the relative size of the dot, if there are sub-particles within the dot (called galaxies!), it is reasonable to ask where in that dot (the universe) our sub-particle (the Milky Way) is located.

Yep, I've read A Brief History of Time, and I've read Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything -- I know what the scientists propose. But the Big Bang model, seemingly "scientific" as it is, simply doesn't satisfy me, especially when I cannot find anywhere on the entire internet a straight answer for where the edge is from here. This site makes the problem quite clear... you can zoom out far, but not all the way.

If I'm wrong, if my conception of the universe as an expanding bubble-sphere that's 14.7 billion years old -- if the universe is a kind of Mobius strip, someone please let me know! Is it possible that the 14.7 billion number is just an estimation of our ability to observe? But if it is, why do we think we need a theory of its beginning? I'm going to start working on a cosmology of an infinite universe, which "scientists" will no doubt be able to cherry-pick apart by selectively considering data that confirms their assumptions. Somehow I'll have to avoid repeating Nietzsche's claims about eternal return. See also.

Ten bonus points to anyone who can settle me down by answering a very simple question: where is the Milky Way? What does observability have to do with this?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

8 Questions, 9 Answers. Prophet Rating: 100%

A wise man, Michael at Wishydig, tagged me to fill out a sort of questionnaire. Click here to read the annoyingly-extensive rules; all you need to know are, these are 8 facts about me that I want to share:

1. I broke both bones in my left wrist trying to catch up with a girl at a roller rink in 5th grade.

2. I visited AutoWorld with my family in 1985, when I was 7 (Michael Moore was 33 then).

3. I used to dream that I was being bombarded by letters and numbers, letters and numbers that sort of bounced off my face (it was not painful) and coalesced into a large, orange object that rolled, rolled, rolled. I had the dream many times when I was young, and usually awoke terrified--mostly terrified because my perspective of the large rolling orange ball was sort of a "mouse-eye-view."

4. I once sprayed a whole bottle of Binaca mouth spray under my tongue on a dare.

5. I ran across my college campus in a jock strap and swam across one of the campus ponds as part of a "hazing" ritual.

6. The most profound spiritual experience of my life happened in a bowling alley parking lot.

7. I don't enjoy drinking alcohol, but do it sometimes because of peer pressure.

8. I love America and feel guilty about loving America.

Wow--this has been very refreshing. I love it when people ask me questions about me! Thanks, Mike!

#9. The "label" for this post may or may not be intended as ironic.

Hypothetical Conditions in a Universe Totally unlike our own...

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly. --Lao Tzu

This is of course a totally hypothetical question--I would never suggest that the universe is structured in such a way as to involve person-specific karma of any sort. But imagine: If we lived in a universe where every moment of happiness was cosmically predestined to be counterbalanced by equally substantial sadness, how would you behave?

Assume a few things: you exist naturally in a neutral state, and you can quite consciously avoid happiness (and therefore, also, sadness). Also, assume that 10 hours of 10% happiness could be counterbalanced by one hour of the most extraordinary, intense, 100% sorrow.

The question, obviously: would you elect to abandon the middle way to experience the manic and depressive states?--or would you try to find psychological satisfaction in the natural, neutral state?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

"You're not your f---ing khakis..." (Or your legs, for that matter)

Everyone's heard of phantom limbs; you know, where you get an arm amputated and still "feel" it from time to time. But consider phantom itches, and even phantom pain. Apparently, after a while, the brain is able to recognize that the limb isn't really there, and may seek to reclaim the usable brain matter. Sometimes crosswiring happens, and an amputee may learn that the nerves in (say) his face have rewired in the brain so that, to scratch a phantom itch on his amputated thumb, he may scratch his cheek where it meets his nose (or wherever). The missing limb may occasionally feel shorter or mangled or stuck in an uncomfortable position--troubling.

So, we're much more "brain" than we are "body." But if we aren't our bodies, and if our brains are as plastic and dynamic as they seem to be, how much crosswiring could our brains really do? How much are we our brains? Wallace Stevens once said, "The real is only the base; but it is the base." I'm starting to wonder.

I have a phantom ball of wisdom that walks with me everywhere I go, about six steps behind and slightly off to the right.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Global Warming is not a Religion! Leo DiCaprio told me it was a Fact!

"We may have as little as ten years to solve the climate crisis, lest we lose the chance to do so..." --Al Gore, tonight on the Live Earth special on NBC

Yeah... I'm still on the record as skeptical, even after hearing Rosario Dawson tell me to unplug my cellphone charger every time I leave the house (or whatever). And after hearing Kelly Clarkson perform "Since You Been Gone" (that performance almost persuaded me, though--so much duende!). If we really are ten years away from destruction, democracy is proving a ridiculously ineffective means of governing. I mean, counting on a Kelly Clarkson performance to persuade voters to save their own lives?--really? Plato might've been right to scorn democracy.

Anyway, on a bigger scale: Neutron stars exist. Think of them as collapsed stars (the collapse takes way less than one second). A teaspoon of neutron-star-matter would weigh as much matter as a mountain on earth. The density is so great and the gravity is so intense that the largest "mountains" on neutron stars are at most two inches tall. Look at Rene Magritte's painting "The Voice of Space":

Without the "mouths," obviously. But perfectly round, and ~10 km in diameter. Can you imagine seeing one of these things? And if this weren't spectacular enough, they are rotating--really fast... at their equators, as fast as 1/7th the speed of light. That's some serious rotation.

And if these things collect enough mass, they may collapse into black holes. I don't have a picture to show you of a black hole because the gravity there is so intense that (you've heard this before?) even light can't escape. A finite (large) amount of matter collected into an infinitely small "point."

Sometimes I think I am a black hole, receiving impressions constantly, collapsing them into my consciousness, my infinitely small "point." I don't always know what to make of the incoming data, but I do feel confident that there is something outside of my infinitely small core sending stuff at me--something else exists, or has existed.

The universe is so huge, and quarks and atoms and electrons are so small... it seems a kind of size-prejudice to consider ourselves "medium." An infinite regress and progress in the directions of small and large from our position seems more probable to me. Which means that our whole universe may be hanging around the collar of some cosmically huge-huge being, or that there existed a dozen intelligent civilizations in my eyeballs over the past 24 hours.

We are inclined to take "science" seriously, and to treat speculation with a sense of detachment or irony. But these movements toward the infinite seem very serious to me now, and global warming seems frivolous, despite Ann Curry's warnings of flood, drought, blizzards, hurricanes, etc. And despite Kanye West's very persuasive performance of "Gold Digger."

I hope "they" keep a giant record of everything ever published on the internet, and some far advanced civilization 5,000 years from now can read this post -- maybe they will be able to decide whether my interest in the cosmos was detrimental to human survival, was somehow irresponsible.


Tomorrow: on intellectual honesty and the dissertation.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

One Way of Looking at the World

Everybody likes Wallace Stevens' poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The poem is divided into 13 mini-stanzas; the first section looks like this:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

To understand why these are the best three lines of poetry ever, really do your best to see the entire image--maybe this will help:

Then zoom in with your imagination, and place a single blackbird into the desolate landscape. There are no trees, no clouds--nothing but the bird and the landscape. Two great questions of perspective arise: 1) Who is the speaker?--who observes the lone observing bird? And, 2) Why is the bird's eye moving? What does it see?

In answer to the first question, the speaker must be unembodied. The perspective of the poem necessitates a non-physical presence, an unmoving presence. Pretty grand.

But it's the second question that really does the trick for me: the bird's eye is moving--why? I picture myself as the lone being in a desolate landscape, and I quiet my mind, and think about the moment my eye shifts its focus. The movement of my eye would not be instinctual, would not be an automatic response to a physical stimulus (nothing else is moving); instead, the shifting eye evinces a kind of aesthetic response. Stevens' blackbird moves its eye from one mountaintop to another because it is contemplative, because it wonders.

Is it possible that the blackbird wonders whether it is being observed, wonders if there is an unembodied presence?