Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Been too busy

And not feeling all that well. Sorry. Still thinking; will write it out soon.

Possible topics!

  1. Punk culture relies on powerlessness. It's self-defeating. What happens when punks can actually accomplish something or manage to build real lives? Suddenly they're not punk any more? But my values haven't changed; what gives? I know it's cliche to say that punk requires you to be young, poor, and angry, but is that really true? I think about these things.
  2. Medication and culture. People talk about a nation of Prozac zombies, and insist that "for thousands of years we got by without brain meds. Why is everyone depressed now?" Well, you know what? For thousands of years we got by without antibiotics and contraceptives, too.
    Anyone with the least real grounding in evolutionary biology will tell you that evolved organisms are designed imperfectly; "suboptimal design" is one of the key supporting arguments in favor of biological evolution, in fact. We are emphatically not perfectly suited to our environment. We are a makeshift job, adapting old parts to new tasks as well as can be managed by random repurposing until something works.
    And on top of that, we're not even in our environment any more! Our environment is an African savannah with low, broad-branched trees! We have created an artificial world that suits some of our needs, mostly the physical ones, without anywhere near the time needed to biologically adapt to it.
    Is it any wonder it helps a lot of us out to tweak old, outdated brain chemistry a little? Consider it a software patch to allow an old, old program to run in a new operating system. We're not tinkering with a system that's perfect if left alone and kept from getting unbalanced; we're simply trying to keep a hodgepodge assemblage of random parts working smoothly. We're not deviating from the "correct" blueprint of human design and operations because there isn't one.

    Science: it works, bitches!

  3. Apparently Rick Steves, the travel guy from the long-running European travel show on PBS, was the keynote speaker at Hempfest up here, and is a chair member of NORML. Who knew? He's a really cool, really, well, normal guy. He says he's seen what good marijuana laws can do for a country. I believe him.
    I'm not a user myself, but you know what? It's about time we pulled out heads out of our asses about cannabis here in the United States. It's a gateway drug, sure, but you know why? Because we tell people that they might as well be smoking crack. If our government assures them of that, well, why wouldn't they?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Easy Way

I took a pretty hefty Modern Physics course back at the University. It was designed to be an overview of all the stuff you don't learn in early physics courses; essentially, it was about everything since Newton. All that stuff that doesn't make one damn bit of intuitive sense.

Now, I liked Dr. Gleeson. He was fun, and he was obviously a pretty smart dude, if a little weird... but I was willing to let weird slide, because physicists are always weird. It's just part of the job description. Anyway, he was pretty cool.

But I don't know why he was so resistant to explaining things the easy way. Don't get me wrong: I want to know the hard stuff too. I want to know all the math. I want to know the nitty-gritty.

But it really helps to learn all that if you understand what you're learning first, dammit! When we started learning Maxwell's equations, I didn't even understand what the hell a field was! Last I had heard, we were being told that you couldn't have action at a distance, and that there emphatically was not any sort of aether. Now, to jump from that to the electromagnetic field...? How was I supposed to take that? All of a sudden we can have action at a distance, and there is something light propagates through? What? But...

Anyway: the easy way.

There really is a way to explain most difficult concepts without getting into the technical stuff. For the dilettante, that's usually enough; if you're just curious, well, the casual explanation will probably sate you. But for the serious student - whether he intends to learn just the basics, or whether he intends to go on to a career in the stuff - it makes an excellent start.

Example: relativity.

Relativity is weird at first glance. I had the fact, but not the reason or the mechanism, explained to me many times over the years, and it's so counterintuitive that most often I just assumed that the person explaining it to me - and generally doing a bad job of it, I might add - had misunderstood it. It just didn't make sense that speed through space could have anything to do with time! And I wasn't alone in that fallacy, either; in fact, I was in company with the exalted likes of Sir Isaac Newton, who asserted quite matter-of-factly that time and space were absolute! It's simply borne out by human experience!

Human experience is limited.

Relativity is a brilliant, simple concept, and it's very, very true (except in quantum situations, but we won't get into those for now). Experiments bear it out. As you go faster in space, you go slower in time... sort of. Relative to a stationary observer. Or him to you. It's... well, it's relative. It has to do with frames of reference.

Anyway, here's the thing: due to conditions at the beginning of the universe that I'm really not qualified to enumerate, we are all hurtling through spacetime - the four dimensions in which we exist - at the speed of light, which is, as we know, the ultimate speed limit. It's as fast as things go. (Note that I didn't say it's the fastest things can go, but rather that it's as fast as things do go. That's important.)

We are going the speed of light, in four dimensions. How? Easy: if you're not moving in space, the three dimensions we're used to, then you're moving in time. If you start to move through space, you divert some of your total velocity from moving through time, and lo and behold... you slow down in time.

It's that simple! It's as if you were driving at 65 mph northward, and then turned to the northeast. You'd still be going 65 mph, but not moving northward at 65 mph - some of your velocity would now be moving eastward. When you move through space, you're not moving as much through time.

Okay, it's not really that simple. That's actually kind of a gross, oversimplified, slightly inaccurate summation. But it nonetheless conveys a good sense of the idea! It's the easy way to get a handle on what relativity means! As a starting point, it's absolutely invaluable!

So why did it take this damn long for me to learn it?!?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007


What the hell is your problem, body?

No allergies at all for a young lifetime, and now, within the space of a year or two, suddenly I have deathly allergic reactions to multiple, unrelated items?

Being allergic to crab was bad enough, but I could handle it. But now I'm allergic to an entire group of common medications, as well? Criminy.

And this is the scary kind of allergy, too. Internal allergy. The kind that doesn't get less severe with each exposure, but in fact more and more dangerous. You get sensitized. Anaphylaxis.

Now, anaphylaxis doesn't necessarily mean anaphylactic shock; it means a particular type of misdirected immune response, which, in serious cases, can lead to shock and rapid death. It doesn't take much to put the human body into shock, however, and severe allergies can happen quickly and without warning.

Anyway, yuck.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Blobal Garming

You know, for all the uproar over global climate change you hear these days, you hear very little about what it actually is or what its real ramifications might be. Ask anyone on the street what the story is, and you'll be lucky if whoever you ask has seen "An Inconvenient Truth," much less studied any actual climate science on even a casual basis. Many people know - or think they know - that it's caused by pollution, and it involves gases keeping heat in the atmosphere. That's about all most people know.

Well, I'm not here to give lectures. I recommend you read up on the topic elsewhere, preferably in papers by reputable climatologists, geologists, ecologists, and atmospheric chemists. Suffice to say here that I was thinking a bit about global warming today.

Now, I'm an evolutionary biologist, and an ecologist. I think about biospheres and ecosystems. I was thinking today, partly because I'm in the middle of an excellent popular science book by Bill Bryson called A Short History of Nearly Everything. I don't necessarily agree with the way he states everything in the book, and I don't like the emphasis he gives some coincidences while barely mentioning other relevant factors, but all in all it is a highly readable and even entertaining book that teaches a broad overview of natural history from which more or less every single person on earth could benefit. I recommend it.

But back to the point: I was thinking.

This isn't a novel idea, I'm sure, though as yet I haven't had time to look around and see which greater minds have already propounded it, but here it is: we're headed for an ice age that will be orders of magnitude worse than any scenarios we have previously envisioned as consequences of global warming. The only question is whether it's sooner or later... but not that much later. Sounds counterintuitive, right? Well, it's complicated.

The short version is this: we don't understand the global climate very well, but we can observe certain patterns. One is that phenomena that disrupt oceanic currents, especially the big, deep ones, disrupt the global climate in destabilizing ways. Another, with more certain outcomes, is that plants create atmosphere and plants like carbon dioxide, so when there's lots of carbon dioxide (and lots of water), plants grow and change atmospheric composition.

Put the two together, and, excepting the unpredictable and certainly not probable intervention of other factors like geothermal heat or extraterrestrial impact, you have a climate destabilized by melting ice caps and glaciers, diluting and raising the oceans and changing ocean currents and unpredictably altering weather patterns. Simultaneously, you have extremely rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from our own combustion output. Plants love extra water and extra carbon dioxide, so we can expect enormous plant growth, even if we cut down all the rain forests and it comes in the form of algal blooms or grasses.

Plants eat carbon dioxide. Lots of plants eat lots of carbon dioxide. Now, sooner or later, our excessive output of that gas is going to end. Either we'll run out of fuel, or we'll decide it's time we stop wrecking everything. Either way, what we'll be left with is more plants than the resulting lower output can sustain. They'll suck up a whole lot of carbon dioxide from the destabilized atmosphere, for a while, at least, and levels will not only go back down, but will go down even lower than they were at preindustrial levels.

As you probably know, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas - it allows the atmosphere to retain heat. Now, what do you think will happen when it's all sucked out of the atmosphere? Cooler temperatures. Crashingly cooler. Disastrously cooler. Cool summers don't melt all the snowfall of the winter. Unmelted snow reflects incident sunlight, which causes less heat to be absorbed, resulting in further cooling. A positive feedback loop leads to an ice age. This is established climatological theory, established by geological record.

No, I'm not claiming I know exactly what's going to happen. Obviously no one does. I certainly don't know as well as the people who study this stuff for a living. But it's an entirely logical, predictable sequence of events, and it's more or less a certainty in the long run. It's not so much a certainty, however, exactly how long a run, or whether people will be around to see it.

Still, based on what research I've had time to do so far, including remaining fuel reserves and histories of previous climate changes, I wouldn't be too surprised if my generation's great-grandchildren ended up being well-served by stocking up on winter clothing.