Sunday, July 30, 2006

Them! THEM!

I learned of this website via the best economics blog on the web, The Mess that Greenspan Made, and it was so absurd I absolutely had to link to it.

A tip, if you have any actual interest in the Potato Bug, I have a niggling feeling this isn't the best place to get your information, considering its answer to the question,

I have potato bugs in my vegetable garden. How can I rid myself of these pesky critters?


Drench your entire yard with gasoline and set it ablaze.

Fifty Lives

I was watching something on the Discovery Channel about ancient Egypt, on the rare occasion that something on that channel is actually educational, and I had something of an epiphany.

The whole of human history is effectively restricted to the last 5,000 or so years. Beyond that and not much was written down, so we don't know too much. If we say the lifetime of a human is 100 years, which is totally reasonable. We have centenarians jumping around like rabbits with a current human lifespan of 122 years.

There were also many famous historical figures who all lived to be near or over 90 throughout the whole of recorded history. One that comes immediately to mind is Michelangelo who lived to a hair under 89. So I think 100 years for the life of one human is a good number.

And now the thing that blows my mind, with a life of 100 years, the whole of human history of just 50 lifetimes. FIFTY. That's a totally palpable number. You can hold it. You can count it. You can grasp it. 5,000 years is such a large number it's barely understandable. It's like hearing how much money Bill Gates has. But fifty, fifty is an easy number. It's stunning to think everything we are can be wedged into just fifty lives.

It also reminds me of how little a distance we've come. Everything about us and our lives is so important to us, but if we were snuffed out tomorrow, it would be just another evolutionary fart in the geological history of the Earth. Just think, everything that defines our modern world was pretty much achieved in just the last lifetime. Let's go crazy, 1.5 lifetimes. Still, we have people alive now who have borne witness to all of the major achievements that now define our civilization.

The internet, the computer, sky scrapers, planes, cars, microwave dinners, digital watches, take-out Chinese. EVERYTHING in our hustle-and-bustle world is from the last 150 years. Yes, yes, the foundations for such a world were obviously laid down long before, but still, we don't define ourselves by the foundation, we define ourselves by the building.

Just fifty lifetimes. That's all we are.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Universe of Silliness?

I was just watching the movie Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy... waits for the Douglas Adams fans to stop cheering... and I thought about something.

First, the brain. A human brain has, on average, 100 billion neurons. Each of these neurons has 1,000 to 10,000 connections with other neurons. Assuming the high end, that's 1,000,000,000,000,000, or 1 Quadrillion synapses. Let's lop off some of that because a synapse between two neurons isn't counted as two synapses when you look from one cell or the other. Let's reduce it by half, so we have .5 quadrillion synapses. 500 trillion.

Now, imagine a way where we could ID and map every cell and connection in the brain. We could take a snapshot of the brain. Assuming a unique identifier system for the nerve cells, and with 100 billion of them we'd need 37-bit identifiers for 137,438,953,472 possible IDs. We could then ID a cell and list the 10,000 cells to which it is connected. 8 bits in a byte, 5 bytes per ID. 500 billion bytes in IDs. That's 500 gigabytes. I have 500 gigabytes and more in my computer right now.

The connection could literally be a yes/no, which is just a 1 or a 0, so that's 500 trillion bits. That equals 62,500,000,000,000 bytes. 62.5 terabytes of connection data. Add the 500 gigabytes of IDs and you have 63 terabytes of data to quanitfy the human brain. That may seem like a lot, but remember, we're now carrying around more storage on our keychains than was available on full hard drives ten years ago. 63 terabytes of storage is not far off.

Now, back to my point. Imagine a day when we can take a snapshot of the brain's structure. Every synapse is recorded. We could, in essence, copy a human. If their was a way to transfer that blueprint into an actual brain we could create a person anew.

I'm not saying we would then understand the language of the brain, but we don't need to. We don't need to know how the system works, we just need to know the location of every part. We could copy our brain once a week and keep spare bodies lying around. One body gets nailed by a bus and we just grow a new brain based on the previous data.

Obivously, the data acquisitions and storage part is the easiest aspect of this dream. How we would grow the new brain is completely beyond my addled imagination at this point. I'm also fully aware all of this was covered in the movie The Sixth Day. I'm just putting more detail into it.

Now my real point is that, with the spectre of death gone, would space actually be like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? There's no such thing as a matter of life and death and, let's face it, being silly and happy is the most desireable state of mind in which to be at any moment.

I think it's very likely that an ultra-advanced civilization would be filled with a large amount of silly geniuses. They have nothing to worry about. They all have food. They're all immortal. They could effectively bumble around the universe having fun. And even better, I think we are only a couple of hundred years away from this point ourselves, perhaps less. With advancements in medical technology, we may all very well live to see the day when the human brain can be recorded.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hatred for the Fools Part 1

Perhaps 'hatred' is too strong a word. There are emotions there, I can't deny that. Come to think of it, I think "incredible desire to avoid" is more apt. Regardless, this is the first part of a series of entries where I discuss people that, for lack of better words, piss me off.

I can't begin to describe how much I detest those people who I describe as 'morons.' A moron is anyone who has the seeming total inability to see anything beyond what is smack in front of their face. They exist wholly in their own, tiny, little sliver of world and care nothing for that which goes on outside of it.

A great deal of my ire is focused on a group I have termed 'yuppies.' In fact, my usage of the word is entirely incorrect. Or, perhaps, those who were originally described as such outgrew their own cliche. Yuppies are people, in my neck of the woods, who are obsessed with the American Dream. The white picket fence, yard, two-car garage, 2.5 kids, and a dog. They are also prone to attemps at keeping up with the Joneses.

These are the people who, when a yard in the suburbs is acquired, slather it with chemicals to make sure their yard is the greenest. Local environment be damned. They are the people who bought increasingly ridiculous SUVs to haul around their one, screaming child. Other drivers be damned. They are the people who, after moving into rural areas, bitch about the rural area. Whether it be farms, poor roads, getting stuck behind tractors, or a downtown without a Starbucks, the area into which they moved is currently no good and primed for civilization. Other, extand inhabitants be damned.

What's worse is that the damage that follows them. Skyrocketing property values that drives out the original residents. Developers who are literally foaming at the mouth to build that Starbucks the yuppies want. Other developers who look at a pristine vista and bulldoze it to build a cookie-cutter development straight out of the movie Edward Scissorhands. I call those yuppie enclaves. Frequently, far outside of urban areas is farm land that's been there for generations.

But when the yuppies move in, that shit has got to go... literally. Most of these farms have manure which is just too foul for the tender olfactory nerves of our dear yupp-yupps. Not like they have to complain too long. Those rabid developers will usually buy up all the farm land to build enclaves and strip malls.

I know I sound like some insane, tree-hugging hippy, but I'm not, more on this in a minute. I also know that all of you have most likely deduced that the acid in my words probably comes from personal experience, and it does. I have borne witness to the sheer scale of the damage caused by urban sprawl. It has had a serious and immensely negative effect on my life, and because of it I hate those who catalyze it with a venom.

But I don't hate them just because they messed up my life. I hate them because, as a group, they are the most environmentally damaging thing facing this country, today. They are dangerous to absolutely everyone, including themselves. All you have to do is look at the numbers of SUVs rolled over by soccer moms trying to drive them like the car they gave up.

They consume a stunning amount of oil, use an absurd amount of electricity and consume more land per-person than any other group in the US (farmland exempt). And they could find this information. They could change their ways. They could, but they don't. They live out their lives and die leaving nothing but damage and overpopulation behind. We have only one Earth. I and everyone I know must live here, and as such, these actions have a direct effect on me.

As I mentioned, I'm not a tree-hugging hippie. In fact, I love development. It's the advancement of our species and that is a good thing. I love new businesses, ports, buildings, anything. What I hate is the bacterial expansion that characterizes urban sprawl. We don't need to expand as we do, but it's the easiest and best fulfills the nations almost ADD-like need for isntant gratification.

There is hope on the horizon. In many western nations the birth rate is dropping, with a brithrate of 0 (number of children per breeding female) in many, already. China proved it's possible. Granted, they had to effectively beat their people into doing it. Obviously, that's not an option because I hate the repression of freedom more than overpopulation. Add another 1 billion in the US and that inclination may change, though.

I think the most important development is the growing movement behind biological cities, sometimes called ecopoli. The ecopolis is an incredible idea and one that takes up much of my time. In fact, it's such a great thing I'll save it for another post.

About Carl

I should also point out that the very name of this blog was stolen from one of Carl Sagan's books, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It's an excellent book and I whole heartedly recommend it.

First Post

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. - John Donne, Meditation XVII. 1624


to anyone who finds this blog at such an early stage. I hope this blog is good enough to rise above the din of innumerable other blogs to deserve your eyes and ears.

The image to which this blog is set is a painting by Rembrandt called Philosopher in Meditation. It is perhaps my favorite painting of all time because it is more than just a stunning example of skill. It speaks to me in the way that only art can.

At the time of painting, 1632, much science was still performed in this way. A single man, perhaps a group, sitting in room discussing ideas of vaguely scientific, but still heavily philosophical subject matter. Newton had yet to write his Principia, Galileo would be condemned by the Church in less than a year, and Rene Descartes wasn't even done with his Treatise on the World.

Fast forward nearly 400 years. Even with all our techno-wonders and finely tuned scientific protocols, the painting still has power and pertinence. For at its core, we are still nothing more than one person, sitting in room, contemplating what we see. It's so simple, so elegant, and yet so complex and convoluted at the same time. Science is a beautiful thing that causes my heart to skip a beat with every issue of Scientific American, Smithsonian, or New Scientist.

I see before me a world full of scientific wonders of which these magazines only give me a glimpse. Being analyzed by the greatest minds our society has yet produced, I feel confident that any of these mysteries, no matter how deep, can be solved. I am filled with confidence and, most importantly, hope.

Yet, at the same time, I see countless numbers of people acting and thinking in ways more at home in the Dark Ages. I see a veritable army of people ranting and raving about God in front of an Alabama court house. I see wars being perpetuated by savages and led by even worse. I see a public not only ignorant of the wonders that I read about every week, but scared of them. Many people talk about the growing divide between the "Haves" and the "Have Nots." I doubt they mean intellectually.

Perhaps exacerbating this problem is the lack of a good front man for science and skeptical thought. We have no new Carl Sagan after the death of the first. No new friendly and charismatic face to trumpet science.

Science langours with stunning and exciting discoveries and no way to tell the common lay person. With no focus and no voice, science the world over is an army without a general.

While I'm probably not the best candidate, and I'm certainly far from Carl Sagan's abilities, I consider myself highly intelligent, a polymath, charismatic, and well spoken. All of these characteristics can only help to further the expansion and understanding of science and thought.

In a sense, I am humbly offering my skills to the mission of scientific understanding and discourse. Well, perhaps not too humbly. I am as arrogant as the next person, and some of this is certainly self-serving.

I am especially driven to do this to not only expand scientific understanding, but to also set the record straight on as many subjects as possible. When I see religious zealots, or charlatans, or politicians relying on, and even encouraging public stupidity and ignorance, I am infuriated.

These people lie, connive, dissemble, and otherwise pull the proverbial wool over our eyes. They are parasites feasting on fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding. They not only deserve, but need to be expunged from society if we are to continue our advancement on both social and technological levels.

I could withdraw. I could leave society to its foibles. I certainly have the means and the brainpower to do so. But, for some reason, I can't. I care about the world and about the silly little species to which I belong.

In some deep sense, I believe in the phrase that opened this entry. I care because no matter how far I withdraw, the world of man will intrude. It spawned me and, as of yet, I can not escape it. I care because I am a part of mankind, and as any gear within a machine, if I do not do my part, the machine will cease to function, and each gear will lose all importance.

I care because I am part of mankind, and without it, I am lost.