Sunday, August 25, 2013

Seriously Latvia?

Warning: This is not a real blog post.

I was just sitting here bored and... wait, scratch that. I'm not bored. I'm never bored. As I tell my students, who are 12 and thus perpetually "bored," despite not having the vaguest notion of what true, bored-at-the-idea-of-even-being-for-another-second bored, bored because they haven't had, in the words of Louis CK, "colors and anger" flashed in their face in the last 12 seconds, I tell them, "Only boring people are ever bored." Which hopefully makes groaning, "I'm boooooaaarrrd..."a little less cool. 

So I guess I said, "I was sitting here bored and..." because that's some kind of way of justifying that I was looking at the stats on this blog, I guess because I didn't want to appear...what, narcissistic? Yeah, right. I think that ship sailed a looong time ago.

Anyway. I was looking at the stats on this blog because I wanted to stroke my own ego. I guess that's why someone would do that... But some of the things that I saw were really interesting. To me anyway. Here's the breakdown of the pageviews for this blog, all time, by country:

United States- 6,682
Russia- 489
Nepal- 434
Latvia- 390
Germany- 346
United Kingdom- 200
Australia- 145
Canada- 128
Ukraine- 70

Obviously, no surprise to see the US at number one. Russia at 2 means, largely, that Fromzy is doing is job, as Nepal at 3 means Brian is doing his, (despite me being a poorass follower of either of their blogs lately, though Brian's in now defunct.)

But Lativa, number 4? Really? Hello Latvia! Thank you very much, whoever you are! 

390 views from Latvia means that someone there is actually reading this. 3 views from Latvia, or even 39, would just be clicking the wrong link on Google. But 390 is some serious business. I also have one friend in Australia, but she is only putting up 145 views, to give you an idea. And that's not all her, according to the map. (I don't blame her for not being up there, since I did spend a fair number of words making fun of her religion's dietary laws- I'm honestly a little surprised she still reads it at all.) 

But Latvia, seriously? Nice work. I really thought that 99% of the views came from the 14 people I know on Facebook that read it, and that maybe their cat kept stepping on their mouse, causing the page to refresh and the tracker to kick up another page view. The other 1% I assumed were just lost on the internet.

So anyway. Go Latvia! 

Germany, nice work, really, but this is the country that produced Copernicus, Kepler, Leibniz, Gutenberg, Neitzche, Goethe, Born, Heisenberg, Plank, Einstein and Ludwig Van... and you're behind smelly little Latvia? Really? C'mon. (Don't tell Latvia I said that, btw. I just spent a lot of time pumping them up. You know how they are. A little insecure. It's not easy being a tiny European, what, principality? That most people couldn't locate on a map. Of Latvia.)

United Kingdom! You still owe me like thirty bucks from that time I was in London and saw Layer Cake with Daniel Craig and two tickets was 20 pounds, which at the time was, I believe, $39 US. Screw you for that. It's a movie, London. Not live theater. Loved the bangers and mashed though, keep it up. And being called "hun" by cute waitresses with a British accent. That works too. Go with that.

Whose next? Australia? Dealt with her... Canada! Canada, I think you know how I feel about you. But no, it's not all bad. Round bacon is good. And maple syrup. And... flannel? Seriously though, we could have much worse neighbors. Like...

France. Again, France, it's not that I don't like you. Paris is probably the most beautiful, extended man-made spectacle I have ever seen. I get it. You're proud of it and you should be. It's just that you're so... France. Hey, do you remember that time back in like '97 when we were all playing Diablo, and Brian and I used to come into your chatrooms and troll you about World War II and you'd fire back by calling us fat, stupid Americans who eat hamburgers all day? Remember that? Well, up yours. Hamburgers still rule. (And by the way, thanks for being kind enough to switch over to English back then so we could taunt each other freely. Yeah, I only speak one language. Yeah, it's a fat, stupid American thing.)

And last, and definitely least, Ukraine. Ukraine, go back to having the hottest head-of-state in the world and I'll give a crap about you again. No Yulia, no likey.

Who's winning now, by the way? Does anyone know? Are there any hot heads-of-state these days? I kinda had a thing for that Aussie lady, but it was mostly just because she was awesome. Though, I don't know. If you do a Google image search for Julia Gillard (and when it suggests Julia Gillard hot, click on that), she's got something going on. For a head-of-state, anyway. But Julia with a J is just no match for Yulia with a Y. (That seems to be a general rule of thumb anyway, I've found. As I'm sure Fromzy would agree. And Wootsy.)

So yeah. That's whose out there. Kinda weird to think about. I mean, Latvia? Really?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do you know what a duvet is?

My dog, Layla, I went for a long walk the other night, and I ended up thinking thoughts that became the previous post. But on the way home, I noticed something else that spun my mind off in another direction. Not too far from my house, I walked by an open garage in which sat two older men, leather jackets and handlebar mustaches, drinking beers while leaning on their Harleys. It was dark, and the garage was well lit, so I could see inside with detail. There was one of those red and black, 5ft. Black and Decker tool cases, with the two dozen drawers, both a US and Confederate flag, a beer fridge and Harley Davidson paraphernalia everywhere. There was also a sign that said, "Man Cave."

It was the sign that got me thinking. This garage, these men, this scene were a thing out of place on this quiet suburban street, the garage itself attached to a well-kept, off-white house with pretty shutters, a manicured lawn between my dog and I and them. But here, back-lit, was something a sign purchased at Home Depot declared a "Man Cave."

How is it that a man like that lives on a street like that in a home like that? How is it that everything is clearly most important to him is relegated to a garage warded with a store-bought sign? He probably even knows what a duvet is...


There are a lot of ways to look at history. Traditionally, history was looked at as being the tale of Great Men doing Great Things, which usually involved conquering and subjugating other peoples. Since most of what was written down concerned these individuals and events, even trying to read history for a broader sense of what life was like for the other 99.9999% of humans can be challenging. But a lot of work has been done and it is possible to get a sense of what life was like for a typical individual. 

But one narrative of history that is almost universally accepted is that throughout it, women have been subjugated by men. Certainly, some aspects of this complaint are legitimate and inarguable- women have, at various times and in various places, been unable to work outside the home, get an education or own property. They have been treated as property. There is no doubt that women and girls have gotten a raw deal throughout history. (What is often left unsaid, of course, is that for 49% of the population to subjugate 51% of the population, it takes a whole helluva lot of complicity, even taking physical size and propensity to violence into account. But that's for another day...)

However, there is another way to look at it. And what I am proposing is just that- another way to look at it- not a better, and not the right way, just another. 

In Second Samuel 11, we read, "In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king's men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbath. But David remained in Jerusalem." (To seduce Bathsheba... you know the rest.)

"In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war..." We see similar ideas in First Kings 20:26 and other places in the Bible as well. The point is that for the Biblical authors, it was clearly self evident that their audience understood that, of course, in the spring, men went off to war. They don't even bother to give a reason or justification for the wholesale slaughter of the Ammonites, or the starvation of the Rabbathians. None is needed. It is spring, and in the spring, men make war. 

Now, of course, the line actually reads, "when kings go off to war," but the distinction is trivial. No king goes to war spring after spring after spring without the consent and will of his soldiers, which, at that time, was the majority of the able-bodied male population. 

We can see a similar pattern in ancient Greece. Athens and Sparta fought the Peloponnesian War for 27 years, as well as many others. As in the Levant, wars in ancient Greece were fought by almost the entirety of the able-bodied male population. Even Socrates, one of the greatest minds of all time, was a hoplite in the Athenian army. 

China's worse. In what is known as the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history, spanning 294 years, the Chinese principalities fought 1,211 wars. In that entire period, there were 38 years of peace. 

I could go on. And on. Getting into prehistorical eras, or looking at pre-state societies does get trickier, but there does seem to be quite a bit of evidence that among certain types of pre-state societies, i.e. those that claim territory, usually, as opposed to wandering foragers, warfare is as common a part of life as hunting and childbirth. It's just something that happens. All the time.

But the point is not that men used to go off to war just about every year. The point is that we don't anymore. What changed?

Another way of looking at history is to see it as the slow containment and redirection of natural, innate male impulses. (And no, just because something is "natural" doesn't mean it's good. That's just how they trick you into paying $4 more for your shampoo.) Look around you. What do you see men doing?

I see my father, a varsity high school football coach. He spends, probably, 80% of his waking minutes thinking about his team, their strengths and weakness, his opponent's strengths and weaknesses, and how best to lead his team to victory on Friday night. 

I see myself, my brother and many of my friends (all but one of whom are male, and that one... idk ;-) obsessed with an online game that is essentially a large scale strategic arena battle. Many of us spend several hours a night playing, and some of us put in hours reading strategy and watching the pros on YouTube (yes, we're huge dorks). It's pretty much all we talk about when we get together. Last night's games, changes to the game, strategies to improve for next game...

What I see, largely, when I look around at what men enjoy spending their time doing, is that just about everything can be seen as a safer, tamer, less-deadly form of conflict than warfare, but all bearing a resemblance of some kind. (I mean, really enjoy, like get geeked up about. Yes, of course they love spending time with your mother... No, no, that's not what I meant...) Of course, it's not that there aren't exceptions, and it is certainly true that women enjoy many of the same things. But I think the generalization is fairly safe. 

In short, the history of civilization can be seen, additionally or alternatively, as the cordoning off of a large part of what makes men men, into safe, domesticated, docile little hobbies. Drinking beer in a "Man Cave" attached to a perfectly bourgeoisie little home. Practicing and planning for 60 (or 48) minutes of padded, rule-bound conflict. Talking pixelated strategy.

Is this a bad thing? Probably not. I certainly don't have any interest in going to war every spring. I'd much rather spend that time watching my dad's games, or talking nerd-sports with my friends. That scratches my itch plenty, and it's a lot more comfortable than a spear in the chest. 

But there is a sad side to it. "Man Caves" are pathetic. Own your space. There is nothing wrong with enjoying sports, or beer, or darts, or pool, or videogames, or cards, or any other damn thing you please. But put it out there. Don't hide it in the basement or the garage. Our culture often denigrates these pursuits, and others like them, as "childish." How can they be "childish" if it's adults that want to do them? That's just code for, "I'm incapable of enjoying myself and thus you should be too."

And remind them: It's a hell of a lot better than getting raped, pillaged and murdered every spring...

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ya can't get der fum heah...

I've been reading a lot of physics lately, which is something I haven't really done in earnest since my later high school and college years. At the time, I had reached the saturation point for what my adolescent brain was capable of absorbing in abstraction, and to dig any deeper would require mathematical training beyond my patience or capacity. 

My math is most certainly even weaker now than it was then, but fortunately, the nearly two decades that have passed have opened up other ways of thinking about some of these fundamental laws of time and space, matter and energy, chaos and order. Not in anyway relevant to the fields of physics, mathematics or information, but in how I think about the world I experience. But to get there, we will need a quick, non-mathematical, primer on the relevant physics...

The universe is way, way, WAY weirder than most people think. It is also far more interesting, far more elegant and far more beautiful than anything dreamed up in the minds of men and women. But most people are unaware of the true depths of strangeness that the universe reaches, because most people are still at least a hundred years behind the times, living in a clockwork Newtonian universe where everything is neat, orderly and mostly fits in with what we call "common sense." (Actually, many people are closer to five hundred years behind the times, stuck in an Aristotelian conception of the universe in which bowling balls fall faster than tennis balls because they are heavier, which is not the case.)

But the universe we inhabit is much, much stranger than all that. While I could give many examples, only one is relevant here, and the rest would get us off track. Take a photon. Photons are, as most people know, the smallest reducible "bit" of light. (As soon as you start talking quantum or relativistic physics, you have to hedge all of your definitions, since a photon is simultaneously both a wave and a particle. And that's not even the weirdest thing about it.) You are able to see the world because millions and billions of photons are striking your retina every moment your eyes are open. 

But the strange thing about photons is that they don't actually "travel" from point A, say a light bulb, to point B, your retina. What modern physics has learned, quantum mechanics in particular, is that we can't ever say that an individual photon took such-and-such a path to get from point A to point B. All we can say is, "Here are all the possible paths the photon could have taken from A to B, and here are the probabilities that it took each of those paths." 

Let me repeat this. A photon leaving light bulb A, is nowhere to be found until it strikes your retina B (or some other thing it interacts with along the way). It "leaves" the bulb A, "chooses" one of an infinite number of possible routes, "travels" that route, though without actually travelling the route, and "arrives" at your eye, causing you to be able to see whatever it is you are looking at (it'd have to actually bounce off whatever you're looking at, of course, but that isn't really relevant here, because we aren't concerned with how vision works). All we can do is calculate the likelihood that it took each (infinite) potential path and, taking all of these probabilities together, use this sum to describe the "route" the photon took.

Whew. Now if that sounds like cockamamie horseshit (and it should), slow down for a second, and consider two relevant factors. Number one, all of the truly weird aspects of quantum mechanics, this being one, have been experimentally verified to something along the lines of a factor of one in a billion billion. That means that experiments have verified the theoretical predictions to roughly the 18th decimal place. That's pretty good. That would be like launching a rocket from earth and hitting a dime on the moon. Every time. That doesn't happen by accident. 

Number two, think about where your brain comes from. Your brain evolved over the last few million years largely on the African savannah to be pretty good at communicating, problem-solving, tool-crafting, mating, politics, etc. Nowhere in there was it ever critical to our survival to appreciate the deepest workings of nature on unfathomably small (or large) scales. In fact, it is a testament to our great fortune that some of our savannah-useful skills happen to translate into something useful for probing the fundamental depths of the universe. (I mean, we could have been born dolphins. Dolphins are wicked smart. Dolphins have names. Dolphins have good taste in music (oh wait, that's killer whales- whatever). But dolphins will never build a Large Hadron Collider.)

Now, here is where it gets really weird. (No, like, really, really weird.) Physicists have been working for the last century or so to explain what this, the weird travel habits of photons (and every other particle in the universe), actually mean. Only one of the possible explanations is relevant here, but trust me when I say, the explanations are even more counter-intuitive than the phenomena itself. 

The one explanation that we will consider, not because it is the most right (in fact, it is probably the most wrong), but because it is foundational to what I actually want to talk about, is the Many Worlds Interpretation. The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics posits that, essentially, everything that can happen, does happen, albeit in an infinitely branching series of increasingly different universes. In other words, for every possible path the photon could take, it does take, but it only takes one in any particular universe. 

Now, for the most part, physicists hate this interpretation, for obvious reasons. It leaves reality a convoluted, messy, insane place. But, it does make the math work, and as has been shown time and time again, when the math talks, it is usually worth listening. Mostly, however, Many Worlds is acknowledged as a possible explanation for the weirdness of the universe we find ourselves in, but since it is, in principle, completely untestable, it is largely swept under the rug while a more satisfactory explanation is sought.

What I want to do today, though, is to imagine for a moment that the universe does work like that, but I want to scale up from the "choices" photons make to the ones that we do. Going through a major life change, as I recently have, has left me spending lots of time wondering, "What if?" Even more so, I have had numerous conversations with other people wondering, often more feverishly, "What if? What if this? What if that? Whatifwhatifwhatif?"

Our lives are full of choices; what friends to keep, what college to go to, what to study, what job to take, what girl to ask out, who to marry, where to live, whether to have children, whether to stay married, whether to change careers, and on and on... Each of these choices, in a very simplistic sense, represents a single branch on the tree above, let's call it The Tree of Potentiality. Each of these choices, once made, precludes us from making a host of other choices that were previously open to us. (In fact, this is just another way of explaining mid-life crisises. Do you remember being 18? That feeling that you could do anything, absolutely anything with your life? Chances are, if you're 28, or 35, or 50, or 80, this feeling has progressively dimmed. At some point along the way, when people realize this, they throw a little tantrum for a bit.)

The thing about the Tree though, is you can only move in one direction along it. You can only travel from the base, or the trunk, to stick with the metaphor, up through the limbs, down the branches, out to the twigs. We all get this, at least intellectually. You can't be 18 again. You can't travel back in time, or undo the past. 

But what a lot of people don't seem to get, at least on an emotional level, is that you can't travel parallel, either. You can't hop from one branch to another. But when people ask, obsess, over whatifwhatifwhatif? that's precisely what they are hoping, wishing, to do. 

Again, let's play Many World's for a minute. We can use my life. Under these presumptions...

There's a universe (a whole bunch, actually) where I never climbed onto the roof of that elementary school, never got arrested and never solidified my relationship with the kid that turned out to be my longest and best friend. (Those would all be sucky universes.)

There are universes where I took applying to college seriously, and didn't end up at a place where I really didn't belong...

But then I wouldn't have ended up in the universes where I met other great friends, and never would have moved years later to Seattle to visit one of them...

And wouldn't have met a whole host of wonderful people there...

And there are universes where I stick around there for the woman who was, at the time, the love of my life...

But then I wouldn't have moved back to Maine, continued cooking, met the woman who would become my wife, and who would give me my incredible daughter...

And, of course, there are universes where that woman is still my wife, and we are still happily married.

It's those last universes that some people in my life, at least right now, keep wanting to leap to, when they ask whatifwhatifwhatif?

But we can't. The universe doesn't work that way. We "make" our choices (nod to the free-will discussion that we clearly don't have time for here), we travel down the branches of the Tree, and we come, every moment of our lives, with every thought, word and gesture, to yet another intersection that opens up new possibilities while precluding others. And all we can do is make the best choices we can, with the information we have, between the branches in front of us. 

We can't go back. We can't even go sideways.

All we can do, and thus all we should ever want to do, is move forward. All the rest is futility.