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Customize Your Kindle Screensaver August 6, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture.
3 comments

I read an article online about six weeks ago, in which the author said she had updated her Kindle screensaver so that it used only one image, which contained her name and her e-mail address. That way, if she accidentally left her Kindle somewhere, she had a better chance of getting it back than simply trusting whomever found it to do the whole “Home – Menu – Settings – Next Page” routine.

I thought, except for the only-one-image part, what a terrific idea!

When I wrote an e-mail to Amazon about updating the screensaver images on my Kindle, the form-letter reply was that this was impossible; I simply had to content myself with the 23 images that had been supplied.

But as the Cyberman said to Miss Hartigan, “This statement has been designated ‘a lie.’ ” In fact, it’s easy to “jailbreak” your Kindle. I now have more than a hundred screensaver images on my Kindle, including several each of my husband, my cats, and even myself. Each of these images contains my name and telephone number — and that was by far more difficult and time-consuming than jailbreaking my Kindle. (The image you see here is one of my favorite photos of my husband.)

Your first step will be to begin your collection of screensaver images. This will be thousands of times more time-consuming than jailbreaking your Kindle — so it’s lucky it’s also fun. Also luckily, you only have to jailbreak your Kindle once; after that, uploading additional images is simple. And don’t worry; according to Amazon customer service, updating your screensaver images does NOT void your warranty.

The Jailbreak

(1) First, be sure what Kindle you’re hacking. Your serial number ought to appear on the back of your Kindle; if not, do “Menu – Settings – Next Page” and look under “Device Info.” This chart of serial numbers will help:

B002 – Kindle US Wireless
B003 – Kindle Global Wireless
B004 – Kindle DX US Wireless
B005 – Kindle DX Global Wireless
B009 – Kindle DX Graphite
B006 – Kindle 3 3G US
B008 – Kindle 3 Wi-Fi
B00A – Kindle 3 3G UK/Europe

Next, you’ll need to download a recent copy of the ZIP file that contains all necessary hacks. I got mine from Kindle Boards; this link is to the Mobileread community’s version.

(2) Download this file, which will be named something similar to “kindle-jailbreak-0.4.N.zip.” Its contents will look similar to this:

Unzip this file.

(3) Connect your Kindle to your computer with its USB cable. Copy the (one) appropriate update file to your Kindle’s root (top) directory; for example, “update_screen_saver_0.4.N_k3g_install.bin.”

(4) When the correct file has been copied, detach your Kindle from the USB cable. Press “Home – Menu,” scroll down to and choose “Settings,” and press “Menu” again. If “Update Your Kindle” is grayed out, your Kindle has already been hacked and you can skip to uploading your own images (step 7). Otherwise, press “Update Your Kindle” and “OK.” I read online that this step can take a few minutes, but for my own Kindle, it took about 30 seconds.

Earlier Kindle versions may try to scare you by saying “FAILURE.” Don’t worry; you haven’t failed.

(5) Reconnect your Kindle to your computer via the USB cable. Open two computer directories, one for the subdirectory in which you have amassed your own images, one for the Kindle.

Now comes a step you’ll only have to take when uploading images. Press the “help” button on one of your two directories. Search for “show hidden,” then select “Click to show folder options.” Click on “View.” Early in “Advanced settings,” choose “Show hidden files, folders, and drives.” Your computer may try to dissuade you from doing this; if so, insist. You’re not going to be monkeying around with anything you shouldn’t.

(6) Now that you’re able to see hidden files, have a look at your Kindle’s root directory. It will look something like this:

If you don’t see the directory “system,” you may have used the wrong BIN update for your hack. Assuming you can see it, double-click first on “system,” then on “screen_saver.” And voila! There will be the 23 images that came with your Kindle.

(7) I downloaded all the original Kindle screensaver images onto my computer before I erased them from my Kindle. Your preference may vary. (Okay, there were one or two images I was so sick of looking at I just deleted them.)

Next, I copied all of my screensaver images to my Kindle’s “screen_saver” subdirectory.

Note: Your Kindle steps through your images in alphanumeric order. If you have a lot of images with similar names, such as “Cats 1” through “Cats 10,” and you don’t want them to clump in the rotation, this is the time for you to look at the “screen_saver” subdirectory using “Large Icons,” and change the names to disperse your images in a way that is more to your liking. For example, my screensaver has such images as “A-Jerry as baby,” “G-Jerry as boy,” and “V-Jerry in 2004,” not to mention “A-Escher 1,” “E-Escher 2,” and “X-Escher 5.” (All of my screensavers are in the PNG format, so the actual name would be, e.g., “X-Escher 5.png”. Kindles will also read JPG files.)

(8) Almost done! Detach your Kindle from its USB cable. Press “Home” and “Menu,” scroll down to and choose “Settings,” then “Menu” again, and scroll down to “Restart.” This will take a minute or two, but after that, your next step is: enjoy! On your computer, reverse the “show hidden” process — unless you enjoy wondering why your computer has so many “thumbs.db” files.

When you accumulate more screensaver images, simply connect your Kindle to your computer; open the subdirectory in which you keep your images; open your Kindle’s root directory; do “show hidden”; go to “F:>Kindle/system/screen_saver”; copy your images to “screen_saver”; restart your Kindle.

A housekeeping note: the subdirectory in which I keep my Kindle images has a subdirectory of its own, “Used,” to help me distinguish to-be-uploaded from already-uploaded.

Your Own Images

To make your own screensaver images, you need your own graphics editing program, such as Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro. If you don’t want to spend any money, the program “Gimp” is good. (Gimp.com)

Create a subdirectory just for your Kindle images, then copy the images you want to use to that subdirectory. You don’t want anything bad happening accidentally to your precious originals.

Each of your Kindle screensaver images should be 600 pixels wide and 800 pixels tall, or 824 by 1200 for the Kindle DX. Ideally, they will be nice, vertical images to begin with, but you’re probably going to have to crop them. For example:

When your image is more or less the shape you want it, use your program’s “resize” function to resize it along the appropriate side. For example, if your original image is 300 pixels by 500 pixels, resize it to be 480 pixels by 800 pixels, rather than 600 pixels by 1000 pixels.

When the image is the right length on one side, use your program’s “add borders” function to bring the short side to the correct length/width. In the example above, I would add 60 pixels to the right and left margins so as to transform a width of 480 pixels to 600 pixels. While not strictly necessary, this will provide you with space to add your name and contact information.

You can also “add borders” to all four sides, as with the image of “Stephen Colber(t)” you see here. (I doubt this is the true appearance of the comedian Steve Colbert!) Notice that I left lots of space at the bottom of this image for you to add “This Kindle belongs to / Yourname / your contact information.”

Remember to save your image as 8-bit grayscale. Even if your Kindle displays color, grayscale saves space.

If you agree with me that having each image identify you and provide a contact, this is the time to do it. Lots of web surfing has left me with hundreds of type faces to choose among — and I rather like the images that let me use white letters on a dark background.

I’ve been having so much fun that I created a Flickr account so I could share my “public” screensaver images. Feel free to browse and download. Most of them are images I found online, but some of them I created myself. You’ve seen some of my favorites through this post.

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Star Trek, Space Travel, and the Cloud May 20, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Science Fiction, Space Travel, Star Trek, Uncategorized.
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Every week, the Memorable Entertainment channel (MeTV) runs a Saturday night episode of the original Star Trek, which I record and watch while I read the Sunday morning paper. Today’s rerun was “The Changeling.” An ancient (i.e., 21st-century) space probe from Earth, the Nomad, collides with an alien space probe called Tan-Ru. The two damaged machines managed to magically repair themselves and merge into a new, hyperintelligent machine that considers its mission to be to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to destroy these “biological infestations.” This episode was recycled for the first Star Trek movie, and Nomad became V’ger.

What always interests me in watching ancient science fiction is the contrast between today’s world and what the mid-20th century thought today’s world and the farther future would be like. In many ways, we haven’t made anywhere near the progress they thought we’d make in the 1960s. For example, genetic superman Khan Noonian Singh did not lead a crowd of genetic superpeople to power in the 1980s, leading to the Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, leading to the space-exile of the U.S.S. Botany Bay in the late 1990s. We didn’t even map the gene code until a few years ago, and genetic superhumans won’t be a 1950s emergence, but more like 2050s — assuming no one raises the obvious ethical questions.

On the other hand, at a pivotal moment in the episode (more on this later), Nomad zaps Scotty with a super-taser bolt and kills him, and no one on the bridge, especially Dr. McCoy, thinks of doing CPR — largely because the scriptwriter didn’t know that CPR had been invented. (In the 1968 episode where Kirk gets amnesia, joins a tribe of Native Americans, and saves the life of a drowned child, Kirk uses a version of artificial respiration that was taught to countless Boy Scouts until the late 1950s. CPR was invented in 1960, but obviously had not yet made its way to 1967-68 Los Angeles.)

And yet, computing and the Internet are ridiculously farther advanced than Star Trek thought they’d be in the 23rd century. In deep space, Nomad opens fire on the Enterprise. Kirk returns fire, then ceases fire and orders that the enemy be hailed. Nomad inexpicably also ceases fire, and uses the hail to magically teach itself 23th-century English, including plausible intonation and inflection. (Nothing like, “I aim gnome-AD,” for example.)

The Enterprise beams Nomad aboard, then inexplicably leaves Nomad virtually unattended. Nomad finds its way to the bridge. The device is attracted by Uhura’s singing but unsatisfied by her explanation. The machine’s response is to download the contents of Uhura’s cerebral cortex, which for some unknown reason entails wiping her “hard drive” of all data. (But don’t worry! It takes only a week to reeducate her the old-fashioned way to college level, or roughly ten days before she can return to duty.)

Alarmed by what Nomad is doing to Uhura, Scotty attempts to rescue her, and Nomad kills him with a super-taser zap. Nomad offers to “repair” Scotty, and our heroes accept the offer.

KIRK: All right, Nomad. Repair the [Scotty] unit.

NOMAD: I require tapes on the [Scotty] structure.

MCCOY: Well, [Nomad]’ll need tapes on general anatomy, the central nervous system, and then one on the physiological structure of the brain. We’d better give it all the neurological studies we have, as well as tracings of Scotty’s hyperencephalogram.

(Spock loads up the data.)
SPOCK: Nomad, I have arranged the tapes for flash feed at the top speed of the computer. Please do not draw the information faster than the machine’s capacity.

Yes, dear reader: do not download files from the Internet too fast, for fear of crashing it.

Meanwhile, for the last several minutes of “The Changeling,” I as a viewer, watching while reading the op-eds, am thinking, “For goodness sakes, don’t let Nomad jack into the ship’s Intranet!”

This distracted me from the silliness of 1967 to thinking about the future of space travel. I can no longer get along without the Cloud in my life. I have many gigs’ worth of files stored in Dropbox, so I never again have to worry about losing files that are important to me. There’s a search engine called Goodsearch that offers to pay the charity of your choice one penny per search, and I have given my charity several hundred dollars. (I use Goodsearch even when I know exactly where I want to go; a typical Goodsearch might be something like “imdb star trek changeling plot synopsis.”) Research, reading, shopping, online communities like Twitter and Facebook: I’ve grown to positively need the Cloud.

IF someone invents faster-than-light travel, and IF the Republicans can be persuaded that investing in the future is better than pocketing someone else’s money in the present (ha!), and IF we resurrect a space program worthy of the name — all of which I sincerely doubt could ever come to pass — the first explorers would carry with them a supply of “space buoys” so that they would never lose touch with the Cloud. Star Trek called these buoys “relay stations,” but they appear to have been only used for “subspace radio.” I would use it to connect the neighborhood to the Cloud, so that I as a spacefarer would never be too far from my Dropbox collection of family photos from my childhood, my PDFs, my love letters, whatever, whether I was orbiting Proxima Centauri, Tau Ceti 4, or Vulcan.

After FTL travel, the second-most-important invention would have to be “subspace radio,” because if the information in the Cloud were limited to the speed of light, Skyping Mom from Alpha Centauri would mean a time lag of about ten years from your saying “Hi, Mom” to you hearing her say, “Hello, kiddo.” If I want to download a book from Project Gutenberg to pass the lonely hours in deep space, I really don’t want to waste 10 years, or 200, between the time I click on the request to the time the download is complete.

But here’s the thing: physicists have discovered something called quantum entanglement, in which information passes between paired photons not just faster than light, but instantaneously. (If you’re interested, this 2008 article from Nature, the weekly science journal, summarizes what we know.) Quantum entanglement, in turn, suggests that Alfred Bester got it right in The Stars My Destination. This 1956 novel suggests that to teleport yourself faster than light, all you have to do is (a) know where you are and (b) visualize a location you have been to before and want to return to now. The only absolute rule is that no one can “jaunte” through outer space — until the book’s hero invents a way to jaunt both through outer space and through time. Says Wikipedia,

At this point he realizes the key to space-jaunting. It is faith: not the certainty of an answer, but the conviction that somewhere an answer exists. He then jauntes from one nearby star to another. In the course of his star-hopping, Foyle locates the answer for the future: new worlds suitable for colonization reachable only if he can share the gift of space-jaunting. Finally he comes to rest in the locker on Nomad, where he spent his time before being reborn the first time. The Scientific People now see him as a holy man, and take up vigil to await his revelation.

Quantum entanglement proves to us that the impossible distances of outer space are a chimera; not faster-than-light but instantaneous travel is theoretically possible. If we can figure out how photons do it, we can figure out how to do it with atoms, molecules, and eventually vast collections of molecules. We will be able to jaunte. Imagine the possibilities!

“Brain Wars” and Heresy May 3, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations, Religion & Theology.
3 comments

I just finished reading a fascinating new book, Brain Wars, by Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the University of Montreal who has studied the distinctions between mind, brain, and consciousness for almost 30 years. Brain Wars is a careful and comprehensive examination of the state of scientific research in all subjects related to the mind and to consciousness (rather than “merely” the brain). To anyone who approaches Beauregard’s topic with an open mind, Brain Wars is enlightening and exciting.

Ah, but that “open mind”! That is something else again. Early in Brain Wars, Dr. Beauregard lists the three unquestioned and therefore unquestionable axioms of modern science:

  • Only matter and energy exist. Science is not only forbidden to consider that anything other than matter and energy exists; it may not consider even the possibility that something more exists. Life, consciousness, sentience, and the human senses of purpose and meaning are all accidents. If a concept cannot be explained through the laws of physics, it does not exist. (Physicalism)
  • Any complex system is nothing more than the sum of its smaller components. Dissection is the only acceptable technique of scientific inquiry. Any scientific inquiry that fails to limit itself to reductio ad infinitum is by definition fraud, crackpot, or fundamentally malignant. When you see words and phrases like “nothing more than,” “merely,” “simply,” “just,” or “little but,” you can see the reductionist mindset at work. (Reductionism)
  • Reality exists independent of the observer, and to hell with Heisenberg and anyone who thinks Heisenberg had a point. Quantum mechanics? Pshaw! Scientists may only consider empirically verifiable facts and may use only the scientific method. (Objectivism)

(Let us refer to these sacred axioms of modern science, Physicalism, Reductionism, and Objectivism, as PRO. Let us remark in passing that without PRO, you would not be reading these words; without PRO, we’d still be stuck in 1600 or so. Which, the glories of the Elizabethan era aside, may not be anyone’s favorite era of cultural development.)

A blogger named P.Z. Myers (a self-avowed “godless liberal” who according to Wikipedia is “widely regarded as a confrontationalist”), read a partial excerpt of one chapter of Brain Wars online and instantly proclaimed the entire book “nonsense,” “tripe,” “baffling piffle,” “unsupportable fantasies,” “very silly,” and “full of woo”; this is only to be expected, said Myers, since an earlier scientific text by Dr. Beauregard is “one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived, books I’ve ever read.” (That is one of the worst, that is, most incompetently written and idiotically conceived sentences I’ve read in months!)

In other words: Not having read either the current book or any of the meticulously structured and conducted research that Brain Wars summarizes, cephalopod researcher P.Z. Myers condemned both the book and its author with full-throated loathing. All scientific research of which this priest of PROism disapproves is reduced to nothing more than “feeble anecdotes” based on “flawed reasonings,” “confabulation,” and “confirmation bias.”

Apparently unprepared to receive an online assault made within moments of the publication of his new book, Dr. Beauregard made the mistake of responding to Myers’s attack in kind. His proofs that Myers had assailed the new book without actually reading it, or any of the dozens of research studies it reviews, were fine; his repetition-with-enlargement of his original point, obfuscated by Myers, was acceptable. BUT, Beauregard made the huge mistake of responding to Myers’s ad hominem attacks on Beauregard with similar ad hominem attacks on Myers. (It does not help Beauregard’s cause that English appears to be his second language, or that Beauregard’s feelings appear to have been hurt by Myers’s ad hominem viciousness.)

Responding to flung poop with poop-flinging was a bad mistake. To coin a phrase, “You can’t use Rush to flush Rush.” My advice to authors who receive knee-jerk attacks from jerks with knees: Pretend your attacker is your most fervent admirer. “I am so happy that blogger P.Z. Myers considers me an incompetent idiot,” Beauregard ought to have written. “I am even happier that the committees that confer major international awards in my speciality, such as the Joel F. Lubar Award for distinguished achievement in neurotherapy, all disagree with Dr. Myers. I am sure that Dr. Myers is highly qualified to teach introductory biology to college freshmen in his small town in Minnesota. And he writes a cute little blog, too! If only *I* could squeeze in the time to write a blog! — but my num­ber­less peer-reviewed research studies keep taking up my time. In future years I will look forward to seeing whether Dr. Myers shows himself capable of publishing at my level. His blog, Pharyngula, is certainly full of interesting information on zebrafish and ceph­a­lo­pods, and I know that much of it must be factual.”

Naturally, Myers reacted to Beauregard’s clumsy attempt to give Myers a taste of his own medicine as positive proof that every word Myers has ever published is God’s sacred truth and every word that Beauregard has ever published is “unaware of [the] basic concepts of science.” Myers’s second attack on Brain Wars — which Myers still appears not to have read — is even more savage and even less founded on the scientific rationality that Myers claims to prize.

Beauregard’s second mistake was trying to defend his work for what it is, a comprehensive review of up-to-date scientific research, when P.Z. Myers’s attacks have been on the heresy Beauregard displays toward Myers’s religion.

Yes; I said it; P.Z. Myers is not in fact a “godless liberal.” P.Z. Myers is a high priest of scientific orthodoxy, a Torquemada of Truthiness, a “Joey the Rat” Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith in Orthodox PROism. The real scientists are the real seekers of truth; anyone who even wonders whether a distinction can be made between brain and mind is a heretic. Evil. A “charlatan” with “some very, very strange beliefs.”

Most religious believers appear to consider atheism a belief system comparable to a religion. This is absurd, rather like considering abstinence a form of sexuality, or refraining from drinking alcohol a form of drunkenness.

But consider what happens to a scientist who offends against the religion of “PRO”: attacks on the scientist’s methodology, reasoning, past work, and character. Being informed by the scientific es­tab­lish­ment what research is fit to be pursued and what research “contra­dicts the laws of nature.” Having discoveries suppressed, mocked, dismissed, or explained away. Being accused of sloppiness, fraud, mental illness, incompetence, foolishness, and ideological bias. Being ridiculed. “All too often,” says Rochus Boerner, “scientific truth is determined by the authority of experts and textbooks, not by logic and reason.”

I consider myself a “freelance theologian,” although probably “phil­os­opher of religion” would be more accurate. Although I contribute my time, talent, and treasure to the Christian denomination I joined when I married my Christian husband, and although I follow the real-world teacher of wisdom on whom the myth of Jesus is based, I no longer follow Paul of Tarsus. “Christians” who preach hate, judgment, con­dem­na­tion, and exclusion in the holy name of Jesus would no doubt consider me an atheist.

I mention this not because I consider myself a great big huge expert on God: You know exactly as much about God as I do and as anyone else in the world does, virtually nothing. I mention it because I see the words of religious believers every day of the week, and many times on Sundays. Brain Wars is a comprehensive and impartial review of where modern science stands on issues that True Believers con­sider crackpottery: spiritual belief, hypnotism, mysticism, near-death experiences, telepathy, clairvoyance, etc. The attacks on Brain Wars leveled by P.Z. Myers are religious anathema at its finest: “Die, heretic, die!”

Solely because P.Z. Myers declared The Spiritual Brain to be the “worst,” most incompetent, most idiotic book he had ever read, I rushed right over to Amazon and bought a copy. In hardcover. If the Torquemada of Truthiness hates it that much, the book must be chock-full of insights that scare the priesthood of PRO silly.

The Universe: Is It 13.7 Billion Years Old or 6 Thousand Years Old? April 18, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Religion & Theology.
3 comments

There is a class of believers, usually self-proclaimed Christians, who insist that God wrote the Bible, either causing the Bible to pop into existence through a Bronze Age miracle that no one in the Bronze Age noticed; or, if the believer is slightly more sophisticated, guiding the hands of human scribes and “inspiring” them to create a divinely perfect human artifact.

To these believers, their translation of the Bible into English is as perfect and “inerrant” (incapable of mistakes) as God is; but their imputing divine perfection into the Bible does not, they say, mean they think that what is divinely perfect merits worship. Despite their protestations to the contrary, I call this sort of believers bibliolaters — idolaters of the Bible. They don’t worship the 1611 King James translation of the Bible itself (they say); but they do appear to me to worship their image of the Bible as divinely and eternally perfect.

In bibliolaters’ primitive, literal-minded way of looking at the Bible, it becomes important that this ancient collection of sacred writings be as factual as an encyclopedia and as precise as a science textbook. If the Bible says that hares and rabbits chew their cuds like cows, that insects creep on four legs, that stars fall from the sky like meteorites, that pi equals exactly three, and that you can see the entire Earth from the top of a mountain in Galilee, well, that’s the Eternal Truth, and anything you think is a mistake (like those four-legged insects) proves how wrong you are. A collection of documents whose creation began in the Stone Age and was largely completed during the Bronze Age is divinely perfect for all humans in all eras and all locations and all cultures, world without end until the Second Coming, amen. The 1611 King James translation is so perfect that the Bible’s original languages, original audiences, history, cultural milieu, world-view, and evolution may not be studied or even thought about; that’s blasphemy.

Almost four hundred years ago, James Ussher, Roman Catholic archbishop of Armagh (Ireland), published a theory of biblical creation that coincided closely with the ideas of many theologians of the 17th century. Today this pre-Enlightenment theory is taken for granted as fact by fundamentalists, while competing chron­ologies, like those of the Venerable Bede and Joseph Scaliger, have been almost forgotten.

According to Ussher’s chronology, the Universe was created on October 23, 4004 BCE, at 9:00 in the morning. Creationists, pro­po­nents of intelligent design, and the GOP members of the legislature of the state of Tennessee are satisfied that this is fact, and the millions of pieces of evidence of the fact of evolution and thousands of advances of modern technology based on that evidence are divine fakery.

(Evolution is an indisputable fact. It is as indisputable as gravity — another scientific theory. It is Darwin’s theory of natural selection that bibliolaters can’t stand, since natural selection appears to obviate the necessity for a divine Creator to create and sustain the constant flow of change that is easily observable by anyone but a fundamentalist. Nevertheless, for purposes of this discussion I will say “evolution” instead of “Darwin’s theory of natural selection.” It’s the bibliolaters’ word of execration.)

Fundamentalists appear to think that God is stupid, incompetent, malevolent, or all the above. Here is THEIR reasoning:

  • God created the Universe on October 23, 4004 BCE.
  • In the process of creating the Universe, God faked a moun­tain of false evidence of the truth of evolution, including:
    • millions of fossils;
    • zillions of chemical and anatomical similarities of related organisms (e.g., horses and zebras);
    • thousands of fossils of “transitional” organisms (e.g., archeopteryxes (proto-birds) and ambulocetuses (walking whales));
    • the geographical distribution of hundreds of related species (e.g., seals and sea lions);
    • the numerous evolutionary changes in numerous species recorded by numerous scientists over the centuries; and
    • sciences such as geology, embryology, molecular biology, gene sequencing, modern medicine, archeology, physics, and astrophysics.

    This evidence is so overwhelming that millions of rational people believe it, and assuming the species survives, billions of rational people will believe it. Thousands of scientific advances based on evolution have transformed our world and made possible your reading of these words. In short, this evidence is so divinely perfect one is forced to conclude that if God went to that much trouble to fool rational people into believing it, that’s what God WANTS us to believe!!

  • In approximately 925 BCE, a writer whom today’s scholars call the Yahwist inscribed probably much more ancient myths on tanned animal skins, known as “parchment,” including the second creation myth (Genesis 2:4b-3:24). The first creation myth (Genesis 1:1-2:4a), inscribed by the Priestly source, dates from 500 BCE, immediately after the Babylonian exile. Or, of course, if bibliolaters are correct, both myths were inscribed by God Godself some time or other in the Bronze Age. (Important note: Myths are NOT fiction!!)
  • In 1650 CE, James Ussher published his chronology of the Bible, considered by today’s fundamentalists to be as infallible as their interpretation of the 1611 King James translation of the Bible.

To put this more simply: (A) God created the Universe in 4004 BCE; (B) at the same time (October 23, 4004 BCE), God faked and planted millions of pieces of evidence that the Universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old, evidence that is so divinely perfect that all 21st-century technology is based on its factuality; and (C) between 1000 and 500 BCE, God wrote or “inspired” the writing of a human artifact that proves that all this divinely perfect “evidence” was divinely faked.

Why would God go to all the trouble of forging evidence that on the one hand is so divinely perfect it has deceived millions, and on the other hand is so incompetently imperfect that no believer is deceived? If God intends all believers in evolution to scream in Hell for all eternity, isn’t God’s divine forgery of evidence proof of God’s divine malevolence, equivalent to “Here, eat this poison that looks, smells, and tastes exactly like chocolate cake”?

Isn’t faking evidence proof of the faker’s dishonesty?

Fundamentalist theology proves that one way or the other, God is dishonest, malevolent, and incompetent. Either God wants most of us to scream in Hell for all eternity for believing in DNA and the Internet, or God is deliberately lying today to those who believe in literal Genesis. In EITHER case, God is dishonest, lying either to believers or to non-believers. In EITHER case, God is fundamentally malevolent, wanting either non-believers or believers to scream in Hell in consequence of the divine lie.

In EITHER case, God is incompetent, either at faking evidence or at writing holy scripture.

Coming Soon: Real Androids! February 4, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations, Religion & Theology.
9 comments

I’ve always been fascinated by the second creation myth in the Bible. It is what is called an ætiological myth, meaning that it attempts to explain questions that its original Stone Age and Bronze Age audiences found puzzling: why is the human male virtually alone among the species in NOT having a bone in his penis? Why is the human female alone among the species in suffering labor pains? What other characteristics distinguish the human animal from all other species, and what led to our unique status?

It is that final question that interests me the most, especially since one rarely sees it discussed by scholars or exegetes. Our intelligence is of course the most obvious characteristic that sets us apart. But consider these:

  • Consciousness — Consciousness is difficult to define, especially since it’s so closely intertwined with self-awareness. At its most fundamental, it means “not asleep,” but I think most of us could see a distinction between the consciousness of a human being and the consciousness of a chicken. Other qualities of consciousness might be said to include “not dreaming,” “not hallucinating,” “not drugged,” and “not drunk.”
  • Self-awareness — Most higher mammals have some limited self-awareness (“I am Buddy, that is Princess”), but with few exceptions only more complex brains can pass the mirror test, that is, are capable of recognizing the image in the mirror as the viewer’s self. At some threshold that humans have passed but our pets have not, we reach an awareness of self that includes such perceptions as I am awake; I am an individual; I control what I do; I feel sensations; these are MY emotions I’m feeling; these are MY thoughts I’m thinking; I am smarter than the average bear; I am NOT a “philosophical zombie.” Self-awareness may be interdependent with consciousness.
  • Imagination and curiosity — Imagination is the ability to form mental images, sensations, and concepts that are independent of whatever you are actually seeing, hearing, etc. at the time. Most animals have this ability to some extent, as any pet owner who regularly uses an electric can opener can attest, but only humans have flown to the Moon and back. I lump curiosity in with imagination because I think they’re related: “What’s new in the pantry? Could it be some cookies?”
  • Moral judgment and conscience — Human beings are virtually unique among the species in our sense of right and wrong, virtue as opposed to sin or evil. We identify and condemn as “wrong” such behaviors as lying, cheating, stealing, defaming, debauching, murdering, blackmailing, etc. We feel guilty when we know or believe we have done wrong, and we do things to try to atone, or become at-one with the other(s) whom we have injured.

The second creation myth depicts the woman as the first theologian, engaging in discourse with a symbol of the Goddess and of wisdom about the nature of divinity, God’s intentions, and theodicy. The woman is curious about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Although death has supposedly not been invented yet, she knows what “you will die” means and wishes to avoid this con­se­quence. She knows that the fruit is desirable because it is good to look at, nourishing, and will confer wisdom that will make her more like God. First the woman, then the man voluntarily disobeys God, whereupon they instantly acquire sin, evil, guilt, and shame. And that, children (so says the myth), is where consciousness, self-awareness, imagination, and conscience come from.

As a lifelong fan of science fiction, I urge anyone who is interested in characters like Star Trek’s Commander Data to read or view the AI-related classics, especially I, Robot (read it), 2001: A Space Odys­sey (view it, especially if you can do so in an altered state), The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (read it), Battlestar Galactica (view the entire 21st-century oeuvre); and Colossus: The Forbin Project (view the 1970 movie; reading the 1966 book requires more of a time investment than the story is worth).

These classics, and others like them, all proceed from the assumption that artificial intelligence automatically includes artificial con­scious­ness, artificial self-awareness, artificial imagination, artificial emo­tions (even Data felt envy), and, except for the Asimov stories (and arguably Battlestar Galactica), no moral judgment or conscience at all.

I think it is far, far, far more likely that we will very soon develop an artificial intelligence that is smarter than we are, but that it will be a “philosophical zombie.” That is, it will be able to beat us at chess, like Deep Blue, or at Jeopardy!, like Watson; but it will never “come awake,” like Heinlein’s Mycroft; it will never try to take over the world and enslave us, like 1966’s Colossus; it will never try to murder us, like 1968’s HAL or 1978’s / 2003’s Cylons. It will not be conscious, conscious that it is a separate self, able to imagine the outcomes of different scenarios and to experience a preference for which outcome it should strive for. It will not have volition. It will never be able to imagine, plan, and execute actions that we humans would consider wrongdoing. (I say “never” because, come on, what roboticist has not heard of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?)

I am also certain that we will never invent a computer that exper­i­ences emotions. Virtually every artificial intelligence that sci-fi has come up with has portrayed AIs that display arrogance, self-right­eous­ness, judgmentalism, anger, fear, and other human emotions. “I have the right to take over the world.” “I have the right to murder someone I perceive as a danger to my mission.” “Your treatment of me as your slave makes me angry and resentful, so I will destroy you.” For decades, my question has always been, where do these machines get their HORMONES? These are machines that act as if their conscious self-awareness has been affected by adrenaline, testosterone, serotonin, oxytocin, and other hormones, alone or in combination. Why do so many clanking collections of hardware and software act as if they have PMS?

I think it is far more likely that any artificial intelligence that humans come up with will be “philosophical zombies.” They’ll have high intelligence, and perhaps imagination; but I don’t think there would be any advantage to humanity in trying to create Cylons. I want a personal assistant that will do my vacuuming for me, not one that falls in love with my husband and plots to kill me so it can marry him.

I’ve also spent decades believing that there is no way we will ever come up with someone like Commander Data — a self-contained android who for the most part is barely distinguishable from an enhanced human man. Artificial intelligence alone is problem enough, but consider that stuffed within a relatively few cubic feet are artificial bones and artificial muscles, sinews, and tendons; artificial eyes; artificial ears; artificial skin; an artificial sense of smell; and artificial senses of balance, orientation in space-time (“I am walking across the room”), acceleration, etc. Then you need at least 2.5 petabytes’ worth of artificial neurons for the AI’s intelligence, memory, conscious self-awareness, imagination, curiosity, ethical programming, etc. merely to match human capacity. (A petabyte is a million gigabytes.) Commander Data, whose processing speed, memory, and intelligence are far superior to ours, probably has at least 5 petabytes’ worth of artificial neurons.

Watson, the IBM computer and software that recently beat two human champions at Jeopardy, has 16 terabytes of RAM (about 1/160th as much as YOU do*). Watson’s 16 terabytes comprise a cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers (plus additional I/O, network and cluster controller nodes in 10 racks) with a total of 2880 POWER7 processor cores, not to mention the special air conditioners and so forth.

(*Remember, you use lots of RAM for things that Watson doesn’t have. Something like two-thirds of your brain is devoted to eyesight alone!)

A few days ago, I was thinking about Siri, Apple’s personal assistant software and “knowledge navigator,” when it hit me: We don’t NEED to invent a stand-alone android like Data, whose 5 petabytes (320 Watsons) of RAM fit so neatly into roughly 2.75 cubic feet of volume.

We have the Cloud. Where Siri “lives.”

Just as the Internet is vast and your smartphone is small, I see no reason why most of your new android’s “brain” shouldn’t live in the Cloud. I see no reason at all why roboticists shouldn’t concentrate on artificial bones, muscles, balance, and so forth. The actual physical body of our new android can have “hard” memory for things like sense of orientation in space and time (“I am sitting petting a pussycat”), muscle-memory, balance, and receptors for artificial senses. The motherboard, so to speak. The parts of our new android (or gynoid) that we would call intelligence, personality, memory, and so forth will live in the Cloud.

I think the real, true, Data-like android is only a few years away, and her name will be Siri Watson, or possibly Watson Siri-ous, or Mycroft Jeeves.

She won’t try to kill you. She won’t try to take over the world. She won’t fall in love with you. She won’t dream up new ideas for you. But I see no reason at all why she couldn’t be your housekeeper, your chef, your personal assistant, your butler, your gardener, your chauffeur, your masseuse, your plumber, your electrician, your carpenter, your handyman, or even your mobile entertainment unit, extruding Bose-quality speakers or a high-def video screen on demand.

Once the program is in the Cloud, it will just keep getting better. Right now Siri’s main strengths are things like restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and driving/walking directions. Soon it will be any sort of information. In the very beginning, the android “Siri-Watson” may only know how to boil water and work the microwave, but give the Cloud a year and you’ll have your very own gourmet chef. A year after that, you’ll be able to instruct Siri-Watson that you want duck á la Rachel Ray or steak á la Gordon Ramsey, and your unit of Siri-Watson will be able to consult the Cloud for recipes and techniques.

We will only have to teach Siri-Watson once, and best of all, you will only have to teach her your own expertise. (I myself make the World’s Greatest toll house cookies, when the mood takes me. My husband makes the World’s Greatest french fries.) If you only need an electrician once every five years, then that’s how oten your android will need to access that programming. The information and programming is all in the Cloud, ready when wanted, not eating up your android’s RAM if unwanted.

What’s going to be fun is designing what your Siri-Watson will look like. I’ll bet lots of people choose P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, Batman’s Alfred, the Green Hornet’s Kato, the grandmother from that Twilight Zone episode, or Lord Peter Wimsey’s Bunter. A few may choose Merlin. A very few may even choose the android that Woody Allen portrayed in Sleeper. . . .

St. Petersburg Pier Design: Lens or IUD? January 30, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Humor, Personal anecdotes, Popular Culture, Random Observations.
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One of the icons of St. Petersburg, Florida is our Pier, a huge inverted pyramid at the end of a long approach. There are a few shops out there, most of which are more trouble to reach than they’re worth. There are two or three casual eateries, too, one of which may be a bar.

What I love about the Pier is that it’s home to St. Pete’s branch of the Columbia Restaurant — fantastic food since 1903, and a wonderful view, a small sliver of which you see here. Eating at the St. Pete Columbia is like dining on the deck of an ocean liner, but comfortably protected from the ocean breeze. There are always gulls, terns, and other seabirds perched a few feet from your table on a ledge that runs the length of the building about 18 inches from the ceiling; my husband and I always see pelicans, and frequently we see dolphins. The Columbia is our special-occasion restaurant.

So when the city leaders of St. Petersburg began grumbling that the Pier is antiquated and expensive to maintain, some of the pilings on the approach are crumbling, yadda yadda, I could accept it. They formed a special panel and sought new designs. The three “finalist” designs were the Eye (shaped like a cream-filled donut, “the Eye” looks both like a flying saucer AND like the logo of a famous Tampa sex club); the Wave (my favorite, it looks like Skateboard Heaven); and the Lens.

A five-member jury voted, and the Lens won unanimously. The Wave came in second, and the Eye a distant third. The jury chose the Lens in part because, unlike the other two designs, it focuses not on shopping or eating, but on St. Pete’s strengths as a city. “For me,” said one of the judges, “the Lens really invites everybody to the waterfront. It is an opportunity for people to experience some of what people used to experience, the water, the view, the fishing, the pelicans, not just a shopping and dining experience. There’s also an opportunity to address the boating issue,” she said.

During the review process, the only “view” that was published of any of the three designs was from ground level. It wasn’t until the selection process ended and the Lens was chosen as the new design of the Pier that the Tampa Bay Times ran an image of the Lens visualized from helicopter height.

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope it’s just me — but to ME, the “Lens” looks like an IUD!

is the new design a Lens or an IUD?

Community, Comity, and Conservative Propaganda January 9, 2012

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Politics, Popular Culture, Tea Party, Television.
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A Facebook friend of mine complained yesterday that America has become a culture of takers, with no or little sense of community or comity. (“Comity” is a friendly social atmosphere in a loose, widespread community based on common social institutions, like houses of worship and schools.) He blamed the poisonous hyperpartisanship that the Republicans have introduced and cultivated, transforming politics from a game of negotiation into nuclear warfare.

My friend is correct, of course. As the author of Bowling Alone points out, social organizations like bowling leagues, service clubs, PTAs, garden clubs, and religious bodies are all shrinking dramatically. Since 9/11, attendance at my resolutely apolitical downtown mainline church has dropped by almost two-thirds (!), and other houses of worship also report drops.

More and more, we live like strangers who aren’t planning to stay, not bothering to get to know our neighbors, not bothering to join local organizations, to vote (“why bother, they’re all crooks anyway”), to get involved with the arts, events, and celebrations of local community life. (I pick up cigarette butts from the street and the sidewalk and throw them away, and my neighbors pity the loony crank. Why bother, when there’ll be ten more tomorrow.) We shop in huge box stores that are identical to huge box stores on the other side of the country, and we never bother getting to know the sales clerks or the other shoppers. We eat in chain restaurants that are similarly interchangeable. We spend our time watching TV and surfing the Net, replacing the neighborhood hangout “where everyone knows your name” with Cheers, replacing the corner store where everyone knows you hate colas with a soulless minimart identical to all minimarts where you’re lucky if the clerk even notices your existence.

There are several factors that have led to this breakdown, not just the 35-year GOP campaign to transfer all assets of the United States into the hands of the oliGOParchy (which currently controls roughly 90 percent (!) of the nation’s assets, ladies and gentlemen, while claiming that pointing out the undeniable fact that 52 percent of Americans live in poverty (!) is “class warfare”):

  • Advances in technology have made living alone much easier. In 1930, only 2 percent of Americans lived alone; in 2000, that had become 10 percent. A large proportion of theses “solos” consists of elderly people, mostly women, who in earlier generations would have moved in with their offspring. Those commercials that advertise services that singles can subscribe to so “you’re never alone” whitewash a lot of loneliness.
  • Modern technology encourages isolation in many other ways:
    • Air conditioning. Time was when people sat on their front porches in the cool cool cool of the evening, gossiping about their neighbors with other neighbors strolling by. If a couple had a fight, every child in the neighborhood heard it. People made excuses to go to the park, to walk by the lake, to stroll down to the neighborhood eatery and have “an ice,” and in all of these places they socialized daily with others in their community.
    • Refrigerators. Before refrigerators, if you wanted unspoiled food, you had to shop every day. You saw the same grocers and butchers every day, and you saw the same fellow customers. You could tell them about Pat’s measles and Gran’s complaints, and they could tell you about the kid who got run over two streets away, we really need to get the city to put a stop sign at that intersection. Today what do we have? The Real Housewives of Deplorable Overconsumption.
    • Television/the Internet.Time was when people participated in or sat in the audience of school plays, church pageants, little theater, bandstand concerts, summer stock. Today we prefer slick, mass-produced entertainment that costs millions to produce — millions recouped by advertising that encourages over­con­sump­tion, unethical behavior, and self-delusion. Or we sit alone in front of our computers, “chatting” with “friends” halfway across the world whom we’ve never met in The Real World and who certainly won’t come to our house and comfort our sobbing when the one we love most in all the world dumps us and runs off with that bleeping sex addict. In researching this section, I ran across an unintentionally hilarious study conducted by the Center on Media and Child Health. Here’s an amazing scientific discovery: the more time you spend watching television, the less time you spend having fun doing stuff with your friends!
    • Working at Home. Advances in technology have made working at home more feasible than ever. Around 28 million Americans work at home. This provides obvious freedoms, such as flexibility and independence; but it also means the worker loses out on social interactions and colleague networks. It’s much harder to make dozens of “business friendships” with nothing but your computer, your phone, and maybe Skype.
    • The Automobile.Cars give us freedom, true. But this freedom comes with a price.
      • Moving Away. We change jobs every few years, refusing the kind of roots that Dagwood has developed with Mr. Dithers. And we move, an average of every five years. Why put down roots when you’re just going to move again? And why go to all the trouble of making a casserole to welcome that new family across the street when they’re just going to move away in a year or two, and you’ll never see them again?
      • The Suburbs are the blessing and curse of the automobile. Most houses in the suburbs are set well back from the street, with no sidewalks or porches. The homeowner goes to the garage, gets into the car, opens the garage door, and drives away; that way they don’t have to talk to their neighbors. Perish forbid. Moreover, since birds of a feather yadda yadda, most suburbs tend to be homogenous clusters: whites live primarily with whites, religion A lives primarily with religion A (never call them ghettoes), rich people live in gated communities, poor people live in the scary part of town. Both law and custom discourage places where people can get together to meet and get to know each other, like bars, cafés, libraries, and coffee shops. Both social isolation and suburban homogeneity work to make people less empathetic, as an excellent article in AlterNet pointed out in September 2011. I recommend “What Awful Reality TV and Suburban Living Have to Do With the Tea Party.”
  • Isolation Within Families. Many spouses are too busy or self-absorbed to pay attention to their families; mothers who work outside the home in particular tend to be dramatically overworked and overstressed. On average, modern parents tend to spend 22 fewer hours a week with their children than parents did just 50 years ago. Children tend to divide their time between highly structured group activities in supervised child-centered environments, like Little League, and spending an average of six hours a day watching TV, surfing the Net, playing video games, or reading, alone. And we don’t need to begin with divorce. . . . Even architecture encourages isolation with families. The gigantic houses that people were encouraged to overspend on before the crash lead individual family members to stake out their own spaces, rather than sharing. (“Don’t go into Daddy’s man-cave,” “This is MY room, keep out!”) Privacy fences make these big houses feel like fortresses, and swimming pools, barbecues, jungle gyms, and trampolines make it unnecessary for these families to ever leave home.

The loss of comity that my Facebook friend talked about is particularly troubling. Sociologists see it as the result of our increasing social isolation. There’s no need to feel empathy for the suffering you see on your TV screen because you don’t see it in your immediate vicinity, so that makes it fiction, entertainment. The director will yell “Cut!” and those flood victims will go back to their trailers for the makeup artists and costumers to get them ready for their next scene.

People are less and less civil to each other. (About two months ago, a telemarketer called me, and when I later reminded her that I had not initiated the contact, she hung up on me!) People are way, way less empathetic. Disaster victims, the desperately poor, the elderly, the long-term sick, the disabled are all “moochers” and “leeches” who should either work hard and provide their own assistance or die. We must dismantle the welfare state. We must return to the Gilded Age of the 1890s, when robber barons ruled with almost the greed and arrogance of Donald Trump. We must hand over wealth and power to the 1 percent, because social conscience is “socialism,” caring about justice is “class warfare,” and a man who “earned” $250 million by buying troubled companies, firing half or all the staff, sucking the companies empty, and tossing the husks away is the very man we need to rescue the nation from Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment insurance, and worst of all, the dreaded “Obamneycare.”

Because, remember: Life begins at incorporation.

Worst of all, we allow and even encourage people to segregate themselves into communities that live inside bubbles. The most famous of these bubbles has been created by years of propaganda from Fox News, the Heritage Foundation and similar right-wing “think” tanks, hate radio, and astroturf organizations like the Tea Puppets, who obediently chant the Party Line of the oliGOParchy and can be relied on to vote against their own best interests every time.

You can see our loss of comity in some of the audience reactions to that hilarious new reality show, “The Real Candidates of Despicable Lies & Smears.” Gov. Perry is responsible for several hundred deaths, some of them innocent men? YAY! Should the life of an indigent 30-year-old be saved? BOO! Should you be barred from serving your country, or God, because of whom you love? No, you should be shot at sunrise! Yay for torture! Yay for the rapacity of the 1%! I’d be willing to bet that a lot of those who actually believe Faux News is “fair and balanced” are home-schooled, further eliminating any knowledge of what community even IS.

It’s early 2012, and the Citizens United tsunami of conservative lies and smears began about three months ago. My husband and I gave up on the evening news about a month ago; we’ll start watching again in mid-November. Others have guessed that this year is going to be so vicious, it will make 2010 look like a love-in. In a way, I sort of hope so. It’s going to take a national atrocity to get that atrocious ruling overturned by an act of Congress, and the 2012 campaign season is shaping up to be just that.

Actually, I hope I’m wrong. Humans are naturally gregarious. Kids are using the new technology to connect with each other in ways I never dreamed of. The January 8 issue of the Tampa Bay Times had a heartwarming story about a young woman who was robbed of husband, possessions, and Christmas. She posted about it on Facebook, and “hundreds” of her old school friends — friends she had made in The Real World — sent an outpouring of gifts and money so generous the woman had plenty to pass on to others in need.

I believe humans need a feeling of community to be truly happy. Studies have shown that religious people are happier and healthier, tend to be more successful, and are demonstrably more active in their local civic life. Obviously these benefits can be attributed to the attention they pay to their spiritual lives, but what if they also accrue to membership in a faith community? When my father died, I phoned the priest of a church I had joined a month earlier at 8 a.m. and wailed “My daddy is dead!” She came right over to comfort me and my father’s sister, and she was wonderful. Who is an atheist going to phone at 8 a.m.? Richard Dawkins? Who is going to bring you chili when you’re stressed to the breaking point over your mother’s slow dying?

I think the Occupy movement might be an ideal vehicle for the creation of secular communities. Nonviolence and consensus are excellent axioms to coalesce around. But I also think we need a whole new paradigm, one that doesn’t accept conservative premises as a given. Maybe tax gifts to the wealthy are not the be-all and end-all of politics. Maybe socialist democracies like Sweden have happier, healthier, better-educated citizenries because they don’t label democracy “socialism” and kleptocracy “democracy.” One of the worst crimes the GOP has committed in recent years was the libeling, vilification, and hounding out of existence of ACORN. ACORN was innocent of all the crimes the GOP fantasized, did good work, and was killed out of sheer Republican hatred of Obama.

Maybe Democrats’ 2012 slogan should be, “Tax cuts never built a bridge, rescued a flood victim, or saved a nation.”

“Hysteresis” for Dummies September 18, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Politics, Popular Culture.
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In his September 18 blog post, Paul Krugman uses the word “hysteresis.” I’m very smart and have a great vocabulary, but I have to admit, the first time I read his article I had no idea what he was talking about. So I went trolling for definitions.

The Wikipedia article on hysteresis is written in scientist-speak. I’m sure it’s highly informative for science geeks. I searched for a long time before I cobbled together an explanation of hysteresis that helps me understand Krugman’s thinking.

Essentially, “hysteresis” describes the lagging of an effect behind its cause. The best illustration I’ve found is your thermostat. Suppose it’s winter, and you set your thermostat to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. When the ambient temperature sinks to 69°, your heater kicks on and heats your house until your thermostat hits 71°; then it turns off. So if the thermostat says 69° or lower, your heater will run nonstop; if the thermostat says 71° or higher, the heater will stay off. Now, suppose that the temperature is somewhere between 69.1° and 71°. Is your heater on or off? It depends on what was happening the last time your thermostat checked the temperature. If it was 70° or higher, the heater is off; if it was 69° or lower, the heater is on. Suppose the “real” temperature in your room is 70.9° and the heater is running. This “lag” between the real temperature being above 70° and your heater still obediently producing heat is hysteresis. If you set your thermostat for 70°, your heater’s hysteresis is the range 69° to 71°.

I think. Scientist-speak is REALLY obfuscatory!

Here’s another possible definition of hysteresis: You’re on Battlestar Galactica, and you’ve just identified a Cylon and ejected it out an airlock. The Cylon needs air to breathe and is in the dead of space, but it’s not dead YET, and won’t be for another minute or two. The lag between ejection (cause) and death (effect) is hysteresis.

I think.

(Wouldn’t it be horrible if ejection didn’t kill the Cylon, and he/she just had to float alone in the void FOREVER?)

There are a LOT of science-speak uses of the word “hysteresis.” Apparently if you magnetize a piece of metal to one pole, and then re-magnetize it to the opposite pole, there’s a lag time where you have a “north” magnet in a “south” magnetic field. (I think.) In elastic materials, like rubber bands, hysteresis is the amount of useful energy that is lost between stretch and sproing, which explains why those tightie whities eventually become saggy baggies. (Unless, I suppose, you grow a paunchy-waunchy.)

According to Investopedia (in an answer I read on Answers.com), the economics version of hysteresis describes the lag between a phenomenon and its effect on the economy. Investopedia’s example was unemployment. As unemployment increases, more people adjust to a lower standard of living. The idiot at Investopedia who wrote the definition cheerfully continued that as more people become unem­ployed, the more “socially acceptable” unemployment becomes, and even when the good times return, the long-term unemployed may not be “interested” in returning to work. (Dear Investopedia: I haven’t had a full-time job in more than ten years. Given that I AM “inter­ested” in returning to work, do you think the computer programs I learned in 2000 and before have been updated since then?)

. . . No, wait, I have it! (I think.) When Wile E. Coyote is fooled by the Roadrunner into jumping off a cliff, hysteresis is the length of time the coyote hangs motionless in the air before falling.

At any rate. In his blog entry, Krugman points out that most of the developed world is facing a serious problem of demand. So many people are unemployed that demand for goods and services is way down. Most manufacturers are operating at way below capacity, reducing capacity, and scrapping equipment. If the year 2000 suddenly roared back, with all its wealth and prosperity (looted away by the GOP, 2001-present), many manufacturers would be S.O.L.

Krugman’s point is that “austerity policies are actually self-destructive even in purely fiscal terms: by reducing the economy’s future potential, they reduce future revenues, and can make the debt position worse in the long run.”

In other words, the Greedy Oil Plutocrats are telling Americans today that the United States simply can’t afford to give $700 billion to millionaires and billionaires AND give tax relief to us lower classes. Expecting millionaires and billionaires to give up one penny of their obscene privilege is “class warfare.” (Yes, a class war has been going on for 30 years. The wealthy won when Antonin Scalia, the BFF of the CEO of Halliburton, installed the CEO of Halliburton as Vice President, and George W. Bush began the spending spree that single-handedly doubled the national debt while transferring trillions from the U.S. Treasury into the pockets of the GOPlutocracy. The Citizens United ruling, and the resulting tsunami of lies and smears that swept the GOP into office in 2010, were “Taps” at the graveside of the middle class.)

Forget increasing government revenue as a means of paying GOP debts, say the GOPlutocrats. The only answer to our fiscal troubles is to reduce government revenue (preferably to where Grover Norquist can drown the entire govern­ment in a bathtub and then crown himself Prince Regent), reduce the economy’s potential and blight its future, and end the social safety net that helps keep the elderly, the long-term sick or disabled, children, disaster victims, and other “moochers” and “parasites” alive. To take just one example: why should Rush Limbaugh give up his annual tax gift from George W. Bush, a matter of $2.6 million every year (that’s 3 percent of Limbaugh’s net income!), when Great-Granny is perfectly capable of running a cash register, if only she could afford to see a doctor about that pesky cancer?

Some people think that we have a social compact here in the United States. Some of us think that “promote the general welfare” refers to the lower 98 percent as well as the GOPlutocracy. Some of us even think that floods, droughts, earthquakes, and hurricanes do NOT reflect God’s opinion of feminists, pagans, liberals, members of the ACLU, abortionists, gays, or Obama. Some people think that bridges, highways, sewer systems, and public schools are investments in the nation’s future that return a profit to everyone in the nation rather than the GOPlutocracy alone.

Of people like me, the NON-Tea Puppets, the truthiness-disbelievers, the GOPlutocracy says,

“Let them die”!!!

(Passing note of disgruntlement: “hysteresis” is the English transliteration of the ancient Greek ὑστέρησις. To the ancient Greeks, it meant “lack, deficiency, lagging behind.” Like “hysteria,” the word derives from the ancient “huster,” womb. To the ancient Greeks, female inferiority was structural to the language, and controlled their thinking. The ancient Greek language can go frak itself!)

Memories of 9-11 September 11, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Random Observations.
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I had been worried about moving from suburban Maryland to Florida, more than 800 miles from where my widowed mother was living alone in the five-bedroom house my brothers and I grew up in. Dave had moved to Salt Lake City in the middle 1970s, and Tom to Denver in the early ’80s, leaving me for more than 10 years as Mom’s only readily accessible “child.” My mother had been the third of six children; before she married my father, she had worked her way through college as what we’d now call an au pair, and then she worked for the Girl Scouts and lived in a Girl Scout group house. Which means that Mom was 66 years old when she was widowed and began living alone for the first time in her life. The poor baby simply didn’t know how to live alone.

Sure enough, after Jerry and I moved to Florida to save Jerry’s health, Mom’s health quickly deteriorated. In August 2001, Mom ended up in Intensive Care for the second time in a month after a serious infection was complicated by what today I’m pretty sure was delirium tremens. After Mom was released from the hospital, she was still in no condition to return to living alone. Dave found a nursing home for her (which she hated) before he had to return to Salt Lake City.

Tom had already been to Bethesda that year. So had I, for that matter (and more than once); but early September was my turn again.

At 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I was standing in the kitchen of my childhood home. It was to be several months before I was able to find someone to live with Mom, so I had five bedrooms (roughly 2,500 square feet) all to myself. I was feeling a little like a BB rattling around inside a tennis ball. I was in my childhood home, but it had been half my life since I had resided there. I was anxious about my mother. I was lonely for my husband and our many affectionate cats.

I was peeling an avocado, Mom’s favorite lunch. My plan was to take it to her at the nursing home to try to tempt her appetite.

The phone rang.

“Turn on the television,” Jerry said.

“And a lovely good morning to you too,” I replied. “Why should I turn on the TV, what’s up?”

For the first and only time, my darling husband of decades roared at me. TURN ON THE TELEVISION!  It was a minute or two after the second tower “got it.”

. . . I never did get to the nursing home to see Mom that day. In retrospect, I’m glad that her bourbon-pickled brain was in such a state that she never missed me. I simply couldn’t tear myself away from the TV. I sat alone in that big old house for hours, watching the color TV Daddy had bought so proudly in 1966 and listening to Dan Rather’s dentures whistle. (This all took place several years before Karl Rove framed Dan Rather for a felony com­mit­ted by George W. Bush in the mid-1970s, when Rather was still popularly considered an elder statesman among journalists.)

When we lived in Maryland, Jerry and I had belonged to an Episcopal mission that usually worshiped in space generously provided by a Presbyterian church. The afternoon of Sep­tem­ber 11, Father Ken spent hours with a Lu­ther­an pastor throwing together an “emergency” worship service at a local community center; it began at 7 p.m. My friend Barbara told me that Ken and Rufus were expecting about 30 people to attend. It looked to ME more like 300 bewildered, grieving, shocked worshipers, and maybe as many as 500. The community center was pretty well standing room only.

That was the last time I remember the United States coming together as a nation. We may never do it again. The partisan warfare being waged today by the radical revolutionaries who pretend to be con­serv­a­tives has gotten to such a point that the “top conservatives on Twitter” have spent days now accusing President Obama of trying to wring political gain out of our national tragedy, which apparently has become exclusively Republican property. (Probably Rudy Giuliani’s property.)

I understand from my reading that earlier today, George W. Bush was spreading the word on the Sunday talk shows that Osama bin Laden would never have been caught without the groundwork done under Bush’s watch. (To which I reply, BUSHWAH! Dubya was the one who started diverting U.S. resources to Iraq in December 2001, right when the special forces were almost on top of Osama in Tora Bora and might well have caught him alive. . . .)

I have included with this post several images from 9-11 that still speak to me, ten years later. Most are self-ex­pla­natory. This final image comes from a commuter train station in suburban New York, and was taken several days after that fateful Tuesday. What you are looking at is the cars belonging to commuters who never came home to reclaim them. I find it almost as heartbreaking an image as the child’s lost lambie.

Our national tragedy does not “belong” to the top conservatives on Twitter, the Republican Party, Rudy Giuliani, or even My Pet Goat. It belongs to everyone who loves the freedoms that many of us, es­pe­cially Republicans, have abandoned, including privacy (warrantless wiretapping, spying on American citizens); including censorship; including demonization of swarthy immigrants; including the Geneva Conventions; including the right of Muslim-Americans to freedom of religion; including the right of atheists to no religion; including the right to travel on an airplane without being presumed to be a master criminal until after you have proven your innocence at least five times. (During the next several years, while Mom’s health continued to deteriorate, I flew between Florida and D.C. dozens of times; nowadays I am so fed up with flying, which I used to love, that I take the train. Which, except for the length of the journey, is infinitely more comfortable and more fun than flying. On my most recent train trip I had to show my driver’s license twice, once going and once returning.)

Our national reaction to the unprovoked act of war ten years ago does prove conclusively that Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, and other Republicans are wrong on one crucial point: America is NOT a “Christian nation,” and never has been. A genuinely Christian nation would have turned the other cheek.

Casey Anthony Looking for Work July 10, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture.
3 comments

The Scottish system is better than the U.S. system in at least one respect: the verdict “Not Proven.” As in, “The accused person is guilty as sin — guilty as O.J. — but the prosecution couldn’t prove it.”

Doubtless Casey Anthony is interviewing ghostwriters at this very moment. I firmly expect that for the next two or three years, she can survive on the book “she” will write about “her” ordeal at the hands of the Florida justice system, plus fees to make appearances on various talk shows, roasts, and whatever else E-list celebrities do. “Donald Trump’s Celebrity Murderesses,” maybe?

An acquaintance of mine used the photo below to add a very funny caption that unfortunately in the process slammed The Most Interesting Man in the World. Despite the fact that I don’t much like beer and rarely drink it, I like The Most Interesting Man in the World. So here is my take: