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Reflections Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "Skoomp" journal:
April 17th, 2004
04:10 pm


Thrashing About My Skinner Box, or, A Young Man's Fancy Turns to Dust
Why are flowers pretty? It seems they must want something. But from me? I don't get it. I've had it explained to me why they're pretty to bees. Flower sex can't happen without a go-between, so only the flowers that gos-between are attracted to can make baby flowers, so eventually all flowers are pretty to the gos-between. That explains the bees well enough, but a human is a larger and clumsier thing, likely to damage a flower it's attracted to in the wild. We've offered the flowers no evolutionary advantage that I can think of. Could they have offered an evolutionary advantage to us? Did the earliest humans or apes or bipeds have more sex or better health if they were attracted to flowers? This also seems unlikely. Perhaps there's an argument to be made that flowers live in climates that are hospitable to humans, so a preference for flowers led to a preference for livable regions, but I don't think so. First, I think the preference for livable regions is more fundamental than anything flower. Second, the reaction to flowers is so immediate, and their appearance in the spring so fleeting, that I can't imagine it being a decisive factor in the selection of a habitat. Or rather, I can imagine it, but I choose not to believe it was so, because it implies that early humans were so hopelessly discontent that the promise of a few colorful weeks each year would captivate them permanently, and that idea depresses me. No, I don't think the attraction to flowers is a product of human evolution. Perhaps it is older than that. I don't know why a bee and I would have a shared sense of aesthetic, but we do. Could we have inherited it from a common ancestor? This also seems unlikely. I don't know what our most recent common ancestor was, but I doubt it had a very developed sense of aesthetic. Also, I'd assume that bees are related to flies more closely than to me, and flies are attracted to shit. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that bees and people both like flowers. Could it also be a coincidence that people are attracted to flowers at all? If we have no symbiotic relationship that would have forced them to grow pretty to us or us to grow attracted to them, maybe they just happen to look similar to something we had a reason to like. If females had flower-colored plumage, this would all make sense. But they don't. In fact, few things in nature are as colorful as flowers, and those that are are usually poisonous. Perhaps flowers look like something that's no longer present in our environment, but was vital to our predecessors. I can hardly imagine how vital it must have been, if the attraction to it is still a powerful force in our collective aesthetic, despite its evident prehistoric extinction. Water is still clear. Could it be that the first thing to crawl on land did so because it was inescapably drawn to something flower-like? Is that what we see each spring, a distant echo of a sight worth suffocating for? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Our shared aesthetic must be my most intimate connection to my ancestors, yet it remains a mystery to me. Another of life's jokes, I suppose. At least I have a pretty commute.

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February 1st, 2004
01:25 am


Techno-Babel, or, A Colorless Green Dream We All Can Understand (Furiously)
I had a good idea the other day. And I don't mean one of my "good ideas" like the buddy-system bordello or the forced open-sourcing of protected virtual methods*. I mean an idea that actually has the potential to significantly improve people's lives around the world. Unfortunately, like most interesting things, it isn't worth the effort. Also, like most (if not all) ideas I've "had", I'm not the first to come up with it**. But here's the idea: design a format for information exchange that can reliably be machine-translated into any human language. When I say "format for information exchange", I do of course mean "language", in the mathematical sense "a set of strings". I even think it would be wise to define a grammar (in the mathematical sense) that describes it. But -- and this is key to the project's success -- it shouldn't be something that people think of as a "language" in the sense that they think English and German are languages. It wouldn't even have a spoken form (any more than, say, XML or C do). The relationships between, and metadata attatched to, terms combined into "sentences" would be explicit. It would be a bit like communicating using sentence diagrams instead of just sentences. Diagrams annotated with any information regarding plurality, formality, and gender that may be necessary. You wouldn't be able to write poetry, coin words, or make puns, and I have no idea how proper nouns would be handled or what sort of process would exist for adding vocabulary over time. But you don't need puns, poetry, or proper nouns for most programs' dialog boxes/menus/etc, and that's what this would be meant for. You'd need proper nouns but not puns or poetry in a news feed.. imagine if the journalists could simply publish in this new format and web browsers around the world could display it in their users' native tongues. I'd wager that, currently, the difficult part of machine translation is the input, not the output. Spoken languages have ambiguities and nuances that make them incredibly difficult to parse. That's why we should just bypass that step altogether (or, more accurately, use a language that renders that step computationally trivial). There would be two difficult parts to this project. The first, of course, would be defining a vocabulary+grammar suitable for translation into all languages. I'd imagine you'd have to settle for correct but ineloquent output in almost all cases. The second difficulty would be teaching people to author content in this new format, as (A) the vocabulary will necessarily include distinctions not made in the person's native language (for example, I've never managed to grasp the distinction between the two french words for "morning", and I'm told that the French often have trouble with the difference between "fun" and "funny"), and (B) some of the metadata might be irrelevant with regard to the author's language, but crucial with regard to other languages. It's the sort of project you could devote a lifetime to just to find out whether or not it's capable of working. I guess I don't care enough about posterity to give it a go. But it is a pleasant dream.

* : Yes I do.
** : c.f. Esperanto

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January 31st, 2004
07:41 pm


Sometimes I Think Nobody Reads the Titles
The fates (or maybe the furies?) are demanding that I write about commercials.

Episode I: Car commercials

These have been confusing me for years now. It's the same pattern, over and over (and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over ad nauseum). Smiling people drive the car being advertised, while some pop song plays. No voiceovers, no actual discussion of the vehicle, just driving to music. Each time, I stare at the screen, stupefied by the incomprehensibility of this approach. It would make my head explode except that there seems to be some failsafe shutoff. It was amusing at first, when I could laugh at these ad executives who evidently were expecting people to walk onto car lots and say, "give me the car with the Radiohead song". I firmly believe that we should each strive to live in the funniest world possible, and clearly these ad executives were doing just that, so kudos to them.
Now, half a decade has passed, and still the pattern is the same. It no longer amuses me. I can't write the ad executives off anymore. This is the 21st century, after all. Their feedback system of polls and focus groups and sales records and regional analyses and other things beyond my meager comprehension is, in this day and age, a well-oiled statistical machine quite capable of estimating the gradients of their clients' utility functions at certain points. If the standard formula wasn't selling cars, they'd have stopped using it by now. I must, regrettably, conclude that people actually are walking onto car lots and saying, "give me the car with the Radiohead song". I should like to meet these people. I'm convinced that doing so would make my world funnier, or sadder.

Episode II: Geriatric Mesa Bathing

The car commercials confuse me, but at least I know what the product does. It's a car. It facilitates transportation. Drug commercials, of late, have been defiantly (dare I say proudly?) refusing to provide even that modicum of information. This, I think, is epitomized by the recent Cialis commercials, which, as near as I can tell, promise that their product will make me feel like an old man in a bathtub on a mesa, holding hands with my equally elderly lover reposing in her own tub next to mine. I can honestly say that I have never wanted to feel like an old man in a bathtub on a mesa. Moreover, I don't know what a chemical would need to do to make me feel that way, exactly, but I fear that it would be damaging.

Episode III: Car commercials redux

Just two days ago, I saw it. Another car commercial. A man crusing down the street, pop song playing, him tapping the wheel and mouthing the lyrics. He comes to a stop at a stoplight, where the pretty woman in the adjacent lane looks over at him and makes a face calculated to tell the camera that she wants to have sex with men who drive that type of car. Then they cut to a shot from inside the man's car. No music is playing. He's repeating his grocery list to himself, tapping the rhythm so he won't forget. Genius! They had me fooled all the way. I think they may even have cued a voice-over that explains something about the automobile. I believe I must give the makers of this commercial what the kids would call "mad props".

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January 16th, 2004
10:03 pm


It's the Simple Things in Life, or, Waxing Retarded
Tonight, head unbloodied but bowed, sitting in my car with nowhere to go, I had a chance to ponder. Being of the sort whose perceptions are limited to their immediate environment, I pondered the condensation on my windows. What is it? Why is it there? How do I get rid of it? Why is it more persistent in Washington than ever it was in California or Kentucky? Armed with the scientific method and a steady supply of Washingtonian eves, I have faith that the most practical question, "How do I get rid of it?", will fall. Tonight, though, I only had one eve at my disposal, meaning that differentiating hypotheses must be tomorrow's project. So I turned on the fan and pondered. I'm sure they acquainted me with the basics in third grade. Water is in the air, bumping into everything with little sense of propriety, but cold things don't bounce back very hard, which slows the water, making the hydrogen bonds of neighbors (relatively) more attractive, so they huddle together a clump at a time, and clumps beget mobs beget multitudes, which are visible to us as droplets... right? Apparently my third grade self would recommend heat as the best weapon against condensation. But cars sitting outside get hot, don't they? The sunlight passes through the glass, agitates the molecules of the upholstery, which heat doesn't do a terribly good job of conducting itself back out through the glass.. they taught me that, too. Then again, I've never gotten into a car on a cold night and thought, "wow, it's warm in here". So the inside of the car is likely warmer than the surroundings, though certainly it is not "hot". Pondering further, I recollected that coldness doesn't simply make everything wet. It's only what's colder than its surroundings that accumulates condensation. This fit in neatly with the greenhouse effect theory: the sunlight heats the inside of the car a bit above the surroundings, so the glass, relative to the inside of the car, is cold, so the water condenses against the inside of the glass. Does that mean, then, that my third grade self was hasty, and I want not to heat the glass, but rather reduce the thermal gradient across it? Having now sat with the heat on watching nothing happen for several minutes, this became my new favorite theory. There's something undeniably egalitarian about it. It was, moreover, an empoweringly practical theory; I could simply roll the windows down (and ignore their condensation), in the hopes that the commingling of inner and outer air would resolve the difference across the windshield, and drive off. This I did. I'm afraid I can't share results yet, though, as further experimentation will be required to distinguish the benefit of equalizing cross-glass temperatures from the benefit of simply circulating air across the surface with the condensation. Scientific progress may be slow, but tonight's experiment did bring me a new experience: as I rolled the windows back up some 15 minutes later (a response to the cold), I noticed that I could see my breath. Try it sometime. There's something indescribably marvelous about driving down a dark road watching your breath unfold before you in the car. Its movement has the enigmatic qualities of smoke's, but none of its listlessness, as it soars past the backdrop of the open road. I do hope you try it sometime, but I also hope you don't expect too much: when I say it's "indescribably marvelous", I don't mean that it's "very nifty". I mean that I marveled over it, but am unable to describe why. Which brings me to the subject of precise diction. But by this time, I had reached the nowhere to which I was headed.

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December 12th, 2003
07:55 pm


Luke, Who's Your Daddy? or, Condensed Results of My Recent Ruminations Regarding the Nature of Cool

After careful deliberation, and somewhat to my own chagrin, I have come to a conclusion: The coolest person, fact or fiction, present or past, as near as I can tell, is Darth Vader. Now, I know this is going to sound like a typical "oh my god I love Star Wars don't make me go Wookie on your ass I think he said it was 'Sector C' 57 minutes into Jedi, or did he say 'Sector G' other than that I have all the scripts memorized" sort of a post, and I apologize for that. I'm not even a huge fan of the StarWars franchise. If you have a better candidate, well that's what the comments are for. I'd have preferred to settle on Gary Larson or Andy Dufresne or somebody. But I've put a lot of thought into this, and here are the 6 reasons that I just have to go with Darth Vader:

  • He's a giant (7 feet tall, isn't he?)
  • He wears all black, and a cape, and pulls it off.
  • He can kill a man light years away with a thought.
  • He has the voice of James Earl Jones.
  • He's pretty handy... with a lightsaber!
  • Wherever he goes, the Imperial March follows.

I think the facts speak for themselves.

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December 7th, 2003
09:24 pm


If I named my dog "Suffer", would you let your kids play with it?
What the hell is Grimace? Some sort of a large purple thing with a face, clearly. A face with an unchanging expression that, presumably, is a grimace. So why is he grimacing? He must be in constant pain. Why, then, don't his friends try to help him? Clearly something is seriously wrong with him, but in every McDonald's commercial I've seen, everybody avoids the subject. I'm not at all convinced that the poor guy is either purple or pear-shaped when he's healthy. I find it more likely that that's the result of some horribly disfiguring accident, a birth defect, or a chronic disease. And that his friends avoid mentioning it out of politeness. I choose to believe that because the alternative -- that it's simply the case that nobody cares about his constant pain -- really gives me the willies. And I don't mean the willies like I get when a centipede crawls out of the drain and startles me. I mean the willies like I get when I think maybe, as far as our perception of time is concerned, we approach our deaths asymptotically, thus spending what quite literally feels like an eternity living out our dying moment. But even if I adopt the "happy" assumption, the one that says that his friends care and are just being polite, I am still faced with the fact that he is grimacing. And therefore, that he is in constant pain. And I marvel that this depressing bag of suffering was conceived to sell hamburgers to children. Does Grimace bother no-one else?

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December 5th, 2003
11:48 pm


A minute to grasp, a lifetime to grapple (or, fun with excessive parentheses)
The lights went out, so I had some time to think. I got to thinking about the green-eyed monster. Yes, I'm takling about numlock. There was a time when the only direction keys on the keyboard were those that shared the numeric keypad with redundant copies of the numbers (I'm too lazy to look it up, but a quick tally shows these must have been approximatley 91-key keyboards, which I'm sure weren't the first keyboards, but were what I started on). It was a glorious time. You could navigate cyberspace (or at least your little cybermicrocosm) with one finger for each cardinal direction (or a thumb on down and fingers on the rest, for those of you who don't like to consider the thumb a finger). And it was comfortable. And I saw how good it was. A mere twitch of the finger could take you to the start or end of your line, and scrolling a screen at a time was just a twitch and a half (somehow the ring finger is less twitchy). It was a little silly having an extraneous set of numbers printed on the same keys, but it wasn't much trouble, as the green-eyed monster (at the time, simply a harmless green-eyed buffoon) could quietly be put to sleep (if you had a cooperative BIOS or were handy with startup scripts). Then, at some point, when I wasn't looking (but should have been), somebody slipped in the gimp direction pad. <bladeRunner>I don't know why he did it</bladeRunner>. You can't use the thumb on the gimp pad. Most people just figure they'll never want up and down at the same time, and use the middle finger for both directions. As much as I agree that the gimp pad deserves the middle finger, I just couldn't adjust. There wasn't a need, really -- I still had my numeric keypad, and our green-eyed friend was no harder to disable than before.
Then the real trouble began. Somehow, through machinations incomprehensible to me, the gimp pad became more popular than its counterpart. What dread hand could accomplish such a feat? I now sit a pariah at my own machine. If you don't believe me, try it sometime. Turn numlock off. Let someone else sit at your computer, as is not uncommon (perhaps to try to find a website they wanted to show you). You'll see. They'll try to type a number, and then when the cursor moves instead (or, god forbid, they try to type zero and end up in overwrite mode, the decline of which is another post altogether), they'll give you a dirty look. Maybe even say something along the lines of "gee, don't you hate it when numlock is off?" as they turn it on to type their number (do they not see the row across the top?). It happens without fail. Then they leave the damned thing on when they go. Deep breath.
It's just like those people who change your preferences when they use your computer. If ever (and I do mean ever) you're using somebody else's computer and a dialog box pops up with one of those "never show me this dialog again" checkboxes, please, in the name of whatever is sacred to you, I beseech you, don't check that box. Uncheck it if it comes up checked by default. It's not that they haven't seen the checkbox. It's that they want the dialog box. It doesn't matter if you want the dialog box or not. It doesn't even matter if wanting the dialog box means they're a hopeless ignoramus unfit for reproduction. They want the dialog box, and don't want to have to search through preference menus to figure out how to turn it back on. If I had more spine and less patience, anybody who changed preferences on my computer would thereafter be forbidden from using it.
The lights came back on, and my thoughts returned to trivial matters.

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November 5th, 2003
08:19 pm


Connect the Dots, LA LA LA LA! or, The Trouble with Trailers
Today, watching Movie That Will Go Unnamed (hints in the credits!), I realized that I had seen it before. Not all nicely laid out in its proper order, and not all of the pointless filler material. But every pivotal or interesting moment had been captured in its previews. It was actually quite distracting. Rather than focusing on "the story" or "the characters" and getting "the indended effect" from the movie, I was just churning through the trailer in my mind, trying to guess which scene was coming next. Had they simply given me a stack of flash cards with Klingon numbers on them and asked me to sort them, then slowly presented the correct sequence, it would have had much the same effect. I wouldn't have paid $obscene for the flash cards, though. On the other hand, this isn't the first movie that I've experienced like this, and I doubt it will be the last. I wonder what it is about bright colors in dark rooms that makes inanity more palatable.

This post is brought to you by the letter 'M' and the number '3'.

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October 28th, 2003
08:15 pm


My New Favorite Unit, or, Good God! They're Normative!
My new favorite unit is the "millisecond per day per century". Thus ends the five-year reign of "molarity per second". Now, I know, you're thinking that it must be a unit of frequency equal to 1/27265766400000 Hz, but it's not. It's just milliseconds per day per century. You can see it in action here. You can also see, on that page, that the second was redefined in order to "[bring] the observed positions of the celestial bodies into accord with the Newtonian dynamical theory of motion", and that later the same was done for general relativity. This, of course, got me wondering: can our models shape our universe? For the most part, I wouldn't have thought so. I would have thought that the universe is what it is, that the models are merely attempts to describe it. I would have thought that an Englishman at work in a laboratory, estimating something he called G, some 300 years ago, would have no impact on the structure of my universe today. I would have been mistaken. Apparently he was, in one way or another, determining the number of heartbeats I get in a weekend.
Naturally, this turned my thoughts to the question of why it is that (conventional wisdom dictates that) I can't travel faster than the speed of light. This is, in fact, one of two scientific questions that I wanted my education to answer. I have seen that if the speed of light is constant across frames, then nothing can accelerate through the light barrier. I have wondered why I should believe that the speed of light is constant across all frames. Michelson-Morley addresses a different issue (the existence of the ether), and observations of time dilation are a bit less direct than I would like.
I was going to tie that in with the Newtonian stuff and models dictating the universe, quoting Einstein as saying, "That light requires the same time to traverse the path A to M (the midpoint of AB) as for the path B to M is in reality neither a supposition nor a hypothesis about the physical nature of light, but a stipulation which I can make of my own freewill in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity". Searching on the web for that quote, however, led me here, to a whole page devoted to clearing up what is a stipulation and what is an empirical fact. So much for a coherent post. I'm still left wondering, though, just exactly what experiment is directly on point.

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October 22nd, 2003
10:00 pm


Humans, like most animals (I think), have a long history of being subservient to those that can harm them. You spend your life doing the bidding of those with height, strength, clubs, guns, and missles, and though I hesitate to say I'm "ok" with that, it's common enough that I hardly take notice. It's not those bullies that I'm posting about today. No, what shocks and baffles me is that people today are buckling before the demands of advertisements. I have two examples.
  1. Perhaps you've seen the Lysol commercial that informs us that "over 90% of all germs start out on surfaces." For a while, I marvelled at the stupidity of this declaration. So many things can be considered "surfaces" that I'd be hard-pressed to identify something that didn't "start out on a surface". But clearly the good people at Lysol(TM) decided that this fact was non-obvious, so much so that it was worth paying whatever the cost was of devoting that much time in their commerical to it.
    Then I saw the other ad. I don't remember who does the other ad, so for the purposes of this post, it was Glade(TM). The Glade ad has a gaggle of housewives admitting to us that they always assumed that Lysol "was an air sanitizer". An authoritative-sounding voiceover generously concedes, "It's true, Lysol kills most germs on surfaces", but quickly points out that "only Glade is an air sanitizer."
    Aha. So this Glade ad must have preceded the Lysol commercial. The Lysol people are paying lots of money to deliver their platitude not just to waste money, but because the Glade commercial bullied them into it. At the time, I thought it mildly amusing to see one ad campaign bully another one around. That was before example 2, which hits a bit closer to home.
  2. Dave Thomas is dead, and I'm glad he didn't have to see this. Wendy's has been advertising the whiteness of the meat in its chicken nuggets pretty heavily for months now. I am a member of what must be a minority: I prefer the taste of dark meat. The Wendy's commericals didn't bother me too much; I always thought to myself that it was nice to know that McDonald's would still be selling the McNuggets I knew and loved. Then, sometime in August, McDonald's announced that they too, would keep all dark meat out of their nuggets. It was a sad, sad day.

I don't know what any of this means, and I doubt it means anything. But if it does have meaning, the meaning can't be good. I think it means that my model of authority was off-base. I was used to the notion of authority as potential violence, in much the same way that a mass displaced from the earth has potential energy. The Glade and Wendy's advertisers weren't amassing armies, though. They were filling the airwaves. Perhaps authority can be acquired simply by demanding it loudly enough.

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