Five More Reasons Why My Wife is Cooler Than Yours

  • Classic Monster Movie Collection including: Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, and Phantom of the Opera.
  • The Mammoth Book of Awesome Comic Fantasy
  • A really comfortable and gorgeous grey-green sweater
  • Chocolate Orange
  • And, best of all, a new grill for my continuing experiments in backyard food rocketry
  • Merry Christmas to all of you!

    Life Is Good

    Scientists, according to this article at EurekAlert!, have very recently announced the discovery of a new type of squid. Yes. Squid. Here’s a picture of the new squid:

    For some reason, I like this very much. The moment that I heard about it last Friday, I went straight to the web to find out more information about this creature. I downloaded the videos that were available so that I could watch it swim, and I listened to radio shows about it that were archived at NPR’s Science Friday. There have been eight sightings of this deep-sea squid over the past ten years, in oceans all around the world. It’s an odd squid, the articles report, because it has ten arms all the same length; most squid have eight arms all the same length, and then two other arms, called tentacles, which are longer than the others and are used for feeding. This new squid, which doesn’t yet even have a name, is not the fabled giant squid that reportedly lives in the deepest depths of the oceans and which rises closer to the surface only rarely in order to fight sperm whales, terrorize sailors and nineteenth-century adventure novelists like Jules Verne, and get washed ashore on beaches to puzzle onlookers. This new squid only gets to be about seven meters, or twenty-three feet, long. Just peanuts compared to the giant squid.

    For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by stories of alien worlds and strange life forms. Of course, our own planet has some of the strangest life forms conceivable: tube worms that live in the hottest, deepest, most inhospitable spots on the earth, the geothermal vents, and which are part of some of the most bizarre ecologies on the planet. Angler fish, octopii, elephants, and so on. This, too, I like very much. I like knowing that there are things going on in the world which are beyond my own imagination and which puzzle even the brightest and most intelligent people. There’s a certain comfort in that. News of the discovery of a bizarre new form of life, even if I’ll probably never encounter it up close and in person, is almost like an early Christmas present from the world to me.

    Much more prosaically, and much closer to home, life continues pretty much as it has before. I’ve been earning an A in the Java course that I’ve been enrolled in at UC Davis, which is good news. And while I’ve been working part time for the Land, Air, and Water Resources department at UC Davis, I’ve been having absolutely no luck finding work as a web developer. This is bad news. I’ve also been having a hard time finding a math class which will fit in which any work schedule that I might conceivably have, should I ever find work.

    I’ve also been fighting a cold for the past week or so. The two of you who read this journal on an ongoing basis know that any time I have any sort of sickness — a cold, a flu, a bad case of acne — it ends up as an infection in my lungs, triggering asthma. So lately, I’ve been short of breath, and coughing a lot. But while I’ve been fighting a cold, our cat Tangerine has gotten over her mysterious ailment, which has cheered both Jennifer and I up very much.

    Christmas around here is not quite the production that I’ve seen it elsewhere. We’ve put up our tree and a respectable number of shining white lights on the outside of our house, and have a goodly number of wrapped packages under the tree. Jennifer has spent a lot of time baking wonderful goodies, and I’ve been helping; and Jennifer’s good enough at baking to overcome the baleful influence that I usually have when I’m in a kitchen where baking is going on. I swear to you, I’m the only person I know of who can make M&M cookies taste like soap. I have no idea how I did it, and by all rights it should never have happened, but it did. I’ve been banned from several kitchens because cookies and cakes that are being baked seem to know that I’m in the vicinity and do their best to prevent themselves from being eaten; usually by turning themselves into black lumps of soap-tasting charcoal with bits of chocolate somewhere in them. I really wish I were making this up.

    I’ve also been perfecting a little piece of software that I’ve written for my family, an on-line wish list website that will allow people in our family to list things that we want for Christmas or our birthdays and let other people claim them if they want to. I started this program a few months ago when I was still working at my old company; and like most great works of art, this project will never be completed, only abandoned. Every now and then I’ll think it’s finished, and then my brother-in-law or my father will send me an e-mail saying, "Here’s a great feature that you should add to the wish list program." It’s fun to work on, and keeps me off the streets.

    The quest for the perfect career goes on. The other day I sent an e-mail to a bioinformatics mailing list that I belong to, with a question about the role of GIS and bioinformatics in systems ecology. While most of the members of the list fell into a tangential discussion about the definition of GIS, at least one person wrote back to me privately to tell me that the question I had asked sounded like a long-term graduate school research project. and it does sound to me like something I’d be interested in pursuing. But when I did a quick search for bioinformatics jobs on Dice.com, I found that almost every job in bioinformatics requires a PhD in molecular chemistry. This is not an exaggeration.

    Perhaps I’ll figure it out one day. Right now, though, it’s Christmas Eve², and my wife has given me a book called Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison. And so right now, I think that is what really needs my attention.

    That, and the cool squid.

    And just for the heck of it, here is a picture of some of those deep sea tubeworms that I mentioned above.

    Terrible Waste

    Just a quick note this evening. I observed on CNN.com that Israel has chosen to sever ties completely with Yassir Arafat. And in the meantime, two members of the Jewish Defense League in the United States have been (rightfully) arrested for plotting to bomb several Muslim temples and landmarks in Los Angeles.

    The world is full of bright, intelligent people. And it’s a shame, I think — a God-damned, fucking shame — that people choose to waste their lives hating each other and doing terrible things to each other. Think of the things that humanity could achieve if we would put aside our hatreds for, say, just a year. If warlords in Africa could choose to put aside their hatred for each other and instead decide to feed the people of their countries. If Israel and the Palestinians could stop signing the "Screw Peace" accords and actually worked on bringing peace and prosperity to the region.

    What makes people think that their petty nationalities and prejudices are important enough to kill and die for? So often it is not even the people who believe the lunacies that die for them — it is the innocents who get killed in the cross-fire. Only nineteen misguided idiots died in the plane crashes on September 11; the rest of the victims, including the Muslims who were in the towers of the World Trade Center, were innocents. But those who destroyed the towers, and those who are engaged in the bickering which is slaughtering innocent people around the world, from Northern Ireland to Africa to the poverty-stricken areas of the US inner cities, are truly the fools who allow their own intelligence and talents to be wasted on foolish ideologies and idiotic pursuits.

    Imagine, for awhile, that the intelligence and talents that are currently being wasted on the craft of war were instead applied to bringing about a world of peace and prosperity for all humanity. I imagine that we’d be able to solve all of the physical problems of the world in less than a year. Usama bin Laden is not an ignorant man; he’s obviously intelligent and skilled at leading people. Too bad he has chosen to focus that intelligent and those skills on killing innocent people. If he worked for peace, if he applied his tremendous talents to creating an infrastructure for delivering food and medicine to the impovershed people of Afghanistan, then perhaps things would be different.

    I’m not discriminating. I believe that there are intelligent and talented people within the U.S. who have chosen to waste their God-given talents and skills on hatred and killing. If we had devoted as much resources and time to rebuilding Afghanistan after the ousting of the Soviet Union in the mid-80’s as we had devoted to rebuilding Japan after the Second World War, then we wouldn’t be in the situation that we are now.

    It’s a shame, and a terrible, terrible waste.

    Truth Vs. Reason?

    This morning, while walking across the UC Davis campus toward the Hydrology lab (where I’ve been filtering water samples from the Lake Tahoe region), I saw a series of strange fliers. The fliers were obviously in response to the anti-war fliers which I had seen posted on the campus last week. The fliers I saw last week, however, at least had the advantage of appealing to a certain nostalgic mindset: "Come join the anti-war movement!" they proclaimed. At least one flier proclaimed that it was posted by a group calling themselves, "Students for the Truth".

    The fliers I saw this morning, though, were completely opposed to the first set of fliers, ideologically. They each addressed a different aspect of the anti-war movement. "Terrorists are evil!" one proclaimed, along with a paragraph explaining why it is the American duty to "Strike back now, and hard!" It supported its thesis with a quote from Adam Smith: "Mercy to the evil is injustice to the weak" (or something like that — I’m afraid I don’t have the flier with me, though I was tempted to take a copy for fun). Another one, espousing the need to hide information about what we’re doing and blasting those folks who think that we ought to know what our government is doing in Afghanistan, quotes Thomas Jefferson: "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom." There was a third flier, but I didn’t read that one as closely.

    The strangest thing about these fliers was the fact that the creator, trying to support their conservative thesis about the value of liberty vs. security, chose to include other quotes on the bottom of the fliers, in huge block letters. On the first, the one about the need to "Strike back", was the phrase, "War is peace". On the flier espousing the need to keep government actions secret, was the phrase, "Ignorance is strength". And on the third, which I unfortunately did not read very carefully, was the quote, "Freedom is slavery".

    I don’t know if the author of the fliers caught the irony, or if it was intentional. However, these quotes, which are unattributed on the fliers, are slogans espoused by the tyrannical oligarchical government which rules the world in George Orwell’s 1984. I really hope that the irony was intentional; the other possibilities I can imagine are that the creator of these fliers honestly wants an oligarchical government in place ruled by Big Brother; or they were just too woefully ignorant to know where the quotes had originally come from.

    The fliers proclaimed that they were, "Brought to you by the Students for Rational Thought."

    It’s this dichotomy of truth vs. reason that I found very intriguing. I’ve been obsessing for some time about the ability of human beings and human civilization to overcome its baser and more emotional and irrational impulses to build a society of wise scholars and true citizens. I’ve known, ever since I started studying philosophy in college, that human reason is generally a slippery and unreliable thing, unless it has some sort of empirical basis to start from. In fact, I think one of the great triumphs of modern human scientific investigation is its understanding that reason itself cannot be thoroughly trusted, and that understanding needs to be supplemented by empirical observations. Of course, even in scientific pursuits, you will still find your thought processes boiling down to certain irreducible assumptions that you just can’t burn away. Modern scientific investigations can do a pretty good job of digging through those irreducible assumptions, but no other endeavor is very good at it.

    In non-scientific endeavors, the irreducible assumptions will usually come down to mere value judgements. In the book I’m reading, The Skeptical Environmentalist, for example, a number of arguments which make very good sense from a strictly utilitarian perspective would be considered absolutely horrid from a "deep ecology" perspective which insists on the inherent value of non-human lifeforms. In the clash between the forces of truth and the forces of reason on the UC Davis campus, for example, we find that one group places a higher value on the need for peace in Afghanistan, while the other finds that American withdrawal from Afghanistan is incompatible with the need for homeland security. The fliers also made clear that the forces of reason find security incompatible with the need for maintaining broad civil liberties for all who reside within the borders of the United States. Both can probably reason to their conclusions quite well, but since both start from a different set of assumptions, they will probably never reach any agreement.

    So what’s the answer? There have been many attempts in the history of philosophy to boil the questions of ethics down to irreducible facts, and derive an entirely logical set of logical ethics. Such attempts at a logical positivist approach to ethics usually failed, however; and a backlash against the seeming futility of the exercise usually took the form of complete moral relativity and situationalist ethics. But I think that in an increasingly complex and interrelated world, we will find that such situationalist approaches will fail just as surely as the logical positivist approaches did.

    For my own part, I remain optimistic about the future of human civilization and the human race. Regardless of whether I side with Students for Truth or Students for Reason, I respect both groups for taking an active involvement and participating actively in the dialogue. I believe that some day we will have our society of wise scholars and involved citizens (although my own estimate is that it will probably take at least a thousand years to reach that level); and I think that the slippery nature of human reason will consistently lead us in new directions and to unexpected surprises. It may be, in fact, that our inability to reduce non-scientific human endeavors to commonly shared irreducible assumptions is what contributes most to our ability to grow and develop as a species.

    Dribblings

    The other night I went to go hang out with Evilpheemy, which I don’t do as often as I wish I could. Sadly, we both have lives, which sometimes gets in the way of these things. We went and ate sushi along with his three-month-old daughter, who was amazingly well-behaved throughout the meal, and then went back to his place to shoot the breeze and ponder the creative project we’ve been trying to put together for over three years now. To his credit, Evilpheemy has been doing a lot more on this project than I have. While I was churning out 50,000 words of Unfallen for NaNoWriMo, Evilpheemy was churning out 30,000 words of Outer Darkness. But now that the novel is done, I’ll have time to churn out 50,000 words of OD. Yeah, right.

    For those of you who want to know, Unfallen is a novelization of a role-playing game which I started running about two years ago, with AB, SL, Daughter-of-Midnight (wife of Evilphemmy), and Purplkat. It involved modern mages in a dark version of San Francisco, monsters, a worldwide epidemic of nightmares, and even other levels of reality. And the 50,000 words that I wrote is apparently only Part One. Somehow, a new villain showed up at the end of Part One; I let him show up just to watch what he did, and I found myself surprised that his presence helped clarify a lot of long-term plot confusions that I’d been having. The bigger challenge will be writing Parts Two and Three of this thing, since they involve traveling through time to periods of history that I know nothing about.

    After visiting with Evilpheemy, I decided that I missed the old gang, so I went to the UC Davis campus where Second Progeny, a live-action role-playing game which is a spinoff of a game I once ran, was being played. It was good to see some of the friends that I hadn’t seen for a long time, and catch up with some of them. I even made a promise that I would play an occasional character in the storyteller’s new game when it begins in January. Once I had forsworn all live-action role-playing. Now it looks like I’m allowing myself to be sucked in again… but only a little bit.

    What else is going on in my life these days? I took Jennifer down to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and that was great. I know that she had a good time, and my family thinks that Jennifer is the cat’s pyjamas. I come from a smart family. Weight Watchers went to hell over Thanksgiving weekend, and I gained a couple of pounds. But life goes on.

    But speaking of weight, today I went and saw my doctor for the first time in nearly ten months. Thanksgiving-related poundage aside, he was pleased with me for having lost nearly thirty pounds since the first time he’d seen me, and more pleased (as I was) that my blood pressure is starting to look like a normal person’s blood pressure. Unfortunately, I will probably have to stay on hypertension medication for quite awhile longer, but now it’s at least working.

    The job hunt continues, but not very encouragingly. I’ve had exactly one interview since I got laid off, in spite of all of the resumes, the contacts, the leads that turn out to be red herrings. I remember when I was looking for work when I had first decided to make my career change; I couldn’t keep the recruiters back. Now, none of the recruiters that I worked with before have anything for me. Sign of the times, I suppose. Ah, well. I’ve decided that if this keeps up through January, I’ll take a part-time job, at least. I don’t think I’d mind that; some of the best jobs I’ve ever had were the part-time McJobs that you can’t avoid after college. I think working in the video store was best. I’m hoping that I can get that one again.

    On the schooling front, I’ve been continuig to do the research for the professor in hydrology. This week I’m in the main library at UC Davis researching comparative efficacies of different rainfall simulators. And the professor has also asked me to help out in his water analysis lab as well, so this Friday I’m meeting with the graduate student that I’ll be replacing so that I can learn the ropes. That’ll be interesting.

    My wife has engaged in something called "Holidailies", and she challenged me the other night to participate as well. I had to decline. While I had no doubt that I could come up with 50,000 words in November, I doubt that I could come up with a journal entry every single day of the entire month.

    And that’s what’s going on in my head today. Nothing profound or even interesting.