Snips and Dribbles

Brin on Optimism
Science fiction author and noted astrophysicist (and general pundit/curmudgeon) David Brin has a fascinating entry up at his blog right now entitled, “The Ritual of the Streetcorner“. In it, he quotes a little phrase which I’ve seen elsewhere and which I’ve found is disturbingly accurate for myself: “A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are”. Brin is essentially an optimist when it comes to the forward progress of humanity; you only have to read his novels to figure that out.

I found this paragraph to be particularly compelling, though:

…[W]hich is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic — and a civilization — that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature? (emphasis in the original)

It’s reassuring, in a way; he seems to be reinforcing that old saw, “In times like these, it helps to remember that there have always been times like these.” So in spite of the fact that our nation seems to be in the grip of authoritarian, backwards-looking autocrats intent on consolidating power into an entity which was never meant to have it (see Jack Whelan’s blog post, “Drift to Authoritarianism“, for some thoughts on this), there may be some cause for hope. Even though people seem, as a group, overwhelmingly stupid, you can go to any complex streetcorner and watch as people negotiate the traffic laws and rules and just seem to make things work. Brin says,

Yes, they [our neighbors] look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. We all get smarter than we ever deserved to be. (emphasis in the original)

Brin’s basic point seems to be that things aren’t as bad as all that. Maybe we will wake up one morning and find that the people in our nation have given up all the liberties and freedoms our predecessors fought and died for simply to forward a manufactured and non-existent “war on terror”, but human beings, on the whole, do have the potential to create progressive societies. Brin calls himself a “flaming optimist”, because cynicism isn’t helpful. Maybe it’s a good attitude to have.

Supraluminal Follow-Up

According to the This Week In Science podcast of January 16th, some of the basic ideas behind the so-called Hyperdrive that I talked about a couple of weeks ago have actually been around since 1950, when the original physicist — whose name, sadly, escapes me, but who was German — in trying to reconcile quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, proposed a two-dimensional “subspace” as part of his solution. In 1970-something, another German physicist took these ideas and expanded them to build a better solution to the quantum/Einstein conundrum, postulating an 8-dimensional space as a better model (incidentally, I discovered that this work formed the scientific basis for Buckaroo Banzai’s Oscillation Overthruster — hence, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension instead of the Fifth or Sixth Dimension). Starting in the late 1990’s, this theoretical work proved remarkably effective at predicting certain results in particle and quantum physics (I won’t even pretend to understand the science behind it). The trouble is, as I understand it, almost all of the theoretical work has been done in German because the original scientist refused to learn English.

So, if this work — which involves, as I mentioned, eight dimensions of space as well as hypothetical particles called “gravitophotons” — holds up, then one of the implications is the possibility of an actual FTL hyperdrive. Now, according to the scientists who have been working on that aspect, what would be required would be a huge ring surrounding a superconductor of some sort, which would be capable of producing 25 Teslas of energy (this is apparently a huge amount of energy), which would then be capable of attracting or producing the gravitophotons, which would make transit between the dimensions possible, and, thus, the hyperdrive — which is dependent, somehow, on the ability of the gravitophotons to repel gravity. It turns out there is already a working machine in Sweden that can produce the energy necessary, so it is technologically feasible. Since any ships built with this drive would have to be built in space, though, it may be economically prohibitive. For now at least.

Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, though, writes in his new book that this sort of work involving extra dimensions isn’t necessarily at all useful in physics. I don’t know if this has any bearing on the issue or not. Nor do I know if this new theory of gravity, which dispenses with the notion of “Dark Matter” and introduces theoretical particles called “gravitons”, has any import.
Krauss, by the way, in an interview on the Skepticality podcast, made the astonishing suggestion that the universe may, ultimately, not be understandable; we may, in other words, never be able to form a complete predictive theory which explains the entire universe. This may be disconcerting to scientists of all stripes, but it’s pretty interesting fodder for writers. I’ve already got a story idea based on this. I just hope it doesn’t provide fuel for the anti-science pseudo-Christians who are trying to force Intelligent Design into our schools.

On the Religion Front

Theologian Bart Campolo once summarized Christianity thusly: “Love God. Love people. Nothing else matters.” (source)

I love this. What a great summation of the Two Great Commandments that Jesus gave. Sure, it’s cute and pithy (which is always dangerous), but it pretty much captures, for me, how I understand Christianity. Those two commandments are pretty much all that matters; everything else is (occasionally dangerous) fluff.  Of course it would never fly in the sickening parody, based on hatred and self-worship rather than faith and worship of God, that passes for Christianity in much of our culture today.  Or is that just my cynicism leaking again?
Rib Update

Ribs still hurt, mostly in my left side. Every now and then I worry that it might be indicative of something horrific in my digestive system — a tumor in my large intestine, perhaps, or liver/pancreas/spleen/muscle/etc. cancer; however, the lack of any other symptoms at all sort of reassures me on this point. My health insurance provider won’t pay for the bone scan, so I need to go back to the doctor and discuss other options. I’m just wary of doing that, since I’ve been to the doctor so many times already.

That’s all I got today. See ya later.

A pain in the side

Edited 19 July 2006: It seems that this particular page on my site gets four or five hits a day from people looking for information about costal chondritis (or variants thereof). I’m quite glad to be getting the attention, of course, but it’s kind of funny because I put so much effort into the rest of my site. Well, at least some good is coming out of this.

I understand the frustration of looking for information about this condition. I found nothing at WebMD, which is my personal favorite medical site, nor at WikiPedia, which is my favorite reference site (a search there for “costal chondritis” brings up “Tietze’s Syndrome”, which I’m not sure is the same thing). I guess that the best I can say is, talk to your doctor. Ice, heat, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories seem to work for me (but please don’t think this is medical advice), though my doctor now recommends against stretching the affected area.

And six months after I wrote this original entry, I still suffer from costal chondritis. I think it’s primarily because I haven’t been free of asthmatic symptoms long enough during that period of time to really give the muscles and cartilege a chance to recover. On the plus side, since the pain’s been there, at a constant level, for so long, I can now be positive that it isn’t anything more serious.

Today I decided to go back to the doctor for this pain in my side which has been bugging me since August. In early December, the doctor who looked at it — not my regular doctor, who’s currently on maternity leave, but a good one by all accounts anyway — said it was probably something called costal chondritis. Back then I had a chest X-ray done, and the results were clear (well, as clear as a life-long asthmatic’s can be, when there’s airway remodeling and permanent scarring on the lung tissue). But despite the icing and the stretching and the Ibuprofin, the pain has not gone away. In fact, over the past few days, it’s gotten significantly worse.

I saw the same doctor today, and he looked at the results of the X-ray, listened to my symptoms, and did a couple of quick prods on my rib cage — “Does it hurt when I press down on your rib cage with 8,000 psi of pressure?” — and so on. And said Yep, very likely costal chondritis. But just to be sure, I get to go in for a bone scan this week, just to make sure there’s nothing there.

Because I am what I am, I naturally brought up the notion of cancer.

The doctor scoffed and told me that the odds of this being cancer are practically nil.

Anyway. So he explained costal chondritis more thoroughly this time, and I paid more attention. The “costal” part of the term refers to the ribs; you know, the bones that protect your heart and lungs and such. The ribs have cartilage between them to make sure they don’t rub together and damage each other. Between the bone and the rib is a joint; and it’s this joint which is out of whack. So, the cartilage is actually slipping because of the inflammation. Because this is happening, the smooth muscles surrounding the ribs — the intercostal muscles, a term I remember from the physiology classes I took in college — end up working harder to keep everything in place. But because this is not the sort of work the intercostal muscles are supposed to be doing, they wear out quickly and start to spasm. Pain ensues.

So, costal chondritis not only involves the inflammation along the costal/chondral joints, it also involves spasms of the intercostal muscles. The affected area could be just the bottom of your rib cage, or could extend all the way down the intercostal muscles and their associated muscles; from the collarbone, in other words, to just about the small of your back. That’s the affected area for me, though mostly it hurts at the bottom of my rib cage on my left flank.

The doctor believes this may have all started when I pulled a muscle in my back last August, and been exacerbated by a series of upper respiratory infections. This last cold, with all the coughing and the sneezing I had, probably just brought about the huge flareup I’m having now. There isn’t much I can do about it, though; take big doses of Iburprofin for a couple of weeks and see how it goes (in addition to the icing and the stretching), and if that doesn’t work, take a more aggressive approach. The doctor doesn’t like people to take anti-inflammatories if they can help it, but agrees that it’s time for that approach for me.

What it all boils down to, he explained, is normal wear and tear on the body, and it’s all probably exacerbated by the lifetime of asthma that I’ve had. Fortunately, I still have my pain management techniques that the neurologist taught me almost two years ago when I was dealing with my headaches, so I’ll break out that CD and see if I can get going on that again.

In other words: ouch. Frikkin’ ouch.

But other stuff is looking up. I’ve read through about four chapters of Fred Again and taken a lot of notes (including the huge, glaring, painful chronology issue right in chapter 2). And because I got a telescope for my birthday I’ve been listening to a lot of astronomy related podcasts, which are giving me ideas for the novel. 70% of the matter in the universe is dark matter, and no one knows what dark matter is. Except, of course, you and I know that it’s really just the ill will of Nyarlathotep and Azathoth that keep the universe together, right?


I just think that the word “supraluminal” — which means “faster than light” — is cool. Isn’t it? It’s actually a really pretty word. Something you’d name your daughter, right?

The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, more or less. Nothing in our universe can travel faster than that, not if they want to remain, you know, real. It’s not just a matter of not knowing how to do it (we once didn’t know how to travel faster than sound, and thought it was impossible); it’s a matter of the entire infrastructure of modern physics breaking down utterly if it were possible for something to travel faster than the speed of light. When you hit that speed, time stops, your mass increases to infinity, and you effectively become a point in space, as I understand it. Photons, having no mass, can travel at the speed of light without becoming black holes, but nothing else can.

In a way, it’s depressing for those of us who like science fiction and the possibilities of intergalactic stories. The distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is so great that it takes light four years to reach us from there; we say it’s four light years away. Any engine that we human beings come up with for space ships is not likely to even reach a respectable percentage of the speed of light, so a journey of one of our space ships to Proxima Centauri is likely to take hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

But this past week, two German scientists came up with a paper theorizing a way to send ships to distances in space in much less time. The Moon could only be a couple of hours away, Mars a three-day ride, and Alpha Centauri no more than eighty days. This means faster than light travel. Which is impossible. According to Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, the paper relies on the existence of several new particles that we haven’t yet observed, on parallel space (something else we’ve never observed), and incredibly complicated mathematics which I doubt I’ll ever even come close to understanding.

But it really sounds like bunk to me. Cool as interstellar supraluminal travel would be, I think that these two German scientists are either working with bad data or are trying to fool everyone. I don’t know the science involved at all, but it just sounds too good to be true. And some reports suggest that a working prototype of an engine based on these principles could be around in just five years, which is also too wonderful to believe.

On the other hand, maybe they are on to something. Once upon a time, Cold Fusion was considered impossible; now, two decades after a pair of scientists falsely announced that they had come across it, others are beginning to wonder if it might be possible after all. So maybe this German supraluminal drive just might be possible.

But I doubt it.

Premature thoughts for 2006

  • New Scientist magazine on 13 Things that Do Not Make Sense.  This is a fascinating article compiling a list of thirteen apparent anomalies in our understanding of physics, chemistry, and cosmology.  The author does a good job, I think, of reporting the anomalies without much editorializing, and certainly with no fanciful forays into non-scientific speculation.  The most important thing to take away from this article, I think, is the fact that even though science has come a very long way in the past century, there’s still a lot that we just don’t understand.
  • Pure Energy Systems News on Milestones and Trends in Renewable Energy — 2005 and 2006.  Again, fairly interesting stuff to consider.  We’ve got a ways to go before any of the renewable energy systems proposed form a truly viable alternative to the systems we have in place now (if only because fossil fuel energy production systems are so deeply entrenched in our economy), but there are certainly some very promising ideas out there.

One thing I found really interesting was the fact that cold fusion is mentioned in each article.  Despite the dubious results from Fleischmann and Pons sixteen years ago and the the near unanimous declaration that cold fusion was just “bad science” and probably impossible according to the laws of physics, there appears to be some serious academic interest in it again: enough so that MIT allowed a cold fusion colloquium to take place in its buildings.  I don’t know enough about the physics involved to declare myself whether cold fusion is or is not possible, but the idea and its implications are certainly exciting.

On another note, I have decided that this year I’m going to reduce my political commentary to an absolute minimum.  I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions, but this one’s been coming for awile anyway.  What finally clinched it for me were Monty Python and the Marx Brothers.

Last year, my wife gave to me a DVD collection of the entire Monty Python’s Flying Circus television series.  I was watching some of the discs recently, and saw a sketch dating from 1971 about a group of little old ladies in London who had taken upon themselves the task of enforcing morality in Britain.  This they did by running around the streets and beating up with their purses anyone who was, in their view, immoral.  The “culture wars” which, some insist, are taking place in our society today, are really nothing new.  They’ve been going on since forever, and they’re not unique to American society.  I don’t see it changing anytime soon.  It’s not worth commenting on, therefore, and not worth getting myself upset about.  Sure, I think it’s tragic that conservative groups have managed to gather enough signatures to make a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Massachusetts.  And I find any group going on about “traditional family values” frankly ludicrous, worthy of mockery by Monty Python.  And I find it appalling that Pat Robertson and his “700 Club” are broadcast on the Family Channel (if anyone demonstrates the paucity of Christian charity in what passes for Christianity in popular culture these days, it is this man).  But these guys have been around forever.  They won’t go away.  The trick, then, is to not listen to them, and to not let them infect your own reasoning abilities.  I can’t afford to let them upset me.  That’s giving in.

The Marx Brothers are responsible for my increased cynicism regarding politics.  For Christmas this year, my parents gave me a collection of Marx Brothers movies, and last week I watched that timeless classic, Duck Soup.  It may be different, stylistically, from the comedy that we’re used to in our modern culture: instead of the ultra-paced bam-bam-bam comedy that we’re used to these days, Duck Soup was largely just Groucho Marx standing around making wisecracks at unwitting victims.  Brilliant wisecracks, filled with double entendre and other layers of meaning, of course, but the delivery is different.  You can’t help loving Groucho.

But anyway.  Duck Soup is essentially political satire, striking at the political leaders and forces that act arbitrarily, without reason or considered thought.  The message of that film is as timeless today as it was in 1933, if not more so.  The temptation to draw a comparison between George W. Bush and Rufus T. Firefly is almost overwhelming; however, that would mean I’d be comparing Groucho Marx to Bush — who has neither the wit, the intelligence, nor the panache that Marx had.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is, as the great sage (whoever it was) once said, “At times like these it helps to remember that there have always been times like these”.  The same arbitrary and reactionary forces that were mocked by the Marx Brothers in 1933 and by Monty Python in 1971 are still with us today in 2006.  I wondered the other night whether there have been any honest and beneficial political innovations in the past two hundred years at all?

Looking at all this in context, though, I feel like there is actually good cause to be optimistic about our society’s future.  We’ve certainly become more tolerant of the cultural and religious diversity in our society over the past century, and despite the (somewhat successful) reactionary efforts of the so-called right, I don’t see this trend reversing itself.

But I digress.  the main thing I was trying to get across is that I’m planning on cutting back on my political rants, because I’m going to try to cut back on how upset I get about what happens in politics and our culture.  The reactionary and arbitrary forces that drive much of politics have been there forever and will be there forever.  So I’m planning to focus my news reading on the signs and forces that are moving our society forward, instead of holding us back.

It might work.  I dunno.  I guess the real test will be in November 2006, won’t it?