Short Subjects

Red Skies and Flawed Logic

There is a kind of mysterious fun to not be up on current events whilst being in the midst of them. I imagine that many people go through life not really aware of the events around them, and yesterday, I was one of those people. Towards the afternoon, the distinct odor of burning wood wafted into the building where I was working. It was strong enough to warrant a check on my part around the grounds of the building, but ubiquitous enough not to give me an idea on the general direction of the source. So after a few minutes, I determined that wherever and whatever the source of the burning was, it didn’t put anything in my vicinity in danger.

I left work at about 8:30 in the evening. I’ve been quite tired, because, as previously noted in this blog, I’m totally off in my sleeping patterns, so the hazy, blurry red moon I attributed to my tired eyes, rather than a natural phenomenon. The thick layer of particulates on my car, I attributed to pollen that must be coming from the blossoming tree that I parked under. It was so thick that I couldn’t see out my windshield without washing it first.

Yeah, sometimes I’m not too quick.

Finally, I was driving home and a major road way was blocked off. Still nothing is coming together in my head, and I curse my bad luck as I make an alternate route to Erick and Michele’s house. When I get there, I ask them to turn on the local traffic station to see what the trouble was on the parkway. Turns out that brush fires were so bad in the area that there was no visibility on the Sunken Meadow, and it had been closed for much of the day. Brush fires?

Hmm…, I thought to myself, that would explain the lingering smell, the red sky, and the thick layer of non-pollinated soot on my car. Combine that with all the snippets of stories I’ve heard about the brush fires we’ve had on the island, because of the dry conditions and sudden heat wave, and my steel-trap mind puts it all together.

Still and all, while always being in areas that would suffer from the occasional major fire, I’ve never actually been within five miles of a hot zone. These were always things that happened on the East End, while living on the island, or things that happened on the West Coast, when living in Florida. My prejudice was in assuming that it the brush fires must have been further away, surely not in my suburbia. It did make for a eerily beautiful sky, and despite it’s power to obfuscate, it helped clear my mind.

Short Subjects

In case you were wondering

I’ve discovered a couple of things these past few days: OS X is a pretty decent operating system; my optical mouse works just fine on a bed; sleep doesn’t come easily to drifters; and cats make very nice company, despite all the hair in that ends up in my keyboard.

Short Subjects

We apologize for the inconvenience

I wish there was something I could say that would approximate the turmoil that is going on right now, but I can’t really. Never a terrific displayer of emotions, I’m coasting by on a feeling of apathy and numbness. It will hit. The emotions will come. But not yet.

I miss Vicky, but not the way I should. I’m socially retarded, and all my relationships must be held at arm’s length. Please don’t get too close to me, because I will push you away. So until I have something more to say, this won’t be the hottest blog on the ’Net, for sure.


Fickled Pink

I love to hang around with real artists. Although I have some design ability, I’m just an apprentice amongst truly brilliant masters, so I settle instead for befriending and working with the talented. This is pretty much how I ended up in IT (Information Technologies e.g. the office computer geek). Much of today’s art is designed using a computer as the main tool, and I’m a bit better than decent at fixing these computers. This enables me to work in the fields that I love, design and art, and also allows me to seriously slack, since I don’t have to prove my artistic ability.

This sweet situation has allowed me to make some great friends, almost all of whom I’ve met on the job. I am proud to say that I know a terrific bunch of talented people, and should we ever get together and form our own company/commune (hint, hint), we’d be either a huge force in the art world, or establish a cult to rival Scientology.

So I had some high hopes when I first started working at Pinkhaus. This is a premier design house in Miami. I, of course, snuck in the backdoor as an IT guy, but the artists and designers there were responsible for corporate branding, which is how companies like to sell themselves to us consumers lately. The most recognized brand is Nike, but it goes beyond the familiar swish. Now when we say or hear, “Just do it,” we’re participating in a huge ad campaign that works by establishing a meme. A meme can be thought of a virus, in which it infects someone’s brain, stirs around for a bit, and then comes out to infect other people. In this essay, I’m spreading the Nike meme by quoting it. It is insidious and difficult to protect oneself from, which is why corporate branding is also referred to as viral marketing. This is a bit off topic, but it is included to share with the reader the enormous challenge of making an ad campaign work on this simple level that can spread like wildfire, but, of course, is unique and works with the company’s own mission. “Just do it,” will not work for a funeral home, but it is close to gold for Nike. And that is what the artists at Pinkhaus were challenged to do on a daily basis.

It was a great environment. Everyone there was quirky, including your humble narrator. It looked like an art studio should, concepts for designs littered on various tables, and all the artists had offices, not cubicles. Tchochkies and cool photographs were hung all over the walls. At any time, three separate streams of music could be heard blasting throughout the building. And everyone wore whatever they wanted, jeans, shorts, midriff-baring baby doll shirts. Sigh…. I was home.

As in every office, however, there was a hierarchy that had little to do with actual position. The office politics weren’t different from any other place I’d worked, which quite surprised me. Everyone, individually, seemed so nice. The place was so relaxed. But there was this insidious need to pass the buck. No one and everyone were responsible for nothing and everything. Why were people so untrusting of each other? Eventually, I found out there was a mole. He caused dissent and strife just so he could look like the golden boy to the company’s president.

Deadlines can make anybody crack. Artists are always in a struggle to complete the best work they can in the quickest amount of time. There is a lot of stress there, and that can bring out the worst in the nicest, quirkiest artist, but this, alas, is human nature. Competition is at the heart of every design studio, too. Artists compete against other agencies, obviously, but they also compete amongst themselves and with themselves. This is not negative. Commercial artists embody the ideals of evolution or capitalism. With every generation of art projects, the bar is raised, a new standard is borne. All else withers and dies. Only the wiliest art, and artist, flourishes. So by their very nature, artists are competitive, but just as a son may unconsciously compete with his father, this competition is often constructive. And sometimes it is not.

Carlos embodied the not. His father figure in this case was the previously mentioned company president, although, I believe, this was a relationship of context, not genuine affection. Had Joel been a mere mortal artist, and Mark, let’s say, been the president, Carlos would have been sweetly kissing Mark’s ass while stabbing Joel in the back.

Allow me to clarify, Carlos was and is a fine artist. He is extremely talented. Unfortunately, he embodies the negative qualities that are deep within everyone. He is sniveling, traitorous, and quite paranoid.

To continue, my dealings with Carlos were fairly benign, and he, I’m sure, had no idea of the cascading effects it would have on me, because I fall into a crisis-triggering depressive state (or did fall—thanks Zoloft!). But he quickly turned from a cool-music-loving, quirky artist, who had just spent two weeks in Russia on a photo shoot, to someone I wouldn’t trust under any circumstance, no matter where he was. It began fairly early in my brief tenure at Pinkhaus.

Carlos had been back for a few days. I’d only been there for two months. Officially, I was temping, but in another month, Pinkhaus would hire me permanently. I worked hard at establishing myself as a go-to-guy, which is my coined phrase for, “If you have a problem, go see Jonathan.” It didn’t make a difference what the problem was; I’d try to help. Towards that end, I gave out my personal cell phone number, so anyone could contact me if something came up while I was out of the office.

One Sunday, very late into the afternoon, Vicky and I were out at a bookstore, and, as is my habit, I left my cell phone in the car, because I find it terrifically rude to be out in public and act as if others don’t exist. We were in the bookstore for about 45 minutes. Upon returning to the car, I noticed I had received two voice messages. They were two minutes apart, and were placed about 20 minutes before. Both were from Carlos. He was in dire straits apparently, because when he came into the studio, his computer wouldn’t start. He had surmised that the power went out sometime during the weekend, and now his battery backup was dead, because he left his computer on.

Tech hint #1 (in a series of 8 million): NEVER leave your computer workstation turned on overnight or, heaven forbid, the weekend. You risk data loss and file corruption, and unless your computer acts as server, all you are doing is wasting energy and reducing the life of your computer components. Most computers have a “sleep” mode, which puts them in low power mode without quitting programs, and this may be fine for short term absences, but it still draws electricity, and if the power goes out, like it did to poor Carlos, you will come back to work to find a seemingly dead computer.

Carlos was quick to discover what went wrong, but he was in a near panic to find a solution. I called Pinkhaus back, and dialed in to Carlos’s extension, but he didn’t pick up. I left him a voice mail telling him to just switch out the backup battery with another one. I then called back 15 minutes later, but Carlos still did not answer. I assumed he had gone home and would deal with the problem in the morning.

Monday came and with it I walked in to find Carlos working on his now-functional computer. I asked him what happened, and he explained. He told me that he used my supervisor’s battery backup, since she was on vacation. This was a fine solution, although I let Carlos know that all he really had to do was reset his own backup by switching it off and back on. He thanked me for my concern and for approaching him first thing in the morning, and we left it at that.

Or so I thought. A bit later, my conscientious supervisor called me up to ask me how everything was going. We exchanged anecdotes and just before we were about to finish our conversation, Carlos popped his head into my office and asked me to transfer my supervisor to him when I was through. My supervisor was the head of production so I thought nothing of it. “Suzanne,” I said to my supervisor, “Carlos would like to speak to you before you go.”

I went back to work, checking my email and deciding what I would have for lunch, and not three minutes go by when my phone extension rang again. It was Suzanne, and she asked me, “What happened yesterday?” I was not exactly sure what she meant, and when I ask here to clarify, I felt an odd emptiness grow in the pit of my gut.

“Carlos said he called you several times yesterday with an emergency, and that you never responded,” she said.

I have little patience with exaggeration, even though I tend to indulge in it once in a very small teensy little while, so my first reaction was indignation. Ridiculous, I told Suzanne, and I had the phone logs on my cell phone to prove it. I explained to her the situation as I saw it, telling her of the two times I called back with no response from Carlos, but Carlos told her that I took two hours to call back, and by that time Carlos left in disgust.

“Ah,” I thought, and eventually relayed to Suzanne, “why didn’t Carlos scold me this morning?” Why did he tell me everything was fine, and then run to tell my supervisor that I had dropped the ball? I was close to furious. He even had the nerve to have me transfer Suzanne to him so he could rat me out. What type of weasel was this guy?

Suzanne seemed to be diplomatic about the affair, but later on, when it was far too late, it occurred to me that she, too, was intimidated by Carlos, even though she was in a higher position and with the company for much longer. And she wasn’t the only one.

This caused the first crack to appear in my perfect job with the quirky artists. A couple of days later, my tire went flat as I drove to work, and I used it as an excuse to not go to work. I just couldn’t deal with the stress, the stress that was non-existent the week before. This, of course, was my own hang-up, and shouldn’t be pinned to Carlos. But I later learned that he did these things habitually, and his main purpose was to tarnish others. I had been trying to be the go-to-guy, and I could no longer achieve that status. Take that, new guy!

I didn’t even realize how much the incident affected me until I went to an emergency session with a therapist. Pinkhaus had noticed my decline, difficult not to when I wouldn’t show up for a couple of days without reason. They took the high road and decided to help me get help. I met my therapist and told him about my depression. He asked me about my triggers, which I wasn’t really too aware of. He had me think about it for a bit, and then I told him about the Carlos incident. No one can imagine my shock when my therapist told me that this was “not the first time I heard about that pussy.”

My therapist had strong words about Carlos. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. He recognized Carlos as a destructive ass-kisser who would do anything to ruin others in order to remain the chosen one. Carlos apparently had turned up in the nightmares of someone else at the office, but, of course, my therapist couldn’t tell me who. I was all a-shiver trying to guess who it could have been, but I never did find out. But the important point was Carlos had sent someone else into therapy.

I still feel that Carlos represented nothing more than the failure of humanity, and this is what depresses and disappoints me. I didn’t, and don’t, want to give him, personally, any power over my emotions. He and I only crossed wires once after, where I explained to him of a problem with the Pinkhaus computer network that I had finally diagnosed.

It was a chronic problem, but one that was so blindingly obvious, I ignored it for several weeks. I just couldn’t accept the potential solution, because it should have been taken care of several IT administrations ago. But it hadn’t, and I had inherited it. When I finally accepted the problem, the solution was obvious, but I thought I needed a simple piece of equipment to work on it, which would be sent to me overnight. That very day, Carlos couldn’t print a file, due to the network problem. He asked me to fix it, and I told him that I would, but not until tomorrow. He immediately went to yell at Suzanne. At least that time he approached me first. I still thought he was out of his mind, but by then I understood his methods, so I didn’t let it get under my skin. Instead, I worked on a solution without the small piece of equipment and fixed it well into the night. (A quick shout out to Lance at the Designory in California: Thanks, Lance! Couldn’t have done it without you!)

One of my very last days at Pinkhaus, a few people were in a meeting, Carlos and myself included. The meeting was to discuss the means to finish the Pinkhaus web site, which had been languishing for years. I’ve never been to a constructive meeting that had more than four people involved, and this was no different. Everyone there discussed points and ideas that were logical, straightforward, and entirely obvious. But it was good, I guess, to see that we were all on the same page. And then Carlos spoke. In his three-minute monologue he repackaged all the obvious points that had just been made by everyone else. He said nothing, and said it with less finesse. He was obviously blowing smoke just to be noticed. And when he finished, the room was silent for a few moments until Joel, the president, said, “Carlos has the right approach. Let’s follow his lead.”

Everything wrong about Pinkhaus came together right there with the entire room seriously nodding and silently, but strongly, agreeing. I was the only one who cracked a smile. Was I the only one who was aware of the circle jerk that just took place? No matter. There are some artist’s games I can’t play, and so I was soon shown the door.


Shiver me timbers

Suddenly, I get stage freight. I’m not sure why. It isn’t writer’s block, because I know all sorts of funny little anecdotes that I’d like to put up on this blog. There is the great Pinkhaus story. Observations about the nutty bird that shares a house with my girlfriend and me. And yet, I fall silent.

It’s temporary, I’m sure. Just by writing this simple note, I feel the performance anxiety die down.

What caused it? Why silence for two weeks? Laziness cannot be discounted, but I’m able to rationalize two other factors. The first is posting to my blog now sends notifications to two other web sites (here and here), potentially, but not necessarily, increasing my audience (Hi, Mom!). The second factor is someone, somewhere, anonymously sent me a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, which I just spoke of in my last blog entry.

Thank you, Mr. Anon. I will treasure it, but I am not sure of the message conveyed. Well, it is likely that I will get back into this. The Pinkhaus story to come shortly.


English Rules

You’d think that after several hundred years of successful use, a language would finally settle down into a rigid structure that everyone could agree upon. I can’t speak for others, but English is not one of those stable languages. This is very possibly a good thing, allowing for new words, new concepts, new blood constantly infusing a language to keep it forever fresh. We have Latin as an example of a rigid and structured language that was perfect for codifying all sorts of information, and then fell to the wayside as the Romantic languages began to grow. It is no coincidence that scientists still use Latin, much like computer programmers use C++. But when the scientist, or programmer, goes home, he’ll use his native tongue which won’t consist of “sum est while $var == 1.”

So maybe the flexibility of a language is necessary, but there should be something structuring it, and that structure should hopefully be stable. But, even here, English doesn’t quite have it together. Obviously, a rigid key to pronunciation would be very helpful. Every “g” should sound like every other “g” no matter where it ends up in a particular word. Of course, English, being a doggerel language, doesn’t contain a single letter that can’t sound different depending on it’s neighbor, or even the whim of society. The g in ghost sounds nothing like the g in gnome or the g in gin. Who pronounces prerogative “pre’-rog-a-tive,” which is how the word appears to be pronounced? I always say “per-og’-a-tiv,” and most folks understand what I mean. There are 40 some-odd different sounds (phonemes) in English, and only 26 letters, so it is understandable that some letters will do double duty, but the sheer amount of overlapping that these letters have, plus the ability for some letters accent others like the silent “e”, work in tandem with the next as in “th”, or the existence of letters that are seemingly redundant (“through”), make English a difficult language to master. And this is just with the pronunciation.

Maybe it is assuming too much to think that a language needs a stable pronunciation standard. English does very well with assimilating other languages, for which we can thank Latin, German, and French early in English’s fight for legitimacy. Each played a very big part in structuring Old and Middle English. In fact, Old English differed little from German. Our rules for grammar are still very similar to German, today. Ah, grammar, that is where we should get hard and fast rules determining the structure of English. Everything else is window-dressing, compared to the load-bearing beams of grammar.

But this may mean that we’d better move out of the English building. Grammar isn’t all that stable either, despite the insistence of 9th grade teachers everywhere. Its very structure, punctuation, is unsound. Look at the lowly comma. The dictionary that I use for style reference (yes, I use a dictionary for style reference, and my copy of Strunk & White is in storage) has 16 different ways the comma is used. The most contentious one is the comma’d list. Americans, in their quest for everything quicker, faster, and less precise, have almost unanimously decided to omit the comma before “and” or “or” in listing three or more items that run together. As seen above (“quicker, faster, and less precise”), I do not subscribe to that rule. I, it may be claimed, am comma crazy. I love to put commas all over my sentences. I believe, naively perhaps, that it helps to clarify my writing. But, taking the lead from journalists, most people not only don’t use the final comma before the conjunction, they actually revile it.

As a part-time graphic designer, I often come across clients who send me raw type, or handwritten notes, that I have to make nice and easy to read in some form or label or something. Even if these very wonderful clients do not include the comma at the end of a list in their unedited type, I dutifully include it for them, making sure that I do it consistently across the project. (Local consistency with grammar is probably more important than anything else. If I do something wrong, at least I always do it wrong.) More than half the time, I am told that I made several typographical errors, and could I please remove all the commas before the ands. Depending on the conditions—time of day, cups of coffee consumed, amount of money client is paying me, etc.—I either comply without comment, or I comply after a few choice words.

Every time I come across the final-comma-in-list-hating person, I do some research to check to see if the rule has finally been extinguished from the style manuals. I know it will be one day, maybe soon, but it hasn’t yet. The Oxford comma, that last comma in a list, is still a rule in English grammar, for the sake of clarity. An example to demonstrate the clarity factor is “I live with two dogs, my wife and my son.” Surely one could argue that this man has his priorities out of whack, but is he really calling his wife and child pack animals? A simple reordering of “my wife, my son and two dogs” would help the clarity, but so would “two dogs, my wife, and my son.” The main point of this is that the comma helps separate the items easier. Consider: “For a lunch today, you can have a sandwich with salami, roast beef, peanut butter and jelly, or tuna fish.” Take out that last comma before the “or,” and I might be suggesting a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and tuna fish—lots of protein, but not terribly appetizing.

Still the debate rages on. No one has really given me a convincing argument to get rid of the final comma. Another contentious point is the proper spacing after a period. While this falls outside of grammar, it does point out the shadow of technology on the structure of a language. About four generations of students learned that, when typing, put two spaces after a period. Never has any typing teacher explained why this was necessary. It was never done with typesetting, that is making type for publications like books or magazines. The advent of the word processor and the personal computer should have put an end to the two-space-after-period rule, but the four generations of student have proven very stubborn. The only reason for the rule was that typewriters were monospaced. In other words, a lowercase i took up as much room as a capital W. This helped the manufacturers of typewriters standardize the metal striking keys, and helped bring the advent of touch-typing, which would have been impossible with typewriters with different sized letters. To help the reader, it was visually clarifying to put two spaces after a period, because there was so much space around the little dot. Without it, a decimal, 3.14, let’s say, wouldn’t look too different from a full stopped 3 followed by a 14 (3. 14). With computer fonts, or any varying-width typeface, the difference is easy to spot. There is no reason, at all, for the double space with computer typography, other than human stubbornness. But I digress.

The comma and period do have another standard rule in grammar that is codified and accepted and ignored. When quoting, itself oft-abused (a guilt I share), periods and commas always go inside the quotes. Now this, I have to admit, does not lend itself to clarity. While I stubbornly hold on to Oxford comma with cries of “Clarity!” the comma inside the quotes is actually a relic of typesetting rules. The comma outside of the quotes (“as in this example”,) just looks dirty. The comma tucks nicely into the quote marks, but when it hangs out outside of them, it is ugly, ugly. Computer programmers HAVE to put the comma outside of the quotes when programming phrases called “strings.” A list of strings will have each string separated by quotes and commas, as in: "Example 1", "Example 2", "Example n". If these examples had the comma inside, they’d be part of the string itself, so the comma would become part of the phrase. Messy.

But in the world of English grammar, commas and periods, as stated, always go inside the quotes. Titles? Yes, even in there. So, when I say, I love the song “Living for the City,” by Stevie Wonder, that comma has to go with the title, even though this does imply that Stevie put that comma in there, when in fact it was the rules codifying English grammar. But I have a feeling that this will be a rule that dies out. There is no reason to believe that computers, where quite a bit of typesetting happens nowadays, won’t be able to automatically “pretty-fy” the hanging comma or period, shoving it just slightly to the left whenever it comes after a quote mark.

It is part of the growth of grammar and the language, no doubt, that so many mistakes are made. I do hope not to see the day when dictionaries include “loose” as an accepted spelling of “lose,” but I’m all for the mutation of language. That even the structure of our language, grammar, can still be debated and argued about is one of the strengths of English. Mutable, greedy, and able to be put together in such pretty and novel ways, English is a language of growth, a language of synergy, of dynamic, proactive, out-of-the-box sematicalism. And, sure, that is often annoying in the business world, because how many words do we need for “new”? But it is a terrifically descriptive language, flexible enough to have changed dramatically over the past few hundred years, will no doubt change drastically over the next few hundred, and still remain quintessentially English.


Six Courses, One Stomach

While the Zoloft has helped my mood, nothing has ever been able to help me stay organized. My Palm molders on my nightstand. I find hand written phone numbers on scraps of paper with no identification to whom those numbers belong to. I have idea, after idea, after idea, and cannot work the alchemy to transform those ideas into material.

But this is all good news, really. I picture myself as a kind of mad genius, so I don’t really expect me to be organized or consistent. However, if the ideas go lacking, then I feel dried up and useless. This happened to me this past November to January. And this is why I’m near ecstatic that my muses are pelting me left and right with fantastic concepts. I only hope that I can realize some of these to fruition.

Towards that end, I’m going to note a couple (two-three) things, here, that I hope to achieve in the next few weeks. In a month or so, I’ll give a progress report.

  1. Lounge renovations: The Lounge is an anchor to my site. It is a shame that I let it flounder so long. But no more. I plan a Flash interface, hosted by Balby, with music and humor. I will also only put sections in the Lounge that are complete and have decent content. No more teasing. Finally, long-suffering Thom deserves a significant thank you from me for giving me so many good reviews. I hope he continues to do so, and I have a couple of surprises planned for him and his readers.

  2. Wystica: Wysitca is a fantasy world that a couple of my friends and I are setting up. I plan to post what we create in the creative section of my site. I have a couple of mythologies that I have to finalize, as well.

  3. Dystopia: A novel that I’m working on. I’d like to post it in installments in Creative, and get some feedback. I understand Dickens worked like that.

  4. Living Things, Bastille Day: And sure, why not continue and/or finish these as well.

  5. 15kB of Fame: Now that I’m getting comfortable with PHP and MySQL, I’m looking forward to having a robust bulletin board that completes my vision for 15kB of Fame.

  6. Writing emails, calling family and friends: The toughest challenge. But I will try. I will try. –JR

Short Subjects

Marrying Mad

Coincidence happens. Never being much of a ladies’ man, I’ve had but six girlfriends from past to present. And, sure, I’ve never believed myself to be much of a catch, but I’ve always tried to be a good guy, in and out of these relationships. So I stay in relative contact with all but one of these past girlfriends. (Debbie, if you read this, you can email me.) Two, I am close to still, not including my current, to whom I am enamored. And the other two, I hear from out of the blue every once in a while.

So the sample is small, but I chuckle about the universe and it’s mathematical games, when I find out that three of my past loves have gotten engaged in the past year. It may not seem like much. Marriage is one of those blessed events that bring families together, and none of these weddings are shotgun. (Whew!) These fine women were bound to have a stable, loving relationship apart from me. But the timing of it bothers me, I guess.

Of course, it’s sour grapes. I can barely own a car, let alone ask my girlfriend to join me in holy joint bank accounting. Over the years, these past girlfriends have gotten their lives together, when I’m still thinking to myself, “When the hell will I grow up?” Sigh.

Or, it could just be fear that my time as a swinging single is going fast. Yeah, that’s it. Still and all, I wish them all the best. These are great people. I still love each one of them. Their futures are brighter because they each have a great guy who will pick them up when they’re down and love them until the end. It’s so romantic. To Michele, Francine, and Jennifer, I raise my mouse in a toast: To love that grows and love that’s past, may you never be without it. –JR

Short Subjects

Random Thoughts

What is a blog? It stands for weblog. I can actually publish this from any browser, so no HTML coding-knowledge is necessary. However, I tend to write my entries in something with a spell checker and a strong search-and-replace feature.

I’ve gotten feedback on both the essays that I put up here, and that is encouraging. Thanks for your comments. I think that I’ll be including those essays on Creative once they disappear from the recent entries list.

If they ever held a contest for the Most Superficial Cities in America, no doubt Las Vegas would win, as it works very hard to earn that title, but I’d be more interested in the runner-up. My nomination is Orlando, Florida. I just visited a very nice, newly commissioned hotel there. The service was great, the rooms comfortable, and the amenities were top notch. But the hotel, not being attached to any of the theme parks in the area, had to come up with a reason to entice tourists to stay there, so they decided to make the hotel a microcosm of Florida. Part of it looks like Key West, part of it looks like St. Augustine, and another part looks like the Everglades, complete with misty swamp and fake alligators. It is very pretty, moderately entertaining, and excruciatingly superficial. A perfect addition to Orlando.

I love randomness. On my Portal page, I’ve included two random features. The first is the logo, which changes color and tag-line on every reload. And the other is the Random Weather, which displays accurate weather description for a random city in America (or American Territories). Or, at least, I thought it was accurate. Both of these random elements were scripted by me with PHP, and since I am a beginner, bugs were inevitable. I know of a couple in the Random Weather generator, but it still caught me by surprise when I found out that Nome, Alaska, was at 85 degrees at about 1 pm (EST) today. It then dropped suddenly to 33 degrees by 5 pm. Believing that my code was more suspicious than Mother Nature, I checked into it, and sure enough, I never considered what may happen when the temperature drops below freezing. This is what I forget by living so far in the south. My code simply ignored the negative numbers and gave a nice warm morning to Nome. What all this meant of course, was that Nome was extremely cold in the morning (something like 22 below zero), but then broke just over the freezing mark by their local noon. Brrr!!


Reasonable Determination

Two things used to keep me up at night when I was a teenager: Determinism and Eternity. Looking back, I guess I was pretty geeky to have esoteric concepts keeping me up at night, but that was the truth. Eternity, often mistaken for infinity, is, of course, time unending. This concept, I still have a problem with. I could never logically wrap my head around the idea that Heaven was all that great if we had to spend all of eternity there. It was the beginning of my personal fall from grace, and it’s left me the good-natured heathen that I am today.

Determinism, on the other hand, I’ve come to accept and, almost, embrace. And the two things I can thank for that are quantum physics and artificial intelligence. I guess I’m still pretty geeky as an adult, too.

Determinism is, loosely, the concept that once the universe was set in motion, it had to end up in this state. Newton was a big fan of determinism, which is why he often used a clock to demonstrate how orderly and precise the universe is in its running. During Newton’s time, however, the Big Bang wasn’t the model for the beginning of all things. It was believed by scientists, as it still is by some, that the universe was eternal, never beginning, never ending. The discovery of the expansion of the universe in the early 20th century put the kibosh on that. Since the universe is expanding, it must have been much smaller at one point, and, this is what got Determinists all a-lather, it must have come from a single source, a beginning point. If someone could discover the conditions at the very beginning of the universe, so it was thought, one could trace the entire history of the universe to its present state, and beyond. The laws of physics described all interactions from little atoms to giant galaxies, and therefore, the universe was just like a giant billiards table—if you knew the initial set up, you could make a pretty good guess on how it came to its present state of seeming randomness.

That was the deterministic view. Of course, the computations would be enormous; it wasn’t really thought that anyone could have a complete model of how the universe ended up in the present state, but it was nice to know that it was possible, until that interloper of classic physics came to the forefront, the quanta.

There is little need for a discussion on quantum physics in this essay, since I don’t understand more than a fraction of it anyway, but there are some key concepts to quantum physics that I’d like to share. The first is Schrödinger’s Cat. This was a thought experiment put forward to underscore the ludicrousness of quantum physics in the real, or macro, world. It is also unbelievable cruel to cats whose owners have access to nuclear material. To imagine this scenario, put a cat in a box with a vessel of vaporized poison and a small amount of radioactive uranium. Close the box, and don’t peek. Now wait a given amount of time for the uranium to decay and send off a beta particle; there is a 50% chance that it will do so. Did I mention that the stopper to the vessel of poison would disintegrate if it came in contact with a beta particle? Well, it will, and poison the cat, if it does. But, and this is the where the gold is, you don’t know if it will or not. There is an even chance that it will or won’t kill the cat. Quantum physics says that the uranium exists in a state where it has both decayed and not decayed, until observed, and then the “waveform collapses,” and then only one or the other can exist. So, according to Schrödinger, the cat exists in a state of both life and death until we peer inside the box. Once we do, we either find out that we have a very pissed-off cat, or a doorstopper.

And it is ridiculous. Do not doubt that Schrödinger’s Cat is an exercise in anything but silliness. The cat, herself, can act as a reasonable observer, and nothing on the macro-level of things is actually in this dual-existence state. So what good is it? It exposes a crucial part of quantum physics, which is that if sub-atomic particle has a choice to go left or right, it will do both, until something observes the particle, which makes that collapsing waveform thing happen, and, to the universe, the particle only took one path. It is the dual nature of these tiny particles—they are both waves and particles, until we look at them, and then they settle down.

This, initially, looked to blow determinism out of the realm of plausibility. The universe suddenly got a lot more random and disordered. But in the 1960s, a little noticed paper was published that changed everything, yet again. In simplest terms, it discussed the propagating nature of quantum physics, and what may actually be happening when an electron, let’s say, is observed going through the left slit, as opposed to the right one. This idea, too, said that the electron actually goes through both, as previously thought, but instead of its waveform collapsing when observed, the observer is just in a universe where it went through the left one. There is another universe where the electron went to the right when observed. Both happened; both exist. Within twenty years, the science-fiction ramifications were popular knowledge. Imagine, every decision that we’ve ever made, has split the universe into every possibility of that choice. It brought back determinism, bruised and limping, but viable again. We could, theoretically, run the universe through a film projector backwards and find out the initial conditions, and therefore we could look towards the future and play out all the scenarios that may happen in the end. Of course, since quantum fluctuations still exist, the possibilities for the end-run are huge. If all the computing power in the world could have been able to forecast the future from a clockwork universe, which it couldn’t, the additional computing power to solve the quantum universe would probably sap the Earth of all its power.

Which brings me to artificial intelligence (AI). AI is overestimated, and the concept that I am concerned with is more of the decision-making abilities of modern computer games. The more computing power the average home system has, the better the algorithms get for making the little people in your computer game look like they’re having a good time. In this case, AI is the ability for the software to anticipate and react to the user in more complex ways. The computer is still dumb, and no software is even close to achieving thought, but we can play simulation games over and over again, and each time the outcome is different. A small change in variables produces totally new results. Compare this to Pac Man. No matter how many of the little dots he ate, he’d just have to eat more. It was the same thing over and over, and in those games, good players were those that picked up the pattern that was built into the software. If the player went up at a specific time, the game would react the same every time. It was perfect example of clockwork determinism.

Modern games are much more of the quantum physics determinism. I can’t make the game do whatever I want, which would be complete free will, but I could decide to buy a particular couch for my Sims, or I could insult another character in my favorite role-playing game. Somewhere, on someone else’s computer, the exact same conditions existed, but that player did something different, and the outcome changed. I can do whatever I want in the parameters of that particular game and in this particular universe. Maybe it is all programmed in, but as the choices increase, I can’t tell the difference anymore between forced, determined action, and free will.

As Rush says, I will choose free will. I used to believe that determinism was the opposite of free will, but I’m able to go to bed at night thinking that I can’t tell the difference between a wide-open expanse of deterministic choices and total free-will, since no matter how much I may want to sleep, I can’t, and no matter how little I want to think about eternity, I will.