Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Anthropic wonders

I just read a blog entry that closed by discussing the actions of our sun's heliosphere in countering the destructive forces of cosmic rays.

That got me thinking about the chain of anthropic wonders we've discovered. Yes, I understand that I wouldn't be here to comment on it if it wasn't so, but emotionally I still feel privileged to be here.

Why did life arise and continue to live on Earth? Because:

(1) Gravity causes matter to coalesce, counteracting the dissipation of entropy, thus forming stars from some of the matter;

(2) Gravity continues to press inwards on those stars, causing them to fuse; some eventually produce carbon (but only because the triple-alpha energies are just right!) and other heavier elements. The stars expel the heavier elements into space as they die.

(3) Gravity continues to cause matter to coalesce, but now the matter includes heavier elements, forming planets as well as stars;

(4) Gravity presses inwards on the new stars, causing them to fuse and provide continuous energy to those planets, making anti-entropic chemical reactions possible in the mix of lighter and heavier elements, thus allowing matter to organize itself into life;

(5) That same fusion creates a solar wind and a magnetic field that protects the new life on the planets from being destroyed by receiving too much disruptive radiation.

And now that all the above conditions have created our own sentient form of life, with the ability to build or destroy this assemblage of matter and life, what shall we decide to do with that ability in the time we have left before our planet becomes uninhabitable for us?

Friday, November 13, 2009

In praise of excellence

Once in a while you find something that is just so well done, you have to say thank you. Last month I discovered such a gem: the newly constructed Silverwood Park in St. Anthony, MN. Here's a message I sent today to Mike Horn, the principal architect of that park and its beautiful visitor center:


Mr. Horn:

To the many accolades you have already received for your excellent work on Silverwood Park, may I add this one citizen's praise for a job very well done. You have created a most beautiful and original piece of work that I hope will inspire many others. Items I particularly enjoyed on my first two visits to the park last month:

  • The amphitheatre to the east of the visitor center. The large stones that provide its seating on its west side are beautifully echoed by the more widely spaced stones on the east side that complete a large circle. Then, within that, you have the semicircle of paving joined to a semicircle of earth. All this makes for a perfect gradual transition from the natural land of the east to the visitor center on the west. As a plus, the stones on the east side are low enough to be quite accessible as a play object, both mental and physical. My first impression is of stepping stones that children could run and jump from, one to the next. Then I become aware that the distance between the stones is too large for that (and rightly so, making the land beyond seem more open), but that somehow makes the imagined jumping and leaping even higher: a playground for the mind for us adults.
  • The beautiful bridge to the island, and the vistas from the bridge and the island. I imagine a wedding procession of twenty or more descending in pairs from the visitor center to flow gracefully and elegantly across the bridge up to the high point of the island, where the ceremony would be held under the large tree there.
  • The visitor center. The ambience of the circular room that includes the fireplace is astounding. To be present there at no cost gives me a feel of great luxury and a bit of a thrill, as if I were trespassing in the lobby of a very expensive ski resort. The fireplace reaching high, beyond sight level. The wooden mantle beam, all the more interesting and natural for its furrowed crack. The many windows forming the eastern view, encircling the viewer with a panorama! I want to be there someday during a vigorous snowfall, to see the snow descending and giving motion everywhere the eye can turn.

Thank you, thank you. I am very glad that the Three Rivers Park District had the far-sighted support to fund your vision. May it inspire and rejuvenate others for decades to come.

Wayne Farmer

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is anybody listening?

Late last week I ran a little test by posting the following messages to my Twitter account:

8 Twitter accounts started following me early today. All have since been suspended. So much spam. from TwInbox

It makes me wonder what percentage of my followers actually read my tweets. from TwInbox

So here's a one-shot "ping" test. If you're reading this, tweet a reply to me now with the single word "pong". I'll report the results. from TwInbox

According to Twitter I currently have 247 followers. That'll be our 100% standard for replies. from TwInbox

Now that nearly 5 days have passed (including a weekend) since my "ping" request, here are the results:
  • 1 reply at 9:24 PM Oct 1st (T+3 minutes)
  • 1 reply at 10:35 PM Oct 1st (T+74 minutes)
  • 1 reply at 1:14 AM Oct 2nd (T+233 minutes)

That's it. 3 replies out of 247 followers. That's 1.2%.

Now, some of those followers may be just spam bots, designed to spread a product brand message by repeating a mix of trivial content mixed with product messages. They'll never notice a "ping" request like mine. But I try to periodically weed those followers out by using TwitBlock.

Also, I'm probably not a typical Twitter reader. On my system, at least every hour, TwInbox requests and receives all the new tweets from the people I follow. It then files those tweets into Microsoft Outlook folders on my laptop, and I read the tweets sometime later, just as I would e-mail. At first I thought this would be a workable strategy, but it's not. I receive way more tweets than I can keep up with, and currently have a backlog of 15000 tweets from the 199 people I'm following.

I'm catching on to the idea that most people don't read tweets this way. Instead, I'm guessing that they just tune in to the live Twitter stream from time to time, get a Twitter "fix" by surveying the latest few tweets from the people they follow, and then tune out. They're not aiming for 100% coverage of the people they follow; they just want to know what they've posted recently.

And, I'm guessing that "recently" is defined not by time, but by number of tweets. People probably only read the last 5 or so tweets from any one person. Over the last month, TwitterAnalyzer tells me I've averaged about 10 tweets per day, so my "ping" request may have scrolled off the radar pretty fast.

Beyond that, there's the question of when people tune in and read tweets, how many of the people they follow do they actually read? Out of the nearly 200 people I follow, I have a few favorite Twitterers that I check frequently, but there are others that I check much less often.

I'm guessing it's a combination of the two: a limited number of tweets are being read from a limited number of sources.

But you tell me. If you're on Twitter, how do you receive tweets? Do you use the web interface to, or do you use an application such as Tweetdeck, or something else? How do you decide what to receive, and how much out of what you've received do you actually read?

Friday, September 18, 2009

5 Unavoidable Truths In Life

I just read the following on a blog and thought I'd pass it along. Good food for thought.

I read once that there are 5 unavoidable truths in life, 5 things that we will experience again and again during our tenure on planet earth.
  1. Everything changes and ends

  2. Things do not always go according to plan

  3. Life is not always fair

  4. Pain is a part of life

  5. People are not loving and loyal all the time

In response, a reader of the blog replied:

Here are the arguments to your five truths:
  1. So enjoy it.

  2. So change plans.

  3. So ensure that you are.

  4. So don't cause it.

  5. So you must be.

It's 1943 all over again.

I have a little high school chemistry textbook from before my time: "Visualized Chemistry", by William Lemkin, copyright 1938 and 1943. Apparently one of the revisions made to create the 1943 edition was a new chapter entitled "Chemistry in Warfare". Today I noticed this paragraph in that chapter:

Bombing Raids on Our Cities. In attempting to bomb one of our great coastal cities such as New York or San Francisco, the enemy would not be likely to use heavy demolition bombs. This does not seem practical because of the great distances which would have to be flown to and from the objective, and the limited number of such bombs that can be carried even by the largest type of bombing plane in use today. It is the belief of military experts that any attack on our great cities would be more in the nature of a "token" assault. The chief object of such a bombing foray would be not so much to cause really thorough and widespread destruction as to disrupt the normal industrial routine, to create fear and panic, and in general to undermine the morale of the populace. For such "token" bombings, the enemy would be likely to use some fragmentation bombs, together with a large number of small and mekium sized demolition bombs, and above all, veritable showers of fire-producing chemicals.

The above way of thinking was overshadowed for a long time by the development of atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs, and by the later development and deployment of ICBM missiles that could deliver them directly and quickly. But with the end of the Cold War and a stand-down of the mutual ICBM threat, this 1943 paragraph has new relevance when you view it in light of the 9/11 attack on New York. What wasn't forseen was that such a "token" assault would be carried out not by an enemy's bombs or bombers, but by the enemy's innovative use of our own civilian airplanes, filled to the brim with those "fire-producing chemicals".

Moral: Don't dismiss old wisdom without re-evaluating its relevance in a changing world. That's one reason we teach history.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Six Letters

They are coming for me, slowly.
I can feel it in my soul.
Sharp-tongued stick men
Scraping stilt legs against dry leaves
In the dull fog of the night.
Each has his list
Of all the crimes I've committed
Written in stick-figure alphabets
That wave their tiny arms
And carry torches.
"The evidence is overwhelming!"
The men and their lists proclaim
As they ring my ruined hovel.
They put me into their hard-edged cart
Of thick black lines and polygon wheels
And silently take me away.
Of course. Here's a stick-figure gallows.
Someone says "G"
And my head appears.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tortoises and Astronauts

It's an absolutely beautiful evening in Minnesota. Skies are clear, 63 F, very little wind. I've got the windows open to cool the apartment.

Following up on a Twitter post I made yesterday, I can report that the Smithsonian Institution agrees that a Russian tortoise beat the US Apollo 8 astronauts to the Moon: In praise of space monkeys (and tortoises) . I should note, however, that Apollo 8 did a lot more than the tortoise. Apollo 8 orbited the moon, and kept 3 humans alive. Zond 5 did a circumlunar flyby, without orbiting, but did return to Earth.

I suppose this is ancient history for most of you: 41 years ago. Not for me. I lived it via Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman on black and white TV. Here's a very nice blog entry from a person about my age who remembers what it was all like back then: A Secret History of Neil Armstrong .

I remember watching the first moonwalk from my parents' house in suburban San Diego. I was 18, living at home for the summer after my first year in college at the nearby University of California at San Diego. I knew how intrinsically important the moment was; I'd been following the US and Soviet space programs since before I was 6.

Flashback: I can remember lying on the living room floor on the day of the Soviet Sputnik I launch, October 4, 1957, reading the evening newspaper. (Honestly, yes, I was reading the evening paper regularly when I was 6.) I had announced out loud to my parents then, "Well, they beat us to it."

Back to 1969: During the Apollo 11 moonwalk coverage, I stepped out from the living room onto our south-facing front porch, and there was the moon, high in the sky. What a marvelous thing: there, above me, I had a direct line-of-sight to what was being shown on TV. Even today, that's remarkable: watching closeup video from a place you can simultaneously see with your own eyes, 400,000 km away.

So maybe you can understand why I'll walk outside some nights and stand alone under the sky, while everyone else is inside watching TV.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I Woke Up With A Hobo (full lyrics)

John, the rest of the lyrics just fell into place. Here they are:

Another bed bug [4X]

Well, this boxcar’s comin’ apart
And the sound it’s makin’ shakes my achin’ heart
It’s rattlin’ into my brain
And I wish that I could get off this train
But I’m stuck out here
Because my dear
My best friend told you what I did last night
I was sleepin’ in her bed
I was shaggin’, but I should have been with you instead.

I woke up with a hobo
Girl, I never thought that I’d sink so low
I woke up with a hobo
And I’m never gonna do it again
I woke up with a hobo
‘Cause you caught me, girl, doin’ that no-no
I woke up with a hobo
And you know it just ain’t right
I wish that I could die (yeah, yeah)

You took my clothes and threw them away
And the rags I’m wearin’ are an awful shame
I burned a hole right into your heart
And I know my life’ll never be the same

‘Cause you know that, girl, I was such a fool
And I’m stuck out here ‘cause I broke that rule
I wish that I could go home tonight
But I can’t pretend that everything will be all right

I woke up with a hobo
Girl, I never thought that I’d sink so low
I woke up with a hobo
And I’m never gonna do it again
I woke up with a hobo
‘Cause you caught me, girl, doin’ that no-no
I woke up with a hobo
And you know it just ain’t right
I wish that I could die (yeah, yeah)

(Another bed bug) (Another bed bug)

Another town, another mile
I’m wearin’ clothes that are out of style
It’s cold out here, I’d be warm in bed
If only I had been right in my head

(Another bed bug)

I woke up with a hobo
Girl, I never thought that I’d sink so low
I woke up with a hobo
And I’m never gonna do it again
I woke up with a hobo
‘Cause you caught me, girl, doin’ that no-no
I woke up with a hobo
And you know it just ain’t right
I woke up with a hobo
Girl, I never thought that I’d sink so low
(repeat and fade out)
(Boom boom)

I Woke Up With A Hobo

Over on Twitter, @johnmoe asked:

Can someone work the word "hobo" into a cover of "Wake Me Up
Before You Go-Go"? And record it? With hobo instruments? Thanks.
How's this for a start? I'll work on the rest of the lyrics later.


I woke up with a hobo
Girl, I never thought that I’d sink so low
I woke up with a hobo
And I’m never gonna do it again
I woke up with a hobo
‘Cause you caught me, girl, doin’ that no-no
I woke up with a hobo
And you know it just ain’t right
I wish that I could die (yeah, yeah)