31 May 2009

Own Worst Enemy - Full Series

Well, I just watched the final episode of this short-lived series. I still absolutely love the character interplay between Edward and Henry, and the way that Henry's character develops through the season. It's worth watching for that alone. However, I still think that this would be a ludicrous way to run a real spy operation, except possibly for deep cover operations over many years, and the series itself illustrates that quite nicely.

The non-operative versions of each person are completely helpless in the event that someone recognizes them from encounters with their spy-selves. They don't even know that they might be in especial danger, that they need to be on their guard. Now, if the handlers know there is a danger, they can remotely activate the spy-self. The problems I'm thinking about, however, are ones that the handlers wouldn't find out about until it's too late. Tom/Raymond, for instance, has some people from Raymond's past come while Tom is active, and threaten Tom and his wife. Tom couldn't have done anything had the situation escalated. This is not a way to keep your operatives safe. It's a way to turn them into bait.

Still, this idea would be plausible if the premise was testing the limits of a new technology... activating and deactivating agents constantly to see what kind of physiological and psychological effects it had. It would also be plausible for someone put in place "just in case" who would work somewhere for many many years, and only be activated in case of emergency, though this wouldn't make for as entertaining a show. It just is not remotely plausible that any spy agency would choose to operate this way on a regular basis.

One more complaint: as soon as it became clear that they had no control whatsoever over the switch between Edward and Henry, why in the bloody blue blazes didn't they immediately start training Henry? At the very least, he needed to learn how to use a gun and how to defend himself without one. Any idiot could see that was necessary. Edward finally cottoned to it in the last episode (and decided to lock himself in with an assassin to see if Henry could make it out alive... er, yeah... good ol' Edward), but it should have been started a long time before that.

Now, despite my ranting, I thoroughly enjoyed all the episodes. There are probably only a handful of actors who could really pull off the Henry/Edward role. Jeremy Irons comes to mind. Maybe James Marsters. Christian Slater, though, was absolutely perfect. The best part was that, as the series went on, "they" got better at pretending to be their counterpart, at least in "everyday" circumstances. As soon as fighting started, it was obvious which one was up. To be fair, though, Edward was just as much out of his element in a family discussion as Henry was in a gunfight.

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29 May 2009

Fickle Mowers

As it turns out, my gas mower will start... so long as it's above 80° Fahrenheit. This makes it a bit difficult to use, say, in the mornings, when it would be least unpleasant to mow. I tried it again this afternoon, because the push-mower does not work well on parts of the back yard. For the front yard, it works great. For the back... eh... too much debris from the elm tree, I think. It's still much more pleasant to use, so where possible I'm going to use it. Also, it will "start" when it's below 80°.

Oh, the gas mower didn't enjoy mowing up a largish piece of cardboard. I mainly went over it to see what would happen. There may be a reason that my last lawnmower plotted with the elm tree to kill me... `/^

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28 May 2009

My Own Worst Enemy

A while back, I came across this series at Target. It looked like the type of character study that tends to interest me. Last night I finally watched the first episode, and it was a lot of fun. Now, this is one that you don't want to take too seriously. If it was just the technology that was implausible, that would be no different from many other shows. There's another problem, though.

The premise is that Edward is a spy. His cover is Henry Spivy, who is an entirely different person worked into Edward's brain through top-secret government technology. Now, this is a fascinating situation to watch unfold. It begins with Henry entirely unaware of Edward's existence...until he "wakes up" in the middle of a stakeout and nearly gets himself (and Edward) killed. Edward's handlers extract Henry, and attempt to erase his memories of Edward. Naturally, this turns out not to work except temporarily, and it puts Henry/Edward in danger.

The "relationship" between Edward and Henry is portrayed beautifully by Christian Slater. And as a character study, I loved it. However, it is one of the most improbable spy set-ups I've ever seen. I'm sure I've seen worse, but usually the acting is so horrendous that I don't bother trying to make sense of it.

Real spies are nothing like James Bond. They cannot keep a high profile. They cannot be easily recognized by the "bad guys." Real spies do need good covers for their operations, and a traveling salesman is a reasonable one. Edward, though, is a James-Bond-style spy. The bad guys know his face. In the real world, this would make him useless as a spy. Now, why does someone whose face is already recognizable by the enemy need a cover so deep that his cover doesn't know he's a spy? I haven't come up with an answer to that.

So let's look at the cover instead. The place where a deep cover like this would be useful is with a sleeper agent: one who's put in place early on, ready to be activated when the situation calls for it. That would be a perfect place for this type of dual personality cover. But, no, that's not what we have on the show. Henry gets to spend two days at home, then he goes on a 2-day business trip...where really Edward gets activated to save the world ... two days later, Henry returns, gets implanted with false memories of his boring business trip, spends two days at home... etc. Edward is an active spy; he doesn't need this idiotic deep cover. If anything, it makes him more vulnerable, not less.

Now, how could the set-up be altered to keep the basic premise but be at least marginally plausible? The best I've been able to come up with is to alter it so that this is a purely experimental project. They're testing the limits of their personality-switching device by switching it on and off at regular intervals, but not so often that neither personality can't have some semblance of a life. This is clearly not what's going on in the show, as there is at least one other dual personality spy (whose other half isn't waking up unexpectedly), and it's implied that there may be others, and this other dual-spy is also switched on and off every two days.

The best I can do with the setup as given is to conclude that the person running the operation is insane, and has enough clout to keep a patently ridiculous program operating. So for the acting and the character study, I highly recommend this series (though the 9 eps on the DVD seem to be all that were ever made). That part is a lot of fun. Just don't think too deeply about the setup, at least not while you're watching it.

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27 May 2009

How not to clean the spout of a reusable water bottle...

About a month ago now, it really started bugging me that I didn't have a way to clean out the very inside of the top spout to my new water bottles. Now, the ideal thing would be a rather thick pipe cleaner, or something very similar, but I didn't have one. So I improvised. I took a toothpick, dipped a small wad of paper towel in the dish water, and ran the toothpick+towel all the way through. The first time I tried it, there were no major problems. The second time I tried it, the toothpick broke, leaving a fragment of wood and some bits of paper towel right in the middle. This was something of a problem, as now I needed a way to get them out, and inserting another toothpick turned out to just make matters worse when it, too, broke off.

After a bit of hunting, I found a very small, narrow screwdriver that would, barely, slide all the way through the spout. It managed to push some of the broken bits out, but not all of them. So I let it sit for a week, while I tried to think of something else to try. I let it soak a bit, and tried the screwdriver again. I think I got out one small sliver. So I let the thing sit some more. Part of the problem was that the screwdriver wasn't at all flexible, so there was no real way to get it in there at a decent angle and "fish" for the bits of wood. Then on Sunday, I noticed that the little straws that had come with some juice drinks were about the right size, and they were flexible. It took a bit of work, and flexing the spout, and more work, but I finally got all the little pieces out. So that spout should now be usable again. Thankfully, it was one of the CamelBak spouts, and all of those spouts fit all of the same bottles. Unless I planned to use every bottle all at once, having that spout out of commission was mostly just a nuisance.

Anyway, don't try to clean out the spout of a water bottle with anything that might break off inside.

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23 May 2009

Heavy Damn Sigh

***NOTE: I am irrationally angry at this point, and some of the language below reflects that. Do not read further if this is likely to offend you.***

I mentioned a while back that my taiji teacher had slipped on the ice and hurt some stuff around his left knee. The MRI came back clean; it looked like he'd just overstretched some muscles. A week ago Tuesday, they decided it wasn't healing up well enough and went in for a physical look. Several tendons as well as part of the quad were torn. Either the MRI missed them, or the regimen of physical therapy he was on did more damage than good. It's impossible to tell at this point. Another confounding factor is that his rheumatoid arthritis medication apparently weakens the tendons. So now he's stuck in a wheelchair for the next four weeks, at which point they'll take another look and find out if he can put any weight on it yet. In modern parlance, the knee's fucked.

He's taking it better than I would, or else he's impressively good at putting a positive face on. He's been working on as much of the form as he can while trapped in a goddamn wheelchair, and working out how to get around with the thing. Melissa and I helped him up the ramp into his dojo; he's mostly been practicing elsewhere because it's too much work to get the bloody thing in there.

I'm sick of seeing him get worse and worse. I'm sick to bloody death of it. And I have nothing else coherent to say.

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21 May 2009

West Mink Creek

I'd decided that since I finally had the garden all planted, I was going to go hiking this morning. My mom reminded me last night that I had to drive her to be "tortured" in the afternoon (1:20 pm; appointment to get two more posts put in in place of teeth), so I wasn't going to have as much time as I had hoped. I decided on West Mink Creek, mainly because it occurred to me that I hadn't been there since my very snowy visit last year. Since I knew I wasn't going to be able to make it all the way up to where it meets the Elk Meadows trail, I took the opportunity to explore most of the side-trails that I saw, including one that went straight up the side of a rather steep hill.

I had several reasons for following that particular "trail" (which mostly vanished less than a quarter of the way up): (1) It was there; (2) Spectacular view; (3) To find out if my cell phone got reception if I got up high enough (it did; there's precisely none down in the valley where the trail is); (4) It opened itself as an opportunity before my mind (last year at this time, my breathing was so bad that I couldn't have climbed that thing if I'd wanted to, and I wouldn't have wanted to); (5) Because when I told my mom I was going hiking, she immediately said, "Don't get lost!" and I responded, "Oh, I'll just climb a mountain that no one's heard of." Okay, it was a hill, not a mountain, but I have no clue what its name is if it has one, and I'd bet most of the hikers up there have no clue what its name is.

Still, I'm in much much better shape than I was last year. It's hard to keep in shape when you can't breathe, for some strange reason. I made it all the way up and did not need my inhaler at all. I was mildly tempted at the place where I turned around, but by the time I got back down to the trail the temptation was gone. Yay for bromelain.

The timing, however, turned out to be very fortuitous. As I was descending on a mostly nonexistent trail, I thought I heard something crashing through the underbrush of the valley. I had no idea what it was, but I'd made similar noises when I'd tried to climb down to a beaver pond (There's a trail most of the way; if you're up there, I don't recommend trying to go past where the trail ends; I almost slid into the beaver pond), so I figured maybe it was just another hiker. Then as I started following the trail back, I saw a rather large shape ahead of me. My first thought was, "Horse?" People do often ride horses up and down the trails in the area, so that's not as strange as it might seem, but it wasn't a horse. It was a moose.

Usually when I see moose, they're too far away for me to have any real sense of scale. I hadn't realized exactly how big they are, until I confused this one with a horse. This one was close enough that I was a bit nervous. If he'd decided to charge me, there wasn't much I could have done. However, my "following" him, since we were both following the same trail, seemed to make him equally nervous, so that he finally broke into a gallop ahead of me and vanished. I caught up with him once more, and he frantically galloped away again. Eventually, he must have left the trail or else crossed Bannock Highway to the next trail over. Here's a picture of him looking back at me, probably wondering if I was a threat:

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20 May 2009

Garden Update

I've got everything planted now, including some strawberries back near the catnip. The peas have not made it up yet, but they were two inches deep, so that's not a huge surprise. The corn isn't up either, but it just got planted this morning. The radishes are coming up nicely (including some volunteers from the radishes I let go to seed last year), as is the salad-mixture next to them. The carrots are not yet up, despite being the shallowest seeds planted. I also have a garlic plant this year. When I went to clean up the garden this spring, I found a garlic clove that I must have just thrown out into the garden, and it had a little sprout on it. So I planted it. It's got a rather impressive set of green stems coming off from it now, so I presume it's growing well.

Word of advice: never, ever, plant apple-mint in a garden, unless you plan on having a garden that is nothing but apple-mint. When I pulled the weedmat up, it had at least two dozen runners growing off from the base, all putting up itty-bitty applemint plants all along their length. I think I've got them all out now. I threw the remnants over by the black raspberry plants, which were also trying to take over last year. I figure they can fight it out. If the mint can survive there, it's fine with me. I just don't want it in the garden, taking up space better filled by vegetables.

The lemon-mint and the catnip, however, have not tried to take over the garden. The lemon-mint has put out exactly one runner, and one new plant. That's a growth rate I can deal with. The catnip hasn't tried to spread, other than bushing out. It's more than 2 feet tall now. I've got a basket around it so that my cats (and any neighborhood cats who wander in) can't eat it down to the root. I think that right now, that wouldn't be an issue, as they aren't even eating it back to the basket, but when it was first greening up in the spring, I think they might have tried.

ADDENDUM: One pea sprout has become visible. And the catnip has sent out at least two runners. The cats promptly ate both. This is exactly why the main plant has a basket around it.

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19 May 2009

GF: Kinnikinnick English Muffins

At Fred Meyer a few weeks back, I happened to spot a new gluten free product in the freezer of the Natural Foods section. It was on the top shelf, buried between some non-GF stuff, but I'd spotted the GF label in passing and went to investigate. It turned out to be Kinnikinnick English Muffins. I bought a package, mostly out of curiosity and because I hadn't had English muffins in a very long time. They are awesome. I have absolutely no idea what people normally do with English muffins, but I've used them for toast and mini-pizzas. I think they'd work well as hamburger buns, too. Great flavor and excellent texture.

The downside is that they're a bit pricey. I think they were $5 rather than $5.60 at Fred Meyer, and that's for four English muffins. Now, the intent is that you cut them in half to use them, so that's 8 servings if you use them separately, but they're so thick that I usually cut each one into three pieces, yielding 12 servings from the bag. That's not so bad for $5. And, honestly, these have better taste and texture than the non-GF English muffins I bought once a very long time ago. Highly recommended.

GF Tips Index

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17 May 2009

Henry William* James: The Will to Believe

The next section of Pragmatism: A Reader was a selection of writings by William James. I found myself nodding agreement to the vast majority of his paragraphs, but then he'd suddenly go off the deep end and I had no idea what connection there was supposed to be between one idea and the next. For the moment, I'll just focus on the first essay (I'd planned on looking at all of them, but looking at just this one got rather long).
*For some reason I keep wanting to call him "Henry" instead of "William". Not really sure why.

The Will to Believe was a fascinating read, honestly. Flawed, but fascinating. Essentially, James is acknowledging that there is little to no empirical evidence of any sort of deity (and evidence against certain specific formulations of deities), but wants to argue that belief is still the better choice. It might be more convincing did he not resort to an artificial limitation of the field (or two), and a false dichotomy.

First, James is only interested in people for whom belief is what he terms a "living possibility," meaning that it exists as a genuine possibility for a person. A "dead possibility" would be something that has already been rejected, even before the question is asked. For example, belief in Zeus would be a dead possibility for most modern people. So James is limiting his argument to doubters, agnostics, and people who already believe.

Then he pulls an interesting narrative trick. He discusses Pascal's wager, and denigrates it as an insult to any self-respecting deity. What he's trying to do, it becomes clear later, is eliminate the possibility that anyone is believing solely out of fear they may be wrong (and then condemned to hellfire, etc.). Instead, he's going to argue that people who don't believe do so out of fear, so he has to make sure he's cleared away the opposing possibility.

James also limits his discussion to something on the order of the deist god, or maybe the Divine Providence of the Founding Fathers. Again, this has a clear purpose: to avoid any specific truth-claims that could be falsified. As if in justification, he denigrates "superstitious" formulations of god. Now, if James just stopped there, with his unfalsifiable deity, and said "believe or don't," I'd be okay with it. But he still wants to argue that belief is better.

This is where the false dichotomy comes in. Since it is a choice, and there is no evidence either way, James argues that the only reason not to believe is out of fear that one would be wrong. Now, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. If this was mentioned as a single possibility among many, it might be more palatable, but even then I'd find it strange. Why would someone be afraid of being wrong when choosing to believe in a deity? It only makes sense in a Pascalian sort of way, if said person is afraid he's chosen the wrong deity. It makes no sense at all from an epistemic point of view, which is what James is trying to use. It's much more likely to go the other way: where someone believes in a deity out of fear of the supposed hellfire that awaits nonbelievers...which is why James tries to eliminate Pascal's wager as a reasonable option. It doesn't work, but it's still worth reading through.

One other interesting argument. James thinks that if a belief, whether true or not, produces positive effects in a person, then that person is justified in that belief. This is a precursor to his later "verification" theory of truth (which was likely a precursor to the verification theory of meaning), but it's a bit too utilitarian for my tastes. James does acknowledge that the belief must not conflict with other strongly held beliefs, but it still seems a bit of a stretch to call "positive personal effects" a "justification" for a belief. If I behave better because I think some invisible shadow is watching me and reporting on me, and arrange it so that this belief is unfalsifiable, it may produce positive observable effects on my behavior, but it is in no ways justified.

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16 May 2009


I've mentioned before that I occasionally get a sensation like there's a threatening presence nearby. While I have an image of that presence (usually a large, monstrous humanoid), I do not see it, or hear it, or have any other physical sense experience of it. It is purely in my mind. The first time I took Zyrtec, the Zyrtec brought it on. "Paranoia" is described as one of its possible side effects, and I guess my form of paranoia involves this particular delusion.

The most interesting thing, though, is that I discovered in meditation that I could deliberately evoke the delusion, and that I could make it go away again.
I was hoping that this would allow me to quiet it if it arose on its own. It didn't, at least not during the one chance I've had to try it. Thankfully the delusion doesn't come on very often, though if it did I might stand a better chance of working out how to make it go away.

The only way to describe how I brought it on deliberately is from a phenomenological standpoint; then I'll speculate as to what might be going on physically. One of the meditations I use is to visualize bringing energy up the spine and out through the top of the head. One day, and I no longer remember why, I was playing with bringing the energy up through different parts of the head. In one particular "location", I felt the paranoia and sense of presence begin to emerge. I withdrew the "energy" and the paranoia went away. I tried various places in the head, most with no noticeable effect, but that one place, at the back left of the head, always brought on the delusion.

My best guess is that my energy-imagery is, in fact, activating different areas of the brain in different ways, and by focusing on that particular location, I activated the area of the brain responsible for the delusion. I don't know if the area is actually in the back left of the brain, or if there's something about imaging that area that activates the problem-zone. I was mildly disturbed when I discovered this, but also curious to know whether I could use it to make the delusion go away once it had already begun. All I can say is, not in the once chance I've had to try it.

That chance was last week, after I watched the Lost season 1 premiere. It was late at night and I was tired, and the combination of adrenaline and worry about the "monster in the woods" was enough to activate the delusion. I tried to visualize withdrawing the energy from that area of the head, and moving it to a different location. No go. Whatever I tried, the delusion remained active. I can only speculate as to why: (1) I was too tired; (2) The activation process was not similar enough; (3) Too much adrenaline in the system to calm down; (4) ?????.

I was disappointed. So I did what I usually do when the delusion comes on: leave more lights on than usual and open doors with extreme caution. The problem is that even though I know full well that the sensation is not real, it still feels real, and the simplest way to maintain control is to give in just enough to the paranoia to keep it from exploding. So I spend a little more on electricity, and peer cautiously through doorways before entering, and otherwise function normally. Still, I'm just as glad that this only comes on maybe once or twice a year. It would be exhausting, otherwise.

I should note that technically this is classified as a hallucination, not a delusion. I use the label delusion because there is no involvement with my physical senses. I do not have a sense of "seeing" someone in the room with me. I "feel" a presence in my mind, and that presence has a visual appearance associated with it, and a spatial location, but there is no genuine physical sensation: only mental impressions. I suppose if telepathy worked, it could be described as a "telepathic hallucination", but that seems a bit of a stretch to me.

One more item that might be of interest: when I have genuinely tried to activate belief in deities (including, for instance, the Christian deities), I have generally given up because that also activates the delusion. I'll leave readers to draw their own conclusions from that.

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15 May 2009

Star Trek

I didn't know what to expect from the new movie. Yes, reviews were favorable, and previews looked promising, but there's nothing like actually seeing it. And I loved it. It manages to capture the flavor of the old while bringing in the technology of the new (in more ways than one). I'm not going to spoil any crucial plot points (though you can find a random, unhelpful spoiler and a discussion of time travel here), but I would like to point out two places where they gave the original series a nod, but tweaked it at the same time:

(1) I'm not going to look it up, but William Shatner was something of a glory hog, and there was a plot written specifically for Sulu involving swordplay that Shatner insisted be rewritten for Kirk. Well, there's a scene where Kirk is hanging off a ledge while Sulu gets to match swords with the bad guys.

(2) Kirk was the one who always got the girl in the original series. And he tries in this new movie. However, it's someone rather unexpected who actually gets the girl.

Also, the phrase "Why do they even have that on the ship?" came to mind at one point. It will be obvious when you see it. Probably.

But I was very impressed with the casting and the effects. I was surprised that they subverted a time-honored Star Trek tradition with the ending (explaining which one would be a spoiler). I approve. Everyone needs a new beginning, sometime.

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14 May 2009

Fishers: The Comic Opera

Once again, I'm turning pages for my mom for the Methodist Church's "Music Sunday." Thankfully, Kim picks better songs than Robin did, so at least I don't hate any of the songs, music-wise. Lyric-wise? GAH. At least two songs had something about "God" as being unchanging, and how heaven would be a place of eternal contentment, and I can think of few things more hellish than those two sentiments. Seriously. Eternal contentment? I wouldn't be content with that. Where's the chance for growth? What's the point of reaching the Ultimate? Then there's no where left to go, nothing left to do, no more heights to climb (or depths to plumb, depending). I don't get it.

Anyway, I wanted to mention two songs specifically, as they are ones that I have sung. Battle Hymn of the Republic, despite being chockablock full of religious sentiment, didn't bother me at all. I think it's because I know it was written as a propaganda piece during the Civil War, to denigrate Christian churches that were using their bible in support of slavery. And I have to wonder how, exactly, a literalist can possibly justify not supporting slavery, but that's another story altogether.

The other song that I had sung is called "Fishers of Men." If it's on YouTube, I'm not finding it. It's a stirring gospel rendition about Jesus calling people to come help him catch souls instead of fish. The song depressed me at first, because I used to enjoy it. So, while I was turning pages, I started thinking about alternate interpretations. My first, vaguely Taoist, thought was, "Wait. We need those fish. People are hungry!" and "What? The nets are torn! You pick up that needle right now and keep fixing them!" That didn't quite do it. Then I thought, "What if they weren't any good at fishing in the first place?" Then it all clicked into place.

It's a comic opera. The fishers being called away are so bad that the townsfolk have banded together and begged Jesus to get them to do something else, anything else, and any time the soloist breaks in with "the blessed savior of mankind," the chorus of townsfolk would of course need to join in, with looks of fervent relief. Plus it explains the overly aggrandized lyrics, like "Cast your net in the sea of doubt, Catch a soul, cast the devil out" as being mere rhetoric to convince these lousy fishermen that they have a calling elsewhere. After that, I was able to enjoy the song once more. ^/^

Of course, then I started wondering how to turn the rest of the gospel story into a comic opera... For instance, the townspeople start regretting their little trick to stop the men from fishing when the whole "fishers of men" thing really starts to take off. I think it could be done. I wonder how many people it would offend...? *blinks innocently*

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13 May 2009

Pragmatism: More from Peirce

The other selections from Peirce in the book I've been reading are "How to Make Our Ideas Clear", "A Definition of Pragmatism" (probably online somewhere, but a quick search didn't find it), "Evolutionary Love" and some selections from longer works, presumably chosen because they shed light on pragmatism.

Of these three, the first is probably the most interesting. In essence, Peirce argues that the only way for an idea to be clear is to look at its effects. He doesn't use the words "testable" or "falsifiable" but it would be reasonable to think of Peirce's idea of "clarity" in those terms. He argues that if two seemingly different ideas would produce exactly the same observable effects, then those two ideas are merely different variations of the exact same idea. To a certain extent, this makes sense, but just because all predictions thusfar agree is no guarantee that all predictions will agree. Either we need to establish an isomorphism between the ideas to see why they should be the same, or we need to think some more to find a way to distinguish between the two.

In the second, I think I finally found at least part of what Heidegger was arguing about when he discussed "signs" and "signification." He repudiated it outright, and now that I've seen what he was trying to repudiate, I may have to go back and reread those pages. It's very frustrating to read a refutation of an idea when you've never actually encountered the idea itself. There are also strong hints of phenomenological thought in Peirce's writing, so I have a suspicion he may have been an influence on, say, Husserl, and probably other phenomenologists.

For the third, I'm not quite sure what to think. Essentially Peirce is attacking the "nature red in tooth and claw" interpretation that was often attached to Darwin's ideas. Not having read Darwin myself, I can't say whether that was a misunderstanding on Peirce's part or just an early idea that turned out to be an oversimplification for how evolution actually works. Peirce is arguing that there are also love, altruism and cooperation in animals, and so a model based solely on competition is inadequate to explain the diversity in nature. This is quite correct; I just don't know when, exactly, such ideas started to be widely incorporated into evolutionary theory, but they're certainly incorporated now. I'm not sure how this article fits with an intro to pragmatism, either, unless it was an example of applying pragmatic thought to the sciences.

At any rate, if you're going to read just one of the articles by Peirce, I'd recommend "The Fixation of Belief". If you want a second, I'd suggest "How to Make Our Ideas Clear". The others, so far, don't seem to add as much.

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11 May 2009

Peirce and Pragmatism

A while back, I picked up a book called Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand. It was a name I'd encountered before, but I wasn't sure what it actually signified in philosophy. I've made it through the introduction and the first two selections so far, but the short version of pragmatism is that human beings think in particular ways, and we need to take that into account when we examine beliefs. There's more to it than that, but that's a decent starting point, and seems to be Peirce's main point in the essay, "The Fixation of Belief".

After reading the article, I'm a bit surprised it never came up in Epistemology. Admittedly, we only had a semester to cover several hundred years of thought, but we never even mentioned the pragmatists. Still, I'd encountered Peirce's name before. At least one of the philosophers at ISU, McCurdy, is quite into Peirce, and has enthused many of the philosophy students about him as well. To be honest, most of what I heard secondhand turned me off, but the firsthand encounter with the article was more than enough to counter that. The "whole thing is well worth reading, but I wanted to post a few sections that I particularly liked. This first one is how Peirce phrases the assumption required to engage meaningfully in science:

Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality. It may be asked how I know that there are any Reals. If this hypothesis is the sole support of my method of inquiry, my method of inquiry must not be used to support my hypothesis. The reply is this: 1. If investigation cannot be regarded as proving that there are Real things, it at least does not lead to a contrary conclusion; but the method and the conception on which it is based remain ever in harmony. No doubts of the method, therefore, necessarily arise from its practice, as is the case with all the others. 2. The feeling which gives rise to any method of fixing belief is a dissatisfaction at two repugnant propositions. But here already is a vague concession that there is some one thing which a proposition should represent. Nobody, therefore, can really doubt that there are Reals, for, if he did, doubt would not be a source of dissatisfaction. The hypothesis, therefore, is one which every mind admits. So that the social impulse does not cause men to doubt it. 3. Everybody uses the scientific method about a great many things, and only ceases to use it when he does not know how to apply it. 4. Experience of the method has not led us to doubt it, but, on the contrary, scientific investigation has had the most wonderful triumphs in the way of settling opinion. These afford the explanation of my not doubting the method or the hypothesis which it supposes; and not having any doubt, nor believing that anybody else whom I could influence has, it would be the merest babble for me to say more about it. If there be anybody with a living doubt upon the subject, let him consider it.

This last paragraph is a summary of the nonscientific means that people often use to hold or justify their beliefs.

On the contrary, each has some peculiar convenience of its own. The a priori method is distinguished for its comfortable conclusions. It is the nature of the process to adopt whatever belief we are inclined to, and there are certain flatteries to the vanity of man which we all believe by nature, until we are awakened from our pleasing dream by rough facts. The method of authority will always govern the mass of mankind; and those who wield the various forms of organized force in the state will never be convinced that dangerous reasoning ought not to be suppressed in some way. If liberty of speech is to be untrammeled from the grosser forms of constraint, then uniformity of opinion will be secured by a moral terrorism to which the respectability of society will give its thorough approval. Following the method of authority is the path of peace. Certain non-conformities are permitted; certain others (considered unsafe) are forbidden. These are different in different countries and in different ages; but, wherever you are, let it be known that you seriously hold a tabooed belief, and you may be perfectly sure of being treated with a cruelty less brutal but more refined than hunting you like a wolf. Thus, the greatest intellectual benefactors of mankind have never dared, and dare not now, to utter the whole of their thought; and thus a shade of prima facie doubt is cast upon every proposition which is considered essential to the security of society. Singularly enough, the persecution does not all come from without; but a man torments himself and is oftentimes most distressed at finding himself believing propositions which he has been brought up to regard with aversion. The peaceful and sympathetic man will, therefore, find it hard to resist the temptation to submit his opinions to authority. But most of all I admire the method of tenacity for its strength, simplicity, and directness. Men who pursue it are distinguished for their decision of character, which becomes very easy with such a mental rule. They do not waste time in trying to make up their minds what they want, but, fastening like lightning upon whatever alternative comes first, they hold to it to the end, whatever happens, without an instant's irresolution. This is one of the splendid qualities which generally accompany brilliant, unlasting success. It is impossible not to envy the man who can dismiss reason, although we know how it must turn out at last.

I can definitely recommend Peirce to anyone with an interest in this area. Hopefully the rest of the book will be just as good.

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10 May 2009

Flowers flowers flowers, flowers!

Click to see larger versions. Two of my purple tulips have come out, and they're spectacular. And while I don't remember doing so, I think I must have gotten a variety pack of daffodils, as there are at least four different types represented so far. The two pictured here are fairly small, maybe an inch and a half for the outer diameter.

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Latest Project

This is what I've been working on since Friday. I had started out thinking I'd just make a "mobile weed-killer", meaning some black plastic mounted on a wooden frame that I could set over the worst areas of the yard to kill everything off and start over. Then I got the frame made, and remembered that last year I'd considered making a primitive deck out of the old fence planks in the garage and figured, "Why not?" Well, there did turn out to be an answer to that: "Because it's no longer particularly mobile." However, I still have a few planks left, and I may put together another, more lightweight frame, that can be moved.

The planks have been in the garage since I bought the house. My best guess is that they were part of a fence blocking off the alley at one time. I have a suspicion as to why that fence was taken down, too. The ad for this house said "off-street RV parking." With a fence blocking the alley, there really isn't any such parking. So I'm thinking the realtor advised the former owners to take the fence down so they could put that in the ad. Can't say for sure, though.

Whyever the wood was there, this is the single largest thing I've ever built. It wasn't particularly complicated, as I just used the planks as they were without trying to cut them down at all. It was just "line up, drill, attach with screws." From this I conclude that the hard part of making a "real" deck would be the planning and cutting and leveling. The actual attaching part, while tedious and time-consuming, was very straight-forward. Particularly since I had a philips screwdriver attachment that fit my drill.

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09 May 2009

Ceiling Cat?

Okay, more like "Rafter Cat". Pouncer has found a way to get into the rafters of the garage. I'm not entirely sure how he's getting up there, but I did see him get down by leaping onto a table. This afternoon, I needed to leave for a short trip to get more screws (explanation coming tomorrow, unless I get distracted), and decided it was easier just to lock the garage than to try and get Pouncer down. I didn't particularly want to leave the garage open, and I'm not sure what he would have done if I'd tried to put the ladder under him and climb up. He wasn't too happy when I got back, so I don't know if he'll keep climbing up there or not. For reference, there's an old door up there that's been there since I bought the house, and it's the ceiling that slopes, not the door that Pouncer is laying on.

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Windshield Sparkle

driving towards dawn,
diamonds shimmer and glisten:
water drops on glass

I couldn't find a picture of waterdrops sparkling like diamonds on glass, but this picture captures the sparkle that they had. The little diamonds would move up the windshield as I accelerated, sometimes merging into drops too large to sparkle any more, and sometimes larger droplets would break apart, making more little diamonds in the sunlight. The image is from Wikimedia Commons. Btw, a search for "droplets" there produces some fantastic results!

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I'd been keeping an eye on the price of the Lost DVD's at Fred Meyer. I wasn't interested in trying even one season while they were at $50 a set. A few weeks ago, season 1 came down to $35, so I got it, but was too busy with school stuff to actually watch it. Thursday night I popped in the first disc and watched the first half of the pilot episode. All I can say is, WOW. After making it through the rest of the pilot and the next two episodes, I felt the same way. The characters are believable, their reactions are believable ... the situation is rather odd, but that a plane might crash on a remote island is certainly believable.

But not only are the characters believable, they're interesting and fun and come across as people, not as vehicles for someone else's ideas (which is what often happens on situational shows like this). There are also just enough hints of something weird about the island they've landed on to spark curiosity and interest. What are the strange whirring noises that make the trees of the jungle move? Why is there an apparent polar bear in a warm, humid jungle? How did someone rig a Mayday message and power it so that it would play continuously for 16 years? What's the deal with Locke—his background only adds more questions, particularly at the end of the fourth episode)? Some of these I'm sure I could find answers to on the internet, as there have been many more seasons since the first, but I prefer to be surprised.

The first four episodes are interwoven so well that they might have been from a feature film. We see hints of characterization in the pilot, which start to make sense when we later find out the character's background. Examples: Kate asks about a guy who wound up with a piece of shrapnel stuck in his gut during the crash, and seems a bit too intent for her explanation of interest, "He was sitting next to me." Yes, he was sitting next to her, and for a very specific reason. Locke wakes up flat on his back, and stares fixedly at the gold-toe socks of his right foot as he slowly wiggles the toes. He finds his shoe, puts it back on, and seems strangely giddy as he climbs to his feet. That explanation totally blew me away.

I do have one minor complaint, in that no one has a broken femur. That is probably the most common injury for plane crash survivors. The seat is designed to absorb a lot of the impact, but the thigh is most directly contacting the seat, and it tends to take some of the damage as well. Better that than the spine, but the result is that people commonly survive the crash itself only to be unable to leave the plane, and then die of smoke inhalation. Admittedly, it wouldn't be a very interesting show if, say, half the cast was immobilized due to broken femurs, but I'm curious as to whether there's an in-universe explanation. I'm also curious if a crashed plane is really as volatile as it was depicted in the pilot episode. That I honestly don't know. It seems possible that it would be... I guess the Mythbusters are just going to have to crash a plane and find out. `/^ (That, or I could do some research... I just want to avoid running across spoilers for the rest of the seasons)

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07 May 2009


I've often encountered the claim that "there is no time" or "time is an illusion." Taken at face value, I could find no sensible meaning in those statements. I think I finally figured out what at least some of these claims mean, and it was sparked by an offhand comment from Pelletti, about "change." When they deny time, they're not denying that things change, but they hold that separate from time. However, something is required for things to change, and it makes no sense to me to call that anything other than time. That's where my confusion came in. What they're denying is the view of time as a genuine fourth dimension. That may not be clear either, so I'll try to clarify.

Think about a reel of film. Each frame represents one moment of the film. If we stacked these frames on top of each other, we'd get a representation of the film plus its time element as a dimension. Now, we've got three spatial dimensions (that we perceive, at least), and it's harder to picture stacking "cubes" to add in time as a fourth dimension, but the idea is the same. What this implies is, just like the film, there is a physical record of changes through time, and that record exists regardless of what the current "present moment" is. There's a stack of previous frames "behind" us that, if we knew how, we could access and sort through. This, I think, is what scientists who deny time are actually denying.

Instead, they see what I would call time (and they might call change) as something more like ripples in a pond. The ripples rise and fade away and rise and fade away, but leave no permanent record of their presence. There is only a dynamic process, and not anything like a physical dimension of time. Now, even if this view is correct (and I currently don't feel I'm in a position to have a useful opinion on that), it would still be useful to treat time as a dimension. We know the rates with which certain things change, and within the same inertial frame of reference, we can use those to establish the "time coordinates" in that frame. At 0 seconds, a drop of water falls into the puddle. At 1 second, a series of concentric ripples can be seen across the pool. Etc. Just as if we recorded the scene with a camera, we could treat the waves and the relative time at which they occur as a four-dimensional object.

From an everyday standpoint, there doesn't seem to be a way to tell whether time is an actual dimension or merely a process of change. What I wonder, though, is whether treating it as only a process of change is consistent in various relativistic and quantum applications. I remember in A Brief History of Time, Hawking espoused the idea that in a black hole, an outside observer would see time stop as an unfortunate victim plunged towards the event horizon, but that the unfortunate individual would not see that at all; things would continue to change for him but in a time dimension perpendicular to the outside one. I'm not seeing a way to reconcile that with the "dynamic change" model of time. If from the outside we see all change stop, but on the inside change is still occurring, we have a physical presence for one of the prior moments of the falling individual, so that moment continues to exist for us, even as the person within the event horizon moves past it in his time. Maybe there's a way to reconcile dynamic change with this, or maybe Hawking was wrong, or... who knows.

From a purely philosophical standpoint, I variously find the "dynamic change" model liberating and depressing, depending on my mood. It's not a model I care for at all when I'm feeling a bit depressed, as it would mean that all of the people/places/things from my past have actually and completely ceased to exist, rather than continuing to exist in a time that I no longer have access to. However, in a better mood, it's liberating to think that each moment is completely new and fresh with no physical past weighing it down. Neither viewpoint is a useful argument for or against the position, but I find it amusing how completely opposite my own reactions are.

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06 May 2009

Of Lawns and Machines

I've always hated mowing the lawn. It's noisy. It's pointless. It makes my allergies act up. However, I have discovered that I don't mind it so much when using a "push-mower," meaning one without an engine (though since all but riding mowers are pushed, I'm not sure why this name is supposed to distinguish it from gas or electric mowers). I got one primarily because I've been unable to get the motorized one to start since late last summer. I suspect that the price of the new mower would be roughly equivalent to the price for taking the motorized one in to get it fixed. If parts were needed, the repair might be more expensive.

So I tried the non-motorized one out yesterday. It's awesome. It's not noisy, it doesn't put out fumes, and I don't have to worry about whether or not it will start when I want to use it. It's also not significantly more work than a motorized mower, except in places where the grass has gotten extra tall and thick. So long as I actually manage to mow each week, that shouldn't be an issue for the rest of the summer, and I'm more likely to mow regularly when I don't dread the fumes and noise of the ordeal. The only problem I had with it was that it does not do well with the small branches that tend to fall from the elm tree like dandruff; those I'll have to pick up by hand. It still aggravates my allergies, but there's not much I can do about that.

Except reduce the amount of grass on the property, but I need a day with little wind and little to no chance of rain for that. Those have been in short supply lately.

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04 May 2009

Merleau-Ponty and Post-Modernism

I finished reading the required chapters in Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception last night. For the most part, I was impressed. This is the first time I've ever encountered a non-taiji player describing something like the bodily sensations that I notice in push-hands, the way the body can move before conscious thought sets in. I felt like 90% of what Merleau-Ponty was saying made perfect sense and was exactly the way I myself experienced things like the body and time.

But one thing troubles me. I can see little pointers scattered through the text that almost certainly paved the way for the post-modern movement. I have no problem with the idea that nothing can be known with absolute certainty, but post-modernism generally doesn't tack on those last three words. It tends towards an absolute relativism that I find to be at odds with the phenomenological reduction. Rather than putting the world in brackets, and not worrying about what the phenomena can or can't tell us about that [world], post-modernists seem to bury the world entirely. Essentially, there are no facts, and all viewpoints are equally valid. Pelletti commented that it was pointless to argue with real postmodernists, as they have no interest in coming to any sort of common truth; instead, it becomes nothing more than a game of manipulation and power.

He also gave a rather extreme example of a French post-modern philosopher (can't remember the name, but I think he was at Harvard) who scoffed at the idea that King Tut might have died of smallpox. Since smallpox wasn't discovered (read: created/invented) until the 1800's, it was completely impossible that King Tut could have died of it! Now, with the qualification that no one in King Tut's day would have known about smallpox, and therefore experientially he could not have died of smallpox, I can say, fine. But lacking that qualification...

Essentially (according to the pomos), there are no facts or truths. There are only ideas that have won some sort of ideological battle, and so are currently accepted. So ... if it was not accepted that rattlesnakes had deadly venom, would no one die of rattlesnake bites? If it was not accepted that people don't fall through solid material, would no one be able to walk down the street without sinking into the earth? Going by the post-modern perspective, these would both seem to be the case. It also becomes clear why this viewpoint is attractive to nutjobs of all stripes. If a non-philosopher justifies some bizarre idea by an appeal to post-modernism, I'd estimate that there's a 99.99999% chance that said person is a crackpot. This estimate is probably low.

Back to Merleau Ponty, I'm hoping to read the rest of the book after finals are done, and then I might have more to say specifically about his ideas.

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03 May 2009

The Stranger

We actually didn't quite make it to Albert Camus' The Stranger in Existentialism this semester. Levenson wound up making it an optional read, though he spent the last ten minutes or so of the last class discussing some of its themes. It's...a strangely compelling, yet disturbing, read. Meursault is the main character, and he is pathologically without attachment. Whatever comes his way, he accepts, and accepts without examination or thought, or even much resembling a reaction. In the middle, this leads him to kill a man.

There can be pathological detachment as well as pathological attachment. The latter is more common, so most people need to learn some distance. Meursault, though, is too detached. What came to mind when I was trying to think what bothered me about his character was a taiji reference. The goal is to relax the body, but not have it be limp: alert relaxation, we often call it. The muscles are relaxed but there is still life in them, and they can respond. Meursault only ever yields; throughout most of the book he never actually responds. "Yield and neutralize" is a decent summary of all you need to know for push-hands, but if all you ever do is yield, you eventually are pushed further and further back until your root breaks. This is a surprisingly apt description for all that happens to Meursault.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this book is how much I wanted to keep reading it, to find out what happened next. The next strangest thing is the effect the ending had on me. I don't want to spoil it, but what should by all rights have been a depressing, demoralizing ending is instead empowering and freeing, and I'm not quite sure I understand why just yet. Perhaps it's because Meursault finally responds to his situation rather than just passively accepting it. I'm not entirely certain.

I am certain that the Matthew Ward translation is excellent. It does not feel like a translation at all. The prose is brilliantly crisp.

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02 May 2009

Over the Edge

I've reached my breaking point. I've had it. I'm going to kill millions and millions of innocent, helpless... ...quack grass plants. Okay, "helpless" is a bit of a stretch for a plant whose roots can grow through just about anything, and which can return from even a quarter inch of its root, but it made it all the more dramatic, didn't it?

But I'm fed up with grass. The stuff that's pretty drinks water like a drunken fremen, then has to be mowed, which wastes time, gas, and messes with my allergies. The quack grass just gets into everything. We hates it. So we, er, I have decided to turn large swaths of the yard into desert. I got a bunch of drought-tolerant plants at Fred Meyer yesterday; now all I have to do is slaughter the current residents. I'm looking forward to the carnage.

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01 May 2009


I decided I ought to get a picture of the whole flowery area before the hyacinth had faded completely. The hyacinth closest to the house is already looking a bit bedraggled. Ah well. There are more daffodils on the way, and the purple tulips are getting ready to take up some of the slack. That tall plant, next to the fading hyacinth, looks like it will be the first purple tulip to open. (As you can see, I never got around to weed-matting the area; no clue if I'll decide to do it later or not)

Oh, you can also see one of the solar lights that I found at Target a couple weeks back. They were on sale, so I got four of these for about $33. They put out a surprising amount of light. Even more surprisingly, they actually run on rechargeable AA batteries, so if it ever becomes apparent that the batteries aren't holding their charge, it is possible to replace them.

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Here We Go Again...

Today I finally had allergies bad enough to try the Claritin "ready-tabs" I bought after giving up on the Zyrtec. I never had major side effects with Claritin ... it just tended to work only one time in three. I'm hoping the ready-tabs (which dissolve in the mouth) will be more likely to work. It took about 15 minutes from trying the ready-tab to feeling my head suddenly clear. So... now I get to see what new and exciting terrifying unexpected side effect come from this antihistamine! (You try giving a lecture when your nose won't stop running, your eyes itch, and your head feels like someone's slowly tightening a noose around it. Doesn't sound good? That's why I tried the Claritin.)

UPDATE: About all the Claritin did was help clear my head. It didn't stop the runny nose and sneezing at all. I was seriously tempted to reach for the Zyrtec, but I had to keep reminding myself: "one day's relief = two weeks of itching and acid reflux, followed by a histamine backlash." Symptoms are somewhat improved today, and I discovered that activity actually reduced the symptoms yesterday. I'd actually been wondering if I'd have to cancel my last review lecture halfway through, but as soon as I got up to the chalkboard and was moving around and talking, the symptoms nearly disappeared. As soon as I sat down and relaxed afterwards, they started coming back. So I think I'll go do some yardwork, and see if that will continue to help them today. No taiji, as I don't want to drive up there and I'm not sure what effect Don's cigarette smoke will have on my allergies ... plus if the symptoms do hit full force again, Don wouldn't want me up there.

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