athelind: (explore)
#CarlSagan is trending today on Twitter.

It would have been his 80th birthday.

I offer this, because there is little more that need be said:




We succeeded in taking that picture (from deep space), and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.




Happy birthday, Unca Carl.

Thank you.

athelind: (Ommm)
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I am a fan of many authors and songwriters who are famous for their brevity and wit, for their pithy epigrams, for their quotability. Franklin, Twain, Heinlein, Sagan; I pepper my speech with references to all of them.

My favorite quote, however, is not a nice, tidy little soundbite. It's not an epigram. It's not pithy. I can't randomly drop make an oblique reference to it in casual conversation.

I first discovered it in a book my grandmother left me: The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski, based on his PBS series of the same name. More than any other passage, it spoke to me.



It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. This is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashed of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.'

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.



athelind: (Ommm)
Reading my friends list this morning, I saw one post that immediately made me think of responding with lines from Max Ehrmann's famous poem.

And then I saw another.

And another.

And I realized that I could use a reminder, myself.



Desiderata
Max Ehrmann, 1927

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.


I know that when YouTube has videos available, I usually post them, but, oh my stars and garters, Les Crane's 1972 recording is Pure Concentrate of 1970s Badness. Can't we get Leonard Cohen or someone to do their version?
Please don't link to the parody in the comments.

athelind: (Default)
Upon awakening this morning, Your Obedient Serpent had one of those epiphanies that keep expanding his mind these days.

For the last couple of days at work, I've been in and out of training. Training at my new job leans toward the casual and conversational. They take it seriously, but they want to know that you're engaged.

I've found that, when discussions of safety, odd technology, and strange experiences lean toward the conversational .... I frequently have A Relevant Amusing Anecdote.

And they all start differently.

When I was in the Coast Guard ...

When I worked in the hospital ...

When I was at Cal State, doing Seafloor Mapping ...

When I was in the comic book store ...


When you're clinically depressed, one of the things that gets into your head is the idea that "I haven't done anything with my life." And that's a hard one to dislodge.

But ... by GAD, sir! I've done all manner of things with my life.

I am ... INTERESTING.

You may have noticed that, over the last year or so, a phrase I've used more than once is 'I don't want to be That Guy. "Nobody wants to be That Guy."

Well, I think that I might be This Guy:

... and I think I'm good with that.



Pity poor [livejournal.com profile] kohai_tiger, who, in the course of two to three hours of daily commute, occasionally gets stuck in the role of Hapless Gentleman's Club Member Buttonholed by Pompous Windbag McBragg ...
athelind: (Eye - VK)
There's been a bit of a kerfluffle about a recent study about students who fell for a hoax website about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.

Frankly, the article linked above is a shoddy piece of science journalism. As [livejournal.com profile] eggshellhammer pointed out, it doesn't link to the original study. Even worse, in Your Obedient Serpent's eyes: it didn't specify the age level of the students. That's an important factor: a study about the critical thinking ability of kindergarten students has entirely different implications than the same study about a group of college undergraduates.

That in itself is an indication of a failure of critical thinking ability in would-be science journalists.

As it transpires, this study involved seventh-graders. The conclusion can thus be summarized as, "wow, you can con a 12-year-old into believing some crazy shit", which is hardly earth-shattering news. I'd say three-quarters of the contents of snopes.com is stuff that was repeated as gospel truth on the Bicentennial schoolyards of my twelfth year.

(I find the datum that students ignore search engines in favor of randomlytypinginaname.com to be much more startling, personally. Seriously, WTF?)

The other study mentioned in the University of Connecticut article suggests that this, in large measure, just reflects a need for improved emphasis on Internet search and access skills, and not some Terrible Crisis in Education. That's how the researchers seem to interpret it; the DANGER WILL ROBINSON! reactions were mostly imposed by the secondary sources. For my part, I was intrigued and, on some level, amused at the revelation that students who had difficulties with traditional literacy showed superior online reading facilities.

As for the details of the first study ... I'm going to be generous and completely ignore the implications of drawing broad conclusions from a sample group of twenty-five students in a single class. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that this specific class is representative of the entire population of students in Connecticut. Let's take a look at two of the sited conclusions:

• All but one of the 25 rated the site as "very credible" ...

Let us, just for a moment, step out of the role of of the Know-It-All Grown-Up Who Knows This Site Is Patently Absurd Because There's No Such Thing. Let us remember that those reading this journal are likely to have at least five more years of formal education than the subjects of this study.

Yes, http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ is "very credible".

"Credible" doesn't mean "true" or "accurate". It means "able to be believed", or "capable of persuading". The website has a professional presentation and a serious, convincing tone. The only obvious joke on the main page (aside from a deadpan link to sasquatch) is a reference to the organization "Greenpeas". The FAQ gets increasingly flippant and absurdist, but they avoid an overtly humorous tone for the main body.

Given that aquarium octopuses are well-known for getting out of their tanks and taking walks, and that there is at least one species of land-dwelling, arboreal hermit crabs, the idea of a "tree octopus" is just plausible enough to someone who knows just how weird and wacky life on Earth can get.

In science, "credibility" also means "reproducibility", and in this context, that extends to being able to find other corroborating sources.

This leads us to the second conclusion I want to examine:

• Most struggled when asked to produce proof - or even clues - that the web site was false ...

Hey, it's an exercise for the class! Let's check our own research and critical thinking abilities, shall we?

I'm curious to see what proofs (or even clues!) the folks reading this can come up with, above and beyond the flippant tone of the FAQ that I mentioned above. The Sasquatch link leads to an equally-deadpan page, of course.

Needless to say, "I just know there's no such thing" isn't a valid "proof"; in fact, it doesn't even rate as a "clue".

Answers will be graded!


Thanks ... and apologies ... to [livejournal.com profile] pseudomanitou for drawing my attention to this study and the reactions which followed. Please don't think I'm being an asshole for deconstructing this.
Update: [livejournal.com profile] eggshellhammer contacted the original author and scored a link to the original document. Yes, the sample group was larger than 25.
athelind: (cronkite)
Due to recent events, I haven't been as politically vocal in this forum as I once was. So It Goes.

We've got an election coming up in this country next week, though, and The Big Picture matters, especially with Big Media so happily wedded to Big Stupidity these days.

Let's lead off with Senator Al "won by 312 votes" Franken's reminder that every vote counts. Even yours. That's right, you. He also opines:

The month Barack Obama was sworn in we lost 750,000 jobs in this country. With all due respect to the President, I think his analogy that the economy was a car in a ditch when he took office is just a little too static. Here's my analogy, which, in my opinion, is both more kinetic and, frankly, far more accurate.

When the President took office, not only had the car gone into a ditch, the car had flipped over and was rolling down a steep embankment. We, the American people, were in the back seat, and the Bush Administration had removed all the seat belts, so we were all flying around the interior of this car as it was rolling and flipping and careening down this steep embankment, headed to a 2,000 foot cliff. And at the bottom of that cliff were jagged rocks. And alligators.

Now, at noon on January 20th, 2009, as the car was careening toward the cliff, George W. Bush jumped out of the car.

President Obama somehow managed to dive in through the window, take the wheel and get control of the thing just inches before it went over the precipice. Then, he and Congress starting pushing this wreck back up the embankment. Now you can't push a car up an embankment as fast as it careens down the embankment, especially if some people are trying to push against you. But we got it going in the right direction. And slowly we've gotten ourselves up the embankment, out of the ditch and onto the shoulder of the road.

[Italics mine ... and I confess I'm not quite as optimistic as Sen. Franken that we're quite "up the embankment" yet. Then again, I count things like "war without end" and "condoning torture" as part of the mud on the slippery slope.]


To expand the "every vote counts" theme into one of Solidarity, [livejournal.com profile] velvetpage gives a concrete example from this week's Canadian elections:

Toronto: the vote on the left was split several ways, while the vote on the right was concentrated on one right-wing ideologue who got the ear of the suburbs by promising an end to corruption and a drastic reduction in social services that the suburbs use less anyway. Want to know how it is that a country where most people lean to the left of centre manages to keep electing these clowns? Here's how: there are so many good ideas and decent people on the left that people can't settle on just one, and with a first-past-the-post system, it means the right-wing guy with less than a majority often comes up from behind.


And with the preliminaries out of the way, some Quick Links:




Thanks to Mark Evanier, [livejournal.com profile] velvetpage, and most especially [livejournal.com profile] pseudomanitou for links and leads. Seriously, folks, [livejournal.com profile] pseudomanitou's LJ is the best Progressive News Aggregator I've encountered. I have a lot of news feeds, but PM's news posts put all the best stuff in one place.
athelind: (AAAAAA)
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Have you ever closed the door on an opportunity or a relationship in order to open another door, only to realize you made the wrong choice?

oh, for crying ...

Yes, okay, yes. I woke up to that running through my brain this very morning: sometimes it seems like every single time I've had a binary choice, I've picked the wrong one. On the rare occasions that I do make the right choice, I manage to screw it up somehow with later choices.

I reiterate my conclusion from the last "life of regrets" Writer's Block I answered, less than three weeks ago:

Shoulda-Woulda-Coulda is toxic.

You can't do a damned thing about where you've been.
You can only do something about where you're going.

Face Front.



Rassin' frassin' LiveJournal Drama Llama stereotypes. There should be a cap on how often Writer's Block can ask the same kinds of question in a single month.
athelind: (Warning: Cognitive Hazard)
In a blog comment just now, I almost referred to SF author Charles Stross as "Unca Charlie".

To remind the linkophobic, "'Unca' is an honorific that refers to an individual whose words or writing have had a marked influence on Your Obedient Serpent's philosophical development."

... It also carries obvious connotations of "Older, Wiser Mentor".

Charlie Stross is almost exactly my age. In fact, he's eight months younger than I am.

I'm just sayin'.


athelind: (tell it like it IS)
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Would you rather be super-rich or super-smart if you would only be average in the other category?

... assuming the question means "mean" and not "median" or "mode", an upgrade to an average level of income sounds pretty sweet right now.

To be a little less flippant:

A) It's not getting what you want, it's wanting what you've got.

The ability to be content and comfortable while living on modest means is a learned skill. If you haven't learned it, it is unlikely that you will be content or comfortable even with exorbitant resources at your disposal.

B) Knowledge does more than income.

Being "super-smart" includes the ability to make one's resources go further. Why buy your own supercomputer when you can network a bunch of loss-leader-priced video game consoles? Why pay Toyota for a bleeding-edge hybrid when you can replace the engine and transmission in that old junkyard chassis with a turbine generator and a surplus DC-10 starter motor?


I should note that I define "super-smart" as "a whole lot smarter than I am". Oddly, a lot of people have been answering this one with "I'm already smart...", which makes me suspect that either their bar for superlatives are a lot lower than my own, or their egos are a lot larger.
athelind: (Eye of the Sky God)
In a moment of magnificent serendipity, I just turned on the TV to catch the very beginning of the very first episode of COSMOS, which I have not seen since it originally aired.

Preach it, Unca Carl.


athelind: (green hills of earth)
As if to demonstrate that Life Goes On, I just had an Archimedes moment: I ran out of the shower, towel wrapped 'round my waist, shouting "EUREKA!"

You see, I finally figured out a series of graphics that would explain to observers just what I was seeing in all that Elkhorn Slough data back in 2004-2005. I was trying to get a coherent article out of three or four different studies, each of which insisted that the Big Erosion Hotspot was in a different part of the Slough. Unfortunately, because their studies found erosion and deposition occurring at opposite ends of the Slough, the PhDs responsible for two of the papers each had ... issues ... with the other.

Bear in mind that these gentlemen were supposed to be my co-authors.

Bear in mind as well that I'm the only guy who looked at all four and a half data sets spanning 15 years.

Of course, any hypothesis that reconciled these supposedly-contradictory datasets was going to get lambasted from both ends.

Of course, after staring at all that data for three years, I came up with one:

Elkhorn Slough would experience Big Erosion Events that would dump a lot of sediment at the head of the Slough, and it would work its way down to the mouth over a period of years, thus giving the pattern of "Erosion here, deposition there" in one study, and "Erosion there, deposition here" a few years later.

I just figured out how to make maps that show the bulge of sediment moving down the slough.

It's clearly visible in the "flip chart" of cross-sections I carried around with me during that whole project, but I just figured out a way to display the data in four or five Q&D maps, rather than making people scrutinize Excel graphs for three years to see the pattern emerge.

So, yeah, "Eureka".

And you know what's even better?

When I rattled this off to [livejournal.com profile] thoughtsdriftby, who's an engineer, he said, "oh, yeah. that's plug flow."

So:
  1. I still have all that data on my desktop hard drive.
  2. And I have an open-source GIS program that I've been wanting to figure out.
  3. And I want closure, dammit.


I may have material for a Master's Thesis here.


athelind: (Howitzer)
The phrase "crawling from the wreckage of my life" has been running through my head today.

It has an oddly positive tone that seems at odds with the words ...

... but when you realize that the alternative is "trapped in the wreckage of my life", then the upbeat tone all makes sense.


athelind: (Eye - VK)
Last week's Yoda quote raised a little controversy in the comments.

Here's another quote that I find equally compelling:

"Failure is always an option!"

—Adam Savage, Mythbusters



In my mind, this does not conflict in any way with Yoda's "Do, or do not; there is no try."

Let's put that into some context, courtesy CNET:

That leads to another question I wanted to ask: Talk about the notion of "Failure is always an option."

Savage: Well, people always imagine a scientist sets up an experiment to prove something. When it doesn't, they imagine him saying "my experiment was a failure." In fact, a real scientist sets up an experiment to test something. If he was wrong about his preconceptions, he's far from upset. In fact, it means something else entirely new has been illuminated. This is how it is for us, and thus we say that any experiment that yields data, even if we were wrong about what that data would be, is a successful experiment.


As Unca Sammy taught me to say:

Failure1 is not Failure2.



When Yoda says, "that is why you fail1", he's saying "you have sabotaged yourself with your own doubt and disbelieve, and your impatience has caused you to surrender when you have actually made headway toward accomplishing your goal." Only, you know, in backwards Muppet Moonspeak.

Failure1 means giving up.



When Adam says "failure2 is not an option", he's saying that, to an experimenter, there are no failures: there are unanticipated successes.

Failure2 means learning something new.



They are the same word, but they are not the same idea.


The "Feed Your Head" series started with the subject line, "Things I KNOW, but need to LEARN". If I sound didactic, rest assured that you are not the intended student body.

Which doesn't mean you're not welcome to audit the course, naturally.

athelind: (big ideas)
Something at work last night reminded me...



Do. Or do not.

There is no "try".




Edit: The full lesson:

"I don't believe it!"



"That is why you fail."


athelind: (eco-rant)
Okay, one reason, and one alone:

The United States of America consumes a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, and produces a disproportionate amount of its pollution. Even a massive socio-economic catastrophe isn't going to do more than moderate that, at least over the next half-century or so. this is an issue that I can't run away from, because the ripples affect the entire world, and not just economically.

I am an Earth Systems Scientist.

If I have any hope of having an effect on this globe-threatening situation, it's gotta be here.

I've got my lever, rusty as it may be, and I think I'm narrowing down my places to stand.


athelind: (politics)
This was originally tacked on as a footnote to my last post, but I think it needs to stand on its own.

For the record, the "Divided States of America" is only a "worst-case scenario" if the Balkanization is violent. That's not unlikely, because we're all pretty pissed at each other right now, and we do like our guns.

On the other claw, the Soviet Union managed to spin off its component without devolving into all-out war, though, even if there were border skirmishes; if the U.S. pulled off the same trick, California might wind up better off than we are now, with the Federal Government funneling money out of the eighth-largest economy in the world and into Red States who rant against taxation, welfare and government interference.


athelind: (prisoner)
Mostly for my own reference: some thoughtful and measured words about emigration.

I'll tell ya: ever since reading Toffler's predictions for the future of the two "Second Wave" superpowers in 1990's Powershift, and watching it come true in the Soviet Union less than a year later, there's a part of me that's been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Yes, I'm fully aware that this kind of apocalyptic paranoia has contributed to the paralyzing stasis of my life since graduation.

Still, there's an important truth in play: things aren't getting any better in the Untidy States, and the best-case scenario is to hope that the continual erosion of our rights and freedoms will be sufficiently gradual that we won't notice.

And the alternatives ... well, we seem to be using all the worst clichés of Cyberpunk as a road map as it is, why not that one, too?*

I would really like to convince myself that this is just pessimism due to the latest economic downturn, but even during the boom years of the '90s, I saw the "New Democrats" quietly and casually continuing the trends of restricting the rights of biological individuals and increasing the freedoms of "corporate persons". Some oppressed groups have made a few advances in acceptance, but really, it's just welcoming them to the same Village that the rest of us live in. One step forward, two steps back.

I'm in the process of reevaluating my life, realigning my goals, and trying to get a better grip on how the "real world" works.

And around here ... it doesn't. Not very well. Not in ways that will do me any good, now or in the future.

Realistically, if I'm trying to reconstruct my present to make plans for my future, "emigration" needs to be one of my options—even and especially if I land the elusive "Real Job" locally.

The big issue, of course, is that the other Anglophone nations don't really want more USian expatriates.


This is not a post about pessimism or defeatism. This is a post about options.
*See next post.

athelind: (Eye of the Dragon)
In the late '80s, one of the numerous transit systems in the Bay Area had a cultural enrichment program, putting art and poetry in those overhead add slots on the bus. I believe some of the brief poems were actually commissioned for the program.

Around 1987, there was a poem that stuck with me, though I could only remember part of the first line (I'm pretty sure I wrote it down at some point, but I can't even find documents from a year ago, much less twenty-three).

Every few years, I do a Google search for it; this morning, I finally got a single hit. Alas, it remains uncredited:


Soft chains are most difficult to break: affection, ease.
The spirit, wide-eyed, limp-muscled; nestles on its side, and waits.




If anyone can chase down the proper credits, I'd appreciate it (and so, I suspect, would the poet).

There will now, of course, be two Google hits for the opening line; odds are good that this post will be on top very quickly.


athelind: (Eye - VK)
One last post before I call it a day:

A little Uriah Heep. You may be hearing more of them from me; there's something in the air this summer. Maybe it's just the unusual humidity; I first heard Heep in Texas, whilst flunking out of Texas A&M.






I'm a man with a whole lot on his mind ... )

athelind: (Eye - VK)
Pupils equal and reactive is a phrase you'll hear on any medical show, and in a lot of real-life emergency rooms and accident scenes. It was almost a catch phrase on Jack Webb's classic paramedic drama, Emergency!, and that's where it entered my vocabulary, long before my own excursion into the rescue-response field.

The Original Meaning: When faced with an unconscious or unresponsive patient, one of the first things an emergency responder does is shine a penlight into each eye, in turn. If the pupils don't contract (are not reactive), or don't react to the same degree (are not equal), that's an indication of head trauma, concussion, and possible brain damage.

When Your Obedient Serpent Says It: It's usually in response to "how are you?", and invoked when the answer is "All Systems Nominal, with cause for optimism."

Because, you know, any day where you don't have brain damage is a victory, right? Any landing you can walk away from.


... I have no idea if this is a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full attitude.

November 2016

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