If you look up at the sky on a clear night away from obstructions and light sources, you will see a beautiful wash of stars. An awful lot of them, right? It has been estimated that a typical human can see a few thousand stars under such conditions with the unaided eye. This is out of the 100 billion or more stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. So, what’s the comparison?
Imagine that for every star you see, there is an entire night sky worth of stars. Now imagine that for every star in your new super-crowded night sky, there’s an entire night sky worth of stars again.
Chances are, you’d still be a little short.
And don’t forget that the Milky Way is just one of over 100 billion galaxies.
Like many scientists and engineers I deal with very large and very small numbers daily. Sometimes, though, it is easy to lose perspective. Whenever I want to get a more visceral grasp on the relative size of something I make a similar ratio using stuff from the everyday world.
Consider money. You can map quantities of currency onto scalar distance to get a feel for just what constitutes a lot of money. Suppose one US dollar is equivalent to half of an inch. That’s a little less than the diameter of a dime or about the diameter of a AA battery. So $1000 would be 500 inches or a little over 40 feet (nearly 13 meters).
What’s a lot of money for most folks? How about one million dollars? It’s about 20 times the median annual household income in the US and noticeably larger than the “nest egg” most people hope to retire on. Well, a million dollars equates to roughly eight miles in this scheme. A dime versus eight miles. Pretty big, right?
Contrast this to a billion dollars. A billion dollars is roughly the diameter of the Earth. So, think of how wide a dime is and then think of how wide the Earth is. That’s a billion to one ratio. Now there are people on this planet Earth who are billionaires. For example, the Koch brothers and several members of the Walton (Walmart) family are each worth in the neighborhood of 20 billion dollars. That’s 20 or more Earths lined up side-by-side. In comparison, if you have $100,000 in the bank, that’s equivalent to about 1400 yards.
At this point it is worth noting that the Supreme Court has pretty much said that money equates to free speech. So how loud do you think your voice is now?
I often hear people proclaim the importance of the Ten Commandments. Now I’m not going to get into which ten nor am I interested in delving into whether or not they should be displayed in public schools, at the local courthouse, etc. (clearly not because government sanction of the first four are obvious violations of the Constitution).
No, what I’m interested in is whether or not we can come up with something that is both broader and simpler. In other words, better. Read the rest of this entry »
The Johnson twins, who run Letsrun.com — long the pre-eminent distance-running site on the Web thanks to sheer game energy predominating over questionable self-importance and various flagrant abuses of Web design and language — have often been maligned for their conservative political stance, which has crept into their message-board climate. This, it seems, is largely the result of a basic stats principle, tendency-toward-the mean: In this case, the more people involved, the more likely it is that those people will reflect the general intellectual proclivities, tenor, and abuses of the population at large. That is, if this were a place with only 100 or so regulars, one would not be surprised to find, for example, a preponderance of Obama supporters or agnostics; but with thousands of daily denizens, the weight of FOX-vs-MSNBC, Dems-vs-Repubs, realists-vs-creationists on Letsrun is highly representative of the populace at large.
That’s fine; if the reportage of relevant content is on-the-money, which it usually is, it shouldn’t matter what the proprietors think or adhere to (think liking a Tom Cruise flick in spite of knowing the guy is a flake, or respecting Madonna’s music even though she may seem a moron). Still, I’m surprised at the extremes the Johnsons have gone to lately — and that’s my mistake, given the message-board-moderation direction over the years and the fact that this is an election year in which the GOP is looking hapless-to-pathetic.
From today’s “The Week that Was,” presumably in running:
That ad on the left is just fucked-up, and this would be the case without the ghastly and unabashedly ruthless fiscal realities engendered by the Bush administration. (That’s all I will opine on the specific politics of the matter.) The site deserves a source of revenue, and if I were in the Johnsons’ shoes I might whore myself out in the same way for a left-wing cause…but I doubt it. For whatever reason this just smacks of self-parody. What Could Happen To The White House if Aliens Representing a Hybrid of George Will and Ted Nugent Took Over Washington? I don’t know, but the WorldNet Daily might.
You won’t believe me, but I would find such lowbrow pandering on behalf of the left equally bizarre-cum-pathetic. I already do. I guess in part I’m just tired of listening to well-meaning Wal-Mart clerks express contempt for the current administration because their personal circumstances suck (and this is not a metaphorical assesment) and wish they would at least give weight to the fullness of the “debate,” but more than anything else I suppose I am just in my usual mode of not tolerating intellectually devoid messages of any sort.
OK, I “earned” my degree a while ago, but 20 years isn’t that long. I guess the real message here is that language, like the world it describes, is changing a lot more rapidly than it used to; I doubt that the typical 1992 resident of Earth could have come up with 10 common action words that were unheard of in 1972.
My list (and you’re invited to produce your own before scanning mine to see how much overlap there is, as most of these are obvious):
Read the rest of this entry »
Did you ever find yourself asking the question “How did I get here?”
The first pro-quality drum kit that I had was a Gretsch five piece with birch shells, Ludwig hardware, and Avedis Zildjian cymbals. It was purchased second hand in the mid 1970s. After being overly influenced by Bill Bruford, a set of six Remo Roto-toms was added a few years later. As much as I enjoyed the set there were two problems associated with it. First, in spite of some nice Shure and AKG mics, it was difficult to get a decent sound out of them in my home recording studio. Of course, being that the “studio” was a basement with scant acoustical treatment and a seven foot ceiling, the kit could hardly be blamed. The second and perhaps more confounding problem was the loudness level. In fair consideration to the rest of the family and neighbors, there were limits on when I could play. I simply could not afford any manner of “sound proof” room and unlike the ubiquitous guitars, basses, and keyboards that my friends played, there was no volume control on a drum kit. As I was finishing my degree in electrical engineering at the time, I was hopeful that there might be a technological solution down the road, something more advanced than the “beep-boop” Syndrums of the day.
If one were to make a list of healthy hobbies, that list would probably include distance running, bicycling, rowing, skiing, hiking, swimming, and a variety of other self-locomotive activities. If a second list were to be created that detailed fundamental rights which need to be protected, it’s a safe bet that it would include items such as the rights of self-determination, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and so forth. What’s the intersection of these two lists? Just ask my Congressman.
New York’s 24th district is represented by Richard Hanna, a conservative Republican millionaire who was swept in with the Tea Party surge of 2010. Now that the next election is less than a year away, we have begun receiving mailers from the Congressman informing us of the important work that he has been supporting. One arrived just the other day. The winning line for me was the following:
“Hunting, fishing, shooting, snowmobiling, and trapping are not only healthy hobbies – they’re fundamental rights that need to be protected.”
Apparently, sitting behind a loud two-cycle engine and breathing its exhaust is both healthy and a fundamental right. So is standing around and shooting at a target. And certainly everyone admits that fishermen and hunters are known for their buff physiques and strong hearts.
For the most part I don’t really care whether or not someone finds fishing or snowmobiling or the like to be a fun pastime. We each have our preferences. I think it’s a bit of a stretch, though, to describe some of these things as healthy or fundamental rights.
Unless, of course, you’re trying to reach out to your base. In that case it’s better apparently to make them feel better about themselves and mention minor, tangential items that you support than to address the large concerns and necessary legislation that will, in fact, actually help people in a major way.
So yesterday afternoon I decided to incorporate a visit to my parents’ house into my run. It was in the single digits, and they have an energetic 1 1/2-year-old Golden retriever named Izzy who needs exercise every day regardless of the weather, no aspects of which she finds daunting regardless of the opinions of her humans. My parents are always happy to let me run her around for a while and I’m always happy to oblige. I figured that I’d hang out there for a while afterward and get some work done using their reliable Wi-Fi connection, so I packed my laptop and cell phone into a backpack, dressed as best I could for the weather, and made the two-mile trek from my place to theirs.
Once there, I farted around for a few minutes to warm up, then took Izzy out for three miles or so. I spent the rest of the afternoon writing training schedules, putting the finishing touches on an article about the Olympic Marathon Trials that had taken place the day before, and harassing putative running fans on the Internet, and along the way prepared and consumed some pasta and broccoli, putting the leftovers in a tupperware container. I had the equivalent of a social engagement at 8:30 and then, calling Ohio from my parents’ place, took part in a radio show on WXUT at about 11 p.m. I then took Izzy out into the now-2-degree-Fahrenheit evening for one last excretory salvo before packing all of my stuff up again and heading back toward home.
It was about 12:30 a.m. I’d had a productive day as a freelancer on multiple fronts and the radio show had been fun, so I was on a high even if the mercury in local thermometers wasn’t.
Benign enough, right? Well, it was all a set-up for a brief and annoying comic interlude. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m writing this from a Starbucks in West Roxbury, a neighborhood in the western fringes of Boston close to the more upscale suburb of Brookline but also not far from the worst of the city’s ‘hoods. (That’s the charm of this compact place: Back when the Combat Zone still existed in its full fury 25 years ago, if someone had put a blindfold on you and asked you to walk for 15 minutes from downtown in any direction, you wouldn’t have known if you would wind up in the midst of crackwhores or on the lawns of Beacon Hill mansions.) And I mention Starbucks only because she’s a bitch I can’t get away from even though I don’t respect her, a place I go to for a couple of assets I could get most anyplace else and in higher quality–in this place, wi-if and coffee–only because of habit and a craven unwillingness to explore neighborhoods.
I move around a bunch. I’m not talking just about my day-to-day hyperkinetic ways — running, overcaffeinated tours of neighborhoods with equally rambunctious working-class dogs, tapping out blissfully agitated e-mails at a Mach 19 despite using only three fingers — since 2002, I’ve been comparatively sessile in the past few trips around the sun, managing 18-month-long stints in Dover, N.H. and Boulder, Colorado between December 2008 and today. The Great Front Range Experiment is now history, and since a lot of what a place like Boulder has to offer fits seamlessly into my wants and needs, it stands to reason that moving away — even if back to the state where I’ve spent most of my life — would be a jolt.
The title of this post includes a couple of neologisms of the pithy type I despise, with syllables based on place names, e.g., SoHo. But I couldn’t resist “DoDo” (for “downtown Dover”) because it’s just do frigging witty and mimics the name of a friendly but impossibly stupid Madagascarian birds from centuries ago that asshole colonists recreationally blasted into extinction. But really, with “Dover” I’m referring to all of suburban and exurban Boston, as right now I’m actually in the city and will be settling soon enough back in N.H.
Anyway, regarding the Boulder-Greater Boston comparison, it’s impossible to state a firm conclusion without some thought, as it’s a multifaceted trade-off. SO I thought about it for five minutes and decided that these areas represent the most glaring vis-a-vis aspects: Read the rest of this entry »
I recently downloaded Frank Turner’s (relatively) new album, England Keep My Bones and was delighted to find what is now my favorite hymn!
~ Doc B.
About two weeks ago, I lost my driver’s license and Social Security card (the latter an item that only idiots like me keep in their wallets in the first place) . Fortunately, the rest of the contents of my wallet remained in my possession, so I still had my credit and debit cards and a Circle K coffee club card edging ever closer to free-cup status; this combination allowed to me accomplish the major tasks of my day-to-day life as a tentatively scheduled trip across the country fast approached. I ordered a replacement copy of my out-of-state license online a week ago Saturday. the 12th, and booked a late-Tuesday-the-22nd flight from Denver to Boston, figuring that this would allow enough lead time for my ID to arrive before I had to deal with the TSA. It didn’t.
Until a few days ago, I figured that without a government-issued photo ID, I had no chance of boarding my plane last night. Then I started doing some research as the likelihood of my not having my license in time to travel home appeared greater and greater. As a result, when yesterday’s load of mail bore nothing of use, I wasn’t all that distressed as I rode down Route 36 toward the infamous DIA demon horse. Read the rest of this entry »
(Yeah, I’m posting in Craigslist Rants & Raves mode.)
Hi. I’m the guy you saw a few times on and near the Cottonwood Trail at 7 a.m. who was wearing a bright blue Charlottesville Running Company windbreaker, black Sporthill-style pants, a Delaware XC hat and two-dollar gloves from Walgreens. (You surely couldn’t see all that, but I like describing this crude ensemble.) You were — and probably still are — about 5′ 10″ or 5′ 11′ and 160-ish pounds, and were wearing black bicycle-type tights and a Boulder Running Company top. You had — and most likely still have — a dark mustache/goatee combination and appeared to be about 30 or 40 years old. (I didn’t have my sunglasses on.) Here’s the deal. I was out to run for a little over 70 minutes so I could call it ten miles. That gave me the freedom to go by my watch rather than landmarks, which will explain the behavior I’ll review below. Read the rest of this entry »
I love the CU track and cross-country programs and the diversity of the school’s academic programs, and I despise the football team just as much. Actually, it’s their fans I can’t stand. Or the whole phenomenon of home games. I know these folks flowing into the city are just trying to have a good time, but every time there’s a home game, Boulder becomes littered with alumni with an average age of about 68 who swarm across the bike paths with a seemingly willful degree of cluelessness and in general fuck up the city. (The woes were compounded this round by the fact that it’s Parents’ Weekend.) They dress so similarly that I almost suspect there is a de facto uniform — CU T-shirt, CU hat, and in some cases CU shorts. And for all I know, CU tampons and butt plugs. I saw one guy in his 50′s who was actually wearing football pants (no pads, though). Then again, this place having the character it does, that guy may well dress like this every day of the year. Read the rest of this entry »
Nope. He’s pretty close to the top of the pile, actually. Check out 19th place in the small-school boys’ race at this past Saturday’s Manchester Cross-Country Invitational. (Okay, the spelling is a bit off, but were this a road race rather than a sanctioned high-school event, I’d be screaming fraud.) It was at this meet in 1985 — my sophomore year — that I first transformed myself, in my mind, into a decent runner. The event has exploded into an extravaganza attracting many top teams from New England and — obviously! — New York State.
As always, I can’t resist the combination of supreme confidence and spectacular ignorance. It’s what made NBC’s The Office — the central theme of which is Michael Scott’s unremitting self-delusion concerning his own capabilities and esteem — such a hit. And it’s what makes Gribbit, the rabidly anti-socialism blogger who lives on a government paycheck, such an enchanting wreck of a commentator. (Unlike Scott, Gribbit lacks the sort of nominal charm and that accompanies good-hearted cluelessness and guilelessness, and is merely a malignant asshole. (His attempts to keep people from cutting and pasting, or even linking to, his content are also a continued source of amusement.)
In early June I was wandering along a sidewalk on my way to a dog show in a neighboring down and happened across a Boston Red Sox hat hanging on a parking meter. It was one of the rogue ones that’s emerged in recent years — olive-green instead of navy blue, but with the same red “B” with a white border on the front. I took and kept it for a while, but wasn’t really keen on it and ultimately left it for someone else to find. (This wasn’t the first time I’ve kept a had I have found during a walk or a run.)
About six weeks ago, I was walking down Valmont Road in North Boulder and found another Red Sox hat, this one in the traditional style. Given that this was the second Red Sox hat I had found in a five- or six-week period — in Colorado, no less — and that I did grow up a Red Sox fan, I figured that this was either an entertaining coincidence or a sign from God, so I held on to this one and now wear it daily. Read the rest of this entry »
In the spirit of National Lampoon magazine’s “Letters from the Editors,” I bring you our list of “Never Asked Questions,” which I decided to post as a page rather than as a post.
“Stay safe!” “Have a safe trip!” “Be safe, OK?”
Most of us are guilty of addressing people with one or more of these phrases. I’ve done it many times and will surely do it again. When you get right down to it, these are no more useful than “You’re in my prayers.” In fact, they arguably translate to the same thing.
I have told a number of my friends on the East Coast, bracing for the possibility of a powerful windstorm this weekend, to “stay safe.” Maybe the fact that I have only written this in e-mails and not said it out loud lets me off the mental hook I’ve constructed and jammed into some needless wall in my mind. But I can’t help but be amused by common turns of phrase when they are essentially goofy.
I mean, what do I expect to change about the people I know by telling them to stay safe during, say, a transcontinental commercial flight? If I deliver these magic words, even if by text message, will this change the course of events? Will my friend have an epiphany and say “Fuck! I’d better sit up in the cockpit!” and take over in the event of an aircraft malfunction? I suppose it’s possible.
In some ways telling people to stay safe when a known hazard is heading their way makes more sense, as more factors lie within the sphere of their control under these circumstances. But most of my friends are not blithering waterheads, so in theory I don’t need to tell them to, say, not go sea kayaking in the middle of a category 4 hurricane, or make a sport of catching falling bricks or playing with live downed wires in the midst of a ruinous earthquake. Even if I had a habit of choosing such friends, they’d be quickly selected out of the population given the number of possible ways to behave in lethally stupid ways.
By the way, don’t be offended by any of this. Keep on keeping on, because it is what it is.
This is great. Sam Harris’ responses to criticism of his essays and views are always perfect, but then he would not have gotten to where he is without a pachydermal bearing.
“Yes, the Beach Boys started out in their garage. So did most bands that went on to huge success. But so did the thousands upon thousands of wannabes who never went any further than that.”
People have a difficult time with the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. This is probably founded more on stubborn optimism than ignorance, but either way it’s entertaining. Whenever I hear something like this, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, this one by Carl Sagan:
“[T]he fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
There’s a guy I’ve written about here a number of times who fits this mold perfectly. He’s a top-tier crank who denies the benefits of high-mileage training for runners lacking what he declares to be unusually favorable genetics, and instead suggests that the route to success for the average runner — even those training for marathon — involves running three times a week and doing lots of weight work and sprinting. Not surprisingly, this fellow was, much to my amazement, quoted in the same Competitor article that featured an equally cranky guy advocating more or less the same garbage. The two of them share an important trait, one common to every would-be revolutionary: They have convinced themselves that mockery of, and arguments against, their ideas are rooted in fear and a conditioned unwillingness to consider alternatives to conventional wisdom. Whether they started with this stance or developed it over time after being serially marauded so as to dispel cognitive dissonance is unclear, but it doesn’t matter. They are Sagan’s Bozos. Read the rest of this entry »