Tag Archives: science

Frickin’ Laser Beams, pt. 2

I really had lofty goals of making the inaugural post on the new website something of substance. Some proud proclamation of who and what I am, a redefinition of my goals, a promise to consume a live squid upon the sale of my first book, that kind of thing. But then I was listening to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe today, and I heard about a story that totally sucked me in.

I actually wrote about this technology a while ago, but the technology has moved on and improved, as technology does, and it bears consideration again. Here’s an article from Nature.com. It’s worth a browse. Embedded in the article is a video. It’s worth a watch.

Look, lasers are awesome, let’s just get that clear. I’ve loved the idea of lasers since watching Star Wars and Star Trek as a kid (and, who am I kidding, as a grownup as well), and it tickles my past self giddy to know that the military is actually developing actual laser weapons for actual use in actual military operations. Let’s not kid ourselves, practical usage of lasers in standard military operations is probably still a ways away, but the technology is there and it’s being heavily researched and developed by the people who are qualified for this stuff (this is where I would name-drop my brother-in-law, if he were allowed to discuss these sorts of things, which he isn’t, why would you even think that, let’s just talk about something else okay??).

There are a few awesome takeaways from the article.

Number one, okay, I already covered it, but the military is making lasers for use on the battlefield, and that’s freaking awesome.

Number two, when they’re combat-ready, they are going to be insanely advantageous. A takeaway from the article says that to fire the laser long enough to disable “many” targets takes about two cups of fuel — or about $10. Compare that to upwards of $100,00 for a “cheap” missile.

Number three, things start getting fun in addition to being awesome. The laser is controlled basically by a video game controller, because why wouldn’t it be? If there’s one thing military recruits know these days, it’s shoot-’em-up video games.

But Number four is where my inner geek starts dancing an Ewok jig. Here’s a quote from the article:

The weapon’s laser beam is silent and invisible, and not all targets explode as they are destroyed, so an automated battle can be over before operators have noticed anything. “The engagements happen quickly, and unless you’re staring at a screen 24–7 you’ll never see them,” Blount says. “So we’ve built sound in for whenever we fire the laser. We plan on taking advantage of lots of Star Trek and Star Wars sound bites.”

In other words, when the actual, for real military fires this actual, for real laser, it will make PEW PEW sounds just like in the science fiction movies of my youth.

TBD is whether you’ll have to dress in white plastic as a prerequisite to firing the thing, or whether you’ll be able to hit the broad side of a star cruiser with it.

Science is fargoing awesome.

Image taken from bbs.stardestroyer.net.

All that Glitters

It’s modern-day alchemy. Maybe you’ve heard this.

It turns out that everybody’s intrinsic value has increased by about $13 a year, thanks to the trace amounts of precious metals in their poop. That’s right, there are studies (imagine doing those studies) that show that over a 1-year period, the “waste” collected from 1 million Americans is worth $13 million. Which is great, if you happen to be the owner of a waste processing plant when they figure out how to harvest this “gold”. For the average person, it’s just more money going down the toilet, pun absolutely intended.

And while this is fascinating, if perhaps not in the “dinner conversation” kind of fascinating, the bigger (and more troubling) issue that it raises is: where is this stuff coming from? Is big agro putting vanadium in our corn? Are the pasteurizing plants doping milk with platinum? Did everybody in the country suddenly succumb to somnambulant pica? Now we’re all chowing down on nuts and bolts in our sleep?

No, I’m not here to toss out conspiracy theories. The fact is, everything is a part of everything. The crude matter that composes our bodies is, at the fundamental level, the same matter that spawned in the maw of the Big Bang. We are made of the ashes of stars, so it’s no great shock that we’ve got little bits and pieces of decomposed universes sloshing around in our systems. And to be honest, it’s no great shock that scientists are studying poop. Given overpopulation and the sustainability issues plaguing us, we have to find as many ways as possible to stretch out resources and cut down on waste. Refining poop is a win-win, if you can pinch it off. Plus, make no mistake, they’ll find a way to make money off of it. Process enough poop, and you can turn your refining plant into a literal goldmine. Actually, this reminds me of this little treat from a few months back, in which Jimmy Fallon and Bill Gates drink water created from a processing plant that is self-sustaining and actually creates electricity … FROM POOP.

Fact is, this makes for a great story. And who knows, in ten years, you might just work at a processing plant, refining feces for precious metals.

There are jokes to be made here, but I’m a little myopic today. Look, diapers are a big part of my life right now, and when the only tool at your disposal is a diaper and a bag of wipes, everything looks like a pile of poop, right? All I can think about upon hearing this story are the untold riches slipping through my fingers every day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call my accountant to move all my money into poop futures.

The Stupidity Constant

I have a theory.

It’s more correct for me to say that my wife had the theory.  All fairness, she thought it first, all I did was flesh it out.  But it’s brilliant, and it fits, and it has changed the way I think about my life in the past twelve hours.

The theory is this:  Our house — more specifically perhaps, our household — is a closed system of stupidity.  There is a constant amount of stupidity contained within the space inhabited by my wife and I and our son and our animals, and that amount of stupidity cannot be altered by the comings or goings of any of us in or out of the house.

Let’s review the relevant data.

Jasper was our dumbest dog.  Our dumbest critter, really, but “dumb dog” has a lovely alliteration to it that I can’t stay away from, so there you have it.  He’d run into the glass door.  He’d go into a yip-dog frenzy when the mailman or other interlopers approached the house, or in fact drove past the house.  He’d follow at our feet, pardon the expression, like a lost puppy, any time we had any sort of food, in the hopes that we’d take pity and give him a bit, knowing full well that we wouldn’t.  He would jump up and down like he was spring-loaded on any new visitor to the house despite our multiple attempts to divest him of this behavior.  He’d follow the sprout around and take food from his hand even though we would fly into a murderous rage when he did so.

A sweet dog, make no mistake – but dumb as bricks.  Well, Jasper couldn’t stay with us.  Without getting into too much detail, he and the sprout were not a good match, so my family generously adopted him.  So he left us.  (We still see him on the weekends and he’s doing awesome.)

Now, it’s not a thought that we had consciously at the time, but in retrospect we kind of took it for granted that with Jasper leaving, the incidences of, ah, stupid behavior would lessen.  But the Stupidity Constant began quickly to stabilize the closed system without us even knowing.

Little by little, our other animals began acting dumber.  Penny, our other dog, for example, has begun pushing her food bowl all over the place and spilling food everywhere.  She’s always been a little skittish during storms.  Lately, though, she goes into fits during storms, trying to squeeze into tiny cubbies and knocking over furniture, chewing on shoes and baby toys, shaking like she’s stuck in that paint mixing machine at the Home Depot.  Now, she’s never liked storms, but since Jasper is gone, she descends into idiocy and terror whenever it begins to rain.  She barks and howls when strangers come to the house.  She runs under our feet tirelessly; my wife and I have tripped over her more times than we can count.

Okay, so maybe she’s upset over the absence of her “brother”, which I’d buy, if it had not been six months.  But she’s getting worse, not better.

Then, there are the cats.  The Alpha (yes, cats have Alphas, I know, I thought it was insane when I heard it, but trust me, this cat is an Alpha), Marty, has always been a bit, hmm, special.  But lately he, too, has been dumber, for lack of a more eloquent term.  His most egregious ridiculous behavior is one I can find no explanation for.  He’ll splash in the water bowl, trying to tip it over, leaving sad little stupid pools of water all over our brand new $2000 floors.  Why does he do this?  TO INFURIATE US.  He’s also more guilty than ever of running under our feet, especially on the stairs.

Thing is, the stupidity rotates.  When Penny is low-key, the cats are all keyed up.  When the cats are chilled, Penny starts chewing on the baseboards.  No, really, she’s chewed up baseboards.

Not the markings of an intelligent creature.

Not the markings of an intelligent creature.

Anyway, we were talking about it this morning while cleaning up the latest slurry of puppy chow (spilled by the dog) and water (spilled by the cat) and I tripped over a different cat while coming back through the living room and my dear wife said, “god, I swear, the other animals are getting dumber.”

And it clicked.

“Like the house is a closed system of stupidity?” I said.  She nodded.  “Meaning that there is a fixed amount of stupidity that has to exist in the house at any given time?”

“Exactly,” she said.

“In other words,” I said, feeling brilliant and self-important, “as Jeff Goldblum so eloquently put it in Jurassic Park, the stupid will find a way?”

Both our eyes got wide as the truth broke over us like my brother breaking wind: sudden, inescapable, undeniable.  Oh, and simultaneously impressive and terrible.  Our household is a time-space anomaly, a Grand Central Station of idiotic animal behavior.

I have suspicions that a similar anomalous field exists in a bubble of about a hundred feet around my person, but one theory at a time.

Don’t Fargo with Nature

Here’s a little something different.

I usually don’t do these, but saw this one and thought it’d be fun.  Wordpress’s daily prompt is here: Change One Law of Nature.  I saw that and I went into high gear, because boy howdy, I love a good thought experiment.

My first thought was: gravity.  Lower the force of gravity by a factor of, oh, I dunno, maybe five or six.  Give us moon gravity, basically, and turn the whole earth into a giant bouncy house.  Whee, fun!  But you change the law for earth, you change it for the rest of the universe.  The sun loses its gravity, too.  Earth goes spiraling, screaming, into the void of deep space and humanity is wiped out in a matter of years if not days.  Whoops.

Then, okay, how about friction?  (Is friction a natural law?  On a molecular level I know it’s not, but I’m pretending it is.)  Friction sucks.  It ruins the gas mileage on my new minivan, it slows me down when I’m running, it’s a major party pooper.  Scale it down, or get rid of it.  Whoops, now you can’t use the brakes in your car.  Nor can you accelerate for that matter, in a car or otherwise.  The only method of propulsion that’s left is to spring away from things at high angles of incidence, and soon everything in creation is sailing around with no chance of stopping, just careening off other maddeningly unidirectional objects — some of which are achieving breakneck speeds because they got pushed by things like jumbo jets for example — until you achieve an escape vector and, again, go spiraling off into the void of deep space.  So yeah, maybe keep friction.

What’s left?  One of my favorite words-of-the-day, Entropy, or the tendency of energy to leave a system (yeah, I know, that’s wickedly oversimplified, but I’m not a rocket scientist; I took creative writing in college, okay?)  Yeah, that one’s a bummer.  It’s why we die, it’s why stars burn out, it’s why your pizza left on the countertop gets cold and then your dog eats it.  The cold.  Not the dog.  The dog behaves according to her own laws, most of which involve acting like a fool all the dharma time.  So get rid of entropy.  But then we live forever, until we get ourselves killed.  There is no “natural causes”.  (Don’t tell me that “is” should be “are” there.  It shouldn’t.)  So we begin to overpopulate.  And because the energy doesn’t dissipate, the sun doesn’t cool.  In fact, it never cools.  In fact, it never cooled, nor did the Earth, so life on our planet would never have existed in the first place.

It’s all well and good to think of these things in the pocket of our own experience, but the Laws of Nature are laws for a goldfinger good reason.  If nature didn’t follow them, then the Nature we know would not exist, it would be something else entirely.

Don’t Fargo with Nature.  Don’t do drugs.  Stay in school.

Tone it Down (Pun intended, but I regret it now)

I’m struggling a lot with tone today.  No, not my shower- or car-singing (always pitch-perfect, thanks very much).  That is, the way I’m saying the things I’m trying to say.  Or maybe it’s a struggle with voice.  The two are interrelated but not interchangeable, which is irritating in practice and maddening to try to teach.  Point is, the howler monkey of doubt is all up in my business about the words I used today and I can’t shut him up.

Accidentally Inspired is a whimsical kind of story about a whimsical kind of guy in a whimsical kind of situation. (See, that sentence right there is the kind of thing I’m talking about.) The story itself is playful and fun, so it needs to be told (correction, it BEGS to be told) in a playful, at times ridiculous kind of way.  BUT (There is always a butt, and there is also always a but).  The rules of proper writing, and good writing, and especially of intelligent and, probably, consumable writing, dictate that playful, whimsical, overworded writing gets treated with an axe rather than a razor.  When I go through and edit, I’ll be cutting off limbs, not whiskers.

But I love my playful, too-verbose tone, the Id-Writer protests, it works for the story and it works for me and I LIKE It GOLDFINGER IT DON’T MAKE ME CHANGE IT.  And I’m at war with myself, because on a lot of levels, I agree with him.  However, the Id-Writer and the ego-writer will eventually have to sit down and share a conversation, and I’m afraid that when they do, I’ll need to hire a cleaning crew to get the blood off the walls.  The ego-writer wants the book to be read, and to be accessible to everybody, and for people to love the story and the way that I tell it, but the Id-Writer only wants to tell the best fargoing story in the best fargoing way I know how to tell it.  The Id-Writer swears a lot more, and is (probably) more likely to bludgeon the Ego-Writer with a keyboard or a hammer or in fact anything else that may be handy, including my own precious pseudoganglia.  Are there pseudoganglia in the brain?  I don’t know, I don’t do Science (see below).

The more I think about it, the more it dawns on me that this is probably a problem (a probable problem, whee) best left for Future Me to deal with, not that Past Me and Present Me aren’t adding to the steaming pile that is (will be) is inbox on the daily.  Nonetheless, it’s bothering me now, and if it’s bothering me now, it’s gonna end up on the blarg, and here it is.

So how do I deal with voice and tone in the here and now?  I have no fargoing idea.  I hate to cop out, least of all on myself, but I really am at a loss as to how to fix this problem.  The tone of a story isn’t just window dressing.  It’s an integral part, a functioning limb in the Rube-Goldberg machine that is story.  The story-bone’s connected to the tone-bone.  (ahuh, huh.  I said tone-bone.)  Change the tone and you change the story.  The Tell-Tale Heart, if told in a humorous fashion, could very well be a humorous story.  Take the rhyme and meter out of Doctor Seuss and you’re left with a sharknado-ey yarn about a couple of bored kids and an asgard-hole of a cat and his two asgard-hole pets.

I guess that for lack of a better idea I’m just going to have to do with this problem what I do with 98 percent of other problems that have cropped up while writing this thing, which is make a note of it (see this blog entry), chuck it in Future Me’s landfill of an inbox, and allow my Id-Writer to toss back another creative beverage, press on writing, then run screaming madly into the night, leaving a trail of ink-blood and rent pages in his wake.

Say what you will, but that guy knows how to party.

If you’re reading this, help (Future) Me out.  Any thoughts on how to clean up my tone and get all my overstatements under control without totally changing the feel of my piece?

(Sidenote).  On the topic of I don’t do Science:

This weekend, while sharing dinner with my family, my engineer sister related a question from a very difficult engineer’s exam that she has just taken (results pending, but considering her average level of achievement, I imagine they’ll not only pass her but ask her to write the next version of the test).  I’ll do my best.  Say you have to replace 100 light bulbs in an apartment building.  Each bulb has a 1 percent chance to be faulty before it’s plugged in.  Say you take a random sample of five bulbs.  What is the likelihood that the bulb you chose will be faulty?  (I fully own that I may be remembering the question wrongly in order to make my answer seem righter.  Sorry, sis.)

Easy, right?  1 percent means one in one hundred.  Five bulbs means five one-in-one-hundred shots, which is to say five-in-one-hundred, which is to say one in twenty, which is to say, FIVE PERCENT.  This math I did in my head quickly before announcing my findings to the table.

My dad, a math teacher, just shook his head.  My sister, the engineer, did the same, and then said, “That’s cute,” before sharing a laugh with my dear, loving wife.  (NOT THAT SHE KNOWS MATH EITHER.)  Hear me now, and believe me later.  You don’t tell a thirty-year-old man that he’s cute.  That’s a good way to get a dirty look and a sternly-worded blarg post written about you.  If said thirty-year-old man does or says something that is so oversimplified and ridiculous that it doesn’t make sense to explain to him how he’s wrong (I’m not saying this is ME, okay, I’m just SAYING), the way to handle it is by nodding politely at him and telling him yes, not only is that correct, but you’ve brought a new level of simplicity to what I wrongly assumed was a very complicated problem.

Take that, sis.  You may be smarter at every turn (including the turns I haven’t thought of yet, because you took Calculus in college while I took creative writing) but you’ve now been lambasted in the immortal turns of the internet.  LAMBASTED I SAY.

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