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“Every why hath a wherefore”*…

 

causalitymain

 

Physicists have started to realise that causality might not be as straightforward as we thought. Instead of cause always preceding effect, effects can sometimes precipitate their causes. And, even more mindbogglingly, both can be true at once. In this version of events, you would be opening the fridge because the butter was already on the table, and your toast would be perfectly golden both before and after you put it in the toaster. You wouldn’t just be making breakfast – your breakfast would also be making you.

Playing fast and loose with causality does more than make for confusing mornings. It could shake physics to its very foundations. No longer having a definite order of events goes against the picture of the universe painted by general relativity, and even hints at a reality beyond quantum mechanics, the best model we have of the subatomic world. Allowing causality to operate in both directions could allow us to combine these two theories into a single framework of quantum gravity, a goal that has eluded us for over a century. The end of causality as we know it …

In everyday life, causes always precede effects.  But new experiments suggests that things might be different when things get very, very tiny: “In the quantum realm, cause doesn’t necessarily come before effect.”

* Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors

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As we get small, we might recall that it was on this date in 1564 that results of the Council of Trent (Concilium Tridentinum) were published, condemning what the Catholic Church deemed to be the heresies of Protestants.  The embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, it established a firm and permanent distinction between the two practices of faith.

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Council of Trent (painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento)

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Written by LW

January 26, 2020 at 1:01 am

“In the oldest religion, everything was alive, not supernaturally but naturally alive”*…

 

panpsychism

 

One of science’s most challenging problems is a question that can be stated easily: Where does consciousness come from? In his new book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff considers a radical perspective: What if consciousness is not something special that the brain does but is instead a quality inherent to all matter? It is a theory known as “panpsychism,” and Goff guides readers through the history of the idea, answers common objections (such as “That’s just crazy!”) and explains why he believes panpsychism represents the best path forward…

Goff answers questions from Scientific American editor Gareth Cook: “Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?

* D.H. Lawrence, “New Mexico,” Phoenix: the posthumous papers of D. H. Lawrence

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As we think about thinking, we might neon-pink birthday greetings to Don Featherstone; he was born on this date in 1936.  An artist, is is surely best remembered for his creation of the plastic pink flamingo in 1957 while working for Union Products.  It went on sale the following year– and now ornaments lawns nationwide.

In 1996, Featherstone was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Art Prize for his creation; that same year, he began his tenure as president of Union Products, a position he held until he retired in 2000.

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A Featherstone flock

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Written by LW

January 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Better the illusions that exalt us than ten thousand truths”*…

 

Pushkin

 

St. Petersburg is set to open a sprawling, immersive theme park that will bring iconic Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s fairy tales and poems to life in 2023. [sic]

Considered the founder of modern Russian literature, Pushkin wrote some of Russia’s most famous fairy tales and epic poems and remained popular through Soviet times and into the present.

Dutch design company Jora Vision will use Pushkin’s works as inspiration for the 17,000-square-meter Lukomorye park, named after the mythical Slavic land in which Pushkin’s fairy tales take place…

The interactive park, which will be populated by actors playing famous heroes from Pushkin’s stories, will stage carnivals, performances and master classes. While the park is still in its conceptual stage, visitors can expect to be able to learn about Pushkin’s life in an “immersive walkthrough experience,” Jora Vision says…

The future of entertainment is the past: “Immersive Pushkin-Themed Park to Open in St. Petersburg in 2023.”

* Alexander Pushkin

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As we make our travel plans, we might recall that it was on this date in 41 CE that Roman Emperor Caligula (see almanac entry here) was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard, which promptly proclaimed his uncle, Claudius, the new Emperor.

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Caligula

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Written by LW

January 24, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life”*…

 

excessive-alcohol-consumption

 

Alcohol consumption in the U.S has been trending down for several years; in 2018, alcohol consumption in the United States dropped for the third-straight year. Nevertheless…

America is in the middle of an alcohol epidemic.

That’s one takeaway from a new study published this month in Alcoholism, which found the number of alcohol-related deaths more than doubled between 1999 and 2017 from nearly 36,000 to nearly 73,000, and the rate of alcohol-related deaths rose by more than 50 percent from 16.9 per 100,000 people to 25.5.

To put that in perspective, there were roughly 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2017. Based on the Alcoholism study, alcohol was linked to more deaths than all overdoses — even at the height of America’s opioid epidemic. Alcohol accounted for 2.6 percent of all deaths among people 16 and older in 2017, up from 1.5 percent in 1999…

The study speaks to a problem in American public health and drug policy: While crises like the opioid epidemic (deservedly) get a lot of attention, even deadlier drug crises are often neglected by the public, policymakers, and media…

Alcohol isn’t even the deadliest drug. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously estimated that tobacco smoking is linked to 480,000 deaths each year, or roughly 1 in 5 deaths. In other words, preventing just 30 percent of smoking deaths would prevent more deaths than preventing all drug overdose deaths and alcohol-related deaths combined.

Yet alcohol and tobacco haven’t filled a big part of public discussions about drugs in the past few years, especially compared to the opioid epidemic…

More at “The number of US alcohol deaths per year has doubled since 1999.”

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we contemplate cocktails, we might recall that it was on this date in 1912, during the First International Opium Conference at The Hague, that the first international drug control treaty, the International Opium Convention, was signed.

Raid

Opium article from The Daily Picayune, February 24, 1912, New Orleans

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“The future is there… looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become”*…

 

Octavia Butler

 

Tim Maughan, an accomplished science fiction writer himself, considers sci-fi works from the 1980s and 90s, and their predictive power.  Covering Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Steven King, P.D. James, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Bladerunner, he reserves special attention for a most deserving subject…

When you imagine the future, what’s the first date that comes into your mind? 2050? 2070? The year that pops into your head is almost certainly related to how old you are — some point within our lifetimes yet distant enough to be mysterious, still just outside our grasp. For those of us growing up in the 1980s and ’90s — and for a large number of science fiction writers working in those decades — the 2020s felt like that future. A decade we would presumably live to see but also seemed sufficiently far away that it could be a world full of new technologies, social movements, or political changes. A dystopia or a utopia; a world both alien and familiar.

That future is, of course, now…

Two science fiction books set in the 2020s tower over everything else from that era in their terrifying prescience: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). These books by the late master kick off in 2024 Los Angeles and are set against a backdrop of a California that’s been ravaged by floods, storms, and droughts brought on by climate change. Middle- and working-class families huddle together in gated communities, attempting to escape the outside world through addictive pharmaceuticals and virtual reality headsets. New religions and conspiracy theory–chasing cults begin to emerge. A caravan of refugees head north to escape the ecological and social collapse, while a far-right extremist president backed by evangelical Christians comes to power using the chillingly familiar election slogan Make America Great Again.

Although it now feels like much of Butler’s Parable books might have been pulled straight from this afternoon’s Twitter or tonight’s evening news, some elements are more far-fetched. The second book ends with followers of the new religion founded by the central character leaving Earth in a spaceship to colonize Alpha Centauri. Butler originally planned to write a third book following the fates of these interstellar explorers but, sadly, passed away in 2005 before she had a chance. She left us with a duology that remains more grounded and scarily familiar to those of us struggling to come to terms with the everyday dystopias that the real 2020s seem to be already presenting us.

Not that this remarkable accuracy was ever her objective.

“This was not a book about prophecy; this was an if-this-goes-on story,” Butler said about the books during a talk at MIT in 1998. “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is I certainly hope not.”

In the same talk, Butler describes in detail the fears that drove her to write this warning: the debate over climate change, the eroding of workers’ rights, the rise of the private prison industry, and the media’s increasing refusal to talk about all of these in favor of focusing on soundbite propaganda and celebrity news. Again, these are fears that feel instantly familiar today…

What Blade Runner, cyberpunk– and Octavia Butler– had to say about the age we’re entering now: “How Science Fiction Imagined the 2020s.”

* William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

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As we honor prophets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1984 that Apple aired an epoch-making commercial, “1984” (directed by Blade Runner director Ridley Scott),  during Superbowl XVIII– for the first and only time.  Two days later, the first Apple Macintosh went on sale.

 

Written by LW

January 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”*…

 

simplicity

 

We are addicted to accumulation. The minimalist lifestyle seems like a conscientious way of approaching the world now that we have realised that materialism, accelerating since the industrial revolution, is literally destroying the planet…

Minimalism, I came to think, is not necessarily a voluntary personal choice, but an inevitable societal and cultural shift responding to the experience of living through the 2000s

The iPhone’s function depends on an enormous, complex, ugly superstructure of satellites and undersea cables that certainly are not designed in pristine whiteness. Minimalist design encourages us to forget everything a product relies on and imagine, in this case, that the internet consists of carefully shaped glass and steel alone…

The phrase describes the alienated presence that we feel when we are aware of both our individual physical bodies and our collective causation of environmental damage and climate change. While we calmly walk down the street, watch a film or go food shopping, we are also the source of pollution drifting across the Pacific or a tsunami in Indonesia. The second body is the source of an unplaceable anxiety: the problems are undeniably our fault, even though it feels as if we cannot do anything about them because of the sheer difference in scale

It is easy to feel like a minimalist when you can order food, summon a car or rent a room using a single brick of steel and silicon. But in reality, it is the opposite. We are taking advantage of a maximalist assemblage. Just because something looks simple does not mean it is; the aesthetics of simplicity cloak artifice, or even unsustainable excess.

This slickness is part of minimalism’s marketing pitch. According to one survey in a magazine called Minimalissimo, you can now buy minimalist coffee tables, water carafes, headphones, sneakers, wristwatches, speakers, scissors and bookends, each in the same monochromatic, severe style familiar from Instagram, and often with pricetags in the hundreds, if not thousands. What they all seem to offer is a kind of mythical just-rightness, the promise that if you just consume this one perfect thing, then you won’t need to buy anything else in the future – at least until the old thing is upgraded and some new level of possible perfection is found.

From the ‘KonMari method’ to Apple’s barely-there design philosophy, we are forever being urged to declutter and simplify our lives. But does minimalism really make us any happier? “The empty promises of Marie Kondo and the craze for minimalism.”

Via Patrick Tanguay’s Sentiers

* Albert Einstein

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As we cathect on curation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1790 that Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin demonstrated his invention, the guillotine, for the first time, in Paris.  An opponent of capital punishment, Guillotin believed his device, at least, the simplest, most elegant, and most humane way to dispatch the punished.  Exactly three years later, on this date in 1793, his device removed the head of King Louis the XVI.

The execution of Louis XVI (source)

 

Written by LW

January 21, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything”*…

 

united-states-land-use

 

The United States is not just an economic and political giant on the global stage—the country also has one of the largest land masses at its disposal.

Altogether, the country spans 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million km²)—making it the third largest country in the world. Even without factoring Alaska and Hawaii into the calculations, the contiguous U.S. land mass can fit up to 30 European countries within it.

With this much ground to work with, it raises the natural question of how land actually gets used by America’s economy. For example, what percentage of land is taken up by urban areas, and how much farmland and forests exist in comparison?…

It’s clear that even a little space goes a long way. Although urban areas take up only 2% of land, an overwhelming majority of Americans call cities their home. As of 2018, urbanites made up over 82% of the U.S. population.

Where people go, productivity often follows. In 2018, it’s estimated that 31 county economies made up a whopping 32% of national GDP. Most of these counties were located in and around major cities, such as Los Angeles or New York.

Although urban areas are a small part of the overall land they’re built on, they’re integral to the nation’s continued growth. According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, it’s estimated that by 2030, 60% of job growth could come from just 25 hubs…

Forests, shrubland, agriculture, grassland and pasture, wetlands. open space, and cities: Penn’s McHarg Center (via Visual Capitalist) breaks it down in “Mapped: The Anatomy of Land Use in America.”

* Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind

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As we account for acreage, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that, with the aid of a $36,000 grant from the Wisconsin Cheese Foundation, work began on what would be the World’s Largest Cheese, which was displayed, starting later that year, in the Wisconsin Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair.  The 14 1/2′ x 6 1/2′ x 5 1/2′, 17-ton cheddar original– the product of 170,000 quarts of milk from 16,000 cows– was cut and eaten in 1965; but a replica was created and put on display near Neillsville, Wisconsin… next to Chatty Belle, the World’s Largest Talking Cow.

In 2018, Wisconsin added a second record– World’s Largest Cheeseboard.   Weighing in at 4,437 lbs, and measuring 35 feet long and 7 feet wide, it featured 145 different varieties, types and styles of Wisconsin cheese.

The replica on display (source)

 

Written by LW

January 20, 2020 at 6:36 am

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