Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Aha. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) -- the panic button du jour of the web-savvy. For the last month or so it's been all over the papers, blogs, and status updates. Google came out against it. Boing Boing, Reddit, and Wikipedia blacked themselves out in protest; various bloggers and webcomic artists took down their pages on the same day in solidarity. Facebook and Twitter users adopted STOP SOPA avatars. David Reese (of Get Your War On fame) came out swinging against it. Thousands of concerned netizens copied emails to their senators, signed petitions, and hashtagged #SOPA.

Their protests did not fall on deaf ears. On January 14, the White House voiced its opposition to the bill in its current form. Six days later, the Senate tossed the bill into procedural purgatory. We're sure to encounter it (or something similar) again in the future -- but for the time being, the Internet remains safe for AMVs, sprite comics, lipdubs, Let's Plays, and all the rest of the time-wasting nonsense that brings a glimmer of joy to our gray little lives.

I do not wish to suggest that the staving off of SOPA is an insignificant or negative development. Its passage would have been a disaster. However, the ferocity and extent of the public outcry that led to its mothballing is curious -- especially when we consider that #occupy, a movement aiming to correct the disparity of wealth that still stands as a long-term threat to our national stability, has all but disappeared from the public dialogue.

What can we learn from this?

When it comes down to it, we're actually pretty okay with the fact that our economic system benefits a tiny, established elite at the expense of everyone else. For that matter, we're not really so concerned about our crumbling infrastructure, our unsustainable energy policies, our foreign wars and exorbitant defense spending, the rising oceans, our borked education system, the federal budget deficit, or the fact that we're still leaving people to rot in GITMO without trials or terms of release.

But if the The Man thinks he can take YouTube away from us, he's got another thing coming.

I guess it's comforting to know where the American public is willing to draw the line.

Recently, I finally got around to reading George Orwell's 1984. I'll say nothing about that now -- except that I recall reading an essay somewhere about the contrary visions of the future as laid out by 1984 on one hand and Huxley's Brave New World on the other. In Orwell's Oceania, the ruling class uses terror and brutality to remain in power; in Huxley's 632 A.F., order is maintained by keeping the populace perpetually occupied with toys, games, sex, and consumerism. The author's conclusion was that our present is more in line with Huxley's vision than Orwell's.

Pop quiz: Should we interpret the tremendous outcry over SOPA as another point for Huxley? (Include the soma riot in chapter 15 of Brave New World in your answer for a gold star.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On Astrology: Hamal and Magog

Image robbed from Winter Sky Tour

Still living on the Quaker retreat. Busy. Not sleeping enough -- or maybe sleeping too much? Withdrawn. Simultaneously relishing the belated onset of winter and hoping it won't be long until I can sit out by the pond in short sleeves and croak with the frogs.

Anyway. Living at a place like this, I'm frequently exposed to an assortment of religious (and/or spiritual) people. Because of Quakerism's unusual status as an offshoot of Christianity with a (relatively) radical appreciation for pluralism, the folks visiting this place span the gradient from Episcopalian preachers to non-denominational, self-described mystics. Settling in a place where I'm very likely the only atheist on the grounds during a given day has been a strange interlude to a principally secular life.

As a general rule and matter of courtesy, I keep my mouth shut about my own beliefs and never comment when other people mention or profess theirs to me. Besides -- the only occasions I've ever experienced any compulsion to blurt out you believe what? has been when some fellow or other passing through explains how he can attribute his erratic behavior to the retrograde motion of the planet Mars or assures me he could tell me everything I ever wanted to know about myself if he were provided with the precise hour and minute I was withdrawn from my mother's abdomen.

Astrology gets on my nerves. Yeah, yeah -- I enjoy checking my horoscope in Cosmopolitan and being told to treat myself to a bubble bath and a margarita as much as anyone else; why deny it? But some people -- some otherwise intelligent people -- put some serious intellectual stock into this "the stars control us" business. I've met a visitor here who actually consults his astrological charts for guidance on important life decisions; In I've met another elsewhere in the past who admitted reluctance to taking the next step in an otherwise happy and stable dating relationship because of his partner's supposedly incompatible sign.

The question that's always trying to leap out of my throat is HOW DOES THIS WORK?! What's making this happen? What force is doing the pushing and pulling? Which exchange particles should I be paying attention to?

One suggestion I've heard advocated is that the gravitational forces of distant stars provide the mechanical basis for astrology. After all, every iota of mass in the universe creates a gravitational field that (theoretically) stretches out across the rest of the universe. The attractive force of the effect diminishes with distance, but its value never actually reaches zero.

So: what if the infinitesimal -- but real and quantifiable -- tug of the stars on a newborn infant pulls its cells (which cells? nerve cells? endocrine system cells? blood cells?) in a certain way that tends to foster certain predictable traits upon the rudiments of its personality?

It just so happens that modern astrophysics is founded upon the fact that it's possible for any amateur twit with no great mathematical talent (such as your correspondent) to easily calculate the strength of the gravitational force between a pair of objects, provided he has a good idea of their masses and how far apart they are. Why don't we sit down and actually put a number to the gravitational influence of a star upon a newborn human infant?

As you recall, the gravitational force equation runs something like:

F = force (newtons)
m1 = 1st object's mass (kilograms)
m2 = 2nd object's mass (kilograms)
r = distance between the two objects (meters)
G = gravitational constant (value is always 6.67 × 10-11 N m2/kg2)

So! First, we have our infant, who has just popped out of a womb somewhere on planet Earth. Its mass is 3.4 kg (7.5 pounds); that's all we need to know about it. (Also, its name is Magog.)

Next, we have Hamal (α Arietis), the brightest star in the constellation Aries, which at this moment happens to appear directly above the hospital in the night sky. Hamal is about sixty-six light years from Earth (6.24 × 1029 m) and "weighs" about two solar masses (3.978 × 1030 kg).

This is pretty much all the data we require in order to calculate the strength of the gravitational force between baby Magog and the giant Hamal.

(6.67 × 10-11 N m2/kg2) × (3.978 × 1030 kg) × (3.4 kg) / (6.24 × 1029 m)2

F = 2.314 × 10-39 N

To put it another way, the gravitational force exerted upon Magog by the distant Hamal amounts to 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000002314 newtons. Using the equation associated with Newton's Second Law of Motion (F = ma), we can determine how this might physically affect little Magog:

2.314 × 10-39 N = 3.4 kg × a m/s2

a = 1.47 × 10-39 m/s2

Baby Magog's body is impelled to accelerate upwards toward Hamal at a rate of 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000147 meters per second per second.

2.314 × 10-39 N isn't nothing, but it might as well be. If the biological bases of the human personality are sensitive enough to be affected by such an infinitesimally minor influence, the stars are the least of our concerns.

Meanwhile, at this very moment, a Boeing 747 flies overhead at about 9,753.6 meters (32,000 feet) above the room containing little Magog. The plane has a mass of about 370,000 kg. How much of an attractive force is created between the baby and the Boeing?

(6.67 × 10-11 N m2/kg2) × (3.7 × 105 kg) × (3.4 kg) / (9.7536 × 103 m)2

F = 8.82 × 10-13 N

If we ring the values through the F=ma equation, we find that the baby's body wants to accelerate toward the plane at a rate of 0.000000000000259 meters per second per second. It's still not really going anywhere, but Magog's mass is sure more eager to jump for the plane than the star.

And meanwhile, six feet (1.83 meters) away from the baby stands the physician, Dr. Williams, who possesses a bodily mass of 75 kilograms. You know the drill.

(6.67 × 10-11 N m2/kg2) × (75 kg) × (3.4 kg) / (1.83 m)2

F = 5.0788 × 10-9 N

Hmm. So the math suggests that another human being standing in the same room as baby Magog exerts a gravitational force on the kid that's stronger than Hamal's by a factor of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. (Please double-check my arithmetic and let me know if I screwed up somewhere.)

Again: if the stars are able to exert a direct influence upon the individual human psyche as the result of a gravitational exchange, then we should be terrified. It would follow that the positions of where Pa Magog, Dr. Williams, and The Nurse are standing in the labor room could very well determine whether baby Magog assumes the personality traits of a Nobel laureate or a serial killer. It would be pointless trying to understand his or anybody's personality: our psyches would be perpetually and unpredictably changing, moment by moment, at every piddling difference in the ambient smattering of extraneous gravitational force vectors.

Early last year, when I asked somebody else to explain her assertion that astrology has a physical basis, suggested it probably has something to do with electromagnetic radiation. Hmm. Well, how much brighter do the fluorescent lights in the hospital seem than the stars outside the window? The answer will give us an idea of how much more electromagnetic radiation they're throwing than the stars onto baby Magog. If the stars' electromagnetic emissions are the means by which they contribute to the sculpting of the individual human personality, we might be better off using the positioning of birth ward lamps as a basis for predicting and categorizing human traits.

I love the stars. They're invaluable navigational aids, better keepers of time than a calendar, an inexhaustible source of inspiration for existential ruminations, and one of the most useful of our fragmentary ciphers into the "mind" of the cosmos. But trusting in astrology makes just as much practical sense as the obedience of any other unverifiable superstition, and validating one's suppositions by invoking a science that clearly refutes them seems evasive, if not vacuous. (But what does an amateur twit like me know?)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Words found written on the inside cover of Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," borrowed from the library

Christmas '93


There can only be one hero in your story.

That hero can only be you


What a lovely gesture.

And, running sideways across the left margin in a different handwriting:

Donated 05/02

Nine years later, Tom gave away Rufus's gift.

I wonder what happened between them?