Friday, October 30, 2009

An argument in favor of a "language organ"? Who knows

I coffee potted your mom last night

I think he is actually leitwortstiling "frig"

The experience T-Rex is talking about is one that many of us are familiar with. Because it is much easier for a company to deliver software updates directly to consumers, it makes it easier for people to install bug fixes and the like. That sounds like a good thing, right? When they fix a bug, they can make it so that you don't have to experience that bug anymore.

This also means that when they add a new feature, they can also release that in an update. And if they have a completely new version, they can bother you about upgrading. Hey, I know that you upgraded to iTunes 8 just this year, but we've already made iTunes 9! It has some new friggin' features! You should upgrade! (Admittedly, I upgraded last night, and I like some of the new interface features.)

I'm sure I don't have to tell you, a savvy computer user, that the sheer amount of "software updates" that are available is daunting and tedious. It is not just about getting the nag screen. For me, it is also the fact that these updates frequently require me to restart my computer to install them.  They are pretty much the only reason I reboot my computer, because it works just fine having ten tabs open in Firefox, running anywhere from six to eight applications in the background. Rebooting means saving all that unsaved work in my five TextEdit documents, and making sure that Firefox remembers what tabs I have open for when I reopen it. Rebooting is a chore and I don't want to do it if I don't have to.

But software has always followed a model of planned obsolescence. If you just add some new features to your software, not everyone is going to upgrade. If you also change the way the interface works, people might upgrade if it seems like an improvement, but they might eventually upgrade just because everyone else has it and they don't.

But if you change the way the software looks, you don't need to do a goddamn thing to get people to upgrade, as long as you stop selling the old version. Because the new version looks new, and the old version looks old. You don't want software that looks old, do you? Software that looks like something your grandma would use?

I read an article recently on why Windows Vista didn't sell very well. As Tycho of Penny Arcade put it, "Vista turned a good machine, one capable of running all the latest software, into a reeking shitbox," and such a problem is difficult for any piece of software to overcome But there was the additional reason that you couldn't convince anyone that they needed it, because they kind of didn't. Windows XP allowed people to do pretty much everything they already wanted to do with their computers. (In some cases, Windows 98 did that as well.) Upgrading often means that things that worked before don't work anymore, and usually also means upgrading your hardware in addition to the OS. For a release like Windows 95, it was worth all those headaches, and I think anyone who used Windows 3.1 would agree with me. Since then, people have pretty much only upgraded their OS when they bought a new computer, and in the 80s and 90s, it was pretty important to buy a new computer every couple of years, because of how quickly hardware was advancing, with software advancing to take advantage of the new hardware.
But the rate of such changes that are relevant to average people has plummeted in the last decade. Graphical interfaces, multitasking, SimCity, porn, email, shopping, and dating sold a lot more new computers than nearly anything we’ve come up with since 2000 except malware. (I honestly believe that malware carried computer sales for most of the last decade. That only worked because we’ve taught people, with a combination of misinformation and omission, two great lies: that computers slow down over time, and that the only way to fix a malware infestation is to buy a new computer.)
What I can perceive about the Windows 7 upgrade is that it is all the new features of Vista (and more), but without all the bullshit. As a Mac user, though, I am not paying much attention to it. An update for OS X was recently released, called Snow Leopard. Its pros are that it is only $30 and it takes advantage of current hardware to drastically accelerate computer performance. The cons: many people find it to be fairly buggy, particularly with Adobe CS4 applications. That is somewhat damning, as upgrades go, but I'll probably upgrade once they have the bugs worked out, because it seems like it might actually be a useful upgrade.

Cocktail Theology

(The post you are about to read is very silly. Also, it has a Holocaust joke in it. If either of these things bother you, don't read this.)

On a listserve I subscribe to, a week or two ago, someone mentioned an idea to make a "bacon chocolate milkshake." You fry up a couple pieces of bacon, blend it with the milk to get it good and chopped, then blend in the ice cream. Optional: adding the bacon grease.

I was pretty "meh" about the result. My curiosity was satisfied, but I don't think I'll do it again.

I then went into a chat room I frequently frequent, and told people about this not-very-good milkshake I was drinking. Someone suggested that 151 makes anything taste better, and my reply was, "I regret that you have put that idea in my head because now I have to try it."

The glass was about 1/3 empty at this point (or 2/3 full, depending on how you look at it), and I added 1 oz. of 151 to it. My first thought when tasting it was, "God is dead." The horror of this cocktail was Lovecraftian in nature: it's not that it tasted particularly bad, it just seemed like something that should not exist.

As I thought more about it, I decided that I was going to call it "Chocolate Holocaust," a name inspired by a Strongbad e-mail, but didn't have a recipe to go with it. It was something that made you lose your faith in the possiblity God might exist.

Because of this milkshake, there is no God.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In which I avoid making any jokes about "rigid designators"

T-Rex has touched on this subject in a previous comic, about the etymology of the word "woman." That happened to be a case of "mistaken etymology," but in this case we have real etymology.

I still think it's pretty irrelevant, though. One of my least favorite arguments is, "We shouldn't use this word because of its demeaning etymological roots." It is as if words have some kind of original sin that they take with them everywhere they go. We already have plenty of words that have diverged in meaning from their roots. For example, "coffee cake" refers to a kind of cake that is commonly served with coffee, but it is much beloved by people who do not even drink coffee. When eaten without coffee, it does not stop being "coffee cake." You can also call a city "Dartmouth" even though it is not on the mouth of the Dart river.

The "obscene" alternatives to "vagina" suffer from the problem of ambiguity. "Vagina" refers to something on the inside, while "vulva" refers to most of the things on the outside (the labia, clitoris, and whatever else I could be forgetting). Words like "pussy" and "cunt" are often used to refer to both of these, like when we talk about being able to see Britney Spears's _____ when she gets out of the car: you can see her pussy, and you can see her vulva, but you can't see her vagina.

I don't happen to know any people who argue for doing away with "vagina." They do have opinions about words and punctuation and other things grammatical in nature, but none of their arguments start with etymology.

Friday, October 23, 2009

It's not game theory, but it's at least decision theory

Marriage is often a compromise. I mean, yes, we all make lifestyle compromises within the confines of marriage, but when we get married to begin with, we are getting married to someone who has some things about them we don't like.  What's important is that 1) you can see yourself spending the rest of your life with your lover, and 2) you find it unlikely that you will meet someone better.

My freshman year of college, a friend of mine said, "Love is not about seeing all the worst parts of your partner, and not caring about them. It's that you see all of the worst parts... and they don't matter." When we are happily married, it is because what we like in our partners has gone past a kind of tipping point, and those bad parts don't matter to us anymore.

So, let's say we meet someone who is more perfect. The first problem in choosing to leave lover A to go with lover B is that we have no initial way of knowing that lover B is more perfect. Think of how much time you spent with lover A to figure out how perfect they were for you--this was at least a matter of months, if not years. You will need to spend at least that much time with lover B to figure out if he or she at least matches the perfection in lover A.  It will probably take you much longer to determine that lover B happens to be more perfect.  The proportional difference between 95% and 99% is less than 1/20th. That is a difference small enough to be negligible for many people.

One might interject here, "By seeing how perfect A is for you, you have a good idea of what makes for a perfect lover. So can't you know right off whether B is more perfect just by asking them some questions?" Sadly, no. You can certainly trick yourself into thinking B is a better mate, though. Let's suppose that I'm hanging out with B, and I've been thinking, "Man, she is just about as awesome as the girl I'm seeing now." Then the discussion turns to music, and it turns out that B happens to like a lot of the weird trance music I listen to, rather than the buttrock and classic rock preferred by lover A. I say to myself, "Wow! Lover B is more perfect than lover A!" So I leave lover A for lover B... and it turns out that she is a frothing-at-the-mouth crazy bitch who gets really jealous, and wants to know where I've been every time I leave the house. Or maybe, once I'm living with her, it turns out that she doesn't clean up after herself, ever. Then one night, after crying into my pillow for two hours instead of sleeping, I call up lover A and beg her to take me back, but she is already dating another guy. It's not even some guy that makes me wonder what she sees in him; I know exactly what she sees, and I know I can't compete with that. So I break it off with lover B, before she can ruin my life even more, and I join the world of being single, trying not to compare every girl I meet with lover A, but she just won't get out of my head.

Clearly, that scenario is sub-optimal.

On his main page, Ryan North linked a blog post about this comic, The Economics of Love (as told by T-Rex). The argument there is that if you leave A for B, you need to have enough years left in your life to develop a relationship that is going to turn out to have more happiness in it than you would attain with A. He does mention "the boredom problem" as a relationship plateaus, but there are solutions to that which do not involve divorce. I contend that you still have the epistemological problem of knowing that things will turn out better with B than with A. If you make this decision, you are gambling with your happiness in life; you might come out ahead, you might come out a little behind, and you might lose it all.

As a kind of epilogue, one of my favorite love songs (if you can call it that) is "Good Enough For Now," by "Weird" Al Yankovic. It takes a blatantly honest view of relationships:
You're sort of everything I always wanted
You're not perfect, but I love you anyhow
You're the woman that I've always dreamed of
Well, not really, but you're good enough for now
The important line here, throughout all the equivocations, is, "You're not perfect, but I love you anyhow." Now, that doesn't seem like the kind of attitude you'd have with someone you'd marry. But maybe it is! "Good enough for now" could mean "good enough to stay with until one of us is dead." Some people have told me, though, that "blatant honesty" and "romance" are things that are rarely (if ever) found together, and that ladies prefer things that are hyperbolic, such as "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." But bitches just gotta know how I roll.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Snake oil for sale, only $2 a bottle

In my previous post, I mentioned that people like to have some reassurance about their dead loved ones. If you believe in eternal souls, and life after death, there is no way to verify anything about how your dead loved ones are doing. Consequently, there is a lot of opportunity here to make some money exploiting this fear. Just such a movement emerged in the mid-19th century, called "Spiritualism." Ostensibly "communicating with the dead" became a cottage industry, with all sorts of people offering seances and the like. After Humler discovered what he could do by double-exposing film, there was already a market for what he was offering.

Unfortunately for Humler, this was in the age of P. T. Barnum. If you wanted to be a successful fraud, you had to be able to trick P. T. Barnum. This did not happen. Humler went to court for fraud, and Barnum actually testified against him. He was found "not guilty," but his career was still ruined.

I am here reminded of a Wired article I was reading about the growing fear in America that vaccines cause autism. (Spoiler alert: vaccines don't cause autism.)  Quoting from the article:
In 1905, French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré said that the willingness to embrace pseudo-science flourished because people “know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether illusion is not more consoling.” Decades later, the astronomer Carl Sagan reached a similar conclusion: Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”
Science can do a lot of things for us, but it's not too concerned with our spiritual and emotional needs. If your wife dies, a church leader can tell you, "She's in Heaven with Jesus now." What if you want to make absolutely sure, by trying to contact her? You might be told, "Communicating with the dead is the work of Satan," for it is clearly prohibited in the Bible.  But if a medium right down the street from where you live can tell you everything you want to hear, making it seem like it's straight from the mouth of your wife, well, why wouldn't you pay her $20? Or $100? That is a kind of emotional comfort that nobody else can give you. We might know it's a fraud, deep inside our consciousness, but as long as nobody actually shows us "the man behind the curtain," we go on letting ourselves believe.

That is the price we pay for wanting to be certain about something, when confronted with so many uncertainties in our lives. Sometimes these certainties are innocent. Unfortunately, though, sometimes these certainties destroy people's lives.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pop Music Ponderings: the Decemberists

When there is a band people are talking about, but I haven't heard, I will go and download a bunch of their music and see what it sounds like. If I am not immediately impressed, I will try to listen to it until something clicks and I "get it." For the Decemberists, that moment was with The Mariner's Revenge Song, which opens with these lines:
We are two mariners, the ship's soul survivors
Trapped in this belly of a whale
Its ribs our ceiling beams, its guts our carpeting
I guess we have some time to kill
The third line there was what woke up my brain, and made me think, "This is an awesome song and I have to keep listening." Now, go listen to the song so that I don't have to tell you the entire story. I'm just going to go over the important bits.

The other man (let's call him "the sailor") destroys his mother's livelihood with his gambling debts, then completely disappears. The financial stress drives her mad, and she dies not too long after that, with her dying words to the narrator:
Find him, bind him
Tie him to a pole
And break his fingers to splinters
Throw him in a hole
Until he wake up naked
Clawing at the ceiling of his grave.
The narrator becomes homeless, and after living as an urchin for fifteen years, he is hired by a priory to be their janitor. "But never once in the employ of these holy men did I ever once turn my mind from the thought of revenge."

Then one night, he overhears a whaler talking about his cruel captain, who seems to match the description of the sailor who ruined the narrator's life. So, he leaves immediately and joins with a privateer to go after the sailor, his mother's dying words fresh in his mind.

After twenty months at sea, they finally find the sailor's ship. Before they can do anything, though, a whale destroys both of the ships.
Don't know how I survived
The crew all was chewed alive
I must have slipped between his teeth
But oh, what providence,
What divine intelligence,
That you should survive as well as me

It gives my heart great joy to see your eyes fill with fear
So lean in close and I will whisper the last words you'll hear
Those are the last words of the song, but the music it ends with is the music that accompanies his mother's plea for revenge.

One might also be reminded of Moby Dick, where Ahab tries to get revenge on the white whale, only to have his ship destroyed and nearly all of his crew killed. (I hope I didn't just spoil the book for you.) This album is called "Picaresque," and the picaresque genre is about anti-heros and lower-class rogues. We the audience want to cheer him on as he dies getting his vengeance.

What I find most striking about this song is the number of religious elements involved in his quest for revenge. Working in the priory both gets him back on his feet, and gives him a lead on tracking down the sailor. Getting swallowed by the whale is in some works a time for salvation (like in the book of Jonah in the Bible, not to mention Pinocchio), but here the whale is the final act of "providence" and "divine intelligence" that allows him to finally get his revenge. This is the typical realm of irony in which the Decemberists work.

Is there some additional satirical message here? I don't know. "Sixteen Military Wives" is most definitely a satire of Bush foreign policy. One could make the case that this has a similar message behind it, pointing out the ideological contradiction not only in using Chrisitanity as a justification for war, but as a justification for revenge. The message may be a far more general one, though: God is not about revenge, and you are a low-life rogue if you think He is.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The next time you argue about whose infinity is larger, say yours is nondenumerable infinity

The Infinity Hotel is meant to demonstrate the difference between a "denumerable" and "nondenumerable" infinity. You can do a lot of things to accomodate an infinite number  of guests in an infinite number of rooms, by using arithmetic.

There are higher orders of infinity, though. Paul Cantor first demonstrated this with his "diagnolization proof." We're going to go the "mathy" way first, and then I'll try to apply it to the Infinity Hotel. Also: I generally to do my writing without reference to Wikipedia, but this time, I made liberal use of the Diagonal Proof page. It's okay, though, because I once had a philosophy professor show me this stuff. I just... couldn't remember it.  Anyway. Moving on.

Step 1: suppose that you have a string of 0s and 1s that is infinitely long: 0, 0, 1, 1, 1, 0, 0, and so on. Got it? Okay.

Step 2: now suppose that you have an infinite number of these strings, in a list like this:
A = (0, 0, 0, 0, 0...)
B = (1, 1, 1, 1, 1...)
C = (1, 0, 0, 1, 0...)
D = (0, 1, 0, 1, 0...)
E = (1, 0, 1, 1, 1...)

Step 3: now we are going to make a new set of numbers, which uses the opposite numbers of each of the sets in the first list, going in a diagonal, like so:

A = (0, 0, 0, 0, 0...)
B = (1, 1, 1, 1, 1...)
C = (1, 0, 0, 1, 0...)
D = (0, 1, 0, 1, 0...)
E = (1, 0, 1, 1, 1...)

X = (1, 0, 1, 0, 0...)

No matter how many sets of numbers you make in step 2, set X is going to be different from every one of those sets, because its creation is based on having at least one digit different from each of those sets.

Step 4: from this, it follows that the set T of all infinite sequences of 1s and 0s cannot be put into a denumerable list, because we have sequence X which cannot possibly be part of our initial list of sequences.

Step 5: you just, like, blew my mind, man.

Let's go back to the hotel now. Infinity Hotel wants to expand by having an infinite number of floors, with an infinite number of rooms on each floor. Some of the rooms are empty, and some are occupied. To keep track of them, the manager has a list for the whole hotel with the rooms marked either O (occupied) or U (unoccupied). It looks something like this:

1: U, O, U, U, U...
2: O, O, O, O, U...
3: U, O, U, O, U...
4: U, U, U, U, U...
5: O, O, O, O, O...

One of his favorite things to do is mess with his new employees by asking them to find the floor with a particular room sequence, floor X, which he constructs by using an opposite of something on each floor, like so:

1: U, O, U, U, U...
2: O, O, O, O, U...
3: U, O, U, O, U...
4: U, U, U, U, U...
5: O, O, O, O, O...

X: O, U, O, O, U...

No matter how hard he or she looks, the new employee is never going to find that floor, because Infinity Hotel only has denumerable infinities in it. The employee always comes back to the main floor wanting to punch the manager in the gut, but since it sometimes takes an infinitely long time for the employee to figure out the trick, by then, the manager has usually gone home for the day.

In case you are wondering: yes, I have given this some serious thought

Utahraptor might seem like he is being a good friend by helping T-Rex fake his own death. This kind of looks like he's just a friend helping out his friend, but I don't think that is what's going on. For one thing, a "good friend" will usually not help you break the law by saying, "You're doing this wrong, let me show you how it's really done." In some cases they'll just go along with you on it, if you can convince them of how it's in their interests, but more often a good friend is going to be like, "This is stupid, and you shouldn't do it."

What is probably happening is that Utahrapter either really wants to get T-Rex out of his life, or he wants to show T-Rex how much work is involved here in order to make him reconsider the plan. If it's the latter, then it's probably working, because T-Rex is figuring out that it would be easier just to pay his late fees.

Faking your own death is usually pretty difficult. You have to do it in a way where the police have good reason to think they will never find your body. Like, maybe you go hiking, and then "disappear." You arrange for passage to a foreign country, trying to disguise your face in a way that is really conspicuous but to the point of being suspicious. You live out the rest of your days on a beach, spending the whole day getting drunk. Something like that.

If you want to leave a body, it gets pretty messy. First you have to find a body that is a similar height and bone structure. (Maybe the person is already dead, and maybe not.) Make sure that they have no way of getting a DNA sample of you afterward, to compare it to the body, because that would ruin everything.  Then you have to do everything that a murderer would do to make it a "perfect crime," and the most important part there is to completely disfigure the face, and knock out the teeth so that it can't even be identified through dental records. Then, you have to do something to make sure they find the body, but without just leaving it lying around. One way to do that is to chop it up, put it in garbage bags, and then put those garbage bags in a dumpster.

This whole "leaving a real body behind" method could benefit from a plausible back story that later explains your death. Find a way to blame it on organized crime, whether it's from a loan you don't repay, or something about drugs.

By now, if you are thinking of faking your own death, you are probably giving it second thoughts yourself. But if you still want to go through with it, I can totally help you out.

For a fee, of course.

The "increasing mass piggyback ride" really is a nice trick

Notice here that Utahraptor is in one of his exasperated moods, just smiling and nodding at T-Rex. Anyway...

There is an element to ghost stories which comes from the fear of the unknown, and going where you shouldn't go. This is common, though, to many other folklore tales and urban legends, stories that might not necessarily involve ghosts.

The thing I find more interesting about ghost stories is that there is usually something inappropriate about the way that the person died. In the case of the myling, it was said to have been a child who died without baptism or proper burial. This usually meant that it was a child that would shame the parents (e.g., born out of wedlock), and they abandoned it to die in the wilderness. Without baptism or burial, the children's souls couldn't go to heaven, and luring people to their deaths was the myling's form of revenge.

The idea of the ghost is usually meant to give people more respect for people's lives, and how they are treated after they die. The fact that there is a "proper" way to deal with people who have died is something universal to all cultures, even if what counts as "proper" varies considerably. Burial and cremation are pretty common, cannibalism is a little more rare. I've even heard of a culture where the body is left out for a few days to let animals eat the flesh off of the bones, and then the bones are buried, or something. I think I read it in Mircea Eliade's book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Fuck yo citation. It's not that relevant.

The process of preparing a body for disposal gives a community time to grieve, and get all of the work of mourning out of the way at once. People tell stories about the deceased, and it becomes more acceptable to cry in otherwise inappropriate settings. Some people will still be grieving after this period, but the first few days can give them the spiritual resources they need to come to terms with the death.

We all die some day, which makes it that much more appropriate to have a proper and almost scripted way to deal with death. Ghost stories are a warning about what could happen if we take a callous attitude towards people's life and death. Your actions could have consequences in the future for many people, some of whom have not even been born yet.

Friday, October 16, 2009

I'm not a dentist, but I play one on the internet

What you can "do-it-yourself" has come a long way from just home improvement. Now there are things like teeth whitening and hair waxing that you can do-it-yourself.

Whitening your own teeth does not make you a dentist, though. Dentists make their money from the people who either don't know how to take care of their teeth, or are really bad at it. Sometimes a dude with perfect teeth gets some of them knocked out, through no fault of his own, and the dentist is there to fix it. Even if you never need more dental work than cleaning and polishing, you at least need to have that trained professional to look in your mouth and see that your teeth are, in fact, just fine.

The division of labor is something necessary for a civilization to advance. A few people focusing on doing one thing really well is better than everyone trying to do everything half-assedly. Sure, it would be nice to learn how to do my own electrical wiring and plumbing... but fuck that noise. I am going to call up a dude in the phone book and pay him some money to do it for me.

That being said, of course, there is a value in learning how to do some kind of craft yourself. This is because we live in a "knowledge economy" where what you learn in college is just specialized information to... do things with information. And people. Maybe also computers. It's rather fleeting, and sometimes unfulfilling. There's very little you can look at and say, "I did that. I made that. I fixed that." This is the point being made in Matthew Crawford's book Shop Class as Soul Craft. I have not yet read it, but it's on my growing list of "books I should read eventually." Part of the book was adapted into an essay for the New York Times, title The Case For Working With Your Hands. I'd say that you should go read it, because you can do so for free. And if you like that essay, you should read his whole book. Probably. Like I said, I haven't read it.

I suppose the point I am making here is the opposite of what it originally sounded like I was going to make. You cannot be your own dentist, and there is a value in paying a professional to do things for you, but there is also a value in being able to do things with your hands, be it fixing things, crafting, or whatever. That value is not just a practical one, but one that extends into your feelings of worth as a person. You are faced with tangible problems, and you yield tangible results. It is so much more than just knowing a bunch of things, and the worth in that is something that can't go in an Excel spreadsheet.

I tried looking in a mirror and holding color swatches next to my eyes but it didn't quite work

Part of being an adult is about memorizing things about yourself that you need to write on forms. Or that you need to know when you shop for clothing. Just recently I bought a coat online that was labeled as being a size 38R. I thought, "Is that the size I wear? And how would I find out? What the heck does that 38 mean?" (I think it is chest size.) The coat showed up and the sleeves were not quite long enough. I only bought it for a Halloween costume, though, so I figured I would just resell it or donate it when I was done.

Remembering sizes is sometimes a wasted effort, because sometimes those sizes will fit differently depending on the manufacturer. Trying to remember a different size for every manufacturer seems like it is about ten times more information to memorize, so why bother? Just try shit on and see if it fits. Women's sizes have a bit of notoriety in this regard, and a woman can fit into any of three or four different dress sizes depending on the manufacturer.

Then there is the added difficult of weight gain changing the size we wear. I used to fit pretty well into a pair of pants with a 30 inch waist. Then it was 32. Then I just started buying 36 and wearing the pants with a belt.  (Maybe gaining weight is why the 38R doesn't fit me so well?) We're buying new uniforms at work, and my manager wants to get my measurements for things like my collar size. I do not know my goddamn collar size, because I never buy shirts that have a collar size. Okay, actually, I did this once, back in 2006, and I can't remember which number I went with.

So, go forth and memorize these things about yourself. And if you're not sure you can memorize them, write them down and keep it somewhere you can remember it. Also include things you like but forget that you like, such as food, beer, and wine. Trust me on this. You'll thank me later.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

That's definitely the last time I'm puking into my crotch

Fictional works that deal with immortality frequently touch on the way in which it is a curse as much as it is a blessing. The most common one is about love, and how everyone you will ever love will be dead within a few decades. The second is the indifference to human suffering that comes from personally viewing centuries of people living and dying, nations rising and falling.

This is why I found the ending to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End to be so unsatisfying. [SPOILER ALERT BUT REALLY YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS MOVIE BY NOW] At the end, Will Turner is badly wounded, but instead of dying, he becomes the new ferryman for the souls of the dead. This means that he will live forever, and he also gets to see Elizabeth one day out of every ten years. The problem is that Elizabeth isn't immortal, which makes this just about the worst job to take simply because you're in lurve. She's going to be alive another fifty years, tops, and then what's Will going to do? Quit his job as ferryman? Find a successor who can stab his heart and send him to the world of the dead? Davy Jones at least had a better deal going for him, being able to get his freak on with a goddess one day out of every decade, because she was just as immortal as he was.

All I can think is that Will is eventually going to start getting his son and his grandchildren to set him up on dates.  "I'm not asking very much of you here," he'll say. "You don't even have to visit me for Thanksgiving or Christmas. All I want is a nice piece of tail that one day every ten years that I come back to shore." He'll probably just find a successor, though, because using your descendents as a dating service almost seems worse than an eternity of stubbed toes.

Get out of my head, God. Seriously.

God totally stole my idea to tell T-Rex that some cultures have tattoos with deep significance. He also stole my idea for a religion where you have to stop complaining so much. Man, why does God gotta be stealin' my ideas like that?

Truth be told, though, most religions are about how you need to stop complaining so much. It's often about achieving happiness in this world, or just not caring about this world. It may seem like not complaining is a consequence of the religion, rather than some kind of requirement, but it can work the other way around: if you're not allowed to complain, you will become a person who is less inclined to complain.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to realize that we are what we repeatedly do. His idea of the virtues was that we can live good lives and be happy by developing the virtues in us, and the only way to do this is to practice them as much as possible every day of our lives:
It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do.
To be good at doing anything, you have to actually do that thing many times. What is less obvious, though, is that if you want to be a certain kind of person, such as a person who likes to give people compliments, you can become that kind of person simply by acting like that kind of person. It sounds a little backwards, and it sounds like you're just pretending to be something you're not, but it makes some sense when you think it through.

In our example, if I want to be a person who gives people compliments, I need to start by actually paying people these compliments, and before I do that I have to find something in the person to compliment. So, now I am going around every day trying to find something to compliment in everyone I meet. This can develop other qualities in me as well, such as liking people more, and being able to find something good in things such as books and movies.

And I will probably stop complaining so much, without even having to sign up for God's religion. That filthy idea stealer.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Your Arabic calligraphy actually says, "There is no God but God and Muhammed is his prophet"

It's actually not that difficult to mess with people who have tattoos, because there are so many bad tattoo ideas out there that even happen to be trendy.

The absolute worst tattoo I've ever seen (and this was in meatspace, mind you) had a dolphin on either side, a yin-yang below it, and in the middle... the Oakland Raiders logo. It was just so many different bad ideas all in one place.

Other tattoo trends that are maybe not the best idea in the world:
 - Lower back tattoos. Known by various names, such as "tramp stamp," "New Jersey license plate," and "ass antlers." I am not against having tattoos on the lower back, but there is a certain way they are usually done that makes you look like every other shmoe out there with a lower back tattoo.
 - Chinese/Japanese character tattoos. Joking about the problem with these is almost a cliché by now: if you are not familiar with a foreign language, getting a tattoo in that language is not that great of an idea if you have not done the research to make sure that your tattoo says what you think it does.
 - "Tribal" designs. The original Maori designs have actual meaning to them, rather than being just fancy curly things, and out of respect for the culture, some artists will only do tribal tattoos that are totally meaningless. This may not sound like a big deal to you, but think of something that is sacred to you. Now think of someone getting a tattoo of that, with no idea of what it is or what it means, but they think it looks cool.
 - Trompe l'oeil designs. These are tattoos where, when you describe the tattoo, you use phrases such as "makes it look like." An example would be getting a tattoo where it looks like you have a large gash, and underneath the skin are some clockwork gears.

The problem I see with trendy tattoos is that there is a variety of quality to them. That seems obvious, almost tautologous, but as people see more tattoos that are similar to yours, they are going to compare your tattoo to others they have seen. Your tattoo is going to fall into one of five tiers:

1) Awesome custom work. A lot of time and planning went into it, and you might have paid more than usual for it, with the knowledge that you are going to have this for the rest of your life, and want it to still look good fifty years from now.
2) Ho hum flash from the walls of a tattoo parlor. It probably has a neon sign in the window, and getting the tattoo was possibly a spur of the moment decision. The thing itself is probably nothing special, but it at least reminds you of a certain time in your life.
3) A regrettable design from an okay artist. This is what most joke tattoos are. Like, a tattoo of a cat to make it look like your navel is the cat's asshole. Every woman who ever sees you without a shirt is going to see your asshole tattoo, and sometimes it will be enough for her not to want to have sex with you ever. I feel sorry for the woman who marries you.
4) An awful tattoo from an awful artist. The coloring is uneven, it doesn't quite look like the thing it should be, et cetera. These are usually homemade kinds of things.
5) A regrettable design from an awful artist. This is a combination of the worst elements of tiers 3 and 4. You don't see them very often, because people who want a joke tattoo usually at least have the wherewithal to go to a real artist, instead of going to a friend's friend who knows this guy who "does tattoos" but his techniques are the kind they use in prison.

There is also the additional... issue... of your tattoo turning into a conversation piece. This might be welcome and might not be. If your tattoo reminds someone of a cool tattoo they saw once, they are probably going to tell you about it. Soemtimes, the attached implication is, "Your tattoo is okay, but I've seen ones like it that are much better."

This probably means I have an elitist idea of tattoos, but I have an elitist idea of most things. This is nothing new.

Alright, so, I gave you twenty, then you gave me three, and Steve game me two...

When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I read Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker Trilogy, as one does at that age. In Life, the Universe, and Everything, Adams describes a space ship that is powered by bistromathics. The short version of how it works is that there is an artificial restaurant with seating for twelve, and robots sit there arguing over the bill and who owes what.

This was certainly an amusing idea to me at the time, but I did not understand at the time how much this joke was based in reality until I was about 25 years old, and went out to eat with several of my friends where we were splitting the bill. Our group was small enough to figure out what each of us had to pay initially, and calculating the tip was not a big deal, but then there was the problem of people paying an amount that was close enough to what they owed to be satisfactory. Suppose that Joe only has a $20 bill, but after tip, he owes $15, so does anyone have a five for change? Now picture at least half the people at the table doing this. We tossed around money until we had a reasonable amount in a pile in the middle of the table, and nobody protested about putting in too much. Presumably, however much anyone overpaid, they were okay with this.

This is why some people who eat out regularly together (say, co-workers going out to lunch) will agree to take turns paying the whole bill. The only complicated thing about this is remembering whose turn it is, which gets increasingly difficult the more people are in your group, but is completely manageable if one keeps a record of it in a day planner. Also, anyone who is clearly trying to make everyone else pay for expensive items will eventually have their turn to pay come around, and while they may order a garden salad for themselves everyone else will be ordering steaks.

This is also why the $20 bill is sometimes called the "yuppie food stamp." If you're eating out, and splitting the bill, you need some cash. If you don't usually carry cash, the easiest way to get it is to go to the ATM, and that means everyone in the restaurant is going to pull out $20 bills to pay for the meal. Yes, they can certainly be used to pay for the meal, but they are by no means convenient. Hence, "yuppie food stamps." (And, while on the subject, why can't our ATMs have multiple denominations of currency? Of all the things Europe does that we don't, this seems like it would be the easiest to change.)

Given all of this madness, it's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that 80-year-olds could be good at splitting the bill. Is it because they eat at places where they pay less for the food? Because they carry more than just $20 bills? Because they just care less about paying exactly what they owe? We may never know, because we are all the way in panel six when T-Rex tells us about this. Why won't you tell us the secret, T-Rex? Why do you insist on telling us only their collective term?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The state of the blog

Last week I reached something of a milestone with this blog: during the entire month of September, I commented on every single Dinosaur Comic. I plan to do this for the foreseeable future. I'd only let myself stop if... I were in a coma. That's the only thing I can think of that would prevent me from writing.

Granted, I have a backlog of comics to write about right now. This is purely because last week, it was "that time of the month," by which I mean the time of the month when the internet company shuts off our service because we haven't paid the bill, and nobody in the house can afford to get it turned back on for at least a few days. (Oh, and then I had a date that turned into a trip to the ER, but that is a longer story.) Maybe I'll crank them all out in one sustained session, or a "lightning round," but more likely I will spend an hour on each one of them until I decide I can't make it any better than it is.

I will admit that not all of my posts are "grade A quality," but some days, I read the comic and then say, "What the fuck am I going to say about that?" Sometimes I manage to turn those days into quality writing, so if you ask me, it is to my credit that there aren't more posts that suck.

But this is not a blog of apologies (except in the classical sense of an apology being a defense, like in Plato's "Apology"). It is a blog for getting shit done that maybe doesn't have to be done but I do it anyway. And I do it for you as much as I do it for myself.

Monday, October 5, 2009

You really shouldn't do that

We are all given lots of "do" and "don't" advice when we're growing up--even after we're grown up, depending on the company we keep. Some of it is outright lies, or at least untrue, such as, "If you swallow your gum it will just stay in your stomach forever." Some of it is true only sometimes, such as, "Don't go swimming if you just ate a big meal." Sometimes you go swimming after eating, and your fine, but sometimes you start getting cramps and you have to stop.

A lot of it, though, is legitimately useful information, like, "Don't mix bleach with ammonia." If you did this, you would create chlorine gas, which can be deadly in an enclosed space. I once got a breath of chlorine gas in high school chemistry, and it felt like my lungs were melting. It's probably the least pleasant thing that has entered my lungs.

The fact that we're given so much supposed advice, and not all of it is true, means that we start to become dubious about all of the advice. You say to yourself, "Hey, they were totally lying about the watermelon seeds. What if they were also lying about putting metal in the microwave?" The natural inclination of such a curious child would be to put metal in the microwave to see what happens, and then maybe the microwave explodes or something. I'm not too sure, because I know better than to put metal in the microwave.

Because these things are supposedly bad ideas, youv'e never seen anyone do them, so you have no idea if they're true or not. Your mom says that you'll get cavities if you don't brush your teeth, so she makes you brush your teeth twice a day, and even makes you fucking floss. Then you start to become dubious about these so-called "cavities," and get lazy about brushing your teeth, and the next time you go to the dentist he tells you that you have three cavities. Then you get the additional learning experience of what it is like to get a filling.

Ideally, at some stage of your adulthood, you have learned that sometimes the advice you got growing up really was good advice, and that it would be a bad idea to go against it just to see what would happen. Personally, what I do is that I will ask someone who I think would know the answer, and be able to explain the reasoning behind it.

After learning a lot of "good ideas" and "bad ideas," and what things are "safe" and "unsafe," you start to develop a kind of safety intuition: you have a funny feeling that what you are about to do is probably not the best idea in the world, but you're not entirely sure why. You can respond to that nagging feeling either by brushing it aside (if you are drunk, this is the more likely scenario), or by trying to think about what could be wrong with the picture and how it could be made a better idea.

This is why some of us have a billion alternate timelines where we are "that guy who dies in a stupid, preventable way that is entirely his fault." (Ladies, in these alternate timelines, you are male.) The difference between listening to your intuition and disregarding it is sometimes the difference between waiting for your lava lamp to heat up on its own, and heating your lava lamp on the stove enough for it to explode in a shower of glass. So, keep that in mind the next time you are about to combine two different cleaning products with the expectation of creating one Super Mega Cleaning Product.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Some days, God just wants to fuck with you

Filling in for a ten year old girl is kind of a weird concept. The fact that God is saying it, it might seem like T-Rex's consciousness is going to be in the body of a ten year old girl. My feeling though is that God just wanted T-Rex to be some kind of substitute, and go to the girl's classes at school, hang out with her friends. He'd be the dinosaur wearing a nametag that says "Natalie" or "Mackenzie" or whatever it is that ten year old girl's are named these days. If you ask me, that is funnier than if he had to fill in for a ten year old squirrel.

As the title text of the comic tells us (there is a Greasmonkey script you can get to read these in-line with the comic), Utahraptor is hoping T-Rex is going to give one of the old standbys of what God is telling him. As we have learned by now, though, T-Rex never has conversations like that with God. It's a bit of a running gag at this point.

It could certainly be worse. If God called on T-Rex to go out and murder some dudes, then he would (probably) be schizophrenic, and that shit is bad news.

And if God called on T-Rex to be a prophet, and T-Rex refused, it could ruin his life. I'm not just talking about the way Jonah was called to prophecy and got swallowed by a giant fish. Many people who feel called to prophecy may spend years of their life doing something else until they realize they have to start serving God, that it is the only way to feel satisfied with themselves. (I've talked about something like this in a previous post. I don't know which one.)

T-Rex is similarly lucky that when the devil talks to him, he only wants to talk about video games.

Lessons in being an asshole

T-Rex's auction is a nice hypothetical for game theory. And that is what it is, a game. Most reasonable people are going to stop bidding eventually, when the amount they stand to lose is far more than they can afford.

One way to play the game is to play a completely different game that has nothing to do with "winning." That game often goes by the name "griefing" when your intent is to ruin the experience for the other players. The best griefing method in this auction is to get into a bidding war where with the intent of making the other person pay a lot of money for nothing.

So, let's say that once you get to the $1 mark, you bid in $0.01 increments. If you get all the way to $1.50... jump to $2. The only person who's going to keep bidding in this auction is someone who is also griefing. At that point, the game becomes about who is willing to spend more money being an asshole.

I have the day off work today, so maybe later on I'll write some kind of primer in game theory. Right now, I have another comic to write about...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I know I am overanalyzing this, okay

T-Rex seems to be the only person here who is day-dreaming about something unpleasant. All the rest are day-dreaming about how they wish T-Rex were a better friend, but then they let out a discontented sigh as they realize he is never going to be like that.

T-Rex is generally a bad friend.  Not always, but generally. Of course, he also has some admirable qualities, mostly in that he comes up with ideas that are wicked sweet, and we wish we had thought of those ideas. It is common for a viewer to want to be the main character of a work of fiction, because they are often portrayed as being made of pure, flawless awesome. If we want to identify with T-Rex, though, we have to say to ourselves, "I am a dude with some awesome ideas, but I am also a terrible friend."

Maybe this is what is supposed to happen! Imagine that you are a terrible friend, who really could be doing more nice things for your friends. When you are in the store, see if there is anything that makes you think, "My friend would enjoy owning this!" Or, you know, you could also make something. That is a good alternative for the anti-consumerist.