Jun 29, 2014

Bigger Isn't Always Better

"As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain;
 and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."
                                                                               --Albert Einstein

"Flyin' through hyperspace ain't like dustin' crops, boy."
                                                                               --Han Solo

commentary by killre

[Note: due to length and a self-imposed Sunday deadline, I have split what was to have been one post into two parts. Hopefully, I will have the sequel available in a few days.]

I used to be a long-haul truck driver. Before that and since, I've had a healthy if decidedly amateur interest in astronomy. Late one night, a number of years ago that will too soon qualify for the adjective many, I stopped my rig in an isolated pull-out alongside a lonely stretch of Interstate to "cool a tire," which is trucker-speak for "relieve my bladder." It was an exceptionally clear night, and I was at a relatively high elevation. Having successfully completed my primary task without incident, I spent ten minutes or so taking in the dazzling display of stars. This activity --standing slack-jawed in the dark, head back, eyes bugged-- is one I've engaged in many times, but this particular night stands out in memory. I had never before, nor have I since, seen so many stars at one time. If asked in that moment how many I thought there were, I could have managed only the grossest of guesses.

Since then, I've learned the likely approximate number. A person with average eyesight, in the right location --an open area far from any population center and its accompanying light pollution, and preferably at a fairly high elevation-- on a very clear night, with their unaided eyes, can see perhaps 2,500 stars. (Some estimates are a bit higher.) That, dear reader, is 0.000001% of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. As an illustration, I submit to you the link below. You'll have to scroll down a few inches after the jump, to the second picture.

The small red circle represents everything you've ever seen without a finely crafted telescope. It denotes a sphere somewhere just shy of 1,000 light-years in radius. One light-year is just under six trillion miles. Expressed more precisely, with good old-fashioned Arabic digits, it looks like this:

5,878,625,373,183.61 miles.

One thousand light-years, then, is this:

5,878,625,373,183,610 miles. That puts the "5" in the quadrillion column, meaning that a person with average eyes, in the right location on a clear night, can see more than five quadrillion miles. Betcha didn't know that, didja? Still, as you have seen and/or read, it is a tiny fraction of what's out there.

The site on which that picture is posted is called Wait But Why. The accompanying article is titled for its topic, "The Fermi Paradox." The article's author is Tim Urban.

Named for Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, whose bio you can search-engine yourself if you really need more reading material, the Fermi Paradox (henceforth "FP") refers to the apparent contradiction between (a) the high mathematical probability of the existence of intelligent alien civilizations and (b) the lack of contact with same.

Urban's essay is a bit lengthy because it touches upon a small host of related theories, all pertaining in some way to our perceived aloneness as an intelligent species in an inconceivably vast universe. It covers the bases pretty clearly, and nothing screams "badly written" --a ringing endorsement from yours truly-- but there are (of course) aspects of the article that left me a little unsatisfied.

Urban begins with some extremely big numbers, which he then multiplies by some extremely big numbers, making for some mind-blowingly ginormous math. That isn't his fault. He is discussing the FP, and the FP employs such numbers. It isn't the FP's fault either: those are the numbers, as near as anyone can tell.

All the headache-inducing arithmetic is initially intended to simply answer a question, but it quickly does more than that: it makes an argument. In the total absence of concrete proof that there are intelligent species elsewhere in the universe, Fermi and his followers seek to prove such existence through overwhelming abstract evidence-- numbers that are so far beyond homo sapiens' grounded frame of reference that we are almost powerless to argue with them, even if we were so inclined.

Take a moment to think it over, and be honest with yourself. As often as the word million gets tossed around these days, almost no-one has any real, concrete notion of just how many one million somethings are. It is a number we only think we know. In truth, it hovers out there just beyond tangible comprehension. Now, move beyond that and ponder the concept of a billion, then remember you're still not anywhere close to the numbers Urban is throwing around in virtually the first paragraph. You're not in the ballpark; you're not in the city; you're not even in the same state.

The end result of all that exponent-laced, to-the-power-of-holy-[expletive] math is this: the probable Number of Earth-like planets in the entire Known Universe. The problem with such a concept is that the Number is purely theoretical, in more ways than one. First, it is theoretical in its very mechanics: the equation leading to it is full of variables, estimates, assumptions-- each one wilder than the last. The Number itself means nearly nothing, outside of being [fudgin'] H-U-G-E. That, ultimately, is the Number's primary, graspable value: simply being huge. Don't get me wrong: I don't blame anyone for wondering how many Earth-like planets there are in the universe, nor do I blame them for trying to find a Number. It must be recognized, however, that the Number given is little more than a rhetorical prop.

That points to the second way in which the Number is theoretical: its practical application. Having some vague idea of how many alien civilizations there may be in the Known Universe is interesting, passingly, for about eight or ten seconds, but then reality sets in and you remember how utterly useless the information is. Realistically, there isn't a foreseeable future in which our species makes any sort of contact with an intelligent race in, say, the Andromeda galaxy, which is our closest intergalactic neighbor. Ergo, I don't much care. I don't care about a Type 2 civilization dominating one quadrant of a nameless galaxy far, far away --unless, of course, they have a suped-up bucket of bolts named Millennium Falcon-- and I don't care about a 1.5 in Andromeda and I don't care about a full-grown 1 on the far side of the Milky Way. Even my wildest dreams are more pragmatic than that.

What I do care about is this: How many intelligent species, roughly comparable to our own, are there in just this little grove of the interstellar woods? You know-- someone our descendants might actually talk to in the next twenty centuries or so. That's the question I found myself wanting Urban to address. He didn't, but that isn't his fault. He didn't address it is because the FP doesn't address it. So I decided to crunch some of the numbers myself...

Now, the first thing I have to tell you --in the interest of seeming reasonable and conscientious and scientific and journalistic and maybe a few other noble-sounding things I'll not bother to list, all geared toward coming across as sufficiently self-deprecatingly credible while also drawing a bit of breechclout across my backside-- is that my own equations are, in truth, just as full of assumptions, estimates, variables and wild guesses as the FP's. It is the nature of such speculations.

For example... The FP seems to assume that any alien civilization, even one far beyond our ken, must have arisen on a planet much like our own, orbiting a star that is also much like our own. Why it makes this assumption I don't know --it seems surprisingly limited and limiting-- but I make the same assumption because I'm not looking for just any civilization, I'm looking for one similar to ours.

Also... One giant assumption I make --one which departs from the essence of the FP pretty drastically-- is that the monstrously big numbers the FP employs for the Known Universe can be similarly used for a specific area of space-- in this case, within 1,000 or so light-years of Earth. This is a dangerous assumption on my part. Whereas the math of the FP inherently "averages out" regions possessing a high density of such planets with regions where it is low, applying the same formula to one very small, very specific region assumes a fairly even distribution of such worlds throughout the galaxy. Such uniformity seems unlikely on the one hand, but that doubt is mitigated somewhat by the thought that the FP's theories on the matter are at least partially based on "local" observations. Besides, at this point it is a matter of either running the numbers I have or not running any, and I haven't typed this many words to bail now.

So, let's get to it. According to the Yale Bright Star Catalog, a comprehensive list of "naked eye visible stars," there are 9,110 stars in the roughly 1,000 light-year radial sphere surrounding the Solar system. Astronomers, astrophysicists, and others in similar fields of study estimate that 12.5% (one in eight) of all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy are "sun-like," meaning they are reasonably similar in size, mass, and radiation --both in type and in output-- to Sol (the official name of the sun). 12.5 is an admittedly rough estimate. It could be off by 60% either way, possibly more. Blithely assuming the figure is only slightly optimistic, and that what is estimated for the galaxy as a whole holds true in our little pocket of it, the total number of sun-like stars in our 1,000 light-year sphere is... oh, look at that: 1138. (Could it be that a certain Mr. Lucas already trod this path, a long time ago? Your guess.)

The experts further estimate that 36% of all sun-like stars govern systems that include an Earth-like planet. (The over/under on that figure is a mere 39%.) If that's true, then the number of Earth-like planets within 1,000 light-years of our own is 409. (Skeptics who have made it this far will want to know what the number is if the more conservative estimates are applied. It is 100.)

That's as far as I've gotten: 409 Earth-like worlds within 1,000 light-years of Earth. That was the easy part. Estimating how many of them may harbor a race like ours is, frankly, algebra I've only glanced at. As I said at the top, I hope to have an answer in a few days.

P.S.... Bud "I Have A T-shirt That Shows A Donkey In A Lab Coat
         Pointing At A Blackboard That Reads 'E=MC-squared, I Think';
        The Caption Says 'Smart Ass'; My Mother Gave It To Me" Selig must go.

Jun 25, 2014

Why Soccer Is Stupid...

...and a Little of Why It Isn't

commentary by killre

[Editor's note: in the interest of both length and focus, I have redacted several paragraphs relating U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi to baseball player Fred Merkle, with explanation of who Fred Merkle was.  Don't say you're not loved.]

Every few years, for just a few weeks, ninety-odd percent of American sports fans are rudely reminded that the rest of the world gets all geeked for a sport they call futbol.  Please note I simply stated they call it futbol (which of course is pronounced "football" and is sometimes even spelled that way, albeit by a minority).  Had I wanted to be snarky, I'd have said something like, "...sport they insist on calling football, even though it isn't."  I didn't do that because, let's face it, calling the game futbol (or football; reader's choice) is the one thing about soccer that actually makes sense.

So, every few years, for just a few weeks, ninety-odd percent of us roll our eyes and resolve to silently endure the sudden soccer craze that ESPN so desperately wants to incite.  Then, almost like clockwork, Team USA (or whatever they're called) pulls an upset victory over some country you haven't heard of since junior high geography class and suddenly we're careful to say nil instead of nothing and match instead of game and remind ourselves that pitch and header have meanings outside of baseball, sales meetings, and slapstick-flavored mishaps.

Then, almost like someone planned it, the next game match falls on a Sunday.

Then, almost like someone planned it, Team USA (or whatever they're called) loses in a way that makes ninety-odd percent of us wonder why soccer is so... so... oh, so stupid.

I don't know about the other members of the ninety-odd percent, but I for one am tired of being told by Soccer Fan that the reason I can't appreciate the sport is that I am, in some unspecified way, uncultured.  It simply isn't true.  Uncultured I may be, in some respects, but that isn't why I hold soccer in the same regard as an unattractive sex partner the morning after they've gotten me drunk and seduced me.  (Here's hoping I didn't slip one past that goalie.)  Being uncultured is not the cause of my ambivalence.  The sport is far too primitive for that argument.

For make no mistake: soccer is, in some ways, a very primitive game.  (Mind you, I started composing this argument, in my head at least, prior to Tuesday's biting incident.)  That is both its beauty and its bane.  Its very template is as basic as it gets: a rectangular playing field with a goal at either end.  While that is a common arrangement, virtually every other pastime built on a similar frame --American football, Australian football, rugby, ice hockey, field hockey, roller hockey, air hockey, lacrosse, foosball, probably many others, and even basketball-- require more equipment and greater dexterity.  The only two things needed for a futbol game are an open, preferably sizeable space, and something to kick around.  I'm not saying there is no dexterity in soccer, just that it isn't required from the very outset at the same level as other sports.

The second, more abstract reason why soccer is a primitive game conceals itself in the tall grass of the very first rule virtually everyone learns: NO HANDS.  This rule defies evolution.  Homo sapiens clawed their way to the top of the food chain by developing bipedal locomotion, freeing their forelimbs --their arms and hands-- for other, more complicated, and ultimately more important tasks.  Futbol's no hands rule strips its players of a small portion of their humanity by banning the species' single greatest physical attribute.  In doing so, soccer marks its territory in the pantheon of pastimes not far from riding a unicycle and bobbing for apples.

Moreover, futbol too often gives off the vibe of a game that was invented yesterday by a ten-year-old with an underdeveloped sense of fair play and with whom you must now spend time.  By "underdeveloped sense of fair play," of course, I mean he changes the rules depending on whether he's winning or losing...

     So no-one can use their hands?  You realize
     that defies evolution, don't you?

     Never mind.  So no-one can use their hands?
     "Right.  Except the goalie.  He can use his hands."

     That's too bad.  If the goalie had to follow the same rule
     as everyone else, somebody might actually score.  So the
     goalie can use his hands, but no-one else?
     "Well, if the ball goes out of bounds along the sideline,
     then someone can use their hands to throw it back in."

     So most of the players, most of the time, can't use their hands.
     "Yeah.  Probably.  We'll see."

Of course, the greater problem with futbol is the clock, the clock, the stupid [expletive] clock!  For starters, it ticks forward instead of back, which is a minor pain in the posterior portion of a person who, upon wondering how much time is remaining, wants to be answered with, you know, an answer, and not a third-grade math problem... but put that aside.  A more pressing issue with the clock is, aside from halftime or intermission or respite or whatever they haughtily call it, the [expletive] thing doesn't stop.  Ever.  Not for substitutions; not for out-of-bounds; not for goal celebrations; not even for injuries.  "Oh, my goodness, his shin bone is sticking out the back of his leg... they're going to have to bring the stretcher all the way over from the other side of the pitch... how many minutes do you think this will take, Bartleby?"  Tough to say, Percival, but I'm sure the officials will pick a number at random and then not tell us what it is...

Which leads us to soccer's single most egregious stupidity: the closely guarded state secret that is additional time.  A weird enough concept to begin with (again, why not simply stop and restart the game match clock in conjunction with the on-field action?), there is something decidedly suspicious and undemocratic about the way FIFA refuses to tell the People precisely when the game will end.  I can't help being reminded of our entitled ten-year-old, changing the rules on the fly to suit his wants...

     So how long is the game?
     "We call it a match."

     Okay.  How long is the match?
     "Ninety minutes."

     (Ninety minutes pass.)

     Well, that's ninety minutes.  I guess we win.
     "No.  I'm adding four minutes of extra time."

     "Goal celebration, bathroom breaks, and that time the
     ball got kicked to the other side of the street and you
     had to wait for two cars to go by before you could bring
     it back."

     Why didn't you just stop the clock for that stuff?

     Never mind.  You figure that all took four minutes?
     "Did I say four?  I meant five."

     (Five minutes pass.)

     That's five minutes.  Game's over, right?
     "A minimum of five minutes.  It might be closer to six.
     Oh wait, we just scored.  Now the match is over."

     Anybody ever tell you what this gesture means, kid?
     "I'm number one?"

     Something like that.

P.S.... Bud "It Reminded Me Of The Time
          Harvard Beat Yale 29-29" Selig must go.

P.P.S.... Bud "No, I'm Number One!" Selig must go.

Jun 17, 2014

A Review of Three-way Chess

"It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it."
                                             --Robert E. Lee, Battle of Fredericksburg

"You gotta be shittin' me, Joker! You're not a writer! You're a killer!"
                                             --R. Lee Ermey, Full Metal Jacket

commentary by killre

For once, there is no play on words in my title, nor is there any abstract and cryptic metaphor that you would need to be a mind-reader to puzzle out.  Oh, and no, we haven't suddenly become a porn site.  This post is, believe it or not, a review of a board game.

Someone has figured out a way for three people to play chess on the same board at the same time.  It is called 3 Man Chess In the Round, and it is a surprisingly compelling game.

I'd be astonished if you weren't skeptical right about now.  I certainly was.  Your skepticism likely comes from one of two places...

One: You don't like traditional chess to begin with, and are even less interested in some weird variation of it.  So be it.  Some people don't read for pleasure; some people insist baseball is utterly bereft of drama, save when some fast-twitch behemoth crushes a pitch 400 feet or more; some people don't even own a corkscrew, let alone use it; and some people have convinced themselves that chess is the root cause of all migraines.  Have a nice day.

Two: You like traditional chess just fine, and are uninterested in some weird variation of it.  I once thought as you did.  For the most part, I still do.  Some have called chess the greatest board game ever invented.  Not to saturate the page with pixelated praise, but I find it hard to argue against that claim.  The game has come to us through untold centuries, passed from culture to culture to culture, with only a few tweaks along the way.  It may be the very thing for which the adage, "easy to learn; difficult to master," was invented.  Of course, there are those who will tell you it isn't all that easy to learn-- see the previous paragraph.

As indicated, my own initial skepticism grew from the Two.  I know this guy who shares my interest in chess, but while he appreciates the traditional game, he has an oddball sensibility that cannot help being drawn, like a Goth to an black-lit warehouse party, to the dozens of mutations that dozens of somebodies in dozens of somewheres have conjured in an attempt to give the old game a new wrinkle (and, no doubt, give themselves a short-term advantage over their playing partners).  While I find a handful of these aberrations theoretically intriguing, I have consistently been concretely cool to the idea of trying them.

The guy persuaded me to try 3 Man Chess, however, and I'm glad he did.

Here's why...
In its initial, and especially its medial stages, the game takes on a cutthroat, quasi-political aspect-- albeit in a simplified and, at its best, unspoken form.  (Softened as it is, my use of the word "political" will undoubtedly chase some of you away.  You're doing yourself a disservice if you let that happen.)  The political dimension is not required by rule, mind you, so much as it is inherently encouraged by the simple fact that there are three players instead of two, and maneuvering an opponent into an untenable position (even with this game's expanded tactical options) is far more easily done in concert with a third party-- even one you can't entirely trust.  So, tentative and fragile alliances naturally form.  Such a tacit agreement, coalescing early in a contest, might hold between two players until the third is beaten.  It may even survive the occasional strategic backstab.  More likely, though, alliances will shift with the changing tactical picture, or sometimes due to nothing but a whim.  Just because someone is your ally doesn't mean they're not capricious and self-serving, or prone to blunders.

(On that note, a tangent... A few years ago, HBO partnered with Fantasy Flight Games to produce and market a Game of Thrones table game.  Sucker that I am, I paid perfectly good money for that [feces].  I discarded the plastic wrapping and tried to read the rules.  Otherwise, the game is unused.  I strongly suspect you have to be a graduate of Dungeons & Dragons University to even begin to understand it.  Anyone interested in a near-mint set, for cheap, please bang the comments button below.  For those interested in a slightly less dorky and considerably less confusing version of the same game --though sadly without the sigils-- might I suggest 3 Man Chess?)

The new, quasi-political undertone this game fosters is altogether fitting, really.  Chess, after all, is meant to represent War.  War, clinically distilled, is Politics, with Weapons.  (Politics, in turn, is Commerce, with Lawyers.  Knowingly or unknowingly, Warren Zevon was right: it all boils down to lawyers, guns, and money.)  Part of me wants to point out that three-man chess is played on a round board (rather than a square one) and invest that fact with some allegorical significance by noting that the Earth is also round.  However, I am mindful of the fact that those not given to finding greater meaning in lesser details can counter my notion with a simple rhetorical question: "How else you gonna do it?"

Once one player is forced to surrender, the Caesar salad of strategy and politics is put aside and the two remaining opponents can fall with ferocity upon the juicy red meat of the tactical endgame.  As alluded earlier, the larger, circular board affords each player with more moves almost from the outset.  Moreover, those moves have the potential to be more diverse and dynamic.  Once one of the three armies has been reduced to a few scattered remnants who are stripped of their power, and with the two still-active forces having inevitably suffered some attrition along the way, the tactical possibilities seem to increase exponentially.  Lightning-quick, blind-side strikes may lurk for either side.  At the same time, all of the more traditional end-of-game options are preserved.

Very satisfying, both for the traditionalist and the oddball.

P.S.... Bud "I Have Two Quarrels, Because Crossbows
          Do Not, In The End, Shoot Arrows" Selig must go.

Jun 14, 2014

The Fall of Iraq

If you haven't been keeping up with the news lately, I can sum it up by saying that the Iraq army isn't exactly anchoring a democratic awakening in the Middle East.

To his point - If we were to fight the ISIS, we'd help keep propping up Maliki. It's a bit of a no-win situation. If ISIS wins, they won't last.

It's a shame that after billions of American dollars and thousands of American lives, our government has decided that it's a lost cause and we're going to allow Sunni insurgents to behead Iraqi civilians in the streets of Mosul and Tikrit.

Don't worry. The Iranians are more than willing to lend a hand in stabilizing Iraq. They might even put up some permanent bases there. You know, as a peace keeping force.

Jun 13, 2014

Signed by the Author

Bart Ehrman recounts an anecdote from a few years back from a class he taught as a new testament scholar and a professor at UNC Chapel HIll. On the first day of class, in a large lecture hall filled with mostly believers:

"How many of you here would agree to the proposition that the bible is the inspired word of god?"

Whooom - all of the hands in the room go up.

"How many of you here have read the da Vinci Code by Dan Brown?"

Whooom - almost all of the hands go up.

"How many of you have read the bible cover to cover?"

A few hands go up.

"I can understand why you might want to read a book by Dan Brown. But you're telling me that you think the creator of the universe wrote a book filled with instructions on how to live your life, complete with examples, and yet you haven't read it..."

If I were in his class, I would have countered, "yeah, but it wasn't his best work."

Frankly, I'd rather there was a disclaimer on the front: "All characters portrayed within this book are fictitious and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental."

Jun 10, 2014

...And Color Inside the Lines, Dammit!

slice of life by killre

Silly me, I always thought rule number one was "have fun."

Last evening, I attended a parental orientation meeting for my kid's summer camp.  I'm not sure exactly why.  He's going to Washington, D.C. and New York for a week this summer.  He's going fishing in Canada for two.  Plus we have big plans for the Fourth of July weekend.  His mother insists on booking him solid, though, so that's partly how I wound up in a parental orientation meeting, but I'm still not sure why.  I guess you can't just ship them off to camp anymore with a soft slap on the back and a theatrically hearty, "Say, some of those boys look kinda big!  Well, good luck, kiddo."

Besides, it isn't even a real camp-- it's a day camp.  A DAY camp!  It's like pre-school for shy and *cough* overly mothered early teens.  (Quick look over shoulder.)

Mostly, the meeting was about completing paperwork.  Emergency contact one, emergency contact two, emergency contact three, emergency contact four.  Wait, additional contacts?  Um, what are you guys planning to do to my kid?

We also received a copy of the Day Camp Behavior Policy, to be signed by both parent and "participant," detached, and filed for later use by the inevitable tribunal.  The Day Camp Behavior Policy was a revelation.  They're not too subtle about their major concern, as you will soon see.

First, though, I'm going to parse a few words.  I promise not to be too long about it.  I know I probably bore you when I do that, dear reader, but I just can't help wondering why, if someone took the time to compose them, they didn't take the time to make sure they didn't defy logic-- especially in the first [fudging] sentence:

1. Participants will respect themselves, others and the world around them.

*sigh*  You cannot legislate thought.  Okay?  You cannot command a person to have respect for someone or something.  You can instruct them to act respectfully; you might even get away with telling them to "be respectful," although even that treads shaky ground; but you are definitely over the fault line in dictating, "You WILL respect everything!  I have so decreed!"

Okay, rant over.

In his later years, George Carlin famously boiled the Ten Commandments down to just two.  I was reminded of that as I perused the rest of the Day Camp Behavior Policy.  If you accept the spirit of rule number one (rather than lawyering the letter of it, as I did), then most of the rest of the list falls under the same general respect-demanding (though not -inducing) edict: no foul language, no name-calling, no bullying, no fighting, clean up after yourself, no bullying, no fighting, no wandering off and getting snatched by a pedophile, no bullying, no fighting, follow instructions, don't break anything, no bullying, no fighting...

What's that sign say?
"No bare feet."

What's that sign say!
"No fighting!"

What does it mean?
*shrug* "Means no fighting."

The last rule:

10. Most importantly, ALL MUST HAVE FUN AT DAY CAMP!

Don't get me wrong-- I understand what they're trying to do here.  Underneath that ponderous portion of protoplasmic cheez whiz, though, what else have they done?  Well, they've tried to legislate thought again, and in doing so they've unintentionally indicated that if you don't have fun, they will force it on you-- always the surest way to achieve that particular result.  Moreover, they've buried the very thing they herald as the most important at the bottom of the list rather than the top.  They have even been repetitive enough to be repetitive enough to be repetitive enough to configure their rules into ten sentences-- probably for the same reason the Hebrews did it five thousand years ago: it's a round number.

(Completely tangential: Why do we use a base-ten math system?
Because that's how many fingers we have, that's why.)

What struck me most at the time, though, was that this prodding, this cajoling, this exhortation to "have fun" comes quick on the heels of a looooooong list of don'ts.

P.S.... Bud "Betting Is Illegal At Bushwood, Sir,
          And I Never Slice" Selig must go (while we're young!).