Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A little bit of creative writing

I haven't been writing much, lately, or at least it hasn't seemed like I have been (I have 2 or 3 unpublished posts because I haven't gone over them) I had a recent opportunity to walk a wolf.  I frequently volunteer at a local animal shelter because it offers (almost) all the benefits of ownership without the responsibilities. I figured I'd write about it a bit.  I got to walk a wolf, and he may have changed my life, regardless of his ability to appreciate this fact.  So, here goes:

The wolf was incredible; his owners moved to the city and couldn’t keep him anymore because of local laws, but what an amazing animal.  I’ve never walked an animal so… strong.  I walk a lot of dogs.  Many of them are large, Rottweilers and German Shepherds, but you can gauge their strength by looking at their size.  I can stop them, if I have to.  This guy was about their size, a little bigger, but if he got it in his head to chase a squirrel, I would have been helplessly bouncing along the ground behind him until he was finished.  You know those stories you here about dogs breaking steel chains at scrap yards?  This is the first canine I can imagine actually doing that.  Frightfully strong.
Speaking of fright, I was kind of nervous walking this guy.  He was docile, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if he wanted to, he could have ripped me to shreds.  I wasn’t worried about it, but there’s that knowledge; most dogs, I could bludgeon into submission if it ever got dangerous (and I use a choke-chain when I’m walking the bigger ones, so I have some leverage), but I only walked this one because they assured me he was friendly.   Honestly, he seemed very… amicable… but not friendly.
When you walk a dog, especially at a shelter, the dog wants to get to know you.  He’ll smell you, or go for some kind of approval.  They don’t usually just take off.  Even the most bad-ass dogs acknowledge the human holding the leash in some way.  In that sense, he was almost like a cat!  The animal shelter worker insisted on putting the leash on himself, but once he handed it to me there was no trade-off to the wolf; just going.  I’m sure he smelled me, but he didn’t dwell on it.  I felt like he just shrugged and thought, “Well, I’m out of the cage now, tied to some meat sack.”  I walked him about 2 miles, and it was just an incredible half-hour for me.
The wolf is one of our principal competitors, millennia before we ever developed much technology, the wolf hunted what we hunted, lived where we lived, and scared the bejeesus out of our ancestors.  I can see why.  This creature, tame as he was, carried with him the grace and lethality of a predator that hasn’t been made stupid by ages of soft living.  This creature’s golden eyes shone with intelligence, echoes of an ancient time when his ancestors made easy pickings of our livestock and outsmarted our best hunters.  His body, though old, carried itself with the lethal grace which brought to life, in me, the countless stories our people tell of the big bad wolf.  He walked beside me, but alone, almost as though he sought his pack.
In my awe, I also felt a sinking realization.
My entire life, I’ve loved wolves, their majesty.  I’ve felt that they were my spirit-animals, in a way, creatures which encapsulate my essence, in some way; alone, dangerous.  Self-sufficient.  Powerful.
I am no wolf.  Those who call themselves wolves in sheep’s clothing are children, playing with power they cannot understand.  Don’t deserve to understand.  They are fools, fancying themselves as something other than cursed to dwell within their own mediocrity.  I was one of them, I see now.  I can think of one man I know who deserves to wear the wolf’s mantle, and even that connection is tenuous.  I may walk alone, but I will never carry myself with the deadly, ruthless efficiency of the wolf.  The indifference to all that is not danger or prey.  It is a terrifying thing, to hold such mystery, such mastery, on a leash, and be cursed only to gaze in awe.  Awe and envy, as this creature was born knowing itself, adept and confident, while I am wracked by insecurity and ineptitude.  Such is the curse of introspection, I suppose.
Anyway, to sum up, wolves are neat.(!).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Naturalistic Fallacy Redux

I've spoken on the naturalistic fallacy before but I recently came across a slightly more insidious variety, which doesn't have the same red flags as the fallacy in the forms it's usually encountered, such as revering nature because it's old, or pure, in ways which have no scientific basis.  There's simply no good reason to believe that killing a wild turkey is healthier, or more nutritional, than a farm-raised turkey simply because the wild turkey is closer to nature.  Perhaps it is, but the data would be found within the nutritional data for the turkey (less fat, perhaps, or more muscle definition) but not simply because the wild turkey is the natural one; it could also be riddled with parasites for the same reason.  Natural becomes a non-issue, because we need to look at the specific traits belonging to that turkey, or that group of turkeys.
That aside, the fallacy I've been running into basically this: Trait X evolved, therefore it's beneficial.  For instance, gender roles.  I heard a brief argument recently that said that we needed to protect gender roles because they had evolved for a reason.  To which my response was a resounding "Maybe."
The idea that something has evolved, therefore it is good, is patently false.  Violence has evolved.  That something has evolved and stuck around is simply a testament to one thing; it makes the bearers of those traits have more babies.  In a world where tendencies toward violence were adaptive, violence was selected for.  That world may or may not still be around.  Evolution doesn't produce the best product; it produces the best compromise between effective and cheap, which is why men have nipples, we still hiccough, and very few of us are 8 feet tall.
Regarding gender roles, evolution almost certainly wasn't a factor, at least as far as strictly genetic evolution.  A desire to wear dresses is not a chromosomal trait; it's a cultural one.  And cultural norms change much more rapidly than genetic ones.  Irrespective of that, though, the premise of the argument belies a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, and is logically incoherent.  Perhaps there are good reasons for gender roles; I doubt it.  I think that as a society we've grown to the point where conformity isn't required, but that's the wrong reason to argue for it.  Just as I mentioned in my blog on Climate Change, the reasons we believe something are important.  It would be false for me to claim that one hot summer is good evidence for Climate Change, even if I'm right and Climate Change is occurring.
Evolution is a pervasive, powerful force, and understanding it is critical to understanding ourselves, biologically and socially.  What it isn't is an excuse for bad behavior.  It may explain an origin (and in the case of gender roles, badly at best), but it doesn't address the concern of whether or not the behavior is something we should encourage, and thus has almost zero weight as evidence for any cultural behavior.  Deifying evolution as a basis for social actions is the naturalistic fallacy pure and simple, only masquerading as enlightened.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Climate Change

Climate change has been coming up in recent weeks, and I figured I'd take a look at it, and just explore a few of the myths/little known facts about it.
Not the climate.
First off, is it Climate Change or Global Warming?  Both, but Climate Change is more accurate.  Global Warming is a concern, but is only one aspect.  Climates can change in a multitude of ways, temperature only being one of them.  Climate Change is a more inclusive, accurate term because it's broader.  Is it real?  Yes.  No serious doubts there (of course, people who still believe, wrongly, that the Big Bang Theory means something came from nothing will probably disagree because evidence will not change a closed mind), and there is some slightly more rational reason to believe that humans may not have caused it.  But, the scientific consensus is Yes, it's real, and yes, humanity is causing it.
OK, so before we begin, what exactly is a climate?  It's the non-biological aspect of the ecosystem.  It thus consists of lots of different variables; amount of precipitation, volatility of weather, moisture in the air, dew point, visibility, wind speed and persistence, in addition to temperature, among other things.  It's extremely broad.  Let's instead be specific about what it is not.  A climate is not the weather.  It's a misconception common enough that meteorologists have weighed in to the debate, not even realizing that they aren't trained for it.  If it's cold and sunny in the morning and snows at noon, and has a thunderstorm in the middle of the night, that's weather.  All these events will contribute slightly to the climate, in the same way that a single driver contributes to traffic averages in a major city.  Even if one guy gets in an accident once, and snarls traffic for the rest of the highway for 45 minutes, he still hasn't done much to slow down the average flow of traffic; not over a year or longer.
It's the same with weather.  Weather is sure to be anomalous, and singular events (even ones that get dubbed ridiculous names by the news media, such as Snowpocalypse) don't influence the climate that much.  And since the climate is naturally cyclical along with the earth's rotation and orbit, looking at the climate over any period less than a decade is bordering on frivolous.
So Climate Science is a very complicated field of study.  Meteorologists are trained to predict future weather based on present movements; climatologists, on the other hand, are in the business of analyzing trends over large periods of time.  It's the difference between an accountant (or sometimes, just a bank teller), describing day to day affairs, and an economist, who studies the monetary system.  Because they have one system in common doesn't mean that they have any business being lumped together.  And it's not that they can't; it's that they haven't necessarily been trained to, and may not even realize it.
Then, what is the degree of Climate Change?  Hard to say, exactly.  Global warming (e.g., the temperature) is about 1 degree Celsius over the past 50 years; that doesn't sound like much, but it can have an alarming and exponential affect on the weather.  Let's think about it; if, on average, the planet is 1 degree warmer, that doesn't mean uniform.  Going back to the traffic analogy, it's like saying that commute times take 1 minute longer due to increased traffic.  Some people (regions) could get to work even faster (be cooler).  Others may take 10-20 minutes longer to get to work (much hotter).  There may be an increase in accidents (severe weather) or higher/lower speeds (more/less rainfall).  All of these statistics would be lumped into a single factor; commute time.
If only Climate Change and Evolution would get along so well...
With Climate Change, to make things worse, is the variability of weather has been increasing.  This phenomenon has been dubbed (by me) Global Increase of Volatility in Weather and Other Climatic Effects Over Large Periods of Time.  Climate Change is much less of a mouthful, and just as descriptive, assuming you know the meaning of climate.  This means patterns are becoming harder to predict, as principles of chaos begin to undermine even well-modeled data.  This is critical; because, while climate scientists can almost unilaterally say bad things will happen, it's virtually impossible to know just how bad.  And at the speed things are changing, slow-and-lumbering evolution may not be able to keep the pace.  As I said above, the climate is the non-biological part of the ecosystem; the biological remainder will have to be able to adapt to the changes, or die trying.
We had a record-hot summer here in Southwestern Oklahoma, but it would be illegitimate for me to say that was caused by Climate Change, or that it was proof of Climate Change; there just isn't enough evidence available! Sometimes, it's just hot outside.  Or cold.  Or dark- but that doesn't mean evidence of Global Dimming.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Gold Standard

Lately, there's been a lot of talk of returning to the Gold Standard, which implies the Gold And Silver standard.  Not in most conventional circles (to be polite), but it's been popularized by Ron Paul recently.  Before doing research for this blog, I admit to serious reservations (no pun intended) about the credibility of doing it; all the gold ever mined in the world is barely enough to cover half the US GNP[1], in terms of today's prices[2].  In other words, our annual productivity is worth almost twice all gold.  I don't like the idea of limiting our productivity to something anything less than the ingenuity of humanity itself, but before doing explicit research (I have this tendency to just putter around the internet answering questions that come to mind), I wasn't able to articulate why, at least not convincingly enough for blog entries on the subject.  The idea that our coins would be gold (at least partially) and our cash could be redeemed for gold at any bank is an odd one to me, personally, but I can see it as comforting.
Second, what prompted this article, was the claim I heard (not made by Ron Paul, but it wouldn't surprise me much).  "The only way to save ourselves [in the US] from hyperinflation is to go back on the gold standard."  I knew immediately that that was false on its face, but maybe there's something to the whole Gold Standard thing.  We're not even close to hyper-inflation in this country.  Hyperinflation is when the value of the dollar drops by 50% or more each month.  We've actually had mild inflation lately because we (painfully obviously) haven't been expanding much, and inflation is often associated with growth.  Economics are neat.
Before we go any further, we'll have a mini-economics lesson. (Not to be confused with microeconomics).
The biggest thing in favor of gold is that it puts a literal cap on the money supply, which is the amount of actual currency available in the market at any given time.  How does that work if the GNP exceeds the gold supply?  Easily, actually.  In fact, there's only about a trillion USD in currency right now.  Without getting into the details of the different types of money supplies, let's just take the following scenario.
Jake has $100 cash.  He goes to the store and spends every penny on shrubberies.  The shrubber, Kyle, takes the money and pays his only employee, Robin, who goes and buys himself a used Taser.
Throughout these transactions, there was only $100 being used out of the money supply; the $100 shrub, the $100 worth of labor, and the $100 Taser are all individual transactions, there's $300 that gets added to the GNP.  So it's easy to see how the money supply isn't a concern.
In fact, the Gold Standard is really good at doing this!  With the gold standard, if there's ever a shortage of currency, we can't just make more unless the situation is dire (World War 1 Dire).  Without it, we can just make more money to keep things running smoothly in the short term.  In other words, we inflate our own dollar by making more of them.  Going back to gold would virtually stop that in it's tracks!  If you keep $10,000 in your mattress, you lose money every year just by not spending it.  On the gold standard, $10,000 is worth (in today's dollars), about 1/2 pound of gold and it would be in 50 years, more or less (historically, about .1% inflation).  Without the gold standard, in 50 years, at 5% inflation per year, it would be worth about $750.
Inflation sucks, and the Gold Standard kills it.  So, why shouldn't we go back to it?  Well, there are a few things to consider.
First, what if you went to the store today and bought yourself eggs, milk, cheese, potatoes, celery, and bacon for a reasonable amount.  You didn't realize you were out of bread but you'd noticed that it cost $2.39 a loaf.  So you go back the next day, and it costs $6 a loaf, and you have no choice but to buy it or go without sandwiches. [3]
In my previous example (keeping money in your mattress), I used 5% for the inflation figure.  5% inflation is unusually high; in 2011, we only had 3%, and the last time we broke 4% was 1990.  Over the last 100 years, including both World Wars, we've averaged 3.35% inflation.  In fact, at 3.2%, that $10,000 would be worth about $1,900, not $750.
Sounds ludicrous, right?  Well, that's a huge problem with the gold standard.  Short term prices are insanely variable.  So you get long term stability (on average, your $10,000 will be worth $9,512 in 50 years) at the price of obscene volatility in the short term- it could be worth $2000 one year and $8000 the next.  On average, it would retain most of its value, but   The entire market becomes extremely sensitive to factors that affect the gold industry.  If somebody discovers gold in Iowa, or someone sinks a Spanish Galleon, the price of gold, and thus everything else will change.  Favorable for investors, I suppose, who are able to just leave their money in one place for decades at a time.
There are other confounding issues- if we go to the gold standard, what's to stop every other country from just buying our gold?  We'd have to establish cooperation treaties of some sort, and historically, they existed, but functioned poorly.  Also, nobody understood monetary policy (at least at the level we do today) back then, and inflation was a major concern.  But now we have the Federal Reserve, and other countries have their equivalent.  The Fed was established to attempt to control inflation just prior to WWI, and the major way it does that is through managing inflation.  I could do another post on the Fed alone, since understanding it is critical to understanding the current economy.  Ron Paul labelled it as "pure evil", which is just absurd.
I'm not one to argue that something is new, therefore it is better, but let's examine the track record of the Fed.  One of it's primary functions is to manage inflation. Sure, it's not perfect.  It's run by human beings, and that means it will make mistakes.  But honestly, it does a pretty damn good job.  Variation in inflation was wild between 1913 and 1948 (1946 was when the Gold Standard was abandoned[4]).  It was as low as 0 some years, and 17-20% in some.  This was still on the Gold Standard, but we give it a pass, statistically, because the World Wars were going on and they aren't great for the economy, at least in regard to inflation.  I think that's an important point- the world was in crisis, and the economy tanked.  I don't think there's a great deal of difference, qualitatively speaking, nowadays.  Crises are by definition difficult to deal with, and on or off the Gold Standard, the housing bubble still would have occurred, and collapsed- it just would have dragged gold prices down with it.
Governments also leverage inflation to keep unemployment low; before the Fed, unemployment averaged almost 7%- and those were good times.  Since 1946, it's averaged just under 6%, and that's including several financial crises, including our current one.
In the end, additional research didn't do much to change my mind, but it did inform my perspective.  I still feel that our nation, indeed, our world, has simply outgrown ties to any particular quantifiable resource.  I think that advances in science and technology are the reason for this, and that those very advances will continue to inform our monetary policy.  Ron Paul wants to go back to the Gold Standard and do away with the Fed.  I don't think this is suicidal, per se, but I do think it's a bit like gouging off your love handles to fit in your prom dress.  It's still self-harm, and there's no reason to do it- we're beautiful, and productive, just the way we are.  There's absolutely no credible evidence I can find of hyperinflation looming on the horizon; just more fearmongers touting their own paranoia as fact.  So eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow, there will be cake.

[1] 2011 GNP was 15.3 Trillion USD
[2] Gold is worth 1,744 USD per troy ounce, as of 1/31/2012.  165 million kg in existence, 32.15 Troy ounces per kg.  Total = 9.3 Trillion.  2010 GNP: 14.56 Trilion USD
[3] A truly horrifying plight.  This is based on the coefficient of variance between the periods 1946-2003(The Not Gold Standard®) and 1880-1914 (The Classic Gold Standard).
[4] The Classical Gold Standard was abandoned in practice in 1913 because of WWI, essentially ended in 1946 for the Bretton Wood system, then formally abandoned in 1971 (in the US).  I don't have raw data for the Classical Gold Standard.
[5] This is a note.  This is not a note.  The note is real.  The note is a lie.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ashes from ashes?

I wanted to write something a bit lighter tonight, but I'll be getting back to sexism in the future.
After logging an obscene amount of time playing Skyrim, I came across this game on Steam, it was 5 USD and looked like my style- it's called From Dust, by Ubisoft, and I figured, "Why not?  It's less than lunch at Applebee's."  Of course, I only eat at Applebee's on Veteran's Day because it's free for military (it's not that good), but the logic seems sound.  Last Wednesday, it was on sale for 66% off of 15 dollars, (those guys are great for selling gems at a huge discount, it's worth taking a peak every now and again).  And yes, for clarity's sake, this is on the PC.
It feels like an older game, but it's not.  It was released in July 2011, but it feels like it because it didn't have the budget of Assassin's Creed and other Ubisoft titles), and I had never heard anything about it until a week ago.  Ubisoft is just the publisher, so they fielded this largely as an independent work (I'm sure they provided assistance along the way, too).  And I have to say, it's surprisingly good.  It only took me about 7 hours to beat the story (much of which was spent burning my villagers because they displeased me), and I haven't gotten into the challenges yet, but it has the addictive sandbox-esque quality of the older Sim Cities (not those putrid new attempts at whoring out the name) or Tropico, only set in some time before countries or flags, or even farms, it seems.
It's like a cross between Black and White and Lemmings, only without the combat.  It's a sandbox game that touts the most sophisticated weather simulator found in a game, and it is quite good.  Like B&W, you play a demi-god who has to help your tribe, and as in Lemmings, you have to navigate a series of challenges to advance through the different maps, ultimately attaining the lost power of the ancients (you know, if the ancients were so awesome, you'd think they'd write this stuff down and make schools).  Like B&W, you'll be interacting crudely with the environment- picking up earth/water etc., and dropping it where you want it.  Like Lemmings, there's lots of lava and water to be found, and they're both very likely to kill your poor automatons.
Graphically, From Dust is not awe-inspiring à la Skyrim, but it does have its charms and I only recall one serious glitch throughout the game, and that was during a cut-scene, which occur occasionally.  The environmental effects are very attractive; lava in particular looks enticing and dangerous all at once.  Water on the other hand looks like... water.  It's mostly transparent.  And it flows.  There were some irritating things graphically, and one comes with the territory for this sort of game- there would be little puddles of water which were very difficult to see or target.  The easiest way to deal with them was to dump lots of lava in the area, evaporating it, which is generally fine unless there happened to be all sorts of vegetation in the area- then you'd start a fire, burn down all your villages, and have to start over.  The inverse would also hold, with pockets of lava, and applying a lake-full of water directly to the affected area would fix things (but then you end up with puddles...).  I could move it side to side, zoom in and out, but that third dimension that would have been so useful eluded me (I even... though it shames me to admit... looked in the help).  Not being able to skip cutscenes is an annoyance, but doesn't reduce the experience a great deal.  Slightly restrictive camera controls notwithstanding, the graphics merit a hesitant 7.
Sound is so much easier to get right on a limited budget, and they did marvelously in this regard.  The game is voiced, but in the Bahasa Indonesia language, something that sounds very tribal and generally fits the prehistoric motif (English subtitles mean you won't have to learn another language to figure out what to do, though).  The music is subtle, and does a good job setting the stage and mood.  But the sound effects, particularly the deafening roar of a volcanic eruption, is delightful, window-shaking, and coffee-spill-inducing-spasm-worthy.  In retrospect, it might be a bit too loud, but it is a freakin volcano, right?  The "Help Me!" of tribespeople does get irritating, especially if it's because they can't path to a new totem, but when it's not the AI freaking out it gets your attention; that's the only bad thing I have to say about the sound.  It sets the mood, stays out of the way except when appropriate (the music could stand to be more memorable) and gets a solid 9.
Finally, gameplay.  This is where From Dust shines.  And tanks.  AI is incredibly difficult to write from a programmer's standpoint in a game where the user can essentially literally create their own terrain.  So, taking that into account, from a gamer's standpoint it is incredibly frustrating when the little guy won't step up the 2 foot hump.  Like a cop, an AI programmer's work is often thankless- the only time you get noticed is when something messes up.  If you're doing your job well, your drones do as they're intended and nothing arouses any suspicions.  From that perspective, I think there were only 2 times where I actually had to completely restart due to villagers not executing some precariously timed maneuver, and they were usually because I built the target area up in a peculiar way (lava stacked on lava stacked on explosive trees stacked on lava, filled with dirt and doused with water, repeated until it looks right), which can understandably make mapping the area for a machine extremely tricky, and even then, the vast majority of the time, my villagers would stalwartly make their way to their destination, even if it was unnecessarily circuitous.
Mechanics killed me a lot more than AI.  Especially fire.  Forest fires are obscenely devastating.  They spread like a wildfire through a forest of firecrackers.  To make things worse, plants grow at exactly the same rate as fire burns, so they'll get into loops of perpetual tribesman death (who fearlessly charge to rebuild their burning village, only to have it burn again as soon as it gets built, ad nauseum).  That's my biggest complaint, but on the plus side the controls were incredibly intuitive (aside from the left and right mouse buttons being the opposite of the "natural", but that's an easy fix in the controls menu).  The AI was spectacular, given the load that it was under, and all in all, the environmental effects felt so natural and compelling, it was incredibly easy to just powertrip for a few hours, playing god, and that's the best part about games like these.  Gameplay warrants an 8.5, a hesitant 9.  Far and away one of the best sandbox games I've played since Tropico.  Overall, From Dust is a solid addition to your library, and it's a bargain- a brand new game, for only $15 without a discount at Steam.  Buy it.  You won't regret it, and hopefully you'll encourage more games like it in the future.  Final rating: 8.2.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cell Phones Cause Cancer!

Maybe.  I mean, they could, right?  The WHO (World Health Organization) said so, after all.  I mean, cancer is a pretty complicated disease, and seemingly trivial things can cause it, right?  I'm going into this blog completely blind, and we'll see where I end up.
Well, reading the WHO's article, I'm not impressed with their classification.  The idea that cell phones cause some radiation is not a new (or wrong) one, and the idea that it can cause tissue temperatures to rise makes perfect sense- that energy that isn't going into the air waves has to go somewhere, after all.  The cell phone produces radio waves, which go off into the air in search of (well, really just blindly toward) a tower, which copies them, and sends them into space, where they are redirected to another local tower, and then transmitted to the receiving phone.  The waves are emitted roughly in a half-sphere (hemisphere, I suppose) around the cell phone, and radiate outwards.  Half (or so) of the waves will hit you in the head, if you are holding the phone near it.  That much, at least, is fact (and even obvious).  In the short term, there don't seem to be any effects, but this isn't always indicative.  Cigarettes and asbestos don't have any immediate (cancerous) effects, either.  Cancer is a pretty nuanced state that cells find themselves in, it's not like a virus or other infection, and it takes years to develop, if it does at all.
Reassuringly, they ("Who?", "WHO." "Who?", "Right.") do set guidelines on how much radiation can be absorbed.  The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is an internationally recognized organization that sets various standards for the creation of electronic devices (among other things), and so items produced after 2005 are likely to be in accordance with them.  This is good, since most users (by which I mean I) change their cell-phones every two or 3 years, any recent phone is likely to maintain this standard.
On the other side, people seem to believe that the WHO went overboard in declaring cell phones potentially carcinogenic.  They say that what the WHO means is simply that it's possible that cell phones cause cancer.  It's possible that Elves are planning an invasion of the dark side of the moon with their thermal technology seized from Under Armour (only after they win the presidency, Come ON Ron Paul, Phase 1, remember?).  Of course, cancer is a bit more plausible, but let's instead look at the mechanism.
First, we need to understand cancer, and even with a medical degree, this is difficult. It's an exceptionally nuanced class of disease all its own, and it doesn't fit generalizations easily.  What is known is that it's a state that otherwise healthy cells get in, where they begin to replicate uncontrollably, creating masses of tissue, called tumors, through many and varied mutations.  They can even transport blood to the tissues, by hijacking veins to irrigate their tumor.  It would be beautiful, if it didn't kill almost everything it touched.  Not all tumors are cancerous, sometimes they are benign growths of normal, if misguided, cells, and won't kill you.
Exactly how cancer happens is somewhat of a mystery, which is not to say that it is misunderstood.  The main takeaway is that minor copying errors increase exponentially (much like evolution itself), protecting the cell from the body's built-in correction mechanisms.  Exactly how these errors occur is the mystery I speak of- by their very nature, they don't happen overnight (at least in the vast majority of cases), and can chug harmlessly along for decades until the "evolution" occurs- there's a random, precipitating event and a horrible arms race begins at the cellular level.  So the bad news is you probably already have pre-cancerous cells in your body, somewhere.  They might get killed off by the regulating systems, but they might lurk in the woods and eventually stage a coup like Communists in Czechoslovakia (I figured I'd go with that metaphor as it's unlikely to offend since they don't make Czechoslovakians anymore).
More to the point, can radiation trigger cancer? Yes.  Can cell phones? As I said above, the WHO says it's possible, but doesn't go much further than that.  I say, what't can't cause it?  With a definition so broad and triggers so delicate in their understanding, I doubt that something as benign (pun intended) as drinking purified water hasn't (or at least, couldn't) caused cancer.  While I quickly concede that cell phones are a relatively modern phenomenon, I don't think we're strangers to radiation or its ill effects, and on that basis I'm thinking no, cell phones aren't likely to cause cancer (after all, ionizing radiation doesn't cause cancer except in extreme doses), and neither are power lines or televisions or microwaves. But the final say, e.g, evidence, is still out.  Check with me in the next 20 years, there may be new developments on that front.
For now, even staying away from proven carcinogens, there's no way to avoid cancer entirely.  The best studies have shown no correlation, and cell phones are far too useful to discard on such ephemeral bits of caution.  So eat, text and be merry, for we all probably already have cancer.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bronies: Trolling is Magic.

Bronies are a new phenomenon that are currently sweeping through the internet, and I have little doubt that before long they will reach "critical mass", spilling over into popular culture and making their way into the everyday mainstream.  They might never be accepted (ask Star Trek/Wars geeks), but they do seem to be around for a while, and I'm fairly confident they're in for the long haul.  I think it's presumptuous to call it a movement, but for simplicity I will throughout this post.
For those few of you who don't know what Bronies are, they're just adults that enjoy the TV show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  Well, maybe they're adults who enjoy it a little too much.  There are lots of YouTube videos made by these guys- and there's a lot of talent and imagination in the crowd.  It's a very large movement- Anthony Bourdain, Former President Bill Clinton, Stephen Colbert, Rebecca Watson are all either Bronies or have publicly endorsed it.  I have a friend who hated the movement a little bit too much, and before long he realized he had "become" one.  He described the transformation as more like he had a realization- he realized, he didn't want to be one but he was, and he just had to accept it.
I'm not sure I buy it.  I've watched an episode or two, and they're OK, I mean, no different from the Simpsons (except for clearer, lower pitched dialog, no pretense at being a kids show, and generally unambiguous messages about life, the universe, and everything), but nothing I could ever consider throwing myself behind.  Not because it isn't cool, because it just doesn't do anything for me.  Then again, I'm not a big fanboy, period.  I admit to an unfair appreciation of the Final Fantasy series, but mostly because it has deep, emotional ties in my childhood.  I like the Elder Scrolls, but the games are not without their significant flaws, I just enjoy the general freedom in play.  I never made up my mind between Kirk and Picard, Skywalker or Solo.  I just don't invest myself enough in media to change my daily life.  I enjoy Spock and Riker when I see them as much as I enjoy Voldemort or Dexter.  They're all just characters, and whether or not there's new stuff coming out, they're still just that, fictional characters I care next to nothing about.  I don't draw lines, or make judgments, I take them at face value.  As far as that goes, I don't care much for Fluttershy or Twilight Sparkle, but I can appreciate the ideas behind.  I can totally see the movement.  I just can't get behind it, anymore than I could any of the nation's other greatest fads.  I really enjoyed Army of Darkness (and the Evil Dead movies that came first), not enough to stand "behind" them, on any issues.
And those would-be-(if-I-were-talking)-air-quotes are, I think, the crux of this movement.  What are the requirements for entry into this movement?  Is it just an appreciation for MLP:FIM?  Is it just enough to acknowledge they're a good show, much like the Powerpuff Girls or The Adventures of Billy and Mandy or Invader Zim (I think it's evident I could go on)?  Or does it take more?  I'm asking, I don't presume to know the answer, and as I have only one contact in the Broniverse (to my knowledge, that term is copyright by me.  Originality is, after all, undiscovered plagiarism) I can't say with any certainty, but I do suspect  something more is required ("You're not a real Brony!").  An obsession with the culture.  And, as with House, Dexter, American Dad or Castle, I can't say I obsess.  I watch all these shows regularly, but I don't even engage in conversation about them, except for the occasional small-talk.  So I'm not a Brony, but there are a couple of sub-movements my friend has mentioned- maybe there's something .
The Pegasisters are Bronies who object to the idea that the term Brony is masculine.  If you've read my previous posts, you may be aware how pathetic I feel this argument is.  Many of them either feel men either shouldn't watch or should be ashamed of watching MLP.  It probably goes without saying that I find the needlessly sexist behavior off-putting if I'm feeling generous, and discount them without a second thought.  Many Pegasisters just refer to themselves as such because they aren't crazy about the title "Brony", given its obviously male implications.  I have no problem with them.
Then there are the Shippers, they write fanfiction (or sometimes just post/comment publicly, maybe make a Youtube video), usually romantic in nature, between characters in the series.  Consider "Huddy" fans, of House fame, people who publicly postulated that Drs. House and Cuddy should be (or were already) together in some romantic relationship, long before one actually started in the show.  Like the rest of the Brony movement, I have no problem with people writing fanfiction, even if it's of the romantic variety.  Practicing creativity is a good thing, and if some dragon-pony affair tweaks your muse, then so be it.  I won't read it, but I won't begrudge them for doing what they want.
Some mainstream Bronies don't take kindly to it, which is a little odd.  Their argument has to look something like:
Brony: "You wrote a story about Rainbow Dash and Applejack getting together?  That's weird."
Shipper: "That's weird?  I wrote a story about something I enjoy."
B: "Yeah, but they're cartoons.  And ponies."
S: "And?  I'm being creative."
B: "But it's a kids' show, and that weirds me out."
S: "So, you feel about me the way the rest of the world feels about you."
B: "Well played."  >.>
I admittedly haven't watched enough of MLP:FIM to get a good idea of exactly who it applies to, but they exist, and they draw some line there.  Again, I think it's a silly line to draw, but in any cult following, you end up with shippers, and you end up with "normal" members of the obsessive group disliking them.
My Brony friend doesn't think anything analogous to the Brony movement exists.  I don't think it's unique in any way.  Like any cult following of, well, anything (The Rocky Horror Picture Show comes to mind), it's a culture where people can meet each other and have a common ground.  Like 4chan and Reddit, some of the people within the movement are obscenely talented, and they put together technically impressive videos, or sometimes animate their own spin-offs which are nearly identical to the original.
I don't know what to expect from this movement.  Personally, I'm not overly impressed.  My friend seems to think it's a completely unique development, but I think I've shown it's nothing new, just a new object of fandom.  It's another movement, we'll watch it surge, wither and finally discover a sustainable homeostasis, eventually earning a solid position in society.  Or not.
What's the difference between Bronies and Twilight fans? (Team Rainbow Dash or Team Pinkie Pie?) Demographics, I'm guessing, and there's probably considerable overlap.  Being a Brony is just a level of fandom that started, I think, as a troll, and ended up with people legitimately enjoying what is nominally a kids' show, and spreading the magic to others (ie., growing the fan base).  But like most modern kids' shows, there are plenty of adult jokes embedded in the story.  It's clearly a charming, enjoyable show, and I don't think there's anything wrong with enjoying it.  Or obsessing about it.  Whatever dills your pickle.