Sunday, January 30, 2011

Get The Flock Outta Here!

So I was on my way to the store this morning, and A Prairie Home Companion was on the radio.  Long show, short trip, so I may have missed some context, but a song begins.  It was simple, it was cheerful, and the audience was encouraged to sing along at one point, but I had never heard it before.  Oddly enough, if I had written the lyrics myself, I'd have rejected them as too simplistic in their one-dimensional and insulting portrayal of believers.  But here, without a trace of irony, they were singing what I have since learned is a christian campfire song: "I wanna be a sheep".

Now, I understand the metaphor of Jesus as shepherd; I had always assumed that it was sort of a "given that we are lost sheep, isn't it nice to have a shepherd watching over us" metaphor.  I had never considered the "hey, isn't it great to be a sheep, a mindless member of a herd!" interpretation.  But it turns out there are quite a few versions (the one at that last link is bizarre) of the song up on YouTube.

Frightening.  I assume the multiple watermarks on the photos are there ironically, since good christian sheep would never steal.

I wanna be a sheep (baa ba-baa baa)
I wanna be a sheep (baa ba-baa baa)
Don’t ever wanna have to think too deep
I just wanna be a sheep (baa ba-ba-baa baa)

I wanna be a drone (mmmmmmmmmmmmm)
I wanna be a drone (mmmmmmmmmmmmm)
Don't ever wanna have a thought of my own
I just wanna be a drone (mmmmmmmmmmmm)

Don't wanna be a cuttlefish (cuttlefish-noise)
Don't wanna be a cuttlefish (cuttlefish-noise)
Cos they're too subtle fish
Don't wanna be a cuttlefish (cuttlefish-noise)

Don't wanna be... oh, I can't go on.

Another Funeral

You can die in bits and pieces; you can die in one quick flash
Die the ancient voice of wisdom, or die early, young and brash
Tuck your body in a coffin; pick an urn to hold your ash
Your survivors will remember you and cry
In the stories of your childhood, of your young and reckless past
How you fiercely burned your candle—who could think it would not last?
You could live to be a hundred; it would still be gone too fast
Life is never seen so brief as when we die

This weekend's funeral was, again, beautiful, though again not so beautiful that I would not have wished it unnecessary.  I was moved more than I expected to be (this was not, after all, my brother this time), and was reminded once again that each life touches so many others, often in ways that are hidden from pretty much any witness.  

Strangely, I am also reminded of the mass graves--most recently in Brazil, following the mudslides, but elsewhere and elsewhen other disasters or wars--where entire communities have been lost, or where the necessities of safety and health mean that there will be no funeral, no memorial, no gathering of loved ones.  I really am one of the lucky ones, to be able to remember my family this way.

A last thought though--yes, I'm one of the lucky ones, but luckier still would be to push these funerals as far into the future as we can.  The local papers remind us that January's supplies of blood in the Red Cross banks are the lowest they have been in a decade.  Snowstorms keep people from blood drives, but they don't keep people from needing blood.  So, as I do on occasion, I remind you that, here in the US at least, you can find out about your local bloodmobiles at the Red Cross website.  Tell them Cuttlefish sent you.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Strange Bedfellows at CPAC

A group of gay Republicans
Would tell the truth, they vowed;
These honest, gay, conservatives
Became the GOProud

They would not live life closeted,
Nor with the liberal crowd;
They bravely blazed a different trail—
They were the GOProud

With insight and intelligence
These gay men were endowed;
Their work insured Republicans
Respected GOProud

Conservatives are gathering
To celebrate out loud;
Among the groups responsible,
The mighty GOProud

But there are some conservatives
Who’d keep their brethren cowed;
They will not share the conference with
The sinful GOProud

Some say they pitch a giant tent—
Well, gays are not allowed—
The GOP has bigots, too,
Who shun the GOProud.

Their thoughts are fixed on heaven,
So their heads are in a cloud;
They’d rather miss the conference than
Accept the GOProud

So let the Christian Right demand
Their party wear a shroud;
I’m glad the mainstream GOP
Embraces GOProud.

In the "strange bedfellows" department, the Conservative Political Action Conference (next month, in DC), "the conservative movement's largest gathering of the year" (NY Times) has lots of daddies.  Including GOProud, the conservative gay organization (because the Log Cabin Republicans were more Gay than Republican, GOProud emerged as the more Republican than Gay alternative).   

Now, I am not a Republican.  But I am very happy to see the mainstream conservative groups sponsoring CPAC are ever-so-slightly more modern less medieval than the [predominately] church-based groups that have refused to share their Big Tent with fellow conservatives who agree with them on better than 90% of their agenda... but who love their fellow men a bit more literally than the bible-bangers can stomach.

The New York Times story focuses on the "Divisions On The Right", but really, the "divisions" are very meaningfully different.  And this is good news (sorta--bear with me here).  Yes, conservative Christian Pinheads are Homophobic Assholes.  This is Not News.  What is news, though, is that a Gay group is a co-sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference.  Yes, it should have happened with the Log Cabin Republicans, and yes, it should not have required even that.   But movement is movement, even if it makes plate tectonics look like speed dating. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Congress(7)woman Bachman

A forefather-fetish gets Bachman all wettish,
And frightfully warm in her bloomers
She’s all hot and bothered and “ooh, founding father”ed;
She wants to dispel all the rumors
That the founders she craves were the type to own slaves
And to hold fellow humans in chains
In defense of her crushes her brain turns to mush,
As it quite understandably strains
In this instance we find that love truly is blind
And she really believes what she’s sighing
But when push comes to shove, though it may be true love,
The other true thing is—she’s lying.

By now you have likely seen Congresswoman Michelle Bachman's Tea Party reaction to the State of the Union Address. And probably some of the reaction to her brand of revisionist history. If not, the couple of videos here will get you up to speed.

I think I have the whole thing figured out. Bachman has a crush on the founding fathers. She's got a journal somewhere where she has written "Michelle Adams", "Michelle Madison", "Michelle Jefferson" and "Michelle Washington" over and over and over... you can tell she gets excited by the way her quill pen sometimes runs out of ink when she forgets to re-dip it, and the exquisitely curled script becomes illegible. I suspect she ran for Congress when she saw definition 7 while looking for definition 1:

Monday, January 24, 2011


I’ve had broken bones
And kidney stones;
Had migraines wrack my brain
I’ve been cut; I’ve been burned,
And eventually learned
That it doesn’t help much to complain.
I’ve got scars I can trace
Where a dog bit my face
(Well, there’s really no good place to bite us)
Ah, but son of a bitch,
I just can’t stand the itch
Of this damned contact dermatitis!

In the "true tales from the life of Cuttlefish" files, I am going nuts! My hands are shaking with the effort of not scratching (which effort fails miserably), and I can think of nothing but the itching. I want to take a belt sander to my torso, and I think amputating my arms at the shoulder is worth considering. Yes, I've called the doctor.

Oh, and all the stuff in the verse is true. The dog was a german shepherd, and it was going for my throat while its owner pulled it back, so it only bit my face. Sitting here, itching, that seems like the good old days.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Prayer Is The Cure... Why Not The Prevention?

Some eight in ten Americans,
Believe that prayer saved Gabby’s life,
Though many tears were shed;
The bullet could have broken up
But stayed one piece of lead,
And so did far less damage
As it passed through Gabby’s head;
It missed the major arteries,
And so although she bled
She did not die from loss of blood—
To hospital they sped;
In merely days she showed the signs
While lying in her bed
That Gabby’s health was coming back,
Not hanging by a thread.

So, praying was the answer.
But the comment left unsaid:
If God did this, why not just make
The bullet miss, instead?

Cuttlecap tip to TribalScientist, via twitter

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Paul The Octopus, Honored

Octopuses come and go—
So must, of course, we all—
A final act, celebrity
Does nothing to forestall;
But there was one eight-legged sort
Who held us in his thrall
The octopus-cum-oracle
We came to know as Paul.

A bit of zoo publicity
You probably recall:
Presented with two choices,
Toward the winner he would crawl!
His name lives on in legend;
Now he takes a curtain call,
With a statue and memorial,
Where he sits atop a ball.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On A Personal Note...

After a lingering illness that took his mind, his bodily functions, his personality, and his dignity, the husk that used to be my brother in law finally lost his life.   Within a year, I have lost a brother suddenly, and a brother in law slowly.   I’m feeling quite mortal these days.

I had a friend who contemplated suicide a few years ago.  She was in her mid 30’s, widowed, suffering from depression; she quite rationally looked at the possibility of 30-50 years of pain and suffering, and nearly ended it.  She has not told me what stayed her hand; I once thought it was the realization that, whatever this life holds, it is “better than nothing”, and that is the choice.  Watching my brother in law, I realize how naïve I was to think that.  

It is perhaps understandable that I have been watching Christopher Hitchens as he fights his cancer.  He has retained his intellect, his wit, his self, through great pain, discomfort, weakness, and cancer’s best attempts to steal his dignity.  Storms, landslides, illnesses, lunatics with weapons… there are so many different ways to die, and none of us get out alive.  ... I'm not going anywhere with this, just free associating.  Like I said, I'm feeling mortal.  Hug your loved ones.  

If you ever get the chance to visit me in the hospital (very unlikely, I’ll grant you), bring me the oldest bottle of scotch you can find, and a bottle of pain pills.   If you can talk me into taking both, then it’s likely for the best.  If I refuse the pills, have a drink with me, and we can have a great talk. 

And visit frequently.  Just in case.

Oh, yeah, right, a verse…

There once was a man who, with pride,
Said he’d never let dreams go untried—
So he spent ninety years
Building hopes, taming fears,
And then—far, far too early—he died.

This post is likely not going to stay up for long.  I just had to say something somewhere.  So if it vanishes, it doesn't mean you were hallucinating.  Or, to be honest, that you were not.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Mediocrity Principle

I want a special planet,
One created just for me;
I want a perfect paradise
A garden, can’t you see?
That waited through eternity
For my exalted birth—
But Eden is a myth, so I
Will settle for the Earth.
It’s not so bad, as planets go,
I’ll do just fine with Earth.

I want a special status
Where I’m more than just a beast;
With godlike comprehension
Or intelligence, at least;
Created sui generis
And not evolved from goo—
But rather than be fictional,
Humanity will do.
I’m going to have to face the facts;
Humanity will do

I want a special function,
Or a purpose, or a plan;
I want to be much better than
The ordinary man;
I want to be a shining star
Whom everyone can see—
The odds are astronomical;
I might as well be me.
The product of my history,
I might as well be me.

I want a special talent
That’s the product of my mind;
I want to be a genius
Of the greatest, grandest kind;
Where Shakespeare, in comparison,
Would just give up and curse—
But dreams are not reality;
I think I’ll write this verse.
I’ll never be a Shakespeare,
But at least I wrote this verse.

Why "The Mediocrity Principle"? Here. Cuttlecap tip to PZed.

Google Poetry Translator!

Crack reporters at The Bugle, each notoriously frugal,
Thought they’d stoop to using Google for a verse-translation chore;
Past the ordinary deadline, hoping vainly for a headline
To at least avoid the breadline, where they’d eaten oft before
They were poorly paid reporters, so they’d eaten there before,
And had promised “never more”

Google searches through for matches; when it finds one, it attaches—
If it doesn’t work, dispatches it as something to ignore
Matching syllables and timing, more than this, it looks at rhyming,
Though its crude syntactic priming may yield verses you deplore
Mind you, many human poets give you verses you deplore,
Though we warn them “nevermore”

In this time-intensive screening, Google focuses on meaning,
And the finely tuned machining is the only guarantor
That computerized translation isn’t mere abomination,
And will win the acclamation of the critics by the score
Though the human poets shudder, thinking “critics by the score!
Let them visit never more!”

But a mere computer stripling, it can imitate a Kipling
Though the output may be crippling, and may leave your eardrums sore
Though it lacks a human passion, it’s a poet, in a fashion,
Not exactly Ogden Nash-ian, still it’s nothing you’d abhor
And a lot of modern poetry, the public does abhor
So they read it nevermore.

Now with German, French, or Russian verse, it’s worthy of discussion:
Will we notice repercussions from this poetry galore?
With a software package Babel fish eventually able
To re-work a verse or fable, might it save us all from war?
If we understand each other, will we still believe in war,
Or agree to “never more”?

NPR reports that Google is developing an artificial intelligence Poetry translator.
"It's what we call AI complete," says Dmitriy Genzel, a research scientist at Google. "Which means it's as difficult as anything we can attempt in artificial intelligence."

Programming a machine to simply understand language, after all, is a task IBM spent four years and millions of dollars to accomplish with its Watson computer, which competed on Jeopardy last week.

Watson understands human speech. But for a computer to understand and translate poetry, there are added problems of length, meter and rhyme.
Tell me about it.

Well, actually, they do tell us about it, in a paper on the Official Google Research Blog. And, damn them, they parodied The Raven before I did, which I'd have known if I'd clicked that one link. Oh, well. They only did one verse. But the paper is well worth reading; I've often said that what I do can be accomplished by an adequately trained monkey... looks like Google is raising the ante.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Political Climate

Growingly, showingly,
Ancient environments
Influenced trees, and the
Growth of their rings;

Centuries later, the
Use this to tell us what
Climate change brings.

Verily, scarily,
Climate-change scientists
Warn us our actions en-
Danger us all:

Climate effects can be
Sometimes portending an
Empire’s fall.

Via the BBC, just published online in Science, a report on 2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility. First, ya gotta find a lot of wooden artifacts. Analysis of growth rings from a large enough sample of such artifacts allowed Swiss, German and Austrian scientists to piece together an historical record of good and bad seasons over the past 2.5 millenia. Turns out "good and bad seasons" holds true both for weather and for the relative prosperity of empires.

From the BBC:
Once they had developed a chronology stretching back over the past 2,500 years, they identified a link with prosperity levels in past societies, such as the Roman Empire.

"Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period," the team reported.

"Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces of Gaul."
I wonder if future dendrochronologists will see us as yet another example.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Thoughts On The Blame Game

At times like this, the nation pauses
Long enough to look for causes.
That’s not quite so. It’s true we pause,
But only look for One True Cause;
Multiple determination
Only leads us to frustration.
When something horrible is done
Our search for blame is all-or-none.

The comment threads of major news outlets (you know how much I love to read those!) are as predictable as they have ever been. One commenter calls for a ban on handguns; several others immediately point out that they are, themselves, law-abiding gun owners. Hate-filled rhetoric? Millions of listeners were able to listen to the stream of invective and were somehow not moved to express their outrage in the form of a spray of lead. Video games? Again, millions of players are a far greater danger to their couch than to any human being. Even the old standby, mental illness, is defended, and we are reminded (unexpectedly, says the cynic in me) that mental illness is in no way predictive of such actions.*

And then, conclusions are drawn. Not the right ones, but conclusions nonetheless. We could have recognized that determination of ultimate causality of human action is never, ever going to come down to one factor, and recognized that our task is not to snap our fingers and make "the cause" go away, but to see which of the many causal elements we can tweak to make the world incrementally a better place. And we could have recognized that, sometimes, big effects don't necessarily have big (and immediately identifiable) causes. Instead, we conclude that since there is always an exception, there is no rule, and that human behavior is not determined by environmental influences. That the rules that govern the rest of the observable universe somehow don't apply within the boundaries of our skin, or our skull. If we can't see one cause, our default fallback position is that there is none.

I do recognize the irony of making this observation, and [overly?] simplifying the behavior of tens or hundreds of thousands of commenters across scores of sites. All I can hope is that my readers will not see one or two examples that don't fit my observation, and conclude that there is no truth to it at all. We are complex creatures, granted, but some very complex and complicated effects can come out of a combination of very few, comparatively simple, inputs.

*I have seen, unsurprisingly, the very expected post-hoc diagnosis of mental illness. While in this case it may be very probable that he is suffering, I have yet to hear a single qualified commenter make such a pronouncement. I suspect that the use of the label reflects much more our need to distance ourselves from the shooter, and to make sure he is the other; to think that normal people commit horrible acts is, well, horrible. This self-serving tendency is part of what leads to the belief that persons with mental illnesses are dangerous.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Battle Hymn Of The Republican

I’m the voice of opposition in a fast-decaying land
I can mobilize an army who will follow my command
I’m a master of the media; they’re puppets in my hand
I’m conservative, intelligent, and strong!
I’m the future of the party; I’m the darling of the right
I can focus on the issues like a crimson laser sight
With opponents in my crosshairs, I will exercise my might
Cos they’re evil, and they’re wicked, and they’re wrong!

I can motivate the populace, with no more than a word
I can make them true believers, though the message is absurd
I can obfuscate the issues till reality is blurred
There is little—nearly nothing—I can’t do!
I’m an awesome force of nature, moving mountains with a wink
I can rally up a million men, and tell them what to think
I have finely tuned my rhetoric to bring them to the brink
And I’ll exercise my power over you!

[the inevitable occurs]

They could never hold me liable for an incident like this
They could try to say I’m culpable, but patriots insist
It’s your own responsibility when something goes amiss
Sometimes people are just ready to explode!
I’m not running, I’m not shirking, and it’s not like I don’t care
I’m just looking at the evidence, and finding nothing there:
How could words have repercussions? They’re just pressure waves in air!
Now it’s time for my supporters to reload!

I was just continuing to muse a bit over the fascinating change in rhetoric over the past week. The above verse is meant as an amalgam, not merely the obvious target. I remember Rush bloviating "talent on loan from God"; Beck gloating over the attendance at his rally, Billo's obsession with the numbers competition between himself and his MSNBC counterparts... WHen it suited their interest, they claimed tremendous influence. That influence, however, has the fascinating property of disappearing altogether when reality catches up to rhetoric.

It reminds me a bit of ESP. (wait, I think I can do this.) As per Bem's paper, scientific studies of ESP, when they show effects, demonstrate an anomalous effect roughly identical in strength to known experimenter biases and methodological errors. It's as if these effects don't exist at all, though supporters call me (and others) close-minded for pointing this out. But compare this to the sorts of things ESP is able to do when it is *not* being tested! Telling you whether he or she is the right one, helping you on business ventures, finding your lost wallet, your lost pet, or even your lost child! Well worth the disgusting amount of money forked over, don't you think?

The difference between untested claims and actual evidential support is a pretty substantial gulf. The difference between credit for good outcomes and blame for bad ones, for Conservative mouthpieces, is likewise huge. What a difference a bit of context can make.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Individual Responsibility And Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin is wrong.

Now, that will come as no surprise to a large percentage of my readers, who are predisposed to take that position based on her speaking history over the past years, but I’m referring to a particular point this time. In today’s New York Times, Ms. Palin (or her writers) waxes eloquent on the Real American Value of Individual Responsibility:
She said acts like the shootings in Arizona “begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.”
I know this is a popular view, especially after events like the shooting in Arizona. We want to put as much psychological distance between the killer and ourselves. If we admit that there was something society could have done to prevent it, then we are ourselves culpable, and we must shoulder a part of the blame, for our inaction. Can’t have that.
Ms. Palin quoted former President Ronald Reagan as saying that society should not be blamed for the acts of an individual. She said, “it is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”
Convenient that Jared Loughner must be held accountable, but Sarah Palin refuses to take responsibility for her own actions and her refusals to act.

Palin’s individualist rhetoric (not her bellicose rhetoric) allows her to ignore the plight of those for whom a supportive environment might mean the difference between life and death. They are responsible for their own situations.

Ms. Palin, by your own words, we must hold you individually responsible for your actions. You have chosen a path where your words are intended to have the widest audience, the widest influence possible. You cannot pretend that you have not tried to move people to action; you cannot pretend that you speak just to hear your own voice. You can acknowledge the power of your position and take individual responsibility for your own words—including their effect on your followers.

I do not hold you responsible for Loughner’s actions. But I do not think his actions begin and end with him. Nor do you, unless you honestly think your own speaking has no influence on your listeners. We are a social species; we cannot help but influence one another. We cannot choose to not get involved; even that choice is our responsibility, and it is wrong to stand by and do nothing when we could help. We are interconnected. We all influence one another, constantly.

Those who speak to millions, like Ms. Palin (and yes, the TV and radio voices, and public figures across the political spectrum) have the opportunity to influence these millions. If you believe the doctrine of individual responsibility extends to yourself, then recognize the power of your position and take responsibility for your rhetoric, and use your influence to make the world a better place. If you believe, though, that the doctrine of individual responsibility absolves you of any blame, that your words cannot move others to action… then why are you talking? Do the world a favor and shut the fuck up.

We need to help our fellow man.
Because we should. Because we can.
Because it’s wrong and downright shameless
To dole out blame while staying blameless.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Since You Already Believe *This*...

The evidence for ESP
Is awfully thin, it seems to me.
Some disagree (like Daryl Bem)
But I cannot concur with them.
I’ve heard it said “perhaps the odds
It’s true are similar to God’s—
That is, we may not have a clue,
But still we know, it must be true.”

And I agree—there is no clue
Suggesting it, or God, is true;
A popular belief in gods
Does not improve the tiny odds.
Anomalies from Daryl Bem
Don’t have too much supporting them;
So, sure! The odds for God, to me,
Are just the same as ESP.

My title, of course, is stolen from the New York TImes's article "You Might Already Know This...", about Daryl Bem's upcoming report in the flagship journal, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper has already made its rounds in the various science blogs; I have read it, as have, I suspect, many of my regular readers. Although it would be great fun to talk about the paper itself here, that's not what grabbed my eye this evening. Today, it is more interesting to look at the reaction to the paper.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the reactions to this paper are... varied. Some suggest that Bem is playing an elaborate practical joke; I disagree. Certainly, it is possible, but the current paper follows 1994's Bem and Honorton paper in Psych Bull (that's Psychological Bulletin) claiming "replicable evidence" for forms of ESP, and it would be a damned impressive practical joke that takes over 15 years to pay out. Others suggest that Bem is being given preferential treatment. Possible; he has, arguably, earned it, given his career. My favorite reaction, though, came from the comments to the New York Times piece. In part:
To the doubters - and I have no objection to the doubters - one question: Is there a God?

Put differently, did any of that stuff in the bible happen?

For if the Good Book is good, true, and honest, why not ESP?

If God can send his Son to save us, who says there's no means to communicate without gadgets?
And while I strongly suspect that my overall view is as far from hers/his as can be, I agree completely. If pigs can fly, why not invisible pink unicorns?

(that was going to be the end, but a nagging thought provokes me. I cannot recall who or when, but I seem to remember someone writing about the dangers of religious belief, with the inclusion of something like "belief in the incredible (literally) claims of religion weakens one's ability to critically analyze other claims." If anyone needed an example..."

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Jumping The Gun

The first reports are always hazy;
No one knows what happened yet.
But, look for facts? I’m much too lazy!
Pure assumption’s what you’ll get.

Liberals know the dude’s a ‘bagger,
Fond of Sarah Palin’s list;
Right-wing thought: must be a fag, or
Mexican, or atheist.

Fingers pointing, pointing wildly
See the accusations fly!
Premature, to put it mildly—
Far too soon to answer “why?”

Social ties or vague psychosis—
Everyone’s an expert now;
Always, though, the diagnosis
Fits their older views, somehow.

Rorschach tests are termed “projective”,
Aimed to read inside our heads—
I’d suggest, for that objective
Simply look at comment threads.

I've said it before, I'll likely say it again: I love comment threads.

But... damn.

Moments after the AZ shootings, not knowing that anything had happened, I brought up a couple of my favorite news sites, and was immediately drawn into a black hole of stereotyping and confirmation bias. Liberals knew it was a conservative, conservatives knew it was a liberal; there were people willing to bet (I saw amounts from 20 to 1000 dollars) that the shooter was Mexican (before the reports came out that he was white), gay (after those reports), a tea-partier, an atheist, and so on. When the list of his "favorite books" came out, it only served to reinforce these preconceived notions.

I also saw comments from people who were actually cheering the event. I'd write about them, but I can't find the words.

Oh, and this is particularly sobering--a timeline of similar rhetoric and events.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Star Stuff Contemplating Star Stuff

"We are star stuff contemplating star stuff."
Carl Sagan

Star light, star bright,
Ten billion years ago,
I need to ask a question
Cos I really want to know:

The carbon in our bodies came
From ancient stars’ collapse;
I’ve heard it from a poet
Or a physicist, perhaps

But is it true, as some have said
(I can’t believe it, quite),
That different stars made atoms
For my left hand and my right?

Or could it be, my love and I
Were once the self-same star,
Together for eternity
In time and space, so far?

Something I have wondered for years--probably from about six seconds after I first heard about how heavier elements were formed--is, how was (is) the matter from exploding stars distributed? Space is, as Douglas Adams noted, big. "[V]astly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big." If a star goes supernova, how widely would its heavier elements be distributed? Would the majority of the "star stuff" coalesce into just a relative handful of relatively local gravity sinks, or could we expect a relatively small amount in any one relatively local area (and yes, I thought about each of those relatives; it's my version of Drake's equation).

Lawrence Krauss, in his wonderful "A Universe From Nothing" talk, gives one answer:
Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.
On the other hand, Tony Piro's "Calamities of Nature" claims "we're all born from the death of the same star"

(Click to see the whole thing.)
Anyway, I want to know. And here's the beautiful thing. Once upon a time, we would have made up some answer, something that made us feel good, or superior, or something that allowed the teller to pretend to know more than he or she did. Something that probably started "once upon a time". Or "in the beginning...". But now, we can actually answer the question. It doesn't matter which I think is cooler, or more romantic, or more commonsensical. There is a right answer, and if there aren't people who know it right now, there is a methodology that allows us to eventually get there.

Assuming our own star doesn't blow up first.

Anyway, I've got great commenters here, and I'm hoping one of you knows, or knows someone who knows. How many stars died to make me? Are my right and left hands from different stars (seems impossible to me, given that they came from the same food and air I've been taking in over my lifetime, so I suspect Krauss was using a bit of poetic license, actually meaning that our entire bodies are composed from the remains of many stars--but how many?)?

I want to know.

Open Lab 2010!

Jason Goldman has just announced the finalists for The Open Laboratory 2010; two of my verses (A Scientific Valentine and To A Rat...) made the cut! This year, there were a total of 50 articles and 6 poems that made the cut--oddly, every one who made the list for a poem actually made the list twice--Kevin Zelnio and Andrew Thaler are each included for an article as well as a poem, and two of Elissa Malcolm's remarkable month of science-based news sonnets were included. With such competition, I was not expecting to be included this year, but I am very happy to be in their company.

The volume is not yet published, but stay tuned. For those of you hungry for pages to turn, I remind you that over there to your right is a button that will take you where you can purchase my own Cuttlefish Omnibus. Which, I can now say, includes a total of five verses which were or will be included in The Open Laboratory over the past 4 volumes.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Ballad Of The Cross

The cross on the hill was a beautiful sight
On the days when the sky was most bluish;
It stood for the soldiers who gave up their lives
Well, except when the soldiers were Jewish.

The cross on the hill, it looked rugged and old
Though the city maintained it as newish;
The congressman said that it stood for the dead
Well, unless they were atheist, Muslim, or Jewish.

The cross on the hill was a secular thing—
That’s a lie, but it kinda sounds truish—
The judge said it symbolized service and loss
Well, except for the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Pagans, the Jains, the Confucians, the Shinto, the Sikh, the Druids, the Wiccans, Baha’i, Hare Krishna, Zoroastrian, Scientologists, atheists, Muslim or Jewish. Or the religions of the tribal nations who once owned the land the cross is on.

The cross on the hill is religious, of course
Said a Judge who rejected the woo-ish
And it can’t be a symbol for everyone there
If it doesn’t mean Buddhists, the Hindus, the Pagans, the Jains, the Confucians, the Shinto, the Sikh, the Druids, the Wiccans, Baha’i, Hare Krishna, Zoroastrian, Scientologists, atheists, Muslim or Jewish. Or, you know, the indans. Or even Christians who don’t want a symbol, or use a different cross from the Latin Cross, or (fades)

Image by Will Fresch--wikipedia commons

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Another Chance To Be Wrong

Some True Believers fear the worst;
They say all sinners, Eden-cursed
Have only till May twenty-first.

Though earnestly these groups have beckoned,
I think it's not as they have reckoned:
We'll still be here the twenty-second.

Since well before Leon Festinger made a name for himself with When Prophecy Fails, end-of-days cultists have been busily proving themselves fools. So, why would a Cuttlefish even mention yet another misguided attempt at prophecy?

It's not the prophet. It's the profit.

I am, selflessly, making my donations button available to any True Believers who wish to demonstrate their limitless faith by divesting themselves of all their worldly goods. For those whose faith is not quite at 100%, I will even agree to refund you a portion of your donation after May 22nd (the portion is up to you--if you are only 10% faithful, you could get 90% back; 50% faithful, 50% back, and so on). Of course, god is watching (as far as you know), so be honest about your faith!

For the rest of us faithless bunch, I join with many others in hoping some news organization puts a camera on some of these people in late May. The ultimate reality show--"Confronting Reality"--in which the gradual realization that one has been an idiot is captured for the entertainment of others.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Cuttledamus's Predictions For 2011

The New Year’s rolled around once more—
As hopeful as can be—
And so I took some quiet time
To brew a cup of tea
It wasn’t for the calming drink
Oh, no, I wanted more:
I had to read the leaves to see
What this year has in store.

This year, to find my fortune,
Reading tea-leafs is the way!
Why trust in Nostradamus
When you could have had Earl Grey?
But with the sort of clarity
Enlightenment achieves,
When I looked into my teacup
All I saw were… soggy leaves.

I had to try a second time—
Perhaps it’s in the stars!
Some interactive influence
With Jupiter or Mars.
Positions of the planets,
I believed with all my heart,
Would tell me of the coming year,
And so I made my chart.

Astrologers had told me,
“As above, so too below”
But as I worked the numbers
It was clear, I didn’t know—
Our lives do not depend
On distant balls of rock or gas;
Some ancient fortune-teller
Pulled the whole thing from his ass.

The third time is a charm, they say,
And so, to test that quote,
I thought I’d read some entrails
So I sacrificed a goat.
I’d heard it said, with skill and care,
My future could be seen
In length of small intestine
And position of the spleen.

I dumped out all its viscera—
Its liver, lungs, and heart,
Esophagus to rectum, and
I wondered where to start
Consulting with the ancient charts
I thought I might be nuts;
The only thing I really saw
Were lots of smelly guts.

I thought I might try augury,
But found it for the birds
My Ouija Board was useless,
And it spelled out nonsense words
My tarot deck, a waste of time,
And so, of course, was prayer;
No use to talk to heaven
When there is no heaven there.

A Cheiromancer told me
She could read it in my hand
When she asked me for some money
I began to understand
So… no more reading crystals,
Smoke, or fire, or cookie crumbs—
For Two Thousand And Eleven
Take the future as it comes!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Beginnings Of Religion


Religion began as a means of control,
And a Grand Explanation, perhaps;
From the simplest of spirits to greatest of gods
We’re just trying to fill in the gaps.

Why does the sun rise? Why does it rain?
Why is there death, and disease?
Religion began, cos we didn’t know how
To find answers to questions like these.

Where base superstition and ignorance thrives
Knowledge brings power and perks,
And when good information is scarce to be found,
Then making up bullshit still works.

So, do what I tell you God tells me to tell you—
Obey me, each woman and man!
Don’t question my word—now, that’s rule number one—
And that’s how religion began.

Cuttlecap tip to PZed.