Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My Van and Its Problems

I couldn't find my cell phone today. I tried calling it, I dug in my blazer pockets, I checked under my keyboard... it was nowhere to be seen. I thought about where I could have left it, perhaps in the van? No, why the van? Did I drop it? Then I remembered--I had to use my cell phone to prop up the latch for my gas tank, I probably left it there...

Yes, in fact, I did. This problem, and others, explained, below:


My van is a 1988 Dodge Minivan. It's not actually mine, it belongs to my parents, although the vehicle and I are the same age. I don't know much auto tech stuff, so I'll tell you what I do know. The speedometer goes up to 85 MPH. It has four wheels. I can seat seven, including driver, with belts. It is silver/gray, although the paint is peeling off. There are no power locks; you actually "roll up" the windows. Yea, in '88, those were luxuries.
I put a sticker on the back from a Mini Cooper ad that reads "Whiptastic Handling." On this vehicle, that is a complete lie.

+ The turn indicator stops blinking sometimes, instead turning a solid color. To remedy this, I manually make it blink. (That is, I sit there and flick the blinker on and off at a regular pace.) Sometimes, that gets boring, and I mix it up a bit with a few strange blinking beats.

+ The seats are disintegrating. I got some beaded seats the other day; perhaps they'll help.

+ The transmission is dying. If I stop too suddenly for the gears to shift down correctly, when I start accelerating again, they shift suddenly, causing the entire vehicle to clunk back into motion, literally. This jolts the entire vehicle and everyone inside, frightening newcomers and veterans alike.

+ Everytime I go over 45, who ever is in the passenger seat asks, "What's that noise?" There's something near the wheel or something that makes a rattling at higher speeds. I have no clue what it is or if it is life threatening.

+ The "WASHERFLUID LIGHT" is always on on the dashboard. Why? I'm out of the stuff. Why don't I buy more? The sprayers don't work; if I try to use them, washer fluid sputters down the hood of the car, like tears of an old woman.

+ If the gas tank runs under 1/4 tank, it starts to run poorly. Supposedly there's crap floating in the tank, and it starts to go into the engine in I run it down too low. Either that or the gas gauge is broken, and I'm actually running out of gas before I reach empty.

+ The overhead reading lights never work when you first flick the switch. You have to slap the lights a few times before they turn on.

+ If you want to use the back door, the key hole actually still works. However, the hydraulics that hold the door up do not. As a result, if someone actually wants to use the back door for more than few seconds, they have to prop the door open with a stick.

+ The heating and AC still work too. However, if one tries to accelerate while using them, one of the belts in the engine starts to screech.

+ Sometimes the lights on the clock cut out. Flicking the clock will turn them back on.

+ The foam/cloth composite ceiling disintegrated long ago. What's left is a hideous foam of unknown nature.

+ The steering wheel always leaves a weird smell on your hands... rotting rubber or something. It's like nothing else I can think of.

+ The only lock that still works is the driver door. In addition, without the pure luxury of power locks, the driver has to reach over and unlock the passenger door everytime he/she gets in the car. If anyone else wants in, the passenger must unlock the sliding door.

+ Not necessarily a problem, more a design flaw, the vehicle completely lacks a tape or CD player. This is 1988, remember?

This has been partly remedied by a friend of mine; I borrowed a pair of his speakers, and I plug them into my iPod. I do have plans though... an DC->AC cigarette lighter adapter + an old pair of computer speakers = my future stereo system. Be warned.

+ The switch to open the gas tank works still... sort of. In order to get it open, I have to prop the switch up with my cell phone, go to the little door over the gas cap, and pry it open with a credit card or something.

Even with all of her flaws, do I still love her? Of course. Driving her is like flying a spaceship, except 1/300th as cool. In fact, if I had a spaceship, I could take women on dates in it without actually having a destination, like a guy with a yacht. But this isn't a spaceship, it's not even a yacht. It's a shitty old minivan, and it's probably going to stay that way.

My Cat: Animal or Rational Animal?

My cat is an asshole. He's a gray, alpha male tabby. His life story is rather brief, but more interesting than the typical cat's. He was born in November 1996 on the streets somewhere, later given to animal control. Through a cat rescue program, his life was spared. He lived with a family for a while who had many cats where we was given the name "Bubba," derived from his size and attitude. The family whom he lived with had to give him up though; he was kicking the shit out of the other cats. This was around the time my family adopted him at age 3. Bubba used to chew on anything paper and tear through the house wildly. He was very aggressive. We started letting him outside, and his behavior improved.

More recently, he developed an illness and nearly had to be put down. It started with a rash he continually scratched at, causing bleeding. He was put on medication, but the medication had an adverse reaction with his liver. He nearly died, but after more treatment, his liver recovered. Nevertheless, he still has the rash, an infection in his blood that he'll probably have for the rest of his life. After the whole debacle, he's lost a lot of his energy, although he's still a jerk.

The reason I continually call my cat a jerk has to do with his behavior--particuarly, the timing and nature in which he demands attention. He only demands attention from people while they're at the computer, wherein he prevents them from being productive by demanding contant attention while they continue to use the machine. Ocassionally, however, he'll abandon his efforts and fall asleep.

It's during these times I notice something curious about him. Frequently, he'll twitch throughout his sleep, as if he's dreaming. He seems to be responding to some sort of dream. The fact that he's dreaming implies he has some sort of mind's eye.

Does this, however, imply that he has the capactiy for creative thought? In the human mind dring creative thought, a person may create an image, then translate it into words or an image (through art) in order to communicate it to the outside world. My cat cannot communicate his creative thoughts to the outside world through those human means. However, he does have a capacity of demonstrating creative problem solving. For example, if he sees something he wants at a higher location, he will seek out a way of getting to that location--usually by means of jumping or finding a lower platform to jump on before getting to the final location.

Does this make my cat a rational animal? Aristotle used this definition to separate humans from animals--particularly, language being a sole characteristic of humans. I can't say my cat is irrational though, considering his capacity for problem solving. Simply because he doesn't have words for "if... then" does not necessarily mean he does not have the concept.

Rational or not, he's still a jerk, and I still love him.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Psychologist, Engineer, Mathematician Joke

So there's a psychologist, an engineer, and a mathematician sitting around in a park somewhere. A man near by is pointing. The engineer sees the man's finger and follows the pointing until he sees two people having sex in the park.

"Holy shit, do you see that?" he says.
"See what?" the other two respond.
The engineer is stumped. How could the other two not see what the man was obviously pointing at. The psychologist is staring directly at the man pointing while the mathematician has already put his attention to something else. First, he asks the psychologist, "Well, what the hell are you looking at?"
"Well, I'm trying to understand what has driven this man to perform this gesture. It's obviously some sort of symbol and a response to some stimulus, but his body language has not yet revealed to me the inner drive that caused this man to perform this action."

The engineer nods in hopelessness. He then looks at the mathematician and asks, "Well, you didn't even look at what the man was pointing at. What did you see?"
"Oh, there was no point. The ray diverges."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Why We Have Greasy Skin: Hypothesis 2

A while back, I heard that the reason people develop greasier skin with then become teenaged is because in ancient times, our ancestors found shiny, greasy faces attractive. That doesn't make much sense. Why should looking greasy be considered attractive? Is there even any proof for that? Whose professional opinion was this?

However, consider this. Today I was working in a friend of the family's yard. I've been tilling up their lawn so they can put in a garden. There hasn't been much rain around here, so as a result, below the surface, the earth is very dry. As I till it up, it kicks up vast amounts of dust.

Now, knowing that I was going to be doing this sort of labor today, I didn't bother take a shower yesterday. As a result, my skin was exceptionally greasy. A lot of the dust I kicked up stuck to my skin. Plausibly, this is the very reason why we have greasy skin, or at least one of them--to collect dirt.

But why would it be advantageous to be dirty? If sunlight hits dirt, you don't get burned. It acted like sunblock. This is, perhaps, the same reason we have hair in the regions we do. Hair too blocks sunlight. Often, its pigments are lightened as the energy from the rays are absorbed.

If hair and greasy skin are helpful against sunlight, why don't kids have these things? Well, it's a tough to answer question. It's possible that in prehistoric societies, children were sheltered enough until puberty to not need this extra protection. The adults, on the other hand, needed it for when they spent time in the sun hunting/gathering.

Paris Hilton's Jail Sentence

I've read the opinions of various people who feel that Paris Hilton's jail sentence is too severe. Despite that she's recieving a typical sentence for her crime, her punishment is technically more severe since she is a celebrity and will be given an abnormal amount of attention by fellow convicts. I agree, these statements are true. However, it is entirely unlawful to reduce her sentence for this reason.

Paris Hilton is a celebrity. This is not a title or status forced upon her; she brought it to herself, and through her lifestyle, has maintained it. Her actions are published and broadcasted throughout the world. When her actions go awry, these too, and their reprocussions, will be know widely. For the law to faulter at such a point shows weakness and exception; a merciful law is an unequal law.

Even if her celebrity status will give her a more brutal punishment, then that is how it should be. She should be held up to a higher standard. The law tells people how they should act in a civil society and punishes those who do not act accordingly. As a symbol of both status and behavior, this symbol should be punished even more brutally if necessary to ensure that the symbol itself does not inspire unruly behavior.

Yes, so her punishment for driving on a suspended license is worse than most people's. She has brought this upon herself through her lifestyle, and the status she has requires her to deserve a more brutal punishment. If the rule of law does not hold at a critical point such as this, then it flashes a glimpse of how truly weak it is.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Quantum Physics has Created Zombies!

Everybody's tired about hearing of Schrödinger's cat. If you're out of the loop, the whole idea of Schrödinger's cat is complicated, but can be stated rather simply. A guy sticks a cat in a box where there's an exactly 50% chance of the cat dying. He shuts the box, and while the box has not been opened, the cat is both alive and dead. Confused? Google it.

Anyway, since the cat is both alive and dead, doesn't that make it a zombie?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Double-Edged Sword

Out of all the cliches in all of the English language, one particular bothers me. Not many of them get at my nerves too much, most of them make sense. "Let the cat out of the bag" makes sense, for example. The concept of an angry cat being let out of a bag, running wild, both drawing attention and causing damage accurately portrays the idea of a negative rumor moving amongst the mouths of men.

The "double-edged sword" cliche makes no sense. I have tried for years to rationalize it, and it truly fails to perform the purpose for which it was coined. Essentially, the cliche portrays the concept that a given situation has a positive and negative side. For example, the Toyota Prius could be considered a "double-edged sword," since, although it may save money on gasoline, it is a relatively expensive vehicle.

It's not the concept that bothers me--the concept is a very common one, and having simple phrase to convey it easily is useful. However, the imagery fails completely. First of all, the majority of swords are double-edged, so why bother describe the sword as double-edged? It is merely redundant. Also, both edges of the sword are the same, while the concept portrays both a positive and negative end to the given situation. Unless the person weilding the sword is pushing it into their target with their hand on one of the edges, there is no positive or negative side of the weapon. The image of the cliche doesn't even touch this idea. If anything--with the weapon used properly--both sides of the weapon are positive; there is no disadvantage to using a double-edged sword.

The cliche has stuck around because it's useful, and it's not going to go away until there's a viable replacement. Hopefully, someone will come up with one that accurately portrays the concept and is simple, a difficult task.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The First Americans

I noticed today on the front cover of U.S. News and World Report the title "The First Americans" with a painting of John Smith (or something, I think) on the front. The first thought that came to mind was "what about the natives? Weren't they first?"

To address this, I considered definitions. What defines American? After all, in defense of the title, the natives did not call themselves Americans. In fact, they didn't have the concept of America that we have, or even John Smith had. Our concept of America is a continent West of Europe and the "Old World." John Smith was amongst the first residents in America to have this sort of concept.

Though this may be so, what really defines an American? Like any culture, for that culture to exist, the culture must have a self-concept. The Greeks weren't Greeks till they called themselves Greeks, and all the Greeks identified with one another as Greeks despite their political division. Did John Smith call himself an American? Probably not--although having the modern concept of America in mind, he probably did not think of himself as an American, as it is also unlikely that any of his piers did either.

This brings up another question--who were the first Americans? When did people begin to self-identify as Americans? Without further research, I can at best speculate regarding this. There is a few generations of divide, a gradient separating those who considered themselves "English, happening to live in America" and those who considered themselves "American." Most of the first generation migrants here considered themselves "English" still, or whatever culture they were from, regardless of economic status. Following this, the decendants of those who had retained some wealth or ties to England probably continued to call themselves English, while those with lesser ties considered themselves something different, although a concept of "American" didn't exist at that point. The concept more than likely spread after the French/Indian War, where groups of native-born settlers fought without substantial English aide. Only after the revolution could those with foreign ties call themselves Americans, for the concept was mainstream and acceptable at that point. This is, of course, unreinforced speculation; I'll have to do more research to find solid points of transition, though the gradient will remain the same.

Nevertheless, America is a cultural concept. It took time to develop, and the first folks who stuck their feet on the ground ought not recieve the title just for doing so; it is more complex than a foot race.