A History of RADAR

It’s hard for us to imagine now, but pilots of the early twentieth century used to navigate the lands and seas entirely by sight. Night flying, or travelling through thick fog, was out of the question under normal circumstances, and extremely dangerous for those times when it was required. The first thirty years of aviation history developed without any real-time means for tracking their comings or goings, with land based observers doing their best through binoculars and crossed fingers.

Bombing during the Great War

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To Be or Whatever

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action.

This is probably the most famous soliloquy of any Shakespearean play. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has learned that his uncle conspired with the Queen to have his father killed, and replaced on the throne. Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles with his own sanity, though scholars argue over just how much of that is façade, and how much is not. Here, he contemplates a potential course of action to his ongoing troubles – that of suicide.

What is the point of life, after all? Why should we suffer the indignities, the bare cruelties, the blind injustices foisted upon us? Why, indeed, should we even fight against them, when death will regardless claim us in the end? Perhaps unusual for the time, Hamlet questions the existence of the afterlife, contemplating that traditional threat of eternal immolation and pitchforkery in the Catholic Hell, while noting with bitter irony that, as one ages, a person’s sins must naturally accumulate against their favor.

It is conscience, or thought, that Hamlet decides is the ultimate barrier to bold action. Freed from those chains, it can be possible to accomplish so much more. So much more. To wit, the solution he proposes to whatever one’s demons or fleeting doubts one might struggle with, those which would perceived rejoice at committing that final act of self-betrayal, might very well be to state with absolute conviction: “Fuck you all, I’m doing this anyway!” And then proceed on the much more difficult path toward deliverance.

It is not always easy to do what one believes to be the right course of action, and at times there might be very little encouragement from any corner of your world. Sometimes, no matter how undesirable, the course is set and must be followed through to the end. That said, a little help can go a long way.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

[ For Toastmasters Speech #6: Vocal Variety ]

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An Incredible Journey

The first thing I remember is waking up in a pile of shit. I mean, that’s true for all of us, but it’s still a rather ignoble beginning for me and my kind. Oh, well. We all have to start somewhere, right?

Euhaplorchis califoriensis

Euhaplorchis califoriensis

Hi! My name is Rusty, and I’m a Euhaplorchis califoriensis. Think really, really, really small. Maybe you’ve heard of me? No? Well, believe you me, we’re pretty popular around these parts (the shores of American West Coast, that is). Something like a third of the local fauna have had us for lunch, if you know what I mean… [wink and smile]. Right now, I’m just sitting around in the brain of my next-to-last host, just killing time. Continue reading

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Meet the Family! Evolution and the Performing Arts

Live entertainment provides an experience that cannot be properly delivered through a computer screen. I come from a long line of performance artists, people who made their living by dancing, singing, playing the accordion, or doing all three while taming wild turkeys. Although today’s world continues to emphasize ephemeral, impersonal entertainment, it is my family’s great hope that, through new advances in technology, we can revitalize our treasured, traditional, yet troubled heritage: the carnival sideshow. Continue reading

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Werewolf in Absentia et Ergo

[The following is a transcript for a speech to be given at Toastmasters. This is my entry for the third assignment: Get to the Point.]

Bear and Pillow by Breakaway13

Conformity

As some of you know, I have some slight interest in the philosophy of science. I like to experiment, to learn and to understand the world around me. Sometimes, this means that I can be a tad unorthodox in my approach. My friend, Conformity, here, was once part of a test I did over the course of a particularly dreadful evening class at Western. Her purpose? I wanted to see if she could prevent the class lycanthropes from breaking out their alter egos, and ululating at the moon. As you can imagine, it would have been quite disruptive to the learning process should they have done so. I simply thought it best see that they remained in their more comatose-evening-student phase instead.

Werewolf_by_michellemonique

Werewolf by Michelle Monique

After months spent collecting my data, I determined that Conformity is, indeed, highly effective at deterring the loathsome beasts. Naturally, my scientific bent prohibits me from stating it with with absolute certainty, but I *can* say that she’s pretty damned good at what she does.

Sure, some of you may be skeptical, but it should still give you pause that I recorded not a single elongated tooth, upturned nostril or wagging appendage. The only sign of shaggy countenance was that of our dear Professor Fenris, but his hirsute visage was present throughout the day as well, and I detected not a whisker out of place even given the presence of a full moon.

At this time, I will point out that I performed this test some short time before fully embracing the world of philosophy, and the rhetoric of logic in particular. A big part of logical argument requires an understanding of logical fallacies, most of which are listed in Wikipedia, or on websites like yourlogicalfallacyis.com. While they list at least thirty major fallacies, the one I’d like to address today is called the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy – or “it happened after, therefore it was caused by”. I’ll refer to it as the False Cause Fallacy.

sciski

I have a graph here that shows two plots that follow each other quite nicely. These were measured over the first decade of this century, covering 2000 to 2009, and they seem to rise and fall together not unlike a pair of lovebirds. A nifty calculation finds that the lines are over 90% correlated. Impressive, no?

A simple look at this graph might lead us to say “these two parameters must of course be linked! One of them obviously controls the other!” … and it may, indeed, be so. Now, would it help if I told you that the first line represents American spending on Science, Space and Technology, and the second is the Total Revenue of American Ski Facilities?

A False Cause Fallacy tends to take place when one ignores or neglects influences outside of those recorded. Examples abound of False Cause Fallacies: while I would never condemn dancing, for example, I will not hesitate to say that it doesn’t make the rains fall; toss as many virgins as you want into that volcano, if it’s gonna blow, it’s gonna blow; and despite the assurances of the Pat Robertsons of the world, the cultural acceptance of biological norms is not bringing about divine retribution in the form of earthquakes, flooding and hurricanes.

I know, I know; what does any of this have to do with little Conformity? Well, after my course came to its end, I chanced to meet a fellow student of the class, and asked her about a small medallion she liked to wear. Imagine my surprise when I found out that it has the exact same purpose: to keep the werewolves at bay! Given this new information, my test with Conformity was at best inconclusive, and my new friend said her pendant had worked for a good five years already. So, the very next day, I went out and bought my own tiny pendant, the same one you see around my neck right now (imagine the convenience of not needing to carry a stuffed bear with me all the time!), and now, even three years later, I have yet to encounter a werewolf on campus.

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On the History of History

Braveheart

Freedom!


One of the most perplexing challenges of historical research is that of figuring out exactly how to extract fictional revisions from accounts of actual fact. Unlike scientific works, which aim to reveal “what is”, and thus function independent of human superstition, time and place, the study of history is far fuzzier. Anyone who has ever been to a library, or spent more than a handful of minutes on the Internet, is well aware that works of fiction are both ever present and wildly popular. Plenty of fictional stories take place in historical settings, and include representations of actual people, speaking and thinking and acting according to the needs of story.

Occasionally, such tales were (and are) presented as fact, even in articles published in widely read and trusted newspapers, magazines and journals. Consider the world of pseudoscience, traditional Chinese medicine, the “discovery” of arsenic-loving life, the fake journals of Elsevier. Consider the yellow journalism of William Randolph “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war” Hearst, his later demonization of marijuana, and the many news hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe and Benjamin Franklin. Much as we complain about the poor standards of the mainstream media of today, news sources were typically no better and often far worse in previous centuries. Sales, as always, was the goal, and straight facts appeal to a much smaller audience than grand fictions ever will. Continue reading

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Zoonoses and Us

african_civet4

The explosion in human population over the last couple of centuries has meant, among other things, that we tend to associate more directly and more often with animals that had long been confined alone to forest areas, caves and other habitats. There, animals had lived and died for millennia, the causes of their illnesses largely confined just as they were. But as we move into their homes, cut down their trees, climb through their caves, hunt them, capture them, imprison them, slaughter them, we put ourselves at risk of catching something that can have devastating consequences for us. The last century has seen the outbreak of SARS, Ebola virus, Hendra virus, AIDS and other contagious and deadly illnesses. All of these diseases have zoonotic origins – they spread from their normal environments into new hosts: us. And though we are not clones (well, not most of us), we are all homo sapiens, and thus susceptible as a species to either these known diseases, or ones as yet undiscovered. Continue reading

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