September 07, 2004
Ripping off a friend's joke

I am shamelessly ripping off a joke from a friend of mine, and re-writing it to suit my own sense of irony. Barry -- please forgive me!

Ripped from Today's Headlines: Florida has been ravaged by two (so far) hurricanes, wreaking havoc with electricity, cable, phone, and other infrastructure utilities. Fortunately, however, the computerized results from the upcoming election have already been backed-up.

Posted by at 09:58 PM in the following Department(s): Humor , Tidbits III | Comments (0)
 September 19, 2004
Movie and Book Spoilers


You know what a spoiler is, right? That's when somebody spoils the surprise by telling you what it is rather than letting you find out for yourself. When someone is kind enough to tell you in the heading of a message (like this one) that the message contains spoilers, that means that if you haven't seen or read the movies or books being discussed, you might end up finding out about a "surprise" in the story that might lessen (or ruin) the experience for you if you should end up watching/reading the story for yourself at a later date.

For example, in the movie Presumed Innocent, the wife did it. Now that I've told you that, if you go see the movie, you'll realize that you already know the big surprise, and that might diminish your enjoyment of the film.

A year or two ago, I was in a very foul mood, and I decided to post a "Listmania" list on that listed spoilers for a bunch of movies. I was feeling mean, and I wanted to share the pain.

Ironically, after I'd spent a few hours creating this masterpiece of a list, when I went to save it, the connection was broken and my machine crashed. I lost the entire list. Man, was that annoying. I didn't bother recreating the list at the time, I was so pissed off. But, now that I'm in a bad mood again (but not yet pissed off), I've recreated the list to the best of my ability, and you can find it here.

While creating this list, I noticed that as I moved from the simple and obvious cases (like Gosford Park -- the maid did it), there are a lot of fun patterns in movies that supposedly contain surprises.

For example, the big surprise of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan was that Spock was sacrificed in order to save the ship. But then, in the next movie, the even bigger surprise was that the ship was sacrificed to save Spock. (Of course, since then, the folks at Star Trek Incorporated have blown up the ship every chance they get, which kind of reduces the shock value.)

Audiences were stunned to learn in Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader was really Luke's father. The following movie, Return of the Jedi, featured the revelation that Darth Vader was also Princess Leia's father, and that Luke and Leia were twins. Yowza! But then, in Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace (what a long and ugly title), we learn that in his youth, Darth Vader built C3PO. Yup, Darth Vader is C3PO's father, too. Holy cow! My guess is that in the next movie, we'll learn that Darth Vader is also Chewbacca's father.

Speaking of twist endings regarding parentage, you should check out Robert A. Heinlein's short story "All You Zombies...", in which we learn at the very end that the main character is his own father. And mother. How's THAT for a surprise you didn't see coming!? Well, okay, even though I spoiled the ending, you still might get a chuckle out of reading the story to see how it all happened.

I love it when a movie's very title gives away the ending. Like, "Kill Bill". Guess what happens at the end?

And then there's movies that open up by telling you the ending, but the ending still (potentially) surprises you. Like in "American Beauty". The narrator tells you right at the beginning that he's dead, and here's what happened leading up to his death. Then, you get to the end of the movie, and BLAM! He's dead. Pretty cool.

The movie "Schindler's List" is all the more devastating *because* you know the ending.

Then again, any James Bond movie you choose is *relaxing* because you know the ending.

So is it better, going in, to know the ending or to not know the ending of a given story?

This is the premise of a story I've been developing: what if you knew the ending of your own personal story? Would that make your remaining days richer? Or would it take the fun out of life? Or, would it make absolutely no difference to you at all?

If you had a chance to find out how your life was going to play out, would you do it?

Posted by at 08:11 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (3)
 September 20, 2004
Pattern Recognition, part I

I originally posted the essay below to this site on November 18, 1999 -- roughly a year before I went to a content engine, which is why it does not appear in the archives. I am repeating it here because it leads into another essay I'm about to write, regarding pattern recognition and how the brain works.

This essay was originally published as ""Why a Little Insomnia is a Dangerous Thing":

I bought some more cool decks of cards last night. This time, they were special "Bicycle" versions of Canasta and Pinochle decks. You know, it seems to me that Pinochle decks used to be almost as common as poker decks at the check-out counter of any grocery store; but, now, I don't think I've seen them for years. I also picked up a Mille Borne deck, last night; I've been looking for that for a while.

What is it with me and playing cards?

When I was in my teens, my compulsion of choice was books. I had to "complete the set" of certain authors -- Heinlein, Bradbury, Ian Flemming, Stephen King -- and I even went so far as to buy "collector's editions" of early paperbacks of these authors. This meant I sometimes ended up picking up several copies of the same book, if only to get ever closer to that "First Time in Paperback!" copy.

I don't do that quite so much, anymore, although I still pick up each new James Bond or Stephen King book as they come out. The days of trolling around for old paperbacks have gone, however.

In college, music was my vice. If I heard a song and liked it, I had to get the album. Certain artists also required "complete the set" action: Dire Straits or Pink Floyd (which i never actually did finish, come to think of it) or Billy Joel, for example. Other particular faves -- Concrete Blonde and Suzanne Vega -- I tracked from the beginning, snapping up each EP single as well as each new album as they were released.

I don't listen to the music quite as intently as I used to. I still buy lots of new releases, but I don't listen to them as much, and I've recently discovered just how much I miss that. I'd like to return to some kind of work environment where music is a part of it. (Note: I used to work at a radio station.)

While none of these -- and other, similar -- compulsions have completely died away, they've certainly abated. In the meantime, one of my lesser hobbies has grown: my fascination with playing cards.

The cards thing, like most "collect-the-whole-set compulsions," started when I was a kid. As a kid, when you go places, your adult companions want to buy you souvenirs. Very gradually, whether by my choice or by the accident of what other people chose for me, a trend emerged where I ended up selecting souvenir playing cards more than any of the other common items.

Keep in mind, adults who would go on vacation would also pick up souvenirs for the kids. Somehow, as a preference evolves, people pick up on it and use that to make their souvenir purchase decisions easier. "Oh, Billy likes 3-D Viewmaster slides, and Janey likes little license plates with her name on them." Next thing you know, they are reinforcing the preference, and so on.

For my mom and my maternal grandmother, the collectible of choice was and is souvenir spoons. My mom even has a souvenir spoon from the European city where I was born, with my birth date etched into the back. Both my mom and grandmother have racks upon racks of various collectible spoons.

For my sister, the collectible of choice is shot glasses. And, of course, for me, the souvenir of choice is playing cards.

However, I've since developed a deeper interest in "igralniye kartiy". The beauty of everyday playing cards from Soviet Russia encouraged me to look beyond just the standard souvenir backs. Since being exposed to those wonderful decks, I've developed a keener sense of the aesthetics of playing cards in general.

(Author's note: this is going somewhere. Trust me.)

Independently of my aesthetic appreciation, I became more involved in actually playing card games. I began to sit as an alternate at a friend's poker table many years ago; eventually becoming a regular. Another friend of mine and I created our own table, as well, in Boston. Since then, I've joined a few tables and made a stab at starting a few other new ones of my own. I've even played poker in Reno (and, held my own, I might add). I'm not a great player, by any stretch. I enjoy playing, nonetheless.

One thing I've been coming to recognize with all of this card playing is something that applies throughout all areas of my life: all of my life has been centered around pattern recognition. In this way, I'm not so sure that my life is any different from anyone else's, but it's becoming clear just how pervasive this is for me. Most of my introspection revolves around identifying patterns.

In many games I enjoy, mastery comes with pattern recognition. Chess, poker, cribbage -- all start with basic rules, then moves, groups of moves (gambits), then series of gambits, series of games, and so on. Trends, and trends of trends.

A deck of cards is loaded with patterns. There are patterns of face value (suits and ranks) and patterns of design (where pips are placed; the drawings of the face cards, design of the backs, the fact that backs within are uniform while faces are unique, etc.). Most magic tricks, incidentally, rely upon recognition and then violation of these patterns. (And, yes, I've picked up a few magic tricks along the way, too.)

Sets of decks have patterns, too. Given decks may have a different back from each other, but they maintain that one back design throughout the entire deck. Each may place pips of different sizes and shadings, but there's always a pip in the upper left-hand and lower right-hand corder of each card -- even if some decks have additional pips in the other two corners or along the sides (like the decks I just bought). The four suits are always hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades -- the first two being reddish in color, the last two being black or another very dark color. Face cards are drawn with different styles from deck to deck, but the queens inevitably hold flowers while certain jacks and kings carry weapons.

Sets of sets of decks have patterns, as well. Trends among US Playing Cards brands (Bicycle, Aviator, Bee, Aristocrat) are distinct from the trends found in Hoyle brands (Hoyle, Maverick), or Gemaco or Liberty, ad infinitum. There are even greater "meta" trends. US manufacturers vs. European, Eastern Block, and Asian manufacturers.

Then, there's playing cards vs. Tarot cards vs. other game cards (like Mille Borne, Pit, Uno, Wizard, Rook, etc.).

There's cards as games vs. "stone games" (backgammon, mah jong, chess) vs. ball games (from billiards to baseball) vs. board games (Monopoly, Scrabble, and so on).

And, there's cards as introspective or forecasting tools vs. astrology vs. palm reading.

There's even cards as building materials vs. match sticks vs. toothpicks vs. Lincoln Logs vs. Legos.

Lest we forget: cards as noise-makers (putting them in your bicycle spokes) vs. bike horns vs. bicycle bells.

There are cards as promotional products or souvenirs vs. spoons vs. pens vs. shot glasses vs. key chains vs. t-shirts.

All sorts of patterns, and patterns of patterns, and different ways to classify and re-group. This isn't just a statement about cards, of course. The same "patterness" is found among foods, cars, houses, clothes, relationships, political systems, biological systems, religions, music, literature, languages, etc.

All life is pattern recognition.

The late, great Canadian comedy troupe "The Frantics" have a great sketch that asks: "Is the idea of this game show to find out the idea of this game show?" We are posed with the same question here: is the meaning of life to find out the meaning of life?

The answer is in the cards.

I am confident that the answer is a resounding "Yes." The problem, as has been pointed out in Douglas Adams' book Life, the Universe, and Everything, is not with understanding the answer. The problem is with understanding the question.

Posted by at 05:51 PM in the following Department(s): Essays | Comments (0)
 September 23, 2004
Pattern Recognition, part II

For a very long time -- since high school at the very least -- I've thought of the human brain as a rather sophisticated pattern recognition engine. Wherever possible, we seek to establish direct causal relationships among events. When that's not possible, we infer more subtle relationships at work. This enables us to make connections that are not at first obvious but which nonetheless help us to survive.

Example of the obvious: Me throw sharp stick at charging lion. Charging lion fall down, bleed out eyeballs, stop bothering me. Me survive to throw another sharp stick another day.

More sophisticated: Sun come up over here. Sun go down over there. Sun must be circling around Earth to come up again over here tomorrow. Me get cave facing over there so that me sleep in tomorrow morning.

Of course, the more subtle models where we make connections with limited information may prove to be incorrect down the road, but they are sufficient for the time being and thereby enable us to get along. Once they no longer work, we adopt even more sophisticated models. For example, we figure out that in order to explain the way stars and planets move across the sky over time, the sun couldn't possibly be going around the Earth, but perhaps the Earth goes around the sun. Etc.

During my high school days, this was my theory for explaining away the concept of intuition/precognition and the practice of religious belief. I figured that the experience of intuition (a preferable word, for me, to 'precognition' or 'premonition' or 'clairvoyance', which imply new age cosmic woo-woo) was simply a sophisticated pattern recognition model that generated correct answers on the basis of incomplete information. When somebody gets a strong hunch that a certain event is going to happen, and then it doesn't happen, they shrug it off as a bad guess. When that strong hunch pays off, they call it premonition. Someone who is able to consistently experience good hunches on the basis of limited information could be considered 'intuitive' or 'psychic', depending upon your preferences, but it all came down (as far as I was concerned) to having some good pattern recognition going on somewhere in your brain.

Likewise, when we have incomplete information about how or why things happen the way they do, our brain finds comfort in (or actually develops and enhances belief in) the subtle and sophisticated models of that we call religion: a belief system that explains the otherwise inexplicable connections among objects and events. Before we can explain rainbows scientifically, we ascribe them to an invisible Being that paints the sky with colors to remind us of a promise (as in the story of Noah in the Judeo-Christian religions). Later, when we figure out that raindrops can form prisms that separate out the colors of sunlight, we no longer need religion to explain rainbows. (And, importantly, some of us choose to keep the religious explanation, while others write off the religious explanation as fanciful stories.)

The story of Noah is more charming than the story of raindrops acting as prisms that separate out the colors of sunlight. But understanding how light works enables us to create CD players and computers, which in turn allow me to write goofy essays and beam them to you on something called a 'web site'. The story of Noah does not allow us to manipulate the physical world thusly. The story of Noah *does* allow us to convey social memes and to disseminate ethical ideologies. But the pattern explained by the story of Noah is simply not sophisticated enough to build televisions, and so we move on.

This, as I said above, was my interpretation of the world at the age of 16 or thereabouts. I was struggling to explain events that had occurred in my life, without sacrificing my emerging sense of *reason*. If you've read the essay that immediately precedes this one (Pattern Recognition, Part I) -- the one I wrote five years ago or so -- you've no doubt noticed that I'm still fascinated by the concept of brain-as-pattern-recognition-engine.

So while I was visiting a friend's house recently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a book called something like Why People Believe Weird Things. In it, the author (editor of Skeptic Magazine, or something along those lines) asserts his own similar views about the brain-as-pattern-recognition-engine concept, and uses it to explain why people believe in astrology (a subject for another essay of mine, I expect), UFOs, the Green Party, and other flights of fancy. (Okay, just kidding about that last one. Nobody believes in the Green Party.)

The author includes a chapter on near death experiences and comes to the conclusion that, well, there is no conclusion. The scientific evidence is simply not there, one way or the other, to sufficiently (for the author, at least) explain why so many people seem to experience so many common events as part of the dying process. The author manages to successfully debunk both the common scientific explanations as well as the common woo-woo new age ga-ga explanations, leaving the question of life after death and the status of the immortal soul open. Of course, since it isn't explained one way or the other by science, this remains in the realm of religion for most people. We are then left with the agnostics' dilemma (which the author acknowledges): if we don't have a basis for believing in the certainty of life after death, and by extension the immortal soul, then how to we find comfort in living what may well be, by extension, a meaningless life?

He offered an answer that I found interesting... until I gave it some serious consideration. His answer may be paraphrased like this:

History is a long, long continuum of events that impact other events. We know this as a fact. We also know that one small event at one point in the continuum can have very powerful repercussions farther down the line. We know this, too. There are innumerable examples of people who died in seeming obscurity but who later became famous because something they did ended up having a huge impact on society down the line. Since we do not know at what point of the continuum our lives are played out, it is entirely possible that there is still a great deal of history yet to be written, and we may very well end up making that small difference now that could have a huge impact in the future. Ergo, we should take comfort in the fact that even if we don't know it now, what we do with our lives may prove to be extremely important / influential in the years that follow us.

So went the author's reasoning, and I found it to be a comforting thought at first. But then I gave it more consideration, and realized that it suffers a bit of a fatal flaw:

The author says that the person who does not know whether to believe in a life after death can find meaning in the idea that we may, for all we know, end up leading an influential life anyway.

"Wait a minute," my brain says. "In other words, that means if we can't find comfort because we don't know our place in the cosmos, then we should find comfort in the fact that we don't know our place in history."

Now THAT doesn't make any sense at all. What the author presents as the agnostics' solution is really just restating the agnostics' problem: "Sure, you don't know if you matter; but at least you don't know if you matter."

So I see a pattern in the problem of the pattern-recognition-engine. Recognizing patterns can be a source of comfort because, in general, it is recognizing patterns (correctly, usually) that helps us to survive. But when we reach the limit of our ability to recognize the patterns, we are left with... what? Filling in the blanks with "To be determined?" Or filling in the blanks with a leap of faith that the religion you've picked (or that has picked you) will have the best answers? Neither option is intellectually satisfying. (And, perhaps, we have more options available than just these two....)

That said, the question of which to choose comes down to this: which option helps you to move forward? Which option helps you to answer the questions that need to be answered in order for you to make progress? When a person has hit the limits of his or her ability to solve the puzzle at hand, is it better to keep banging away at it until you've revealed enough information to guess at the pattern, or is it better to simply leap, and have faith that the net will appear?

Posted by at 01:55 AM in the following Department(s): Essays | Comments (1)
 September 24, 2004
Language Arts

A friend had sent me an e-mail a month or so asking when I was going to post new photos to my site, and I mentioned that request when I posted the previous batch of photos of Alexander. However, I was being disingenuous. My friend wanted to see pictures of *me*. He wanted to see how fat I'd gotten, I guess.

Or, more to the point, I've been feeling pretty glum about my weight, so I deliberately misunderstood what he was saying (er, typing).

So, a few days ago I updated the photo of me in the "navigation bar" to the right on my site. As a friend of mine has so gently pointed out, "Well, you have the 'before' picture. Now you just need the 'after' picture, and you can start selling weight loss books like that Jared guy."

With friends like these, who needs the upcoming presidential election?

I'm too adorable for this pose.But, while I'm at it, I may as well post a recent photo of Alexander, as well. He's getting taller every day, it seems, and his face is starting to take on more definition. It's amazing how fast he shifting from "baby" to "guy."

His language is taking on more nuances, as well. He's mastering "Please," for example, when he wants something, and he's starting to cleverly put together "more" with the name of whatever it is he wants. "More ice cubes... pwease." For him, a complex sentence!

He's also beginning to get the hang of "thank you", which has a very funny side effect. As whenever he begins mastering something new, he is prone to repeating it over and over again. However, his enunciation is not particularly exact, and so his "Thank you" doesn't sound like "Thank you" to people who don't know him. Oh sure, the "you" part comes out just fine. But, well, instead of a fully formed "th" sound, it comes out more like an "f" sound. And the "n" doesn't quite come through at all. Since all short vowels sound pretty much the same, the result sounds more like a jubilant expletive than polite appreciation.

Oh, and "ice cubes" doesn't sound like "ice cubes", either. The "i" doesn't come out long, so you end up with the short vowel sound in there, as well. More like, "ass cubes."

So we'll be out at a restaurant with friends, and he'll reach for our ice water. After he's scooped an ice cube and put it in his mouth, he'll start repeating over and over again: "Fuck you! Ass cubes! Fuck you! Ass cubes!"

We will have to put him into day care for a couple weeks next month, and we took him along to check out one of the facilities we're looking at. Toward the end of the tour, the nice lady there gave Alex a rubber ball. Now he's running around, shouting "Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you." And we have to expain to her that he's saying "Thank you."

I hope they let us come back.

Posted by at 07:35 PM in the following Department(s): The Boys | Comments (1)
 September 29, 2004
A slight change in plans

A recent trip to Boston didn't go as planned.

This was the first time we'd flown across the country with Alexander. We were heading out to attend a conference, and then visit friends and family in the area before the return flight home.

At the same time, the third (or fourth?) hurricane this year was making its way toward Florida, once again threatening the home of my maternal grandparents. As my grandfather was evacuated with others to Miami, my grandmother found herself being brought along to my parents' homestead in Western New York.

And so came about a slight change in plans. My grandmother, who would never otherwise have found herself in the Northeast, took a little trip in my parent's airplane to a location halfway between Buffalo and Boston. We were able to meet them there, as were other members of our family.

Four generations -- and all of them started out as blonds.Our visit was short, but we were happy to finally introduce Grandma to her great-grandchildren (Alexander the oldest among them). For the first time in my adult life, we had four generations under one roof.

It was a bittersweet reunion. While we were most happy to see Grandma and the little ones all together (not to mention the other family members who were there), we wished that Granddaddy could have joined us as well.

So while I try not to get all mushy on this site as a general rule, I hope you'll bear with me as I send out all my love to all of my family. I'm glad a slight change of plans was able to bring about an unexpected family reunion. And here's to Granddaddy: you weren't able to join us this time, but you were certainly in our hearts.

And how odd... four generations in one house, and this time I wasn't a part of the youngest generation. Another reminder that I'm getting older, for all the complex emotions that brings up.

I wonder if, in my lifetime, I'll ever get to be a part of five generations all under one roof.

It's a neat thought. But for now, I'll count my blessings and be grateful that these four have made it this far.

Posted by at 10:00 PM in the following Department(s): The Boys | Comments (0)

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