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Corned Beef & Cabbage [Mar. 19th, 2019|07:11 pm]
Josh Fredman
On St. Patrick's Day I made corned beef and cabbage. It's likely the first or possibly second time I've ever made that particular dish. (I've made corned beef a number of times, but not with cabbage, and vice versa.) I went real simple with it too: I added no seasoning to the beef or the cabbage other than what the corned beef had already been marinated with. Then I served it up with mustard on untoasted slices of rosemary sourdough bread from WinCo. (Got the beef and cabbage from WinCo too: They had a special setup where they were selling corned beef points at 2 bucks a pound and cabbages for 50 cents a pound. Who can say no to that?! That's as cheap as whole beef roast ever gets.

It was so good that I ate over half the damn thing over the course of the day's meals. Yesterday it stayed in the fridge untouched, but today I'm heating up the whole pot again and plan to polish off the rest, give or take some of the remaining liquid.

I didn't drink any of my Irish whiskey on St. Patrick's Day, but I did do something a few days earlier that I'd never done before: I had three whiskeys in a row, each one different. I am a very light drinker, and it's uncommon that I'll have even one drink in a given day. But I took some Jameson's on a lark that night, and then I got the idea of contrasting that with Stephen's whiskey. The contrast was amazing--that's the way to compare spirits, I understand now--so I decided to take the unprecedented step of having a third whiskey, this time the Laphroig. Again the contrast was very interesting.

Anyhow, I mention this because the pot of corned beef and cabbage leftovers is just about heated up and ready to eat.
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Court Packing [Mar. 19th, 2019|07:00 pm]
Josh Fredman
Regarding the growing momentum on the left for packing the Supreme Court--and it's noteworthy that this is the language being used, with no effort to brand it differently--I figured I'd talk about my view on the matter.

It's important to remember that we have been in a constitutional crisis ever since Senate Republicans under Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat in 2016. The current occupant of that seat, Justice Neil Gorsuch, is not a legitimate Supreme Court Justice. His votes are invalid and every 5-4 decision with him in the majority is also invalid.

The prescribed constitutional remedy is to impeach and remove him from office. The problem, and part of why this is a crisis, is that the same subversion of the Constitution that led to Gorsuch's appointment in the first place also prevents him from being removed from office: the Republican Party. The GOP is willing to violate every norm in order to secure short-term power for themselves, and at this point the only untapped frontier for them to expand into is physical violence.

Ideally, I would support adding one, and only one, additional Supreme Court justice, to the Court, to negate Gorsuch's vote. Then, when Gorsuch himself eventually dies or retires, that seat would not be filled, taking the Court back down to nine justices.

Of course, real life isn't ideal. The last 20 years have built up a clear pattern of Republican abuse of institutional power. Adding another seat to the Court, even temporarily, would be a Pandora's box: Republicans, in the future, would feel entitled to add as many justices as they see fit. At worst it could destabilize the entire judicial system and hasten the collapse of our democracy. At best it would lead to confusion and politicization in the judiciary for years to come.

It is worth noting that, historically, the Supreme Court has been more toward the reactionary end of the spectrum. Its progressive legacy from the Civil Rights era is an exception to that. It could be argued that we should leave the Court in conservative hands for the time being and focus on building a more progressive Congress. The end of the 60-vote threshold for legislation in the Senate--the "legislative nuclear" option--is probably on its way, and that would make it possible for bare Democratic majorities to pass legislation.

More ambitiously, as a part of building a more progressive Congress, it may be worth considering a large-scale effort to relocate massive numbers of Democratic voters to states with very low populations. The most recent Senate race in Wyoming, for instance, was 136,000 to 61,000 in favor of the Republican. Add 100,000 or so reliable Democratic voters to Wyoming and we would gain two Senate seats (and one House seat). This could do more good in the long run than packing the Court. And, unlike court-packing, it's something that the Republicans can't sustainably reciprocate: The way the federal system is organized, Republican votes are worth a lot more per capita than Democratic ones, ~and~ Democratic-leaning voters outnumber Republican-leaning ones by a large margin. If Republicans wanted to put a "Red Lock" on, say, Vermont, they have very few areas of the country where they could pull excess large numbers of Republican voters without imperiling existing Republican seats. If Democrats counter-counterattacked, that would play out to an enormous Democratic advantage.

Anyhow, all of this is just me thinking out loud. The actual ideas floating around out there for packing the Supreme Court are all much more elaborate than my "one temporary seat" idea, and I don't know that I support any of them. Packing the Court is just such a risky move when you consider that liberal democracy is already failing in this country.
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Elizabeth Warren Boosting #1 [Mar. 19th, 2019|12:35 am]
Josh Fredman

I know many of you don't care, or have your heart set on another candidate, but fair warning that I'm pretty heavy on Elizabeth Warren for president in 2020 and will be boosting her here often--including at the expense of other candidates. She's an academic who is among the least corrupt of the presidential contenders. She was essential in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau--just about the only new government agency in 20 years that's done unambiguous good for the general public--in an era where new government projects have been next to impossible to get off the ground.

Most importantly of all, Warren is the only declared candidate who keeps publishing substantive platform positions that will actually solve problems, such as the new today that she wants to abolish the Electoral College, or the recent "waves" she made by declaring that companies like Google should be broken up, etc. Unlike most of the other major candidates, she isn't telling the public what they want to hear. She is telling us what she thinks will address this country's major structural problems, and she keeps doing so in the kind of detail that reminds me of my favorite president, FDR. We haven't had a president in my lifetime who was willing to get into the nitty-gritty details like this. (Ironically, Hillary Clinton would have come the closest, had she won.) This level of policy command is one of the three prerequisites to a historically successful presidential administration. (The other two are a receptive Congress, which Democrats last had in 2007 - 2011, and strong, charismatic leadership. That's why we got so much done in 2009 - 2011: We had a relatively detail-oriented president who was a relatively strong and charismatic leader, and we had a largely receptive Congress.)

I really want to encourage all of you to take a closer look at Elizabeth Warren if you haven't done so already. Pay attention to her when she shows up in the news. It's almost always either for a new policy announcement for her presidential platform, or some new development in her Native American affiliation controversy, which is the right wing's equivalent for Warren of Hillary Clinton's e-mails (i.e., a disgrace for her attackers rather than for Warren herself). While I know that, ideally, a presidential candidate would never have done anything wrong, I also think that, as far as real-life presidential contenders go, having exploited a demographic gray spot in one's background to help bolster their application for jobs is a relatively minor offense. I can tell you from personal experience that I don't feel ashamed, nor do I ever hold it against others, for doing (within reason) whatever it takes to get housing and employment. And, to be blunt about it, you will find worse offenses on pretty much all the other major contenders. Like I said, she's one of the least-corrupt contenders in the field.

I don't want to get too strong in bashing the other candidates, since I don't think that's a good way to choose whom to vote for. However, there are two such criticisms that I do think it important to raise, early and often:

First, there is a strong sexual and racial undercurrent in the 2020 Democratic nominating season. The Democratic base writ large really wants to see a non-male, nonwhite nominee (or Bernie; more on that in a moment), so much so that I think it is causing people to ignore Warren in favor of someone who "looks" right--i.e., someone who isn't white. I could spend many pages writing about this, but the short version is that I get where it comes from, but it still doesn't outrank a candidate's actual qualifications. Now that Sherrod Brown isn't running, Warren is the only major candidate in the field who has the read on this country when it comes to the problems that are afflicting the 99 Percent.

Second, in particular I am not for Bernie this time around, and I feel pretty strongly about it. His cult problem is too toxic and too big. In 2016 I supported him despite this problem and despite his unwillingness to confront or discourage it, but as someone who is strongly anti-cult I was very uncomfortable about it (and I did some writing about it back in those days), and both the cult problem and my intolerance for it have only grown with time. This time around, while I would of course support Bernie or basically anyone as our nominee against Donald Trump, I have no intention of supporting him during the nominating season. Also, his age is a serious issue. Even Warren herself is at the upper end of what I'm comfortable with in a presidential candidate's age, and Bernie is eight years older than she is. He would be almost 80 by the time he took office. When you consider that one of a candidate's qualifications is having the ethical judgment to know when they shouldn't run even though they could probably get a lot of support, I think Bernie's time as a qualified candidate, like Hillary Clinton's (albeit for different reasons), has passed.

Lastly, a couple notes here that I didn't include in the Facebook version of this post:

First, in my last post on the subject I had also mentioned Kirsten Gillibrand as being one of my top three picks. She's still in the field, but, in the time since that post, I've more strongly gravitated toward Warren, and Brown's decision not to run really tipped the scales in Warren's favor for me. (I wanted Warren more than Brown, but most of the reasons I wanted Brown shifted over to Warren rather than to Gillibrand.)

Second, Elizabeth Warren reminds me of Cindy--an intelligent, engaged, brave, civic-minded, no-nonsense academic, and somebody I trust and have a lot of respect for. I imagine that, up close, they're very different people, but trust is a tricky spell to describe, and, for better or worse, this association does color my impression of Warren.
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On the Terrorist Massacre in New Zealand [Mar. 15th, 2019|01:52 am]
Josh Fredman
The terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand are at once infuriating and heartbreaking. There have been many "world-spanning" disasters over the years that have dominated headlines throughout our civilization, and in years past when I was more talkative I would often share the most thoughtful analysis I could muster. But it has all been said, hasn't it?

I think the developed world needs to wake up to the danger of right-wing extremism that lurks among us with a fading modesty. I think we need to treat it more seriously, because it is threatening to swallow up liberal democracy as we know it. The parallels from a hundred years ago are staggering.

New Zealand is one of the most peaceful countries on the planet. It's truly distressing to see them face something like this. And it's distressing to imagine the encouragement this will give to other right-wing terrorists, as well as the inevitable reprisals that will be coming, around the world, from Islamic extremists. This is a firestorm that will have repercussions for a long time.

I watched the video of the killings, because I think that citizens have a responsibility to look upon their enemies, and I do not agree with the censorship and shielding of these sickening and heartpounding images. What I took away from watching it, other than being disgusted, was a keen sense of the lack of imagination of this terrorist (one of several in these coordinated attacks). He'd run out of people to murder, so he began doubling back and shooting the corpses. A small mind that cornered itself into a nihilistic act so plain that, were it not murder, it would have been boring.

We as a society--the West writ large, the developed world--have to consider where racial supremacy, patriarchy, religious fanaticism, and other such evils come from, what causes them. We need to think about how to heal the people who are afflicted by those mental illnesses, and how to keep them from spreading like the contagions they are. But most of all we need to put our own imaginations to better use than the extremists. We need to imagine tolerance, and diversity, and coexistence. And we need to imagine how to establish and safeguard those things. Apparently it isn't so easy.

I am heartbroken that this keeps happening, and I hope we as a civilized species can someday soon compose our resolve into a wise, loving, and inclusive, but also forceful response. We need to do more than just "condemn hate." We need to make it clear that the free world is intolerant of intolerance. On the video, there were several comments by white supremacists who tacitly or openly endorsed the shootings. One of them simply wrote, "Keep poking the sleeping White bear..."

Such a mindset is not so far away from that of the "crazy racist uncle" we all have. There are not many layers of separation between disgruntled intolerance and mass murder, because even if the vast majority of bigots will never become murderers themselves, most of them will, in the right social climate, support terror. That world is not so far away.

Where are the humanists, and the humanitarians? Where are the philanthropists and the volunteers? The cosmopolitans? The voyagers and the wanderers? The civic-minded, the open-minded, the absent-minded? Where are the people who love peace enough to contribute into it rather than just leech from its fruits and scoff at the institutions that uphold our way of life?

Those are the people who will get us out of this. We should listen to them. As for myself, I will be promoting New Zealand near to the top of foreign countries I mean to visit. I want to learn more about that land, and see it for myself. And I want to hope that, if I eventually make it there, that I will find a free and spirited people, who are happy.
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Our Old Director Was Named 2019 Texas Distinguished Scientist [Mar. 1st, 2019|09:40 pm]
Josh Fredman

Dr. Lambert was the director of our observatory for most of the time I was there. He was this awesome old British astronomer whose career focused on the chemical evolution of galaxies. I had a Very Rich headcanon for him, which was a source of much good-natured laughter for Amy and me. I don't even remember the details anymore, but it invariably involved of him being super British in general, (with a super British accent) and/or disapproving of, or put out by, our ridiculous antics or ridiculous dog.

I only spoke to him one-on-one a couple of times. Once, right before he retired as Director, I inadvertently intruded upon him during one of my Sunset Constitutionals, which I feel bad about to this day. He was lying on the big wall on the south side of the Ring Road, staring up at the sky. I ruined the reverie for him, and though his words were kind he didn't set back down, but instead continued on his way. The other time was shortly after he'd been replaced, when I found myself walking with him from the Astronomers' Lodge. I mentioned that they'd been very quick to replace the name "Lambert" on House A with that of the new Director. He made a quip about being disappeared, like "the old Communist ray-gime."

A good-natured fellow. Some of the scientists and engineers were flustered that he still liked to use magnetic tapes, for collecting some data, and I'm sure there were some politics too, given the marketing focus of the head of any organization these days, but I always liked him, so I'm glad to see him getting honored. People like that don't by and large exist in the generations below his, and I always kind of aspired to something of that idiom of dignity, sophistication, cosmopolitanism, wit, scholarship, affluence, and a British accent.
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Seven-Twelfths Birthday and the Unlooseable Feeling [Feb. 27th, 2019|11:10 pm]
Josh Fredman
I speak to you tonight as an artist. I ask you take me as such. I am not looking for any other reply.

There have been moments in my life where I've tasted what it feels like to be exactly where I want to be. The occasional bit of writing as a teenager. High adventures with friends in high school and at shul. Most of ATH the RPG. Various swaths of my time in college, from D&D sessions to Friday night archery at the IMA with Nat. IM conversations late at night. Writing in my journal. Holding court at the Compendium. Long seasons of affection in enchanted settings with Kendra. Creating my first finished novel from beginning to end in barely four months. I even got to be a real admiral once, though I was a ghost at the time.

But more than any of that, there was the Mountain. That's as broad a term as "Seattle," and just as irreducible to its constituent parts. Of course I miss Amy, I miss the house, I even miss the damn dog, but it's not any one person or thing. It's the era. The zeitgeist. The milieu. Being surrounded by so many kinds of beauty, all the time. Having exactly as much solitude and privacy as I wanted. Having real companionship and someone to talk to. I don't have anyone to talk to anymore. So many sunsets and Sunset Constitutionals, all for free. So many cups of coffee at the Astronomers' Lodge. And Night Vale and tarot readings and Analogue and pinochle.

There's a feeling I can't get away from, both when I'm depressed and when I'm in good spirits, as I have been this week--I wouldn't be writing this otherwise, out of fear that people would dismiss me as moping. It is the feeling of remembering having touched something real, and living now in a time, body, and place where nothing is real. I feel like I am in limbo, between life and death, like my spark stayed on the Mountain when I departed.

And I miss it, and I miss it, and I don't want to stop missing it, because all around me there is nothing that makes me feel so alive as remembering those seasons on the Mountain, like some old washed up king reminiscing about the glory days. I never planned on outliving myself, but then it happened. I was lying in bed resting my eyes this evening, when I got to thinking about what I would have if I could have anything. I went through the motions of the practical answer, of course--money, health, love, friendship; and the well-worn constructive ambitions arising therefrom such as my video game company and my geodesic dome community for artists, not to mention a family--but then I got around to the truth:

I don't want anything.

The part of a person that wants, that is capable of wanting, no longer dwells in me. I've failed to keep my doomed promise that I made on Graduation Night. And, with the loss of my spark, there can also nevermore exist that wonderful feeling of being where I want to be.

And there's no one to talk to, and, even if there were, there's no one who understands. There's no correct reply. What I feel is what poets and artists and many others eventually come to know, most of them: If you live long enough, there comes a time when you are like a flower that has shed its seeds. Your purpose, your essence, is behind you, and yet you're still there.

I hope no one who reads this ever learns what that feels like. I would sooner wish upon you an untimely death than the feeling of living without your soul.

It's not to say that I'm a zombie. I still have a sense of humor. I still like steak. (Though fish heads are tasty and they do have brains.) I still enjoy myself playing music or watching things online. I don't want to misrepresent myself, or play for pity. The physical burdens of being old notwithstanding, my physical life is fairly comfortable and nice. Rather, I just want to speak candidly, in a world where people are afraid to do that for reason, or are too busy to be bothered.

I wish I could share--I wish there were someone who could hear me--the simple, yet ineffable and inexpressible feeling of seeing something in the here and now, and remembering its likeness in another, finer time, and reveling in that for a fleeting moment, before inevitably perceiving the lines of the chasm between then and now, knowing I can never go back, because I am no longer, and can never again be, the person who was there then.

None of those eras shall return. My old dormitories are demolished. ATH the RPG is no longer an active adventure but a prized mantle piece inspiring a new generation of books, and its cast members are fellow grizzled veterans of life. Nat is off teaching in Las Vegas. Marie became a conservative Christian again. My journal is no longer a parapet for proclamations, but a reflection in the dregs of a cup of coffee. Kendra is a distant, friendly wind that sometimes blows through my grove. Seattle is gone; my directorial Purim stage is torn down; Working America is no longer in the Greensboro office or the Seattle one. And there is no Amy either, no Ring Road, no opilions, no summer thunderheads, no one to hear me say "Merp."

I really wish life had worked out differently. I wish I had escaped poverty. I wish I had found a mate. I wish I had built a name for myself as an artist. I don't regret any of my decisions before leaving Texas in 2015, but they did not lead to the future I hoped for. I never really fit quite right into this world, and it eventually caught up with me. Gave me the Troubles. And now, more than a year after the Troubles, I can only but marvel stupidly, like some baffled sailor who's just lost his arm to the truck, and is staring down at where it should be, and can't quite conceptualize the completely new reality he now inhabits. That part of him is gone. No heel-clicking, no believing in faeries, no miracle crystals will bring it back. It is gone.

I suppose even if life had gone grandly for me, this would have caught up with me someday, in old age. I wasn't ready to lose my fire. I'm the kind of person who would never have been ready. It just kinda sucks to experience it in my 30s, having never achieved my biggest ambitions.

But what can you do?

For me, the answer is: I can be an artist. That is the one thing I still can do.
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Destroyed Utterly: Revisting the Airplane on the Conveyor Belt [Feb. 26th, 2019|08:42 pm]
Josh Fredman
An important update on the Internet's Most Useless Argument: It turns out I was (partially) wrong (but not really) all these years!

Suppose you have an airplane on a runway. Except the runway is a conveyor belt. The belt will move backward at a variable rate so as to perfectly counteract the forward motion of the plane generated by its engines. Everything else is standard / normal. Will the airplane still be able to take off?

Give it a think, and scroll down when you're ready!







Put all trays into the upright and locked position!




Fasten all safety belts!




Collect all stray children in the aisle!




Begin pedaling!






For years, I said that the answer is no. The plane won't take off, I reasoned, because lift is generated on the wings, not in the engines. (Engines make a plane go forward, not up.) For a plane to go up, it has to be pushed up by the air. Where does that air come from? It comes from in front of the plane. The engines push the plane forward, creating a flaw of air over the wings, until the flow generates enough lift to exceed the weight of the plane. In other words, a plane needs a headwind to be able to fly.

On the conveyor belt runway, I reasoned that if the airport windspeed is calm (just to make things neutral), the airplane can't take off because there's no headwind. The engines can push as much as they like, but the airplane's position on the ground won't change, and a stationary ground position in calm winds means no lift.

It amazed me how this was an argument at all! To me it was clear as day.

Well, tonight I finally figured it out, and therein learned that I had been partially wrong all these years!

Here's the correct answer:

The plane will be destroyed utterly.

(And thus it will not take off. So I was right, but for the wrong reason. Ah, logic puzzles! Did I mention this is The Most Useless Argument on the Internet?)

The mistake I made all those years ago was assuming without even thinking about it that the airplane's wheels have drive power. No, they absolutely don't. They are free-spinning.

What will happen, then, is that the engines will generate thrust, causing the airplane to be pushed forward--completely independently of the wheels; their only role is to keep the airplane off the ground.

If there is a net force pushing the airplane forward, then it will move forward. The airplane moving forward will in turn force its wheels to roll forward on the conveyor belt. The wheels have no choice; they're being pushed.

But, separately, the scenario won't allow the airplane to move forward relative to the ground. So the conveyor belt will automatically enter reverse, counteracting the plane's momentum. The reverse action on the conveyor belt won't affect the airplane wheels. They will still continue turning as a consequence of the engines pushing the plane forward. In other words, if the engines were off and the conveyor belt moved backward, the whole plane would move backward and the wheels wouldn't really turn* at all except for a bit of jostling.

(* Actually, if the system sped up fast enough, you'd have the old "pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes" scenario, which takes advantage of the discrepancy between friction at rest and friction in motion, and perhaps the wheels could turn. But let's all agree that, in a good, sensible, practical scenario like ours involving a runway-sized, aircraft-load-bearing conveyor belt capable of turning at hundreds of miles an hour, it's just too silly to imagine that it could speed up quickly enough to cause the airplane's wheels to roll out from under it--though, if it did, it would simply result in one of the same three outcomes I'll be describing below, only sooner.)

Meanwhile, there is a problem, and unfortunately it is lethal to the airplane: The engines are definitely pushing the airplane forward, yet it isn't moving, because the conveyor belt is moving it backward at the identical speed. The fact that there's no headwind and the plane isn't moving relative to the airport is a peaceful red herring that belies the chaos playing out down below: The wheels are definitely behaving as though the plane were accelerating: They're turning faster and faster, because engine thrust is an accelerant and is adding kinetic energy to the system.

But this requires the conveyor belt to go faster and faster in the other direction in response, to ensure that the plane doesn't move.

This is a feedback loop. Since thrust is still being applied, the airplane is still being pushed forward, and the wheels ~must~ increase their turning speed. But that just makes the conveyor belt move faster.

Eventually the end comes, and one of two* things happens: Either the conveyor belt itself fails first, and its debris flies off at hundreds of miles an hour, destroying the airplane utterly; or the landing gear, which by now is moving on the conveyor belt at hundreds of miles an hour, heats up too much, and catches on fire and collapses, causing the airplane to hit the conveyor belt that is now moving hundreds of miles an hour relative to the body of the plane, thus destroying the airplane utterly.

(* There's a third possibility, which covers the scenario of infinite tolerances on both the conveyor belt and the landing gear. Here we're getting away from the cleanliness of the logic puzzle and into a lot of messy physics and fluid dynamics, but the short version is that the conveyor belt could conceivably whip enough air along with it that it creates enough headwind for the airplane to take off...and then immediately crash due to the fact that the headwind only extends a few yards above the ground, above which the airplane drops out of the sky like a brick, destroying it utterly.)

RIP airplane. And conveyor belt. And especially RIP landing gear.

You know, I call it The Most Useless Argument on the Internet, but this premise could actually be of use on enemy aircraft carriers as a way of destroying the enemy's planes by getting them to build their carriers with our trojan horse conveyor belt technology. We'll sell the belts with the premise that they only move forward (as you would expect), thus reducing runway lengths needed for takeoff, but we'll also build in a secret reverse mode that can be remotely triggered by anyone within 1,000 yards who transmits "Stars and Stripes Forever" on the right frequency.

There you have it! Under no circumstance does the airplane take to the skies and reach its destination. That's definitely the correct answer and I'm sure I won't come back in ten years and and say that I was wrong again!

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Good Smells Zone [Feb. 21st, 2019|12:14 pm]
Josh Fredman
One cool thing about my apartment is that wonderful smells sometimes drift in through the window when the wind is blowing just right. Usually it's food or coffee smells, either from other apartments or nearby restaurants or cafes. Sometimes it's nice bathroom smells, which is what I'm enjoying right now: Someone is taking a really nice bath or shower, and using some kind of lovely floral-scented (I think?) fragrant soap / shampoo / whatever it is that people who aren't Josh use to get clean that isn't soap or shampoo.

It's something I'll miss when I leave this place! The smells are fleeting...usually only last a few minutes...so they never wear out their welcome. It's the olfactory equivalent of a gorgeous view.

Also, by fluke, my desk chair is at the exact center of my apartment's "Good Smells Zone" area, where all such smells (and occasional bad smells like cigarette smoke from outside) flow to and concentrate in, while the drafts keep other areas of the apartment relatively clear.
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America's Peak [Feb. 20th, 2019|01:28 am]
Josh Fredman
I read a feature recently about US State Dinner menus from FDR through the present day, and it got me asking when the US was at its height.

When it comes to our authority and respect among the nations, it's clear that, today, we're not only in decline but a long way down from our peak. But when was that peak?

It turns out others have asked this question, and there appears to be a strong correlation among the general public of people believing that the nation's peak coincided with their own coming of age. But that of course isn't correct.

I won't slow roll you: I'm pretty confident that our peak was in the 1960s. (Interestingly, in one of the graphs I saw, no demographic picked that decade--they either fell onto the '50s or the '70s.) The real question--and what I've found so interesting to contemplate, was whether it was the early '60s or the late '60s.

What I come to is that it was probably the early '60s, specifically 1963, before JFK was assassinated. We had a very powerful president who had come into his own after some missteps. American prosperity was in overdrive mode. The spirit of the nation was toward sexual and racial equality, and it was spilling out into the counterculture. Vietnam hadn't yet begun sapping our strength. Things like the Moon landings were still ahead of us, but we were actively working on them. We had big visions, our society was moving in the right direction, technological advancements were coming in leaps and bounds, the culture was getting healthier, the American public (more or less) respected our democracy and our institutions, we had undisputed hegemony over the entire West, and our enemies the Soviets knew they could only stalemate us. People like Leonard Bernstein were at the top of their game. People like Carl Sagan were on their way up. The folk movement was gaining traction too. Big advances in welfare, environmentalism, and science were around the corner.

Now, to be clear, I'm not implying we should go back or anything. Today, many things are much better. Rights are stronger and more equally distributed. The welfare system is stronger. It's a lot less difficult to be female or nonwhite or nonreligious or queer today, and of course we have the Internet and all of its boons. I would rather be alive today than then. But our overarching culture, today, is decaying, and we have no national spirit or vision. It's an open question if we'll still exist as a free and unified country in 30 years. Times haven't been so dark for us since the 1970s, or possibly even the 1930s. America's economy still dominates the global order by leaps and bounds, and our military prowess remains embarrassingly, excessively peerless. But we've lost a great deal of our soft power, and a great deal of love and respect among our allies. Nor do our adversaries view us with the trepidation they once did--not even close. And we have no national vision. We can't do big projects nowadays. Our biggest successes are Mars rovers--which are awesome, but look at our failures, from high-speed rail, to a national waterworks system, to climate change control.

Will we ever eclipse that in the future? Well, if we exist long enough as a nation, perhaps. But I don't think it'll happen again in our lifetimes, unless enormous global change or upheaval occurs. Which, of course, it might.

There's also a good argument to be made for the 1990s. Even though, yes, that's my coming of age decade, those ten years were the most peaceful and some of the most prosperous we've had in the whole postwar era. And there was no Soviet Union to oppose us. The conservative movement hadn't yet gone off the deep end (though it was certainly on its way). Small businesses were flourishing. Personal computing and the Internet were becoming a thing. We didn't have the same grand national vision that we did in the '60s, but there was a pragmatic optimism: We're Americans, we work hard, we get rewarded for it. The '90s were, I suppose, our proverbial victory lap for an extremely difficult and transformative century.

Still, I don't think the argument for the '90s beats the one for the '60s. I think our peak was probably 1963. But what do you think?
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Tau Increases to 10.8. It's Super Effective. Opportunity Faints. (Or, Animism & The Rover) [Feb. 17th, 2019|05:13 pm]
Josh Fredman

Animism is particularly weak in the United States, but this "My battery is low and it's getting dark" meme from the Opportunity rover is a good demonstration that the human impulses toward animism are present even here. That's both heartening and concerning at the same time.

It's heartening because I think people grow happier, wiser, more connected, and more awestruck if they have animistic tendencies. (Of course, as one myself, I am biased, so perhaps what applies to me wouldn't apply to the general public, though there are nations like Japan with high rates and degrees of animism that suggest I am correct.) Also, it's not just a benefit to the person: It's an honor to the rest of the world. To perceive an essence outside oneself, I think, is truer to life than to not do so. It leads, I think, to better stewardship and a more natural way of thinking.

On the other hand, it's concerning because if there's one thing I know about humans it's that they love being right and holding others to their own beliefs, and I've seen a lot of people treating Opportunity as though it had been physically sapient--exactly the same as how many religious people insist that their god exists objectively, rather than perceptually (i.e., "in the heart"), and that other humans (and the whole rest of the world) should be held to whatever standards they think their god wishes. I've never been one to actually believe that the objects I perceive as animate have an independent, sapient agency of their own. My animism is a way of texturing the world to be more beautiful and interconnected. But people who are inclined to assume that their inner convictions are objectively applicable to everybody will, in an animistic context, start concocting rules and strictures that bind other people's....opportunities!

Have you noticed how Opportunity is "Oppy" now, and how it has been gifted with a gender (feminine, of course)? Granted, some on the NASA team themselves did this, but this, far and away, is the characterization that caught the public's fancy. Opportunity doesn't have a gender, and of course you can call it by any nickname, but the use of a nickname in this case is part of that anthropomorphizing effort to assert that Opportunity actually was a person.

I'm not sure if this is simply the result of some people taking their animistic expressions farther than I do, which isn't a problem, or if people genuinely don't realize that Opportunity was never an individual. I wonder if perhaps a great many people don't have the mental sophistication to make those sorts of distinctions. It would explain a great deal of human behavior over the ages.

As a point of interest, it turned out to be surprisingly difficult to track down Opportunity's real message. I couldn't find the actual data at all, but I did find the scientific translation (link):

Opportunity reported that "tau" (atmospheric opacity) was up to a record high 10.8 (i.e., it was dark) and that its power reserves had dropped to a record low ~22 watt-hours (i.e., its battery was low).

This wasn't actually the last normal message Opportunity sent, but it was the one referenced in the meme.

Lastly, I don't want to give the impression that I'm discouraging people from having a little more animism in their lives. Quite the contrary, I think we need more of it. Just look at all the awareness and goodwill this meme raised for Mars exploration and science in general. There's something powerful here, that, if tapped into properly, could transform our society in an extraordinary and positive way. It's what Carl Sagan did so well. So, by all means, treat "Oppy" like one of us if you are so inclined. Just...try and remember that objective, independent sapience and perceived essence are not the same thing. It's not even a hard needle to thread. I do it all the time.

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