Let Them Eat Plastic

No cake until you finish your plasticSome stories seem to fall easily—almost naturally—into the urban myths and legends category, often because they're . . . well, because they're so much stranger than fiction. But therein lies the danger, because some of those stories are not only true, but disastrous in their implications.

Not long ago, someone mentioned a program she had seen—on PBS, no doubt—about an enormous collection of trash somewhere near the Hawaiian islands. This wasn't completely surprising considering how many people inhabit this planet; we do generate a lot of trash, and some of it is going to wind up in our oceans. But when she said that this trash collection is the size of Texas, I had to laugh. Something that size wouldn't be exactly invisible. Someone would have noticed it, and taken pictures, and those pictures would have been on the evening news. Later that day, just to satisfy my curiosity, I decided to do a quick search.

As it turned out, she was a bit off on the size of this floating dump. It isn't the size of Texas; it's twice the size of Texas, and it's just one of several. Referred to as the Eastern Garbage Patch and located halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii, it's an enormous expanse of junk—nearly 90% of which is plastic, it seems—trapped by a system of ocean currents that hold it in place, mostly. Sometimes, in the words of one oceanographer, it barfs.

"It moves around like a big animal without a leash," said Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer in Seattle and leading expert on currents and marine debris. "When it gets close to an island, the garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic."

The quote comes from a Los Angeles Times article, and although there's much more on the subject out there on the Net, this excellent piece is a good place to start. In case you're wondering, as I did, about the lack of photographic evidence, one more snippet from the same article ought to answer that question.

. . . the Pacific spans millions of square miles, and even the debris circulating in the Eastern and Western garbage patches is often diffuse and hard to see, bobbing just below the surface.

Another thing that's hard to see is carbon dioxide, which is what's generated when plastic eventually breaks down after decades, or centuries, or even longer out there on the ocean. And plastic is, of course, a petroleum product, so if your mind begins to form disturbing connections as you read that Times article, it's probably no accident.

For me, this whole thing brings up another, more poignant question: Are we insane?


A Louder Buzz

What's the buzz?The alleged Einstein quote concerning the disappearance of bees and the resulting demise of the human race certainly isn't news anymore. It's been floating around since at least '94, but has been recently resurrected for use in connection with the disturbing news that honey bees are being victimized by an unknown killer. According to one of the Urban Legends Reference Pages at snopes.com, the only sure bet is that Einstein may or may not have said anything about beesno one has been able to definitively attribute the quote to him, nor to anyone else for that matter.

. . . even though Einstein died in 1955, assiduous searching of a variety of databases of historical printed material (e.g., books, newspapers, magazines) has so far failed to turn up any mention of this quote (attributed to Einstein or anyone else) antedating 1994, when it suddenly started popping up in newspaper articles reporting on a protest in Brussels staged by beekeepers . . .

This time around, the misattributed quote again appeared in more than one reputable publication, but the high-speed, global circulation apparatus known as the Internet allowed it a more widespread grip on the popular consciousness.

If nothing else, the situation may live in infamy as an example of what can happen when normally respectable sources neglect their fact-checking, even for a moment. The speed at which the Net propagates the buzz—reliable or not—sometimes creates the impression of authority, even though it may actually be little more than an increase in volume.


With Apologies to W.H. Auden

A place to keep wordsHistorically, the written word was stored on the medium used to create it, so the idea that one might have no idea where the words had gone, immediately after their creation, would have been unthinkable. Stone, parchment, or paper, the words had a known location for the lifetime of the medium on which they were stored. Today, that isn't necessarily the case.

The technology responsible for this new possibility—our blogs, Web sites, or similar Internet-enabled communication tools—is the same technology that has now made it possible to type our words on a keyboard, press a virtual button or two, then watch those words appear at what seems to be a particular place on the Net. But that address—that URL—isn't where the words have gone, really. Unless the physical location of the disk upon which those words have just been encoded is known, they could be almost anywhere. And the more extensive the network, the less likely one's words might be tracked down. Google's blogging system, for example, virtually guarantees that every word I've sent into the blogosphere resides at one or more unknown positions on Google's vast computing grid. Where are my words?

I don't know. Most of the time I don't care, but sometimes I stop and wonder where they are, and how they're doing. Are they free? Are they happy? I know what you're thinking: the questions are absurd. After all, had anything been wrong, I should certainly have heard.


Expressions of Concern

An expression of concernFinally, an end to the blur that was this week, and last. The memorial service is over, and apart from a few lingering relatives everyone has returned to their respective worlds. Frankly, I don't want to do this again, ever.

Not that funerals aren't interesting. They're studies in human nature; they expose the variety of motives that cause people to attend events such as this. Some feel an obligation to attend, even though they never really knew the departed. Others attend purely for the sake of appearances, because although they knew the deceased quite well, they considered her despicable. Some are largely ambivalent, and show up simply because they have nothing better to do with their time.

The remaining attendees are those who have suffered an actual loss—or feel for those who have—and are there out of respect, or love, or both. They aren't there simply because their husbands, wives, or significant others have dictated it; they're there because they want to be. People in this category can generally be identified by the content of their conversation when the service is over, and everyone is standing around eating cake. If they mention the departed—in a genuinely positive way—at all, this is a good sign. An expression of concern for those surviving the deceased is a good sign, too.

But drifting around the room after the memorial service, I noticed that most conversation had nothing to do with the departed. I heard countless expressions of concern; it's just that the concern seemed to be aimed elsewhere.

Expressions of concern regarding who's wearing what.

Expressions of concern regarding the morality of someone in the room.

Expressions of concern regarding the morality of someone not in the room.

Expressions of concern regarding the final destination of the deceased.

Expressions of concern regarding the coffee, or cake.

Expressions of concern regarding who's going where for lunch afterward.

I've heard it said that a memorial service should be a celebration of life, and not a weepfest for those left behind. I can see the logic in that, but on the other hand, I don't think the service is intended as a forum for gossip, slander, or flippant remarks more appropriate for a stand-up comedy routine. I'm not saying everyone should be wearing sackcloth, but it seems a memorial service ought to be a bit more restrained and thoughtful than the average high-school reunion.


Messages in the Medium

1907 - 2007It's been a muddled and gloomy week, but I guess that's to be expected. My grandmother was just a few months shy of 100, and at that age every new day is remarkable. Even so, death, when it comes, carries an element of surprise that's difficult—and perhaps impossible—to ever fully prepare for. It's final, and inarguable, and leaves behind a strange silence.

I still can't explain the odd appearance of German months in the archives the other day. Although it's certainly possible to change the blog's language, this is a global setting and so would affect more than just the month-names in the archives section. But I've been around computers long enough to know that software sometimes hiccups, and although the results may seem inexplicable, there is, in fact, a perfectly logical reason buried somewhere among the layers. It may be excruciatingly difficult to find, and perhaps not worth the effort, but it's in there somewhere.

So we can chalk it up to coincidence that the software hiccup would result in German, and not one of the 95 other languages, or language variants, that might have appeared instead. We can call it a fluke of timing that this would have happened immediately following my German grandmother's death. And it may have been simply an artifact of this particular combination of glitches that allowed me to fix the problem without touching the global settings, which is, after all, where language changes are made.

On the other hand, maybe there are no coincidences. Maybe coincidence, like chaos, is just our way of saying that we are unable to comprehend the complexity of a thing, or otherwise discover the true underlying causes of it. Maybe coincidence is a word with which to label the manifest mystery, and dismiss it before it has the chance to disrupt our daily affairs.

Next week, I think, will be a blur. There are the services, and the people, many of whom are seen only occasionally, when someone has died. I suppose a reunion by any other name is still a reunion, although it seems a bit sad that death should dictate the timing of it. But there are also graduations and birthdays, which can't—and shouldn't—be completely sidelined by sadness. Life, as they say, goes on, although it can certainly get a bit blurry at times.


How Very Strange

Did anyone else see the German month-names in the archives section earlier today, or perhaps yesterday? Unfortunately, I went in and reset that section before it occurred to me that it isn't possible to change the language of only one portion of the blog without changing everything else. This is bizarre, especially when you consider that the family member who just passed away was German.

Maybe it was just my tired brain playing tricks on me.


A Pause

There's been a death in the family over the weekend, so I'm going to pause for a while.


The Trouble with Clouds

Clouds get in your eyes, and sometimes your coffee. Clouds are notorious for evoking wildly disparate images, depending on who's doing the looking. When I circulated a larger version of the cloud photo you see here, everyone saw something different, and erroneous. One person returned a small section of the photo—top center—which, she thought, looked like "the face of a woman with long hair and her head slightly tilted up," although I immediately recognized it as the image of someone's ear. One guy suspected it was actually a bald turtle, but it wasn't. It was an ear.

The truly amazing thing is how much time and effort were wasted focusing on the wrong portion of the photograph. Obviously, the major point of interest is the image of George Washington in the upper right corner, who's plainly scowling at something over there on the left. The Queen, probably.

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: Next time you think you see something in a cloud, it isn't a woman with long hair. It's an ear, or maybe George Washington.


Calculated Madness

The keys to insomniaI don't have the opportunity to use my old calculators much anymore. There was a time—in the early eighties, mostly—I lived and died by the little gadgets, but these days I live and die by the laptop. So when a friend asked me to accompany him on his automobile-shopping expedition to make sure the dealer's financing numbers were true and correct, what he really wanted was my dated but still trusty HP-12C. He just didn't want to put it that way, and besides, he knows how I feel about my HP calculator collection. I'd sooner loan out my shoes.

Anyway, when I wasn't busy bringing the salesman's compound-interest calculations back to reality, I entertained myself by fooling around with the calculator's interest functions, which can be useful when you want to, say, figure out how much a gallon of gas might cost in 20 years. This method isn't entirely reliable, of course. It doesn't take into account the many complexities of modern economics, and in fact is little more than a vulgar approximation of the runaway inflation that plagues us. Still, it's interesting to see what shows up in the calculator's display, although disturbing may be a better word.

For example, say a gallon of gas sold for 35 cents in 1970. That's 37 years in the past, so we plug in 37 for the n variable. I decided to use 6% for the interest rate, so we plug 6 into the i variable. Since we're using 35 cents as the present value, .35 is plugged in for the present value, or PV. Future value is what we're after, so now it's simply a matter of pressing that little FV key, and out pops $3.02. This isn't all that far off in many parts of the country; in fact, around here a gallon of gas is hovering very near $3.00 a gallon right now. So, using the same method—and sticking with that 6% inflation number—what might we expect in 20 years? An insomnia-inducing $9.69 for a gallon of gas, that's what. Obviously, a lot can happen in 20 years, but we're just fooling around with a calculator here.

What about a pack of smokes in 1970? Somewhere around 40 cents, I think, and using the same method as before, today's pack would cost $3.45. That's low in some places and probably high in others, but again, almost exactly right for these parts. Add 20 years, and you get $11.06 per pack. It's enough to make you cough.

How about a Ford Mustang in 1965? Legend has it that a new one of those was $2,368 at the time, which would be $27,367 in 2007. Here again, that's either low or high depending on where you live and what sort of car you have your eye on, but not completely outside the realm of reason, either. Looking 20 years into the future the new car is $87,767, and that's probably optimistic.

I happen to know someone who paid the now-absurd sum of $15,000 for a house in 1968, which my handy calculator thinks would translate to $145,552 in 2007. I also happen to know what the county clerk thinks the place is worth today, and the two numbers are pretty close. According to one Web site I happened upon, the average home cost $26,600 in 1970, which the calculator tells me would be $229,720 today. Again, not too far off, at least here in the heartland.

The same site claims a gallon of milk sold for $1.15 in 1970, which would now be the equivalent of $9.93 to my calculator's way of thinking. Fortunately, this method doesn't work well with milk, among other things. I didn't have an income—or a household for that matter—in 1970, but if that median household income figure of $8,734 is right, today's equivalent would be $75,428, and that's just to stay even.

As we know, the prices of certain technology products—computer stuff, for example—haven't been going up, but have dropped instead. Making our 6% rate negative, that $800 printer I remember from 1990 would now sell for $279, a price I can easily believe. A $3,000 state-of-the-art laptop from the same year would cost $1,048 in 2007. Although this figure is unlikely to get you a new upper-tier notebook computer today, it probably isn't far off the mark for a basic—but still very usable—desktop system.

At any rate, if you're graduating from high school this year (you know who you are) and find yourself doubting the need for a college education, you may want to think about today's prices for this and that, versus how they might look in the future. There's more to a good education than just making a buck, but on the other hand, eating is good, too.


Generational Storage Capacity

From words per page to books per gigabyteIf you remember the first personal-computer hard drives, the idea of carrying a gigabyte in your shirt pocket has historical meaning that's probably lost on someone who thinks of a gigabyte primarily as an insufficient amount of storage. I may be a bit jaded when it comes to technology, but I still smile when I see those $20 index-finger-size flash drives in their blister packs at the local megamart. I don't remember how much the first 10 MB drives cost, but it wasn't pocket change, and they certainly weren't the sort of thing you'd want to carry around with you.

But this comparison was utterly lost on the senior citizen I was talking to the other day, in part because her world specifically excludes computers and relative storage capacities, and also because, to her, words like gigabyte are meaningless in any practical context. As I pondered this communication dilemma, it occurred to me that the common applications of a given slice of technology are what we generally use to describe its benefits. In other words, the current context of a gigabyte is likely to involve things like digital music, photos, or video, non of which are of particular relevance to someone who's never used a digital anything in her life, and doesn't want to.

So I told her she could store about 20 record albums in that amount of space. I didn't mention sampling rates, relative levels of compression, or other digital issues that would have needlessly complicated the discussion. I figured MP3 tracks at a 44 kHz sampling rate would result in about the same quality she was used to from vinyl on a middle-of-the-road turntable; this would take up somewhere around 50 MB per album, give or take.

I said she could fit approximately 1,700 copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a gigabyte storage space. This assumes a 583 KB file, which is what you'd have after downloading and unpacking the text from Project Gutenberg. Or The War of the Worlds, a 356 KB file on the same site; you could cram about 2,800 copies of that in a gigabyte space.

Vinyl albums and plain text may not be anywhere near the cutting edge of technology, but they're useful for conveying a sense of scale that might otherwise be lost. And as the senior citizen pointed out, they aren't bad for music and reading, either.


The Apathy of Optical Media

Who cares about electrostatic discharge?For some reason, I've been involved in several conversations during the past couple weeks that revolved around the subject of recorded music, and how the media on which it's stored has changed. Not the vinyl to CD metamorphosis so much as the more recent move to hard-disk storage, and the even more recent trend toward solid-state media as storage capacity increases. It's a somewhat troubling development, because although the size and convenience benefits are undeniable, there's one significant disadvantage common to magnetic and chip-based media, and that's damage caused by electrostatic discharge. Optical media—CDs and DVDs—don't care about things like that.

Although the problem is more common where relative humidity is low, it's certainly possible to blast your cherished music with high voltages no matter where you live. The right combination of materials—a polyester shirt and rubber-soled shoes, for example—and bodily movement may result in the buildup of electricity with no place to go, hence the static classification. Handling an MP3 player under these conditions—disk-based or not—invites that static buildup to move, suddenly and destructively, into the very locations inhabited by the digital bits we perceive as music. I've spent considerable time looking at this sort of damage with an electron microscope, and it ain't pretty.

While a few scrambled bits may not be catastrophic in the grand scheme of things, it isn't the kind ocircumstance you'd want for your prized music archives. It's one thing when the musical selection you carry in your pocket is refreshed by frequent connections to your computer, but quite another when the only copy you have is corrupted by repeated blasts of electricity, or one big lightning-induced surge for that matter. I know several music lovers who have completely lost track of what's on those 80 GB drives in their pocket-size jukeboxes, and not every track they've collected over time is easily replaceable, if at all. While the hardcore audiophile may frown on doing things that way, the temptation to keep music collections on magnetic media—even when they're removable, and stored with care—has probably already overcome a few serious collectors here and there.

It's tough to argue the benefits of the relatively large plastic disks we call CDs, or DVDs, when everyone can plainly see the much smaller, cooler alternative. As magnetic disk and solid-state capacity increases—and with it the potential for damage, since the bits are more tightly packed—the reasons for keeping those bulky disks may become increasingly unclear. But if you're the sort of person who considers the idea of corrupted musical bits and bytes reprehensible, it may be useful to ponder the microscopic, laser-burned pits that encode the music on those shiny disks.

Those pits don't care about electrical vandalism. Just food for thought.


The Heartache of Amateur Astronomy

Is it really worth the pain?Not unlike the grandfather comparing the pampered lifestyle of kids these days with the hardships of his own youth—his 150-mile walks to school every day, in the rain, with no clothes on—I remember a time when amateur astronomy meant suffering through endless hours of frigid darkness, searching for the elusive deep-space object that was so rarely where I thought it should have been. It may be unthinkable now, but back then the operation relied on printed star charts and a rudimentary grasp of the coordinate system required to align the current position of an object in space with the tube I'd set up in my backyard. Back then, telescopes didn't come with preprogrammed databases of celestial objects, and it took more than pushing a few buttons on the handheld remote to locate those objects. Even with the telescope's drive unit perfectly aligned with our celestial pole, locating the object of my desire involved work and dedication. In 1985, amateur astronomy meant suffering, and that's why I ended up selling all that stuff a few years after I bought it. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, and I regret it to this day.

Really, I hadn't planned to buy a telescope at all, but a coworker's positive experiences with the hobby led me astray. He was always bringing photos to work, and they were impressive photos of colorful, glowing gases in distant nebulae, amazing shots of star clusters, or bright images of the planets in our own solar system. Sometimes his astrophotography even included comets, their gaseous tails in perpetual opposition to our sun. One night I drove out to the small observatory dome where he kept his decidedly serious amateur telescope. There, with my camera riding piggyback on his 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, I steered the arrangement by keeping the glowing crosshairs in the eyepiece centered on a galaxy whose grandeur would be captured on an 8 x 10 glossy. This, I think, was the event that pushed me over the edge, and not long thereafter I forked over way too much dough for a telescope of my own.

Not that I went completely nuts over a 14-inch scope, but even a 10-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain takes up quite a bit of space in its carrying case—or more accurately, its carrying trunk—and then there's that monster tripod to contend with. It isn't like you can just throw the whole mess in the back seat and head for the hills. And there's the electric drive that counteracts our planet's rotation, and keeps whatever you're squinting at from zipping out of view. But that drive unit requires power, which means you're either tripping over an extension cord in the dark, or running on a battery of some kind. Of course, you can't do the astrophotography thing without a camera adapter, and an off-axis guider, and whatever else the telescope manufacturer decides is optional-extra.

Once everything is set up and plugged in—and assuming you've figured out where you are, and also how to locate the desired space object—there's nothing left but to sit down and stare into that eyepiece. If it's a warm night, you might be comfortable for a little while, but if it isn't, you can expect numbness and shaking before you begin to feel the drowsy warmth that occurs immediately before death. Although I don't recall ever quite reaching that point, I do remember an overwhelming feeling of sadness and disappointment. Unlike photographic film, the human eye isn't sensitive to the wavelengths that show up in colorful ways in photos of nebulosity and such. Hydrogen gas, through the telescope's eyepiece, is invisible. And the planets that make up our solar system may be next door on a cosmic scale, but they're also significantly smaller than those deep-space phenomena—light years smaller, in effect—so you need a lot of magnification for the planets. Unfortunately, this translates to less brightness and sharpness, more shaking, and the overall sensation of ickiness, especially where photography is involved.

I'm sure not everyone has such disappointing, negative experiences with amateur astronomy; no doubt there are people who enjoy sitting in the bitter darkness for hours on end, shaking and crying. As they say, your mileage may vary. Then too, I haven't really kept up with the latest developments, so it's possible modern-day amateur astronomy requires nothing more than a motorized, weatherproof CCD arrangement on the roof, a video panel in the living room, and maybe a joystick in case the computer is unable to discern the difference between Gliese 581 and your neighbors' bedside lamp.


Thrice in a Blue Moon

Once should be enoughWhat's up with all these full moons? Around here, this month has two full moons, but in some places it happens next month, and not until July in other locations. To further complicate matters, some call the second full moon in one month a blue moon, although by tradition the phenomenon was always taken to mean the third full moon out of four in a particular season. How can this be allowed, and who deserves the punishment for all this discrepant information?

Ironically, the venerable Sky and Telescope magazine had quite a bit to do with it. As a 1999 article explained, a mistake made by the author of an article that appeared in the same magazine in 1946 actually led to the creation of the two-full-moons-in-a-month definition, which has now become so popular that it isn't likely to go away again, ever. The error was the result of a misinterpretation of a page from the 1937 Maine Farmers' Almanac, which based the timing of seasons on idealized celestial motion in order to achieve seasons of equal duration. Sometimes this yielded the same blue-moon date as the more accurate modern methods, and sometimes not. You can see the graphic results for yourself at Blue Moon - four Full Moons in a season, and read all about the Sky and Telescope fiasco in the brief Blue Moon - what's the real definition? article at the same site.

As for that disturbing difference in which month a blue moon actually occurs, the reason is more straightforward. It's the old time-zone problem again, and nothing more. If the whole world were running on UTC—or GMT if you prefer those letters—there would be no controversy; we'd all have these full moons on the same day, and at the same time:

  • May 2
  • June 1
  • June 30
  • July 30

Assuming you subscribe to the more popular two-full-moons-in-a-month definition, your blue moon would be my blue moon, and we could both celebrate the blueness at the same time, namely during the month of June. Alas, if you live in Auckland your blue moon won't arrive until July, whereas those of us who live west of Greenwich get it already in May. Locations such as London, Riyadh, Moscow, Tokyo, and Sydney receive their blue moon in June. Here again, there's a colorful chart at The Blue Moon of 2007, which is more fun to look at than the plain old words you see here.

Of course, if you're free to travel the globe at will, there's no reason you couldn't witness all three if you wanted to.


Provocative Questions

Another free-speech questionSometimes it's the unanticipated answer to a question—the answer you simply hadn't considered—that really illuminates the debate.

Q. When is a journalist not a journalist?

A. When he's an entertainer.

Although the idea may seem flippant at first, this simple question-answer duet resolved a point of consternation that's been nagging at me ever since Don Imus was fired for making those now-infamous remarks while positioned behind a microphone. Namely, how is it possible to attach the protected speech label to the remarks of a paid sportscaster, since that was arguably his official role at the time.

It's possible if the sportscaster isn't really a sportscaster—sometimes referred to as a reporter, or even a journalist, maybe—but is, instead, an entertainer. In the role of entertainer, all things are permissible, and protected, mostly. If you happen to be, for example, a rap artist, you can say pretty much whatever you feel like saying by way of your lyrics. Music is an art form, and artists are expected to engage in free expression, and that free expression is protected by law, and that's why Don Imus' comments qualify for protection. See the logic in it now?

I'd like to be able to say that this new way of looking at things came to me in a dream, or better yet, a vision. But the truth is my consciousness was expanded by a blog post I happened upon by accident, which had to do with a heated neighborhood discussion on the subject of free speech.

One of our combatants refused to acknowledge that Imus is/was an entertainer. He still believes that he is some kind of journalist. He also maintains that it was perfectly right for Imus to get fired but that it's not right to penalize singers for using the same words. Of course, we all wanted to know why.

So there it is, or at least enough of it to get you started on your own journey of discovery, should you be inclined. Although I don't happen to see the entertainment value in Imus' remarks, the idea that he might have been engaged in a vocation I hadn't even considered is intriguing, to say the least. Some might even say it's visionary, but then, you can't believe everything you hear.