Going International

If you ever wish to feel completely isolated and shunned by society, try promoting the Metric System in the USA. It is an exercise in frustration, and you will be astounded by how much resistance there is to something that makes so much sense. The truth is that we already use metric units in a lot of areas of our lives, and it is standard in science and medicine, for the most part. On my recent doctor visit, as I stepped on the scale, the nurse interviewing me asked if I knew my height. I responded, “170 centimeters”. After some silence, I looked at her and rephrased, “1.7 meters, then.” Ultimately I acquiesced and said I was around five feet seven inches.

This moment notwithstanding, many of us are already using metric units, as I mentioned, whether we realize it or not. For instance, most Americans know how far five kilometers is. Many of us have actually managed to run that distance in under an hour. We can all recognize a 2-liter bottle, and we know how much 500 mg of Tylenol look like, and we know a little about Celsius. So, I think we can handle it. We underestimate our own capacity for adaptation. I think we should see converting to the metric system as a challenge worthy of accepting.

But I often feel utterly alone, inasmuch as I have most of the rest of the world on my side. You see, the United States is one of only three nations that have failed to adopt the metric system formally. The other two, Liberia and Myanmar, may have a pretty good excuse, having been locked in civil war and oppressive military rule, respectively, for more than a decade. What’s our excuse? But as I said earlier, we have already started the process, so a few more steps shouldn’t be to difficult to make.

First, it is not uncommon for street and highway signs to be replaced, and yes it costs taxpayers to replace them, but these costs are always part of state and county budgets, and that’s what taxes are for! Therefore, when speed limit signs are replaced, why not print miles per hour and kilometers per hour (km-h is preferred to kph). The result would be that next time we’re driving on the highway, we might see a sign that reads both “70 mph” and “113 km-h”. After some time, the mph can be removed entirely. That way, when you see a sign that reads “50 km-h” you know you will need to slow down because you’re in a residential zone. A school zone should be about 32 kilometers per hour. It’s a simple matter of learning the new scale. No calculation is necessary.

The same may be said for learning Celsius. In Fahrenheit, we know that water freezes at 32 degrees and it boils at 212º. Celsius is a bit easier to manage with freezing at zero and boiling occurring at 100º. Americans get very confused about where our comfort zone is within this scale. I tell people it’s really pretty easy. We know that zero is the freezing point, so we’ll say you need a coat and gloves, that is we in Texas would agree with this because, well, this is Texas. Anything between zero and 10º is still pretty cold (again, this is Texas), but once you get up to 20º C, you might be okay with no jacket at all. When the temperature hits 30º, it’s warm enough to go swimming (my friends in Norway would go swimming at 14º, but okay). Between 30º and 36º is about where we live in Texas, and it gets above 37º at the peak of summer. 40 degrees is very hot, about Jacuzzi temperature. After that, you’re in some serious heat. Then there’s 50º, which is about the highest temperature in Death Valley or the Iraqi desert. (Actually, I think the world record is nearly 60º.)

Death Valley
Death Valley

I tend to lose people here. But today when I offered to go for a walk with a co-worker, she asked if she needed a jacket. I told her is was 16º and no jacket was needed. After a couple laps around the campus, it was clear that it was warm enough, especially in the sun. I hope she remembers that reference point, and she might be inspired to think metric in the future. But even my wife resists learning the metric system, even though I have a compelling argument, about how it’s based on tens, and a cubic centimeter of water is one mililiter, and it is very close to one gram in mass, depending on temperature. That’s the simplicity of it all. You can divide a meter or a kilogram or a liter by any multiple of ten. Meanwhile, in the States, a foot is one third of a yard, and it is divided into twelve inches. A mile is – whatever! Just use the metric system!

So, I continue on my quixotic mission to get the US on the metric system. One way to immerse yourself is to tell your smartphone to use metric units. At first it will be challenging when your phone tells you, “in 800 meters, turn right…” or when you ask what the temperature is and Siri responds, “it’s 28 degrees C…hot!”. (Okay, Siri. Remember? I live in Texas.)

Eventually we will be on the International System, as it’s called. The internet has exposed Americans to the metric system better and faster than our 4th grade teachers ever could. (I sometimes forget how old I am, and that most of you don’t remember when President Carter tried converting the US back in the 1970’s). Well, we’re ready now, and I think we can switch at long last. Like I said, it’s already started. And I smile as I look at the label on the plastic water bottle next to me, as it reads “500 ml”.

Your Honor, I rest my case.

 

What I Learned from Yoda

Someone I know told me a few weeks ago how they had tried calling me one night. I think it went, “I tried calling, but you I couldn’t reach you.” What, is it 1988? I check my voicemail all the time. And I carry my phone with me nearly everywhere (I actually don’t take my phone inside church, and sometimes I turn it off when we go out.)

But I am more reachable than most people, even here in the 21st century. If someone were to try to call me, I’m confident I would answer. I think what that person meant to say was, “I didn’t call you, but I meant to.” To say that you tried to do something strongly implies that you made every effort. At least you could infer that some effort was made. Some fans of “Star Wars” will recognize the reference to Episode V, “The Empire Strikes Back” where we first encounter Yoda. During Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training, he tells Yoda that he will try to lift a spaceship from the swamp, or something like that. Yoda retorts, “Do or do not; there is no try.” In its simple elegance, Yoda’s statement instructs young Skywalker that he must put his heart into anything he wishes to succeed in. Luke fails, but he at least made an effort. I think his teacher was thoroughly disappointed in him, which inspires me to talk about parents and children. That will be the subject for another post.

I used to catch myself saying “I’ll try” many times. I’m reminded of this scene in the movie every time. I think it has changed the way I speak, but also I look at problems differently, too. It’s not just Yoda’s philosophy that I credit for this shift. I can also point to Emily Post, among others, including some teachers and a priest. The message is, again, pretty simple: If you want to succeed in something, make every effort. Do the things that you expect it would take to accomplish it, including practice, study, and rest.

I told my wife that I considered moving to Denmark. She appeared to perceive it as a joke, but I think she suspected I was serious deep down. I have various reasons, notably the fact that I am allergic to many plants where we live, and there are more restrictions in Europe to what may be added to food, and we are both sensitive to these things. Also, we have friends there, so we would not be entirely alone. So I looked up immigration requirements for Denmark. One big one was the requirement to speak Danish. Long story short, Jeg lærer Dansk. I’m just in the beginning lessons, but it’s my fifth language to study, so I’m optimistic.

Like I said, I work at not saying “I’m trying to learn Danish”. Instead, I say that I am learning to speak the language. According to Yoda’s epistemology, I would either be successful or I would not. Actually, as long as I’m working toward a goal, how could I fail unless I stopped? I guess you could say that trying is working toward achieving success. But I like to think Yoda is right. Try has a connotation that implies that a person can withhold effort, leading to a strong possibility of failure. Whereas, working indicates that you intend not to fail.

Now, I often say to myself that I want to be a successful writer. What this might look like is not clear to me, but I imagine the fundamental aspect that I would earn a decent living based on things I write and publish. Would those be novels or magazine articles? Short stories? Or could I earn enough from writing blog posts? Some people do it, so it’s possible. I don’t know if magazines get enough circulation, and I think print journalism is dying anyway. (That’s probably as much my fault as anyone else’s.) But let’s say my dream is to be a novelist. I think I know what that would take. And I am confident I am not willing to do those things, at least not now. My point is that if I really wanted to do it, I would not rest until I found the answer. Perhaps that’s not what I really want to do. Maybe the timing is off.

I think I am like many people. I have big dreams, but I’m kind of lazy. I was with my dad in a modern art museum a few years ago when he noticed a painting that was nothing more than a canvas with one half painted black and the other half painted red. My dad looked at it for a minute without saying a word. Then he stretched his hand out toward the painting and turned to look at me saying, “I could do that!”

I said, “I bet you could, Dad, but you didn’t. Someone beat you to it.”

Success is whatever you want it to be, within reason. I can’t say I am a successful basketball player by any measure, even though I have played, and I can make baskets from the three-point line. But I can’t do it when someone is doing their best to prevent me from making the shot. And being 170 cm, I am not very effective on the court. But I can say that I play basketball. I don’t try. I just do.

I will not say that I’ll try to publish. I can’t actually say that I’ve even made an attempt. But when I decide that I want to, I will put forth my best effort. I think I really will. I will also have to make a decision about how I will accomplish that with my current schedule. But my friend, who is publishing his first novel, has managed to do it, sequestering himself for weeks at a time. If that’s what it takes, then I have some major adjustments to make. If I am going to put my whole heart into something, I will need a lot of extra time.

Okay, Master Yoda, how do I create spare time out of thin air? Tell me that.

 

Morphology

Words are important. Context is even more so. Words can have multiple meanings in the same sentence, like “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.” In this case, “ducks” is a verb, but because it follows “hunts”, we first assume it is the object of the hunt, the animal. The sentence would be better understood by inserting another word and adding a comma, “The man who hunts animals, ducks out on weekends.”

But sometimes a word starts to take on a new meaning, and it becomes less ambiguous. The original meaning is morphed. This is why we call every facial tissue a Kleenex, using a specific brand name. Or why people often say “literally” to describe something with emphasis, when in fact, they are misusing the word. Saying “I literally died laughing,” is a completely inaccurate statement unless you were resuscitated after laughing so hard that your heart stopped.

I studied language and linguistics, so I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to choosing the right word. I am by no means as rigid about language as so many lawyers, but I believe it’s important to be accurate. For example, people often say, “whatever” when they can’t think of the right word or when they’re simply being lazy. I heard two people coming out of a store talking about where they would go next. One woman in the group said, “we’ll go to Bed, Bath, and whatever,” as if “whatever” was easier to say than “Beyond.” My wife and I joke about this, and whenever we need to go shopping, I say, “we need some ‘whatever’.”

Laziness might be less to blame for the emergence of textspeak. The need to be succinct because of the cost of mobile data usage, and the 140 character limit of Twitter, not to mention our lower attention spans, have all contributed to abandoning of proper grammar and spelling. “You’re” is now “UR”, and “that’s hilarious” or “very funny” are now “LOL”. This is probably the beginning of persistent changes to language as we have known it, and indeed English has changed dramatically over the past 200 years. New words have entered our lexicon, and older, lesser-used, words have become extinct. Some have taken on new meaning. Case in point, we don’t use “gay” to mean happy anymore.

Some things are slow to change. A mobile intensive care unit (MICU) may still be referred to as an ambulance, even though it doesn’t resemble that antiquated vehicle much. Also, we have abandoned the word “pianoforte” for the modern “piano”, and the list continues. Things change, and sometimes change is pretty fast. As people live longer they will no doubt witness more changes in their lifetime. The late grandmother of one of my friends reportedly remembered arriving in California in a covered wagon as a little girl, and she lived long enough to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. A lot of radical changes happened in the meantime, as you might imagine.

I expect many things will change in my lifetime. I have already witnessed dramatic changes to the English language, and I am split. On one hand, I lament the disappearance of the language I grew up with, but on the other, it is not good to remain in the past. I think I will always insist on proper 20th century American English when I communicate here or in business. I dare not elevate my language when texting or on Twitter. There’s no room, and there is no call for it. I say “lol”. But I say “you are” or “you’re” as opposed to “UR”. That’s just my brain’s unwillingness to cut off pathways to the memorized portions of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s hard to let go. Kind of like trying to breathe while submerged.

Change will happen whether we like it or not. Just like people don’t ride around by horse-and-buggy, some things aren’t meant to stick around. That said, I say “toodle-oo”, as the old folks say. (God, I’m glad that’s no longer a thing.)

untitled

 

A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com

 

Back to the Drawing Board

I was walking through the parking lot to my car after work when I started daydreaming about all the people who had been there before me; earlier the same day, or perhaps a month or a year ago, meandering to their cars, stopping to check messages, and standing, talking to coworkers. Science fiction writers love to explore this “space” when they write about time travel. Michael Crichton, for one, tended to incorporate more science in his sci-fi than others, introducing the idea that while time travel is not possible, travel to other dimensions might be. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the notion of being able to journey to another time in the future or the past was first popularized. In his story, the Time Traveler was able to travel to a very distant future version of earth, while staying in the same geographical location. Aside from Doctor Who, most other time-travelling narratives stick to this point. And so, as I perambulated and wondered about the past lives that, if only on the same timeline, would have crossed my path, or bumped into me if I weren’t looking.

But while it’s proper to consider that time travel, if it were possible at all, would limit the voyage moving in time, it is not reasonable to assume the traveller would also change position, geographically. Or is it? As my daydream began to mutate (as they often do), it dawned on me that if I were to travel backward one year, I might end up somewhere else. You see, 365 days ago was not 19 September, but instead 20 September 2015. But ignoring the very predictable results of Daylight Savings changes in the Gregorian calendar, we must shift our attention to the fact that where you are, right now, in space is unknown.

The earth is currently orbiting the sun at a speed of 108,000 km/h, or about 30 km/s. Therefore, if you travelled instantaneously to 1 second in the future, and you didn’t change your location, you would be 30 kilometers away from your current position. You would have teleported on top of travelling in time. Also, consider that the sun is moving around the center of the Milky Way, around 800 km/h. So, if you wanted to travel in time, but you didn’t want to move, you would have to predict where the earth would be at that time. Since the earth and the sun and the galaxy are all moving at the same time, this would require some awesome math. Now, considering that we are already in the possession of some awesome mathematical principles, created by some equally awesome mathematical geniuses, we could extrapolate and get a pretty accurate calculation of where you might end up. But it wouldn’t be perfect, and so you could still end up in the middle of a mountain or floating in space, but within tolerance (inside the orbit of most satellites.) This is assuming we have a good idea of what a fixed point in space looks like.

If you wanted to travel forward in time to 2150, you would need to know just where the earth and the sun would be at that time, that second. But assuming we could overcome this obstacle, there are other problems to consider, like exposure to pathogens that do not exist in our time, or the increase in pollution, or incomprehensible dialects. Naturally, not having nearly enough money to get around would pose a serious problem (someone from the late 1800’s would be absolutely shocked at the idea of spending $40 on a meal). No doubt, the increase in population and significant lack of privacy would be disturbing to our time traveller, not to mention being completely ignorant of 130 years of history. In the Back to the Future series of films, several characters move backward and forward through time with very little difficulty, aside from having to fuel the time machine, but it would most likely be traumatic.

Of course, time travel is not a reality, except for the slow, day-to-day type with which we are all familiar. That’s alright with me. Gradual change is much easier to accept. The changes we face now are quite dramatic enough, and most of us are barely able to keep up. History reveals that civilizations have embraced change, and then violently rejected it. Swings in public opinion seem to come back to their starting point after a generation or two, or a millennium. But before we presume we have come so far in our modern civilization, we should look at our current form of entertainment and make sure it is not worse than gladiators fighting to the death. It may look truly bizarre to future historians, our taste for pugilism might be horrifying, or charming, whichever the case may be.

I guess we’re fortunate that there are things that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Otherwise, we would have very little in the way of fantasy. Science fiction would be nonexistent, and our daydreams would be pretty dull.

 

The Bitter Pill

I don’t have very many health-related issues. In fact, it is rare for me to suffer in a physical way. I don’t get headaches; I don’t have joint pain. And my regular check-ups are pretty good for a guy my age. However, I do have an acute allergic response when it comes to pollen, specifically ragweed. Over the years, my reaction has become predictable; you could set your watch by the way my eyes water, the sneezing becomes uncontrollable, and my face gets puffy and begins to itch.

I had an appointment with my new doctor already scheduled, so I talked with him about my seasonal allergies. I was worried I might be developing a sinus infection, and my whole head was stuffy, and I couldn’t hear very well through my left ear. He recommended a steroid injection. I’ve had them in the past, and I was willing to put up with the mild side-effects, such as they were in the past.

But this time was different. I was given a commonly-used steroidal treatment, like prednisone, combined with a longer-acting version, which may be in my system for weeks. The fast-acting form, as some may be aware, has certain undesirable side-effects, like heartburn and difficulty sleeping. In addition to these, I also experienced some depression, and for me, unusual cravings (which may have been a sign of changes in blood sugar levels). Specifically, I had an intense craving for soft-baked chocolate-chocolate chip cookies, like Pepperidge Farms Captiva. I had a couple with some Earl Grey, and it was extremely satisfying. Strangely and immediately, the craving vanished.

The depression was more intense – if you can use that word to describe an overall numbing sensation and complete loss of interest in the world around you – than times past, so I suspect that this was a stronger dose, or I am becoming more sensitive to the effects of the drug. Whichever the case may be, I know I need to be better prepared for the next time I may require such treatment. That said, it is entirely up to me whether I submit myself to steroids in the future, but given the alternative, I definitely must consider it, even knowing the consequences.

Since the Wednesday evening injection, I experienced wild swings in energy levels, both physical and emotional. I slept 3 1/2 hours on Wednesday night, followed by little sleep and acid reflux on Thursday night. Friday night, I dreamed I was throwing up, and I woke up with stomach acid churning up – not a pleasant experience. And Saturday, I felt like staying in bed for a few years. People often characterize depression as feeling sad or “blue.” Anyone who has experienced it will tell you that it’s more about not feeling than feeling. Instead of wanting to curl up and listen to George Michael, you actually don’t want anything. You don’t want to go anywhere, and you don’t want to stay where you are. You just don’t want anything. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there, but I strongly encourage anyone to avoid getting that low.

Now that I can recognize the signs, I am better off because I can warn others, mainly my wife (who, by the way, is verifiably psychic, so she already knew.) Others may not appreciate the forewarning. Besides, I stay clear of people when I get this way, so it’s a win-win, if you can call it that. I’ll be back at work tomorrow – actually, I am working as I compose this. I hope things will get back to “normal” soon, and I start seeing through unclouded lenses again. The allergy symptoms have completely disappeared, and I am able to sleep without being woken up half-way through the night with terrible heartburn. I’ve considered moving to another part of the world, one where I am not allergic to the earth’s atmosphere. I honestly don’t know where this place is, or if it even exists.

Married to a Medium

My wife is, for lack of a better term, a psychic.

Unlike Allison Dubois, the main character in the long-running CBS television series “Medium“, she does not solve crimes. And she also can’t pick next week’s winning Lotto numbers. But, like Ms. Dubois, she receives signs. Some are obvious; others somewhat obscure and ambiguous. But she has learned to recognize these signs, and she’s getting more accurate about interpreting them. At first, about 25 years ago, I was very skeptical. But over time, I began to see how real this ability was.

Oh how I wish she could pick those numbers, though! But it has now dawned on me that there’s a difference to being a psychic medium and a prognosticator, which may also be a thing, it turns out. The particular and peculiar ability of my wife is that she seems to be able to “hear” from what I can only logically describe as another quantum reality – another dimension, or an alternate universe, if you will.

In physics, the principle of quantum superposition suggests that particles can be in two places at once. Many people may scoff at this notion, and certainly there are many skeptics. But we need only look back a few generations to find a time when the idea of microorganisms seemed just as mysterious and preposterous. A century before the Civil War, people still may have blamed certain maladies on witchcraft. Indeed, things we take for granted in the 21st century would definitely have been attributed to sorcery, like listening to music from a mobile device, or traveling to outer space.

I’m confident that it’s just a matter of time before we reach a greater understanding of the universe(s). Quantum physics is still a relatively new field, and scientists are making new discoveries often. Someday, I predict, we will be able to explain psychic phenomena just as confidently we can explain a thunderstorm. What used to frighten people, making them think they had angered the gods, is now a quantifiable, measureable, even predictable event.

Psychic ability, ESP, telepathy, whatever you wish to call it, could be just an acute sensitivity to energy waves or loose electrons, just as hay fever is caused by a heightened sensitivity to one or more types of pollen. When I start sneezing and my eyes water, I look up the pollen count – something invisible to the naked eye, but is indeed there – to verify what I am reacting to. Granted, subatomic particles are much, much smaller. (Check out Scale of the Universe to see how different objects and organisms compare in size.) My point is, just because something can’t be seen or detected by our modern-day instruments doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

So now I am a believer. And I trust my wife’s ability to interpret the information she receives. As for me, I can’t tell you what my reaction to ragweed means, if anything. But if it’s possible that our electrons are traveling to the other side of the universe, or to other universes, and mingling with other protons there, who knows what is possible? Perhaps there are infinite parallel dimensions, copies of our own, or ones where weird and impossible things are commonplace, like dividing by zero. Maybe there is a universe where zero doesn’t exist. Just be careful that you don’t get burned as a witch if you should stumble into that existence.