Sunday, May 19, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Just saw it. Perfectly enjoyable. The techniques of action really have been honed into a science that   can, when executed properly, play your brain the way Eric Clapton plays his guitar. And Star Trek Into Darkness is executed properly.

Some people have complained. Now, of course, this is the internet. It is not physically possible for something to be know to the internet and have no one complain about it. There is probably a fan club somewhere for people who drink orange juice after brushing their teeth. But there are people complaining that this is not a "Star Trek" movie, complaining that JJ Abrams is a huge tool, and that it is "just another generic blockbuster".

Let me start with the obvious. JJ Abrams is obviously a huge tool. The first Star Trek was exciting, but directionless. Abrams clearly didn't respect the legacy of Star Trek, thinking that references would substitute for spirit. And I am still mad about the ending of Lost. He is a craftsman (a prodigiously skilled one), not an artist.

Next up, "Just another generic blockbuster". Look, I get that there are some people who don't want to watch terrifically choreographed action sequences, for whom the plates flying off the Enterprise as she fell into the atmosphere did nothing, for whom quips fail to substitute for wit, who get bored during the final countdown. I don't understand those sorts of preferences, but I understand that they exist. If you don't like action, you won't like Into Darkness. But that isn't the complaint, is it? The complaint is that it is yet another generic action blockbuster. Well, I am sorry that you have seen so many tightly scripted combat scenarios in varied environments shifting seamlessly from ranged to melee in a tactically varied engagement set in multi-million dollar environments to orchestral scores that you have become jaded and all you can see is the god damned lens flare. Yes, there is stupid lens flare, and yes, there are other shows that involve punching and running and shooting but if you come down off your high fucking horse (which would never, ever gallop, or even trot in times of trouble) for a minute you will find that it keeps showing up, not because it is easy (it isn't) but because it is really exciting. No one made you pay $10 to interrupt you free-verse poetry night to slum it with those of us who ooh and aah at the fireworks. There exist movies which feel like they are ticking boxes off a list, for whom the action scenes feel slow and forced, but Star Trek Into Darkness is not one of those films.

The final and most legitimate complaint is that this is not a Star Trek movie. Obviously it has all the characters, and the plot is a clever reworking of Wrath of Khan, but it cannot be denied that despite  the characteristic chirps and TOS pattern dialogue, it feels different from Wrath of Khan. It feels different from Encounter at Farpoint. It feels different from Balance of Terror. And that is because it is different. This is a different cast, a different team, and forty some years after the original series. It would be a different and greater sort of distressing if the aliens were still rubber masks and the dialogue still "radio ready". The real question is whether, hidden behind the lens flare, the spirit of Star Trek still beats.

And it does. Some claim the spirit of Star Trek is exploration, and thus it makes sense why the holodeck episodes suck. These people are only sort of right. Star Trek is not, however, fundamentally about exploration, and I would contend that Deep Space 9 was the best series in part because it sat down and let itself develop. Because the point of Star Trek is not the aliens, the point of Star Trek is humanity. Star Trek is a celebration of humanity and humanity's potential. Every one sees what we are and can look where we have come from, but every Trekkie is seized by a single powerful vision of what humanity can become, of what our ultimate form can be. I don't think anyone contends that the future will look like Star Trek, but we know for certain that it is the future when people act like Star Trek. As the great song says, Captain Kirk is climbing a mountain, why is he climbing a mountain? The aliens are foils against which the true nature and goodness of humanity can emerge. A Vulcan would study the mountain, a Klingon would destroy the mountain, a Romulan would conquer the mountain and while a human might do any of these things, Captain Kirk climbs the mountain for the thrill and romance of exploration, of proving himself, of bettering himself.

In this sense, Star Trek Into Darkness holds the spirit of Star Trek alive and well. In it, we are presented with Khan, a man from the past, with the ideals of our past, genetically designed to be a perfect man. He is a vision of perfection, a vision of the future from a darker era, and it is the task of our crew, not perfect men but men who hold in their eyes a clear vision of how a better man would truly appear, to deal with this criminal. Intermixed in the hokey topical attempts to be relevant (which, need I remind you, were a staple of all five TV runs) is the internal cancer, the madness of General Marcus, showing just how high we have climbed already and how easy it is to slip and fall to a lesser standard of humanity.

We learn that we should always embrace our lives, that death is a thing to be avoided and despised, but that we must be ready to die like men when the most dire circumstances arise. We learn that you should go always exert maximal effort for your comrades, but going so far as to hurt the comrades of others is cruel. We learn that vengeance is a darkness which resides in our souls and must be excised should we ever hope to transcend our baser nature. We learn that heroes do not kill their enemies, because every person has worth, every person has rights, and every person deserves their life. Because the good life is one in which you live long and prosper, and in the future, everyone will live the good life.

You have heard all these lessons before, and just because Patrick Steward doesn't sit Wil Wheaton down at the end of the episode and explain these morals doesn't mean this wasn't Star Trek Sunday School. Because it was, and has always been Sunday School, the weekly sermon for the futurist-humanist faith. A faith which believes in a prophesied end-time when all will live in harmony and plenty brought about by the limitless power of human ingenuity. And Star Trek Into Darkness is a glass cathedral to that faith. Abrams and his design team have taken what was once a plastic prop of a ship and turned it into a glass and steel work of art in motion. Every room of the Enterprise, from the functional bridge to the massive warp core is a beautiful vision of Clarkean magic. When the primitive aliens at the opener take up Enterprise worship, this is only natural, as what else but a god could arise from the ocean to silence a volcano. Star Trek is about the gods we could become, the men we will become, if only we hold true to the moral precepts laid out for us by the Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer.

While we can see what mankind can become, our heroes are not perfect men. There is a scene in the warp core where Kirk is hanging from a bar kicking desperately at a misaligned fusion reactor, swinging and kicking like a goddamned monkey surrounded by technology inconceivable to us today. It is that tension that forms the core of this tale, the tension between men who are still not what they could be, and yet greater than what they once were. It would be all too easy to be seduced by our darker souls as Admiral Marcus did, or to fall victim to desperation as did Khan, but we can and we must be better than that, and when once we fail we learn, grow, and improve. Because just as we explore the farthest edges of space, we must also explore the deepest recesses of ourselves to become truly great.

James Tiberius Kirk, Explorer, Diplomat, and Extrovert, stands up to a man with ultimate physical power and a man with ultimate political authority and wins the day through the intellect and teamwork of his crew. The new Kirk may lack the authority of Picard or the wisdom of Sisko, but he is no less an Enterprise Captain, and Into Darkness is no less a Star Trek story. And a damn good one at that.

Soylent: Day 2

"The peculiar task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

You reading this blog see the end results of my projects in flowing, majestic words that resonate with your very souls. You do not see the struggle and suffering that has resulted in the twisted, burning wreckage of a weekend. My fire-hardened soul can endure much, but even it reaches a limit and said limit has been reached. After spending the weekend attempting to create soylent; a product intended to be cheap, convenient, nutritionally complete, and passibly edible (that last was implied, though insufficiently so), my creations were defeated in comparison to a sandwich.

At the outset I posted a little question on Reddit, asking why large companies, like the petfood companies who would be seemingly well placed to create this, had not begun to manufacture Soylent. The answer is, in the first place, because making it and making it palatable is a non-trivial task. The famous inventors are the Hank Reardens who stay up all night and toil for years over a labor of love, while I have trouble finishing a blog post about dead people.

I remain vaguely convinced that a food scientist with three months and a large budget could put something together that satisfied most of the criteria, but even if that is true, the expected value is pretty low, since a Soylent Lifestyle would require a heavy marketing campaign to convince people that it was worthwhile in the first place and would still have a high risk of failure.

Soylent isn't impossible, nor, I think, is it undesireable. But at present it is more effort than I am willing to expend. I hold out hope for Rhinehart's project, but until then, I think I will get some tacos.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Going Soylent: Day 1

My last post explained, in my usual rambling incoherent manner, why I am going Soylent, that is, adopting a diet consisting exclusively of Soylent. This, of course, is not an original idea, going back at least to the Charleton Heston movie, and likely well before, but this particular experiement was incited by Rob Rhinehart's own attempts, chronicled here.

The experimental procedures are fairly simple. I built a spreadsheet comparing ingredients to the FDA daily recommended intake, then bought those ingredients, then measured them out, then put them in a bowl of water, then ate them. And also ate nothing else the whole day.

Before beginning, my goal is to find a cheap, easy, and nutritionally complete food source. I have already discussed the upsides.

I anticipate, for downsides, that I may miss whole foods, especially with regaurds to taste. I can, of course, experiment with flavoring as the project continues, but if it tastes bad overall, I am in a spot of trouble. Additionally, there is the risk, which I am almost certainly under-counting, that I have missed some key ingredient and will suffer a nutritional deficit.

Finally, this should go without saying, but I am not any kind of expert. Do your homework before going Soylent, and if you have a bad experience, that's what you get for taking nutritional advice from the internet. If you live in a state or nation where nutritional advice requires a license, come move to Texas, and in the meantime consider this blog to be an active protest against speech and occupational tyranny.

I began by ordering the things on the spreadsheet above. When they arrived I sorted everything and took a picture:
Not pictured: Supplemental Multivitamin
I then began to measure out 300g of bran and stick it in a thermos. Then I realized that 300g of bran is 900ml of space, nearly filling my 1L thermos. My first adjustment was to cut the entire recipie in half (since I was going to take half twice a day in any case) and pour it all in a bowl. I will attempt to consume this product like cereal. The rest of the mixing occured without incident, though I realized that my 1g scale is not sensitive enough to properly handle the half recipie, so tomorrow I will again be attempting the full recipie.

With all the dry ingredients it looked like this
Then I poured in the 30g of Olive Oil and then figured I didn't have to meter the water, since it is just the medium. I ended up with this
This video may or may not work
Which, if you can't tell, is a bit too runny to eat with a spoon and not runny enough to drink, leaving me with a middle-mush. Then I sat down to write this.

Then I took a bite. The taste is not nearly as bad as feared, and tastes rather like frosted wheaties. Honestly, it doesn't really need flavoring, though I will eventually be experimenting with assorted spices. The texture leaves quite a bit to be desired, so I will be experimenting with the Jello this evening.

There will be an update on hunger and feelings with tomorrow's Soylent update, but overall today has been a qualified success. The concoction is clearly edible, if a bit too sweet, and a third of the way down the bowl I am already getting feelings of satiation. If I can get it to a drinkable consistency, filling two 1L thermoses a day and then consuming them slowly, one at work and one at home, may be the optimum route, though it is a departure from the Single Tiny Food Cube ideal.

EVENING UPDATE: So, less successful than I had hoped. The problem is the wheat bran, which is substantially less dense than I had anticipated. 300g is about four cups, comes out to two completely full bowls which is, frankly, more material than I eat on a normal diet. Plus the fact that bran is terribly abrasive in the throat and I never could figure out how to prepare it in a way that would make it convenient to eat. I even tried baking it with honey in an attempt to get a "granola-bar" effect, but I think the amount of honey necessary would overwhelm the amount of bran. Also tried making a suspension in Jello, but the amount of gelatin required to suspend that much material was prohibitive. I found that I was making a less tasty, more complicated form of oatmeal.

So I have cut wheat bran out entirely. I may return to it later (After all, I have the better part of 20lbs sitting in a cabinet now), but for tomorrow I will move to a recipe closer to Rhinehart's original formula. I still haven't reached the desired level of calories per volume (the main problem in getting the overall volume to a manageable level), and I am hesitant to add more olive oil.

Living The Future

What does it mean to live in the future? In one sense, the statement is almost tautological, since even Socrates lived in someone's future, just as I live in someone's past.

When I make the claim that we live in the future, I do so from a certain perspective, that of the progressive, whiggish historian. It is, in my view, trivially false to claim that every action taken by every human throughout history has improved the progress of science and enlightenment, but it is overall a true thing that, were we to develop a convincing aggregate of these two quantities, we would find that they have both risen almost ceaselessly in the western world (and then to the westernized world) over the last five hundred years, and exponentially in the last two hundred.

I furthermore attest that this progression is, unambiguously, a good thing. Not only for the benefits to the lives of individuals that have been brought by science and enlightenment, but also because these things are intrinsically good of themselves.

I live this ideal every day by enjoying the fruits of progress and by agitating for increased political liberties both on the blog and in the day job, though imperfectly in the latter case. But I have decided that it is time for me to advance the sciences by using myself as a test subject in a project to increase the efficiency of food consumption. I received a box in the mail yesterday, and will be detailing my preparations in the next post.

From today, Saturday, May 18th, 2013, onward indefinitely into the future, I will be consuming nothing but Soylent.

For those who are having trouble placing the name, perhaps this clip will help:
Now, I am not engaging in cannibalism (yet), but in the film, the notion was that people ate nothing but little cubes, a cube or two a day, that would contain all the nutrients necessary for life. I have assembled a home facsimilie of this, to be detailed in the next post, and will be assembling it into a sort of kool-aid-like mix to be drunk with a glass of water. The goal here is to create and live off a thing which is more efficient than food.

Because food is tremendously inefficient. A half-pound steak is a stew of molecules. A well informed diet-conscious consumer could probably guess how many calories and how much protein is in that steak, but do they know how much potassium, calcium, or sodium is contained within? And what of the countless additional molecules just floating around? I don't mean to contribute to chemophobia, but the reason we can live off steak is because our body has evolved with remarkable tolerances, and the rest is made up for by the desire for a varied diet, under the evolutionary logic that if you eat a hundred different foods a month, one of them is sure to have potassium. But if we start with knowledge of what the body needs and then concoct a mixture that contains only those things in only those quantities, then we can avoid both the Western and African varieties of malnutrition, and hopefully do so at lower cost since we can pursue the cheapest, purest sources of each nutrient.

Because food is tremendously inefficient. This makes sense from an economic standpoint. For years and years way back when, every edible calorie source was necessary to avoid the omnipresent spectre of starvation, and deficiency ailments like scurvy were not the punchlines of pirate-themed jokes, but genuine diseases to which people would lose relatives. If caveman-you finally learns how to make rice, you will still get sick and die in a year because rice alone does not provide your full nutritional needs. But then, once we became rich, we began to improve food. Unfortunately, the most visible metric for food quality is first if you die or not, and then secondly the taste of the food. Having (in some places) solved for the first condition, we have spent the last few thousand years optimizing along the second pathway, which has meant that any progress towards bringing our daily consumption profile into harmony with our daily nutritional needs has been more accidental than anything else. But in this era of unlimited information and inexpensive chemicals, designing a nutrient source that matches the FDA Daily Recommended Intake is a trivial matter that can even be performed by bloggers.

Because food is tremendously inefficient. I am an American, which means that for the most part my time is relatively more scarce than my money. I spend thirty minutes a day wholly devoted to the process of lunch, during which I can at best distractedly skim the internet on my phone. At home I spend another thirty minutes wholly devoted to the process of dinner. The average American spends an hour and fifteen minutes EVERY SINGLE DAY to the task of preparing and consuming food. Plenty of them would not give it up for the world, and I do not begrudge them that time, but I do begrudge it of myself. If I had an extra hour every day, I would use it profitably, probably to play video games, which would increase my overall satisfaction with life.

My next post will detail the beginning of the experimental write-up.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I Used to Run

I used to run to get to places. I never understood why people would walk, because it was so much slower. Maybe if they were, like, carrying something or otherwise trying to be careful you could walk, but the worst thing in the world was how the hallways at school were so wide and empty and people would get mad at you for running down them. Not only is it efficient, it is loads of fun. Eventually you get tired, but until then it is like flying, except on the ground. Sprinting all out until exhaustion is basically magic.

I am also asthmatic. I don't like to complain about it because the fact is that I know what my triggers are and there are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me. I have it so well controlled that I haven't bought an inhaler since I was in college. But because of that, I can't run very far, maybe a quarter of a mile on a good day.

I don't know when it happened, but at some point the following thought occured to me: I can't stop running when there are cars that can see me, because they will think I am a wuss for stopping running.Which soon morphed into don't run anywhere that someone could see you get tired and stop running. In college I wore a jacket everywhere with pockets full to bursting of all the stuff I wish I had a purse to carry, and running with the jacket on just seemed awkward as it would flap everywhere and things would fall out unless I had my hands in my pockets. Which is pretty much everywhere, since I hate purposeless walking/running and always have to have some sort of destination. This means I don't run much anymore. I don't run because I am worried about what people think of me.

This is bullshit and it has taken me too long to recognize it. Quitting time is in thirty minutes, and I will be running for as long as I feel like running, then I will walk the rest of the way home. If someone sees me still wheezing and out of breath after half a mile of walking, fuck them. The good things are things we do for ourselves. The bad things are the things we do for appearances.

Monday, May 13, 2013

By the way-

If you think that the government is your friend for the eminently silly reason that you obey all the laws, you are wrong. No one obeys ALL the laws. And when they catch you, they will ruin your life. Why? Because we have given them that power.

Pretty Pictures

Here is my cat:


And here are some flowers that were in an empty lot behind a brake repair shop:

Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Which I Disagree With Our President

Obama gave a speech, as he is wont to do:
And that’s precisely what the founders left us: the power to adapt to changing times.  They left us the keys to a system of self-government – the tool to do big and important things together that we could not possibly do alone.  To stretch railroads and electricity and a highway system across a sprawling continent.  To educate our people with a system of public schools and land grant colleges, including Ohio State.  To care for the sick and the vulnerable, and provide a basic level of protection from falling into abject poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth.  To conquer fascism and disease; to visit the Moon and Mars; to gradually secure our God-given rights for all our citizens, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or who they love.
We, the people, chose to do these things together.  Because we know this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our own individual ambition.
Still, you’ll hear voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s the root of all our problems, even as they do their best to gum up the works; or that tyranny always lurks just around the corner.  You should reject these voices.  Because what they suggest is that our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule is just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.
We have never been a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems, nor do we want it to.  But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either.  Because we understand that this democracy is ours.  As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us.  It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
The founders trusted us with this awesome authority.  We should trust ourselves with it, too.  Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who’ll gladly claim it.  That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business – then whisper in its ear for special treatment that you don’t get.
These are fine words from the man with the single greatest amount of power over the government. The whole thing is important, especially for those of you who, like my father, cannot imagine that Mr. Obama could possibly think himself on the side of good, righteous America, and probably the best announcement from our president of where, exactly, he is coming from (despite five years in office, three years campaigning, and two books). But the part I have bolded is the most important part, or at least the single most powerful misunderstanding of the American Experiment.

Robert Oppenheimer gave the US present an awesome authority; the power to wipe out a city and poison it's lands for a generation. In Obama's mind, rejecting authority means someone else will use that authority. In my mind, rejecting authority means that the authority will not be used. In Obama's paradigm, power that goes unused will be snatched up by energetic villains. In my opinion, if Obama were to instead take a bath for the next three years and refuse to speechify, command, or legislate then that power would simply go unexercised for three years. In Obama's mind, lobbyists have power, though of a limited and shadow sort. In my mind, I am a lobbyist, with precisely as much power as any lobbyist. If the president reads my blog (hah!) and because of my words ends the drone program, it isn't me that had the power, it is the president. If the president meets with an ACLU lobbyist and because of her words ends the drone program, it isn't the ACLU or the ACLU lobbyist that had the power, it is the president. Because if the president heard from both of us, whether he agrees or not there is not a damn thing we can do to end the drone program, but the president could end it with a single signature.

The founders did not trust us with awesome authority. They wrote a document carefully circumscribing the authority of the US government. The fact that this document is largely dead is beside the point, the point being that when you give authority over some aspect of your life to anyone else, that authority will be abused. It will also be abused when you retain those rights for yourself, but then it is your own damn fault and hopefully you will learn a lesson from it.

At the end of the day, it isn't really authority that is the problem, since Coolidge had the same authority as Obama and seemed to manage alright. The problem is power. Power is not unlike Jello shots, slippery, fun and sexy, as they wobble around on the tray, spilling and squirming as you lift them and, once tasted, impair your decisionmaking for hours. There is no one who goes uncorrupted by power, only those without the circumstance or ambition to make the news for their corruption. But some stories do get out.

  • The government, together in concert between the various legislatures and regulatory agencies, takes the weakest among us and squeezes them until their pain flows like juices through their fist.
  • The individuals granted coercive authority over the citizens by the government will beat you to death if you do not give them your obedience and respect. They will then silence witnesses  through theft and intimidation.
  • What's more, since every violation of the law is an offense against the state, there is no crime so petty that individuals within the government will not callously run you down with their vehicles.
  • The professionalism of our bureaucracy, supposedly committed to equality under the law, is a facade that is lifted the moment you speak out against the bureaucrats, or should the individuals in the machine develop a personal grudge against you.
  • But it is not implementation, but the very policies themselves that are corrupt. Your city council is paid to sit and ponder their own utopian visions, from the petty to the despotic. But whether these visions are capitalist or socialist, the end result is destructive. Sure, a squeaky wheel can get a special exemption if they pander to the powerful, but to oppose the mere fact that power is exercised is "impossible to consider"
  • Our utopian visionaries are not angels, because no men are angels, but they aren't even clever enough to get their dreams right. There are always side effects, there are always inconveniences, and, when the stakes are high enough, the government will suspend the first and second amendments in a heartbeat to maintain their power.
"We" are not the government, "We" are voters. That means we have miniscule and indirect input twenty to fourty times in our lives as politicians like our president claim the unreviewable right to murder any American citizen, anywhere in the world. A man with the power to murder people on a whim has asked us to trust him and to give him even more power to reshape the world in his image.

The worst part is, we are used to getting, and acquiescing to, these requests.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

That thrilling feeling

Have a more depressing post on the way, but I just want to share with you that one of the most thrilling feelings in the modern age is when Google Earth updates the image of your house. I can even see where my car was parked when the picture was taken! Overall a much better picture, taken in very good lighting.

If you can't find joy in the small things, can you really appreciate the big things?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rules

Look, this is the 21st century, we are all intelligent people, and no one wants to end up like Somalia. You want to talk about anarchy then you can do it over on Reddit, so long as you leave serious discussions to serious people (like me).

We have to have rules because there are tyrants and villains out there in the real world who want to kill and steal and burn either for profit or pleasure. Most people aren't crooks, of course (though more would be if they thought they could get away with it), but we have to put up with rules because of the damage those few people who are can cause. And don't you give me your idealistic crap, because at the end of the day we can at least agree that Hitler was a pretty bad fellow.

BUT, and this is important, we can't go overboard with rules, because just as there are bad people in this world there are also good people with good ideas trying really hard to make the world a better place. We don't make rules to keep good people from improving the world, we make them to keep bad people from ruining everything. Since the rules are there to stop bad people, it makes sense to show a little judgement and when a good person is being held down by rules that don't really fit we should do our best to give him a pass. If this sounds trite and obvious that's because it is and I really don't understand why I have to repeat it as if this weren't immediately obvious to absolutely everyone.

Because apparently it isn't immediately obvious. There are people out there who want to use rules enacted by good people with the best of intentions as a bludgeon to keep any more good people from making the world a better place. What's more, these hypocrites are usually the same people who want to let the bad guys of the world wriggle through loopholes and run around unchecked to make the whole world miserable for their own personal benefit. Sometimes it gets to the point that I really don't understand how these people aren't knocked unconscious by their own hypocracy, even beyond the fact that they unselfconciously support some of the most obviously evil people of the new millennium.