Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Let a Little Light In

When I bought my house, one of the odds and ends that had been left behind by the previous owner was a night light in a wall socket in the master bedroom. As I gave tours of my new house before I moved in, one of my friends saw the light and remarked, "Oh, how cute, there's a little night light!"

The actual night light that came with my house. Classy.

Being a grown-up man, and having not used a night light for almost 30 years, I moved the light to the spare room. I don't need a night light! I thought, full of male bravado.

But in the first few weeks of living there, I noticed something about my house.

It's very dark at night.

There are no street lights in my neighborhood. Every other place I've ever lived has had street lights or parking lot lights or some other ambient light coming in through windows. This house doesn't have any of that. It's very dark. So that means that when I invariably have to get up and pee in the middle of the night, I have to make my way through the hall like a blind zombie until I can find the bathroom switch.

After a few months of that, I fetched the night light from my guest room and started using it in my bedroom. The change was immediate and enormous. Now when I woke up in the middle of the night I wasn't so disoriented. And I had to admit, the night light gave off a comforting glow. It made me feel more secure.

But I'm still, like, a man & shit.


This week, the old crappy night light that came with the house died. It wasn't just the bulb, but the switch itself was busted. It wouldn't work at all.

So I was faced with a dilemma. Instead of just using the night light I inherited from the house, I needed to actively buy one for myself. I thought of going without one, and even tried sleeping with my blinds open to try to soak in any ambient light from the neighborhood. But after just one night of waking up and having to stumble blindly to the bathroom, I was desperate for a replacement.

I was in the market for a new night light.

I drove to North Prospect, the commercial mecca of Champaign-Urbana, to find one. The thing is, I have no idea what kind of store would sell night lights. Hardware store? Target? Meijer? Best Buy? A drugstore like Walgreens? What genre of product is a night light?

I stopped at Target. Once there, I had no idea where in the store a night light would be, or if they even sell them. Is this an impulse item that they stock at the checkout lane?

I wandered around-- saw a sign for Kids' Bedroom and went there. It was just sheets and stuff. I wandered around the toy section, thinking it might be there. Got distracted by some cool Lego sets. Wandered some more over to the baby supplies. They had lots of neat gadgets for newborns and toddlers, but no night lights. (It smelled like new babies in those aisles, which surprised me. I thought babies smelled like babies, but it turns out they smell like all the crap we buy them.)

I went to the garden section, and they had some neat solar outdoor lights, but nothing for indoors.

Finally, in the vicinity of the light bulbs, I asked someone. They were at the end of the aisle.


Let me just say, night light technology has come a long way. Instead of the mini-lamppost model I had inherited, the new one I bought was an LED light that looked like a cross between a robot and a marital aid.

Old and new, side by side

The cool thing is that it has an automatic light sensor-- it turns on when it's dark and turns off when it's light. So I never have to worry about switching it on or off, which is something I had to at least twice a day with the old one.

My new night light's comforting glow.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hurting Your Cause

Activists: it's nice to have principles and believe in something, but do you have to be such a prick about it?

This thought of the day was inspired by two recent news stories.

Although I'm vegetarian-friendly and support animal-rights causes, the people at PETA just fucking annoy me. And apparently I'm not the only one.

Their latest obnoxious grab for attention is a web ad that claims vegans make better lovers. To illustrate this point, the ad shows a bruised woman limping down the street.

Actual screenshot from the ad

She suffers from "Boyfriend Went Vegan and Knocked the Bottom Out of Me." Her boyfriend banged her so hard last night she's all beat up. Ha. Ha. Rough sex and domestic violence is hilarious.

This article, from the British newspaper The Guardian, does a good job of taking the ad to task: Peta's vegan sex ad shows it has tofu for brains.

It's obvious to see what PETA is trying to do. They're trying to use shock value to get people to talk about them. They're like an adolescent who will do or say any shocking thing to get attention.

Grow up, PETA.

What PETA doesn't understand is that their obnoxious and offensive shock-value ads are only going to turn people off. I mean, seriously, what borderline vegan is going to see this ad and think, "Oh, cool, I want to join THAT group!" They're getting attention, but is it the right kind of attention?

I'm sure all the activists at PETA think these ads are brilliantly funny and creative. My personal theory is that they only hang out with other like-minded people who think eating animal products is akin to genocide, so they convince themselves that any attention justifies the means. They have no idea what kind of appeals would actually win over centrists to their position.

It's not only centrists that PETA offends, though. One commenter wrote on a blog:
I’m a vegetarian and I can’t stand PETA.
They’re the Christian Right of the animal rights movement.
Most of the other comments had similar opinions.

Ironically, that same week The Daily Show did a story about another PETA publicity stunt: SeaWorld of Pain. (Sorry, video won't embed.)

PETA, you're doing more harm than good.


I had the same reaction when I heard a story on NPR last week. Some gay activists are "glitter bombing" Republican candidates for president: Glitter Bombing a Sparkly Weapon of Disapproval on the Campaign Trail.

Glitter bombing involves running up to a candidate and throwing a bucket of glitter on him. In the NPR story, the glitterbomber then shouts:
"Feel the rainbow, Newt! Stop the hate! Stop anti-gay politics! It's dividing our country and it's not fixing our economy."
The moron behind the Newt glitter bomb

Seriously, does anyone think this kind of thing will work? That is will convince one person on the other side that gays deserve equal treatment under the law? By throwing fucking glitter on someone?!?
"It's a harmless but sensational way to bring attention to serious issues,"

No, it's not. It's an obnoxious stunt that will only make people hate you and your cause even more. And since this is a cause I believe in, your immature antics piss me off. You're making a mockery out of the "serious issues."

What was most galling was how the NPR correspondent treated the glitter bomber as a harmless prankster, and not as a total nutjob who's ultimately hurting his own cause. You could hear the chuckling elbows-in-the-ribs tone as they interviewed the glitter bomber.

Hey, I like "sparkly weapons of disapproval" as much as the next guy. I'm not made of stone. But keep those things among friends who already agree with you. You're not winning anyone over with these stupid pranks.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I've been thinking about weighty things lately: Gravity. Outer space. Human brains. The Universe.

I've mentioned before on this blog how our tiny little human brains can't really fathom time and space. I've also talked about how are brains aren't built for number, time, or space calculation.

So I was fascinated to find this link on Facebook:


It shows the entire scale of the known universe, from the tiniest tiniest little imaginable segment to the (estimated) entire size of the universe.

You can see, for example, how Central Park is way bigger than Vatican City, and how a grain of salt looks like to an ant.

But what's fascinating to me is that the overwhelming majority of things on the scale are things we can't see, either because they're too small or too big (and far away.) The scale of things in the universe that we can experience with our own eyes is infinitesimal compared to the rest of it.

What's also interesting is how much wide open space there really is in the universe. "Space" is a good name for it. When I imagine the Earth and the Moon, I think of something like an orange orbiting a basketball. What I don't consider, however, is that the orange is something like a football field away from the basketball.

The Earth is the small marble on the left. That tiny little dot on the right? That's the moon. Any other dots you see is just dust on your screen.

How does gravity even work from that far away?

Gravity fascinates me.

We tend to take it for granted because it's always constantly working on us. There's never a time in your life when you don't feel its pull. But if you think about it, it must be a very weak force. Think of how incredibly huge the Earth is compared to a human. And even then, this gigantically massive thing that supports every man-made object ever made like a person "supporting" a bacteria, only exerts enough gravitational force on us that we can jump away from it. We can stand up, walk, jump, and even make machines that enable us to leave the Earth's surface for hours at a time.

The thing I have a hard time wrapping my puny little brain around is, how does a force that is so relatively weak work between objects that are as far apart as the Earth and moon? And if there's this attractive force between them, why doesn't the moon just crash into the Earth? For that matter, why doesn't the Earth and all the planets crash into the Sun? Obviously, if gravity did work like that, I wouldn't be here to ponder these questions.

But apparently, even though the Earth and moon are so far away from each other, the way gravity works is they circle each other. Or rather, the Moon (smaller object) circles the Earth (larger object), just as the Earth circles the Sun. The way I've heard it described is the smaller object "falls around" the larger object. As someone who lives with gravity every day, inside a body that evolved through millions of years of gravity, it's hard to conceptually grasp this cosmic function of gravity.

I blame images like this, which is totally NOT to scale

But it's fun to think about. I should have been an astronomer. An astronomer/architect/tennis pro!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Future Back Then

It's fun to imagine what the future will be like. Usually the first thing we think of is all the technological advances-- we'll all have personal jet packs and our Flintstone vitamins will inoculate against cancer.

It's harder to imagine what kinds of social changes there will be-- what new societal problems will arise and how attitudes about certain issues will change.

These are the thoughts I've been having as I listen to a collection of science fiction short stories from 60 years ago: Earthlight and Other Stories: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, 1950-1951.

As the title states, these stories were published in the early 1950s. Some of them are very gripping with a neat twist ending. Some bring up interesting ideas I like to think about. Others are kinda lame with massive plot holes.

It's fascinating to see what Clarke's vision of the future was. In some ways he underestimates what's possible and in other ways he overestimates.

One of the main plot holes in many of the stories is that although he can envision space travel and colonies on distant planets outside our solar system, the idea of a personal communication device (i.e. cell phones) seems to be out of his grasp. So, for example, a man gets caught in the middle of a road on a planet colony when his car breaks down, but has no way to call for help. I know they had radio communication back then. Didn't Clarke think that we would advance on that front?

One of the stories is about taking a vacation on the moon. Neat idea. This story was particularly salient because it takes place "early in the 21st century." So, like, right now. Clarke way overestimates our advances when he envisions research colonies on the moon, and even people living on Mars and Venus.

But then he underestimates other things, like although they have a "long long-distance" call from the moon to Earth, they have to wait an hour for a "telegram" with travel details to arrive. Imagine what he would make of email, texting, and smart phones.

What's even more interesting, though, is the social attitudes. The stories are riddled with words like "men," "man," and "mankind" to mean people and humans. Any sweeping statements about human development, technology, or space travel are reduced to "man." I guess only humans with penises contribute to civilization. It gets tiresome after a while.

In the story about the vacation on the moon, an astronomer invites his wife, daughter, and son to visit him at the moon research colony where he's staying. The attitudes are incredibly paternalistic. The parents are patronizing to the kids, and the men are patronizing to the women. The wife of the research scientist has no interest in all his science-y stuff, and he chides her-- in a jokey, patronizing way-- for not knowing about the big supernova event that's going on.

During their spaceship journey to the moon, the teenage daughter is intimidated by all the dials and buttons on the ship, while her little brother can't get enough of it. He's completely "in his element."

Later, much of the story is told from the point of view of the teenage daughter, and after she sees a pretty nebula through a moon telescope (with the help of a handsome young male astronomer), she realizes that all this science isn't just about complicated equations and calculations (boring math stuff) but something more beautiful.

She's also surprised to see all the female astronomers at the moon base, and learns that in some cases the women scientists outnumber the men! Interestingly, though, no female scientists are actually characters in the story, you just hear about them in a distant, abstract way.

So the young teenage daughter of the astronomer decides that maybe she could be a scientist herself one day. I'm sure Clarke felt like he was being very progressive, what with his idea of female scientists in the future, and he probably was for the 1950s.

But the plot hole in this story is, if there are so many female astronomers, how is it that the daughter of one is so ignorant of this fact? Why does she need a visit to the moon to realize that this career path is available to her? I would think that by the time that women are that well represented in the field, it would not be news to this presumably middle-class educated young adult. In other words, where are all these other female scientists coming from if it's so unusual?

Ironically, right after his progressive feminist passage in the story, Clarke writes a sentence about "All the planets in which men have lived." I guess in Clarke's utopian progressive vision of the future, none of the ubiquitous female scientists have made it to other planets. Sigh.

(I'm also guessing that "men" in Clarke's vision were all white, but that's a different story. And the idea that little daughter would naturally be interested in a young male astronomer, and not in another female... that would have been totally anathema to the world of 1950s sci fi. If the writers of these stories could see the LGBT movement today, what would they think? Alien world, indeed.)


As Jack Handy says, "We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can't scoff at them personally, to their faces, and this is what annoys me."

I'm not here to rag on Arthur C. Clarke's antiquated sexist world view. He's a product of his time and place. He's trying his best to stretch his his mind and imagine all that the future might hold for "man." And he does a pretty good job of it. I'm sure in 60 years my ideas will be antiquated, too.

But for chrissake, what's so hard about using the word, "people"?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Brain Bugs

There are lots of things I'd like to be when I grow up: economist, cartographer, psychologist, David Sedaris, linguist, evolutionary biologist. I like skylines, so maybe I should throw architect in there, too.

I want his job

My latest obsession is with neurobiology and the evolution of the human brain. This is thanks to another book I read, which reinforces my love of a topic that developed when I read Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. This one is called Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano.

As George Costanza would say, you know I always wanted to pretend to be a neurobiologist.

(Interestingly, my girlfriend's dad is a neurobiologist, sort of, or a biomedical engineer who specializes in the physiology of the eyeball retina [corrected by gf], or some other interdisciplinary researchy thing that's hard to pin down.)

Like Kluge, Brain Bugs is all about how our brains evolved in a world that is very different from the world we now live in. So there are lots of things our brains do that are not very well adapted for the modern world. Buonomano calls these "brain bugs."

Not this kind of brain bug

It's a fascinating read about how:
  • our memories fail
  • our fears are irrational and outdated
  • we're not built for number, time, or space calculation
  • we're easily susceptible to advertising and suggestion
  • we tend toward (irrational) supernatural beliefs
Buonomano approaches all of these issues with an explanation on how the brain evolved.

But it doesn't explain why my brain is so fascinated with this kind of stuff.