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Friday, November 29, 2013

If you work in an office building….

Whenever you go to the restroom, say, every hour and a half or so, just sneak into the stairwell (usually located close to the restrooms in large office buildings) and go up and down five flights of stairs. It will take only a couple of minutes, and none of your coworkers will be the wiser.

Five flights is just enough to get your heart beating hard, but not enough to break a sweat, which you don't want to do at the office.

You'll go back to your desk refreshed, alert, and in a better mood. If you feel guilty about taking the extra two minute break, look at it from the corporate point of view: you'll probably be more productive this way.

Sitting for too long has negative health effects, and it may also give you the same kind of rump-itis you get on long distance drives. (Don't look for that disease in medical texts, you won't find it.)

It's also beneficial if you want to lose weight. A number of recent studies have shown that the most important factor in losing weight -- apart from avoiding sugars and starches -- is to keep your metabolism high. That's why short, intense bursts of exercise are actually better calorie-burners than long, slow jogs: they keep your system going for longer after you stop working out. The other way to keep the engine running is to stimulate it every couple of hours with a few flights of stairs.

Don't try to go two stairs at a time, or you'll end up hurting your knees.

Every big office building comes with its own built in StairMaster. Take advantage.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Parental and peer group influence

In response to the recent post, All political philosophies flow from this one piece of knowledge, a commenter named Rona said:

One thing I imagine [knowledge about the genetic basis of IQ] does is ease the concern parents have about "doing everything" for their children. Turns out reading to your kids, choosing a great preschool, playing Mozart etc. are irrelevant to their intelligence.

Now if parents could accept that their opinions, values and attitudes will never matter in significantly shaping their child's personality and values, they could relax and simply make sure that child's peer group espouses the sort of opinions and behaviours they want instilled.

I agree with the first part of Rona's statement. Genes do trump all but the most deprived environments when it comes to intelligence.

But I disagree with the second part.

My theory: a child will adopt a parents' tastes and values and outlook in inverse correlation with the narcissism of that parent. If a parent is a blowhard -- of high or low IQ -- who can never admit his mistakes, his child is likely to adopt an opposite outlook. And vice versa.

If a parent is too rigid in his or her thinking, the child will see that and instinctively go in an opposite direction. And if the parent is loathsome in his hypocrisy, that will also drive the child (or anyone else) away.

I also think that children react the same way to their peer groups. If they have friends who are attractively liberal or attractively conservative, a youngster will gravitate in that direction. But if the peer group is composed of self-righteous, pretentious twits, that effectively encourages a youngster to take an opposite stance.

In September of 1968, at age 14, I was sent to a private school of approximately 120 students in Boston. That fall, they took a poll as to whom they favored in that year's Presidential election, every student but one chose McGovern over Nixon.

The students (and teachers) there were all totally convinced of their own righteousness. Some would even talk about revolution (this was 1968). I remember looking at these soft, spoiled upper middle class kids (who wouldn't have been able to win a fistfight against most public school kids) and wondering how they thought they were going to beat the US Army.

The headmaster had imported a number of black students from Roxbury. They pretty much had the run of the place, and could say and do as they pleased, at least on a social level. Needless to say, they all saw themselves as the victims of oppression. All the white kids were absolutely terrified of being accused of being racist, the worst sin imaginable. (Meanwhile, I saw quite a bit of overt racism that went in the opposite direction.)

All of the students smoked marijuana and did other drugs. This was regarded as cool (at age 15, I was not immune to this particular form of thinking).

It was just assumed by most of the students at the school that conservatives were not only idiotic but also evil. Of course, most of the students didn't know any conservatives, but this didn't change their opinion.

And they all considered themselves very "open-minded."

Whenever anybody asked me my opinions in high school, I just said I was apolitical. But in the meantime, a lot of negative impressions of liberals were piling up.

Needless to say, I eventually went the other way.

I'm just one data point, but I've seen this opposite directional pattern many, many times.

(My parents, by the way, tend to be middle of the road. While I have reacted to them in many ways, my most vivid and off-putting impression of political types came from that private school.)

Think of the cliche of the preacher's daughter being the wildest girl in town. One good example of the product of a severe religious upbringing is "Star," Charlie Manson's new paramour, described four posts below.

The biggest exception I can think of to this rule is with members of ethnic groups which see themselves as separate and distinct minorities. Generally, members of these groups absorb their group's values.

That aside, I think the general rule holds: the more narcissistic the holder of certain positions, the more likely those close to him will end up with opposing positions. It's not a prefect correlation, but it's a positive one.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Say it ain't so, Charlie

While we're on the subject of Charlie Manson, another article appeared in the NY Post this afternoon headlined "Charles Manson: I'm bisexual, and I raped a man."

From the Post's excerpt from the Rolling Stone magazine article:

Charles Manson revealed that he’s bisexual and forced a man to have sex with him when he was 17.

The 79-year-old Manson – who plans to get married to a 25-year-old woman fan behind bars— told Rolling Stone: “Sex to me is like going to the toilet. Whether it’s a girl or not. It doesn’t matter. I don’t play that girl-guy s..t. I’m not hung up in that game.”

He said he asked for sex with a man in a shower they shared when he was 17. When the man refused, “I picked a razor blade up off the floor and said ‘If we get caught, I’ll tell them I made you do it.’” “So he let me do it,” Manson added. “Maybe he thought I was going to cut him.”

I have to admit, I was a little thrown by this. I'd just never figured the demonic killer with all those groupies for a true bisexual, even though he reportedly raped another boy when he was only 11. 

It makes sense, in a way. At age 35 he had already spent half his life behind bars; since then he has spent his entire life in jail, which means that at age 79 he has spent roughly four-fifths of his life incarcerated. This makes him a jailhouse bisexual, which is different from being a bisexual on the outside, when one has a choice. 

Still, why now? Could it be that Manson has decided to do the fashionable thing and come out, even at his advanced age? It would certainly be a little disappointing if he were doing this out of a sense of political correctness. 

But I don't think that's the case. And Charlie did stay true to his persona in two important respects. 

First, he didn't just have sex with that guy: he raped him. 

Secondly, like any self-respecting sociopath, his coming out was less a shame-faced admission of perversion, and more a declaration of his superiority. Note his words: "I don't play that girl-guy shit. I'm not hung up in that game." 

In other words, anybody who is straight is "hung up." So Charlie wins. 

That's the wonderful thing about being a sociopath: you never have to feel the slightest bit of embarrassment. 

Rejecting one cult, accepting another

There have been several articles on the web recently about how Charlie Manson may be getting married, to a 25-year-old woman whom he has dubbed "Star," who visits him for up to five hours each Saturday and Sunday.

The 79-year-old Manson actually looks pretty good for his age. The swastika on his forehead doesn't exactly add to his appearance, and I won't be asking for the name of his barber any time soon. But his face is unlined, and his eyes even have that taut, wide open look that can result after plastic surgery -- one amenity Corcoran State Prison undoubtedly does not provide.

So Charlie's one guy you can believe when he tells you that no, he hasn't had any work done. 

Even more telling, Charlie still looks feisty and full of juice, at an age when a lot of men have simply given up. He's not much of a physical specimen, in fact never was. But if he were my cellie, I'd still have a hard time falling asleep at night. 

The most interesting thing about any sociopath is his childhood. We already know all about Charlie's: how he was born to an unwed 16-year-old girl who may have been a prostitute and definitely was an alcoholic, how his uncle made him dress as a girl for his first day of kindergarten, his stint at a boys' reformatory, the fact that he first raped another boy when he was 11. 

But what of Star? There's nothing about her that quite spells sociopathy, but she is obviously off kilter. How did she get that way? The only clue in the Rolling Stone article is this:

In 2007, Star moved to Corcoran to be near Charlie, who she visits each Saturday and Sunday for up to five hours a day. "Yeah, well, people can think I'm crazy," she likes to say. "But they don't know. This is what's right for me. This is what I was born for." She grew up near St. Louis, where her deeply religious family feared she'd lost her way ("I was smoking marijuana, eating mushrooms, not wanted to go to church every Sunday," she explains), so they locked her in her room for much of her high school years. A friend passed her some of Manson's environmental writing, and she started corresponding with him. When she was 19, she took the $2,000 she'd saved up working in a retirement home kitchen and hopped a train to Corcoran. Manson named her Star. She recently cut an X onto her forehead.

"Deeply religious" is often synonymous with "somewhat disturbed." When you think about it, most religions are really nothing more than socially acceptable cults. It's just that it's easier to see with other religions than with one's own. For instance, it wouldn't be a stretch for most readers of this blog to see Islam as a sort of super-cult, whose members believe and do all sorts of crazy things. But the main difference between most Muslims and most Christians is that the Muslims tend to take their religion far more seriously. There are Christians, however, who take their religion extremely seriously as well. And they are often described as "deeply religious."

Star is normal in one respect, though: she is not above the usual human frailty of projection. Here's what she has to say about former Manson family member Susan Atkins:

"That bitch was fucking crazy," she tells RS. "She was a crazy fucking whore. 'Oh Charlie, I did this for you.' She didn't know what she was doing."

Star's parents -- as deeply religious as they are -- are probably thanking their lucky, well, stars, that their daughter's real name wasn't used in the article. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Medical costs in the US vs. elsewhere

A friend just sent along this chart of medical costs in the US vs. the rest of the world, an amazing disparity. This is why health care soaks up such a large percentage of household budgets in this country.


A friend sent this article from Men's Health magazine this morning with the subject title above. It's a "Special Report" (read: paid advertisement) on two products which will transform your body, adding 30 pounds of muscle while carving away most of your fat.

It's utterly ridiculous. No legitimate product can do this; the celebrities pictured are all obviously on the juice. Several have those telltale veins bulging out from the front of their shoulders, and none could have undergone such drastic metamorphoses without artificial help.

It's actually surprising how wimpy some (but not all) of these celebrities were before their miraculous transformations.

The "Comments" section below the article is hilarious. All of those are obviously plants as well. (I tried leaving a comment but it wouldn't take.)

"Extorting JP Morgan"

The NY Post confirms this blog's post from two weeks ago.

Eric Holder is the most purely political Attorney General in history.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The lament of the inhibited man

It's become clearer than ever that the gap between the way I'd like to be -- in order to enjoy life to its fullest -- and the way I am is just impossibly large.

I'd like to be a Jersey Shore type who can take steroids, look in the mirror admiringly, and strut around unself-consciously while telling people he's never juiced.

But all I do is sit my skinny body behind a computer and write resentfully about people like that.

I'd like to be the kind of guy who can get excited by a really cool car.

But I was taught as a youngster that that is superficial, so I can only look at a cool car longingly while repressing my inner hot-rodder.

I'd like to be -- or at least, to have been -- a guy whose biggest concern in life was getting laid, as frequently and with as many women as possible.

Somehow, I ended up as a jaded nerd. (It's unclear how I became jaded.)

I want to be a guy who doesn't think twice about anything, and always lives in the moment.

Instead I've spent a life wracked by indecision, paralyzed by potential consequences.

I want to be cool without even thinking about it.

What I do is ponder what "cool" really means, without in any way embodying it.

I'd like to be able to buy a lap dance, and when the stripper tells me I'm cute, believe her.

I don't even believe it when my mother tells me I was a cute baby.

I want to be a guy who, when insulted, is not reluctant to throw a punch.

What I do instead is stew about it for hours.

I want to be the type who just spends his money, and enjoys the spending, without worry.

I can't even enjoy a bottle of wine because I can't stop calculating how much each glass costs.

I want to be the type who cares more about clothes than about politics.

Well, I sorta am that.

I want to be the type who talks about himself too much and doesn't give a shit if others are bored.

What I do is talk about myself too much but then feel bad that I did so.

Sorta like I do right now after making you read this post. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"The Way, Way Back"

The Way, Way Back is now available for rental on I/O.

It's a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old boy's summer vacation with his mother and mother's boyfriend at a beach community.

The writing is great, the acting is great, and there's never a false note. Steve Carell plays the mother's jerky boyfriend perfectly, and Toni Collette displays the proper amount of anguish as the mom. The movie is somewhat stolen by Sam Rockwell, the local water park manager who takes 14-year-old Liam James under his wing, and Alison Janney, the semi-alcoholic neighbor, who are given the movie's best lines.

The Way, Way Back is great the same way Mud is great: we feel the youngster's angst, because he's so realistic. Definitely worth seeing.

My son's results

My son wanted his analysis done too; he got his results back this past week:

19% Asia East.
2% Asia Central.
1% Asia South.
34% British Isles.
24% Ireland.
6% Scandinavia.
3% Europe West.
3% Iberia.
3% Finnish/Russian.
1% Europe East.
1% European Jewish.
1% Melanesia.
1% Near East.
1% Caucasus.

The biggest surprise was the 24% Irish. I turned out to be 4% Irish, so at most he could have gotten 4% of the Irish from me. Yet both sides of my wife's family supposedly go back to the Mayflower (though they also include some Dutch settlers). So was this a mistake?

Probably not, for a percentage that high. My wife is simply far more Irish than she thought. Obviously, there's a lot of admixture between neighboring countries. But still, if my son got 20% Irish from his mother, unless she gave him all her Irish genes, which is theoretically possible, though unlikely, that makes her roughly three-eighths Irish. (Which, by the way, came as a shock to her; in fact, her initial reaction was denial.)

What seems more likely is that takes Celtic DNA as evidence of Irish heritage, when in fact it's more complicated than that. The Celts were at one point all over northwestern Europe, though they later retreated back to the British Isles, mostly Ireland. So it's quite possible that the section of the Netherlands from which my wife's ancestors came were largely Celt.

There does seem to be a margin of error on the trace amount ethnicities.

I am 1% Central Asian; yet my son is 2%. Is it possible he inherited the extra 1% from his mother? Well, the Mongols made their way all the way to the Danube, and before them, the Huns ravaged Europe as well. So, yes, it's possible, if unlikely.

My son is evidently 1% European Jewish. European genes found their way into the Ashkenazi bloodline; undoubtedly this seepage worked the other way as well. So that's possible too.

But I have a hard time believing that my son is actually 1% Melanesian. The only way that could have happened is if the Mayflower took the scenic route to Jamestown via New Guinea, so that the Puritan lasses could sport with headhunters.

The 1% South Asian genes also seem unlikely, unless my wife has a Gypsy fortuneteller in her family tree. (The Gypsies, or Roma, originated in India.)

Keep in mind, to be 1% anything is the equivalent of having a purebred ancestor of that ethnicity a mere seven generations back. (You shares 50% of your genes with each parent, 25% with each grandparent, then, going back, 12.5%, 6.25%, 3.12%, 1.56%, and .78%.)

Some of my purported ancestry may also be a mistake. I was parsed out as 1% Native American. Amerindians emigrated roughly 12,000 years ago from Asia, so confusing the DNA of those two groups would be an easy mistake.

It's actually more fun to believe that one has all these different groups as ancestors. It allows one a larger family, so to speak, a more extended sense of kinship. It's just that some of the 1 and 2% figures seem to fall into the margin of error.

And, even if the 1% figures are true, it's doubtful that any relatively pure specimens of those ethnicities would feel the same kinship with us.

For instance, even if my son is 1% Melanesian -- he did get a kick out of knowing he's distantly related to the last known surviving cannibal tribe (the Korowai of southeastern Papua) -- it seems unlikely that they would greet him as a long lost relative.

On the other hand, on an entirely different level, it is quite likely that should he ever visit the island, he would become part of the tribe.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Crack mayor denies oral sex with staffer in latest vulgar rant"

If Torontonians re-elect this guy they'll be no better than than the electorate of Washington DC was for having re-elected Mayor Marion Barry after his crack bust.

I have to admit, though, Mayor Ford does sound like a party. And he'd be a lot less boring than whoever his opponent turns out to be.

Naughty vs. evil

One thing I've noticed over time is that naughty people will say the wrong thing but usually do the right thing, whereas evil people will say the right thing but do the wrong thing.

Naughty types often likes to pose as bad, sometimes as a joke, sometimes because they're wannabe tough guys.

Evil people, on the other hand, seem to like to pose as noble, beneficent, and kind -- which is the opposite of what they really are.

All this is brought to mind by the recent case of Frank Incognito. At first he seemed like a stereotypical evil bully: he took pleasure in humiliating Jonathan Martin, to the point of driving him away from the Miami Dolphins. He had even threatened to gang rape Martin's sister.

Then it turned out that despite his use of the n-word, Incognito's black teammates, who considered him an "honorary brotha," refused to condemn him. And he and Martin had supposedly been friends, and Incognito had stuck up for him in several previous situations. At that point Incognito just looked like a dumb wigger who tried too hard.

But then I saw Incognito in an interview saying that everything he said to Martin "came from a place of love" -- which is exactly the kind of thing a sociopath would say. So I'm not sure what to think.

In any case, I've known a lot of nonsociopathic guys who liked to appear "badder" than they actually are. They may have prided themselves on their drinking ability, or bench press, or daredevil driving, or the number of girls they'd had. And they could be obstreperous, obnoxious, and even rude. But they weren't nasty by nature; they simply felt they had to live up to a certain macho standard.

This undoubtedly rings a bell; maybe you're even thinking, hey, that's most guys.

Now think of famous sociopaths, and the touchy-feely, compassionate image they often like to project.

Think of Bill Clinton saying, "I feel your pain."

Think of Karen Sypher going on and on about her devout Catholicism, her dying grandmother, and her misgivings about having had an abortion.

Think of Jack Kevorkian portraying himself as someone whose only motivation was allowing people to die with dignity.

Think of Lance Armstrong and his Livestrong foundation.

Think of Anna Benson saying, "I'm all about good, I'm all about love."

Think of all those murderous prison pen pals who talk about how empathetic and caring they are, and how much they love children and animals.

I've known one or two evil men who liked to pose as naughty to disguise the fact that they were truly evil. One Wall Street sociopath comes to mind. He would say something extremely insulting to someone, then turn away and wince, as if mortified by his own rudeness. But mortification was in fact not part of his emotional repertoire.

Still, for the most part, guys who like to pose as bad are not. And practically everyone who feels the need to appear compassionate and beneficent is the opposite.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sociopathy as an evolutionarily adaptive behavior

As long as only 3% of population is sociopathic, sociopathy may in fact be evolutionarily adaptive. And this may have been truer in the past -- before there were police with modern technology, and before birth control -- than it is now.

Sociopaths make great first impressions. They are exciting, dynamic, charming, even electrifying. No one is better at seduction than a sociopath. Back in the days before birth control, this meant that a sociopath was likely to spread his seed more widely.

To call people manipulative is to disparage them. But most successful manipulators are that way because people don't recognize them for what they are. And the ability to hide one's true natures is another sociopathic specialty.

Sociopaths are dishonest, disloyal, and treat others inhumanely. In the long run, these traits cause others to seek revenge. But a sociopath would be good at making his exit before his true nature was discovered, but after he had impregnated a few females.

(This is why so many serial killers have been characterized as "drifters." They leave places as soon as their acquaintances -- or marks -- catch on to their true character.)

Their percentage is key. If sociopaths were, say, 20% of the population, people would be more familiar with them, and be on their guard against them, perhaps to the extent of assuming everyone to be guilty until proven innocent (of being lying, conniving, backstabbing, irresponsible, hypocritical, and downright evil).

Another evolutionary benefit of sociopathy is narcissism. (All sociopath are narcissists, even if only a relatively small subset of narcissists are sociopaths.) Narcissism boosts confidence, which in turn can help performance. When it comes to swaying others, having the right body language is crucial, and having enough confidence can often make the difference.

For a man, there's little genetic payoff to being shy around women. (There is a benefit to being fearful in general, but that is a different quality.)

Sociopathy could be viewed as simply another evolutionary strategy. It's a high risk strategy, since people will want their revenge on you. But it's also high reward, since before others try to exact their revenge, you're more likely to have planted your seed widely.

Perhaps the fact that it is a more viable strategy for men than women (whose reproductive capacity is limited) accounts for the fact that the incidence of sociopathy is generally reported to be three times higher among men than women. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Someone just explained to me what Tinder is: an app through which you can hook up with women. What happens is you scroll through the Facebook pictures of everybody who signs up for the service, and you notate those women who strike your fancy. If any of those women like your picture, they do the same. Whenever two people both "like" each other, they are informed, and can get in touch, usually for some brief texting, then a hook up.

Evidently you specify beforehand how far of a radius you're willing to look within (twenty miles from your home, etc.)

It's a little like, except it's about sex, not relationships.

Evidently gay men have had a similar service for years, called Grindr.

One of the cool things about this is that you never really get rejected. You're only told about the women who fancy you. As far as you know, no other women even saw your picture.

Where was this service when I was young? When I was growing up it seems that all guys did was have crushes on girls they saw across a classroom, or in the lunch hall.

Well, that's all I did, anyway.

In my twenties, I had to go places to meet females. Sometimes this meant going to smoky bars. Or discos. It was obvious you were only there to look for a girl, which made it doubly awkward. And if they turned you down, you knew it. Which made the whole process excruciating for the faint of heart -- like me.

Now you just post your picture, with no chance of rejection. (Or if you are rejected, at least you don't know about it.)

Why did I have to grow up in the Dark Ages?

If you use any online service, of course, you're assuming the risk of misleading pictures. And it's always possible you might get together with someone whose personality can get in the way of even a one night stand.

Still, Tinder allows you keep all that icky human stuff to a minimum. No "dry" first and second dates so that the girl won't feel she's consigning herself to eternal whoredom or getting a bad reputation by sleeping with you too quickly. No having to pretend you have feelings for her that you don't (beside lust). No pretending you're "serious" about her (other than seriously wanting to get her into bed). And most importantly, no having to listen to her boring hive-mind opinions.

I was born forty years too early.

I don't think I'm being unreasonable when I say I'm actually quite angry with my parents about that.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Smells like a witch hunt

SAC Capital, the hedge fund run by Steven A. Cohen, just settled with the government on Monday. The government was unable to obtain an indictment against Cohen himself, but the $1.8 billion dollar settlement seemed justified given that Cohen's fund has always had a bad smell about it. The extraordinary number of insider trading cases involving it did not seem coincidental.

The way that Eric Holder's Department of Justice is going after JP Morgan, though, seems almost personal.

The biggest fine being levied against the bank is for their role in the mortgage debacle. But the mortgage mess had many authors. Bill Clinton's Community Reinvestment Act pressured the banks to make riskier loans with smaller down payments to people with shakier credit. George W. Bush pushed further in the same direction by declaring in 2002 that he wanted more minority families living in their own homes. FANNIE MAE and FREDDIE MAC both insisted that the mortgages they bought include a higher percentage of minority owners than had been the case in the past. Individual mortgage brokers encouraged people to buy more house than they could afford. And speculators took advantage by buying irresponsibly, knowing they didn't have the resources to pay off their mortgages, but figuring that rising home values would bail them out.

So who is the government going after? JP Morgan. This seems particularly unfair given that most of the mortgages in question were originated by Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns before they were acquired by JP Morgan, and that the government pressured JP Morgan to buy those two entities at the height of the financial crisis.

The Department of Justice also insisted JP Morgan pay a fine for the bad trade engendered by the London Whale. They claimed that the controls JP Morgan had in place were not adequate, and that they didn't reveal the extent of the losses quickly enough. Wall Street banks do bad trades -- as well as good ones -- all the time; that's the nature of the game. And their controls are only as good as the people who oversee them. If every financial institution had to pay a penalty for every bad trade they did (as well as lose the money they lost on the trade), all would soon go out of business.

But it's only JP Morgan which is being prosecuted for this.

The Department of Justice is also looking into allegations that JP Morgan hired the sons and daughters of prominent Chinese politicians in order to gain business. Why not go after Goldman Sachs for the same thing? I've heard it's virtually impossible to get a job at the firm fresh out of college unless you have some sort of high-powered connection.

For that matter, why not go after Goldman for hiring influential former Fed governors? Why not go after lobbying firms in DC for hiring ex-politicians? Almost every major politician sells his connections in one way or another after leaving office.

Why not go after these other firms? Because they make nice with the current administration, and don't criticize them publicly.

Jamie Dimon's mistake was to speak out against Obama, and against Dodd-Frank. If he hadn't, this focus on JP Morgan would likely not have taken place.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"8.8 billion just-right planets in our galaxy"

The NY Post ran an AP article yesterday which raised the possibility of extraterrestrial life:

WASHINGTON — Space is vast, but it may not be so lonely after all: A study finds the Milky Way is teeming with billions of planets that are about the size of Earth, orbit stars just like our sun, and exist in the Goldilocks zone — not too hot and not too cold for life.

If there were 8800 planets in our galaxy which had the right conditions for life, it would be both amazing and thrilling. If there were 8.8 million, it would be mind-boggling. 

But 8.8 billion? It's hard to get one's mind around that number. 

Every now and then you hear people speak of how things would be in a "parallel universe." Well, we don't have to go to a parallel universe. We don't even have to go to another galaxy. Right here in our own Milky Way, there are 8.8 billion potential alternate realities. 

Now, most of those planets are obviously not going to have life. But out of that many, there must be some that do. If life evolved here, it can elsewhere, too.

One wonders: do the extraterrestrials look more like us, or more like those creatures in the Star Wars bar scene? Or perhaps like the extras in Men in Black

Or maybe they are little green men with large heads and big eyes who travel around in spaceships and want only to stick probes up our behinds.

Perhaps they can help us solve our problems. Maybe we can ask for an interstellar handout to balance our budget. (At the moment, that seems the most realistic solution.) Maybe we should ask extraterrestrials to referee at the Olympics so we don't have all that biased gymnastics judging. Maybe they can referee international disputes between country.

Maybe the aliens will end up being the ultimate Daddy figure. Or maybe they'll act more like querulous children. If they come here, it means they're far smarter than us, so the former seems more likely.

Maybe the extraterrestrials can tell us whether we're really causing global warming.

Maybe Al Gore is an alien and we should pay more attention to him. He does have a certain not-quite-comfortable-as-a-human quality about him.

All kidding aside, how many planets have plant life but no animal life? Or are those distinctions irrelevant on some of these other planets? How many have life forms which don't fall neatly into either the plant or animal categories? How many have sexual reproduction? How many are as silly about sex as we are?

How many have oxygen in an atmosphere that we could breathe? How many could we exploit? How many types of beings could wipe us out if they ever came to planet Earth? How many would?

Are any of the other planets like Pandora, that luscious planet in Avatar?

How nice to be able to speculate about this and think about how petty our own problems here on earth are. Or better yet, not think about those problems at all.

Addendum, three hours later: today the NY Times came out with its version of this news, but they reported that there were 40 billion planets which met the criteria; not sure why the discrepancy.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Overheard recently from a young Afghanistan vet:

"I hear a lot of soldiers say it really pisses them off when they hear about guys who've never even been in the military claim they've been to war. I think it's called stolen valor or something. Personally, I couldn't care less. I lie to girls all the time in order to get laid. If some idiot wants to claim he's had my stupid job in order to get laid, go right ahead. It doesn't bother me in the least."

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Control vs. self control

One consistent theme I've noticed throughout my life is that the less self control people have, the more control they want over other people.

The lack of self control I refer to does not necessarily refer to indulging in all the seven deadly sins all the time; it is more a lack of emotional self control. Controlling types may be extremely disciplined in some ways; but inevitably there is a complete lack of self control in some basic way.

They may be able to get themselves down to the office every day, dress neatly, and keep their houses immaculate. They may keep their own eating and drinking under control. But they tend to become enraged at things that wouldn't bother most of us. And if they are not in a position to assert power over others, they try to do so indirectly through constant, carping disapproval.

We all get angry if someone does something which harms us directly. But we tend not to get angry if people do things which don't affect us personally. A certain type of person will talk about someone else's dress, or spending habits, or taste in paramours, as if it is a direct, personal affront to him.

It's a direct correlation: the less self control a person has, the more control he wants over others.

Sociopaths are the ultimate example of this, and serial killers are the ultimate sociopaths: they kill partly for the pleasure of being able to control their victims' destiny. It is often said serial killers will sometimes slow down the killing process just so they can draw out that pleasure.

I was reminded of this last night when I watched a show about Wichita's BTK ("Bind Torture Kill") Killer, Dennis Rader, who would start to strangle his victims, and then, just when they were about to die, loosen the ligature around their necks so that he could do it all over again.

When he wasn't killing women, Rader was a dogcatcher and supervisor in the Compliance Department in Park City. He was locally famous for his extremely strict enforcement of regulations, in one case having a dog euthanized for no good reason. 

Scratch an officious busybody, find a nasty control freak. 

Your average controlling personality acts more like Rader-the-dogcatcher than Rader-the-serial-killer; but the basic psychology is not dissimilar. 

I racked my brains trying to think of a single example to the contrary: either a decent person who constantly tried to exert his dominion over others, or a nasty type who didn't. But I couldn't. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013


Just saw Blackfish, the documentary about orcas kept in captivity. It makes its message convincingly, and leaves you feeling that we ought not to keep these creatures confined. The interviews with the former SeaWorld trainers are particularly effective.

Orca brains are not only larger than ours, but apparently have more highly developed limbic systems -- the part of the brain which governs emotion.

I was struck by how similar orcas are to elephants. Both creatures are huge, and also hugely intelligent. Both live in extended three generation family groups. Both grieve when their offspring die. Even the high pitched sounds they make when distressed sound somewhat similar. Elephants have better memories than we do; it is unclear whether orcas do.

It might prove impossible, but it would seem worth our while to have researchers attempt to follow these creatures in their natural environment and attempt to learn their "language" in some sort of Berlitz-with-the-aid-of-high-tech fashion. There's probably something to be gained.


Saw Gravity last night. It won't make you want to get up in a plane again, and it certainly won't make you want to get into a spaceship. The moviemakers basically took a half hour story and spun it out to an hour and a half, but it was never boring.

Sandra Bullock was better than usual: she didn't do her standard overacting job (since her role actually called for some histrionics). George Clooney got to act heroic, which he does well, and seems to enjoy doing.

The special effects will probably get some kind of Oscar.

I can't say the movie was enjoyable; it was almost too gripping for that.

But it certainly makes you forget about your own problems while you're in the theater. Which is all a movie is supposed to do anyway.