2018-01-28

To Infinity and Beyond

“A bird flies back and forth across the universe. Once every thousand years, it comes to sharpen its beak on a mountain which is one hundred miles long and one hundred miles high. When that mountain has been ground to sand, one second of eternity will have gone by.”

I’ve always been rather annoyed by this storicle—it plays out as if eternity is just a slowed-down version of…what really? Eternity is that which has no end, so if we were to say that the grinding-down of the mountain took a googol seconds of eternity it would be as true—there would still be exactly as much of eternity left.

And so, in what way is eternity different from the time we normally experience? Arguably we could imagine that in the far future of our expanding universe, it will become so dilute that there is no way even to count time and say that at this (fuzzy) point time has ended, and that our universe has had a finite existence. In this case we would need to posit some other universe which actually exists eternally. Had we this eternal universe we could subtract the lifetime of our universe from it, and there would still be as much left of eternity.

This may be because people really cannot comprehend something infinite, and assume there should still be an end stop even to eternity, just very far away. However, I am reminded of what Stanley Schmidt wrote on the subject once (“Finite cornucopias”, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Feb 1986):

“The concept of infinity is deeply ingrained in the average layman’s mind at a very real, painfully practical level. Infinity is the amount of electricity in the wall socket, the amount of oil in Texas…”

So, by that count as well, the bird mountain story is pointless. Let us now forget it.

2018-01-25

Flotsam and jetsam

Some time ago, my mother and I were out walking on a crisp autumn day. A contrail crossed the sky, and my mother, as she always does, pointed it out and said: “Look, a jet fighter!”

Now, people often say stuff that is incorrectly specific, to try to be funny or whatever. (The OBCM, for example, will refer to all birds as “ducks”, to underscore that she’s a city girl and can’t be bothered with the details of non-asphalt-based organisms.) But this time, just to make conversation, I said: “Heh, yeah, but properly speaking it’s a passenger aircraft, clearly going to land at Arlanda.”

My mother was surprised. “It’s an aeroplane?”

I in turn was surprised. “Uh yes, or well, aeroplane exhaust. If you look carefully, you can see the plane itself at the tip.” I gave a brief explanation of how contrails form in the cold air at altitude, and my mother marvelled at this new information. I for my part realised that she had been a child when newly-purchased Vampire jets probably would have been the only aircraft flying high enough to form contrails in the skies of Finland. Presumably her elders would have pointed out the streamers in the sky, excitedly referring to them as “jet fighters” [suihkuhävittäjiä], but not making it clear that a jet fighter was a type of aircraft rather than a strange name for a strange celestial phenomenon, and somehow the misunderstanding had gone uncorrected all this time.

I wonder what misconceptions I have that people think are just me trying to be funny.

2017-12-27

Trains in the Americas

In the early 1990s I did guest research at the University of Washington in Seattle. As it happened, I had friends in Vancouver, BC, not that far away, so a visit was indicated. Therefore I looked up Amtrak in the phone book and called them to ask about tickets. (The first web browser would be made public later that year, and of course it would be much longer before Amtrak had a web presence.) I could hear through the phone how the person at the other end eyed me suspiciously, of course there was no such thing as a train connection between Seattle and Vancouver. I for my part was equally taken aback, how did people then travel? Somehow I found out that if you didn’t have a car (in itself a weird idea) you would go by Greyhound Bus, which of course was an important part of America.

The Greyhound bus station turned out to be indeed populated by people who couldn’t afford a car. Drugs, possibly, but not cars. In the event, there were more travellers than fit on the bus, so we, the OBS, OBCM, and I, had to wait for quite some time for a second bus and a driver to be procured from somewhere before we were on our way. We travelled northwards and eventually stopped at a bus stop in the middle of pretty much nowhere. Apparently our bus had had a mechanical breakdown and we had to wait for yet another bus and driver to be located and ferried up from Seattle. There was a coin phone so I could call our Canadian friends and tell them we would be late. (This was long before mobile phones were common, and in the Americas they didn’t exist at all, as far as I knew.) A new bus did arrive, we boarded and continued our journey. Finally we got to the Canadian border, where we passengers by all means were very rapidly cleared by customs, but our bus turned out not to have a traffic permit in Canada, so now we had to wait for a bus and driver to be ferried down from Vancouver. Eight hours late we finally pulled in at the bus terminal in Vancouver and could call for our friends to come pick us up.

“Oh, good that you are safe, we thought you might have been shot at.”
“What!?”
“Didn’t you know? The Greyhound bus drivers are striking and they’re shooting at the strike breakers.”

Oh. Clearly very many things were different abroad. After our visit we did get safely back to Seattle, but in the future we used one of the competing (Canadian) bus companies.

Now it seems that Amtrak actually has gotten their act together and introduced a train connection between Seattle and Vancouver (and beyond). Interestingly enough the trains are described as ”European style”, whatever that means, say I who have travelled on European trains from Wales to Romania, but admittedly I have not travelled by train in the USA, maybe their trains have some peculiar features that are not present on European trains.

This recollection was triggered by the news that one of these new high-speed trains had derailed outside Tacoma, south of Seattle.

2017-12-05

Finished models 2017-VII–VIII

A Warhammer horse. It is made of plastic, instead of the white metal the other figures have been moulded in, but that made no difference to the Vallejo colours, they will come off the surface at the slightest provocation, no matter the primer used. I made a bit of a mess of the masking job as well, but there you go. The “1”s (one on each side of the shabraque) come from a dry transfer sheet I’ve had since time immemorial. The horse was light enough that there was no problem in attaching it to a transparent base with just a bit of super glue. (The original kit had two long runners that were supposed to slot into a base, but I prefer it this way.

The dryad got a nice wash and is getting closer to where I want to go. I added a bit of clear lacquer to give a sheen to the eyes and the oral cavity, but didn’t quite reach the effect I was going for. I shall continue to practice.

2017-12-03

Albatross

As you may remember, I tried to convince The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to cover Albatross, and while it seems they so far haven’t taken me up on it, Pražského ukulele bandu have:

2017-11-29

E.T. (spoilers)

It turned out that neither Honeybuns nor I had actually seen E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial*, so we decided to shell out a few crowns to YouTube and watch it. It was quite interesting.

One thing which I reacted to quite strongly was how obvious it was that several outdoor scenes were shot in an indoors studio. I presume the controlled environment weighed up for the loss of realism to the film-makers.

Another thing was how very 1980s everything was—as if the film makers had gone out of their way to insert period markers, but of course these were just things that happened to be around at the time.

But, and this is quite important, I got a very different impression of the central conflict of the film when compared to reviews and various references I’ve read, and that is that the mysterious Government Authorities in fact are kind and well-meaning. We find that they are quite happy to let Elliott initiate contact and communicate with E.T.—they have Elliott’s house bugged, to be sure, but they stay out of the way and just monitor what happens. Only when E.T. falls ill do they swoop in, and then in a desperate attempt to save E.T.’s life. All through this they are very respectful to E.T., Elliott, and his family.

The chase of the children by police cars is directly caused by two children (Elliott and Michael) stealing a van, driving away and by that endangering the lives of two technicians, who, as far as we can tell, do not at all threaten anyone, but are only interested in getting out of harm’s way, as they are being dragged behind the stolen van. Indeed, as ”Keys”, the leader of the operation, figures out where the children are headed (to reunite E.T. with its kin), it seems the police chase is called off, as there is no further perceived danger.

Further, the aliens are tacitly understood by all to not be a threat. In recent times it’s rather unusual to see a secret(?, we don’t really know, maybe they’re just not very publicly well-known) government agency portrayed so positively.

Then it is rather weird that they apply human-adapted medication to an alien, whose biochemistry they really don’t know anything about at all. It seems that even in a desperate situation it would be likely to cause more damage to do interventions the consequences of which are completely unknown, than just leaving things to their natural course. That E.T. seemingly dies after its bout with…hypothermia(?) and then comes to life again within minutes suggests that its physiology is, indeed, alien.

* I was reminded of a class-mate in secondary school, who, based on the film title, decided that “terrestrial” meant “alien”. That “extra” bit must have been taken by him to mean simply “yet another”…

2017-11-07

Finished models 2017-IV–VI

Some more Warhammer figures: A Wood Elf Wayfarer. I added a bowstring and an arrow, the arrow broke off in transport, though. The geometry isn’t very good for the bowstring either—the original mould maker apparently didn’t care a lot about that.

The two Wood Elves have these big round blobs on their hands. I’m not quite sure that they aren’t just some moulding artefact, but since they seem difficult to remove I’ve decided that they are their Rings of Power.