Monthly Archives: November 2012

What is the Shape of the Universe?

One of the hardest things for us mere mortals to wrap our heads around is the universe.  It’s huge!  There aren’t the adjectives to describe how big the universe is.  Take all the adjectives you know to describe something large and then multiply them all together and maybe you’ll have an inkling about how big the universe is.

But if the universe is this big…thing…surely it must have a shape, right?  Right!  Wikipedia has a decent description of the possible shapes of the universe.  Basically, there are three theoretical shapes of the universe: flat, spherical, and hyperbolic.  It’s still pretty confusing, though.  Let me see if I can make it a little easier to understand.

We are pretty sure that the universe is flat.  Using the word “flat” doesn’t really mean anything when we use our normal definition of “flat”, though.  After all, how can a very obviously three dimensional world be considered flat.  The trick is we’re not really talking about the shape.  We’re talking about the curvature of space.

Time for a geometry lesson.  Draw three points on a sheet of paper.  Connect them to form a triangle.  If you took a protractor and measured the three angles inside the triangle, they would add up to 180 degrees.  Now, take that same principle and apply it to the universe!  First, freeze time.  Then, pick any three stars that you can see.  Connect them to form a triangle.  If you took the universe’s largest protractor and measured the three angles inside the triangle, you’d come up with 180 degrees.  Flat!  All experimentation so far points to this holding for any three points in the universe.

“Well, duh!  How else would the universe be shaped?”, you ask?  A flat universe is completely understandable to most people with a high school education.  That’s because everyone has been exposed to Euclidean geometry.  The other two theoretical shapes are non-Euclidean.

But what does non-Euclidean geometry even mean?  Going back to our triangle example, a Euclidean triangle will always have it’s internal angles add up to 180 degrees.  A non-Euclidean triangle will NOT ALWAYS add up to 180 degrees.  (Sorry, complete aside here.  Euclidean starts with a vowel but saying “an Euclidean” just sounds weird.  That is all.)

The easiest way to wrap your head around this is to think of a sphere.  Take whatever ball you have handy and pick three points.  Draw lines again to form a triangle.  You have just created a non-Euclidean triangle in curved space!

Let’s take a very specific example using the Earth.  Pretend you’re on the equator.  Start walking north until you’re at the north pole.  Turn 90 degrees to your left.  Whoa, wait a second!  You’re facing directly south now!  That can’t be right.  But it is!  Ok, fine, you’re flexible, so start walking south again.  You will soon find yourself right back at the equator.  Turn 90 degrees left again and you’ll be facing east.  Walk east some distance along the equator until you reach your starting point.  Without a doubt, you just created an equilateral  triangle.  But wait, 90 + 90 + 90 = 270 degrees!  Welcome to non-Euclidean space.  So when they say there is a spherical universe, they mean that even though it may appear that you are walking a straight line, you are really walking a slightly curved line.

Despite the fact that all signs point to a flat universe, I find the idea of a spherical universe very attractive.  Imagine being able to walk across the universe in a straight line and eventually ending up right back were you started, just like if you walked along the equator and end up back where you started!  Of course, you’d have to not only freeze time, but you’d also have to stop gravity in order to do that.  It’s also possible that I’m just talking out my ass.

Though I understand the idea of a hyperbolic universe, words fail me in trying to describe it.  Basically, a hyperbolic universe is a strange combination of a flat universe and a spherical universe.  It ends up looking somewhat like a horse’s saddle.  Space is still curved, but it’s not curved uniformly like it would be on a sphere.  So when you are traveling along one of the sides of a triangle, it is possible that you can go from bending in one direction to bending in another and the line ends up looking more line an ‘S’.

The universe is a crazy, fun place!  Hopefully, this helps you guys understand it a little better.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Empathize

A study from a few years ago shows that college kids are forty percent less empathetic than their counterparts from twenty or thirty years ago.  This is incredibly disheartening.  Not only because forty percent less empathy is a severe drop, but because I am from their counterpart group from twenty years ago and I can tell you, there ain’t much empathy in my generation either.

There are all sorts of suggested causes for the drop:  Social media, video games, increased exposure to media, being too busy.  I don’t buy any of these.  I think if they did a study of all ages, they’d find that the United States as a whole as dropped forty percent in empathy.

The United States has developed a really bizarre form of tribalism.  We spend our teenage years torn between wanting to be an individual and needing to belong to a group.  Most of the time, the need overpowers the want and we give up our individuality and ability to be introspective in order to belong to a group.  But once we’re in a group, a strange dynamic occurs.  We don’t concern ourselves with the daily sufferings of our fellow members.  Instead, we focus all our energy on maintaining the existence of the group.  Any criticism of the group thus results in an all-out-of-proportion backlash on said critics.  It doesn’t matter how pertinent this criticism may be, a wave of anger and hatred must rise up to smash down on any mortal who dare question the group.  And woe to the member of the group who dares question her own!

The best defense against falling into this sort of tribalism is to question yourself.  It sounds like an easy thing to do, but we are best at lying to ourselves.  We have all had those moments in life where we look back on an event and say to ourselves, “What was I thinking?”  But we somehow never make the connection that we are lying to ourselves.  So, when we question ourselves, it’s also important to then ask if we are being truthful with ourselves too.

This, I believe, is where the old adage “the truth shall set you free” comes from.  It’s not learning the truth about people or places or things.  It’s learning the truth about yourself.  Know yourself and you shall know enlightenment.

Good News, Everybody!

File this one under the very worst possible good news imaginable.  Uganda has decided to not make it legal to kill homosexuals.  Instead, they’ll just put them in jail.  Yay?

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins took time out to tweet the group’s support of Uganda:

American Liberals are upset that Ugandan Pres is leading his nation in repentance – afraid of a modern example of a nation prospered by God?

This was interpreted by anyone with a brain as inherent support for the anti-homosexual bill, given that the two pieces of news came so close to each other.  FRC, though, claims that Perkins was just tweeting about the fact that heathen liberals are up in arms because Uganda’s president is dedicating the nation to repentance from god.

This is a pretty laughable claim.  First off, try finding anyone anywhere who is complaining about Uganda’s prayer ceremony.  You’ll just find Perkins complaining about the mystery complainers.  All the outcry has been about the bill.  Plus, it’s still support for a person and a country that would pass such a law.  It’s as if the FRC were to say, “We don’t support Mussolini at all!  We’re just praising him for his efficiency in getting the trains to run on time.”  Or maybe more to the point, “We don’t support apartheid at all!  We’re just praising South Africa for rededicating themselves to god by speaking some gobbledegook.”

And that’s American Christianity in a nutshell these days.  As long as you speak the right words, your deeds don’t matter at all.

There May Be Hope For the Middle East Yet

If you are not aware, Palestine is set to ask the UN to become a “observer-state“.  Basically, this means that the UN will recognize Palestine as a sovereign nation.  This is pretty big news.  What’s even bigger is that it looks like former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will support the bid.  And that, my friends, is huge!  Here’s Olmert:

 I believe that the Palestinian request from the United Nations is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution. Therefore, I see no reason to oppose it. Once the United Nations will lay the foundation for this idea, we in Israel will have to engage in a serious process of negotiations, in order to agree on specific borders based on the 1967 lines, and resolve the other issues. It is time to give a hand to, and encourage, the moderate forces amongst the Palestinians. Abu-Mazen and Salam Fayyad need our help. It’s time to give it.

Israel is, of course, against such a bid.  They say it is because Palestine should negotiate for peace directly with Israel and not use the UN as an intermediary.  Really, though, it’s just because it will help tip the scales closer to balance in this unbelievably disproportionately balanced power struggle.

This bid also has the unconditional backing of many European states.  England also has said that they’d back it after receiving a promise from Palestine that it would not go to the International Criminal Court accusing Israel of war crimes.  Today could be a very important day for peace in the Middle East.

What are Anthropologists Up to These Days?

Do you ever wonder what anthropologists are doing for fun these days?  Sure, there are still plenty of ancient cultures to figure out and there are plenty of modern “primitive” cultures to study, but that’s their bread and butter.  No one would do a double-take if an anthropologist said at a party, “I’m studying the ancient Mayans’ socio-cultural relationship with the llama.”, even if they had no idea what it actually meant.

It turns out that modern anthropologists mostly study much closer to home.  One anthropologist, Gabriella Coleman, spent three years studying the mysterious hackers of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Here’s the most interesting bit:

Wired: It’s hard to tell a good geek joke because there are all these layers to them.

Often, the humor you talk about is used as a way of identifying like-minded people. I think that a lot of people from that community spend a lot of their time not being understood or talking to people who don’t care about the same things that they do. So they need a shorthand to figure out, “OK we can have a conversation.”

It’s actually a hack that allows you to connect with people who it’s worth your time time talk to.

Coleman: One of the things in that chapter that I argue is that hackers, first of all, are good at joking because to hack is to rearrange form. That’s what jokes are. That’s a pragmatic utilitarian argument, but they really culturally value it for all sorts of reasons.

Even a wonderful piece of code is up for debate, but a very funny joke, it gets affirmed with laughter and then it’s kind of indisputable.

How cool would that be?  Following a sub-culture around for a few years and figuring out how they work.  Anthropology would be an awesome job to have if I were independently wealthy.  Just sitting and studying people.  Though, I guess I do quite a bit of that now.

Urge to Kill…Rising

It’s time to play everyone’s favorite game, “What’s pissing me off now?”  It’s the game in which I tell you what’s pissing me off now.  Hours of fun for the entire family!

I am years too late to this tragedy, but it’s worth bringing it to your attention since it was brought to mine.  The book that I’m reading, “Reamde” by Neal Stephenson, had a sentence in it mentioning the killing of American soldiers by electrocution when taking a shower.  I had never heard of such a thing and it stuck with me so to the Interwebs I went.

It turns out that faulty equipment has caused the deaths of eighteen soldiers.  Eighteen!  Who do we have to thank for this completely unnecessary tragedy?  Why, KBR of course!  Don’t remember KBR?  They are a Halliburton spin-off company that is the largest support contractor in Iraq.  You remember Halliburton, right?  That company that was run by vice president Dick Cheney?  It is really amazing that all roads of governmental evil seem to lead back to that man.

And as if KBR killing eighteen soldiers wasn’t enough, they’re also trying to weasel out of paying compensation to the families.  Even in horrible tragedies, you expect a certain amount of deniability from a company even if they are obviously to blame for the tragedy.  KBR, though, takes it to an entirely new level of evil, though.  They are trying to claim that Iraq law should be used to determine the outcome because the killing happened in an Iraqi government building.  Even though the building was under U.S. control at the time.  Why?  Because Iraq law doesn’t allow for punitive damages.  Yes, that’s right, they want to make sure that they pay the grieving families as little as possible for their mistake.

It gets better.  What does our government do to a company whose negligence resulted in the death of eighteen of our soldiers?  Why, give them an $83 million bonus, of course!

Let’s sum up, shall we?  Dick Cheney starts an unnecessary war.  Dick Cheney’s company gets more contractor work than any other company for said unnecessary war.  Dick Cheney’s company does really crappy work and this results in the electrocution deaths of eighteen of our soldiers.  Dick Cheney’s company denies responsibility but is found guilty of negligent homicide.  Dick Cheney’s company tries to have Iraqi law applied to verdict to keep payments to families to a minimum.  Dick Cheney’s company is awarded $83 million in bonuses for said shoddy work that killed people.

Yes, it might be a stretch to call KBR Dick Cheney’s company.  But it is certain that he is a shareholder and the people who run it are his friends and that he has profited massively from the war that he created.

And that’s “What’s pissing me off now?”  Thank you for playing.

Rock You Like a Hurricane

If you think Earth’s storms are getting bigger and more damaging, you may want to avoid Saturn.  It’s north pole sports a 2,000 kilometer vortex.  This is all compliments of NASA and the Cassini spacecraft.  The pictures will blow you away.

What’s weird is how the fluid dynamics of the storm end up forming a hexagon.  What’s even weirder is that this storm has existed for at least 25 years when Voyager first discovered it.  Still, it’s probably better living there than in Ohio during a Presidential election.

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

What do you get when you cross Minute Physics and my man-crush, Neil deGrasse Tyson?  More reason than you can shake a stick at!


Department of Stopped Clocks

File this one under a stopped clock being right twice a day.  Pat Robertson is defending science!  In this case, agreeing that the Earth is actually billions and billions of years old.


While this is certainly encouraging, it doesn’t explain why his company still sells young earth educational materials.  Oh, yeah, that’s because Pat Robertson is still a massive hypocrite.  The world is as I remember it.

More Fun With Tax Policy

Ok, listen up, you masses that worship the job creators.  You know how you think that raising the tax rate on the richest people will doom our economy to another recession?  Would you be surprised if I told you that this is complete toro caca?

Well it is.

How do I know this?  Economic history.  Tax rates on top earners have varied anywhere from 25% to 93%.  There is absolutely zero correlation between low tax rates for top earners and good economic performance.  Zero.  Guess when income and capital gains taxes for the top earners were at their lowest?  Just before the Great Depression!  Guess when they were at their highest?  Between 1940 and 1965, some of the best economic times our country has ever had.

I don’t mean to imply that higher taxes on top earners leads to economic growth in the prior paragraph.  What I mean to imply is that the tax rate on those who make well in excess of what they are required to live has absolutely no bearing on how the economy performs.  We could raise taxes on top earners back to 90% and the economy could either thrive or shrink and it would have nothing to do with the fact that the taxes were raised.

We are still fighting at least one war and will be fighting many shadow wars for years to come.  The social safety net could use some mending.  The country’s infrastructure needs huge improvements.  All these things are known to be true to just about every American.  So why are we even arguing about raising the top rate a few measly percentage points?  That’s a rhetorical question, I know the answer.