Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hope for the Future

Arthur C. Clarke, author, died today at the age of 90. You may know him as the author behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, the book and famous Stanley Kubrick film. Clarke wrote in an earlier age of Science Fiction. The internet had not yet transformed the world, and cyberpunk was not yet a glimmer in William Gibson's eye. America lived in the shadow of the cold war, and much of the Science Fiction of the time dealt with the possibility of humankind destroying itself.

Clarke infused his writing with a limitless view of both human potential and human failings; In his view, humanity is in its infancy, delicate, vulnerable, throwing temper tantrums, but with its best years still ahead of it. In 2001, the main character upon his apotheosis literally becomes a child among the stars. In Childhood's End humanity as a whole escapes it's physical bounds in a heartbreaking moment of destruction and transcendence that the title of the book literally describes. Throughout his writing however, the factions of humanity are always a single mistake from destroying each other, and it is often extraterrestrials that distract them enough to survive their own power. Clarke wrote long before Nelson Mandela took his long walk to freedom, and hypothesized in Childhood's End that South Africa wouldn't reach a peaceful settlement until aliens gathered overhead and demanded it by blocking out the sun. Still, in his worlds we always managed to escape our vices to do extraordinary things: building a space elevator, colonizing the solar system, greeting the vast powers of the galaxy with dignity.

His books are full of the hope that with the passage of time, the problems that seem so immediate will be immaterial, that the differences between us are surmountable, that we have the ingenuity to escape our lonely planet and join whatever waits beyond. This perhaps the essence of Clarke's future. With that, I present to you the most intelligent and moving speech I've seen delivered by a politician in my lifetime. Had he been able, I think this is the type of progress Arthur C. Clarke would have liked to see.

Clarke delivered a farewell speech on his 90th birthday about his legacy, the incredible distance we've come within his lifetime, and his hope for the future. "I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. I hope that we have learned something from the most barbaric century in history — the twentieth. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions, and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalization." If you'd like to read some of his work, the full text of the "The Star" is available online.

No one dared to disturb him or interrupt his thoughts: and presently he turned his back upon the dwindling Sun.
- Childhood's End

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sprouting Mango Trees From Pits

I've been trying to do this for a while, and I know a few friends who have also been interested but mysteriously I've found all the guides online to be bad advice. I can confirm that now, because I'm pretty sure I've discovered the trick! My second mango pit has sprouted today, and I'm optimistic about a few more of them. I unfortunately don't eat enough mangoes to really have a control group in my study here, but of the 10 I've planted with a few different techniques, The only ones that have sprouted were handled in the same way, which I will now impart to you.

  1. Eat your mango. Mmmmm.
  2. Clean the mango husk enough to get a firm grip on it and be able to feel the woody material.
  3. Near the eye of the mango (where the stem would have connected) feel along the edge for a flat spot about an inch long. Take the mango in both hands and press into this spot with your thumbs. With a bit of working the husk should split in half leaving the seed exposed inside.
The advice that follows here should be modified a bit based on the humidity level of your location. On the San Francisco peninsula here the air is very dry, so I go to elaborate lengths to keep my mango pits moist. If you live in a humid location this may be overkill. Generally, the goal here is to disturb the roots as little as possible, and keep the plant moist and warm until it's fully established.
  1. Wrap the seed in a strip of paper towel, wet it, and squeeze out the air.
  2. Unless you are very good at repotting plants, choose a pot that you won't have to move it from for a while. I'd recommend at least 6 inches, but make sure it's small enough that you can fit a ziplock bag over the top. Any indoor potting soil is fine.
  3. Plant the pit near the surface of the soil with the concave side down.
  4. Soak the soil with water, and then put a ziplock bag over the top of the pot. It isn't essential for it to fit tightly. The goal of this is to keep the humidity level high.
  5. Place the pot with ziplock bag in a sunny window, preferably south-facing.
  6. Water it every two days by filling the saucer under the pot to the brim. So long as it gets a lot of sun I don't think you can over-water it at this stage. The soil should stay moist and water should collect on the inside of the bag.
  7. If your pits are growing they will turn green within a week or so, then split open with a stalk coming out about 2 weeks later.
  8. Once your plant sprouts remove the bag, but keep watering it regularly. Take particular care after repotting it that the soil never dries out. Mangoes don't have a very robust root system so disturbing it can really harm your plant. Cold can also be fatal to them so make sure to bring your plant inside if it will drop below 40 degrees. Once you have a respectable tree, Texas A&M has a good guide for cultivating mango trees in a home garden that can take over from here.
  9. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Fun With Absurdist Logic

What can you prove starting from the assumption that 1 = 2? Technically speaking, anything. One of the basic rules of logic is that if you include a false statement in your assumptions, you can prove any statement from those assumptions, regardless of whether the resulting statement is true or false. (P ⇒ Q follows from ¬P, regardless of Q.) This is often used for proofs "by contradiction" where you assume the opposite of what you are trying to prove, show that it results in a false statement, and thus conclude that your original assumption was false.

Though we know that this is true, rarely do we exercise it, and it can be a lot of fun to do so. Bertrand Russell once remarked "Give me any false statement and any other statement to prove and I will prove it," and I'll be cribbing from him here to use "1 = 2" to prove that I am a walrus. (He proved that he was God, but I'm no Bertrand Russell.)

Assume 1 = 2.
Consider the following set of two elements: {me, a walrus}.
This set has size 2, but because 2 = 1 it must also have size 1.
Therefore, me and the walrus must be the same element, and thus, I am a walrus.

There's great potential for a game here: One player chooses a false statement to start from, and the challenger responds with a fantastically outlandish statement to prove. Failure to prove it in 1 minute results in consequences appropriate for your age group. (If you are in college, you know what to do.) Astute readers will note that a similar argument to the above shows that I am also the eggman. Proving "goo goo g'joob" is left as an exercise to the reader.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Best Album I've Heard in Years

If you'd rather listen to it than read my jibber jabber, check out the myspace page.

"Punch" is the second album from the newly renamed "Punch Brothers," their first being "How To Grow a Woman From the Ground." It's unclassifiable music, which clearly springs from bluegrass but with influences too numerous to count. It mixes the idioms and instruments of bluegrass with the complex harmonies of contemporary classical and jazz. I guarantee you've never heard anything like it. It makes Bela Fleck sound tame and traditional. Chris Thile, the frontman for the group has been called "the most virtuosic American ever to play the mandolin," and the other members of the group receive less effusive praise only because their instruments are more common. Here they are put to good use playing things that have never before been played on these instruments.

The meat of the album is contained in a bewildering, four movement, forty minute piece entitled "The Blind Leaving the Blind." Despite the length and the stretches of dissonance, it's never inaccessible for long; the lyrics and melodies stay rooted in telling the emotional story of Chris's recent divorce. Every so often they break into an old-fashioned bluegrass jam, but then change keys in a few measures to remind you what you are listening to. On my first pass through it was exhausting to listen to, and it was a stretch for the band as well.

"For me, when I first received the score and saw what Chris was asking me to play on my instrument, that had to have been just as traumatic as him getting his divorce papers," Pikelny says. "He figured, 'Hey, if you have the notes there, you'll figure out a way to play it.'"
Chris Thile's voice, though adequate, doesn't match the quality of the playing and composition, and the album suffers from what Dan and I call "Great Album Syndrome." (Every truly great album must have one unbearable song, i.e. "The Crunge" or "Fitter Happier." On this album it's the first track, "Punch Bowl.") However, if hearing a banjo in a song doesn't immediately turn you off, (I understand that excludes a fair number of people) then give this a listen.