Friday, February 21, 2014

Paddle Your Own Canoe

Yesterday I started listening to the Audiobook Paddle Your Own Canoe, "One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living." It is both written and narrated by Nick Offerman, best known on television as Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. It's because of works like these that audiobooks are a valuable format and can sometimes surpass the experience of reading the book they are based on. There is something really special about an audiobook that is read by its own author, when it's done really, really well. And Offerman surely does it well. The only other author I can think of who can regularly pull off this feat is Neil Gaiman.

I don't have any more cogent thoughts than that for now. Perhaps once I've finished the audiobook, I will update this stubby article with some important thoughts about the philosophy of eating barbecued red meat and how to make your own way as a nonconformist man in modern America.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why is 3D Binaural Sound So Damn Relaxing?

Sometimes when I'm having trouble sleeping, I listen to 3D binaural sound (also known as holophonic sound) to help clear my mind of racing thoughts and finally fall asleep. Binaural sound is a special type of audio recording that uses two microphones embedded in the locations of the ears in a dummy head. When listening to this holophonic recording through a pair of earbuds or headphones, the result is a compelling illusion that the recorded sounds are located in 3D space around your own head. Listening to the recording without earphones doesn't work and ruins the auditory illusion. These types of audio recordings elicit an ASMR response in many people: a pleasant tingling sensation in the scalp and neck. After listening to many of these recordings of rain storms, of a virtual barbershop, of a woman crumpling pieces of paper, and most recently of a guy slowly opening a box containing bubble wrap and a bag of sand...I wondered. Why is lying in the dark with my eyes closed, listening to a guy slowly opening a cardboard box, such an utterly relaxing experience? Why does it help me sleep and clear my mind?

Am I a crazy person?

 Binaural recording of a cardboard box being slowly unwrapped

I think the reason listening to these binaural recordings is so relaxing is because it closely approximates the practice of mindfulness meditation. As I understand it, mindfulness is essentially training your mind to let your present sensory experience wash over you, without judging it or interrogating it with chattering thoughts. One of the payoffs of this attentiveness to the present moment is that it allows you to escape, if only for a short while, from your anxiety about past mistakes, and from your worries about the uncertain future. It is very difficult to be envious of your neighbor, to be angry at your spouse, to be stressed about your job, or to agonize about money while lying in a dark and silent room just listening to a guy...slowly and carefully unwrap a cardboard box.

As I was recently reminded by an astoundingly clear-sighted lecture by Sam Harris, most of us spend our whole lives thinking mostly about the future and about the past, without ever truly connecting with the present moment. We get expensive University degrees, and get jobs to earn lots of money, and invest money over decades into a retirement account in the anticipation that we will achieve happiness at some distant point in the future. I guess listening to a binaural recording in the quiet secret spaces of the night is a tiny way to set all of that aside, and to be contented with the present moment for just long enough to be taken by the sweet embrace of sleep.

A poetic excerpt from the Sam Harris lecture "Death and the Present Moment"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Thoughts about Boxes from the Louisville Big Four Bridge

The ramp up the Big Four Bridge looking west towards Downtown Louisville

Forty-two workers perished while constructing the Big Four Railroad Bridge between 1888 and 1895. It served railway, industrial, and passenger traffic until 1969. And then it sat, idle and unused for forty years. Today, the Big Four Bridge is one of the longest pedestrian-only bridges in the world and spans the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky and Jeffersonville, Indiana. On either side of the bridge, gently sloping ramps spiral down into lovely new riverfront parks built on former industrial land and shipyards. When strolling the bridge and imagining the bustling riverboat traffic passing beneath the massive iron spans, imagining the brawling dockworkers, the shouts of factory men, the fading smells and sounds of the riverside stockyards, one wonders. What changed?

Why are there no longer so many chemical refineries, textile mills, riverboats and dockworkers hawking their trade along America's inland riverways? Why are so many inland riverfront parks being built on areas that were formerly railroad warehouses, brothels, and piers in cities spanning from Portland to New York? Why are the old warehouses being converted into chic industrial lofts and trendy restaurants, or lying abandoned, instead of housing wares? What changed in the 20th century to fundamentally rearrange the geographic relationship between ports and cities and labor and nations? When asked most people will grumble something about cheap foreign labor. But I think the answer, in large part, is containers.

The former riverboat and boxcar railroad transportation network of the late 19th century and early 20th century has been almost entirely displaced by multi-modal shipping, in which 40-foot standardized steel containers are seamlessly whisked between giant ocean-going container ships, specially designed freight railways, and trucks traveling America's interstate highways. It wasn't always like this.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller 
and the World Economy Bigger [Left]. The Big Four bridge [Right].

According to The Box by Marc Levinson, starting in the late 1950s the humble steel shipping container revolutionized and reorganized the world economy. Prior to that time, industry often clustered near waterfronts in large port cities in order to minimize costs and time delays for receiving raw inputs and for shipping out finished goods for export. Loading and unloading ships was a labor intensive, time consuming, and dangerous process. Goods came in all shapes and sizes, from bunches of bananas, to barrels of liquor, to hogsheads of tobacco, to crates of medical supplies, to bales of cotton. Dockworkers would quarrel, frequently strike for increased wages, lobby for special protections to prevent competition from immigrant dockworkers, and often endure boom and bust cycles of too much work to handle or no work at all. Theft of dockside merchandise was rampant. Ships could languish tied to the docks for weeks, waiting to exchange cargo and set sail again. The romance of this hustle and bustle life of the wharf-side denizens has been told again and again in literature and in cinema. But the story of the enormous economic inefficiencies of the old way, and the revolutionary change brought about by the extremely low cost of modern container shipping, I think is widely under-appreciated.

Dockworkers unloading bananas at the wharves in New York in 1905
[Photo from]

Longshoremen loading the Sternwheeler Georgia Lee 
with mixed cargo in Louisville, KY (1905)
[photo from]

Today container ports can be largely automated and require relatively little human labor per ton of cargo to handle the containers. The turn-around time for a modern ocean-going container ship is measured in hours, not days or weeks. The resulting economic bonanza brought about by low-cost shipping, reduced theft and damage, and increased shipping speed has been one of the main driving forces reshaping the global economy. The reason for the shift of manufacturing capacity from Europe and America to Asia was not just about changes in the global costs of manufacturing labor, it was also about fundamental changes in the global costs of shipping.

A crane loading a container ship at the Port of Colombo in Sri Lanka

People often forget that humble innovations that completely change the living patterns of the whole world aren't always sexy, and they aren't always fast. World-changing ideas are not just about computers and rocket ships. It took half a century or more for the revolution in containerized shipping to rearrange the destinies of the waterfronts of Manhattan and Shenzhen, and launch those locations into completely different historical trajectories.

As you gaze down the Ohio River from the span of the Big Four pedestrian bridge in Louisville, or cast your eyes along the Thames from the base of the Tower Bridge, remember that we may have lost a little bit of the romance of the Dickensian docks and the Mark Twain riverboats. But we have gained so much more in livable city waterfronts, beautiful riverfront parks, less expensive imported goods and raw materials, and an increasingly integrated and thriving world economy. And for that, I'm thankful for The Box.

February Sunset at the Big Four Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky

Sunday, February 9, 2014

End the War Against Preserved and Processed Foods!

As I was reminded by a recent article about the historical trajectory of orange juice in America's food supply, I am continually baffled by the war being waged against food "processing" and food "preservatives." If it can be shown that there are no adverse health consequences, and the product tastes rather good and people like to buy it, and it's much cheaper than "fresh and unprocessed" food, then why demonize a product for lasting a long time on the shelf or for being "overly processed"?

Some heroic highly processed and overly preserved foods

This "processing and preservatives" talk is always conflated with the problem of "the product contains too much sugar," or "the product contains too little nutritional value," which I definitely understand and sympathize with. I get it that orange juice naturally contains lots of sugar, regardless of the date and location the fruits were harvested, or whether aromatic citrus oils were added back into the juice to improve the flavor after a long storage time. I get it that Twinkies contain little in the way of nutritional value for growing children. But will the self-appointed food police concede that many foods can have a very long shelf life, be highly processed with many artificial industrial-scale steps, and yet still contain lots of nutrients and not very much sugar? How about a can of tomato paste that was processed in a factory and "boiled to death," or canned tuna "which has been patiently sitting in storage sometimes for more than a year"? Boiling food to death, putting it in air-tight cans or jars, and eating it over a year after it was harvested from the field or the orchard or the ocean is a supremely amazing achievement of human ingenuity. People ought to be tickled with joy each time they drink a glass of pretty-decently-tasting orange juice, in Chicago or Denver or Boston during a frigid February morning, for just the price of a few measly quarters. Instead they grumble and look out their window at the snowy landscape, and wonder why they aren't instead treated to the sweet nectar of a freshly hand-plucked and hand-squeezed fruit.

Some people complain that "processed foods" are chock full of high-fructose corn syrup and other ingredients that they would like to avoid. However, the presence of high-fructose corn syrup in food has little to do with the number of processing steps required to make the product at a large cost-effective scale, or the desire to preserve and store food for a long time. Instead, corn syrup is put into foods because it is much cheaper than alternative sweeteners such as cane sugar, and people love inexpensive food. People crave sweetness because they are built by evolution to desire high-calorie sweetened foods, which were rare treats in prehistoric nature. No demonization of preservatives or demonization of complicated multi-step industrial processing need enter into this part of the food supply discussion.

Some people complain that they don't like processed or preserved foods because "they have no idea what's in it." I've got news for you, you probably have no idea what's in most of the things you ingest. Most people think of a "roasted coffee bean," for example, as a magical nature product provided by Mother Earth, rather than as a complex cocktail of chemicals in various proportions. Some of the natural chemical constituents of roasted coffee beans are toxic and carcinogenic (but they exist at very low harmless concentrations). If the scientific names of all the chemical components in your all-natural skinny hazelnut macchiato were listed on the back of the cup, they would make your head spin.

Highly preserved and industrially processed foods are simply amazing. They allow us to even out the food supply both geographically and seasonally, and provide low-cost sustenance to people who would have in ancient times suffered a lack of nutrition or even starvation. How quickly people forget that cheese, beer, and wine, those cornerstones of western food culture, were initially methods to "highly process and highly preserve" excess milk, grain, and grapes during bounteous times, in order to stockpile calories and nutrients for leaner times...even stockpile them for many years after the initial harvest. Why did ancient humans bother to invent these things? Why did humans bother to invent beef jerky, and bacon, and salami? It wasn't because some scary corporation thought it would be fun to feed children a bunch of "nitrates and nitrites."

Often, the alternative to eating a highly processed and highly preserved food, or the alternative to eating a food that has traveled hundreds of miles on a truck or on a boat, is to have no food at all. This has been the default situation for mankind for thousands of years, and a situation which has been all but forgotten by the snobbish foodies who complain that frozen concentrated orange juice doesn't taste quite as good as the fresh squeezed stuff picked that day from your very own backyard orchard. Now if you don't mind, before I go shovel the snow from my Chicago sidewalk, I'm going to go have a delicious glass of frozen concentrated orange juice and a mug of chemical cocktail coffee to wash down my Minnesota refined flour crepes spread with California processed cream cheese and a dollop of Montana huckleberry preserves.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Ghost disproval thought experiments

The following are a bunch of silly things I've wondered when talking to people who are super serious about their belief that ghosts are real. Since the widespread belief in ghosts isn't easily disproven using physical science and direct measurement data, and ghost belief is often deeply rooted in a personal religious belief, it is probably best to just use these types of silly thought experiments when playfully and skeptically talking about ghosts with less skeptical friends and family. It can be a pretty fun discussion for everyone involved, actually!

The Real Estate theorem of ghost disproval

What happens if you bulldoze a "real haunted house" and build a 24-hour Walgreens on the site? Would you now have a haunted 24-hour Walgreens, or would the resident ghost have to relocate to a spooky Victorian mansion in your town's historic district? That story doesn't sound very scary: "Sometimes I see the ghost of a weeping little girl sitting on the edge of my bed. She used to haunt the Old Johnson Place on Elm Street, but she had to move after they built the new Walgreens. That's probably why she's always weeping." I'm going to call this the "Real Estate theorem of ghost disproval."

The temporal theorem of ghost disproval

How come the majority of ghosts tend to be a few hundred years old or less, regardless of the era? You hardly ever see, or hear a good story about a 3,000 year old ghost. Is it because ghosts are usually able to complete their "unfinished business" in a few century time frame? Is it because ancient ghosts either predate the religious tradition that gives them a philosophical foundation, or because extremely old ghosts can't speak English (or whatever the local modern language is)? Is it because, as was hinted by the Real Estate theorem of ghost disproval, ghosts are intimately tied to the structures they inhabit and there are very few usable structures which have survived for more than 3,000 years? It might also be a ghost demographics phenomenon, in that many more people have died more recently than 3,000 years ago than died longer than 3,000 years ago. Therefore ancient ghosts are simply numerically less common than more modern ghosts. Someone on those Ghost Hunters International TV shows should take a spectral census to get to the bottom of this.

The ambient music theorem of ghost disproval

Ghost stories and haunted houses require a certain ambience in order to get the full effect. Typically this is low lighting inside a 19th century house or an abandoned building, low firelight around a campsite, and either silence, or old-timey music such as Big Band, Ragtime, Jazz, or some lonesome piano music. This ambience is maintained because people want to be scared because it's fun...that's the whole point for them. But are there certain types of ambient music and lighting environments in which ghosts simply cannot exist? For example if you had a multicolor laser light show, inside a bright white room with all white walls and white floor with no furniture, and blared Miley Cyrus Party in the USA, is it impossible to be scared by a ghost?

The absurd juxtaposition ghost disproval theorem

Is it possible to be involuntarily haunted by a ghost if you take steps to be absurd or silly to counteract the scariness of the ghost? For example, you could enter a "real haunted house" with everyone in your group dressed in realistic looking dolphin costumes. The absurdity of a group of humans waddling into the old haunted house dressed as a pod of dolphins might be too much for the ghost to handle. It will throw the ghost off her haunting game and will cause her to be too embarrassed to come out and haunt you.

As I think of more silly theorems of ghost disproval I will continue to add them to this list. If you can think of any along the same lines, let me know! I hope to one day collect the definitive internet list of silly ghost disproval theorems.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Coca-Cola reminds America that it is beautiful. Some disagree.

During last night's blowout Superbowl between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos, Coca-Cola aired a commercial that was intended to highlight the inclusivity and the beautifully interwoven cultures that make up the ideal of the American Dream.

I thought it was a nice sentiment and an artfully produced piece of marketing, and then thought nothing more of it. But apparently some Americans publicly disagreed on Twitter and other social media platforms, and in ugly fashion.

This type of vehement negative reaction has surprised some people, but as an amateur student of history I am much less surprised. Xenophobia and ingroup-outgroup mistrust and hatred have been the historical norm for millennia. What is amazing when you really think about it is how far humanity has come in just the last few generations, and how the people who make these awful bigoted statements are becoming more and more marginalized. Not long ago awful statements like these on Twitter were rallying cries for elections and popular movements, and printed on the front pages of newspapers, and circulated nationally on pamphlets...not the subject of ridicule and condemnation. One does not have to look far into the historical record to find numerous examples of anti-Irish, anti-Polish, anti-Jewish, and most notably anti-African-American bigotry.

Anti-immigrant propaganda cartoon from 1896

I think the feedback loops inherent in the broadcast platform of Twitter, and the valuable social criticism as exemplified by the Public Shaming tumblr blog, is another reason why the internet is so awesome. I suspect that this internet feedback will quickly bring a about a revolution of thoughtfulness and consciousness-raising, and that this will be a much bigger effect in moving the world forward than most people realize. This type of virtuous cycle used to be a much slower process, and required curious and literate people to encounter books, magazine articles, and have personal relationships and experiences that would have the same effect. Now, people can be taken to task almost instantly for their bigotry and stupidity, and perhaps taken to task by someone all the way on the other side of the world. This is how change happens, and happens fast. How amazing is that?