Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Month That Was - January 2011

The Month That Was - January 2011: At last. You can now buy Misspent Youth. Please do so at your earliest convenience. If you like it, please add a review to Amazon. Also tell your friends. Or better yet, buy copies for your friends. If you do these things I will be your BFF. Seriously, it turned out great -- some of my best writing. Kindle version coming soon.

The corollary to this is that I need a new writing project. Actually I have one in the works, but it's all taking a backseat to the house at the moment. I don't even have any travel plans. All that is the reason content has been so late and and so light around here. Meanwhile, I've been devoting an unacceptable amount of time to dealing with snow. (The snow blower I negotiated for in the house purchase has paid for itself already in my estimation.) And tax season is upon us, which is particularly tricky this year because there is my father's estate to deal with.

It's taking a lot of spiritual effort to concentrate on Spring, when the weather will start to warm up, the taxes will be over, and the house situation will be more settled. That is, if Spring isn't just a manufactured memory for my own comfort. It has been the coldest winter in a long time. Actually, that's probably not true. But for me it's been one of the most depressing ones and that makes it seem colder. I'm cold all the time.

[Books] Book Look: From Eternity to Here
[TV] Tube Notes
[Health and Fitness] Stanky Yoga
[House and Home] House Gripes

[Books] Book Look: From Eternity to Here

Book Look: From Eternity to Here, by Sean Carroll: I'm fond of pointing out, rather flippantly, that experience has made it plain to me that I was not put on this Earth to get it. Primarily this applies to women, taxes, and Jersey Shore, but the older I get the more I realize that it's really a much wider phenomenon. I don't think I was made to truly understand much of anything (except perhaps the extent to which I don't understand anything -- that's pretty clear).

Reading From Eternity to Here I was cheered by the fact that professional cosmologists and theoretical physicists, certainly one highest IQ demographics extant, don't really understand much of anything either.

I suppose most of us have been exposed to many of the surrealities of contemporary physics. The simplest and most common is the fact that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. In common experience, this makes no sense. We have no evolutionary experience with there being an upper limit to speed that we couldn't imagine overcoming with technology and/or imagination. Open the door to quantum mechanics and things go from surreal to outright bizarre. Statistical existence where a cat is both dead and alive in some sense. Particles pop in and out of reality. None of this makes any sense -- quite literally. The experience we have of the world as provided by our senses cannot accommodate any of this. There is no way for us to picture it, other than through some very strained analogies. Carroll does better than most at describing a lot of this stuff; he brings fresh analogies and lucid descriptions to the nonsense.

But the high concept of this book is time. What is time? Where did time come from? Why does it only go in one direction? Is there a defined starting point? Does anybody really know what...(sorry).

Our sense of time is mostly a byproduct of memory. We recall previous events but have no knowledge of future ones (only surmises). Therefore, we feel as though we are moving through time from the written past to the unwritten future. Let me try my hand at an analogy of my own.

Picture an enormous, infinitely high, multi-story building. Each floor is the entire universe in one instant of time. You are born into existence on the 387,293,817,678,624,456,879th floor, or something. Also on that floor is your mother, the obstetrician, everyone in the hospital, cars and pedestrians throughout the city, every animal , vegetable, and mineral on earth, every planet in the solar system, every star in the galaxy, every galaxy in the universe -- all frozen at that specific instant. On the next floor up -- 387,293,817,678,624,456,880 -- you are there also, but the tiniest fraction of an instant later. Your lungs are starting to draw their first air, your mother has every so slightly started to smile, all the cars on the street have moved a tiny fraction of an inch, the planets have moved infinitesimally along in their orbits, the universe has expanded an eensy bit. Each subsequent floor higher is another slice in time further along in your life, and it continues further after you're gone.

You -- your conscious being, if you will -- move up through every floor and record some subset of the state of the universe. As a newborn you record pretty much nothing. Later on you gather more but still only a subset of the things that affect your senses. Upon recording it you move up to the next floor. The only information you carry from floor to floor is what you recorded. This is memory. You have no idea you are on a different floor, or even that there is a building. All there is is what you recorded from the previous floor(s) and what is there now. Lather, rinse, repeat for your whole life.

The only reason we have our concept of time is that you can only go up to the next floor. There is no down button on the elevator. The question that greatly bothers theoretical physicists is Why? What stops you from going back down? Pretty much everything else in the universe is reversible -- up/down, faster/slower, more/less. Not time.

If my reading of this is correct, the reason you can't go back is something called Entropy. We seem to have a law of the universe that states entropy must always increase. The real world image that is usually tossed out at this point is that you can't unscramble an egg. Carroll uses the image of a box separated by a partition into two sections with a small passageway between. Fill one side with gas, and eventually the gas will flow through the partition such that there is rough and even amount on either side. You would never observe a situation where both sides were filled and suddenly all the gas just darted over to one side. One side full is low Entropy, both filled is high Entropy. The world only works in one way, lower to higher.

Fair enough, but then Carroll starts poking holes in this idea. For example, there is nothing in the realm of physical laws that prevents the random motions of molecules on the gas to all just happen to move into one side of the box. It is just so extraordinarily unlikely that we call it "never." And there are more serious problems, such as the fact that while there is near uniform agreement among cosmologists that Entropy only gets higher, the early universe started with high entropy and then somehow got itself in a very low state around the time of the big bang. So it would seem that at some point early on traffic was running backwards on our low-to-high Entropy one way street.

At this point we encounter major wackness. That is not only because it gets harder and harder for a hopelessly Newtonian mind to picture the models described, but also because, as I mentioned, these guys aren't terribly sure of what they are talking about. To his credit, Carroll is quite clear on that, and emphasizes when he is on a topic that most cosmologists are in sync versus when he is wandering off the reservation versus when nobody has any clue.

Why does this get so hard to understand? Well, part of the reason is that physicists have a great deal of difficulty accepting that the universe just may be something special, something astronomically unlikely. We end up with weirder and weirder ideas just to make it look like our universe was likely (or at least not unlikely) by some standard. We have to make it into something that was expected to happen. So we end up with things like Dark Energy and Dark Matter and String Theory and Inflation, none of which have much of a corollary to common experience and little hope of experimental verification. It almost seems like when they run into a hole in their expectations, they just invent some concept that will plug it up, then give it a catchy name. The whole endeavor is the equivalent of some bankrupt gambler looking for a reason the roulette wheel landed on double zero. On the other hand, that's what a model is, isn't it? Something that fits expectations so you live with it until something proves it wrong or a more accurate model comes along. That's how science works.

I've spent more time on content than I should have. From a reader's perspective Carroll is the bee's knees when it comes to lucid explanations. His descriptions work especially well if you are already versed in the usually analogies drawn to describe these phenomena that you might get from a Discovery Channel documentary. He approaches them from a different angle, helping to reinforce ideas that are generally non-intuitive. For instance he starts with what existence is like now and identifies how it breaks down under scrutiny and the subsequent work done to repair it, whereas most narratives would start with the Big Bang and simply work forward chronologically. More importantly, he injects just the right amount of history and biography. His prose a clear, precise, and good humored. He's not lecturing so much as chatting with you over coffee.

Should you read From Eternity to Here? If you are interested in these topics, then certainly. It is a terrific popularization of cosmology; the best I've read, although my readings aren't remotely exhaustive. But don't take it lightly. There is a good deal of substance here and it will require brain-in-vice level abstract thinking for a mere mortal to really get a grip on it. Even then, you probably won't truly get it. Just like women, taxes, and Jersey Shore.

[TV] Tube Notes

Tube Notes: Justified is awfully fun. It is entertaining as hell, to be expected not just because it is based on Elmore Leonard stories, but because they have managed to catch to slick, tongue-in-cheekiness that Leonard brings to his books. The new season start on Feb 9th and I have been catching up the first.

Each episode contains a reed thin plotted mystery just like every detective show since time immemorial. They aren't bad. The casting is sharp and the understated white-trash southern vibe (Eastern Kentucky) and poetic redneck wit is a nice contrast to the usual slick, citified settings. But these are throwaway stories. The season long arc is much better. We follow a group of characters from a small cracker town, most are crooked, most are stupid, one is a U.S. Marshall, and all damaged, with lifelong conflicts and connections to fight over. It's in this realm that Justified is a cut above.

If I had to prognosticate I might put this show in a category with House. It's attached to its genre by thoughtless glad-handing and barely noticeable case-of-the-week back stories. The personalities and character arcs are the meat of the show. That's cool. Justified has the benefit of having more powerful characters, not just the single lead that everything depends on.

There is serious acting horsepower here, even in the secondary characters and guests, but Walton Goggins is dead on scary perfect as Boyd Crowder. Someone should hand him an Emmy. I'm as much looking forward to this next season as I am not enjoying the current season of the now fully neutered House.

The other find is Showtime's new comedy Episodes. The creators of a hit British sitcom, a married couple with Nick and Nora Charles like wit, hop the pond and get involved with adapting their sitcom for the U.S. Their sitcom centered around a sophisticated, erudite headmaster at a hoity-toity boarding school, and featured a storied old stage actor as the lead. To their horror, in the hands of the U.S. executives, it ends up turning into a sitcom about a hockey coach called Pucks! and stars Matt LeBlanc (playing himself). Much of the humor stems from the culture clash and satirization of the superficial Hollywood types, but there is some good chemistry going as Matt LeBlanc becomes a bad influence on the husband and a maddening influence on the wife who is occasionally attracted to him, but mostly repulsed. Let me just say I had no idea that LeBlanc was could be so dry. He was clearly underutilized in Friends. Check it out.

One last note. Daniel Mendelsohn is not a great admirer of Mad Men, and as an admirer of contrarian points of view I applaud him. Interestingly, he finds many of the same flaws I have written about over the years, but for him it puts Mad men into the negative, for me it just keeps Mad Men out of the pantheon. I still greatly admire the portrait that has been painted of Don Draper, he thinks the shortcomings swamp the insights. Pay special attention to his ending comments about the show's angle on children -- that is a sharp and, for me, especially accurate insight.

[Health and Fitness] Stanky Yoga

Stanky Yoga: I should do yoga. I know this. My flexibility is bad. My attention span short. My karma is in the toilet. The problem I have with yoga, apart from being terrible at it, is that it is boring beyond belief. At the moment, I am now four hours into waiting for the cable guy to finish my installation in a house with no TV, no internet, no books, no music. That's comparable to how bored I get from yoga.

But I keep trying because I know it's good for me. For a while I was doing something called Russoyog, which is yoga done with ropes as a prop to increase the intensity of some of the movements. It was good for a while, but like every other form of yoga I have taken, after a four or five classes I find myself staring at the clock or thinking of my to-do list or singing songs in my head to pass the time (mostly classic rock). Do you suppose they'd mind if broke out a pack of cards to play solitaire while in downward dog? Anyway, in my search for something more simulating I decided to take a Bikram class. And I nearly died.

Bikram is the famous hot yoga. They crank up the temperature to something in the area of 105 and then put you though an hour and a half of contortions. I am, I believe, very physically fit. Two hour workouts are typical for me. A yoga class, whatever the flavor, is not something for me to be overly concerned about , I thought. But let me say there is nothing -- NOTHING -- that can prepare you for the heat and the smell.

You can imagine the smell -- no wait...maybe you can't. But just think a of room where hundreds of people perspire by the quart every day for months, then crank the heat and humidity up to rainforest levels. Or better yet, think of cheese wrapped in wet jock strap left in an public restroom in Nigeria during a week-long heat wave. I know people who cannot even abide getting near the room, never mind spending an hour and a half in there adding your personal body fluids to the mix.

Even if you can get past the stank (which in reality you cease to notice after a few minutes), you will find yourself standing in a 105 degree room. Now, as I said, I am no stranger to strenuous physical activities, and I have been in some exceptionally hot settings -- 95/95 summer days in South Florida, the Sonoran Desert in August -- but rarely have I combined the two. It is absolutely devastating.

Bikram Yoga is exactly the same from class to class and location to location. There are 27 poses, all done in each class, in the same order, often with similarly worded instructions. No surprises. Walk into a class anywhere in the world and you know what to expect. Kind of like McDonald's. The first half of the class is dominated by standing poses, the second half by floor work. To my unsophisticated eye, there appears to be strong emphasis on back bending and spine flexibility.

In a normal room, I would have worked up a mild sweat by the end of the standing work and probably pretty close to fully recovered by the end of the floor work. With the heat, I was drenched in sweat and breathing heavy by the third pose. I didn't catch my breath until the floor work, and never stopped sweating. I bet I lost at half a gallon of water weight over the course of the class. The beach towel I brought was completely soaked through. Yes, it's gross.

Now, I am not a spiritual person. The new age serenity and peace that are said to go hand in hand with yoga are quite beyond me. I have primarily treated yoga as a path to better flexibility and perhaps a certain amount of sinewy type of strength so I am not qualified to discuss Bikram as a path to enlightenment or bliss. But I cannot imagine coming out a of Bikram class anything less than exhausted. That makes it a useful option to have in your workout palette. The older I get the longer it takes for my muscles to recover, but using Bikram I can still hit myself with a hard workout without added muscle trauma. In a sense, it's like swimming -- it kicks up your metabolism and burns calories but minimizes muscle contraction (focusing on expansion) and requires zero impact.

If there is a Bikram studio near you I recommend you give it a shot. Even if you are an experienced yoga practitioner, it's not what you're used to. To prep you: bring two full sized towels, one to cover your mat which will get soaked and one dry off with afterwards; you'll want at least one and probably two bottles of water for hydration; wear the coolest possible clothes -- men typically go shirtless, women often wear bikini tops, everyone is in short pants -- and by the way, the lights are up and there is no music.

Like I said, it's not what you expect and I don't think anything can prepare you for it. Get ready to be overwhelmed on your first visit. I honestly felt close to passing out. I must say it's held my interest better than other classes. I might even get to double digits before boredom overtakes me.

[House and Home] House Gripes

House Gripes: This month's list of observations on home ownership.
  • 65" plasma TVs are heavy. The good news is that a thief could not get far with a hernia (ha ha, robbers).
  • I seem to be the only one that thinks "Wi-fi ready" and "adaptor not included" are contradictory.
  • Recessed 15-foot-high swiveling flood lights are the product of a stunted, disturbed, or outright evil intellect. Maybe all three.
  • A snow blower is a divine device; earthly evidence of God.
  • There is no such thing as a usable furniture search engine. (I hereby copyright this idea. Email me for licensing terms.)
  • Box elder bugs deserve extinction. You heard me. Extinction!
  • Dining room sets are too expensive. (Yes, I have actually given considerable thought to dining room sets. Just shoot me.)
  • Ladders are too expensive. (See above re: flood lights.)
  • Property taxes are too expensive.
  • Everything is too expensive.