Thursday, October 28, 2010

To the Sky

by Conroy

Mount Kilimanjaro - rising like Olympus above the Serengeti
I've become obsessed with height, with high places, and with going higher. Just a few weeks ago I was in Boise, Idaho (elevation 2,700 feet). I was attending my cousin's wedding and had a free day so I went with a few others to hike in Bogus Basin, a mountain area about sixteen miles (and 40 minutes along a serpentine road) northeast of the city. We climbed to the top of the Basin (elevation 7,600 feet). I realized that this is as high as I had been since visiting Colorado in 1995 (not counting pressurized plane cabins). I live near Baltimore, just a few hundred feet above sea level - the highest point in Maryland is less than 3,400 feet in elevation.

When I was in Colorado I spent time in the Rockies and probably reached elevations as high as 10,000 feet, but no higher. Next year I plan to visit my aunt and uncle who now have a home in Colorado and hike to the top of a 14er (there are more than 50 summits in Colorado over 14,000 feet in elevation). After that, I'm going to climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (elevation 19,400). I had some pie in the sky (mind the pun) idea of climbing Mount Everest (elevation 29,029 feet) one day, but Jon Krakauer's excellent book Into Thin Air changed my mind. The idea of depriving my brain of oxygen for an extended period of time, exposing my self to crippling frostbite, and living in a tent for weeks (or months) is too unappealing. I am going to climb Kilimanjaro, though.

Why do I want to go ever higher, climbing these mountains? I'll give you a very male answer - because they're there.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Electronic Reading

by The Man

A friend recently bought me a Kindle 3G, the latest generation, so over the last week I've been busy loading it up with books, playing with the Kindle iPhone app with which it syncs, and shopping for a carry case and night light, which I bought tonight. Basically, I've been getting to know my Kindle. Now, I have no intention of writing a product review here, but I do think a couple of things are interesting about this electronic reader—things that are applicable to electronic readers in general—and worth writing about. To start with a few positive things, it's wonderful to be able to highlight text without having to worry about "ruining" the book, it's fun to be able to scroll through the text that you've highlighted (this is easier to do on the iPhone), and I think it's amazing that it's possible to do a word search across all of one's electronic books—it's like having a search engine for your own private library. It's no longer necessary to have to walk around looking for the right book, search through the index, etc. With the Kindle, I was able for instance to do a search for "anthropic principle" and find in just a few seconds the relevant sections of several books that addressed this subject. This is an immensely powerful tool, and it is aided by the fact that if, due to a sudden but overwhelming curiosity, you are studying a particular subject and wish to read a book that addresses it, you can rapidly obtain the book while your interest is still "hot," taking advantage of your motivation before it fades.

On other hand, I was struck by how confining the Kindle is when compared to a physical book. With the latter, one can very rapidly flip through pages—not just one at a time, but many at once. The Kindle also enables one to find one's way in a book quickly, and perhaps I simply haven't mastered its navigation system yet. There will undoubtedly be a technological solution that will enable electronic books to equal and probably surpass the ease with which one can maneuver through a physical book. But it isn't there yet, and I am more impressed by this aspect of physical books than before I used an electronic one. I also think there is an aesthetic aspect to books, having to do with their color, size, and weight, that I hadn't fully appreciated before. And I'm not talking about the status feature of possessing a book collection, which is a feature of physical books that a number of people have mentioned to me: "Now you won't be able to show off your collection." Well, I frankly think that's a bit shallow. Those who do possess such collections, however, will struggle with certain "Schumpteerian" anxieties, as the new technology diminishes the value of the old. What value is that old collection of music CDs when you have all your favorite songs stored in iTunes? I even found myself purchasing a book that I already have a physical copy of, just because I know how much I love having it with me. The problem of sharing is a real. My wife doesn't have a Kindle, but there's a book we would both like to read. If I get it electronically, my wife won't be able to read it (there's no way I'm "loaning" my Kindle to her just so she can read this book). But I think this problem will be solved, in the same way that Apple has enabled sharing of songs on iTunes.

By the way, Amazon has an incentive to solve that problem. If I'm selling something, I want to make it as easy as possible for people to buy. That also means eliminating or otherwise weakening any impediments to buying. So, if I hesitate to buy a book because I know I won't be able to share it, that's potentially a lost sale. There's another side to this, of course, which is that Amazon doesn't want me to buy the book and then make copies and distribute them to all of my friends: that may reduce sales. But couples and families are slightly different, because they tend to make purchases as a unit. So, it's a tricky business, but, again, I think there is a solution. Electronic books will continue to improve in quality, come down in price, and eventually they will eclipse the old-fashioned paper book.

This last point reminds me of something I've heard a number of people say, and which I think may be a very common misconception: fewer paper books, the argument goes, will mean fewer trees are cut down, and therefore electronic books are good for the environment. This argument isn't in the least bit compelling. Consider the elementary point that when the demand for a resource falls, other things being equal, the supply will also fall. Therefore, to the extent that the demand for trees is determined by the demand for paper, as the demand for paper falls so will the supply of trees. Yes, trees have an important ecological role to play, but the benefits flowing from that role are widely shared and so market forces will most likely supply too few trees for ecological purposes. That's all the more reason to be glad that there exist market goods, such as books and wood products generally, that require (for the time being, anyway) trees.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Neither Awake nor Asleep

by Conroy

Man sleeping...peacefully?
A couple of nights ago I had a terrifying experience. I was lying in bed drifting off to sleep. As consciousness was slipping away I suddenly became aware that I was falling asleep. My spontaneous reaction to this realization was to move my left arm, but to my arm didn't move. I tried again with the same result, no movement! I tried my right arm, and my legs...still nothing! I began to panic, I knew I wasn't paralyzed, I just needed to fully wake. I told myself to keep trying, keep trying, I could move...

Finally, after what seemed a long time, but was probably no more than a few seconds, my arms bolted from under to covers, I was awake and mercifully mobile.

This wasn't a dream, not in the normal sense anyway. I knew I was in my bedroom, I could see my room, I just couldn't move. This eerie state of semi-consciousness is something that I've experienced before, perhaps once a year since I became an adult. It has a clinical name, hypnagogia, and as I think my story conveys, it's a disconcerting experience. On other occasions when I've suffered these episodes, I have been convinced that "something" was in my room, that my legs were suspended above my bed, and like this most recent occurrence, that I was paralyzed. Often these sensations were accompanied by a confusing rush of sound. In all instances, once I regained consciousness (I won't say once I awoke, because, I guess technically I was awake, or at least not asleep) I am lucid, aware of my surroundings (always my bedroom, and always when I'm alone), but with a very strong memory of the event. It's nothing like a dream that fades upon waking.

Hypnagogia seems to occur at least once to a large percentage of people and chronically to a small percentage. It can be accompanied by dreaming and sleep paralysis, clearly symptoms I've experienced. I often dream immediately after falling asleep and during even very short naps, which is not consistent with the normal REM sleep / dreaming cycle. Perhaps my hypnagogic experiences are when my dreaming starts even before I sleep. Is this a possible explanation?

I would support the argument that the absurd claims of "visions", "hauntings", or "alien abductions" are all specious manifestations of this biological phenomena. I can attest that it sure felt like there was a "presence" in my room during one of my episodes, but wakefulness revealed a relieved solitude. Maybe others are more unsettled by these occurrences or maybe their experiences are more vivid. After all, why else would a normal-thinking person make the preposterous, laughable claim to have been visited by aliens?

Have you ever had a hypnagogic episode? What did you experience?


I know I don't sleep well, I often wake up multiple times at night, I sometimes have unpleasant dreams (rarely genuine nightmares). Hypnagogia may just be another symptom of my poor sleeping. Anecdotally, it seems that a great many people suffer from sleep problems. Why is this? I know I am productive and energetic when well rested. I can be taciturn and sluggish when chronically tired. How much more effective might we all be if we just slept better?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The End of World War II

by Conroy

As my readers will learn, I am something of an amateur World War II historian. It is my considered opinion, one that I share with more educated and experienced men, that the cataclysmic conflict was not only the overarching event of the last century, but perhaps the most significant calamity in human history. The world that existed before 1939 was irrevocably swept away and a new course established that has directly shaped the global community of the present.

Since the end of the War 65 years ago, it has been the subject of countless histories, biographies, novels, films, etc. Interest today is still keen. And in that vein, I want to praise the complementary works Armageddon and Retribution by British historian and journalist Max Hastings. These histories explore the final phase of the War in 1944-45 to defeat Germany and Japan, respectively. The books cover all aspects of the War's terminal period, which as the author powerfully evokes, was its bloodiest, most brutal phase. Hastings' writing is remarkably vivid and immediate, which is essential to the stories he tells. Hastings covers the war aims, political intricacies, and even broad military strategy clearly and succinctly, but doesn't linger over the grand individuals and larger strategic details that have been explored in so many other works. Instead, he focuses much of the narrative on the experiences of the common soldiers who had to fight the battles and the civilians whose lives were devastated. This approach yields two particularly effective histories, that go as far as any I've read of bringing the heartbreaking reality of the fighting to the modern reader.

The people of the United States, and to a lesser extent Great Britain, were spared the apocalyptic destruction that was faced by the people of Europe and Asia, and especially Germany and Japan. Armageddon and Retribution let Americans and Britons, or any modern reader that has the fortune to live in a (relatively) peaceful world, understand the plight of the civilians as the War tore to its ultimate conclusion.
Max Hastings

I will not burden the reader with a comprehensive list of the superlative passages or analysis contained in these works, but I've listed a few highlights below. I highly recommend these books to anyone interested in World War II, the realities of war, or the grim depths that humanity can sink to when the decency of society is abandoned.

Readers may be interested in:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Life on Another Planet?

by Conroy


Artist rendition of Gliese 581g. No one knows what it's really like.

Last week news came out about a new extrasolar or exo-planet - the sixth - orbiting the star Gliese 581. Accompanying the story of the discovery of the planet, dubbed Gliese 581g (the "a" through "f" suffixes had already been claimed by the previous five planets and the star itself), were speculations about the potential presence of life there. Based on the early calculations, Gliese 581g appears to fall within it's parent star's "habitable zone", the distance from the star where liquid water can exist on the planet's surface. It is widely believed that liquid water is the major prerequisite for life. Further, the planet's mass, diameter, density,and surface gravity all seem to be similar enough to Earth to support an atmosphere. The planet was discovered by a team led by astronomer Steven Vogt, a professor of astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. Vogt was so confident that the planet fit the criteria for life that he said the chances of life are "almost 100 percent."

100 percent?

Not 50 percent, 90 percent, or 99 percent, but 100 percent. Now how can Mr. Vogt be so sure? The planet is far too small and dim to be observed directly. The Gliese system is over 20 light years away. In fact, Gliese is such a dim star (a red dwarf) that it cannot be observed without a telescope. By comparison, an observer on Gliese 581g - maybe there are some right now - could easily see our sun with naked eyes. Lacking direct observation, the planet was discovered using one of the only techniques available, doppler spectroscopy. This approach utilizes careful computations of the star's movement to detect the gravitation pull of revolving satellites (planets). Other complimentary techniques can be used to estimate the orbital distance and mass of the planet. Most exo-planets have been discovered using this approach. That said, "planet hunting" is a relatively new (and let's admit, pretty amazing) project in astronomy and the discovery techniques are still being refined. In fact, there have been previous claims of life-sustaining planets orbiting Gliese 581, see Gliese 581c. More detailed analysis indicated the Gliese 581c was not a good candidate for Earth-like life. Prudence demands additional observations and analysis before judgment is made about Gliese 581g's suitability for advanced life.

To that point. In order to be within Gliese 581's habitable zone, Gliese 581g has to be very close to the star (red dwarfs radiate way less energy then stars like our yellow sun), 14 million miles away or so according to preliminary calculations (the Earth is 93 million miles from the Sun). Being so close, Gliese 581g is likely tidally locked to its parent star, meaning one side always faces the star and one side always faces away (the Moon is tidally locked to Earth). As a result one side of the planet would be exposed to blazing sun and the other to deep cold. Vogt has suggested that life could proposer in the "twilight zone" along the planets perpetual sunrise/sunset horizon. Perhaps atmospheric conditions could allow adequate heat transfer from the hot sunny side to the cold dark side. Perhaps. But tidal locking seems like a bad condition for a planet that hopes to support complex life (see more below). It's equally (or more) possible that all of the water on the planet - if there is any - is frozen in ice on the dark side and not available in liquid form at all.

Speculation about life on a single planet is one thing (literally), but generalizations about the prevalence of life in the galaxy is quite another. Mr. Vogt has postulated that the potential for life within the Gliese 581 system, a star that is so close to Earth (only 116 stars are closer), and one of the first systems where planets have actually been searched for, may mean there is a hyper-abundance of Earth-like, life-sustaining planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Vogt suggested that 10 or 20 percent of stars could have Earth-like planets. Considering that there are as many as 400 billion stars in the galaxy, that could mean tens of billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. An astounding number, and one that would suggest that life could be common in our part of the universe.

Okay, that's one position. Call me a skeptic, but I remain unconvinced. There may be a great number of Earth-like, life-filled planets out there, but I think one must consider the myriad elements that allowed life (as we understand it) to develop and flourish on Earth before we gift other planets that distinction. The Earth, our blue marble, benefits from the following amazing confluence of phenomena:

Earth. The blue marble.
  1. Earth and the solar system are located in an outer band of the Milky Way galaxy away from other stars, gamma ray generators, and the galactic center where energy densities and radiation are inimical to life.
  2. Earth revolves around a stable, main-sequence star that has been burning for billions of years and will continue to burn for billions more, allowing life the time to develop and evolve. Further, the Sun doesn't emit gamma rays or x-rays in bursts that could jeopardize life on orbiting planets.
  3. Earth sits right in the center of the Sun's habitable zone, so liquid water can exist in the surface. The Sun's habitable zone has been extremely stable over time.
  4. Earth's orbit is far enough inside the big planets, especially Jupiter and Saturn, that the planet's formation was not disrupted by their massive gravities, while at the same time these planets act as a gravitational "shield" that attract potential planetary (and life) threatening asteroids, comets, etc. from deep space.
  5. Earth's orbit is far enough from the Sun to maintain planetary axial rotation (i.e. no tidal locking).
  6. Earth has a small enough mass and density to be rocky, i.e. have a surface for life to grow on.
  7. Earth has a large enough mass and density to (1) sustain an atmosphere and (2) maintain a geologically active metallic core, which supports plate tectonics and a planet-shielding magnetic field.
  8. Earth has a nearly circular orbit, which results in relatively consistent solar radiation reaching the planet as it revolves around the sun.
  9. Earth's axis is inclined just the right amount to promote seasons and overall higher temperature but avoid conditions where some of the planet is always facing the sun and some is always facing away (think of the heavily inclined axis of Uranus).
  10. Earth has a relatively consistent axial tilt due to the stabilizing effects of the Moon's gravity.
  11. Earth has significant tides, which may promote life through mixing of water and air, because of the proximity and size of the moon. The Moon may have formed from a freak massive collision of a small planet with the proto-Earth.
  12. Earth has a high abundance of life-supporting elements (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen). Earth's crust has a substantially higher proportion of oxygen than the universe in general. The oxygen may have been delivered by early random comet/asteroid impacts (or through the collision with the small planet that resulted in the Earth-Moon system).
Consider the chance and specificity of each of these elements. What are the odds that other planets will have the same congruence of elements? Maybe life-supporting planets, and by extension life is common throughout the galaxy. Or maybe Earths are very rare and special.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Top 250 - Debut

by Conroy

Well it's time for the unveiling of my eagerly anticipated Top 250 songs list. I consider this to be one of the most definitive rankings of songs...wait a minute Conroy, you're thinking, are you trying to pull a fast one on us? Is this really what your post is about? Top 250 songs, whatever that is? What do I care about your Top 250 songs? Maybe I'll surf to another page...but I say wait...before you go, understand that this list will be interesting regardless of your enjoyment, or even knowledge, of the songs I have included.

It's actually not a new list, I first put it together nine years ago when I was still an undergrad, at that time a ranked Top 100 list. Since then it has been revised dozens of times. The current Top 250, which also includes a ranked Top 100, represents my very favorite of a collection of nearly 6,000 songs (just more than 4 percent of the total collection). The nine years of refinement has resulted in a tight yet eclectic mix spanning the last fifty years (and seven decades) of popular music. I'm sharing it here because the best part of music is the experience of shared listening, discovering, and discussion. Listening to music with a few friends is always better than alone in your car. A concert is always more fun than a pair of iPod earbuds.

I won't write too much more, I'll let the list speak - or play - for itself (I've included links to listen to some tracks). I hope, and really I'm certain, my readers will find at least some of the artists and songs featured to be of interest. A few stats:
  • 157 artists are represented on the list
  • 39 artists have multiple songs on the list led by Rilo Kiley (10), Weezer (9), Bruce Springsteen (8), Pulp (8), Radiohead (8), Oasis (7), U2 (6), The Beatles (5), and Death Cab for Cutie (5)
  • In addition, Rilo Kiley has the most songs ranked in the Top 100 (5), followed by Bruce Springsteen, Pulp, Radiohead, and Weezer, all with four apiece
  • The songs per decade breakdown: 50s - 2; 60s - 9; 70s - 15; 80s - 56; 90s - 88; 00s - 79; and 10s -1
Without further ado, the Top 250...