Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gagging Mr Spock

ivicia from rpg.net asks

How to approach fixing the burden of bad experience that fills you with stress and makes you avoidant ,
its irrational so its very problematic.

Im up for any practical, philosophical, or metaphorical advice you can share.

Thank you. 

I hate Mr. Spock. I know, I know, it's nerd heresy, but despite the fact that he's cool, and funny, and heroic, that's how I feel. See, Mr. Spock says emotions are illogical, and that offends me. Not as a romantic, or a humanist, but as a logician. Logic doesn't work like that.

The only thing logic can do is preserve the truth value of arguments. This can be very powerful, but it is also limited. Logic cannot tell you what goals are worth pursuing, what facts are true, or what values are worth having (unless, of course, any of those things contradicts established truth).

In a broader sense, this is true of rationality as well. It can tell you the best course of action, but only you can define what "best" actually means. Your feelings are not irrational, they're pre-rational. They are not conclusions, they are premises. And treating them like premises will give you enormous power.

Take the true statement "Mt Everest is very tall." What is the logical conclusion we can draw from this fact? Trick question - it depends entirely on our additional premises. Consider the difference in the following arguments:

Mt Everest is very tall
I want to climb Mt Everest
Therefor I should gather equipment and assistance


Mt Everest is very tall
I hate climbing
Therefor I should choose a new destination for my vacation

In each case, the meaning of the first premise is defined by the context provided by the second. In the first argument, "Mt Everest is very tall" is an obstacle in the second, it is a warning.

What is your second premise? Because if all you want to do is minimize stress, then your feelings are a warning, and nothing to be ashamed of. Avoiding things that cause you stress is a rational reaction. In fact, people do it all the time. It's the reason I don't hang out with drug addicts and only drive my car when I have somewhere I absolutely need to be. Cutting yourself off from things that make you unhappy can be a very mature response.

I'm guessing, though, that you have other goals, and that your stress is stopping you from doing things that you want to do. In that case, remember - your stress is an obstacle, and obstacles can be overcome. Which is not to say that you can charge through on pure willpower, but rather, that you can plan around it. You can seek the assistance of friends, family, or professional counselors. You wouldn't climb Everest without a Sherpa guide, you don't need to confront your stress alone.

On a more practical note, I find what helps me is to remember that people can only see the outside, and that if I can force my body to go through the motions, that can be good enough. If something needs doing, it doesn't matter if I'm cool or suave or sexy while I'm doing it. I'm not James Bond, I don't get extra points for sang froid.

Whatever you do - don't beat yourself up for having feelings. You inhabit a body whose internal meat computer is programmed to register distress when it is reminded of previous bad experience. This is not something you can change. It is a value-neutral fact about the world. So save your rationality for where it might do some good - in formulating your response.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

To Geek or not to Geek

Here's a letter from rpg.net's Radiant Song

Can you please recommend well-written and engagingly characterized novels, especially in science fiction, fantasy, or horror, that cite genuine philosophers as the characters explore ways of coping with existential angst?

In other words, I'm looking for genre novels that might make me feel better over being alive despite my life being meaningless and without strategic value. 

This question was a bit tricky, because while I could do some online research to find works which match your criteria (Stanislaw Lem seems to come up a lot, btw), I wouldn't really be able to vouch for the quality of those books. Thus, in the interest of honesty, I will restrict myself to books I've actually read.

Unfortunately, the pickings there are slim. The problem is that while there is a lot of overlap between philosophy and the themes of genre fiction (for example, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is heavily indebted to philosophical modernism), there is relatively little direct cross-pollination (for example, Renee Descartes is not mentioned once in the entire Matrix trilogy).

The only thing I can think of which exactly matches your specifications is the fiction of Albert Camus. Though they are more interested in establishing the limits of existentialism than in coming up with any concrete answers, some of his works do feature genre elements (No Exit is set in hell, for instance). If you're really interested in the intersection between popular fiction and philosophy, it might be better to come at it from the other side. I've found the Pop Culture and Philosophy series to mostly tread the line between lay-accessible, but not dumbed-down philosophy, and sheer geekery with admirable aplomb. In particular, I think you might enjoy the essay in Star Wars and Philosophy where Yoda and Emperor Palpatine are compared to the ideal stoic sage.

However, if you'll permit me to address the why instead of the what of your question, I can offer some (admittedly vague) advice. The quest for meaning is deeply personal, and philosophy, in general, is not especially helpful in the pursuit. The key is to find what inspires you, what gives you joy and hope, and to go after it with passion and fortitude. If a work lacks that spark, it doesn't matter how philosophical it is, it's not going to do you any good.

I'm thinking, specifically, of something like Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy's tale of utopian communism, which, depending on your political views, might be either an optimistic and inspiring look at the future, or a naive oversimplification of complex economic problems (I think it's probably both, though, regardless of your politics, it's certainly worth a read purely to see what an educated 19th century man thought the year 2000 might look like).

With that caveat in mind, I can recommend two books I've read in the last year which, while not directly citing historical philosophers, nonetheless dealt with philosophical themes in a way I found personally moving.

The first is A Door Into Ocean, a novel which deals with the conflict between a pacifist and militaristic society, and explores the implications of nonviolent resistance, humanity's interaction with the environment, and the individual's relationship to death and suffering. In addition, it does some unique things with biotech, and the author has a great eye for detailed world-building.

The second is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a time travel story about the nature of regret. Its themes of predestination, thwarted ambition, and creeping middle age are probably more resonant with me than they would be with someone just the slightest bit younger or older, but the end is hopeful, even if the main character's problems are not entirely solved.

But beyond those specific suggestions, I think what will help you most is the quest itself. So don't stop looking, and maybe, one day, you'll look back and realize that the search for meaning was the meaning you were searching for.

Gangsta Love

Here's a letter from Boco, via rpg.net:

I am writing a short story in which the characters go on a series of increasingly ill-advised, illegal, and potentially dangerous dates, starting with breaking into a Build-a-Bear Workshop after hours and culminating in a bank robbery that goes south. I want about three other dates in between those to casually mention and not really dwell on in detail. What are your suggestions? 

There's not a whole lot of room between breaking and entering and bank robbery, so if you want a steady escalation, you might want to start a little lower on the crime scale, but if you don't mind an uneven progression, I do have some ideas.

The danger and ill-advisedness of these dates need not be directly tied to their illegality. You could have the danger be due to the terrain, as with a case of romantic vandalism where your characters might have to climb a public monument to spraypaint their message of love near the top. Alternately, the danger could come from other criminals. Gambling in an underground casino, or even playing on a playground after hours (when the park is taken over by drug dealers, prostitutes, and their customers) both present certain risks.

Finally, if your characters are psychopathic enough to go for it, even the most mundane and domestic activities can be ill-advised and dangerous if done as part of a home invasion. Snuggling on the couch, making fajitas from leftover chicken, or dancing to a romantic song on the radio are downright creepy if you have a family of hostages tied up in the other room (and, if you're going for something a little more innocent, they are still pretty damned criminal if the homeowners are away on vacation).

I hope that helped, and good luck with your story.

Tragedy is When I Cut my Finger

Here's one from rpg.net's Donald K:

Okay, I was trying to drill some (nice) holes in the floor and ceiling. I was going to, you know, put some... like, trim or something on the holes, so they look nice. Then I was going to thread some ethernet cords and stuff in there, so I could get internet upstairs.

Anyway, while I was drilling through the floor, I drilled into a man who'd moved into the floor between the ground floor and the second floor.

So can you help me with any of this stuff? I mean, I don't know what to put around the holes so they look nice, and I'm not really sure what kind of router or cords I want, or if I can even plug them into the PC upstairs, and man, I feel like I really shouldn't be held responsible for the guy in the floor, since there really wasn't any way I could have known he was there beforehand. I kind of think I should just be able to leave him there, but I don't want to get, like, arrested for that. That would really suck.

Also, I think I might have hit a pipe and maybe some electrical stuff when I tried drilling a different hole. There's some water dripping onto the floor, and I got a bit of an electric shock. Know anything about that?

I'm honestly having some trouble visualizing your situation. Someone was living between the ground and second floor of your house? Do you mean the first floor, or are you going with the American convention, and this man was living in-between the floor and ceiling? If it's the first case, there's nothing you can do. The landlord will notice eventually and the police are very good at building a case even from trace amounts of blood.

If it's the second, then what you should do is report this incident to the authorities. Living inside someone's floor is so strange that they're sure to believe you when you tell them it was an accident, and you'll get in far less trouble for that then you would if you were caught covering it up.

As to your other problems, I don't think trying to decorate the holes is going to be very productive. They're holes, you know? Even on the best of days they're not going to be attractive. You'd be better off trying to conceal them. A decorative rug or screen might work best, but you might also consider getting a terracotta planting pot from a garden store and then running your cables through the holes in the bottom. The pot itself could then be filled with anything you think is interesting or pretty, like glass beads or artificial plants. You don't need to worry about your cord fitting your PC, because ethernet cables are standardized, so it's simply not possible to get the wrong kind.

Finally, hire a plumber and an electrician. The cost is annoying, I know, but water damage is no joke, and messing around with electricity when you don't know what you're doing is a sure fire way to get yourself hurt.

Friday, November 23, 2012

I'll Probably get Caned for this One

Another one from rpg.net, courtesy of AikiGhost:

Is it ok to cane your submissive till they use their safeword just because you want to take them past what they can handle? 

I went back and forth on this issue for quite some time. On the one hand, part of the submissive fantasy is being out of control, and possibly going past what you can handle. Furthermore, the whole reason you have a safeword in the first place is to put a stop to something that is going too far. On the other hand, just because you're submissive doesn't mean you automatically consent to everything your dom tries to do to you, and if you've already established and negotiated a certain pattern of interaction, then suddenly and unilaterally changing the rules might feel like a betrayal, even if the safeword is uttered.

So, on the balance, I wouldn't. What you should do instead is talk to your partner. I know it doesn't seem as sexy or dominant to do it that way, but presumably, this person you're caning is someone you care about, and the trust you've established in your relationship is far too important to risk. The fact is that there are only a limited number of reasons not to discuss this in advance.

Either you are too embarrassed to admit your true desires, which seems unlikely to me, and in any event unnecessary (seriously, this person is letting you cane them, I doubt that there is much that would shock them). Or you really want to do this, and you're afraid your partner won't go for it, in which case the need to talk is doubly important (the "it is better to ask forgiveness than beg permission" philosophy does not apply to sexual activities - even when dominance play is involved.)

Or, you might sincerely believe that not asking first will make it better for your partner. I can't say that you're wrong about this, because it certainly seems plausible to me and you would know your partner best, but even under this best case scenario, you're still not letting your partner decide for themselves, and that can be infantilizing. Your partner is an adult, and they deserve a chance to own their own sexual fantasies.

Nonetheless, if you do go ahead without talking about it, my advice would be to tread carefully. At the start of the session, warn your partner about your intent to push their limits and take your time ramping up the intensity. That way, if they discover they like it, they will feel like they had some collaborative stake in the experience, and if they don't like it, they will not feel as if you ambushed and trapped them into doing something they didn't want to do.

Above all, remember that the key to any grown-up relationship is mutual respect, and that being a submissive involves a massive amount of trust. It is your job as a responsible dom to be worthy of that trust.

Precious Cargo

This question comes from Giel M, via rpg.net:

What's the most efficient way to transport large amounts of beer on the back of a bicycle? 

That depends on what you mean by "large amounts" and what you mean by "efficient."  I am going to assume that you want some combination of maximizing speed and minimizing effort and risk of spillage.

Your method should vary depending on the amount of beer you want to transport. If we're talking about a single twenty-four pack of cans, it would probably be most efficient to remove the cans from the package and place them in a backpack. Depending on how much space was left in the backpack, you might want to fill any empty space with wadded up paper towels to keep the cans from shaking in transit.

For multiple cases, a cargo rack would be best. These are attached to the back of a bicycle, and when properly loaded, will not disrupt your center of balance. Just remember to securely fasten the beer (hint: if you think it's too tight, it's probably not), and to take into account your greater mass and lower agility when navigating.

 A cross-section of cargo racks.

If we're talking about a keg, you'll probably have to go with a trailer. These are not too expensive, about 100-200 USD, but I can't attest to how they affect the riding experience.


A Recipe for (Cashew-Based) Disaster

Here's a question from rpg.net's TonyC:

How do I process raw unshelled cashews (which is inedible, btw) into honey roasted cashews (which is yummy, btw)?

Also, exactly how long does it take you to search for the answer? 

After 14 minutes and 43 seconds of research, my recommendation is that you not do this, and instead just buy shelled cashews and save yourself the trouble. However, assuming you have your own cashew tree and don't want to waste the nuts, the process is not impossible to do at home, but is kind of complicated and may require specialized tools.

What you have to do is separate the kernels from the fruit, heat them over a fire so that the shell will become brittle, and the poisonous part will evaporate, extract the nut from the shell (this can be done with a hammer, or with a special tool if you want the nut to be whole), dry the nuts, apply a glaze, and then bake them in an oven.

Here are some links:

Initial processing: http://www.mixph.com/2010/10/homebased-cashew-nut-processing-business.html

Drying the nuts: http://www.healingnaturallybybee.com/recipes/recipe270.php

Honey roasting them:  http://www.simplyscratch.com/2010/08/honey-roasted-cashews.html

Fucking Magnets

My first question comes via d10, from the rpg.net forums:

How do magnets work? 

Observers of the physical world have long noticed the tendency of certain bits of matter to attract or repel each other. These tendencies are called the fundamental forces, and there are four of them. Why do they exist? Why are there four? Could things have been some other way? These are questions of fundamental ontology, and way beyond my ability to answer. I think Stephen Hawking may be working on it, but even if he comes up with a good explanation, it's going to be something that only a few people will be able to understand.

In the meantime, you'll have to be satisfied with the anthropic principle - the reason we find these questions interesting is the fact that we're able to ask them. Presumably, there are alternate hypothetical universes of undifferentiated goo or trans-galactic superbrains where they ask why there are zero or 27 fundamental forces, respectively.

But back to magnets. Of the four fundamental forces, we can safely ignore three of them and focus on electromagnetism. Electromagnetism is an extremely influential force, responsible as it is for most of what we call "reality." For example, have you ever noticed how you can't walk through walls? Electromagnetism is to blame.

As far as electromagnetism is concerned, we can divide everything up into two categories - charged particles and uncharged particles. Uncharged particles, we're not interested in. They are basically invisible to electromagnetism, and are instead influenced by those other forces I told you I was going to ignore.

Charged particles come in two varieties, Positive and Negative, although these names are pretty arbitrary, and they could easily have been the other way around. The important thing about charged particles is that opposites attract and like charges repel. So, a positive will stick to a negative, but two negatives will bounce off each other.

The reason this is important is that atoms are made up of charged particles (and also some uncharged particles that we're not interested in.) The creamy center of an atom (the nucleus) is positively charged, and the creamy exterior (the electrons) is negatively charged (quantum physics in general is pretty creamy). That, incidentally, is the reason you can't walk through walls. If you tried, your electrons would bounce off the wall's electrons (actually, it's even more complicated than that, but one thing at a time).

When it comes to magnets, the electrons are the important thing. Electrons are attracted to the nucleus of an atom, but - hoo boy, this is where I just want to say "fuck it, it's a miracle" - they've got too much energy to just touch, so instead, they orbit, except not really. An electron is more like a smear, where you can say it is probably in some general area, and this smear can be described, with very precise mathematics, as a wave (that's not something I'm going to attempt to do, but it can be done).

And here's where it gets weird - only certain waves are valid, (specifically, those with a wavelength that is an integer multiple of the space available, which doesn't really sound all that weird, but trust me, if you know anything about waves, it's kind of batshit) and since electrons repel each other that means that any given nucleus can only have a very specific number of electrons orbiting it. One way to think of it is that atoms have "equipment slots" and those slots can be, but don't have to be, filled with electrons.

Take a look at the periodic table of elements: http://www.ptable.com/ The shape of the table is not arbitrary. An element's location on the table can tell you about its electrons. All the elements in the same row have the same number of slots. All the ones in the same column have the same number of electrons in their outermost ring of slots (okay, it's more complicated than that, but I really don't want to get into it).

Where this becomes relevant to your original question is in the answer to the question you probably should have asked: "why isn't everything a magnet?" And that has to do with the way that atoms interact with each other. Basically, the universe is lazy, and generally prefers for things to be as unenergetic as possible. So, if two or more atoms get close to each other, and one atom has an open slot at a lower energy level, that atom will "steal" an electron from the other. Sometimes, this will result in two charged atoms that then go their separate ways, but other times, if the relative energy levels are right, the two atoms will share the electron instead.

This is kind of like having a crush on someone who's really popular, but only likes you as a friend. With enough of a push, they'll leave you behind, but all other things being equal, they'll drag you along to parties with a whole new clique. Your friends (ie the first atom's electrons) won't really mix with the new clique (ie the second atom's electrons) and you really don't like the one person in the clique who is also clearly crushing on your friend (ie the second atom's nucleus) so you spend most of the party trying to stay as far apart as possible while the popular person mingles with both cliques.

If you then add a third atom, two things happen. First, the metaphor becomes really strained, and second, the nuclei of all three atoms will try and stay as far apart as possible. So, your friends are avoiding their friend, you are avoiding them, and you are trying to stay as close to your friends as possible. Yet, maybe this third group is less objectionable than the second, so you'd be willing to stand a little closer just to put more distance between yourself and group 2.

The net result of this is that groups of atoms have different shapes, depending on the particular configuration of electron energy levels and the relative size of the nuclei. One of those shapes, present naturally only in certain metals (iron, nickel, and cobalt to be exact), is a line. When the atoms line up in this way, there is a stable difference in charge between one end of the line and the other, and this charge difference creates potential energy. When you add new atoms of the appropriate type into the mix, that potential energy will allow the larger group to bully the newcomers into lining up too, and this is experienced as either an attraction or a repulsion, depending on the orientation of the magnets involved.

Incidentally, if the magnetic field becomes strong enough, it becomes capable of forcing just about any sort of atom to play along: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1vyB-O5i6E

I hope that answers your question, and I really hope that any physicists reading this forgive me for how much I left out and/or oversimplified.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Die is Cast

Hello all. My name is John Frazer, and I have an embarrassing confession to make. When I was in college, it was my dream to become a universal genius, like a modern day Leibniz or Aristotle . . . that did not work out. I wound up taking a double course load and still only barely squeaking by with a degree in mathematics. By the time I graduated, I was too burned out to even contemplate grad school, and as a result, I am now severely underemployed in the hotel industry.

And somehow, I think all of the above qualifies me to offer you my advice. I started this blog to answer questions. All sorts of questions. No subject is off limits, and no topic is too taboo. I may not be an expert in multiple fields, but I am an initiate in the art of finding answers and oversimplifying complex subjects so that they appear easy to understand.

So, if you have some burning curiosity, pressing ethical quandary, or insane hypothetical, ask away. I'm just arrogant enough to think I might be able to help.