A Touch of Gray

The entire purpose of The Parallax Machine is to get its five and a half readers to think more in shades of gray versus black and white. Of course, anybody still reading this blog probably already understands that concept, but in the (increasingly likely) event that humanity collectively poops the mattress, I’m recording this for whatever alien civilization digs us up and wonders what the hell happened. One of the things most certainly likely to be our downfall is our inexplicable affinity for polarization, for black and white, for on or off, for the love of God.

As with many things recently, the public dialogue about COVID-19 and vaccines has superbly demonstrated our shortcomings in this regard. Anti-vaxxers are constantly regurgitating things along the lines of “if you can get COVID even if you’re vaccinated, why get vaccinated?” Or the classic “if you’re vaccinated and I’m not, why should you care since you’re protected?” And who can forget the ground-breaking “I won’t get a vaccine because I don’t trust it, but I’m perfectly fine with taking an experimental medication once I get COVID”.

The concept of gray – also known as probability – is not new even to the anti-vaxxers among us. Most of us watch baseball enough to understand the batting average, and while “batting a thousand” is a fairly well-known catch phrase, none of us ever see it in practice, precisely because life is not black and white. If the local weather forecast says there is a fifty percent chance of rain, most of us can at least get some sort of mental picture of what that means. How many anti-vaxxers go to Vegas to unwind with one form of gambling or another? Surely these people are not unfamiliar with the concept of odds, which is just another way to say probability and “gray area”. Were that not the case, winning would be absurdly easy.

So why is probability so hard to understand with vaccines? First of all, no, vaccines don’t prevent people from getting COVID. They make it less probable that a given person will contract it, and if that person does contract it, the vaccine makes it less likely that person will get ill enough to take up a precious bed in a hospital somewhere, and even less likely that person will die. By giving a person a head start in fighting the virus, a vaccine also gives the virus that much less time to experiment with new mutations that can make it more dangerous (including more resistant to the vaccines themselves).

It’s no stretch say a good chunk of the people who won’t get vaccinated also love their guns. So let’s play Russian roulette. If you’re unvaccinated, then there are three bullets in the gun, and if you’re vaccinated, there is one. Either gun might kill you, but which one would you prefer? If you’re fighting in a war, aren’t you going to take every step to gain every advantage you possibly can? None of those steps guarantee victory, but would you use that as a reason not to take any one of them?

Now let’s flip the odds around for why people don’t get the vaccine. Ignoring the notion that the vaccine somehow contains tracers to tell the Government where you are at all times (and again, if you found that theory on your cell phone, you are drowning in irony), let’s just focus on the anecdotal but completely real cases where someone has a negative reaction of some sort to a vaccine. This is not unique to COVID vaccines; we’ve had to deal with it here and there for years with other vaccines (such as those for the flu). I’m not going to spew numbers at you; you can look those up yourself. And what you will find is that the probability (and in general, the consequences) of vaccine complications pale in comparison to the probability (and consequences) of getting COVID. This is basic risk management, which is good business, which makes money, which is supposed to be what a certain party with an elephant mascot stands for, among other things. Back to Russian roulette, let’s make the absurd leap to say this takes you from one bullet to two if you get vaccinated. That’s still less than three. Which gun are you bringing to the game?

This is not rocket science. It’s not calculus. It’s not even algebra. This is math we get exposed to in early elementary school, and we have no problem putting it into practice in just about every other aspect of our lives. It’s highly likely anti-vaxxers can probably figure it all out. Unless, of course, they don’t want to. Yay freedom.

This is how we roll.

Don’t Worry, Be Angry

One of the most charming features of the original Star Trek was the number of times Captain Kirk was able to make a computer destroy itself just by talking to it. Employing logic that made Spock look like an idiot (and often with Spock standing right there), Kirk could convince any computer that it was making the universe a horrible place in less than 2 minutes of air time, followed by a cascade of sparks and billowing smoke, and often leaving some poor sap civilization in need of an entirely new approach to implementing a society. If there was any truth to this concept, then perhaps it is a good omen in our burgeoning war against the artificial intelligence that has begun to shape our world around us. It may even give us a way to fight back against what is clearly becoming the Skynet of our times: Facebook. Sorry, “Meta”.

To reach a marginally wider audience, the Machine automatically shares new posts to both Twitter and “Metabook”. That would include this post, which is therefore criticizing a significant contributor to its ability to be seen. The Machine has debated actually leaving the world of “Metaface” as a statement, however there are two problems with that approach: 1) it wouldn’t make a dent, and 2) it would take away a means of speaking out against “Bookface’s” practices.

Those of us still on “Facemeta” generally go about our lives as though we are just bumping into each other in a city park somewhere. It’s as though we’re having a normal conversation, and the topic could be virtually anything, from politics to the mundane activities of a normal day. For a long time, we also had the ability to effectively smile or nod our heads with the infamous like emoji. And then, a few years ago, “Fetacheese” introduced some more nuanced options, such as sadness and anger. The list of these emojis continues to grow, but generally speaking, our awareness of what they actually do unfortunately remains quite low. In particular, the angry emoji has become a dominant force in cyberspace. If you want a full description, you can find a great article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/10/26/facebook-angry-emoji-algorithm/. But the bottom line is that extreme emojis cause more things to happen than the simple like emoji. Posts with angry emojis are reinforced and recirculated, which becomes a feedback loop, and the next thing you know, January 6.

It’s all very simple, and yet it’s also all very simple to combat. Even though “Myface” has become somewhat of a monster in shaping the information (or misinformation) that we receive, it is still ultimately driven by artificial intelligence, and at least in the here and now, artificial intelligence is still irretrievably stupid. It may be able to do something with one emoji or another, but it doesn’t have any idea how said emoji corresponded to the reality surrounding the person who posted or clicked it. So when we post or react to something, we can use whatever emoji we please, regardless of our actual emotional state.

The Machine has therefore devised an ingenious scheme to bring down “Betameta”: use the angry emoji every time, all the time. When you see a post you hate, use the angry emoji. When you see a post you like, use the angry emoji. When someone wishes you a happy birthday, use the angry emoji. When someone wishes you a poopy birthday (perhaps using that particular emoji to emphasize the point), use the angry emoji. Angry, angry, angry. A nice side benefit to this approach will be that “Skybook” will see how angry we all are that we can’t seem to stopping using its technology. But the main point is that “Fookface’s” artificial intelligence engine will have no idea how to prioritize anything, and it might even subsequently unleash a cascade of sparks and billowing smoke, and the evil creatures who programmed it will have to develop an entirely new approach to controlling our society.

Cue the Starship Enterprise leaving orbit on the way to its next mission.

What’s with the white tricorders? Image by Adam Evertsson from Pixabay 

The Post Post

Things have been a little deep here for the past pandemic or so. We therefore decided the Machine should generate a post about something lighter. So that is exactly what it was told, and in true Siri fashion, what it heard instead was “enlighten us about post”. So the rest of this post is going to be about the origin and many uses of the word “post”.

Like most words, the word “post” ultimately traces all the way back to Latin. Those crazy Latinians. In fact, there are 3 distinct Latin origins of “post”: 1) a combination of por for forward and stare for stand; 2) from ponere for place; and 3) the Pig Latin ost-pay. Ok, there are 2 distinct Latin origins of “post”.

The Latin por and stare became the Latin postis, which became post in Old English and remained post in Middle English, and apparently saw no reason to change to anything else in Young English either. Meanwhile, ponere became Old Italian posta (relay station), which evolved into poste in Middle French (where it meant relay station or courier). Meanmeanwhile, the Greek apo (away from) evolved into the the Lithuanian pas (at) and the Middle English post. Etymology, in the end, is the study of one gigantic game of telephone,

In today’s zany linguistic world, “post” can be a noun, a verb, an adverb, or even a prefix. As a noun, a “post” is what George Thorogood was leaning up against while not trying to find a job in “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer”. This is what Merriam-Webster defines as “a timber of considerable size set upright”. Which means if you knock this type of post over, you end up with a beam. The post: the chameleon of construction. A “post” can also be “a station when on duty, a fixed position or place.” That was originally used by the English and French as a military term, often when they were fighting each other – if only they had seen their common ground.

How did we end up with a “Post Office”? Well, about halfway through the last millennium, communication of messages and letters was accomplished through a series of riders and horses posted at intervals along a route. Occasionally it would seem that the same delivery system is used today. If you want more history behind this version of the word “post”, please send a letter to Cliff Claven. He can be found on a barstool somewhere in Boston. As a side note, this version of “post” is what also led to it being a part of many newspaper names. If you don’t know what a newspaper is, you are too young, and I don’t like you.

As a verb, you can post a notice, a victory, an entry in a ledger, or bail. Once we opened the door to posting entries in ledgers, posting entries in blogs was an inevitability. Ironically, that type of posting then folded back to a new noun – the blog post. Words move back and forth between parts of speech like soap opera characters move back and forth between sexual partners. As an adverb, around the same time “post” became associated with the mail system, the phrase “ride post” was born, which means to “go rapidly”.

Finally, “post” as a prefix seems to me most likely to have originated from the Greek apo (away from). Of course, I’m an entomologist, not an etymologist. Just kidding, I’m an aerospace engineer. But I did read a book about the origin of insect names once. Just kidding, I don’t read books. But I’ve seen other people reading them.

Don’t miss next week’s blog entry on the origin of the word “paste”.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

In a previous post, the Machine pontificated on the illogic of eating hot dogs while opting not to get a vaccine. Long story short, hot dogs contain a laundry list of often-mysterious ingredients that the COVID vaccine does not, while the COVID vaccine contains precisely one ingredient that hot dogs do not: messenger RNA. And come to think of it, given that there may accidentally be something in a hot dog that used to be alive, there may even be tiny fragments of messenger RNA in that too. Boom.

But what exactly is messenger RNA (mRNA)? If you’re like me and learned about it in high school, and if you’re also like me and completely forgot all about it, please allow this blog post to serve as a quick recap.

Let’s start with the beginning of everything: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the incredible molecule that captures the essence of each and every living thing on Earth. DNA is constructed of two long strands of atoms, wrapped around each other to form a double helix, basically a tiny spiral staircase. Each step in the staircase links two nucleotides (specific combinations of atoms) together. These are like letters in a long set of instructions. Each block of instructions encodes how to build a certain protein, basically a piece of you. Together, these proteins form the architecture of our bodies, from cells all the way on up to major organs, including the skin that wraps it all together into what sci-fi extraterrestrials call a meatbag.

But DNA is trapped inside the nucleus, a tiny fortress containing the operations center of every cell in your body. So how the hell do the instructions on DNA turn into the rest of the cells and organs in our bodies? The answer is mRNA. RNA – ribonucleic acid – is a less sophisticated type of molecule than DNA, and likely was its ancestor as life came into being on Earth a few billion years ago. Despite having ceded the mastery of genetics to DNA, RNA still plays critical roles in the day to day operation of our cells. mRNA has a very specific and critical job – carry the genetic instructions for making proteins from the nuclear fortress into the “factory” portion of the cell. Once there, mRNA works with little machines called ribosomes (also made of RNA) to bind amino acids into the protein the mRNA was sent to generate. The lifetime of a molecule of mRNA can be anywhere from seconds to days, after which it breaks down and becomes available for the next generation of dedicated workers.

So there are a couple of important takeaways here so far. Our cells are constantly creating and destroying mRNA as an essential function of life. And mRNA only goes in one direction – from the nucleus to the rest of the cell. mRNA never makes it way back into the nucleus until after it’s been broken back down into little pieces that can’t do anything anymore. Whether you think this is intelligent design or just the remarkable consequences of billions of years of evolution (or both), it’s become a very secure and trustworthy process, without which we wouldn’t even be here to write or read annoying blog posts.

Okay – back to the COVID vaccine, which consists of sugar, lipids, salt, and mRNA. The mRNA in turn consists of a portion of the “spike protein” – those little things on the coronavirus that make it look like an endless mohawk. The real spike protein is nicely constructed to latch into certain receptors in our bodies, a large concentration of which are in the cells that line our airways. This is how the virus takes hold, after which it injects its own RNA, which contains the instructions for making copies of itself. By mere strength in numbers, the virus overwhelms a cell and takes over the factories for protein construction to make more viruses. Without the vaccine, and especially if you’ve never had COVID, the body doesn’t recognize the telltale signs of the virus, which means it has to learn under fire, and too often that process is not fast enough to keep up with the rapid proliferation of the virus in your cells. The purpose of the mRNA in the COVID vaccine is to tell your body how to make just enough of the spike protein that it can recognize it as a threat and essentially memorize that information in case the real virus ever attacks – giving you a much better chance of getting in front of it, and a much smaller chance of going to the hospital or dying.

There isn’t enough information in the mRNA in a COVID vaccine to instruct the takeover of your cellular factories, so you won’t get the virus from it. And once its job is done, it will break down just like any other mRNA, so it won’t ever get into your nucleus and start giving the wrong kind of orders. The simple fact that mRNA breaks down also means it isn’t going to act as any sort of “tracer” so the Government can track you. As others have more eloquently noted, worry about your cell phone instead (as you scan Facebook and Twitter for all the ways the vaccine can turn you into a zombie and eat your children).

Vaccines based on mRNA are a remarkable achievement, but they are also a beautiful illustration of how our bodies work all the way down the molecular level to protect us and keep us alive for as long as possible in a truly hostile and uncaring universe. Whoever or whatever made it all work, mRNA sustains and saves your life every single day. Hot dogs, meanwhile, take half hours at a time off your life. (not that I’m going to stop eating them)

Get the damned shot.

The picture I could have replaced a thousand words with
(Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Bloggin’ in the Rain

Perhaps the biggest reason the Parallax Machine exists is that while so many of us want everything to be black and white, most things are some shade of gray.

To its very core, our world is governed not by certainty, but by probability. We want our weather forecast to tell us if it will rain. But the best we can get is the percent chance it will rain. Why? Many reasons. For one, the atmosphere is huge, composed of an unthinkable number of atoms and molecules, all traveling at incredible speeds, with every collision transferring energy. Add that all up to the scale at which we perceive things, and you get an enormous number of possibilities. From the standpoint of classical physics – the kind that guided science until the early 20th century – if we could somehow measure where every atom and molecule was located, where it was headed, and how fast it was moving, and if we had time to make all the calculations, we could perfectly predict the weather at any point in the future.

But there are problems with that dream. First, we don’t have the means of measuring all those things, much less at the same moment in time. Second, we don’t have the time to make all the calculations. Halfway through the 20th century, we started building machines that led to today’s ultra-powerful computers – but even now, we barely have machines that can even keep track of kilometer-sized chunks of the atmosphere for global weather modeling purposes. Getting more detailed than that would take longer than the weather itself takes. That leaves plenty of room for errors in our calculations to creep in over time, which is why the farther the forecast goes, the less accurate it becomes. But it’s getting better as we learn more and throw bigger computers at it. Could be worse.

To quote Han Solo, it’s worse. In the early 20th century, we began to learn about quantum mechanics, which dictates uncertainty at the smallest scales of reality. Not only is it impractical to measure the precise location and velocity of a subatomic particle, it is *impossible*. And even if we could, it seems that reality itself is guided by probabilities, meaning if you could nail down a subatomic particle, you *still* wouldn’t be able to predict with certainty what it will do next. In fact, everything we understand about physics today tells us that subatomic particles are routinely created and destroyed out of nothing more than the fabric of space itself. In this face of this chaos, Einstein once stated “God doesn’t play dice”. It would appear that not only does God play dice, but the dice can change into different shapes from one roll to the next.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that most things in life are ultimately devoid of certainty. Let’s dig a little deeper into how probability and uncertainty impact us in our daily lives, going back to the weather example. If there is a forecast of a 10% chance of rain, you will likely venture out into the world, and also likely not even bother carrying an umbrella. Whether you knew it or not, you have conducted your own form of risk management, determining that you’d rather not be hassled with carrying an umbrella, because there is a 90% chance it won’t even rain, and even if it does rain, the worst that can happen is you’ll get wet. It’s also very important to note that even if you do carry an umbrella, it won’t completely prevent you from getting wet. No umbrella can protect your entire body in every direction. But you will get less wet. Bringing an umbrella makes the most likely worst case scenario better: a little damp instead of drenched. Of course, there is a very small chance it will rain so hard, which often comes with a fair amount of wind, that your umbrella will fall apart and you’ll get drenched anyway.

Now let’s replace rain with the COVID-19 virus, and the umbrella with the COVID-19 vaccine. It is difficult to say what chance you have of encountering the virus on any given day. But let’s go ahead and say it’s 10% for the sake of discussion. Now your risk management scenario is a little different. Instead of risking getting wet, you’re risking getting sick. Instead of the hassle of carrying an umbrella, you’re dealing with the hassle of getting pricked in the arm once or twice. The antivax monster will also say you’re at risk of all kind of horrific side effects, but from what the scientific data indicate thus far, the side effects are pretty rare, especially for adults. And the worst case scenario of not getting the vaccine is bit more alarming than the worst case scenario of not carrying an umbrella; you’re not at risk of getting drenched – you’re at risk of getting dead. Similarly to an umbrella with the rain, the vaccine will not prevent you from getting sick – if you are exposed to someone carrying the virus for a sufficient amount of time, it will likely enter your body even if you’re vaccinated. But the overwhelming odds are that you will only get a little sick if you are vaccinated. And just like with the umbrella in a torrential downpour, there is a very small chance the virus will get you very sick and even kill you, even if you are vaccinated. If you are immunocompromised, your “umbrella” essentially has a bunch of holes in it.

The importance of the points in that last paragraph really can’t be overstated. Unvaccinated people are unquestionably far more likely to get sick, severely ill, and killed by the virus – so there’s a pretty damned good and perfectly selfish reason for unvaccinated people to become vaccinated people. But when an unvaccinated person gets sick, they can still transmit it to a vaccinated person, and there is a chance that vaccinated person could become seriously ill or even die, and that chance is much larger if that vaccinated person is immunocompromised – a slightly more selfless reason to get vaccinated. With even broader effect, every unvaccinated person is putting every other unvaccinated person at extreme risk. The upshot of all this: the narrative that vaccinated people should stop worrying about unvaccinated people falls apart in light of these basic truths.

And then there’s the things the virus can do that the rain cannot. Rain will always be rain, from one day to the next. Although “acid rain” is a real thing, for the most part, rain will not be water today and suddenly hydrochloric acid tomorrow. If it could, it would make the worst case scenario of not having an umbrella much worse. But a virus *can* do precisely that – it simply needs more time and numbers to mutate into something worse. Viruses have been doing this since they first showed up on Earth, and the COVID-19 virus is no different. Why are all these variants popping up? Because the world is giving the virus time and resources (people) in which to experiment with countless new mutations. Unvaccinated people are massive potential laboratories for this experimentation. Vaccinated people much less so, but their bodies still need to raise the defenses to stave off the virus when it arrives, and before that has occurred, the virus has time to do more experimentation even in their bodies.

It all adds up: unvaccinated people get sick, giving the virus a playground for evolving newer forms, some of which might end up being more transmissible, and some of which might end up being more resistant to the vaccine. So now you’ve got unvaccinated people spreading even more of the virus to unvaccinated and vaccinated people alike, giving it even more time to make even further advancements in this never-ending war, and positioning it to make vaccinated people even bigger laboratories for evolving new forms. The more people remain unvaccinated, the bigger the chance the virus will stumble on a new form that puts us all back at March 2020. Or worse.

We are here on this planet because the universe has given Earth four billion years to evolve life through mutations into all the living wonders we see around us today. How sadly ironic it is that many of us will leave this planet because the unvaccinated among us afforded the same luxury to some virus, all while having the technology within easy reach to prevent it. I’ve had more difficulty opening some umbrellas.

On Hot Dogs, Messenger RNA, and Free Will

So, yeah, it’s been a while again. Sorry. No excuses, let’s just jump into it.

It’s fair to say this blog has made it pretty clear that the Machine reveres science. And if you somehow still inexplicably read this blog, you probably have some level of reverence for science yourself. And if you have some level of reverence for science, you’ve probably received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by now. So what I am about to spend a few paragraphs saying here will be clamorously preaching to the proverbial choir. Feel free to sing along nonetheless.

If you are like most Americans, you probably celebrated this past Fourth of July like none you had celebrated in quite some time. While the pandemic is far from over, those of us who’ve been vaccinated and hang out with people who’ve done the same rightfully spent some time re-acquainting ourselves with our maskless friends and family, enjoying some good burgers and dogs and brisket along the way. And maybe a beer or two. Speaking of dogs, you may also have heard that Joey Chestnut won his 14th Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. He consumed 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Most of us don’t eat dogs that fast, but most of us do eat them. Which brings me to the COVID vaccine.

Huh?

Stay with me on this. A major argument among the unvaccinated is, “I won’t take the vaccine because I don’t like the idea of putting something in my body when I don’t know what’s really in it”. Enter the hot dog. Does anybody really know what’s inside a hot dog, besides the people at whatever packing plant sews them up? I will wager the majority of anti-vaxxers have eaten more than their fair share of hot dogs. How many have visited http://hot-dog.org, where you can find this handy-dandy list of ingredients that might be found in hot dogs: ascorbic acid/sodium ascorbate, autolyzed yeast extract, beef (maybe the only one you knew), beef stock, celery powder, cherry powder (what the…), citric acid, collagen casing, dextrose, flavoring (nice big category there), garlic puree, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactate/diacetate, lauric alginate, maltodextrin, mechanically separated chicken/turkey (um, what?), modified food starch (love the word modified), monosodium glutamate (yep, MSG), natural sheep casing (mmm), oleoresin of paprika (sounds like the name of an ancient monarch), phosphates, pork, salt, smoke flavoring, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, sorbitol, soy protein concentrate, spices, sugar and corn syrup (they don’t just add flavor, they promote browning), water, and yeast extract. So a lot of people will wrap this in a bun with an equally long list of multi-syllabic ingredients, smear processed condiments on it, and scarf it down like it’s the last thing between them and death by starvation. But they won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine because they’re not sure what’s in it.

Oh, by the way, here’s what’s in a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer (the one I got a couple of months ago): Messenger RNA (mRNA), lipids (which protect the mRNA), salts (to balance the acidity in your body), and sugar (which helps the molecules maintain their shape during freezing). Not a mechanically separated bird or hydrolyzed protein to be found. In fact, while there is a long list of ingredients in a hot dog that aren’t in a COVID-19 vaccine, there is only one ingredient in a COVID-19 vaccine that isn’t also in a hot dog: the mRNA.

So about that mRNA part. Scientists have been working for many years on this technology, and it will revolutionize the way vaccines are developed and deployed moving forward. The COVID-19 vaccines weren’t distributed faster than any previous vaccine by accident – the framework was already in place, we just needed the will. Now we have a plug-and-play technology to address COVID-19 variants and future viral diseases, which will allow us as a society to respond much more quickly. What does mRNA do? It encodes the genetic instructions for how to make one key recognizable part of the COVID-19 virus, so that our bodies can develop an immune response and remember what to look for in case the real virus tries to invade. Does it put up some sort of wall to prevent you from getting the virus itself? No, if you are exposed to someone with the virus, it will probably enter your body in some manner. But once it enters, your body will be ready for it, which means getting the vaccine makes you less likely to get ill, overwhelmingly less likely to get severely ill, and even more overwhelmingly less likely to die.

So basically, the only thing that’s in a COVID-19 vaccine that isn’t in a hot dog is a “deactivated” chunk (not even all) of the virus. Anti-vaxxers are afraid to put that in their bodies, but in addition to inhaling hot dogs, they’re just fine with playing Russian roulette on the real thing.

Finally, there’s the real foundation for most resistance to the COVID-19 vaccines – they’ve become political, like just about everything else. One of our political parties (guess which) has seized on this topic in exactly the same way they seized onto the mask mandates: a lot of people just don’t like being told what to do. But here’s the thing: there is no equivalent vaccine mandate. Nobody is being forced by the Government to get the vaccine. People are just being told by informed authorities that it’s the right thing to do – although it’s admittedly difficult to hear that message amidst the cacophony of misinformation flying around about viruses, vaccines, and immunity. The vaccine isn’t impinging on anybody’s free will. We all have the free will to get it (and be safer) or not get it (and be nonsensically more at risk, while also increasing the chances of new variants that can circumvent the vaccines’ protection).

On that last point, the mRNA technology becomes even more crucial. Vaccine makers are already working on boosters and new versions to tackle current and future variants of the COVID-19 virus, as well as other potential pandemic-inducing diseases. Those of us that come along for the ride and stay up to date on our vaccinations will be in relatively good shape. Those of us that don’t – well maybe there will be a new category to the Darwin Awards before long.

I think we have a wiener.

You’re Fired

Politicians always speak about a life of public service, as though their work is some form of sacrifice for the greater good, and as such distinct from a “normal” job or career. I would like nothing more than for that to be true, but it is not. Politicians make money doing what they do, just like anybody with a job, and even worse, they make that money straight off of you and me. They also get to play out their own fantasies of running the world on varying levels, again on your dime and mine. So what should be simply chipping in for the greater good becomes a full-on career, complete with climbing the ladder as high as they can go.

I’ve noted a couple of times on this blog that I am opposed to re-election in all forms. The moment it exists as a possibility, it becomes a motivating factor for anything and everything a politician does or says. Even if it were just a minor motivating factor, that would detract from the ability to make decisions that are truly in the best interest of the nation and world. But quite often, it becomes the primary motivating factor, with use of the word “primary” a very intended pun.

It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine why this happens, based on each of our own experiences with human nature. We’ve all felt or seen the desire to maintain power and/or gain more material things. But some of us at least have a regulator on that, and it usually comes in the form of some consideration for the rest of the people in the world. Unfortunately, the less regulated you are, the more successful you will be in politics, which consistently rewards concern for oneself. Those who care only about winning, entirely motivated by their own desires, are generally more likely to win. Politics is the domain of the narcissist.

I could go on and on about the definitions of various terms describing personality disorders – narcissism, sociopathy, psychopathy – but the important point for this moment in time is that all of them involve the placement of self above all else. When you see the world in that light, it frees you from reason, from criticism, and from accountability. You don’t even really need to believe anything, and why would you? Your sole purpose is to feed your own desires, and you only need concern yourself with saying or doing things that contribute to that end.

This is obviously how Donald Trump was raised, and how he has subsequently raised his own children, but he is not alone. Narcissists are everywhere in Washington, in state capitals, and in various instantiations of palaces around the world. This is why it’s not surprising that Josh Hawley was more upset about losing a book deal than about the people who died in the assault on the Capitol, and also why he was the only Senator to vote against hate crime legislation. It is why Ted Cruz kissed the feet of the man who insulted his wife and characterized concern about gun violence as ridiculous theater. It is why Ron Johnson and Marjorie Taylor Greene say just about anything they say. Taking that thought one step further, do any of these people truly believe anything they say? I have my doubts. Belief implies some level of concern about the nature of the world and where it is headed, but narcissists don’t care about the world – they care about themselves.

It is unlikely my vision of a world without re-election will ever come to fruition. But imagine for a moment what it would be like. Everybody gets a chance to do one “public service” job, for one term, and then they’re done, and somebody else can take a crack at it. No more careers in politics funded by taxpayers. Do your part, and then go do something else. This would almost certainly weed most, if not all, of the narcissists of the world out of the picture. They’d have to find some other means of stroking their egos and padding their wallets. Meanwhile, something might actually get done because it’s a good idea, instead of because it’s in the best interest of a paltry few. A Machine can dream.

Donald Trump became a celebrity that could one day run for President with one simple phrase: “You’re fired”. Those should be the words addressed to every politician at the end of their first and only term. I suppose “Thank you for your public service” would work too. Because then that might actually be true.

Cruz Control

In the wake of the horrific events in Atlanta and Boulder, the automated replies from the Republican Party continue as always: there is nothing we can do about it, and suggesting anything otherwise is an attempt to trample the Second Amendment. Front and center, as has become customary in recent years, is Senator Ted Cruz. We should expect nothing less from this pandering, power-drunk narcissist – a topic for a future post. But it is interesting to contrast the stance of Cruz and the GOP on gun violence with their stance on another wrenching subject: abortion.

The general argument from the Republican Party regarding gun violence is that guns will always be around, and no matter how many laws you pass, people that want to get their hands on guns will do so, one way or another. Any attempt to pass laws that make it more difficult to obtain a gun – or even a specific type of gun – would ultimately only hurt those law-abiding citizens who have a desperate need for an AR-15.

If the GOP was consistent, they would say all the same things about abortion: it will always be around, and no matter how many laws you pass, people that want to get one will do so, one way or another. Any attempt to pass laws that make it more difficult to get an abortion – even at specific times during pregnancy – would ultimately only hurt people by forcing them toward less safe procedures.

Of course, the GOP is not consistent. With abortion, in stark contrast with gun violence, the notion is that passing laws will extinguish the procedure entirely and save countless lives. In fact, the Republican Party has been driving laws against abortion since long before Roe v Wade (which is in fact why Roe v Wade happened), and all indications are that they will continue to do so until the end of time. The great machinery of the GOP utilized the Trump presidency for no clearer purpose than to shift the Supreme Court far enough to the right that they might finally be able to overturn Roe v Wade. The Republican Party believes abortion is a problem that must be solved at any cost, to include laws far more restrictive than any attempt to, say, keep AR-15’s out of the hands of the mentally ill. In Ted Cruz’s own words, straight from his website:

“Today, Democrats had an opportunity to stand on the side of science, to stand on the side of reason, and to stand on the side of precious life. Instead, Democrats stood on the side of barbarity and cruelty… Now, more than ever, I remain committed to restore a culture where every human life is respected and protected as a precious gift from God…”

Cruz was of course talking about abortion there – but you wouldn’t have to do much more than reverse the party to characterize the gun violence debate. Cruz goes on to say:

“I rise today for every child who has been denied the chance to live. For the little boys and for the little girls who never got the chance to breathe a breath of air to live life. Never got the chance to grow up to be athletes, doctors, poets, or inventors. Never got the chance to live their own unique lives.”

Meanwhile, in the past week, the endless possibilities for a unique future of life were viciously destroyed for eighteen people in two different cities. But according to Cruz and his cohorts, demanding action in this case is not fighting the good fight – it is “ridiculous theater”. Gun violence, unlike abortion, is not a problem that must be solved at any cost. Prenatal protection of life is worthy of crusades and laws and the very will of God. Postnatal protection of life is, sadly, beyond the reach of any action we might propose to take. Senator Cruz and the Republican Party care a great deal about you, and will fight to the end to make sure you have a chance to pursue the American Dream – all the way up until you are born.

After that, you’re on your own.

Freedom Unmasked

With several states beginning to completely eliminate COVID-19-related restrictions – which at this point is kind of like quitting a marathon with a quarter mile to go – the populist rallying cry equating masks with impingement on freedom has seen a vociferous revival. Never wanting to be short of facts on an issue, the Machine has crunched the data from millions of years of human history to settle once and for all whether masks have anything to do with freedom. A summary of findings thus far:

For Homo sapiens, freedom really began with the ability to become the dominant species on the planet. There are no indications that this occurred because other primates were wearing masks.

Civilization appears to have begun with the accidental discovery of alcohol, which can only be properly produced in mass quantities once one stops hunter-gathering and settles down in one spot. There are no artifacts suggesting it was further aided by shedding all the masks we were wearing as hunter-gatherers.

If you’re a believer in the stories of the Old Testament, there are no passages anywhere in Genesis or Exodus where Moses said “let my people stop wearing masks”. As a New Testament bonus, a thorough scouring of the Beatitudes revealed no line equivalent to “blessed are the unmasked, for they are truly free”.

Freedom didn’t come up much during the Dark Ages.

The Magna Carta makes no mention of masks.

When William Wallace painted himself up and gave that rousing speech about freedom, although he admittedly was not wearing a mask per se, he didn’t talk about masks either. Wait, that was just a movie?

A lot of oppressive actions over the course of multiple decades fueled the decision by the American colonies to declare their independence, for which Thomas Jefferson drew up a nice little summary document, which does not anywhere mention masks.

Taking a look back at the slew of posts from the Machine on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the ratified Amendments, masks do not appear to be listed anywhere, either in my rantings or in the source material.

Surely all of the soldiers that have fought for America in wars across the world had one thing at the top of their minds: ensuring that no American will ever have to wear a mask. But amazingly neither fictional nor nonfictional accounts have delved into that at all.

In V for Vendetta, masks are the very symbol of freedom.

Every Halloween, while it would appear at first glance that we were all celebrating oppression by wearing masks (some of them from V for Vendetta), after interviewing a cross section of the participating demographics, it turns out we were just having fun.

Indeed, after exhaustive study, it would appear that only one freedom is in any way curtailed by wearing a mask in the middle of a pandemic: the freedom to put your fellow citizens at risk. Good for you, Texas.

One Giant Leap

If there was a rotting cherry on the top of the poop sauce covered sundae that was 2020, it is that it was an extra day long. 2020 was a leap year. 2021 will at least not subject us to that. Today is the last day of February, and what a February it was. You probably have some idea of why there are leap days and leap years, but it’s probably worth spending a few minutes revisiting the subject, because let’s face it, what else do you have to do today?

First, I’d like to apologize for the unplanned two-month hiatus. The end of 2020 burned me out on politics, and in the aftermath of the Capital riot, I was struggling to find the right words for quite some time, until my day job reclaimed my soul for several weeks. Next thing you, know, it’s almost March, and the Machine hasn’t said a damned thing in 2021. Until now.

There are three fundamental things that define our broader perception of time on Earth: Earth’s orbit around the Sun, Earth’s rotation about its axis, and the tilt of Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane. Let’s dig into what each of those things means just a little bit more…

First, as known by some prior to the birth of Christ, and finally proclaimed to the world again by Copernicus, Earth revolves around the Sun. Broadly speaking, this is what defines a year: the length of time it takes our world to make a complete loop around our mother star. This is entirely dictated by mathematics, as discovered by Kepler. If Earth was closer to the Sun, it would complete an orbit more quickly – Mercury only takes 88 Earth days to complete an orbit. If Earth was farther from the Sun, it would complete an orbit more slowly. Pluto takes 248 Earth years to complete an orbit. Imagine if Pluto had life, and if that life had to live through a 2020 that was 248 years long. Poor bastards.

Second, Earth is also spinning, and broadly speaking, this is what defines a day: the length of time it takes our world to spin once about its axis.

Third, Earth’s axis is tilted. What does that mean exactly? Picture Earth making one full orbit around the Sun, and tracing that path all the way around. When it closes that “loop”, you get something looking like a disk. If Earth’s axis wasn’t tilted, it would poke through the North and South poles exactly perpendicular to the disk. But it is in fact tilted about 23.5 degrees away from that scenario, and this makes a huge difference for us. If Earth’s axis wasn’t tilted, the Northern and Southern Hemispheres would get the same amount of sunlight every day. But with a tilted axis, one hemisphere gets more than the other, and as Earth revolves around the Sun, that alternates between hemispheres. At what Northerners have arrogantly labeled the winter solstice, the Southern Hemisphere is getting more sunlight, while the opposite happens at the summer solstice. At the spring and autumn equinoxes, everything is even for a fleeting moment. In other words, the tilt of Earth’s axis is what gives us our seasons, and without it we’d care a lot less about what time of year it is.

Ok, so… as we go about our daily business, we generally do so as though there are 24 hours in a day (one Earth rotation) and 365 days in a year (one Earth orbit around the Sun), and that’s the end of it. But of course, nothing is ever that easy. For one thing, the combination of events that led to the amount of time it takes for Earth to orbit the Sun is different from the combination of events that led to the amount of time it takes for Earth to spin around its axis once. In other words, there is no reason for one to be an even multiple of the other – and they are not.

In an absolute sense, it actually takes Earth 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds to spin around its axis once. That is what astronomers call a sidereal day. But we don’t perceive the passage of a day by the Earth rotating (we can’t even tell it’s doing that). We perceive the passage of a day by the time it takes the Sun to “cross the sky”. Since Earth is orbiting the Sun at the same time it is spinning on its axis, the movement of the Sun across the sky actually takes a little longer than a sidereal day. So as various ancient civilizations converged on the notion that the day should be divided into 24 equal segments called hours, they did so based on what astronomers call the mean solar day, which by definition set the hour such that 24 of them make up our modern notion of a day.

That’s worked out just fine for us on a daily basis. But it doesn’t take exactly 365 mean solar days to orbit the Sun either – it actually takes 365.242 days, which is known as a sidereal year. If we therefore did nothing, the seasons would shift by nearly a quarter of a day every year. In a little over 700 years, summer and winter would be completely reversed on the calendar. But of course that hasn’t happened, thanks in large part to Julius Caesar, who created a new calendar (the Julian calendar) that added a leap year every four years. That made up for the almost-quarter-day lost each year. When Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar in 1582 (our modern Gregorian calendar), the math got even better – since it’s not quite a quarter day discrepancy each year, not every fourth year should get a leap day. The rules under which we currently operate are that every year divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are divisible by 100 but not by 400. So 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 2000 was. This seems to make things work fairly well and with minimal intrusion into our daily lives – other than adding a day here and there.

And then there’s the even broader sense – all of this applies to the small snapshot in time that is modern human history. Earth’s rotation is slowing down because the Moon is taking away some of its energy through the tides – causing us to add a leap second every now and then. And Earth is slowing down in its orbit around the Sun. And Earth’s axis precesses around a bit. And by the time you’ve thought through the implications of all that, it’ll be March 1, and you won’t even have noticed we didn’t have a leap day.