MVP! MVP! MVP!

The Machine is, among other things, a huge sports fan. Denver sports in particular, so when the staff here at Parallax Tower isn’t running terabytes of data through the Machine’s pipes, we generally just let it sit back and watch re-runs of Super Bowls XXXII, XXXIII, and 50 (where hath my Roman numerals gone on that one?).

One of the more peculiar things about sports is the need to crown a Most Valuable Player (MVP). It may be for an entire season, or just the playoffs, or even just a game, if the game is big enough (although wouldn’t you love to see MVP awards doled out for preseason and intrasquad scrimmages?).

Unfortunately, because human nature, what should be the Most Valuable Player deteriorates into the Most Vitrioled Player. Hence this post being essentially triggered by a tweet. I don’t need to reference the tweet or the tweeter – you could find millions of suitable examples. Case in point: the latest debate about the MVP of the NBA.

Now – again, I freely admit to Denver homerism through and through. So of course, I think Nikola Jokic should be the MVP. But I’ve also got good reasons for thinking that beyond just being a fan of both the person and the team. First and foremost is his historic level of production on a team that lost 2 of its top 3 players for the entire season. But if I were to post that on Twitter, and people actually read my tweets, I would be guaranteed a massive backlash, and it wouldn’t be a rational discourse on alternative tidbits for me to consider. It would be all about how Jokic is complete trash and doesn’t even belong in the same conversation as the other candidates.

So, like most things in life, people, just by being people, manage to F up what was a completely well-intentioned enterprise at its inception. Now no longer are we celebrating the achievements of all the people who are worthy to be in the MVP conversation. Instead, we are each belittling the achievements of all of those people except one. Value replaced by Vitriol. Nicely done, sports fans.

It is because we can’t be trusted with things like this that we should completely rethink the nature of the conversation. The Machine proposes that rather than give out MVP awards, we should just set aside a day to praise all the ridiculously amazing things we saw throughout the season. Celebrate the teams, celebrate a wide variety of players, and celebrate the moments we will never forget. At first glance you might think that sounds a little too much like a participation trophy, but hey, I’m not suggesting we show highlights of every layup or inbound pass. I’m talking about celebrating greatness, without devoting the majority of our energy to dismissing it because we want our one favorite player to get all the glory.

And ditch the acronyms while we’re at it. (ADTAWWAI)

Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Face

Unless you’ve been living under another Rock, you can probably guess the subject of this post. There are far too many people out there suggesting that when he slapped Chris Rock on live television in front of millions upon millions of people, Will Smith was simply defending his wife, as any man would do.

Let’s start by completely pulverizing any notion that Will Smith was instinctively defending his wife. It is trivially easy to find the footage of him laughing at the offending joke. Not just cracking an uncomfortable smile – outright mouth-open teeth-baring eyes-twinkling laughing. It was not until he got the daggers from his wife that he decided to do anything different. So for the love of all things jiggy, can we please abandon the defense argument?

Next: it was a joke. It is perfectly valid to argue that it was a joke in bad taste. There was enough uncomfortable laughter in the audience (which Rock essentially acknowledged before Smith got out of his chair) that the message was already delivered. But anybody who has watched past Oscars telecasts knows that there have been a multitude of equally uncomfortable jokes directed at a wide range of celebrities. The opening monologues have usually served as extensive, multi-targeted roasts of specific people in the audience. Never has any of those targets followed up on the joke with an assault on the joker. Until now.

The impact of that act is nowhere near sufficiently understood by the masses. This goes beyond the Oscars. There are comedians at various stages of their careers working all over the world, and Smith has just normalized the idea of going up on stage and slapping the comedian if they tell a joke that offends you. The Machine has run the numbers on this. There is a 100% – not rounded, 100% – chance that someone somewhere will do just that, as a direct result of Smith opening the door to it. And if it happens in the wrong place, it might escalate to something much more severe, potentially even ending with someone lying dead on the floor. In less sanitized settings than the Oscars venue, violence begets violence.

Now let’s turn to folks that are equally infuriating – the ones saying “everybody makes mistakes”. Yes, we all do. I’ve made a hundred so far today, forty-seven of them while writing this post. But some mistakes are not innocent, and I’ve made many of those in my life as well. Those mistakes require accountability. Smith finally took a couple of steps down that road with his Academy resignation statement. He said all the right words, and now the actions must follow, as they must with any of us after letting our emotions or other factors drive us to harm others. But his apologists wanted us to just file this incident under “everybody makes mistakes” long before that statement was issued. Smith showed no accountability the night of the Oscars. He buried a “you missed it if you blinked” apology in an otherwise self-serving soliloquy when he accepted the award. That apology didn’t even include the one person most harmed by his actions. And then the afterparty… no, that didn’t look like a remorseful man.

The craziest thing? How did any of this help the person Smith was supposedly defending? Is it good that now any time she talks about the condition, people will immediately think of the slap? Does that help other people with alopecia? I’ve seen far more comments about open marriages than about medical conditions. As usual, when reason gives way to violence, nobody wins.

One of the things Smith’s much more complete apology contained was an acknowledgement of how many other people’s accomplishments were overshadowed. Up to now, this blog post has only been contributing to that problem. So let’s close with a much truer expression of love and kindness: the powerful image of the audience applauding in sign when Troy Kotsur won the Best Supporting Actor award:

https://www.cbc.ca/kidsnews/content/GFX_KN_ASL_APPLAUSE_Compressed.gif

Two Cents on Twosday

It’s no secret the Machine loves mathematics. Well, I suppose it’s a secret to the 99.9999999% of people on the planet that don’t read this blog. But to everyone else, it’s ice cold fact.

In a confluence of events that I’ll admit are cute in sum total, today is the ultimate “Twosday” – a Tuesday falling on 2/22/22. Many of us will just find that interesting in passing and then go on being annoyed with the more pressing problems of the moment. But for folks that would like to read anything ethereal into it, the Machine is here to tell you “no”.

For starters, in the very last post (number 100 in case you didn’t catch that from it), we looked at why we have a numbering system based on 10 at all. The only reason we do, and therefore the only reason that the 2’s in 2/22/22 happened to line up the way they did on this particular day, is because we accidentally evolved in such a way that the vast majority of us have 10 fingers. In fact, had we decided for some other reason to use a binary (base 2) numbering system, Twosday would have been a complete impossibility, because the only digits available would have been 0 and 1. Also, with only 2 digits, this kind of seemingly transcendental convergence of numbers would have been a lot more common. Onesday would hardly raise an eyebrow in such a dismal world.

Secondly, we talked in another post about the conundrum surrounding Western definitions of decades, centuries, and millennia – much of which traces back to the birth of Christ, which itself almost certainly did not happen the year we went from B.C. to A.D. So the notion that it is currently the year 2022 owes entirely to a faulty assignment of one person’s birthday.

Thirdly, while the fact that we have divided time into years, months, and days makes sense from a standpoint of the celestial bodies with which we are most familiar (wow, I’m referencing a lot of previous posts), the idea that February would be the second month of the year is again completely arbitrary. There would be nothing wrong with a calendar system in which February was the tenth month of the year, with winter starting in April and summer in October.

And finally, as if being an accident of evolution, misplaced birthdays, and arbitrary definitions of the New Year wasn’t enough, we have mythology to thank for what we now call Tuesday, which it is only called in English. This name traces back to the Norse God of Single Combat, Tiw, who we have in turn equated with the Roman God of War, Mars (whose name is the basis, for example, of the Spanish word for Tuesday – Martes).

So, in summary, the most important thing about 2’sday is that the Machine has embarked on a 2nd batch of 100 posts. Let us clink our 2 glasses in celebration, and I will then leave you 2 whatever you were up 2 previously.

A Whole ‘Nother Digit

On October 6, 2018 – in what now seems like a different age – the Machine coughed out its first post, ingeniously titled “Welcome to the Machine”. Today, a little over three years, 99 posts, and a pandemic and a half later, comes post #100. While it’s tempting to make this post all about the Machine and its magnificent journey to self-perceived super-stardom, we here at Parallax Plaza have decided instead to force the Machine to talk about the number 100, which actually has a remarkable history all its own.

While the number 100 has some interesting intrinsic characteristics (which we will get to momentarily), it’s first worth exploring why humans find it so important. Ultimately that traces back to why humans find the number 10 so important. And ultimately that traces back to a complete accident of our evolution on this world: most of us have 10 fingers (unceremoniously lumping the thumbs in with the rest). When it first became useful to start counting stuff, we didn’t have to look very far for a convenient way to do that, since our hands are typically right in front of our eyes helping us do any number of different things. Hence began our general affinity for the decimal system of numbers, also affectionately known as “base ten”. We do math in base ten every day, so much that we don’t even notice it, and are therefore completely unaware that we could have just as easily used any other number as a base – had we only been endowed with a different number of fingers. And in fact, a few isolated cultures have put their own twists on things: for example, using the spaces between the fingers to count, leading to an octal (base eight) system, or using both the fingers and the toes, leading to a base twenty approach.

When you decide on the base for your number system, you also set the number of usable digits in stone. In base ten, that means we have ten digits to choose from (0 to 9). If you count from 0 on up, once you exhaust all ten digits, you move up to the next order of magnitude (10 through 99), and then you exhaust the options for that first digit again, and you move up again (100 through 999). It works just the same in binary (base two), which uses only two digits (0 and 1), octal (which uses 0 through 7), and the infamous hexadecimal (base sixteen, which uses digits 0 through nine and then adds A through F to round things out).

When you move up to a new number of digits in a number, you’ve also gone to a higher power, which sounds religious but isn’t. The number 10 can also be expressed as 10 to the 1st power. 100 is 10 to the 2nd power, 1000 is 10 to the 3rd power, and so on. A million is 10 to the 6th power, a billion is 10 to the 9th, and a trillion is 10 to 12th. If you’re reading this blog post, there’s a good chance you’ve also used Google on a fairly regular basis to search for things. But there’s actually also a number called a googol: 10 to the 100th power, and another number called a googolplex, which is 10 to the googol power, and for which Carl Sagan noted you couldn’t fit a piece of paper with that many zeros written down in the known universe.

But let’s get back to 10 to the 2nd power – the number 100. I think there is possibly one reason more than any other why this number seems so special to us: it’s the power of 10 that most closely matches what we would consider to be the number of years in a nice long life. The average human lifespan falls considerably short of 100, but more and more people do manage to get there. On the flip side, the longest lives have been only a little more than a century, with the oldest having belonged to Jeanne Calment, who passed away in 1997 at the age of 122. So in a sense, the number 100 defines our mortality, and therefore us. That might be one reason why it’s found its way – perhaps subconsciously – into so many other things, like percentages, fractions of currency, the boiling point of water in degrees Celsius, and various religious traditions.

The number 100 has some interesting mathematical properties beyond being a power of 10. It happens to be the sum of the first 9 prime numbers. It is also the sum of the cubes of the first 4 positive integers. I could go on, but then I’d be Wikipedia, and Wikipedia I am not.

In closing, the Machine is deeply humbled to have reached this transcendental milestone. But let’s be honest, the real trick will be reaching 1000.

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.