Archive for category Ask Dr. Rocket Surgery

Rogue Love

Nerd time: I’m sure a fair number of you remember the scene in SW: The Empire Strikes Back where Leia tells Han she loves him, and he responds with “I know.”

From what I can tell, that’s supposed to be taken as a classic and in-character scoundrel’s response. (Google “Leia I love you” and look at the comments under the primary video if you want.) She tells him she loves him; his response carries a general attitude of “Of course, how could you not love me?”

But what if that wasn’t how it was meant? (It was) So instead, what if life worked that way more often? Put yourself in Han’s place: What if you heard those words, and genuinely knew that was the case, because you had seen it demonstrated by the other person’s character and actions over and over again?

That’d be–to put it mildly–pretty cool.

I know I’m a few weeks late for May 4th, and a few -months- late for Valentine’s Day, but whatevs. Food for thought.

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Make a Million Bucks

If someone can come up with a functional reverse dictionary, I think they could make a great deal of money on the ads they would no doubt coat their webpage with, since that’s how it’s done these days.

For example, take a word like homunculus.  Say you want a similar word, but with a non-person meaning.  (If it were a math equation imagine Homunculus – person + thing)  As in a perfectly formed tiny version of a thing.  Maybe it’d give you simulacrum or something similar as a result, even though it doesn’t quite match the parameters.

My point being that English has a metric stuffload of words and it’d be nice if it came with a manual to navigate from word to word so you could fall back upon it when your mental reference materials inevitably came up short.

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Of Pirates and Blurred Borders

Have you ever thought about how improbable the global system of air travel is?

Nearly every country on the planet allows fully loaded jets to enter its airspace multiple times a day, and–even more improbably– land before checking the passengers (I don’t know what the alternative would be), trusting the previous country’s TSA to have done the job.   And some of these transfers involve countries who wouldn’t hesitate to stab each other given the chance.

It just strikes me that any country with the desire to do so could stuff a nuclear weapon in the cargo hold of an international flight and set it off upon landing.  Sure, there have been stories (and movies) where said weapon is sent in by container ship (probably easier) but air travel opens up a great multitude of non-coastal/non-port locations.  And finger pointing would be difficult, though I think it’s possible to fingerprint the country of origin by sampling the fallout.  (The whole reason I’m speculating here is because I’m not in the mood to start googling things like “is it possible to trace nuclear weapons” or “what’s stopping governments from sticking nukes on planes.”)

By the way, if you’re paranoid, don’t read the previous three paragraphs.  If you aren’t, carry on.

In other alternate universes, can you imagine if yesterday’s pirates operated on the same principles today’s do?  Near as I can tell, there would be a giant island outside territorial waters filled with gold, food, rum, silver, and what-have-you, where ships would pull in, fill up on all of it, and leave.  The island’s stockpile would remain completely unchanged.

Mind you, if today’s pirates operated on the same principles as yesterday’s, Disney would be forced to spend part of its operating budget combating raiding parties, Paramount would be resting on the bottom of the sea, and Shawn Fanning would be imprisoned, having murdered a great number of musicians.

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St. Ives from an Outsider’s Perspective

I’m sure most, if not all of you have heard the St. Ives riddle.  To those who are the exception:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Each wife had seven sacks.
Each sack had seven cats.
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
how many were going to St. Ives?

I don’t have time to argue the math or the reasoning behind it, but it’s safe to say the answer is a number.  I’d imagine it somehow relates the questioner, a man, seven women, and 49 bags filled with 343 adult cats and 2401 kittens total.  (Evenly distributed into the sacks, of course.)

It bothers me that whoever is asking the question is so bloomin’ vague.  The fact that you can argue seventeen different answers (YOU were going to St. Ives!  2800 wives, sacks, cats, and kittens were going to St. Ives!  The St. Ives Bureau of Random Economic Statistics gives a figure of 48,439,000 incoming cat units for fiscal year 2007!) means the question itself needs work.

It seems to me the lack of specificity is a symptom of a much deeper problem, however.  And it’s not as if the questioner can’t be specific.  He or she is quite certain about the number of cats per bag.  In fact, the certainty about the contents of these undoubtedly massive sacks seems to imply that there was a conversation with these mysterious cat transporters:

“Hello, travelers, what’s up?”

“My seven wives and I are making our biweekly cat delivery.”

“Oh!  I can’t imagine any logistical or social problems arising in a career like that!   I myself am a dentist; the one out of five who never agrees with the others for plot-driven reasons that are never completely explained.  How many cats are in each bag?”

“These are sacks, my contentious dentist acquaintance.  There are 7 cats and 49 kittens in each sack.  How did you know the cats were in the sacks?”

“I must confess the hissing and shrieking as the sacks scraped along the ground gave your secret away.  Also, it says ‘CATS’ on the side.”

It begs the question why this person was talking to the cat people in the first place.  Do you have any idea how much feline biomass was packed into those containers?  A reasonable weight for an adult cat is approximately 10 pounds.  Given seven sacks per wife and 7 cats per bag, we have a total of 490 pounds of Adult Cat Weight alone.

Clearly, these women are not to be trifled with.

But we aren’t finished.  Now for the kittens.  While we aren’t given the exact location of St. Ives, (I suspect it’s Utah) in America they seem to suggest splitting cat families no earlier than ten weeks, an age that would give the kittens a weight of somewhere around two pounds each.  Of course, the people we’re talking about don’t seem to be the type to follow reasonable suggestions, but I imagine any cat rancher would rather not spend more money on cat food than is necessary, and would likely sell the cats at this time.  (If these people were ranching said cats and kittens to be used as food, it’s possible age isn’t a factor to them at all.  I find this somewhat absurd, even by polygamist cat-rancher standards.)

343 kittens per woman at 2 pounds each gives us 686 pounds of Kitten Weight.
490 lbs. ACW
+ 686 lbs. KW= 1176 pounds of cats per wife.

To put that in perspective, these women are lugging around a third of a Buick over their shoulders, except instead of hauling harmless, relatively inert hunks of automobile, they’ve packed 56 cats into a cramped space, and they’ve done it seven times over.  Each.

I have a hard time imagining two cats shoved into a bag together for any length of time.  Shoot, even one cat.

Of course, it is nowhere stated that the cats are alive…
Take out one of the logistical problems and suddenly the riddle becomes ever so much more disturbing.  Assuming the police are not eaten for sustenance by the Seven Strongest Women on Earth, I can see the headlines:


If you meet this walking catastrophe on the way to town and your only concern is mathematics, your garden is most likely short a few vegetables.

…Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
Don’t bother with math, just flee for your lives.

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Rollin’ Hogwarts Like a Wizard.

Or: Sorting Your Way to a More Successful Tomorrow

So you got your acceptance letter to magic school.  Congratulations.  You may think the program is so easy a kid with no prior knowledge of the subject could just roll in there and become the best at everything.

You’re probably right.  But with that road comes angst and pain and constant mockery from a smarmy kid who had Miley Cyrus’ look down pat long before Miley Cyrus got into whatever the heck she’s been doing for the past few years.

Real wizards plan ahead.  And there’s really only one subject in which you must be well-versed.


There are four of them.  Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor.  And when you arrive, you will be assigned to one by a hat.

That’s right, your future rests with a piece of clothing, and if you’re not prepared, you could end up doomed to seven years (or eight movies) of studies with the wizard equivalent of Scrappy Doo, or the kids from Full House.  As you can tell, this is a serious matter.  But if you play the game correctly, you could win the easiest seven years of your life.

“How?” you ask, in your squeaky, ten-year-old voice.  Simple.  Go Slytherin, and look socially acceptable by comparison.

Here’s what you face in each of the four houses.

Ravenclaw: Emos and goths.  Too broody, plus you could probably use the sun.
Hufflepuff:  Theater majors.  This is not Rent.  You are an aspiring wizard.
Gryffindor:  Brown nosers and nerds.  Their life is school.  Memorizing herbology to stay even with everyone else is lame.  And do you really want coursework in sycophancy?
Slytherin:  Sociopaths and morons–the brown ring of scum around the fixture that is Hogwarts.

Essentially, if you choose Slytherin, you commit yourself to a popularity contest against a bunch of disgruntled miscreants who would struggle to match wits with Marmaduke were they allowed an extra seventy or eighty IQ points and a favorable wind.

So go for it.  You can thank me later when you’re Minister of Magic.

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Chasing the Supernatural, Part II

Wherein I point out a major omission in part I.

This, conveniently, is the part of the process that I as a person have difficulty taking full advantage of (clarification follows) and as such the follow-up will likely be much shorter than the opener.  The problem with part one is that it addresses none of the deeper significance behind the entire idea of God, the actual relationship aspect.  Part one focused entirely on the practical/rational side of the God argument–necessary, maybe, but by no means the entire picture.

If you’ve read about Christianity at all outside of the news, you may come across the idea that at its core it is not about moralism or wreaking human judgment upon others or building an armada of Don’ts.   The problem is that many Christians (yes, capital C–being a Christian doesn’t make you immune to sin anymore than being a firefighter makes you flame retardant), ‘christians’, and others either act as if it all were so or don’t care enough to find out otherwise.  My honest belief is that because of both internal (whatever you would happen to consider ‘internal’) and external influences, many people do not view Christianity favorably.  They simply don’t know what real followers of Christ are supposed to look like because they’ve been unable to see one modeled properly amidst the thunderous wave of hypocrisy or disparagement.

So on a day these folks hear that Christianity is supposedly about God’s love, we wonder why it doesn’t get a favorable response.

It’s about recognizing who He is and who you are and building from there, stopping only when you arrive at the cross.

Mind you, corrupting the message isn’t the only issue, either.  There’s always the chance that we forget entirely where the focus lies–on love between Creator and created.  I offer this as a counterbalance to my apologetics-heavy part I.

Lewis puts it well in The Great Divorce:

There have been men before … who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but to exist. There have been some who were so preoccupied with spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.”

I will get one thing straight.  I’m not attempting to decide whether or not building a logical case for God and then deciding Well I guess I should just take this Jesus guy’s word for it and do what He says because I have nothing to lose constitutes saving faith.  My point is that walking up to the last woman (or man) on earth and saying “Honey, let’s save the species” does not a complete relationship make.  Sure you’ve addressed the practical reasons for getting together, but your words speak nothing of love itself.

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Chasing the Supernatural

My mind started wandering in the shower a few mornings ago, the wandering being a product of weeks/months/years of questions and doubt and hope and that kind of stuff.  This is an attempt to organize it, forgive me.

Faith (as in believing something that I can’t know for certain) has–on the surface–always been a difficult concept for me.  I don’t like its lack of concrete answers.  I like to look at something and know that it’s either completely explained, or somewhat so.  It’s nice to know that if I throw mashed potatoes at something, they’ll either stick or they won’t.

Knowing this, it’d be great if God would rain down public supernatural events on a regular basis.  Unfortunately–from my perspective and to my knowledge–that isn’t how He operates, and we’re forced to make decisions based on what we’ve been given.

Some people don’t ever need to question beyond what they can see.  What’s there is enough.  (I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever met one of those people.)

I can’t completely do that.  There are still whys, and barring some kind of public (or private) supernatural event, I suspect my own personal whys will always remain.  And I often wonder why–on a personal level–life must be this way.  A seeming lack of indisputable supernatural activity can be irritating on multiple levels, not the least of which is that faith is a bear to build an argument around, and I do like to argue.

As a result I’m compelled to make observations.

Observation: Life exists.  (Unless you’re under the impression that all of existence is one incredibly convincing lie, in which case there is really no point in discussing anything with you because if life is one great prevarication anyway you might as well spend it doing something else.)

Assuming you haven’t packed up your crazy and left, we’ll make a–

Conclusion: Something brought said life about.

By simple interpretation of those two statements, we can then conclude that it came about by either a natural or supernatural means, both being–at the very lowest level–mutually exclusive.  It’s not as if natural processes produced God, and then suddenly–along with everything ever–became subject to Him, and it’s not like God made the Big Bang (if you’re of the persuasion that it goes back that far) and then died, letting everything go on ticking for an indeterminate length of time.  I’m certain you could distill both of those thoughts into natural or supernatural anyway.  They’d just be the illegitimate spawn of people with too much time on their hands.

The question then is: What is natural?

Through observation and interpretation we’ve discovered rules. Two laws of thermodynamics in particular, that (simplified) tell us that A: Things do not spring out of nothing, and B: Things that exist move from order to disorder.  We know our universe either had some sort of beginning, which violated the rules as we know them, (ex nihilo does that) or it jumped out of what had previously (during an eternity of yesterdays?) been a stable point containing the ingredients for everything ever.  Which also came from something, which came from something…which came from nothing?

None of that is technically relevant, because if you accept the current narrative and go back far enough, whether through the big bang itself, or quantum fluctuations, or interaction with other universes or dimensions or branes, when you finally cannot look any further, (farther? Probably not–I think at some point actual distance became moot) how do you naturally explain whatever it is you find?

Do you choose not to explain it, dismiss explanations altogether, and steadily push on, envisioning reality as a never-ending matryoshka with you at the center?

Follow the tracks of a million ‘somethings that begat somethings’ backward through existence and you will have to find either a something that came from nothing, or a something with no natural explanation.

And here’s why.

Scientific practice relies on observation and interpretation.  Reasonable, right?  Here’s a thing, it looks like this because x.  Here’s another thing, it is what it is because of x as well.  Do that a hundred or a thousand times and x becomes your go-to explanation.  Galaxies are observed flying apart from each other?  Extrapolate backward and you decide that maybe they were close together at some point.  Really close together.  If that’s as far as you look, that’s all you’ll see.

Now hold that thought.

Look at a rosebush.  Only a rosebush.  Forget the plants it grows among, forget the bees, forget the ground, forget the sun and rain and the world around it.  Lacking any external cues to its existence, tell me what a rosebush does, and why.  Why does it have flowers?  Obviously, having detached it from its context, you must explain its purpose without referring back to anything external during your explanation.

Tough?  Now do it from inside the bush.

Our universe–at whatever scale of reality that eventually turns out to be–is that rosebush.  From inside it we will never be able to obtain a complete knowledge of what exactly it is.  We won’t even be capable of defining its limits because we won’t be able to see through them to understand if that’s truly what they are.  Does it (the universe, not the rosebush) end at the edge of the bubble, beyond quasars and the CMB?  Are there more ‘universes’ out there than just the one we can see now?  How do other dimensions factor in?

We can push the boundaries of answerability, but we cannot break them.  We’re doomed to remain inside the system, and without external context completely interpreting even a simple plant becomes impossible.  There’s no way to truly tell where it came from, there is only speculation based on the rules within the bush itself; never mind that there might be other forces at work beyond its borders.  Internal speculation doesn’t even begin to explain the external reality.  There are things beyond that rosebush that would fracture the minds of anyone inside.

Knowing this, and assuming research continues indefinitely, at some point the question “What else is out there?” is going to become completely academic because there will be nowhere else to look.  We will run up against the wall of what we can see and touch, and the question of what lies beyond the wall will return to the realm of philosophers rather than scientists.

God or not, the construct of reality will eventually require explanations outside of natural laws, explanations without empirical evidence, explanations based on faith in orphaned numbers and extensions of equations, hypothetical answers to problems that no one can see in a land without a field on which to test them.

In essence, science today is chasing the supernatural while denying the same.


Maybe It’s the Weather?

According to this article (which will be embedded when I’m not using a phone) a few people at MIT have developed the Hardest Tongue Twister Ever.

“Pad kid poured curd pulled cod.”  (You could probably find a similar article by searching that-just a thought)

Except so far I’m not seeing the difficulty.  It’s not difficult at all, and I don’t get it.

So I tried talking like Kennedy, because they’re in Massachusetts.  It’s no harder, although it sounds as weird as ever.

My guess is that either the article is a misprint, they used the wrong group of guinea pigs, or (most likely) that this is just one giant prank/experiment to see how long it takes for the internet to disseminate total gibberish.

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One-eyed, One-horned Eater of Flying Purple People
The Necessity of Clarity in Nomenclature
How to Profit from Uncle Sam’s Dissipation and Survive on Marginal Writing Ability

So I’ve been back to Popular Politics and Such Science again, in part because there are still occasional science-like updates despite their best efforts.

Article one: Government Should Fund Unpopular Science

Article two: Imposing Restrictions on What Gets Funding Is Bad

The fiscally conservative part of me thinks the idea of cementing the continuation of funding for studies of duck genitals for the sake of whatever it is that studies like that will do for the common good (or for the sake of science, and as we all know part of America has a massive science-related inferiority complex entirely due to us #&$% creationists trying to make children hate all science and entirely not because of one or more systemic problems with America’s education system)–securing funding for that sort of thing seems, to put it quite mildly, frivolous.   Both the government and the American scientific machine have much more important problems to deal with; in the case of the government, funding studies of duck parts might be exacerbating (if only slightly) an increasingly problematic budget issue.

The rest of me has decided that funding that kind of silt is awesome, because I can make money from it.

How, you ask?  Simple.  By writing a grant proposal that somehow manages to stand above research on anatid anatomy.  I don’t foresee much difficulty.

So I will propose an expedition to Bora Bora to answer a pressing scientific question:  Are there suitable ways to distinguish between the varieties of one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eaters? 
As you may well know, in the song from decades ago the eponymous creature happens to eat purple people.  For most of us, this would not present any major trouble.  I am not purple, and I do not know any purple people.

(Why undertake the study in Bora Bora, you ask, though the answer should be quite obvious?
Because it’s for science, and science says exotic things seem to hang out in the tropics.  Also, coincidentally, Bora Bora is what happens when love gets landscaping priviliges.)

However…  The title of the aforementioned song suggests the existence of as many as five different creatures, all essentially indistinguishable by common name.   (I’m unaware of any scientific names for any of them-this would be rectified by the end of the study.   Everyone knows that scientific names for animals are nothing more than a couple of keyboard accidents with –us added to the end.  Unless you’re a toad, or a gorilla, or a bison, or never mind shut up.)

The creature could be:

1.  Purple, having one eye and one horn, known to fly and eat people.
2. One-eyed and one-horned, known to fly and eat purple people.
3. One-eyed and one-horned, known to eat flying purple people.
4. One-eyed, known to eat one-horned, flying purple people.
5. Completely unidentified, possibly amorphous, and known to eat one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people.

Clearly, the last four are unlikely to pose a danger to the general public.  Following the suggestion of Popular Science, however, this fact alone does not render further studies undeserving of public funds.

In fact, such a study could prove useful to society anyway.

A creature known to eat violet, airborne, cyclopean humans with keratin production disorders would have a great deal of trouble locating food.  Any child born in a developed nation with all of these genetic mutations would be sold to the circus; a counterpart in a developing country would likely be removed from the village and burned under a full moon.
The chances that one of these creatures (the specific subspecies of flying purple people eater) would be in the right location at the right time to feed on said child are ludicrously small.   A possible explanation for the creatures’ survival (that doesn’t involve ridiculous odds or the need to feed once every three-and-a-half millenia) would be an innate ability to smell genetic mutations over great distances.  This ability, if harnessed, could be used medically, to provide early cancer warnings or screen for late-onset genetic disorders.

On a separate note, imagine you’re a purple person with two horns.  If one of them is removed and you hop onto a Qantas jet and head to Sydney, are you then vulnerable to attack?
Maybe you’re simply a purple person, and your feet leave the ground.  Is this enough to provoke an eater of flying purple people?  ICBMs operate similarly, leaving under their own power and following a ballistic path back to earth, and I doubt anyone would argue against calling it flight.

Mind you, if that proposal falls through, I have more.

Is it possible to go back in time by standing at the north pole and spinning clockwise?  Would the south pole behave similarly, spun in an unnatural counterclockwise circle?

Maybe you’re still awake at this point.  You’ve no doubt concluded that these are all valid questions meriting public monetary support.
Maybe you’re busy scheming to write grant proposals of your own.   By all means, do so!  Share the idea with your friends!  Write until your hands wear thin from rubbing against so much tree matter or poking all of those keys.

I only expect a place on your expedition if you get funded.

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So yesterday, as I’m assigning duties to the technicians in preparation for tomorrow’s launch, my globe-trotting business friend Frank calls with a question.  He says: “Hey Ian, I’m about to sign a major shipping contract with a firm in Indiana, and I wanted to make an impression.  They keep talking about “Hoosiers”.  What’s the deal?”

In my mind, I debated the merits of simply telling Frank that they’re all insane; that Hoosier is simply a weird word that no other place in the country cares about.

I said: “Frank, are you sure you want to get involved in this kind of thing?”

Frank just gave me one of those looks, but I couldn’t see it because we were on the phone.  I don’t think Frank is all there.

But I told him I’d get back to him and started researching anyway.

The term “Hoosier” hearkens back to the French and Indianan war, back during the days when France was into that sort of thing and Indiana was still an independent country.  It comes from a French term “Hoosier”, which is literally, “One who hooses”.   Hoosing in turn was birthed from one of two expressions, one of which I cannot repeat in any company, polite or impolite; the other of which involves a penguin, four horses, a stockade, and a great deal of unhampered ingenuity.  The details would be much too lengthy and boring to repeat.

In addition to releasing “Hoosier” into the English language in a small bizarre portion of the country, the war also brought us many other expressions, as wars often do, including “One if buy land, two if sell land, three if you’re too poor to deal with that kind of thing” and “Early to bed, early to rise, causes a man to eventually wake up at 5:30 pm and screws up his circadian rhythm.”

Oddly enough, neither of the participating groups spoke English–the French spoke some sort of Latin derivative, the Indianans initially spoke whatever kind of language would permit words like “Hoosier”– so the introduction of English phrases was a great surprise to all.

As a side note, the French won that war using a time-honored strategy, the combination of degrading insults and cannon fire.  The Indianans were eventually consigned to a reservation, located somewhere between Illinois and Ohio.

I called Frank back and explained the situation.  Frank, ever the patient sort, had already gone forward with the deal, arriving at the meeting in a gaudy shirt with “Hoosier” emblazoned across the front.

Turns out he was actually in India.  They laughed him out of the room.

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