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There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, most of them millions of light years apart from each other. Our own galaxy is the Milky Way. Of course, we’re living inside of it, so we cannot ever take a picture of it. The picture below is of another galaxy that we think is similar to our own. But that’s close enough for this exercise in visualization. You can click on the pictures to enlarge them. Milky Way 1 The Milky Way is about 100,000 light years in diameter. That means that the light takes 100,000 years to go from one edge of it to the other.  Our own sun is in a minor spiral arm, called the Orion arm, about 28,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way. That means its a little over halfway out from the inside. Milky Way 2 In the picture above I marked a random spot. Let’s just say that’s about 28,000 light years from the center. If you enlarge the picture, you’ll see a little circle at the end of the arrow. That’s approximately the bubble where all the stars we can see with our naked eye on Earth are located. If you go outside right now, every star you see is actually in this little red circle. That’s how far we can see. Milky Way 3 About 1930, when radio became popular, we started broadcasting. Our radio waves of Churchill speeches or Hitler diatribes started leaving the earth at that time. Since then, of course, we added Gilligan’s Island and I Love Lucy over the years, bringing us to Family Ties, Seinfeld and finally Breaking Bad. There is a bubble of radio waves that started leaving the Earth around 1930 in all directions. That bubble is now 170 light years in diameter and growing every second. That bubble represents the entire reach of technological humanity into our universe. In the above picture, I tried to put that bubble of 170 light years in perspective, and I found it’s just a tiny little dot. If you zoom in on the picture above and look at the little red dot at the end of the arrow, that’s about how far humanity’s “scream” into the world has reached, at the speed of light. It will take a while before the scream reaches any listeners anywhere – and they’d better not blink, lest they miss us entirely.

Delusions

The GOP believes that closing the borders would stop Ebola and illegal immigration, they believe that closing abortion clinics will stop abortions, but they refuse to believe that gun regulations will reduce school shootings.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law effectively banning Tesla Motors  from selling its cars in the state. After Texas, Arizona, New Jersey and Maryland, Michigan is the fifth state to do so.

I cannot figure out what problem all these laws are trying to solve. I can go into an Apple store and buy an iPad directly from the manufacturer. I can go into my local gallery and buy a painting from the artist. Why can’t I buy a car from the manufacturer, if there’s a store right there?

They are arguing that it is good for consumers by protecting them.

From What? From Tesla?

I see this as protectionist laws. Our lawmakers, obviously “purchased” by the car dealer lobby, are trying to make sure that the middleman get his cut, it’s as simple as that.

If you have to have laws keeping others out of your market, if you have nothing more to offer in your business model that gives consumers some value in the process of “dealing” with you – pun intended, then you truly have a business model that sucks and you’re on your way out.

Check typewriter manufacturers, travel agents, video rental stores, water-bed stores and Kodak.

Fortunately, the free market doesn’t put up with that very long, and it finds a way around that.

Just wait and watch.

 

anal

This shirt is listed for $4.13. I cannot figure out why anyone would buy – and then wear – this shirt.

Is this just bought by non-English-literate Chinese and Japanese women?

 

After listening to the first 15 second commercial before the above video gets started, there is an artist or poet, who apparently disdains the technological social network we have created. Ok, he is getting attention, he has an interesting concept song, but I can’t help but say after he is done:

Bullshit!

First, he uses YouTube to popularize his message, a device he supposedly disdains. Without the technology he puts in question I would never have heard his song.

Yes, I think it is rude to sit in a restaurant with a date and pick up your smartphone and start responding to emails. Yes, I think it’s terribly dangerous to text while driving. Yes, kids may spend too much in front of screens and not enough time in the woods finding treasures.

But the benefits of the technological advances we have today far outweigh those detriments in value. We now have contact with people we lost years, sometimes decades ago, and who would have been lost to us forever were it not for technology. We have communities we can use to share with others, like thoughts, pictures, notes and concepts, that we didn’t have only ten years ago.

We can now start companies in our spare bedrooms and make a living from our homes like never before. We have more safety, more security, more freedom, more information, and ultimately more time, because we’re not spending so much time on logistics and on running around on errands.

For every poignant point the poet in this video makes, I could make two counterpoints to the opposite effect.

As I see it: humanity in general is much richer and much healthier due to the connectivity technology provides. Now the question is: How does each one of us control that technology, that power, that connectivity, so it really enriches us and minimizes the slavery.

 

Facebook, the happy place where we post our pictures and where we show off our kids and their accomplishments, where we reconnect with old friends we would never have found again otherwise, has become one of the places where our culture comes together and where we socialize.

Facebook has its own instant message feature, where you can have live chats with friends or groups of friends, several at a time in real-time. We can keep it superficial, or we can have deep and personal conversations.

Let me destroy this idyllic picture of personal warmth and security, this place where you gather with your friends.

Facebook has just written to the DEA (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration) asking that their agents stop impersonating people.

Yes, DEA agents have created fake account, taking on the names of innocent people, entering their circle of friends and conversing with them. They have even posted pictures of the children of the people they are impersonating in an effort to appear authentic.

This article gives more information. The victim in this case was a woman who was indeed convicted on drug charges and served time some years ago. So the DEA thinks they might “harvest” her circle of friends for more victims, basically cyber-stalking them. This is indeed the wolf in sheep’s clothes in our midst, and they actually think this practice is right and legal.

Beware of your “friends” online, as they might not be what they appear to be.

 

The Conversation

One of my readers from Australia recommended that I promote The Conversation, an online journal dedicated to academic rigor and journalistic flair, that apparently started in Australia, spread to the U.K. and launched a pilot in the U.S. this month. Thanks for the heads-up, R.C.

Click on the link above to check it out.

hamill1Pete Hamill is a New Yorker, and he loves to write about New York.

I first learned about him when I read his Novel Forever about five years ago. I gave that story a four star rating at the time.

In Downtown, Hamill simply tells the history of New York. And what a way to do it! Move over, history teachers. We think of history as a dry list of dates when things happened in a stuffy world we don’t care about anymore.

Hamill loves his city and he loves to tell about it. Of course, he can draw on his own lifetime for the last 70 years or so, but he owns and has read over 500 books on New York that he can draw on.

The outcome is a very readable tale, broken down into topical chapters, about one of the most fascinating cities of the world.

I was born and raised in Regensburg, Germany, a city literally 2000 years old with building sections and walls still in place built by the Romans in the B.C. days. As a kid,  I hung out in taverns and cafes in buildings built in 1300. Yet, I am fascinated about New York and its history, when the first tents were “only” pitched there by the Dutch settlers in 1625 or thereabouts. What is it about New York that made it so much the “center of the world” that it is today? What caused it that Regensburg is a city of 100,000 people – and not growing – after 2000 years, and New York started from some 200 people in 1625 and became the largest city in the world for many decades, and is still today the hub the modern world turns around?

It is the spirit of the New Yorkers that made the difference through the centuries and you have to read Downtown to understand what I am talking about.

Rating: *** 1/2 (out of 4)

Regarding Facebook and Twitter, there is a side to those communities that people don’t know exist. Did you know that there are products that anyone can buy, including social services agencies and law enforcement, that can monitor Facebook and Twitter activity (and other sites) on an ongoing basis. Let me give you some examples:

Example 1: A low-income mother may go to her County Department of Social Services for welfare assistance because her husband left her and her income is now below a certain threshold to support herself and her two children. She must document her income, her need and that her husband is gone, and in many states she will be eligible for some type of assistance. However, the case worker may be checking her Facebook page and see if there are pictures of her and the children at little league games with the supposedly absent husband happy and engaged in the family life.

Example 2: A couple is in divorce proceedings and things are contested. The estranged husband could put a trace on the wife’s Facebook account to collect all posts in an effort to get evidence against her. The trace will do just that. Even if the wife posts something, leaves it there for half an hour and then deletes it, the trace will have picked it up for the permanent record. Even if it was there just for a short time and deleted right away, the husband has it recorded.

Example 3: Law enforcement trying to locate somebody when they enter a certain geographic area can put a trace on Facebook, Twitter and many other location-sensitive programs that trigger when a certain person posts something. They can identify a few city blocks and trigger for posts about keywords they are looking for. In the case of a restraining order, the presence of the restrained person in the vicinity can be triggered and an alert can be generated.

The three examples should be enough to scare you – and they are real. We’re not talking NSA stuff here. You and I can buy these products and go to town with them. Of course, most ordinary people like you and I have better things to do. But predators love this stuff.

So next time you tweet that you’re going to Hawaii for a week and then your Facebook account is filling up with pictures of the cocktails you’re sipping at Cheeseburger in Paradise, think about those predators.

Lately, I’ve been pissing people off by not “liking” seemingly like-worthy stories, like the one about the family who created a bucket list for their unborn baby with anencephaly. Many of my friends thought that story was moving and inspiring and offered their prayers. I thought it was kind of selfish and cruel. And tragic, of course. Difference of opinion. Some people think it’s best to bring a brainless, skull-less baby into the world so he can be baptized and die four hours later. Some people think what’s in the best interest of the baby is to end things before the poor thing grows larger and and is born struggling to survive.

– The Grieving Atheist

The post above reminded me of many times when I didn’t hit the Like button and then hesitated. Fortunately, I don’t think it happens too often that my friends look at their own posts, check the list of Likes against the list of their friends, find me missing in the Like category, and get pissed off at me. If I don’t like something, or don’t comment on it at all, the poster never really knows if I saw it in the first place.

In my own case, I don’t spend much time in Facebook, so I miss most activity anyway.

I have jokingly suggested that there should be a Not Like button that we could use when people post generally unfortunate stuff, somebody got ill with cancer, somebody died, somebody’s girlfriend broke up with him, that kind of stuff. When it’s a good friend, you might indicate your solidarity, but you can’t really Like it.

Now, click on the Like button on the bottom of this page for the record.

Painting: Pitchfork

Pitchfork

Pitchfork: Chelsea and Tyler at the Homestead, Oil on Canvas, 28″ x 22″

The 1930 painting by Grant Wood, titled American Gothic, is the most parodied painting of all time. If the artist only had known. Now it was my turn. This is my daughter with her boyfriend, their portraits lifted from her profile page on Facebook, and the background – well, follow this link.

Go! No! Don’t Go!

I don’t remember this from driver’s education. Well, one thing I am sure about, it’s One Way to the left, but I wouldn’t dare turn. Left on red?

Go - No - don'

[click for picture credit]

A Rock from Mars

image_2153_1-Nakhla-meteorite

[image credit: NASA]

A rock formed on Mars 1.38 billion years ago. About 11 million years ago, an impact event on Mars ejected this rock from the Martian surface. It then circled the sun along with Mars and Earth for 11 million years. On June 28, 1911, it “rained” down to Earth along with a number of other meteorites near El-Nakhla in Egypt. The meteorites are now called the Nakhla meteorites.

I was born some 45 years after it crashed and was collected, and I now get to marvel about it. The simple fact that we even know this, and can establish this much detail about the history of this one rock is fascinating.

Dust in the wind, we are.

 

Multiple fragments of the Nakhla meteorite fell to Earth on June 28, 1911 near the village of El-Nakhla in Egypt. Its crystallization age has been determined to be 1.38 billion years.

About 11 million years ago, an impact event ejected this rock from the Martian surface, after which it traveled through space and crashed into our planet in 1911.

Let me start right out stating that I love Southwest Airlines. I respect the company and the employees, their innovative business model and their great customer service. The website works great. There is only one minor thing wrong, and I don’t think it’s an accident. It think it’s cheeky.

When you have purchased a ticket and need to cancel the trip, Southwest gives your “credit.” The money is available when you buy the next ticket. But it’s not tracked anywhere on the website. The website has a way to look up everything you might want to know about your trips, your account, your payment data, everything, except your credits.

When paying for a new ticket, you can use the credit you have from a previous ticket to pay for it, in full, or partial. But to invoke the credit, you need to type in the reservation number of the trip that was cancelled. The reservation number is the 6-digit code you get when you book a ticket, like MAQFFA. Once you type this in, it applies the credit from that ticket to the current purchase. But who remembers such a weird number? You would never think so, until it’s time to pay for the next ticket, weeks or months later, too late.

Recently I had credit from a large purchase and I needed to make a purchase of a much cheaper ticket. So I didn’t even use up all the credit. I just sort of remembered that I still had “some” money left over. As much as I fly, I don’t always remember all this from one trip to the next and I rely on the system. So I vaguely knew that I still had money left over.

When I tried to find it, and how much, it simply was not possible. I had to actually call Southwest and get an agent to help me. I still had a whopping $178 left, but no idea what the ticket code was. The agent told me that this was not anywhere on the site.

Why in the world not?

The only reason I can think of: Southwest profits when people can’t remember they have credits, and if they do, they can’t remember how to invoke them. Money in the bank.

It’s like a gift certificate that is never cashed. Pure profit.

I am disappointed. I thought Southwest Airlines was better than that.

 

Movie Review: Fury

Fury

War ends lives in desolate fields, overseas, in mud, in smoke, away from all that we love, alone, desperately alone. War wastes people.

It is April 1945. The Americans have pushed deep into Germany from the west. The Russians are advancing on Berlin from the east. Germany is all but defeated. Hitler, however, has ordered an all-out battle, recruiting children, elderly, anyone that can hold a gun to fight to the end. The SS hangs Germans who resist in this effort from telephone poles with signs around their necks reading slogans like: “I didn’t allow my children to fight for my country.” Hitler’s scorched earth initiative is underway.

Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) is an army sergeant and tank commander of a Sherman tank. He is with a platoon of a handful of tanks deep in Germany behind enemy lines. When his second in command dies, he is assigned a rookie soldier, Norman, who has been in the service only eight weeks and has never seen combat. To make matters worse, their platoon commander gets killed by an ambush, placing Wardaddy in charge as the next in line.

Hopelessly outgunned, they are assigned near-suicide missions inside Germany, running into ambush after ambush as they roll through the villages.

War is absurd. What it does to people is absurd. The objective of war is absurd. In Fury we see deep into the souls of five men who are in an impossible situation, each dealing with the insanity of what is going on around him in his own way. The men are trapped inside 30 ton graves. They desperately do the only thing they can do to get a chance of ever making it back, which is killing everyone that crosses their path. War never ends quietly.

This movie took a lot out of me. It is timely, especially now as we talk so much about war.

Rating: *** 1/2 (out of 4)

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