Thursday, March 26, 2009

"It's Mighty Funny, The End Of Time Has Just Begun"

I was thinking the other day about the End Of The World. You might suggest to me that it's a healthy thing to think about, either because human advancement is speeding the planet's demise, or perhaps because it's helpful to meditate from time to time on one's own mortality, but I have to admit that my particular line of thinking was more whimsical than all that. Assuming that the world will end at all (and I think it will), how it happens will probably be pretty interesting to whoever happens to be around at the time that time ceases to be. Sure, perhaps the Universe will continue on its merry way without us being there to watch it, but what's the point in thinking about time when there are no more people to watch the clocks? People theorize a great deal about what happened before humanity existed, and how long it may have taken, and that's an interesting and hopefully humbling thing to study. But what about time, and the Universe, after humanity's cosmically (comically?) brief existence? It's somewhat less compelling, really. I was somewhat surprised at myself to reflect that whenever the subject came up, either when I'm thinking about it alone or discussing it with others, there are certain doomsday scenarios which are infinitely more desirable than others. After further reflection, I determined that there is what appears to be an inverse relationship between the probability of a given cause of The End and its desirability. Perhaps you've observed the same thing yourself, but I suspect that instead you've spent your time thinking about things that actually matter, and have given it very little thought. How fortunate for both of us then, that you should stumble upon this inter-net web-log, dedicated almost entirely to the study of things that (probably) don't matter.

Now then, for my money, the best possible ways for the world to end are (in no particular order):

1. Interstellar war (or something). I don't think that space aliens actually exist, but if they do, I think it would be pretty awesome if they destroyed us. Something like the beginning of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would be pretty much ideal, though I guess it wouldn't constitute war per se.

2. Human error (of the awesome variety). If you have to go somehow, you could do a lot worse than to be done in by science. Our best hope for this right now, as far as I know, is the existence of the Large Hadron Collider. Of course, the fact that the LHC's creators have assured us that it's perfectly safe would only contribute to the awesomeness here, in the event that they're horribly, horribly wrong. Hopefully they would get to say something like "Ye gods, what have we done?" right before the earth is engulfed in a black hole. Freakin' sweet.

3. Asteroids (on the rocks, but hold the Bruce Willis). This is (I think) more likely than #1 or #2, and as such is somewhat less desireable. It's also been the subject of a couple of really bad movies, which doesn't help its case. Still, as far as doomsday scenarios go, it's pretty cool.

Now then, on the completely pedestrian, undesreable side of things, we have:

1. Global pandemic. Unless it comes from outer space and turns us into flesh-eating zombies first, there's pretty much nothing cool about everyone on earth dying of some mutated form of Smallpox. It's also on the "relatively likely" side of thigns. It's too normal. Too square.

2. War that has nothing at all to do with space aliens. Let's face it, people are pretty good at destroying one another in ridiculously uncool ways. It's pretty believable that Armageddon could happen this way, and I have no reason to believe that the end of the Cold War has made it significantly less likely.

3. Global Warming. Apparently this is now called "Climate Change," probably because too many Midwesterners have taken to facetiously welcoming the idea of "warming" every single time it snows, and I mention it often enough on this blog that I'm going to start calling it simply ΔC. Now, ΔC finally killing us off is a lot less likely than it used to be, but there are rumors that it wasn't completely defeated in the summer of 2007, and is rearing for a comeback. If this happens, I predict that it will be pretty lame.

4. Human error (of the not-awesome variety). This could manifest in any number of ways, but would probably resemble either global pandemic (1), accidental use of WMDs (2), or boring old ΔC (3), all of which, as discussed above, would be lame.

Anyways, those are my two lists. What are yours? The Font of All Human Knowledge has a pretty good list to pick from here, if you're stumped.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Book Titles Redux

I mentioned a few days ago that I advocate judging a book by its cover, particularly if you've got little or nothing else to go on. I also mentioned (and have been verbally and electronically pilloried for doing so ever since) that I found every woman on earth's favorite book rather boring.

With all that in mind, something about this little work of literature caught my attention. Now that's a good title: it's simple, to the point, grabs your attention, and tells you roughly what to expect from the book.

I thank Kathleen K. and Eric (separately) for the pointer.

By the by, Tyler Cowen, who reads an obscene amount, has some very interesting things to say about judging a book by its cover.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Stuff I've Been Digging

1. U2's new record, No Line On The Horizon. Surprisingly, the most popular rock band in the world continues to make really good music. Longtime U2 producers Eno and Lanois share writing credits on the album, and their presence can certainly be felt over the whole thing, which overall feels much more cohesive than their last few efforts. Their signature heart-on-sleeve bombast survives, the band continuing to be self-aware enough to avoid pretension despite high ambition. One of my favorite things about U2 is the fact that they continually push themselves artistically, and this record has a great, adventurous feel to it. It's honest, intimate, and (best of all) fun to listen to.

2. Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time. I found a used hardcover copy in excellent condition for a dollar at the library, and I couldn't refuse it. I'm in no position to comment on the science, but the entertainment value of the work is very high. Hawking's claim early in the book that it contains only one equation (E = MC^2) isn't exactly true--there are several equations which are merely expressed in english, rather than mathematical notation--but it's no matter, the book is great for a non-scientist such as I, and I think he makes the subject matter as easy to comprehend as any discussion of infinity can be. My only quam so far (I've not finished it yet) is that he insists on saying "million million" instead of "trillion." Was the word just less commonly used when the book was written? I don't know.

3. Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm kind of a closet Trekkie, which I guess means that I enjoy Star Trek in what I would define as some form of moderation. I certainly don't indulge in the excesses of Trek geekness, such as reading fan fiction, contributing to the expansive Star Trek wiki, or pretending that Star Trek IV was anything other than a festering turd of a film. In any case, I really liked this show growing up (it was one of the few TV shows my family watched). Recently, the wife (who is less ashamed of her affection for Star Trek than I am, claims to like Star Trek IV, and has even read some fan fiction) and I borrowed the first season of TNG from my parents, and have been enjoying it's hilarious late '80s campiness, generally with the exception of the much-hated Wesley Crusher. It's also surprising how little the production value of network television increased between the medium's inception and the advent of DVD. Particularly in the first season, TNG doesn't really look any better (for that matter, it isn't any better written) than its late '60s predecessor. My favorite running joke of the whole thing is that in the world of the show, human society has advanced beyond material want, and yet they haven't figured out that seat belts might be a really good idea.

That's all I've got for now. I would write about something more interesting, if only I could think of it. TTFN! Ta Ta For Now!

Monday, March 02, 2009

In Which We Provide A Brief Discussion of Book Titles

A friend and I have both decided (at his suggestion) to tackle and discuss E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Conveniently, I already had two copies on my shelf, gifts from two different family members, who apparently upon learning that I'd decided to study economics began to fear for the state of my soul. Both copies of the book have since then sat on my shelf these past few years, with nothing but their somewhat garish cover art with which to occupy themselves, and my occasional changes in domicile to alter their location. It isn't as though I never meant to read them, mind you (though I always thought I'd read just one of them; there's no sense in going overboard), but there has always been a seemingly endless supply of books that I would rather read first. Whenever it caught my eye (as two identical books next to each other on a shelf can do) I would always say to myself, as my Grandmother is fond of saying, I wish I wanted to do that. I should mention that I don't really know what the book is about, and that I generally like reading about economics (after all, I have a degree in it). I'm not even remotely familiar with its author. No, the book's only sin, aside from the aforementioned artwork on its jacket, for which it had been relegated to its current perdition, was its title. It's subtitle, to be exact (that's the part the comes after the colon).

You see, from where I sit, economics is about people. It's a social science, after all: a study of people. The book doesn't do itself any favors in my estimation by starting with what appears to be a false premise, namely that people don't matter to economics in general. You may as well put a book on my shelf entitled If Only All Irish-Americans Weren't Sociopaths. Sure, it has a certain ring to it, but it doesn't pose itself to be taken seriously, at least as a work of nonfiction.

In any case, after a week of prodding from my friend, I've decided to read it. It's only about three hundred pages; it shouldn't take all that long, anyways. It may end up being good, I don't know. They say that you can't judge a book by it's cover, but I generally think that to be false. In a given lifetime, you just haven't got time to read everything. I read pretty slowly, so for me this is even more true than for many people. Assuming that you value reading at all (not everyone does), you have to choose what to read somehow, and a cover (ideally, at least) tells you something about the book. In this case, if Small Is Beautiful ends up being good, then its cover is guilty of spreading misinformation about it.

By the way, the friend I mentioned is John, the author of Basebology, and one of this blog's only regular commentors. For all I know, he's the only person who'll ever read this post, for that matter. When we've finished the book (assuming that the world doesn't end first, of course), I may try to get a few money quotes from him to put up on this space, which will probably be easier than formulating my own thoughts about it. Who knows? He may even be able to relate the book's contents to our national pastime.