Nolan Peterson

Nolan Peterson

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Posts by Nolan Peterson

Pondering life in a multiverse


There is a theory out there that says the universe we live in is just one of an infinite number of universes.
What does this mean for me and you? I don’t know, let’s ponder it.
The problem with infinity, and I’m sure there is more than one, is that the concept itself is too large to grasp. So to say that anything is infinite is to push it so far out of the realm of the mind, that most people simply substitute “forever” or “wow, that’s a lot,” which doesn’t really encapsulate infinity.
So I’ll put it like this: If you were standing on a sheet of paper that stretched infinitely in all directions, you would be standing in the dead center of that sheet. If you walked 10,000 miles to the left, you’d still be dead center. If you walked anywhere on that sheet, you would never leave dead center, because on every possible line of sight you could look, the line would never end.
You would finally be the center of the universe. Congratulations.
But that’s just spatial infinity. What about an infinite number of universes? That is, after all, what this whole column is supposed to be about.
Well, if you think about it, in some universe, every fantasy you ever had would have come true at some point. All of them. And you know, that is about as amazing as it is terrifying. For every time you imagined you won the lottery, or said yes to your friend when they asked you to go to that concert, but you didn’t because you’re a curmudgeon who would rather sit around in pajamas and watch “Battlestar Galactica,” well, in another universe, you did those things. And each different decision would eventually produce a different version of you. Pretty fantastic, huh?
But what about all those times you got so mad you could just smash something.
Or someone.
Those happened, too.
It can be horrifying to think that for every time you had an evil thought about the person who forgot your fries at the drive through, or who cut you off on the freeway (California plate 6VJR549, don’t think I forgot about you), in some universe, you really did do those unspeakable things to them that you imagined.
Of course, in this universe, you didn’t do those things.
Good job.
And I’m sure some reading this won’t feel any remorse for that, just like they feel no joy over a different version of themselves actually winning that fourth-grade spelling bee.
But it is food for thought.





 Welcome to Geekdom. Population: everyone

For those who are new to this blog, I should introduce myself:
My name is Nolan, and I’m a geek.
As far as this space — the one between the first word and the last period — is concerned, I feel like there should be some ground rules.
I like the structure of rules. I like the fact that rules can give form to the formless, bones to the blob and foundations to build upon.
With the rapid expansion of the News Tribune’s content offering, there seems to be territory unclaimed.
So what are the rules?
I don’t know them all, but let’s stake some out, just to see what we’re working with.
Will this column occasionally involve science topics?
Yes, but from the viewpoint of a fan, not a professor.
Are you going to show boring slides of cell division whilst droning on in a monotone voice like some 1957 high school biology film?
Heck, no.
So why is it called “Geekstream”?
It started out as the name of my blog, which deals with a lot of geekery. Content that isn’t necessarily part of the mainstream offerings, but is part of a smaller stream: a Geekstream.
So what makes a person a “geek”?
I’m glad you asked, take the red pill, and let’s go.
Geek, as a label, has changed quite a bit over its lifetime. While some might still equate the word with socially inept freaks, the Internet has helped shoehorn geeks into a more-acceptable subculture. And that’s how most people see it: a subculture.
But if I were pressed to give a firm definition of what determines a geek, I would say they’re simply the curious.
Geeks are people who obsess over the minutia of the object or objects of their fascination. Their curiosity drives them to plumb the depths of their subject until they find themselves so fully engaged in the details, that they forget to remember that it’s just a curiosity after all.
For me, as I was growing up, it was X-Men, Star Wars, Star Trek and reading various science fiction authors.
But if you think the geeky rabbit hole ends with just the science-y, flight-of-fancy stuff, you’re in for a ride. Now, I geek out over all of those things, but I’ve added Doctor Who, fountain pens, military history, soccer, horticulture and writing.
Anyone can be a geek nowadays. An informal poll of my friends and coworkers has identified that everyone, yes, everyone was a geek for something or another.
I’ll use initials to protect anonymity:
J.M. is a self-described antiquities geek. He has an insatiable curiosity for Greco-Roman history and the evolution of Christianity.
M.L. is an uber geek for movies. Not just movies, but quirky, independent movies that follow the oddball and might not exactly have happy endings.
J.N. tears through WWII history and Mountain Dew.
T.G. want’s nothing more than to live in a world where the highest priority is given to silent reading time, and has even taken the time to cast a theoretical “Dark Towers” series.
J.B. loves professional wrestling so much, he would burst out in catch phrases in the middle of meetings.
The point is, we all love the things we love. And when we love them enough to learn more about them than what is on the surface, when we dig down deep and find the rules and structures that give our fascinations form and function, we become geeks.
So that’s what this column will contain. Those things we care enough about to peel back the layers on.
And that is beautiful.


Playing hooky: feeling the physics of freefall


As I’ve grown up, or at least acknowledged that I am a grownup, I’ve tried to be the best geek I can be. I’ve tried to teach my kids how to be good people who take responsibility for themselves and their actions.
But every once in a while, you need to let kids be kids.
And you even have to let grownups be kids, too.
And sometimes that means ditching work, family and all other responsibility to ride roller coasters with friends all day at Valleyfair.

That’s what a couple friends and I did recently. Of course, we were all responsible in shirking our duties. We found childcare for the kids, took personal days from our jobs and made sure our significant others knew when we would be back.
The Northland was once again mired in fog and low temperatures. On the road, the two of us who weren’t driving were constantly checking the weather conditions in Shakopee, Minn.
The floodwaters closed down some of the main attractions, and forced us to park in a nearby field, but the excitement of the day’s prospects couldn’t be dampened by such things.
The trip down to the park was, I knew, one of the best parts of the day. The journey, they say, is what’s important. And indeed it was a chance for the three of us to talk without the normal distractions that come with every-day life.
With the triad trapped in one vehicle, we were given license to delve into some really deep topics that had been weighing on our minds: “They charged you how much for snowmobile insurance?” “Team USA needs to get more aggressive with their goal scoring, I can’t believe this World Cup.” “What if our solar system is just an atom in a huge molecule that’s part of an even bigger universe?” “Yes, I’ve heard that cheese can really block you up unless you eat some carbohydrates with it.”
Soon enough, the conversations were over, and we started looking for our parking spot and offering the obligatory commentary on the crazy bumper stickers people chose to affix to their bumpers.
After paying our way in, we wandered aimlessly for a bit, not really knowing where to start. Eventually we happened upon the entrance to the premier attraction: Wild Thing.
I had evidently forgotten what a thrill it is to surrender your body to classical Newtonian physics. The giddiness I felt, the

butterflies in my stomach, I later found out was from the 60 degree drop of 196 feet that sped the open-air car I was riding to approximately 74 miles per hour resulting in 4.1 G’s before entering a 103 foot

parabolic hill which gives the rider a long section by which to experience low gravity.
Butterflies … all up in my guts.
It was an amazing feeling to actually take a little time to recapture the youthful exuberance and sheer joy of riding a roller coaster. Something I hadn’t done in at least the last 17 years.
I found something there, with my innards floating about, that I’m not so grownup as I thought I was.
And that was actually a big shock to me.
As a kid, you look up at grownups through the warped lenses of childhood. You see them having fun by sitting around chattering with a cup of coffee in their hands. They always seem so serious. They do not play around like a kid.
Maybe a part of me tried to shove myself in that box of adulthood. And maybe, for a while it worked.
But I discovered very quickly that I am still the same geeky little kid inside. I couldn’t shove that giddiness under the mantle of adulthood once it had been sprung.
I’m willing to bet that there’s a little kid in all of you. One who would give almost anything for the chance to recapture that sense of amazement, wonder, and, maybe, gastrointestinal dialogue.


The World Cup: An American Geek sporting event


It’s time for the World Cup. The pinnacle of international play for the beautiful game.

You might ask yourself why a self professed geek would be getting excited about watching sports like any other run of the mill athletic supporter.

To which I would say: It’s not just any sport, it’s a sport for outcasts.

It’s the “my Canadian girlfriend, you’ve never met her” of the sporting world, at least where America is concerned.

It’s not too many folk who have the time to devote to their nerd craft, and follow the minutia of a professional sport.

But this is what makes watching soccer (especially international matches) so accessible for the geek. The rosters generally have a few standouts who make the cut for the international teams, so it’s easier to follow your favorites. The World Cup only happens once every four years, so there is a lot of off time that you can devote to your other nerdy pursuits. And, since so few of the average American follows it, you’re not going to be constantly drawn into a discussion about the latest news, thereby having to feign understanding or uncomfortably profess ignorance.

The World Cup: Something you can become very involved in for one summer every four years, then pack it away for a while, confident it’ll still be fairly fresh when you go back to dust it off.


The Game of life


A couple weeks ago — okay, several weeks ago [FINE, it was four months-ish, tops] — I wrote about how you can use game theory to keep yourself organized, and use your time wisely.
It’s time for the follow up lesson that I only recently learned: Don’t forget that all this is just a game.
Let me back up.
A couple months ago, there were the standard changes at work, at home, and with friends. Basically, I saw the changes as new goals that had to be achieved before the game clock ran out. The real pain of that game clock is it’s different for everyone, and there’s seldom a warning before it goes off. But I digress.
Just as I felt I had to spend more of my time at work (time being the only game piece we can exchange for anything else in the game of life), my second child was born.

Boom. Strategy busted.
I could have laughed at the timing and shaken a (faux) angry fist at the sky and cursed the game mechanic. I could have done the obvious choice in reallocating my time to the long-game (it’s a better strategy, by far) but what did I do? I forgot all about the fact that this is a game, and I started to take everything seriously.
I had to be there for my family. I had to go into the office early. I had to put in my time at the gym. I had to —- well, you get it.
The point is, instead of stepping back to see how best to use this new player in the game, I kept trying to push my original strategy, and it was burning me out.
So I had to make a change. I had to reassess where my time was going, and look at it critically with a player’s eye. But most importantly: I had to remember that this was a game, and that it should be fun and not a burden.

There’s a lot I would like to say about this concept, but I once stole a line from a movie that says if you can’t say it better, steal from someone else and go out strong. So I’m going to steal from Bill Hicks.



Bill Hicks – Life is just a ride…
The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.
Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.
“Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.”
It’s just a ride.
But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.
And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear wants you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead see all of us as one.
Here’s what we can do to change the world right now, to a better ride:
Take all that money we spent on weapons and defense each year and instead spend it feeding, clothing, and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and WE CAN EXPLORE SPACE, TOGETHER, BOTH INNER AND OUTER, forever … in peace.
Bill Hicks (1961 – 1994)

Internet: Not just for cats anymore


The Internet has a love affair with cats. Is it because the most avid users and generators of content are people who loathe going outside, and thus opt for feline companionship? Maybe. 

But there is more to the Internet than just cat’s playing piano, haz-ing cheezeburgers, or dancing to dubstep. 

That’s right, more. In fact, you can actually learn something.


Right now, anyone with an Internet connection has access to a world-class education. Harvard, MIT, Yale, Duke, Stanford all have Massive Open Online Courses — MOOCs — where you can learn from some of the top minds on a myriad topics.  

The only difference between everyday Joe Bag O’Doughnuts and an MIT graduate is a slip of paper. 

Of course, not all of the MOOCs have a structured level assessment. You might not always take tests, or visit the prof for office hours. But for those who have just a bit of ambition and self discipline, they can learn anything. 

From the movie “Airplane!” 1980

MOOCs aren’t limited to established, brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning, either. 

Brian Greene, a Professor at Columbia University and co-director of the university’s Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics, is launching a MOOC where he will teach two classes, something he revealed on March 6 in an AMA on the popular content-aggregating website, Reddit.

Greene will discuss Einstein’s theory of Relativity. And if you know nothing more than E=mc2, this is your opportunity to learn just how mind-blowing it is.


40 XP for Dungeons & Dragons


This year, the most reliable indicator of hard-core geekdom turns 40 years old. And for anyone out there who thinks only the nerdiest of the nerds can wield a 20-sided die, keep in mind, Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are among those nerds. 

Big deal, you might say. So some game is having a birthday party. Big whoop. 

The saying “don’t knock it till you try it” comes to mind. 

For the uninitiated, Dungeons & Dragons (along with subsequent versions, offshoots and iterations) is a Role Playing Game (RPG) that allows people to decide what type of hero or villain they want to be, and what abilities they want them to have. Then, after everyone has created their characters, a “Dungeon Master” or DM will lead the group (usually 4-6) on an adventure. The adventures can be short campaigns with a single objective, or multi-layered story arcs stretching over years. 

Yes, YEARS. 

As the characters progress and defeat their enemies, they gain experience points which can be used to level up. (see also: gain new strengths and attributes.) 

The allure of this particular type of gameplay is, it can take place entirely through dialog, leaving the scene and world entirely in each player’s imagination. 

Director Jon Favreau reportedly credits Dungeons & Dragons with giving him “… a really strong background in imagination, storytelling, understanding how to create tone and a sense of balance.” 

The controversy surrounding Dungeons & Dragons is long and storied. When the game first gained wide popularity, christian groups denounced the game as promoting satanism and the occult.

© Philip J. Hall

But what did D&D really do? It gave kids who might otherwise be socially inept (to a certain degree) the ability to become someone else. To take on the form of a powerful warrior, or a skilled magician. It entertained, socialized, and enriched the storytelling imaginations of generations of geeks. And I count myself in that group. 

Mason Froberg, Co-owner of Dungeons End in Duluth, has been on earth as long as Dungeons and Dragons. And while he has shared a lifespan with the game itself, aside from a bit of dabbling, Froberg didn’t really get into the role of Dungeon Master until he opened his game shop. 

“I run a campaign of Pathfinder every Sunday for three hours,” Froberg said. The game is open for people to watch.

Speaking for myself, as a geek from way back, I didn’t start dabbling in the RPG world until the last couple of years. In that brief experience I’ve had with the game, I would agree that playing the game facilitates meaningful, interpersonal contact. Not like the contact you have with people at work, or your core-group of friends. Playing this game collaboratively, allows a group of people to form something of a bond. 

Sure, it’s not quite as strong as two guys in the same foxhole, but there is a sort of brotherhood that is gained by finishing an epic campaign together. 

And maybe society could use a little more cohesion, and a little less division.



America: World Police? I wish…


America is not the World Police…worse, they are the world’s mommy. And that sucks.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are crude, yes, but great. In 2004, as America’s attitude toward the (war? police action? debaucle?) quagmire in Iraq shifted, Parker and Stone put out “Team America: World Police” lampooning the egotism and patriotism of America as some moralistic, justice dispensing, know-it-all nation. It was a great movie, but I don’t think America is a Police force, it is more like a schizophrenic parent.

For all the firstworld anarchists bloviation about how police are a terrible blight, police actually do good things:

  • Respond to a crisis

  • Stop criminals from harming innocents

  • Detain suspects until adjudication

  • Hand out baseball cards to neighborhood school children

It would be a treat if our nation acted that way. For most people, the cops never hassle them (Your Mileage May Vary) and if they are good cops, they have a good reason to stop you (Don’t get me started on NYC’s “Stop and Frisk” crap. That doesn’t fit with the narrative… mooooooving on). Instead, the You Ess of Eh acts like the worst kind of overbearing parent ever.

It wouldn’t be so bad, if it didn’t take the worst qualities of parents in dealing with the rest of the nations it views as children.


“Mommy” America:

  • Expects all the “children” to act according to how mommy wants them to act

  • Plays favorites, giving out foreign aid to those mommy likes

  • Freaks out and dispenses harsh punishment out of anger for those mommy doesn’t like much, but needs their help keeping the lights on

  • Utterly neglects the children she either doesn’t like or doesn’t see value in

  • Eaves drops on her children’s phone calls

  • Saves a copy of all of their browser histories


But America shouldn’t be the world’s police force, or it’s mother. It should view other nations as collegues. As teammates working for, ultimately, the same goals: Healthy economies, a sustainable habitat and a desire to explore the uncharted.

Some of the blame lies with the politicians. Twisting their screws and creating a culutre of fear and artificial scarcity. But most of the blame lies with us —  we, the people — because it is only when we can form a consensus, a common objective to achieve these goals, that we are going to make any progress toward utopia.

Like it or not, humanity is a family of brothers and sisters, no parents allowed.


Manage your life … with help from board games


Can playing board games help you live your life? Now for the phrase I heard most often as a child: “Maybe…it depends.”

The thing about our daily lives is – for many of us – we have many different things happening on varying timelines that require various resources (time, money, attention, presence, etc). School was supposed to teach us all about the world in terms of rules: literature and grammar rules, rules of physics, chemistry and biology, and rules about not beaning a kid in the head when you play dodge-ball (I haven’t forgotten, Joe W. and I won’t forget).

Point being, the structure of school was also supposed to give us a rudimentary idea of how to allocate our resources (at that age, our resources were mostly play time and the peach cobbler from our lunch trays). I can’t speak for anyone else, but the realities of managing bills, playing at least some games, student loan debt, office politics, sibling rivalries and relationships with family, friends and partners (did I mention bills?) adds up to complexity. What school should have focused on a bit more was how to manage our lives with some semblance of resource management. That’s where board games can help. But you have to play the right kind.

When someone says “board games” in America, I get the impression that most people think to themselves “bored games.” As in, you would have to be bored, stuck inside on a rainy day with no power and dead batteries in your mobile devices to be coaxed into playing one. And that’s discounting those who might actually crack open a book (you remember those, right? Low-tech information download packets for your brain pan).

But there is good news on the horizon. Thanks to the Internet and some board game evangels who take to the streets, people are being introduced to the amazing possibilities that board games have to offer.

There is a class of games out there that require a bit more strategy than deciding whether or not to buy “Park Place” or put a hotel on “Boardwalk”.

There exists a group of games (or kingdom, phylum, class, I don’t know exactly) referred to as European-style. They are intricate and rely more on game play than chance. They are broken down further into genus or species by their mechanic: resource management, auction, area control, etc.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on two types of resource management games: Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico.

Many people have at least a cursory knowledge of “Settlers of Catan” even if they don’t know much more than the name. But “Settlers” can teach a person quite a bit about managing what they have, what they need, and what they are willing to pay to get what they need… so, kinda like real life.

(On a side note, for the Star Trek geek / board game geek hybrids out there, Catan GmbH has combined Catan and Star Trek for a game of what I can only guess is epic awesomeness.  Which you can see being played by none other than the king of geekery himself, Wil Wheaton here.)

Back to Settlers of Catan.

The game is easy enough to understand that one needn’t be an expert to pick it up. Every player places two initial settlements on part of the board (the board changes in configuration every time you play it, so the experience always has a bit of freshness to it.) The placement of the second settlement determines each player’s starting resources. During regular play, settlements produce resources based on the numbers rolled on the dice.

Players can then, over the course of the game, trade resources in public negotiation. “I have wood for sheep” is a common enough phrase to hear, since people with an excess of wood, but in need of sheep, will try to trade off what they have for what they need.

But while there is an element of cooperation involved in trading with people, there’s also the overarching goal: to win the game. This means those who appear to be leading might put out a call for a resource, but find others are unwilling to trade with them. All of these factors combine to make a cooperative/competitive resource management game that can teach a person a lot about how to maneuver through their real lives.

Resource management games can get more complex, but not necessarily more complicated. Indeed, a game like “Puerto Rico” by Rio Grande Games can seem rather daunting to those who are unfamiliar with this particular type of board game. But for the adventurers among us, there are some great videos that explain the rules well enough to get started. Don’t let the hemp shirt fool you, the man is a genius… in his own way.

In Puerto Rico, there are a few more things to keep track of than one will find in Settlers of Catan, and the strategy involved is more varied, and is therefore more fun to play.

Here’s the takeaway: in Puerto Rico, players must balance cash, goods, buildings and victory points. Goods can be sold for cash used to build buildings, or they can be loaded onto ships for victory points. The fun comes in balancing the cash you need to buy buildings, with the victory points needed to win the game.

These two games are only a small sample of the ingenuity put in to modern-day board gaming. They can easily help you develop a more strategic way of looking at things. And that is something that has really helped me in dealing with the variety of challenges everyday life presents.

Like how to turn my time into money, so that I can turn my money into time-saving goods and services.

Or, in Settlers of Catan parlance: I’ve got time for stuff. Who can give me stuff for time??


How X-Men taught me empathy


Superheros save more than the fictional universes they inhabit, they also can help us, in the real world, save our own.

Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, especially without having a father driving home the importance of sports and physical domination, my personality was heavily influenced by the media (see: Saturday morning cartoons) I chose to pay attention to.

In particular, the X-Men animated series.

For the uninitiated, the X-Men animated series ran for 76 episodes in the early 1990s. The series focused primarily on Cyclops’ Blue Team, which included Cyclops, Wolverine, Beast, Rogue, Storm, Gambit and Jubilee.

The series dealt with deep topics in society that I’d never been confronted with on such a personal level. Prejudice. Intolerance. Racism. Fear of people who are different.

These topics really hit home in the beginning, when Jubilee is first introduced. She’s young — a teenager, much like I would soon become — and she’s got this amazing gift that she sees as curse. She doesn’t know why she was born different from everyone else, and she finds it hard to cope with the hatred she had earned not for something she’d done, but just for who she was.

As a boy, I understood within the context of the show that (some of) the mutants were the heroes. They were different, yes, but they were on the side of good. And at a young age, good and evil were all that I needed to know.

Seeing Jubilee struggle with her difference, and the pain caused by unwarranted hatred stuck with me into my later years. When I began taking an interest in the world outside my bubble, I saw that there were people living in my universe that had been born different. It wasn’t always identifiable, but they were different.

Not all mutants in the X-Men universe had melted faces or six arms. Some of the mutants, notably Rogue and Storm, could pass for “normal” on the outside, but on the inside were quite powerful and quite different.

Looking around today, there are people who are visibly different from I am. People of different skin color, eye color, hair color, height, weight and sex. And among those differences, there are those who hide another difference: a different gender identity or sexuality. Those differences are not on the outside, but they are nonetheless part of what makes that person who they are.

I didn’t know, when I was a young boy, that my favorite cartoon was showing me the injustice in my own world. When I reflect now on the themes presented, and the different battle lines that were drawn in that TV show, I’m proud to say that I’m on the side of Professor Xavier, and his vision of an equal society. In our own world, the side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who believed in a world where all (people) could be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

I am on the side of equal rights for all people, regardless of who they love, what they look like or whether they can shoot explosive sparks from their hands.


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