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Posts by Nolan Peterson
This column was originally going to be about New Year’s resolutions, but I got sidetracked (goodbye resolution No. 7: Stay focused and follow through, we hardly knew you) by closed-system ecosystems. So naturally, I’ve been reading up on Biosphere 2, the ill-fated project more known (at least in some circles) for the parody “Bio-Dome” with Pauly Shore and one of the Baldwin clones.
I heard that the trees planted in the enclosed ecosystem failed because they lacked “stress wood.” Like callouses on our skin, stress wood —or “reaction wood” as it’s known — is a particular type that trees develop in reaction to environmental forces, like prevailing winds and gravity. In the cross section of a tree, the reaction wood is what causes the elliptical pattern of tree rings.
But the fact that trees grow this naturally in the wild, as a result of external forces, was quite interesting. When a tree is pushed, it responds by strengthening where it was once weak.
It’s part of a system that people smarter than I call “self-optimization,” which is basically when a system’s settings constantly change and evolve to meet the changes in its environment.
So when the wind pushes the tree, it responds by strengthening the portion that will support it.
It’s like a dance —a special dance between the tree and the world. The environment shifts, the trees respond in turn. In that respect, they’re both part of a single system. After all, for one half of the hourglass to fill with sand, it must flow from the other half. Two parts but one system.
And isn’t that the same way we self-govern?
We react to our environment, everything outside our skin suits, that is. We build up our own version of stress wood to keep us standing in the face of terrible events. And when we react, we are in our own dance. The world becomes the sculptor and we its clay.
But there are a few key differences between humans and trees (one of which being our utter lack of photosynthesis. Terrible oversight) but one is that we get a measure of choice in how we react to the stress of the world.
We can be hit with the sudden loss of loved ones, and that grief can turn us to destructive behaviors to slay the cause of our pain which happens to be ourselves. Or some may take trauma and transmute it into art. We can choose to accept pain as proof that what is important is fleeting, and that value can be found in the ephemeral.
We will always be clay. And the world will always be our sculptor, but we have the power to direct those hands, to shape our selves, and it’s our duty as thinking creatures to create.
And in that, blind reaction will not do.
For those who are just waking up, the studios that be have released the much-anticipated teaser trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and it has garnered nothing short of a bi-polar response.
Full Disclosure: I’m a bit of a fanboy (and I don’t mean the mnemonic device that allows you to remember the coordinating conjunctions in English grammar [For And Nor But Or Yet So]) and I take a special interest whenever the jewels of my childhood mythos is given much attention and a good director. (See also: Star Trek).
While I would want each of you to judge for yourself how to appreciate this movie, which we must all wait a year — a YEAR! — to see, I would hope that deep down inside, the ardent supporters of Lucas’ classic Eps IV-VI could realize that change is a must. That’s how things evolve. Without the implementation of experimentation we would all die in exasperation, so please let be with creative license. Remember viewers: If your way was the absolute best way to create a new Star Wars movie, then either you’re responsible for denying the whole world your masterpiece because you’re too busy cracking down on filthy casual fans on YouTube comment sections to write your treatment, or you don’t have the only good idea.
So with those things in mind, please watch, enjoy, let your imagination take flight and have some fun with little rolling droid soccer balls.
I have to take a break from writing to write this.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is in full swing, and it’s pretty much like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
The creative process has always been a pain. I’m guessing it is for anyone who wants to do something spectacular, but finds it looking like a toddler drawing scribbles on the wall with — of course — permanent marker.
I’ve often looked at people who do extreme things, mountain climbing, ultra marathoners, tour de France cyclists and the like, as kinda mentally skewed toward madness. NanoWriMo, then, is my madness.
The point of the event is to write as much as possible as quickly as possible, with the goal of eliminating the inner editor who constantly forces you to go back and revise before moving on. And I have to say: It’s working.
I’m addicted to increasing my word count. I have dreams about the characters I’m trying to coax into doing what I’ve outlined. I’ve even created a book cover with naught but a pen name, a title and some interesting images plucked from the more well-traveled corners of the Internet.
As far as tools of the trade go, I’m using a word processing program that is native to the Web. I can use the app on my phone to jot in a few paragraphs (sitting in the car during grocery shopping runs has become the perfect excuse to keep myself on task) and the file is automatically updated across all platforms.
I’ve even switched to my phone to walk/write to the kitchen for more coffee, only to return and pick it back up from my desktop.
Technology, you are now a dear, dear friend to me.
But this all-encompassing race to the intangible finish line has not come without its drawbacks.
My coworkers won’t admit it, but each and every one of them, to a person, is sick of hearing about it.
No, really. One was in the hospital all week (feel better!).
Actually, I can’t pin that all on my excessive gushing about the awesomeness of creative undertaking, but I can’t rule it out, either.
Another drawback: Sleep.
The lack of sleep has been known to cause hallucinations, according to scientists (or researchers, I can never remember) which you might think would help fuel some very Lewis Carroll-esque storytelling, but I can assure you it is probably more of a detriment, particularly on that 45-minute commute in the dead of night …
Becoming a bit of a recluse from the world in order to inhabit one who exists mostly in my imagination seems like an irresponsible thing to do. Maybe because it makes me feel like a kid playing in the sandbox — or Mordor, depending on your perspective. It’s a childish thing, to withdraw from the world to play make-believe. It’s also quite selfish, even though the people in my life have been very accommodating of this eccentricity.
Knowing that what you’re creating is not going to be published. It’s not going to be pressed into bindings and pushed out into the world where it can be analyzed, critiqued, sucked up into the cogs of the economic machine that says your time is money, and if you work, it must produce something of common value — runs contrary to the paradigm that says the bread winner must win bread.
It’s pure folly to create for the sake of creation.
It’s play, pure and simple.
And maybe that’s why I like it so much.
Because the point of the music is not to reach the end, as Alan Watts says. “If it were, the best conductors would be the ones that pushed the orchestra to play the fastest.”
No. The point of the music is the music. And the point of the dance is the act of dancing. It’s just the dance.
So maybe my writing, while immature in its experience, is the point.
I guess that’s why I am continually caught off guard when people ask if I’m going to publish it.
Are you crazy? No. Why would I ever want to do that?
The point is the writing, not the novel. And while it’s a marathon, it’s not actually a race.
Now I have to stop writing, so I can keep writing.
“Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.”
I found my lost music collection.
It came back to me in the form of an iPod I had loaded up with all the music I’d ever owned. Through several moves from this state to that state and back again, I had deemed it lost in the Sarlac pit that is the moving process. Like most people, certain music marks the chapters of my life. A particular playlist is an index to my past. And rediscovering that index has led to quite an emotional discovery.
I’ve been going through these chapters:
High school consisted of, among others, Metallica’s And Justice For All, which seemed to match the frenetic pace of the hormones that were coursing through me, Counting Crows was the anthem of every single high school dance I’d ever sat in the corner at and Pearl Jam because my sister had, perhaps, the biggest crush on Eddie Vedder that I thought possible (that is, until I moved in with my college roommate, but that’s for another time). My stint in the Marine Corps was governed by Adema, Skrape and Spine Shank while I was in training, Emil Bulls for Okinawa and then mellowing out with Dave Mathews Band for that year in the “sandbox.” In college, it was The Postal Service, surprisingly, and Incubus. For my time studying in Germany: Lots and lots of Rammstein … also other German music that has yet to make its way across the Atlantic but somehow has managed to twist the knife of memory all the deeper for is absence.
The nostalgia for my own history is at times palpable. I can almost taste the regret — and it’s bitter like fresh walnuts.
My regrets, though, follow a singular tune.
Throughout my life, I never feel like I tried as hard as I could.
As a Boy Scout, I only earned about five merit badges.
As a high school student, I skated by doing as little as I could get away with (and often even less than that).
As a Marine, I may have excelled on the rifle range, but physically I did the bare minimum to pass.
My last year of college, I let my once-stellar GPA languish, and to this day, I haven’t turned in my senior thesis.
I look back on all of these not-quite failures with the soundtrack of my laziness wump-wumping in my earbuds, and I can’t help but think that there’s absolutely no way I’m going to look back at my first years of fatherhood with the same regrets, that would probably be brought on if I hear Trampled By Turtles 10 years from now.
Another stark reality hit me during this miasma of nostalgia: No matter how I might seek to beat laziness and procrastination, there’s really only one way to do it, and that’s to do it.
It sucks. There’s no easy way to not be lazy. I feel ripped off. Like the mix CD my best friend made in 1998 that has degraded into skips and that soft ticking in the background, rendering it completely unlistenable.
The problem with fixing my life is in measuring progress. In the past, I used my peers as a benchmark to measure my personal success.
But, if the person I want to be better than is myself, then there is nothing and no one in my environment I can point to to say, “Look! I’m better than that! I’m doing so much better than that guy right there!”
And that’s a tough pill to swallow.
As for what kind of music is marking my passage through adulthood, I have some pretty eclectic tastes. A product of my ever-evolving environment, I’m sure. Right now when I run I listen to Dub-Step because I don’t have to think to be carried along by the cold, machine-like efficiency. When I clean, it’s the soundtrack for Skyrim, and when I commute, I listen to books on tape because my personal free time is now limited, and I gotta get lost in a book somehow.
But no matter what I listen to, I remind myself that it’s going to one day remind me of where I am in life right now, and I don’t want to remember someone who only gave what was good enough.
I think that’s enough rumination for one day. Take us out, Michael:
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror / I’m asking him to change his ways / and no message could have been any clearer / if you wanna make the world a better place …”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.