|Fox and Talen's Journal
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This hardly needs to be said at this point, but I'm done with this profile. My work is going to be collected on my own, tidier site: Press.post a comment
It's funny, isn't it, the way that things trip your memory up? The rustle of leaves, the sound of a car's horn, the rattle of a doorhandle, or the smell of smoke. Some things just bubble up, even amidst the black patches of memory.
It's challenging to pin down when the stories start. Historically, the oldest incident that was part of the chain that put me here was in 1973 - before I was even born. In a sleepy town in Bullock County, Alabama. Two fourteen year old boys were reported at their school to have interrupted a teacher on the way to his car, before knocking him to the ground and cooperatively choking him to death. A dark story, particularly for those days, but rendered darker by the mystery that unfolded around it. Neither boy - Sydney or Craston - had anything I could find in common beyond the school. Craston was black, Sydney was white, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Craston was from a poor family, while Sydney's family owned property on the outskirts of town. Good grades, bad grades. One was taught by the teacher, the other wasn't. They had no mutual interest in sports, no common clubs, and in general, the murder was chalked up by the moral panickers of the day as a sign of the evils of desegregation.
Anyway, a pair of boys born in 1959 weren't going to face a normal prison environment. Both were found guilty - Craston being put into the general prison environment, and died within five years, while Sydney's, shall we put it, different family situation meant he went to a mental hospital where he remained until some time during the Reagan era.
The reports from the time were sketchy, in no small part because we're talking about Alabama in the 70s and it brought up a boiling-point topic that the population still weren't happy about when I went to talk to them. The one thing that I could find, throughout it all was that question, constantly asked by every newspaper reporter, before editorials had overtaken the print, of why?
The incident that got my attention involved, however, was of all things, a Black Friday story in a local mall, where a grandfather got into a fight over a CD for his grandson. Not that big a deal - there's always some story about a Black Friday shopper going overboard, whether it's the seventeen year old girl ram-raiding a store to get first access to Michael Jackson compilation CDs, or a mother macing other women over clothing. The thing that set this story apart is that most of the time, you don't have a senior citizen kill seven people and maim four more well after everyone has cleared out and started to run.
I'd been told to pull the information down off AP and just let them take care of the copy work because it wasn't a great story to bring up. The spectacle was one thing, but the last thing we wanted to do was send people away from malls for fear of crazed killers, and none of our story templates fit this one. We couldn't even take a tsk-tsk-tsk stance towards the Black Friday event itself, even though I had a bit of a reputation for that perogative in my writing. We mainly couldn't because at this point, the mall was leaning on us pretty hard. So why did I go?
Well, wouldn't you want to know?
The guy's name was Ryan Orrs. Sitting across from him in the police interview room, he looked almost like he'd stepped out of a Norman Rockwell. Red and blue check shirt. Hard beaten hands and cut-back fingernails like you'd expect from a man who worked in manufacturing. Whispy silver hair that gave his head the impression of always being in motion. Most of his hair, still, and round, gold-rimmed glasses. He wasn't a small man - understandably, considering what he'd done. I never remembered seeing a set of handcuffs binding such a man's wrists to the desk, and ankles to the ground, in any painting before. Sitting with my pencil twirling in my hand, I looked him over, and remembered the way the whole conversation just... meandered.
See, Ryan Orrs was not an idiot. He wasn't an angry man, either. And the conversation kept us coming around to finding out what the police had kept telling him had happened, rather than what he remembered. Because that was the really curious part of this mystery.
"I know we've spoken a lot about a lot of things, about your history, about your family, about your grandson... I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I do conversations like this as part of my job, and I keep coming back to wondering if you really are aware of what's going on."
The chair gave an awkward squeak as Mr Orrs shifted his shoulders forwards. "No." He finally said, voice getting lower.
"No, no, I haven't. The police have yelled at me, and a few of them have shown me photos, but really... I haven't got the faintest idea."
Adjusting my glasses, I turned through the pages of my notebook to the information I'd reduced from the police report. "According to this, and the witnesses and the coroners' report, you were struggling with-" I remember pausing at that point. I remember pausing because my notes were a ridiculous mess, and so were the police reports.
None of the witnsesses agreed on who got what. The CD - recovered from the first victim - was nice and clear, and Ryan had been loudly declaring that it was for his grandson before the fight broke out. Fight. It wasn't really a fight, either. Nobody was sure who hit first, but what they were sure of was the aftermath. One body which had to be identified from dental records. Six people dead from surprisingly surgical injuries, including a crushed larynx, an aorta that appeared to have been opened with a pen that was then jammed in to ensure a bleedout, a nose-break that drove bones up into the brain, and so on. The acts of maim were just as strange, with one victim having had all five of the fingers on her right hand torn off and the pointer finger on her left missing too.
Closing the notebook, I leaned forwards and drew a deep breath. "Honest to god, Mr Orr, it looks like you went crazy and killed a lot of people. Now, I understand that if you were in the military or the navy, you might have... skills that you don't want the police to know about," He gave me a quizzical look, but didn't go to interrupt me, "and you wouldn't tell a reporter, either. But... I don't think you're... I mean," I tilted my head and looked him over once more. "Mr Orr, according to the file on you, you weren't drafted and never served. You have no history of violence, nor of arson, which is often seen as an indicator. You worked as a welder for thirty-five years and retired recently to help with your daughter's home life, and I just cannot imagine how in the hell you of all people were involved in this. So... I mean, I don't know what you're going to tell me, but can you tell me anything?"
Ryan leaned forwards, running one hand nervously over the other. He finally found his voice with a stammer and a shudder. "I've seen the photos. I've seen the camera footage, too, they wanted me to see it, I think... I think, to see my reaction. I felt sick, you know..." Looking down at his hands, he shuddered. "I remember once, years ago... years ago, a young woman came up to me and handed me a white feather - we used to use those to see who was too cowardly to enlist, you know?" He tilted his head. "Shame boys into working. But I couldn't help it. Whenever I went to the offices, I just imagined what it'd be like to kill someone and felt sick to my stomach."
The results of the police demonstrations, or showing him pictures, had been almost universal - he'd fainted the first time, vomited when he saw the grainy black-and-white silent film, and he'd never improved in his reactions beyond being able to hold a conversation while they were around. It was as if he had no connection to the incident, and was a normal grandfather being exposed to images of shocking violence.
"They tell me I did it, and they showed me... but... but I just can't imagine it. I don't remember it... and..." he put his hand on his face. He drew a breath. A shudder of his shoulders and his croaking words faded away into nothing but the silent sound of tears. Pencil in my hand, I kept my distance still, and bit my lower lip. Every murderer lied about it. Every liar tried to be a good liar.
So why did I believe this man?
It was an easy thing to remember, the interview with Ryan Orr. Because that was the interview that started what in hindsight, was an obssession. You could only hear 'and nobody has any idea why' so many times before you start to see a pattern. Ryan Orr's story - which never got the national attention it should have, or really, any, - was the first stone in a long declining chain of memories.
The problem was not finding stories about inexplicable murders. The problem was finding inexplicable murders that were actually inexplicable. Journalists vary in their ability and their intentions, too. Sometimes ending a story with 'And we still are uncertain' is just a way to try and feel a bit less limp about the inverted writing style for which news calls. Most stories are about getting the most important detail at the end, rather than the start, but trust me - a headline world has that formula completely reversed.
Enough sifting though, and I found my second data point. I found the story of Craston and Sydney, and most importantly, I found the age the two were. The same year that Mr Orr was born, within six months. That made it easier to search the databases, and a point from which to work.
The stories had to then be filtered, finding those where the inexplicable elements were explic'd. Surprisingly, across the whole country, there were more than a few that were easily solved and, in hindsight, when I take my notebook back in to the police station and have them sift through it, they might be able to put a few discarded murders to rest. That I was helping people had fallen by the wayside in my mind, at least, though - because somehow, something about these cases just kept urging me onwards.
As piece by piece of the puzzle started to fall together, the erratic nature of the murders seemed to coalesce. The Bullock County case was a separate incident, with a long desert of time before another incident like it had cropped up. What I was looking at, eventually, was murders where the murderer claimed no memory of the incident, the murderer was born in 1959, and the murderer demonstrated no previous or later behaviour appropriate to a murderer.
Sydney had died, in his fifties, protesting to his dying day that he was innocent, that he couldn't remember anything of the incident, and that he had never even met Craston. The medical records were clear on that - every year, another review, another test, and another demonstration of no remorse. Strangely, as I researched, I was coming to suspect that there was some truth to this - and that by a principled stance of honesty, Sydney had doomed himself. If he'd lied, perhaps in his advancing years and helplessness, he might have been released. Of course, if that had happened, he'd be a fifty year old man with no skils and no life experience outside of electroshock therapy.
Reykjavik, a mobile phone executive broke through the glass of his limousine and stabbed his driver in the neck once, in that same oddly surgical method, then duck-and-rolled out of the vehicle before it careened into a storefront, before standing around dumbly waiting for the police, claiming he had no idea what had happened. Born in the United States, and in 1959.
Twin brothers in Albany working as cleaners arrived on a site as the business was closing for the night, and went through a whole floor murdering seventeen different employees, breaking each body's legs after they were dead. They then walked to the next floor, cleaned it and the subsequent floors, went back downstairs, found the bodies and called the police. Security footage shows what they did. Born in 1959.
August Terrin, a mechanic working for a maritine museum repairing exhibits interrupted the repair of a submarine engine to kill three of his co-workers with a wrench, and was half-way through repairing the engine before he noticed them and fled the scene in terror. When questioned, he reported he was afraid that whoever had killed his coworkers would kill him, too.
The pattern got denser in the recent days. In fact, it almost seemed that they'd stepped up in the past year - with almost thirty incidents in this year alone, scattered all across the United States. That was the worrying thing. What had happened, and what had changed, to cause these incidents?
It was a ridiculous detail that got me looking. I noticed our own cleaner - and yes, let me tell you, you'll never see a person in the same way after this kind of research - vacuuming the floor after everyone else had left. He was dancing as he pushed the vacuum along, and I realised he was listening to earbuds. Even an older gent like him was listening to his earbuds, and that got me thinking.
Ryan Orrs' incident occurred over a CD in a music store. The cleaners might have had music devices to drown out the sound of the vacuums. Mechanics often use sound-dampening earplugs, and underneath them...? Earbuds. What if they'd all been listening to some music with a subliminal message...?
It didn't quite work, though. For a start, it was some whacky science fiction nonsense, and following that quickly was that Orrs was in the middle of a public area. The police report didn't show any music player in his personal effects. And of course, Craston and Sydney - they weren't exactly going to have an 8-track on hand. Still, a link was a link.
It was another month of study to find the common link between the playlists, too. Setting aside my two controls - Bullock County and Ryan Orrs - there was a clear musical connection between all the other incidents, a list that was quietly growing as I became more adept to recognize them. That led to playlists. Playlists led to applications that were designed to deduce the musical core of things, of searching crossreferenced artists. There weren't really any common artists across the whole list, but I didn't let that deter me.
When I had chased this rock all the way down the hill, I had learned a great deal about the music industry. I learned that, just as how the minced beef you got in a hamburger probably came from a hundred different cows, so to did the song that got onto the airwaves came from a thousand different sources. That there were 'artists' who were busting their butts to churn out thousands of song components every day for someone higher up the chain to construct into songs that would get on the airwaves. And then I learned that of all of these, one song on each playlist had a common creator.
Many came from large studios - but these songs were all simplistic, with an 8-bit tune underlying them, to give the song a 'retro' feel. Each one composed by a one-man company supposedly named NCR.
As we sat, I remember distinctly pulling at my tie, glancing around the tiny apartment. He wasn't exactly a picture of dignity and respect, of course - the man was a conspiracy theorist, wearing sweat pants that owned their title, a big thick wooly sweater over a long-sleeved shirt, both of which I suspect he'd been given the year he moved out of home, and a beard that had all the hallmarks of resulting from a lost war of ambivalence. Like abandoned rail networks, his face was crisscrossed with the telltale lines of different shaving techniques, knitting together an expression that said he fancied there was always something better to do than deal with the mess.
"Alright, then, Mr..."
"I prefer not to use my birth name."
I sigh, striking through the prescribed symbol for 'mr' on my pad. "Alright, then...?"
A pause as he realised he realised I was talking to him, and he gathered up his girth slightly in his chair and raised his coffee to his lips. "I go by NCR."
"Does that stand for something?"
He glared at me over the coffee.
"Tell you what, I'll stop with the questions - you understand why I'm here, you want your story told, so..." twirling the pencil in my hand, I brought one knee up under the other, forming a makeshift writing surface, and let my silence speak for me. To his credit, NCR, sensing an audience, started to tell me... things.
It seems that my investigations had not been incorrect, if fanciful. I had expected that there was some sort of unpleasant side effect of the musical undertone he'd used in his chipset music. A byproduct, known as a brown note, or even as madness note, such as was connected to incidents of mass hysteria. Of course, I had said it myself while doubting my words - not even sure at this point why I was sweltering in this would-be digital musician's home.
"No... it's project Cadmus." He said, as if that explained something.
Cadmus, the Greek myth of a man who sowed dragon's teeth, leapt to my mind, but he quickly brushed it aside, as he spun me a tale of fanciful black operative government powers, of secret societies, societies he assured me existed, and who have existed for much of humanity's civilized existence. He spoke to me of conspiracies and the ridiculous and as he talked, all I could feel is my perception of where I was sure the borders of the world were slip away.
In 1959, a government project was begun by one of these groups, the name of which I... I can't remember. I'll have to check my notebook later. Experiments in programming minds, of using triggered keywords to get projected results. The plan was to create a number of sleeper agents in randomly seeded locations who could be inspired to 'clean' an area if they heard the right sequence of notes. When I explained to him the story of Craston and Sydney, he'd considered it a test run - to see if they could be triggered to kill a complete stranger. Or maybe they'd both been triggered by the teacher accidentally. Or maybe the teacher was their handler.
The lack of good reporting and evidence for these incidents, it seems, was part of NCR's hypothesis. After all, if nobody was providing good information on this work that was, as a reasonable man might notice, completely off the wall strange, maybe there was some sign of a manipulating force taking a hand in things. It was still an unfalsifiable hypothesis, though, something I felt I could reject. Strange to think about, in hindsight. I after all, did not train in the sciences, but there I am using 'hypothesis,' when what I think I mean is 'theory.'
"They have been doing this now for many years. They've gotten better at it. You have to think of it as ... as a virus. They're spreading a virus across humanity. And what I've been doing... what I've been putting into the music is meant to make them show up. It's meant to defuse their agents before they can get out of hand."
"I'm sorry, Mr- I mean, I'm sorry, NCR, before they get out of hand? You do know we're talking about adult men killing strangers and innocent people, right...?" I asked, tugging off my tie and giving him what was, I'm sure, an annoyed look.
"You have to consider it in terms of the greater... of the greater good," he said, as if that thought had only just now been spoken aloud. That he had only just now considered just what was going on as anything other than him opposing the man. I put one hand to my forehead, and shook it.
"And this is all from 1959, you say?"
"Yeah. That's when the project started."
"What have they done since then, then...?" I asked, tilting my head and looking at him inquisitively.
"... You know, I hadn't thought of it." he said, tapping his chin, as he turned around, reaching to his computer. "I mean, if it was me, I'd probably have set up some sort of defensive mechanism for the project. Some way to protect it without actually engaging it, so it could be denied later and just covered up like all the other-"
The strangest thing about it is, for all that the conversation was pretty important, I can't remember how it ended. I remember having my tie in my hands, I remember the smell of fire, and now... here I am. Just a journalist watching an apartment burn down. Strange, really. I wonder why I'd found it so compelling a case, now, because for all of my focus on it - heck, I got fired! - I can't quite work out why I bothered. Just another conspiracy theory nut, it seems - and no sooner did I leave his house than a fire breaks out. Probably one of his fancy electronic devices breaking down, too.
Hey, where's my notebook? 3 comments | post a comment
So, the American midterm elections are over. This is, for those not aware, an election that's mostly about changing seats in Congress and the Senate.
Mirror's Edge is a first-person platform style game that synthesises together the French art of Parkour with a first-person perspective. That perspective, a long-standing utility of the action/shooter genre, has become so fundamentally tied to the idea of run-and-gun combat that very few game designers have attempted to use it for anything else. There've been a few first-person adventure games (and indeed, in the early days of first-person engines, it was one of the best ways for adventure games to use limited graphical resources), but for the most part, there's a native 'S' that follows 'FP.' When you take First-Person games into the action genre, there are things that are just expected.
I wrote this last night, speaking to a friend about her son. I was so proud of it I felt it merited public attention.
A Cobrin'Seil Campaign
Our hero stands, wealth in hand,
The prize for his endeavors.
The masses cheer, to hide their fears
That no man lives forever.
Arnea! Spread wide as Bidestra from tip to tip, an ancient land with its legacy of a thousand warring kings. There's not a grain of sand across the shimmering deserts that hasn't tasted blood at some point. Wood, stone, sand, steel - if it's there, someone's used it as a weapon. Right now, that continent is a dozen countries strong - whatever you can consider Nbyana or Jarrath - and not a one of them likes the other.
Funny thing, though? They're all slaves. From the Savalyne in their ivory pyramid to the brass spires of Horandi, there's not a man on that land who probably isn't descended from slaves. It's a strange, strange day, when the princes of slaves shape the world.
Stranger still, these days, those people who fight so hard not to be remembered, but to be forgotten...
... but if a man wishes to be forgotten forever...
... there's not a better place than the pitiless wilds of Arnea.
Mechanical Information: The game is a D&D 3.5 campaign, set in Cobrin`Seil, with world information available here. I know most of my players are very familiar with Cobrin`Seil's pulp-magepunk-fantasy setting, and I figure that our newcomer will have plenty of chances to ask questions about what's going on.
There's banned stuff; there are altered rules and game-wide nerfs. To squash a few big bugs before you ask me, the spells Divine Power, Polymorph, Baleful Polymorph, Shapechange and Tenser's Transformation are all gone.
Every 'wizard' prestige class that gives full spellcasting advancement and does not either require multiclassing or a very large feat payload (such as the Sacred Fist or Jade Phoenix Mage) loses its first level of spellcasting advancement. Any prestige class of that same type that gives up one spellcasting level at any level but first now loses that spellcasting level at first level. I want such classes to involve an actual sacrifice.
The druid is completely out, because I cannot be arsed adjudicating Wild Shape nerfs. If you want to make a nature-themed character who isn't overpowered, we have a number of alternative options (the Feral Animist or the Spirit Shaman, for example).
These are principles around which the rules are crafted; approach me to discuss what's going on, and we can talk it out. A lot of things are permissable - I view my role as the GM to keep players reasonably close to one another in power level and to keep anything from running too wild out of control.
Some contentious creatures that are allowed? Divine Metamagic, the Mystic Theurge, the Warlock, Tome Of Battle, and the Vow Of Poverty.
Stats are obtained through the 42-point point-buy method. I'm available via my email address, and welcome any questions or feedback people have or want. 2 comments | post a comment
Smurfette is the only male smurf.
Right now my gaming group stands in a transitional zone between systems we like (4th Edition D&D, D20 Modern) and systems we've mastered (3.5th Edition D&D). The ability to sustain a narrative is, for the most part, independent of the mechanisms used to maintain that narrative, as a good enough narrative will make almost any mechanisms palatable, and can also do a lot to pull players away from bad mechanisms. There are many players who can recognise how bad mechanics pull away at the narrative, and avoid those mechanics 'because of the hassle.' I have been using this time as a player, not as a gamemaster, to really consider the systems from the perspective I normally don't have. Due to our unfamiliarity with the systems, I have a lot of time to consider what's going on, as there are routine breaks in the flow while rules are double-checked, details are consulted and gamemaster rulings challenged.
Without this pull, players are going to be left aimless. It's not all about group cohesion. Your party of treasure hunters aren't going to necessarily be plunging further into the dungeon in pursuit of treasure if they don't know that that's what they're supposed to be doing. Sure, if they don't like one another, that makes it worse, but often the utility of a setting can compensate. If everyone knows they're there to profit, and that they should want to profit, inter-character conflict becomes more interesting because it has to contrast with and work against the common goal. If there's none of that common goal - that reason to be cohesive - the players stay in contact 'just because,' which isn't good and often breaks mood.
Without style, encounters become broken down into point-and-click puzzles without any of the comedy of the games that made us love those puzzles. They become a chain of 'Use Gun On Man.' 3 comments | post a comment
In local news, I have instituted a new rule; Any time I enter the kitchen, for any reason, I can't leave until I've washed something up if there's anything that can be washed up. Two positive effects; first, I'm getting more washing up done, and second, I'm not going to the kitchen as much.
Disclaimer: The following is written entirely as an emotional exercise in expressing an opinion that will most likely be both unpopular in social environments. As with many things under pressure, this makes the contents more volatile. Cases will be overstated. Fairness will probably be diminished. Consider that this opinion will by necessity be suppressed in public, and consider the venom more retaliatory than mandatory.
Being at one point in my life a ten year old boy, I had a full chance to get really acquainted with the varieties of and forms of ways to make milk interesting. Milo and Quik are the two big brands and they had a variety of other, probably older variants that were less brand-recognised, including No Name Chocolate Milk Powder. Mostly, these milk additives are decent, but unremarkable ways to spice up a bit of milk.
"I say I'm a guyThis is my first sermon, so you're going to have to bear with me. I understand all preachers, on their first few tries, get to use that excuse. Once upon a time, my father, a preacher too, related to me that you can reuse any sermon within a year if your congregation is more than a hundred people. The smaller your congregation, the longer their memories, and the less they want to kick up a stink at hearing the same thing again. With an audience of... yes, yes, you in the back... seven people, I'll be able to repeat this whole thing sometime in 2013, after the conclusion of the Mayan calendar and, of course, all our lives.
The proceeding quote by Bill Nye is a fascinating one to me, brought to my attention by the Symphony of Science piece, 'We Are All Connected.' It's spoken by a man who has a career primarily as a children's science presenter, an educator who meets so few of his students, in a piece he made to express his views, unshackled by the needs to be 'whacky' or 'funny.' The net result is this above paeon, where he gives the audience a moment to appreciate the scale of the universe - and it is an awesome scale, if you stop to let your mind creep around the edges of it.
The world to which Carl Sagan's Billions And Billions spoke is a world, I can say, that is so different to the world in which I found myself growing up and living as to make the sounding of it be alien in my ear. To Nye, and to me, there's a certain helpless awe at the beauty. It can be depressing, if you choose to focus on the darkness; certainly, if you were to briefly compose things in their darkest possible tone, there is the meddlesome reality of physics as we understand it which says, in a cosmic sense, we came from nothing important and we're going nowhere interesting, if you take a long enough view. Even through that lens of deliberate cynicism, however, we have to squint pretty hard to not see the exceptional things. Because the dawn of the universe was not, as I understood it in my youth, a single colossal block that represented all matter, but was rather everything that was, is and ever will be, compressed into a single unit of volume. It was intensely hot in a place where there was no time to be hot. And of course, in that state there's potential; there's the hope, there's the idea that this thing represents everything. In that one point, there was the possibility for New York City, for hommus, for Meat Loaf tickets, for my nephew, for baseball caps and rear spoiler fins. Everything. It takes a lot of mental effort to make everything boring.
When you flick the dial to the other end of the reel and look at the universe when it's done, the picture is a lot more grim. It's a vast soup, beige in colour - if you could view it from the outside - and it spans the limits of our universe, spread out as evenly as possible. The Heat Death sounds like a terrifying thing, because it does represent, to the mind of a science-borne person who is willing to embrace the realities of the life we live, an end point. It doesn't, really - well before that point, we'll have to be tapping black holes for energy if we want enough heat to warm a broom closet, but the Heat Death represents a cut-off point at which point current understanding says 'Seriously, this is it.' It is sad to consider, a fleeting whisper in the mind that speaks to us of the impermanence of everything, and it is that shadow that looms ahead of us when we think of space in saddening terms.
First, the Heat Death is not on the horizon. It's not even on the horizon's horizon. Nor that horizon, nor that horizon, nor that horizon. We have more lifetimes time to conquer these challenges and perhaps even encounter some fascinating tool, some useful way to achieve beyond the limits of what we understand to be even feasible, or to come to terms with what we see, or to travel to another universe or whatever than we have people alive. And even then, all this provides us with not a sad denoument to the story of our universe - it is in fact, but a setting fixture, a backdrop for the real drama of our cosmos, the story of our galaxy, the speck made of billions and billions of specks, some of which were orbited by other specks, upon which live, in this case, roughly seven billion specks.
This is an expression of wonder. It is an expression of awe. It is an expression of something that, in the oldest meaning of the world, something that is holy. It speaks to me of scale. It speaks to me of preciousness. Of rarity.
The universe is a vast wasteland, and contrary to popular thought, it is not a cold and pitiless place. Indifferent indeed, but it is a desert, hot in ways that it's hard to understand and boiling in ways that we can barely feel. And across this vast desert, there are strung bright lights, campfires we call planets. Right now, we are all huddled around this particular campfire, a bright light in the darkness. It feels almost shameful to quote Sagan here, but his message deserves to be echoed: everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was... This is our campfire. We are travellers across this desert, and we are looking for water. But not all these travellers are like us - some are very small, some are very large, and they are all here with us.
How much more important is it, then, to treat them well?
If you flatten this universe, roll it up like a rug, grind it into powder and winnow through that powder with the finest of seives and you will never find another human being just like your lover. You do not love someone who is one in a million. They are not one in a trillion. There are not words for the beauty and rarity of our lone little star-travellers, knots in the cosmos that stare out upon the world that brought us to be, the cosmos that we are ourselves.
There are no words.
We stand before a vast desert in which there is such a scope of beauty and wonder, and things to be learned and discovered and understood all over anew. Yes, we should feel small before such things, because though we know, in the end, it must be a finite quantity, its scope is so great that we haven't the tools to grapple with the scale. It is so close as to infinite as to make no difference. In our own history on this planet, that of the clever storytelling monkeys, humanity has found laying behind us, a billion ancestors, and a billion more, more creatures that have died than have been alive at any one point in time. We have looked back into our own history, we have looked into the stars, and we have even looked into the very building blocks of the world, and what we have seen is that our world is both larger, and finer, and longer and more interesting than we would have ever been able to invent on our own. The world we are in looks back at us, and says Look at your works, ye currently mighty, and be humble.
Our world is one that tells us that we are a limited creature. We are finite and we are rare and we last for a heartbeat of a sun.
So, noble scientist - And I mean real scientists. I mean actual scientists, because I know you're reading this because I sent it to you - what am I trying to tell you with this? For the most part, you're all completely aware of these facts, and you've probably heard it said better by educators who were trying to inspire and grow in you that passion, beauty and joy that you can receive from science. Yet now you slog through what can only be called a job, in which searching for open anglebrackets, navigating CAD4, 'resolving biomass' (a euphemism up there with 'abbattoir') and of course, paperwork. And then you go home and come to bed and you sit up and watch as some wanker stands up and says something like 'The science is still out on science.'
It can grind you down. And the world shrinks, the vast cosmos outside and the inner universe that teems beneath the limit of our eyes, and somewhere, those muddy, grey lenses and you start to squint and it can feel so very tiring. The facts that science carved out of the world and that spend even to this day refining are scorned and spurned. Even the most iconic understood scientific realities in our world have people who rail against them. There is a serious, sincere flat earth society. Homeopathy and Chiropractic both throw Germ Theory under the bus. Evolution is being hammered at by Creationists. There are Zero Denialists!
This, sadly, is true. I have stood in the presence of sincere, well-meaning and completely wrong people who will routinely and aggressively argue for things they don't understand where their stance is completely wrong.
With the knowledge that spans from whence we started, afraid of fire, afraid of earthquakes, standing beneath trees and hoping they ward us from the lightning, dying to our teeth and brutalising one another as our options for interacting with the world it can feel at times much as you, scientists, are following a sisyphean path. No sooner do you roll the stone up the hill, than it tumbles back down.
Hope shines, yet, though, and in the parlance of gamers, here it is: Knowledge is the most powerful buff there is - and it stacks. That's why it's important to roll the stones up the hill. Some will roll back down, yes. And when we do that, we go back down the hill, and we roll them back up again. And when that stone rolls down the hill again?
We brace the shoulder and we roll that motherfucker up the hill once more.
When we find a stone atop the hill, we can shore it up a little. We can show our children and our friends, See this Stone? See this thing that seems so obvious and safe up here? Once upon a time, it was down in the valley, and people feared its shadow. Look at it now, look at it here, up on the hilltop, in the light of the sun, we see it as a monument for what we have done.
The hill is not the scientific method, the stones are not the hard-worn facts carved out and worn smooth, freed from ignorance by the weathering of days. The hill is public understanding, the stones our ideas, the ways we as people handle them.
Spoken aloud, here is where I would shuffle my paperwork, clear my throat, and let the conversation lull. This is where the little kids in the audience would be quietly adjusting in their seats, wondering if it's almost over. Sorry, kids, suck it down.
Liquid Oxygen is a substance that in 1845, Michael Faraday pronounced impossible to make. It was one of the 'permanent gasses,' elements that science at the time understood to be different to the other gasses in that they didn't liquefy the way that Faraday was expecting. Faraday reduced all the gasses he could find into liquids because, while doing something else, he noticed that he had developed a method that let him do it - so he went on to try it on everything he could. Not that this was the first time Faraday did something like that; he and Humphrey Davy set a diamond on fire and found it was made of carbon, not so much so because they wanted to see what would happen, but because they devised a method and thought it should work, wanting to see what would happen if they did it.
Note that Faraday's creation of the dynamo and the electric motor were in a similar vein; he was trying to find a way to overcome the problem of having something with a current being run through it spin without restraint, and was the guy who nutted out that he could use mercury. That he had, at first without noticing, created an item that could convert mechanical energy into electricity and back again took a moment to settle in.
Now, despite what Lord Kelvin's proponents, most of whom are about as historically informed as the fact-checker for Wild Wild West, Liquid Oxygen wasn't finally distilled from the the air itself until Raoul Pictet, a mad Swiss physicist in 1877. He was able to liquefy oxygen by taking a totally different path to Faraday. Yet he wasn't the only man doing it, and while he probably did it first, the alternative venue makes for a better narrative, so follow along: Alongside Pictet was Louis Paul Cailletet, whose liquified oxygen was not the result of aggressive competition, but was instead because he was finding accidents in forges weird.
Following gaseous impurities through the refinement of steel, Cailletet found that exploding steel was the result of escaping gas, and saw that pressure and heat connected. Taking this method and stepping backwards, flipping it in reverse, by applying pressure, he could increase the temperature at which the substance boils. And through that method, by removing heat and adding pressure, Cailletet stepped from the heat of the forge and into the shivering cold of liquid sky.
Three steps. A technique discovered by incident. An exploration of the technique. And an alternative technique developed exploring trying to do what that other technique couldn't. Why is this interesting? Why is it important? Sure, these liquid compounds are made useful - Liquid methane has applications, sure, but nobody you know uses it, do they?
The engines that propelled Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, into the skies were powered in part by dumping vast quantities of liquified oxygen as an oxidant.
When Pictet and Cailletet and Faraday took the steps along that path that they did, they did not do so planning to send us from the cradle of our birth into the vast open wilds of space. They did it for curiosity. They did it because Oh hello, that's interesting, because What happens if I try this?, because Faraday couldn't. These problems were solved for their own sakes. They were small steps that were nonetheless essential in developing the hardware that sends men to the moon.
What are you, my scientist friends? What are you? Are you a computer scientist, a person who makes lightning dance across pathways of thinking sand? Do you speak the language that makes the works of men into the echoing, resounding mind of sand - which is simple and yet intricate in that it can do almost anything we tell it to if we can but conceive of how to tell it. Are you a biologist, a person who, last I heard of it, was finding a way to bridge between plastics, made from oils that are themselves made from the blood and bone and skin and nerves and hairs of our forefathers, an inheritance from the prior kings and queens of this world, and the nerves and blood and bones we ourselves currently have, also our inheritance of our forefathers, handed down recklessly, thrown from generation to generation as a kind of genetic game of hot potato, a trillion trillion temporary solutions that coalesce in the shape of us? Are you an engineer, a man who stands before a mountain and can mutter to himself in all honesty, "Well, I can do better than that?"
You are all, collectively, toweringly more intelligent than I am, than I ever fear I will be, and even if you haven't more raw talent, you have all shown the dedication and the strength of mind to bend your natural inclination to learn to swim in the vast ocean of knowledge which is so far beyond most people that you have to invent a language to speak to one another, a language designed to be precise.
You may feel you're not doing much. But you're making ripples. And those ripples in the ocean will connect with other ripples, and other ripples, and eventually they will be a roaring tide.
I cannot tell you, you, my friends, you, my peers, you, the people I love and the people who have helped my in even the most implicit ways to step away from superstition and nonsense and lies told to goatherds, just how much respect I have for you.
The men of the enlightenment believed in one unfortunately beautiful but naive principle; They believed in the idea of the momentum of progress, the notion that it was simply inevitable that knowledge would expound and flow. They didn't fight for science because why would you fight for that? It would be like assisting a tidal wave, trying to speed the sunlight.
It is precious and people like you are part of the momentum, people who fight for it and fight within it, but always part of it. It is our shield and our cause; it informs and uplifts our lives, it enriches our understanding of the world around us and lets us move ourselves towards the things that we truly deem to be important.
We know better. We know that science is not a sun, it is not a tidal wave. It is a candle. A light that flickers, that people don't see the light, but instead see the shadows it casts across the valley. They fear what we don't understand and flee from the light, staying in the shadow and holding their breath for fear of the monsters that the candle shows to be just rocks.
With determination and vigor then, we step out and see a shadow in the valley, and we go and get our sticks and our shovels and we start shoving the rock up the hill, all over again. It is a labour of love, enlightening our fellow man, and is such a fight worth fighting. 4 comments | post a comment
I think I just play with the ferrets so I have an excuse to hit someone in the face with my old socks.post a comment
Why do I pursue the aims I do, in the names of game balance?
Jack: There's nothing wrong with being elite.Fuck. 1 comment | post a comment
"I'm not willing to give my true self up. It's a testament to my real personality that I would go so far as to make up another personality to give to the world," [Megan] Fox tells The New York Times Magazine. "The reality is, I'm hidden amongst all the insanity. Nobody can find me."No, it's really not, Megan. You're an actor. We expect you to lie to people. You're also a pretty girl. We expect you to pretend to be deep. You're also an American. We expect you to think that you're doing something amazing and clever when you're just doing the equivalent of tying your shoelaces. 4 comments | post a comment
From this review of Roing Gogue, Sarah Palin's autobiomographicality:
Obviously a liberal. It seems they enjoy this type of ad hominem humor. What can you say? The French think Jerry Lewis is funny.The irony burns. 2 comments | post a comment
'Solve for gnome.'post a comment