Sunday, December 28, 2008

First day as a gun owner.

I'd bet at least half of all blockbuster Hollywood films include gunfire in their scenes. It's funny that we all become engrossed in these films when the average person rarely sees a gun in their day-to-day life, let alone fires one. Well, yesterday was not your average day for me. After a mandatory 10-day waiting period I picked up my Rossi 971 357 magnum revolver from River City Gun Exchange and took it to the Gun Room shooting range in Elk Grove to get used to it.
First off, I have to say... buying a gun is serious business. You have to take a 30 question safety test first, then perform a safe handling demonstration when buying it. You need to fill out all kinds of forms and including proof of current residence when buying the gun. I even needed to sign some form when buying ammunition. Then there's the 10-day waiting period. I suppose all of these regulations make it harder for irresponsible or dangerious people to purchase firearms. I wonder if the red tape deters upstanding citizens from purchasing guns though. It did for me... I've wanted a gun for some time, but procrastinated because I hate tests. With the economy getting worse (which means increasing crime), I figured I'd finally git'er done. Fortunately, my wife Brandie didn't oppose, since she grew up in a rural area where everyone owned a gun.

Home protection isn't the only reason I bought a gun. I believe in the constitional right of citizens to bear arms - to prevent government oppression. We live in a great country and I don't think any sort of revolution or coup is needed... but we can help prevent oppression from creeping in by maintaining an armed populace and limiting government control. Put aside the gun-filled Hollywood films for a moment, and watch the History Channel to understand the importance of an armed populace. How else will we fight to stop a Hitler or Stalin from gaining control?

Guns are serous business, and firearms demand respect. One of my favorite new shows "It's Always Sunny in Philedelphia" has an episode "Gun Fever" where the gang gets a gun and shows ridiculous carelessness with it: carrying it around in their pants, keeping it loaded, twirling it & pointing it at people. It's funny, because they are seduced by the power and respect the gun brings. Now... being a gun owner, I can relate to the seduction (not the carelessness though).

Being unfamiliar with guns, the shooting range felt like a war zone with a room full of blasting weapons. My gun (or any 357) fires both .357 caliber and .38 special ammunition. I figured the .357 was lighter (lower number), so started with that... oops was I wrong! It felt like a cannon going off, fire & thunder flashing from my hands and jolting like a wild horse. What a powerful feeling! I needed to stop between rounds on the .357 to take a breath... needs some getting used to. The 38 special ammo was more comfortable to fire and I could shoot off six rounds without pause. The Gun Room is an interesting place. There were boyfriend & girlfriend there, guys, girls - some renting guns, some bringing their own. On the drive home, and last night, I felt a little different... a little more lethal, more free. Like after a day of boating or at the amusement park, when you can still feel the swirling motion at home - I could still hear & feel the thunderous explosion in my hands later. I guess this is what it feels like to be a gun owner.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thoughts on Christmas: Bloggin' & Egg Noggin'

So what is Christmas really about?
  • For christians - it's a holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, revered as the son of God & savior of mankind.
  • For families - it's a time to gather, share gifts, and celebrate.
  • For retail - it's a time to advertise, encouraging people to spend liberally.

Like most western holidays, Christmas is an amalgam of Christian and pagan traditions collected over time. As empires conquered cultures throughout history, they combined overlapping celebrations together. It's interesting that the earliest English reference to December 25th as “Christmas Day” didn't occur until 1043 A.D.

Around the holidays, you'll see in the news controversial stories about athiests wanting christmas trees taken down from public buildings, or others wanting Kwanzaa decorations given equal prominence. I can understand the argument ‘separation of church & state’… but come on, Christmas is about as religious as Halloween these days. Santa Claus & Christmas trees are not associated with Jesus Christ. Christmas has become a global commercial holiday. When I lived in Japan, a Buddhist & Shinto religious nation, they celebrated Christmas by eating cake. To demonstrate the "global commercial" aspect, there is an amusing well-known occurrance at a japanese department store, where they put up a Christmas decoration of Santa hung on a cross. (That one might out on engrish.com)

Many would say the "true meaning" of Christmas is giving. This is appropriate, given it's timing of the season... when cold winter hits and the less fortunate are hungry and cold. It's also at the end of the year, so perhaps some consider it good timing to finish up their charitable tax-deductions for the year. Christmas is a time when hope and charity thrives as people exercise their beliefs. Children believe a bearded man from the north pole flies in a sled across the world delivering presents. Adults believe the son of God was born in the middle east 2000 years ago, performed miracles, taught kindness, then was executed. Regardless of the belief - hope, charity, and family can only be a good thing. Therefore, I believe Christmas is a good thing.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Sports geeks vs. Sci-fi geeks

Ok, I've never been much of a sports fan. The most popular american team sports (baseball, baseketball, football) have always been extremely boring to me. I would watch the Superbowl, or the Kings in playoffs - because these are good party events to drink beer & chow down. I sometimes watch world sporting events, like the Olympics or Wimbledon (simply because they are international events). I'll occasionally go to a Rivercats came to enjoy the atmosphere with friends. I'll also check out peculiar ESPN2 sporting events like lumberjack competitions and hotdog eating contests. Otherwise, I'd sooner pick my nose than watch sports.

Watching sports is a stereotypical male pastime. I can't count how many times I've been chatting with dudes, when the conversation turns to sports & I want to poke my eyeballs out. I would much rather talk about politics, science, or basically anything else. By and large, sports fans are considered your normal red-blooded americans... your "Joe six-packs" to use a palinism. In fact, a Joe six-pack who browsed my blog might even label me a 'geek' upon finding numerous posts about astrophysics & batman. A 'geek' is anyone who obsesses over any topic too much - the weirdos & nerds first in line to see Star Wars and never getting laid. But, what do you call a sports fan who obsesses over his team, or plays fantasy football every day, or collects trading cards? They're just "geeky" as the trekkie with a millenium falcon scale-model replica.

There are all types of geeks: renaissance geeks, politics geeks, book geeks, music geeks. However, the sci-fi geek & sports geeks are two major archetypes. I think the sci-fi/comic type geeks are often intelligent, science-minded folks who enjoy imagining the remotely possible. They respect & admire individuals for their intellect and innovation (their heroes would be Einstein, Hawking, Gates, etc.). They tend to be individualistic, because they enjoy their own minds very much.

What draws sports fans in? Firstly, sports are easy to grasp. Anyone of any education level can sit at a barstool & debate the merits of players with their neighbor. Secondly, sports resonates with a base instinct of the human animal - to form coalitions. For most of primate and human evolution, we've lived in gangs and tribes... continually at battle with rival groups. Evolutionary psychology has undoubtedly shaped us to support this behavior. We've been wired to feel pride about our home team and respect (if not idolize) the player who is strongest and fastest. I think the competitive spirit & enjoyment of team activities seen in sports fans are manifestations of these primal instincts.

To each their own. I don't think there's anything superior about sports fans or sci-fi fans... but to anyone who thinks all normal guys like sports, I'd suggest you consider the perspectives above.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Patent abuse

So I was watching TV the other day and this hilarious commercial comes on: "Do you have an idea for an invention? Have you ever wanted to be an inventor but didn't know how to start? Call now for your free Inventors Kit, and we'll help you get started." I told Brandie.. 'Hey, I wanna quit my job & be an inventor!" Seriously though, these guys represent everything wrong with the spirit of patenting. Companies or individuals who patent ideas to ensure they reap the benefits of their innovation are standing on ethically solid ground. However, all too often patents are filed to create legal ammunition to intimidate, blackmail, and squash competitors.

I'm no patent law expert, but it's obviously wrong when patents are filed (and sometimes granted) for things which are natural progressions of technology. Often with new technology, something may appear an innovation when written in a verbose long-winded patent filing - and I think patents are probably granted inappropriately due to the subjective and complex nature of new technology. Let's consider a few examples of patent abuse:

Amazon one-click shopping: This is a fairly well-known case. Amazon basically got a patent for "buy this" buttons on websites. They used it to sue the pants off their rival, Barnes & Noble. Fortunately recently, the US Patent Office invalidated many of those patents.

Apple multi-touch: With mobile computing, we'll need substitutes for keyboards & mouses. Touchscreens have become the best interface to combine display and input. iPhone was first to market with a next-gen touchscreen device. But should you be able to patent the pinch? Apple has tried... filing patents for multi-touch, where fingers pinch and swirl a screen to manipulate objects. They shouldn't get these patents because there is already prior art, and because this type of interface is a natural progression. You should be able to patent innovation, but not intuition. I think the multi-touch patents will be rejected, but they may slow down progress for the consumer with their attempts.

Human genome: Something must be wrong if you can patent gene sequences. So someone owns my genetic code? I know this is an oversimplification, and the intent is to encourage R&D... but I only think you should be able to patent drugs or technology affecting DNA - not life forms themselves.

There are plenty of other examples of patent abuse. I think that the Patent Office tries, but it ultimately incapable of comprehending and interpreting cutting edge technology to judge when patents should & shouldn't be granted. There are ways that could be improved, such as by "crowd sourcing" patent evaluations so academics and experts could inject into the process. Or here's a thinker for you... get rid of patents altogether.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Singularity

In a previous post, I summarized what I consider to be the major milestones in time that have led to humanity on Earth today... an intelligent species inhabiting & dominating this planet. I'm going to continue that post here, not about the past... but about the future. You may have heard of a concept called "the singularity". If you haven't, it's very intriguing... as it ponders the future of humanity and what intelligence & technology lead to.

In astrophysics, a "singularity" refers to the center of a black hole beyond the event horizon... where space-time bends in upon itself and gravity becomes infinite. Nothing can escape. An analogy to this "singularity"( popularized by author Raymond Kurzweil) applies to the evolution of intelligence and technology. You see, as you approach a black hole... gravity gets exponentially stronger. Similarly, as humanity advances with knowledge and technology... our rate of advancement is accelerating. This is apparent when you look at the increasing frequency of the evolutionary & technological milestones. The trend has also been observed by many others - as seen here:

There are at least a couple theoretical scenarios in which this evolutionary singularity could occur, but they each rely upon a common requirement: intelligent life must achieve the capability to enhance and evolve itself. One scenario is biological and genetic - where a species masters genetic manipulation to such an extent that it grabs the steering wheel of evolution, enhancing it's own cognitive abilities recursively. The second scenario is similar, but would involve A.I. - where an artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence and "reprograms" or enhances itself (also recursively). Either of these scenarios would define the "event horizon" after which an intelligence explosion would occur.

Is this for real? Could it really happen, and if so when? A lot of technophiles claim that the Singularity will occur in our lifetime. Personally, I think of this prediction like a bad 80's sci-fi movie premised on flying cars & robots in the year 2003. Still, it is undeniable that our technological advancements are accelerating - especially regarding both genetics and computing. We're currently unraveling the human genome, while Moore's Law reliably predicts CPU power doubling every two years. However, we are still nowhere near genetically enhancing human brains, nor developing artificial cognition. Optimistically, I think either of these technologies are at least a century away (probably longer)... and any type of Singularity would be several centuries away (at least).

So, yes - I think an evolutionary Singularity is a real possibility, given that we don't destroy ourselves first. Or perhaps the new intelligence following the Singularity will destroy itself.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fun with Google Trends

Google Trends is a pretty cool site. According to their website: "you can compare the world’s interest in your favorite topics. Enter up to five topics and see how often they’ve been searched on Google over time". Their data goes back abour 4 years now. You can compare different search terms - so it's all about what you ask. (It's important to remember, search terms are often variable... e.g. 'Coca-Cola' vs. 'Coke' - so wording is important)

I ran a few comparisons in Google Trends that I thought might be interesting:
(Scroll down to see the chart image)
  1. Coke, Pepsi
    I did this just as a baseline. You'd expect they come out pretty similar & in fact, they did.
  2. Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Hulk, Spiderman
    Okay, this just goes to show how big the movie releases impact interest in these characters. You see huge spikes in interest when their films release in theaters.
  3. Obama, McCain
    Perhaps Google Trends will turn out to be a good predictor of election winners? Interest in Obama certainly overwhelmed McCain prior to the election. Of course, they always said the internet is a younger more liberal crowd. It's notable how dramatically interest tapers off after Nov 4th.
  4. iPhone, Blackberry, G1
    I thought I'd compare the three top "next gen" phones out there. iPhone has been around over a year. The Blackberry has been steadily increasing. The G1 is pretty new - will Android be bigger than iPhone? We'll have to wait & see...
  5. Apple, Microsoft, Ubuntu
    Speaking of technology, I thought I'd compare these OS & PC platforms. Microsoft is actually decreasing over the long term. Apple has been slowly increasing & Ubuntu is surprisingly strong riser! I'm not sure what the little humps in the Ubuntu trendline are... my guess would be new distribution releases.
  6. Prop 8, Bailout, Global Warming, Gas Prices, Britney Spears
    And last but not least, what have been major issues facing our country in 2008? I tried a few & threw in Britney Spears for measure. Sadly, Britney Spears is of greater interest to googlers than our national crises on your average day. However, you can see definite spikes when Prop 8, bailouts, & gas prices peaked our interests.
(click to enlarge)


Give Google Trends a try yourself with & feel free to share interesting ones!