Friday, February 28, 2014


Years from now—maybe in a decade, maybe sooner—if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built will be switched on in an Alpine forest in the South of France. The machine, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or iter, will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons—more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower. At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful that it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius—more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.
No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter. Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn’t a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond—all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a “magnetic bottle,” using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world. Just feet from the reactor’s core, the magnets will be cooled to two hundred and sixty-nine degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness of iter’s vacuum interior.
This is the beginning of an article in the New Yorker magazine. ITER is for real, and is now under construction in southern France. It's hard to imagine what this will actually look like once it is operation. If, in fact, we could get close enough to actually see it. This could be the future of energy for the humans on planet Earth...WOW! 
But this also scares the hell out of me. What are the risks? What happens if something goes wrong and it goes out of control? Is that possible? Have the scientists thought of every possible contingency? And what if they don't actually have the knowledge to know every possible outcome? I can visualize a scene in a movie where they start this reaction, everything goes along just fine, until one of the scientists, with a horrified look on her face, says quietly: "Uh oh...."  
Are there boundaries on scientific inquiry that we just shouldn't go beyond? We see this in sci-fi movies all the time, but does it actually happen in real life? Maybe it already has in multiple instances; genetic engineering, nuclear weapons, biological warfare, and etc. 
One of my biggest regrets about my eventual death is that I won't be around to see how all of this turns out. If only I could travel into the future, like Dr. Who, and see how the decisions of my time play out centuries from now. Maybe there will be holy sites, the Temples of ITER, where great flaming globes, like eyeballs, suspended in the air between giant magnets, are worshiped by the tribal masses who bow down and offer sacrifices to this god that has existed throughout the eons of time. 
Oh Great and Glorious and Terrible ITER, we who are humble bow down to you and offer our first born as a pledge of our fealty.  Provide us with heat and light, oh Mighty ITER, that we might subsist in our humble and meager hovels. And please, oh Gracious Lord ITER, never interrupt our broadband so that we may continue to be on Facebook 24/7.  

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Maybe I'm just getting soft, but I find that my former contempt for the anti-gay crowd in this country is turning more and more into something akin to pity. Well, maybe it's more of a sense that these folks are just simply pathetic.

From the newspaper today:
1. Detroit, Michigan. A lawsuit challenging the Michigan ban on same-sex marriage is being heard in a federal court. The defenders of the ban are bringing experts who will testify that it is bad for children to have same-sex parents. The other side will bring different experts who will try to debunk this claim. To everyone who knows families with same-sex parents, this is a non-starter; these kids are simply the same as any other kid, and the sex of the parents is not an issue (in fact, it might be an advantage in some ways).

2. Meanwhile, the wonderful legislature of the State of Arizona has passed legislation that would allow businesses to refuse to serve gays, based on religious beliefs of the business owner. The bill is on Governor Jan Brewer's desk for her signature - or veto - and she seems to be caught between her inherent far-right religiosity and pressure from the business community that the law would be bad for business. Damn right it would! I already refuse to spend money in Arizona or Florida because of their discriminatory and gun-toting laws, and many national organizations and businesses are shying away from Arizona for this reason. And besides, discrimination is not right, and should not be legalized; period!

3. Shall we move on to the State of Kansas? The Kansas House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow discrimination against gay people by businesses, based on religious belief. Maybe this is a case of Arizona Envy.

It is clear that the people behind these bills understand that the game is over. To date, 17 states now allow same-sex marriage. State attorneys general are deciding that they will not uphold same-sex marriage bans in their state. In Oregon, our Attorney General this week announced that her office will not uphold or defend the same-sex marriage ban added to our State Constitution a few years ago by popular vote because her office finds it to be discriminatory and therefore illegal. This is a decision prompted by a law suite brought by gay and lesbian couples challenging the constitutional ban.

The drum beat is loud and clear; the religious right is trying one more desperate last stand to stem the tide of freedom.

Why do these people have a problem with gay/lesbian marriage? They most often cite their bible as the reason. But really, what is it that bothers them? How does marriage by loving and committed couples threaten them? If they don't want to marry a person of the same sex, they have the choice not to. I actually think that a lot of it is based on the fact that there are organizations with paid staff that fight against same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general. Their incomes are based on this brand of hatred, and their job is to whip up "the base" to make as much noise as possible, and perpetuate their employment. Well, to these folks I would simply say, you'd better start looking for another job.

Game over.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


I think it's time for some intellectually stimulating contemplation and discussion. Don't you? Good.

First, read this short article in the New York Times; then come back here. (Hint: is our universe actually a computer simulation?)

Did you read it? Great; now let the discussion begin.

The article discusses whether or not it is possible that our entire universe is actually a computer simulation built by some intelligent beings (maybe even humans on Earth in the distant future). Here is my take: I find this theory to be very interesting and attractive. It would certainly solve a lot of our great mysteries of the universe. Think about this: throughout what I will call the Scientific Age of humankind, we have been trying to explain the mysteries of life and the universe by postulating theories and doing research, including, by the way, creating mathematical models to simulate observable phenomena.

Scientists "discovered" that the structure of genetic material is a double helix of material called DNA that has chemical compounds coded on it in various sequences. In other words, scientists deciphered a portion of the code for the computer simulation we are in. Every time mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists and others are able to explain how something works, they have deciphered another portion of The Code (capitalization used purposefully).

We have computer simulation games aplenty in our society; think video games, educational games like Sim City, and etc. In fact, what is Facebook but a type of simulation in which the Facebook algorithms use a variety of data sources to come up with things pushed our way based on who we are and what we like? It doesn't take that large a leap of imagination to think about a simulation model built by super intelligent (compared to us) beings using quantum computers (or some other kind of super computer that we can't even conceptualize).

In this simulation model, the creators input millions of basic routines (or apps they wrote did the assembly) that dictate the basic relationships between what we call physics, chemistry and biology, all based on a standard mathematics. They then hit "run," or start the simulation - what we call the Big Bang. Events unfold based on the basic relationships and rules of the model: stars form, planets around them, life appears under the right set of conditions and evolves according to the rules of the model. The simulation cranks along, and at any point in time (what is time? another discussion) the creators can take a "look" at how things are going.

I sit here writing this and look around me, thinking about who I am and why I am. I can explain this on the basis of evolution; however, I can also explain it based on my being a very minuscule routine in a very ginormous computer model. Why am I balding? Evolution tells me that it's a result of genetics; simulation theory tells me it's because the outcome "balding" is part of a complex computer code. Same thing, right? The modelers did not input the fate of every one of us; they input all of the possible variables and the routines that respond to every eventual interaction of variables; the result is an infinite number of "individuals" appearing in the simulation.

But hold on a minute; I'm real, I can feel things, smell and hear things, have emotional responses to things, experience pain and eventually death. Sure, but how do I know all of this is "real" or just the progression of highly interactive computer routines? I don't.

Of course The Matrix movie comes to mind here (one of my all-time favorites). But so do the concepts people have of god. If we are, in fact, just part of a computer simulation, does that prove intelligent design and the existence of god? Hmmm, it could, if we accept that god is a bunch of geeks sitting around in a laboratory somewhere writing computer code, and by intelligent design we mean the constructs of a complex mathematical model. Wow, that could very well blow a few minds!

I'm going to keep an open mind about this. This actually helps me put life in perspective, albeit a very different perspective.

What do you think? I would truly be interested.


Note: there is a disconnect created when I post to this blog and put the link on Facebook. Most people who comment do so on Facebook; however, some readers of this blog aren't on Facebook, and their comments posted to the blog are missed by the Facebookers, and visa versa. So maybe the answer to this is if I ask you, gentle readers, to comment here on the blog, and then comment on Facebook that you have commented on the blog. It's an extra step, but maybe it will be more inclusive.

Saturday, February 08, 2014


I'll begin this post with a statement, because I know what some people will think if I don't clarify.

This post is not against homeless people. I support every effort to help people get off the streets and into housing and employment, or to get whatever assistance they need. 

This post is about management of public spaces. Public spaces in the city include sidewalks, streets and parks. In our neighborhood of southeast Portland we struggle with issues of management of public spaces. We are not the only neighborhood of Portland with these issues; however, the press and the city government focus on these issues in the downtown core and generally do not acknowledge that these are city-wide problems.

Our neighborhood includes an arterial street, SE Hawthorne Boulevard, that supports many businesses, mostly small businesses.  Hawthorne, particularly what I call the middle section, is a vibrant street with many small shops, restaurants, coffee houses and a large bookstore. There are also a couple of supermarkets, a movie theater-pub, live entertainment venues (music and acrobatic theater). It's a terrific neighborhood in which to do business and live, but we're having problems. Most of our neighborhood problems are related to management of public spaces, or, more accurately, lack of such management.

The summer of 2013 was, for most of us, the worst summer in many years because of the street scene. Below are a few images to illustrate the issues.

The bus stop at the busiest intersection. 

The City built an extra-wide sidewalk and bike shelter that is primarily used as a hang-out by street people.

Need a place to dump your garbage? How about the public sidewalk?

The City required a stormwater swale and landscaping for a small commercial parking lot. It is used as a storage space for bedrolls and, in this case, a couch, and as a trash dump by street people.

A closeup of the stormwater swale - garbage dump. The property owner has to clean this up.
Keep in mind that I'm not picking on any individuals; everyone has a story about who they are and why they are here. What I'm talking about is using public spaces in ways that are respectful of everyone else using those spaces, and of the space itself. There are many different types of people in the group we generally refer to as "the homeless." Many of them, probably most of them, would rather not live on the streets. There are, however, those who choose to be on the street as a lifestyle choice; and yes, I know this because I've talked to people who make that choice.

The impact of the behavior shown in these photos is felt by everyone who lives in or visits our neighborhood. Some merchants have told me that customers have let them know that they don't like coming here anymore because of the street scene. Many parents don't like walking their children on Hawthorne anymore because of the open drinking, pot smoking, garbage, big dogs and sometimes aggressive panhandlers. Store owners and managers have told me that they frequently have to clean up human feces left in front of their store during the night. They also regularly pick up the garbage left by street people and sometimes have to wake them up and ask them not to block the doorway. Many merchants also object to people setting up tables or blankets on the sidewalk and selling jewelry, drawings or other items; these also block our very narrow (substandard width) sidewalks.

We also have an issue in the residential part of the neighborhood. People who are referred to as "travelers" use our residential streets as a RV park for the camper vans and old school buses in which they live. They live in these vehicles parked on the public street, and hang out on Hawthorne during the day. This brings noise, trash, drug dealing and partying into the residential neighborhood.

Portland has become a mecca for street people, especially during summer when many travel here to hang out and enjoy the vibe. The City has tried numerous times to control the street scene by passing ordinances that regulate how sidewalks can be used. These regulations typically have tried to give police the tools needed to move people along if they are blocking the sidewalk, being aggressive towards others, or for having other generally unwanted behaviors.  This has not worked well. Court rulings have found the City regulations in violation of the Oregon Constitution or state laws. Advocates for homeless people have battled with the City and downtown businesses, taking the position that the City should do more to help people on the street, and that these laws discriminate against the homeless.

In my view, it's too easy, and very disingenuous, to take the position that every attempt to get the street scene under control is an attempt to discriminate against homeless people. I'm a middle class person who lives in a home. If I chose to spend my days sitting and sleeping on the sidewalk on Hawthorne I should expect the police to ask me to move on. Yes, I have a home I can hang out in and truly homeless people don't. I support government stepping up the efforts to get every homeless person and family into housing; this has been proven to be the most important step in assisting the homeless. I would gladly pay my share of taxes to make this happen. But the lack of enough housing doesn't mean we should simply allow any and all kinds of behavior in our public spaces.

I'm tired of the street scene, the trash, the people using my residential street as a RV park, the negative impact to local businesses, and the negative impact to my property value. I'm tired of people thinking that I live in a run-down and dangerous area because of what they see when they visit me. I'm tired of feeling invaded every summer by people who want to abuse the privileges of citizenship and just "do their own thing." An acquaintance of mine who sells the newspaper Street Roots in our neighborhood put it this way: "There are people who are givers, and people who are takers. We need to get the takers to move on, and focus on helping the people who want to contribute to our neighborhood."

I know that advocates for the homeless will dismiss this post as that of someone who is a heartless and mean person who doesn't like people who are homeless. To these people, my desire to maintain a certain standard of livability in my neighborhood is a position to be ridiculed. These folks are missing the point.

We have organized our neighborhood to work with city government on these issues. We're not overly optimistic because we've tried this before, as have many others, and things have continued to get worse. There needs to be a solution to this problem. Certainly the majority of Portlanders can get to agreement on a set of standards of behavior for the use of public spaces. There are City ordinances that regulate the use of public spaces, but these are usually not enforced because the City has decided not to enforce them.  In my view, there are two separate issues at play: one is how we use public spaces - and by "we" I mean everyone. The second is the issue of homelessness and how to address it.

In our society, we need to attack the root causes of homelessness and guarantee that every person has a place to live and a means of supporting themselves or getting the assistance they need if they cannot do it alone. But to those people who are part of the negative street scene because they want to live off the grid or outside the norm and take advantage of everyone else, I want them to get a loud and clear message: that's great, but keep moving because you can't do that in Portland, Oregon.

Your comments are welcomed; please keep them civil.