Dancing in the moonlight.
kitten   March 30, 2003

Editors note: This is the first requested post made to walled city. This one is by Nick, who wanted insight into the origins of the universe.


In high school, I attended a course called Earth Science. It was, by and large, a 'filler' class - a class meant to be taken when all other options, such as Chemistry, had been either taken or otherwise were unavailable. At one point during this course, the teacher attempted to explain the currently accepted scientific explanation of the origin of the universe (with the caveat that she did not expect everyone to believe it, so as not to offend the young-earth creationists in the class).

She failed miserably.

The Big Bang theory and model of the universe is an extremely misunderstood concept, and is not required teaching in most schools, likely for the same reason that evolution is not required teaching. Therefore, even when a teacher attempts to discuss it with the class, she does not have the required background or knowledge to do so. I lauded the teacher for even trying, condemned her for the subsequent Creationist warning, but mostly, I was disgusted by the way she explained it. She presented it in such a way that it sounded like pure fantasy, and among those students who did not already know the actual theory, there was much disbelief. I cannot say I entirely blame them - had the only information available to me come from this teacher, I myself might be just as incredulous. (Although, I can blame them for not knowing this material already. This is important stuff, people!)

I'd like to present a brief lecture on the origin of the universe. I am not a physicist by any means, and although I will try to offer the most factual information possible, I cannot guarantee that everything is 100% absolutely the most up-to-date accepted model. I can, however, promise that my information will be vastly superior to any you are likely to find in a high school textbook (which is full of "somehow"), or from a high school teacher.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
Setting aside for the moment the issue of "where did it come from" (we'll get back to it) let us accept that, roughly 15 to 20 billion years ago, the cosmos were born in a release of energy known as the Big Bang. We will discuss what is known as the "hot big bang model", which assumes that the universe is described by a Friedman model all the way back to the Big Bang. This assumption agrees very well with what is observed.

This release was pure energy; there was no matter involved. As you can expect, as the universe expands, the average temperature of the matter and energy in it decreases. Since temperature is merely a measure of the average energy in a system, this "cooling off" of the universe will have a major effect.

Recall, if you will, Einstein's equation that states E=mc^2. This equation shows that energy and matter are interchangable: Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Given enough energy, basic subatomic particles will begin to form - protons and electrons. At very high temperatures, such as we'd find a few seconds after the Big Bang, particles would be moving around so fast that they would resist any attraction to each other caused by the nuclear or electromagnetic forces.

About one second after the Big Bang, the universe would have had a temperature of roughly ten thousand million degrees (Stephen Hawking, Cambridge Lectures on Cosmology, 5 of 8). To give you an idea of the temperature involved here, this is hotter than the surface of the hottest stars, but temperatures on par with this are reached in hydrogen bomb explosions. At this early point in the universe, we mostly find photons, electrons, neutrinos, and all their antiparticles, and a few protons and neutrons.

The universe continues to expand, and the temperature to drop. After the temperature has decreased sufficiently, particles would no longer be able to resist the attraction towards each other, and would start to clump together. Protons attract electrons, and here we have the first hydrogen atoms.

Let there be light.
Over time, as the universe continues to expand, and gravitational irregularities develop, hydrogen atoms start clumping together due to gravity (remember that all matter induces gravity according to its mass). The more of them come together, the more gravitational influence they exert, and attract even more hydrogen atoms, which increases the gravity, which attracts more atoms, and so on. When enough atoms have come together, and the gravitational force within the collective mass is high enough, they begin to fuse together, resulting in a fusion explosion, and the birth of a star.

At the heart of any star is a fusion furnace - hydrogen atoms being compressed together to such a great degree that they fuse together, releasing the nuclear strong force that bound their nuclei together - this results in an immense release of energy. This process also produces helium atoms.

When a star has run out of hydrogen fuel, it continues fusion with the next available element - helium. When helium fuses, it produces a slightly heavier element, and when the star runs out of helium it continues. I believe this process can continue all the way up to the element of lead, but I may be mistaken. Regardless, it is within a star that elements heavier than hydrogen are created, and when at last the available fuel becomes too heavy to continue fusion, the star collapses under it's own gravity (the fusion explosions were what kept it from doing this before). In this collapse, the star goes nova, creating a nebula and spreading these new, heavier elements back out into space. The nebula itself will eventually collapse due to gravity and form another star - and leftover matter from the nebula will have to orbit the star. The orbiting matter will itself begin to clump together due to gravity, and here we have planets.


It is not my intention to go further in the history than I have at the moment. I find it amusing, on some level, that our human ego drives us to change the focus when discussing this sort of thing; we start off with the formation of the universe itself, and gradually narrow it down to Earth, and narrow it down from there to life, and from there, to humanity - and then we stop. The lecture always concludes with, "..and finally, man appeared," as though we were the be-all and end-all; that our arrival was what everything was leading up to and the universe could safely stop everything else it had been doing.

Hubristic though we may be, the fact is that stellar processes did not grind to a halt when we showed up. Stars continue to be born, others continue to die, entropy continues to grind away. Our arrival did not cause any stir among the cosmos.

For that reason, we aren't going to get into evolution today.

In the commissioning of this article, the question of the original "source" was brought up: We have the Big Bang, and everything we observe today leads back to it, but what caused the Big Bang itself? Where did the original energy come from?

Naturally, many religions turn to God at this point, using the First Cause argument or a variation thereof. I hardly need to belabor my view on this - I did so here, specifically sections IV and V. There are multiple problems associated with using any type of god as an explanation for this.

A theist uses God as the metaphysical primary for which all discourse depends. He backtracks far enough into the history of the universe, comes to the inevitable question "So where'd it come from?" and concludes: God. As an atheist, I accept the universe itself as the metaphysical primary; again, for reasons disclosed here.

Stephen Hawking has some fascinating insights into possible origins of the universe, including one theory that universes are spawned from the black holes of other, higher-dimensional universes. In this context, this would mean that our universe was formed as the bottom of a singularity "wrapped" around itself in spacetime in a fourth-dimensional universe, which itself may be spawned from a fifth-dimensional plane, and so on. His explanations can be found in the above book, as well as in this one.

We may also wish to consider the possibility of an eternal cycle of collapse-and-rexpansion. Such a model is known as a "closed universe", in which the total gravity of the system exceeds the force at which the universe is expanding - thus, the universe will eventually stop expanding, recollapse on itself, and start again.

Is it really so curious that our universe should be "just so"? - that everything seems to be exactly what it needs to be? There are only a few dozen fundamental constants that describe the nature of our universe - the mass of the proton, the strength of gravity, the power of the nuclear strong and weak forces, and so forth. A universe that began randomly would have virtually (emphasis on virtual) no chance of being 'viable'. Get the fundamental constants wrong, and you end up with a sea of boring gas, or a hot knot of plasma, or some other equally uninteresting, 'unviable' universe that cannot form basic matter, nevermind stars and planets and life.

In fact, the odds can be calculated. Neal Stephenson, in his excellent The Command Line essay, writes, "If there were some machine, somewhere, that could spit out universes with randomly chosen values for their fundamental constants, then for every universe like ours it would produce 10^229 duds."

It would seem that the odds are insurmountably against us ever having appeared, if the universe were spawned with randomness that way. At least, it seems that way, until we consider the fact that we are here and asking the question. There are, of course, other theories besides the two I mentioned above, but it really isn't worth noticing that our universe happens to be one we can live in. To me, this is like a puddle waking up one day and saying, "This certainly is an interesting hole I live in. Why, I'm a one-gallon puddle, and this is a one-gallon hole! And look - it fits me just perfectly! Why, it's as though this hole was made just to have me in it! How fortunate that the hole was shaped just right for me - perhaps someone planned it that way."

The nature of the universe dictates what will go on within it, not vice versa. Now, it's tempting to bring up certain laws of physics that seem to offer counterpoints to the entire situation. For example, the first law of thermodynamics states that energy and matter must be conserved - they can neither be created nor destroyed. Or the second law, which states that in a closed system, entropy must increase. It would seem, then, that the formation of the universe is a violation of these laws.

However, such laws of physics only apply within the context of the universe itself. "Before" the universe was born, or during the moment of it's birth when it was a mere singularity of zero size, such laws have no meaning. It makes no sense to take laws of our universe, wrench them from their framework, and try to apply them before the universe was even there.

Suppose that universes are being spontaneously generated out of higher-dimensional universes - as we saw before, most of them would be complete duds, but every once in a while, one comes along that allows matter and stars to be formed. Or, consider a cyclic universe that is constantly expanding and collapsing - most of the universes that come out of such a process would be dead and lifeless, but again, given enough cycles and enough chances, eventually one appears that allows interesting things to happen.

Because I'm right.
kitten   March 25, 2003

[Arbo] I wish I could be a professional student.
[kitten] You can be.
[kitten] My father knew a guy in college who was.
[Arbo] How'd he pull it off?
[kitten] He was involved in some lab accident that disfigured his face. People called him "Joe Wreckface".
[kitten] The guy basically had no hope of getting a job like that, and so the university basically gave him a room and let him stay as long as he wanted, take whatever classes he wanted, etc.
[kitten] He wound up with more degrees than I can count.
[Arbo] That's a little extreme. If the price of professional studentia is your face, I'll seek another occupation.
[kitten] In that case, become a professor.
[kitten] Same idea.
[Arbo] Hmm.
[kitten] Do jack shit, make your graduate students teach your classes and grade your papers, and just write an academic paper once a year on some obscure topic nobody gives a fuck about.
[kitten] Which you make your grad students research for you anyway.
[Arbo] kitten, you're the most cynical man I know.
[kitten] I'm also right. :)
[Arbo> Yes.

Nuke 'em, Rico!

As some of you may be aware, I have been without a job for two months. During that time, I interviewed for a position with IBM, and was offered the job last Friday.

Yay for me.

However, today they called back..

This is the letter I wrote to the district attorney's office afterwards.

Mr xxxxxxx,

My name is kitten, and I was arrested in July of 2000 and charged with "threats of terrorist activity". I imagine that you do not remember me or the case, but you dropped the charges with 'no proc' papers before my arraignment - sometime in February of 2001, I believe.

Sir, I am writing now to inquire as to why this is still showing up on my criminal background checks. I am currently seeking employment with IBM, and it is standard procedure for this company to run background checks on all applicants.

Last Friday, I was officially offered a position with IBM. However, today they contacted me again, informing me of what their background check revealed, and now my chances for employment with them - or any other company that does background checks for that matter - are seriously diminished.

I do not feel that it is fair for me to have this scarlet letter affixed to my name for the rest of eternity for something I did not do. I am now unable to obtain gainful employment because of this, and I would like to know what you can do to assist me.

Please contact me at your earliest convenience at xxx.xxx.xxxx.



The full story behind the "terrorist" incident is in the archives; I won't bother linking it because most of you don't care. Long story short: Some moron called the cops as a prank, told them I had a bomb. Cops showed up, I didn't have a bomb, but the cops decided maybe I was threatening people and saying I had a bomb, so they arrested me anyway. The DA found out what happened after I argued with him about it, and dropped the charges.

Now, some of you may think I acted like an idiot during the arrest. I'm not here to argue about that.

What concerns me here is: A person gets charged with a crime. He is subsequently found not guilty, or the charges are dropped altogether. You'd think that everyone could just pretend it never happened, right? If you're not guilty of the charge, then why should you carry the burden?

But apparently, that is what's happening now. The DA drops the charges, but I'm still branded for life simply because I was accused in the first place.

Anyone can get accused and anyone can get arrested. I do not feel that a mere accusation should carry any weight whatsoever. A criminal background check should not reveal arrests and accusations; only convictions are important.

I phoned the DA who said that I'd need to get an attorney and file for a motion of expungement, which is, as he described it, a lengthy and complicated procedure (not to mention costly). I don't have the time for that, and my employer may not be willing to wait.

Mind you, when they first called me to talk about it, I explained the entire situation (in summary), and stressed that the charges were dropped. The recruiter seemed to believe me and understand, yet insisted that the paperwork would need to come back clean in order for me to be considered.

I emailed the recruiter after speaking with the DA, explaining that I would be more than willing to start the process of getting the record removed but it will take time, and that perhaps a copy of the final "no process" paperwork from the DA's office would suffice for the time being.

We'll see how that goes, but nevertheless, it disturbs me greatly that an accusation against someone - not a conviction - is enough to brand them for life.

Welcome to the justice system.

Take a stroll down Memory Lane.
kitten   March 23, 2003

So I found a site full of midi songfiles from Nintendo and Gameboy games.

You should stream these while you read my pointless little tales. They're small files.

First up, we have Contra. This was the finest game ever to grace the Nintendo console. Period. Now, some people disagree:

[magenta] contra was fun but it's not the best
[bt] Willow, Legend of Zelda, Bionic Commando were all better.
[kitten] Nuh.
[kitten] You couldn't play those two player.
[kitten] That was half the fun right there, bickering about who stole which powerup.
[kitten] And who gets to take more credit for blowing up the base.
The vast majority of these games, I played with Eric, who lived next door to me since I was in second grade. We spent countless hours, wiling away the time in front of the Nintendo, playing this game. It took us weeks to beat it - hell, it took us weeks just to get past the third level. But, in our defense, at the time we didn't know about the now famous Konami code of Up Up, Down Down, Left Right, Left Right, B A, which grants you 30 lives instead of the stock issue of 3.

Eric had this to say:

Sc0ut (10:23 PM) : dude I totally did more damage on the base
Sc0ut (10:23 PM) : and it was all about the crotch master
kitten (10:24 PM) : haha, the crotch master, I forgot about that one.
The uh, "Crotch Master" was what we called this one particular boss that showed up sometime in level six, if memory serves. He had this sporadic way of jumping around the screen such that the only way to defeat him was to get underneath him while he was jumping, and shoot straight up at the apex of his leap, into his crotch. To a couple of third-graders, this is the most hysterical thing ever, and required such a nomenclature.

Truth be told, there wasn't that much bickering about who stole the powerups. After a while, we had some pretty slick patterns worked out, without needing to discuss them. Through trial and error we simply found the most efficient ways of cutting swaths through each level, predicting where each enemy or powerup would be, and figuring out who would get what weapon at which time, in order to maximize our destructive potential.

But we did still fight over who gets to claim credit for doing the most damage to each end-level boss or base.

Next up, Life Force.

Eric didn't have a normal Nintendo. He had the Japanese version, called a FamiCom. This was partially advantageous, since his father would make periodic trips to Japan and come back with games that weren't on the American market yet. However, the games were, of course, in Japanese, and so we never knew what was going on. For action games like Contra and Life Force, it doesn't much matter, although we didn't know the titles of these games. We thought Contra was a Rambo game, and the only English word in Life Force was "Salamader", so we thought that was the title.

Anyway, Life Force was your standard side-scrolling shoot-em-up spaceship game, where you started out with a pathetic ship armed with pitiful weaponry. As you progressed you'd pick up little.. satellite.. things.. which would allow you to customize your arsenal to some degree. You could get missiles, lasers, a ripple-gun (sort of an energy ring that spread out), force fields, and an "option", which was kind of a ghost ship that followed you around and fired weapons as you fired.

It wasn't until Winter Break of 1988 that we finally defeated the first level boss, a sort of brain that followed you around the screen and for some inexplicable reason, had arms and eyes. Its defeat was cause for much celebration. To third-graders, this means creating bonfires out of pinecones in the driveway.

As with Contra, we worked out patterns for this game, destroying spacecraft and asteroids and other varied hazards with our fearsome piloting skills and planet-crushing weapons. No eight-bit terror was safe from us, although as always, gaming sometimes took a back seat to the more important task of arguing over who fucked up and made the other guy die, or who did more damage to the end-level boss.

Then we have Zelda, Game Boy style. This game was the single reason for my fall from grace in terms of academic performance in eighth grade. Not that I was exactly on my way to becoming valedictorian or anything, but once I got this game, it consumed most of my homework time.

I think this is one of the best iterations of the Zelda series out there, second only to the SNES version. Zelda is one of very few games that can be fun for two or more people to play, even though it's a one-player game. Usually, one person will play while the other(s) will sit around and yell suggestions for getting past this trap or that puzzle, until the player admits defeat and hands off the controls to someone else. Even with the combined brainpower of multiple geniuses such as myself and my friends, some of these puzzles got to be quite tricky. Interestingly, our solutions were not always the solutions recommended or even thought of by the hint books or walkthroughs. I remember we found some rather creative ways - if completely unorthodox - of getting around certain areas.

Finally, we have Tetris. If you don't remember this music, there is something seriously wrong with you. The rest of us remember hearing this music in our sleep - it was that infectious.

The marvelous thing about Tetris for Game Boy was that two people with Game Boys could connect them via a link cable and go toe-to-toe with piece-dropping combat. Every line you cleared off your screen would add a line to theirs, which somewhat altered the strategy of single-player gaming: instead of clearing out one line at a time whenever you can, it was better to wait around for the four-block straight piece and clear four lines, to give your opponent a sudden and unexpected disadvantage.

When the arrangement of pieces got to a critical level, the music would change from the standard theme to a frantic tune, informing all within earshot that you were dancing with disaster. It was great fun to listen to the rate of button-pushing of your opponent increase when that music chimed in, as he desperately tried to get back to equilibrium.

And a bit of trivia for you - this song is actually a Russian folk song, and it has words. The lyrics are here. I found this by searching for a little snippet of the words I remember from sixth grade "music" class, where we learned this song. The google search only returns three pages, two of which go back to walled city. I find this amusing.

Truly, it was a more simple time. A time when men were real men and people cried out for the likes of Harry Truman. I thank you for your attention.

Turn that shit up.
kitten   March 20, 2003

So I suppose I should say something about this, since everyone else seems to be.

Oddly enough, I haven't really formed any significant opinions on the Iraq situation. I suppose I felt that it was basically inevitable in any event, given the Bush administration's hellbent fanaticism on the topic. So as the Vulcans might say, "Whatever happens, happens."

On the side of those who protest the war, there are a number of good points. Iraq may indeed be ruled by a bloodthirsty, power hungry tyrant, but that isn't our problem until he makes a move against us. The United States is not the global police nor did anyone appoint them to be the guardians of the world.

And yes, it does seem that President Bush is more concerned about oil than anything else. His first admonishment to Iraqi soldiers during his "deadline speech" on Tuesday was, "Do not set fire to the oil wells." Bush can wax poetic all day about human rights and the liberation of the Iraqi people, but the fact is, there are far more human rights being violated in far more horrifying ways elsewhere in the world. Bush can espouse rhetoric about the possibilty of Hussein's nuclear weapons, but has been unable to prove it - yet does nothing about North Korea, who is openly hostile to the US and who openly boasts that they have nuclear capabilities. Given this information it would seem that Bush is interested in Iraq primarily becaues they have a valuable resouce - all other considerations are secondary.

However, the Gulf War "ended" in a cease-fire agreement twelve years ago. The conditions of that agreement were that Iraq would allow UN weapon inspectors to have complete and free access to anywhere they wanted to look, and that Iraq would cooperate fully with them. For twelve years the inspectors have run into nothing but trouble and resistance. When Bush says that Iraq has defied the UN, he has a valid point - and from Bush's point of view, the agreement that led to the ceasefire has been broken, and therefore, the battle should resume again.

Meanwhile, I see that Iraq wasted no time in setting oil wells on fire. However, for news on the entire situation in general, I urge you to go to a source other than CNN.com. Their reporting on any topic has been subpar at best for a long time, and I see that someone over there learned how to use the FONT SIZE="100" tag, which renders headlines in letters three feet high. Highly annoying. Try google news instead. Google has the answers to everything.