Friday Notes (Apr 28, 2023)

Last month I put out two editions of Friday Notes, and this month I almost missed posting any (today being my last chance). To some extent, that’s just normal ebb and flow, but it’s also that I’ve been distracted by Real Life™ (such as it is).

I’ve been doing a lot of (in many cases rather interesting) reading lately — words going in rather than out — and I think any writer will tell you that’s the easier direction. Sometimes the much easier direction.

But I do have some notes (and pictures)…

That the east coast of the Americas looks like such an obvious fit to the west coast of Europe and, especially, Africa:

Somehow, as a kid looking at maps in school, I expected it to turn out to be just a coincidence. The world couldn’t possibly be that simple, that obvious. Seems as if, with stuff like that, there was always a letdown: “Yeah, I know it looks that way, but really it’s something else.”

Then one learns about plate tectonics, and it turns out to be exactly that simple. Somehow, I’ve always found that vaguely jarring. Reality not being mysterious? What’s up with that?


Speaking of the whole Earth and, in particular, its Seven Seas, after several attempts over the years, I’m finally getting through Moby Dick (1851). It’s one of those books any serious reader is “supposed” to have read (being one of the Great American Novels).

I tend to prefer either some science or some science fiction in my reading, so it’s definitely not my usual cuppa, but I’ve been mostly enjoying it. Those familiar with the tale know that it’s both epic (translation: extremely long; 1300+ pages on my phone) and encyclopedic (about whaling).

It’s kind of a weird book, almost two separate ones rolled into one. One is the three-year adventure Ishmael takes on Ahab’s ship, Pequod. This part I really enjoyed. The other is the encyclopedia of whaling, all the description and rumination Melville provides (some of it wrong; we know much more about whales today).

It’s also a weird book due to the mélange of literary styles and devices Melville employs. For instance, some of it reads like a Shakespeare play in having asides, soliloquies, and even stage directions. It’s a bit of a challenge to read due to the archaic language and references (many of them biblical or mythical).

And while some of it is tedious or bombastic, I can see why it’s so revered. Glad I’m reading it (I’m up to chapter 101 of 135). That said, I would recommend it only for serious readers.


Dare we Minnesotans believe winter is finally over? (We dare! Get out the shorts!) I have a sense that winter has shifted to appearing — and disappearing — later than I remember from my past. Due to climate change, I assume. And we seem to have “long tail” winters now, the snow and bouts of cold persisting much later into spring.

Bit of a case in point, here’s what the view out my home office window looked like on March 31st (in most of the pictures that follow, click for big):

The snow (of which there’d been considerable) was slowly melting away. Then here’s what I woke up to April 1st:

Surprise! April Fool’s! (Except, no foolin’, get out there and shovel!) Looks rather nice with the blue sky and sunshine. One thing about late season snows, they’re often wet snows that stick to the trees, which I find just gorgeous:

After I finished shoveling, I couldn’t resist a closeup shot of The Tree:

I just might just use that one for a screen wallpaper when summer gets toasty.


A fundamental question: Is intelligent life an attractor or a (perhaps local) maximum?

The evolution of intelligent life, at first blush, seems counter to entropy. It’s not because the system isn’t closed, low-entropy energy is freely available, so it’s really another case of how the basic rules of reality, plus time and energy, allow complex systems to form from simple ones.

But it’s still amazing to me that we evolved. Some feel intelligent life is an attractor, that a wide variety of starting conditions will inevitably lead to intelligent life. This gives one the sense the universe should be filled with life. It’s what informs the hopes of SETI and science fiction.

But what if we’re an example of an extraordinarily rare event? A combination of just the right factors to eventually led to us. Some things that might be important in that regard:

  • Right place in the galaxy, 1: Some believe there is a “habitable” zone in galaxies as well as in star systems. The idea is that the mixture of elements in the gas clouds that star systems coalesce from varies with radial distance from the center. The presumption is that it’s more ideal for life at some distances than others.
  • Right place in the galaxy, 2: If the right mix of elements is important, perhaps it depends on whether a relatively recent supernova (or neutron star collision) has seeded the area with the just the right mixture.
  • Right kind of star, 1: Not too violent and probably best if it allows a habitable zone with reasonable years (not too close or far), so a medium-sized star.
  • Right kind of star, 2: Do we need gas giants in the outer system to shield the inner system from comets so early life can get a fingerhold?
  • Right kind of planet, 1: Got orbit in the habitable zone!
  • Right kind of planet, 2: Probably need a core supporting a magnetic field to block radiation.
  • Right kind of planet, 3: Does it need to be hit by another large body that contributes its iron to the core?
  • Right kind of planet, 4: Does it need a large moon for tidal pools (thought by some as instrumental to early evolution)?

And all that’s before life, let alone intelligent life, even gets started. This just sets the stage for it!

So, maybe it’s more amazing, much more amazing, than we think that we’re here at all. The Copernican Principle says we should consider ourselves an average example, but it may fail in this case. We may be very unique.

Unless intelligent life is a powerful attractor, but then the galaxy should be teaming with intelligent life, and the Fermi Paradox remains paradoxical.


Carbon and Silicon.

Speaking of life on other planets, it’s fashionable in some quarters to posit silicon-based life as an alternative to carbon-based life. It makes some sense at first glance. Silicon and carbon have the same valance, which means they share many of the same chemical properties.

There is also that silicon is the eighth most common element in the universe (our carbon is the 15th).

But silicon doesn’t form nearly as many compounds as does versatile carbon (which is astonishingly varied and complex). Further, carbon-based life emits carbon dioxide gas as a waste product, and presuming silicon-based life also oxidizes, it would emit silicon dioxide. Aka sand. A solid, not a gas.

And while I’ve read science fiction where silicon-based life did emit sand as its waste product, there is a big problem with that. Silicon-dioxide is super stable.  Not much can break it down back into oxygen and silicon. Which would seem to cut the life cycle short. In contrast, there are many chemical processes that break carbon dioxide down into oxygen and carbon. All plants do it.

Plus: you can’t make gunpowder out of silicon!


Yet another reason to be dubious about the Many Worlds Interpretation (the MWI):

The Schrödinger Equation suggests a pristine interaction-free environment, but Real Life™ is all about interactions. I find it hard to imagine large noisy systems in quantum states.

BTW/IMO: There are no “particles”. Ever. Just waves interacting in ways that look point-like. That is, the apparent site of the interaction is well localized. And it remains one of the great conundrums of quantum physics.



Two of the most common answers to Real Questions™:

  1. It’s complicated…
  2. It depends (on what you mean by X)…

Back in college we had a joke about how the answer to any Computer Science question always began with, “It depends…” And it’s funny how often it was literal truth. As I’ve experienced life, I’ve come to understand it’s a canonical answer in myriad areas, especially technical or formal ones.

That Real Life™ stuff is complicated. And tricky.


“Aspirational, inspirational, emotional, inclusive.” (Biden’s last SOTU speech. See Grandpa Came to Play!) I wrote the note because I wanted a word like “inclusive” but ending in “al” to match the first three. Still haven’t thought of one (but it’s not like I’ve been spending time trying to). Open to suggestions.


God loves us from above. Dog loves us from below.

Here “above” and “below” are more metaphoric than literal, but there is a shred of literal truth involved. At least dogs can be said to love us from below, in physical stature and intellect. One assumes God is above us in those regards.

Because I love dogs so much, I’ve always gotten a kick out of the fact that “dog” is “god” spelled backwards. (Or is it rather that “god” is “dog” spelled backwards?) I assume this only works in English. Lucky us!

On the subject of dogs, one of the funnier pictures of my pal Bentley:

Disgruntled Dog!

She is not happy with me! I title this “Disgruntled Dog” because I was trying to get her to sit nicely next to the birthday present I had for BentleyMom, but Bentley didn’t like sitting next to this big box she didn’t know what was. I had to get insistent with her, and — strong willed little gal that she is (which I love about her) — she wasn’t happy (notice how she won’t look at me).

If you know her, the expression on her face is just priceless!


Lastly, getting back to The Tree outside my office window, ever since I got my first iPad in 2016, I’ve been, when the mood or fancy struck me, taking roughly the same picture of that tree. All along I’ve had a vague idea about stitching all those photos into a kind of “time lapse” movie. (And it’s a way to document the changing seasons.)

This month I started playing around with the photo collection (well over 200 images by now), and one thing I’ve known all along is that, since I don’t have the camera in a fixed position, the photos vary in their framing. For grins, I wrote a little Python program to merge all 222 photos:

Honestly, I’m surprised it isn’t just a gray fog, that there’s anything recognizable at all. When I tried it with just the 39 images so far this year, the result is much clearer:

But still a lot of variation. Ideally, to make a time lapse movie from these images, I’d need to crop them to make them all line up. Which sounds like a huge task (I need an app for that). But just to see how it looked, I made a movie using the full frames:

The image jumps around, but it’s still kinda cool. This one just shows The Tree from March 24 when I decided to document spring by taking a picture every day. I also made a longer one with all the frames.

§ §

Note to self (here because it was on one of the notes I’m now tossing, and I’d rather copy it here than onto yet another piece of paper): Remember to eventually get around to looking up and reading about Unified Modeling Language (UML) and Object Constraint Language (OCL). I’ve run into, even used, UML before, but OCL is a new one.

On the other hand, maybe it would be more fun to try to learn Go.

Stay safe, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “Friday Notes (Apr 28, 2023)

  • TomBoy

    Are you kidding?!? Y’all are still buried in snow!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha! No, the last snowfall was that April 1st surprise. We had some very warm weather that melted it (you’ll see that in the one-minute movie I made). Then it got a bit chilly and rainy, and it’s only now starting to warm up again (50 out right now). Winter’s long tail!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    No, “inclusional” doesn’t work. It’s not a real word (although maybe it should be). The usual word would be inclusionary, but that doesn’t end in “al”.

  • lucynlopez

    Nice snowy pictures. And Bentley

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    I most emphatically agree, it does appear amazing that we’re here at all. You question whether intelligent life is an attractor. I like that. In a somewhat similar locution, perhaps intelligent life is the result of some sort of teleological principle embedded in reality. Although I understand my choice of words is loaded—something conventional and fashionable wisdom has bullied us into rejecting.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      One wants to be careful about causation versus correlation, but I often have a hard time separating them when comparing society’s deconstruction and secularism with the current “another fine mess you’ve gotten us into” state of affairs (the “you” in this case being humanity). I completely agree with staunch atheists that they can be just as, if not often more, moral than any spiritual person, but my observation has always been that atheism doesn’t come with any kind of inbuilt moral or ethical code. And, if one takes evolution as their primary model, greed and animal narcissism would seem to be the lesson derived from that. If there’s one lesson to be learned from Kant, it’s that building an intellectual moral code is a challenge (although I’ve long thought human consciousness might be the foundation for one).

      Sorry, bit of a rant there. I’m quite on board with a teleological, even spiritual, universe. Indeed, not a fashionable stance, but the jury is likely to remain out (it being hard to prove a negative), and I have the option of believing that all this space and stuff didn’t just happen.

      Often, the question is: “Well, what evidence is there?” My answer: What evidence would you find compelling? How about the way the universe has this feature where simple rules plus energy plus time result in increasingly complex structure in apparent defiance of entropy, the thermodynamic inevitability of all things? Isn’t it amazing that the universe, with entropy constantly tugging at it, is able to produce structure at all? To me, that’s evidence of… something.

      So, I don’t think intelligent life is an attractor but a hard-won battle against incredible odds (easily on the order of 1:10²⁰) fighting entropy every step of the way.

      • Matti Meikäläinen

        Not too long ago I finished a work by Thomas Nagel, “Mind and Cosmos” (subtitled, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.) Although Nagel offers no theory to replace the Darwinian materialism, he argues that contemporary biology cannot demonstrate the origin and evolution of life and consciousness merely by way of the laws of chemistry and physics. He suggests that teleological principles appear to be involved rather than mere mechanistic principles. He thinks what drives reductionist ideas about (for example) mind is a lack of comprehensive alternatives. In short, he argues that ignoring consciousness (and a few other things) allowed the phenomenal growth in scientific and quantitative understanding of nature. But we hit a wall of implausibility when we try to include consciousness and a few other things like value (ethics). I should note that Nagel is an atheist—so clearly he cannot be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill apologist for some intentional intervention from without, e.g., intelligent design, which he clearly is not. And I’m with him on the idea that something else, more complex perhaps, seems to be going on. And, moreover, I do enjoy the wonder of it all.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Indeed! Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind makes a narrower argument along similar lines. Penrose’s argument is mainly about computability and Gödel’s Incompleteness in opposition to the notion that consciousness can be reduced to a computation by the brain. And presumably any other computer. The view goes back to the Scientific Revolution and proposals that the brain might be replicated by a hydraulic system (Descartes, maybe? one of those guys). It’s part of the general view of reality as a mechanism we can understand and duplicate or simulate.

        It’s a view so prevalent that I’m often slightly surprised by encountering thinkers who reject it. Thanks for the info on Nagel. I’m familiar with him mainly due to his paper about the “something it is like” to be a bat, which has long been a cornerstone in my thinking about consciousness. (And I’ve long been amused by how many don’t seem to get his point or misinterpret it. One blog post I read once debated the nature of “like” in that phrase.)

        The very impenetrability of the problem of consciousness seems (at least to me) an argument that Penrose and Nagel are on to something.

      • Matti Meikäläinen

        Penrose’s book is now on my long wish list of books I hope to read. Thank you for that. Penrose would probably appeal to your mathematical nature. Nagel appealed to me partly because of that wonderful essay “What It Is Like To Be A Bat.” However, his work “The View From Nowhere” was also an influence on me. In short Nagel argues that although we (humans) have the ability to concoct a view of reality somewhat from an objective perspective, i.e., the view from nowhere, we are inescapably trapped or situated in our own personal perspective and in fact actually cannot view reality objectively or, rather, that an objective viewpoint is an incomplete view. Moreover, the widespread belief that we can really get that objective perspective has led to multiple conundrums—including a dubious and simplistic reductionism in consciousness.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        To the extent I understand him, Kant has a view somewhat along those lines, that our entire worldview is inescapably subjective. I’ve often wondered, though, to what extent that might be mitigated by the consensus of many and the information we get from our instruments. Although, no doubt our subjectivity still comes into play regarding how we handle that information. Additionally, I really do place consciousness in its own category of difficulty. It’s the only phenomenon we study from both the outside and inside. I find it both intriguing and depressing that we can’t even define the term rigorously. I do absolutely agree we need a holistic or systemic view that recognizes our subjectivity. Quite agree about the problems of simplistic reductionism!

        One caveat about Penrose’s book: It’ll take you deeply into some of his mathematical thinking. Penrose has never been shy about throwing some serious math at his readers. It was a challenging read, despite loving (but not being all that expert at) mathematics. His argument, as I mentioned, is about computability, and that’s a pretty deep subject mathematically. (I have a vague sense that he likes showing off his mathematical thinking, too. I didn’t always see the applicability of some of his mathematical meandering.)

        Not sure if you’d be interested in his Fashion, Faith and Fantasy (2016), which attacks sectors of science that indulge in those three (string theory, quantum mechanics, and cosmology, respectively), but he made a point of leaving off the deep mathematics and making the book more accessible for general audiences. (Rightfully so, it’s a message that more people should absorb and take to heart. Science has become science fiction in too many places.)

  • Anonymole

    Intelligent life might be a Destructor as well.

    Of all the billions of species that have existed, some for millions of years, only once did higher intelligence arise — must not be very important for life I guess*. And maybe antithetical to life in general.

    *(Attributed to Neal deGrasse Tyson)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Based on our N=1 sample, it seems clear “all” intelligent life is, indeed, a Destructor. It’s a key theme in that Sapiens book I wrote about last week.

      Intelligence clearly isn’t needed for life (trees do fine without it), and it does seem hard to account for why we’d maintain a system that sucks up so much of the body’s energy, but from a DNA point of view, it was massively successful. Our DNA did, in fact, take over the whole damn planet. The big downside: Intelligence also carries the seeds of its own doom, so there’s that.

And what do you think?

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