Thoughts before watching Star Trek: Discovery

Looking back over my thoughts on Star Trek in general, I’m reminded that Star Trek: Discovery is the only TV show I’ve ever truly felt some investment in before its release. I do feel a sort of obligation to myself to pay attention to the show, to keep track of the details. It’s a very distinct feeling from the Abrams movies. In 2009, I had only watched TNG and TOS, and was also geared to expect a Star Trek movie, along the lines of the TNG movies, which taken all together are tolerable at best, and totally different in tone in the tv shows.

The new series has more incentive to live up to them if it is trying to cater to Star Trek fans, even if they can be nitpicky.

The Abbreviation

A lot of people are snickering about their abbreviation of the name of the show. Star Trek Discovery can be shortened to STD! Ha! Disease is funny! Didn’t the producers realize that, before deciding to use the forbidden fourth letter of the alphabet?

But really, this is a fine way to abbreviate the show’s name. I’m not going to tell you you can’t refer to the show as STD. We should remember, though, that there is an established abbreviation convention for the previous Star Trek series: we only abbreviate the subtitle! Star Trek (1966) is abbrevated TOS for The Original Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation has long been abbreviated TNG, Deep Space Nine DS9, Voyager VOY, Enterprise ENT. CBS’s use of DSC (or the more popular use of DIS) for Discovery is not a cover-up or a workaround, but falls in line with the rule.

The details and tech should serve the story

One of the big technical issues with Star Trek is in the speed of the ships themselves. Warp Factor, a number (1 through 9.995) that describes the ships faster-than-light speed, is a brilliant device because it draws the audience’s attention away from the actual speed of the ship, except for implying super-future-fast (warp 5) or flippin-fantastic-future-fast (warp 9). We don’t need to know how quickly the ships are zooming around in terms of kilometers per second for the sake of most stories. The show can be totally inconsistent from one episode to the next in terms of speeds and distances travelled and the times between, but very very few Star Treks are about the specific speeds of the ships. Stating these speeds has the potential to be distracting. It was great when the writers created a function and diagram mapping the warp factor to a real speed, but this would be violated many times afterwards.

The point to remember is that we are not going to get so caught up in this TV show that we’re going to lose sight of the fact that it isn’t real. We acknowledge the inconsistencies and move on, giving us mental energy to think about the story at hand.

This extends to other technologies or plot elements in the show that might seem contradictory, both to each other, or to our own world. Who cares that the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, cited in the original series and The Wrath of Khan, didn’t seem to happen. Exhaustive in-universe retconning should only be done if it makes an interesting story, or else they’ll be wasting our time.

Some fans really griped that the ship bridge and technology featured in ST:DIS didn’t look like the original series. Again, the point of these visuals is to support a believable story, and not be distracting. For someone who has “lived in” the Star Trek universe their whole lives, thinking of Kirk on the bridge all the time, it might be distracting to try to believe that DIS comes ten years before and yet doesn’t have all the goofy memory tapes and buttons of the original series bridge. However, for most people, recreating the original Enterprise set for a modern television show that’s trying to take itself seriously would be much, much more distracting.

Regardless, it’s fun to nitpick and note details

A fan picking apart details and trying to fit everything together in the puzzle should be able to acknowledge they’re doing it for fun, or for their enjoyment of the show. There doesn’t need to be some higher purpose involved, and it will be in their best interest to learn how to do so without being angry or indignant towards the creators. It will also serve a consumer well to learn how to interpret someone else’s nitpicking and exploration as an exercise in puzzle-solving rather true criticism. I’m going to have fun recognizing Star Trek elements and seeing how they fit (or don’t!) in the established world.

“Missing” and tacked-on information

Fans have been skeptical about the use of Sarek in the show as Michael Burnham’s adopted Vulcan father. Sarek, introduced in the first series as Spock’s father, serves as the only character we’ve seen connecting Discovery to another Star Trek series. It’s an obscure (enough) character that only fans of Star Trek will really care about. And this is maybe a good point: using him shrinks the universe a bit. Why can’t we have a story about a bunch of people in the same universe who have never met an Original Series character? I’ve heard this argument made with the Aliens franchise, in which many incarnations of the movies, games, or comics seem to feature a family member of Ellen Ripley. It’s easy to be drawn from the narrative when presented with something unlikely. The reminder of a character from an earlier incarnation of Star Trek is designed to connect and bridge us more closely to the show, but it backfires by just reminding us that the show is manufactured to do so.

The fact that Spock has an adopted human half-sister, though, is not much of a retcon. Some fans have said, why did we never hear of Spock mention his sister Michael? Why didn’t Sarek, Perrin, or Sybok, Spock’s immediate family members, ever mention her in their appearances in their appearances in The Original Series, the movies, or The Next Generation?

I’d answer: because she never needed to come up. Spock is notorious for being efficient and logical. Do you think he’d yammer on about his experiences with his sister while in a life-or-death situation onboard the Enterprise? Even at the first appearance of Sarek, Spock appears reluctant to mention that he is his father, defaulting to the business at hand and referring to him as a diplomat. His failure to mention his sister is no plot hole. Although TNG season 7 might make it seem otherwise, a TV show does not need to have an episode devoted to each family member of each main character.

Again, let’s remind ourselves, this is a TV show. Let’s do our best to judge it as one, and not as an historical record of real events. We don’t have to convince ourselves to like it, completely disregarding continuity errors, but we can adjust how strongly we react.

 

 

Thoughts and speculation on Star Trek’s popularity

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It may be possible that I have thought of Star Trek more than half of the days I’ve been alive. Those days are also pretty skewed towards the second half of my life as well. Is this much of a feat? Sometimes I will think of people or places that have been important in my life, and I’ll take pause to wonder how many weeks or months it’s been since I last thought of them. I’m not sure I have the same issue with this TV show. Plenty of entertainment is manufactured to stick in our minds.

People who like Star Trek can seem pretty evangelical for a bunch of humanists. This comes with any fandom, but it’s a special thing to be able to look at the culture surrounding the show that is often considered the originator of the modern fandom. It might be ridiculous to say that fanzines and fanfiction, slash fiction and shipping, conventions and cosplay were all created from this one 3-season show. People published and shared stories about their favorite characters beforehand, I’m sure. I’m also sure that plenty of these were a bit sexy, played with taboo, and featured author-insertion (no pun intended). Theatrically or historically minded folks dressed up and played parts for their own sake. Interestingly, one of the first major renaissance “faires” was in 1966, the year ST debuted, at the Paramount ranch (although Paramount did own the rights to broadcast the show until 1969). But Star Trek does seem to be a major popularizer for these ideas, and set up some expectations about things like anime conventions and unwritten rules about how to write yourself doing some cool kissing with Matt Smith without receiving too much judgement.

Part of the continuing success of Star Trek is due to its popularity. It’s a franchise, and success leads to success. It’s a household name.

There must be original things that originally led to its popularity, though, and keep it going. It boils down to the following.

It drew from established genres that were underserved and added to them. Gene Roddenberry drew inspiration for Captain Kirk from the Horatio Hornblower novels. I haven’t read these, but it seems that they themselves heavily draw from the fetishized “plucky” character type and high adventure of (boys’) Victorian-era novels and subsequent pulp fiction. In addition, the space-adventure theme of the show probably drew in a lot of grown-up boys who used to read Tom Swift, Flash Gordon, and still looked fondly back on watching Captain Video. The Twilight Zone, and other “short story” format science fiction shows existed beforehand, but it seems they didn’t have the draw of a character connection.

This is the awesome benefit of having a show based on an indefinitely fast space ship. You can have an episodic format which allows for missing a broadcast and still following the story, like a sitcom, but offers a way to feature completely different premises as often as the creators want. This gives more freedom than a sitcom, which returns to the status quo at the end of every episode, and also keeps the same neighbors around.

Star Trek wasn’t really a huge hit except with a vocal minority (you could spin as an example of the Pareto principle) until in syndication, after its cancellation. The Next Generation series wasn’t exactly a hit right off the bat either. But, funnily enough, it likely benefited from a similar drought of science fiction on tv, only a couple decades later. The drop in popularity (and as many others say, quality) of Star Trek in the 90s, as Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise continued on, was likely an indirect result of TNG’s popularity: the new Star Trek spawned a new interest in the genre. We might not have seen Babylon 5, Stargates, The X-Files without it, but these might have also saturated the market.

It straddled the lines of being interesting, silly, and thoughtful. Again, Star Trek wasn’t a huge hit at first, but the new-setting-every-week bit was attractive to the science fiction short story lovers. These types are usually looking for ideas that will stick with them for some time afterwards. The ending of The Twilight Zone I’m sure left a hole that Star Trek was able to fill. These ideas were social and political commentary, either unspoken or explicitly stated, or technological and scientific. Deeper personal stories wouldn’t start until the first movie, and The Next Generation, and the political intrigue wouldn’t really pick up until later seasons of TNG (and DS9!).

Viewers at least had some characters to count on week after week. Again, this could have attracted the pulp lovers who fondly remembered reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew (although I’m not sure the Hardy Boys were giving the die-hard fans homoerotic suggestions in the first year of publications). These characters served as the much needed “human” connection that short stories tend to lack — having seen them week after week raises the stakes when they find themselves in peril.

The thinly veiled suggestions of a romantic or sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock brings us to the common assertion that Star Trek was intentionally camp. It’s come to my attention, after seeing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at our little Fancy Movie Night, that at the time the camp aesthetic was becoming more popular on television as well as in film. By the way, this might also owe itself to the popularity of Some Like it Hot, also seen at FMN, a film which served to help dismantle the Motion Picture Production Code. The effective removal of this explicitly written code made it a lot easier to play around with the potentially gay relationship, which allowed the creators to bring in other campy qualities.

The title of this section isn’t to suggest being gay is silly, but it may have appeared so to a typical viewer. In addition, the camp aesthetic definitely connected lightheartedness with homosexuality.

Finally, and maybe most obviously, the show was entertaining on a surface level. The traditionally boyish interests of seeing the ship fly around, shooting ray guns, goofy aliens, funny and sexy pajamas, and brawling action I’m sure solidified the interest of plenty of people (and not just boys).

But the thing people like to talk about the most nowadays is…

It introduced a progressive cast of skilled officers and regularly gave social commentary. This is the part that remains the most inspiring. I wonder how essential it was to the show’s initial popularity, but without these aspects, the show would certainly be a lot less interesting, and definitely not worth getting worked up over 50 years later. Having a collection of Earth’s races all working together on the same bridge, backed by Roddenberry’s vision that they have moved beyond interpersonal conflict, stands as a great source of inspiration. In addition to the obviously racial statements, the addition of the Russian Chekov in later seasons, although he was largely there for comic relief, represented a promising future (respect, as well as existence!) for what had been the United States’ chief enemy at the time. (I’ll have plenty of chance in the future to chat about the other representations of the USA’s enemies, the Klingons and the Romulans.)

Human progress was not only shown in social achievement or technological power. Spock himself was often played for laughs due to his rigidity and failure to acknowledge his (clearly present) humanity. Although loved and respected by fans, Spock often was a straw man representing the emotionally bankrupt, completely unempathetic man struggling to maintain feelings of superiority based on knowledge and critical thinking. I think if Spock were a character created today, he would be compared to “mansplainers” or Red Pill types. The fact that the other characters can explain their choices outside of Spock’s coldness, and make fun of him when he lets a bit of emotion shine through, promises a future in which people don’t have to be miserable pedants who only care about things for their academic value. The human still has a place in the 23rd century. We don’t have to replace ourselves or mimic machines as time pushes forward. People liked this idea.

 

I’ve been thinking about Star Trek even more than usual lately, what with the first episodes of Star Trek Discovery airing last week. I’ve got even more to say about that, but perhaps it can wait for another day.

The Image Superiority Effect and The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

Last year I came across what was at the time a popularly shared image listing cognitive biases (found at the bottom of this Medium article). The graphic originally reminded me of An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, which I had picked up along with Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer, maintaining a general theme with my purchase. The Book of Bad Arguments unfortunately didn’t turn out so great: the illustrations are sort of cute sometimes, but are more often a bit awkward and rarely illuminated the logical fallacy they were attempting to explain. In addition, the written explanations themselves were not brilliant, and I’ve also come to find that a couple descriptions were just plain wrong.

do highly recommend the Thing Explainer. It takes the cute and informative style of Munroe’s Up Goer Five and fills a book with it, and with more detail as well.

Anyway, I saved the cognitive bias diagram on my computer desktop, and it has been sitting there since. A few days ago I opened the image and scanned around it, and saw the Image Superiority Bias. The basic idea is that we tend to remember information given to us as images more easily than information given in words. From an “amount of information” perspective, this is a bit bewildering. Compare a jpeg file to a text document: one might say an image is worth a thousand words, but the first is going to be a few MB while the other a few kB. The idiom reflects the actual way our brains work. From a biological perspective, maybe this makes sense. Interpretation of vision is an ancient process for animals, while interpretation of text or spoken word is an extremely new concept, and we still have to spend a decade or two practicing to get any good at it.

Our ability to understand and classify images quickly makes it feel like there’s a paradox in computing: my PC can easily store the text of tens of thousands of books, but until very recently computers have been pretty unreliable at pattern recognition. This is why projects like Zooniverse exist, in which users are asked to answer pretty simple questions about objects in a vast database of photos.

spiral_ellipse1
Computers aren’t so great at classifying galaxies, and have a tough time differentiating spiral galaxies from elliptical. Humans are real good at it. I can even tell you that the spiral arms come out clockwise from the center! (galaxyzoo.org)

Later in the day I was trying to think of a certain website that had lots of user-submitted Do It Yourself project descriptions. I couldn’t think of the name, but I DID remember that it had a funny hand-drawn robot as a mascot.

instructables-logo2x
Which is easier to remember?

“Instructables” is not a difficult name to remember. But that yellow robot sure stuck in my head more easily. I thought back on the image superiority bias I had just read about that morning.

This experience reminded me of another bias, The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, in which it can seem like something you just learned about is suddenly popping up everywhere in your life. Sometimes the thing is actually a new song or cultural idea or whatever, and so the time you learn about it and the instances it starts showing up in your life would naturally coincide. However, this effect also happens with not-necessarily-new, but newly-learned things as well. For instance, you may have heard references to an historic figure over and over since learning about them a few weeks ago. In fact, these references might have been coming up anyway, but we have a way of filtering out a sizable chunk of the information we’re given all the time, especially that which we aren’t familiar with.

The fact that I had read about the image superiority bias just that morning, and noticed an instance of it that day, felt like a mix of observer bias and the Baader-Meinhof effect.

I tend to associate the B-M effect with the idea of Maslow’s Hammer, the idea that it’s easy “if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In both cases,  we preferentially deal with things in the ways I have dealt with them in the past, and ignore those ways and things we’re not familiar with. Unless we’re willing to constantly experiment with everything (inevitably ruining everything in the process), we have to live this way to some degree.

Body-fixed coordinate systems

A good friend of mine responded to the fractal drawing instructions.

When I did dragon curves, I’d use U->L->D->R, so I don’t get confused when I am moving down and turning left becomes turning right.

My list of Ls and Rs can be more verbosely written like, “Draw forward, then turn left, then draw forward (now that you’re facing left), then turn right, then draw forward, then turn right again,” and so on. Alex’s directions would go more like, “Draw a line upwards (relative to the page), then draw to the left, then draw a line down, then draw to the right,” etc. Alex’s instructions recognize the fact that, while you’re busy drawing the dragon curve, your view of the page is not actually changing. Up, down, left, and right always point in the same direction, regardless of the last move. In my set of instructions, L and R don’t mean the same thing: you have to keep track of the direction your line is “facing,” the last direction you drew in, in order to turn left or right. The ULDR alphabet is probably a lot better for telling someone how to draw a given iteration of the dragon curve (although it doesn’t occur to me how I’d go about generating those instructions).

This difference in these kinds of instructions show up whenever we are describing an object moving around in space. We probably see it the most often when figuring out directions. The game everyone has to play when looking at a map is in connecting the fixed, objective orientation of a map to their own personal situation. In order to start figuring out which way to go, you have to figure out where you are, as well as ask, “which direction am I facing?” You then have to translate a set of directions on the objective map to a set of subjective directions, ones that you will have to execute from your point of view.

cardirections
As a car travels through the city streets, its own directions (the body-fixed coordinates) change, while the more objective coordinate compass rose stays the same. My LR instructions for drawing the dragon fractal are like the car’s system, while the UDLR instructions are like following the compass rose directions.

In the drawing, you might start describing your car’s path with, “drive two blocks east, then three blocks south, then two blocks east, then two blocks north.” You’d need to use the fixed system. But when executing your drive, you need to think in terms of your subjective viewpoint, “drive two blocks forward, then turn right, then drive three blocks, then turn left, drive two blocks, turn left again and drive two blocks.”

The directions we attach to the rotating, traveling car, Forward, Backwards, Left, and Right, are what you’d call in physics a body-fixed frame of reference, or a fixed-body coordinate system. The system we attached to the Earth, including North, South, East, and West, is an example of a space-fixed frame of reference, or an inertial coordinate system.

The difference between the objective and the body-fixed coordinate systems is pretty important in physics. The game plan in most situations involves first finding an objective coordinate system in which the laws of physics are the most simple. There might also be plenty of cases when someone would be interested in the alternative, a body fixed system, for instance, to verify that a person driving around still sees the same universe as the rest of us standing on the side of the road.

The car example is not too hard to wrap our heads around, since the car can only rotate around a vertical axis. It’s the same direction whether you’re using the compass rose or the car-fixed system: Up. When dealing with objects that can rotate in all three dimensions, though, things get mucky. Describing rotations in 3D can get complicated when making a distinction between body-fixed coordinates and space-fixed coordinates.

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From Wikipedia’s Euler Angles page: a 3D object mixes up the directions of its axes of rotation whenever it rotates.

 

 

You might be thinking, “I don’t plan my car trips. I ask the GPS on my phone.” Well, sure, okay. FINE. The phone can detect where you are and which direction you’re traveling, and give you a set of instructions having translated NSEW to FBLR.

Google Maps on my Android can show my car directions either from the car’s point of view (with a neat 3D perspective camera following the car) or from overhead, with north fixed in a certain direction. I kind of prefer the latter, which like the dragon fractal instructions, means I would rather put that extra step on myself. I’m not sure what that means.

As a kid, I’d occasionally get the change to go to my uncle’s house and play Sonic the Hedgehog. I loved it. One day, another uncle of mine, his brother-in-law, traded Sonic for a copy of Electronic Arts’ Desert Strike.

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I do remember the intro having some pretty sweet licks.

I was pretty annoyed as a young kid. This slow, Gulf War-themed, objective-based helicopter mission simulator had nothing like Sonic whipping across colorful, futuristic, robot populated levels. But I did play it a bit.

 

 

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Desert Strike’s Apache in action. (Super Adventures in Gaming)

The helicopter was controlled from an isometric viewpoint above, using a body-fixed system. No matter which direction you were facing, pressing Up on the directional pad made the chopper move forward. It could still look like the chopper was flying to the left on the screen. Pressing Left and Right made it rotate. This can be a bit confusing, since the controls act as if the player were in the cockpit, while the view is fixed from above. (The arcade game Asteroids is another example with a body-fixed control system, and probably a better example since it was way more popular and came first.)

Some years later, as an adult, I got a copy of Desert Strike of my own and did enjoy it. There was a way to change the directional controls, so that Up was always Up, etc. But I preferred the body-fixed controls.

This is a third example, after the dragon curve instructions and the Google Maps orientation, in which I prefer what seems to be the more difficult way of viewing the system. I must be MESSED UP.

Pareto Principle

The fractal drawing period went well enough. I suggested to the students that they instruction sheets increased in difficulty (when in the same order as in the previous post). I expected most to go for the Sol LeWitt drawing. In fact, that was kind of a wash! I had really hoped to have a nice full sized Wall Drawing 797 poster made by the kids. Most went straight for the dragon fractal. I can’t really blame them, since it looks so cool, but my instructions were unclear enough to make it difficult for most. The biggest issue was that most students didn’t pick up that each “elbow line” needed to be drawn so that it connected opposite corners of the squares on a piece of graph paper. Their dragon drawings ended up looking flat and floppy, and after only a couple iterations there wasn’t a whole lot left to work with.

Most of the kids were not thrilled to be doing any mindfulness activity. Many asked if I could ask the administration to never have a mindfulness advisory day again. There were, however, a few who quietly and attentively worked on drawing the curves, and a couple did quietly exclaim that the dragon curve was pretty cool.

I’ll keep things in perspective. My goal wasn’t to make them experts on drawing these figures, but to at least expose them so that they can recognize the ideas if they happen to come across them later. I’d also hope that a seed of interest has been planted in at lease one student, so that they’d be motivated to read a bit more about these things on their own.

The ratio of interested kids to uninterested kids reminded me of something called the Pareto Principle. This rule of thumb asserts that, in a situation like this, I could expect 80% of the effort or participation to come from 20% of the students.

This is a really lousy model for the drawing activity, not only because effort isn’t a well-quantified value. Number of drawings, time spent with pencil to paper, some arbitrary standard for quality all could play into the measure of effort. In addition, the “4:1 for 1:4” Pareto rule is a goofy way of putting it; the statement that “20% do 80% of the work” can make one think that there are some students who are doing 4 or 5 times the work of another. In fact, it would mean that the hard-working students would be doing 16 times more than one from the larger population. This seems a bit high for a typical high school class.

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An example of the Pareto principle for a group of five students making identical drawings. One student (20%) ends up making 16 / 20 = 80% total drawings.

The Pareto rule might work a bit better in the business example, “20% of your customers will give you 80% of the sales,” but any decent business would hopefully make predictions based on their particular situation and history. Perhaps most hover around this distribution — it doesn’t seem too wild of an idea that a few die hard regulars are the ones keeping any given bar afloat.

The real benefit of this rule of thumb is to give that sense of perspective. It would have been unrealistic for my goal to have the room be lit with energy, all of the kids scrambling around in excitement because they were given some drawing instructions.  To expect 1/5 of the students to be truly interested might sound pessimistic, but in retrospect it’s a good place to start when making expectations. It might also be a good place to start in a brand-new business.

The rule is an instance of a Pareto distribution, which is a generalization that would be able to tell you exactly how much each student is producing (rather than big groups), as well as describe groups of students who are producing work at different ratios than 4:1. The benefits of being able to describe your system (be it schoolchildren, sales, volunteer participation, whatever) with a Pareto distribution would not only lie in how accurate the shape is, but also in knowing exactly the parameters that fine-tune that shape.

The Pareto concept has other ways of showing itself. Zipf’s Law says that you order the words in the English language by how often they’re used, the Nth word in the list will be 1/N as popular as the 1st. So, you see a very small number of words showing up a very large percentage of the time in writing. Like the Pareto principle, this is a generalization, and different people, regions, and documents will have variations on word popularity. These variations allows for statistical stylometry, as well as making sure every book in the library isn’t identical.

The Internet %1 Rule (or 1-9-90 Rule) is one that suggests that only about 1% of users on a website actively create content for that site. This doesn’t mean 1% of people who read BBC.com are writing news articles, but it might mean that 1% of a news site’s readers are leaving comments. I’ve heard this referred to often in the realm of podcasts, where show hosts can expect about 1% of users to email in, or participate in a contest, etc.

Again, it’s key to note the error bars we’re willing to accept. If 2% rather than 1% of listeners responded to a call for podcast questions, the creators might not notice the difference. Using the Pareto principle as a very rough rule of thumb, as a suggestion for what to expect, is the way to make it work for you effectively.

 

Fractal Drawing for Mindfulness Activity

Tomorrow, our student advisory team is leading a school block dedicated to mindfulness. Each teacher leading an advisory was asked to propose an activity that would promote mindfulness.

I put together the following four sets of instructions for kids to sit and do focused drawing for the period.

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Sol LeWitt: Wall Drawing 797

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Hilbert Curve

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Peano Curve

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Dragon Curve

 

My experience with very short meditation sessions before and after kendo practices are the most direct form of regular mindfulness of which I’ve been a part, at least as a designated “activity.” I’m not prepared to lead 45 minutes of quiet meditation for high schoolers, though, and especially not if I have to keep them in pain sitting in seiza. I like to think my time hiking in the Adirondacks has been mindful, in that it involves focus, physical energy, awareness of one’s surroundings and situation, as well as the calming connection to nature, but I can’t take the kids out on a tough hike for a half hour in the middle of the school day. Exercise like running could be mindful, but it sure isn’t when I go, since I’m usually listening to a podcast or music while I jog. Really, the request to guide a session caught me off guard, since I don’t think I’m qualified to say or present much about mindfulness.

The other activities the teachers are leading include Drop Everything and Read, yoga, “games outside”, adult coloring books, and exercise. These all seem like they could be done well enough.

I figured that, since I’m preoccupied with math while at the school anyway, I might as well try to fit in some kind of math-related thing. The fractal curve drawing stuff is something I brought up while co-teaching a Math and Art elective at a previous school, and it had already been floating around in my head while thinking about leading a math team, or introducing some kind of alternative project for one of my current classes.

Sitting down and scratching away a pattern that follows a rule, and knowing it’s going to end up with a near image in the end sounds like a great relaxing time to me. I do have to remind myself that sometimes my brain is a runaway freight train, and people may not be so interested in thinking about Star Trek or Homestuck as much as I want to keep bringing them up. The idea that someone might not be as interested in drawing fractals for an hour as me is something I need to be aware of. I do think there’s a good chance this set of activities will activate the LEGO loving kid in some of them, though.

While sitting in a meeting, I realized the dragon fractal could be generated by recording a list of L and Rs, representing left and right 90-degree turns while drawing a line in a grid. Start with just an L. For each iteration, add an L to the end of the string, then write a mirror image of all of the previous letters: write them in reverse order, and replace L <—> R.

L

L L R

L L R L L R R

L L R L L R R L L L R R L R R

L L R L L R R L L L R R L R R L L L R L L R R R L L R R L R R

etc. These five strings correspond to the images at the top of the Dragon Curve drawing instructions. The mirror image behavior creates the self-similarity. It also made it more clear why the paper folding method creates the same figure.

Later I realized that this set of instructions is essentially the same as the Lindenmayer system of writing the dragon fractal. Let “F represent drawing a line forward, “+” a 90 degree counter clockwise turn, “-” a 90 degree clockwise turn, and “X” and “Y” as placeholders which add to the structure but don’t indicate a drawing instruction. Start with FX as your string of drawing instructions. For each iteration, replace

X –> X+YF+

and

Y –>−FX−Y

You can see the mirror image instruction here: the string to replace each “Y” can be recreated by taking the X replacement string, reversing the order, and swapping X <—> Y and “-” <—> “+”.

In the case that fractal drawing is too intimidating for anyone, I’ll include the Sol LeWitt page as well. I hope we can beast out a full posterboard with 797-like drawing tomorrow as a class taking turns. The MASS MoCA trip mentioned in the instructions was with a bunch of good friends in August, and they drove a conversation about the piece that day, and continued to think and play with it for some time afterwards (Phil and Ben’s blog posts, each with some neat insights and programming results, can be found in the links <— over there and <— over there).

We’ll see how tomorrow goes.

Racist Joke

I heard a joke this week. It was told by Dan Harmon, creator of Community and Rick and Morty, on his podcast Harmontown, Ep. 256. It was told in the context that suggested it was a “classic,” a well-known joke.

 

Harmon is an interesting person. He often brings up social issues on his podcast, usually in a casual or comedic way. One joke he frequently retells is very short: he simply says “or woman,” in a drawn-out, knowing tone, after mentioning an occupation with a traditionally masculine title. An example of it might go as follows:

Suppose you were pulled over by a policeman, or -woman, after speeding on the highway.

This sentence wouldn’t be independent. It’s not a one-liner. It would fall within a conversation which is likely not about sexism. It’s clear that saying “or woman” is intended to be a joke due to the tone he adopts. So, so, so much humor is based on the delivery, but the method that tells us it is a joke can sometimes mask the content. The information we’re being delivered with this joke seems to be some combination of the following:

He thinks it’s worth being aware of gendered language. He has made this clear when talking about social issues, at length, plenty of other times. This alone does not make it a joke.

He admits it can feel awkward to say “he or she,” or similar, when talking about a hypothetical person, and he knows that we know that he knows. If you’ve learned to use “he” as the default pronoun for an unspecified person, like most of us, you know it can feel jarring to hear someone try to include “she.” One’s own train of thought can stop a moment when trying to use “he or she” ourselves.

He’s extremely proud of himself for thinking of bringing it up at all, and also embarrassed by his pride. Harmon can come across as narcissistic, and frequently refers to himself as such. He also likes to repeat that he is a horrible person. So, when he decides to include a form of speech that he thinks is right to include, and simultaneously feels proud of himself and awkward in the moment, he plays the irony card and overplays his pride. Humor like this is a classic way of deflecting, drawing attention away from one’s discomfort.

I don’t really think the joke is “problematic,” although he tells it a bit often. There is an issue with using irony like this: it’s noncommittal. Ironic statements like this allow one to straddle the fence, allowing one to fall to either side as is convenient. Harmon seems to have a strong sense of social justice, and likely does think it’s worth reducing casually gendered language. However, someone could easily claim their irony meant, “it was a joke,” as in, they were mocking people who thought it was worth speaking in such a manner.

This kind of speech can end up making everything you say uncertain, while simultaneously making it seem like you know something beyond what you’re saying. I’ve known people who talk with an ironic tone like this often, and it really does work to make them sound like they’ve got lots of (usually cynical) insight into the world around them.

Dan Harmon can be pretty awful on social media sometimes, and can come across as narcissistic, but I doubt he makes this one little joke because he wants to manipulate people into thinking he is smarter than he is. He most likely makes the joke just because he feels it’s funny to mock himself for feeling like he is making a powerful statement by including an “or woman” genuinely. Which is a bit funny.

 

Anyway, the racist joke goes like this:

What do Mexicans use to slice their pizzas?

Little Caesars.

The joke is a play on a stereotypical accent. “Caesars” sounds like “scissors.” Little scissors. Little Caesars is a pizza restaurant chain. Explaining jokes is always a great way to make them seem funnier.

When he first told the joke, though, I thought the punchline was “Little Cesars.” Little Cesar Chavezes, all lined up in a row, working the fields of your pizza, slicing across with their hoes. I think that’s pretty funny.

Grape Preserves and Broccoli

This summer I had a plot at the Fox Point Community Garden. It was my first experience with gardening and I was able to learn a lot from my friends and through experimentation. The plot is only about 4’x10′, and I wanted to make the most of it, so in the end I had some overcrowding.

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The plot on June 30th. From left to right: Bok choy, chocolate mint, lemon balm, Fordham chard, curly kale, beets, beets, beets, sage, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, beans, radishes, carrots.

Overall it’s been an incredible success. There isn’t much left, and I’m now enjoying the last of the crop.

Originally, I was drawn by the garden’s beehive. In February of 2016 I took a beekeeping class with the Rhode Island Beekeeper’s Association at RIC after many years of dreamy interest, and connected to the local community garden through a friend who had helped with their hive. I ended up observing a queen installation, standard 20,000 mile bee maintenance and checkups, but ultimately did not become a regular helpful boy. I was now aware of the garden, however, and felt that the $25 fee to score a plot made it a no-brainer.

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The same plot on August 15. The beans in the corner had actually shrunk after their July peak. They were a little scary.

It’s hard to say what was the most successful, but I ended up having way more chard and cherry tomatoes than I know what to do with. They started producing early and are still managing to replenish themselves faster than I can use them.

The garden boundary is lined with raspberry bushes that seemed to produce fruit faster than we could pick them, much to Karin’s delight. She made several jars of lightly sweetened raspberry preserves, which turn out to be delicious with some rosemary scattered within. Some of these bushes hid grape vines, and a week or so ago I picked about a half a cup of cute little grapes. Today, I finally put the time in to make something out of them.

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This was the smallest pan I had.

It felt a bit silly, but I made maybe an ounce or two of grape preserves.

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Actually, it’s pretty tasty.

Behind it, you can see one of the last of the garden’s produce: a head of broccoli! I decided to fry that up tonight with some sesame oil and tofu. I was worried I got to the broccoli a little too late.

I included a salad with some garden cherry tomatoes. Despite my expectations, it didn’t taste unusual at all! A typical storebought head has much darker green florets and a pale stalk — I was really taken with how evenly green this broccoli was. I’m not sure if this difference is due to when I picked it, environment, variety, or the result of not having it shipped the same way, but regardless I am left content.