March in D.C.

On March 24th of 2018 (over a week ago as I finish this post), I rode down in a bus to the Capitol with several other students to take part in the March for Our Lives.

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A random photo I took before my iPhone died (damn battery)

It was just last February that the Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida occurred, just one of many shootings to occur since the Massacre at Columbine shocked the nation. Every time we have had gun violence hit the media–be it at a school, a theater, or a church–there was strong request for change, for regulations on who can and who can’t use guns. The people in power have offered there sympathies to the bereaved, but time and time again have been either unable or unwilling to bring about strong reform.

After Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Vegas, and several other such tragedies, Parkland was basically the last straw; the Stoneman Douglas students got mobilized.

The crowd that day contained hundreds of thousands of people, loudly chanting for change and reparation. While otherwise a chilly day, the collective heat of the crowds was enough to make the air shimmer. Every now and again as we stood, some individuals would start a chant and it would rip like a tsunami right across the bulk of the gathered masses.

Between performances by various celebrities, survivors and advocates came up onstage and decried the violence they had been forced to endure, the NRA for stonewalling gun-control efforts, and the politicians who have allowed the violence to go on for this long.

Many relevant things were said during the main rally, most of which I can only barely recall through the haze of strong emotion (as well as due to getting a sunburn; it was very bright that day).

Stoneman Douglas survivors such as Emma Gonzales and David Hoggs gave us heartfelt and charged speeches regarding the trauma of surviving an event no student should ever have to endure, while emphasizing the need for change and the importance of our making ourselves heard. Gonzales’s speech in particular was powerful for the short silent break in it, roughly the same length of time as the six minutes in which the Parkland shooter killed its victims.

A portion of the crowd (either out of cluelessness or discomfort) attempted to fill the silence with chants. It was kind of disrespectful; I hope they weren’t too loud on the news coverage.

Naomi Wadler, a young african-american girl from Virginia, also spoke to remind us of the continued violence in minority communities that children like her have to endure, as did guest speakers Edna Chavez from Los Angeles and Trevon Bosley of Chicago, cities where people of color in poorer communities have come to live with everyday urban gun violence out on the street, where such violence has been a fact of life for a long while. Both Chavez and Bosley lost siblings to violence, and have seen it out and around in their neighborhood. Minority and impoverished communities are swarming in death and violence that goes unreported by the media, and I am glad to see that this rally included them as well.

My personal highlight for the event was when Yolanda King, the young granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr., came up on the stage and said her peace. As her assassinated grandfather dreamed of freedom from inequality, so she too stated she dreams that we would no more experience tragedy administered by random acts of gun violence.

There was plenty more that was said, plenty more that was expressed. The survivors of other shootings and urban violence came up and expressed support and commitment, there were tells and shouts and much expression, and so much hope that we could finally get something of substance to be accomplished.


There are those who oppose the advocation for gun legislature, the members of the NRA being the most influential (and the ones who got the loudest boos).

Despite what the button on my lapel might have said, I do not consider myself literal “anti-gun”. As someone who hunts game in the fall, I don’t personally have a problem with owning and knowing how to properly use a firearm. However, I do not see any reason why we should not regulate the sale and ownership of guns, especially the almost military-grade “sports” rifle such as the AR-15 often favored by public shooters.

Seriously, why do civilians need automatic or semiautomatic weaponry (which can be modified to be fully automatic)? They are practically the same thing that active duty soldiers use, and they are required to be fully trained and disciplined before they can use those types of gun in combat. An automatic weapon is not typically designed to be a toy nor a hunting rifle; it is designed to kill or maim as many PEOPLE as possible. And anyone can buy one in more states than not without any sort of background check or mental health evaluation. I mean, if the person holding the weapon is the problem rather than the weapon itself, then should we not be okay with refusing to let the problem has access to weapons?

While the AR15 is not an assault rifle ( is referred to as a modern sports rifle by various entities in the business), it is legally an assault weapon and is a favorite choice for mass shootings.

An 18 year old kid can’t drink beer, and they need to pass a crap ton of tests and practice before they can have a license, yet they are perfectly able to walk into a store or to the back of a white van and pick up an assault weapon for just the right amount of CASH.

For the love of God, we have limits on the First Amendment to prevent the use of free speech to harm (e.g. a person can be arrested if they shout “Fire!” into a crowded room for the sole purpose of causing panic), why not modify the Second Amendment to better work in the modern age? Sure, it won’t stop kids and crooks from being able to get guns illegally, but it will make it harder for disturbed individuals to access weapons in general (plus, any sort of background evaluation ought to raise red flags that would draw attention upon any suspicious character).

People talk about arming school teachers to better defend their students, and some schools have started perform lockdown drills with officers shooting blank rifles due to new safety regulations. There is nothing here about preventing the likelihood of a shooting occurring, just arming stressed-out and untrained civilians while teaching children that death and violence are things to which they should become accustomed.

Call me crazy, but I think a school should be a safe zone where we concentrate on learning and growing without wondering which of our classmates may one day decide to murder us (or which one of our students we might have to execute in the future).

The majority of Generation Z is has reached or is reaching voting age, and come this November those who have registered will have the power to vote out those who oppose change, whose indecision would allow the continued existence of policies and practices that allow such tragedies to continue.


On a related note, let us return to the topic of minority communities. To the day, black and hispanic people in this nation still often get the short end of the stick. Their schools are underfunded, their families often can’t make ends meet, and the people in charge are often either indifferent or hostile. The minority communities experience the largest amount of gun violence in the United States, yet they also receive the least amount of news coverage and reaction compared to predominately well-to-do white communities.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement started in 2014 in response in part to Michael Brown’s death (shot a total of 12 times by an allegedly  threatened Officer Darren Wilson, who was later cleared of charges), and has been continuing steadily. It has not been receiving the same amount of recognition and support as the #NeverAgain movement started by Emma Gonzales and the Parkland survivors. In fact, it has been classified as an extremist organization by the FBI (very same agency that was AT LEAST indirectly complicit to the assassination of Martin Luther King jr.) simply because they are protesting (peacefully, I might add) and unfair justice system. Apparently the FBI has pinned unrelated violent protests by individual black individuals as something everyone connected to the movement would sanction or commit. In the mean time, people of color still continue to leave in general poor, stressful, and unsafe conditions.

Because the Parkland shooting involved a rather well-to-do, predominantly white community, there was a lot more public outrage concerning the event. As a result, it was school shootings that got most of the coverage in debate over gun safety.

Incidentally, the Parkland Shooter (a 17 year old who definitely knew what he was doing) was often talked about as being a troubled child and bullying victim (the guy had a history of rage and brutality, and there were people at the school who tried to befriend him in spite of it) who is being kept safe in protective custody, whereas black boys get shot, beaten, and killed by dumbass officers who immediately assume they’re “threatening” them.

As I believe Edna Chavez described in her speech, the officers aren’t any help to the community because they are likely to profile and arrest the children of color rather than protect and aid them. I don’t care that not all officers are like that, it’s still a problem that there are at least a small crowd of them THAT ARE.

I live in a rural community, so this has always been a distant problem to me. None the less, I recognize the urban violence that occurs among the less well off and marginalized demographics is just as relevant a problem to the American people as the growing tendency we have towards experiencing school shootings. Circumstances like these should not be normal for anyone, people should not have to experience the trauma of live-or-death situations in their everyday lives, let alone live in neighborhoods that are practically war zones.

In the poor urban communities, people have no aid, no money, no jobs, and they often turn to crime and violence out of desperation and fear. They don’t use assault weapons (except for the bigger gangs) but the common pistol can just as easily kill you as any other projectile weapon. Here, the problem is definitely lack of care for those of us leaving poverty. When things happen to people of color in poverty (or really poor people in general), it tends to be seen as not a concern of the nation as a whole but just of that specific demographic.

There is a lot more about marginalized poor communities besides urban violence of which I am opinionated or infuriated, especially my inability to do shit about it, but that can be saved for later actions.

Anyway, the movement started by the Parkland crowd have an agenda I support and think others ought to as well, and people such as #BlackLivesMatter and other advocates for improving life in marginalized communities need the support too. I think it is important that those who can change things actually goddamn improve things. Granted, I can’t know everything about anything, and there will always be stuff of which I am incorrect, but I am damn well sure that a safer, kinder America is one I want to live in.

In the mean time, I need to get back to sorting out my thesis project (and probably go to bed at some point, it’s already past midnight where I am). Goodnight.

 

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Reflecting on Hawking

March 14th, Einstein’s birthday, has come to be known Pi Day, the holiday that (for the most part) celebrates mathematics and mathematicians (as well as math-heavy sciences). It was also the day we found out that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking had passed away, at the age of 76.

Along with Tyson and Sagan, Hawking was one of the celebrities of the physicist and cosmologist communities, being probably one of the most brilliant minds over to gain recognition in recent history. During his life theorized on the laws by which Blackholes operate, the formation of the expanding Universe and how it might eventually end, the potential existence of Multiverse Theory, and the search for a Theory of Everything that would unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory (our current understandings concerning both still have contradictions that need to be reconciled)

He has had both a form of radiation (emitted by so-called Blackholes) and a form of energy (as a possible definition of mass in a general relativity equation).

Hawking is also notable for writing A Brief History of Time—which became an international bestseller—as well as a couple other books about physics and cosmology, all of which helped him to earn him pop culture notability comparable to that of Albert Einstein.

He recently had a memoir published, an autobiographical work titled My Brief History that looks back over his life as a scientist, a student, a husband, and a father (a slightly dramatized account of his early life can be seen in the 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything). He and his daughter Lucy also wrote several children’s books about the cosmic adventures and explorations of two kids named George and Annie.

A full list of works written by Hawking can be found on his official website, as well as on Amazon.

Doctor Hawking had a rare early-onset form of slowly progressing form of Motor Neurone Disease known as ALS that manifested during his twenties and slowly rendered him unable to make use of his voluntary muscles. It is was expected to kill him within three years after diagnosis, yet obviously he persisted well into his seventies. Eventually it took away his voluntary motion and ability to speak (at which point he ended up getting his trademark american-accented robotic voice). I won’t say he was trapped, because his mind was still sharp, and with his mind he was free to explore the Universe and its mysteries. If he hadn’t had ALS, it is likely that he could never have become the notable man he was, as his diagnosis lead to him developing a strong sense of purpose (though his first marriage might have lasted longer without the personal strain).

Besides his publications and theoretical work, Hawking was a notable role model and advocated for the disabled, a mantle he accepted sometime around the 90s. To be disabled is to often be marginalized or treated as a burden; through Hawking one can learn that a debilitating condition does not have to prevent one from seeking out and achieving great things. He was a staunch acknowledger of the existence of climate change, and has stated that the changes happening on Earth now are comparable to the developments that lead to Venus becoming the hothouse it is. On a related note, he believed that the future of humanity was dependent on going into space and colonizing other worlds, because our own planet was getting too used and crowded to support us for much longer.

Among his peers and colleges he also was known for being quick witted and always up to wager on potential scientific discoveries (like betting against the identity of Cygnus X-1 as a blackhole; Kip Thorne won).

As a celebrity, his statements and actions occasionally caused controversy. Like a lot of older men, he could be sexist, if not misogynistic. He was also an outspoken atheist, which of course drew ire from the religious crowd. Whereas religious belief sees the world as existing under authority, Hawking saw the world as existing under observable and understandable laws. If something seemed unexplainable, it was because we had yet to discover the laws behind it. As an extension of his atheism, he did not believe in any afterlife either; the human brain is a complex organic computer that just shuts down when the components fail.

He was also the only person to play themselves in a Star Trek series, during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data the android plays poker against (technically a hologram of) him, Isaac Newton (played by an actor), and Albert Einstein (also played by an actor). Other shows in which he appeared as himself include The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. Neat.

Doctor Hawking’s funeral service occurred late last March on the 31st. His cremated remains are to be buried at Westminster Abbey alongside fellow notable Brits Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

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A drawing depicting a free mind exploring the far reaches of the cosmos

While he had his flaws as a person, Stephen Hawking was a brilliant human being who had a significant influence on human society. Many people were inspired by him in some way to get into the sciences, and many of the people who studied under him went on to be notable physicists as well.

While Hawking desired to one day visit outer space (don’t we all?), he is now dead and commercial space flight has still yet to come into existent. There are still quite a few economic and political barriers that would allow us the means to leave the planet, let alone visit others.

While some will deny it to their heart’s content, we are rapidly changing our planet and not for the better. There are ways that we can (and should) repair it, but even then there will still come a time in the future when we may have to look to the stars to sustain our species. I hope I live long enough to see a person set foot on Mars (or at least the moon again), but I would happily settle for widespread environmental sustainment and regrowth. At the moment, this is the only planet we’ve got.

In the mean time, there’s still plenty of hypotheses to test and mysteries to explore.

Net Neutrality: Jeopardy Approachs

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As a denizen of the internet, I am very much fond of the existence of Net Neutrality. I very much like that I can that some company is not controlling what sites I can and cannot access, that there are no extreme limitations in my country on what I can learn from the greater web and with whom I can share it, that those who provide me with internet are not actively censoring what websites I can access (I could probably do with less spying, but that’s not why I’m irked today).

For the most part, the point of Net Neutrality is that companies should not have undue control over your internet usages and access. Sure, a company can supply you with faster access for a fee, but if allowed too much control they can actively block or or manipulate the sort of websites you are able to visit or discover.

In 2015, after years of debating, advocating, and denied proposals, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a set of rules that would allow for strong and sustainable upholding of Net Neutrality (second link down from top). In the past any such development was often blocked by companies such as IBM and Verizon, who apparently see it as detrimental to businesses that deal in broadband internet access. There has also been argument in the recent past that such regulations prevent progress of internet technology by discouraging competition on the marketplace between internet service providers.

None the less, we did have regulations put in place that treat the internet as a utility and therefore something that to which everyone deserves as equal as possible access.

It was announce back in November that on December 14th of 2017 that Congress is going to be voting on a proposal by the FCC chairman Ajit Pai to repel the Commission’s current policy regarding Net Neutrality in the United States. Perhaps it could allow for an internet-provider free market, but it would definitely upon up greater risk for companies like Verizon gaining a stifling monopoly, crushing hard on startups and entrepreneurs.

Faulty or not, the concept of Net Neutrality is meant to protect our human rights in the digital world and preventing the massive corporations from throttling and stifling websites and services that don’t benefit their agendas.

Want to express support for Net Neutrality? You can start here.

 

 

Sources

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/11/21/the-fcc-has-unveiled-its-plan-to-rollback-its-net-neutrality-rules/?utm_term=.da055de993ab

http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2015/db0226/DOC-332260A1.pdf

http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1204/DOC-348056A1.pdf

https://www.npr.org/2017/11/25/566438811/whats-next-for-net-neutrality

 

Isolationist Tendencies

While I probably enjoy a good party or hangout as much as the next guy, I am not a true extrovert, and I occasionally find myself seeking out solitude in order to relax or just be alone with my thoughts. Sometimes, you just need to get away from the excitement to really enjoy yourself. Of course, this sort of physical isolation is only temporary, and rather different from the sort of habitual environmental obliviousness (and conditioned social isolation) seen in people nowadays.

iPhones, computers, and web-based social networking are a major staple of the Twenty-first Century. They have really changed how people interact and connect with each other, and we’ve all grown used to it. Most communication is done via text-based messaging over distance, and it is not uncommon for pedestrians to walk about staring at their phones. Audio and video messaging are also not unheard of, and it can be quite disconcerting to hear someone wearing earbuds suddenly start speaking as if to thin air when in reality the other participant is just elsewhere.

Such electronic devices are very distracting, as every other PSA on texting while driving has probably mentioned. Contrary to what some might say, the human brain cannot multitask; it can only switch its focus one thing at a time, and rapidly switching focus between two different tasks means the amount of concentration on each task is reduced.

Therefore, it is stupid easy to sneak up on someone texting on their phone or listening to music, possibly more so than two people having a conversation (sneaking up on people is lots of fun).

However, there is more to digital communication than just obliviousness, some of which I find interesting, some of which I find scary. for example, in teenagers, a recent study showed that the number of likes an image got factored more into their own preference for the image that what it actually depicted. Apparently Twitter and Facebook make kids more susceptible to blindly conforming to the majority (not that their predecessors where much better). Also, personal self-esteem these days is often dependent on validation from peers, usually in the form of likes or responses to posted content.

And then there is social isolation. Social network technology is great for keeping up to date on who’s who and what’s where, but the attention given to it cuts us off from those around us. While what causes what is not exactly certain, studies show that there definitely is a link between use of social media and feelings of social isolation. Perhaps social media is the causes, perhaps it is just the retreat for those prone towards feeling loneliness. I suspect it is somewhat of the latter, but with the added addition of that it does nothing to effectively alleviate one’s loneliness.

With texting or online interaction, you have a great deal of control on what information you give about yourself, but the degree of separation needed for such also precludes the potential for intimacy. Of course, the amount of distraction and feelings of connection involved is enough to keep one from actively seeking to connect with somewhat in the physical world, especially when the internet can provide a safe retreat from in-person awkwardness, which otherwise would just be weathered and would allow for the strengthening of personal connection. This is probably a much more serious matter concerning parents and children; it is frustrating for a youngling to try to make eye contact with a parent who is too busy checking their email, or to feel like they are being dismissed when the parent is currently too busy online to interact with them.

Fun fact about loneliness; those who know how to handle being alone feel it less often. The problem with social media is that it helps promote a mindset where personal validation is directly tied to feedback from others, yet the degree of separation provided by the screen of pixels means that one is not getting the full-on experience of truly connecting to a person. At the same time, retreating into one’s phone is not going to foster any skills at handling conversation or social interaction.

Personally, I think most people could benefit from a decent walk in the woods, either alone or with a friend, just so they can easily detach themselves from their virtual lives. It is also a good idea to focus more on the other people around you when having a meal with family or just hanging out with friends. Chances are, if you are on your phone or computer, you are missing out at quite a bit of stuff happening around you (says the guy alone in his room, typing at a keyboard).

Granted, I do not find new media to be wholly evil or detrimental. I very much like social networking and the fast communication, resource sharing, and gossip gathering for which it allows. However, every seemingly good thing has a tradeoff, and the more you use it, the greater the tradeoff gets. Therefore, I would assume that it is best to use it in moderation, as well as to make sure it does not interfere too much with physical interactions.

 

Sources

http://www.npr.org/2016/08/09/489284038/researchers-study-effects-of-social-media-on-young-minds

http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/06/social-networking.aspx

http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/06/518362255/feeling-lonely-too-much-time-on-social-media-may-be-why

Feathers

So I recently watched a pirated recording of the animated film Ice Age: Collision Course. Just like the other Ice Age sequels, it was for the most part silly, idiotic, and immature, and not in any of the ways that I would enjoy. The only reason I watched it in the first place is my nerdiness for all things prehistoric. I’d go on, but I suspect that there are plenty of other geeks on the internet reviewing low quality family entertainment, so why bother?

Though I do have one issue; is it just me, or is a lot of animation marketed towards families with children generally kind of low in both writing and production quality? Granted, what kind of writing one appreciates as a child differs from what one appreciates as an adult, and there are plenty of decent ways one can make use of limited animation, but that should NOT be an excuse to generate subpar content! Then again, I never watched a lot of cartoons when I was physically a child (not by choice), so what do I know? I guess some research will have to be done…

Anyway, Ice Age: Collision Course is a dumb movie with subpar jokes and a mediocre plot, as well as weird-ass interstellar events and anachronistic dinosaurs. However, the dinosaurs might be the one area where I might commend the creators, due to their decision to give those three antagonistic dromaeosaurid characters noticeable plumage.

Known to the general public as “raptors” thanks to Jurassic Park, dromaeosaurids were small to medium-sized predatory dinosaurs notable for their infamous sickle-clawed second toes and their close relationship with birds.

The most famous genus of dromaeosaurid is the genus Velociraptor, due to the usage of the name in the book and film Jurassic Park, which is applied to an animal that physically resembles the larger, geologically earlier, north american genus Deinonychus (Michael Crichton apparently used the name Velociraptor because he thought it was cooler. He might have also been influenced by the crazy cladistics of Gregory S. Paul, whose ideas on dinosaur classification aren’t exactly widely accepted by experts in the field).

When Jurassic Park was being produced, it incorporated all the latest technology and scientific knowledge of the time. When it was released, the audiences were amazed by how realistic the dinosaurs looked. Among other things, it resulted in Velociraptor skyrocketing from obscurity to common household term. However, the creature depicted in the film has little resemblance to the actual animal. For starters, the actual Velociraptor was about 0.5 meters high at the hip, had a very narrow skull, hands that could not pronate, a stiff tale, was probably no where near as intelligent as a primate, and (while this was not known at the time, not to mention too difficult to realistically animate at the time) it was covered in feathers. Not just down either, but full on pennaceous feathers that anchor to its arms like those on a bird’s wing.

Of course, most people associate the name “Velociraptor” with those “cool-looking” reptilian monsters they saw on the screen, and that has shaped portrayals of dromaeosaurs in fiction ever since. Naturally, palaeontologists and people who obsess over the prehistoric are a little miffed about all this, especially with how the rather successful 2015 sequel film Jurassic World did not bother to update the designs of its theropods from the first movie (they did include some new research for the other animals, but you can hardly notice it under the artistic license).

Another film that same year (Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur) generated a lot of hype among the paleophiliac community because it was supposed to feature feathered Velociraptors, only for the actual result to resemble the mohawked raptors from Jurassic Park III; they were just scaly animals with with hair-like structures down their necks and backs. I’m not going to dismiss this as it just being a cartoon; the animation and landscape rendering is so freaking gorgeous! If they could have spent that much effort on the imagery, they could have put more research into the character designs!

The closest real-life equivalent to the JP raptors that ever existed is arguably the recently discovered species Dakotaraptor steini (with genera like Utahraptor and Achillobator being close seconds). Roughly 5 meters long and with proportion similar to Deinonychus, Dakotaraptor was a late cretaceous predator from South Dakota that coexisted alongside (and competed for prey with) the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex. Studies of its forelimbs show that it had prominent wing feathers, which might have been used for display, sheltering eggs, balance when jumping on prey, and/or gliding during infancy.

The dromaeosaurids featured in the Ice Age film were probably based on Dakotaraptor, due to the time it was discovered and the hype it generated. Like the actual animal, they are bird-like animals covered with plumage and with functionable wing feathers on their forelimbs. However, they also have pronating hands and scaly stomachs, lack primaries, and are capable of flight, something no dromaeosaurid their size has any business doing. So, while I give the creators props for doing some research, I am not going to give them full marks due

A completely accurate depiction of Dakotaraptor (as accurate as current evidence allows, anyway) will be featured alongside other denizens of the Hell Creek formation of South Dakota in the up-coming video game Saurian, which aims to provide players with a truly authentic experience living as a dinosaur 65 million years ago. After watching some promotional material, I have to admit that these guys really did their homework when designing the dinosaurs.

Based on recent depictions, I’m kind of hoping that there will be a growing trend towards more realistic depictions of dromaeosaurs (and other prehistoric animals, of course) in popular media, a trend that I am expecting Saurian to initiate. For there not to be would seem to me like stagnation, and I abhor stagnation.

The website for Saurian can be found among the links below. More information about how dromaeosaurs actually looked vs how the media commonly portrays them can also be found below.

Dinosaurs As They Really Are

A Velociraptor Without Feathers isn’t a Velociraptor

Science Daily – Velociraptor had Feathers

Ice Age Wiki: Dino-Bird

Saurian Website