Sunday, January 30, 2011
Is your house infected with icicles? As I take a stroll through the neighborhood I take notice of different icy growths on various houses. I notice that some homes have a very bad case of Ice Protrusion Syndrome, and other houses are completely healthy. Some houses have lots of little outbreaks, and others have a few three foot long monsters. The case of these home hives seems to vary from house to house. Whatever causes the large and dangerous variety has been infecting the front right corner of our house for some time now. With every snow storm it becomes bigger and bigger. Eventually it cracks and falls wreaking havoc on the ground below. Then a new one grows back in the very same place as its predecessor, and the destruction cycle continues. What makes one house covered in the icy infections and other houses completely immune to them? What can be done to cure one's house from this recurring menace?
Friday, January 28, 2011
One solution to solving this identity problem is to develop a system of bell reading techniques. Growing up, I always had my own set of keys, and I generally didn't need to use the bell. However, sometimes the keys would be misplaced, and it would be very annoying to wait outside for hours just because my brothers were scared of opening the door. The whole family need not be on red alert just because one member of the household left his keys in his yesterday’s pants pocket. Therefore, my older brother developed a kind of Morse Code for door bells. Naturally the code was slightly annoying, and this made it much more effective as well. This code was a secret for me and my brothers alone, and we were able to safely find our way inside without scaring everyone in the house to death.
Although this kind of private key cryptography works fine with relatives, it doesn't quite solve the problem for the average innocent folks that would have no knowledge of the code and would probably not have the gall to actually use it either way. Other methods must be used in order to screen the average door bell ringer. A more general solution would be to deduce the identity of unknown visitors through careful analysis of the door bell ring. The potential identity of the visitor can usually be narrowed down first. Ninety percent of non-coded bell rings come from collectors of one kind or another. The other nine percent come from the mail carrier, Con Edison, neighbors, or political activists. Only one percent of the time is the person a complete stranger. After narrowing down the possibilities, by carefully listening to the length of the bell it is possible to deduce some pertinent information. Collectors generally give very short rings especially if they are just a few kids selling raffle tickets. However, if one hears a very long ring it is quite probable that it's an old man collecting for his institution. Mail carriers and Con Edison always give the shortest rings. Neighbors always ring the bell somewhere in the middle, but it's always hard to tell exactly. Long and annoying repetitive rings most likely signal danger or an emergency. A short whisper of a ring followed by a longer ring is probably indicative of a shy individual that may have important things to give you or an important favor to ask of you. A careful reading of the door bell can sometimes both prevent unwanted confrontations and avoid wasted time. However, door bell reading alone is rarely reliable enough, and some other techniques are undoubtedly necessary.
Other techniques may be used in conjunction with bell reading. The time of day can give some clues as to the potential threats of answering the door. Earlier in the day it's very unlikely to encounter problems, and the stranger is probably just a FedEx delivery person. Late at night, however, potential risks increase exponentially. It is quite possible that there are a bunch of drunken college students panhandling for extra booze. More caution is advised at those times. Sometimes after reading enough into the bell, it’s possible to peek through the curtain in hopes of seeing who may be there. Although this technique can be very effective, it is also quite risky. Not only does it feel very awkward to be caught staring at someone, it also informs the stranger of your presence. Once he or she knows you are home, it will likely be much longer before the door bell finally stops ringing. Proper care must be taken to remain undetected. Although some of these techniques may help, the identity problem seems to present a formidable challenge.
With the invention of the intercom system, however, all the worries of outsiders seem to fade away. This device can enable one to communicate with the outdoors, and it solves the problem of dealing with disagreeable people. No longer does one have to listen carefully to the rhythm of the bell or sneak a peek from behind the window. Instead of personal interaction, a few brief questions can decide whether this guest is worthy of attention. An innocent person can prove his or her innocents, and the occasional scary stranger won't fool anyone. It seems that this device has become effective enough at dealing with the identity problem, and few people even realize that such a problem ever existed. Telemarketing has replaced most door to door panhandling, and breaking through windows has replaced the usual front door hold up. The intercom is a simple example of how technological progress can completely revolutionize the world.
An incident that happened to me a few days ago brought to life some other purposes for the intercom, and I began realizing what a great device it really was. Some people would like information about the occupants of the house before actually meeting them. Aside from helping screen outsiders to avoid unwanted encounters, an intercom helps screen insiders from helpless collectors as well. When I heard the bell ring a few nights ago I wasn't in the mood of using the intercom. Instead, I used my bell reading clairvoyance to discern that there was a collector at the door, and I felt confident dealing with him in person. I went straight for the door and opened it. The visitors were three very young girls going door to door selling raffles for their school. When they saw me come to the door two of them began running away. It was clear that my not using the intercom was a complete startle to them. The third girl standing at the bottom of the steps informed me very rapidly that she was selling raffle tickets for her school. I decided that she probably expected some old lady to answer the door, and I didn't feel obligated to buy any raffles. Although, I had correctly identified the strangers as collectors, a brief use of the intercom would have avoided traumatizing these girls for life.
I am amazed at how much some simple pieces of technology have shaped our lives. At first I was puzzled about the whole situation. But then I realized that it is abnormal to answer the door in a completely uninformed manner. It has become that natural to expect people to use the intercom, and people are already relying on it in order to screen those inside the house. I had never given the intercom much thought before this happened, but now I realized how important this device has become for everyone. Once certain devices enter our lives they can easily become practically indispensible.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Today I broke from my usual rather dull routine, and I accompanied my brother and a friend of mine on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I woke up early in the morning to learn with my friend like any other day, when he informed me of his plans for taking a trip to the museum. He had the week off for mid-winter vacation, and I had my usual job search and studying to do. When he asked me what my plans were for the day and whether I wanted to join him on an excursion, I couldn't think of any urgent tasks on my schedule. I decided to go with him, and I brought my brother along for the ride. Having ate my daily dose of liquorice and inserting fresh batteries into my camera, all three of us headed to the Manhattan bound subway. Although we did miss our stop due to being on an express train, the train ride was relatively uneventful, and before we could have any serious arguments, we had arrived at our destination.
Of course, living in the twenty first century, a trip is never worth going on if it isn't viewed through the lens of a digital camera. Fortunately I was armed with the memory and battery power to start the trip off on the right foot. Right when we arrived at our station I started shooting some pictures.
When we entered the museum we were greeted with the famous large dinosaur skeleton. As a child I was never really crazy about seeing dinosaurs, and although I had frequented these parts many times before, I never quite appreciated the vast collection of bones they had on display. But now I was a little older, and I had a broad knowledge of Calvin and Hobbes comics. This made me much more interested in seeing these enormous and vicious looking dead animals. Right after buying our tickets we proceeded straight to the fourth floor in search of the T. Rex. The skeleton of this creature was even bigger than I had expected, yet it wasn't too big to fit in my camera's lens or my camera's memory. Naturally, it wasn't too large to fit in the blog either.
Next we saw some Allosaurs, Woolly Mammoths, and some really big looking dinosaurs that had names which I couldn't recall from my comic book knowledge. We covered all the exhibits on the top floor, and thankfully all those enormous skeletons remained dead.
There were lots of interesting videos describing the mind numbing tasks required to find, clean, and preserve buried fossilized bones. It seems that unemployment is not a new phenomenon, and even years ago people would randomly dig for bones in desserts just to earn a few dollars. I asked one of the tour guides what the market value of the T. Rex would be. He told me that a slightly more complete skeleton of the same species was sold in Chicago for 8 million dollars. Having heard that, I now understood why certain people would spend their time doing what they did. I could forget the stock market or searching for gold. All that was necessary was to find a dinosaur's skeleton. For some reason this sounded a lot easier to me than finding a job in this economy. Unfortunately, it is probably a lot harder, and I couldn't even begin thinking of where I would start to look for such things. After all, I had never bumped into dinosaur bones while digging in my backyard.
After finishing the fourth floor it was time for lunch. We took the train to Bryant Park, and found a pizza store around there. Then we stopped to daven at the Chabad of Midtown Manhattan. Because today happened to be Tu Bishvat, there was plenty of new fruits available there for our consumption. We stuck around a little before heading back Uptown. Although, I had very little to do with this decision, we ended up walking the forty blocks back to the museum.
By the time we arrived back I was already very tired. Although my friend claimed to have been rejuvenated by the long walk, he eventually fell asleep sitting down in front of one of the videos about sea creatures. There were way more exhibits than the hours in the day could provide for. We were able to see some of the more important pieces, but before long we decided that we had to start heading home. As usual we saved my favorite exhibit for last, and I was very reluctant to leave the gems behind. We were all very tired, and we started to head home. Fortunately, I was able to snap a few more pictures to make our second visit to the museum worthwhile. Here are some of the highlights.
I had no idea that a Komodo Dragon was this big!
This famous Blue Whale is a must see.
How old do you think this tree was?
Yes this is a real meteorite from outer space.
I thought all the gems were cool but these peridots were something else.
These are some random cool minerals that I didn't have a chance to really see.
And if I'm not mistaken, this exhibit is real gold.
I obviously didn't have enough time to visit all the exhibits, and the gift shop was a place that I real should have had time for. I guess I will have to return for another vacation some day to see what we had missed, and to take some more pictures. Until then I guess I will have to go back to the good old job search. This has been an exciting field trip.
Monday, January 17, 2011
Yesterday, however, I found myself digging my hands into my pockets for a complete stranger in what has become very uncharacteristic of my nature. I was walking down a busy street in Brooklyn minding my own business when an alarmed person approached me and started on a rant. Although I always remain alert in these situations, I am never shy of helping people or at least listening to what they have to say. It seems that I haven't yet developed that New Yorker talent of completely ignoring unrequested company. I stopped to listen to what this person had to say. He was speaking very fast, and his method of panhandling seemed almost professional. "Can you please spare a quarter for me?" he asked. "I am stuck here and I need to make a phone call to someone who will be able to give me a ride." The words came out of his mouth really fast, and the sound of his voice was alarming enough that my first inclination was to put my hands in my pockets and supply him with his request. The guy sounded like he was really desperate. As I put my hand in my pocket to find some spare change, the panhandler started to test my limits. I guess I was dressed presentably with a nice cap, and he must have felt that I would give more than a quarter. He didn't stop talking. "Maybe you can give me $2.50 for the subway or maybe you have $10.00 for a car service, I just need to get home soon." At this point I was well aware that I was dealing with a professional. I thought for a few seconds, and then I promptly brought forth a quarter and wished him good luck. I figured that although this person was obviously lying, he had done such a nice job telling me this story, and I felt he earned his money with his astute behavior.
Stories such as this one cause me to think about the concept of charity. People approach me all the time asking for unearned gifts of money. I wonder what these people contribute in order to deserve this money any more than I do. I am looking for a job, and I earn money doing part-time work. These people simply open their hands and expect me to fork over some hard earned cash. Additionally, how do I know that these people really need the money? What if these guys go out and buy cigarettes and alcohol with the extra dollars that they manage to convince me to give away? Maybe these people are living lives of luxury while I live a life of sustenance. It doesn’t seem fair for one person to sweat for his bread and another person to be handed free food.
More thought on the subject, however, leads me to different conclusions. Although these people don't seem to be contributing to mankind, they are working for their money as well. At the place where I pray every morning there are always dozens of collectors seeking that daily quarter. One morning, a rather young collector was approached and asked why he didn't find a job. A young person should have ambitions, and there is no excuse for a perfectly capable individual to panhandle. The young man explained that he does indeed work many hours a day to support his family. However, he happens to work all day collecting money from generous people.
Panhandling has many of the qualities of the usual means of employment. Firstly, like any other job, making a lot of money requires some talent. Some people walk around with a helpless look and a sheepish appearance, and others march in with a confident smile and an aggressive approach. Some people shake cups of change and others flash wads of bills. Some people are easily dismissed, and others make me feel very guilty. People with more skills make more money. Secondly, like regular employment, the more effort one contributes the more fruits are produced. Some people approach with a story and explain their situation to everyone that they see. Others sit on the street corner and call for help to those that pass by. Still others just sit on the floor shaking a cup full of quarters, and others just bury their faces behind cardboard signs. As usual, those who try harder are more successful, and they definitely bring home more money. Finally, although not that obvious, panhandlers do provide some sort of satisfaction to those who contribute to their cause. It always feels good to know that another person was feeling pleasure from your donation. Even if the person doesn't necessarily need cigarettes or alcohol, it is not for other people to judge what someone should or shouldn't choose to spend money on. He or she may truly need these products, and it feels good to know that you provided for someone’s needs. Even if someone has completely lied about his or her circumstances, everyone can use a little more money, and if it is not used on a bus ride home it may be used on next month’s groceries. And even if the person may not do anything worthwhile with the money, it is sometimes very entertaining to hear the stories that these people come up with, and I feel that, like any other entertainer, some people earn their money just by demonstrating their talents.
I am reminded of another story that involved a very professional panhandler. A few years back I was going on my very first date in Manhattan, and I was approached by what looked like a Jewish man with broken front teeth. He began to tell me a long story about how he was touring the city and an anti-Semitic taxi driver drove off with his bags still in the car. Of course, his wallet happened to be strategically placed somewhere in the car as well, and now he was stranded all alone in the big city. He needed me to lend him thirty dollars in order for him to take a train ride to Philadelphia. He was ready to take down my address, and he would mail the money to me as soon as he arrived back home. I don't think my date believed him at all, but back in those days I was slightly more trusting. I didn't have enough money to help him out completely, but I did give him more than a quarter, and I had him take down an address in order to see if he would return any of it. There were many holes in his story, and naturally he would never end up returning any of the money (at least not yet). After finding out that my father had fallen prey to the exact same person, I began wondering what could be done to punish such people. It is quite possible that I would run into him a second time. What if I would call the police on this guy? Then it occurred to me that the police wouldn't do anything because this person didn't do anything wrong. He gave me exactly what I paid for. He was a shrewd and talented panhandler, and he had definitely earned his money. I, in return, received the satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone out. Even if his story was completely made up, I can be sure that he put the money to good use.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
Let's first start by supplying a definition, and then see if it can fit the context of the common uses of the actual word. In order to answer questions of morality, let's start by defining morality simply as "the following of rules." A moral person is therefore one that follows rules, and morals are the rules that are followed. Conversely, an immoral person is one that does not follow any rules. The substitution of this word seems at first glance to fit pretty accurately into the widely accepted usage of the concept of morality. In the absence of any counter example it seems proper to stick with this definition and use this simplified form of the concept to tackle some of the more problematic issues involving its usage.
Now let's try to answer some of the questions that are commonly discussed regarding the nature of morality. First of all, what is morality? This question is answered through the definition: Morality is the following of rules. But this definition doesn't qualify the kind of rules, and therefore, the following of any rules must be categorized together with morality. There would therefore be no difference between someone who makes it his or her job to give car rides to other people and a person that goes out of his or her way to find a hitch every morning. Each person is equally moral because each is following self described rules. Let’s look at another question. Are there any objective morals that every human being must follow? In other words, do humans have to follow certain rules? Well technically humans have to perform certain life functions if they wish to stay alive. But nothing prevents people from doing what they want. Humans don't have any more rules than common insects. Now, is there a logical or scientific source for an unquestionably factual code of ethics? Well it is possible to say that the laws of nature give humans certain rules. But these rules can't be broken, and therefore, to follow these laws doesn't involve any voluntary action. Therefore, it seems that there are no scientific morals in the sense that humans have rules that they should intentionally place upon themselves. It can be said that normal humans should follow certain behavior patterns, but like any animal, there is nothing inherently wrong with deviating from the norms of the species. Finally, let’s analyze the most highly debated topic, and see what light this definition game can shed on the subject. Is it possible to have morality without religion? Although this question seemed difficult, the new definition makes it look like a joke. Of course it's possible to follow rules even if one is not religious. Just make rules and follow them. A person may do nothing more than decide to always buy gas from the same gas station and his actions have fallen into the category of moral practices.
After answering these questions, although not running into any logical fallacy, the definition seems to have strayed far from the common usage of the concept of morality. People think of a moral person as one that does what's right. Things like murder are considered immoral, and things like charity are considered moral. Morality seems to be more connected with certain universal principles of right and wrong. Furthermore, right and wrong seem to be intimately connected with a transcendental or mysterious purpose of existence. The concept of morality begins to sound very much like religion. The definition introduced doesn't seem to have anything to do with these commonly accepted morality topics.
Although a clear definition of morality may remain elusive, people seem to have an ability of sensing morality, and certain things are considered right and others are considered wrong. But there doesn't seem to be any logical justification for any of these practices, and scientific inquiry alone seems to leave us with few answers in these matters. It would therefore seem that morality is only achieved through religious beliefs.
Some scientists and philosophers have attempted to create logical rules and reasons behind certain morals. Based on these arguments, morality can be subject to scientific inquiry and certain actions can be deemed scientifically or logically wrong. The claim is that these rules are not connected with any purpose or religion, yet they are still binding on every individual. Morality can be claimed as a kind of social contract that is the best path for a human to take in order to derive the most pleasure from life. It can be argued that people should behave morally as a kind of insurance policy against adverse social interactions with other individuals. It can also be argued that morals are a promotion of the collective good or pleasure of human beings or any conscious being. Acting morally would be the right thing to do inasmuch as it causes more happiness in the world. However, these definitions of morality require their own postulates or world view, and most of them don't fit the common notion of morality either. The social contract approach has its problems. Naturally a weak person would want everyone to agree not to murder. But a powerful individual may not wish to take on the insurance that the social contract has to offer. Additionally, some people may not value life, and they may not care if they die. Regarding the common good of humanity, why should someone want to spread goodness? It may seem nice, but there is no logical reason for someone to give up pleasure in order to share it with others. Both of these approaches to morality have their own world views that are not necessarily inherently logical or shared by everyone.
Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in any of these definitions of morality is the lack of the status symbol attributed to the moral individual. A moral person doesn't just follow certain rules in the same way that people chose different flavors of ice cream. A moral person should be given a higher status than an immoral one. A certain level of holiness or awe should be attributed to one that does good things for goods sake. But this concept is quite foreign to the logical mind as well. Although certain actions may be optimal or smart, nothing can make one person truly better than another person. Both will remain human no matter what they decide to do or what they happen to accomplish. With the above definitions of morality, neither a murderer nor a philanthropist can be considered a better person. Does a person fall to a sub-human status if he or she refuses to buy health insurance? Why should someone fall to a lower status just because he or she does not wish to engage in a social contract? Additionally, why should someone achieve a higher status just because he decides not to murder for the selfish reason of not wanting to be hurt by others? Although admittedly completely illogical, a moral person must somehow surpass an immoral person in what must be a spiritual or religious plain. This is the only way to give the common notion of morality the proper definition that it deserves.
It seems quite clear that the commonly accepted notion of morality is intimately connected with one's religion or world view. The common experience of morals escapes the realm of logical reasoning or scientific enquiry. Although it is possible to give definitions to suit one's arguments, these definitions may not necessarily be satisfactory in their description of common experience.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
While on a long train ride to a fairly unpleasant destination, my mind frequently plays with a few distinct recurring thoughts. When I first set foot on the train I generally think of just relaxing throughout the long ride while placing any thoughts of the destination outside of my conscious mind. Eventually, I am inevitably gripped with an irrational desire to explore and go free. As I pass through various unexplored stations I find myself with an uncontrollable urge to exit the train and abort the mission. I figure it will be extremely entertaining to just walk out at a random station and just roam the streets of an uncharted territory. Station after station, I sit in my seat longing for that adventure that doesn't really exist. After all, I have explored most of Brooklyn, and I am not really missing out on any exciting sites. The only actually mysterious site is the train stations themselves. Also, my lack of interest in my real destination gives me the desire of just acting in a haphazard manner. Fortunately, I rarely fall for these temptations, and more often than not I just fall asleep to the soporific rocking of the train.
When I awake from my unintended nap, I generally notice that the train is far closer to my destination than expected (I rarely miss my stop). Having forgot about all the previous encounters with foreign stations, my mind becomes filled with another familiar train of thought. I start longing to stay on the train. The train continues to the next station after it drops me off. And after that station, there is yet another station. I want to remain on the train and see how far the train can go. I am aware of the length of the line as depicted in the train map, but seeing is believing. Besides, who wants to leave the train? It feels like leaving a baseball game after only the fifth inning. I will only reluctantly leave the train knowing that I will probably never visit those remaining stops. I typically remain sitting in my seat until the train is about to close its doors in order to savor every last minute of the commute.
On some special commutes, the long train ride gives me opportunity to develop new laws of commuting. During one of my most recent train rides I encountered a fairly common problem that gave some support to an already well established rule of the rails. As the train opened its doors, I began entering what I thought was a completely empty car. Only after a quick inspection of the far end corner seat did I notice a vagrant individual that seemed to be fast asleep. Almost immediately following the sight was the smell. The entire car reeked of an unknown odor. I couldn't see myself staying in that car another moment. Without a second thought I made a dash for the next car, and was able to enter safely with my olfactory equipment still intact. I knew from that point on that my commute wouldn’t be one of the boring sleepy kinds.
As the train pulled out of the station my mind became flooded with thoughts regarding my recent experience. First I thought of how wasteful it is for these people to claim an entire car to themselves. But then I realized that there were probably no people taking the next train on account of his presence, and the same amount of people would occupy the train either way. Then I started to wonder how it must feel to have a whole personal train car. Was he insulted or was he proud to be left alone? What laws can be written to prevent people from doing what he was doing? Was he even doing anything wrong? What could be done to help such people? How did everyone in the car feel back when this guy originally entered the train? The questions continued faster than I could find answers, and I was already quite entertained.
The entertainment didn't stop with my entering the adjacent car. Apparently, every normal human being agreed with my assessment of the situation, and with every stop of the train my car saw an inflow of smelly car refugees. Some people would enter the odorous car and immediately run out and head to my car. Others were not as fast. These people would wait in the car until a critical level of odor registered in their neurons. At that point these people would form a line and walk through the door connecting the two cars. I was sitting at the other side watching the faces of each victim. Each new person would enter the car as if he or she had a story to tell everyone. In reality, they were only providing entertainment for people who had already experienced the encounter with the stench. I was in no position to think anymore. I just watched people making different decisions with equally different facial expressions. I watched as a few people even braved the fumes and decided to stay in the smelly car. I could feel their pain as they sat in the spatial car wondering why they chose to endure such a treatment. Many people run from painful situations, but some people are just not able to give up. However, sooner or later everyone left that car and came into my car with an entertaining grimace.
This story lends credence to one of the most fundamental rules of the rails: One should never enter an empty train car. There are times late at night when average pleasant smelling individuals have the privilege of having a full car to themselves. However, such situations are extremely rare during normal commuting hours. If something seems too good to be true, it probably isn't true. When an empty train car greets you at the station, pass it up if you wish to avoid any unpleasant circumstances. If a car is empty you should always be suspicious of something. During this ride it happened to be a homeless individual. But, there are a number of possible deplorable circumstances as well. One of the times when I entered an empty car I was greeted by a pigeon. At least the bird didn't smell. But it was trying to fly away, and that can be quite distracting to someone who routinely takes naps during a daily commute. If you enter a crowded car, you are not necessarily guaranteed a seat. But you are also less likely to encounter very unpleasant situations.
Taking a daily subway commute leads to a plethora of train ideas. I have random thoughts during normal commutes, and even crazier thoughts during those eventful ones. Just the other day I was wondering how many people would fall off the train if the conductor mistakenly opened the wrong doors. Now I am wondering how that homeless man would have felt if he found himself in the same car as the pigeon. Add to that two people with guitars and you have some seriously bizarre situations. With all of the joy of taking the trains I wonder why anyone would commute in any other way. I can't speak for other people, but I enjoy the thought of trains.