Armchair science.

With the advent of the popularity of science, a variety of amateurs set of into the field to ‘discover’.  Amateur archaeologists destroyed countless cultural sites and shipped relics and bones to home museums.  Amateur biologists drove certain species (dutifully observed and collected) to the verge of extinction.  Amateur medical professionals brought disease more than they cured it.  To combat such errors methods were refined, and as technology marched forward, new more advanced tools were found to take the place of more bumbling human agents.  But despite tremendous technological advances, the world remains reliant on individual error checking and observation.  The human mind is still the most potent weapon we possess to filter and analyze the unknown.

Take the example of Alice Kober and the decipherment of Linear B.  Sure, guesses were made about what the script might be, and that its form might be linked to inflection.  Sure, certain reoccurring sign patterns were noted.  But it took a keen human eye and hundreds of categorical notecards to discern the real patterns of the script.  Kober (a woman, mind you, well-trained but serving as the assistant to another archeologist) was the one who had the time and patience to hunt down and analyze these patterns, without the drama of fieldwork or the assistance of advanced modeling platforms. Here is armchair science as it’s supposed to be – a discerning mind applied to a problem or question, without the need for recognition or success – to investigate the question is enough.

Today astronomy has brought us another example of a ‘real’ armchair scientist int he form of one Hanny van Arkel.  As a part of the Galaxy Zoo project, she has been spending her time and brainpower pouring over old archived photographs of galaxies far, far away.  The purpose of the project was to allow for quick categorization of each galaxy as spiral, elliptical, or something else, and involved amateurs to free time up for the main researchers.  It is the human element to perception (currently better than computer analysis) that allowed van Arkel to pick out an anomaly, currently being called a ‘cosmic ghost’ for lack of a clearer understanding of what we’re looking at, in one of the photos just below a bright galaxy.  They think the ‘ghost’ is a hot cloud of gas illuminated by a long-dead quasar even further away, but more research is to be done in the area.

What does this say for all of us?  As my sister, Shelly, likes to say, ‘use your brain’.  We are, all of us, still able of contributing something to the collective understanding of the world.  The human mind (or brain, if you prefer) is a tremendously complex wonder with an amazing power to analyze, categorize, and intuit.  As such, we are each the best tool possible for making something great, if we but use that power to question for the question’s sake, rather than the answer’s.

Communal child-rearing

Recently, a friend and I were discussing having children.  I’ve always been a little on the fence about them.  I think about them to a certain extent the way I think about pets.  Sure, they’re nice to have around, but they’re expensive, messy, take up tons of time, and are a big responsibility.  For the moment, I prefer to play with other people’s and give them back when I get tired, regardless of whether or not I might one day want them.

At the same time, even though I enjoy children, I will never be one of those people who comes up to a child (or a pet, for that matter) and makes gurgly sounds and cute faces at them.  It’s demeaning and I find it offensive in others.  That doesn’t mean I won’t play with a child, or that I won’t enjoy doing so.  If I play, I’m going to really play though.  I’m going to take the games seriously (even though all of us are condescending occasionally, even to each other).  While I may impose some of my own rules for safety’s sake, for the most part I’m willing to let the kid determine what we do, and how.  I’m certainly not going to force myself on some innocent child if they are having a perfectly good time playing by themselves.  I don’t want to impose, I want to share.  Maybe a part of that comes from my own upbringing, from my value of alone-time in a five person household, and from my understanding of how to spend time with others from a young age.

With the slowing number of children being born into each household, I think all of us are aware of the only child syndrome. Those who grow up alone are often more spoiled, more selfish, more demanding, less socially adjusted, and generally less able to deal with the world around them. I am speaking in generalizations, and there are exceptions, but usually those exceptions are the result of interaction rather than deliberate character change. An only child who spends most of childhood with cousins, or with the neighborhood kids, or in an environment of many, is more likely to be well socialized than a stubborn adult who was raised alone but wants to better himself by will into something more socially attuned.

What does this all mean for my own life?  Well, if I’m going to have one, I might as well have two.  And if I’m going to have two, I’m still going to need to raise them in a real community.  Does that mean I end up living close to my sisters and their children?  Does that mean I end up in a large rambling house with friends, their spouses, and their children?  Does that mean I expect the community (whether neighborhoods, churches, or other organizations and groups) to have a strong role in the life of my children?  Of course it does.  The infant mind is designed to be expansive.  It’s designed to take everything in, to assimilate, and to eventually categorize and even choose.  Because of the design, to be fair to my child, I’m going to throw as much community experience as time permits.

My new pen pal.

Occasionally ordinary incidents of the day strike enough of a chord in me that I feel the need to record them.  To others, there may be nothing singular or striking about these events, but I still find they have worth.  I don’t pretend to know the meaning behind each, other than to prove the world of Stacey is a strange place.

Of late, I have been doing some online dating.  When I say ‘online dating’, I mean trolling the internet for people I might actually like.  Usually there are some emails exchanged, and some of them even result in live, real-world dates.  At the moment I am on which has been highly rated by two people I trust, Mike and Gina.  However, I’ve had little success with it.  No one has emailed me out of the blue, and those who I’ve emailed have not responded.  I’ve also been looking at postings on Craigslist, which is where all the actual communication and dating has sprung from.

Even online, there’s no gentle way to let a person down.  Whether you’ve actually met them or not, the final ‘let’s be friends’ death-knell is difficult to give.  I myself have occasionally been prone to the ‘chicken’ method – never emailing or speaking to them again, no matter how many times they call/write.  I just hate to be mean to people, even when I don’t really like them.  I guess it’s because, despite the reasons and even a lack of interest in both parties, rejection stings.

I was pleasantly surprised then by a recent return email from a guy I’d told I would be willing to meet, but only as friends.  He said that he’d been talking to this other girl too where he had quite a bit of interest, so this kinda made the decision for him.  I don’t doubt that, but I do doubt his feelings in that regard were, as he said, ‘good’.  He did also say he didn’t really want to meet as friends, since he had trouble being friends with girls he like and wanting more.  Again, understandable and pretty much what I expected.  But then, he wanted to keep emailing anyway.

While I’m not opposed to the idea in principle (hey, I get bored at work – just look at how often I post in a single day), I don’t get it.  Is he trying to keep communication open in case I realize my mistake or things go horribly wrong for him and this other girl?  Is he really an identity thief on my trail?  Is he a Nightwatchman, a la Special Topics in Calamity Physics, looking to recruit?  Does he just really really like writing emails?  I’m not sure, but I think I find it intriguing enough to keep writing.  Why not?  if nothing else, it will shape up my form for the next online dating dive.