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Recently I joined an indoor soccer league. We play on artificial turf inside a big warehouse. You might wonder why Californians need to play sports inside. Answer: Sometimes it is too sunny.

Actually, indoor soccer is about twice as fun as outdoor soccer owing to the fact you can play the ball off the walls, giving the game a new dimension. It's ridiculously fun.

I joined the over-30 coed league. I figured that guaranteed I wouldn't be the worst player on the field at any given time. What I didn't count on is that due to a schedule misfire, my team got lumped with the over-18 league and there was no practical way to fix it because the over-30 league was filled. We knew the younger league would be stiffer competition, but our players are reasonably fit for our ages, so how bad could it be? Plus our women are exceptionally good, and that's generally the key to winning in a coed league.

On Friday we played a team named Arsenal. The team name was our first clue we were in trouble. Let me tell you how that went.

Before the match I was doing some stretching and trying to scope out the players for Arsenal as they gathered. It was embarrassing having them near our team because it looked like some sort of educational film where we represented the "after" to their "before exposure to toxic chemicals." They were clearly elite athletes, possibly the products of genetic engineering. While I grunted and strained to keep one leg straight while touching my shin, an opposing player was scratching an itch on his back with his toes. While I was doing a little running in place, knees high, an opposing player was hovering six inches above the ground in a lotus position. He seemed to be glowing.

At first glance I noticed that their women were petite and unimposing. I breathed a sigh of relief until one of them stretched, and her long soccer shorts hiked up a bit. Oh God. Her thighs looked like The Incredible Hulk posing in front of a mirror. I doubt she even owns an automobile. I assume she leaps from one town to the next.

Her ball skills were awesome. During the game I made a lucky guess on which way she planned to maneuver and won the ball against all odds. This miracle lasted about one second until she body-checked me so hard I left a Shroud of Turin-like impression in the wall, except mine was screaming.

The game became the soccer equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters versus seven clumps of moss. Arsenal scored at will, often with trick shots. We ran, they glided. I literally counted the players on the field to convince myself they weren't playing with too many. I think some of them were holograms but I can't prove it. It was a massacre.

Before long the score was 12-0, still with plenty of time on the clock. I overheard one of the Arsenal players tell his team "Just header goals from now on." I guess that was intended to keep us from feeling bad about the score. It didn't work.

I wasn't clear if some sort of league "mercy rule" went into effect or the score keeper just got a bad case of carpal tunnel from pressing the button so often, but the score board stayed at 12 while our 60-year old keeper replayed the final scene from Bonnie and Clyde, except with soccer balls. I think we held them under triple digits.

In the end we only suffered three injuries, so most of us will be back again this Friday. We're hoping to do better, and by that I mean only two injuries.
 
Just when you thought we didn't have enough problems, a type of immortal jellyfish is making a move for world domination. Apparently they become younger after they procreate.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/4357829/Immortal-jellyfish-swarming-across-the-world.html


I welcome our jellyfish overlords. We humans like to think we're the pinnacle of evolution but the evidence doesn't support that theory. Let's see how we compare to jellyfish.

Starting with the obvious, when we humans become old we pay big money to inject rat poison in our foreheads so we won't look like this:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sushisharpei.jpg


When Jellyfish get old they just hump their way back to childhood and start over. Seriously, who has the better system?

When humans want to find a mate they use online dating services and interview many strangers, at least half of whom have club feet and criminal records.

Jellyfish have the advantage of looking exactly alike. That means every jellyfish is aroused by every other jellyfish. When they want to mate they just grab the nearest jellyfish that isn't their own reflection and start going to town. Advantage: jellyfish.

Last night I watched the Jacksonville auditions for American Idol for the second time in two nights because the kids hadn't seen it the first time. Jellyfish spent last night making love and getting younger. Advantage: Jellyfish.

Okay, now it's your turn. Tell me what you have been doing recently and compare that to what jellyfish were doing at the same time. See who wins.

 
My Cat
Jan 28, 2009 | General Nonsense | Permalink
Soon after I started cartooning, about 19 years ago, I got my first pet, a kitten. I named her Sarah, after an editor who gave me my big break in cartooning.

I found the kitten from an ad in the paper. A local woman's cat had a small litter in need of homes. They were little tuxedo cats, mostly black with white paws and mixed faces. The woman put them on her sofa as sort of a line up from which I could choose. Three of the cats ignored me, walking to one end and playing amongst themselves. The fourth stared me straight in the eyes and approached. She selected me. Or at least that is how it felt. She made me feel special from the first second I knew her, and I hoped to return the favor.

Sarah bonded with me immediately. When I whistled, she would come running, climb on my chest in the Sphynx position and begin purring. She was a one-human cat. Rarely could another touch her without risking bloodshed.

Other cats came and went as my living situation changed. Sarah didn't care for any of them. She loved me intensely, and in her view no cat or human could compete. In time she became my office cat, to better avoid all creatures that were not me.

Every day since 1990 she competed with my work. When I picked up a pen, or lately a stylus, she would come running, yelling in cat language that I should pick her up and give her my full attention. She was my forced work break, and there were many. She was my only company for most of my day. Cartooning is a lonely art, but I was never alone.

Recently her tiny body started to shut down. But it never stopped her enthusiasm in seeing me. She dragged her arthritic body over to me every time I entered the room, even if I had only been gone for a second. She never failed to purr. I loved her intensely.

In the past month she had been letting me know the end was approaching. Maybe it was the way she moved or just some sort of animal ESP. I just knew. And so I spent as much time as I could with her, extra petting, in just the ways she trained me. Recent visits to the vet confirmed that there was no cure for old. We tried to enjoy the time we had.

Yesterday all of her systems reached their limits. The vet explained the options to my wife and me. I asked the vet what she would do in this situation if it were her cat. She wisely refused to say. I asked my wife. She wisely refused to say. This was my decision, and Sarah's. That is how it had to be. I looked at Sarah and asked her if she was ready. Her eyes told me she was, but the pain of uncertainty was unbearable.

Sarah had a history with the vet. Her chart had a big warning: She's a biter, and she has all of her claws. No one touched this cat safely but me. She was a vet's nightmare. And so the vet explained how this would come down. If Sarah allowed her leg to be shaved, and the injection to go in, without fighting, this would be the best alternative. Otherwise they would have to use some sort of cat gas chamber. That option seemed unthinkable. But it would be worse to try one method, fail, and go to the second. Again, it was my decision. And I was in no frame of mind to make decisions.

I opted for the injection, and hoped for the best. Sarah still had some fight left in her, as we learned minutes ago while the vet checked her vitals. But somehow she knew this was different. She knew it was time. After 19 years of fighting veterinarians, she let the vet shave her leg without the least resistance. And in so doing, she told me I made the right decision. I looked in her eyes as the life drained out of them. I was devastated.

But today I am happy, even more than usual. I think about how much Sarah enriched my life and I am grateful. I think about how much I learned from my relationship with her, and even from her passing, and I am thankful for it all. Today everyone in my life seems more precious. I'll always carry Sarah with me, and I know I am better for it.

 
No blog post today. Sick cat.
 
 I was surprised to learn that there is no universally agreed definition of life:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life


The definition of life is growing in importance. We want to know when human life begins for lots of ethical, legal, and religious reasons. We want to know that if we find something crawling around on Mars it can be classified as life. As artificial intelligence evolves, we want to know when to start granting androids rights. And if a human is in a coma, we want to know at what point that individual could be considered no longer alive.

So I was noodling with a functional definition of life that aims to solve our current and future ethical dilemmas. How about defining life as any discreet entity with the following qualities:


  1. Potential to feel pain.
  2. Potential to learn.


This definition keeps our future androids from getting full legal rights, since they can't feel pain. And it would let you pull the plug on anyone who doctor's say has no potential to ever feel pain or learn again. So far, so good.

One thorny issue is that life would begin at conception by this definition. It would be a separate argument as to whether the woman carrying the life has a right to terminate it while it is still in the early potential phase.

My definition keeps a virus from being considered life. And plants too, I think. That feels right. I don't think lettuce needs to be "alive" any more than my watch.

I haven't thought this idea through. I'm just throwing it out there for consideration.

 
As we recently learned, you and I might be holograms projected from the edges of the universe. In case you missed it:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126911.300-our-world-may-be-a-giant-hologram.html


So what happens if the universe is expanding? It seems to me our holograms would change positions. Perhaps this explains what we perceive as movement. The edge of the universe moves, and suddenly I think I'm driving my car someplace.

The other thing that might happen is that our images would grow in size, the same way a projector's image grows as you back it up from the screen. We wouldn't notice the growth because everything would grow at the same time, with denser objects growing just a bit faster, thus creating the illusion of gravity.

If any of that seems inconsistent with scientific observation, don't worry. The great thing about being a hologram is that our memories of the past are all false. So if you think our planet orbits the sun, maybe you only remember learning that and it never happened. All bets are off when you are a hologram.

If our memories are false, you'd expect to see some inconsistencies in the historical record, just because all those false memories wouldn't fit together seamlessly. The longer the history, the more likely there would be inconsistencies. For example, we might have a popular theory that the universe suddenly inflated from a dot of nothing, or that most of the universe is made of invisible dark matter, or particles can have spooky entanglement issues from a distance, or light can behave like both a particle and a wave. Check, check, check, and check. You're sure those things will be rationally explained by science someday, but I'll predict new inconsistencies will be formed in the process, to perpetuity.

If our reality is a hologram, you might also expect that the theory of evolution would have some head-scratching parts. Maybe something like this:

http://www.newsweek.com/id/180103?gt1=43002


If you are tempted to argue that I'm misinterpreting something here, based on your vast knowledge, remember that your knowledge is all false memory. Or maybe just half vast.

 
The other day I was looking out my office window and something unusual flashed by on the road. I didn't get a good look at it but I could tell it wasn't an ordinary car. I wanted a better look, just out of idle curiosity, so I did what anyone would do in that situation: I reached for the remote control so I could rewind and play it back.

The only problem, as I soon realized, is that windows don't have a rewind feature. It was frustrating. It's not the first time I have reflexively reached for the rewind button. Sometimes I miss bits of conversation and I think for a brief moment I'll rewind and listen to that again. If you have a DVR at home, you might be having the same frustration.

Watching television still isn't as good as real life, at least on average, but that gap is narrowing from both sides. Real life is getting worse while the quality of television continues to improve. Case in point, have you taken your car to the dealer for servicing during the current economic downturn? If so, I pity you. You already found out that the dealership is struggling on the sales side and they are trying to make up the difference on the service side. These days the sales staff has no function other than to hold your arms and legs while the service staff screws you.

Try taking your car in for some minor service, such as an oil change. You'll end up paying for fixes that never actually happened, on car components that don't actually exist. For example, your service agent might tell you that if you don't get your flumerjib aligned, your kragwalter will oomulated and corrode the maxinflap. In a situation such as that, you know exactly two things:


1. If you take it somewhere for a second opinion, the second guy will screw you too, albeit in a new way.


2. If you try to service your car yourself, you will die in a fireball that will be visible from the International Space Station.

So you loosen your sphincter muscles, take a deep breath, and agree to let the suspicious stranger service your brains out. Your only solace comes from the knowledge that sooner or later an investigative reporter will bust your dealership.

I consider this to be one of the downsides of understanding economics. I know in advance, almost like ESP, that none of you have heard this from a car dealership's service department in the past two months:

Service Guy: "I fixed your ping by removing a twig that was caught under the fender. There's no charge of course, and your car is otherwise perfect. So I will just default on my mortgage and kill stray dogs to feed my family this week. Have a nice weekend!"

 
Not long ago I blogged about my hunch that iPhones and their cousins would enable ridesharing in a way that past technology could not. Since then I have learned from Jim Morris, Dean, Carnegie Mellon at Silicon Valley, that there is a deep history of attempted ridesharing schemes:

http://dynamicridesharing.org/


One thing they all have in common is that none have set the world on fire. I think there are two reasons for this limited success, and both are about to change.

Reason one is that the economics of solo driving have always been relatively reasonable in the U.S. That could change as the economy continues its downward spiral. People will be looking to cut costs anywhere they can, and they will give up flexibility to do it. That's new, or potentially new. And in developing countries the economics of single passenger autos is less favorable. People will have iPhones long before they have their own cars.

The second obstacle to ridesharing is a sense of control. Imagine finding a ride match on your computer then walking to the sidewalk and hoping it actually shows up on time. Or imagine walking to some central pickup location and hoping there are enough drivers for the number of riders. You would feel you had no control. That's a stopper. But I can imagine a certain type of iPhone-like application that could give you back the feeling of control. I will explain.

First, it would help a lot if you could easily negotiate a ride from the iPhone as opposed to needing a computer. That helps if you need to make a quick change in plans. That's the first part of giving you a sense of control.

Next, the application should use GPS to draw a map of your location, with blips for the cars available for ridesharing. You select the nearest blip and a bio comes up telling you something about the driver, including his primary profession, age, a photo, and a picture of the car. If you don't like something about that potential ride, move on to the next nearest blip. Again, you have a sense of control. Likewise, the driver could reject you as a passenger after seeing your bio.

After you select your driver, and he accepts, you can monitor his progress toward your location by the moving blip on your iPhone. As with the progress bar on your computer, the feedback will give you a sense of control. And with an iPhone you can stay entertained while you wait. That helps make the time go by, and again gives you a sense of control.

I also imagine that all drivers would have to pass some sort of "friend of a friend" test, in the Facebook sense. In other words, you can only be a registered rideshare driver if other registered drivers have recommended you. Drivers would be rated by passengers after each ride, again by iPhone, so every network of friends would carry a combined rating. That would keep the good drivers from recommending bad drivers because the bad rating would be included in their own network of friends average. That system needs more thought, but you can see where I'm going on that. And the same system could be applied to potential passengers. As the system grew, you could often find a ride with a friend of a friend. And that automatically gives you something to talk about too.

The big fear people might have is that strangers would commit crimes against them. But remember that the system would have a record of every ride matched, including the identities of the participants, and a GPS record of where they were and when. A rideshare car would become the very worst place for a criminal to commit a crime.

Apple could make it happen just by good design and of course the coolness factor. The profit potential is huge, for both the system operator and drivers, so that imparts some inevitability to this idea. The U.S. will have too many legal barriers to be the leader in this sort of thing, so I expect it to catch on in other countries first. Once proven elsewhere, the U.S. might take a look.

 
It looks as if scientists will one day be able to manipulate genes to create super humans. I hope it happens soon.

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2009/01/are-we-close-to.html


The thing that most interested me is the ability to borrow features from one species and embed them in another. I can't wait to get my tail and wings. Flying monkeys got a bad reputation from The Wizard of Oz, but I can't think of a cooler way to go. Obviously I wouldn't wear the bell hop costume, or even pants. But that's okay because I would be covered with fur, everywhere except for my genetically enhanced giraffe-style genitalia. I'd be giving up something in terms of aerodynamics, but you have to make tradeoffs.

I think most people would want to have wings if they had the option. But it would be a mistake to choose the form factor of a bird. You want to go with the monkey design for your fuselage so you get the gripping hands and feet. You don't want to have giraffe-style genitalia and nothing but two scratchy feet and a beak. That's just asking for trouble.

The most exciting part of this wonderful future is that when you can fly, the whole world is your toilet. You might want to avoid any homes that have anti-winged-monkey artillery, and there might be a lot of that in the future, but everywhere else is fair game.

Some people might manipulate their genes to become smarter. I think that's a mistake, especially after you become a winged monkey. The smarter you are, the more easily bored you will be. I want to be happy all the time so I'd trim 40% off my IQ and get some new hobbies such as collecting rocks that are roundish, or running for Congress.

Well, I can dream.

 
In my books God's Debris and The Religion War I imagined a world where there is only "one Avatar at a time." This Avatar, an old man who is the smartest human in the world, has only one duty: When the people of the world get attached to destructive ideas, as they tend to do periodically, his job is to replace those ideas with notions more productive. I have been reminded of this fiction lately because we have been living in an environment of toxic ideas for the past several years.

The economy has been in a tailspin, with one shock after another. Fear, mistrust, and pessimism are running high. Those are the very ideas that are most harmful to a financial recovery. Even more worrisome has been the lack of belief in the competence of those in charge. From Katrina to Iraq to the economic downturn it seemed as if old-fashioned know-how has disappeared. Somehow we just forgot how to get things done.

Many Americans put their faith in Barack Obama to right the ship. And perhaps he will help. But at this point he is mostly promises and good intentions. We wish him well, but he is a politician and certainly not an avatar.

Then a funny thing happened. A 57-year old pilot in an Airbus A320 had a chance encounter with a flock of geese soon after takeoff. You know the rest of the story. He lost both engines and still managed to glide his airliner to a perfect splash landing in the Hudson, saving the lives of everyone onboard. And the world was astonished at his skills.

We keep learning more about this pilot, Chesley Sullenberger III. This was no lucky landing. Sullenberger, or Sulley as he is known by friends, was a straight-A student in school, with a genius level IQ. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy as the top aviator in his class of 1973. He majored in psychology at the academy and used that knowledge to open a safety-consulting firm on the side. He was also an experienced glider pilot, which comes in handy if your airliner loses its engines. In short, this pilot, considered an old man by many standards, had acquired over his lifetime every skill necessary for this specific situation, and he executed perfectly.

If you went anywhere this weekend, you probably found yourself in conversations about this pilot and this event. And the thing you probably talked about was his outrageous level of competence. You might have gotten chills when you heard about it. Maybe you teared up. At the very least it impressed the hell out of you. But something more fundamental happened too. This one pilot changed all of us. He reminded us what competence means and he proved in spectacular fashion that it still exists.

I think the economy will struggle for some time to come, but I'm calling this the bottom. The first sign of the turnaround is a turnaround in attitudes, especially in such things as consumer confidence. Thanks to the Avatar (or aviator if you prefer) that turnaround starts now.

Thanks, man.
 
 
 
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