A First Impression


I take pictures of cats and critters available for adoption at an animal shelter.  It’s difficult, sometimes.  There’s a lot of pressure to get a “perfect” picture.  When looking at a webpage, potential adopters only have a couple pictures to decide if it’s worth going to the shelter to see the animal.

I only get three pictures to capture the personality and adoptability of an animal.  The shelter I volunteer at is a county shelter, a shelter of last resort.  I know the statistics.  It’s not a no-kill shelter.  Some of the cats I take pictures of will be euthanized.  The shelter goes to remarkable lengths to adopt animals.  I’ve seen the hallways full of cages when the shelter is full.  Still, they do euthanize animals that aren’t adopted.


If I take bad pictures of an animal, their chance of adoption drops significantly.  There’s some pressure to take good pictures.  Nobody talks about the importance of these pictures, but I feel it.  I want to take that “Perfect” picture.

I try to remind myself that I only go there to do good.  I’m helping abandoned animals get adopted.  Sometimes, it’s better to keep trying than get overwhelmed by the responsibility. Keep going, you’re doing good!

Inside the SSRI bunker


SSRI withdrawal is a notoriously variable thing. For most people, the symptoms vary from day to day, even hour to hour. This variability makes planning a day in withdrawal very difficult and leads to a general fear of the future and an inability to plan ahead because of anxiety about which “me” will show up tomorrow. Withdrawal also breeds a profound desire to withdraw from life and other people. It’s sometimes hard to deal with your own internal state, let alone social interactions.

It’s still important to try to push the boundaries of personal comfort during withdrawal. One of the strange aspects of withdrawal is that it’s very hard to tell when symptoms are improving. Often, the best way to gauge progress is during a social interaction. You may notice that today’s trip to the market didn’t produce as much stress as last week. Even though your internal state may feel the same, having a successful trip outside can show you subtle signs of progress. Getting out can also be a way to “make” progress happen. Powering through an encounter can provide confidence going forward.

Withdrawal is not just an emotional or intellectual problem, though. It’s also an imbalance of neurotransmitters. After having Serotonin levels managed artificially by the SSRI, it takes a while for the brain to find a new balance. serotonin is intimately involved in our emotional state. As much as we would like to believe that we can control our emotional state, our minds are much more complex than that. The mind has intellectual and instinctual elements. It’s important to heal both aspects during withdrawal. Just as you wouldn’t “walk off” a broken leg, you can’t push through some of the symptoms of withdrawal. The broken bone analogy is apt when discussing withdrawal. When recovering from a broken bone, it’s important to exercise to speed healing, but over doing it can actually set back recovery. The same applies to SSRI withdrawal. Pushing the emotional boundaries of withdrawal can speed healing and make for a stronger internal mental state. Likewise, pushing through social interactions that produce a lot of fear or stress can set back recovery.

It’s important to manage stress during withdrawal. It’s hard to apply general principles to it because each person’s tolerance to stress is different. An individual’s stress tolerance can change over time, too. Since withdrawal follows a chaotic pattern, it’s hard to manage. The only way to manage stress is to take it day by day, even interaction by interaction. You may reach your stress limit after one trip to the market. Tomorrow, though, you may be able to go to a movie theatre. Try to be flexible and only retreat when you feel you need to. Don’t hesitate to retreat a bit if you become overwhelmed, but also don’t hesitate to jump out there again.

Writer’s Block

Peek a Boo

I have writer’s block. For more than a week, I’ve been searching for an idea that I could propel for more than a paragraph. Each candidate presents itself only to be quickly beheaded with inquisitional swiftness. The filament sword? A string of nanotubes sprouting from a handle, energized with a magnetic field, to create a weapon. I think it would make a good paragraph to explore how it works, but there’s no hero or villain worthy of wielding it. As I sat pondering and discarding, I realized that I am writing, just not in any permanent way. The blank slate, which seems so permanent at this moment may be replaced in an instant when the right thought bubbles to the surface. It’s the lack of direction that makes it so frustrating. I can’t will myself to write something, that just solidifies the block. The harder I push against it the more reality it gains, until I can’t find any creativity in even the most profound thoughts.

I realize it will pass, and that most of life is spent searching for an idea. I’ve devolved into pondering language itself and the way that sentences are created. I may soon be staring at a single letter in some vain attempt to coax meaning from it.

The rules of grammar are quite strict, sometimes. Noun, verb, adjective to taste, and boil it with an editor’s mind. Some of the finest prose ignores those rules, though. A run on sentence that might please Poe would make an English teacher sick if it was written by another author. Thought is more complex than writing because it has to be. Sometimes, a thought that occupies the space of an instant in the mind may take a whole novel to describe. Sentences chop thought into discrete units, like a clock chops up time. When an author goes back and tries to construct that thought into words, he’s restricted by the rules. The thought that can’t be expressed in a normal sentence, that would seem so artificial if it was broken across many sentences, can’t find its meaning without some rule breaking. Without some common agreed upon rules, language loses its meaning, though. I think that may be the foundation of the phrase “Rules are meant to be broken”. The rules establish something that we can all agree has meaning, but are insufficient to describe the indescribable. Breaking the rules of grammar without some deeper intent leads to gibberish. I’ve been rereading Fahrenheit 451. The editor in me sees the incomplete sentences and dangling thoughts. The idea that censorship can progress beyond piecemeal snipping of sentences to the wholesale burning of books takes a bit of grammar busting to achieve, though. It’s the fractured way that some sentences appear that gives more depth to the larger idea. When the mundane would just be descriptive, its incumbent on the author to find the deeper meaning outside the rules.

Writers block, like the rules of grammar, are restrictions we have to live with. Without those impediments, we never feel the exhilaration of breaking through them. Life is a dull chaos without guiding rules, but it’s in the breaking of those rules that we define the difference between what we think and the pale shadow of what we describe in words.



One of the recurring themes of political campaigns is the fight over regulations.  The argument about how much regulation governs our lives is too crude to really understand what regulations are, and what purpose they serve in our society.  Saying that all regulations are bad because they kill jobs and needlessly limit profits is too simple.  Most regulations come into law as the result of an accident or malfeasance.  Safety equipment in mines and refineries only exists because regulations were written to address specific accidents.  The only time that regulations aren’t a bad thing in our discourse is when the public is demanding a new one.


In the case of the BP Deep Horizon Oil spill, those new regulations are still years away.  Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico still operate much as they did before the accident.

There are regulations that cover most aspects of our lives.  From the height of a sink to the fuel mix on an airplane, there are regulations to cover it.  It feels restricting and unnecessary sometimes,  but it’s how we pass experience on to strangers and protect our citizens.  When a retail store designs its parking lot, it’s big enough to handle holiday needs, but seems empty the rest of the year.  The lot’s capacity seems excessive except for the short time when the store needs 10 times the parking spaces.  That’s how regulations work, too.  A mining company could save money on each worker by reducing the amount of safety equipment he carries.  That would seem reasonable and profitable until people are injured or killed in an accident.  There are examples of that particular sequence happening again and again in China.  Mining safety in China is notoriously poor, because their regulations are lacking or easily subverted.


In the 80’s car manufacturers lobbied the government for a change to automotive bumper standards.  The old standard was no damage at 5mph.  The new standard lowered the threshold to 2.5 mph and allowed for damage to the structure of the bumper, as long as safety related equipment was not damaged.  If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so expensive to repair fender benders, that’s why.  The principle benefit to the car manufacturers was an increase in their parts business and a lowered manufacturing cost.  I believe, though it’s just anecdotal, that safety suffered because of this regulation change.



Corporations aren’t obliged to their customers except as the demand part of supply/demand.  The only obligation they have is to their stockholders, who measure success in terms of profits.  In that context, corporations can sometimes push the boundaries of safety in order to increase profits.  We’ve seen that spiral into a disaster several times.  Regulations set the boundaries on corporate actions because we don’t want to see repeated, preventable, disasters.  Bhopal, India, is a classic example of how regulations serve to protect the public.  In the US, chemical plants need to be placed in remote areas, and the size of the storage tanks is strictly limited.  That wasn’t the case in India in 1984, and thousands of people were killed because of an accidental release of Methyl Isocyanate.


When politicians talk about reducing regulations, these are the regulations they’re talking about.  Regulations that serve no purpose, even when we take the larger view, get replaced or modified on an individual basis.  Reducing regulation in a systematic way allows profit seeking organizations to ignore or reduce their commitment to safety in the name of profits.  The next time a politician wants to reduce regulations, ask him/her if they mean the ones that govern safety on the railroad line that runs near your house.


When growth is measured for biological and technological systems, a distinct pattern emerges.  It’s a universal truth, like the Golden Ratio.  Rampancy describes the process where a population density goes from a small group to a large group in a very short time span.  Human technology follows this pattern.  We remained at a sub stone age level for 10’s of thousands of years.  In the last 10 thousand years, we’ve progressed from that point to our current level.  Bacterial growth follows this pattern, too.  A population stays in a small, slow growth phase for an extended time.  At one point, a critical mass is reached, and the population explodes.  The hottest temperatures inside an average star are reached in the last minute of it’s 10 Billion year life.


What other processes could we apply this universal truth to?  Stock markets and economies sometimes show signs of rampancy.  They expand rapidly until they can’t sustain themselves anymore, then they collapse.  The other side of the exponential growth formula is an exponential decline.  As a population passes the point of sustainability, it still continues on a rampant growth curve.  The wikipedia entry above has a nice story about water lillies covering a pond.  If they double in number each day, the pond will be half covered after 28 days, but completely choked on the 29th, killing the lillies and everything else in the pond.

I think political systems also follow a rampant model.  It’s harder to gauge what the important indicators are, though.  How would you gauge the exponential growth of “momentum” that a candidate has up until the one thing that derailed the campaign?  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Hart, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Dean.  The exponential decline of these campaigns wasn’t caused by the single events that we remember.  Other factors led to exponential growth in their popularity, which surpassed the normal “popularity capacity” of their campaigns.  The scream and the houseboat affair were just triggers to collapses that had already occurred.

Nuclear explosions follow this pattern in two ways.  The initiation of the blast is accomplished by creating a critical mass.  The explosion also follows a rampant growth and decline curve.  In the Little Boy bomb, two masses of Uranium were thrust together.  Each mass was subcritical, it wasn’t large enough to create a runaway reaction.  The energy of thrusting them together, along with the increased mass created the critical mass and a runaway fission reaction (atoms shed energy and break apart as they collide).  The reaction expanded exponentially until it ran out of fuel and momentum, then it collapsed.

Human societies aren’t immune to this principle.  We can see examples of societies that expanded exponentially until they collapsed throughout history.  Easter Island is a famous example.  The Roman Empire was also based on the idea of infinite growth and expansion.  Once they reached the limit of their ability to support continued expansion, the empire declined rapidly.  After centuries of expansion, the Western Empire declined in just a few generations.

Human populations will almost certainly follow this boom, bust cycle.  We have the capacity, but not the will, to limit our growth in a way that avoids the exponential decline.  The moral of the Water Lilly story is that the pond seems normal until the last few days, when growth overwhelms the system that supports it.

I first heard Rampancy coined in a video game called Marathon

How to tie a Monkey’s Fist

MonkeyFist19 2006-06-16_06


Traditionally, the Monkey’s Fist was a knot used in sailing as a heaving line.  Sailors would tie a Monkey’s Fist at the end of a docking line so they could more easily throw the line to someone on a dock.  I’ve created a Flickr set with pictures I took as I tied a Monkey’s Fist.  I’ve included notes on each picture, so it’s better to click on the individual pictures instead of using the slideshow.  Each stage of the knot has a frontal picture, and the more complicated turns also have side views.  The Monkey’s Fist is a challenging knot to tie because it has a couple stages where the only thing holding the knot together is your hand.  The shape of the knot also changes as you tighten it up.  Even after tying several dozen of these knots, I still get some strange looking ones occasionally.  The Monkey’s Fist is a little different than normal knots that you tie day to day.  When you tie a box knot or an overhand knot, the idea is to make it as tight as possible.  Those knots won’t hold if they’re not tight.   The Monkey’s Fist relies on geometry and the small frictions between all those strands to keep it together.


Using a quality rope will improve your chances dramatically.  You need to pass a working loop through some tight places.  A quality nylon rope has a softer quality that lets it slide instead of getting stuck.


There are two stages to tying the Monkey’s Fist.  First, you assemble the knot into a loose ball, then you tighten the ball into the knot’s final form.  It’s easier to understand the different loops by following the pictures in the Flickr set.  The challenge of the first stage is to maintain the shape of the knot when there is no friction holding it together.  You have to keep everything in place with your hand.


In the second stage of tying the knot, it’s very important not to over tighten.  A good example would be shoe laces.  When you pull on your shoelaces, you tighten up all the bends down to your toes.  A Monkey’s Fist is similar,  When you tighten one loop in the knot, you’re tightening the whole knot a little at the same time.  Instead of making each loop as tight as possible, you just need to make it snug.  As you pass the working loop through the knot, the whole knot gets firmer.  If you make the knot too tight at the beginning, it will reach its final hardness before you’ve passed the loop all the way through the knot, and you’ll wind up with a dog tug toy.

Since I lost control of my Flickr account, I’ve been slowing recompiling a new account on Flickr.  I had this set on my old account, but I don’t think it’s available on the web anymore.

Midtown Plaza and Paetec

Less than a year ago, Paetec agreed to help Rochester redevelop its downtown by putting their headquarters in the old Midtown Plaza site.  Now, Paetec is being sold to Windstream corporation, and all those plans are in jeopardy.  How many times have we heard this same kind of duplicity from corporations?  How often do they say the most convenient lie to get what they want?  Paetec has now wasted almost a year of planning on the part of the city.  They have also held the downtown redevelopment project hostage for all this time.  What kind of tax and zoning benefits have they already reaped just from the promise of this deal?  After so many other failed promises, Paetec’s betrayal is just another example of a corporation that will take any advantage they can, even if it hurts the community that nurtured their own beginnings.  Before this sale is complete, Rochester should demand that Paetec refund the benefits they have taken full advantage of this past year.  Rochester invested in this agreement and supported Paetec, we should not have to absorb this reversal without some kind of recompense.  The only thing corporations have in common with individuals are free speech rights (?!)  Their capacity to harm their neighbors far exceeds ours.  We should all support occupywallstreet, because a corporation will never stand by you like a real person.  The best you can hope for is a coupon.

EDIT 10-18-11:  The Rochester Business Journal published an opinion piece by John R. Purcell explaining or supporting the acquisition of Paetec by Windstream.  I agree with some of his points, and he expresses his view more reasonably than I did two weeks ago.  I still feel that Paetec owes our community some kind of recompense for the public investment that has been made in this deal.  As Mr. Purcell points out, government is often the last to find out about these kind of deals.  As the companies involved are free to operate on their unique knowledge, public entities are restricted to public knowledge.  We citizens, the body of the government, should not be penalized for supporting a long term project in the face of quarterly profit statements.


Gravity Wells

Gravity doesn’t work by attracting two bodies together.  That’s the result, but not the mechanism.  Gravity doesn’t work like magnetism.  Instead, a massive body distorts time and space around it, creating a dimple that other bodies fall into.  Einstein proved this by predicting that light from a distant star would temporarily change position in the night sky when another large body moved in between us and the target.  The light from the target passes by the nearer star, runs along the gravity well, and comes out in a slightly different direction.  The important distinction is that spacetime itself is warped by the mass of the star.  From your perspective, you’re still moving in a straight line, it’s space that’s curved.

When we depict gravity fields, we usually envision them as cones in a flat surface.  This is a simplification, though.  Gravity exists in a three dimensional space, not on a tabletop.  It’s easier for us to picture them in a flat space, though.  How would you represent a place at the center of the Earth where gravity doesn’t exist?  Once you’re at the center of the Earth, there’s no longer any direction you could call “down”.  Gravity doesn’t exist in any meaningful way at that point in space.  You’re in the middle of a large distortion in the universe, though you wouldn’t know it.


The Railroad Analogy


Albert Einstein often used a railroad as an analogy to explain relativity to lay people, specifically, the concept of simultaneous events.  It goes something like this.  Imagine you’re on a train that’s stationary on a track.  Two bolts of lightning hit the track, one in front of the train, and one behind it. Both lightning bolts strike the track at the same distance from the train.  A person standing in the middle of the train would perceive both strikes as simultaneous.  A person standing on the side of the track would also perceive both strikes as simultaneous.

Now imagine that the train is moving.  Two more bolts of lightning strike the track, equidistant to the train.  The person standing next to the track still perceives both bolts as hitting the track simultaneously.  The person on the train has a much different experience, though.  To him, the bolt that struck the track in front of the train happened slightly before the bolt that struck behind the train.  The light from the lightning travels at the speed of light, so the light from one bolt reaches the train before the other because the train is moving towards one bolt, and away from the other.

Since we’re all in a constant state of motion, relativity affects all of our perceptions.  Most of the time, we’re not aware of the effect because we all occupy the same relative state.  We all orbit on the same planet, so we perceive the solar system as if we’re on the moving train.  If it were possible to leave a satellite in a stationary position outside our solar system, we might find that our perception of our own home isn’t what we thought.

Fat Free

I’m not usually a label reader, but nutritional labels are an insight into the relationship between large agribusiness and the government.  “healthy” became a buzz word about 20 years ago.  Since then, companies have tried very hard to change their product lines to match healthier eating trends.  A product that doesn’t have a healthy alternative isn’t really a barrier to adding it to the company’s health line.  Take PAM as an example.  PAM is a non stick spray that you use to keep eggs, etc from sticking to a pan.  The spray is almost 100% fat, that’s how it gives you a non stick surface to cook on.  The catch is this… Fat Free PAM is also mostly fat, it just has different nutritional labeling.  In order to call something “fat Free” there has to be less than .5 grams of fat in each serving.  If you look at the label on a can of fat free pam, you’ll find that the serving size is .25 grams.  There isn’t a half gram of anything in a quarter gram serving size, so they can claim that the product is fat free.

I find it ironic that the regulations intended to protect us from fraud allow this kind of duplicity.  It’s not even fraud, because the label follows the regulations to the letter, just not the spirit of the law.  Your only recourse is to get a chemistry degree so you can properly analyze the labels.  That’s what the companies call an informed consumer, and they make the worst customers.