Chatter #79: June 30, 2003

12/14/2001 — I started the Chatter section on July 27, 2000 when I noticed that the rest of my site was sometimes getting cluttered with lots of text. I'm a talkative guy, after all! So now I talk about my life here, instead of all over the place. Originally this was one huge section, but in December of 2001 it simply became too large to remain as one page, and I broke it into dated sections, as you can see. —>PM

June 30, 2003

Are You As Sick Of Hearing About This Stuff
As I Am Of Dealing With It?

Probably, so I'll make this short and bitter:

1. A Shock to the System

For many years now I've had bouts of heartburn. Sometimes months went by with no problem, but if I overate or ate too soon before going to bed, I'd wake up in the middle of the night with what felt like a nuclear furnace in my throat and stomach; and the problem could last for a week or more. As a result, I've taken a lot of antacids in my time. Usually the best way to really fix things is to skip dinner, giving my system a bit of down time as it were. It also helps to sleep in a reclining position, keeping the acid down in my stomach where it belongs. Years ago I mentioned the problem to my old doctor, and he speculated that I probably had some esophageal erosion—that the valve between my throat and stomach had been damaged by excess stomach acid, and therefore couldn't close properly to keep the acid from flowing upward when I lay down. But we didn't follow up on it.

Fast-forward to a month ago. I'd had shoulder pain, then really bad lower left back pain, and finally I had to see a doctor. The problem was that my old doctor was located in Malden, a convenient walk from my old apartment but over sixty miles from where I live now. Even getting there from work (I work next to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox) could take 45 minutes or more one way, depending on the time of day. So I picked a new PCP (that's Primary Care Provider, health insurance lingo) who was next door to my workplace, and made an appointment.

The back pain was just a pulled muscle, fortunately (it could easily have been a slipped disc), but for some reason the doctor asked me about heartburn, and I told her the truth. She scheduled me for an upper GI, and about two weeks ago I went in and had the test.

The test itself is not a huge deal. You can't eat anything after 8 PM the night before, and when you get there they put you in one of those hospital gowns. Then they give you some fizzing crystals to swallow (kind of like Magic Rocks, if you remember those), along with a tiny cup of water—and tell you that you're not allowed to burp. The crystals and water generate gas in your stomach, the point being to inflate it like a balloon and allow a better set of pictures to be taken.

They stood me up on this huge rotating x-ray table, handed me a big cup of barium solution, and had me take sips of the thick, pasty fluid while they rotated me into various positions for x-rays. The barium actually didn't taste that bad, except for a couple of times when I ran into undissolved chunks of barium paste.

I got the results a week later, and they weren't good. I have a hiatal hernia. This means that the upper portion of my stomach has pushed upward through my diaphragm and into my chest cavity.

Actually, though, this could be worse; it turns out that a lot of people have hiatal hernias and are never aware of it. You could have one (I hope you don't). Some people are born with them. And it's not hard to live with them. Surgery is rarely used; instead medication and some changes in behavior usually alleviate the symptoms, although like almost every other kind of hernia, hiatal hernias don't heal on their own. Weight loss can also reduce the symptoms.

Yet another good reason for me to lose weight. Like I needed one.

2. Ticket to Ride

Last Thursday morning I went to work. My car was legally parked in front of my house, as it usually is. When I got home, I discovered that the city had put up "No Parking" signs on my side of the street and ticketed my car. A $10 ticket, but every little bit hurts. Unfortunately if I want to fight it I'll have to take a day off from work and appear in court, which would cost me far more than $10. I'm looking into filing some sort of complaint, though.

3. Ticket to Not Ride

On Sunday I bundled Sebastian in my car and took him for a ride. He's been more crazy about reading than ever, and I'd just realized that there are a lot of wonderful books that I read when I was young that he didn't have. I had a $100 gift check that I'd received at work as part of an award, and I'd already almost lost that damn thing twice, so I decided to spend it before I lost it for good. Off we went to the nearest large book store and hit the Children's section.

My little boy went sort of berserk there; he was running all over the place, and kept tearing away from me to go look at books, at other children, and generally just to have fun. When I caught up with him and got a really firm hold on his wrist, he ran around and around me and made me incredibly dizzy, all the while laughing like a little monkey. He's really a lot of fun, you know? Anyway, we picked up Make Way for Ducklings, Little Toot, Where The Wild Things Are, and Curious George (Babar is next on the list). For myself I picked up the boxed DVD set of The Young Ones: Every Stoopid Episode (something I've wanted for a long time). All in all it came to $93. Teri was home taking a nap, so I decided to kill a little more time and go to one of the last Newport Creamery's still in existence. It was only a 20 minute ride down 295.

If you've read Chatter much, you may remember that my car blew a cylinder in the engine a while back. That ended my ability to drive to Boston to work, which is why I now take the train. But even with three cylinders, the old Honda still worked pretty well—well enough to drive to the train station. And I'd been told by several people that it could theoretically last for quite a while.

I was mostly going slowly in the slow lane, and made it there with no problems. Sebastian got very excited when we got there; his eyes got all big, and he said "Milk!". We picked up some Awful-Awfuls to go (unfortunately they no longer sell Awful-Awful mix—for non-Rhode Islanders, and Awful-Awful is a really thick milkshake), and headed back towards home.

And on the way, the engine started choking, stuttering, and lost a lot of its remaining power. I had to pull over and limp home in the breakdown lane. The car has clearly reached the end of the line. The only drive it will ever make again is the Last Drive, to the junkyard.

Cheer Up

Okay, that wasn't anywhere near as short as it should be, although it was certainly bitter. I need something to cheer me up, and fortunately I have just the thing.

When I was growing up TV was a lot wackier and freer than it is today; things weren't all studied to death with focus groups, and pre-digested to the nth degree. Quirky shows like H.R. Pufnstuf, the Banana Splits, and Lidsville would never get on the air today, but they made a huge impression on my young mind—I dreamed about them for years (I hope to pick up DVDs of those old shows for Sebastian before too long). Even the commercials were psychedelic, and there was one in particular that stuck in my mind for a long time.

It was a Levis commercial, and as I remember there were two versions of it: one was a man walking an invisible dog as a very strange jingle played. The film had been shot in a stop-motion style, so that the man's legs never seemed to move: he just moved, as if by teleportation, in little jumps.

It was the music that really got me though, and rather than try to explain it, I'll let you listen for yourself. The sound quality is poor, but what can you expect for TV sound from the early 1970's? Warning: the sound level on this WAV is pretty high, so you might want to turn down your volume in advance.

Good Morning World (Levis)

Incidentally, I recently discovered that a lot of this jingle is based on an old song called Muleskinner's Blues—not the melody itself so much as the yodeling and other vocal elements. I can't quite figure out if it's a traditional blues song or not (there are a lot of different versions, for one thing), but the version that I'm going by is by the Fendermen.

Oh yeah, the other version of the commercial? Well, remember that this is from 1972 or so, so I was maybe six years old, but I seem to recall a commercial using the same music in which animated Levis of all sorts of psychedelic colors flew all over an animated world. Very freaky.

The Sound of Silence

Apart from spam, I'm not getting much email these days. Not much at all.

Space Screed

I was going to do a screed or two about various stupidities—the overuse and misuse of antibiotics being one of them—but seriously, I'm just too tired to deal with all that. Likewise, I was going to write about some clever things I worked out to create an automated tool for Word, but again, I don't suppose that you'd be that interested.

But I can't avoid saying a few words about space exploration and development. This is an issue that receives virtually no coverage in the media, and what little there is tends to be remarkably ignorant and superficial. And yet anyone with half a brain should be able to look at the big picture and see some very clear points.

The Earth is a limited environment. The sun provides a continuing energy input, but all other resources are limited—including living space. At the same time, it's the nature of all living things to reproduce and increase their numbers as much as possible—and human beings are no exception. As a species, we will continue to grow.

But we are in a sealed bottle, i.e. the planet Earth. The planet's carrying capacity may be many times our current population, but clearly there is a limit, and given the nature of population expansion, that limit will be reached more quickly than we expect. The result will either be complete collapse and species extinction, or Malthusian disasters which reduce our numbers to survivable proportions. Personally, I'd bet on extinction. I don't think the species can survive the loss of 90% or more of its members, since that would almost certainly include the loss of the technology which allows the race to survive. Likewise, I suspect that it would not be possible for a small number of "haves" to successfully sit back and survive while the majority of the human race dies—the have-nots would quite probably object to this arrangement, violently!

I often think of yeast in this situation. Given a food supply in a closed environment, yeast reproduce until they all die, killed by their own waste product: alcohol. Look at the Earth as a sealed bottle, and answer the question: are we yeast?

We could be.

There are two possible answers to this problem. One is to find some sort of essential harmony, some way to maintain our numbers at a safe and manageable level without resorting to war, disease, or ecological collapse. Some western democracies have steady or declining populations, discounting immigration, but I suspect that this is not due to some spiritual sense of harmony or concern for global overpopulation so much as a response to simple economic hardship. The rich have been getting richer and the poor and middle class are being squeezed of even the little that they have had over the past several decades; at the same time a large family is not the benefit that it was in an agrarian economy, when more children meant more hands to help with farmwork.

The decline of the extended family is also a disincentive to having many children. Until the advent of modern transportation technologies (in, say, the last hundred years or so), all living generations of a family tended to live in the same house or at most within walking distance of each other—grandparents, parents, children, and even grandchildren. These served as a pool of caregivers for young children and infants. Now, with families often spread across thousands of miles, there is no family network to fall back on for support.

Likewise, the decline of the American neighborhood has also made raising a child far more difficult. Few people today exchange more than a few words with their neighbors, and in many cases they never even learn their names. This removes yet another historical source of support for childrearing.

It may also be worth noting that media attention to (or exploitation of) child abuse has increased societal levels of distrust and fear of strangers, particularly when it comes to childcare.

In "developed" countries both parents are often forced to work full-time simply in order to survive. Again, this provides a strong deterrent to large families, both because the family cannot afford to lose the income of the mother for several months (as well as risking her job altogether) and because they simply cannot be home to raise the children. Daycare is generally so expensive as to be out of reach for many families, and is therefore not a remedy to this problem.

However, the population increase in so-called "undeveloped" countries is so great as to offset the local population decline, and barring a virtually unimaginable change in the global economy which brings Western conditions to the majority of the species, no meaningful change in population patterns seems likely. It seems safe to say that no such enlightened revolution is probable.

A general decrease in human fertility has been recognized in the last decade; the long-term results of this trend are not yet clear (I suspect that it is largely due to environmental pollution). However, there are only three possible outcomes to that trend:

  1. It continues or increases at a rate sufficient to eliminate the overall human population. Result: Species extinction.

  2. It slows but does not halt human population growth. Result: Collapse or extinction is delayed by some unknown factor, but only delayed—not avoided.

  3. It contributes to a perfect state of balance, in which human population remains relatively steady. This might be also arranged through advances in fertility technology. Result: questionable. In an ideal world the result might be a perfect state of harmony, but there is no indication that this is likely to happen in the real world. People will still want to reproduce! Instead, improvements in fertility enhancement would probably continue to accrue, offsetting the trend of sterility.

Some might argue that the ideal steady state would actually be a state of stagnation, that a lack of constant expansion would eventually result in extinction through random chance or some global catastrophe, but I will leave that point aside; the steady state is simply not a very likely outcome in any case.

And so, in essence, we are yeast. Our numbers will increase, our resources will inevitably decrease, and we will be stuck in a race between our dwindling resources and the ability of science to come up with ingenious ways to do more with less. Whether or not we will be killed by our own waste products remains to be seen; the global environmental movement is a positive sign (no other species on Earth has ever been as aware of its relationship to the environment as we are), but current political trends are less positive.

That said, the one happy ending possible, the one way out of Nature's trap, is to break out of the bottle. Expand the territory available to the species. Increase the amount of potential living spaces and resources. And expansion into space is the only way to do this. Even discounting the possibility of FTLflight, the resources available in the solar system at large are vastly greater than those on Earth, and with those resources orbital living areas could be constructed sufficient to house enormous numbers in relative comfort.

But you almost certainly know all this; I'm just preaching to the choir. What is both sad and frightening is that even if some of the more intelligent leaders of the United States are aware of these facts, they never seem to think about them or allow them to affect policy.

Which makes us even more like yeast, I suppose.


I still haven't gotten around to setting up an NPC section for the Chaos Project. I have nine NPC concepts jotted down, but that doesn't seem like enough to start. Still, I'd like to get moving on it before too long; the sooner it's started, the quicker it will grow, after all. Here's the template I've made up, by the way. And if you'd like to email me your NPC ideas (you don't have to use the template), you can get in on the ground floor of the NPC Project!


Net Books

I recently gathered all of the entries in the Chaotic Features and Found Items sections of the Chaos Project into two complete, separate books. My plan is to organize them a bit and then publish them in Acrobat format on the site. But there have been a couple of small snags.

One is that not every contributor to the Project has entered an email address and/or website. One or two didn't even enter a name. So I've had to credit "Unknown", which is unfortunate. I'd prefer to give full credit for the neat ideas that people have entered, after all!

Another problem of sorts is that the numbers are all wrong. The Found Items book has 658 entries and is 34 pages long; I'd really like to publish it at 1,000 entries, but that would clearly take a lot more time. Likewise, the Chaotic Features book is 29 pages long and has 576 entries. I guess I could cut it down to 500 to make it nice and even. But 1,000 is such a nice round number.

One thing that has been useful has been that I can now easily check to see if an idea has already been used or not. And reading all those entries somehow sparked some new ideas in my head, which was useful; I added a few more items to each book. Still...we'll just have to see.

Since the books aren't in final form yet, I'm not making them publicly available.


This will have to be quick, since I'm running out of time. Let's see...he dances, and spins, and has become much safer with books—he almost never tears them. Lately he has been picking up my books, flipping through them (gently), and exclaiming "No pictures!". He doesn't seem to mind, though.

A couple of days ago I was shopping at Market Basket with him, and we passed some star decorations. He said "Star, star!", and I answered "Yes, stars!" almost automatically. Then he said something else, and when I realized what it was I was quite startled: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star..."! I was even more amazed to hear him go on, and say "how I wonder what you are"—it was baby talk, of course, the words a bit vague, but he clearly was reciting the words. When he continued with "Up above the world so high", I was completely floored. But I couldn't get him to say the last verse no matter how I tried, and Teri wouldn't believe me when I told her what he'd said. Eventually he did recite the song for her too, fortunately.

And he's still only 20 months old! Amazing.

You know, I hope some day to have more game-related stuff to talk about here. Some day.

Until next time!

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[email protected] Copyright 2003 by Peter Maranci. Revised: July 23, 2003. version 1.2