Boy dies over XBOX360 punishment

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

I was going to say something really callous here, but thought better of it at the last moment, so I’ll just relate the facts and let you insert the callousness in your own mind:

A boy in Canada who ran away after his parents took his XBOX360 away as a punishment has been found dead in the woods nearly a month later.

So, the question to you, dear readers, is: is an XBOX360 worth dying over?

Death in the digital age?

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

My great-aunt died over three months ago, yet a week hasn’t gone by yet where we haven’t gotten some piece of mail addressed to her. How does death work in the digital age, anyway? Are you not truly gone until you are expunged from that one last database, after that final robotically-processed letter has been sent out?

Death has become quite the lingering affair.

The impending death of optical media

Monday, June 2nd, 2008


I find it rather quirky that downloaded videos continue to clock in at convenient CD-sized chunks: 175 MB for a half-hour show, 350 MB for a full-hour show, and 700 MB for a two-hour movie. Nowadays these sizes are mostly just a relic, but there used to be an actual reason for these specific file sizes: people were burning the files to CDs, and they had to fit. I know that was a big concern for me. Each CD could thus fit one movie (or half of one, depending on length and/or quality), two full-hour shows, or four half-hour shows. Back when hard drive space was a lot more expensive than it is now, it was actually cheaper to use a bunch of CDs. It was even worth the inconvenience of putting up with all of the messiness that using CDs entailed. I remember having a constantly maxed-out 768 Kbps ADSL broadband connection and a 40 GB hard drive; you can calculate out how much CD burning I was doing. I still have many hundreds of burned CDs up in my old bedroom, untouched after so many years.

Nowadays, a good do-everything DVD burner is under $30, and blank DVD media is way cheaper than CD media on a per-megabyte basis, yet still those silly file sizes persist. I can’t see any reasoning to it besides inertia. Yet by the time DVDs became commonplace for storing data I had already stopped using optical media for those purposes and no longer cared about discretized file sizes; I was using hard drives for bulk storage. Sure, hard drives were still a bit more expensive on a per megabyte basis, but not having to put up with all of the inconvenience of burning data to DVDs, storing them, and then rooting through them later on to find something made it worth it. But now there’s no excuse for optical media. A 500 GB hard drive is under $100, so you spend less than $1 perDVD’s worth of storage. And the hard drive space can be used over effectively an infinite number of times, while the DVD is limited to one usage. Optical media just doesn’t make sense anymore.

I realized this a week ago when I put together a parts list for a new computer and plum forgot the DVD drive. I remembered all of the essential components, but the DVD drive didn’t even cross my mind. And it’s no wonder. Thinking back in the past several months, I can only think of one instance in which I used my DVD drive. That was to install the drivers for a USB data cable I bought for my Yaesu FT-7800R amateur radio transceiver. A week later, things went wrong, and I had to reinstall the driver, only I had already lost the driver CD. No biggie; I located the drivers online in less than a minute. So the one use of my optical drive in recent memory wasn’t even necessary.

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Can you grieve over an inevitable death?

Monday, March 10th, 2008

My great-aunt died tonight. She was old, and had had Alzheimer’s for many years (it runs in our family, unfortunately). My memories of her true self are from early childhood. She was a neurologist and lived in Philadelphia with her many dogs and large collection of books. Her tiny row house had a solar water heater on its roof, an energy-saving system she had installed decades before it was in cool to be an environmentalist. She would come over every so often for a visit and would bring my sister and I curious toys. She was kind yet strong-willed, owing to her upbringing in Oklahoma. She kept a weapon in her house out of sheer habit; to not do so out on the prairie would be unthinkable. I don’t think she ever really mentally left the prairie of her childhood.

Years later, when my dad and I stayed at her place while attending a comics convention in Philadelphia, she was already suffering pretty badly from Alzheimer’s disease. She had repeatedly gone out driving and gotten lost long after she shouldn’t have been driving at all. Having never been married, she was a very independent woman, and didn’t like anyone telling her what she should do. So her brother, who was now living with her and taking care of, disabled her car by disconnecting a lead to the engine. She was eventually moved into a nursing home because her brother, just as old as she was, was in failing health as well and couldn’t manage her. Some Alzheimer’s patients get very complacent while others get combative; she was the latter type. Though given who she was, that wasn’t any surprise.

A year or two later her brother died, and my dad and I visited her at the nursing home to tell her in person. It was severely depressing. It was as if she simply wasn’t there. The body remained, but the woman she had been was gone. She couldn’t talk; she could only mumble at nearly inaudible levels. I listened closely and intently with all the focus of someone trying to faithfully record a dying person’s last words, yet I could not make any sense of the quiet noises. She had already said her last words before that point. I’m not even sure if anything in her mind registered when we told her her brother was dead. But now I feel like I am focusing on the symptoms of the disease too much. She was a kind, reasonable, intelligent person for her whole life before she became afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and I wouldn’t want anyone to form any impressions of who she was just going on the unavoidable final symptoms of her ailment.

So now that I hear the final news that her body has gone off to join her mind, how do I grieve? I feel nothing. I’ve already felt everything I was going to feel in the years prior. This final part was inevitable and inexorable. How does someone in this situation bring themselves to feel sad? I already spent my time feeling sad when I first heard of her diagnosis, and then I experienced much more sorrow as I personally saw her progress through the stages of the disease. I hadn’t even seen her in the last three years, so I have no idea how bad it was at the very end, but I’m confident that the person she really was had already slowly evaporated into the ether, leaving just the flesh behind.

It is a twisted fate for a neurologist to meet, to be felled by one of the very diseases they studied and treated in other patients. In her will, written before she ever knew of her diagnosis, she indicated her desire to donate her body to science. It is only fitting then that she may have some small role in curing that which ailed her, so that others do not have to experience the slow insidious dying that renders family members unable to grieve upon the moment that final death arrives.

Rest In Peace, Muriel McGlamery

Possible resolution to the 9 dead Russian hikers mystery

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

In 1959, nine Russian hikers died in an extremely unlikely set of circumstances. I shan’t rehash everything here, so do read the linked post. But I happened to be hanging out with my friend Greg last weekend and he imparted to me an interesting theory he had about what caused the deaths of the Russian hikers. It seems plausible to me, much more plausible than anything I came up with (and certainly better than the laughable alien theories).

Russia entered the nuclear era with a bang, not a whimper. They saw nuclear technology as the next revolution in generating electricity. As such, they strove to use it everywhere, even when the safety concerns would seemingly override the value of using nuclear (but that’s Communist Russia for you). In particular, Russia employed a great number of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs). The particular model they used was about one meter by one meter by two meters, small enough to fit in pretty much any building. It generated energy not by conducting full-scale atomic fission like in a nuclear reactor but by harnessing the heat given off by the radioactive decay of Strontium 90. It’s the same technology we use to power our spacecraft which journey far away from the Sun (beyond the usefulness limit of solar panels).

The U.S.S.R. employed up to a thousand RTGs that we know of, many in remote lighthouses and navigation beacons. They are slowly being phased out with solar cells and battery packs today, but that technology wasn’t around in the 50s. All they had were the RTGs. And while the radioisotope source in the RTGs is theoretically well-encapsulated inside of a double layer stainless steel, aluminum, and lead casing, it’s easily possible for anyone with tools to gain access to the inside, inadvertently exposing themselves to a deadly dose of radiation.

With all of the background on RTGs taken care of, we return to the case of the nine dead Russian hikers. It is Greg’s theory that they stumbled across an RTG (which is not at all impossible given how widely they were used). The RTG was broken open, either by the hikers themselves, some outside actor, or a simple manufacturing defect. It was giving off heat and the hikers took it back to their tent to keep warm with, possibly mistaking it for some kind of heater. When they realized the true nature of it, probably after experiencing the onset of radiation sickness, they departed their tent in a hurry, stopping not even to put on their clothing.

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The unexplained bizarre deaths of 9 Russian hikers in 1959

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I just stumbled across the fascinating tale of the Dyatlov Pass Accident. The case is full of bizarre findings. Nine hikers set out into the wilderness and were never seen alive again. Theit bodies were found in groups a good distance from their camp, all in little more than underwear, as if they had to flee their tent in a hurry. Their tent was ripped open from the inside, like they didn’t even have time to use the tent’s door. Five of the hikers showed no signs of trauma and likely died from hypothermia — two of which were found around a temporary fire that they made while in their underwear. None of them seemed to dare to return to the tent. The other four hikers died of internal injuries but showed no external wounds, one from a fractured skull, and two from fractured chests, as if they had been crippled by extreme pressure.

Here are some more facts of the case (from the Wikipedia article):

  • Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
  • There were no indications of other people nearby apart from the nine travellers on Kholat Syakhl, nor anyone in the surrounding areas.
  • The tent had been ripped from within.
  • The victims had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
  • Traces from the camp showed that all group members (including those who were found injured) left the camp of their own accord, by foot. This implies that those with injuries were injured after they left the camp.
  • The fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by another human being.
  • Forensic radiation tests had shown high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims. These test results were not taken into account for the final verdict.

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Who wants to see “The Dark Knight” now?

Friday, January 25th, 2008

The new Batman film The Dark Knight is due to be released in July. But with Heath Ledger’s recent death, I’m wondering how that will affect the film. His death has already nixed the film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but only because it was all of his scenes hadn’t been shot yet. His shooting on The Dark Knight, on the other hand, was completed.

Personally, I find the thought of seeing a movie starring an actor who recently met an untimely death unsettling. It would distract me from the rest of the film, because each time the dead actor appeared on screen, I’d be thinking of him rather than his character. The suspension of disbelief and immersion in the story would all dissipate. I can’t imagine enjoying a movie under these circumstances. So my best guess would be that his death will negatively impact the movie’s success upon release.

But maybe most people aren’t like me, and the increased publicity and morbid curiosity over Ledger’s death will more than offset the people like me who are weirded out. Heath Ledger does play The Joker, who is very dark and psychopathic, so his character is at least not at odds with Ledger’s death. Now if he had been playing the male love interest in a romantic comedy (which would have a happy ending as all such movies do), his death would be more damaging to its chances of success than to one where he plays a twisted villain like The Dark Knight. In some perverse way, maybe Heath Ledger’s death will improve how his final character is received.

So, what do you all think? Is Heath Ledger’s death good or bad for the movie?

(And don’t go railing off against me for being cold-hearted or whatever. Many others have amply discussed the circumstances and tragedy of his death, so forgive me for forgoing the traditional “Oh this is so sad” clich├ęs and focusing exclusively on this one aspect.)

Shattering the inevitability myth of senescence

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Ask yourself this: why do you think of senescence (the process of deterioration resulting in becoming elderly, and eventually, dying of it) as inevitable? I ask why, not if, because universally nearly everyone seems to have simply accepted it without question. Yes, it may be true that death due to old age has been inevitable for all of human history, but then again, until very recently, so was the possibility of death due to other sorts of diseases (polio, the bubonic plague, etc.). Yet science has continued marching on at an exponential pace, achieving breakthroughs so groundbreaking and revolutionary that we couldn’t even dream of them just decades prior. Thus, it is inevitable that the inevitability of old age itself will be overridden.

Old age is the number one cause of human death in western societies. It manifests itself in all sorts of different forms — heart disease, organ failure, weakening bones and muscles leading to increasingly prevalent and dangerous accidents, etc. We have been doing some research on the problem, and we have some intriguing leads on one of the possible causes of senescence (shortening telomeres after each cellular division) and some possible ideas on how to delay it (reduced calorie diets, probably mimmickable using drugs without the constant hunger). Yet we aren’t putting nearly the same effort into curing old age as we are into all sorts of lesser diseases that don’t kill anywhere near the same number of people. This point is made very elegantly in the form of a parable called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant; I highly recommend that you read it.

The only reason that we aren’t putting more effort towards curing old age is because all too many people think it is inevitable. They see it as part of being human, something to be accepted rather than overcome. Religion arguably exists to get people to accept that their time on Earth will come to an end, spinning all sorts of fairy tales in the process about infinite, perfect afterlives in heaven or reincarnation. But why look for consolation in myths when we can get rid of the reason for the creation of those myths in the first place? Death is bad; it kills people, and those who depart are sorely missed by the many who are still living. Don’t over think it; death is bad, thus solving the number one cause of death is good.

Imagine how much better the world would be if people didn’t suffer from old age. Instead of growing old and eventually becoming useless, you would simply continue being yourself, extending your productive life for decades, if not centuries. You could forget those ever-present fears in modern society of becoming unable to do things you once enjoyed, and becoming a drag on your loved ones. Is this not a worthwhile goal?

The only possible objection anyone could have to this plan is a concern over overpopulation. But consider that many western societies are already below replacement rates; having people live longer might actually be the only thing that would keep them from collapsing. And once lifespans are measured in centuries rather than decades, birth rates will go down. If you have centuries of fertile adulthood ahead of you, what’s the rush in having kids now? And don’t go assuming that all the humans that there ever will be will all have to be crammed onto just this one planet. We are eventually going to spread to the stars and beyond, so being able to live productive lives stretching across many centuries will be exactly what we need.

The next time that someone tries to claim that senescence is inevitable, that it is part of the human condition and not something to be overcome, gently tell them that they are wrong. The more minds that we educate, the more consciousnesses that we raise, the closer we will become to curing the worst plague ever to afflict humanity. And the stakes are depressingly urgent: for each further year that we dally and do not focus our full attention on the problem, millions more people will unnecessarily die.

Betting a million dollars v. death

Monday, August 13th, 2007

When I was a teenager, I used to go through these weird betting motions in my head. When I figured I knew something very assuredly, I made a kind of bet in my own mind: would I take a mortal bet of $1,000,000? I was weighing the odds of whether I was sure enough about something to wager my life on it; the upside is the million dollars, of course. I did this inside my head from time to time over the course of a year, weighing the certainty of some situations from my everyday life. The “wagers” were all relatively simple things that I could look up immediately; for instance, if I could remember what a particular acronym (such as HTML) stood for, or the value of the gravitational constant to the first three significant figures, or even a particular person’s last name. The thought of these “wagers” would crop up repeatedly, and I took them really seriously.

Of course I wasn’t really going to win a million dollars for knowing something correctly, and thankfully, neither was I going to die for knowing something incorrectly. I learned an important lesson after making and “winning” ten such bets: I lost. I don’t remember what exactly the wager was over, but I was dead sure of it, and willing to theoretically put my life on the line. But I looked up the answer online and was in shock. Had these wagers been real, I would have been dead at the age of fifteen, rich to the tune of $10,000,000 accumulated across the previous bets, but still dead.

I learned an important lesson about uncertainty that day, purely from an ongoing gedankenexperiment. Just by playing out silly, unrealistic scenarios in my head, I surprised myself and came to the simple conclusion that life isn’t worth betting away, no matter how good you think the odds are. The problem with trying to calculate odds is that one needs complete information — something we have when we’re evaluating, say, the odds of the sum of two tossed dice coming up seven (six out of thirty-six), or the odds of winning a hand in Blackjack. But we don’t have complete information in trying to evaluate the kinds of situations that pop up in real life rather than in artificially constructed games of change, and the odds can be a lot different than we realize.

So I no longer gamble away my life, not theoretically inside my head, and certainly not in real life.

A too-deadly drug?

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

I’m wondering if there’s such a thing as a drug that is too deadly? In the past two years in Dallas, Texas, 21 teenagers have died from an overdose of cheese heroin. Cheese heroin is apparently a half-and-half blend of black tar Mexican heroin and crushed over-the-counter antihistamine drugs like Tylenol PM. The mix is apparently highly addictive and very deadly, because the two components are both highly effective depressants, and when combined, can simply shut the body down. So why does anyone take this drug? Is there such a thing as a drug that is too deadly?

There are some pretty deadly drugs out there. In addition to cheese heroin, people get high off of sniffing various chemicals and aerosols, a habit which simply destroys the brain through lack of oxygen (if not the addition of deadly chemicals) and leads to severe mental retardation. Heck, even regular heroin is very dangerous — just ask Janis Joplin. The dangerousness of a drug seems to be inversely proportional to how widely it is used (ignoring other factors, like cost). Marijuana, which isn’t known to have ever killed anyone, is very widely used, with more than half of all adults admitting they’ve tried it. Cheese heroin and huffing paint thinners, on the other hand, are much less widely used, and I think a lot of it has to do with a prospective user examining the danger and coming to the conclusion that it’s simply not worth it.

Which brings me back to my original question: is there a drug that is too deadly? If sniffing rat poison got you high, would people do it, central nervous system paralysis be damned? If some extreme version of crack cocaine (let’s call it abyss cocaine) was developed that had a 50% of killing you but produced the craziest high imaginable, would anyone take the plunge? I suspect at least a few people would try a given drug, no matter how dangerous it is. After all, a fair amount of people who wish to commit suicide do so by taking drugs, so why not go out on a killer high?