Quantum Freedom

Quantum particles interacting with each other.
I like quantum particles. I like them because of their weirdness.

You see, before quantum theory, one of the prevailing ideas of classical physics is that if you know all of the circumstances in which an event takes place, you can predict with 100% certainty what will happen in the future in perpetuam. Meteorologists with enough information could predict whether or not it will rain on your birthday three years from now. Gambling wouldn't work, because given a careful analysis of the conditions in which a game was played or dice were thrown would, after some pretty heavy computation, be obvious. (And if you want to know more about that, I got it from this book.)

It doesn't take a great leap to realize that though our thoughts and actions can seem spontaneous, the mechanism that produces those thoughts and actions is made up of the same elements a star makes when it explodes (Did you know most of the stuff in the universe is created when stars go supernova?) and must also follow the laws of physics. Predicting, directing, and manipulating the way we think and act is child's play to most people--we do it unconsciously. Marketing and advertising professionals do it purposefully, sometimes to great effect. Teachers do it, parents do it, governments do it--it is not a secret that even our most private thoughts and impulses can be strongly influenced by outside control.

We know that certain chemicals in the brain react with our neurons to create these impulses and that we react to stimuli we receive through photons bouncing off objects and hitting our retina, molecules vibrating across distances and twiddling our eardrums, etc. Even our motivations can be traced back to physics: what is life but elements bound together in a specific way and charged by electricity?

So, if all existence, and all reality is simply dominos flicked over by whatever caused the Big Bang, where is our free will? If all can be predicted via logical cause-and-effect, what says that we have any control over what we do at all?

Here is where I am reassured by the quantum theory: uncertainty.

Werner Heisenberg
You have probably heard of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. It says that you can not know simultaneously two measurements of a particle. You can know how fast it's going or where it is, not both. This sounds completely counter intuitive, because you can open up the map app on your smartphone and see a little blue dot with an arrow that shows you where you are and how fast you are moving. But YOU are not a quantum particle. And quantum particles are...well, they're a bit different. They follow their own physics. Scientists haven't yet figured out why tiny things follow different rules than big things, but there it is, clear as day: quantum particles are flakey, flighty, odd little creatures.

So, a slight departure to illustrate a point. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a noise? Intuition says "Of course, you can't stop a tree from making noise as it falls. You can't stop the vibrations as it falls through the air and the leaves and branches jostle each other." And that is most likely true. But if it is a quantum tree, the answer is no! Quantum particles do not have a position before their position is measured. They are only more probably in a certain location than others.

So you can't reliably predict when or where a quantum particle is. You can only find the probability that it is in a certain place.


So maybe that uncertainty doesn't trickle up and allow us free will. But it is enough to reassure me that not all of nature is predestined. I am not just a domino who thinks it is choosing to fall at a certain time and in a certain direction. There is true randomness in the universe. And that's all I need.


The Uncanny Valley

I really do not like monkeys.

I know that many people think monkeys are cute, endearing, funny. When they see them in a zoo, they exclaim how similar they are to us. Even I have experienced this, holding up my grandma's "magic mirror" to the pane of glass and watching the little dark brown monkeys with their silky black fur coming up and looking at themselves in the mirror. These monkeys, catlike, with their thick fur and long glossy tails, didn't offend me much.

But then our zoo got a large habitat for chimpanzees.

These were not cute. They we're like hairy, messy, shameless humans. They screeched loudly. They stuck dirty fingers in up their wide nostrils and leered at the people who came to see them. They scratched their bare butts with long, cracked nails. They bared their teeth and shrieked.

The chimpanzees in the new section of the zoo were big news in my town. But I only lingered at their area for a few minutes before moving on. They made me uncomfortable, with their big, wet lips flopping back and showing brick-like yellow teeth. I wasn't bored. I was disgusted. And fearful. I felt uneasy, the way you do moments before something scary happens in a movie. I had to move away.

I had fallen into the uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley is the term for when an artificial character is very close to being human, and therefore eliciting a positive emotional response, but something about it is wrong and provokes feelings of revulsion or disgust. For example a corpse of a human looks exactly like a person...but instinctively we know that it is not alive and we are repulsed by it. For me, monkeys fall into that valley. They don't look like animals to me. They look like deformed humans, and that "close-but-no-cigar" quality makes me uneasy. It's the same reason people are afraid of clowns, dummies, ghosts, mummies, vampires, werewolves....they resemble humans, but a key element is missing. There is simply a wrongness that can be hard to define.

One way to bridge the Uncanny Valley is to employ cuteness. To me, that sounded a little like saying, "The way to make it better is to make it better," or "To look more beautiful, you have to make yourself beautiful." That statement gives no actual direction. But a little bit of research led me to the definition of neoteny: retention of immature characteristics into adulthood. When we say something is cute, that something generally resembles the young form of an animal: a proportionally large head, small ears and nose, big eyes. And baby animals are made to be cute so that we instinctively want to protect, nourish, and feed them. Small dogs have been bred down to mature sexually but not physically--to us, a pug or a beagle or a dachshund is cuter than a wolf. Giving something that falls into the uncanny valley features of cuteness can trump the revulsion we feel when we look at it.

Take the Navi in Avatar for example. By definition, they should fall into the uncanny valley: they strongly resemble humans, but they clearly are different. They should elicit revulsion. But I, like many people, found them endearing and attractive. The designers of the Navi crossed the uncanny valley on the Feline Bridge: they made them look vaguely cat-like. They clearly have cat ears, they have small, wide noses like cats, and their heads are slightly larger in proportion to their bodies than we are.

The uncanny valley is one of those concepts that I love, because it accurately describes something that I feel but can't articulate. It's something you hear about and exclaim, "Yes! I know exactly what you mean!" It's why monkeys make me uncomfortable, but blue humanoids with cat ears don't. It may also be a survival mechanism brought to us by our good ole friend Evolution. It may have helped humans (and other animals) avoid sick, contagious members of the species. I am always fascinated by the way we've outgrown our evolution and really have to decode our own reactions and instincts.


The End of the Universe

Today, I was watching "How the Universe Works" on Netflix. I watched an episode about galaxies and it ended with a rising crescendo of music and the narrator, Mike Rowe, solemnly telling us that galaxies will continue to be born, live, collide, drift apart, and eventually die. As dark energy overtakes the dark matter that holds the universe in its shape and keeps galaxies clustered together, galaxies will become farther and farther apart. A night sky will no longer have any stars. In the next episode, about stars, the astronomers and physicists on the show explained that since there is a finite amount of hydrogen in the universe, and hydrogen is the fuel of stars, eventually the stars will run out of fuel and no new stars will be born. The universe will quiet down, and die in its sleep. The universe is not infinite. It began. It is. It will end.

Something about the combination of the story and the music and Mike Rowe's narration made me have an emotional response to the stories of these unfathomably huge, distant cosmic objects. I have also been listening to Brian Greene's The 4 Percent Universe, which is very much about the evolution of cosmology itself as well as the dark matter it's explaining. These two things made me realize how much of a human lense we put on things that are so unfamiliar and strange to think about. It's like in our struggle to understand the workings of something as huge and exotic as the universe, we had to see the whole thing as an allegory. And the allegory we chose was the one most familiar to us: ourselves.

We talk about stars and galaxies and the universe itself as being born, living, and dying. Nebulas are star nurseries, galaxies are cities full of stars. I love thinking about cosmic things in terms of our own human experience, but it makes me kind of sad. I have this kind of vague yearning to go into space, to see these things first hand, and I know it's simply not possible. And knowing that one day the sun will die, that it will consume the Earth and disintegrate, that our galaxy will collide with Andromeda, that dark energy will destroy the universe makes me wonder how long humans will last. Earth itself is nothing more than a blip in cosmic time. Who knows how many previous stars have hosted civilizations? Who knows how many of those civilizations had come to realize, as we have, how utterly tiny parts we play on the story of the universe?

My most comforting thought is that things were, things are, and things will be. After some time, things will end. But now? Now is beautiful.


Cursive to Qwerty

Indiana is the latest in a slew of states that don't require schools to teach cursive anymore, but are requiring "keyboarding."

I may be getting old, but I think this shift from cursive to querty is a shame. 

I remember being both apprehensive and excited to learn cursive in third grade. Cursive was a big-kid thing, a teacher thing. Once you learned cursive, you were practically an adult! I loved tracing the lines, writing the sentences. It was like drawing, for me, except the lines actually went where I expected them to go! I loved it.

For a while.

Once we learned it, we were required to write in it all the time, and being forced to do something always dulls it a little in a kid's eye. When I entered high school, and the teachers couldn't care less how you wrote as long as they could read it, I felt this enormous sense of freedom! I could write how I pleased (and in any color ink I wanted!) Also, having migrated from Catholic school to public school, I could wear colors! Oh, high school. I felt wild and free.

When I started college at Columbia College, the sheer volume of time I spent writing quadrupled. Quintupled. Hex-uppled? Well, it increased. Two fiction classes a semester will have your forearms muscular and your tendons screaming for relief. It was then that I reverted back to cursive. The strain on my hand was much less! I didn't have to pick up my pen after every letter. Instead of smearing my print letters together, I glided effortlessly along the loops of the cursive letters. I found myself pressing more lightly on the paper. And when I went to type up my work, by golly, I could actually read it! It was easier and faster to write, and I've written almost everything (except for short phrases and labels) in cursive since.

So maybe it's a little sentimental that I chafe at this twist towards the cold, precise "keyboarding" and away from my easy-going, flowy, tactile cursive.

Another thing: it's not cursive itself that I feel is so essential. Its the act of sitting down to a task that requires patience and attention to detail that I think is important. I realize that's hard for kids. Life is hard. Learning to do hard things is a part of life.

Also, I think "keyboarding," which I call typing, is something a person is going to learn anyway--like how to use an idiom or time a joke.  I didn't learn to type in a class. I learned to type in an IM. I DID learn to write in cursive in a class, and I write in cursive 99% of the time now. It's more legible, faster, more even, and prettier than my print.

I both write and type a lot. I think that both forms of communication are important. But hitting a keystroke to make a letter doesn't require the same amount of attention. It's easier. Teaching a kid to type doesn't add any value. They'll learn to type any way. All you need to do is teach them where to position their fingers, and they will learn by IMing friends, typing into search bars, typing out papers, updating Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, as a general observation about handwriting and typing, however a person chooses to communicate: Do everyone a favor and spend an extra millisecond in your busy, ultra-important, super cool life to make sure your handwriting is legible, your words are written out, and you are using punctuation to your advantage. no 1 wants 2 rd wat u say when u right lyke this cuz iz hard 2 rd n stuff esp wen u dont use punctuation   And no one wants to decode your handwriting.  So have a care.

And maybe if we did spend a little more time on slowing down and paying attention to detail in lower grades, the general public would have a better time expressing themselves.


The Map

I know a lot of you on #mywana have been talking about the map I made and stuff---so I thought I'd post it here so you all can see it.

Click the picture to see full size--it is quite big, so I could go into detail.
My characters don't go everywhere on this map, and there's a continent to the north that plays a HUGE part, and that's not on here at all. But I'm a firm believer in the fact that you should know everything about your world, and that is why when writing fantasy on a world that doesn't exist, a map is important.

In my WIP, there are lots of natural disasters. Their world is coming apart at the seams, quite literally. So I felt like I had to know where the fault lines were, where the impact areas would be, etc. Also, my character is on a Quest, so he travels quite a bit. This helps me know how he gets there, and what is there when he gets there.

In fact, making the map itself helped me find out more about my places. I discovered, while making my map, a new country I hadn't even known was there. I knew there was SPACE between Elira and Rohola, but not what was there. Well, if you're making a map, you have to put something there. Turns out--Lora. And Lora is important to the economy of the area, if not directly to the story.

And Meglir? Meglir became important because I needed a place for my antagonist to drop off a bunch of stolen treasure--and where better than the place where they trade in precious metals? And it had to be on the way from Rohola to Lakayazmo.  So trade, and the geographical locations of where people are trading from impact the story.

And these are the kind of world-building things I work out while mapping. Maps are important to me, and to my story. I didn't want the story to take the characters off into a place that I didn't already invent--a map is a way for me to keep track of who is where and what that place is like.

If there's interest in how I made it, technically (photoshop, etc) I might be able to do a post on that in future. @ me on twitter (@jajaamanda) or post a comment here, if you'd like to know what I did. I'm not a pro, so all of my techniques are pretty basic: layers, brushes, text, etc. 


10 Things I Learned from Pretty Little Liars

Everything I Need to Know in Life, I Learned From Pretty Little Liars.

This post concerns everything up to the episode that aired on 6/28/11.
Scroll down to the next red text to pass the spoilers.

 So, after watching tonight's episode of Pretty Little Liars, and being thoroughly nerved out every time Spencer looked out a window, I have come up with a list of 10 things I learned from watching the girls deal with their stalker, A.

1. Lock your doors—even though we've seen that A is sneaky enough to find a way in, there's no harm in creating one more barrier between you and the creepiness.
2. Never ever look out a window when all you can see is your reflection. A is probably standing right on the other side of the window. How would you know? You can only see yourself.
3. If you need to be alone anywhere for any length of time, get a dog. A big, mean one. With teeth. And a spikey collar. You can name it Brutus.
4. Not everyone is out to get you. I promise. Some people you can trust. Like Ezra. And your fellow Liars. Like Jack Sparrow says: “You can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest.” Still....
4.5 Don't trust anyone.
5. Watch what you say. And when you say it. And who you say it to. Actually. Probably better if you don't say anything at all. About anything. Ever. Anything you say can and will be used against you in everything you do, every day.
6. Even though life's not fair, it's still worth it to do the right thing. Like apologizing to Lucas. And trying to make up with Melissa. Forgiving Ezra. Tearing up the faux scholarship letter.
7. Don't give in to A's demands! Every time a Liar decides they just HAVE to do what A wants, I cringe. Remember Hanna and the cupcakes? And the breaking of Sean's heart?
8. Keep asking questions, even if people doubt you. (What is Jason doing back in that old house and who else was in there?) But....
8.5 Don't jump to conclusions. (Ian never did admit to killing Allison, and Spencer should be careful what she says since A wiped Emily's drive and planted the fake-bloodied trophy.)
9. If A gifts you with evidence, don't yap about it, and don't let it leave your SIGHT until you get to the police.
10. Always... always (this is very important) have perfect hair and the latest clothes. If you are going to be harassed, you had better look damn good while doing it. :D
I would just have said “stop lying” at number one and have done with it, but then we'd have no show and my Tuesdays would just suck. Also...I can understand why the Liars lie. They're doing their best with a difficult situation in which it seems like they have no friends.

Truth is hard. And when you have secrets like the Liars do: when you feel ashamed, when you fear other people's opinions of you, it's even harder. No one wants to get in trouble. In that moment when someone is about to find you out, if you are skilled at lying, it can seem like an easy way to escape the blame. Allison was a heedless liar, and she taught the other Liars well. She also tangled them up in her lies, and that is a sticky web to try and free yourself from, especially with A hanging around the edges: A, who knows all of the dark, dirty truths. 

The following is spoiler free, to my knowledge.

Pretty Little Liars with a Big Ugly Problem: Stalking 

That list was partly in jest, and partly—not. Stalking is serious business and should be treated as such. It is a crime and can be really harmful, as we see on the show! Stalking is kind of an iffy situation because harassment is really subjective, but law cannot be subjective. The definition of stalking is “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person fear,” according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, but that's not a legal definition. And the legal definition is different depending on what state, district, or tribe has jurisdiction. So a person might have what they consider a stalker—a person who causes them fear—but go to the police only to find that the definition does not fit. Most of the laws don't cover new technology, and we've seen A send e-mails, use flash drives, and send text messages. And in some places, it's not stalking unless a person specifically threatens to harm you.

The Parents' suggestion that the Liars see a therapist was well-meant, but since the Liars aren't admitting that they're being stalked, The Parents don't realize that stalking is the problem, and not grief. Victims of stalking are more likely to be depressed, to miss work, and live in fear like the Liars. And the Liars still have to finish their homework at the end of the night! Stalking is no joke, and I was absolutely enraged that A ruined the therapist for them as a safe haven.

There is tons of great information at Stalking Awareness Month. If A's behavior on Pretty Little Liars sounds a little too familiar, you can find out what the laws are in your state, get help about how to handle stalking, and even get buttons and magnets to promote awareness. Stalking Awareness Month is January, but victims of stalking deal with it every single day of their lives, sometimes for years.

Take away the entertainment aspect of Pretty Little Liars, and it's a pretty grim subject. But that's one of the things I love about the show. It is absolutely fearless showing these girls deal with (and sometimes exacerbate) tough problems. Each girl has her own issues and secrets, and it's part of what makes Pretty Little Liars so engrossing.