Monsters in the Dark

When I was a little kid, I was afraid of the dark.  I never would have admitted this at the time, of course.  That would have made me look like a little kid and such a show of weakness would have been completely inconceivable.  In particular, I remember the closet in my bedroom, located directly across from my bed and right in my line of sight, and how I had to make sure the door was closed every night when I went to bed.  If, in some colossal display of negligence, I happened to turn off the lights and get into bed before I noticed that it was still open, then I was screwed.  I couldn’t just close my eyes, because then they could sneak up on me with impunity.  And getting up to close the door was right out; moving closer to them would have been playing right into their claws.  Nope, I was trapped.  For the rest of the night, I would be forced to stare at that hole in space, an event horizon from which light and hope could not escape and which harbored horrors that only a child could imagine.

Hint: It wasn't these guys

A small measure of this still afflicts me even today, but at least now I can recognize it for what it is: an overactive imagination trolling a powerful survival instinct.  I just happen to be in the (admittedly fortunate) position that my survival instinct hasn’t had much real life experience in what it should really be getting worked up about.  In absence of anything useful to do, it goes with what my imagination keeps feeding it.  In all honesty, though, there are worse problems to have.  I’d rather have a fight-or-flight response that suffers a few false positives than be stuck with one with a dulled edge.  We evolved a hair trigger on our thalamus for a reason: it only has to miss one cue of danger to get you killed.

As you can imagine, this means I don’t tend to react terribly well to horror movies.  Restful sleep becomes a precious commodity for the next several days.  The idea of going out and deliberately scaring yourself has never really made a lot of sense to me.  I’m told there’s a bit of a rush to be had from the experience, whether from endorphins or good old adrenaline I don’t know, but I don’t recall ever experiencing anything like that.  All I’ve ever gotten for my trouble has been a few sleepless nights.

Even that, though, has been enough to condition me as to how monsters work.  There’s always something horrible out there.  It could be anything, really.  And it’s gonna kill someone, because that’s what monsters do.  The first guy to die?  He never sees it coming.  After all, there’s no such thing as monsters, right?  There’s no need to be on guard and no need to prepare because there’s nothing out there after you.  It’s only over that first guy’s corpse and all those to follow does the last person have any chance to vanquish the horror and walk off into the sunrise, traumatized but alive.  A triumphant victory for the sole survivor and for humanity as a whole, to be sure.  But someone always has to be first and that guy never stands a chance.

Dead Redshirt

This guy? He was first.

Stories to the contrary, though, we all know there are no such things as monsters.  It’s the armor that our rational minds clad themselves in every time the lights go out.  The reach of humanity has spanned the globe with nary a discovery of werewolves, vampires, demons, or the even more exotic terrors borne of the human imagination.  It’s a great big world full of… the mundane.

And that’s why we really keep telling horror stories, again and again.  It’s not because we need to keep our survival instincts sharp; frankly, most of us will never need them.  It’s because we want them to be true.  We want the monsters and the darkness to be real because if they are then maybe the heroes and the light are real too.  We want there to be wonder left in the world, something beyond the crushing banality that confronts us every day.  We want to believe.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Posted in Personal | 3 Comments

Light Headed

So a funny thing happened on the way home from work the other day.  It had been raining off and on for a few days, but by the time I was leaving the office the cloud cover had started to break.  Rain was still drizzling down, but there was just enough light shining to create a very visible rainbow directly in front of me for a good chunk of my drive home.  Since it had been a long time since I’d seen one that strong, I took advantage of one of my several multi-minute red lights to snap a picture of it.

Now, I’m a bit of a science nerd.  Not so much with the softer sciences like biology or even chemistry; I did okay with my studies in those, but they never really clicked for me.  But I take a special little glee in my knowledge of physics.  Physics means that I can look at stuff happening around me every day and understand, at least in broad terms, why it’s happening the way it is and what makes it so amazing.  So when I see something like this, I don’t think, “Ooh, pretty!”  Well, okay, maybe I do a little.  It is, however, quickly followed by a far more nerdy, “Yay, optical refraction! Light is awesome!”


It was brighter than this at the time, I swear

Light really is awesome, too.  For those who have no idea what I just said, refraction is one of light’s many neat tricks.  Basically, light bends.  Crazy, I know.  Lots of people, including myself at a young age, just assume that light travels in a straight line.  It’s an easy assumption to make, since most of the time that’s exactly what it does, at least to the naked eye.  But that’s only as long as the light doesn’t hit anything transparent.  As soon as it does, unless the light hits the surface of whatever it is absolutely straight-on, it’s going to refract.  How much it refracts depends on the material the light’s entering.  Ever wonder why part of your arm looks detached when you dunk it under water?  That’s because the light reflecting off your arm is bending when it leaves the water and comes back into open air.  It gets crazier, though.  Different colors of light don’t bend to the same degree.  Of the visible light spectrum, red bends the least and violet the most with all of the other visible colors smoothly between.  This is how you end up with stuff like rainbows and sunsets and Pink Floyd album covers.

The part about my studies of optics and related fields that intrigued me most was just how much we still don’t know about light.  That may seem strange to say in the modern age, I know.  I mean, we’ve split the atom, put a man on the moon, and created virtual personas that can almost fool a person into thinking they’re human.  How can there be anything we still don’t know about something as common as light?  Ask yourself something, though: what exactly is light?  That’s a question that’s proven surprisingly difficult to unravel for even some very smart minds throughout the centuries.

Dispersion prism

Refraction: Not just for psychedelic rock bands anymore

Some people, including Isaac Newton, the guy who literally wrote the book on optics, thought it was a particle.  Others thought it was a wave.  Both theories had problems when they were first proposed.  Particle theory explained reflection neatly and accounted for the way light seems to travel in straight lines instead of bending around obstacles like waves do.  It also meant that you didn’t have to worry about the medium through which it was traveling, like you would for a wave; every other type of wave has a medium, but light didn’t seem to.  But particles made it difficult to explain things like refraction.

Wave theory came into vogue later, after a guy named named Thomas Young did a now-famous experiment called the double-slit diffraction experiment.  Short version: he passed a single beam of light through two close, narrow slits and saw that they came out the other side in an alternating pattern of dark and light bands.  That showed that light could be interfered with like a wave, boosting or cancelling out depending on how the waves line up.  But what about the medium problem, you ask?  Another physicist named James Maxwell proposed an answer: that light was actually a combination of both electrical and magnetic waves, linked together in such a way that they each serve as the other’s medium.  The whole thing’s self-propagating, so it can travel here from all the way through space!

Double Slit Diffraction

The double slit experiment: If that looks like a pair of speakers to you, it's because they'll act the same way.

And then, because the whole thing wasn’t crazy enough, Einstein comes along and turns it all on its head.  See, scientists had found this thing called the photoelectric effect, where certain frequencies of light could cause a metal plate to throw off electrons, but in a way that couldn’t be explained by wave theory.  Einstein was the one to crack the puzzle, and in doing so resurrected the centuries-old particle theory of light.  That left things in a bit of a pickle.  If light definitely behaves like a wave, but it also definitely behaves like a particle, then just what in the sam hell is it?  As wacky as it is, as far as anyone can tell, it’s both.  Yes, both.

So yeah, light.  Weird, wild, and utterly amazing when you look at it closely enough.  Plus, we’re still learning more about it!  Quantum electrodynamics, baby!  Don’t worry, I won’t try to explain anything about it; in truth, I barely understand it myself.  But that’s okay, I don’t have to.  For now, I’m perfectly content to know that even if leprechauns don’t exist, rainbows are still made from stuff we don’t fully comprehend.  It may not be magic, but it’s close enough to make me smile.

Posted in Science! | 2 Comments

Code Delphi, Start Here

So it would appear, perhaps even to an impartial observer, that I now have my very own blog.  Trust me, I’m at least as surprised as you are.  Probably more.  Honestly, until about a week ago, those aren’t words that I’d ever thought I’d write.  I mean, sure, there’s Twitter and Facebook and even that LiveJournal account that I’ve neglected for years, but it feels a little different when you have your very own site.  I’d always imagined a blog as something you put together when you have Something To Say, and I’ve never really felt that I did.  With that in mind, perhaps you can imagine my own shock when, on the way home from work last Thursday, it struck me out of the blue that this was something that I should do.

What changed?  I’m not sure there was any one thing that got this ball rolling, but there are a few that come to mind.  The earliest, nerdiest, and probably saddest of these mental seeds was that I wanted to get my own domain name.  Specifically, I wanted it so that, no kidding, I could declare my own Java packages.  I’ll skip the technical details for those not interested in the software bits, so let’s just say that when you write a bit of Java code called, for example, “MyClass” you need something to differentiate it from every other “MyClass” that any Java programmer has ever written.  That something is called a package, and the generally accepted practice to ensure uniqueness is to base a package’s name on the website domain of its owner.  Think of it like an old-fashioned cattle brand for code-monkeys.  I don’t mean for us programmers ourselves of course, because that shit really hurts, but for our code.

I imagine you’d like a moment now to shake your head in disbelief and possibly pity.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Done now?  Great.

To my credit, I did initially dismiss this idea as incredibly silly but by that point the idea had stuck in my head.  I would occasionally find myself trying to figure out just the right domain name for me.  I had no serious use for it, but at that point it was a conundrum for its own sake.  In the end, I settled on this one.  I like making things, or at least virtual things, and trees are neat.  There are other connotations, of course, but few that would make sense to anyone but me.  Really, all that matters is that I thought it sounded neat.  Once I realized that, the hook was set.

What finally sealed the deal, though, was that I realized that I missed writing.  The book I’ve wrestled with off and on for a good year and a half hasn’t seen much progress lately.  Every time I try to get words on its pages, I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of the task still before me.  I’ve also written a handful of short stories, but inspiration for those is both fleeting and fickle.  It’s taken me a while, but last week I finally realized that what I really need in order to get better about writing is to simply write more.  Shocking, I know.  Also a little circular, but there it is.

That’s really what this blog’s about: writing.  My goal in this ongoing project is simply to write, period.  In doing so publicly like this, my hope is that the accountability of having an audience will help me stick to it.  I don’t have any particular topic or theme in mind, largely to give me the flexibility needed to come up with topics on a regular basis.  But if your interests happen to overlap with mine, such as stories, games, software, or just my everyday life, then perhaps you’ll find something entertaining or even thought-provoking here once in a while.

It’s going to be a tall order, I know, especially at first.  I’d thought about going right for the jugular by decreeing that I would Write Every Day, but after further thought I’ve decided to back off from that.  That’s like promising that you’ll go to the gym every day: nobody ever manages it straight out of the gate, and that just leads to disappointment, frustration, and quitting.  I don’t want this to be something else that I quit.  Plus a goal that aggressive leaves me know real room to grow.  So for now my target is simply one post a week, with a stretch goal of two.  Assuming I manage to stick with this, which I intend to do, we’ll see where it goes from there.

So yeah, I have a blog now.  Blogs are cool.  So stop by and say hello, will ya?  I could sure use the encouragement.

Posted in Personal | 16 Comments