6/26/2015

50+ Unanswered Questions in Science


 
Recently read an article purporting to present the 20 Most Significant Unanswered Questions in Science.  So of course I immediately started thinking about all the questions that didn't make the list.  Obviously, every tiny science specialty is going to have its own list of unanswered questions, most of them so content-specific and obtuse that civilians haven't a hope of understanding them.  Even so, a quick bit of brainstorming is all it takes to realize just how much we don't know about even the big things; throw in a quick survey of other articles on the internet, and you get the following list.  What major unanswered questions have I left out? Let me know!  
  1. Unanswered questions about biology/neurology
    1. What is the biological basis of consciousness?
    2. Just how far can we prolong life?
    3. Can cryogenics work?
    4. Are GMO foods safe?
    5. To what extent will we be able to use technology to enhance human functioning?
    6. Can we regenerate body parts?
    7. Why do we dream? What happens when we dream?
    8. How do we store/retrieve memories?
    9. What is "junk DNA"? What does it do?
    10. How did life on earth begin?
    11. Can we eliminate pain? should we?
    12. What caused the Cambrian explosion?
    13. What is intelligence? Just how plastic is the brain? How "fixed" is IQ?
    14. What are the neural causes of mental illness?
    15. What is the evolutionary explanation for homosexuality?
    16. Can we cure cancer?
    17. What organisms remain undiscovered on earth?
  2. Unanswered questions about our earth
    1. How bad will climate change get?
    2. What's going on inside the earth?
    3. What drives plate tectonics?
    4. What causes our magnetic poles to wander (and occasionally reverse)?
    5. Can we control the weather? Should we?
  3. unanswered questions questions about the universe/physics?
    1. How did the universe begin?
    2. Will the universe end?
    3. Is the universe finite or infinite? If finite, how big is it, and what lies beyond?
    4. What is the shape of the universe?
    5. What is dark matter? dark energy?
    6. Is there a universal theory of everything?
    7. Is time travel possible?
    8. Are we alone in the universe?
    9. Will we ever colonise space?
    10. Why hasn't all matter been destroyed by antimatter?
    11. Are there forces that move faster than light?
    12. What are black holes?
    13. Are there additional dimensions? How many?
    14. What does our discovery of the Higgs-Boson portend?
    15. Where do astrophysical neutrinos come from?
  4. Unanswered questions about chemistry?
    1. what's the relationship between weak force and strong force?
    2. How many elements exist? Are elements higher than 137 possible?
    3. Can we make an efficient biofuel?
    4. How do we effectively tap the sun's energy?
    5. Is cold fusion possible?
    6. Are there as-yet undiscovered states of matter?
  5. Unanswered questions about math
    1. Why are prime numbers so weird?
    2. Will all the Millennium Prize Problems ever be solved?
    3. Can everything be explained by math? 
  6. Unanswered questions about technology
    1. Just how smart can computers get?
    2. Can we create sentient technology? Will machines ever become conscious?
  7.  Unanswered questions about metaphysics
    1. Are ghosts real?
    2. Do humans have souls?
    3. Is there such a thing as free will?
    4. Does ESP exist?
    5. Does any rule exist that doesn't have at least one exception?

6/20/2015

10+ Defunct Retail Establishments That I Miss




Figure one of the few advantages of aging is that at least now I'm old enough now to start writing posts about the "good old days." Am starting with a list of retail establishments that were staples when I was a kid but that have since vanished - except that I'll have to use the term "vanished" loosely, as I understand some of these establishments do still exist, though in hugely decreased numbers and typically under new management.  What each store has in common is that they trigger specific memories and emotions - of time spent with my mom, dad, and sister, with families from the old neighborhood, with my grandmoms and granddads, with my best friends from high school, with college roommates, with my husband back when we were newly married, with my children back when they were babies.

Do any of these establishments pluck at memories of your own? What stores/restaurants remind you of your own "good old days"?
  1. Cargo Furniture.  Who didn't love Cargo furniture? It was boxy, uncomfortable, incredibly heavy, and practically indestructible.  Plus it was all magically sized so that you could stack it to create awesome Cargo wall units, cubbies, and nooks. Definitely not intended for the formal living room, but terrific for kids' rooms, family rooms, beach houses, and dorm rooms.  I also credit Cargo for, if not technically creating, then popularizing the loft-above-desk model for kids' rooms, which revolutionized the business of stuffing multiple children in tiny rooms. I can't be sure, but I suspect the furniture's indestructible nature may be the reason the store folded.  Once you bought the stuff, it didn't need replacing for, like, 200 years.
  2. Discovery Zone.  There has never been nor ever will be again an indoor playground as awesome as Discovery Zone.  You could take your kids there in the middle of winter and read a book while they wore themselves out climbing, sliding, swinging, and immersing themselves in ballpits the size of Olympic swimming pools. Okay, so I'm pretty sure they were breeding grounds for every bacteria known to mankind, but you know what? Try being trapped in a house with a few preschoolers for a week of below-zero temperate days in a row and tell me it wasn't worth the risk.
  3. Drug Fair.  Remember when going to the drug store was an event? You went for the shopping and then stayed for a burger and milkshake at the ubiquitous little diner tucked in the back of the store - the one with spinning stools set at intervals along a formica lunch counter with catsup in squirt bottles, napkins in glinting stainless steel dispensers, and straws in a glass apothecary jars.  Never mind that the menu only had about 10 meals - deciding between the burger, the grilled cheese, the hot dog platter or the BLT was serious business!
  4. Farrells.  This ice cream parlor chain had a Gay '90s theme - think women with tiny waists, big bustles, and straw hats perched on bicycles with improbably big wheels while chaps in striped suit coats stand by, gaping appreciatively.  Cleverly, you entered through a candy shop stuffed with every confection imaginable - from cotton candy to gumdrops to yards of taffy in every imaginable color; a fantasy come true if you were a kid, though I realize now this must have been a parental nightmare.  I believe they served a basic dinner menu, but the only reason you went there for the ice cream, preferably with 20 of your closest friends so you could justify purchasing one of their grotesquely enormous ice cream creations - troughs filled with 20, 30 or 40 scoops of ice cream, then topped with plastic zoo animals or pinwheels or lit sparklers, served up by teams of waiters who hoisted your ice cream trough high in the air as they raced down the aisles singing and shouting.  Inevitably, no matter how fast they raced, most of the ice cream melted before you could eat it, forming a kaleidoscopic goo at the bottom of the trough that left everyone in your party feeling vaguely sick as you exited the restaurant, a nausea that was inevitably enhanced by the overwhelming smell of all that candy as you departed.  But, ah, what a nostalgic nausea!
  5. Hechingers.  For a long time growing up, I thought of Hechingers primarily as that store where my dad spent his weekends.  The homey stenciled logo appeared all over my dad's workshop, on everything from work aprons to wooden paint paddles.  Later, living on my own, I came to appreciate Hechingers as that place you went to when you didn't know how to do something around the house.  Sure, they'd sell you the tools you needed to do the job. But the reason you went was to talk to Joe (or Bill, or Phil), who'd spend as much time as it took to walk you through each step of the process, possibly even scribbling the steps on the back of a packing slip so you wouldn't leave anything out.  Don't even try that at Home Depot or Lowes.
  6. Hot Shoppes.  How I miss cafeteria-style dining!  The excitement of picking out your tray and then piloting it along gleaming stainless steel rails through food nirvana.  First, those delicious, steaming trays of comfort food - pot roast and meatloaf, Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, liver and onions, corn on the cob, green beans swimming in bacon!  Followed by row after row of gleaming glass shelves laden with gelatin-based deserts, pudding parfaits, and every imaginable variety of pie.  All consumed in the comfortable confines of a bright orange booth with water rings on the formica left behind by genuine glass glasses of ice water, continually refreshed. I'm telling you now, no menu can ever hope to replace the sheer sensory slendidness that was the Hot Shoppes cafeteria line.
  7. Luau Gardens.  Yours may not have been called Luau Gardens, but you know what I'm talking about.  Remember that small neighborhood dive with tiki-themed interior decorations and a faux Polynesian menu that was actually Chinese?  Alcoholic drinks in fake coconuts, a big mural of tropic islands on the walls, and an oversized menu with page after page of dishes you'd never heard of but that all seemed exotic at a time when home-cooking meant combining meat, vegetables, and condensed soup into a casserole dish?  I miss when a family dinner out felt like a foray into the exotic South Seas, Disney style.
  8. Lums.   Lums was one of those dim, faux Tiffany-lamplit family eateries that served everything in baskets, from BLTs to fried clams.   Why did food used to taste better just because it was served in baskets?  I don't know why - it just did.  Plus they used to serve something called a beer-steamed hot dog, which haunts me to this day.  A great regret of my life is that the Lums franchise disappeared before I was old enough to enjoy one of these intriguing delicacies. 
  9. Shakees.  Another gay '90s-themed restaurant - what was our fixation with the gay '90s back in the 1960s?   (Perhaps because there were still people alive with nostalgic memories of the time period?)  You entered the pizza eatery through gorgeously colorful bottle-glass doors, which swung open to reveal long tables, suitable for parties the size of whole neighborhoods, which was good because back in those days whole neighborhood actually did things together, like go out for pizza.  Inside, the restaurant featured old-timey "gag" signs in gay '90s fonts (ex: "Musicians will work for beer"), checkers boards, a player piano with scrolls you could insert yourself (but that always seemed to be playing The Yellow Rose of Texas when you arrived), and sometimes a live ragtime band in striped vests and boater hats performing such classics as Shine on Harvest Mood and Sweet Adeline.  But the coolest feature by far, if you were a kid, was the a big picture window through which you could watch the staff throw the pizza dough up into the air and see the cooked pies popping out of the "finished" end of the pizza oven.  Endless hours of fun!
  10. Thom McAn.  Nothing used to torture a foot like a new pair of Thom McAn shoes!  I will forever associate the store with hard-sided plastic or leather shoes that never yielded so much as a millimeter to comfort, no matter how often you wore them.  To ensure that you purchased just the right size - that is, exactly one half size smaller than you actually needed - the highly trained staff would center your stockinged foot in the middle of this metallic measuring contraption with sliding bars that would have been intriguing if it weren't so formidable and uncomfortable.  After removing your foot, the employees would stare so knowingly and confidently at the numbers that it never occurred to my mom that their measurements could be in any way wrong.  Which is how I spent the early years of my life perpetually limping back and forth to school and church.
  11. Tower Records.  So many long afternoons spent thumbing through album covers, trying to figure out the best investment for my $7! Should I go "tried and true" - perhaps something safe by Chicago? Or opt for pop - perhaps the latest Abba release? Or risk something a little harder - The Rolling Stones, Boston, or Styx? Or really get daring and buy something based solely on its album cover art or a sample or two available via earphones at one of the store's "listening stations"? Kids growing up today with ready access to iTunes will never appreciate the pressure we felt back in the days when music came in albums, of which you knew maybe 2-3 cuts if you were lucky and so had to buy the rest on spec.
  12. Waccamaw Pottery.  It was disorganized, cheesy, and often dirty, but that's what I loved about this "catch-all" store of factory remainders.  The primary draw was row after row of dishware and glassware, all unboxed and only very cursorily sorted, heavy on those brown-glazed soup bowls that were de rigeur back in the 70s.  But beyond these aisles was where the fun began, for you never knew what you'd find: plastic flower arrangements for cemeteries, lawn flamingoes, ceramic pots large enough to house grown trees, candles in hideous colors, remaindered towels and bed linens in equally hideous colors, baskets, random clay animals, grotesquely tacky holiday decorations .... 
  13. Woolworths.  Ah, Woolworths!  Is there anyone that doesn't nurse nostalgic memories of this classic neighborhood five & dime?  This was the only store that we didn't complain about getting dragged to when we were kids; in fact, mom used to have to bribe my sister and I with milkshakes at the soda counter just to get us to leave.  And no wonder - what kid wouldn't be enthralled by row after crowded row of eye-catching merchandise, from toys in bright boxes to colorful fabrics on spools, from penny candy to bins heaped with buttons, from shelves straining with ill-sorted books to that marvelous pet section where you could buy fish for a nickel, painted turtles for 50 cents, or a pair of parakeets in a cage for less than $10?  Best of all was coaxing your mom into taking you in December, when the entrance to the store was transformed into a Christmas wonderland, complete with glowing plastic Santas and snowmen, towering piles of boxed holiday ornaments and tinsel, and tins of holiday cookies/candy.  To paraphrase a certain Kansas native: Wooworths, I think I miss you most of all.
  14. Zany Brainy.  A toy story devoted to stocking only toys with educational value?  Talk about a concept designed to inspire righteous awe in parents and dread in children!  Not that the store didn't carry some toys that were actually fun to play with - those wood train sets that reliably enthrall toddler-aged boys, for instance.  But most of the toys - stacking rings, musical instruments, pull toys - were too old-fashioned to appeal to today's youngest generation.  Plus everything cost at least $25, at a time when you could buy the game Monopoly at that "Other Toy Store" for, like, $5.  Which probably explains why this store went belly up: in the end, fickle children will inevitably choose cheap Star Wars action figures over wooden peg toys, Eyewitness books, and even dolls with historically accurate backstories.  And though it's tempting to blame them for their lack of maturity, we all know we were the same way when we were kids too.

6/19/2015

Book Look - The Maid's Version, by Daniel Woodrell


Don't be fooled by the modest length of this novella. This is no light read; rather, it's as dense as a Christmas pudding, stuffed to groaning with sweetmeats and pickled things and familiar but unsettling tokens, then drowned in something bitterly alcholic and set recklessly ablaze for our consumption.

The book's synopsis seems to promise a work of Southern noir, an expose of the mysteries and secrets surrounding a horrific 1920s dance hall fire that devastates a small, insular southern town. But this book is character- rather than plot-driven, an expose not so much of - a crime? an accident? an act of love? an act of vengence? - as an exploration of how complex prejudices, motivations, and relationships within a community spin a web so tangled and inescapable that a tug upon one strand has unforeseeable and often tragic consequences upon the whole.

Before too many pages have passed, the alert reader will realize that Woodrell isn't like other storytellers. One becomes used to authors "tidying" their material - arranging events in chronological order, emphasizing important details, omitting insignificant events - the better to aid their readers' comprehension. Real life, in contrast, is anything but tidy: information gets dispersed erratically, if at all; critical details are omitted or pass unrecognized; and distracting red herrings abound. Woodrell's storytelling technique mimics this latter style, which I gather some readers have found off-putting but which I found fascinating. The result is that one is constantly having to cast aside preconceived notions, question biases, and reevaluate assumptions.

All of which makes this dense going, but well worth the labor if you're willing to set aside your preconceived notions about what this book "should be" - a formulaic Southern gothic - and accept it for what it is - a much more genuine, and in many ways infinitely more tragic, exploration of the tangled webs - spun by generations of poverty, pride, aspiration, humilitation, hope, despair, class, race, love and loss - that our untidy, unruly human hearts inevitably weave.