Ecosystem Research: pH, gH, kH.

I’ve been doing some research for something I am writing, and it became apparent that I needed to have a bit more in depth knowledge about ecosystems and so on. So I set about starting a planted aquarium where I could add ammonia and feed the plants through that process. The ‘why’ of it is simply research.

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In doing this, I went out, got a tank, etc, and of course everyone assumes I’m going to put fish in it. The idea of simply having plants in a tank of water hardly seems of worth to pet shop owners that sell aquariums, but I have my reasons.

Now, for those of you new to aquariums, there are things like pH you have to monitor, and if you’re on Earth instead of snooping from a distant planet or spaceship, you’ll need to understand that the nitrogen cycle must be started. Plants need food to create oxygen and carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. All the guides on this, as you would expect, tend toward having fish in the aquarium mainly so that they can poo, but it can be done with household ammonia. If I were planning to put fish in the tank, I’d probably start the cycle with ammonia anyway, particularly after what I have learned so far.

What I found was that my tank’s pH was 8.4, which is extraordinarily high and bad for fish – 7.8 is the high end of where plants are fine except, perhaps, some plants I am unfamiliar with. 6.5, by the way, is the low end.

So now, the trick is to reduce the pH. As a novice at this – thus the research – I go, get some aquarium stuff to lower the pH, and try it out. No dice. So rather than spend a bunch of money, try vinegar. No effect. Check the input water and find a high pH – aha! Check the filter on that tap, aha! Full of gunk. Address, partial water changes, repeat.

See, what most experienced people don’t talk about to novices is kH – carbonate hardness. The carbonates act as a buffer against the acid, and a high kH means that there is less likely to be a pH swing since addition of acidic content simply can make a high kH aquarium giggle like a pleased young mermaid. And this was the real issue I was dealing with.

And then on top of all of this, there is the general hardness (gH) which has to do with magnesium and calcium ions in the water. When aquarium fish are said to enjoy ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ water, this is a reference to gH.

A week ago, I knew none of this. But the interrelations in the ecosystem with such basic chemistry are exactly why I’m doing the research – pH, kH and gH form a triad related to the nitrogen cycle in an ecosystem, so already this is a worthwhile endeavor.

It also gets you thinking about other things when you sit in your writing area. It makes you think about people, and how they can have their own pH, kH and gH. And that is an even more derivative thought worthy of exploring in quiet moments in the writing area.

What A Strange World (1 of i)

BartMakeABetterWorldTo say that 2020 has been a strange year so far would be seen by most as the understatement of the year, and yet everything that has happened has been somewhat predictable. In fact, articles written in the 1990s coming forward predicted much of it, from the pandemics to the civil unrest world wide.

I could hunt for the articles online, but it’s too much trouble for a simple blog post. And, of course, we are rife with content created on predicting the future – most myopically of the near future because people want to feel comfortable about tomorrow when they are uncertain of today.

There were times I wanted to write things here about the present day, but there are more than sufficient monkeys with typewriters covering the spectrum of fear to fact. Instead, I began focusing on the background of a universe behind some of my writing that I hope to publish someday. As someone trying to do this, I will say it’s difficult to do better than what is actually happening, but at the core it’s pretty interesting so I’ll write a bit about that. After all, I haven’t published anything here for a while.

Imagining A World

mirror_universeThis is difficult for me, particularly since I measure what I’m trying to do by writing giants who have developed worlds that have become so long established that they are accepted as a backdrop to anything.

The modern elves and orcs owe much to the backdrop of J.R.R. Tolkien, as an example, and the amount of background he did was staggering. Granted, it might take him 3 pages to describe a wall, which made movies more palatable to people who can’t read anything longer than a tweet, but that level of details shows not just through his popular published works but into his less popular works – for example, the Silmarillion (Bonus: Silmarillion is free for the Kindle on Amazon at the time of this writing).

The trouble I have had with imagining this ‘new world’ has been hard for me because I’m inundated by information everyday, from the meaningless and trivial to global events no longer written as much by true journalists (just the facts) but by unrepentant opinionated writers or performers. We can argue that everything is biased, which is generally used as a binary argument (either/or), when in fact it points out that there is an issue of degree.

The trouble with the degree having increased is that the world becomes more and more narrow based on the narratives imposed across the global population – which sounds nefarious, but by itself isn’t since it is the way it has always been. Again, it’s a matter of increased degree.

And therefore, there is less space within which to imagine. So the answer is to stop watching what people choose to show us of the world and instead to seek out what we wish to see of the world. It sounds simple enough but when all the information you see is based on what is available where you are, what algorithms control it, and whether someone doesn’t want you to see it, things can get messy.

Factor in personal age, where you’re used to seeing the world in certain ways… it gets tough.

Having to throw all these things out is difficult, to say the least. To imagine a world is to re-imagine your world, and to re-imagine your world means throwing out everything so that you have the clear space for something.

And having thought through all of that, having written it, I cannot help but wonder if this should also be true of the world we know.

Fractured Systems

Berlin WallWith the pandemic of Covid-19 weaving it’s strains around the world, I had gotten to a level of introversion that I found deeply satisfying. I wrote a lot, published little, and enjoyed the government endorsed need to be by myself.

Then, in Minnesota, something happened. A man who was already restrained died under the weight of police officers, a spark among the fumes of gasoline that has soaked the United States for some time. Every day since then has been rife with disturbing news from my country of birth, the country I served, the country that I swore an Oath of Enlistment to.

And for me, it’s all very complicated because I have spent as much time in the United States as out. In some ways I envy those who have a relatively smaller view of the world deposited through flat screens within the United States, in some ways I am frustrated by them, but I always felt a certain kinship with all but the most ignorant who, sadly, I found I was meeting with increasing frequency. It’s possible it was the same frequency and that my tolerance was decreasing, I cannot know for sure. I never thought to keep statistics.

There’s a side of me that relishes the law and order of the United States, but then, I’ve found too that the law and order seems to run in the face of ethics. The banks that bet on bad mortgages, as an example, were never punished and that is something that I never could comprehend. To me, that seemed unAmerican, but then, it too seemed too American. With well spoken and written friends on either side of the political fences, I found myself negotiating away pieces of myself. I found myself at odds with a professor of African studies in Canada, a long time relationship, because his views left no room for oxygen in the room for me, and I found myself at odds with others in similar fashion.

At heart, I’m what Heinlein coined ‘a rational anarchist’ as Professor de La Paz in, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”:

“A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world . . . aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure.”

I know that truth is not only relative, it has an expiration date – what is true today is not always true tomorrow from the same vantage and can only remain true tomorrow, forever, if that vantage orbits that truth… and if there were only one truth, that would be enough, but there are uncountable amounts of truths running into each other with the manic dismay of Brownian motion.

So I look at the United States now – there is no excuse for most of what everyone is angry about, but there is explanation here and there. The peaceful protests are for the best, the violent protest a political football that various teams spike as their own or strategically as their opposition.

The looting, I think, is a simple matter of self interest trumping the rules of society. A hungry man will earn bread where he can, beg for it if he must, and steal it if the other two do not suit him.

The means to earn in society, not just the United States, seems to have faltered, the begging comes at a cost, and so society already in disarray has members that go out and take regardless of society’s rules, opportunists operating outside the rules of society only because they cannot afford to change the rules of society to suit them as…for example… banks do.

Yet the underlying issues remain. It has echoed around the world with protests about it, and yet, there is more. There is more because this is a reaction to one part of a failed group of systems, there are others, and I wonder when the others will get similar reactions.

Cooking and Social Media

Ingredients for soupCooking is something that everyone around the world is doing more of as we hunker down during the Covid-19 epidemic, and some of us are good at it, some of us are good at taking pictures of it, and some of us are… not.

The same applies to social media.

A friend of mine – a smart person, a productive person, a kind person and a busy person – keeps sending me stuff on WhatsApp that I’ve already seen on Facebook. I told him this, and he told me he doesn’t like what he sees on Facebook.

In my opinion, the trouble he has is that he’s too kind to be more selective of his ingredients – he values the relationships more than what he gets out of them. This, as I said, is an opinion and says as much about me as it does about how I see him.

I am relentless in selecting my ingredients. When I’m actually cooking, I choose the ingredients I like (confirmation bias) best, but sometimes I have to make do with what I have.

With social media, I don’t have to make do with what I have. I don’t have to like what is offered to me, I can choose to spend my time toward creating what I like (confirmation bias), but… I can also choose the things I do not agree with that are also palatable to offer contrasts in the overall flavor.

Contrast makes things interesting. So I stand outside of what I like and don’t like and work toward an overall result – which is like cooking. I don’t particularly like onions, as an example, but I do like them in certain ways and so I choose my onions carefully.

So it is with dissenting opinion. No one actually likes dissenting opinion, but if we accept that our opinions are not who we are, and rather that we are the Chefs that use different ideas, trains of thought, and beliefs to come up with our own recipe – our own unique recipe – then we need dissenting opinion. It adds flavor, contrast – and ultimately, without flavor or contrast, the end result is boring.

Thus, when choosing a social media adventure, get some of the dissenting opinion in the mix, as well as the stuff you like.

Everything else? Toss out.

I would have gone with gardening, but weeds are things we fling out when gardening because a weed, by definition, has no value whereas good dissenting opinion does.

Choose Your Social Media Adventure

ChoicesWhen I was growing up, their were paperbacks where you chose your own adventure. You’d read a few paragraphs and the author would have you make a choice or roll dice to decide which part you would read next. As someone who grew up with much time to myself, I found myself ‘playing’ quite a few of these books and experimenting with things so that I could see the narrative twist.

Games at the time of this writing have become quite good at it.

It’s also what we do with social media. We make choices, decisions, whether consciously or not.

I play with it in what I once termed ‘Deep Writing’, but which I’ll now call ‘Deep Narrative Writing‘ because I think it suits it better and is less confusing than the tag for writing about deep learning (which some nutty people decided needed a tag other than ‘deep learning’).

The Conscious Choices

Everyone limits social media to a degree. It’s impossible to read everything, to consider every perspective, so we progress through our real world adventure by making choices. Some people are idiots, some are annoying, some are people we cannot stand for our own reasons, so we remove them from our networks.

Everyone also feeds their own confirmation bias to a degree as well – we pay attention to some people more than others, and this too is natural because to do anything, we have to decide quickly on how to progress.

The trouble is, invariably, what we ‘like’ is not what we ‘need’. Yet we do choose these (mis)adventures, and hopefully we learn things of value and also things that have no value if we have well developed critical thinking skills and a strong sense of self – a sense of self strong enough to have one’s own opinion that may not allow one to march in stride with the people whose arms are locked and marching down the information superhighway demanding, protesting, or believing what is best described as ‘nutty’.

I’m fairly certain everyone agrees so far on everything written – internalized, it should make some sort of sense. And yet everyone’s experience is different, and invariably, tribes form of like minds who… march down the information superhighway, demanding, protesting, and possibly believing something best described as ‘nutty’.

Somewhere in the not so distant past, whether something was nutty or not was decided by whether it was popular or not, which, if one pauses for just long enough to consider, is something best described as nutty.

Then we take sides and call each other nutty. Examples? Religions and politics are brilliant examples because every side believes that they are right.

Well, of course they are right. It would be unpopular to think otherwise, and therefore, people might describe that as ‘nutty’.

“You’re obviously right in what you think and believe as long as you agree with… me. Us.”, says everyone’s subconscious – the very definition of confirmation bias.

The Unconscious Choices

There’s an argument to be made that some of the conscious choices are for most people unconscious choices. By accident of the who, what, where and when of your birth, you may have grown up with a specific religion, grew up with a set of beliefs that shaped your politics, etc. This gets into the nature versus nurture debate to an extent if you drill down, but in the end it doesn’t matter. We all have similar biases.

That’s not what I’m writing about when I write of  the unconscious choice. I’m writing about the algorithms that shape what you see on the Internet, through social networks, search engines, and what you – simply put – simply like.

Search engines use algorithms to find what you’re looking for, and the key to them – the good search engines anyway – is knowing what you’re looking for. An example of this was while I was searching for television mounts in Trinidad and Tobago.

I wanted something that could hold a monitor 4 feet away from me. The trouble is most desks, including my desk which I do like, are 24 inches or less, which has the monitor too close for my liking with the bigger screen. I considered a wall mount, but I’m not a big fan of drilling into a wall when I may reorganize the space at any time. Shelving might be a good idea, but again – drilling. So, having never even seen a floor mounted television stand, I searched the internet for just that – not a stand with shelves, just a plain old floor mount stand that I could move wherever I wished and adjust as needed (something else to worry about with more permanent solutions)… and there it was on Amazon.com.

I didn’t originally know the right question to ask because I had to work through it. This is the failure of people who depend on only what they know asking only what they know about.

Then there are the algorithms across the internet which, because nothing is actually ‘free’ on the Internet, drives advertising revenues for websites (including social networks). So they record some information about you in the infamous cookies that no one has tasted, and they show you advertising based on what you view, as well as what other things on their collection of websites that you might enjoy. The downside of this is that it robs you of new experiences unless you try really hard – consciously – to explore. It’s gotten more difficult.

The social networks, though you have conscious choices of who or what you connect with, do not show you the choices. Facebook newsfeeds, as an example, would simply be unmanageable if you tried to keep up with everyone. So they, being ad-revenue based, guide you based on what you like, what you read, and you end up unconsciously in a cave of your own confirmation bias.

Cave? Yes, eventually, you find yourself walled in within something that Plato himself described in the Allegory of the Cave when the world was significantly simpler. In the age of social media, Cavafy’s “Walls” gains new meaning:

Walls, Constantine P. Cavafy

Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built great and high walls around me.

And now I sit here and despair.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;

for I had many things to do outside.
Ah why did I not pay attention when they were building the walls.

But I never heard any noise or sound of builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me from the outside world.

But What Can I Do?

Simply put, be aware of it and be critical of your own media. Where you find walls, you also have the capacity to insert windows and doors in that cavern the world has built for you.

Should you step outside, you may find the world an interesting place.

Within The Chrysalis

Vancouver Public Library - Central BranchMany of us are practicing social distancing at this time. We get updates from those in authority once or twice a day, and the rest of the information is largely derivative of that – from actual analysis, which is rare, to rampant speculation. We sit, surrounded by the walls of a home many of us have not had the opportunity to become intimate with. Our mini-vacations at home have become a long stay.

We tour our prisons from the inside, these systems that are not working as we expected as nations, these walls that are uncomfortably close for many as individuals.

In our solitude, or being stuck with the people we only were for a fraction of the day, some of us try to escape into the speculation and analysis rather than face what’s at home. It scares us at such a subconscious level that we don’t even know we’re doing it. We fill our time with things that aren’t necessarily good for us.

We think little of who we want to be, or who we should be.

Covid-19_zones_of_humanity

There are others with more pressing problems, like the poor in India who are walking home. In the attempts of states to quell the virus, borders have become locked down. People staying inside takes away from the lower rungs of the economy, the people you see on the street.

A few days ago I watched as someone tried to clean the windshield of a Range Rover at a light despite the lady driver not wanting it. He had her pegged, thinking that if he started she would feel obligated to give him something, but what he failed to realize is that the virus is larger than that feeling of obligation she may have had. He’s hustling to make a living, she’s hustling to get home virus-free.
Heavy Duty Silver Duct Tape - 5 Roll Multi Pack Industrial Lot – 30 Yards x 2 inch Wide – Large Bulk Value Pack of Grey Original Extra Strength, No Residue, All Weather. Tear by HandWe have people who, unprotected socioeconomically, are at greatest risk for contracting Covid-19. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Chief of Police rattled his saber when on the first of the month people were not practicing social distancing at banks and groceries, even threatening to close them down – but the systems in Trinidad and Tobago lag, pensioners need to cash cheques because the electronic system fails them. Sure, maybe it’s available, but that they don’t use it is a failure – a design problem. No one seems to think that the businesses bear responsibility here. Of course they do. At the cost of a roll of duct tape, they could have social distancing easily visible.

Some businesses do this. In an odd way, the lines of tape meant to separate us are the very thing that will allow us to re-connect beyond this virus.

TriageWe are shocked at triage throughout the world, where the limits of resources are stretched beyond capacity. Doctors in some places have made choices, in other places they will have to make choices. In the U.S., the silent triage of health insurance that has been happening has had a virus demonstrate the flaws in the system, particularly when the measures to slow the virus have taken jobs away.

Many are alone, unpaid in a global economy that requires it’s pound of flesh to simply stay alive. There will be more.

Those of us who are at home read all of this, staring at statistics that are implicitly flawed for a variety of reasons, as if staring at the clock will allow the pot to boil faster. The majority of us will get this virus, and how our body reacts will determine which stack of numbers we belong to – and the vast majority of us will be in the stack that will be mourning the loss of loved ones and friends afterwards. That’s the reality and, as realities go, it’s not very different from normal life except for one thing:

Why.

So to give them their best chance, to give ourselves our best chance, we stay within our chrysalis as individuals, as states, and eventually may realize the wringing of hands has no positive effect – in fact, it can simply spread anxiety – and we watch, for it is important for us to witness this and see how we need to change things – and we wait.

Drift

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
-Haruki Murakami

 

Eventually we will make our way out of our chrysalis as individuals and as states, and after that as a species.

Calm Down.

Throughout my social networks, well intentioned armchair epidemiologists pounce on every tidbit they find related to Covid-19, depositing them in my newsfeed with the same level of pride a cat must feel when it drops a ravaged mouse for it’s owner. Some are recycled, some are not, and if it’s coming out of some countries, the media is so busy with the spin machine that they don’t seem to know at some point laundry needs to get into the dryer to be of use.

It’s tiring.

The truth is – whether accepted or not – is that we have experts at the World Health Organization and through governmental health agencies all over the world on this and they are doing all they can.

Another truth: We have doctors and nurses and other medically trained staff, even putting their own lives on the line as the work without appropriate protective gear. At great personal expense and risk, they are the front lines doing what they can in the face of a pandemic.

Another truth: They’re learning as they go. An update today may not be legitimate tomorrow, what may be true in China may not be true in Italy, may not be true in the U.S. All the experts are learning as they go.

Another truth: A vaccine has to go through trials, which is about a year. So we’re in this now, no vaccine will come out tomorrow. Or today. You can stop looking for updates on that. If a vaccine shows up, it will be experimental, and that comes with risks.

Another truth: Media and social media are rampant with all sorts of things, but unless it comes directly from a legitimate source, such as the World Health Organization, consider it speculation.

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” – Mark Twain

 

Do what the local authorities tell you to. Wash your hands. Don’t go around sticking things in your mouth. And wait.

Wait for the truths. Otherwise you’re just raising your anxiety and the anxiety of those around you.

Things To Do Online

Boredom definitionAs people get used to this ‘normal’ of being home, and as they run out of things to do and are tired of all the noise related to the pandemic (as opposed to the useful information from WHO and local health authorities)… well, there are things to do. Had this happened before the Internet… well… but it has happened after the Internet, so there’s so much more to do.

It’s amazingly easy to find things to do once you take a break from the social networks. They don’t enrich you. Only you enrich you.

I’ve broken it up into exploration and education… to me these things are not mutually exclusive, but to others…

Explore (Fun)

Maybe you don’t feel like exploring space with NASA and want something more grounded.

Try 500 online museums from around the world, courtesy Google, a stunning display of our world digitized.

You can go further and use Google’s Streetview to see other distant places on the planet, captured by Google’s nosy cameras.

Reading? Try the Gutenburg Project, where you can find all sorts of books that are legally free and yes, are available in e-reader formats.

I’ve been joking about people staring into their kitchens and not knowing what to do with them – which presents the opportunity for exploring recipes. Hit a search engine and see what you can find to cook.

Being a bit of a nerd myself, I sometimes explore Wikipedia and read up on random things as well. I’m that person that uses the ‘random page’ functionality.

Online Courses

Imagine 1,500 online courses you can take at no cost. You don’t need to. OpenCulture.com lists 1,500 online courses. Some come with completion certificates.

If you want to be more direct about it, here’s online courses by a few major institutions:

Networks such as LinkedIn and others have more professional certificates available as well, but those are (of course) at a cost.

 

The Hedgehog’s Hot Summer.

hedge-hog-fight-768Many of we humans that litter the planet aren’t used to this concept of ‘social distancing’. It will be tough for many; for people like me it is amazingly easy as we have been doing it for some time, for varying individual reasons.

You know us. Barely.

At best, you know us as well as we want you to know us, at worst, you don’t know us well enough to allow us to associate with you. And now, here you are, at home, working from home… if you have others at home, the rest of this may not benefit you. Or maybe it will. I don’t know.

There’s this guy – Arthur Schopenhauer – he died in 1860, long before I could meet him. He wrote about the Hedgehog Dilemma:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another…

…By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

What has happened around the world is, because of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the quills have become longer. They have become longer much more quickly. People are scared, and when people are scared in a time when pitchforks and torches aren’t easily accessible, they apparently buy toilet paper and produce and share memes, and it’s hard to argue which of the two is more pragmatic. It’s always handy to have toilet paper, and it’s always good to laugh a bit when things aren’t as nice as we would like.

I could write something about mediation here, but this sentence should suffice for people who understand what mediation means.

That being said, as people adjust to the new normal, those who live by themselves will find themselves alone. For some, this is disconcerting.algorithmsfear

Being faced with the prospect of not having the usual suspects as distractions, new distractions will arrive. Algorithms tell social media that people want to read more and more about Covid-19, and the reality is that we do largely know what we need to know already and the constant barrage of updates will become tiresome – but the algorithms have to be taught that.

Algorithms cannot replace fear, but they most certainly enable it.

Step 1 to your new solitude is to understand that, and limit exposing yourself and the others connected to you to a bunch of stuff that will simply burn everyone out. Less social media.

But what will you do? Ahh, it is a scary world, solitude, but it is ripe for use with books, with in home projects you never quite seem to get around to – and with sleep, with music, with movies… and yourself, perhaps the scariest thing in the world for most people. No matter where you go, though, there you are, and you can do things like reflect. Exercise. Think. Perhaps write, perhaps whatever, but the void you might feel can be bearable.

We know. We not only survive, we thrive this way – but it’s alien and scary for others. Yet, over the course of the coming year, at least for some months, it will be the new norm. And it can be ok if you let it.

Twisted

2010-04 Winnersh Dinton Pastures 027Systems upon conception start off trying to solve one problem. Slowly they grow, being twisted with as the solution to the problem is better understood… and as more problems are added.

We don’t get to see it every day; we only get to see the effects. Software projects probably contain the most dependable examples of this; where the time of twisted trees is counted in decades and even centuries, software projects twist brutally fast.

Those who have worked on them in often only get to see one part of the life cycle. Everyone wants to watch the project germinate, but eventually they become unwieldy trees unless they are kept in check, constantly.

It’s an odd metaphor for society, until you realize how much of society is now built on software, and until you realize everything we do with software is simply the culmination and implementation of all we have done before, all the successes we had seen, all the failures we have not, or refused to, or have chosen to ignore.

As we’re all seeing now… the world is quite different when something disruptive comes along…

One of the marks of maturity is the need for solitude: a city should not merely draw men together in many varied activities, but should permit each person to find, near at hand, moments of seclusion and peace.
– Lewis Mumford, “Planning for the Phases of Life”, The Urban Prospect: Essays (1968)