Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Are you controlling the computer or is it controlling you?

Microsoft XP isn't a barrel of laughs — except for one feature.

Microsoft engineers put some games into the operating system. Not games like "find the missing DLL" or "Where's the error in the registry," although those can give you hours of enjoyment. Not enjoyment, really, more like barely controllable rage.

No, these games are called games and they're actually games. Solitaire, battleship, a few other ones, and pinball.

Pinball games for computers are generally crummy. The ones for Mac OS X are worse than that; they seem to have been designed by apes with low self-esteem.

The Windows pinball game is pretty good. The physics and speed are good, meaning that the ball moves and bounces like a real ball. The other element is how fast the ball rolls down the playing field. Here too, Windows pinball is fine.

Consequently, it is possible to waste incredible amounts of time tapping the z and / keys to operate the flippers, aiming at targets, and generally keeping the ball in play.

But, what's going on here (other than putting your job or marriage in jeopardy)?

Are you really playing pinball? No. You are using a simulation of pinball. The simulation and the real thing are pretty similar. They involve moving your index fingers. On a real pinball machine you would be compelled to stand.

Most other computer or video games are also simulations. Most of the simulations are of activities you could not or would not engage in, like killing, crashing cars, flying fighter planes, and performing various sports.

These non-pinball games depend on manipulating symbols. "O" fires a missle, "X" is a kick to the head, and so on. All actions are mapped onto a controller with about a dozen controls. What are our brains actually doing?

Once the controls are memorized and become second nature, we translate an action into a push button, which changes values in the program and makes an action happen on the screen.

So we think the game is the simulation, while really, the simulation is happening in the brain.

Will humans eventually shun the real world and manipulate symbols, instead?

Or are we almost there?

Free drugs! Just drink a trillion glasses of water.

The Associated Press conducted an intensive study, discovering that the water supplies of many cities contain traces of pharmaceuticals.

This should click your skepticism meter up a few notches. The cities reviewed seem to get their water from different sources, which is problematic.

Take the drinking water in Southern Connecticut. For the most part is comes from reservoirs and is treated.

But let's back up.

Drugs end up in drinking water because people (and animals) take them and tiny amounts are eliminated in waste. This waste is then filtered, treated with chlorine, and pumped out. Now, if the effluent goes into the source of the water, as it might in Chicago, it seems plausible that drugs could be identified in drinking water.

We, on the other hand, get out water from reservoirs. This means our drug-containing waste is treated, sent to Long Island Sound, evaporates, and falls as rain. Some of the rain lands in the reservoirs, but a larger proportion seeps in after being filtered through organic materials in the forrest floor.
Reservoir water is then filtered through sand and activated carbon, chlorinated, and its acidity adjusted. Then it goes to your tap, picking up a little of whatever there is in the intervening pipes.

After going through this process, how many molecules of drugs, or drug metabolites could remain? By the way, there are plenty of other chemicals to ponder. Chlorine reacts with organic material to form trihalomethanes.

Then there's sodium, barium, strontium 90, lead, copper, and even a smidgen of uranium. The water is also tested for bacteria. All of these chemicals, and more, are regulated and cannot exceeed federal standards.

The water also may contain dozens of unregulated compounds, such as radon, chloroform, and a bunch of additional organic chemicals that result from reactions with chlorine.

At any rate, it seems unlikely that minute amounts of anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depressants, hormones, antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors, and the rest, end up in treated reservoir water.

And if undigested drugs end up in drinking water, they cannot be in copious amounts. Modern instruments can find parts per trillion or even less. It's probably possible to find almost anything in water if you look closely enough.

It is said that in every glass of water, there are a few molecules that passed through Napoleon. And also, presumably, from every other person. This claim has to do with the enormous number of molecules in a glass of water.

Turns out the number is something like 10 multiplied by itself 24 times. This is orders of magnitude larger than the number of sand grains on the world's beaches.
What does all of this mean?

If you want to worry about water, worry about bacteria, protozoans, and other microorganisms that have struck water systems in the past.