Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Pistol Packin' Mama

So I'm back, after a few days of holiday cheer, family togetherness, etc. It's tradition that someone (not me) will always whip out a harmonica and play a few tunes, never Christmas music. Pistol Packin' Mama is always a staple. Did I mention we live in a Western state? Also, there's always a festive Jello salad. And for some reason, many relatives independently decided it was too much trouble to decorate a tree this year, which didn't seem to detract from the holiday in the slightest.

The point is that people celebrate in their own ways, for their own reasons, regardless of what Bill O'Reilly and the suburban megachurch crowd think about it. They'd like to think they alone own Christmas and get to exclude everyone else. They'd love to enlist government and business in an aggressive effort to impose their peculiar beliefs on the rest of society. They'd be delighted if the phrase "Merry Christmas" became exclusively identified with religious fundamentalism. We're lucky they haven't succeeded yet.

The typical counterargument against the fundies is that lots of religions have festivals this time of year, so we ought to celebrate a generic "holiday season" that includes everyone. I'm not a religious person, and I don't find this argument compelling in the sense that any of the reasons given are actually true. On the other hand, having a party this time of year is an ancient tradition, and seems to reflect a deep-seated need in people. Even hardcore fundies, if pressed on the subject, would probably admit that the "real" date of Christmas would probably be some time in the spring, but you don't see them trying to move the date to May, do you?

I'm not much of a traditionalist, either, but I like the feeling of cultural continuity that comes with Christmas. We're a practical, utilitarian country, and this is a rare time of year when we do things, often silly and pointless things, simply because they've been done that way (more or less) for hundreds of years, or at least grandma did it that way, more or less. Say what you will about Christmas music, but this is the one time of year when music is something you do, not just something that you buy. And everyone knows the words. More or less.

If the holiday season does put you in the mood to ponder the infinite, you might enjoy what Wikipedia has to say about the subject. I'm genuinely curious what religious people think about the notion of transfinite numbers. Proof of "intelligent design"? Or the latest thing cooked up by the global commie liberal conspiracy, right up there with "evolution" and "the round earth"? Georg Cantor certainly felt there was a religious significance to them, but he also ended up in the funny farm. So I'm not sure that's strong evidence either way. I just find the subject fascinating, in an entirely non-mystical sense.

Transfinite numbers are great for joking about price bubbles in tech stocks or real estate, or the imagined winnings from baseless IP litigation, as in "TO TEH ALEPH NULL!!!" Although in the latter case, I think either infinitesimals, or hypercomplex numbers, or some combination of the two, would be far more useful.

While we're on the subject of geekish takes on the season, the Cassini probe flew past Titan again yesterday, and as usual the raw images are murky and unintelligible. So we have to wait for the experts to process them before we have any clue what we're looking at. I'm sure there's a really fun conspiracy theory in here somewhere.

And here's a story about killer asteroids. And even this grim topic has a (rather perverse) holiday connection. Also, the story mentions an upcoming, super-advanced 1.4 gigapixel -- yes, you read that right -- camera to be used on the asteroid hunt. Note that there are only 363 shopping days left until Christmas 2006, and gigapixel cameras make truly excellent stocking stuffers. Hint, hint.

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