Monday, April 29, 2019

Homes For Our Troops (04.28.19)

Rocking for a great cause... one of the most important things I get from my life as a musician. Photos by Kat.

As tends to be the case with me, my music performance schedule is pretty unpredictable. It's typical due to conflicting demands on my time that early in the year, I rarely am able to do live music shows in Second Life very often. As winter turns to spring, that often changes, and this year's been no exception. It's still rare that I accept shows on both days of a weekend, but in the case of a worthwhile charity, I find that I'll make the time regardless.

That's certainly the case with Homes For Our Troops, a non-profit charity for whom fundraising events are held in SL in which I've participated for a number of years. Frets Nirvana, a fellow SL musician, is the organizer of these events that are held on the last Sunday of every month throughout the year. He does a great job not only rallying the musical performers but also acting as the head cheerleader to inspire people to donate during the events, and often is the biggest benefactor, offering matching funds for donations.

I've said this before but it always bears repeating: I do not believe that war is the way for civilized people to settle differences. It's anachronistic and barbaric. My actual opinion of war is much lower than it even seems on the surface; in almost all cases going back thousands of years and remaining true today, the true causes of war are not what the people in charge of them use to justify them, and are simple acts of greed for land or other resources. The victims of war are rarely the people who declare conflict, but rather the civilians of the areas in which war takes place, and the military who fight on the orders of others. Many of them are honorable people who are fighting for causes they are told are worthy, and at least in America (and probably elsewhere), the soldiers and sailors and other personnel who are traumatized by war -- both physically and mentally -- are rarely offered the level of treatment and care they require upon finishing their service.

That's why despite being as anti-war as anyone you'll meet, I'm more than happy to help out by offering my time and money, and my ability to call attention to this cause. Homes For Our Troops has the specific mission to build and donate specially-adapted custom homes nationwide for severely injured post-9/11 veterans to enable them to rebuild their lives. Most of these veterans have sustained injuries including multiple limb amputations, partial or full paralysis, and/or severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). If you want to learn more about HFOT, the video below explains it well.

Me vs. Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame
As I mentioned, these fundraising events are held on the last Sunday of the month. When I've done them in the past, I typically get a pretty decent crowd. I knew going into last night's show, however, that my crowd appeal as an entertainer had some rather stiff competition. It seemed that everyone I knew -- literally everyone -- had planned ahead for this weekend to watch the final chapter in Marvel's Avengers film franchise, or in particular to the time slot of my show, were watching the latest episode of HBO's Game of Thrones. Obviously, that's fine with me; I know what it's like to be wrapped up in some kind of entertainment and to forego other things that I'd ordinarily be doing.

He was an American Zak. Photos by Kat.

Veterans Isle is the perfect place for the monthly Homes For Our Troops fundraising events. Thanks for your service, folks! Photos by Kat.

Despite that, we had some great people there at Veterans Isle supporting the cause and donating generously. In fact, by the time that the event's four live entertainers (Nina Rose Setner, myself, Neo Maximus Brandenburg, and Donn DeVore) wrapped up, L$125,000 was donated. that's somewhere around $500 USD, and while that won't be building any veteran a home on its own, it's a substantial amount to kick in to this cause for the month, and I'm happy to have been a part of it.

HFOT set list...
Pigs on the Wing -- Parts I & II (Pink Floyd)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
Perfect Day (Lou Reed)
Ripple (Grateful Dead)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Lucy’s (Girlpool)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
You’ve Got a Friend (Carole King)
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Steely Dan)
In My Time of Dying (Traditional)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to the show to help support this terrific cause!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Ladybird's Cellar (04.27.19)

People having fun at Ladybird's Cellar while I rock. Photos by Kat.

I just found myself laughing over something that angered me disproportionately earlier this morning. I got up and poured myself a steaming cup of coffee and then looked in the refrigerator and there was no milk to add to the coffee I'd just poured.


My God, you would have thought by my immediate reaction at the moment that I'd discovered that my best friend was dying. "WHY ME, GOD, WHY ME?" It's sort of ironic that the old phrase about overreacting to events in the past that you can't change is to "cry over spilt milk", and here I was stomping around my kitchen in my bathrobe early on a Sunday morning over this momentary lack of milk. The funny thing is that after going through a series of logistics in my head about showering, dressing, and heading to the store before my coffee cooled down, I ended up just taking a tentative sip of the sweetened-yet-black coffee, and while it wasn't my preferred manner of ingesting this beverage, it wasn't that bad. Not great, mind you, but drinkable.

So I took my cup of pitch black liquid upstairs -- poor me -- and sat down and, upon becoming a little more alert, realized how ridiculous it was for me to have determined that my brand new day had been completely ruined by this momentary lack of dairy product. So many of us lead such spoiled existences that the smallest thing can invoke our ire, or make us feel sorry for ourselves. If you look at every other aspect of my life apart from the missing milk, it's insane that I'd have let this bother me. I got up today in a beautiful area of the world, in a nice home, with a mostly healthy family, with a steady income. I have things to eat and drink. I don't live in a war zone. I have access to amazing technology and a mostly unrestricted flow of knowledge and information. I'm not a member of any race, gender, religion, nationality, or any other personal aspect that experiences discrimination on a daily basis. And, as I recalled moments later, I'd performed live music to a bunch of cool people just the day before. Life is really pretty great for a lot of people, myself included, and that brings us to what I sat down to write about while drinking my black coffee, which was my show at Ladybird's Cellar in Second Life.

Doing My Show
Here's something of note: my repertoire list for my Second Life shows is now well over 500 songs. That having been said, out of those 500+, there are really only a couple of hundred that I turn to on a regular basis. The reason is simple; some of the songs that I can play are not the songs I really like to play, or find that I'm very good at playing. There are a number of songs I've done once and never did again. There are others I played a lot early on, but eventually burned out on and they end up relegated to their spot in a pile of lyric sheets for years afterwards.

Regardless, I make sure of two things while planning my set: first, that I haven't done those songs at recent shows, to help my audience from hearing the same things over and over. Second, that the songs feel appropriate for the venue. That's a tricky thing, and it has to do with my own personal perception of the place I'm playing along with the tastes of the venue owner/management and the crowd who hangs out there. Third is also important: if my voice isn't behaving, I'm not going to do songs that are out of my singing range to avoid embarrassment on my behalf and displeasure on that of my listeners.

Ana is good at putting together artists who have a similar enough vibe that the audiences will want to stick around for multiple shows (in this case, myself, AM Forte, and SaraMarie Philly. Photos by Kat.

Peeping through an outside window at Ladybird's Cellar. Photos by Kat.

Me, doing my thing. Photos by Kat.

We had a great crowd and folks seemed to be having fun. I ask nothing more than that. Photos by Kat.

After some 12+ years of performing live music in SL, I've gotten pretty good at this whole process. It obviously can take a little while to get to know people and the venues they run, but I'm pretty good at determining which places are better for familiar songs versus newer stuff... for classic rock versus singer-songwriters versus indie music versus originals. Truth me told, it's usually a combination of all of the above, but I weigh the set list accordingly.

We had a terrific crowd at Ladybird's Cellar, a place that my friend Anastasia Yanwu opened last summer and has held a pretty steady schedule of shows at since. Because I got to know Ana through our mutual friend (and fellow musician) Sassy Nitely, I sometimes refer to her using one of Sassy's nicknames for her, which is Ana Banana. I think most Ana's have been Ana Banana from time to time in their lives. In any case, she's a sweet lady who really does a great job at making her venue have a nice, welcoming vibe, and is also good at promoting the shows there. Ana and I met in person at the Nashville SL Jam back in 2014, and she's every bit as friendly and kind in the flesh as she is in pixel form. We've become friends in the time period since then, and I hope to see her in person again sometime. I already know I'll be playing Ladybird's Cellar again; she's booked both me and Sassy for her one-year anniversary of the venue in August.

As a final note, I should add that while writing this blog, I took a short break and walked across the street and got milk and some bagels and cream cheese, so life is now back at its optimal level. It really always was, but now it's filled with luxury that I never fail to appreciate.

Ladybird's Cellar set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Big Empty (Stone Temple Pilots)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Fire and Rain (James Taylor)
Love Hurts (Everly Brothers)
If You Could Only See (Tonic)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Change (Tears for Fears)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Pecan Pie (Golden Smog)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)

Giant thanks to every single one of you who came to the show, with special hats off to the following who helped support it!
Langarhans Resident, Arcangelo Hellmann, AMFORTE Clarity, Raspbury Rearwin, Anakin Spark, Diana Renoir, Kat Claxton, Darcy Kingmaker, Asimia Heron, go2smoky Resident, TheaDee Resident, hynesyte Harbour, and the lovely owner of this fine venue, Anastasia Yanwu!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Serenity Gardens (04.22.19)

Another lovely evening at Serenity Gardens. Photos by Kat.

What does it mean to worry? It's interesting, because there are a bunch of different types of worry, and not all of them are bad. Some, in fact, are pretty damn important. But other kinds of worrying are some of the most counterproductive behavioral traits of humans. I should add that I've never met a person who didn't worry at all; it's only a matter of degrees, and how much you can recognize their internal strife from the outside. I don't think that there is such a thing as a "carefree" human being.

The basic definition of worry is a verb that means to "give way to anxiety or unease; allow one's mind to dwell on difficulty or troubles." Let's start with that. To give way. To allow. This definition makes it seems like worrying is a choice... and that is correct. More on that in while. Worry is also a noun that is defined as "a state of anxiety and uncertainty over actual or potential problems". Interesting.

Real Problems, Real Worries
Let's start with some of those actual problems. If you are in a low-income family and become aware that you might not have enough money to pay your rent or utility bills, that is a very legitimate reason to be worried. You anticipate the reality of being homeless, or hungry, or sitting in the dark with your power turned off. The upside of this negative emotion is that you will likely push yourself to do whatever you can to avoid the results that are the focus of your worries. Should people have to live their lives being inspired purely by fear? I'd like to think that wasn't the case, and yet looking at the amount of time we spend doing things we'd rather not be doing in order to avoid these potential pitfalls in life, it would seem that worry is one of the primary motivational aspects in modern life.

Worry can lead to positive results. Scared about dying young due to obesity? Perhaps you will figure out a way to lose weight through exercise and diet. Concerned about getting lung cancer? Maybe you'll be inspired to quit smoking. This type of worrying is applicable to things that to a large degree are under our control. Our decisions and actions can lead to the elimination of the problem, and the fear dissipates as the problem no longer merits the previous amount of mindshare. It is, in that regard, healthy to worry about things you can control.

What If You Can't Control the Problem?
Then it's a problem unto itself. If you get on a plane, and you're not capable of flying the plane, you are putting your fate in the hands of a stranger, in a mechanism you don't fully understand. This truly bothers some people. They know that logically and statistically, air travel is extremely safe, much more so than being on the freeway they drive on daily. But that doesn't stop them from being nervous on planes, or from avoiding air travel altogether.

How about worrying about another person? A teenage son stays out late without your awareness of where he is or what he's doing. A beloved relative is going through a serious physical illness. A spouse is having a depressive episode. It could be said that one of the most noble and important of human emotions is empathy, and it takes a good person to devote emotional energy toward someone other than themselves. Still, that type of worry is draining, and involves elements that you simply can't control 100%.

How about worrying about a thing that no one can change, like... death? Some people get very preoccupied that one way or another, at some point they will not be alive any more. They can try to postpone death, but they can't prevent it. Or, on a more philosophical level, there's the specific worry called existential dread that many people experience at some point in their lives... a dawning realization that their own lives seem pointless or meaningless, and that they almost certainly will never fulfill what they perceive to be their own potential.

Finally is the concept of the phobia... an extreme irrational fear that can lead to aversion and obsessive behavior. Phobias are diagnosable and treatable, but that doesn't mean that everyone actually seeks treatment, or has the means (financial or otherwise) to get the treatment they need. The pervasive aspects of things like social phobias and anxiety disorders affect a larger percentage of the populace than most people are aware of, and in severe cases, they are devastating to the affected person's life and livelihood.

What's The Solution?
There is no solution. The problem lies within the concept of worry as a negative behavior. Worry can be thought of instead as a motivator for a person to find ways to make their lives better. People can learn to take more control of their worrying, choosing not to dwell on it, or developing skills to divert the worry into action, or to delay the focus on the worry until a time of their choosing. All of this sounds pretty easy, and for a lot of people, it's simply not. But the one thing I'd advise is to be aware that you are never the only worried person around. It's everyone (sometimes worried about the same things, or things that wouldn't concern you in the slightest but are meaningful to them), and it's everywhere, and the more you know about in life, the more there is to worry about. It's up to you, for the most part, as to how much energy you put into the focus of your worries. Like the saying goes, the things you feed will undoubtedly grow. Try not to make yourself miserable.

Hey, How About that Show?
Oh yeah, I did a show. I worry about those, you know. Not in a stage fright way. I'm a very experienced performer who's been doing this shit since I was in middle school. But I worry that people won't come to the show, or that I won't put on as good of a show as I know I'm capable of doing. And yeah, I try and prevent those things from happening to some degree -- by properly promoting my show, by being warmed up and ready to play. But I still worry, because I am a human.

But I had no reason to be concerned about this particular show at Serenity Gardens. We had a decent crowd of cool people, and I've noticed that since beginning my impressive cutback in cigarette smoking (perchance to quit in the near future), the clarity of my singing voice has improved noticeably. Speaking of smoking, that's obviously been on my mind a lot (say, at this moment... 3:30PM, having had three cigs all day as opposed to my former 12-13 by now), so I put together a little mini-set of songs that all had lyrical mentions about smoking. As I told the audience, I prefer to confront my demons head-on. Smoke 'em if you got 'em!

Photo by Kat.

Photo by Kat.

I always like noting that each and every show I do, in SL or otherwise, I put a lot of energy into it, and wake up the next day having sweated about over a pound.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones)
*Your Song (Elton John)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
A Day in the Life (Beatles)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
On The Way Home (Buffalo Springfield)
Nobody Home (Pink Floyd)
Soul Kitchen (The Doors)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
It’s Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
After The Gold Rush (Neil Young)
It's Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Big thanks to every person who came out to the show, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
Kat Chauveau, xChazeHunterx Resident, Rusty Seisenbacher, Diana Renoir, Trouble Streeter, TheaDee Resident, Kat Claxton, Mavenn Resident, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Nicotine (Patch) Dreams: The Weirdest Side Effect of Quitting Smoking

You're going to have intense dreams if you use a nicotine patch. Does the upside outweigh the downside? Illustration by me.

I started smoking while still in high school when I was about 15, and unlike a lot of people, I never once tried to quit. I barely ever even considered it the entire time. But three things occurred in short order: my mom (who quit smoking several years ago) was diagnosed with COPD, and I found myself battling a case of bronchitis for the past few months that left me wheezing and gasping for air each night. The third thing was that my 50th birthday is quickly approaching, and if I was ever going to quit, all the writing on the wall said that this was the time.

I started in early March by halving the amount of cigarettes I smoked -- from a pack of 20 per day to about 10 -- simply by being more aware and conscious of my need for smoking. Each time I'd get up to have a smoke, I'd just ask myself if I really, really needed it. If the answer was no, I'd sit back down and distract myself for awhile until the momentary urge passed. This worked up to a point, but there's a name for someone who smokes 10 cigarettes a day... and that name is "a smoker". I wasn't making any more progress on my own, so when I finally saw my doctor to treat the bronchitis last Friday, I also told her about my smoking cessation efforts. I was happy to find that she was pleased with my efforts I'd made thus far (we smokers are more accustomed to being yelled at and guilt-tripped when talking to doctors about smoking), and she understood that the next steps would require a little help. Therefore, she prescribed a transdermal nicotine patch. Since I'd already brought down my smoking level by half, she started me at a "step 2" patch, which provides 14mg of nicotine through skin absorption.

These things have been part of my life since I was 15. They used to be called "Marlboro Lights" until a legal case made it clear that no type of cigarette is less dangerous than any other in terms of the likelihood of smokers developing a variety of deadly ailments as a result of smoking. By the way, they're now about $10/pack (up from under a dollar a pack when I was a kid), so this carton is around $100. Also, smoking is less socially acceptable among all age groups than ever before. So other than being expensive and making you unpopular, they'll kill you, all of which adds up to a pretty good reason to try and quit.

The way it works is pretty simple. It looks like a square or circular Band-Aid, with a plastic top and an adhesive backing (there are clear ones available, for people who feel better about that, I suppose). You pick an area with less hair like an upper arm, then put the patch on in the morning and leave it there for 24 hours. The way it works is fairly obvious; by giving your body a small but steady flow of nicotine throughout the day, it reduces the symptoms of physical nicotine addiction so that your desire to smoke is lessened. Eventually, you move to "step 3", which is only 7mg (less than the amount in one typical cigarette), and then if things go as planned, you leave nicotine and smoking behind forever.

Does the patch work? It certainly has for some people. I'm only a couple of days in, but I can already tell you that while wearing it, my ability to go longer and longer in between smokes is increasing... a good sign. I can also tell you that it does not completely remove the desire to smoke, much of which is based on habit rather than the actual addiction. I'm going to continue to slowly pare down my smoking rate; yesterday was a new record for me, with only seven cigarettes between waking at 6am and heading to bed at 11pm. I haven't noticed any side effects from the patch -- no skin irritation, no nausea -- except for one that I was told about beforehand but had to experience to really understand: nicotine patches give you incredibly intense dreams.

The patches themselves are pretty basic, and are available over the counter (no prescription required). You slap one on yourself in the morning, and leave it there until you slap another one on the next morning.

Why do Nicotine Patches Affect Your Dreams?
Dreams are pretty bizarre in and of themselves, and there are a number of theories as to what dreams are and how/why we experience them. We certainly know that dreaming seems to be essential to the health of all mammals. There are many theories as to the physiological and psychological origin of dreams.

A typical smoker does not ingest nicotine while sleeping for obvious reasons... you don't smoke while you sleep, or at least I hope you don't. But nicotine patches are designed to meter out the nicotine dose steadily over a 24-hour period, meaning you're getting just as much while you sleep as when you're awake, ostensibly to control the urge to smoke first thing in the morning (which, by the way, is still a goal I have yet to achieve). And therein lies this crazy side effect to wearing a nicotine patch all night: intense, vivid dreams. The scientific theory is that nicotine suppresses a type of brainwave that usually happen right before you go into REM (rapid eye movement), the stage at which you have dreams. The result is that you have a level of brain awareness that is more in line with what you experience while awake, and therein lies the problem.

What I've found is that the dreams are indeed intense. Are they always nightmares? Not specifically so, but the intensity of the imagery and basic plot lines made them feel nightmarish at the time. One big difference is that instead of the "walking through jello" aspect of slowness that often accompanies my dreams, there was none of that on the nicotine patch... things seemed much more in line from an aspect of time perception as it would in waking life, adding to the strangeness. Also, I've awakened several times each night after these dreams -- not something I usually do, as a really good sleeper -- and it took a little while each time to drift off again. I felt more alert during these moments of wakefulness than I usually would while coming out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night (though again, I was back asleep with no problems a few minutes later).

Memories... Light the Corners of my Mind
I'm a person who tends to remember his dreams... not in detail, but well enough to have some specific images in my head on most mornings when I awaken (which often fade quickly as the day progresses). One thing about nicotine patch dreams is that they seem much more memorable the next morning, in high detail. I will also state that I had that sensation of having "dreamed all night". It's not necessarily a good thing, and to a small degree, I feel slightly less well rested than I usually do.

Another note: some people have claimed that they've experienced lucid dreaming while sleeping with a nicotine patch. A lucid dream is one where you are aware that you're dreaming and can exert some degree of control in your dream state, be it by flying, transporting yourself into various places and situations, and so on. It's been super rare for me to experience this, and is usually very fleeting; even if I become aware that I'm dreaming, something happens in the dream and I lose that awareness and go back to viewing whatever my brain shows me. I have not had a lucid dream yet on the nicotine patch, but it's only been a couple of nights, so perhaps I have that to look forward to... sort of.

Is It Worth It?
Look, I'm not here to tell you what's good or bad for you, or what you need to prioritize. It would be insanely hypocritical for me, after 35 years as a steady smoker, to start proselytizing about how good it is to be a non-smoker -- even more so, since as of yet, I'm still a smoker. It will likely be months before I fully quit, assuming I'll be successful at this effort. But in that regard, while I was able to get down to 10-11 cigarettes a day on my own, the last couple of days on the patch, I've smoked less than any time before now, and I feel more confident that I can continue to reduce my smoking and eventually stop. That was literally unimaginable to me previously.

I'm happy with the way my smoking reduction and cessation efforts have gone so far. I have a ways to go, but with the patch and a newfound sense of optimism and confidence, I think I'm going to be successful at this... and I can deal with some weird dreams. After all, I'm a weird guy.

To me, a dream is simply what it is; a series of images and sensations that are not real. As an adult human being, I'm going to assume that you are capable of having dreams and not allowing them to entirely freak you out or ruin your life. I will likely get used to these new sensations that occur while I sleep with a nicotine patch on. At some point, perhaps in the next four to six months, I won't require the patch or the cigarettes. At that point, my quality of life will improve, and my chances of living to a reasonably old age increases by many times. While I enjoy smoking, I also enjoy living, and it's with that thought in mind that I consider this effort fully worthwhile, with weird dreams and all.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What is a black hole, and how are we seeing one for the first time?

This image is an actual photo of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, roughly 55 million light years away, and the black hole is so huge that it's about the size of our entire solar system, and is several billion times the mass of our sun. This is the first direct image of any black hole in human history.

I've been waiting for today for a long time. This is the day that humankind was able to see an actual image of a black hole for the very first time.

It's a big news story this morning that will probably fade from public consciousness pretty quickly, and that's a shame, in my opinion. It's far too easy to become immersed in things that, ultimately, are extremely temporary. It's not to say those things aren't important; each of our lives, while understandably meaningful to us, occupies an infinitesimal amount of time on a cosmic scale. I do understand how something that's so relatively far away, extraordinarily complex, and hard to comprehend can be easy to dismiss. But I also think that people are smarter than they realize, and that I may be able to help explain what a black hole is in a way that people might be able to grasp. We're going to do this without the incredible math and science aspects that probably cause most people to assume that they can't get it. I think they can.

This was the recorded livestream of the media announcement unveiling the first image of a black hole.

Gravity Is Everything
To understand the universe, you should have a basic idea about gravity. Everything that has mass -- you, me, a cat, a car, a banana, a guitar, a planet, a star -- has a force known as gravity. Gravity pulls things with mass or energy toward each other. Don't worry about how gravity works; just accept that it does. The more mass an object has, the greater the force of gravity it exhibits. The most massive thing near you right now is planet Earth, and the gravity it has pulls you down toward its center, which is why you're not floating away right now.

Earth is pretty big compared to you or me or a cat. But it's not very big compared to a lot of other things in the universe. The sun -- that star that is the basis for our solar system -- is so massive that a bunch of planets orbit around it for millions and millions of miles due to its gravity. The sun and every other star were actually made from gravity. Billions of years ago, there was a big cloud of gas -- mostly hydrogen -- that started gathering together in empty space (why? gravity!), and eventually there was so much mass in the middle that pressure caused the atoms of hydrogen to turn into helium through nuclear fusion. That made a big explosion, but the gravity of the mass was so great by then that this ball of exploding matter that we call plasma is held together in a ball. That's what a star is. It's a big nuclear explosion that keeps on exploding, often for billions of years, but the force of gravity keeps it together. Neat, huh?

Size Matters
Much like our planet, our sun seems pretty big. But again, as far as stars go, it's really not. There are stars that are much, much larger than our sun. Insanely large, in our way of thinking. There are stars that are so big that if they sat where our sun currently sits, the edge of the star would be where planet Saturn is now.

Back in 1915, an amazingly smart guy named Albert Einstein developed a scientific theory called general relativity. Not long afterwards, using the math that Einstein put together, other scientists (including a guy named Karl Schwarzschild) noted that at a certain point eventually known as a singularity, the equations reached infinity. They calculated that if a star of a certain size and mass were to truly exist, the math stated that its gravity would be so great that literally nothing that came within a certain distance from it could escape from it... not even light. Even time would cease to function in this area of immense mass based on these equations.

It's very difficult to even imagine such a concept, and frankly, no one thought that these things could exist in reality. It was just some interesting math. But then, through technological development, our ability to observe evidence of our surrounding universe increased dramatically. Like many scientific discoveries, the black hole wasn't confirmed through direct observation -- after all, how do you observe something that by definition you can't see? Instead, it was through observing the behavior of things close to the black hole... gas, dust, planets, stars... that showed the evidence of some phenomenon that acted as if there was an incredibly massive object there. Once the measurements were done, the effect of that mass met the definitions of a black hole. By the way, all this stuff is so relatively new that the term "black hole" wasn't in use until 1967.

If you want to learn more details about black holes, the Wikipedia article is very thorough.

How Do You See Something That You Can't See?
As a lover of science and space, I've been fascinated by the idea of the black hole my entire life. As someone who had a basic understanding of what a black hole was, I never actually expected to see a black hole. After all, no light comes from a black hole by definition. To be clear, by "light", I mean all forms of electromagnetic energy, not just visible light. No x-rays, no microwaves, no radio waves, no gamma rays. Nothing. How can one expect to "see" this thing?

I'd followed the observational experiments of scientists like Andrea Ghez, who used lasers to improve the optics of telescopes used take photos of the center of our galaxy and thereby was able to confirm the existence of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way where we live. You can see things like stars orbiting the black hole, watching them accelerate to insane speeds as they approach. But the thing they were orbiting remained a theoretical mystery of sorts.

Beginning a number of years ago, scientists around the world came up with a plan to produce an actual image of a black hole, but to do it, they'd need a telescope the size of the Earth. Seems impractical, so what they did was coordinate a global array of radio telescopes in many locations, and then combine the data they received individually into a single image. That image, released on April 10, 2019, is what you see at the top of this page.

This woman is Katie Bouman. She is standing behind stacks of hard drives that were used to collect the data from the many telescopes involved in imaging the black hole. Katie is the computer scientist who created the algorithm that allowed this project to happen.

What Am I Seeing?
This image is a picture made from aiming all of these radio telescopes at one region of space called the Messier 87 galaxy. A black hole doesn't only suck in all of the light and everything else that comes within a certain range. It also bends the light that's coming toward it from all directions. At the same time, there's something called an accretion disk that circles around it. This is gas and matter that is moving so fast due to the black hole's gravity that it becomes superheated and glows.

The dark spot in the middle of the image is a shadow of what's called the event horizon. The event horizon of a black hole is the spherical point in space from which the power of the black hole overwhelms everything else, and from where nothing can escape once it crosses that point. The light that you see around the shadow area is a combination of the light being bent around the black hole and the accretion disk of material around it. Derek Muller, who runs an excellent YouTube science channel called Veritasium, explains this in detail.

What's Inside of the Event Horizon?
I'd say that the two most important aspects of human nature are our compassion and our curiosity. It's difficult to accept that there are some things we may never know. It is, from our perspective today, quite possible that we will never know what's beyond the event horizon of a black hole. No information that passes it can come back out. Our best science says that even the laws of physics that govern everything else in the universe are not applicable inside the event horizon. We have no framework in which to understand what might happen there. Even concepts such as time and space might have drastically different meanings beyond the event horizon.

If humans are to ever understand this question, it almost certainly won't happen within the lifetimes of anyone living today. But perhaps that's okay. There are certain boundaries that, like it or not, we may need to accept are impermeable on a bi-directional basis, and we can just live with that... but it probably won't stop us from trying to figure it out anyway. We are, after all, apes who want to know it all.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Serenity Gardens (04.08.19)

I only was able to take one quick screen grab from last night's show at Serenity Gardens! I get spoiled by often having people like Kat, Triana, or Thea around to take pics for me. Anyway, this is better than nothing.

Hello blog readers! It's been awhile. How've you been? Oh wait, you can't answer me. This is a one-way street. I'm going to assume you've been well.

I won't lie; it's been a challenging time here in Claxtonville. Christina was in Washington from March 11-31 to support her family during a tough time. While she was away, my elderly mother managed to fall and break her kneecap while her husband was away on a trip, so that involved trips back and forth to the hospital (she's home now and improving). Immediately upon Christina's return, we all ended up getting sick with a nasty cold that she most likely acquired from her delightful little nieces and nephews. Just as a little icing on the cake of life, Sunday night had me swinging open my front door and misjudging the distance to my own kneecap... bam. Ow.

I promise, it's not all bad news. The smoking reduction effort that I began at the start of March is still going on just fine. I have very successfully gone from being a smoker of 20 or more cigarettes a day to being a smoker of 8-9 cigarettes a day. It's been super easy to halve my smoking amount. But going down below that level is going to take some extra effort. Since I'm planning to see a doctor soon anyway, I will likely ask about some help in smoking cessation.

The Depression Perspective
There's something I keep in mind while going through what I consider to be a rough time. It's not to minimize any of the very real aspects of difficulties that I and pretty much every human being go through from time to time, but one of the most challenging things for the human mind to perceive are the things that aren't there. Every day I look at my son, I keep in mind that he doesn't have a congenital defect, or a life-threatening illness. If that was the case, I'd do anything to have him be exactly as he is right now... perhaps a little aimless and not super motivated, but healthy and mostly happy. Every day I walk outside and look around at the relatively peaceful environment in which I live, I need to acknowledge that a lot of other people live in war zones, or places where they don't have basic life necessities like clean water, access to food and so on. My life is far from perfect, but it's so much closer to perfect than so many other people, it would be beyond reproach for me to constantly complain about the possibility of it being better than it already is.

Does that mean I should always just accept things for the way they are and give up on trying to make it better? No, of course not. Both for myself, my family, my friends, and the world at large, it's my belief that people have a responsibility to recognize areas that can be improved and strive toward making that happen. At the same time, immersing my thoughts in negativity doesn't help achieve that goal either. I suppose the balance that we all hope to find is being able to live in a world where we are both appreciative for the good things (with a solid awareness of how much worse it could be) and also focused on how life can be improved for ourselves and those around us.

Back to the Music
I'd last performed live music in Second Life on March 11, about a month ago. I'd had a scheduled show on March 25, but that was right when my mom was in the midst of her hospitalization, and it would have been impossible for me to dedicate the time and focus to do a show on that day, so I reluctantly had to cancel. Last night at Serenity Gardens marked my return after that unplanned hiatus. And, of course, I was taking the stage while fighting this cold, and with a bum knee.

Here's another example of how some folks simply don't get what it means to do a virtual show. "Who cares?" they opine. "It's not like you have to travel to the venue, lug around PA systems and amps, blah blah blah." That is true, yes. But I still have to do the fucking show! That involves singing and playing guitar, two very physical activities. It involves warm-up and practice before my show, and focus while I'm performing. None of these things are made easier when not in top physical condition.

Regardless, I wasn't about to cancel. My performances in Second Life are more rare now than at any time since I started doing them in 2006. That is a conscious choice for the most part, but for the few remaining shows I do, I feel a responsibility to my friends/fans, to the venues where I play, and to myself to follow through and be reliable in the times I've committed to play. That having been said, I didn't have high hopes for last night's show for all the reasons described above. Once I started playing, though, and became aware that my pitch and vocal quality and ability to play guitar seemed pretty good, my confidence level arose and I think the rest of the show went better than my expectations. We ended up having a really good crowd, and folks seemed to have a good time. I ask for nothing beyond that.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Strawberry Fields Forever (The Beatles)
Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
1979 (Smashing Pumpkins)
If I Had a Tail (Queens of the Stone Age)
Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles)
Don’t Let It Pass (Junip)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Hand In My Pocket (Alanis Morissette)
Roxanne (The Police)
Save It For Later (English Beat)

Big, big thanks to everyone who came out to the show, with a special tip of the Zak cap to the following who helped support it!
Rosie Arnaz, MyMaria Boucher, Pato Milo, Trouble Streeter, Diana Renoir, go2smoky Resident, Kat Chauveau, hynesyte Harbour, Aurelie Chenaux, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.