Budget Cuts: Making Wookies Bite Size

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Ewoks were never meant to exist.

The Return of the Jedi was suppose to have an epic Wookie battle but the movie was far over budget, and large Wookie costumes are pricey.
 

Cutting costs meant cutting the Wookie down to size, and thus was born the Ewok.

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It always seemed a bit weird that a group of Care Bears was able to defeat the Empire.

 

Even their name is tongue in cheek; Ewok is simply a word jumble of Wookie, but is slightly shorter in length.

 

The original script called for a planet of Wookies, and Chewbacca reuniting with his kin. Budgeting for dozens of Wookie costumes was too tall an order, so Ewoks were invented to save money.

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Budget constraints in the original Star Wars series led to a number of creative and cherished solutions.

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Luke Skywalker’s light saber was originally colored blue, but it was hard to distinguish from the blue background of Tatooine’s sky. The result? Luke is now known for his green lightsaber, not the blue one he was scripted to have.

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Perhaps the biggest secret about Star Wars is that according to George Lucas the entire story is told by R2D2 to the Keeper of the Whills one hundred years after the events being recounted.

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“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” isn’t referring to the events being far away from us or long ago from our time – it is R2 beginning to recite a tale from his past to the Keeper of the Whills.

No wonder it all starts with a Princess giving a message to R2; afterall, it is his story.

 

It’s All Relative: Shuffling the Deck

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Every time you shuffle a deck of cards their order is one that has never before, and will never again happen in the universe.

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There are over 80 unvigintillion ways a deck of cards to be ordered. I promise I didn’t make that word up! That’s an 8 with 67 zeroes after it.

 

If life ever seems repetitive just shuffle a deck of cards and know that you created something that has never before existed in the 13.8 billion year history of the universe.

 

Each shuffle seems ordinary and plain, but the odds of every card shuffling into their original “new deck” order is the same as any other arrangement. Likewise, the odds of getting a royal flush of spades in exact 10 through Ace order is exactly the same as getting 2,7,Jack,8,4 in mixed suits.

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One only SEEMS special because we have designated it so. The feeling we get upon seeing a royal flush on the board should be felt every time a hand is dealt because every hand is equally special (or ordinary depending on how you choose to view it).

 

Take a moment to think how odd it is for us to work this way. There is no difference between the worlds most exciting hand, the world’s most mind numbingly boring hand, or any hand in between these two extremes. Every deck has identical odds of existing.

 

The sensation we get when seeing a “great” board get played comes purely from our fabricated ideas. It is not an emotion forced upon us by the outside world, but a feeling we choose based upon our interpretation.

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This points to a deeper truth. How we feel at any given moment has nothing to do with outside circumstances. Our feelings and emotions are a result of our interpretation of reality, not reality itself. If we wish to interpret our day as a series of stressful and agitating events, then that is precisely what we will experience.

 

This is great news because it means we are in absolute control of how we feel about our lives, moment by moment, day by day we create our happiness or sadness, peace or anger, despair or hope.

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Usually, we think we are the victims of what unfolds. When something unexpected happens – the flight is cancelled – we feel we MUST have a negative feeling. I’ve been waiting for 2 hours and the flight gets cancelled, I get angry; the marriage falls apart, I get sad; the car cuts me off, I rage.

 

If only reality was dealt as expected we could be happy, but instead I got the wrong deck!

 

But all decks are equal. No deck is “good or evil”, it is not out to get you. You are out to get yourself! You choose how to interpret the hand you’re dealt.

 

She broke up with me. Now I’m sad. Is the universe forcing me to be sad? Or am I imposing it upon myself by means of how I CHOOSE to look at it.

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So the deck wasn’t shuffled in the order you expected it to be shuffled. The universe didn’t let me down, I let me down with my own expectations. No ordering of cards is better than any other.

 

We cannot control how the cards are ordered, but we need not control that. We are in complete control of how we perceive each shuffle. We define what makes us feel good or bad.

 

If ever you are frustrated, sad, angry, annoyed, or agitated just ask yourself “Am I required to feel this way? Who is creating this emotion, me or the outside world? What feeling would I like to feel?” From there, create an interpretation that leads to the emotion or results you desire.

 

If I hate my job and I focus on why I hate it, I am merely fostering that crappy feeling. If I change my interpretation, my focus, I can change my emotion. What parts of the job do I like? Could this be the perfect motivator for finding something better? Maybe billions of others have worse jobs, and mine isn’t so bad?

 

These are all interpretations, and they lead to vastly different emotions, different results, different experiences, and different futures.

 

What makes us human is our ability to consciously choose our reactions and emotions. Often we are not truly in control, just like any other animal is not in control.

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What makes us special is that we do not have to go with whatever our reflex is. In that moment I convince myself I have to be angry, even that I WANT to be angry. We get lost in the emotion and just roll with it instead of being truly human, being conscious, being aware, and stepping back, observing, consciously controlling our emotions to produce happiness and results.

 

We have the power to choose how we interpret our circumstances, and this tool is more powerful than any drug or any amount of money. With diligent focus and effort we can re-claim the right to see the world in whatever light is delightful and beneficial, instead of being a monkey that sticks with its default reaction.

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Are you a victim of what happens to you, or are you the creator of your experience? Both can be true. The choice is up to you.

 

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” -William Shakespeare

Dust in the Wind: A Hidden Miracle

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Dust blown from the Sahara Desert crosses the Atlantic Ocean to fertilize the Amazon rain forest.

Ah, so you’ve heard this one before! 

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Good because that’s not the interesting part.

Scientists have been stumped as to how it is that dust from one of the most nutrient poor places on Earth was acting as fertilizer.

If I pour sand on my garden it’s going to have a bad time; the Sahara Desert isn’t made of Miracle Grow, afterall.

Amazon luscious lake

New satellite data finally cracked this mystery. As it turns out, a tiny, nutrient rich bowl that makes up less than 1/500th of the Sahara Desert produces over half the dust blown to the Amazon.The other 99.8% of the Sahara Desert combined produces less dust than this tiny area.

This is like pouring a bowl of Lucky Charms and getting 99% marshmallows every time you pour a bowl. A miracle in its own right.

(Satellite image of sources of trans-Atlantic dust)

Africa dust map

The dust from the other 99.8% of the Sahara Desert is nutrient poor, and would do little to fertilize the Amazon, so how is it that 50% of the dust kicked across the Atlantic comes from just 0.2% of the Sahara Desert?

Bodélé Depression from space

The winds hitting this area, called the Bodele Depression, are unusually strong jet stream winds that are completely absent in the rest of the Sahara. A strange funneling effect happens on a massive scale as the jet stream gets squeezed through the Tibesti Mountains and Ennedi Massif upon entering the former plains of Mega-Chad Lake.

This causes massive amounts of nutrient rich sediments to get pushed high into the atmosphere and carried thousands of miles across the Atlantic.

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The Bodele Depression is a remnant of the world’s largest freshwater lake. Just a few thousand years ago Mega-Chad Lake was ~140,000 square miles; for comparison, Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake today, is just 32,000 square miles.

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Today all that remains of this enormous lake is Lake Chad. Soon even this whisper of a grander past will vanish – Lake Chad has shrunk by 95% in just the last 50 years. This is highly unfortunate as 30 million people rely on its water for drinking and irrigation.

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The Bodele Depression’s dried lake bed surface is composed of layer upon layer of the phosphorous, nitrogen, and iron rich remains of plankton. This plankton was deposited long before the lake existed; over 100 million years ago this depression was part of the ocean, and for millions of years plankton lived, died, and sank to the bottom to produce these nutrient rich layers.

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There is one more factor that makes this an incredibly serendipitous situation. Not only is the Bodele Depression nutrient rich, but it is rich in the exact nutrients that the Amazon needs.

Plants need numerous nutrients to grow; only by feeding them the select few they are short on can they benefit from it. If a plant is short on Manganese and you give it Iron you’re more likely to harm it, much less help it.

The Amazon rainforest’s soil has very little phosphorous. In fact, it has so little that phosphorous is the limiting factor in plant growth. Even though there are abundant amounts of other “fertilizers” the plants can’t grow once they hit the wall of depleted phosphorous.

Amazon Wildcat

Well it just so happens that the dust from the Bodele Depression is particularly rich in phosphorous. As it crosses the Atlantic the phosphorous dissolves into the water droplets that fall to the ground in the Amazon’s frequent downpours. The Amazon’s rain is literally a liquid fertilizer enriched with the exact ratio of nutrients that it needs.

What a tale indeed!

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Life living in an ancient ocean stored just the right ratio of nutrients for a rainforest thousands of miles away that wouldn’t exist for another 100 million years. Those nutrients then traverse an entire ocean due to a near impossible funneling of a jet stream through just the right geographic features. An event so improbable that it results in just 0.2% of the Sahara Desert producing more dust than the other 99.8%.

Truly remarkable.

Our Hidden Self

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Are we consciously aware of why we make the decisions we make?

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You’re sitting in the doctors office wondering which will take longer – the wait or the actual appointment – when a new patient walks in and drops their planner right in front of you, scattering numerous papers across the floor. You then make a choice: should I help pick up those papers or not.

Something like this has happened to everyone, so why did we choose the action (or inaction) that we choose in that moment?

If asked we’d confidently respond that the person reminded us of so and so, or that the boredom of waiting made you want to do anything other than just sit there, morals compelled you, you were in the middle of texting and didn’t want to lose the thought, etc, etc, etc.

These are all reasonable answers and would quickly settle the matter – clearly I made a conscious decision for reasons I’m well aware of.

However, cognitive scientists are a clever bunch, and when they did a similar experiment they had a trick up their sleeve.

In this same situation – sitting in a waiting room – experimenters would have an assistant walk into the room and “accidentally” drop a cup of pencils. For each person the environment was identical; same room, same chair placement, same person dropping pencils in the same spot. Identical down to the number of pencils, lighting, and even clothing and hairdo.

There was one single difference – on one side of the room was a computer monitor with a screensaver image. This image was either a picture of fish in an aquarium, a black screen, or a picture of money.

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Would the simple presence of these images affect our decision to pick up some dropped pencils?

After thousands of trials, the results of the black screen and the fish screen were statistically identical. They were a wash, they had zero impact on people. This is what we’d expect if subtle feng shui environment changes had no effect whatsoever on our decisions. So far so good…

Here’s where it gets weird.

When the money screensaver was displayed participants were significantly less likely to help pick up the pencils.

The money screensaver wasn’t just having an effect, it was THE reason, the only reason, some participants were deciding to help. In statistics “significantly” means that the variation of the data could not be explained by randomness or noise. A screensaver of money prevented people from helping who otherwise would have helped.

                     valentine heart shape made by dollars isolated

In the most literal of ways, this seemingly meaningless part of their environment made their decision for them; they did not have a choice in the matter.

When participants were asked WHY they did what they did, they gave the “reasons” you or I would cite: they had exams earlier, work, weather, who they’d “run into” earlier, what the secretary looked like, etc. Never, out of thousands of trials, did they EVER cite the screensaver as even a having any influence on their decision.

This effect – where a subtle cue in your environment controls your behaviors and feelings in a completely unconscious way – is called “priming”. It affects you, me, your co-workers, family, EVERYONE, every moment of every day.

A second, but slightly varied, experiment led to the same results.

Using the same screensavers participants were told that they would be getting acquainted with a colleague, and told to pull up two chairs for them to sit on. The average distance that participants chose to separate the chairs was: fish (32 in), blank (33 in), money (45 in).

Again, the fish and blank screensaver were statistically identical, but the money screen caused highly divergent results. Without our awareness the concept of money causes us to act in a more defensive fashion.

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The conclusion is best summarized by Daniel Kahneman in his encyclopedic psychology book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” (2011):

“The idea you should focus on, however, is that disbelief is not an option. The results are not made up, nor are they statistical flukes. You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you… You do not believe that these results apply to you because they don’t correspond to your conscious experience, but your conscious experience is largely a narrative manufactured after the fact by your System 2 “.

“Do these experiments demonstrate that we are completely at the mercy of whatever primes the environment provides at the moment? Of course not. The effects of primes are robust but not necessarily large. Among one hundred voters, only a few whose initial preferences were uncertain will vote differently if their precinct is located in a school rather than a church- but a few percent could tip an election [he's referring to an experiment I didn't cover here].”

50 Shades of Strange

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When you look at this image how do you feel?

Take a moment to feel your reaction. Without analyzing it ask yourself, do I like this image? Does it creep me out? Does it have a “vibe” to it? Is that vibe one you want to hug, or be cautious of?

Chances are your instinctual response to this photo is starkly different from, say, looking at a picture of a luscious green meadow with open blue skies.

Take a real moment to stop and observe: What does this image FEEL like.

The pattern this plant produces is generally rated as “not cuddly”, and 16% of the human population will become viscerally upset. You know that feeling when you just feel like gagging out of nowhere? Well 1 out of 6 people will get that feeling, or something similar, as an instinctual response to this image.

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This reaction is innate, and not related to cultural upbringing. It is something that exists deep inside us. Even if you are not that 1 out of 6 people there is a strong chance that this image makes you moderately uncomfortable. At the very least your initial gut reaction was something along the lines of “weeeeeeird”.

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After intense research it was discovered that the pattern of “clustered dots” in this image is what awakens this reflexive response. This effect has been called trypophobia because we humans can’t help but give everything a name. The 1 in 6 people who have a strong negative reaction to this image were found to show an identical reaction toward images of other organisms and images that presented a pattern of clustered dots.

Seems pretty random? Well the other organisms that display this same pattern are also classified as being among the most poisonous and venomous in the world, go figure!

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As it turns out, we have embedded in us an instinctive aversion to this pattern. The hypothesized reason is that this pattern has high contrast, and therefore easily catches the eye in natural settings. This makes the deadly creature more visible from a distance, which alerts you long before you get close. This is great for your survival: it prevents you from dying.

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However, it is also great for the deadly thing: it not only prevents it from dying in conflict with you, but also ensures that the creature can save energy and resources going at a casual “fuel efficient” pace through environments that are full of hungry animals.

Even though it benefits both parties, it benefits the deadly thing more. You have to waste energy taking a less preferred “detour” route to your destination while the deadly thing essentially gets to use the carpool lane everywhere it goes.

Those who had an urge to hug such creatures were less likely to pass on their genes. Those that had a gut sickening aversion were at a genetic advantage since they were less likely to perish before having offspring. This pattern is displayed by poisonous creatures throughout the globe, and our gut disgust is a trait we likely share with many other carnivorous animals.

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This begs the question: how much of who you are is your choice, and how much is at least mildly determined by our genetic heritage? If you were to walk into a room with an artificially rendered poster displaying this pattern your behavior would change. You would be more skittish, your body language would trend toward a “closed” protective stance – limbs held close to the body, arms crossed, legs together – and you would have no idea you were even doing it, much less WHY you were doing it. This is true for you, me, everyone.

There is a fascinating experiment where this exact effect is confirmed in a very amusing way, but that must be saved for another time.

That Twinkle In Your Eye

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Light takes up to 2.9 million years to travel from the Sun’s core to its surface.

It then travels the entire 93,000,000 miles (1 AU) to Earth in just 8 minutes and 19 seconds. This is pretty funky since the Sun’s core is “only” 430,000 miles from its surface.  

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For comparison, light from the Moon takes 1.278 seconds to travel the 240,000 mile distance to Earth. Granted, rocketing yourself Apollo style from the Earth to the Moon is equivalent to going halfway from the Sun’s surface to its core (the Sun is pretty big), but that’s still only 2.5 seconds compared to 2.9 million years, so… what gives?

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The Sun is so incredibly dense that it acts like a pinball machine covered in those spastic auto-bumpers. Our poor photon is a pinball that keeps running into other molecules and getting randomly bumped left, right, backwards, sideways, and every which way.  Astronomers call the phenomena the “drunkard’s walk” because the photon is randomly staggering until sheer probability gets it to the Sun’s surface.


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Most of the photons exiting the Sun are “only” 1,000 – 10,000 years old, but there are so many hundreds of trillions of photons entering your eyes every second that some of them were created 2.9 million years ago, others 100,000 years ago, and still more just 500 years ago.


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Every single second, of every single day of your life, photons enter your eye that were birthed during every significant moment in human history. A photon just entered your eye that was created the same moment that Augustus Caesar became the first emperor of Rome; that same second you saw a photon birthed the same moment that Christopher Columbus first spotted “India” (i.e. America); nearly simultaneously a photon entered your eye from the day that Abraham Lincoln was shot at the Ford’s Theatre.

 

Alongside those photons from human history was one from 2.9 million years ago – this photon was created before humans had evolved, we did not yet exist as a species. In fact, this photon was already 2.6 million years old when the first members of our species walked the African savanna. Another 300,000 years later this photon breached the Sun’s surface and soon hit your cornea.


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This happened to you today. It is not a thought experiment, it is one of the quirky realities of our universe.

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The universe is a strange place.

Flight MH17 and Repeating History: Russia Shot Down an Airliner in 1983

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A fact from awhile back!

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, a civilian passenger plane, was shot down over Eastern Ukraine yesterday; a similar but far more severe event happened 31 years ago, and it led to what is universally regarded as the closest the world ever came to total nuclear annihilation:

On September 26, 1983 the world as we know it almost ended.

Civilization was saved from mutual evisceration by a chance occurrence, and yet only 1 person on Earth knew for the next 10 years.

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On that morning the Soviet early warnings systems began whistling and flashing. The screen in front of Stanislov Petrov read “launch” and the reliability indicator flashed “highest”.

There was no doubt that the U.S. had launched a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Over the next 3 minutes the siren registered more and more missiles as would be expected in a surprise nuclear strike. The system upgraded the threat from “launch” to “missile strike”.

Petrov’s duty was to immediately report any alert, much less one as strong as this, to his superior officer. To not report is dereliction of duty and all soldiers and civilians are keenly aware that the consequences are brutally painful in the Soviet Union.

This particular incident happened in a period that Cold War historian’s agree is the point of highest tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Just 3 weeks prior the Soviet Union had shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, a civilian airliner, killing 269 people including 60 American citizens and Lawrence McDonald, a U.S. Congressman (R-GA).

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We’re currently worried about a civilian airliner shot down by Russian funded rebels over a warzone with 0 American deaths, so imagine the tension after a Soviet military jet shot down a civilian plane that killed a U.S. Congressman and 59 other Americans at the peak of the Cold War. The Soviets were justly paranoid with anticipation of a  heavy handed response, and here was a confirmed and escalating missile attack entering the Soviet Union from the U.S.

Soviet military leaders were positive a nuclear strike was coming. Former Soviet Generals alive today confirm that they were so fearful that they would have immediately launched a full retaliation if a threat was detected.

Had Petrov done his duty, picked up the phone, and told his superior officer what he was seeing there is no doubt that the Soviet Union would have launched literally thousands of nuclear missiles at the U.S., and the U.S. would then return the favor.

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Keep in mind that by 1983 nuclear weapons were literally thousands of times more powerful than the primitive nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Due to radiation New York, San Diego, L.A., Chicago and hundreds more cities would not be habitable to this day.

Historians agree that this incident was the closest the world ever came to a genuine nuclear apocalypse. Besides the immediate mayhem there’d be crop failure, nuclear winter, collapse of trade and stock markets, currency collapse; civilization as we currently know it was a phone call from collapse. But it gets even freakier.

Mr. Petrov himself says “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders.” He was the only officer who grew up as a civilian, and his hesitance, which he states was a fluke in and of itself, would not have existed for a soldier raised in the military.

Had any other officer been on duty the world we currently inhabit would be worse than a zombie apocalypse. People would watch The Walking Dead and say “I wish I lived in that paradise”.

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Next time you’re loathing your life’s circumstances just remember this story. Had a bad day? A stressful week where everything went wrong? Well at least we don’t live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland because we were a shift change from that reality on September 26, 1983.

Knowing what the world could look like lends overwhelming appreciation for what the world does look like, even if it’s not perfect.