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The Ruby chain

“What you said was so confused that one could not tell whether it was nonsense or not.” —Wolfgang Pauli, to Lev Landau

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On Friday, November 22, 1963, the perennial loser Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the 35th president of the United States.  That Oswald was the assassin is a certainty—the evidence is overwhelming.  That Oswald acted alone is almost as certain.  The Santamaria Commission Report (2015) laid most people’s doubts to rest, and conspiracy buffs receded into the woodwork like the cockroaches they are.

Two days later, Oswald himself was shot and killed by Jack Ruby.  The story is well known.  Ruby was also a loser, despite his love of dogs.  He had wanted to spare the first lady the discomfort of an Oswald trial circus.  So on Sunday morning Ruby cashed in on his connections and friendships with local policemen to saunter unnoticed into the Dallas police headquarters, whip out a .38, and plug Oswald in the gut.  Good riddance.  Ruby was promptly taken into custody.

Of course, it was now Ruby’s turn to be killed.  On Tuesday, Nov. 26, Ruby died in his jail cell after ingesting a poisoned corned-beef sandwich.  The sandwich had been tainted by deli owner Karel Hartka, who “didn’t like the look” of Ruby.  He had been watching the Oswald prison transfer live on TV.  Witnesses say that when Ruby shot Oswald, Hartka giggled like a schoolgirl.

The Dallas police were, of course, raked over the coals.  First Oswald is killed, then his killer is killed?  The press wondered, is the DPD a bevy of incompetence?  Do they have their heads up their asses?

Hartka’s role in Ruby’s death wasn’t discovered until Saturday, Nov. 30, when Hartka himself was found dead in a ditch in Plano, Texas.  Two kids walking to school found Hartka’s naked body, covered in flies, being gnawed on by a coyote.  When Sherriff’s deputies arrived they had to shoot the coyote for fear of being rabid.  Tissue samples confirmed: no rabies.  Toxicology confirmed: Hartka had been drunk.  No one in Dallas had seen him since Thursday (Thanksgiving) when he had walked home (tipsy) from having dinner with friends.  An autopsy found that Hartka had been killed that Thursday by blunt trauma to the head.

The Ruby connection was easy to piece together.  One, Hartka owned the deli that had sent sandwiches to police headquarters.  (A lot of policemen were friends with Ruby, and they indulged his requests: booze, cigarettes, food, even a jail cell visit from his dog Sheba).  Two, witnesses said that Hartka himself had made the corned-beef sandwich, Ruby’s favorite.  The other sandwiches sent to DPD were either chicken salad or muffuletta.  Three, several plastic sandwich bags filled with arsenic were found in Hartka’s apartment, and indeed it was eventually shown that Ruby had died from arsenic poisoning.  Four, Hartka was a real wanker.

The Ruby Chain was born.

Things were getting weird.  Someone had killed Hartka, who had killed Ruby, who had killed Oswald, who had killed JFK.  What’s more, each death was separated by exactly two days.  It seemed ridiculous, but as the Hartka murder investigation proceeded into December, most people expected Hartka’s murderer to have already died on Saturday, Nov. 30.  You see, it fit the pattern.

And that was, indeed, found to be the case.  Hartka was killed on Thanksgiving night by Shirley Ansley, a schoolteacher from Norman, Oklahoma who was in town visiting her sister.  Ansley had just walked up to Hartka on the street and bashed his head in with a bowling trophy.  She had then somehow dragged Hartka (did she have help?) into her 1962 Cadillac Coupe Deville and driven to Plano, where she threw him in a ditch.  Why had she driven to Plano?  We may never know.  Why had she removed his clothes?  As predicted, Ansley herself had been murdered on Saturday, Nov. 30, in Linneus, Missouri, forcibly drowned in a bathtub.  Linneus at the time had a population of 450 people.

The Ruby Chain was proceeding apace, two days per death, but investigations can take longer.  Hartka’s death wasn’t connected to Ansley until mid-December.  Ansley’s death on a farm in bumfuck Missouri wasn’t solved until January, 1964.  By then, there were over 30 people in the Chain.  But as more murders were investigated and the concept of the Ruby Chain became more widely disseminated, law enforcement began to catch up.

One thing that helped in the early days was the knowledge that whoever killed someone in the Chain was slated to die exactly two days later.  So, let’s say you have a murder on Monday, connect the murder to person X, but then person X shows up dead for totally unrelated reasons on Wednesday.  Your cases may be part of the Ruby Chain!  You make some calls.  Eventually, it’s all worked out.

It’s easy for Ruby Chain novices to lose the thread of the narrative.  Here are the first twelve people on the chain, along with Oswald (patient zero) who is not considered part of the chain since he did not himself kill an assassin:

Assassin n killed by with in on
Oswald 0 Ruby gunshot Dallas, TX 11/24/63
Ruby 1 Hartka poison Dallas, TX 11/26/63
Hartka 2 Ansley blunt trauma Dallas, TX 11/28/63
Ansley 3 Ferrer drowning Linneus, MO 11/30/63
Ferrer 4 McCloud gunshot Topeka, KS 12/2/63
McCloud 5 Perry stabbing Denver, CO 12/4/63
Perry 6 Bosler vehicular Denver, CO 12/6/63
Bosler 7 Spino blunt trauma Fort Smith, AR 12/8/63
Spino 8 David gunshot Pine Bluff, AR 12/10/63
David 9 Daugherty gunshot Memphis, TN 12/12/63
Daugherty 10 Maitland stabbing Providence, RI 12/14/63
Maitland 11 Woodward gunshot New York, NY 12/16/63
Woodward 12 Gretz gunshot New York, NY 12/18/63

[The entire Chain is updated every two days, if possible, at RubyChain.org.  If this website is inaccessible consult your internet provider.  Some places like China or California block such websites routinely.]

The Chain (as of the writing of this narrative, in the year 2018) is presumed to have 9,935 assassins, although many have not been identified.  There are, of course, gaps.  The most significant (the so-called Big Gap) occurred in July of 1973 when the n = 1757 assassin, Martin Boone, was found murdered (with a pencil through his neck) in Nairobi, Kenya.  There, the Chain went cold.  The thread was not regained until June 7, 1974, when n = 1909 (Turan Guliyev) was gunned down on the streets of Shamkhor in the U.S.S.R. (currently Shamkir, Azerbaijan).  His killing had multiple witnesses, and the killer (Ghislaine Williams) took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Moscow, where she was murdered two days later by a U.S. marine lance corporal (Bob Boyd).  The unusual circumstances of these killings eventually led investigators back to the Ruby Chain.

The Big Gap is typical of all gaps in the Ruby Chain.  Whenever a killer was not apprehended immediately, and then managed to either (a) get behind the Iron Curtain or (b) fade into the woodwork of a desolate country and/or wilderness (Mauritania, anyone?) the trail would go cold.  Inevitably, though, the random-walk of Ruby Chain killers would allow investigators to regain the thread.

The United States was the first country to form an organized bureau for investigating the Ruby Chain; this body was at first called the Ruby Chain Investigative Task Force (RCITF) but was later renamed the Ruby Chain Bureau (RCB) in 1986.  Other countries jumped on board when demanded by circumstance.  For example, when the Chain first appeared in Mexico, Canada, and/or the Bahamas at various times in 1964, local task forces were set up as needed to cooperate with the RCITF.  No global Ruby Chain bureau was created until the UN formed the FIPR (Fédération Internationale de la Progression Ruby) in 1998.  The FIPR coordinated efforts between individual agencies like the RCB, Interpol, and the United Kingdom’s MI18.

Now, in the early days of the Chain, murderers were apprehended and taken into custody, even if they were known to be part of the Chain.  Such behavior may seem naïve in retrospect, but the implications of the Ruby Chain had yet to be understood.  The Amarillo Incident of 1965 made such implications obvious.

On Valentine’s Day in 1965, Chip Fortenberry (n = 224) shot Lois Graham (n = 223) during a sermon at Bell Avenue Baptist Church in Amarillo, TX.  Fortenberry was quickly apprehended; several of the parishioners were Sheriff’s deputies.  It turned out that Graham herself was a suspect in a previous murder from two days earlier, but the deputies had not noticed she was there in the church with them!  The fact that she was now killed, inexplicably, two days later, marked this as a suspected Ruby Chain murder, and the RCITF was called in.

Proactive steps were taken to “break the Chain”.  Fortenberry was placed in solitary confinement, in the basement of the Justice Center, with a week’s supply of food (10 boxes of Frosted Flakes, a bag of apples, several boxes of crackers, and a jar of peanut butter) and plenty of bottled water.  The cell was then triple-locked and the men with the three keys went on “road trips” in three different compass directions.  The Justice Center itself was heavily guarded, but each guard was handcuffed to a partner so that none could “sneak off” and, say, set fire to the building.

None of it mattered.  Fortenberry, along with 38 other people, died on Feb. 16 when Julián Cavallería (n = 225), an airline pilot, crashed a Lockheed Constellation filled with women’s dresses into the Amarillo Justice Center at an almost 70° angle.  Besides the victims on the ground, there were two other casualties: Cavallería’s co-pilot and flight engineer, both of whom Cavallería had shot mid-flight shortly after take-off from Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City.  Despite all precautions, the Ruby Chain was unbroken.

Ah, but what of Cavallería himself?  Remarkably (although predictably) Cavallería somehow bailed out of the plane before impact.  No one knows exactly how he managed this, but in any case Cavallería made good his escape and was, of course, killed on Feb. 18.  The Ruby Chain cannot be denied!

Other attempts to break the Chain met similar tragic results—tragic, in the sense of innocent life being lost.  Remember the Hermosillo Prison Fire of 1982?  What about the 1991 Sri Lankan Missile Strike?  Eventually, the consensus became: track the killers, but let them go.  Justice will take care of itself.  After all, it’s just assassins killing assassins.  Why all the hassle in trying to prevent any of it?  Let the fuckers die.

Of course, in today’s era of iPhone videography and ubiquitous social media, the idea of a Ruby Chain reality show was inevitable.  What if you could find living member N of the Chain, and follow them after their murder of N – 1, but before they’ve been killed by N + 1 … the possibilities are endless!  What drama!  What exciting TV!  Who can forget that sublime moment when the famous YouTuber Jesse Maddox interviewed Paul Stull (n = 9582) in a WalMart parking lot?

Maddox: Hey Paul, what’s it like to know you’re part of the Ruby Chain?

Stull: What?  What?

Maddox: America’s watching, Paul.  We know you killed Krissy Wall in Salt Lake.

Stull: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Maddox: America’s watching!  And since that was two days ago, well, you know, Paul, today’s the day you die!

Stull: Fuck off.

Maddox: In fact— [draws a .38, just like Ruby, and fires it point-blank at Stull.]

Stull: Ooooohhhhhh!

[Maddox, now n = 9583, runs quickly to his car off-camera and peels out of the parking lot]

Not surprisingly, the Ruby Chain Channel (RCC) is now the 4th most-watched channel in American households.

This is something that happened.

In some universe, this occurred.

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I usually agree with the Oscars’ choices for Best Picture.  Sure, there are some absurdities (The ArtistDriving Miss DaisyShakespeare in Love?) and some ridiculous snubs (how many people today think Ordinary People was better than both Raging Bull and The Elephant Man?  I didn’t think so.)  But this year was particularly strange to me: at least 4 of the nominated movies (Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards) were way, way better than the Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water.  And I don’t think of this as a case of splitting hairs, of deciding a winner among a field of equally strong contenders.

I actually think The Shape of Water was a bad movie.  As in, very bad.  As in, I would not recommend it to anyone.  As in, who was the demographic for this travesty?

What follows is heavily laden with spoilers, but I don’t care, since spoiling the movie might save you from having to see it.  The Shape of Water is basically a “love” story between a woman and a creature-from-the-black-lagoon-type fish person.  They fall in love, she helps him escape the clutches of the evil government, and then she dies.  The end.

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This is the fish guy from Hellboy, not The Shape of Water, but it doesn’t matter

Some people found the story inventive, or touching.  The production design was great, after all.  But don’t forget: the production design for Mars Attacks! was also great, and look what resulted.

Here, in no particular order, are the reasons that I hated The Shape of Water so much:

  1. The “love” story was ridiculous and juvenile. There’s no reason, given what we see in the movie, that either the woman or the fish-guy would realistically have fallen in love.  Love is about connecting intellectually, about communication, and commonalities.  At least, as an adult, that’s how I see love.  In the movie, however, the woman is mute, and it’s not even clear that the fish-guy is more intelligent than a chimpanzee.  So they never connect on any intellectual level; they never communicate, really, in any meaningful way.  And besides being victims, they don’t have any commonalities.  He’s a captive; she feels sorry for him; they share an egg; they want to fuck.  That’s pretty much it.  We don’t see them “falling in love”; we don’t see any reason for this woman to be attracted to a fish-guy.  Maybe there’s some back story about her being mute that would explain this, but we never get the back story.    She remains a cipher.  I honestly got the impression that she was just lonely, and for whatever reason, she was attracted to the fish-guy because he was not a white male.  Which brings me to:
  2. Every white male in the movie is bad. There is one decent white male, but he’s a Russian spy.  All the other white males are evil.  OK, I get it.  But this is very ham-handed.
  3. The side characters are a who’s who of oppression. The supporting cast of The Shape of Water are like a checklist of oppressed groups: there’s a disabled woman, a gay man, an African American woman with a crappy husband, and so forth.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, but mentioning an oppressive situation is different than addressing it.  The movie has the feel, often, of “Look! This guy is gay!  And it’s the 60’s, so it was tough on him!”  All these oppressed characters sprinkled in distract from the main point (such as it is) of woman/fish-man love.  They should have spent more time on the romance, to make it plausible, rather than make a checklist of 21st century causes.
  4. The score. Two hours of French accordion music.  Enough said.
  5. The lack of originality:
    1. Fishsticks looks exactly like the fish person in Hellboy, another del Toro movie, which incidentally was a better movie.
    2. The ending of The Shape of Water was exactly the same as the ending to Pan’s Labyrinth (idealistic dreamer is crushed by terrible circumstances and dies at the hands of an evil guy, but before dying retreats into a dream-like fantasy world.)
    3. Why is it that Amazon rainforest fauna always hide the cure to all our modern-day ills? Fishboy’s sweat secretions (or semen?) heal things in the same way that Sean Connery’s ants can cure cancer in Medicine Man.  Everybody loves the idea of mother nature always having a solution, but chemistry doesn’t work that way.  Natural doesn’t mean better, sorry.
  6. The mean-spirited ending. The whole movie might have been redeemed if Shrimpy had taken the moral high-ground at the end.  He could have healed the evil guy, regenerated the guy’s fingers.  Then, even if Tarter Sauce died, the ending would have been poignant and sad.  Instead, he just kills the guy, brutally, with a slash to the throat.  I guess that’s what audiences want, and the message is Violence is the answer!  Kill!  Kill!  So much for Fish Sauce being better than us.  Honestly, he seemed like a full grown chimp: smart, but incredibly dangerous and not ready for prime time.
  7. The terrible physics.  I’m sorry, you can’t fill up a bathroom with water.  Water would leak out from under the door, right?  And the door would break, right?  Absurd.
  8. The sex scene.  Just, no.  There’s a reason people have referred to this movie as Free Willy with bestiality.  I might be inclined to buy it, maybe, if there was any indication that Lobster Boy was self-aware, but there’s not.  Does he do anything that indicates he’s smarter than a chimp?  No?  Then she had sex with a chimp, basically.

OK.  I’m done.  I think I’ll go re-watch Hellboy 2.

 

Many Worlds Puzzle #7

What do these 12 states, and only these states, have in common?

Alaska

Florida

Idaho

Indiana

Kansas

Kentucky

Nebraska

North Dakota

Oregon

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

No god is perfect

I am an all-powerful being.

I write stories.  And in the worlds that I create, I am all powerful.  I can make planets, galaxies, universes unending.  I can bring forth, instantly, civilizations of staggering complexity.  I can create people as detailed as you like…fully-realized beings with thoughts as rich and varied as I can imagine.

I can destroy, too: I can, with a word, annihilate the world.  I can sweep away the minds of trillions of sentient beings, without so much as a moment’s hesitation.  To the worlds I create, I am a god.

Of course, in this world, I am flawed.  I can’t even fix a toaster.

Now, suppose there is a god that created this universe.  Suppose he is all-powerful, to us: suppose he can create or destroy with limitless power.  That does not mean he is all-powerful in the universe that he inhabits.

The logic is like this:

  1. Either a god exists wholly within the known, natural universe, or he does not.
  2. If he does, then he’s a natural being and bound by the laws of our universe. He’s therefore not all-powerful, since he cannot violate conservation of momentum, or the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, or what have you.
  3. If he does not exist wholly within the known, natural universe, then he’s supernatural.
  4. A supernatural god inhabits a higher-level universe than our own.
  5. A supernatural god may very well be all powerful with respect to a lower-level world or universe, in the way that I am all-powerful with respect to a novel I write.
  6. Be that as it may, there’s no reason or justification to think that such a god is all-powerful in the world-level in which he resides.

Another analogy may help.  It is known that Conway’s game of Life is Turing complete.  Therefore, given a sufficiently large Life grid (running on a sufficiently large computer) and given a sufficiently long time, sentience would most assuredly evolve in such a game.  But, even if it didn’t, given enough time and patience we could (existing, as we do, “outside” this Life universe) create Life structures that can think.  For example, we could “just” program all the pixels in our Life grid with ones and zeroes in such a way that the Life structures were isomorphic to our own brains, perhaps.  (Hey, I didn’t say it would be easy.)  Does that mean we’re smart?  Perhaps.  Does that make us perfect?  Fuck no.

To say that a god is all-powerful just because he is all-powerful to us makes as much sense as saying that Shakespeare is all-powerful because he’s all-powerful to Hamlet.  Hey Hamlet: your god ain’t a loving god, you don’t have free will, and god doesn’t have your back.

That “undiscovered country” is just the bargain bin at Barnes and Nobles.

I’m tired of people ascribing properties to higher-level supernatural beings of which, by definition, nothing can be known.  There’s no conceivable way that Hamlet could know anything at all about Shakespeare.  Similarly, even if there were a god or gods existing outside of our universe, there’s no way we could know anything about them.  At all.  Maybe some supreme benevolent being exists, sure.  Or maybe there’s instead an omnimalevolent creator.  Or maybe there’s just some lobster-eating sadist who kills people with tiny forks.  Who knows?

You certainly don’t.

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When sports decide which teams make the playoffs, there are often tiebreakers used to sort-out teams with identical records.  One of the most common tiebreakers is the “head-to-head” record.

Head-to-head record is a poor tiebreaker, especially compared with, say, strength of schedule.

Let’s NCAA basketball as an example.  Suppose Wake Forest (my alma mater) and Western Carolina (the school where I teach) both go 29-1 in the regular season.  Suppose Western Carolina’s only loss was to Mars Hill, and Wake Forest’s only loss was to Western Carolina.

Image result for western carolina basketball

The diehard “head-to-head” people would say “Western Carolina should be ranked higher!  They won the head-to-head matchup!”  But I say: what about the other 29 games?  Wake Forest plays in the ACC, and has multiple games against Duke, UNC, Miami, NC State…you get the picture.  Western Carolina has a much weaker schedule against the likes of Wofford, the Citadel, VMI, Chattanooga.  Sure, Wake Forest lost to Western Carolina, but in turn, Western Carolina lost to Mars Hill!  Which loss looks worse, hmm?

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The problem with head-to-head is that it’s only one data point.  Any team can lose a single game.  Maybe Wake Forest was missing their starting 5 due to the flu for that one game against Western Carolina.  (Clemson’s loss in football to Syracuse, earlier this year, was partially due to their starting quarterback being out).  A tie-breaker should be as broad as possible, and take the entire year into consideration.  This is especially true in basketball or baseball, when the long seasons make head-to-head records well-nigh meaningless.

I’m thinking about this now because college football is nearing its end for the year, and some arcane committee will have to decide who gets into the college football playoff and who stays out.  There are those who have complained that an undefeated Wisconsin team (currently #3) should be ranked higher.  But the Badgers have played an easy schedule, compared to, say, Auburn, who has faced the toughest road possible.  (Look at strength-of-schedule rankings here.)  In fact, I personally rank Auburn (10-2) higher than Wisconsin (12-0) for that very reason.  We only have 24 total data points here, but if Auburn and Wisconsin swapped schedules, then Auburn would be 12-0 easily and Wisconsin would be, at best, 7-5.

I can’t say it enough.  Head-to-head is a garbage tiebreaker.  It’s only one data point.  Strength-of-schedule incorporates literally dozens of data points and should always take precedence.

You Do It Wrong

I bid you, do not trip

On coattails, caught beneath

The bowers cool at noonday sun.

If you must go, I hope you run.

Hear then behind the frosted glass,

The voices dull, devoid of song.

If you find that love is hard, you do it wrong.

 

And there upon a hill

The toddlers play, the adults cry,

From sadness or from ice, I do not know.

Against a tombstone piles the snow.

There are no smiles,

We are not strong, but

If you find that love is hard, you do it wrong.

Image result for mount algonquin in winter

This past Monday I witnessed, as expected, a total eclipse of the Sun.

I didn’t even have to travel—I watched from a chair on my front lawn.  The town I live in (Sylva, NC) was in the path of the totality.  The weather was perfect, and I was lucky enough to witness a literally once-in-a-lifetime event.

Here’s a picture taken by a friend and fellow physicist, Dr. Louis Keiner of Coastal Carolina University:

louis eclipse.jpg

So what did I learn?

  • The world around me wasn’t as dark as I expected. Turn’s out, there not much difference between normal sunshine and a 50%-covered sunshine.  Both are blindingly bright.  You couldn’t even really tell anything was changing until maybe 15 minutes before totality happened.  Eventually things did get darker, and it happened very fast.  Right at totality it looked like sundown, and sunrise. Simultaneously.  It was glowing purple in the east, and glowing purple in the west.

 

  • It was smaller than you’d think. Most people don’t realize how small the Sun and/or Moon look in the sky.  To get an idea, hold your hand at arm’s length.  Look at the fingernail on your pinky finger.  That’s how big the Sun and Moon are in the sky: they subtend that much angle, and only that much.  Don’t believe me?  Try it next full moon.  Movies and TV shows vastly exaggerate how big the Sun and Moon appear.

 

  • As totality approached, the light got strange.   Normally, at dusk, the light fades away into reds and oranges.  But not this time: the light diminished, getting dimmer and dimmer, but stayed a warm yellow.  If you didn’t know an eclipse was approaching you might think instead some weird weather event was about to happen.

 

  • The totality was weird. It looked like a portal to Mordor had opened up, a gate to Hell, an angry black hole in the sky, a dimensional rift into another plane.  Imagine a perfectly round black hole of nothingness surrounded by tendrils of electric blue-white flames.  It didn’t look real.  It looked like fake CGI in the sky.  It looked exactly like Dr. Keiner’s picture, above.

 

  • I didn’t feel anything but awe. I didn’t feel connected to the universe, or to science, or to humanity, or to history.  The only emotion I felt was holy fucking shit.

 

  • The hype was worth it. It was incredible.  If you ever have a chance to see a total solar eclipse, jump at the opportunity.  You won’t be disappointed.  Unless, of course, it rains, which happened to some people I know.  Oops.  I guess, if it rains, there’s always this:

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