Saturday, January 28, 2012

Followup: How Clever Are You?

In a previous post, I asked readers to figure out how a water tank level indicator can be made using just two of the four basic building blocks of all engineering, the Blokian Elements of Rock and String.

I would like to report that the following individuals submitted correct solutions to the problem:

Diana Boredom
Holly N. Likely
Phyllis Steen
Hugh Lyon Sachs
Orson Buggy
Lotta B. Essen
Barbara Seville
Isaiah Prayer
Payne N. Dias
Helen Highwater
Gladys Overwyth
C. Colin Backslash
Cody Pendant
Isabell Ringing
Noah Vale
Frieda Wales
Dave Reckoning
Paul Bearer
Warren Pease
Les Ismore
Ralph Oliver d'Fleur

However, I am unable to do so.  Because nobody with a really funny name managed to solve the problem.  In fact, only one reader was able to do so at all.  "Steve Davidson" (if that is his real name) is a member of the Inventor's Association of Western Australia, obviously highly intelligent, of average weight and height for an Australian, and an excellent driver.  Congratulations, Steve!

-     -     -

The solution? The following series of images explains how little more than rocks and string can be used to make an accurate water tank depth indicator.

Three rocks are connected by two pieces of string.  The bars, tree branches or pulleys over which the strings are looped are incidental to the way this depth gauge works, rather than fundamental.  Less friction there improves performance, but they aren't central to how this device works.

Two of the rocks are of roughly equal weight.  The third rock is much smaller than the other two.  Because the the two outer rocks together weigh more than the middle rock, they rest on the ground while the middle rock is suspended.

The right-hand rock is positioned inside a water tank.  The middle rock is often concealed inside a tube or pipe.  The smaller rock must be visible from the outside.

When water is placed in the tank, the right-hand rock gets submerged.  Under water, things weigh less.  The two outer rocks combined no longer weigh more than the middle rock.  It therefore falls.
As the submerged rock breaks the surface of the water, it starts to weigh more again.  At some point, its partly-submerged weight combined with the weight of the smaller rock will exactly equal the weight of the middle rock.  This forms a stable equilibrium.  By adjusting the length of the left-hand piece of string, the smaller rock can be positioned so that it exactly points to the level of water in the tank. It will then indicate the actual water level at all times as the tank is filled or emptied.

It is so simple that most of you are thinking, "Why didn't I think of that?"  While the rest of you are thinking, "I KNEW it was something like that!"

The first guy to really understand this business about things weighing less under water was so excited by his new understanding that in his eagerness to get back to his laboratory he forgot to put his pants on.  He ran all the way there in the nutty.  This is why today we have the saying, "he is too smart for his britches."

Archie of Syracuse (b. 287 BC) realized that for anything to be under water, it must push out of that space an equal of volume of water.  Therefore its weight is reduced by the equivalent weight of the displaced water.

Rocks take up space and are heavy; string keeps things connected.  Everything built by Human can be reduced to the four Blokian Elements: Rocks, Sticks, String and Glue.  If you understand the way these four concepts work, you can build anything.


Finally - Something Useful About Scorpions

My readers may be aware that I personally have little use for scorpions.  This peculiar little quirk of mine sometimes manifests itself in the act of stomping on scorpions with my boots.

Stomping on scorpions is often a futile act.  While it does annoy them somewhat, little else is usually accomplished.

But now, Research Engineers in China say there could be something useful we can learn from scorpions: how to minimize abrasive wear of engineered components.  In its essence, this paper hypothesizes that since scorpions live in sandy places that sometimes also are windy, this equates to scorpions being frequently sand-blasted.  And since there are very few news accounts of scorpions being killed by sand-blasting, they must have some secret to surviving sand-blasting attacks.

And because the researchers are Manufacturing Engineers and not Materials Engineers, the only possible reason that scorpions survive in sandy windy deserts must be the shape of their exoskeleton.  Another compelling reason to believe this is that the engineers have some really cool 3D laser scanning equipment that needs to be used.

Is this beginning to sound just a little Bogus to you, too?  Did it also occur to you as it occurred to me that scorpions survive sandstorms by - and this is just a crazy, wacky idea I had - Hiding?  Is it possible that scorpions, being alive (sort of), might be able to sometimes re-grow parts of their shell that get damaged or sand-blasted?

"No way," said the engineers.  "We've got this cool laser scanner that can resolve features down to 0.2 mm.  Plus we'll get to mess around with UV lights!  Scorpions are fluorescent, you know."

They make an excellent point.  As an Engineer, it's what I would have done, too.  But as a Scientist, I also have to look objectively at the data:

Notwithstanding the overly-optimistic conclusions of the researchers and that of the press, the data show that the presence of sub-millimeter grooves and ridges on a surface makes erosion worse under some conditions and better under others.  At best, if the direction of the abrading medium can be tightly controlled, manufacturing high-wear items with massively expensive tiny ridges could yield a slight extension of service life.

I knew it all along!  Damn scorpions are good for nothing.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Are You Your Brain?

Brent Spiner as Data.
© Paramount Pictures, "Fair Use"
under critical commentary. 
The 20th century TV show "Star Trek: The Next Revenue Generation" featured a walking talking iphone named Lieutenant Commander Data.  Ignoring for the moment that the noun "data" is a plural while there was (initially at least) only one android, a lot of airtime that would otherwise have been dead air was filled up exploring the question of whether Commander "Datum" was really a person, or just an invention.

True to the form of classic Science Fiction, the writers took a strongly Materialist view that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be someone's cell phone ringing.

No! Sorry - I meant it is therefore indistinguishable from a real duck.  In the early 20th century before handheld digital devices and their apps were even thought possible, this logic was irrefutable.  But by the time TV producers realized that there was money to be made in SciFi again, the question of what made us "us" was further muddied by at least the possibility of some very convincing technology.

Alan Turing, mathematician,
pioneer of Artificial Intelligence,
and an uncanny likeness of Brent Spiner.
No?  Well, you humans all look alike
to me. (oops!)
In Geekspeak, Lt Cmdr Data could pass the famous "Turing Test."  Ask some questions of an indeterminate entity and see if you can tell by its responses whether that entity is artificial or human. The argument was strongly put forward by Star Trek TNG that if someone's thoughts, reasoning, creativity, relationships, originality, memories and experiences doesn't make him a real person, then what does?

Fair enough.  If it works for Cmdr Data, then it should be good enough for you, too.  Are you your brain? Is your reasoning the real you?  Your past, kept alive in your memory, defines who you are? Limits you and encircles you, and forms the boundary conditions of your future?  Is who you are the sum of the opinions that you hold, the information that you can recall, the relationships you have and the people that you know or think you know?

A good number of my readers will answer, "Yes, that is who I am."  A minority will answer, "No, I am those things but also much more."  And a very small minority, if any, will say, "No, John.  I am not my brain, I am not my thoughts, I am not my past or my future.  I am ME."

"My brain is just something I use, unless it gets out of control and starts using me, assuming my identity, and asserting control."

"My thoughts and ideas are things I created, so how could they be who I am?  '... for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?'"

"My past is just some things that happened.  I am not limited or defined by them unless I choose to be.  And I realize that I have that choice."

"Pull harder! Never - stop resisting what is!"
To be mind-identified is in some ways to be trapped in thought.  Yes, there are worse things to be trapped in. Or are there?  Thinking can get you unstuck from a hole, a net or financial difficulty.  But how do you get free of thought?  By more thinking?

The ability to do so takes some searching and effort on your part.  I do not recommend pharmaceutical shortcuts, which in the end do nothing at all.  A starting point for you could be to forgive the day.  Every morning and every night, forgive the day. For everything that did or might go wrong, forgive the day. For everything that should have been but wasn't, forgive the day. For everything you are or aren't, and for what others are or ought to be but aren't, forgive the day. Forgive the past and forgive the future too, but make sure to forgive the only thing you ever really have. This day.  This is the beginning of what some teachers call "surrender," which is not the same as acquiescing to suffering or negativity.  It is merely accepting a situation as it is, as the first step towards changing it.

But to be free of mind-identification is to be able to use thought, memory, forecasting and reason with volition rather than to be controlled by them.  To be free of your past painful memories is the freedom to create a new future as well as to create new, liberating and empowering meanings for past events.  To be free of fretting about the future is the freedom from fear, worry, stress, and from the almost certain failure that those compulsive mental activities bring.

Being free from your mind's control is the freedom to chose happiness at any time, in any circumstances, while  still being able to respond to situations as necessary, plan as necessary, anticipate with pleasure the future, and enjoy the wonderful memories of the past. Freedom from the mind means peace.

It also means being able to learn, to grow, to be teachable like a child again, and to experience the wonder of discovery again. Being free from the mind's control means freedom from old thought patterns, assumptions, opinions, cemented old dogma, and ideas that no longer serve you so well.  It means your future is yours to create, and is not cast in rigid stone.

Freedom is the end of suffering, the end of worry, and the beginning of peace.  You can have this without giving up any of the good that your mind can do.

I am not my mind.  You are not your mind.  And that is a wonderful thing.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fighting for Survival

They say we only grow when we struggle.  I haven't weighed myself for a while, but according to that statement which I now elect to interpret literally, I must be about 400 pounds.

Summer is always the most difficult time of the year in the Outback.  While Minnesota loses about half its population each winter (most are later found hiding in Arizona), the Australian Bush is something you really want to avoid in the summer.  Which ironically is at the same time.  So basically, January through March, we're all screwed no matter where we live.

I made it back to The Shed this 100° F weekend and was barred at the door by three large Redback spiders.  But they were no match for a stick and a half a can of spray.

Do Aboriginal people go around dot-painting
all the lizards in this country, or what?
Then I discovered that a colony of ants had appropriated an old sleeping bag for their nest.  There were signs of mouse activity, and some poison bait had been taken, but no sign of the corpses.  I'll bet the ants know where they are.  And, strangely, my new box of tissues was completely empty.

No fewer that two weird lizards of the kind shown here were living in the bottom drawer of the night stand where I keep a few extra sheets and towels.  It's actually a Thick-Tailed Gecko or Barking Gecko (Underwoodisaurus milii).  The lizards, I mean - not the night stand, which used to be an antique until someone painted it green and gave it to me for free.  The mice had been in there, too.  It's where every last one of my tissues was found, torn up into neat little squares for some reason.  I really think mice must be OCD.
A Lizards' Paradise.

And in case you're wondering, Barking Geckos really do bark.  They made quite a fuss when I grabbed them with BBQ tongs, plopped them into a saucepan (which I knew by experience they could not climb out of), and removed them to the woodpile away from the Shed.

To top it off, a very large black scorpion was in the Shed, strutting around the sleeping area as though he owned the place.  I had my boots off and feet up, reading this exact bookwhen I saw it out of the corner of my eye.  I put my boots back on, went over, and stomped on it as hard as I could.  It got really angry and tried to ignore me.  Must be the female of the species (which is most likely Urodacus novaehollandiae, definitely ultra creepy but not really dangerous).

So then I stomped on it again, even harder. This time, some guts came out and it finally stopped being a scorpion.

Another polka-dotted lizard in a cardboard box for some reason.
The alert reader will have noticed that if I stomped "even harder" the second time, then I could not possibly have stomped "as hard as I could" the first time.  Because if that were true, then I would not likely have been able to stomp even harder within such a short time.  Did my muscles undergo a miraculous 10-second growth spurt?  OK, I admit to the inaccuracy.  The first time, I only stomped as hard as I thought I needed to.  Which in my defense was pretty damn hard, but obviously not hard enough.  I'm sorry.

Because, as the alert reader is also surely aware, this was not my first time stomping on a large scorpion in my shed with my boot.  I have a certain amount of experience doing this.  And I have to say that this latest one was by far the largest and hardest scorpion I have ever stomped on.

I also discovered that although its carapace appears dark, almost black under normal light, this kind of scorpion glows bright green under UV light.  How on earth did I discover that, you wonder?  Simple.  Being the science geek that I am, I carry a UV light around with me and look at interesting things with it from time to time, when I suspect that the items might be fluorescent.  Bark scorpions in my native Arizona (much smaller but much more dangerous than these) are widely known to be UV fluorescent, and this is actually the best wayto find and eradicate them.  But the bark scorpion is also pale yellow under normal light, virtually translucent in color, so it was unknown whether a black scorpion would also glow under UV.  Now we know that it does.  The contrast between its color under normal light versus under UV light is really astonishing!

Flyscreen judiciously applied prevents critters from
living inside furniture.
I will attempt to get photos of this phenomenon next time, but all the heat was too much for my good camera's battery.  Which brings up the point I started out trying to make:  in the summer, one must work extra hard to keep a place like the Shed from being taken over completely by the creatures of the Bush.  And, it's too darn hot to really do very much besides spray a bunch of insecticide all around and wait until winter to try anything more ambitious.

I did manage to do this one thing:  I added flyscreen mesh to my antique green nightstand to keep mice and lizards from making it their future home.

If you have a cabin, a shed, a beach house, vacation dwelling, a "granny flat" out back or even a guest bedroom you don't use very often, then I recommend the following precautions:
  • All food must be in sealed cans, glass jars, hard plastic bottles, or buckets with tight-fitting lids.  No food can be left in cardboard boxes or plastic bags.  They will be opened and used to support an entire ecosystem.  
  • All sheets, towels, clothing or fabrics must be stored in sealed plastic bins. 
  • The backs and bottoms of dressers, chests of drawers, wardrobes, etc. must be sealed using flyscreen material or thick plastic sheeting (and mice have been known to chew through both).  
  • Something has to be done about the beds and mattresses. But I haven't figured out what just yet.
  • Gaps, nooks, crevices, and voids in doors, walls, furniture, ceilings and appliances where vermin can nest should be filled with expanding foam or thoroughly sealed up. 
  • All trash must be removed upon vacating the premises (my biggest problem - I keep forgetting to do this).
  • No water must be left available.  Roaches can live a long time on apparently nothing, but cannot survive long without water.  Plug drains, empty anything containing water that isn't sealed, and shut off supplies. 

Finally, DO NOT feel sorry for them for even a moment.  They can, and should, survive just find outside where they belong.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Words Cannot Describe

Towards the terminal end of my first marriage an incident occurred which later caused me to explore words and language in an attempt to understand what the hell happened.

On a Saturday morning the three of us (including my son who was 9 at the time) ventured out to the Whitfords City shopping mall to accomplish several errands.  We were a little early, and the store we needed to visit was not yet open.  My wife said, "It's ten minutes to wait."  With the sounds of other shoppers all around and my well-documented high-frequency hearing loss that mainly affects speech decoding, what I heard was this: "It's ten minutes to EIGHT."  Boy, how could I have made that mistake?

This startled me because, if true, it would have meant that a temporal shift had occurred of some 60 minutes or so into the past.  I immediately looked at my watch, which on that day was the Wenger Standard Issue.  Looking at my watch is something I have always found to be both helpful and reassuring during temporal-shift  situations.

I discovered it was not actually 7:50 AM, but 8:45 AM.  So I said, "No, it's quarter to nine by my watch."

A number of minutes passed without further conversation or incident, until suddenly I realized I was now at the mall all by myself!  I looked all around, and my family was gone.  I went back to the parking lot where we had left the car, and it was gone, too.  So I did what any sane person would do.  I went to the food court, found a comfortable chair, and had myself a cheeseburger and an ice cream. Yup, there's nothing like a nutritious breakfast (and that wasn't).

A few hours later, She Who Must Not Be Named returned to find me sitting confused but otherwise content at a table in the food hall of the mall.  She had that look on her face.  The look that meant I had done something totally unforgivable, and that I was the most contemptible thing on the planet.

I still had no idea what had happened.

Nor did I find out until several weeks later during marriage counselling (what a waste of an hour THAT was!)  I learned why I had been left at the mall as a punishment.  And incidentally, why enjoying my punishment was  a reprehensible, despicable and also very naughty thing to have done.

She explained to the counselor that because I am clearly a moron she had tried to make me somehow comprehend that we had to wait ten minutes before the store opened ("ten to wait," not "ten to eight.")  And in response, she recounted, I had called her a bitch.  Right in front of everyone at the mall.

Now, why would I say a thing like that?  In the context of the situation, it doesn't even make sense.  To hear an insult and profanity instead of what I actually said could only mean she was consciously or unconsciously anticipating that I must someday say such a thing even though I had never done so before.  So what really happened?

No language, words or sentence is ever totally correct.  There is always something not quite right or not fully defined.  More words are always needed, no matter how carefully something is explained. Of all the languages, Mathematics comes the closest to being precise in everything it says.  But that is what I call a  Quantitative language (and there can be more than one), while English, Hindi, Japanese, and Hungarian are examples of what I call Qualitative languages.  They are used when discussing qualities, while some system of mathematics must be used to have a meaningful discussion about quantities.

Mathematics begins with some very simple assumptions and builds on them so that eventually, nearly any proposition expressed mathematically can be decided either true or not true, relative to the truth of the initial premises.  But even Mathematics has its limitations.  For example, the absolute truth of any statement is no more true than the initial assumptions.  The starting assumptions are very hard to prove, because what do you use to prove them with?  It's like determining how accurate a ruler is if all you have is one ruler.

Ultimately, the assumptions have to be demonstrated empirically.  For example, there is a quantity we call "one," and it exists empirically because you can see examples of things of which there are just "one."  Same with "two," "zero," etc.  Then, you can prove mathematically that if you put the one thing together with the two things then you get "three," and this "three" is identical to the number defined by some things of which there are empirically "three."  And so on.

Kurt Gödel at age 20
Another limitation exists, which nobody knew about for a long time.  It turns out that no system of mathematics can be constructed that is able to determine the validity of every possible proposition within that mathematical system.  In other words, no matter how "complete" you think your system of mathematics is, it will always be possible to propose a statement that can neither be proved or disproved.   Just as in Science, there will be untestable statements in mathematics.  This is called Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (or GIT for short).  He proved it (ironically if you ask me) in 1931 at age 25, much to the dismay of mathematicians who up until that point were feeling way too smug about the perfection of their art.

So any language is imperfect.  An obvious statement to some, a thunderbolt to others who will likely send me threatening emails in which they misconstrue everything I've said (thereby proving my point).  Information Theory (which by the way is NOT "just a theory") tells us that to describe something absolutely perfectly requires an infinite amount of data, whether bits of 1's and 0's, words, sounds, or mathematical scribblings.  But usually there comes a point where "close enough" is close enough.  We can shrink an image file down to a few kilobytes and it still more or less shows what we needed it to show.  With words, we have a far more effective means of maximizing the bandwidth, so to speak, of our voices, blogs and books.

Of course qualitative languages have the added disadvantage that when we discuss the qualities of things (good, bad, blue, hot, mine, Hungarian) these are almost always subjective judgements.  They are what each person decides they are.   So how is it even possible to communicate at all?  On its own, language - even mathematics - isn't enough.  One additional thing is needed to make communication possible.  The human brain.

In your brain there is a conceptual model of your world with language labels attached to all the various features.  It began to form as soon as your cells differentiated enough to make neurons that were capable of making synaptic connections.  Your internal model of the world is by no means perfect, and it never stops developing, improving, refining, or adapting.  Sometimes slowly, as you gradually get used to driving on the wrong side of the road, or rapidly, as you make an instant correction for a sudden cross-wind while riding a bike.

When I use a word, it obviously doesn't contain within its letters or sounds the entire meaning of the word or even ANY of the meaning (that would take far too much bandwidth and time).  Instead, it simply points you to a particular feature of your internal model of the world, like a hyperlink points to a web page.  That works if your model is similar enough to mine to have that feature, and it works even better if your version of the feature is pretty similar to the one I have.  In other words, if you and I have enough shared or common experience, we can communicate.  The more shared or common experience we have, the better we can communicate and the fewer words are needed.

Shared experiences are things you and I have personally done together.  Visiting the zoo.  Fighting the Ostrogoths.   Working at the same company.  Common experiences are things we have done separately, but which are largely the same.  We may have read the same book, visited the same cities, or once owned the same kind of car.

The internet analogy is really interesting for how inaccurate it is: You have a hyperlink on the screen of your computer, and it retrieves a web page that is outside on the internet that anyone can see, and of which everyone who is now accessing it sees the same version.  Language is the opposite.  I send you a hyperlink (a word) that links to a web page stored on your computer.  I have no idea what is stored on your computer, if anything.  I just have to hope that you have linked that word with the same page on your hard drive that I have it linked to on my hard drive. And that the pages are similar enough for what I am saying to make any sense to you.

Then if we, through ongoing exchange, detect a bit of confusion, we can compare versions of our models and argue about which one is correct.  If both people are willing to defer to the outside objective reality rather than insist on his or her own internal representation of reality as the correct one, then these conversations are productive and useful.  Even enjoyable to someone who loves to learn.  Because both participants usually learn something.

So, how can a day at the mall turn out so differently for two people who started out on the same trip?  Easy.  If they internally model the world differently,  every experience will mean something different to each person.  In my ex wife's model of the world, we might surmise that there is the belief that men are all jerks and women are victims unless they act angry all the time.  Well, it's one possibility: who can say for sure.

In my model of the world, people are generally friendly and just want to know what time it is.

When someone is stressed, feeling under attack, unhappy, or generally out of rapport with you, then regardless of anything you say, they will hear only what they are capable of hearing.  Regardless of anything you do, they will interpret it and make a meaning out of it in the way that most reinforces their own beliefs and assumptions.  It has nothing to do with you, and there is little you can do about it.

Knowing the extent to which that disease was rampant in the relationship, it is clear to me now that on that Saturday when I sat there at the mall by myself, eating a cheeseburger and wondering how I was going to get home, my marriage was already terminal.  It would soon be dead, smelling bad, and in need of a quick and comprehensive burial.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Do You Need Brains to Have Faith?

Bogus Religion and Bogus Science are remarkably similar.  Both are as easy to do as peeing on your shoe.  All it takes is to not pay much attention to what you are doing.

Make shit up, talk a bunch of crap, do whatever you feel like, and Presto!  Hypocrisy galore.  Or Pseudoscience galore.  Your choice.

Meanwhile, effective Religion, by which I mean a truly transformative, elevating experience both to the internal and the external life of the Human, requires far more brains than is popularly believed.  For example, to both a brainless god-botherer and a brainless atheist, the idea of Faith means just sitting around wishing for something to be.  It is held by those having no real understanding of Religion to be an entirely mental exercise.

I have always rejected this notion.  To me, when someone has the conviction of an untestable belief, rather than squint real hard while trying to think about it (or worse, try to convert someone else to your belief in order to feel validated), real Faith means going out and taking action.

Faith is entrepreneurial.  If your convictions don't drive you to innovate, then you don't really believe in them.  Faith means positive, decisive activity.  Do you think someone else going to do it?

Faith is adventurous and willing to try new things in pursuit of making the world a better place according to you.  You have as much right as anyone to decide what that means.

Faith is relentlessly creative, full of ideas, and free-thinking.  Faith is sometimes revolutionary, even radical, the voice in the wilderness hollering for change. Faith is the very Enemy of Conservatism.

Faith does not seek a return to an imaginary world that never existed to begin with.  Nor does it attempt to insinuate itself into the State.  It doesn't take a prophet to see that state-enforced religion leads to theocracy, tyranny, fundamentalism, eradication of freedom, slavery and descent into tribalism.

I happen to hold an untestable conviction that the democratic freedoms we now enjoy are a once-in-the-Universe opportunity for us to demonstrate through our choices just exactly what our real values are.  The choices must be between real, available alternatives rather than between complying with a law versus breaking a law.  If something is a sin to you, pray that it never becomes illegal!!!  Because then your non-sin will no longer reflect your deeper values, but will be little more than a lack of opportunity or a shallow desire not to be fined or imprisoned.  The future must therefore have far fewer laws, instead of the current trend we are following, a love-affair with laws as the purported solution to any problem, and an accelerating increase in their number, reach and restrictiveness. Where will it end?

If you think abortion is bad, then don't have one.  If you disapprove of marriage between two or more people conditional on what equipment they possess, then don't enter such a marriage.  The fact that other people have these choices available to them makes your personal choice infinitely more meaningful.  And remember, the purpose of life isn't for everyone born or unborn to have a perfect, long and painless existence, to never make a mistake, and to all be the same.  That of course is nonsense.  We are here to learn.  Specifically, we are learning to transcend opposition.  That purpose would clearly be futile in the absence of opposition.

Faith has confidence in its convictions and is not threatened by other people having different convictions.  In fact, it can only be strengthened when challenged.  Just like you or me.

Faith is scientific in its search for solutions to problems, sorting and testing them sometimes methodically, sometimes following a flash of insight.  Faith is also egoistic.  It does not fatalistically accept circumstances as "god's will."  If you believe that your talents are divine in origin, why not expand them and use them to combat disease, poverty, war, unconsciousness, enslavement of the human race, barbarism, cruelty, ignorance, suffering or contempt for life?  Assuming of course that these things are contrary to your values.  Everything is ultimately divine in origin, but the Divine really wants to know what YOU think.  It is awaiting your response to everything it has created!

Is Faith only relevant to deism?  The belief in a god?  Of course not.  Scientists constantly rely on their Faith to get them through the hard work of unraveling entirely natural and testable questions that are far removed from anything supernatural.  Recall that belief in the worthwhile-ness of doing Science is itself an untestable conviction.  There's plenty of evidence that in the past Science has been hands down and by about a million country miles the most useful thing we have ever done, but no proof or guarantee can be offered that it will continue to be so in the future.  We do it because we believe that it will be.  Our scientific actions are very much acts of Faith.

If you want to have a real experience with religion, then turn on your brain.  Explore the inner world of your convictions, and then put them to the test through action.  What will happen?  No one knows.  Living your life and testing your convictions is something nobody in the history of the universe has ever done before.  Good luck!


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Another Amazing Date on the Calendar

How do we even manage?  We've just recovered from the Christmas and New Years double-onslaught of festivity-ness, when this date sneaks up on us.  January 19th, one of the most awesome days of the year!  What, you haven't heard of it?  Allow me to elaborate.

On this blog I would normally drone on endlessly about this being the birthday of people like James Watt (1736), the Scottish inventor who made crucial improvements to some sort of engine and got a unit of power (1 Joule per second) named after himself, or Sir Henry Bessemer (1813) who invented a vitally important process for making steel in mass quantities (before that, steel was nearly as precious as gold).  But these aren't the reasons this day is special to me.

General Lee.  What?  Is there some
other General Lee?
Those observations would overshadow such momentous events as the birthday in 1807 of General Robert E. Lee.  And the birthday in 1939 of Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers, the most popular country-rock pair of all times with a world-record 35 Top-100 singles, more than any other duo in history.

Of course where would Country Music be with out the birth on this day in 1946 of Dolly Parton?  She's only the most successful female Country and Western artist of all times, and for obvious reasons.  Although there have been no confirmed sightings of the elusive Ms. Parton since 1987, locals report seeing a large pair of bosoms occasionally entering or leaving the Parton compound.  We can only assume that she is under there somewhere.

Ms. Parton is presumed to be in there,
somewhere.  There's no way to be sure.
It's also the birthday of Rock legends Robert Palmer ("Addicted to Love"), Rod Evans ("Hush"), and Jeff Pilson (bassist for Foreigner and Dokken).

One of the great mysteries of the universe occurred on the 19th of January in 1943: the simultaneous birth in Canada of Princess Margriet of The Netherlands (which itself is kind of a mystery), and that of Janice Joplin in Port Arthur, Texas.   Joplin is ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as the 46th greatest performer of all times.  That feat was accomplished in only a four-year singing career, ending with Janice's death at age 27.  Queen Beatrix probably wonders where she went so wrong with Margriet, who isn't even in the Top 10,000 performers of any given minute, let alone of all times.  I mean, practically nobody has even heard of her, and she's lived way, way longer than Janice, too.  According to the astrologers, she should "in theory" be able to sing exactly like this:


January 19th is believed to be the day in 1938 that General Motors commenced mass production of its first Diesel engine.  Fifty-two years earlier on this date in 1886, the first skiing club in the US was formed in Minnesota. And in 1903 on this day the announcement was made of a new annual bicycle racing event in which the riders would pretty much make a complete tour of France.  They never have been able to come up with a catchy name for it, so to this day they still just call it the Tour of France.
Diesel = Good.

On this day in 1981, the unfortunately-named Beat Moor applied for a patent on an improved grip for ski poles. Exactly one year later in 1982, patent no. 4311321 was issued for a new kind of electronically-controlled ski binding release mechanism, and in 1995, a world patent by two Germans was published for a new kind of ski boot for some reason.  Inventors have been quite busy, blaming their lack of skiing ability on inadequate equipment, when we know that really they're just a bunch of uncoordinated nerds.

But on this day, January 19th in 1912, a patent with the unlikely number 1,111,999 was executed on behalf of some nerd named Thomas Alva Edison for a "Phonograph Record."  And on January 19, 1934 at Abbey Road Studio in London, the first ever stereo recording was made that utilized a single stylus vibrating in two directions, thus encoding the right and left channels separately in the same groove.  Also on this date in 1988, a patent was issued for a new kind of electric guitar.  But don't get too excited: it's pretty much a normal guitar, only in the shape of a fighter jet.  No need to throw out all your old ones just yet.

With all these awesome things happening on the same date, it can hardly come as any surprise at all that January 19th would be the birthday of a most unique individual, an incredible skier, mountain biker and outdoorsman, a fantastic husband and father of three amazing kids, an immensely talented photographer, music video producer, musician, composer, arranger and recording engineer, and above all, an excellent driver.  Happy Birthday, my friend.  You know who you are.  I don't doubt that someday everyone else will, too.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Here Come Those Blues Again

My appreciations goes out to Mike Stone for a fantastic couple of sets at his house Saturday.  Thanks to his wife Lynn for the hospitality, to the very talented George for the rock solid and amazingly groovy beats, and all the guys including Harry (guitar & vocals), Malcolm (bass), Jeremy (guitar), and the sax player who lives such a fascinating double-life, it is actually a felony for me to disclose his name.  (OK, the truth is I forgot his name.  Are you happy?)

This of course is a rendition of T-Bone Walker's T-Bone Shuffle.  What, you weren't expecting the Porterhouse Shuffle, were you?  The Filet Mignon Shuffle?  For that I'm afraid you've come to the wrong blog.

And finally, from one of the greatest blues artists living or dead, BB King's The Thrill Is Gone:


Friday, January 13, 2012

Educating Australia's Children. With Slogans!

For reasons I won't go into here, I've been staring at the logos and school mottoes of a lot of different schools lately.  They are seen on the uniforms that almost every Australian child must wear, screen-printed onto a tee-shirt in the case of government and low-rent private schools, or embroidered onto snazzy wool blazers in the case of your more exclusive private schools.  Most are the products of design-by-committee, in particular the type of free-thinking, revolutionary committee dedicated to the visionary cause of not offending anybody ever.    Although one catchy design featured a cleverly drawn bat and a redback spider.  A boys' school, obviously.  The mottoes are usually along the lines of "A Commitment to Courtesy" or "Passing The Time Together."

But this particular design caught me off guard, and caused a minor argument (a very, very limited armed regional conflict, actually) about what it was.  You see, the following is a photograph of an actual Kangaroo Tick, an eight-legged blood-sucking parasite:

Kangaroo Tick.

And this is the logo of a certain Australian school located in a suburb near Perth:

Kangaroo Tick?

To my mind it is a representation (although poorly drawn) of something that clearly has eight legs and bears a more than passing resemblance to a blood-sucking parasite.  Just what are they teaching the children, I wonder?

But I was shouted down by those present on this occasion, all of whom claimed that it was really a Banksia cone, and I was looking at it upside down.

My contention was that the motto gives it away: "Friends Growing Together."  Clearly the authors are referring to the fact that a tick is like a little friend that grows and grows while burrowing its head into your flesh.  My opponents contended that a Banksia flower grows also, and has the added advantage of not being a completely disgusting and horrible parasite.

Banksia flower. I personally don't see the resemblance.

This is the type of Rorschach test that demonstrates once again that what we see has much more to do with what's behind our eyes than what's before them.

-    -    -

In any event, the following are some of the school mottoes I have recently come across.  I swear I am totally not making any of these up (except maybe a little).

Preparing Children for Future Disappointment.

Where Self-Expression is Complusary  (a government school)

Learning to Love The Love of Learning Love. (a Montessori school)

Obey The Nuns.  (self-explanatory)

West Sydney Community School:  Teachers Telling Children What To Do All Day.

How About a Little Respect Here for the Teachers' Union (government school in a Labour electorate)

Sitting Quietly at our Desks for Christ's Sake  (a Christian school)

Excellence - Achievement - Status  (an Exclusive private school)

Nepotism - Graft - Corruption  ( a Very Exclusive private school)
This COULD be the logo of almost any primary school.

A Big Bunch of Children  (a school where the staff have pretty much given up)

Learning to Judge One Another  (a Methodist school)

"I Went to Meekatharra Primary School and All I Got Was This T-Shirt"

Innaloo Primary School.  We'd Change The Name if They'd Let Us.  (The suburb of Innaloo really exists - I did not make it up)

Mansion Hills Estates Private College.  If You Have to Ask, You Can't Afford It.

Diversity Through Conformity.  (another PC government school)

Back To Basics:  Reading, Writing, and Understanding Welfare Department Procedures

Wendsleytondaleshire Acadamy.  Your Parents Probably Work for Our Parents.

Children Are Your Future, Retirement is Our Future.

Building a Future Wastewater Plant Together  (an alternative school where children learn by doing)

"Does a Motto Cost Extra"

A School that Contains Creativity and Fun  (could be read two ways - think about it)

If you are ever in charge of coming up with your school's motto, remember that you cannot disguise the truth.  People like me will see straight through it.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Why Do Things Sometimes Happen?

I once asked a great Zen Master, "Why do things sometimes happen?"

For example, why does my Ethernet-over-power network adapter suddenly stop working for no apparent reason?  And then why does it flash all its indicators simultaneously?  Why does unplugging it and then plugging it back in again not work?

Why do both the reset button and the pair button fail to have any effect whatsoever?  And I'd also like to know why when I plug it back in a third time all the lights ominously stay off this time.

Finally, there's one more thing I'd really like to know: why does plugging it in to a different socket causes it to explode with the loudness and the flash and sparks and the smelly smoke and the "ow my ears are ringing?"

Electronics FAIL.  Network FAIL.

"WHY?" said the master.  "You want to know why?"


"Are you sure you want to know?" he asked me again.

"Um... I thought I did but now I'm not so sure . . . ," I hesitated.

But the master continued.  "To the question of Why, I give you this answer:

"Well, why not?"


Thursday, January 5, 2012

I Have a Theory!

... that someday little boys and little girls
all over this great nation will
understand SCIENCE!!!
The way we use the word "theory" is tripping up a lot of people, leading them to loosen their grip on reality while embracing utter gibberish.  Among non-scientists, virtually every single person that I have ever met (and couples too) had a very deeply held and very regrettably false notion about what a theory is.  Even some scientists I've known were a little vague on the concept.  Maybe it's Science that doesn't  actually know what the word means.  Well, that's one theory.

Is it possible for a word to have one common definition that everyone knows, and also have a completely different meaning within some specialized field?  Impossible!  Never in the totally logical English language could something as confusing as that ever happen.

Think of the word "bouquet," meaning sort of a big wad of flowers.  If you are a wine connoisseur, you also use the word to mean a profile of aromas belonging to a type of wine, which has nothing whatsoever to do with flower arrangements.  Or, what about the word "mouse?"  It used to only mean a small and pesky animal, or perhaps an overly-timid person.  There ought to be a law that states the IT industry must come up with its own names for things rather than stealing words that already mean something else.  Also, consider the word "thong."  On second thought, let's not.

Here's one:  Dog.  Normally, it means a four-legged device for converting all that annoying excess cash in your house into valuable noise and poop.  But in manufacturing, a dog is a device used for turning a piece of metal that is mounted between centers rather than clamped in the chuck of a lathe.  In Australia, a dog is also a component used in rigging for attaching lift chains or slings to a load.

Another one is "attitude."  Most of us associate this word with something that a teenager carries around with him wherever he goes, generously sharing it with the world.  In aerospace, it means the orientation of a satellite or craft relative to a fixed reference such as the earth's axis, the horizon or another vehicle.  How hard is it to believe that sometimes words have technical meanings that are unrelated to their common usage?

Let's look at the word "theory."   It is commonly used to mean almost any thought or hunch that occurs to someone on the spur of the moment.

"We're not lost, I have a theory on how to get there."
"I have a theory that the new guy is behind all this."
"In theory the two of us should be able to move your piano, no problems."
"Well, that should have worked in theory, but don't worry - I can fix it.  Um, do you have any piano glue?"
"That didn't work.  Let's try a new theory."
"What's your theory on how the roof of my car got this large piano-shaped dent in it?"

We also use the word to describe the whacked-out fantasies that mentally-ill people often indulge in:  "Conspiracy Theories."

Do you see the pattern?  We normally use the word "theory" to mean ideas which have a high coefficient of Bogosity and which are almost certainly NOT TRUE.

But how does Science use the word "theory?"  Let's answer that by looking at a few examples.

A Scanning Tunneling Microscope
image of individual carbon atoms
The Atomic Theory of Matter.  Why do chemicals combine to form new substances only in specific ratios?  Why can "elemental" substances always be returned to their original state even after being used repeatedly by multiple processes?  Why can those elements never be turned into other elements through chemical processes?  Why can soap bubbles and oil films be stretched only so thin before they break, even under perfect conditions?  Why do tiny particles suspended in liquid appear to be jostled and jiggled as if under constant bombardment by an unseen crowd?  These observations and many more lead to the discovery that all matter consists exclusively of atoms of various species.  In the last three decades, we have even been able to see individual atoms using advanced imaging technology.  Scientists call the discovery and its subsequent advances "the Atomic Theory of Matter."  It is arguably responsible, ultimately, for every modern convenience you enjoy.  Every manufactured item and piece of technology you own works because of atoms and our exquisitely detailed understanding of how they work.  Would you say it is "just a theory" or that it is possibly not correct?

Tuberculosis bacteria.
Photo:  Janice Hanley Carr,
Public Health Information Library
The Microbial Theory of Disease.  Before it was discovered that bacteria, viruses and other microbes were responsible for infectious diseases, you had a life expectancy of just 47 years, IF you even lived past two years of age, which 50% of children did not.  This discovery lead to changes in the way we eat, drink, bathe and treat illnesses. And those changes have made your life the long and pleasant stay on this planet that it is.  You can even watch microbes in the very act of causing disease using a microscope.  Do you think this discovery is perhaps only one possible explanation among many?  Or that the microbial theory could someday be overturned or repealed by some more popular "theory?"

The Theory of Powered Flight.  Before the Wright Bros. you might have been forgiven for saying this was "just a theory."   You would have been more correct though to call it the hypothesis of flight, because "theory" is only used in science after an idea has been proven.  Scientists don't use airplanes to argue for or against the theory of flight, they use the theory of flight to build better and better airplanes.  Do you believe in airplanes?  Do you believe that they can really fly?  Or is it "just a theory?"

Electromagnetic Theory.  In the 19th century, people discovered that electrical currents create magnetic fields, and alternating magnetic fields can make electrical currents.  Eventually it was proved that light itself is electromagnetic in nature, comprising a vast spectrum of wavelengths from x-rays to visible light to radio waves hundreds of miles long. Every piece of electrical and electronic technology you own today owes its existence to Electromagnetic Theory.  This theory was not formulated in the mind of some philosopher, but was discovered experimentally over about eight decades.  And now, your cell phone works today because Electromagnetic Theory is actually true.  Otherwise, your phone could not possibly work.  Is the existence of your smartphone "just a theory?"  Or must there be some underlying truth in Electromagnetism that enables technology to do what it does - use electrical power to process and display information and to connect using the electromagnetic spectrum?

You may have noticed that Science uses the word "theory" in way that is very different from the word's common usage.  In science, "theory" means a) observed facts that have been confirmed repeatedly and precisely, and; b) the underlying truth that unifies a large body of evidence; and, c) the system or means of correctly interpreting measurements, and of making exact predictions.

A theory is more than a model, because as long as a model re-creates observations, it doesn't matter what the model does or looks like on the inside.  But a theory needs to closely resemble if not exactly describe reality in its inner workings.  Only then can a theory fulfill one of its major requirements, which is to make predictions of the existence of phenomena that had previously not been observed or considered.  The predictions must be quantitative (how big, how fast, how heavy, how accurate, how many) and the phenomena must have a natural cause.

One common misconception is that theories are frangible, temporary constructs.  This arises from the common usage of the word, being a mere thought, hunch or expendable idea.  But it is simply not so.  Scientific theories take time, often decades to become established, and once established, they are with us forever.  Theories may become refined as science progresses and sometimes circumscribed by limits as those limits become understood.  However, once true, always true.  All the experiments that confirmed a theory as correct cannot have their results altered retroactively.

Contrary to popularized accounts, Newtonian physics was not "overturned" by the discoveries of modern physics, namely Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.  Sorry, it just never happened.  What really happened was that QM and Relativity confirmed everything about Newtonian physics, and then placed practical and fundamental limits around it.  Within those limits, which include the realms of virtually all everyday experience, Newton's Laws of motion and their implications are for all intents and purposes still totally correct.

The Atomic Theory of Matter was fully confirmed when we discovered the inner-workings of the nucleus.  We then discovered that it was limited to temperatures and pressures significantly lower than, say, the interior  of a sun where atoms break down and exchange important pieces of themselves.  But it's still true: absolutely everything we normally interact with is made up of atoms, and atoms still function in the manner described by Atomic Theory.

Another misconception is that you can never really prove that a theory is true.  Again, wrong.  You are probably thinking of "hypothesis," which is a kind of precursor to a theory, but is usually very limited in scope whereas theories are very far-reaching.  And while it is technically true that a hypothesis can only be rejected with certainty, in practice there are ways around that.  Experienced researchers know how to formulate a hypothesis in a way that answers the relevant question.

The theories discussed above are more than mere hunches that can't really be proven for certain, but are examples of profound truths that have been discovered through discipline, hard work and inspired genius.  So before reading the advanced science manual, be sure to first master the vocabulary primer.

-   -   - 

People today will swallow all sorts of patent nonsense without blinking, but view anything called a scientific theory with uncharacteristic skepticism.  I think I know why.  Nobody, you see, has ever called Ass-trology "just a theory."  Silliness like that which is completely made up, 100% randomly generated horseshit with no basis in reality whatsoever is presented not as a theory, but as certain knowledge.  Shakespeare was wrong: a rose by any other name would have to be marked down significantly at the supermarket.  Branding is important because gullible people believe in brands.

Scientific theories are not, as people assume, merely pulled out of someone's you-know-what.  They are discoveries that are thoroughly investigated, tested, pulled apart, analysed literally under a microscope for any flaw, inconsistency, inaccuracy, unexplained blip, or artifact of the methodology.  And only when the basic facts of the situation are established beyond any doubt is a scientific discovery crowned with the title of Theory.

In the field of science, that word is applied to mean more than a discovery, more than a model of reality, more than a unifying system.  In short, "theory" means The Truth.


Monday, January 2, 2012

The Blind Labelmaker

In the study of ideas, there is a never-ending plethora of -ism's.  We have Existentialism, Materialism, Nihilism, Marxism, Skepticism, Atomism, Infinitism, Fundamentalism, Coherentism, Solipism, Empiricism, Rationalism, Realism, Idealism, Nominalism, Conceptualism, Structuralism, Poststructuralism, Modernism, and Postmodernism.  There are many other -ism's, besides.

As necessary as they seem, there are problems with these labels.  We seem to need them because you can't think about something unless you can name the thing.  Or can you?

It is possible to think without words, but it's really really hard.  Trust me.   Even I wasn't able to do it until I had learned at least one second language.  Then one day I found I could manipulate ideas in my head without having to refer to their labels in either language.  Translating from one language to another isn't simply replacing English words with the equivalent words in, say, German.  It doesn't work.  You must get the thought expressed by the English sentence into your head, and then re-express the thought in your own words in the context of the German language.

(By the way, if you want to understand how a nation thinks, what they believe without even knowing they believe it, and what values they unconsciously, implicitly hold, then learn their language.  All those things lie hidden in the words they depend on for thinking and without which most people cannot think at all.  And even then, people only think things that their limited vocabulary allows them to think.  If you can't be bothered to learn a second language, then at least learn as many new words as you can, so as not to be limited in the things you are able to think about!)

In any case, that's why there are so many words to describe ideas.  The problem as I see it is this.  When a philosopher thinks up a new word - creates a new label - and people begin to hear of it, the whole world suddenly gets divided into two parts:  things that are described by the new label, and things that are not.  In effect, each new label is two labels:  the thing and its opposite.  That part of the universe that belongs within the new label, and that part which does not belong.

Further, people silently think (without choosing to do so - it's automatic) that everything covered by the new label is the same in some important way, and everything outside the new label is the same.  Without active opposition, the world becomes very monochromatic (look it up - that's your new word for the day).

These labels are often compared to theories in science, but in fact they differ significantly from them.  Both might be described as a model of reality, useful only to the extent that they reproduce what we can observe.  And so we understand that the world isn't actually divided up into everything that is Existentialism and everything else that is not, yet it is occasionally useful to model the world in that way.  But a scientific theory is much, much more than a model, a black box the interior of which is irrelevant as long as it produces useful results.  No, a theory in its inner workings must closely resemble reality as much as possible, and not just simulate observable phenomena.  Only then can a theory also make accurate predictions of as-yet unknown, unanticipated phenomena.

Another challenge posed by these labels is that new, original ideas are easy to dismiss by lumping them into an old label.  "Oh, that's just old-fashioned Modernism."  (Wait . . . what?)  It's the fastest way to end a conversation while maintaining an illusion of triumph.

Which leads me to wonder why people so often misuse impressive-sounding labels.  Do people throw them around in order to have that feeling of exclusivity or supremacy?  Are they so completely unaware that the real effect is to cover themselves in snootiness?

Until recently, that is precisely why I had very little use for the oft-misused and inherrently imprecise terms of Modernism and Postmodernism.  By implication, there is a third, "none of the above," or Premodernism for short.  (Does this cover all the possibilities, I wonder?)

Then, the day before New Years' Eve I had a long, relaxed chat with a Philosopher and father of two, who in a previous lifetime was a Geophysicist, a Corporate Consultant, and Environmental Activist. He knew how to use these particular labels in a more productive way: as shorthand for discussing without judgement various styles of thinking that roughly correspond to the Graves' Values Levels which were developed as a part of what became known as Spiral Dynamics© in the 1970's.  They also correspond inexactly to Robert Bly's seven layers of the male personality.

Essentially, individuals and groups utilize systems of values or styles of thinking which can be identified and predicted.  There exists the possibility of movement or progress from one style to another.  This leads to the erroneous assumption that such progression is a goal to be achieved, with under-achievers to be pitied and sometimes harangued.  My friend by contrast used these concept labels without judgement or condescension.

One of the many things I learned was that someone who skips over or does not completely integrate the useful foundations of one level can appear to be operating on a higher level while actually being quite dysfunctional.  He or she will have some significant blind spots or character flaws.  A Modernist, for example, might identify himself as an Athiest or a Skeptic (though there's nothing inherently wrong with that - an untestable belief chosen individually).  Modernists also reject much of what might be called Premodern thinking: superstition, unquestioned obedience to authority (basically anyone in a uniform or sufficiently impressive hat), conformity, tribalism (including racism and tribal morality - right and wrong are defined as relative to what's right for the Tribe), and ostracization of anyone who seems different.  A Modernist for example will usually not belong to a church or identify with a particular religion.

But in rejecting Premodernism, some important parts of an individual's operating system are often written over.  Children awakening into Modernism at increasingly early ages might for example fail to develop a system of personal ethics because they were not first exposed to any form of group ethics.  My friend expressed what to me was quite a novel but obvious idea that Premodern (or if you prefer Level Four or Blue Level) organizations like churches and schools have the responsibility to nurture people within the values systems in which they currently operate, while keeping a door open for individuals who are adequately prepared to move through it.  In other words, they might also allow for the possibility of transcendence.

A striking example was shared in which a postmodernist teacher, a self-described Enlightened being, came to Australia to speak to an interested audience.  Towards the end, a participant asked the question, "Does having children assist or retard a person's progress toward enlightenment?"  The answer was, "Enlightenment is impossible if you have children.  They only get in the way of your growth."

This was glaring evidence of a gaping hole in this supposedly enlightened, Level 7 individual.  The archtypical Premodern experience of raising children, of procreating, is actually one of the most powerful catalysts for personal growth and transcendence on many different levels - as an individual, in one's capacity for love, sacrifice, compassion, leadership, - in the ability to act decisively, and in one's ability to experience and rise above pain, loss, empathy, anxiety, need and attachment - as well as growth in the more indefinable spiritual or existential capacities.  Raising children is not the Premodernist error or fools' roadblock that our "enlightened" teacher took it for, but rather an opportunity that comes along for a few lucky individuals to experience unheard-of new plateaus in this lifetime.

Later there were rumors that this same teacher had been taking undue advantage of his female acolytes, further indication that he had unwisely skipped a few important steps in his personal development.  Enlightenment isn't a destination, it's a journey.  If you think you're there and you stop moving, you aren't there.

That brings to mind one last problem with the over-reliance of labels.  Did anyone realize they were Premodernist until someone invented the word Modernist?  If someone is aware of the label Postmodern, doesn't that make him automatically something beyond Postmodern for which a label has not yet been produced?  Having a label to hang onto might actually trick us into thinking that we are something which we are not, or that we know more than we really do.

We might be compared to a Blind Labelmaker who busily affixes stickers to boxes at random in an unlit warehouse.  If we quickly slap a new -ism onto every idea and individual without actually examining the contents, of what value then are the labels?


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Science v Religion, Round Two

Like most people and places that aspire to be self-sufficient, The Shed must deal with a wide variety of topics under its corrugated iron roof.  It is both a place of work and a place of reflection.  I not only go there to solve the practical problems of my life (using science) but also the more existential problems of meaning, purpose, and that which the Buddha is pleased to call "the end of suffering."  Because I've had my fill of suffering and anguish.  Being me isn't just all groovy calculators and engineering awesomeness, you know.

I've written previously about why Science and Religion have nothing whatever to do with each other, and why they need to just stay right out of each other's way.  Today I'm going to most likely confuse the hell out of everyone by explaining how Science and Religion are compatible, even inseparable.  How can two diametrically opposed systems exist simultaneously inside one brain?  Simple: they help each other.

Well, they do in my case anyway.

Religion Prepares You For Science

My experience growing up in a household of more-or-less devoted members of a specific religious faith has prepared me for a career in Science like nothing else could.  The beliefs and habits I acquired have made doing science at a high level of excellence practically second-nature to me.  Here's a few of the concepts normally associated with religion which are also essential traits of the most successful Scientists on the planet:

Humility.  I don't know everything, so let the Data do the talking and let them say what they will.  I am not infallible, so my results will need to be replicated before even I will believe them.

Hope and Faith.  New discoveries can take time and are not guaranteed.  Patience is essential, as is a firm unshakable belief that doing Science is worthwhile, even when the practical applications are not immediately apparent.

Absolute Integrity.  There is nothing to be gained in the long run by fudging that data.  You will be found out, and then never trusted again.

Discipline and Obedience.  Once you design an experiment, follow the plan exactly, never wavering or varying from that which is written.  Otherwise the data will be corrupt and your time wasted.

Remain as Teachable as a Child.  The church I belonged to accepts continuing divine revelation to correct past errors and provide new instructions from time to time.  This requires flexibility of thought and adaptability to new realities.  In Science, new things are constantly being discovered and scientists must always be learning, must adapt and accept, or be left behind.  There is never the luxury of wallowing in some decaying old dogma.  Which sounds pretty dreadful when you think about it.  (Yuck!)

Go To Church.  Without a community, a scientist working alone can do very little of consequence.  He or she needs the support, encouragement, wisdom, correction, insight and assistance of the community.  Successful scientists either learn to get along with others in their field or they find another field.  They learn both to give and to receive.

Break Away From Church.  The truly exceptional scientist is capable of visions which transcend the current understanding of his peers.  He must be prepared to break with his church and go up to the mountain where he will stand alone, toe-to-toe, face-to-face with the naked truth of the universe.  And then he must return from the mountain, proclaiming his vision.  Though scorned and doubting, if he has truly seen the universe, he can never give up his calling as a prophet of a new age in science.  But beware the false prophets: their results cannot be replicated.

Science Prepares You For Religion

Wonder and Amazement.  As people gain experience in a grown-up world of complex ideas and facts, they usually outgrow the limited, cartoon version of God with which they were raised.  But if someone is exposed to the real universe - everything from subatomic particles to superclusters of galaxies, the amazing variety of ever-evolving life on earth, and the astonishing elegance of chemistry, physics, mathematics -  it becomes very difficult to accept that simplistic Sunday School version of God.  That's why at a fairly early age I rejected the cartoon and began to view God as infinitely more wise, complex, intelligent, majestic, self-restraining, and having unimaginably grand vision.  The more I learned about science, the more awe and humility I felt toward my version of God.

As I came to understand the individual and untestable nature of such beliefs, I began to think of God not as hiding in the gaps of our knowledge of the universe, slinking undetectably between what we know and what we can only guess, but as dwelling entirely outside the testable, objective universe and therefore not subject to our probes and probing.  While many have long since given up believing in the divine nature of creation, I have not.  Is this in spite of or because of an in-depth, detailed knowledge of the empirical universe?

Standing for Truth versus Falling for Anything.  Training as a scientist has prepared me to take an empirical approach to religious teachings and teachers.  All are not equal.  An idea, doctrine, teaching, or particle of wisdom must pass certain tests that I design for it before I give the matter further consideration.

The idea must be at least self-consistent.  Illogical gobbledygook has nothing to offer, in my opinion.  I'm not interested.

The idea must be consistent with other beliefs which I hold.  Of course a compelling new idea with at least some supporting suggestive evidence will cause me to question my existing beliefs.  I must either confirm their soundness or evaluate whether they can be adjusted to accommodate something new of obvious value.

The idea must have acceptable extensions, conclusions, corollaries, and implications.  In the world of ideas it is important to watch where you are going and stay off those slippery slopes on which others have come to grief.  A thorough knowledge of history and the history of ideas is really useful here.

Finally, if a new belief has made it this far, it needs to be tested empirically, experimentally, to see what fruit it bears.  This means making objective, dispassionate observations, being perfectly honest with one's self, and a willingness to admit being wrong once in a while.  All things that well-trained scientists do.

People are often all too willing to believe anything, as successful con men well know, including TV preachers and leaders of churches that have making money as the reason for being.  Not that there's anything wrong with making money, but how do the punters know they're receiving anything of value?

Simple.  Teach people to apply the Scientific Method.  Just like Jesus did.

Science v Religion is a question that will never be put to rest, because they are two of the most extraordinary human preoccupations that help define who we are as self-aware beings.  Improbable beings in a most astonishing universe!