Sunday, December 30, 2012

How To Become Deeply Offended

Hostility does more than plastic
surgery could ever undo.
Being offended by anything and everything can be a lifelong, satisfying occupation providing an endless source of valuable outrage for neurotic people who cannot afford cable TV and do not know how to work the Internet.  And, it's incredibly easy to do.  But before I explain the easy steps that anyone can follow to achieve a total, permanent state of affronted hostile umbrage, you may be asking why anyone would want to do so.

Hell if I know!  But is seems a wildly popular thing to do these days, and who am I to not jump on any bandwagon that happens to be passing by.  Since everybody is doing this anyway, I figure why not provide an easier way for people to have exactly what they want?  Therefore, whatever your bizarre and disturbing personal reasons may be for needing to be offended at every hand, the following steps will help you get there.

Step 1.  Always be on the lookout for an insult.  Is anyone calling you a skin-wearing compost smeller?  How about a grass-combing cake-sniffing gormless poltroon?  Has anyone indirectly implied that you are a bag-waving chino-covered gaberlunzie or a zit-popping denim-feeler?  Or a toenail-touching chicken taster?   If not, then you should pay more attention.

Pro Tip:  If you cannot induce anyone to insult you to your face, then you can always IMAGINE that they have done so.  This is every bit as effective and saves a tremendous amount of time.

Step 2.  Try to make sense of the insult. If you do not currently know what a pillock-mincing spanner or a carbuncle-covered poxydoxy or a wombat-licking cheese-voting galah is, then you might have to borrow somebody's internet to look it up.  However, a precise definition is not absolutely necessary as long as you assume that whatever it means, it must be something very, very bad indeed.

Step 3.  Whatever the insult is, e.g. hat-wearing puppy-spanker or a sniveling waste of parents, the most important step of all is to secretly (or openly) believe in its accuracy.  Whether due to your susceptibility to other people's natural authority, your weak-minded suggestibility, or simply a deep-seated self-doubt: for the insult to have any effect whatsoever it must be believed.  Conversely, if an insult IS having an effect on you, you can be certain that it is something that you DO unconsciously believe.

Once you have achieved Step 3 - a belief in the aptness of the insult to your personal situation - then your own self-hatred will be directed outward onto the person that you are pretending has given you the insult.  This allows you to self-righteously justify your anger and accept no responsibility for your next actions, including loud and embarrassing public tantrums, weak and futile acts of revenge, or simply wasting the rest of your life sulking in obscurity.

Most people are still not aware that the insult required not only your permission but your active willing participation, and will feel unable to blame you for whatever comes afterwards.  While your life will remain a failure, at least few people will blame you for it.  Because that would be insulting.

For some lucky individuals, indignation, resentment and pique come as naturally as growing hair.  They are gifted in that way, and unconsciously perform these three steps with intuitive style and flair.  Most are not even aware that they are doing anything at all!  But rest assured that they are following all of these steps, as anyone must who wishes to experience the regurgitating bitterness of hating themselves and others.

Be warned, however. If you are not careful to observe these rules, some insults will not cause you to feel the slightest tinge of discomfort.  Without diligently following all three steps, even the grossest epithets might pass right through you without any effect whatsoever.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Scorpions and Me

I made a most astonishing discovery last night while waking barefoot in the dark with only an ultraviolet light.  Astonishing, creepy, and not a little unsettling, that makes me wonder if we humans have more in common with scorpions than is comfortable to imagine - namely anything whatsoever.

But first, I feel I owe you an explanation of what in Baggins' Name I thought I was even doing, walking around barefoot in the dark with a UV light.

You see, I am visiting family in Arizona. Arizona has lots of bark scorpions, Centruroides sculpturatus, and most of them apparently live inside my parents' suburban house for some reason. More than once has a midnight excursion to the loo been interrupted by someone trodding barefoot upon a bark scorpion minding its own inscrutable business on the carpet, resulting in an indescribably painful, potentially lethal sting.

I was therefore advised in the strongest terms to always keep a UV flashlight at the bedside, in case nature calls during the night.  Why a UV light?  Because scorpions glow bright green under UV light, while under ordinary white light, they are the exact same color as the carpeting, evidently chosen in a moment of extreme confusion.

 So, what did I discover while padding around barefoot under UV light that has so shaken my belief in the natural order of the universe?  I mean other than the intriguing variety of very curious stains on the carpet not visible under normal light?

To my surprise and consternation, I discovered that toenails, like scorpions, also glow green under UV light.  The same shade of green.  I am horrified to think that we humans have even a tiny biochemical link to scorpions.

But just like the time we realized that Pluto was not really a planet, I'm sure we'll eventually get over it and in time be able to live normal lives again.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Artificial Intelligence Is Stupid

Deep Blue was stupid.
Yes, I have heard all about Deep Blue, the chess-playing machine that kicked Garry Kasparov's ass (sort of - only by the skin of its chips, but chickened out of a rematch and never even had a look at the Great Bobby Fisher).

Yes, thank you, I also know all about Watson, the hands-down all-time Jeopardy! champion of the universe.

And yet I assert that today we are as far from true Artificial Intelligence (AI) as we were in the days of mechanical adding machines. Deep Blue and Watson are enormous feats of computer science, but they are not intelligent.  They do not think, do not have any awareness, have no understanding of the data that they process or the rules they follow, and they do not have any level of consciousness whatsoever.  They are, in their essence, just algorithms.  Programs.  Deterministic mechanical data processors.

But if beating every single person in the world at Jeopardy! isn't intelligence, then what is?  A correct understanding of intelligence actually leads me to see playing games like Jeopardy! and chess as not intelligence itself, but as a kind of suspension of intelligence.   Computers and machines are far better than us at things like calculating, data processing and large sorting tasks.  In order for humans to do these tasks well, we actually have to suspend our real organic intelligence while we discipline the mind to follow the rules of an algorithm.  And we have to have a damn good reason for it.  Part of intelligence is instinctively or analytically knowing when to suspend consciousness and which algorithm to run.

Deep Blue and Watson did not have to consider those problems at all. Their programmers decided for them what algorithm to run and when to run it.  All they had to do was follow the rules laid down.  And yes, you do not need to remind me that the fine-tuning of those myriad rules was done by "playing back" thousands of human moves in these games, which implicitly contain the parameters of the most effective, creative human strategies.  At its core this detail is just another deterministic algorithm and, in fact, only further emphasizes the point that human intelligence cannot be synthesized by a machine.

Why is that?  Because the foundation of intelligence is not logic or facts (sorry, all my scientist friends!)  Intelligence is not being able to associate one set of stimuli with the memory of another.  Even flatworms can do that.  That mechanistic activity does not necessarily accompany an understanding of what those stimuli mean.  The core of intelligence is a consciousness of the meaning of facts or events. So, how do humans create meaning and gain consciousness of it?

To begin with, the human mind is integrated into a living organism which has at its very core the instinct for survival.  It wants to survive, needs to survive, and fears annihilation with absolute physical, organic terror. Being integrally connected to living flesh, blood and bone allows the primitive brain to be aware of the internal state of the organism and its prospects for ongoing operations.  It can control the organism and correct for situations that threaten the organism.  It does this not because it is artificially programmed to do so, but because it is terrified of death and therefore of anything that takes it in that direction.

With eyes, ears and other external sensory organs the core brain can assess the organisms environment and its prospects for nourishment, safety, sex and health. The brain is conscious of the meaning it assigns to any set of stimuli because it associates them with either survival or death. These primitive emotions are at the core of all our more complex human emotional states, and that same mind makes assessments of the meaning of all events relative to the organism's health, survival, and genetic success.

Our intelligence derives entirely from our ability to be conscious of and to make meaning of events, situations, and objects in our environment.  It should be noted that these meanings are usually subjective to the conditioning of the mind; hence we have optimists and pessimists making distinctly different meanings for the same events.

Please do not dismiss this as that "emotional intelligence" artsy-fartsy nonsense.  Let's take Garry Kasparov's brand of kick-your-ass braniac intelligence, for example.  How does his brain so aggressively, cunningly and accurately prosecute a game of chess?  Where does the will to do so come from?  Because the primitive brain wants something.  Garry's brain associates winning at chess with organic survival, and so his vast resources of memory, cogitation, creativity and gut feel combine in a highly trained mind to be virtually unbeatable in an extremely logical, cerebral activity that is unquestionably "intelligence" in action.

Once the will, drive and organic resources are in motion, then the champion (in whatever game - chess, Jeopardy!, quantum physics, stock trading, or jazz) must suspend and master his emotions to keep the required outcome firmly in consciousness.

Here is the one issue that AI proponents are not able to solve:  How do you make a program WANT something?  I mean really, desperately, deeply and irrationally WANT something?  Or to be afraid of something?  Or to feel anything at all?

Without that, a machine can never understand the context of information and be conscious of its meaning.   Until machines can be in any way concerned for their organic existence and be conscious of the emotional context and meaning of events relative to its well-being, then machines will never be intelligent.

My Prediction:

Artificial Intelligence will always be stupid.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Typical, Ordinary Saturday at My House

Honest, folks, this really is what a normal Saturday is like at my house.

The innovative Nord Electro 3, 73-Key Electronic Stage Piano and Organ reproduces the great keyboard instruments of the 20th century. In this case, a Wurlitzer Stage Piano with added a-wah effect and just a touch of overdrive. I'm using the low-noise 50-W amp I built a few years ago, which produces a very clean facsimile of the input without adding or removing anything.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

How Luck Works

Is luck real?  Does it exist, or is it only random chance and perception?

Do you know people who seem to get all the breaks in life, all the good things, all the luck?  Is it something they are doing, or does God just love them more than you?

In the book  The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles by Professor of Psychology Richard Wiseman, the phenomenon of luck is scientifically studied a) to see if the phenomenon is real and not just anecdotal; b) if it is real, to find out why it works, and c) to determine whether "lucky" people are doing something different that anyone can do.

After interviewing and observing thousands of people, some of whom consider themselves "lucky" and others "unlucky" or "average," it became clear that there really are "lucky" people out there who seem to get all the breaks.  Seemingly in defiance of the laws of probability, "lucky" people get great jobs after a chance meeting, meet their perfect life partners in the most improbable ways, and repeatedly get opportunities to realize lifelong dreams through the most random and unlikely chains of events.  How do they do it?

From the research, four clear factors that predict the "luck" of a person emerged:

  1. "Lucky" people are open to new experiences, see and take advantage of opportunities, have large networks, and have a relaxed attitude towards life rather than a fearful one.
  2. "Lucky" people make great decisions by listening to their intuition, and working on ways of specifically improving their intuition through absorbing relevant information.
  3. "Lucky" people remember their past "luck," expect to be "lucky" in the future, expect to have "lucky" or favorable interactions with people, set and actively work towards goals, and persevere in the face of adversity because they are certain that "luck" will appear any any moment, as long as they keep trying.
  4. "Lucky" people have bad luck too, but they see a positive side to such events and believe that "bad luck" will actually be for the best in the long run.  They do not dwell on past "bad luck," and they take positive steps towards PREVENTING "bad luck" again in the future.

Have you been "unlucky" in life, career, love, money, health or bowling?  The bad news is that it probably WAS all your fault after all.  The GREAT news is that it was only your fault, and you have the power to change all that.  You are not, as you once assumed, at the mercy of the random chances of life, because Luck is something you can make.  It is made by the way you perceive, think, prepare and act.

"Lucky" people (and you will now be joining that group, I hope) are not superstitious, do not gamble or take unjustified risks, do not sit and wait for "luck" to come their way, and do not blame their life on other people or on circumstances over which they have no control, e.g. "bad luck."

"Lucky" people, including you, use the power of their creative minds to visualize what they want, to set goals that they believe in, and to absolutely have a blast working towards those goals.

The harsh reality is that you are going to die someday, whether you have any fun in life or not.  You can die a miserable deluded Pessimist, or die a happy deluded Optimist.  Your choice!

Oh, and "Lucky" people live longer, too.  How 'bout that?

Friday, November 30, 2012

How Marriage Works

A surgeon doesn't have to have a heart attack before he can be an expert in cardiology.

But it helps!

I am only on my second marriage. I am by no means an expert.  Besides, I'm not certain if being divorced gives me any credibility as an expert, or just the opposite.  Perhaps it doesn't signify anything at all.  In any case, I recently came across a saying that resonated with me as containing an essential truth:

A woman's greatest disappointment is discovering that men don't change.
A man's greatest disappointment is discovering that women do.

While it is a gross generalization that women frequently change their minds and constantly re-analyze their decisions, and men generally stick doggedly to a decision once they've made it, it is a generalization that bears up under scrutiny.  And it affects how marriage works, while explaining why it often doesn't.

Women (following my gross generalization) consider their habit of constantly re-evaluating their decisions to be a virtue, and one which men would do well to emulate.  As long as it is to the woman's benefit.

Men consider their dogged persistence and refusal to constantly second-guess themselves to be a virtue, and one which women would do well to emulate, except when the decision was a silly, womanish one to begin with, obviously.

So, how is it possible for anyone to have both a good marriage and a long-lasting one?  And should we assume that the two are one and the same?

"No kangaroos here - only us . . .
um . . . what are we again?"
In the introduction to this book by Marcus Buckingham, which is not about marriage at all, the author cites efforts to study successful marriage through analyzing the causes of divorce in all their variety.  Such efforts make about as much sense as a plan to study kangaroos by analyzing and cataloging each of the specific locations in the world where they do not exist.  He then tells of another effort to understand marriage by - remarkably enough - studying successful marriages!

What did they find?  That successful marriage was mostly an illusion.  Smoke and mirrors.  Oh, the people participating in them were real enough, and they were genuinely happy and in love, some into their 7th and 8th decade of wedded bliss.  But what made them that way was nothing material, and nothing that anyone in the world could not choose to have at any time:  Thoughts.

Each successfully-married person in the study had an unshakable illusion about their partner which caused them to attribute to all of their partners' words and actions only the most optimistic and loving possible motives. They genuinely believed that their partner was the best person in the world, and anything their partner said or did served only to reinforce that belief.  Confirmation bias turned useful.

And the habit of making the most charitable, positive assumptions about one's marriage partner had a feedback effect on their partners, making them more likely to do little things that reinforced their partner's illusions. Another example of the power of beliefs to actually construct one's reality.

Can only incurable, insufferable Optimists have a great marriage?  Yes. The answer is yes, and the rest of us are doomed.

No!  Just kidding!  Everyone has the option and the possibility, available to them at any moment of every day, of making themselves into an optimist, and therefore of leading a happy, long, productive and successful life.

Oh, what - is that TOO HARD?  Is your ego afraid of losing its grouchy, poor, sick and lonely identity if you accept optimistic beliefs?  Are you going to stay miserable just to keep your ego happy?  It isn't even you!  Your ego, your conditioned mind, is just someone else's discarded thoughts living in your head.

Keep in mind that optimistic beliefs are no more or less objectively valid than pessimistic ones, but have the advantage that THEY, unlike negative thoughts and pessimistic beliefs, do not cause depression, illness, divorce, poverty and early DEATH.  You have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain by focusing on the positive side of life, and making positive attributions to things that happen to you.

How is this possible?  It works because few things that happen to you are objectively good or bad.  The Mind, however, is a Meaning Making Machine, and before you can say, "Unconscious!" your brain has judged an event happening to you as having a positive or negative meaning or emotional context.  It's nothing more than a belief.  Pessimists habitually and unconsciously make negative meanings out of everything, even things that for most people would be welcome news.  Optimists automatically make positive meanings out of every possible thing, period.  Even death ("Well, at least the suspense is over!").

A pessimist could even win the lottery and STILL manage to feel bad about it ("This is going to cost me a bloody fortune in accountant's fees.").

Are you born pessimistic or optimistic?  No.  You get that way through your social conditioning.  The conditioned mind, however, gives you the illusion that your thoughts are who and what you are, and that there's nothing you can do about it.  All false!  You certainly can do something about it.  The hardest part is believing that it is possible in the first place.

Changing your own unconscious mind into one that allows you to be happy, healthy, wealthy and have an excellent and fulfilling marriage is relatively easy as long as you accept the possibility.  Getting someone else to change, however, is practically impossible, and rather ill-advised when it comes to it.

Women who aspire to change their husbands into something they believe to be more suitable can have one of two disastrous things go wrong.  The first and obvious thing that can go wrong is they can  fail entirely.  The second, and far worse thing that could happen is they might actually succeed.

When a woman tries to make her husband change in any way, the male brain interprets that as "I don't love you, you're not good enough, I'm not happy, and it's your fault."  Girls, is that what you meant to say?

If the husband complies, it is because he has low self-esteem.  If he resists, it is because he believes in himself and knows who he is.  Ladies, which would you really rather be married to?  Be honest.

But if the woman actually succeeds in making her husband change outwardly, she discovers that she isn't really all that attracted to him anymore.  He's just a slightly hairier version of herself.  Barf!

In thirteen years of marriage, my first wife changed me into something to which she was better able to relate: a sick, angry, depressed, victimized, ill-tempered pussy who wished he was dead.  When I showed signs of wanting to change back, her conditioned mind felt threatened and made her become even more emotionally abusive.  Finally, an event occurred which I once judged to be the worst moment in my life, but which I am now delighted to have experienced:  she evicted me from the family home. A year later I divorced her.

And that's how marriage works.  It isn't a guarantee, it isn't a partnership.  It isn't something you have to change for, and it isn't even two people yelling at the same kids.  Marriage is a belief about who that person really is, snoring there on the pillow next to you, what they want, and why their stuff is taking up all the space in your closet.

An optimist would see that as a good thing, and would get a beautiful feeling inside.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Helpful Tip for Guys

Gentlemen, if you ever find yourself stranded on Thanksgiving Day in the estrogen-soaked suburbs with no heavy industry, metal works, machine shops, hardware stores or even a half-decent Shed nearby, and you are stuck with a dull carving knife that wouldn't cut soft butter on a warm day, then here is something you can do:

Use the bottom unglazed rim of a coffee mug to sharpen the knife.  Ten or twenty strokes each side with firm pressure and a steady hand should do it.  Ceramic is harder than steel, and unglazed it has just enough roughness to work in an emergency.

However, make sure you are well out of sight and even earshot of any WAGs.  Because nothing you can say will convince them that you are NOT somehow destroying the mug, the knife, your health, your credit rating, your children's futures, and any chance they may have had of getting into a good college someday.  They will not understand this unauthorized use of kitchenware.

So we'll just keep this our little secret, shall we.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pernicious Lies Masquerading as Enlightened Whiz-Dumb

We've all seen them on the social networking sites:  feel-good aphorisms written on attractive pictures of kittens and little children.  They are the kinds of statements with which on the surface no one would ever directly disagree.  Few people realize how destructive these lies can be.

Much of their destructive power arises exactly because they seem so sweet on the outside that polite people dare not disagree with them for fear of being labeled an ogre, anti-social, or simply a grouch.  We swallow them without a thought and repeat them whenever seems appropriate, thus spreading the brain viruses and fanning the current  epidemic of unconsciousness.

To misquote the late Richard Feynman, "What do I care what other people think?"  Call me a grouch if you must, but I'm going to take on these pernicious lies and expose them for what they are:  flaxen shackles of the Victimhood Mentality that enslaves most of Mankind.

First up:

While this may seem like a reminder to always bend over backwards to avoid any misunderstandings, that may be exactly what's wrong with this picture.  Oh, there are so many errors here I'll have to start a list!
  1. If someone misunderstands you in a poisonous, negative way, it is because they have filters that are tuned to see things in the worst possible way. It's their stuff, NOT YOURS!
  2. If you believe that a misunderstanding is poisonous, then it will be for you.  It's just a belief, just a thought! It's not real.  
  3. It is possible, and actually almost a certainty, that you have unconscious beliefs of which you are not even aware.  These beliefs can cause your Meaning-Making Machine (i.e. your brain) to create the most negative possible meaning out of any event or statement that is even slightly ambiguous.
  4. You cannot avoid all misunderstandings, because they are not all your fault.  Understanding is a thing that your listener does with your help, but in the end it is entirely the listener's responsibility.  They will make whatever meaning of your messages that they will, and there's not one thing you can do about it. 
  5. If YOU do not consciously choose to reprogram your unconscious mind to always seek the most positive possible meaning, then the world (our culture, the TV, your parents, etc) will program your unconscious for you, and odds are that your unconscious will be programmed to find the most negative, poisonous possible meaning out of everything that anyone says or does.  Next stop: advanced Paranoia and total isolation from every living being.  It's epidemic, but it's also your choice as long as you know that it is.


Again, there are so many pernicious lies embedded in this particular glurgefest, I scarcely know where to begin.  While it's hard to argue with the sentiment to always be nice to children, I will anyways.  One of the things wrong with the world are the existence of too many children to whom no one has ever said, "No."

The premise is that we can unknowingly cripple a child for life by saying the wrong thing, and so we tiptoe around the child and give them all the power in the relationship.  This causes two things: it makes insecure children who always feel like victims thus crippling them for life, and it makes weak adults who shirk their responsibilities to the child and fail to take the opportunity for spiritual advancement that parenthood affords.

What about the adult who feels crippled by some wrong word that someone said to them as a child?  The adult who, according to this picture, is in need of "repair?" There are two lies sneaking in to your brain within that little premise.  One is that you can repair a person, or if it's you, that you need someone other than yourself to fix you.  The truth is that you can't save anyone.  They have to do it themselves.  Similarly, you have within you everything necessary to "fix" yourself.  Everything, except possibly the awareness of that fact.

A child younger than about age seven can not critically dismiss any of the things it hears, and unconsciously accepts them as true.  But as an adult, you do have the ability and responsibility to seek out and replace any of the false, disempowering beliefs you picked up as a child.  You have the opportunity and duty to gain awareness.

The order of operation is not as suggested by the picture - make sure the children aren't damaged because there's no longer any hope for us.  The correct order is 1) to become more conscious as an adult and with volition to chose our beliefs; 2) THEN we will be able to raise children who will know that they must do the same as we, and will not live their lives as the victims of other's words.

Hopefully one more example will be enough for you to be able to identify and actively resist the lies that keep people living small:

The underhanded, undermining premise here is that "other people" are the source of the "wonderful things" in life.  By corollary, the only thing coming out of ourselves is shit.  Of course this is complete bollocks - utter nonsense.

Rather than planting the lie in your mind that "(without some special person, we) are without a source of wonderful things," this belief should be actively refuted using the truth that each of us is the source of many wonderful things.  Each of us is our own source of Divinity, goodness, strength, power, love, and peace. It is only that disease called co-dependency that "needs" other people. But if we are awake to the truth, then we do not "need" other people at all.  We can choose or choose not to share a part of our life with another person.

To live as a victim means to blame any of your woes on another person, on circumstances, or on any excuse so carefully crafted as to be completely beyond your control or influence.  What is your big excuse?  If you examine it closely and objectively, looking under the surface, you will discover that it is a fabrication of your own manufacture.

To throw off the culture of Victimhood means to take full responsibility for everything in your life, and to re-gain the control over your mortal experience that you forgot you had.

"But John, isn't it insane to pretend that the situation you're in isn't very bad if it actually is?"

Insanity is a symptom of resisting reality.  I'm suggesting just the opposite: accept reality and surrender to it; either reserve judgement on it as good or bad, or else seek and find a way to judge it as potentially positive in the long run.  We can change our thoughts, but only if we know it and believe it.  When we change our thoughts, our circumstances gradually (or sometimes rapidly) adjust to our way of thinking.

"How is that even physically possible?"

All behavior has its roots in thought.  All actions were first a mental impulse, either one we chose or one that was chosen for us - someone else's script we are unwittingly acting out.  Throw off the slavery of other people's thoughts, scripts, and judgments.  Throw off the shackles of Victimhood and begin to think your own thoughts!  Choose ones that will empower you and cause you to take the actions that will inexorably lead you into better circumstances: better relationships, better finances, better mental and physical health.

Sometimes all you need to know is that a thing is possible before you find a way to make it happen.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I got those Bridgetown Blues

There's a sleepy logging town buried in the forests of southwest Western Australia.  You would probably not take much notice of it if you were passing through on your way to somewhere else.

But on one weekend each November, its population explodes from 2970 to over 15,000 as fans and musicians descend on the town from all over the globe for a three-day party.  You would certainly notice Bridgetown then.  There is no "just passing through," because Bridgetown IS the destination.

Besides, they block off the main road.

Friday night at The Blue Owl, a 1000-man tent full of Blues.  Charlie
Musselwhite performing.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Blues at Bridgetown music festival, and the first year I've been able to attend in spite of A) being a dyed-in-the-wool lifelong Blues addict, and B) living just 3 hours away from Bridgetown for the last dozen years. But this year I finally answered the call.

Literally.  The phone rang Tuesday morning, four days before the event.  My best mate Tim had the news that the West Coast Blues Club had been given a 50-minute slot at one of the five venues on Saturday night, but that their house band had flaked out for one reason or another and couldn't make it.

The club president had asked Tim to put something together.

The gig was unpaid, but the free admission to all areas of the festival was worth $186.  All we had to do was get there.  Oh, and find a bassist and drummer too.  This turned out to be harder than it sounds.

But Tim was persistent and resourceful, and after phoning nearly everyone he had ever played with, managed to put together an amazing lineup of musicians, meeting the following high standards of qualifications:

  1. They have their own instruments and transportation.
  2. They are free during the scheduled performance.
  3. The credible prospect of Public Humiliation does not faze them.
Using these exacting criteria we put together a band that played for the first time together on stage in public at the Bridgetown Blues festival.  No rehearsals, no practice, no warm-up.

Sometimes the light's all shining on me.

You'll have to take my word for it that it came off incredibly well, all things considered.  Because finding someone to take some video was one thing we were regrettably unable to pull off at the last minute.  But it might have been something like this plus bass and drums, and on an outdoor stage in the rain.  Use your imagination.

Tim, drummer Aki and I on stage at the Green Room musicians club.

But that was just one of the amazing experiences we had.  The rest of the weekend was spent weaving through crowds from one stage to another, checking out as many acts as we could, availing ourselves of the services of food vendors when absolutely necessary, jamming with local musicians at The Green Room, and then taking a quick kip in the backs of our utes off the side of a deserted road when caffeine could no longer postpone sleep.

The Utes: our mobile motels, storage facilities, dining halls, research
centres, and rehearsal studios.

But all good things come to an end, including my supply of Dr Pepper, and so it's back to the real world on Monday.  


Here's a list of some of the amazing performers I had the chance to see and hear:

Scottie Miller - a piano player from that historic incubator of the Blues on the Mississippi: Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Also a protege of my great piano heroes: Dr John, Prof. Longhair, and the great James Booker.

Minnie Marks
Minnie Marks - looks like a teenage girl, plays bottleneck like Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton's love child after forty cups of coffee, if that were even biologically possible ('cause you'd probably be dead after that much coffee).  This complete mismatch between appearance and sound absolutely blew the lid off the largest venue at Bridgetown.  I saw hairy tattooed biker dudes jumping, clapping and screaming like little girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

Mia Dyson - Janice Joplin meets Joan Jett meets Concrete Blonde in this Melbourne-born rocker now working LA. Miss this act and Mia will personally and deservedly punch you in the face.  

Dream Boogie - an Australian act fronted by a luxuriously seductive Mississippi Bayou Queen complete with feather headdress and sleeveless sequined gown, and backed by a solid blues trio with an authentic sound.  An unforgettable live experience.

Ali Penney - a piano-playing barmaid from Sydney takes it on the road with a powerful Blues act.  BONUS:  Her bassist Hans Deberitz played on stage with Tim and me!!! How cool is THAT???

Mojo Webb - a hot blues frontman with talent coming out his ears.  It started raining during his performance at the Geegelup open-air venue, but I could not turn away.  By the end of the set, I was soaked to the skin.  No matter, though.  Rain comes and goes, but Blues are for life. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

2012 Western Australia Innovator of the Year

This (almost) annual program is meant to recognize the best innovation of the year, but how do you define "best?"
Innovator of the Year 2012 IOTY 2012 Western Australia
I'll tell you.  The "best" innovation is the one that has the greatest impact for the most people over the longest period of time into the future.

Got it?  Large Impact + Many people +  Long into the future.

Regrettably, I have to be the one to take the WA State Government to task, in particular the Department of Commerce, and in even more particular the IOTY2012 organising committee for failing to understand this simple, basic, clear meaning of "best."  I do this with their best interests at heart, and many of them are friends that I have known for years. So I feel I can be completely frank and honest about this:  The judges simply got it wrong this year, in my opinion.  But I'll let you be the judge of that.

In the emerging technology category (pre-revenue products), the finalists were:

Jonotoc - an all-natural and highly effective insecticide derived from (and I am NOT making this up) cockatoos' feathers.
Impact: potentially large.
Target: mainly the livestock industry in Australia.
Future:  until bugs evolve immunity, like every other insecticide, or until something better comes along.

I rate it about a 6 out of 10.

Floating droplet oil spill dispersant - a better remedy to marine oil spills.
Impact:  can significantly reduce the environmental impact of oil spills.
Target: basically, just oil spills.  Limited.
Future:  probably will become the standard for the next 2 to 3 decades.

I rate this about a 7 out of 10.

HiVAP alternative domestic evaporative cooling.  Uses water mist and a fantastically complex space-age-looking turbine wheel to cool the air slightly.
Impact: marginal power usage reduction in the evaporative cooling sector
Target: very questionable prospects for widespread uptake, either locally or internationally. As with all evap cooling, only works in LOW HUMIDITY environments.
Future:  not likely to be around in 5 years.

I rate this one a 1 out of 10.

StomaLife - quantum leap in ostomy devices, eliminating (har!) colostomy bags, skin infections, vastly improving quality of life for colostomy patients.
Impact: Significant improvement in lifestyle for colostomy survivors
Target: Millions of colostomy survivors worldwide and their carers
Future:  Immediate impact and destined to be the Standard device for the next 30 or 40 years.

I rate this one 9 out of 10.

Gene treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  Makes a small number of sick people slightly less sick.
Impact: better than doing nothing, I guess.
Target: the relatively small number of humans with the DMD genetic disease.
Future: will hopefully eventually be superseded by something more like a cure.

I rate this a 3 out of 10.


In the Growth category (post-revenue), the finalists were:

Wear Liner attachment systems - a mechanical widget for attaching material handling wear plates to equipment.  This is an obvious and necessary incremental improvement.
Impact: Definite cost reduction and profitability boost to certain resources industries.
Target: Certain WA mining operations.  Limited.
Future: Destined to be standard for next generation or so.

I rate this a 6 out of 10 and endorse its immediate implementation.

REMSAFE remote electrical isolation systems.  Another necessary incremental improvement, saving time and money, and improving safety in certain industrial operations.
Impact: Definite cost reductions and productivity improvements in certain heavy industries.
Target: certain heavy industries, doesn't apply to everyone.
Future: will be standard for the next generation or so.

I rate this a 6 out of 10 and endorse its immediate implementation.

Kanopy online educational video distributor.  This is a very crowded field.
Impact: More copyrighted (not free) educational videos can be seen by students.
Target: some schools, universities that haven't heard of Youtube yet.
Future: Will soon be obsolete as the information distribution industry continues to rapidly evolve before our very eyes.  Business model is questionable, as there is no real money to be made out of education.

I rate this a 2 out of 10.  Weak and unnecessary "me too" effort.

L-3 Wireless Underwater wireless com - a 10-fold increase in range of undersea communications, recently successfully used by the Challenger Deep expedition.
Impact: Total game-changer in undersea communications technology.
Target: Every industry involved in building, servicing, operating marine equipment; scientific exploration, security, salvage, rescue, the list goes on.
Future:  The standard from now on and destined to influence the entire field for the next 50 years at least.

I rate this a 10 out of 10.

Now, what did the judges think?  In my opinion, they got it ALL WRONG.  Completely backwards.  The winner of the Emerging category was the worst one with the least potential impact, potential longevity,and smallest target:  the HiVAP evaporative cooler contraption, which I rated 1/10.   The real winner should obviously have been the StomaLife ostomy device, which I rated 9/10.

In the Growth category, the "winner" was Kanopy, the educational video thing which I rated 2/10.  The clearly superior innovation was the L-3 undersea communications system, to which I gave a perfect 10/10 score.

The "overall winner" was the gene therapy thing, which I rated as 3/10.

What do we learn from this?  The judges were obviously using a completely different definition of the word "best."  In every case, they gave the top gong to the worst finalist of each category!

Lest you call "sour grapes" on me and in the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I was involved with one of the applicants (not a finalist), which eventually took one of the "encouragement" awards.  (I'm actually a consultant to the inventors and a shareholder).   I was not expecting or requiring a win of any kind, and was quite surprised though pleased at the recognition we received.

I am emphatically NOT saying, "should have been us," but I am saying it should have been ANY of the other finalists other than the ones that actually won.

If you ever need to evaluate an invention, new product or innovation, follow this simple formula:

Big impact. Large audience.  Lasting effects.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Shed Looks Back

Frolicking at The Shed in 2007

A Shed Down Under has been online for more than a year now.  It seems like a good time to look back and see what, if anything, has been accomplished.

This blog now has 99 posts, has been visited nearly 12,000 times, and has 1.10 Score (that's 1.8333 Dozen)  followers, some of whom are actually real people and not just my mother logging in under different google accounts.

The A List

The ten most popular posts of all time are:

The Cutting Edge of Technology.  (438 visits)  I am surprised by this result since it is certainly not my best work.  This is a sarcastic look at Western Australia's status (or not) as a technologically advanced civilization based on an astonishing personal experience.  I can only assume it is being read by all the lawyers who are working on the lawsuits pending as a result of what happened that day.

I Have a Theory! (346 visits)   Of all the posts, this one has come the closest to "going viral" thanks to the help of science educators, some of whom actually disagree with my lucid explanation of what a scientific theory is and isn't.  They're wrong.

A Complicated Day.  (267 visits)  This post means a great deal to me personally, and I'm gratified that it made it into the Top 10.  That is,  I WAS until I looked at the traffic sources.  Everyone who visited this page was searching for an image of "Abraham Lincoln With Hat."  Oh how disappointed they must be.

Exactly How Big is This Place?  (252 visits)  This is a very educational post.  Assuming that "educational" means "learning useless geographical facts about Australia."  Thanks to someone who shall remain nameless re-posting it on a gaming discussion board, lots of previously ignorant people are now educated.   Oh, ok - it was my nephew Jesse.

Theory of Awesomeness.  (250 visits)  Again, most of the traffic is people using google image search to try to find something Awesome.  This time, they were not disappointed.

American Health Care Is Stupid   (245 visits)  The most popular of my "Things are Stupid" series.  This post is actually more informative about the Australian health care system, allowing the reader to draw the obvious conclusions.  It also offers a sensible blueprint for any future politicians out there to follow who are foolish enough to attempt health care reform.

Why Australia is Better   (214 visits)  This post gives seven iron-clad reasons why every person in the world should immediately vacate that dodgy place they call home and relocate to Australia. (Note:  Do NOT relocate to Australia - too many people would ruin it.)

Top 10 Shed Improvements pt 2  (186 visits)  In my view, this post ironically doesn't deserve to be in the top 10.  The only reason it was so popular was that, apparently, how to insulate a steel structure after it has already been erected is a real problem that many people have (well, at least 186 people).

More Bugs than You Can Shake a Stick At  (182 visits)  This post explores the #1 reason why people should NOT relocate to Australia:  Australia is mostly bugs.

How Science Works II: The Prequel  (179 visits)  An impressive showing for such a very recent post, and destined to move up in the rankings. Again, its popularity is all thanks to the science teachers community, some of whom (again) do not agree with this clear and insightful perspective on science.  They are wrong (again).

The B List

These are posts that shocked and surprised even me by how utterly unpopular and under-visited they were.

How Science Works III: Sequel to the Prequel.  (13 visits)  I bet George Lucas can relate to these disappointing figures.

Politics Is Stupid  (14 visits)  One of the best of the "Things are Stupid" series.  Perhaps people think this is self-evident and there is nothing else they need to know.

Words Cannot Describe  (11 visits)  This is a philosophical masterpiece and deserves way more than 11 visits.

Making Vegetables Edible Again (30 visits)  One would think that exposing the global Conspiracy against males and their favorite foods would be way more popular than this.  Then again, the fact that it isn't proves that the Conspiracy is working.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How Science Works III: Maxwell's Revenge - The Sequel to the Prequel

The triumph of Maxwell's Equations and the discovery of the true nature of light as electromagnetic waves left Science feeling pretty smug and satisfied.  At the end of the 19th century, it seemed that science now knew everything, understood everything, and all physicists could now go home and finally get some weeding done, or something.

Except for one or two (well, three actually) niggling little problems that were hardly worth mentioning, everything was now wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow.  Oh, alright.  I'll go ahead and mention them anyway.

Maxwell's equations, as you will recall, predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves that would propagate at the ludicrous speed of 186,000 miles per second.  But propagate in what exactly?  Didn't moving waves need something in which to move?  And that speed - just exactly what object or reference frame is that speed relative to?

Max Planck in 1878.  His
physics teacher advised
against a career in science,
saying, "Everything has already
been discovered." 
The third problem didn't rear its head until some years later when a gifted young musician with the improbable name Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck was hired by an electric company to try to work out how many electromagnetic waves it took to light a lightbulb, thus unwittingly starting a long-running joke that he later admitted he "never really got."

He also happened to be a gifted mathematician, and when he applied himself to the current understanding in 1894 of electromagnetic radiation, he found that a hot glowing filament was predicted to emit an infinite amount of very short-wavelength radiation, which clearly and demonstrably was NOT the case at all.  After talking to other scientists about the problem, he realized that one way for his equations to match the experimental results was to assume that electromagnetic energy could only be emitted in very small, discrete lumps that he called  "Energy Units."  Everyone else said, "That's a stupid name," and started calling them Quanta.

The trick worked, though Max Planck implored other scientists to please not take this purely fictional assumption about "quanta" too seriously. But to his dismay, along came this high-school dropout and obscure patent clerk with no discernible musical ability who proved, using an experiment called the Photoelectric Effect, that indeed light energy was found only in discrete quanta known as Photons.  And thus the entire field of Quantum Physics was born and Max Planck and Albert Einstein were both given Nobel Prizes in Physics.

This made them very, very upset, as you can well imagine.  They spent the rest of their lives trying to prove that Quantum Physics was not correct.  That "it was just this thing, you know?  It's all that scoundrel Maxwell's fault."  But to no avail.  As empirical evidence mounted, more and more physicists had to concede that it was not just the only theory that explained and predicted the fantastic new discoveries being made all the time, it was also by miles the most accurate theory ever for calculating expected experimental results.

And it all happened as an inevitable outgrowth of the physics that was basically known as early as 1831.  Planck or Schrödinger or Heisenberg didn't wake up one morning and decide to start a whole new paradigm in physics.  No!  This was thrust upon them simply for trying to understand the physics that they already had - the sensible physics discovered in sensible laboratories by sensible people like Ampere and Faraday.

Back to Maxwell's equations, there were two other unresolved issues: what were these waves "waving" in, and what is the speed of light relative to.  The equations were completely silent on both these issues, and for good reason.  The answer to the first turned out to be "Nothing," and the answer to the second, "Everything."  Nobody was prepared to hear either of those answers, but the empirical evidence was rock-solid and mounting.  Electric and magnetic fields are capable of propagating themselves with no help from anything, real or imagined.

As the earth turns on its axis daily and swings around the sun yearly, and as the sun revolves around the galactic center every 200 million years and as the galaxy whizzes through empty intergalactic space towards Andromeda, how fast are we actually moving at any given moment?  If you're sitting down, you're not moving at all, relative to the chair.  And it turns out, relative is all there ever is.

The problem is that Maxwell's equations say the speed of light will always be 186,000 miles per second, relative to everything, all the time.  How can that be?  If we move towards a source of light, shouldn't its light be moving towards us at a speed faster than 186,000 miles per second?  You'd think so, but it just doesn't!

Albert Michelson and Edward Morley tested that claim with their light-speedometer (an interferometer).  They found absolutely no change in the speed of light, no matter the time of day, day of year, direction of the experiment, or anything else.  Zero. Nada. Nichevo. Nichts. Zilch.  It just never changes, ever.  Maxwell's Equations don't care about the relative speed of the source or the observer.  They simply say that the speed of light is always the speed of light, period.

Of course nobody believed that for a moment.  No one except Albert Einstein, anyway. He applied himself to the mathematics and eventually in 1905 found that if Maxwell's equations were true, then there were a number of other things that must also be true.  The passage of time must depend on how fast something is moving.  The apparent length of objects must depend on their speed as well.  By 1915 he had worked out, ONLY as a result of Maxwell's Equations' refusal to place a reference frame around the speed of light, the following astonishing predictions:

  • Space curves in the presence of mass.
  • Light bends in the presence of mass. 
  • "Black Holes" could exist.
  • Time slows for objects near mass or moving very fast.
  • Gravitational Waves must exist and have certain properties, but are possibly too weak to ever be detected. 

As empirical evidence supporting each of these claims piled up and as attempts to rule out Einstein's "Relativity Theory" failed again and again, scientists had to accept that maybe, just maybe, Maxwell's equations were right, after all.


And that is more or less the story of how all of Modern Physics consisting of Quantum Mechanics and Relativity got started by one guy and his four harmless-looking equations.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How Science Works II: The Prequel.

Magnetism has been known to humans since ancient times.  Even Aristotle (600 BCE) speculated in his usual pointless way about the possible spiritual nature and moral implications of magnetism.  Little real progress was made in understanding the actual nature of magnets before 1820 when Hans Christian Oersted made the accidental discovery that a magnetic field can be created (!) by the flow of an electric current.  Up until then,  only "God" could create a magnet.

Of course nobody believed him until he actually proved it.  Current on: the compass needle deflected perpendicularly to the electric wire.  Current off: the needle resumed pointing north.  The Occam's Razor explanation (and there were no competing explanations even in the running that did not somehow involve fairies, magic, or other untestable nonsense) was that electric currents truly did create magnetic fields, every single time.  It was part of Reality.  It was an objective fact.

Shortly thereafter, André-Marie Ampère quantified the discovery by experimentally determining the relationship between electric currents and magnetic fields.  Rendered in English, the relationship goes something like this:  "A steady moving charge of J Coulombs per second must have around it a magnetic field the strength of which at any point is B.  The direction of B at all points is at right angles to the electric flow in the right-handed sense, and has a gradient (direction of most rapidly decreasing magnitude) that is kind of perpendicular-ishy to its own direction."

While philosophy students may argue endlessly about the meaning and accuracy of each of those words and the various implications and applicability of their sequence, the precise relationship is stated without any ambiguity whatsoever when the language of quantities is used:

\mathbf{\nabla} \times \mathbf{B} = \mu_0 \mathbf{J} .

This relationship predicts the strength of induced magnetic fields with an accuracy that rules out any other  relationship.  But is this just a convenient model for representing empirical data, or does it have a deeper meaning?

Just eleven years later, Michael Faraday made the unexpected reverse discovery that magnetic fields, when moving or changing, induce electric currents.  The exact quantitative relationship goes something like this: A magnetic field's time rate of change produces an electric field with a specific strength and spatial gradient that pretty much only a diagram full of wiggly lines and pointy arrows could adequately convey."

Mathematically, it is simply

\nabla \times \mathbf{E} = -\frac{\partial \mathbf{B}} {\partial t}.

And that was the state of Science in 1831.  Well, the science of electricity and magnetism, anyway.

By 1864, not much had changed and people still didn't know why these mysterious forces existed and what they were good for.  Much less understood was the mystery of why one natural force should be capable of creating the other, and why artificial man-made concepts like mathematical equations, of all things, should be so good at describing something natural.

In an attempt to plumb these mysteries, James Clerk Maxwell sat down to puzzle it all out.  He wrote down on his pad the equation for the relationship between electric charge and electric forces (Gauss' Law), the equivalent relationship for magnetism, the relationship between magnetic fields and electric fields (Faradays's law) and the relationship between electric currents and magnetic fields (Ampere's Law), which he then corrected to include the possibility that electric fields might sometimes be varying in time.  This is what he wrote:

\nabla \cdot \mathbf{E} = \frac {\rho} {\varepsilon_0}

\nabla \cdot \mathbf{B} = 0

\nabla \times \mathbf{E} = -\frac{\partial \mathbf{B}} {\partial t}

\nabla \times \mathbf{B} = \mu_0\mathbf{J} + \mu_0 \varepsilon_0 \frac{\partial \mathbf{E}} {\partial t}\

He decided to see what all these laws might imply when taken together.  This is only something that can really be done using mathematics.  But in English, the argument might go something like this.

"A changing magnetic field produces an electric field, which itself is necessarily changing and therefore produces another magnetic field, which itself is necessarily changing and produces another electric field, which itself is changing and produces . . . " and so on forever to infinity.

This "solution" to what are now known as Maxwell's Equations is mathematically in the form of sine or cosine waves and looks something like this:

Source: Wikipedia.  Red is the electric field, blue is the magnetic field.  And there
is something not quite right about this representation, but it's too
technical to worry about here.

According to Maxwell's Equations, these "waves" travel through nothing in particular at the curious speed

c = \frac{1}{\sqrt{\mu_0 \varepsilon_0}} \ .

The speed of these "waves" is calculated as you can see from nothing besides experimental values of the properties of electricity and magnetism.  Its value is approximately 300,000,000,000 m/s or 186,000 miles per second.  Sound familiar?  Maxwell thought so, too. Because just two years earlier, an ingenious Frenchman named Leon Foucault (of pendulum fame) used an ingenious spinning wheel invented by an ingenious Englishman named Charles Wheatstone to determine that the speed of light was pretty close to 186,000 miles per second. Ingenious!  But is just it a coincidence?

Maxwell didn't think so either, but for a while he was quite alone.  What do magnets and wires have to do with light, anyway?  That's a totally different branch of physics.

But overwhelming empirical evidence soon forced the scientific community to accept "electromagnetic waves" as no mere mathematical artifact but as a proven reality.  The evidence was first provided by Heinrich Hertz 22 years later.  In 1886 He demonstrated irrefutably that electromagnetic waves A) existed and B) were in fact identical to the natural spectrum of radiation that includes all visible light.
Source: Wikipedia.  Visible light is a mere tiny sliver of the vast spectrum of electromagnetic waves.

What does this say about science and mathematics?  It is an example of how science, far from being just some kind of philosophy, is actually the gradually unfolding truth about nature.  It is the objective search for objective truth which, as a collective endeavor, inexorably overcomes individual humans' subjectivity, bias, assumptions, beliefs, ignorance and desires.  A group of philosophers, by contrast, can never become any smarter than they are at the start, no matter how much they argue with one another.

What this episode says about mathematics is even more profound.  What appears to many as a mere mathematical "trick" done by manipulating symbols according to arbitrary rules is actually something of far greater meaning.  Mathematics made the discovery of the true nature of light by showing that ordinary laboratory Electricity and Magnetism must necessarily also imply electromagnetic waves.  How did it do that?

Mathematics frees Reason from all constraints and provides tools for feats of quantitative reasoning and logical analysis that would be impossible otherwise.  The connection was always there in the data, but no one could think linguistically all the way through the problem before.  Mathematics takes out all the ambiguities and allows the scientist to see things perfectly clearly in a way that nothing else can.

But wait!  There is something even more profound to learn.  If the mathematical forms of Faraday's Law and Ampere's Law were no more than good models of the data, basically "curve fits," then they could not have lead to a profound discovery that was not guessed nor even sought.  Maxwell's Equations were able to make such a left-field and totally accurate prediction, namely the unheard-of, undreamed-of existence of "electromagnetic waves," because those mathematical expressions represented something far more meaningful than mere formulas that happen to fit the data.

We might consider electromagnetism a "black box" that produces effects that we can measure and predict even though we don't actually knowing what's going on inside. Physical laws expressed in mathematical form represent not just the numerical form that empirical measurements are likely to take, but very accurately represent what is actually happening inside the black box.  That is the difference between a model and a Theory: a model need only reproduce results, but a Theory must provide an increased understanding of what is actually going on inside nature.  It must have the power both to explain and predict.

Ampere's Law and Faraday's Law are no mere models, but parts of an accurate theory of electromagnetism that at a deep level exposes how these two forces are actually different aspects of the same thing.  The Theory of electromagnetism so formed was true and powerful enough to lead us, without any further empirical input required, to a totally new discovery.  Namely, electromagnetic waves.

And that, my friends, is an actual, real and historical example of How Science Works and why Mathematics is its only useful language.

Stay tuned for Maxwell's Revenge: The Sequel to the Prequel!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

How Humans Work

A perfectly complete and accurate description of humans would require a book of some seven or eight billion chapters.  And you can understand why, since you would most likely concur that everyone is different.     But wouldn't it be possible to create a manageable number of categories or general archetypes of humans and describe them instead?

Attempts to do this have been made ("He's an A-type personality, she's introvert-impulsive B-sub-dominant," and so on) with limited usefulness.  To be really accurate, the number of categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-sub-sub-categories grows until there are at least seven billion of them.  Yes, people are all different, but did you know they were different in at least seven billion different ways?

Mathematically the problem can be described as a seven-billion-dimensional data set, and here we are, trying to pick out some kind of overall pattern or rule.  By analogy, a ".WAV" file with 44,000 measurements per second of a sound waveform can be compressed to about a tenth the size by approximating the waveform with polynomials, giving you an ".mp3" file that contains basically the same sound information while taking up a lot less space on your hard drive.  This is called a "projection" and allows us to represent high-dimensional data sets by re-casting them in terms of a handful of really useful, definitive parameters.  Provided such useful parameters can be discovered or guessed.

The first approach with categorizing humans required way too many parameters because people are so complex and dynamic.  Someone can be a "type A" at breakfast and a "Connector/dealmaker" at lunch. So what about categorizing behaviors instead?  Again, even behaviours are so complex that we'd need thousands of categories, and in the end there would still be no explanation for them. We do not give up, but instead go up one level further.

What creates behavior?  Our conditioned thinking creates behavior.  Can thinking styles be grouped into a small number of distinct categories?  It turns out that they can.  In the 1950's, Dr. Clare W. Graves Ph.D. administered questionnaires to thousands of people, and dived into the data looking for patterns. What he discovered was the following.

There are identifiable systems of thinking or general groupings of values that people have which largely predict and explain their behavior.  A "value" is an idea which people hold to be important and which underpins their beliefs about right and wrong, expected norms, their understanding of the world and of other people.  Sometimes values can be in conflict, such as the value placed on truthfulness versus the value placed on kindness.  Can you always be both truthful and kind?  Often one value has to take precedence over the other, and the specific hierarchy of values is like a fingerprint identifying a group of people as distinct.

These values hierarchies or systems of thought fall into distinct strata of social evolutionary development, beginning, naturally enough, with Level 1: basic survival.  At this level, right and wrong are defined in terms of the organism's survival.  Right is what fills my belly, wrong is anything that doesn't.

Few individuals other than infants and extreme sociopaths exhibit this style.  The obvious weakness of this level of thought is that all alone, survival is quite difficult.  We need other people, but we can't treat them like objects to be used for our own survival and expect to be given any different treatment in return.  This creates an evolutionary pressure to expand the thought style to Level 2: Tribal/Family thinking.

At Level 2, right and wrong are defined by what is right or wrong for the tribe, as determined by an absolute Matriarch or Patriarch.  Any specific ideas about ethics are extended to members of the tribe, but usually no further.  You may feel badly about hurting a fellow tribal member, but have no qualms whatsoever about killing a person who is not a member of your tribe. Tribal thinking is fairly successful for small, isolated populations, but has two major drawbacks.  First, where do good leaders come from if everyone always lets the chief do all the thinking?  Second, and closely related, is the lack of opportunity for self-expression, self-determination, and individual freedom. This creates the evolutionary pressure for the next stage, Level 3: The Self.

In Level 3, the typical style of thinking is one of developing one's own tastes, preferences, property and domain.  Any leader of a Level 2 structure must necessarily embrace at least some of these values, if not even higher ones.  Right and wrong are a considered decision about one's best self-interests, both long-term and short-term.  The major drawback to Level 3 thinking is the high level of R-rated violence that inevitably follows when two or more Level 3's attempt to claim the same property.

As populations expand and tribes come in to close contact with each other, the pressure to limit such violence creates the next plateau, Level 4: The Institution. Most political bodies, schools and churches exhibit this style of thinking and systems of values.  Right and wrong are now written down in rules that apply to everybody.  They are no longer relative, but absolute.  Ethics become universal in the sense that hurting a complete stranger is just as wrong as hurting a close family member; stealing a bean is just as wrong as stealing a sack of gold.  One weakness of this level is that each institution assumes that all other institutions have the same rules as it does. This leads to misunderstandings between nations, churches, political parties and your major bowling leagues.

Because individuals steeped in Level 4 values believe those values to be absolute and universal (aided by the strong desire of the institution to promote that belief), they have a hard time explaining the actions of strangers.  When someone doesn't behave in the expected way, we think, "What is wrong with that stupid person?  Is he insane, or just evil?"  Republicans think that Democrats are either stupid, malicious or misinformed, and Democrats think exactly the same about Republicans because they both think that their specific hierarchy of values is the only possible one to exist.  Baptists think that Mormons are all going straight to Hell, while Mormons think that Buddhists are really missing the big picture. Muslims think that everyone is a Muslim, just that most of us are really, really bad at it.

Similarly to the Tribal/Family level, Level 4 has two major disadvantages.  One being the formation of suitable leaders, and the other being limitations to individual self-expression, innovation and expansion of one's horizons. This sets up the evolutionary pressure for yet another dimension which Dr. Graves imaginatively called Level 5.

The focus again turns to the self, but this time integrating the values of all previous levels.  Ambition, creativity, the urge to explore, and the desire to lead all characterize the style of thinking that many have termed "Entrepreneurial" or "Creator" style.  Right and wrong are defined in terms of what works both for the self and for the institution.  There is a willingness to bend the rules somewhat while holding to the underlying principles of the rules.  There is also the ability to reconcile disagreements between Level 4 groups by identifying their common ground.  All notable leaders of Level 4 groups such as nations, religions and schools have exhibited Level 5 or higher thinking styles.

While some individuals who find themselves transcending the rigid structures of human society return to those structures to lead them, others go off in their own directions to make scientific discoveries, start companies or entire new industries, found new religions or start entirely new bowling leagues.  But to many Level-4-thinking people, these mavericks will appear to be recalcitrant Level 3 individuals who need to be brought back into the one true flock before they hurt themselves or somebody else.

This story continues with the obvious disadvantages of Level 5 individuality leading to new, post-modern styles of organizations for the benefit of some collective purpose (Level 6), and then to yet another transcendence to a higher, even more flexible and powerful Self (Level 7).  But these individuals are very rare, and we doubt that they can even be spotted at all since they take on the characteristics of a chameleon, adapting easily to the style of thought best suited to any situation.

Most of us today will find ourselves juggling a combination of Institutional, Tribal and Self (Levels 4, 2 and 3) styles of thinking and systems of values that influence our behavior and make us who we are.  We may think like an institution while at work (Level 4), like a tribal  member at home (Level 2), and at some other level within a specific relationship we may have.

When circumstances open a door, we may either be pushed or move voluntarily using our free will through it into a terrifying new world in which few safety nets exist, where we thrive or die, publish or perish, sink or swim, lead or get out of the way. The ultimate, highest purpose of any level 4 institution is not to keep people locked safely inside, but to prepare them for that day of transcendence.

Any description shorter than the book with seven billion chapters in it isn't going to perfectly describe humans.  But I personally found that this model describes how humans work to a degree sufficient to be at least interesting if not actually useful.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Science Works

People who are not scientists often assume that science works more or less in a way that they are able to conceptualize.  They assume that when a scientist "feels like it," he or she will come up with a new idea for no reason other than their desire to be famous.  Then if the other scientists like the idea, they all get together and agree that this will be their new "thing."

But if still other scientists have a different idea, or if they do not like the first scientist, they will not agree to adopt the idea as their new "thing," and so ensues the "Scientific Debate."

In areas such as politics, religion, philosophy and baseball, these kinds debates are unresolveable because they are not based on any objective reality.  The proponents of competing ideas can at best separate into factions so they can be around people who agree with them and allow them to feel comfortable about their ideology.  Thus we have the Democrats versus the Republicans, the Protestants versus the Catholics, and the National League versus the American League.

People assume that science must work the same way. One result of this assumption is that people will think that any general agreement among scientists can only be the result of widespread collusion and a ruthless conspiracy to silence dissent. For people with no training and experience in real science, this is the obvious and only possible conclusion because they have never known anything to be any other way.  They can therefore be forgiven for being so utterly, stupidly, mind-numbingly ignorant.

While science without doubt is an imperfect human activity conducted by imperfect humans, as a system it is yet capable of eventually overcoming humans' imperfection and their tendency towards subjectivity, emotion, conservatism and prejudice. The "Scientific Debate" as a process is therefore singularly different from any other human activity.

How does science work?  To begin with, new scientific ideas are not created just because someone wants to be famous.  There is always an objective motivation and a critical, specific need.

For example, the alchemists of the middle ages, though not yet scientists, began to see how the Aristotelian idea of Earth, Wind, Fire and. . .  um . . .  Cheese or something (no, maybe it was Blood, Sweat, Tears and Young . . . ) was pure nonsense.  They became aware of things called Elements, but still dared not openly disagree with their ideological Master.  Later, Atomic Theory and the Periodic Table of Elements became universally accepted by their scientist descendants, not because they owed its proponents a favor or because they were required to do so to get accreditation, but because overwhelming empirical evidence compelled them to accept these ideas. They were the only ideas that successfully predicted and explained what was happening in reality.

As new technology became available and scientists had interesting new tools with which to probe the nature of matter, observations did not support the view of atoms as homogeneous little balls of stuff as was assumed.  Experiments were giving strange results, as though 99.99% of the mass of the atom was concentrated at an unimaginably tiny point at its center.  It was time for a new idea, and as bizarre as it seemed, the Nuclear Theory of Matter was born.

Scientists didn't just accept this new idea in a meeting after a focus group and checking the polls.  That might be how politics works, but science isn't politics. Scientists tried every imaginable experiment to try to debunk this new idea.  What we don't often hear about are the dozens of alternatives that were quickly debunked, disproved, and discarded, not because they weren't popular with voters, but because they didn't work in reality.  They were objectively false.  But scientists were unable to disprove the Nuclear Theory of Matter, and eventually, after every conceivable alternative was tried and every conceivable test was applied to the idea, it had to be accepted that the simplest explanation for the objective facts before them was that the Nuclear Theory of Matter, if not exactly the Truth, was indistinguishable from Truth at that point in time.

Advances in all fields of science follow the same pattern.  An objective observation can't be explained, so a new idea is formed.  The idea is assumed to be wrong, and every conceivable means to prove it so are attempted.  Most ideas get proven wrong (e.g. Chiropractic, Orgone Energy) and are never heard of again among serious scientists.  Those that can't be disproved by any objective means end up contributing to our understanding of objective reality and invariably lead to new questions to be answered.  Bad "theories" are a dead-end but correct theories always bear viable fruit.

Many people believe that a new scientific discovery might come along at any moment and throw all previous understanding out the window.  This is completely false and stupid.  It is also harmful, because it causes people to assume that whatever science knows today must therefore certainly be incorrect.    Irresponsible and ignorant reporting of medical research is mostly responsible for fueling this particular brand of mass ignorance.  The truth is that once an understanding of reality is achieved, it is here for good.

Aristotle's ideas about matter were utter nonsense because they were not science.  They were religion dressed as philosophy.  They were untested beliefs, dogma, rhetoric or even a form of prayer that people repeated whenever they wanted to exert their authority as a learned disciple of Aristotle.  This idea was overturned and replaced by something true: Atomic Theory.  But wasn't Atomic Theory overturned by Nuclear Theory?

I argue that it was not.  It is still essentially true and still useful, but no one regards it as complete or even relevant to non-Atomic situations.  Similarly, is Nuclear Theory still true now that we understand the components of the nucleus, and even the components of those components?  I'd say it is even more true because it is now more complete and accurate than ever.

Were Issac Newton's famous Laws of Motion rescinded when Quantum Mechanics and Relativity came along?  Actually, one of the often overlooked consequences of Quantum Mechanics is that when you have a collection of more than a few dozen atoms, such as a baseball or a voter, they as a single body no longer behave according to Quantum Mechanics but instead obey Newton's Laws, or laws indistinguishable from them, to the letter.  This is something that Quantum Theory predicts and requires!

Also, one important result of Relativity Theory is that when relative speeds are quite low, say ten times faster than the speed of the fasted vehicle ever operated (the Space Shuttle flew 17,000 miles per hour) then Newton's Laws are obeyed to a precision that is indistinguishable from perfection.  In other words, Relativity predicts and requires that Newton's Laws are obeyed.   Far from overturning a once-proven theory, new scientific advances begin by confirming, embracing and solidifying the truths upon which they build.  

Science doesn't work like most of the other things humans do.  It does not work by popularity, by the dictate of authority, by Revelation, by aesthetic or rhetorical persuasion, by the law of supply and demand, or by social coercion.  Science is a collective human activity that systematically and inexorably weeds out nonsense and thereby exposes objective Truth.

Unlike almost every other human activity, science is not exclusive.  Anyone of any race, color, gender, political or religious persuasion, age, physical capacity, musical talent or lack thereof can participate in science.  Science is open to everyone and anyone, as long as you can do math.