Saturday, July 21, 2012

"All Knowledge is Subjective..."

. . . is an example of an objectively falsifiable statement.  And a particularly easy one to falsify, at that. All it takes is one example of knowledge that is objective, in other words, universal and independent of who is doing the knowing. The fact that an objective, knowable reality exists is the ultimate counter-example to this popular statement.

"Tautology!" you say?  Ok, I'll provide as many additional counter-examples as you wish later on.  First, let's try to understand what the objective reality even is.  Ironically enough, the story begins inside the totally subjective human brain.

The Subjective Brain

we need this brain
Nothing we experience is real.  All we experience with the ten senses (and the additional ten internal senses, making twenty in all) is a virtual re-creation of what your brain thinks is real that it projects onto your consciousness: an illusion of reality, and not always a particularly accurate one.  All our awareness of and experiences with reality are gained indirectly at best, for the simple and obvious reason that we need a brain in order to be conscious of anything.  

Are your eyes recording everything visual around you?  They are not.  The high-definition dynamic image you think you "see" now is really a re-creation of information your brain has collected, with occasional reference points and updates (3 per second or so) gleaned from the optic nerves and from other sensory input.  You "see" with your eyes, nose, ears, sense of touch, etc., but you mostly "see" with your brain.  Want proof?  Ok - here it is.  You can see perfectly well in the dark with your eyes closed. You do it every time you dream.

Color can physiologically only be perceived in the fovea, that tiny dense circle of photoreceptors at the center of the eye with which you are reading these letters now.  You can't quite make out the words that you aren't looking directly at, can you, because only the fovea has enough "megapixels" to clearly resolve them.  It also has the only color receptors in your entire eyeball.  The colors that you "see" in your peripheral vision are not being seen directly by you now; they are only the memory of the colors that you saw there before.

Pain is another illusion created entirely by the brain.  When you stub your toe, it hurts.  The pain feels completely real.  That is the power of the brain's capacity to create illusion: it seems completely real because the brain is the only way you have of experiencing anything at all, real or otherwise.  In reality, your actual  toe feels perfectly fine.  It does not experience pain; it has no consciousness with which to make that judgement.  The pain exists only in the brain's virtual re-creation of your body, called the body schema.  Pain is there only to tell you to watch where you are going next time, but it can become a habit.  Few people are aware that they can switch it off at will, and some people are even offended when told they have this ability.

Incidentally, there are numerous crazy ways that "body schema" makes itself known to us: through bulimia - the belief that a thin body is actually fat,  "phantom limb syndrome" of amputees, "foreign limb syndrome" where people feel so uncomfortable with a particular arm or leg that they cut it off, and other hallucinations about the body.

The brain creates your own personalized version of reality in other ways, too, that people are not often naturally aware of. The filtration system at the center of your brain, called the Reticular Activating System or RAS, only lets through a tiny proportion of the information it receives every second, with the "tuning" of this filter under the control of your unconscious mind.  It thinks it knows what trickle of items are important for you to be consciously aware of, and "protects" you from a veritable firehose of sensory input it deems irrelevant.  Another secret of the brain that people are often disturbed to be told about is the fact that you can, with practice, consciously "tune" your RAS to the things that you willfully decide are important for you.

With the brain's virtual reality engine the only link your consciousness has to the "outside" world, people can be forgiven for concluding that there is no reality outside, and that "all knowledge is subjective."  But that doesn't make them any less wrong.

The Objective Universe

Life in this world is a never-ending experiment in which we probe, test, examine and manipulate reality.  I can paint a wall blue, and wait.  Sooner or later another consciousness will bring itself to my attention and insist that the wall over there has been painted blue.  Yup.  I did that.  I manipulated Objective Reality.  I wouldn't be able to do that if it didn't exist.

But distinguishing between reality and illusion with any certainty does take discipline and effort.  One has to disbelieve almost everything, or at least only "conditionally accept" what your brain tells you, pending independent verification.  Through this process, you can come to know that there is an objective universe out there, consisting of matter and energy.

There exists, for example, particles designated "electrons" which have a mass (at rest) of between 9.109382910x10-31 kg and 9.109382918x10-31 kg, and this range is 99.99% certain.  They also repel other electrons with a force that is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.  This is an example of what we call a "law" of the objective reality nicknamed "Nature."

Disciplined humans peeling back the biases and re-creations of the subjective mind have discovered this information independently all over the world. Also, there is strong evidence that these electrons exist in even the most distant galaxies as far away and as far back in time as our machines, which have no subjective mind or consciousness, can detect.

Some subjective minds have labelled this discipline "science" meaning "knowledge," and have dismissed it as just another illusion created by the subjective mind.  While the discipline may be a human invention, the knowledge uncovered is not invention but discovery.  You may travel to a city in a car that belongs to you, but the city it takes you to does not therefore also belong to you.

People who insist that there is no objective knowledge are only speaking for themselves in their own undisciplined, disinterested ignorance.  But in a sense, they are right: there is no objective knowledge that they are aware of.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You're Fired!

Fire is an integral part of life in Australia.  One thing the western US and Australia have in common is the almost annual occurrence of catastrophic wildfires (called bushfires here).  People die, homes and property are destroyed, and millions of dollars are spent fighting this force of nature.

In Australia, fire is so much a part of life that it would be incorrect to say most native plants are adapted to fire.  Actually, most native plants are entirely reliant on fire.  Often it is part of their reproductive cycle: certain compounds found in smoke trigger molecular switches in seeds that signal it to begin germination.

Living in such an environment means that humans, too, must become at least somewhat adapted to fire as a reality.  It is a continual process, starting mostly in winter (the rainy season), when Australians who know what's go going on go out and light small, controlled fires to reduce the fuel burden on their property.  In most rural/residential areas, this is compulsory, and non-compliers receive a burn notice, then a fine if no action is taken, then a visit from the fire brigade, then a bill for their services.

The above photo was taken during a "hot burn" a few years ago at the Shed.  It left an eerie moon-scape the following day.  But the next year, the block was as green and lush as ever.  

This wet season, instead of setting the entire block on fire, I've been doing a series of small fuel burden reduction burns of leaf piles and other specific hazards.  One such hazard is a large Grass Tree that has not been burned in at least a decade, and which is uncomfortably close to the shed.  

Grass Trees are a primitive Australian plant belonging to the order Xanthorrhoea which can live for hundreds of years.  Their closest relatives are the Joshua Tree, the Yucca plant, and for some reason, Asparagus.  The video below shows the correct procedure for reducing the fire hazard of a Grass Tree.  It may appear as though I am murdering the plant, but try to remember that, like a Phoenix bird, they actually LIKE fire.  It's good for them.  In a few months it will look healthier than ever in spite of (or because of?) this immolation.

Keep in mind that this is NOT mindless arson.  This is carefully planned, skillfully executed, legally required and necessary bushfire prevention.  

Burn baby, burn!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Engineering's Grand Unified Theory

Physics has been in the news lately for what seems quite likely to be the historic discovery of the Higgs' Boson.  As the study of naturally occurring systems, Physics has exposed Nature's FOUR fundamental ways of acting: the Electromagnetic/Weak Nuclear field, the unimaginatively-named Strong Nuclear field, the Gravitational field, and the Higgs field.

A "field" is no aether-like pervasive substance, but more like a conceptual framework which can give rise to a physical force or manifestation when tickled in just the right way.  In everyday life, almost every way we interact with matter is mediated one way or the other by the Electromagnetic field.  Other than "failing to fall into space," obviously.  Even standing on the Earth and not plunging through it into the hot lava roiling beneath our feet is accomplished by the electrostatic forces between atoms resisting Gravity's pull of our bodies towards the earth's center.

Engineering is analogous to Physics in several ways.  It is also the scientific study of systems, but of man-made ones rather than strictly natural ones.  Some man-made systems are subject to the same laws of Nature that Physics has exposed to view, and these are the kinds that interest most engineers.  Other man-made systems like The Republican Party, The Stock Exchange and Glee follow no discernible pattern, and there is really no point in even trying to understand them.

Like Physics, Engineering has four fundamental phenomena:  Rocks, Sticks, String and Glue.  Anything can be made or analyzed from the standpoint of these four basic engineering elements.  However, the alert reader may be aware that this paradigm does not describe any fluid-like behaviors such as exhibited by liquids, gases, and plastics.

While Physics is still seeking a way to unify all four basic phenomena into one grand unified theory, or "Theory of Everything," Engineering has already succeeded at doing this.

The problem of designing a machine may appear on the surface to be one of getting parts to fit together and to move in a way that accomplishes something useful.  Designing a bridge may look like an exercise in making everything screwed together tightly enough to not collapse in a slight breeze.  Building a canal network, a rocket nozzle or a water pump may seem like coaxing as much fluid flow through a given point under as little pressure as possible.  What can possibly be the single idea that unifies all these goals?

It is this:  Engineering is all about the flow of stress.  Stress is merely a reduced measure of force, force per unit area.  In a bridge, forces flow from one part of the structure into others, and if you understand the flow of stress through Rocks, Sticks, String and Glue, you can build something that will support itself under all foreseeable loads.

In a machine, stress flows from one component to the next, and can carry energy with it.  The purpose of machines is to convert energy from one form to another, and so understanding how stress flows through its components reveals whether or not the machine will do its job.  And if not, why not.

In fluid systems, the flow of stress causes the flow of matter.  Fluid dynamics is not, as even fourth-year engineering students might still believe, all about stuff moving around in pipes.  In post-graduate courses one finally discovers that the real game is the diffusion of stress through the fluid and its boundaries, which merely manifests as stuff moving. In fluids, stress really causes the dispersal of momentum.

In an electrical circuit, stress in the form of voltage can build statically like stress in a bridge, or can flow in various ways like water in pipes.  The key to understanding it is to study the evolution of voltage at all points in the circuit.

There seems to be a great dividing line between solids and fluids, but even then, unification is possible.  The electronics analogy hints at this unification, since it is a system exhibiting both solid-like and fluid-like properties.

If you place a heavy brick on a table, the weight of the brick stresses the table's surface, and the stress flows through the table's top, into the legs, and down to the floor.  The stress pattern will then stay there virtually forever, if your table is made of perfect, idealized solids.

But if you place that brick on the surface of a swimming pool, something quite different happens.  As the brick makes its way to the bottom of the pool, stress flows out from it dispersing the brick's momentum  throughout the water in the pool. Once the brick is resting on the bottom, the water gradually returns to a state of complete rest, and the stress and momentum are gone.  Fluids require continual motion to sustain certain kinds of stress, while solids do not.

The key to really understanding engineering is the realization that everything is a little bit solid and a little bit fluid at the same time.  Most things are so much one or the other that you can forget about the other part.  That is, unless you want to really understand it.  In a "fluid," shearing stresses dissipate quickly because the fluid does not really stick to itself very well.  In solids, shear stress never dissipates at all, because the pieces of a solid are stuck to each other unless you pull hard enough.

And yet in both cases, stress - whether shear or compressive - always seeks the most even distribution possible. In doing so, stress causes forces to redistribute (as in a structure), energy to flow and transform (as in a machine), or momentum to disperse (as in a fluid system.)

And that is all there really is to know about engineering!

Perhaps we engineers will one day discover our version of the elusive "Higgs" particle and finally be able to understand humans as well.  Particularly humans of the female girl variety.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

American Health Care Is Stupid

Yes, you read that correctly. I know you were expecting the title to be "Australian Health Care Is Weird" because that be more in line with the overall tenor of this blog.  But this is one area that I think Australia has a few things it could teach its bigger, fatter cousin to the north.  And I'm not talking about China.
Obamacare, obamacare, obamacare!
In Australia, whether you're a permanent resident, a naturalized citizen, or a citizen by birth, YOU HAVE BASIC HEALTH INSURANCE.  Automatically.  For FREE!

All you have to do is walk in to your local Medicare office (or Mediocre if you're a smart-ass like me), fill out a form, and get a plastic card with your name and your Mediocre number embossed on it.

Then, anytime you feel yourself coming down with a broken leg, a brain tumor, ADHD or the Spanish Flu, you can make an appointment at any local family doctor of your choice (called a General Practitioner or "GP"), pay a few dollars and get it checked out.

If the "GP" has enough turnover to employ an office staff, then they might do something called "bulk billing."  That means you pay only the $20 or so co-pay for the office visit, and the doctor sends Mediocre a bill for the rest.  Otherwise, you pay the full bill, then later take it in to the Mediocre office yourself and get most of it refunded back to you.

Now, let's say you have a serious condition that requires a specialist.  Acne, for example.  Then, your GP would write a referral to a specialist, a Dermatologist in this case.  (If you have Lizards, he might refer you to a Herpetologist.) With that referral, most of your costs incurred with that specialist are covered by Mediocre.  But if you are content to pay out of your own pocket, you are perfectly at liberty to see any specialist anytime as much as you want without a referral.

Sounds like a Hypochondriac's Utopia, doesn't it. Well, it has some down sides too.  Because it's almost free, it is sometimes over-used by idiots who smoke, drink, eat and screw themselves into poor health.  Consequently there can be lengthy waits to get an appointment at a GP, get into the hospital, or to finally have that brain transplant you've been so desperately needing.

Also, Mediocre stipulates how much Mediocre money a doctor can receive for their mediocre services, and often this is below the doctors' costs.  As in America, the cost of health care has risen dramatically as scientists have invented ever more expensive ways to not die a little longer.  Consequently, most doctors only have enough time in your appointment (average length: 1 hour in the waiting room, 14 seconds in the "surgery" or examination room) to give you a randomly-generated prescription for some pills that may or may not make frogs grow out of your armpits.

In other words, "free" health care is no exception to the maxim that you get what you pay for.

That is why in Australia you also have many opportunities to purchase "private" health cover which gets you into the medical fast-lane, better hospitals, smarter doctors with better English skills and TWICE the amount of time (28 seconds) to give you a prescription for something guaranteed to make you go away and not bother him anymore.

Private health insurance in Australia costs about a tenth of what health insurance costs in the US.  It also covers "unnecessary" extras like dentistry, hand-washing before surgery, and boob-jobs.  Though what exactly constitutes "necessary" medical procedures is the subject of intense debate in pubs and bars across Australia.

Shouldn't America adopt a similar system?  Perhaps not.  Australia has just eight or nine states or territories (we're not sure if Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands count), and just 22 million residents. It's quite a different thing to administer a Mediocre-type system across 50+ states and 300 million people.  There is a strong argument in favor of running these things on a State level under Federal laws.  Except if you live in Arizona.  In that case there's a strong argument in favor of moving to Colorado.

Another problematic issue is this.  If someone is paying for your medical care, can that person reasonably have some say in what you can and can't do that may affect your health, and consequently your medical costs?  I personally think that would only be fair.  But good luck banning all the things that could put you in the hospital!  Food, drink, drugs, tobacco, sex, sitting, standing, working, playing, walking, driving; virtually every aspect of life eventually comes under government control if we follow this line of reasoning.

But there is a solution!

My solution to the quandary of a single-payer health care system which does not simply reward idiots and bums while punishing healthy people with higher taxes is this:  Free basic health care with a slight twist.  If  you drink, smoke, do drugs, overeat, don't exercise, are overweight, have unprotected sex, or are really, really accident-prone, you pay for the privilege and freedom of doing as you please with an extra co-pay for each voluntary behavior that increases the burden on the health care system.

When we examine the extraordinary costs of providing emergency-room care for the poor and the cost of interventions that would have been cheaper to fix sooner, then the single-payer system is the cheaper option by far, as long as you don't inadvertently reward behavior that makes people sick.

But in the end, as all of us will, you will eventually die.  In Australia, it will almost certainly be in the jaws of a shark, crocodile or wombat.  From this perspective, America's obsession with Obamacare seems a silly, silly, silly, silly silly thing to worry about.

Find out more.  Understanding Australia's Health Care System: