Sunday, May 31, 2015

Empirical Evidence

“Intoxicating symmetry, the prize,
Converted all but science into lies.”
—An Enigma on Man

[Although the poem, “An Enigma on Man”, is certainly “…a triumph!”, it apparently is an unreadable one, so despite my continuing edits, it may never see the light of day. Nevertheless I will probably quote it from time to time.]

In our current age empirical evidence, often called scientific evidence, is evidently king. Of course some, like Michael Polanyi and, Myk’s favorite, Thomas Kuhn, have cautioned equating truth with data. I would like to relate a peculiar story told by Steven Pinker in a Ted Talk about some incendiary criticisms to his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. This story has a little relevance to the Fishtown discussion, but only tangentially. Mostly it is a story how conclusions about human behavior are difficult to come by. 

Pinker begins talking about the censure he and others have received for presenting unpopular conclusions from research. He tells about his favorite example: a pair of researchers who were criticized for doing a study about left-handedness—collecting data and concluding that left-handers are, on average, more susceptible to disease, more prone to accidents, and have shorter life-spans. Soon the two were barraged with enraged letters, death threats, and banned by scientific publications. The rage, as you might guess, came from left-handers and their advocates. 

And then Pinker makes an off-handed comment about the pair's research, for which I really admire him:
“it’s not clear, by the way, whether that is an accurate generalization, but the data at the time seemed to support that.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

Do teach your children quantum mechanics

On the one hand, some views and ideas fall under the aegis of child protection. The concept of God, for example, is so gapingly profound that it is perilous to children. In almost all cases a child’s notion of God becomes a strain which later must be stressfully rejected, obediently acquiesced, or strenuously relearned. I think it possible that many of the religious problems of today could have been avoided if the idea of God had been left to be taught later in life.

On the other hand, some seemingly indecipherable concepts should be taught to children soon after the quixotic age of reason. Most important of these, I believe, is quantum theory. 

Quantum mechanics is the most evidentially “true” description of our world. It is the only belief for which there is not one single refuting experiment. No other scientific theory can claim that. It is so fundamental that it covers everything we call reality. Simply put, it is our best description of how reality behaves, and it's nothing like one would expect. Yet, shockingly its most basic facts are unknown by the vast majority, and unlike Fishtown or Belmont, that ignorance is indiscriminate among the rich, poor, educated or uneducated. 

It is unconscionable that middle schoolers, high schoolers and, even, college graduates typically know nothing about the discoveries learned a hundred years ago which completely changed our knowledge of reality. Please don't bother to post a Feynman quote about how no one understands quantum mechanics. I prefer Kurt Vonnegut: “…any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.” Indeed, some basic tenets of quantum mechanics and the experiments that revealed them are quite simple and are easily understood. If children learned these, they would have a lifetime of experiencing life filtered through that knowledge, rather than a lifetime filtered through our intuitive Newtonian physics. Certainly, such a lifetime would lend itself to developing a better understanding of the reality of quantum physics.

Today, unschooled, we find the “purchased praise of petty things" in quantum pet carequantum herbal products, and quantum time travel. With something so closely tied to explaining reality, I’m tottering on some conspiracy theory of why almost a hundred years later, children (and adults) have been taught nothing.

In ten minutes any child could learn the double slit experiment, complementary properties and entanglement, and the uncertainty principle, and begin thinking about their meaning. How can we not  be better off if we know how nature actually works rather than being fooled by our ancient intuitive perceptions?

Brian Greene, like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, are smart guys who love to ham it up. The fundamentals of this Nova episode, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Quantum Leap are excellent. Unfortunately, however, what could have been dramatically revealed in 15 minutes is over-hyped for the supposed ADD viewer. Filter out all the extraneous noisy nonsense and it covers the topic properly. (Note Alain Aspect whose experiment was my choice for "The Most Important Event of the 20th Century").

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sorry...More on Fishtown

Some people just won't let a thing be.

On Saturday, I was unable to attend the annual Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby because it conflicted with Tom Nascenzi's graduation party.

To enter this derby, you must make a sculpture and it must be able to move and that movement must be generated by human power.  After that, you're pretty much on your own.  You display your sculpture by driving through a course through the streets of Philadelphia.  For reasons not entirely clear, the course ends at a big mudpit.

Anyway, here is the course:

As you can see, the route includes Fishtown -- shown at the bottom.  In fact, Ellen tells me that, even though it's called the Kensington Kenetic Sculpture Derby, most of the route is in Fishtown and it should be re-named.

It all takes me back to Charles Murray's Coming Apart.  Check out the video below.  After seeing it, I just can't imagine missing the mark more widely than using Fishtown as a symbol of white working-class malaise.  If nothing else, where were Murray's editors?  If this is America at rock bottom, I'd say we're doing pretty well.


Taking a break from the atom bomb, I picked up the book Quiet by Susan Cain (a book I gave Megan for Christmas). If you haven't read this one yet, I definitely recommend it - especially for those with little kids, this is a bit of an eye-opener on being an introvert and how we basically work hard as a culture to push everyone to be an extrovert. And for James, there is a page on one of BBDO's founders, Alex Osborn and his creation of "brainstorming" and how it is one of the worst ways to inspire creativity. A thought provoking book.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mother Died and Other Stories

“Mother died today” opens Camus’ The Stranger. I almost started my email last Wednesday with that line. It was a dispassionate fact. Yet not. It was relief. It was terrifying. It finally ended my role as Sneelock. It revealed the one real, startling fact of all life. It mocked as failure my efforts for a large chunk of my life. It was what she had wanted for many years. It ended an era. So, like everything in life, it was filled with mixed emotions. 

In fact, the opening line of Camus’ The Stranger has been mistranslated. He does not use the word “mother”, for which I have been properly criticized for using in the past. The word is “maman”, which translates somewhere between “mother” and “mommy”—mixed emotions. 

Mom’s last coherent words were spoken to Gabi, the caregiver, as she bent over mom in her chair and whispered something to gain an acknowledgement or response. Mom noticed her bracelet and said, “What a pretty bracelet!” 

Gabi, delighted at the response, continued with something like, “Yes, it is the one instance where my husband showed good taste.” 

Mom’s response in some ways summed up her whole life and its message to others, “Oh, you’re too critical.”