Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tools and Education

I wonder what the net effect of having a spell checker will be on the quality of education, particularly with younger generations. I personally have found that I often do not even find the mistakes, I just click through them and make the corrections. I will spell the same word wrong over and over. Spell checker could seriously set back someone who does not know how to spell well or is learning to spell by making it too easy to avoid learning. I wonder what high school and middle school teachers think about this? Are their students typed assignments without error, but their written notes atrocious. I wouldn't be surprised if it is degrading their education.

Once I noticed that I was avoiding spelling and becoming complacent I started to make a strong effort to avoid using spell checker in the traditional fashion. I think if used properly it can be a learning tool. Typically now I use it to check the words and then if I really can't spell it I see what the computer thinks. Then if I am not feeling too lazy I manual type out the correct word. This helps to cement the correct spelling into my memory, reducing the chance that I will make the same error again. At a minimum I try to look at the correct spelling and notice where I was making the mistake. I think since I started doing this my spelling ability has increased. (grammar is an entirely separate issue.)

Like most technologies, they can either make you lazy, or if used properly, they can aid your learning. It is up to the user to decide.

I had a professor in my undergrad who would curse calculators up and down. Preferring to instead do manual calculations. He thought that calculators were degrading the younger generations minds. They can, but only if you let it happen. Again, you can treat it as a positive tool and let it help you, or you can depend on it and have it weaken you.

I had thought of this topic along time ago, but it was reawakened by a question during my PhD proposal presentation. My math professor, Dr. Kupershmidt, asked me if I had done all the algebra by hand or with computer software. I told him I had done it by hand, expecting a positive response, instead he asked, "Why?" I suppose the true skill is in knowing when to use the tools and when to avoid them. In my case I think I did the right thing because it would have been cumbersome to make the computer go in the right direction with the math. However, we should not be afraid to use our tools out of self righteousness or any other reason as well. It is a careful balance.

In the end, we are humans, the reason we are here is because we make tools. We just need to make sure they do not become our demise as well.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Life and Intelligence

I enjoy thinking about life and whether we have companions in the universe. The fascinating question - Are we alone? And beyond that, the implications, religious and otherwise. The fundamental equation for estimating the existence of other intelligent civilizations is the Drake Equation.

Essentially we start with the rate of production of stars in our galaxy, then add factors such as the likelyhood of a star having planets, then having ones which can support life, then which of those will develop life, and then those which will develop intelligent life, then those which will create technology which will make themselves visible to us, and finally then length of time which these civilizations last.

Naturally, there are a lot of factors in there which we have no idea about, but you can put in intelligent guesses and see what kind of numbers we are working with. In 1961 Drake Estimated N = 10 × 0.5 × 2 × 1 × 0.01 × 0.01 × 10,000 = 10. More current analysis gives an estimate of 2.31. Meaning that at our best guess, on average there will be around 2 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. Interesting.

Now, where am I getting with this. Nowhere really. It is just a neat idea. I always like to think of all the crazy things which could have influenced our development of intelligence and technology. For instance, what if the Earth rotated faster? This would have made throwing objects very difficult and that may have severely restricted the development and use of tools. Motions on the earth would be very non-linear, so dynamics and mathematics may have evolved along a different route. Simple linearization in physics and engineering would not have been valid, making the math much more difficult. Or this could have all gone the opposite way. Maybe the challenge of throwing objects in a rotating reference frame would have amplified our intelligence and given us a more non-linear way of thinking. Our math could be entirely different and maybe non-linear equations would be no big deal.

Another thought. What if there was no Moon. Avoiding the geographical and climate changes, the moon was our clear evidence of time. The phases of the moon gave way to calendars, the passing of time evolves to counting and then math. The moon inspires us to look in the night sky. Everything else is a point of light. The moon is dynamic. Eclipses, harvest moons, the phases give clear signs to the orientation of the solar system. Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference, maybe it would have just slowed our progress. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about.

I am sure you could think of a millions variables like this. All these would need to be accounted for in Drakes Equation to get a really accurate estimate. In the end, it seems like there is a decent chance that we are alone, or only one of a few civilizations in this galaxy. That kind of makes me feel lonely.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."
-Excerpt from inscription which accompanies the statue of liberty.
I just wanted to put up a quick post saying that I do not understand the current national sentiment on immigration. In my mind we should allow anyone to quickly and easily become a citizen. Simply check someones background and then let them in. This is the foundation of our country and the reason we have been successful. As long as people want to come here, then we know we are doing something right.

Additionally, we should encourage higher educated individuals to come to America. The more educated you are, the easier it should be to become a citizen. We want talented individuals and their creativity.

Putting up walls and limiting immigration is silly. We have plenty of room and resources here. Allowing individuals to come legally will create more revenue and taxes. Creating barriers only will prevent the educated and responsible individuals from entering the country, those are the people we want.

We should not be afraid of cultural influences. This is what we are. We are all German, Irish, Italian, English, Asian, African... everything. Our culture is simply a reflection of all the worlds cultures. Why not involve another?

If we close our borders and claim that this land is only for 'Americans' then we have completely forgotten who we are and how we got here. It will be the end of the beautiful idea of America and we'll become just another country.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ben Franklin's 8 Reasons to Prefer Old Women to Young Ones

Ben Franklin wrote this essay in 1745, he would have been 40 years old. He begins with:
"It is the most natural state of man, and therefore the state in which you are most likely to find solid happiness.... It is the man and woman united that make the complete human being. Separate, she wants his force of body and strength of reason; he, her softness, sensibility and acute discernment. Together the are more likely to succeed in the world. A single man has not nearly the value he would have in that state of union. He is an incomplete animal. He resembles the odd half of a pair of scissors. If you get a prudent, healthy wife, your industry in your profession, with her good economy, will be a fortune sufficient."

However, recognizing the youthful male attitude and the unlikely event of accepting a rational argument he suggested what sort of mistress one should have.
"In all your amours, you should prefer old women to young ones."

For which he presented 8 reasons.
"1. Because as they have more knowledge of the world and their minds are better stored with observations, their conversation is more improving and more lastingly agreeable.

2. Because when women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their influence over men, they supply the diminution of beauty by an arguement of utility. They learn to do 1000 services small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing as an old woman who is not a good woman.

3. Because there is no hazard of children, which irregularly produced may be attended with much inconvenience.

4. Because the more experience, they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an intrigue to prevent suspicion. The commerce with them is therefore safer with regard to your reputation. And with regard to theirs, if the affair should happen to be known, considerate people might be inclined to excuse an old woman who would kindly take care of a young man, form his manners by her good counsels, and prevent his ruining his health and fortune among mercenary prostitutes.

5. Because every animal that walks upright, the deficiency of the fluids that fills the muscles appears first in the highest part. The face grows lank and wrinkled, then the neck, the the breast and arms, the lower parts continuing to the last as plump as ever. So that covering all above with a basket, and regarding only what is below the girdle, it is impossible of two woman to know an old one from a young one. And as in the dark all cats are grey, the pleasure of corporal enjoyment with an old woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every knack being by practice capable of improvement.

6. Because the sin is less. The debauching a virgin may be her ruin, and make her for life unhappy.

7. Because compunction is less. The having made a young girl miserable may give you frequent bitter reflections, none of which can attend making an old woman happy.

8thly and lastly. They are so grateful."
As a final note, Ben Franklin is generally referred to as being a 'ladies man' with the implications that he slept around. This essay certainly makes it seem so. He did seem to have a healthy libido and did have a child, with an woman unknown to history, before he was married, but all accounts seem to show that he was faithful throughout his marriage.

He did seem to maintain his interest in women, at one point maintaining flirtatious written contact with a younger women during his marriage and similarly with other women during his time in France. I don't think you can blame him for that.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Speak to Me Lover

I live my life completely unknowing of why I am here and what this is all about. We can come up with hypothesis about God and such, but all of it seems shaky to me. There is one thing that I cannot understand but I can count on, and that is in the ability of nature to completely floor me with its beauty. From a glorious sunset to a tiny detail in a complex flow. It is all amazing, every piece of it. Nature is beautiful, inspiring, surprising and unwavering, just like a perfect lover. That is the one thing that I know.

And what language does nature speak. Mathematics.

“Nature’s grand book, which stands continually open to our gaze, is written in the language of mathematics. Its characters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures. Without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”

-Galileo Galilei, 1623

Monday, October 20, 2008

Higher States of Being

Considering my recent review of an unfortunate series of correspondences between a Mathematics teacher and an aspiring English teacher in her class, I'm compelled to discuss the underlying problems in the discussion. Let me begin by offering a sort of hypothesis regarding people and their vocations. I conject that there are fundamentally two types of people; each one best suited for one of two types of vocations. Simply put, there are vocations that sustain and vocations that advance. I use the word 'vocation' to imply more of a societal responsibility or calling rather than simply a job, but of course as the argument progresses transposing 'vocation' for 'job' will suffice.

The vast majority of jobs are those that sustain our way of life. They are vitally necessary in order to maintain societies accepted levels of existence. Jobs in civil service are an excellent example. Businesses (in general) operate by exploiting a societal demand for luxury or necessity; again sustaining. One might argue that business entrepreneurs advance humanity. In some cases they would be absolutely correct. However many entrepreneurs take advantage of a missing service in a community rather than advance that community beyond any other. As we develop as a whole these vocations also develop in number and skill. They are an essential part of society.

The vast minority of jobs are those that advance our way of life. These vocations are where we find the creators. Scientists are the obvious example of the 'creator.' They are responsible for every technological breakthrough in the history of man. I submit that technology is the foremost method of advancing humanity to higher states of pleasure. Those versed in philosophy can liken these higher states of pleasures to the concepts proposed by John Stuart Mill. For those not, please understand that 'pleasure,' in this context, refers to not only physical pleasure, but comfortable living, intellectual stimulation, enlightenment, and so on. I am confident that anything created, concocted, or envisioned by man can be traced back to a fundamental science as its enabler. I cannot go without acknowledging artistic creation. The pure skill in the brush or Rembrandt, or the vision of Picasso, or the torment of Blake, the genius of Shakespeare, or the inspiration of Milton cannot go unnoticed when segregating vocations. Without question, these individuals advanced humanity and were also creators.

I give special attention to the teacher. From one perspective teaching serves as a vocation for advancement. By enlightening young people, teachers are an integral part of advancement. On the other hand, the concept of teacher has shifted. We no longer learn by the Socratic Method. The emphasis is now to unsure that students run the gauntlet of classes in order to give them a superficial exposure to many things. Clearly, the purpose is to create well rounded individuals because well rounded individuals are a benefit to society. Unfortunately, this idealistic approach is polluted by the fact that uninspired students leave this arena to embark on careers that sustain. The terrifying truth is that some become teachers themselves. This leaves the teaching vocation in a state of perpetual stagnation and therefore, with the exception of a few teaching, is unable to be classified as an advancing vocation.

I come back to the original purpose of this discussion. The argument posed in the correspondences mentioned in the opening paragraph was that no more than rudimentary mathematical skills are needed for many vocations and therefore advanced mathematical topics should not be forced upon students should they choose against it. There is a fundamental flaw with this statement in that collective advancement cannot be bore on the backs of a few. Collective advancement is the responsibility of the collective, with both creative and logical thinking being its cornerstone. Consider a world in which there were only scientists and no artists. Invention would stagnate. Creativity for invention would be lost. The 'think outside of the box' mentality would be a fairytale. We would have the most scientifically minded collective imaginable but nothing to do with it. Honestly, I have a hard time imagining this extreme because almost by definition science is creative thinking, but bear with me. Consider the other extreme; no scientists and only artists. The world would be as beautiful as anyone could possibly imagine, but it would go no farther in its development. There would be no way to support itself and inevitably would fail. I also have a hard time imagining this extreme because without scientific creation the tools of creation wouldn't exist.

It becomes clear that both extremes are not beneficial. Ideally all people would excel in both venues. This is not possible and therefore divulges the critical foundation of a society: people contributing to the common good by providing their individual skills.

Science has shown how the brain is stimulated by logical thought process verses emotional or creative (liberal arts) thinking. Pure logic and pure creation produce very specific responses that account for 'right brained' and 'left brained' thinking. Science has also shown that both sides can be stimulated simultaneously. This type of synaptic response produces a nonlinear increase in memory and skill retention. Long term training shows an increase in overall cognitive ability. It becomes irrefutable that persons well versed in both types of thinking have a significant advantage over persons who do not. This creates a scientific basis to suggest it is the responsibility, or perhaps obligation, of the individual to train in both areas.

I must discuss myself in all this. I am a scientist, an engineer who was fortunate enough to have the ability to place myself in a vocation for advancement. The title given to those who endure my topics of research is one of high intellectual regard (the astrophysicists might scoff at that statementJ), but one that is expected to have an extreme bias toward logic rather than emotion. There is some truth to both statements, but even in my position I can differentiate the worth of my peers based on their level of enlightenment through well rounded intellectual stimulation. I am confident that the tangible worth based on productivity, not just my perception, is greater for those who observe the benefit of both logic and emotion. In this case we can specifically consider the fruits of science and the fruits of literary work and communication. I personally have a deep appreciation for the liberal arts. My education doesn't include these personal indulgences so I must seek them out on my own accord. Perhaps I am too bold, but if history prevails, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that I and my aforementioned peers have as good or even a better understanding of classical literature and artistic works than does the average liberal arts major.

We are caught in a vicious cycle of ignorance and argument. People in general don't appear to have a sense of self awareness. They don't observe how their actions ripple through time and space. They can't appreciate how the ripples of others have contributed to their current state of being. It is asinine to believe that society as a whole can advance though the minds of scientific or artistic geniuses alone. A society that seeks higher pleasures collectively will outshine the achievements of any single individual. At this point, it becomes a social responsibility, not a personal choice.

To the Mathematics teacher: I rambled a bit, but I hope I have supplied a stronger basis for your argument. You touched on some of these topics and I have the feeling that you'll be in agreement with much of what I said, but certainly being the teacher you must tread lightly.

To the prospective English teacher: I'd like to know what school you teach at. That way I can insure my children aren't accidentally placed in your class. Opinionated ignorance is dangerous.

And now a deep thought…

The fortunate few cannot reach the pinnacle without the wide base of support below them. If the base of support starts a little higher, then those fortunate few are that much closer.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Nonlinear Morality

I've recently become a guest of Harvard's Justice Online philosophy courses. A recent discussion posed the case of Dudley v Queen of England. The case describes a ship that sunk leaving the captain, a crew member and the cabin boy...maybe one more...in the life boat drifting in open ocean. They had meager food supplies and no water. Soon they ran out and began to starve. The captain suggested they all draw straws and the short straw gets eaten by the rest. However, the cabin boy had already drank sea water and was very ill. In his weakened state, he became the victim of cannibalism to sustain the rest. The remaining crew was eventually picked up without having to kill and eat another member.

A cut and dry utilitarian perspective - the greatest good for the greatest number - suggests that their actions were completely morally acceptable. For objectivism, I've left out some details of the argument that would reinforce the utilitarian viewpoint. The question is: Is the utilitarian perspective correct?

The arguments for and against the case all have an underlying understanding of morality; one that is not so easy to define but rather somewhat universally understood. If it was, then philosophy would be objective and completely understood. The application of what essentially is the same definition of morality produces differences in option when different personal perspectives objectively weigh the means and ends of the decisions. We come to the first observation of nonlinearity. Morality is not deterministic. Presenting the same case to different people with always produce some variation in either the means or the ends.

Lets change the scenario. Only two people are in the boat and one eats the other to save himself. Is it morally objectionable? There is nothing known about either individual that might weigh on their worthiness to live. I think many/most people would find it objectionable. What if there were 6 people? One dies for five to live. The answer becomes less definitive. What if it is 21 people so 1 dies and 2o live? It becomes apparent that utilitarianism becomes more relevant once the prospering majority becomes proportionally larger. This is the second nonlinearity. Utilitarianism becomes disproportionatly relevant as the prospering majority becomes proportionatly larger.

I've already illuded to a conclusion I've made. Morality is not definable, yet is universal. It is the nondeterministic nature of moral application and interpretation that produces differing opinions on right and wrong. For example, in extreme situations we glimpse true humanistic nature in that self preservation becomes the driving factor and can be projected to apply to others. Self preservation is instinctual, primative, yet it allows us to justify extreme actions in extreme situations. With that justification we are exempt from the pain of guilt and remorse and utilitarianism still rules. However, in the case where only two people are involved and one is killed to save the other rather than 21, we can expect a level of remorse even though self preservation ruled; the second nonlinearity exists.

To understand morality I seems that we must consider human behavior on a much more primitive level. Even with that, I doubt that morality will be definable simply because of it's nonlinear characteristics

And now a deep thought...
If we consider guilt to be a primitive human characteristic, perhaps we must examine guilt before we can attempt to define morality.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Grading Classes

The other day I was thinking about the best ways to grade a class. I know that many of my fellow grad students plan to teach someday. How should we grade our classes?

As engineers, we benefit from the fact that we deal with a generally definitive subject. There are solutions to math problems, so we typically don't have to deal with wondering how to grade a specific problem. It is right or it is wrong. Partial credit can be given based on taking correct steps to get to the answer, but failing to get the right answer. In the end, this is all going to be much more straight forward than grading a literature class for instance.

I don't think they are as popular now, but curving a class is an option. I don't know if I have ever had an engineering class that was curved though. There seems to be some pros and cons. It does make it easier on the professor. Schools typically do not like professors to give all high grades, so the curve reduces this problem. It can help students if a classes or test is really hard, by at least benefit those who did well. Similarly it can hurt students if a class or test was easy, since it punishes the students who may have done well, and understood the material, but were slightly lower than the best students.

This seems to be the heart of the problem. What should a grade represent? In my mind it should be a qualifier of how well the student understands the material presented. Requirements for courses should be laid out prior to a class and students will be expected to meet them. If this is the case there should be no problem will all students getting an A, or all of them getting a F.

In the end it seems as if the best solution is to give appropriate tests. The test needs to be fair and represent the class requirements. If the test is sufficiently difficult it will limit the high scores, creating a sort of natural curve.

Homework and Projects play an important role as well. One system I like is having a few options for how your homework/test combination will lead to a grade. This gives options for students who may find tests nerve racking and difficult. Some people just have a hard time with tests. They can then focus on getting good homework grades to make up for the poor test grades. Additionally, students who demonstrate that they understand the material well by scoring well on tests would not be punished for scoring lower on homework. I always personally had this problem when I found a class easy since I did not feel the motivation to do the homework when I already understood it and my test scores demonstrated that fact.

The one problem I see with this setup is how to deal with giving a fairly graded classes on your first shot. It will be difficult to create a balanced test. I think the only option is to make it fairly hard. Afterwards you can at least curve the scores up. If you make the test too easy, I think there would be a riot if you curved the scores down.

So, what does everyone else think? How can we grade fair without making it a time consuming mess? What is the simple solution? What grading systems promote learning?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Evolution Relationship

I was watching some videos on TED, a site which I highly recommend. Lately I have been watching random videos when I feel bored. I came across a video on genetic tracing of humanities origins. (Spencer Wells - Building a family tree for humanity) It is a good watch. The thing that I really liked and would like to point out is this idea of our relation to other animals. Typically we just get compared to apes, we came from apes, yada yada. This idea gets some people upset. Instead if we take this a little deeper, the greater idea is that we are related to all the animals on the planet, not just the apes. To me this seems like a incredible viewpoint which is much more 'religious' and uplifting. I wish more people would mention it.

That is all, watch some more videos on TED, like these:

Jane Goodall on what seperates us from the apes.
Hans Rosling shows the best stats you've ever seen.
Murray Gell-Mann: Beauty and truth in physics
Joshua Klein: The amazing intelligence of crows

That should be enough to get you hooked.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Olympic Judgement

I was talking to my Dad about the Olympics. He hasn't watched a lot of it but He started to complain about the sports which give judged scores, preferring the ones with definable quantitative measures. I thought this was interesting since I've complained about this as well. Are we genetically predisposed to complaining about gymnastics scoring? :)

I think it is pretty evident that the scoring system just does not work. This is evident in the spread of the scores given by the judges. If all the judges gave nearly the same score you may be more inclined to believe that the score they gave is what the athlete deserved. Instead, the Olympic judges, presumably the best judges around, cannot give consistent scores between themselves. Right here I would like to run through some numbers, calculating standard deviations of the group scores and compare that verses the variation between athletes. Unfortunately I don't remember enough of my statistics class to do a good job of that quickly. (If someone wants to give it a shot, I'd appreciate it, maybe I'll try later.) Though, I am confident that the variations between the judges is far beyond the differences which determine gold and silver and bronze.

The problem is, I really enjoy many of the judged events. It is amazing what these athletes do. I am in awe. How can we help to increase the confidence in the scores? I think this could be done. I started thinking about diving. A computer-camera system could be put into place which would estimate the angles of the body, determining rotation, separation of the legs, and ultimately it could put a quantitative measure the amount of water displaced. Similar systems could be used in gymnastics as well.

A system like this would not solve the problem outright, but it would give the judges more to work with. It also would give the audience some tangible scores that they could appreciate and understand. In the end the variation between the athletes would need to be accounted for. This would all come down to human judgment, but maybe with some engineers help we can reduce the error within the judges and insure that the athletes get the metals that they deserve.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Electricity vs. Gasoline

I got fired up to write this article because of hippies. I think they are a frequent source of inspiration for us on this blog. In essence, I was reading a forum and as usual someone has to complain about people driving and that you should just move closer to work and bike. We'll that is great if you can do that, but it is obviously not a solution for everyone. (I am not going to get into the details here but... cost of living, city life, raising kids are good reasons.)

This example wasn't the entirety of my frustration. This kind of mindset is typical of the now more popular casual environmentalist claiming that individuals need to make drastic changes to their lifestyle (possible significantly detrimental ones) in the name of the environment. I think this kind of argument is bound to fail. Individuals will not change make significant changes easily, especially if they are going to inconvenience themselves. Instead, what should the environmentalist ask:

Can we create a global system which has the advantages of our current system without the pollution? How do we accomplish this? What technologies need to mature? What is the impact on the economy or the average joe's wallet? (it needs to be minimal, preferably create a system which makes money) How are we going to address growing energy demands?

If they maintained this attitude (an engineering approach to the problem - maybe they could actually get involved in the engineering and science themselves) they might make more significant changes. This is the point - the environmentalists agenda will not be fulfilled by making everyone feel guilty, instead it will happen if people can make money at it. This is only going to happen if technological advances allow it. Simple, science + money = solution, that is how you change the world.

Somewhere in the middle of this all I was researching carbon dioxide release from several energy sources. People have a tendency to blindly trust what they have been told. I asked myself, how much CO2 is created while driving a car vs. consuming electricity? Here are the numbers. A gallon of gasoline produces around 20 lbs of CO2. That may seem odd, since a gallon of gas only weighs about 6 lbs, but it is mostly carbon and it combines with oxygen from the atmosphere. O2 is much heavier than Carbon. Thus, heavier CO2.

On the other hand, a coal plant might produce around 2 lbs of CO2 per kWh. To put this in perspective lets say a home is using 11000 kWh/year. (An average value) This equates to around 22,000 lbs of Co2/year (if they ran off a coal plant) or maybe as low as 10,000 lbs of CO2. (if they have other combustion energy sources, natural gas, etc) This is equivalent to 500 to 1100 gallons of gasoline per year or 1.36 to 3.01 gallons per day. In a 30 mpg vehicle this equates to 40 to 90 miles of driving per day.

Thus, a 20-45 mile commute to work (everyday) in a vehicle with a reasonable gas mileage will produce about as much CO2 as a typical home.

I like numbers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

World Records

Josh and I were chatting about the breaking of world records the other day. In specific, during the 4x100 mens freestyle relay 4 teams were past the previous world record. We thought it odd that after all these years a world record could be crushed like that. One would expect some humans would reach some sort of limit, at least limiting world record breaking. To satisfy my curiosity I just had to plot the data.

So there it is. The data shows some sort of limit being reached. This last world record has been a bit of a jump, but not significantly more than previous jumps. I actually love the first set of data, from around 1932 to 1954, that is the trend which one would expect.

It seems as if though individuals, or teams come along at times and make sudden changes. This last Olympics may be an example of that. Here is data from the 400 meter medley which Phelps won a few days ago.

Again we see some leveling off of the records. I noted two swimmers and their records just to show the influence of an individual. This shows you a bit of Phelps true skill. He was able to snap the limit of the records and make significant changes, improving year to year on his own records. Interesting.

The data:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Nature of the Olympic Games

I'll begin by apologizing in my lack of contribution to the blog over the last month. Things have been hectic and I'm sorry to say this had to play second fiddle for awhile. I hope I haven't lost any of our few regular readers.

Recently I received a lot of grief for my excitement for the Olympic Games. To be completely honest, I was surprised and a little dismayed because of it. The summer games have been a very powerful generator of emotion for me since I was a little kid. I don't see why they wouldn't be significant for everyone.

Deep down do I care about swimming, track and field, weightlifting, etc.? No. If it was on TV on any usual Saturday afternoon I might watch it for a while. During that time I would appreciate it, but I don't follow those sports with the same zeal as I do with SEC football. That's not the point. The Olympic Games stand as a symbol of Humanity.

Consider this: when NASA sends deep space probes with the potential goal of contacting extraterrestrial life they use what we comprehend as universal symbols; namely numbers (prime numbers I think). That symbolizes intelligences. They also include symbols of Humanity. If an alien life came to earth and asked "what does it mean to be human?" we would recognize it as a pivotal point for all humans whatever nationality, color, or creed. Now consider the Olympic Games. There are other international competitions like the Olympics, but since their grandeur is less inspiring I will consider them as being less significant.

Because of its broad spectrum of sports, a large portion of the world is able to participate. The spirit of competition shines through in that international differences are ideally, if not always practically, set aside. There was a symbolism when Kerry Strug stuck the landing in '92 that defines the essence of being Human. It is that symbolism that Humans can be defined by perseverance against adversity. On a larger scale we see nations that are not strong players in the world community being forces to be reckoned with in Olympic competition. Kenya has their runners, Romania their gymnasts. Although ultimately insignificant in a capitalistic world market, these are symbols of perseverance and inspiration. They could be springboards for national pride, national identity, and ultimately international security. Perseverance over adversity is a reoccurring theme in many (all) cultures. Nations are forged by the fire of conflict, oppression, and inspiration. It has shaped the course of human history and is so universally shared that it should be considered a defining factor of what we are as a world society.

I also considered art, architecture, music, etc. as being symbolic of Humanity. After considering this for a moment, I realized that those things are a testament to Humanity, not a definition. These things are a product of something greater. The spirit of creating or the ability to inspire through creation or action is much more significant than the creation itself. These things are intrinsic to the spirit of the Olympics.

The very fact that Olympic champions are timeless and borderless shows potential for Humanity to survive. Take note to how many times you see a clip of Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10 performance on American TV during the games. She was not American and she put those marks up 7 years before I was born. However, she is a household name. A name I've known my whole life. She has nothing to do with stop the conflicts in Africa, or supplying aid for the tsunami victims in Southeast Asia. She has nothing do with ending the Cold War or reconciling the differences between feuding religions. Or maybe she has everything to do with it. Back to the original consideration. If it was my job to answer the question of "what does it mean to be human?" this is how I would respond. To be Human is to so much more than just a species.

And now a deep thought…

In the short time between the starting gun firing and the tape at the finish line breaking, there are no white men or black. No Christians, Muslims, or Hindus. No Americans or Russians or Iraqis. Perhaps it is only in that brief moment that we can simply be Human.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Things I Hate: Commercials

I was thinking about this yesterday. Today I was privy to the straw that broke the camel's back so to speak. I was thinking about the effectiveness of commercials in my consumer decisions. I decided that at least half the time the outcome of a commercial elicits the opposite as to their intended purpose. I don't pretend to be the only person who dislikes commercials, but I doubt people really think about it. What is their purpose? Fundamentally, it is to inform the consumer as to the availability of a product or service. The next step in advertising sophistication is to inform the consumer as to the benefit of said product or service by either positively presenting their product or service, or negatively presenting the competition. The later is the first crux. Finally, they must make the commercial memorable in a favorable way by being provocative when smearing the competition or "pop" or "edgy" when trying to promote their own positive characteristics. This is the second crux.

By smearing the competition as inferior we are ultimately deteriorating society by pushing the bounds of ethics. This is common and obvious in the realm of politics. Also, they fail to present a proper persuasive argument by all too often dwelling on a one sided bias. This sort of mentality slights fair trade and ethical competition by forcing the common consumer to make choices without complete knowledge of the product and its alternatives. Inevitably if no company takes the high road, then the consumer must choose between the least of all evils. Complete negative reinforcement will only create lower consumer moral.

The second, and most damnable characteristic of ad campaigns, is the exploitation of consumer through a blunt force trauma use of unsophisticated suggestions. Miracle cleaners and car salesmen are two good examples. A local car commercial was going to have some guy on a motorcycle jump 14 cars. So. I wondered if anybody would even show up to see it. They use an unnaturally annoying high pressure salesman with a fake persona and sales pitch poorly riding a wheelie on camera as he spouts out some crap about this motorcycle jump. What does that have to do with the product? It's simply annoying. It's exploiting people that are unsophisticated enough get excited about gimmicks. The miracle cleaner guy is the same way. He talks quickly and excitably in order to be memorable. His statements are reinforced by a questionable "right before your eyes" demonstration. Any moron should be appalled by the obvious use of rudimentary manipulation techniques.

Either way, these are primitive tactics, brutal like the prom night fumbling in the back seat of your father's car. A conscience stance against these exploitations will align with the spirit of capitalism and the best products will shine through. I will not dance to their tune. An online consumer rating system could effectively weed out the less worthy. Maybe Angie's List is making an attempt at that. I'm not sure if it handles consumer goods or not. If it doesn't then it should.

This paragraph is my acceptance as to the inevitability of commercials. Remember the old Gillette commercials? "Gillette, the best a man can get." They were sophisticated and affective because they employed attractive people in a "normal" yet modern setting. Consider them further. They always depicted a ruggedly handsome man shaving; hence, an attractive person in a normal situation. They were selling razors so they used sharp lines and harsh shadows to define edges. They also used deep, rich color schemes that appealed to the sophisticated side of the consumer. Is this manipulation of emotions? Definitely, but they appealed to complex, evolved emotions. They were void of flashy, trendy gimmicks.

I have to say, sex sells. Damn, I love the most recent Edge shave gel commercials with the hot girls shooting each other with shaving cream. I am a corporate pawn. But let's consider that further though. Sex is as primitive as it gets but sexuality is as sophisticated as it gets. Sexuality and sensuality are equally affective on men and women because sexual, mysterious people are desired and admired. Even purely sexual women such as in the Edge commercials bring positive reinforcement while remaining essentially neutral in a capitalistic way. They are pushing the envelope as to what is exploitation of consumers. I acknowledge that.

My last thought pertains to the "straw" I referred to in the first sentence. I was watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on ABC Family. After I started counting and before I lost my patience it was averaging 5-10 minutes of movie before airing 4-7 minutes of commercials. The total run time is 3.5 hours. The DVD runtime is 2.5 hours. If we adjust for the "edited to fit in the allotted runtime" clause, I'd bet we're talking about a 2 hour runtime without commercials. This is unreasonable. The same thing happened with Batman Begins on FX (I think). Just like poor commercials forcing away my business, I quit watching! Furthermore, it's likely I will not watch your station again because of it. I take things to the extreme, but ask yourself my dear reader…why don't you?

And now a deep thought…

The achievement of mankind cannot be measured by its tangible creations. It can only be assessed by marveling at the great expanse of knowledge learned through its generations.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Rule of 9

Do you remember when you were in grade school and someone offered to show you this magic trick? It goes something like this – pick a number between 1 and 10, then add *something* to it, then subtract, then multiply …blah blah blah, then multiply by 9 and add the sum of the digits. The person would promptly shout out the number you ended up with. Wow! Hopefully you realized it wasn't magic and there was a mathematical trick to it.

It's actually quite a strange phenomenon that I've dubbed the "Rule of 9." Basically if you multiply any number 1-10 by 9, then add the two digits, the result is always 9. So all the adding and subtracting in the trick is pointless; only the last two steps where you multiply a single digit number by 9 and add the digits is fruitful. I think there is some mathematical principle here, but I really don't know it. I haven't researched the topic thoroughly mostly because I have no idea what the principle is called so I can search for it. I implore the reader to enlighten me if they know more about it than I do.

I messed around with this and created the following table.

It shows that there is significant structure beyond the single digit numbers. Notice that at 11 the sum of the digits is 18. At 21 and 22 the sum is 18, and so on. The pattern follows in that manner until all 10 numbers give 18 as the sum of the digits. Then it starts over with 27 being the number that shows up rather than 18. I'm sure I could express it in some mathematical fashion, but I've never been that good at this sort of random mathematics, and frankly I don't feel like trying at the moment. I suspect this pattern will continue forever and the digits of every number that appears always add to 9. I'm not sure what the significance of this is, if there is any. It's an interesting observation I decided to write about because it reinforces my feeling that these things are the way they are because universe is highly structured and the universe is highly structured because these things are the way they are. It follows the chicken or the egg conundrum. Some physicists have posed that we exist because the universe is the way it is, but the universe is the way it is because we exist. It's along those same lines.

And now a deep thought…

Hmm... What if the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (by measuring (observing) something we ultimately change it) has a limit? Could the structure in the universe have appeared because our influence has forced us beyond the transient state?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Blind Faith Part II

If by some chance a person of religious zeal stumbles across our blog, this post is for you.

Last week I was in Knoxville, TN for a meeting. I was walking down the street toward a bar and grill to get dinner when I was stopped by two young gentlemen. I had my street map out so I was surprised when their purpose was not for directions but rather to initiate the "have you found Jesus" conversation. Typically I'm not so responsive to people testifying in the street, but I have to admit, these two young men were by far the best I've seen. They were not intrusive, but asked poignant and personal questions regarding my religious background, my ideals, and then commented on their perspective of religion. They were bright and used some of the same manipulative speech I use when I'm trying to be persuasive.

Eric will tell you that my knowledge of the Catholic faith (that's what I was raised as) is probably superficial. I know the things they teach in Sunday school and I have some insight into the foundation of the church from a political perspective including the reformation. I'm not a student of religious doctrine so my opinions must be taken at face value. But I know that and I know I can't strongly argue certain questions of "why" because of it.

I had no intention of contradicting their belief system even though it was bordering on the "Blind Faith" concept I hate so much. I see a benefit to having religious faith, and I've said that many times. The problem is they said (he said – one guy was talking more) something to the effect of "You admit that you've sinned, so what are you going to say to God when you're at your judgment?" I had illuminated them on my belief that my worth as a human is based on my positive contribution to humanity through scientific contribution, service, self awareness, and a general accepting and utilization of my talents to their fullest. He said "but that's not good enough. It is your faith alone that will grant you heaven (he was protestant)." He talked about atonement and forgiveness and all that stuff. I reminded him about confession, the last rights, and purgatory.

Perhaps it was because I was reading Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (the first meeting of Hannibal Lector) that I felt compelled to take the "quid pro quo" stance. I asked him a lot of questions about his personal life, his "sins," and his journey to our chance encounter on the streets of Knoxville. I don't think they were prepared for someone like me. I'd guess they were used to complete rejection and combativeness or complete acceptance. Certainly not a somewhat informed person taking a logical stance toward the persuasive strength of their argument rather than the argument itself. Toward the end of the conversation I stopped it completely and complimented them on their technique. I pointed out the strong and weak points in order to help them be more persuasive. I commented on my recent gift subscription to Creationist magazine and to their complete surprise, I said it was terrible. It was a funny reaction. Then I went to explain that the content was ok, but the lack of proper journalism in that they disregard their responsibility to purvey both opinions of time and point out the issues that support their perspective. They just go straight for the jugular without setting up a sound basis for the attack. I told them to stay away from that kind of argument in their evangelism. Most importantly I retorted to the above comment by saying "if we are all sinners, even after we accept Christianity as truth and have asked for forgiveness, then what separates you from me in the eyes of God? Is your contribution to the world enough to grant you pardon?" I'm sure people have asked that before. It was their specific argument's biggest weakness. He had no answer besides reiterating what he had already said about asking forgiveness. It was circular logic. Believe me I didn't want to trap him, but I was fishing for the answer I believe would help his argument the most. Drumroll please. "Faith." That's simply it. By saying we have to take it on faith he's closes the argument, and has left the decision up to the other person. Honestly, he had said it before, but not in the correct context. "Faith" is an unobtrusive word. It inspires personal interpretation for that "personal relationship with God" that I've heard so many times. He has to accept the fact that inevitably that's all he really has to go on. There is very little in the bible that can be proven explicitly, so inevitably one has to have faith in its truth. I think the quieter one got my point, I'm not sure about the other.

And now a deep thought…

Unless science can someday prove without a shadow of a doubt to every common man the exact origin of the universe and the life in it there will always be a fundamental difference in the faith of science and the faith of religion. But right now both take a certain level of blind faith.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Chaos in Prime Numbers

About a year ago I sat in on a seminar by Dr. Boris Kupershmidt on the topic of prime numbers. I'm not a mathematician and therefore most of what he said went right over my head. He did say something, however, that caught my attention: "The distribution of prime numbers is chaotic." If I remember right he was referring to "small" prime numbers. Of course in number theory 10^16 is "small." I had previously taken a course in nonlinear systems and had studied chaos. Mathematical chaos has a very interesting and subtle structure; there is order in chaos. My post entitled A Mathematical Perspective of Global Warming talked about chaos in the weather. Anyway, I am enthralled with chaos to the point that I see strange attractors everywhere. Every time I see a flag blowing in the wind I see a strange attractor. My work in hydrodynamic instability deals with turbulence and turbulence is very closely related to chaos so I get a personal satisfaction of coupling my work with my perspective of nature. I digress. I decided to see for myself if by "chaotic" he meant chaotic in the mathematical sense or chaotic in the nonmathematical vernacular.

I read a book by James Gleick called Chaos: Making a New ScienceISBN 0-140-09250-1. In it he discussed a group from the University of California at Santa Cruz called the Dynamical Systems Collective. They devised an experiment to find attractors in water dripping from a faucet. They saw that in general, the water dripped at a steady rate. If the faucet was disturbed they could force the drips to fall in groups. In order to visualize the attractor they plotted the time between one drip verses the time for the next. The plots showed "blobs" centered around two points for pairs of drips, three points for 3 drips and so forth. I got the idea to plot prime numbers in the same way: the "distance" on a number line between one appearance of a prime and the next. Low and behold some very interesting patterns emerged!

The first plot shows the result for the first 100000 primes. Many points actually plot on top of each other. The more points you plot the more complete the graph becomes and the farther it extends in both the x and y directions. However, this is extremely slow since so many plot directly on top of each other.

My next idea was to take the second difference and plotting it against the first difference

I took the 3rd difference and plotted it against the 2nd difference

Beyond that, the pattern wasn't much different and the shape of the envelope only changed slightly.

As far as predicting prime numbers, I can't really comment on these results other than they seem to give an envelope in which many primes clearly fall and inside the envelope comes organized patterns so that one would not (so) blindly test for primes. As far as theory goes, I'm not worthy enough to even try. The most recent developments in Riemann's Conjecture and computational experiments in prime numbers suggest that this is likely to have been an exercise in futility. That's why I figured it was safe to post this to a blog rather than somewhere in the mathematical community. Either way, if somebody does find this important, I would appreciate some credit!

And now a deep thought…

Is our definition of mathematics universal?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Poverty Fallacy

These are excerpts from “Understanding Poverty in America

“Each year, the U.S. Census Bureau counts the number of "poor" persons in the U.S. In 2005, the Bureau found 37 million "poor" Americans.”

“Today, the expenditures per person of the lowest-income one-fifth (or quintile) of households equal those of the median American household in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.”

“The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:

  • Forty-six percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
  • Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.
  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
  • Seventy-three percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.”

“As a group, America's poor are far from being chronically undernourished… Most poor children today are, in fact, supernourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier that the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.”

“Eighty-nine percent of the poor report their families have "enough" food to eat, while only 2 percent say they "often" do not have enough to eat.”

“The typical American defined as "poor" by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs.”

Read the article for more details.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Book Review: Advice to Rocket Scientists

Its been a little while since I read this book, but it is a damn good book, so I needed to say something about. Quite frankly the book is a must read for engineering students, especially those who want to get into academics. The book discusses how to get a job, how to deal with a boss, how to move up in industry, how to publish, how to manage students, how to negotiate a job offer and quite a bit more. To sum it up, it talks about all the stuff that no one ever talks about and it does it in a very simple straight forward way.

Just about everything is good about this book - except for one serious but forgivable flaw - THE TITLE. He states in the first chapter that a rocket scientist is anyone with an aerospace degree or someone that works at NASA, Boeing, etc. This is an absolute shame. This definition is fantastically wrong. A rocket scientist is simply someone who does scientific research on rockets. Simple. All those other aerospace engineers could be working on planes or God knows what, but not rockets, and they are certainly not rocket scientists. The advice in this book pertains to engineers and scientists as a whole - not just rocket scientists.

In my mind this error is a result of one of two possibilities. One, they picked a catchy title so that people would by the book. A very real possibility. Or two, the author (an astronautics - orbital sciences kinda guy) likes to think of himself as a rocket scientist. He is a mission designer. His work is intimately involved with rockets and depends on rockets. But alas, he is not a rocket scientist. He just works really near to them. His incorrect definition may be an attempt to include himself in the 'rocket scientist' crowd.

Before I get all crazy let me bring this article back down to earth and reveal the rocket scientists secret. What we do is hard, damn hard. Rockets are a difficult beast to handle. However, that is not to say that what we do is any harder than a lot of other noble fields. There are a lot of other really smart people out there who do amazing work. By bitching about this title I am not being a high horsed rocket scientist complaining that someone is trying to steal our thunder. Instead, it is simply that rocket science is a very small field with very few people and those of us who actually do rocket science should be acknowledged as rocket scientists, other aerospace engineers are clearly doing other work.

In summary, the book is fantastic, read it, but everywhere he writes 'rocket scientist' replace it with 'engineer' or 'scientist' or 'researcher.' That is who this book is for.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Robotic Nation

There is an article by the creator the website 'How Stuff Works' named 'Robotic Nation.' It discusses the interesting implications of an increased use of robotics, mainly in the workplace. In summary the idea goes like this:

As time progresses more and more robots will be used. Skilled labor jobs, low wage jobs and assembly line jobs will be among the first to go. Specifically, one could imagine robots replacing the jobs of many low wage workers. As computer AI and user interface is improved it is likely that fast food restaurants and many other 'simple' jobs could easily be replaced.

The question then is: Are other jobs going to be created to replace the jobs lost to robots? The answer is likely no. It takes very few people to make and repair the robots compared to the jobs they will displace. And remember, robots will be building the robots.

What do these people do then? That is the interesting part. Will this cause a large lower class? Those who are unable to do more complicated technical tasks are not going to have anything to fall back on.

Brain Marshall proposes a welfare system of sorts. That everyone will get some kind of grant ($25,000 in fact) to supplement their living. His concern is that with money flowing into the corporations via the consumer, with little money leaving to the general population via salaries, the economy would be starved for money to be spent on products and we would become less efficient. (Where does this money come from - More Taxes - Ick.)

Now, I would suggest that you read the articles yourself and form your own opinion. It is an interesting thing to think about. My personal thought is that a welfare ideology is crap. That it is bound to fail. We need to teach people to be self reliant. Instead, allow a free market to determine its fate. It is likely it will pick what is best for itself (which typically means that it is better for the economy as well.) If you can't get a job as a minimum wage slacker, well then, tough. I would imagine that forcing society to be highly educated is probably going to do more good than bad. In lieu of this 'impending disaster' which only places more reliance on education, we could use our money to, ah... educate ourselves and our children.

If the future is going to demand education, then so be it.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Case for Space

Eric and I were invited by the Citizens for Space Exploration to address members of Congress about the benefits of continued funding for NASA and NASA's endeavors (endeavors = projects…not more shuttlesJ). The CSE is a citizens group supporting the U.S.'s continuing support for space exploration. Once a year they invite students and community leaders to have closed room discussions lobbying for a 1% NASA budget. Most of the time we actually met with the technical advisor, not the congressmen. Apparently the technical advisor actually required to have a degree in a non-technical field like basket weaving. That was rude and I'm sorry, but I think most of the people I talked to would agree that it would be beneficial to have a technical person in the technical position. Oh well, they were all pleasant people and seemed quite responsive to the topic. Really I think the number one criterion for those jobs is to be personable enough to pacify an angry or aggressive lobbyist.

The organization of the trip was OK, but not great. I asked if we should have a game plan or a unified theme for each group of five that traveled together. The organizers basically said "wing it." I thought that was crap. These people are busy people trying to balance the problems of millions of constituents. If I know one thing, someone like that will want to hear a coordinated and well thought out summary of the purpose, benefit, and request/solution. But whatever, I did my best to convey a theme at our orientation and everyone seemed to be agreeable with it so we went with it.

I commented on the fact that my American education, and specifically my Indiana education, left be behind the international students when I entered graduate school. I spent about a year where I felt like I was playing catch up. Since we were meeting primarily with Indiana delegates and Indiana doesn't have a center for NASA like Ohio, Florida, Texas,… I guessed that education would be an easy sell. It turned out I was right on the money. My argument illustrated the momentum that President Kennedy built when we went to the moon and how there was a surge in engineers afterward because they were inspired. We haven't had that since and even now with the initiative to go to the moon and Mars we don't have it because there hasn't been the effort to inform and inspire the masses. If we make it to Mars and it is highly publicized, the kids would be self-motivated to be engineers and scientists. From that point I emphasized two things. The first being that if we can't get that public appeal for Mars now, once we get there we probably won't get farther for hundreds of years, and therefore we risk losing the ability for scientific inspiration as a form of motivation. The secondary point is that U.S. educational legislation lives (and will die) with the "no child left behind" idealism. By forcing the brightest students to be slowed down by the lesser we will create a situation where each generation of teachers possesses less knowledge than the previous. Therefore it becomes the responsibility of the child to motivate themselves. Again, without a goal the ability and the self awareness required for self motivation becomes diminished. Countries we consider "third-world" are investing in space exploration and launch capabilities. They are showing serious progress and competition and will eventually overtake us if we do not act.

One staff member we spoke with was military so I mentioned that the first "Space Lawyer" just graduated from a U.S. school. It will become a matter of international interest once other countries establish a significant presence on the moon and in space in general. Lunar resources, especially if water and power become scarce on earth, are an obvious area for international incident. Right now it's kind of like the old west - lawless. But unlike the old west, it's not guaranteed to be the property of the United States. Ideally space would be a unifying point for all the world's nations, but it is not human nature to play well with others. "There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum - Arthur C. Clarke." I think he knows better.

There are many more arguments in favor of space exploration. In the spirit of brevity I've only given the stripped down version of my group's focus. I feel those arguments are viable and pertinent and I should hope the U.S. government has the foresight to push for space now instead of scrambling to keep up later.

And now a deep thought…

"The meek shall inherit the Earth -- the rest of us will go to the stars."

1978 - from Notebooks of Lazarus Long

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Blind Faith

Somehow I got into a discussion a while back with my physical therapist about the cold or flu that was "going around." I don't remember the details exactly, but I'm going to say that she wondered why there wasn't a cure or vaccine for the common cold. I replied along the lines of "the cold virus evolves frequently to counteract the medication and therefore it's difficult to design a drug or vaccine for." She replied "I don't believe in that." I didn't get it immediately. You don't believe in what? If it had been "I don't believe it," then there is no question. She doesn't believe the virus has the ability to adapt. Ok. I guess. Suspecting that wasn't what she meant, I asked "You don't believe in what, evolution?" She replied "No." End of conversation. Apparently evolution is a touchy topic for her for religious reasons.

Religion is a central point in the lives of billions worldwide. Most major religions are devoted to the teachings, if not a direct following of an omnipotent or exceptionally enlightened individual. We follow without truly, unarguable manifested proof. That is faith. Religious doctrine forms the basis for many laws. It lays a foundation for moral life, regardless of religion. I feel organized religion has many benefits for humanity. Unfortunately, truly blind faith harbors ignorance in certain circumstances. Evolution is a terrible topic for Christians (and probably many other religions). The notion that God didn't "just say go" and presto, the universe as we know it, is uncomfortable for those with blind faith. Even harder is the possibility that modern life was founded on the building blocks of the more primitive.

Science has shown glaring evidence that evolution is real, that it still exists, and that it will continue after the time of humans comes to an end. Who are we to state as fact that God's methods don't include evolution? 7 days in the bible could be a metaphor for 7 billion years. It seems reasonable since science shows records predating the timeframe of the bible as calculated with standard time references. For you literalists out there, let me ask you: "What is a day?" A day is based on the time it takes Earth to rotate on its axis. Earth! A day is subjective as to what planet you're on. In an infinite universe, the probability of life in some form on another planet is 100%. Therefore, our "day" is completely meaningless beyond our own planet. Maybe God created the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea from the primordial goo, as according to His plan. And maybe when Genesis was transcribed by Moses some of the facts became inspirational metaphor. After all, God the omnipotent is a bit more inspirational and poetic than God the chemist or God the physicist. Who knows? Does it really matter since a literal believer and a metaphorical believer follow the same moral code? If every word of the bible is absolutely true, then Alabama's math curriculum would have certainly been enlightened (see http://www.snopes.com/religion/pi.asp for the joke and http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a3_341.html for a nonreligious laugh at ignorance followed by a reply that is a perfect example that blind faith begets ignorance).

After all, I'm not arguing God's existence, His influence, or the importance of religion in general. I'm not really even talking about evolution in the sense that it becomes controversial in schools. I'm talking about the ability for a life form to foster selective mutation as a mechanism to adapt. It is basic science. It is not controversial. It is verifiable and repeatable over a very short time. There should be no opposing religious stance. So many of the differences in humans, too often described as beautiful, are a good example of adaptation on a genetic level. We are all "unique snowflakes" but snowflakes with a purpose. Dark skin comes from sun exposure. Thick hair is beneficial in cold climates. Baldness is actually considered as a modern example of evolution because the need to stop heat loss through the top of your head is lessened with the comfort of sophisticated shelter and clothing. We must take an objective stance when observing our existence. We must weigh the proven facts and the non-secular interpretations and find a balance that puts perspective in both worlds.

It is a responsibility of all humans to make decisions, both moral and common, on logic and reason. Rational and informed thinking is the only way to understand fundamental perspectives. So often, religious zealots put their fingers in their ears when a scientific finding (not to mention a religious difference) contradicts their one-dimensional perception of the world. They are hindering human social and intellectual progress. It is their fault because it is their choice.

And now a deep thought…

Extreme ignorance and extreme knowledge of the world and the universe are the only two places that can truly sustain blind faith.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Cost of...

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
-Ben Franklin

I began writing this as a discussion of military spending vs. space exploration costs. I would have liked that to be a central theme, but my anger grew as I gathered more and more numbers until I decided to instead basically list a few interesting numbers to give a perspective on spending.

The general misconception is that NASA gets a bunch of money. It is then sometimes attacked as a waste. "We can spend that money on feeding the poor... etc," they exclaim. One thing I have personally come to dislike is military spending. Now, I enjoy the fact that our country has a large military, the largest. We account for close to half of the entire worlds military spending. What I think is that it is too large. Lets look at some numbers.

Now, to date, the Iraq war has cost approximately $515.75 billion. That is around 341 million dollars a day. The 2008 budget for NASA was $17.318 billion, or about 50 Iraq days (ID's). The highly successful Mars rovers cost around $820 million, 3 ID's. The Cassini Probe, another fantastic adventure, cost $3.26 billion, 10 ID's. The entire budget of NASA to date, adjusted for inflation totals to $618.412 billion. The cost of a meaningless war equals sending man into space, landing on the moon, building all the shuttles, a space station, sending countless probes and satellites and robots into space, and all the other stuff NASA does, all of which have added immensely to our base of knowledge.

I guess it just makes me a little sick.

Other numbers:
Yearly cost of nuclear weapons: $15.1 billion
Money spent on gambling in US, 2005: $84.65 billion
2008 Social Security: $608 billion
Money spent on pets in the US a year: around $40 billion
Nation Science Foundation 2008 budget: $5.9 billion

We need our priorities, but math and science and technology are taking a back seat to many other programs. Which of these programs are going to help our nation in the end? Which are going to keep us competitive in the global market? Which will inspire new technology and innovation, thus leading to a strong economy and more jobs and better education? I think it is easy to see.

Good Links:
*(other data was collected easily using the Force =>Google)
Death and Taxes Poster

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Come on Linux, seriously?

I'm at a point in my career where I'm starting to publish papers with my advisor and potentially with authors I've never met face to face. I see this as the stepping stone to my future as an independent researcher. To promote simplicity in my career I want to build a foundation for consistency in my work, but in the spirit of collaboration I must be versed in the applications others prefer. By this, I'm referring to the platforms used to produce work (windows, linux, office, latex, matlab, c++,…).

Linux and Latex are two pieces of the platform puzzle I want to love, but simply cannot. The idea of open source goes right along with my thoughts on free information for all so I was eager to try these out. The newest Ubuntu distribution came out last week and I immediately got it, installed it, and was abhorred by it! I've read numerous articles on Digg and Slashdot about how Linux is making a serious run at the mainstream operating system race. This distribution is supposed to be as close as any to being a user friendly, efficient, and stable competitor to Windows and Mac. Needless to say I hate the fact that I am Microsoft dependent. Between Windows, Office, and all the other scientific software that is developed to run with them, I would be hard pressed to adopt another platform. Never the less, with all the options in Linux and the open source community, not to mention Vmware and Wine for my cannot-live-without Windows programs, I thought I could find a way.

I'd read an article that suggested Matlab run on Linux could run 25% faster than on Windows for a particular eigensolver code. My PhD will include a massive code for computing eigenvalues – one that I dread writing because debugging an eigensolver that could run for days can only be described as masochistic. My school has copies of Matlab and Mathematica for Linux so I was all set. I was going to get Ubuntu up and running, install Matlab and Mathematica and given those worked fine, get a hold of Vmware to continue my work in Word and Mathtype inside Linux. I installed Ubuntu. Beautiful! They really have the install process streamlined. Wubi comes with it so you can install a simulated dual boot. The partition manager makes it easy to set up a real dual boot. Beautiful! So now we're up and running. It starts much faster than Vista. Everything works right out of the gate. No updates, no drivers…it just works. Now it was time to install some programs. The synaptic manager and the general add/remove functionality is fantastic! I found the programs I wanted, checked the box, and boom, done! Beautiful! Then it was time to install Matlab and Mathematica. Mathematica first. I had .iso of both so I copied them from a SSH server set up in Vista. Easy as pie! It was apparent that Linux's network functionality both local and through SSH were far superior to windows by way of speed and ease of access. I need to mount the iso. I had used the add/remove programs manager to download gmount. I got it figured out fairly easily. Then I stared blankly at the desktop for a bit hoping, but not expecting something to happen. I had a little experience with Ubuntu before so I knew it hadn't had autorun functionality. That was one thing I saw as a logical advancement for this version of Ubuntu and was disappointed when it wasn't there. Another nice addition would be "automount" when an .iso is on the desktop or a disk is in the drive. Anyway, so how in the hell do you install this thing? I read for awhile trying to figure out the commands in the "user friendly" Ubuntu forums. The problem there is that MOST of the help is written to explain these things to Linux literate people. If I was that good I sure as hell wouldn't be looking in a forum for help on copying a file! It really comes across as snobbish. I imagine a socially deficient character sitting at a computer scoffing at the ignorance of the posters and purposefully leaving steps out! If we met face to face I bet you wouldn't be so f*#king smug! Mmm, serenity now! Anyway, not much help there, so I used the Force (Google) and sort of figured it out. In the terminal I had to point to the desktop by typing commands manually. FYI capitalization counts! From there I had to open the mount folder because I never found the command to explore the iso/cd. Then I had to point to the installer folder. Then I typed "install" and bingo! NOTHING HAPPENED! I tried /install, nothing. I tried the entire path, NOTHING! Finally somewhere on some website I saw a command "./install". I thought it was a typo where the period ended the last sentence and "/install" was the command starting the next sentence. It worked. Basically I got lucky.

Everything looks good until the install comes back with an error: "couldn't validate something." Back to the Force. I only got a working answer when I again got lucky and copied the correct combination of words into Google. It said I needed libraries installed. Sudo apt-get install <some obscure combination of abbreviated words>. That got it working fine. The rest was easy. Not too bad. Probably 2 hours from format to a working Mathematica. In Vista, it would have been slower to install the OS but faster (and easier) for Mathematica.

Now it's time for Matlab. This one had so many errors I didn't understand it was ridiculous! Instead of the Windows system; basically double click the install.exe and blindly click next until its finished, I had to make a directory. First problem, what are the commands and where do I put it. There is no intuitive name for the equivalent of "Program Files." A little searching and I figure out where and how to make my directory and get the licensing set up. From that point it was a downward spiral of fighting permissions, setting the target, and actually installing the program. I finally got it installed, but in my previous attempts I messed up the install and the workbench was incorrectly displayed. Of course I have no idea how to uninstall it in Linux so I formatted the whole thing and started over!

Round two was easier and everything was up and running. Time to test. I ran 10,000 points to generate a Poincare map for Duffing's equation…and waited…and waited…and waited! 36 seconds. I've got an identical machine on a kvm running Vista and the same version of Matlab so I switched over and ran it there. 26 seconds! Unbelievable! That translates to hours of wasted time waiting for a code to finish over the course of days or weeks. All this time spent and Vista still ran faster! Total time 8:30am-7:30pm – 1 hour for lunch. Total results=0. The next day I went back to Vista.

I'll make a brief comment on LaTex as well. I took a short course to see if it is better. I learned quickly that my method of derivation and writing cannot be done without a truetype environment. I messed around with LYX which is a graphical interface for LaTex and if I had to, I could use it. Beside the nongraphical interface, the commands are unintuitive. There is no point in me learning a whole new typesetting language (because that's what it is, a programming language) when I have nearly got all the bugs worked out of a much more powerful Microsoft Word.

Apt-get is an incredible tool IF you know the exact syntax of the program you want to install. The Synaptic program manager is an incredible tool IF the program you want is listed and clearly defined. Both are only worthwhile IF the program is hosted on their database. No automount, no installers, no computational speed, no customer! My hopes of becoming Microsoft free were dashed out for another 6 months.

This article is more oriented toward the problems a normal user might face.


And now a deep thought,

-I'm sure all the Linux Fanboys will have fun with their 700mb web browser.

P.S. Firefox 3 beta! Come on. There's not enough plug-in support yet!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Running in the Rain: The Math

I always wanted to knuckle through this problem. So riding back from Florida I worked through the beginnings of it. Presented here is a preliminary mathematical analysis of whether it is better to walk or run in the rain.

It may seem natural that you would want to run in the rain and get through it as fast as you can, but the argument against it is that as you run the rain hits your forward facing area (vs. just hitting you on your upward facing area) thus making more area for the rain to hit. That way you get wetter. We will see how this idea pans out mathematically.

There are multiple ways to tackle this problem. I first started out with a continuum/flux analysis, but I found that since the raindrops are rather discreet points that it didn't make much intuitive sense to deal with them in this manner. Instead I looked at the problem in a different way.

In the end we are concerned with how many raindrops hit our body as we traveled from point A to point B. This would somehow correlate (not necessarily linearly) with how wet we got. We begin by looking at a field of raindrops. Shown above is a simple diagram of a snapshot in time of a field of raindrops. I am making the assumption for this initial study that they are falling straight down. What we need to find out is which of these raindrops we will intersect with. As we travel forward in space and time the raindrops will fall, the slope of the red line reflects upon this fact. As we travel forward, raindrops which once were higher will fall into our path where they will hit us. The slope of the red line is given by:

We can see the effect of this slope by looking at two situations: one if we travel really fast and another if we travel really slowly.

If we travel really fast so that Vperson >> Vrain we would essentially just chop out a section of raindrops. This area (D*h) times the # of raindrops per area (rhorain times your width) yields the total number of raindrops struck.

If instead we walk very very slowly we would expect that the area created by the arrows to be very large and as Vperson -> 0, we should be hit by an infinite amount of rain (at that point you are just standing in the rain.)

After we run the calculations for all situations we end up with:

Where D is the distance traveled, rhorain is the density of rain times your shoulder to shoulder width, w is your depth, front to back and h is your height. A simple equation, we can see that as Vme -> infinity then Rain Hit = rhorain*D*h. Also, if Vme -> 0 then Rain Hit -> infinity, just as we predicted.

The real interesting part is seen when the rain is falling straight down. As mentioned before, one would presume that when you run the rain comes at you at a larger angle and therefore you get struck by more rain, however the math shows that no matter what speed you travel the same number of rain drops will strike your forward facing surface. Fascinating.

To add complication, we are also interested when there are cross winds. Thus the rain isn't falling straight down.

The same idea follows, solve for the slopes and figure out the area of rain drops cut out. I'll spare you the math (I'll add a .pdf with all the details later.) In the end we get,

And there we have it. We look at the limits, as Vme -> inf, then Rain Hit = rhorain*D*h, like before. If Vrain_across=0, we get the same equation as before, which is correct. Also, if Vrain_across=Vme then we only get rain on our head, also correct. And what is the net conclusion from this equation… it is always better to run faster through the rain, no matter what. Below is a contour plot showing variations in your number of rain particles hit (red=lots of rain, blue = little rain) vs. horizontal rain velocity and human velocity. For reference walking speed is around 2-4 mph, and downward rain speed varies from 7-18 mph (I used 12 mph for this example.) You can see a minimum line when your speed equals that of the rain, this is when you are running with the rain. Also, for any given rain speed, running faster always results in less rain hit. The only exception may be if you are running with the rain and start to run faster than it, you could get slightly wetter, but not significantly.

In Conclusion I want to discuss some of the limitations of this study and address them. Firstly, this assumes you are a rectangle. Admittedly, for the majority of America this may not be true, but for an average person we are not too different from one. Also, the assumption that rain hit = wetness is not necessarily true, if a lot of rain is hitting on top of your head much of it may run off. Also, the relative velocity of the rain hitting you may dictate how well it penetrates your clothing (which is also a significant variable.) So keep in mind this is a limited study, but as all physics goes, starting with a simple model usually gives you significant insight into the problem and although it may not be perfect we still can learn something from it.