January 27, 2008

I shake hands with men I have not shaken hands with for years,
trying to make out their faces through what they have become.

– From Through by Ciaran Carson

This is an amazingly good talk by Dean Radin (I was going to say ‘scientist’ Dean Radin, but that seems like some sort of half-hearted way to make an unnecessary appeal to ethos) about psi research [that’s all the fun stuff like telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, etc.]. He focuses mostly on the statistics of several studies, and how the current mainstream scientific establishment quashes any proliferation of these ideas.

I don’t know if psi is a real thing. But it seems a little foolhardy to dismiss all of the years and years of evidence off-hand simply because the theories don’t agree with the modern scientific worldview.

Again, the thought that somehow mankind has reached the end of the developmental road seems to prevent us from moving forward.

We don’t know what 74% of the universe is made of. In such a situation, it seems a little hubristic to pretend we understand how anything works, let alone everything.

PS – This is a long talk. But I cut my listening time in half by doubling the playback speed. People talk way too slowly considering human sound-processing ability (probably because if they talked any faster they would become intelligible due to insufficient speed-talking abilities). So speed up the video, and get all the content in the half the time!

Words of Wisdom

January 26, 2008

Studies have shown that the severity of different drinks’ hangover symptoms decline in this order: brandy, red wine, rum, whisky, white wine, gin, vodka, and pure ethanol.

– From Does Anything Eat Wasps?

Oooh. That explains a lot. ;)

Main Idea: Reading need not be and should not be a linear process. This method works well with fiction, but falls short with non-fiction and technical pieces. One requires a different, more holistic approach in such cases.

My pet project of the moment revolves around my reading habits. Which, considering 30% of my day involves reading, seems to me a valid area of concern. Add to that the simple truth that most learning in college happens outside the classroom, via reading, and that most important information in day to day life comes to us via the written word, reconsidering reading becomes a central concern.

The main result of my investigation boils down to an aphorism: one size doesn’t fit all. Reading, we are told in grade school, is a linear process. Start at page one, read every word, rinse and repeat until the last page. Simple, yes. And valid for a book like See Spot Run or Goodnight, Moon. Maybe even valid for Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Giver. In fact, this method is perfectly fine for fiction reading. This process is the point with that genre. You want to soak in every word to immerse yourself in the writer’s world.

The problem arises when you apply this ‘word for word’ model to non-fiction books. The first exposure most people have to non-fiction is the textbook. The history book, the science book, whatever (luckily, the ‘English’ book is just a collection of fictional stories, so the ‘word for word’ method works their). Most elementary textbooks, in any subject, usually still follow a narrative. Learning history involves learning the story behind the history. Learning science involves learning the story behind the clouds, the volcano, the atom.

Eventually, though, you move up to high school, where the books no longer tell a story. Which would be fine, if you hadn’t been trained from a young age to expect a story in order to learn. In the process, you become a slave to the word for word process. The very idea of skimming through a chapter feels like cheating. I can remember in my 9th grade biology class, answering the questions for homework just by looking for those specific answers in the text, and feeling the whole time like I’d somehow cheated. And when you think about it, that’s a rather sick system to have set up. I don’t remember any explicit prohibitions of the ‘look just for the answer’ method, but nonetheless I felt ‘bad’ doing it.

This is a strange fact: that a new, better, more efficient method, should end up feeling like ‘cheating.’ Reading this way has its risks, that’s a certainty: you may miss a key point, especially if it is not pointed out to you. But in the time you save not reading every single word, you have the chance to go for another dip through the information, a chance to look again and see if you’ve missed anything.

In fact, a lot of textbooks now have the ‘questions’ at the beginning of any chapter section. I imagine that if you look solely for the answers to those questions, you will have acquired the vast majority of the information that you’ll need to understand the topic. And yet, speaking for myself, I still feel the need to read every single word, partly out of fear that I might miss something and also partly out of respect for the work the author put into the book.

The ‘respect’ angle requires further thought, however. Do authors really expect a student to read word for word what is placed on the page? As I write this, do I expect you to remember what I’m saying word for word? Or do I on the contrary hope that you get the main idea (namely, that reading need not be and should not be a purely linear process)? I can whole heartedly state the latter. All of these words are for me, not for you. All I want for you is the enjoy the experience, if you choose to, and hopefully take this little nugget of information away with you.

Which brings up another failing of the normal linear reading process: it’s far too passive. The words on the page don’t matter. It is what you do with the words on the page that matters. The book doesn’t change when you’re done reading it, you change. Your relationship to the book changes (that strange feeling of turning back through an old math book and remembering when everything looked like gibberish and realizing that no it all makes sense).

I feel that if I keep going on, I’ll simply belabor my point (quite the opposite of the goal of this post). So I’ll end here. Hopefully you’ll take some pragmatic truth away from this passage.

I know that I should.

January 24, 2008

I’d like to say a few words
In defense of our country
Whose people aren’t bad nor are they mean
Now the leaders we have
While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen

Let’s turn history’s pages, shall we?

Take the Caesars for example
Why within the first few of them
They were sleeping with their sister
Stashing little boys in swimming pools
And burning down the City
And one of ‘em, one of ’em
Appointed his own horse Consul of the Empire
That’s like vice president or something

That’s not a very good example, is it?

But wait, here’s one, the Spanish Inquisition
They put people in a terrible position
I don’t even like to think about it

Well, sometimes I like to think about it

Just a few words in defense of our country
Whose time at the top
Could be coming to an end
Now we don’t want their love
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question
But in times like these
We sure could use a friend

Hitler. Stalin.
Men who need no introduction

King Leopold of Belgium. That’s right.
Everyone thinks he’s so great
Well he owned The Congo
He tore it up too
He took the diamonds, he took the gold
He took the silver
Know what he left them with?

A President once said,
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid
It’s patriotic in fact and color coded
And what are we supposed to be afraid of?
Why, of being afraid
That’s what terror means, doesn’t it?
That’s what it used to mean

[To the first eight bars of “Columbia The Gem Of The Ocean”]

You know it pisses me off a little
That this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me
A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world
To find me two Italians as tightass as the two Italians we got

And as for the brother
Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either

The end of an empire is messy at best
And this empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free

Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.

A Few Words in Defense of Our Country by Randy Newman

January 24, 2008

DYSON: That is absolutely crucial. If everything has positive specific heat, as the 19th century scientists believed, then it means that hot objects then lose energy to cold objects. You are constantly losing free energy, and as hot objects lose energy they become cooler, and cold objects gaining energy become warmer. Everything goes into a uniform temperature and the universe dies and life cannot persist. That was talked about a great deal in the 19th century. They called it the ‘heat death’, when everything goes to thermal equilibrium so life couldn’t persist. But it happens that gravity has the opposite effect; that if you have an object like the sun that’s held together by gravitation, that in fact the more energy you give it, the cooler it gets. And the more it loses energy, the hotter it gets.

LLOYD: Yes. If you look at star clusters, they occasionally will kick out a star, and the star will escape to infinity. And if you then look at the other stars, they’re huddled together more and they’re moving faster. They’ve gotten hotter, effectively.

DYSON: It means that in fact energy flows from cold objects to hot objects, if they’re bound together by gravitation, so that you get further and further from equilibrium. That’s the basic reason why the laws of physics favor heterogeneity rather than homogeneity.

– From Life: What a Concept!

January 22, 2008

Happiness is the experience of climbing towards the peak.

– From Happier byTal Ben-Shahar

You know you’ll love a class when the professor tells you he got into neuroscience because he used drugs a lot in his younger years.

Young professors without filters are fun. Especially when their interests overlap with your own.

January 22, 2008

Mormonism, it seems to me, objectively, is just a little bit more idiotic than Christianity. I mean, it has to be. It is Christianity, plus some very stupid ideas.

– Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance International Conference ’07

This is a video left out of Michael Moore’s Sicko. I haven’t seen the movie, and I know Michael Moore has a tendency to exaggerate. But if he’s even half right about how great Norway is, then wow. Just wow.

And it’s right by Amsterdam. Which has two other great things about it.

European Union, here I come!

Maybe someday.

PS – Yes, I know that Norway has one of the highest tax rates ever. But when you consider that studies show that money only has an effect on happiness up to a certain point (that point being when you get beyond subsistence living [sorry everyone, that big pay raise isn’t going to make you happier…]), it seems to make sense that the money might be spent of more important, quality of life things. You know, those things other than SUVs, ‘boots with the fur,’ and bling. Like health care, better prison systems, and alternative energy research. Just an idea.

Because living with your SUV in a world without gas just won’t be much fun at all.