Saturday, March 29, 2014

Magically, a rant

I love me a good magic trick. It doesn't have to be big and flashy, it can be as simple as a deck of cards or a ball with some cups. Except it isn't magic. It's an illusion, one that the performer has endlessly practiced. A "simple" card trick will have required thousands of hours of handling cards, and perhaps hundreds of hours practicing a particular sequence of moves within the whole presentation package.

From a process point of view, I can usually understand how it was done. I'll know that, somehow, they swapped decks, or dealt seconds, or undid the cut, or forced a card, or something. Often there are several ways to do the illusion, and I could have it completely wrong. That doesn't take away from my enjoyment.

I really liked Penn and Teller's "Fool Us" series. That's the one where people come on and try to do an illusion in front of them, and P&T have to say how it was done. Talk about a professional challenge, and yet some of them do it. Shaw Farquhar, for example. This is amazing. Skip to 2:36.

In previous, simpler times, humans didn't understand our world. We invented gods and all sorts of other fanciful explanations for what we saw around us. Recently we have developed rigorous tools for understanding and explaining our world. There are still things we don't understand, and details that remain to be worked out, but there's a lot we do have a grip on. For example, we understand the rules around gravity well enough that we can send space craft to the far ends of the solar system with complete precision, even though we don't exactly understand why or how mass creates gravity.

Let's consider an example closer to home. If you read this blog, you deal with electrical circuits. At the simplest you flip a switch and a light turns off or on. One of the great boons of civilization, all in all. I'm not sure how many people could accurately describe how this happens, from the creation of electricity at source, the transmission to your house, to be converted to light rays in a lightbulb. Even fewer would be able to describe the various procedural, material, and construction standards that have been worked out so that this can happen safely. I don't think many people would describe this as magic. I hope not.

Now a more complicated example, the small device I'm writing this blog on. If I were to take this device back to my childhood, computer scientists would wet their pants with excitement. Even after saying "transistors" and "software" to them, they would still have to work really hard to understand how it works. They would likely destroy it by trying to reverse engineer it. The one thing they wouldn't do was think it was magic.

What troubles me is that many people now use the word magical to describe what it does, or how it relates to other objects. Even Apple does it, which does them and us a disservice. Why didn't they say "science-ly"? Or I guess if it's the word, scientifically? It might seem magical, but it's nothing of the sort. It's a great deal of very exacting work by a lot of very bright people combining many different areas of knowledge.

How does that photo get from my camera to my iPad and laptop and desk computer in a few minutes, without me doing anything? Because, WiFi. I know the photo is really a very long series of zeros and ones that the computer uses to display an image. Those bright people I mentioned figured out a way for my devices to transmit data to one another, after discovering that there was a new photo without me doing anything but take the photo. It's wonderful, but it isn't magic.

Disease has killed untold numbers of people. Some of the smartest people that have ever lived have devoted their lives to understanding how various diseases work, and how to prevent transmission from one person to another, or to prevent it from happening in the first place. Sometimes it's as simple as washing your hands with soap and water between patients, and there was a huge struggle to get doctors to do that. Oddly enough, that struggle is still happening. Often it's more complicated.

Then there are the anti-vaccination lunatics. Vaccination prevents people from dying of diseases. We call them preventable diseases because we can prevent people from getting them, ever. Except people that are too stupid to understand this. People that don't vaccinate their children are guilty of child and society abuse and are not fit to mingle with the general public. Measles was essentially eradicated till people stopped vaccinating for it, now we are having outbreaks again. Vaccines aren't magic, but these people have reverted to a voodoo level of thinking that something like a thing is more dangerous than the thing itself. Seeing homeopathy flourish makes me fear for the future of humanity.

I remember when scientific was a good word. Governments and corporations wanted to do things in an evidence based manner. Maybe they did get carried away, but I blame a misplaced importance on the profit motive driving corporations to override the evidence and do what is expedient.

Science describes our world. It makes predictions that can be tested. The results of those tests are used to revise the explanations, if necessary. There is a process to describe the prediction, the tests, and the results, so that anyone else can do the test themselves. Done properly they should get the same results. If the results are different they need to understand why. There could be any number of reasons, but there has to be a reason.

The tests will get done over and over till we understand the reason. Oh, it MATTERS what the air pressure is when we're measuring the boiling point of liquids? So THAT'S why Billy Bob in Calgary was getting different results than Billy Sue in Vancouver. So now we can do a bunch of experiments and build a chart, then climb a mountain and do the test there, comparing the results to other ways of determining altitude. How interesting!

There is a reason air travel is one of the safest ways to travel. Whenever an airplane crashed a great many people went to great lengths to understand why. We've pulled parts of aircraft from the sea bottom. We've reconstructed mangled metal, and deliberately destroyed airplanes to test ideas. We learned a lot about metal fatigue in the process, and a host of other things.

Every time we figured out how an airplane crashed, we went back and figured out how to prevent it. Again and again. Now an airplane crash is a rare thing, and it's almost always human error. I just watched a video testing a wing on a 777 by bending it till it broke. They calculated it would break at 150% of the maximum design stress. It broke at 154%. That wing is bent to a degree that is amazing to an untrained eye. Now you know why I laugh when people worry about an airplane's wings flexing during flight. Consider this. They didn't guess at that number, they knew because they understood the materials and the rules involved. No doubt some engineer was assigned to figure out where there was a very slight difference between the prediction and the actual results.

Now it seems that scientific is a bad word. The Harper government certainly seems determined to destroy the means of gathering scientific evidence that might support policies they they disagree with for ideological reasons. There are many elements in the USA that seem determined to do the same thing.

The use fallacious reasoning so they don't have to believe that climate change is happening. They flat out ignore everything science tells us because they feel emotionally comforted by creationism, or it's slightly better dressed brother, intelligent design. For all intents and purposes, it's another flat earth theory or geocentricism.

I wish I knew where this came from. These people say the stupidest things, and don't seem to accept there is conflicting evidence. Their minds are closed. Anyone that says "you can't convince me" is someone you should run from. They say scientists don't accept their theories because scientists want to preserve the world as it is. Which is bunk. Scientists live to see a new theory come along that explains everything we currently understand, and makes testable predictions about what we don't yet understand.

Scientists say "show me the evidence." The problem these magical thinkers have is that they don't have evidence. Their thinking that there is something wrong with the theory of evolution, or gravitation, or their pet cause, is not evidence that their theory about such things is correct. They don't understand how science works.

They like to talk about a conspiracy that keeps them from the recognition they think they so justly deserve. I'll tell you the test any conspiracy theory has to pass. Three people can keep a secret only if two of them are dead and illiterate. It's that simple. The entire apparatus of the US presidency couldn't keep a simple burglary secret in 1972. You think they could plant bombs in two huge buildings, kill thousands of people, and keep it a secret? Seriously? Filmed the moon landing in a studio? Let's give you a drink of reality juice. Come on, it tastes great. You won't miss your delusions at all.

There are lots of theories about how to train for athletic performance. I've come to believe that there are many ways of training, and that no one way is optimum for all people. We're all different, after all. But no rational person doubts that you have to do the training to get the performance on race day. You can visualize crossing the finish line in record time all you want, but until you get your ass moving, it can't happen. Visualization plays a role in training, but it isn't the only tool. You've got to use all the tools at your disposal.

As a reward for reading through, you get a picture of my current writing companion. She normally sits on Linda, or on my shins. But lately she's been curling up right beside me. Where does this cat keep her ears?


Here they are, strategically controlling the passageways of the house. They are sitting where we have to pay attention to them, so they can convince us to activate those opposable thumbs and feed them. More.

Oh, my quad. Feeling much better today. Feeling is the right work, I can actually feel it. There was a bit of tingling that was very nice. I can do one legged squats again without pain. So nice.

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