Gravitational Waves Found

Posted in Science! with tags on March, 2014 by melendwyr

I’d been wondering how long it would take to find evidence of gravitational waves (assuming that they existed at all).

Unfortunately, if I understand the news reports about today’s announcement correctly, there’s still no direct observations of such waves.  All the detectors made to find them have failed.

Which is in itself odd.

But now we have observational evidence strongly in favor of the inflationary model of the Big Bang, in which the anomalous uniformity of the universe is explained by assuming the universe’s rate of expansion was initially quite large and then slowed.  I am personally excited about this because of the peculiar implications this has about the possibility of faster-than-light travel.  Yes, it’s a very distant and implausible horizon.  But finding a way to send anything FTL requires first demonstrating conclusively that a phenomenon involves effects that aren’t restricted by the cosmic speed limit.  And the expansion of space-time seems to be just such a phenonemon.

Competing Trends

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

Over at Gregory Cochran’s blog, I’ve been having a very minor argument with the host.  (Well, he posted a response or two, then I suspect ignored me, but that’s something of an argument.)

He argues that there is unlikely to have been a substantial drop in IQ since about the Victorian Era, and has offered multiple reasons why that’s so.  I generally find his reasoning compelling; however, the argument that I find less than convincing is that such a drop would have crippled the progress of higher mathematics and this has not taken place.

I see no reason to assert that a decline or drop of performance in the field of mathematics has occurred.  But neither can I find reason to assert that it has not.

When we can identify a continuing trend in the development of human knowledge – such as Moore’s Law – we usually can’t figure out why it’s stable and clear enough for us to pick up on.  Not knowing what causes such trends, we can’t predict when they’ll stop.  In the case of Moore’s, it has been noted that people predicted the trend would continue only for a decade – and have continued to predict that for the past thirty and more.

It is pretty clear that there’s a ‘low-hanging fruit’ effect in the sciences.  The basics of most sciences were within reach of amateur investigators, and the cutting edges frequently require technology that no individual could afford to own, and/or knowledge leading up to the edge that requires years of study to acquire.  Sometimes, in highly abstract and rich fields such as mathematics, a particularly gifted and inspired neophyte can find and strike out in a shocking new direction.  But each time that happens, the number of unexploited new directions is reduced.  So all else being equal, it should be harder and harder to make new discoveries the more that’s discovered.

It is also clear that our understanding of what’s easy and what’s hard changes with time.  At one point algebra was advanced mathematics studied by the luminaries in the field, and now bright elementary students are expected to be able to pick up the rudiments.  This would tend to shorten the time it takes to find new things and reduce the difficulty to do so.

Human populations have exploded –  from about one billion people in 1800 to seven billion today.  All else being equal (which is certainly not the case, but the details are both controversial and obscure) there should be seven times as many people of any skill level, talent, or genius as there were roughly two hundred years ago.  The degree to which having more people to work on problems affects the time associated with progress is complicated, but I think it’s clear that it should have a net hastening effect.

Flynn Effect, anyone?  We don’t know precisely what it means to actual accomplishment, or what’s responsible for it.

We can name more and more conflicting trends in intellectual innovation.  But our ability to model and understand those trends isn’t impressive.  For most, we can only make rough approximations as to their effects, and as for what happens when they begin to interact?  Forget it.

The exciting developments in the field of mathematics are beyond both my intelligence and my education.  But I’ve been told that mathematical proofs are becoming so complex that it can’t be ascertained whether they’re logically valid or not.  Instead, teams of mathematicians have to give their opinions.  Does this represent increased or decreased progress in the field?  I have no idea, and no one else seems to have a clear grasp either.

Cochran’s argument is an appeal to normality, asserting that the status quo is appropriate and correct.  But that has a great deal to do with our initial assumptions and very little to do with rational conviction.  Can we determine, from first principles, what the level of achievement in mathematics would be if there were unquestionably no decrease in mathematical talent in the population at large?  Can we even determine whether or not the nature of progress in the field has actually changed?  The answer in both cases is ‘no’.  Perhaps the level of talent is the same or even greater than it used to be, and we’ve pushed the field so far into the potential for human cognition that it’s truly becoming harder to grasp without tremendous genius and years of focused effort.  Or maybe the potential is being lost.  Or maybe it’s our educational system, or the way in which research is conducted or… any one of a million other things.  And that’s presuming that the nature of generated proofs has actually changed!

Strange in Context: Six Industries

Posted in Politics and Society, Things You Should Read with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

Okay, so Diane Duane posted an essay entitled ‘The Eyes in the Peacock’s Tail’.  She also posted a link to a The New York Times article by Mark Bittman.  Interestingly, she did so without further comment.  It is reasonable to presume that she intended to showcase it positively, though, since there’s not a word of displeasure, condemnation, or the slightest hint of disapproval.

Mr. Bittman asks whether children have the right to a healthy diet.  Couldn’t we just as easily ask whether children have the right to a healthy intellectual diet as well as a comestable one?  Or even a moral one?

Whether Ms. Duane considers her childhood to have been a healthy one with the benefit of hindsight isn’t the issue.  Nor is whether we happen to agree with her assessment.  Nor is even the retrospective opinion of her parents, if they were able and willing to have one, truly relevant.  What matters is that Ms. Duane’s younger self took the matter into her own hands and negated her parent’s (or parents’) efforts to keep her away from what they perceived at the time to be a danger to her well-being.

Under no circumstances am I questioning a parent’s right or responsibility to protect his or her children from danger.

Nonsense.  Her younger self rejected the concept of an absolute parental right, as does her current self.  As I do as well, as it happens.  I agree that trying to keep kids away from certain kinds of knowledge, trying to establish a ‘forbidden fruit’ that will dangle tantalizingly out of reach, is inevitably self-defeating and usually ineffective.  ‘The Eyes of the Peacock’ clearly establishes that Ms. Duane believes there are significant practical and ethical limits to a parent’s right to protect.  But that’s not the point.

I may advocate for giving people knowledge as they become capable of seeking it, but I don’t delude myself that there will never be negative outcomes from acknowledging the power of choice.  Some people will make poor decisions, and as long as it’s possible to be hurt, someone will choose paths that result in injury or harm.  And that applies as much to teenagers’ reading habits as to everything else.

I find it easy to grant for the sake of argument the teenaged Ms. Duane’s smarts and good judgment, and consider it most probable that her literary interests were healthy and harmless – at least, by my standards.  But knowing something about human nature, that will not always be the case.  Knowing something about teenagers – how their repressed drives towards self-determination tend to overcompensate when they steal a bit of freedom, how their relative lack of experience informs their choices, how their ancient genetic inheritance leads them to take risks that are unreasonable outside the perspective frame of Darwinism – makes the case even stronger.  Many people’s interests are neither healthy nor harmless, to themselves and others.

This is a particularly salient point in the case of Ms. Duane, whose website once included a chat room that had to be closed because too many young adults used it for chatter of a sexual nature.  And as she is a former psychiatric nurse, I cannot imagine that she’s not intimately familiar with the human ability to make poor choices.  Even more so in the case of teens.

So:  how is it that a person can so powerfully make the case for freedom of choice and the futility of restrictions, then turn around and either condone or approve of the exact opposite thesis in the slightly different context?

Is it merely that she doesn’t care about food as much as books?

The Eyes in the Peacock’s Tail

Posted in Politics and Society, Things You Should Read with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

I am a longtime fan of the works of Diane Duane.  Not merely her novels, which are frequently excellent, but in other genres as well.

She’s written a worthwhile essay called The Eyes in the Peacock’s Tail which she recently reposted to her Tumblr feed.  In addition to its inherent value, I think the points it makes are thrown into valuable relief by something else I saw in her feed a little while later.

Give it a look, and consider what it has to say.

Dumb Starbucks

Posted in Things You Should See, Weirdness with tags , , , on February, 2014 by melendwyr

I caught this from Diane Duane’s tumblr feed:  ‘Dumb Starbucks’.

No, it’s not a criticism.  It’s marketing itself as parody.  And its coffee as an art form.

I have no idea whether this can possibly endure, particularly given our totally sane and reasonable legal system.  But I find myself rooting for the little guys here.  Even though this flies directly in the face of the intention of trademarking… it’s not just inviting a confusion between products, it’s practically demanding it.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Posted in Things You Should See, Weirdness with tags , , , on February, 2014 by melendwyr

It’s perilous to link to videos at YouTube… they tend not to last, even when there’s nothing even remotely inappropriate or TOS-violating about them.  Let’s try it anyway!

Paprika:  Shine, Shine!

The unexpected is always the hardest thing to anticipate, isn’t it.

Word salad is very difficult to imitate.  You’d think producing chaotic speech would be simple, but it’s remarkably challenging to be both semantically incoherent and syntaxically valid at the same time.  If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to have a psychotic break, that clip’s as close as you’re going to get without becoming mentally ill or using scarily-powerful drugs.

I rather suspect that there is a fundamental connection between a schizophrenic-style delusion, the kind where you know your neighbor is bugging your tap water with the cooperation of Elvis and the CIA, and dreams.  Normal people enter delusional states every time they enter REM sleep.  But in normal people, the systems that integrate our perceptions of reality and our model of the world turn back on.  Perhaps, in crazy people, those systems don’t quite reboot right?

Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages

Posted in Cooking, Things You Should Read, Things You Should See with tags , , , , on February, 2014 by melendwyr

If you have an interest in plants, unusual spices, the botanical aspects of cooking, or herbal etymology, either you’ve been to Gernot Katzer’s site or you should give it a look.

The topics range from common spices to ancient herbs extinct for millennia, but the kinds of information provided for each are similar.  Every flavoring entry discusses its source, including which part(s) of the plant are used, their taste and scent (as much as they can be described in words), some brief notes on their use in the kitchen.  The natures of the primary active chemicals involved are mentioned.  And, perhaps most importantly, the names of the spice in many languages are provided, along with historical notes on where they originated and what meanings they originally had.

This last is especially important if you’re dealing with cooking instructions that are in a language other than those you are deeply familiar with, or a recipe that is being translated from a foreign tongue.  Many vegetables and spices are improperly identified or poorly translated in such cases.  Local names and references frequently produce false cognates in other contexts or languages, and acquiring ingredients according to the instructions you’re given can produce highly variable results, from unpalatable messes to potentially dangerous toxins in some cases.

The illustrations are not only pleasant to look at but highly useful, making it easy to identify relatively exotic and unfamiliar flavorings when you’re looking for or encountering them.  And since people in temperate climates are unlikely to ever see such things as ginger flowers or fresh pepper berries, the photos are educational in addition to being informative.

Culinary backgrounds to linguistic data, it’s all here.  The only thing not present which you might possibly expect is information on finding or growing the source plants.  But that isn’t the intended function of the site.

For English speakers, the website is found at