icons/world1.png arg.20120101.1727.html Birthday presents

1/1/2012 17:27

Birthday presents

No doubt all of you are wondering what to get me for my birthday. This will, after all, be a special anniversary of my birth: an odd number of pairs of decades, only the second (and quite possibly the last) such occurrence of my lifetime.

Because of the uniqueness of this particular observance, I will step back from my typical practice of eschewing all gifts. Very well; if you wish to procure a present for me I offer here my list of materialistic desiderata:

The complete works, Sunday and daily, of Ponce de Leon Montgomery County Alabama Georgia Beauregard Possum, known as Pogo.

With the adroit assistance of Walt Kelly, Pogo and his swamp buddies were the superlative practitioners during my lifetime of finding the game in actual reality.

Only one of you need purchase the single available volume; I suggest drawing straws or casting lots (the format depending on your commitment to Moravianism) as to which person shall have the honor of financial investment. The remainder may roll on the floor as I quietly read it aloud.

I must point out that Swamp-Speak is a second language for me, a good Northerner, but I can usually follow along when it is skewering my northern-state neighbors. In any case, if I own the book I can always sneak back to read it for the eleventh time.


icons/world1.png arg.20120120.0931.html Teaching Science

1/20/2012 9:31

Teaching Science

There are those who believe that teaaching science means teaching scientific facts. How these people expect us to generate a full year of science education is beyond me, let alone 2 years. After all, there are no scientific facts. There is scientific data which is very important (but not usually taught in science courses). A fact in the sense of a proven and irrefutable truth is something that science can never produce.

Science is a present active participle. It is the process of learning how the universe works. Science is too humble and weak to claim achieving absolute truth and certainty, an attribute which, perhaps paradoxically, explains science's power.

(That paradox would not be surprising to Christians or others who have studied the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth, but it continues to run counter to our everyday experience of the world.)

I don't mean to say that no individual of science has crossed the boundary into speciously absolute claims. Scientists are human beings and subject to bouts of ridiculous self-righteousness just as much as all the rest of us are.

Such lapses by scientists are not science any more than Christians setting themselves in judgement over the thoughts and actions of others is religion. Both cases are matters of self-delusion; they are common enough, but not representative of what is distinctive or best in science or in Christianity.

I would go so far as to suggest that there are no True-or-False questions in the realm of science. A bald statement without any nuance or hesitation is inadequate to express the nature or the power of scientific thought. For example, True or False? "Human beings evolved from simpler life forms." The correct answer is "No", not true or false. The correct answer is "Yes", this is a (thin) summary of the best explanation anyone has yet proposed to explain the existing (and large) body of evidence. The correct answer is "Yes", the set of theories summarized so very briefly have been shown to have power to predict the nature of unknown evidence. It seems likely that these theories are very close to whatever the truth is, subject to further investigation. But is it true? No one knows, not scientifically.

What should we teach about science, if not "facts"? We should teach the history of scientific inquiry, which by itself will show the futility of "facts". We should teach the current events of science, what working scientists today are learning and thinking. Most of all, we should teach the process of science, that is, the process of coming to know through careful collection of evidence, rigorous analysis, and openness to contradiction. Because that's what science is, in actual reality.


icons/world1.png arg.20120126.0845.html Power in the Presidency

1/26/2012 8:45

Power in the Presidency

A point that's been making the rounds quietly for a very long time is that the Presidency of the United States does not have a great deal of intrinsic power. (Eighth graders that I work with know this.) That's because the job is intrinsically an executive position. His oath of office is that he will faithfully administer the laws. Although the President can propose bills to Congress, his primary legislative authority is negative: the veto. The Founders also made the President the Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but that too is primarily a negative power used as a check on the generals. The Commander can't even appoint top officers, military or civilian, except by consent of, at least, the Senate. Even within civil administration, the President has few direct responnsibilities; almost everything is assigned by law either to the cabinet secretaries or to independent agencies like FCC, FERC, and so on.

At the same time, of course, the President is also considered the most powerful person on earth. The pertinent question is, How can this be? The answer lies in Teddy Rooseveldt's "Bully Pulpit". The President functions as the leader of the government and, by extension, the leader of the nation. He can at most be a leader; he can't be a dictator. (Some would have liked to, and that hasn't been limited by party affiliation. However, I think those most of the Presidents accused of such desires were really the effective leaders, people who achieved their goals by convincing others to support them.)

What a President can do is foster changes in emphasis. The Constitution requires annual reports to Congress; Presidents have discovered that these reports on the State of the Union can be used as powerful tools for shaping policy. The President also holds the employment of many others in his hands; he appoints and can demand resignations from cabinet officers and commission members throughout the government.

Using his appointment power, executive orders, and public discourse, the President can influence which issues get more attention in the government offices and in the media. In a less polarized environment, the President can shape the national perception of reality. In a more polarized environment, he can at least force selected issues to be kept "on the table" for discussion.

People "on the inside" of business corporations don't really have defensible reputations for knowing reality. Whose clients are walking away? Whose company is selling itself off? And has this ever been seen in before other companies and other industries? Look at any major industry from automobiles to banking; some companies have succeeded, some have failed, and in many cases the failures are clearly tied to obvious factors such as the quality of their products or unsupportable market predictions. My point is that these corporate executives are acting on the basis of belief, which may or may not correspond closely with reality. Just like everybody else.

A common example in the present day debates on economics is the belief that US taxes are driving business decisions. Politicians promote this belief and corporate executives run their companies based on them. A specific case much mentioned now is that the companies may choose to move jobs overseas, "offshoring" predicated on payments required for Social Security and Medicare, unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, and so on. The belief is that these payments overwhelm the advantages of an in-house and on-shore workforce. That may not be true. Sometimes the companies succeed while offshoring, sometimes they run into the ground; this already suggests that tax policy is not a sufficient explanation.

In fact, there is a considerable body of evidence against the idea that the actual tax policy is driving corporate decision making. Belief about tax policy drives decisions. If the President can begin to alter beliefs, then corporate decisions would also change. And the President can influence these beliefs by altering the issues to which corporate decision makers pay the most attention. The President does this through his privileged position in the public debate and by his direct influence over government operations.

The same line of argument can be made about state and local governments, schools, charitable organizations, and so on. The President controls none of them. But he can influence all of them and in doing so the President can shape our belief about what is important enough to pay attention to and thus, indirectly, change actual reality.


icons/world1.png arg.20120210.0907.html Clerks and laborers

2/10/2012 9:07

Clerks and laborers

It seems to me that we often claim that we want to find someone with expertise but typically hire clerks and laborers. If I'm looking for an investment advisor, I say that I want someone with real expertise in the various investment markets. Similarly, I want a highly skilled carpenter or painter, a dentist familiar with cutting-edge research, and an expert tax accountant.

That's what I say.

In actual reality I usually hire someone who is moderately pleasant to deal with and doesn't lose track of my job, or at least not repeatedly. I pick them because they are familiar with the work and willing to give it full attention, and not because they have special expertise.

I say nothing against the actual skills of my investment advisor, carpenter, painter, and accountant. Even though they may have special expertise, what I ask of them is to do carefully and with attention only as much as I would do myself, if I were regularly performing the task at hand.

As for the dentist, well, there is a slight difference there. I find I have trouble looking inside even my own mouth, and my skills in anatomy are perennially frustrating, so my dentist does perform work that I truly cannot do. That's a kind of special expertise. At the same time, when I pick a dentist from among all the dentists available, the criterion isn't primarily their expertise so much as my comfort.

I look at the completed painting job and I may wonder, do those imperfections really represent the highest level of expertise? Then I say, "Well, it is more consistent than if I had done the job, and it was a lot easier to buy the service." So I pay him -- and hire him again later on.

Similarly, my automotive mechanic may or may not be a true expert, but I select him because he's nearby, he is happy to help me out, and the work he did (whatever it was, I surely have no idea) was done well enough that the same problem doesn't reappear.

I think I want expertise, but I only hire competence.

One reason for this is that I want to be able to judge and evaluate the work that I'm paying someone to do. Too much expertise and I won't have a clue whether they are doing a good job or merely snowing me with plausible hypotheses. I walk away when I can't understand.

A related reason is that in my own ignorance I often don't know whether there is any better expertise than what I'm getting.

Finally, if the truth is to be faced head on, in actual reality I do not always want the very best. The very best costs too much. It isn't just the dollars, which I may be willing to pay. It is also the cost in attention and time on my side. If my tax accountant were to apply his full range of expertise, that would probably require me to maintain fully competent records. And I don't pay that close attention to the flows of my assets. If my mechanic tunes the engine to perfect efficiency, I'm going to drive it at lesser efficiencies anyway. I might get the perfect remodeling job, but the cat is going to live there.

In actual reality the problem is not the level of expertise but the inconsistency in my thinking, the internal contradiction between what I say that I want and what I really want. Those contradictions confuse my playing of the game by encouraging me to look in wrong directions, to make plays which confound my goals, and to miscommunicate with my partners in the actual reality game.


icons/world1.png arg.20120308.2117.html Space Weather

3/8/2012 21:17

Space Weather

Mar 08 EXTENDED WARNING: Proton 100MeV Integral Flux above 1pfu expected

Has your Global Positioning System been acting up? Your cell phone or other Personal Radio Broadcasting Station been unable to communicate?

I understand that a space storm is overtaking us even as I write. The page for space weather watches and warnings has prettily colored graphics but I don't understand them any better than the graphics produced for earth weather. That is, I think I understand what the earth weather graphics tell me, but what I think they say does not correlate well with the actual weather.

The magnetic component of the current storm is only rated G1; it could go as high as G5 which, confusingly enough, equates to K9. How can it be that K9 refers not to the D component (as in "dog") but rather to the H component (as in "how")? [Yes, yes, I know I'm using the spelling alphabet from the 1950s.] Whoever came up with this nomenclature was insuffiently mnemonic, although I will give undue credit for using 'H' mnemonically to represent a modified 'N' (as in "north", here modified to mean "magnetic, not true, north").

Do I really need to understand space weather reports and predictions? My GPS, after all, is much simpler than the type supposedly at risk. I use no satellite signals, no trilateration, and no particular accuracy. I merely track how far away I am from the Center of Personal Consciousness -- usually approximately zero meters, though sometimes my mind wanders.


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