Monday, January 27, 2020

Canadian Quotes

Lisa Wojna. Bathroom Book of Canadian Quotes. (2005) Well done collection of quotes, organised by theme and subject. An author index would have been helpful. A few samples:
     Speak up, gentlemen. I’m not opposed to male participants in government. (Charlotte Whitton, mayor of Ottawa)
     Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car. (Laurence J. Peter, educator)
     Why don’t you all go back where you came from? We own this land; we’re your landlords. And the rent is due. (Kahn-Tineta Horn, Mohawk)
     We need spring. We need it desperately, and, usually, we need it before God is willing to give it to us. (Peter Gzowski, radio host)
     A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It’s a proof. And when you have a good proof, it’s because it’s proven. (Jean Chretien, Prime Minister)
     Diaper spelled backwards spells repaid. Think about it. (Marshall McLuhan, Professor of English)
    A keeper. ****

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Murderous Christmases

Cynthia Manson, ed. Merry Murder (1994) A collection of crime fictions set in Christmastime, an example of a book constructed for a specified market. I enjoyed it. Several selections are classics worth re-reading (eg, Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”), but most were new to me (e.g., Boucher’s “Mystery for Christmas”). I bought the book many years ago as a possible Christmas gift, and finally arranged to receive it myself. Worth the wait. **½ to ****

A rational Faith: Tom Harpur's Would You Believe?

     Tom Harpur. Would You Believe? “Finding God without Losing Your Mind” (1996) Harpur suffered a crisis of faith when he realised that a literalist theology doesn’t work. He eventually developed a mystical belief in a loving God that created this universe and has used evolution to create humankind, which will evolve a cosmic consciousness of some kind. That is the best I can do in interpreting this wide-ranging and frequently muddled account of Harpur’s journey towards and justification for a rational faith.
     Like many theists who harbour or began with a literalist theology, he wants scientific support for his beliefs. This desire in part explains his misunderstanding of evolution and other sciences. He refers to the symbolisms and metaphors of the sacred texts, but he stops short of asserting that symbolism and metaphor is the only possible language for the kinds of meaning that religions provide. “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent”, said Wittgenstein. Metaphor is an attempt to break the silence. It will always be personal and limited. But it’s all we have to assuage our hunger for meaning and purpose.
    Harpur’s book intends his book to help those who’ve jettisoned religionism and literalism. It’s easy to read. But for many readers, it will be a temporary resting place on the journey. I suspect that Harpur saw it that way himself, but the tone of certainty bothers me. **½

Consciouness as the Story the Self Tells Itself

Israel Rosenfield. The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten (1992) An attempt to account for the consciousness as a construct built of memory and body-image. Rosenfield points out that damaged brains result in damaged self-perception. His careful analysis of these limited self-images persuades him that perception and memory are fundamentally the same process. “I” is a narrative the brain constantly updates. Memory makes “I” feel like a continuous persistent entity, even as memory also tells “I” that it has changed over time.
     I think Rosenfield’s insights will be rediscovered as the current attempts to understand consciousness as a brain-process at the neural level fail. I would go a step further than Rosenfield: “I” is the interface between the brain and the rest of the world. That interface is all there is to know. Reality is the trace of the external world. “I” is the trace of the internal world. “Knowing” is consciousness.
     And that’s as far as I’ve come in my quest to understand what “I” am.
     A book worth re-reading. ***½

Sunday, January 05, 2020

A comment on anti-vaxxers

I posted the following comment in response to a NYT times piece about a measles outbreak in Samoa []

The Boomer and younger generations in the West have grown up with close to zero experience of infectious diseases. Not their parents (I'm one): pretty well all of us knew friends and neighbours killed by measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, smallpox, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, polio, .... And many of us lost family to infectious diseases. We learned to fear the silent killers, who took one unawares.

But we failed to pass on that fear, because we figured that vaccinations would limit or even eliminate these diseases. We took the new-found safety for granted, not realising that what's taken for granted is simply ignored.

That's what has left an opening for the resurgence of the anti-vaxxers, who have a 200-year long history of denying the science.

It's grim, but we have to teach people to be afraid. Not a happy prospect, but I think a necessary one.

2020-01-05: Recently, I came across the phrase “shifting expectation base-line”. It referred to the fact that we tend to assume that the world has always been as it is when we experience it as children. We are unaware of how much it has changed since our parents and grandparents were children. That concept applies to the perception of infectious diseases. Our children and grandchildren live in a world with almost zero infectious disease, so they assume that’s the norm.

2020-01-15: For the record, we had our flu shots as soon as they became available this season. So far, these annual vaccinations have proteced us.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Perception: Colours

This is a fragment of a conversation in a newsgroup some years ago. I included parts of three prior posts (in chronological order) in the thread to show the concepts I commented on.

I was once asked "How many colors are there?". A difficult question, which many people can't answer, they've confused "how many colors" with "how many WORDS for colors". 2^24 (16,777,216) is a better answer than that.

I agree with 2^24, that seems to be as much as the eye can distinguish.

Which doesn't mean that reality is so limited. Note that some animals see better than humans, which isn't relevant either.

There's a difference between colours as measured by a spectrometer and colours as perceived by a human. Eg, there is no such colour as "brown" in the spectrum. Or "pink". Or "grey". Or etc.

The 2^24 number of colours are the combinations of colour data used to display colours on a screen. Whether there are actually that many colours displayable on a given screen is another issue: screens vary quite a bit in quality, though much less nowadays than they did in the Olden Days. And whether a human can distinguish them all is another issue. And whether they can replicate natural colours in all weathers is another issue again. As anyone who's tried to make a photo "look right" knows.

As for "see better", that's not a clear concept either.

When it comes to perception, the only thing we can objectively measure or observe is what colour (or other sensory) differences the animal can distinguish. While it's true that bees can distinguish ultraviolet wavelengths, that doesn't mean they "see better". They see well enough for their survival, and that's what counts.

Or take frogs. Judging by their behaviour, they can't see fly-sized blobs unless those blobs move. I surmise that's similar to human peripheral vision, which is much better at distinguishing moving blobs of light than still ones.

Bottom line: what's "out there" isn't what we think it is.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

How to Misunderstand Physics

 On Metaphor and Misunderstanding
Why physics is misunderstood

Originally part of  Usenet post Re: Empirical Utility of Dualism Posted: Dec 2, 2005 11:01 PM . Wolf Kirchmeir said: [...]
The three types of quarks could've been called anything at all. The terminology was preceded by the mathematical models that confirmed and predicted observations. The theoreticians could have used Greek letters, like they did for the tau, the mu, etc. Or Egyptian letters (which IIRC was actually suggested.)

Hint: learn the math.

"Quark" is borrowed from Joyce's
Finnegan's Wake. Joyce borrowed the word from the German, wherein it refers to a kind of cottage cheese.

Me, I'd've proposed "flush" and "skint"; "womble" and "gronk"; and "tvepji" and "bsanji".

But nobody asked me. :-(

[A response to this post implied that naming the flavours of quarks up/down, top/bottom would lead to a “more interesting understanding” than the terms I suggested. “Flavours” is of course another metaphor. My comment on that post follows:]

The terminology was chosen to be deliberately arbitrary. The intent was to avoid what was called "a more interesting understanding," since quarks of all three types simply aren't like anything we can understand. Only the mathematical models make true sense of the phenomena they refer to. Ordinary-language accounts are metaphors, and like all metaphors they obscure as much as they illuminate.

It's somewhat like reading music. Some people can "hear the music" when they read the score, others (like me) can more or less accurately sing or play it, but for many a written score is just so many black spots, and they can't even "follow the score" when they hear the music played. When it comes to the mathematics of sub-atomic physics, very few of us can even follow the score, let alone pick out the tune or hear the music just by looking at the score. The physicists, bless their hearts, try to make their theories understood, but what their well-intentioned attempts actually do is foster a great deal of misunderstanding.

Addendum 2015-06-02: I think the misunderstanding applies to the physicists, too. I don’t think it’s useful to say that photons are waves or particles. All we know is that in some situations, we can use wave equations to describe their behaviour, and in other situations we can use particle equations. To say that the “wave function collapses” I think merely means that the probabilities described by the wave function are replaced by certainties when we observe/measure the consequences of some interaction. To refer to entities that interact as some entities that exist in and of themselves apart from the interactions is I think a mistake. All we can ever know is the interactions.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

GMD-1 locomotives in southern Saskatchewan

R. W. Zimmerman & Blake Kiviharju. Prairie Branches (1980) A compilation of photos, some maps, and time-tables, with a few paragraphs of comment here and there. Self-published in the days before it became easy, printed before digital scanning and printing raised the quality of photo-reproduction, this pamphlet is a record of CNR branchlines in Saskatchewan. These radiated from Regina, and represent Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific attempts to compete with the CPR. Most of these lines have been abandoned in the 40 years since publication.
     The locomotive of choice for these lightly built and travelled lines was the GMD-1, which was essentially a stretched SW1200 locomotive with a low short hood added at one end. Built for the CNR and Northern Alberta Railway, it’s a surprisingly elegant design. Like the GP7/9 it looks like what it is: a locomotive made to do serious work. They lasted a long time, too, with a dozen or two still in service as of 2019, most on the CNR and in Cuba, one owned by Cando, and one on the Oregon Pacific.
  A valuable little book. It would be nice to republish it with modern technology, in a larger format, with larger photos. **½

Suppose God wrote a memoir....

     David Javerbaum. The Last Testament: A Memoir by God (2011) 1. In the beginning, I took a lunch with Daniel Greenburg of the Levine Greenburg Literary Agency. 2.For the future of print was without hope, and void; and darkness had fallen upon the face of the entire publishing industry. (Prologue, 1-2) Thus begins this Memoir; and if you have a good knowledge of the Bible, you will recognise allusions to its contents not only here but throughout the book.
     The God who writes this memoir is the God of the Bible, as understood by Javerbaum, and probably others, since he was a writer for Saturday Night Live at the time this book came into being. It’s a well-done and often subtle satire of those who believe in a God that resembles a human being, a conclusion that follows from the assumption that humans are made in the image of God.
     Certainly, the more literalist believers will find much to be offended by, but I think for those who understand that the Bible is one of many attempts to make sense of the astonishing creativity of the Universe that brought us into being, this book will be at least as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. If you have wrestled with questions of creed and theology, this book may suggest that most of those questions are unanswerable in St Augustine’s sense. The trick is to recognise which are mere verbal puzzles, which are matters of substance, and which are the consequence of ill-understood and mistaken assumptions.
     Recommended. A keeper. ****

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Bernstein on Science and Scientists

     Jeremy Bernstein. Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos (1991) Bernstein wrote for The New Yorker and other magazines for many years. I liked his pieces then, and I like this compilation now. He’s a bit prissy, expressing doubt that “the merely personal” should be remarked in biographies of Schroeder, for example. Schroeder was a notorious womaniser. Bernstein’s modest about his insights into matters he doesn’t get, but very good at explaining what he knows. He’s a working physicist, and as such is careful to keep within his limits.
     He began his scientific career before the vastness of the Universe in space and time was understood. Cosmology was almost a fringe science, burdened with ignorance and poor data. It was the accidental discovery of the cosmic background radiation that shifted scientific opinion. This led to radio astronomy, and now the whole electromagnetic spectrum is exploited to make sense of what’s out there. Cosmology is a nice example of how better instruments lead to better data, and so not only lead to  confident insights, but also to answerable questions.
     His essays on the great physicists of the late 19th and early 20th century reminds one that quantum theory was accepted before there were good data to support it. It began with Planck’s quantised model of light. Now, its insights have become engineering principles.
     In one of his last pieces, Bernstein mentions global warming, and, touchingly, infers that we will change our way of life to avoid the worst effects. I think he would be appalled at the concentrated efforts to deny and distract from the threat.
     The compilation amounts to a history of science in the 20th century. Worth reading. ***

Canadian Politics in the 80s: cartoons by Wicks

Ben Wicks. The Second Ben Wicks Treasury (1987) Wicks invented Mavis and Bill, an Ottawa couple with political connections and insight, with a more or less cynical take on current Canadian political events. For example:

Mavis: How does Chretien feel about taking Turner’s job, bill?
Bill: Keen.
Mavis: How do you mean?
Bill: He’s not saying anything.
Mavis: Wow! He wants it as bad as that.
Bill: In the worst way.

At it best as good as Yes Minister, and a good primary record for a grad student aspiring to write the definitive history of Canadian politics in the 1980s. I enjoyed it, but I won’t keep it. **½