Tag Archives: science

How to Argue Like a Man: Don’t Be a Whiny Bitch

2014-05-22-teddyTheodore Roosevelt photograph courtesy of Reddit: 19-year-old Theodore Roosevelt during his freshman year at Harvard, 1877

Side note: If the phrase “like a man” or “don’t be a whiny bitch” offends you, please read this article on Misogyny and Feminism. What I’m saying applies to men and women, and has little to do with the literal meaning of the words in the expression. “Man”, as absurd as it may sound, is something that both a man and a woman can be. The word (in this case) simply means integrity, strength, empathy, and intelligence. I wish our language was less misogynistic, and I’m sure it will evolve so, but for now it is what it is.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” –  F. Scott Fitzgerald

The following are some principles of argument that should be followed by people with the guts to care more about the truth than about their ego.

Do not get emotional

Anger and irrational verbal aggression is not manly. It’s a form of whining. Example: when arguing about the justification for the Iraq war, don’t start name-calling or questioning the other guy’s patriotism. Be calm, cool, collected, focused. Victory in an argument is not achieved by being “right”. It is achieved when a step is taken towards the truth.

Shut up and listen

Most problems in life can be traced back to you talking too much. Shut up and listen. That’s when learning is done. Also, that’s when thinking is done. It’s not easy to deliberate on a thought while flapping your mouth.

Fully consider the arguments for the opposing side

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

Empathize. Empathy is hard. It takes time. It takes self-sacrifice. It takes temporary suppression of ego. You have to ask: “What world view is the person I’m arguing with coming from?”. You also have to ask: “Does his/her worldview have less or more objective validity than my own?”

Be willing to change you mind on any subject, no matter how personal

You might’ve spent years passionately arguing for (and even living for) an idea. Do not be afraid to discover that you were wrong. Do not be afraid to accept that you “wasted” all those years, and that it is now time to change your mind. This is really tough. Albert Einstein argued against quantum mechanics for decades, long after the majority of the scientific community has accepted it as a valid theory. However, the flipside of that (see next point) is that sticking to your guns (as long as you are brutally honest) is also important.

Do not be afraid to be an outsider, a heretic

“I don’t care what others think” is a popular claim to make, but one that very few people can actually live by. To be an independent thinker goes against human nature. It is hard. You have to value truth more than happiness and sometimes more than your own well-being. An example is Giordano Bruno who in the 16th century proposed several radical cosmological ideas and stuck by them despite overwhelming opposition. He turned out to be right, but was executed for his beliefs.

Above all: Think.

5 Lessons Learned from Einstein’s Work and Personal Life

This month I read (and listened to the audiobook of) Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Here are some “lessons” I drew from it. Before reading this book, I knew very little of the man and process behind the theories. I was pleasantly surprised but also saddened.

Towards unification

Albert_Einstein_photo_1920What drove much of the curiosity and passion of Einstein’s work is the belief that the universe may be governed by a single law: a theory that unifies all the forces of nature without the messy uncertainty of the mysterious quantum mechanics and its ilk. He hoped for there to be a simple truth underlying all of nature. In a way, it is a hope that all of us share, because part of what makes existence so damn terrifying (in a existential philosophy sense) is how messy it is and how little we understand about it.

More practically, I think, the inclination towards unification can be applied day to day in your own life. The goal of searching for the unifying theory of whatever you do is a fruitful one in the long-term. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details as you specialize further and further in a particular subject or activity. Taking a step back to search for the bigger picture is often the most productive step you can take (even if it is technically a step “backwards”).

Work alone

Einstein was the ultimate outsider. Many physicists and academics in general prefer to work in rich collaborations. Even when the collaboration is not a direct one, the set of ideas with which scientists work is usually pulled from the pool of consensus. There are many disagreements, but there are also many agreed-upon assumptions. Einstein was able to step beyond the assumptions of the day to explore space and time solely through the power of his mind. It can not be overstated how difficult it is to ignore the agreed-upon belief of you brilliant peers (especially in formal theoretical fields like mathematics and physics).

Einstein worked alone in a literal sense but also in an intellectual sense. He was not burdened by the pressures of his scientific community except for the one-time hurried race (related to general relativity) between him and David Hilbert in November of 1915. This stubbornness/reclusion was a blessing for science at first, but in the eyes of some, a curse later, as he stubbornly resisted the quantum-mechanical description of the world for his whole life. The following is probably my favorite Einstein paper from 1935: Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? In this paper he suggested a simple thought experiment that (in his mind) invalidates the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that puts strict limits on how accurately one can measure the position, velocity, energy, and other properties of a particle:

Imagine that a particle decays into two smaller particles of equal mass and that these two daughter particles fly apart in opposite directions. To conserve momentum, both particles must have identical speeds. If you measure the velocity or position of one particle, you will know the velocity or position of the other—and you will know it without disturbing the second particle in any way. The second particle, in other words, can be precisely measured at all times.

The absurdity of quantum mechanics is overwhelming at every level. It would have been a show-stopping achievement if Einstein peaked behind the curtain of QM to in fact arrive at a theory that unified general relativity with electromagnetism.

Try a lot of things

“Most of my intellectual offspring end up very young in the graveyard of disappointed hopes” – Einstein, 1938.

The variety of ideas and approaches that Einstein entertained in his life is remarkable. Even the final years of his life that did not produce any grand theories was a story of bold exploration.

Obvious advice: Try new approaches to problems that you have failed to solve in the past.

This is advice that everyone knows is true, but most people don’t follow.  The better an old dog gets at doing its old trick, the less willing he is to learn a new one.

Inspiration and innovation can come from the strangest places, arrive suddenly, and pass just out of reach if you are not ready. So, be open to the freakiest possibilities.

Escape the emotional “whirlpool” of personal experience

The follow statement of Einstein saddened me. It is a cynical view of the balance between his work and his love life. At the age of 39, he declared (in a speech if I remember from the book) that scientific thought can be an escape from feeling:

“One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness. Such men make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find the peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”

It is interesting to think about the genius of Einstein as merely a way to deal with a world he was not emotionally equipped to deal with otherwise.

You can love passionately or marry comfortably

Einstein married twice, first was Mileva Maric at age 24 and then Elsa Lowenthal at age 40. The two women represented very different types of companion that a man can have. Mileva was a talented physicists who worshipped Albert in the way that is perhaps standard for any good love affair between strong minds. But she couldn’t create a simple, peaceful life for him where he could work in isolation. Elsa, on the other hand, had neither ability nor desire to understand Einstein’s work, but instead dedicated herself fully to serving the role of wife and caretaker to Albert, meaning she took care of everything and made sure that he could work when he wanted to work, and would not be disturbed. Their connection was purely of comfort. They slept in separate beds.

The lesson to draw here is a complicated one for me. I too am an academic, and perhaps a difficult one to get along with at times. But at this stage in my life, I will always dive into the passionate love affair without consideration for the consequences. When a beautiful girl looks at me with admiration (even obsession), and I share that feeling, the impossible becomes possible. There is magic in that connection. Escaping the chaos of that for the comfort of a recluse intellectual life seems dull and life-draining, but perhaps I’m still just an ignorant teenager in a 30-year-old man’s body. Maybe I will grow wiser and more cautious one day.

I’ll close this blog post with the picture of the two ladies (first Mileva and then Elsa):

Mileva_Maric elsa-einstein

 

Eat 7 Fruits and Vegetables a Day: A Study Shows a Decrease in Cancer and Heart Disease Mortality Rate

grilling_vegetablesI eat a lot of fruits and vegetables: apples, green beans, cauliflower, etc. I’m not some health nut. I just like to eat large portions of simple things. That includes fruits and veggies, but it also includes steak, chicken, oatmeal, almonds, etc. I don’t particularly care about long term benefits of this kind of diet, but it’s nice to read studies that tell me my diet is at least good for something.

Folks at University College London published a paper in March 2014 that analyzed the data in the Health Survey for England. What they found is kind of amazing: Eating 7 or more fruits and vegetables a day reduced the relative probability of death (hazard ratio or relative mortality rate) from any cause by 40%. That is amazing! In more detail, eating 7+ fruits and veggies:

  • Decreased all-cause mortality by 40%
  • Decreased cancer mortality by 30%
  • Decreased heart disease mortality by 37%

What if you eat less than 7? Here is the results for the less fruit-veggie-crazed:

  • Eating 1-2 portions decreased all-cause mortality by 16%
  • Eating 3-4 portions decreased all-cause mortality by 29%
  • Eating 5-6 portions decreased all-cause mortality by 37%
  • Eating 7+ portions decreased all-cause mortality by 40%

The reason this result is more powerful than previous results is because the sample group is more representative of the general population. The number of people considered is huge. They follow a random sample of the “free-living” general population, rather than a local sample or a cohort based on occupation or disease status.

Here are some of the specifics of the experiment they ran:

  • 65,226 participants
  • All 35+ years old
  • Duration: 8 years

Its main strength is following a random sample of the free-living
general national population, rather than a local sample or a

Gain Perspective by Imagining the Staggering Dimensions of the World

Langhorne Slim said something (in an interview on the WTF Podcast) that rang true to me about heartache that he finds himself in lows and highs often (romantic and otherwise). I don’t remember the exact wording, but he said that you’re never too old to feel the same old childish excitement, anger, bliss, jealousy, etc. With age, people get good at riding out highs and lows of life and finding the “middle path” but at the cost of growing numb to the emotional roller coaster of the moment. That roller coaster adds something like “meaning” to life, if anything does. I try to embrace it.

“Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that are forever blowing through one’s mind.”
– Mark Twain

That said, while surfing these waves of thoughts and experience, it’s important to maintain a cool collected perspective on my place in this little town, country, planet, solar system, galaxy… I do that by pondering the universe: the immense stream of objects and events that overwhelm even the remote possibility of anything I do ever having any real value or anything that approaches immortality.

Watch this video, and as it zooms out in physical scale, try to maintain in your mind the simple fact of how very small we are relative to the universe as we think we know it. If done correctly this kind of “meditation” can feel like a hammer that just slightly misses the nail and slams into your index finger. It drags you away from the grand concerns of the past and future into the NOW.

Simone de Beauvoir put it well in The Ethics of Ambiguity, all while having sex with lots of her young students (both male and female):

“Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us, the density of our ignorance, the risks of catastrophes to come, and our individual weakness within the immense collectivity, the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite. And in fact, any man who has known real loves, real revolts, real desires, and real will knows quite well that he has no need of any outside guarantee to be sure of his goals; their certitude comes from his own drive.”
– Simone de Beauvoir

The Biggest Subway Systems in U.S. and the World

washington-dc-subwayI went to Washington DC yesterday for a conference to give a talk and listen to a bunch of talks on the topic of cognitive networking.

What I like most about Washington DC for some strange reason is its metro system. The architecture is a mix of something from the 1950’s and the 2050’s, and the design of the system itself is intuitive despite the large size. I think that’s what draws me to public transit when I travel to big cities across the world: the chance to observe city planning at its best or worst. I like to see how people deal with the incredibly complex network of transportation that is required to make a big city work.

That brings me to the numbers… It’s sad to see how badly U.S. is getting spanked in terms of subway ridership in it’s largest cities. NYC barely makes it in the top 10 and our second largest (Washington DC) is in 50th place. I’m not sure if this is a result of culture, geography, or just bad planning and design, but I hope it changes. I believe that a strong public transit system is one of the key ingredients that help a big city prosper.

Top 10 Metro Systems in the World (by ridership)

  1. Tokyo: 3.1 billion
  2. Seoul: 2.5 billion
  3. Beijing: 2.5 billion
  4. Moscow: 2.4 billion
  5. Shanghai: 2.3 billion
  6. Guangzhou: 1.8 billion
  7. New York City: 1.7 billion
  8. Mexico City: 1.6 million
  9. Hong Kong: 1.5 billion
  10. Paris: 1.5 billion

Top 10 Metro Systems in the United States (by ridership)

  1. New York City: 1.7 billion
  2. Washington DC: 281 million
  3. Chicago: 231 million
  4. Boston: 165 million
  5. San Francisco: 123 million
  6. Philadelphia: 98 million
  7. Newark and Jersey City, NJ: 70 million
  8. Atlanta: 70 million
  9. Los Angeles: 48 million
  10. Miami: 19 million

Sources: for the world, for the United States.

There is No Medication for Life

“Psychiatric diagnosis and treatment is particularly subject to fads and undue drug company influence because judgments are still based on subjective data that cannot be confirmed or disproved by laboratory tests.” – Allen Frances, Professor, Duke University

The statistics on people who suffer from depression are staggering. For example, according to the National College Health Assessment of college students (carried out by the ACHA):

  • 86.8% of students felt that they were overwhelmed with what they had to do.
  • 86.1% felt like they were exhausted.
  • 61.0% felt very sad.
  • 57.3% felt very lonely.
  • 46.5% of student felt hopeless.
  • 31.3% felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function.
  • 7.1% seriously thought about committing suicide.
  • 5.5% intentionally bruised, burned, cut or physically hurt themselves.
  • 1.2% attempted suicide.

good-doctor-adviceA significant percentage of people in the above survey undoubtedly suffer from a clear-cut chemical imbalance that can be helped by (and only by) medication. By significant, I don’t mean 61%. I mean fractions of 1%. Everything else is the ups and downs of life. Part of being human is learning to ride through that rollercoaster without falling off.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to determine whether a person requires medication, or if a more proactive life-oriented action would be more productive, such as change of diet, lifestyle, career, relationships, etc.

Steven Rinella on Joe Rogan podcast mentioned the counter intuitive notion that when you’re camping and you’re freezing, you don’t want to move, but the right thing to do is to start moving and in so doing you begin to feel great. I think of the state of depression in the same way. It’s a dark place that you get out of by doing stuff you don’t want to do at first.

Some cultures treat people suffering from major depressive disorders as weak whiners that just need to suck it up, while other cultures treat anyone who is sad with a daily dose of medication and multiple therapy sessions a weak. There must be a healthy middle ground erring on the side of prescribing medication only when all else fails.

The Most Amazing Reminder of How Far We’ve Come

chris-hadfield-danny-boyA couple of days ago I heard Col. Chris Hadfield sing and play a song on his guitar while on board the International Space Station. The realization that I was listening to a fellow ape-descendant make sounds with his mouth while floating in lower Earth orbit at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour filled me with the kind of awe that erases every concern and problem I’ve ever had about anything.  The mystery of life and the universe is both terrifying and beautiful.

We’ve come a long way…

Just click “play” and imagine a fifty year old Canadian playing this in a capsule floating in space.

https://soundcloud.com/colchrishadfield/danny-boy

Don’t Make a Promise Unless You Absolutely Know You’ll Get It Done

promises-broken-kept-overly-ambitiousWe make promises to ourselves and to others. Some we keep, some we break. The sincere and intellectually honest life is one where you only make a promise when you absolutely know you can keep it based on “historical” evidence. You have to look at what you’ve done in the past, and if you’ve never done it before, don’t promise it.

I think I often make predictions based not on the person I have been up to this point, but based on the person I would like to be. That’s a natural thing to do in some sense, because I’d like to exist in a world where my hard work leads to gradual “improvement”. It’s similar to the natural folly of politicians and economists who base their predictions on the continued economic growth (as measured by U.S. GDP growth) of say 3%.

Running with the analogy of GDP growth… I’m learning more and more that you have to make promises in normal life based on 0% growth or even negative growth. However, set goals of 3% growth to yourself, just don’t announce them. Work your ass off to make it happen, and if you do, people will be happy, and if not, no one will be disappointed because of a broken promise.

I’ve pulled off some very challenging tasks in my life, and because I over-promised, those accomplishments were overshadowed by the small aspects of the promises that were broken.

In my experience, this is especially a big problem in the software engineering  world, where programmers make estimates of project completion with the assumption that nothing anywhere will go wrong. Of course, they do, projects are delayed, and the incredibly hard work of the people involved is overshadowed by their failure to reach overly-steep expectations.

Do Not Cut Research Funding, Double It

nih-research$85 billion in federal spending cuts hit last week. In an attempt to gain the nation’s attention, a lot of the politicians and media outlets over-dramatized the short-term impact of these cuts. There will be some jobs lost, there will be some pay cuts, but in general the majority of the negative consequences will be in the long term.

I said it before many times, so I’ll just quote a recent Reuters article by Gabriel Debenedetti and Peter Rudegeair:

Federally funded, university research has long been a major engine of scientific advancement, spurring innovations from cancer treatments to the seeds of technology companies like Google.

Somehow investing into the future by starting a bunch of research projects that pursue some wild ideas doesn’t seem to be something that’s easy to sell to the general public. In fact, any kind of long term investment seems to be a hard sell, because it’s basically asking people to pay now for stuff they won’t get sooner than a decade from now.

We are $511 billion behind China in research investment. That might not mean much today, but in 10, 20 years, it will mean a huge shift in technological and economic power from the west to the east.

Death and Evolution: The Varying Degrees of Knowing

In science, in life, there are facts. “Facts” are ideas that a large percentage of the educated population has accepted for the time-being as pretty damn likely. The evidence for these facts comes either from our own common sense and life experience or from the consensus of the scientific community.

Two Examples: Death and Evolution

Often times these facts are treated casually as obvious things. I’d like to look at two examples:

  1. Each of us is going to die one day.
  2. We evolved with chimpanzees and gorillas from a common ape ancestor who lived about 6 million years ago.

The first fact is an example of something we know from our own common sense observations. The second fact is one we know from the consensus of the scientific community.

These two simple pieces of information (along with several others) happen to be ones that have occupied my mind from when I first realized school isn’t just a place I go to and try to get an “A”, but is a place where I get to learn things about stuff I’m interested in.

The Philosophical and the Pragmatic

My relationship with these facts has evolved. The death question leads to the usual  questions… What is the purpose of it all? Where does the sense of morality come from? The existentialist bunch (from Dostoevsky to Nietzsche to Sartre to Kafka) addressed this over and over and over in their work, in various forms, as if through sheer quantity of words they could somehow get closer to an answer that would satisfy them (and us). And as I read more and more my “knowing” of this fact of death changed.

I think it’s easy to dismiss a teenager’s view of such subjects, but I believe I knew the fact of death most deeply at about age 19. Because of how much focus I dedicated to reading existentialist literature at the time, the overwhelming uncertainty and absurdity of it all was deeply internalized by my mind. The feeling of it was most distinct. That’s when I really “knew” it. I would hit moments of real fear of knowing so little about myself and the world around me. Today, death is less philosophical, and more pragmatic like the knowledge that a car (even if it’s a Toyota) will eventually break down. You repair it, you take care of it, and deal with problems as they arise. Sometimes the more I learn the more I know, and sometimes the more I learn the more tired I grow of caring. The knowledge that can fascinate us can also break us. You have to tread carefully and purposefully with such challenging ideas.

Early Humans vs Modern Humans

The same goes for the second fact of evolution. When I read about early humans struggling to develop simple stone tools, hitting rock against rock to make a sharper rock, I am filled with awe. It challenges the common sense brain I use for getting out of bed in the morning, for making breakfast, for going to work, having goals, making money, spending money, talking to friends, etc. The view of the “life force” over millennia puts the daily life of modern humans into an absurd light.  Perhaps “awe” is not the right word. I oscillate between fascination at the glimpse of the mysterious around us and fear of the immense uncertainty of it.

Varying Degrees of Knowing

Most of us “know” the basic facts of reality today. But for most of us the relationship with these facts varies and constantly changes in depth, perspective, and how it effects the way we approach the activities of life.